06 March 2009

My Top Five Albums of 2008

Unlike most Americans and their deep ties and devotions to the American flag, my colors have always run along with the lines of my music. And this not a unilateral movement, either; it’s very, well…multilateral. Both my passion for the sweet beats and my harsh criticisms towards many-a-bands and many more-o-genres have kept my interests, ears and heart peaking for the past several years.

My passion for music has always exceeded my passion for…well, anything else. I used to joke around with an ex-girlfriend and said that I believed in the Seattle rock Gods Pearl Jam more than I do most religions (which isn’t an entirely false statement, but a statement that is meant to show my devotion to music, more accurately, to Pearl Jam). This is probably why she’s now an ex.

She wasn’t much for music.

Or my witty sense of humor.

However, where my passion can only take me so far, it is my criticism of music, or my rock-n-roll snobbery, that has taken it that next step further. I am of the High Fidelity generation. That film has made more sense to me than almost anything else I can fathom to think of. I can picture myself sitting around a below-profit-margins record shop (that I own both happily and bitterly, by the way), arguing with two people that I don’t particularly like but definitely need in order to feel better about myself in terms of my ego, general loneliness, as well as the fact that we are all in agreeancess that a beautiful woman serenading us with Peter Gabriel can make us all look past our petty difference and simultaneously fall in love. I want to make enlightening remarks such as, "What came first: the music of the misery? […] Did people listen to pop music because they were miserable, or were they miserable because they listened to pop music?’ or ‘Sometimes I got so bored of trying to touch her breasts that I would try to touch her between her legs. It was like trying to borrow a dollar, getting turned down, and asking for fifty-grand instead’ (that last quote has nothing whatsoever to do with music…I just find it that funny). Yes, that serene and enviable lifestyle would be sweet.

But I am a teacher.

And I’m fine with that.

I love it.

But being a rock-and-roll aficionado does come in a very close second.

So when I was halfway done with my freshmen year of college, I started assembling my top albums of each year in a black and white composition book; something only myself and a few other people have ever seen, but something that has always been relevant and mattered to at least me. This past year, 2008 to be exact, was no different. I made up my list, opened the composition book, wrote in said composition book, showed said composition book to said few people, closed said composition book, and put it away for next year. However, I have wanted to start a blog for so long, and what would make a better post (or more sense) than my top five albums of 2008? (don’t answer this question to yourselves; it’s not meant to be rhetorical).

So without further a due…

My Top 5 Albums of 2008

5. The Gaslight Anthem The ’59 Sound
Released 25 August 2008 (Side One Dummy Records)
Official Site

I both typically and usually get really pissed off when critics rant and rave about how (insert any band or musician that released an album after 2003) sounds like (insert any band or musician that released an album prior to 1988). Save for the brilliant “Stuck Between Stations,” this is the reason why I hate the Hold Steady. Critics constantly write that the band is so heavily influenced by Bruce Springsteen, listeners can really get a sense of the Boss in their music. Bullshit, sir. You cannot remotely tell that the Hold Steady are influenced by the Boss. Just because both frontman Craig Finn thinks the world of Springsteen and the band is from New Jersey does not mean the band sounds like anything played on the E-Street. They wouldn’t even be allowed to take a Sunday stroll on either the D-Street nor the F-Street..

This theory is why I thought I would hate the Gaslight Anthem.

And this is why this theory is now put to shit.

The Gaslight Anthem is rather refreshing. Their gimmick, unlike most music around, is that they have no gimmick. They write songs about what know: falling in and out of love, working hard, and growing up. These themes are what most musicians know and write about, but unlike most, the Gaslight Anthem do so with honesty, much like Springsteen, whom they list as an influence; an influence any listener can hear in their music. What is unique about them is that they do so with a punk attitude; an attitude that can only be attributed to their Jersey upbringing, as well as other obvious influences such as Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer and Social Distortion’s Mike Ness.

Key Tracks: “Great Expectations,” “Casanova, Baby,” “The Backstreets”

4. Ra Ra Riot The Rhumb Line
Released 19 August 2008 (Barsuk Records)
Official Site

Although I am both an advocate and reader of Spin magazine, I must say that I was hesitant when the publication featured Ra Ra Riot as one of their artists to watch in their September 2008 issue. They tend to hype a band up; a hype that, to me, is almost always met with disappointment. Case in point: Radiohead, the White Stripes and the Strokes. Now, all of these bands are tremendously talented, but the hype has always, at least for me, outshined the performance.

The Rhumb Line, however, is class. The album sounds like the soundtrack to the end of the world: they want to meet the apocalypse, not with irrational fear and a frenzied panic, but rather in a somber state of acceptance infused with a subtle sense of urgency. They can’t wait for this world to be over, so they decide to write quality music to help it all go by faster. “Winter ’05,” arguably the album’s strongest track, focuses this end sentiment towards a wayward lover whom frontman Wes Miles claims would make the winter pass by faster if only she were there with him.

Key Tracks: “Winter ’05,” “Dying is Fine,” “Suspended in Gaffa”

3. Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend
Released 29 January 2008 (XL Recordings)
Offical Site

Vampire Weekend was the first band to ever grace the cover of Spin magazine without having released an album (this release would happen a few weeks later). On the other hand, they were not the first band to ever appear on “Saturday Night Live” before a proper album release; however, their appearance on the long-running (and increasing less-funny) sketch comedy show opened my eyes to this college band from Columbia U and the ingenuity they had to offer. Their debut, Vampire Weekend, just feels like it came out at the right time. Music, at least in my un-humble opinion, is in a awkward way for two reasons: 1.) The art of the album is dying in almost every which way. Although I am not opposed to digital sales, I am opposed to not physically having an album and seeing it’s art. Album art is a beautiful thing, and so are liner notes and lyrics for that matter, and 2.) The increasing blending of genres (which isn’t a bad thing at all) is forcing most novice listeners to detract from what is bold, new, and inventive, and take up what is familiar, and frankly, kind of uncreative and unoriginal (see about thirty-eight of the top forty acts on the Billboard charts). It just feels like this band, especially after releasing such a stellar debut that is so full of life, and most importantly fun, is going to keep true music afloat for a little while longer.

Key Tracks: “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “I Stand Corrected”

2. Kings of Leon Only by the Night
Released 24 September 2008 (RCA)
Official Site

I had recently lived in Dublin, Ireland for seven weeks, and although I could write an entire blog post about the experience (which will happen someday probably not too soon), I will make this claim now: Simply stated, Europeans have a much better taste in music than most Americans. Don’t ask me why this is, because I couldn’t begin to come up with a complete theory as to why. Maybe it’s because they have a better education system than we do? Maybe it’s because “X-Factor” contestants are much better than the ones on “American Idol”? Or maybe it’s because they do not have a southern U.S., and thus they do not have to be exposed to the wife beating, inbred-inducing, pain that is country and/or western? Whatever the reason may be, I know that I was both shocked and elated to hear Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” being spun from every turntable in Ireland.

Kings of Leon have been labeled the next big thing with each and every album they’ve released since their debut E.P. was delivered in 2003, and one has to start wondering when they are going to arrive, especially with uber-fans like U2 and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder backing their every move.

Only by the Night, my friends, is their breakthrough.

Although the album is, in my opinion, a step backwards in terms of the raw power and emotion that was 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, it is two steps in the right direction in terms of commercial success.

Simply put, this band is just too good not to be heard by everyone in the world, especially here in the U.S. where they are just catching on.

Lead single, “Sex on Fire,” is quite possibly the best rock n’ roll song that I’ve heard since Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” And I’m being very honest and very sincere with that statement. Hell, I’ll be even more honest with you: if it weren’t for “Sex on Fire,” this album would only be an honorable mention, and Death Cab for Cutie would have been fifth on this year’s list. Don’t’ get me wrong, the other tracks are all solid; but “Sex” is just that great. The song just bring this indescribable energy that makes you want to get out of that daze you've been in called life, forget your troubles, and just dance!

Key Tracks: “Sex on Fire,” “Use Somebody,” “I Want You”

1. Coldplay Viva la Vida or Death and All of His Friends
Released 17 June 2008 (Capitol Records)
Official Site

After Coldplay’s disappointing 2005 release, X&Y, I was very skeptical about buying, let alone listening, to this album. I can only muster so much disappointment from a band that I at one time respected, trusted, and admired. Their first two releases were so incredible: they not only fused what British imports Radiohead and Blur had to offer musically, but they also picked up where both bands left off in terms of their exposure and commercial success in the States.

Viva la Vida or Death and All of His Friends just feels right to me. Lyrically Coldplay doesn’t venture too far from their comfort levels of love, faith and hope, but musically this album was a departure from their signature sound; a departure that the band needed to take in order to maintain their credibility as artists. While tracks such as “Viva la Vida” and “Violet Hill” have been the highlights of this album (and they are good songs), it’s gems such as “Strawberry Swing,” “Lost,” and “42” that make this album worthy of a number one status.

It is, however, the album’s last track, “Death and all of His Friends,” that makes this album all come together. More often than not, a band will go front heavy on their album with great songs, leaving the mediocre tracks towards the end. Not in Coldplay’s case. “Death…” is an emotional tidal wave about living life to the fullest, sans regrets, that builds up from a soft whisper into a symphonic and climatic finish. And it’s one of those songs that is going to translate very well live; each member making sure their audience is left in awe. Much like they have been already having listened to this album.

Key Tracks: “Lost,” “42,” “Death and all of His Friends”

Honorable Mentions

The Black Keys Attack and Release
Released April 1 2008 (Nonesuch Records)
Official Site

For a two-man blues-rock band, they sure make a lot of hard noise.

Death Cab for Cutie Narrow Stairs
Released 13 May 2008 (Atlantic)
Official Site

Tracks such as “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” “No Sunlight” and “Pity and Fear” were all top-quality, standard DCFC tracks; however, they lacked the closeness and sincerity that “Brother’s on a Hotel Bed” from 2005’s Plans had.

Nada Surf Lucky
Released 5 February 2008 (Barsuk Records)
Official Site

Nada Surf have continued to put out solid indie-pop for the better half of this decade, yet they do not get the recognition they deserve. Lead sing and lyricist Matthew Caws writes deeply personal and touching music that many can relate to, but few have had the chance to do so.

R.E.M. Accelerate
Released 1 April 2008 (Warner Bros./Wea)
Official Site

The first four tracks alone are worth the listen.

Looking Forward to 2009…

· Built to Spill
· Conor Oberst Outer South 5 May 2009
· Cursive
Mama, I’m Swollen
· Dave Matthews Band Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King (This is the first album without now deceased saxophonist and founding member Leroi Moore) 2 June 2009
· Iron and Wine
Around the Well 19 May 2009
· Neil Young
Fork in the Road
· Neko Case Middle Cyclone 3 March 2009
· Pearl Jam (New album slated for a late summer/fall release)

· Rancid
· Sonic Youth
The Eternal 9 June 2009
· Ted Leo + the Pharmacists
· U2 No Line on the Horizon (I heard the track “Breathe” and it is very, very good) 3March 2009
· Wilco
· Yeah Yeah Yeahs It’s Blitz (This album is getting a lot of good buzz, which may or may not be a bad thing)


  1. Very enjoyable read!
    You're right-on with your #1 pick of 2008 ... it was mine as well.
    Nothing came close.
    I think a lot of credit should go to the avant-garde musician/producer, Brian Eno.
    He seems to have the "midas touch" when it comes to producing for others ... as opposed to himself.
    The flow and order of the tracks, and the lavishness of the entire feel of this album are all his doing.
    Just ask U2, David Bowie, or Talking Heads and David Byrne.

    As for your other "best of's" for 2008 ...

    I too, have Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot in my top 5.
    Vampire Weekend was, quite simply, some of the most fun that I've had listening to a record in a long time.
    I guess the word "Fun" is the best way to sum up this release for me.

    Concerning Ra Ra Riot ... I don't possess the word skills to sum up this release and how I feel as well as you did ... spot on mate!

    I'm not familiar with "Gas Light ..." or "Kings of ...", but you can be sure that I plan on checking them out ... Thanks for the tip!

    Might I also suggest from 2008 ...
    The Airing Of Grievances by Titus Andronicus

    King's X - XV
    Based on your love of Pearl Jam, you might be surprised to know that Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam was quoted on MTV as saying that as far as he’s concerned, King’s X invented grunge! When “Out Of The Silent Planet” came out, no-one else seemed to be doing D-tuned riffing like that.

    Thanks again,
    A Big Fan

  2. Good stuff. With my limited music knowledge, I would say I completely agree with Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot. I've only heard the singles from The Gaslight Anthem and Coldplay albums so I can't comment on those, although the singles were quite good. But I disagree with Kings of Leon. I think you should've put Death Cab in the top 5 instead. Narrow Stairs is the better album. I think perhaps you got caught up in the hype of Kings of Leon making it mainstream and getting their well deserved recognition finally, and especially since you've known about them for some time now. I feel that sort of connection with a band, where you know about them well in advance of their arrival, leaves ones judgement a little clouded. If you had to make that list again, right now, would you still have Only by the Night that high on your list?

    I know, you think I just dislike Kings of Leon and that I like Death Cab a lot more. But I have a way of potentially proving my point. You mentioned that the older Kings of Leon albums, or one in particular, were superior to Only by the Night. So, in that said composition book of yours, do you have Because of the Times in the top 5 for 2007? Or Aha Shake Heartbrake in the top 5 for 2004?

    Anyways, just my thoughts. Where are the top albums for 2009? I'm anxiously waiting, or are we still waiting on some late entries before the year is over? Can I recommend Beggars by Thrice for consideration? Worth a listen if you haven't checked it out yet. Or perhaps Fantasies by Metric?