Thousands of best-music lists spring up in December because they’re easy and fun to write, and easy and fun to read. But so many of these lists only exist to rank the best-known albums of the year. Don’t get us wrong, we love a good personal list, but we also felt this annual ritual could be put to more practical use.
So, as much for our own edification as for yours, we reached out to various bloggers around the country who cover America’s most musical cities and asked them to tell us about the best albums from their local scenes. We got a tremendous and generous response from nearly everyone we asked, reinforcing the old adage that bloggers are the best people in the world. We hope you enjoy their fantastic lists, and we’d like to give our heartiest “thank you” to all the awesome bloggers who donated their time and talent to this feature (subscribe to all their sites!).
Thomas Fawcett of The Corner
1. Grupo Fantasma – Sonidos Gold
It’s been a hell of a year for Grupo Fantasma. The horns backed Prince on stage at Coachella and the Tonight Show while the local Latin big band toured Europe, entertained troops in Iraq, and earned a Grammy nomination for their third studio album Sonidos Gold. The band’s psychedelic cumbia and 1970s-vintage salsa is aided here by saxman Maceo Parker and Fania legend Larry Harlow.
2. Ocote Soul Sounds & Adrian Quesada – The Alchemist Manifesto
One of several side projects from Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada pairs him with Antibalas founder and Austin resident Martín Perna. The project allows them complete freedom to create, the result an intoxicating blend of Afrobeat, Latin psychedelia, and breakbeats Perna calls “mysterious Latin funk.”
3. Dan Dyer – Dan Dyer
Dyer’s 2004 debut was produced by Lenny Kravitz, but ditching the big city and big names for a humble East Austin church-turned-recording studio proved the smart move. Dyer’s warm and deeply soulful pipes recall Donny Hathaway but this is no retro affair, just a rich set of honest to goodness soul music.
4. Rae Davis – Positive Thinking!
Leaning on the keys of a tricked-out Fender Rhodes, Austin-by-way-of-San-Antonio beatsmith Rae Davis cooks up jazzy instrumental electronica with a helping of hip-hop. This downtempo gem is perfect for fans of DJ Krush.
5. Ethan, Master of the Hawaiian Ukulele – So Real
There are more obvious choices (Black Angels, Okkervil River, White Denim) but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed any of those albums more than So Real by Ethan, Master of the Hawaiian Ukulele. Recorded in the bedroom of his Austin home (which doubles as a music venue known as Rancho Relaxo), the first pressing of So Real consisted of 200 uniquely hand-decorated CD-Rs. Mine has a drawing of a rattlesnake and it’s not just the artwork that recalls the strange genius of Daniel Johnston. Vulnerable, honest and frequently hilarious, Ethan’s acoustic ditties are bursting with charm.
Ana Wolken of Austin Soundcheck
1. Ghostland Observatory – Robotique Majestique
Ghostland Observatory is by far one of the most successful indie bands from Austin right now. Robotique Majestique illustrates why. The album is packed from start to finish with songs that make you move. It’s dance music with an organic edge and people can’t seem to get enough (this blogger included!).
2. Dan Dyer – Dan Dyer
Dyer’s first album since returning to Austin, this self-titled release is pure neo-soul goodness. If you took some old school Stevie Wonder and mixed it with Jamiroquai and some classic Austin blues, you’d get Dan Dyer. He played Austin City Limits and Voodoo Fest this year and seems poised for bigger and better things.
3. The Sword – Gods of the Earth
Austin is not usually noted for it’s rock scene, but the Sword is quickly changing that reputation. The buzz from Gods of the Earth has earned them a spot touring with Metallica, which is a perfect fit. Gods of the Earth is a well-crafted hard rock/metal album that will win over even the most cynical of rock fans.
4. The Black and White Years – The Black and White Years
Produced by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame, this new wave-influenced album has rocketed the Black and White Years to prominence in Austin’s indie hipster scene. Don’t let that fool you, though. This self-titled release is good enough to transcend the hipster pigeonhole.
5. The Calm Blue Sea – The Calm Blue Sea
Not since Explosions in The Sky has an instrumental rock band captured the attention of so many Austinites. Relative unknowns compared to the rest of this list, the Calm Blue Sea gets major points for stretching the bounds of their genre. Intense, melodic, and well written, this album leaves little doubt that a savvy label will soon sign the band.
Andy and Jen Guthrie of Band in Boston
- Anthems MA – Time Starts Now
- Apollo Sunshine – Shall Noise Upon
- Faces on Film – The Troubles
- Magic Magic – Magic Magic LP
- Muy Cansado – Stars & Garters
This was a difficult list to put together because there were many great albums by Boston bands this year. Our picks for the top five were chosen because—as much as we love a great single—these bands produced amazing, cohesive, complete albums.
Magic Magic’s eponymous LP is a reminder of why we don’t listen to the radio anymore—cool arrangements, great melodies, smart lyrics, and brilliant musicianship. At times bittersweet and quirky along the lines of Modest Mouse, at others, anthemic and lush reminiscent of Fruit Bats, Magic Magic rarely takes the expected path, but it’s always an interesting journey.
Veronica Murtagh of creamteam.tv
- Walter Meego – Voyager
- The Sea and Cake – Car Alarm
- Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – Town Topic EP
- The Cool Kids – The Bake Sale EP
- The Hood Internet – Hood Internet vs. Chicago (mixtape)
Chicago is in the throws of a musical conundrum. We’re home to some of the biggest festivals and countless venues and clubs touting a sound for every inclination, yet it seems we are a city stuck in a loop, chasing our own tails. Each year I tally up the names of local talent to watch, only for the year’s end to pass us by without a proper release. Even our wildly popular, sassy party MC Kid Sister, with countless interviews and magazine spreads under her belt, has let 2008 come and go without the delivery of her much-promised album. It seems Chicago is a city that is so busy looking for the next big thing that we forget the importance of longevity in a musical career.
All critiques aside, a few newcomers stood out this year alongside veteran Chicago talents.
Indie mainstays The Sea and Cake released Car Alarm, a well-received follow-up to 2007′s Everybody and a personal favorite of mine, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, branched out with the new Town Topic EP, a selection of of tunes from his score of Laurel Nakadate’s debut film Stay the Same Never Change, which will premiere at Sundance. Kid Sister may have let 2008 pass her by without a proper release, but party rappers The Cool Kids released their debut EP The Bake Sale, and with an appearance at Lollapalooza under their belts, are poised to take over the airwaves. Mash-up masters the Hood Internet took the blogs by storm with The Hood Internet vs. Chicago mixtape, a mashup chronicle of Chicago-based music makers. However, my favorite album by a Chicago based group this year easily goes to Walter Meego. Their debut album Voyager is a spaced-out electro-rock masterpiece. It’s no surprise that these guys have already completed a tour with Aussie it-band, the Presets.
I’ve already got quite a few names on my Chicago music radar for 2009, so let’s hope they lift my jaded cloud by this time next year.
Brent Kado of Avant Chicago
- Unicycle Loves You – Unicycle Loves You
- Russian Circles – Station
- Pit er Pat – High Time
- Bound Stems – The Family Afloat
- Charlie Deets – Fight The Death Funk
This year wasn’t as strong for local releases as was 2007, but the city’s recognition as a musical mega-force was certainly enhanced. Ubiquitous press on Obama (and the music he was inspiring), R. Kelly’s trial (and the local rock writer involved), Kanye, J-Hud, and the city’s unsurpassable festival scene all added to Chicago’s prowess as a musical hotbed. It’s always a crap-shoot to rank albums and all five of these could be shuffled around in various orders. The list only includes LPs, but two EPs that would probably push their way into the top five are The Cool Kids’ The Bake Sale and Aleks and the Drummer’s May A Lightning Bolt Caress You.
China Bialos of choir croak out them goodies
My beef with Los Angeles, rather its music scene in particular, is that a fair number of the bands in L.A. match a certain formula—token female member, token keyboard player, harmonies, perhaps an old-fashioned element—and then take off to the point where they’re no longer considered a local treat. L.A.’s kind of a big deal. Or something. But we’ve got a few gems who haven’t yet struck it big and are on the verge (or, truthfully, aren’t on the verge), and we’ve got a few good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll bands who haven’t bought into the whole gimmick of synths and dance-punk-disco-neon garbage. That said, here are my top five albums from Los Angeles bands released in 2008.
- The Henry Clay People – For Cheap or for Free
- The Muslims – The Muslims
- Hour of the Shipwreck – The Hour is Upon Us
- Haunted Tiger – DSXCO
- The Sess – Agendumb
Okay, so I’ve cheated a touch—garage rockers the Sess are from the semi-neighboring San Diego, and the Muslims (now the Soft Pack, due to apparent pressure from critics) were San Diego-based until relocating to Echo Park earlier this year. Like I’ve said, Los Angeles is swimming in keyboards and minidresses, so it’s a stretch. But then we have unpretentious, all-American rock ‘n’ roll band the Henry Clay People, whose third LP featured eleven complete anthems empathizing with the poor and loyal. And we’ve got Hour of the Shipwreck, dark, sweeping and just Gothic enough, as well as Haunted Tiger, whose EP is chock full of spooky psych sounds and hipper-than-thou glamour. Surely, L.A.’s got more to offer than food carts and lap dogs.
New York City
Devorah Klein of Big Apple Music Scene
- Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair
- Santogold – Santogold
- Magnetic Fields – Distortion
- TV on the Radio – Dear Science
- Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
As always, New York is ripe with musicians, and it’s almost painful to narrow down this year’s releases by New York artists to five. My list has some newcomers (Santogold, Hercules and Love Affair), a side project (Department of Eagles, side project of Grizzly Bear), and some veterans (TV on the Radio and Magnetic Fields). All of these artists put out magnificent records this year in various genres (rock, hip-hop, dance) and they will all, I’m sure, continue to be a presence in New York and all over.
Writers of Seattle Subsonic
1. Saturday Knights – Mingle
I can’t remember any group that incorporated so many musical styles and genres into an action-packed 40-minute album. I can’t even bring myself to classify this as a hip-hop album, which is a great thing. Off the top of my head, I can pinpoint elements of punk, greaser, surfer, and classic rock, heavy metal, blues, Euro-pop, reggae, rockabilly, electronic, and of course hip hop. To blend all those different sounds (and more cowbell!) into one album and pull it off so seamlessly is effing impressive. Not to mention that they bring an arsenal of quotable verses, rewind-worthy one-liners, and all around great lyricism to the tracks. A lot of the lines are subtle, but after a few listens you can’t help but flash the “O face.” Barfly calmly drops gems on “45″ (“Can’t hang homeboy? I’m fuckin drapery”) and “Dog Park” (“She party like a rock star, so delirious/ I party like a Dog Star, so Sirius.”)
All the songs are great in their own way, but of course I have a few favorites. “Ass Kicker’s Haircut” sounds like the beat was made for the Heavy Metal soundtrack. “Dog Park” is as close to pop they get. It’s damn catchy and has a sing-songy chorus with endless, classic dog references. “So off the chain” indeed—Motorin’ makes you wish you were racing Greased Lightning with the radio on blast. It has the best beat on the album and Tilson’s tongue-twisting verse is truly something to behold. “I Go” is the shortest song on the album but packs the most punch (more cowbell!) and begs to be rewound the first few times you hear it. — DJ100Proof
2. Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
Love it or hate it, this is the new sound of the Helio Sequence. Personally, I love it. After wearing the digits off of their 2004 release, Love and Distance, this long-awaited follow-up struck me as strange at first. It grew on me, like a stubborn northwest moss. The most obvious difference is lead singer Brandon Summers’ astonishingly altered voice after severely damaging his vocal chords on tour. The overall sound is decidedly less poppy, instead capturing haunting melodies, especially shown in the tracks “Shed Your Love” and “You Can Count on Me.” The snappy drums, electro-pop sequencing, and grimy guitars that define Helio Sequence still appear throughout the album, though “Hallelujah” might be the beacon of light for those looking for something familiar in the duo’s sound. Kudos must also be given to Brendan and Benjamin for producing and arranging this album themselves. One of the going for it is the flow from beginning to end. — Kevin Ledoux
3. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP
I wouldn’t say I was necessarily surprised by Fleet Foxes’ meteoric rise in 2008, but I was certainly impressed by it. The good-natured troubadour throwbacks, led by singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold, began the year opening for lesser bands in Seattle-area clubs and ended it playing the Austin City Limits Festival, with spots at the Capitol Hill Block Party and Sasquatch! in between. Talk about a skyrocket.
But as their tantalizing Sun Giant EP would indicate, there was very little to dislike about these bucolic folk-rockers. From the rollicking gloominess of “Mykonos” and the jangly, springtime stroll of “Ragged Wood” to the tenderly ominous beauty of “Your Protector” and the avian love metaphors of “Meadowlarks,” there was nary a disappointing tune to be found on either the EP or LP. Don’t look for the voices of these pipe-heavy songsters to be silenced any time soon. — LB
4. Starfucker – Starfucker
I’m not sure what led me to Portland space-pop ambassadors Starfucker, but whatever it was (shooting star, orbiting satellite, etc.), I’m sure as hell glad it did. The enchanting self-titled debut from these three Portlandians (Josh Hodges, Ryan Biornstad, Shawn Glassford) infectiously wanders in and out of itself with electro-pop symphonies, hand-clap driven ditties, repetitive, synth-heavy harmonies, and bleary-eyed, stargazing bliss. One moment you might find yourself likening them to a bouncy, laser-like version of Air (“Isabella of Castile”) or an electronic, youthful rendering of the Flaming Lips (“U Ba Khin”, “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second”), and the next tapping your toes to a percolating party tune with a captivating chorus (“Pop Song”). Of course, don’t be surprised if you also find yourself up on cloud nine after giving this album a spin. — LB
5. Jake One – White Van Music
This album is all killer and no filler. Every single beat is not only impressive, but outshines the guest MCs in some cases. For those not totally familiar with hip hop and producer albums, it’s common for a few of the tracks to be skippable, if not down right awful. Jake’s album succeeds not only because he’s been around long enough to pull the best of the best to rap alongside his production, but because the production itself is half the show, shining through on every single track. Hell, even the interludes are more bump worthy than some big name singles I’ve heard this year.
This album has also been selling well across the country, receiving nearly universal praise. This is huge for me because we haven’t gotten any shine nationally for anything hip-hop related in over a decade (really!). He’s single-handedly helping the town. Seattle’s rappers and producers get noticed because people are starting to look our way again, rather than ignore us like some kind of quarantine had been put on us after Mix fell off…or retired or whatever.
This is one hell of a debut album that’s still getting heavy spins in my car every day. Seattle will be a more musically successful place because of it. The guy is in front of Dick’s on Capitol Hill on the album’s cover goddamnit, what more could you want? – DJ100Proof