2008 may have been the year of the rat according to the Chinese calendar, but according to the Tony Schmiesing calendar, it was the year of music. Of course, a few other significant things happened along the way that might also qualify for the title (if you’ve been reading this blog, you know what I mean), but when you’ve been listening to a different album every day for the past 365 days, could you really call it anything else?
The fact is, I purchased more music this year than probably the past 10 years combined and a good percentage of that music was stuff released in 2008. Overwhelmingly, I found it to be a fine year with great releases from both established artists and those making their debut alike. And in spite of feeling somewhat inundated by the sheer quality and quantity of my consumption, I was still able to come up with a top 10 list that I think I’ll happy with in the weeks to come.
In a year that saw the influences of Afropop, The Jesus and Mary Chain and New Wave — sometimes all three — featured in some of the year’s most interesting albums, it was also a year where my favorite LP was a breathtakingly simple and intimate affair. It was this seemingly incongruent swing of styles that made the year so rewarding musically — from the densely layered to the sublimely quiet, great sounds came from diverse origins and songwriting sensibilities.
Choosing my top 10 was no easy feat. As I said, there were a lot of quality records to choose from. Couple this with the fact that I was engaged in my 365 albums endeavor and you can see that time played a part as well — there’s only so many hours in the day one can listen to music with undivided attention.
In many ways, I find the whole top 10 process frustrating and counterintuitive, as different music appeals to me at different times, but as somebody who paradoxically likes to read such lists, the challenge of actually doing one holds a certain amount of appeal.
How I came up with my list basically came down to two things; what album resonated with me upon first listen and/or got better upon repeated plays. In the case of the Bon Iver record, well, it had me at hello, whereas the TV on the Radio and the M83 record took a few spins before they really sunk in. Again, while I’m happy with the list I’ve come up with, any one of the records 11 through 25 could’ve been in the top 10 — the year was that good.
1. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
This was hands down my choice for the number one record of the year. In fact, after my first listen almost a year ago it was hard to imagine anything topping it. Every time I revisit this record, I’m as moved and surprised as the first time I heard it. Equal parts haunting and uplifting, it’s an intimate sounding piece that feels as sparse as it does expansive. The cheap sounding acoustic guitar, reverb and heartbreakingly beautiful melodies are mesmerizing. A powerful, transcendent record.
2. TV on the Radio: Dear Science
As the dark days of the current grossly cynical political regime come to an end and are replaced with more hopeful, albeit uncertain ones, Dear Science is the record that more than captures this zeitgeist. Working both sides of the fence, it’s a look back and look forward without ever losing its grip lyrically or musically. Layered, funky, global, melodious and grinding, it’s the most “accessible” TV on the Radio to date and one that brings something new to each listen.
3. DJ/rupture: Uproot
It’s a cliché now to say DJs are the new rock stars, but I think it illustrates an understanding that as rock stars, DJs are at last being seen as musicians. For some, this might be difficult to wrap your head around — it certainly challenges assumptions of what a musician is — but for those intimately acquainted with dance culture, this is a no-brainer. DJ/rupture is hardly a “rock star” by DJ standards, but he’s every bit a musician and has crafted one of the most listenable and interesting musical experiences of the year. An nuanced bass heavy mash-up record that’s a marvel in its construction.
4. The Very Best: Esau Wmamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best
The collaboration on this mix tape sample-fest by Malawian born/London based singer Esau Wmamwaya and European production team Radioclit, is a true celebration of music’s current global fusion. Floating on top of beats and samples ranging from Hans Zimmer’s True Romance theme (via Badlands) to the Beatles to Michael Jackson to Vampire Weekend, and from countries ranging from South Africa to India and beyond, is Esau’s — singing in his native tongue Chichewa — lovely voice. As a snapshot of the times, the collection succeeds both musically and spiritually. Click here for free a download.
5. M83: Saturdays = Youth
Somewhere between nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek and absolutely sincere, Saturdays = Youth might be the musical equivalent of a John Hughes movie. .. minus the happy ending. That said, this 80s influenced electro-rock album is the real deal. Individually the songs are melodic shoegazing anthems, but where they really shine is when they’re taken together as a whole. After my first listen I didn’t quite see this, but after the second and then third I was blown away by how much it worked. Alternating between quiet and bombast, the album is a surprising success.
6. Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ
Frightened Rabbit aren’t the first band to write songs about loneliness, sex, or post-relationship misery — they aren’t even the first Scottish band to do it — but their jangly, chiming guitars and mournful melodies effortlessly dig their way into your heart and you’re happy to commiserate. Fresh on the heels (literally) of their wonderful 2007 debut Sing the Greys, Midnight Organ is less raw and punk driven, but no less powerful. In fact, the cleaner sound fits the band nicely and makes me wonder if there’s been a couple extra sunny days in Glasgow this past year.
7. The Bug: London Zoo
Sometimes you just need it a little dirty and this latest effort by The Bug a.k.a. Kevin Martin, delivers on all accounts. A grimy, dark ragga come dubstep collection, the LP feels like a dance hall soundtrack for the postapocalypse. Utilizing toasters, singers and MCs of varying familiarity, London Zoo only serves to reinforce the claim that some of the best and most interesting bass heavy hip hop productions are coming from across the pond not the United States.
8. Q-tip: The Renaissance
I’ll admit, a large part of this record’s appeal is based on nostalgia and the joy of hearing Q-tip’s voice and distinct flow again, but it’s also a return to form after his less than mediocre debut solo project almost 10 years ago. And while that might be enough to push it into my top 10, the truth is this is a great record. Of course, having one of my favorite songs of the year ManWomanBoogie doesn’t hurt, but that aside this album moves and speaks in ways few hip-hop records did this year. Funky and lyrically relevant, it’s a joy.
9. Nomo: Ghost Rock
Nu-jazz is an interesting animal and doesn’t always connect with me, but Ghost Rock — with its Afropop rhythms, transparent Can riffing and 70s four on the floor cop show funk — absolutely does. Throw in a slightly distorted African thumb piano, some glitchy synth sounds, horns and traditional jazz elements and you have a mighty tasty mix.
10. Marching Band: Spark Large
When I was kid I used to love a candy called Swedish Fish. It was a gummy, colorful, sweet and sour treat shaped like — you guessed it — fish. I’d buy them by the sack full at JCPenney’s and be in a sucrose coma for an entire afternoon… heaven. And while the origin of these fish may or may not actually be Sweden, I do know this much about the country… they export some seriously sweet pop music. Marching Band is no exception. Like Loney, Dear and The Shout Out Louds before them, all the ingredients are here; sweet melodies, bright guitars, deceptively simple lyrics and a sense of brevity that feels perfect.
Honorable mentions aka the alternates: 11 – 25.
11. Sigur Rós: með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, 12. Devotchka: A Mad and Faithful Telling, 13. Sun Kil Moon: April, 14. Deerhunter: Microcastle, 15. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP, 16. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), 17. Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple, 18. El Guincho: Alegranza, 19. Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs, 20. Thievery Corporation: Radio Retaliation, 21. Blind Pilot: 3 Rounds and a Sound, 22. Apparat: Things to be Frickled, 23. Koushik: Out My Window, 24. Noah and the Whale: Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, 25. The Dodos: Visiter.
Up next: the top 50 songs of 2008.