Welcome to the 2008 Top 10 List.
Last week, I droned on and on about the numerous honorable mentions this year – a total of 30. If that didn’t convince you that 2008 was a great year for music, I hope the following 10 selections will. But if nothing else, I think this year’s list speaks loudly about my own taste – I’m an old-fashioned melody guy, a sucker for a well-written song, and I’m not looking for a whole lot else.
I think the reason some of my contemporaries have proclaimed 2008 a down year for music is that many critics are on a constant search for the new. They want sounds and styles they’ve never heard before – anything that sounds like last year, or last decade, is chucked out on its ear. And I think that mentality leads to a focus on sound instead of song. This year’s critical darling, TV on the Radio, is a good example – the sound is unique, whirring electronics meshing with horns and soulful vocals, but the songs just aren’t there, at least to my ears.
What I’m looking for is simple – great songs, performed really well. Throw in a dash of ambition (make me an album-length statement full of great songs) and you’ll get even more of my love. I want a melody that kicks my ass, and a performance that makes me feel where you’re coming from. I want you to throw everything you have into writing the best songs you possibly can, learning from everyone who came before you. And I want to feel like you, the artist, are in the grooves of your record.
That seems easy. But I listen to so much mediocre music each and every day. Here’s the same three chords and vocal melody I’ve heard a hundred times. Here’s studio trickery in place of songwriting. Here’s music that just sits there, empty, with no life to it at all. Worst of all, here’s music crafted to make money, with no soul and no skill.
Ah, but every once in a while, I hear something magical. And this year, I heard more than the average share of magical stuff. Seriously, listen to Aqualung’s “Arrivals,” which I previously mentioned is my pick for the prettiest song of the year. When you’re done, breathe in – you’ll have forgotten to do that during the final chorus – and then consider: the album “Arrivals” is on, Words and Music, did not make this list. Every record listed below moved me and wowed me more.
The rules, for newbies: only new studio albums, comprised mainly of original songs, count for this list. No covers albums, no live records, no best-ofs, no remix compilations, no EPs. To qualify, the album in question has to come out on CD sometime during the year. And to make this list, I have to like it. A lot.
Shall we begin?
#10. The Feeling, Join With Us.
America just doesn’t know what to do with this band. After Cherrytree Records thoroughly botched the U.S. release of their debut, Twelve Stops and Home, this follow-up still hasn’t been released over here. Which is a real shame, since it’s a bigger and better effort. Where Twelve Stops was full of perfect pop singles, Join With Us is a fully cohesive album, with one studio-tastic epic after another. I haven’t heard a pop album this stuffed full with ear candy since Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk, 15 years ago. The Feeling take from 40 years of British popular music here, but the key to their success remains the same – they write outstanding songs. And they are unabashedly, purely pop.
#9. Amanda Palmer, Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
It took me way too long to get the Twin Peaks reference in the title of Palmer’s solo debut. It took me a lot less time to realize that the piano half of the Dresden Dolls has stepped outside her comfort zone and made a great little album here. Very little of this sounds like the cabaret punk the Dolls are known for. Instead, Palmer’s written some lovely pop songs, and sprinkled them with deceptively shocking lyrics. She paired up with Ben Folds here, enlisting him for some sweet strings and horns, and his production gives her a sheen of accessibility she’s never had. But the songs are purely Palmer, especially introspective rants like “Runs in the Family” and heartbreakers like “Blake Says.” Plus, she manages to make Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” about domestic abuse, purely through context. That’s a kind of twisted genius worth praising.
#8. Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.
I hear you snickering. Stop it. Yes, this is how you know I’m gay. But you know what? The guys in Coldplay are already millionaires, and they don’t have to take risks, but they did here. They made a bold record that sounds like nothing they’ve done before, incorporating influences like Peter Gabriel and David Byrne. The resulting album is a grower, to be sure, but once it’s hooked you, it doesn’t let go. The secret, of course, is great songs – “Cemeteries of London” has the best “la-la-la” refrain of the year, “Violet Hill” is a dark wonder, and both title tracks are extraordinary. They sound like a million other bands here, but the one they rarely fall back on is Coldplay. They’re transitioning here, pushing open their cocoon and yearning to fly free. The next one should be amazing.
#7. Keane, Perfect Symmetry.
Oh, what a surprise, Keane on my Top 10 List. But I will tell you, no repeat performer on this list surprised me more this year than these guys. It’s a little too simplistic to say they’ve “gone ‘80s,” but it gets the idea across – leadoff track “Spiralling” starts with a jubilant “Woo!” and a synth line right out of the Thompson Twins. But keep listening, because Keane has taken these Devo-era influences and married them to what they do. Sure, there’s the David Bowie keyboard on “Better Than This,” and “Pretend That You’re Alone” is pure Talking Heads, but they somehow retained their essential Keane-ness, something Coldplay didn’t quite do. Perfect Symmetry is a minor miracle – the Keane boys dove into this new sound with both (well, all six) feet, and still retained their identity. Oh, and they wrote some of the best songs of their lives as well.
#6. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs.
Completing the trilogy, here’s another band caught in mid-metamorphosis. I was initially disappointed with this one, since it fails to pack the cumulative punch of Plans, still Death Cab’s high water mark. These are short stories, where Plans was a novel. But what stories they are, little tales of love and loss wrapped up in glorious pop melodies. You’ll hear things here you’ve never imagined would be on a Death Cab album before, from the thumping bass mantra of “I Will Possess Your Heart” to the Krautrock beat of “Long Division,” but the heart of the album is in sublimely sad sketches like “Cath” and “Grapevine Fires.” The band has never sounded better or more diverse, and even though it’s not as devastating as Plans, it leaves its mark.
#5. Vampire Weekend.
For a while, the best debut album I heard this year. Vampire Weekend is what happens when indie kids discover Paul Simon’s Graceland – a seamless fusion of ragged pop smarts and African rhythms. It’s the one “new” sound you’ll find on this list, but it works so well because every one of these 11 songs is tightly written and unfailingly melodic. “Bryn” is a master class on shifting rhythmic beds that connect without a hitch, but you don’t notice because it’s so much fun to sing along with. Ditto “Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk,” one of the best one-two punches of the year. This album’s just a blast, and it points forward without sacrificing the lessons of the past. I’m not sure how they’re going to follow it up, but for now, this is a hell of a first shot.
#4. Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun.
Is it as good as SMiLE? Of course not. But in many ways, That Lucky Old Sun is the more important album for Wilson. No longer can he rely on material he wrote when he was 26. That Lucky Old Sun is what he’s doing now. And it’s fantastic, easily the best non-SMiLE solo album he’s made. Again, Wilson decided to compose a symphonic suite, but this time, he’s looking back on his own life, reflecting on the decades of madness and inactivity that followed the original SMiLE sessions. These are the most open-hearted songs of his life, especially the killer concluding trilogy, and most especially “Midnight’s Another Day,” a stone Wilson classic. But it’s the way Wilson and his amazing band wrap all of this together into a flawless whole that makes this album so magical. It is an old-age symphony to God, to re-coin a phrase – at 66, Brian Wilson has reclaimed his place as one of the world’s best.
#3. Marillion, Happiness is the Road.
This seems like obvious advice, but you need to listen to Happiness more than once. This is the least immediate music this long-running British quintet has ever made, but give it time, and the sheer depth of emotion in these songs will reveal itself. Happiness is really two albums, which makes ranking it difficult. Essence, the first disc, is a 50-minute suite, and stands as one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the Marillion catalog. Disc two, The Hard Shoulder, is all the other songs, and as such, it’s not as successful – it rocks more, but its pleasures are more oblique. Essence would be higher on this list by itself, I think, but taken as a 110-minute whole, this album is a remarkable achievement, even from this remarkable band. All that would mean little if the music didn’t move me, but it takes me places most music rarely does. I’ve said it before, but Marillion makes head music that you feel, deeply and intimately. This is intensely emotional stuff, with one magic moment after another – even after 15 albums, Marillion can still surprise me and affect me like few other bands can.
#2. Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers.
Every year Aimee Mann releases an album, I save a spot on the Top 10 List for her. She has never failed to earn it. One of the finest songwriters on the planet, Mann has outdone herself here, turning in some of her saddest and most beautiful work. The sound is different – she’s taken out the electric guitars and replaced them with synthesizers. But the songs are still as perfect, as impossible to improve, as they always are. Don’t believe me? Take any one of these 13 songs and try to make it better. Go on, try. They are traditional verse-chorus pop songs, but they are perfect verse-chorus pop songs. Mann’s world is unremittingly bleak – check out the slit-your-wrists lyrics to “31 Today” – but her melodies are sweet, and her voice sweeter. In an age where bombast and excess is often used to mask lack of talent, Aimee Mann is waging a one-woman battle for sublime, economical, emotional songwriting, and she’s doing it brilliantly.
Which brings us to the top of the heap for another year. I groused a couple of weeks ago that I would probably be alone in this pick, and since then, I was gratified to see that Billboard, Mojo and most amazingly Pitchfork jumped on board with me. (Pitchfork! I agree with Pitchfork! I owe somebody $100.) I suppose it’s not that strange a selection, but nothing else transported me quite like this album did:
#1. Fleet Foxes.
The second you press play on this thing, it envelops you. You’re greeted by a chorus of down-home harmonies, which sounds for all the world like it was recorded with one microphone in a cabin in the woods. And then the acoustic guitars start, and the harmonies come in, and for the next 39 minutes, the music wraps you up like a warm blanket.
Fleet Foxes sound both timeless and out of time. I described them once as Brian Wilson’s 18th Century English folk band, an attempt to encapsulate both their sun-dappled California harmonies and the ancient, woodsy feel that permeates every pore. I still can’t do much better than that, but words are inadequate when you’re dealing with something this authentic, this seeped in musical history. It is folk music, it is pop music, it is communal brotherhood music. These are songs that could have been performed by traveling minstrels in olden days. These are tunes you will swear you’ve known all your life, because they tap into an inborn sense of song we all carry with us.
Flowery hyperbole? I don’t know. When I listen to Fleet Foxes, I feel I’m experiencing something that runs deeper, something that connects to timeless mysteries. This says nothing about the actual songs, I know, but how to describe something like “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”? I could tell you it’s entirely comprised of two sparse acoustic guitars and Robin Pecknold’s lovely voice, and that its melody is haunting, stunning, chilling. I could tell you that no melody maker could come up with one as pitch-perfect as the vocal line in “He Doesn’t Know Why,” or that “Your Protector” is a somewhat spooky minor-key wonder, one that makes the best use of the mellotron since Led Zeppelin.
But this tells you nothing – you have to experience it. In the end, Fleet Foxes is merely 11 songs played by five people, then etched onto a piece of plastic. But more than anything else this year, this album sounds bigger, more important than that. I can’t explain it, I can’t contain it. Listening to this album makes me feel a part of something endless, and it makes me want to keep listening to unravel this something and understand it.
Fleet Foxes fits my criteria perfectly – these are great songs, performed very well, particularly when it comes to the vocal harmonies. They are amazing. But I feel drawn to this music for a larger reason. It moves me like nothing else I’ve heard in 2008. It is quietly powerful stuff, certain of its own importance, but the farthest thing from arrogant you could imagine. It is the discovery of the year, and the first time I have awarded a debut the top spot. And astoundingly, Fleet Foxes are getting better – their EP Sun Giant was recorded after the album, and I like it more.
I’ve been a little cryptic here, but that’s just because I haven’t yet found the words to explain just why I like this album so much. This is pure music, and I can dance about architecture all I like, but it won’t replace the experience of just hearing it. My language is inadequate, my speech incapable. Quite literally, I don’t know what to tell you. You must hear this. I have said enough. I can never say enough. This is why I listen – to feel this sense of connection with an inexplicable magic that is all around us, yet rare and fleeting. I am left suspended by the final notes, yearning for more. I wish this for you.
In seven days, Fifty Second Week. Happy holidays, everyone.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.