The Best Music of 2008: Pax Arcana Edition

Pax Arcana

We’ve already got year-end lists from Perry Ellis and The Good Doctor, so now it’s my turn to foist my favorites on an unwilling public. So let’s go ahead and dance about architecture, OK?

But first, a disclaimer:

WHY SOME OF YOUR FAVORITES ARE NOT ON THIS LIST: Because either I didn’t hear them or they sucked. Or I suck. Either way, feel free to argue my picks but don’t expect it will get you anywhere.

That said, here’s my top 10 favorite albums of 2008:

10. Okkervil River — The Stand Ins

thestandins

Better, in my opinion, than their last album (The Stage Names), this follow-up is full of the kind of literate, tuneful fare that makes the hipsters swoon. In my opinion, singer Will Sheff’s voice is the band’s biggest flaw — but it’s pretty hard to ignore the inventiveness and good humor of songs like “Pop Lie” and “Lost Coastlines.” And “Blue Tulip” features one of the coolest guitar parts I’ve heard all year.

9. The Gaslight Anthem — The ’59 Sound

the_59_sound_cover1

A pleasant surprise from the always-pleasant state of New Jersey, The Gaslight Anthem’s first album is a throwback to a bygone era of blue collar rock music. Fusing elements of rockabilly and garage rock with Springsteen-influenced story-telling lyrics, these guys injected a much needed dose of testicular fortitude to my iTunes this year.  My personal favorites are “Great Expectations” and “Casanova Baby.”

8. Lil Wayne — Tha Carter III

lil-wayne-tha-carter-iii-album-cover

I’m predicting this will land higher on Father Scott’s list, since he practically walks around the office with a boom box on his shoulder playing it. For me, Lil Wayne albums are an exercise in creative listening. Just following Weezy through all the twists, turns, metaphors, allusions, homages, and concepts is enough to set your earballs on fire. Is that the whitest review of a hip-hop album in history? Oh well. Guilty as charged. Still, it’s fun as hell. Especially “Dr. Carter.”

7. Conor Oberst — Conor Oberst

oberst

I’m surprised at how little attention Oberst’s first solo record has received. Perhaps most music fans consider him a known commodity for his Bright Eyes recordings — and there’s not really much difference between Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes in the first place. Whatever the reason, this album is full of the  hyper-literate alt-country troubadeering that has made Oberst a force in the indie rock scene since he was a teenager. “Souled Out” is probably the most accessible (and best, in my opinion) song on the record, but there are some terrific moments scattered throughout. I especially like the bizarrely Spanglish refrain in “Eagle on a Pole”: El cielo es azul, just don’t go tellin’ everyone.

6. Dr. Dog — Fate

dr_dog_fate_a

All I know about Dr. Dog is that they’re from Philadelphia and there are like 400 people in the band at any given time. For all I know, they could be gypsies from Albania or suburban frat boys or train-hopping hobos or the illegitimate children of Jethro Tull. It’s safe to say their music is eclectic yet accessible — with a decidedly retro guitar-rock flare. My favorites are “The Old Days,” “100 Years,” and “My Friend.” I do wish they’d stay away from the 1970s prog rock, though.

5. The Notwist — The Devil, You + Me

notwist

The German band The Notwist have been around for years, but this album was my first exposure to them. The band is relatively famous in electronic music circles — which I always imagined was a group of European twits in retro sweatsuits trying to outdo each other with layers of pointless noise — but the songs on The Devil, You + Me are a lot more accessible and melodic than I expected. The electronics on the album are employed mostly to add lushness or cool signature rhythmic flairs to otherwise straightforward — and inventive — songs. “Boneless” and “The Good Lies” are standouts, while “The Devil, You + Me” is a downright charmer. Like Radiohead with a slight German accent.

4. Sigur Ros — Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust

sigur-ros

Everything I knew about Sigur Ros before this year was that it was a critically-acclaimed shoegazing electronic ensemble from Iceland whose songs would make you want to eat fermented shark meat just to kill the pain. But I got the album after hearing a slice of the first song, “Gobbledigook” on a music podcast. It’s safe to say this was my favorite surprise find of the year. The first half of the album is replete with stunning, lush, upbeat anthems beautifully orchestrated and paced. The second half descends into the morose, but somehow it all still works for me. Really the only reason this isn’t my favorite album of the year is that I can’t understand a word of it (until the very end).

Video: Inní mér syngur vitleysingur

3. TV on the Radio — Dear Science

dear-science

I didn’t realize how much I love this album until the normally-reliable Paste placed it at #50 on its year-end list — behind the crapulent effort from My Morning Jacket and not-real-in-any-way comedy band Flight of the Conchords (I love FOTC, but they should be considered on their own terms). Upon encountering that slight, I puffed out my chest, hitched up my pants, and marched around the cube farm at the office all red-faced and seething. It took Father Scott two blowdarts and an entire bag of Cape Cod potato chips to calm me down.

Anyway, Dear Science is probably TV on the Radio’s most accessible album to date, which may piss off some of their die-hard hipster doofus fans in Williamsburg — but only makes them more endearing to me. I think the move puts them at the doorstep of being the coolest rock stars on the planet. There are a ton of great songs on this album, all imbued with the confidence and swagger of a band that knows how dope it is, and isn’t afraid to show off a bit. My favorites are “Halfway Home,” “Dancing Choose,” “Golden Age,” “Red Dress,” “Shout Me Out,” and “Lover’s Day,” which is probably my favorite song of the year (Oops! Did I just spoil my next post?).

Video: Golden Age (Live on Later…)

2. Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago

bon-iver-for-emma-forever-ago

I’m predicting this sparse, haunting album of sad ruminations from Justin Vernon will hover in the top 5 of almost any year-end list you read, so I’ll refrain from saying too much about it. I will say that the thing that sets this album apart, to me, is how complete it feels as an album. There are songs on here that can highlighted or singled out (I like “Flume,” “Skinny Love,” and “For Emma”) but the artistry of the album is really in how seamlessly it all fits together. It’s an expanse of lofty peaks and depressing lows, but Vernon’s songs carry you from place to place gently and deliberately rather than shoving you around. I probably listened to this album once a day for three months last winter.

Video: Flume (Live)

1. Frightened Rabbit — The Midnight Organ Fight

midnight-organ-fight

First, let’s talk about body parts.

From the opening line of The Midnight Organ Fight (“A cripple walks amongst you all you tired human beings”), Frightened Rabbit lead singer and songwriter Scott Hutchison reveals a deep preoccupation with the human body in all its glory and decay. That first song, “The Modern Leper,” is an anthemic — if disturbed — look at self-pity and remorse, as the protagonist continues to lose body parts and functions yet still clings to an old love in the chorus:

Well is that you in front of me?
Coming back for even more of exactly the same
You must be a masochist to love a modern leper on his last leg
Well I am ill but I’m not dead
And I don’t know which of those I prefer
Because that limb which I have lost
Well it was the only thing holding me up
Holding me up

Hutchison explores body part metaphors even more deeply in “Fast Blood,” my favorite song on the album (but not by much). The best line is that which gives the album its name:

good night
it’s stroke time
let’s get paralyzed down both sides
snake hips, red city kiss
and your black eyes roll back
midnight organ fight
yours gives in to mine
it’s all right

Which moves into a chorus that continues the doin’ it metaphor:

and the fast blood
hurricanes through me
and then it rips my roof away with her fire heads
this is the longest kiss
good night

The bodily theme continues throughout the album with grace and charm, most notably in “Good Arms, Bad Arms,” “Head Rolls Off,” and “Poke.”

That I listened to this album dozens of times for its quirky, escalating rock anthems before successfully interpreting the Scottish brogue of the lyrics probably says all you need to know about why this is my favorite album since Arcade Fire’s Funeral. For me, it’s like a five-tool ballplayer — it’s got just the right amount of quirk, bravado, lyricism, desperation, and goofiness. Hutchison — with his kid brother Grant on drums — took a huge step forward from the pretty-awesome The Greys with this album. I’m really looking forward to hearing what they do next.

Also, they put on a killer live show.

Video: The Modern Leper (Live in Madison)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals — Cardinology
Army Navy — Army Navy
British Sea Power — Do You Like Rock Music?
The French Kicks — Swimming
Pete & the Pirates — Little Death
Ra Ra Riot — The Rhumb Line
The Submarines — Honeysuckle Weeks

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS (HIGH HOPES DASHED):

My Morning Jacket — Evil Urges
Of Montreal — Skeletal Lamping

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10 Comments

Filed under music

10 responses to “The Best Music of 2008: Pax Arcana Edition

  1. Mine is still in progress, but we have 5 of our top 10 in common. The songs part is much harder.

    And Weazy finishes much higher with me, yes.

  2. Fallen Angel

    5 of the top 10 are the same? way to both like boring music. mine will have 0 in common with everyone because i rule.

    i will not argue any of your picks in fear of a 4-man mob attacking me back. again, props for gaslight anthem.

    i do love your dishonorable mentions, though. of montreal was one of the bands the rest of the WCHC executive board salivated over and that i completely ignored in 06/07. now i’m vindicated. MMJ is unlistenable except for maybe one song.

    army navy ain’t nothing but a football game.

  3. Yeah, I don’t really get the boring complaint. How is the stuff that, say, Sigur Ros does, less interesting than a double-bass pedal?

  4. Lindsay

    You’re almost right about Dr. Dog being train-hopping hobos, but there’s really only five of them. Also, they are wonderful, friendly humans who have more fun on stage than any band I’ve ever seen. Go see a show and share a beer with these folks – they’ll answer all your questions for you.

  5. Do they know if cold water is thicker than warm water?

  6. Pingback: The rest of the best of 2008 «

  7. Good list. We’ve got a few of the top picks in common. I probably should have put Frightened Rabbit a few spots higher, but I really hate having to rank things. Agreed on the live shows. Saw them twice here in Austin, first opening for the French Kicks (whom they blew off the stage), and then headlining with Oxford Collapse supporting. Great gigs.

    http://ondeafears.com/2008/12/08/jasons-top-ten-albums-of-2008/

  8. Pingback: Perry Compilationaria: The Official Pax Arcana 2008 Best Albums List «

  9. Vince

    Thought you should know that The ’59 Sound is not, as you say, the first album by the Gaslight Anthem. It’s their sophomore effort–their first album was 2007’s Sink or Swim.

    Kudos for including it in your top ten though–it’s been too often overlooked, and I really believe those guys are the future.

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