Best Albums of 2008

The Bureau Staff makes like John Cusack in High Fidelity and lists their ten favorite albums of the year.

Kevin

You & MeThe Walkmen – You & Me
For a while, it looked like 2004′s Bows + Arrows would be the Walkmen’s greatest achievement. Follow-ups A Hundred Miles Off and bizarrely unsuccessful track-by-track cover album of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats lacked the compelling emotional ferocity of their predecessors.

But You & Me is an entirely different monster—maybe it’s not even a monster at all. Instead, it’s a strong step forward for the band. Whereas the Walkmen’s previous records expressed angered reflection, You & Me offers matured contemplation and resentful acceptance. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, whose distinguished voice escalates from a low, haunted drone to a larynx-breaking howl, is suddenly driven by sentiment instead of temper.

The instrumentation reveals the emotional landscape of Leithauser’s musings. Muted electric guitars unfold methodically over deceptively simple percussion—the heartbeat of the record. “Donde Este La Playa” mourns the unavailing routine of life; with “In the New Year,” Leithauser tries to escape his past with newfound love. You & Me works more as an album than it does by individual songs. Nothing strikes as hard as Bows + Arrows’s “The Rat,” but the overall arc of the album rewards patient listeners with a sonically cohesive love story. In You & Me‘s closer “If Only it Were True,” Leithauser croons, “When I’ve had enough,/ I’ll die in dreams of you.”

AntidotesFoals – Antidotes
After a year of touring and effusive blog hype, Foals trumped skeptical expectations and released a terrific debut. Antidotes features aggressive post-punk that flirts with math-rock segues. In tracks like “French Open,” “Balloons,” and “Tron,” angular guitars spar with catchy, high-noted riffs over grounded, dance-friendly drums. But Foals are at their best when the tempo drops. “Olympic Airways” builds up to a pressurized breakdown, while “Two Steps Twice” scales a wall of dissonance to an infectious pop hook.

The lyrics go from abstract (“Cassius it’s over/ Cassius away”) to absurdly stupid (“Oh, electric shocks, no!”), but they’re hardly an obstacle to this fiercely danceable pop album. Foals joins the ranks of zombie films, French fries, and Mario Kart 64—Antidotes is perhaps not the most refined, cultured work of art, but it’s one that succeeds at at being bombastically enjoyable through and through.

  1. The Walkmen – You & Me
  2. Foals – Antidotes
  3. Deerhunter – Microcastle
  4. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
  5. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  6. No Age – Nouns
  7. Starfucker – Starfucker
  8. Chad VanGaalen – Soft Airplane
  9. Women – Women
  10. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

Nick

MicrocastleDeerhunter – Microcastle
Bradford Cox may receive most of his attention for behaving weirdly, but what makes his music remarkable is almost mundane: he designs albums meant to be played all the way through. The standout-out tracks on Microcastle still sound great in isolation, but the full effect of the swaggering “Nothing Ever Happens” only comes after being prepped by the five minutes of anesthetic dreariness that precede it. Sure, giving 40 minutes over to appreciating an album is an indulgence these days, but if I’m going to indulge I want the experience to be exquisite.

Street HorrrsingFuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing
This album surprised me. Not because it’s full of funky noises and distorted shrieks—if anything, dissonant experimentation has become a little boring. Also, I wasn’t surprised that I liked it on first listen; I am, after all, borderline psychotic. But I was startled that the music worked in concert. I saw them open for Mogwai, and when the drum kicked in on “Ribs Out,” I felt submerged in their chaotic world. (Plus, they use a fucking Game Boy on stage. Come on.) But what really got to me about Street Horrrsing was that I kept liking it. Instead of novelty turning to irritation, as I expect from any noise music, my affection became a craving. Then I knew that Fuck Buttons made this record to be something beyond just weird, which made me like it even more.

  1. Deerhunter – Microcastle
  2. Walkmen – You & Me
  3. No Age – Nouns
  4. Fuck Buttons – Street Horrrsing
  5. Stephen Malkmus – Real Emotional Trash
  6. Beach House – Devotion
  7. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  8. Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
  9. Islands – Arm’s Way
  10. Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak

Jeff

Lost WisdomMount Eerie with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire – Lost Wisdom
When I heard that Mount Eerie was releasing an album with Julie Doiron, I had a brief battle with urinary incontinence. This painful, intimate recording features Phil Elverum’s lyrics (which remind me of nothing more than a more sentimental version of the narrator from Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground) married to Julie Doiron’s unadorned, austere, mournful voice. Plaintive, simple chord progressions and Fred Squire’s tasteful, slightly distorted electric guitar serve as perfect punctuation to Elverum’s tales of existential alienation and romantic collapse.

Lust Lust LustRaveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
This album is dirty. The lyrics are obsessive and dark, creating a world in which fleshly desires run amok against a canvas of urban sprawl and decay. Musically, however, this is a home run. While previous Raveonettes albums sometimes sounded like a pastiche of their influences all cobbled together, this album is sonically unique. Of course, the specters of Phil Spector-era ’60s music and of early ’90s shoegaze haunt the album, but they are filtered through clever production and layers of brutal noise.

  1. Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire – Lost Wisdom
  2. Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
  3. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  4. Beach House – Devotion
  5. Stars – Sad Robot
  6. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
  7. Los Campesinos – Sticking Fingers Into Sockets
  8. Hauschka – Ferndorf
  9. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
  10. Spiritualized – Songs in A&E

Josh

The Way I See ItRaphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
Five or six times now, I’ve started trying to come up with a way to describe exactly how happy this album makes me. Saadiq’s album is reminiscent of some amalgamation of Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, and the best of Motown, with a sound updated for the 21st century. Several hooks are great, and the sound is old school without trying too hard. Really, though, I was just glad to find a good album that wasn’t by someone like Sufjan Stevens or Radiohead, you know? The Way I See It has an electric energy that made it my favorite album of the year.

SoloMartin Sexton – Solo
Martin Sexton is one of those performers who you feel like never has enough attention paid to him. He’s been around for years, straddling the overlapping worlds of folk, rock, and acoustic-singer/songwriter. Sexton isn’t for everyone—there’s certainly an adult contemporary vibe to him, and he’s a little too earnest (though he means it)—but his voice is incredible, especially live, which is why I’m thankful for this live album of his.

  1. Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
  2. Dr. Dog – Fate
  3. The Decemberists – Always the Bridesmaid, Vol. 1-3
  4. The Gabe Dixon Band – The Gabe Dixon Band
  5. Beck – Modern Guilt
  6. Brad Mehldau Trio – Brad Mehldau Trio Live
  7. Martin Sexton – Solo
  8. Aimee Mann – @#%&! Smilers
  9. Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin – Pershing
  10. Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

Caitlin

distortion-2The Magnetic Fields – Distortion
Stephin Merritt and his gang created yet another theme album this year. In case you didn’t guess it from the title, each track on this album features distortion of some kind or another. I read and heard some disappointing reviews of this album, which were mainly that it wasn’t 69 Love Songs and the album art was fucking ugly. That’s a fair assessment. But if you’ve ever listened to Merritt’s work past 69 and The Magnetic Fields, you’ll know that the music on each album, while holding common threads of love, sadness, and Merritt’s bass voice, is unique. I won’t argue that Distortion is better than their previous albums, and the feedback does become somewhat wearing, but The Magnetic Fields produced a fun and creative album this year that didn’t get the credit it deserved.

Journey to the WestMonkey – Journey to the West
This was simultaneously the weirdest and most interesting album I heard this year. Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn from Gorillaz created the electro-pop music for a Chinese opera, and it’s incredible. When I first listened to the single “Monkey Bee” I almost turned it off because I couldn’t stand the dissonance, but the song keeps building until it’s this mass of repeated spoken word, singing, and strings on top of a heavy rock beat. In addition to “Monkey Bee” and “Heavenly Peach Banquet,” there aren’t really tracks that hold up on their own, but listening to the entire album is hypnotic.

  1. The Magnetic Fields – Distortion
  2. M83 – Saturdays=Youth
  3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
  4. Monkey - Journey to the West
  5. The Walkmen – You & Me
  6. Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords
  7. Billy Bragg – Mr. Love & Justice
  8. No Age – Nouns
  9. School of Seven Bells – Alpinisms
  10. The Black Keys – Attack & Release