Thanks to the many readers who sent in their personal Top 10 lists—you proved that RELEVANT appeals to a very diverse group of music fans. And if it had been up to the readers, Sigur Ros and Jon Foreman would be ranked in the top slots.
So, here it is. Our favorite albums of 2008, chosen by staffers and writers, compiled into the most trustworthy top 10 list you’ll find this December.
The ego. It’s a love/hate relationship with the music of Kanye West. We don’t want to listen to his boasting anymore, but as soon as he comes around with something new, we can’t help but open our ears. 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye’s most perplexing album yet, employing a nonstop Auto-Tune and keeping his beats sparse. It has a firm spot in the best of 2008 if only for its unwavering boldness.
Alopecia is a little bit They Might Be Giants and a little more adult-themed slam poetry reading. It’s also a daring trip through violence, spirituality, art and existence. There’s not another album released in 2008 that garners such true reactions from its audience. It’s this challenge it offers the consumer that defines its greatness. It’s paradoxically disgusting and beautiful. By the end, the only answer to take away from Why? is that Yoni Wolf is up to something.
For some, Mark Kozelek’s droning vocal and pastoral soundscapes offend the ears. For most, however, the Sun Kil Moon frontman represents all that is beautiful along the musical journey. This year’s entry, April, feels more autumnal than the spring title suggests, but the results are predictably stunning: alluring, moody folk tunes unconcerned with traditional song structures (or time limits). With "Heron Blue" and "Lost Verses" in particular, Kozelek again bestows musical gifts upon us.
Chicago band, Anathallo, has come out swinging this time. Whatever shortcomings were present on their 2006 release, Floating World, have been eradicated on Canopy Glow. Tragically, Anathallo’s albums never do justice to the wall of sound they create on stage. But Canopy Glow makes good on Anathallo’s idiosyncrasies: multiple vocalists, intricately designed percussion and the reemployment of once-forgotten instruments. This may very well be the album that catapults Anathallo out of indie obscurity.
Although The Stand Ins doesn’t boast a standout single (think "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" from their brilliant The Stage Names release), the breadth of the album far outweighs the strength of any one track. The release showcases Will Sheff’s much-ballyhooed writing, with clever and honest musings on pop culture, empty wealth and regrets. Often lyrically bleak, the band finds the perfect counterbalance with enough bouncy bass lines and jangly guitars to create a beautiful juxtaposition—and one of this year’s best offerings.
One of the obvious things about TV on the Radio is that their music turns the idea of "spot-the-influence" on its head. Sure, you can identify some general musical genres—funk, electronica, soul, R&B, rock, even military march. The lyrics encompass every trope you’d expect from a "serious" album—love, death, sex, God, war, injustice, sin, etc. If it sounds like a complete mess, that’s because it should be. There’s no way an album born out of so many disparate musical and lyrical ideas should be this coherent—but that’s exactly what TVOTR has done. The melodies are beautiful, the emotion is raw and palpable, and yet TVOTR manages to keep things dancey and propulsive throughout. One of the most exciting releases of 2008, Dear Science, finds one of the most creative acts in music continuing their remarkable process of trying everything and succeeding brilliantly.
– Ryan Hamm
Seattle’s Fleet Foxes is the latest in a long line of trendy Sub Pop sensations, but their self-titled debut—full of wise, poetic, aged material—feels more Olde World than flavor-of-the-week. The band’s self-described sound ("baroque harmonic pop jams") weaves together various threads of musical and cultural nostalgia—Beach Boys pop, Appalachia fireside folk, Romantic painting, Gothic literature, etc.—to effect a musical mood that is both classic (albeit anachronistic) and stunningly fresh. It’s all very "English aristocracy meets American hillbilly," with heavy doses of nature (rivers, mountains, meadows, snow), death, love and childhood. It’s an evocative album of grand, subtle scope and definitely one of the most ear-catching of 2008.
There was the figurative buzz all over the music blogs about the return of this revered trip-hop group after a 12-year silence. Then there was the literal buzz, along with the clatter, drone, groan and rhythmic thwup of helicopter blades that listeners found all over this dark masterpiece. This was not the John Barry-worshipping group of yore, but one that reveled in the foreboding soundscapes of J Dilla and paid reverent tribute to the psych pulses of Silver Apples. The music, alongside Beth Gibbons’ shape-shifting yowls, is pure primal listening, plumbed from the depths of its creators’ souls and the morass of our uncertain times.
There are things you just don’t do as a hip-hop star, including rhyming about eating Fruity Pebbles, boasting about your Star Wars belt and making songs about going to the grocery store. The Cool Kids broke all these rules and more with their absurdly fun debut The Bake Sale, an album made with sparse beats (the opening track is just a looped vocal and a bell) and soaked in ’90s pop culture. Hip-hop fans have long been hoping for someone to take the overblown art form back to the party. The Bake Sale brings back the kinds of hooks and storytelling that made rap great in the first place. And these two Chicago kids did it while wearing skinny boutique jeans tucked into high-top Nikes.
-Seth "Tower" Hurd
Coarse like sun-scorched sand, the brilliant folk meanderings on For Emma, Forever Ago get under your skin. Recorded in a cabin in Wisconsin, the songs are reanimated stories about pain and isolation—and a few wolves scratching at the door—that resonate each time you listen. Part of the mastery is the raw emotion, something akin to early Richard Buckner or a stripped-down solo affair that Jeff Tweedy should make. Some critics have disparaged the recording quality, but they probably hate Springsteen’s Nebraska, too. In an age of premeditated Britney rebounds and stark economic downturns, Bon Iver fills a spacious void.
– John Brandon
(For a deeper look at RELEVANT’s #1 album of the year, check out the ReleBlog today.)
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