5) Helms Alee – Night Terrors (Hydra Head Records)
With Helms Alee comes a long awaited return to hard rock for former Harkonen bassist and frontman, Ben Verellen. It’s always good to watch musicians truly come into their own, and where Harkonen were kind of solid in a way that nearly anyone who’s heavily aping the Melvins is, Helms Alee are a different beast entirely. With their frequent oscillation between ethereal female vocals and Verellen’s unique brand of yelping growlage, Night Terrors has a mean bite while remaining enchantingly beautiful throughout. But it’s really Verellen’s guitars that steal the show here, as most of the tracks are built on the strength of his hyper fuzzed out staccato surf metal fret work. Helms Alee have definitely created an interesting combination of influences and easily have put out the Seattle hard rock/metal album of the year. It’s also worthy to note that drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margullis is not only smoking hot, but also sings and kills on guitar in a power duo Lozen (www.myspace.com/11879515); making her, in my mind, one of the most talented musicians on the planet. Look into it; you’ll be glad you did.
4) Times New Viking – Rip It Off (Matador Records)
Having lived in Columbus, Ohio for a decent while before moving to Seattle, it’s kind of refreshing to finally see a band from that area garner some national attention (it doesn’t happen very often — believe me). What’s even cooler is that Times New Viking embody to a tee the best of what I remember was going on there seven or so years back — self recorded lo-fi indie pop
seemingly kindled at least partially in the incendiary wake of Robert Pollard’s brilliance. Nobody’s pulled this shit off in quite some time as effectively as TNV does here. Each of the first ten tracks or so is catchier than the last and the whole vibe with the guy/girl vocal interplay is just on point. These kids are money. The insanely overdriven 4 track recording even approximates the way they’re going to pummel you with amps the size of tanks live.
3) The Mars Volta – The Bedlam In Goliath (Universal Records)
I make no concessions or take no shame in the fact that I think The Mars Volta are one of the best bands on the planet, hands down. If you find prog rock at all interesting, you kind of have to concede to the fact that they’ve put even immortals King Crimson to shame with four and a half straight albums of supremely drugged out, hyper-technical math rock. But what’s always really separated the Volta from, say, vintage KC in my mind is their bizarre ability to effortlessly weave hooks into constant rapid fire tempo tantrums. In fact, what differentiates Bedlam from their other 3.5 full-lengths is the increased lyrical focus of vocalist Cedric Bixler. This guy takes a lot of heat from a lot of people for writing a bunch of nonsensical bullshit, but I was under the impression that sometimes lyrics are supposed to be poetic and mysterious. And his whole schtick makes more sense than a lot of people think; they’re heavily inspired by counterculture and neo-spiritualist authors like Robert Anton Wilson, Carlos Casteneda, and Grant Morrison. But I guess basing your inspiration on stuff that the majority of the populace isn’t even aware of is most definitely a surefire way to confuse the crap out of them. My only complaint (and it’s a minor one) with this disc is that it’s almost like there’s too much Volta to wrap your head around. With new drummer Thomas Pridgen beating the living shit out of his kit for pretty much the entire duration, my favorite tracks are the shortest and most succinct. I think the most intriguing thing these guys could do at this point would be to pull a complete 180 and make an album with like twenty five two-minute pop songs.
2) Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Continued (Kranky/4AD)
I’ll be the first to admit that I was a tad behind the curve on the Deerhunter front, as I just got into them after picking up Cryptograms from the library in 2008. A lot of times I’m more than a tad suspicious of bands that get the standard hype treatment from the indie media. But it’s always nice when those bands actually live up to it for once. In much the same way Liars surprised me years back, Cryptograms has already established itself as kind of a classic in my mind for its dark and pulsing psychedelic bliss. And while Microcastle is more focused on pure songwriting than that record, it’s actually a refreshing departure. Here Bradford Cox firmly establishes himself as comprised of pure genius. The way he uses his voice as an instrument, basing potent hooks around little more than pedal warped ooohs and ahhhs, is nothing short of brilliant. This wouldn’t have landed nearly as high on my list though, if it weren’t for the more experimental, haunting, and even spacier free companion disc, Weird Era Continued. In tandem, they comprise one of the greater artistic achievements of the year — no question — and give you the impression that this guy is barely even getting started.
1) Black Mountain – In The Future (Jagjaguwar)
Another album that’s almost improbably good. Who knew that blending slowed down stoner metal riffs with some of the most dead-on retro seventies keyboard tones would end up sounding so incredible? Vancouver hippies did, that’s who! From start to finish, the extended psych jams, brilliant minimalist songwriting, and multi-gendered vocal interplay gradually hypnotize listeners, drawing them slowly into a hazy fantasy world of Black Mountain’s own design. In mine, I sometimes fly into the mouth of a thousand-eyed dragon. In its belly, telepathic witches delicately caress the inner folds of my psyche, projecting otherworldly imagery directly into my soul. Co-vocalist Amber Webber’s devastatingly beautiful crooning really shoots this stuff way up into the outer stratosphere of awesomeness.
5) HEALTH – //DISCO (Lovepump United)
HEALTH has garnered a lot of positive attention within the past couple years for their unique stage shows and energy. In the end, though, they’re a noise band, and noise bands are by no means easily accessible. During their recent stint opening for Of Montreal, Of Montreal fans were completely boggled that Of Montreal would pick a opening band that, in the words of one OM fan, “wasn’t even music.” Those pussies who need music to have a solid melody in order for it to be viable might actually enjoy //DISCO, an album featuring remixes of HEALTH songs by individuals such as Crystal Castles, Mae Shi, Toxic Avenger, and Acid Girls. The resulting tracks are perfectly danceable, easily swallowed bubble gum electronica.
4) Minus The Bear – Acoustics (Tigre Blanco Records)
I’ve always respected Minus The Bear, but was never really head over heels into them. In fact, I’d completely skipped over their last album, Plant Of Ice, without so much as a second thought. This past September, I saw them live and enjoyed it immensely, but still wasn’t inspired enough to pick up the new disc. I did, however, get this year’s Acoustics on a whim, and it single-handedly kindled my love for Minus The Bear. Despite being seven tracks long and primarily remakes of their older songs, Acoustics is amazing. It’s always refreshing when a band can successfully translate their tracks acoustically, and Minus The Bear succeeds with this slightly jazzy, completely refreshing disc.
3) La Dispute – Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair (No Sleep Records)
Looking at the title of La Dispute’s debut album, one might think that they are a pretentious bunch. Instead, what one finds with their album are lyrics that ride on the cusp poetic genius, vocals that tread the fine line between screaming and speaking, and instrumentation brimming with creative song structures and divergent influences. Don’t be turned off by the fact that these guys are sometimes tagged as “screamo”. Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair solidly sets La Dispute apart from their juvenile counterparts, and it is an incredibly powerful disc.
2) Canoe – Places
Folk rock is usually something I listen to in extremely small doses, and it always lies on the backburner, in the “not bad, but not great” area of my brain. Canoe is the only band treading the line between folk rock and indie rock that I sincerely love wholeheartedly. Places is a tender, light-hearted, and positive album that seems to be a celebration of individual moments in time. Every track on the album is an exercise in nostalgic storytelling, and stirs up feelings one might expect from a pleasant childhood memory. Usually I wouldn’t be able to tolerate so much positivity and bask in so many happy-go-lucky melodies, but Canoe managessomething that really pulls at my heartstrings.
1) Duchess Says – Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs (Alien8 Recordings)
Duchess Says embodies all of the things that I find desireable in a band. They have an energy, style, and identity that I have yet to find matched elsewhere. I sincerely think that, if marketed correctly, this band could be a next big thing, even despite the fact that they don’t really seem to like the limelight. The level of perfection Duchess Says has reached in combining punk rock aesthetics with electro and noise into a chaotic ball of seemingly unstoppable energy is impressive. Word on the street is that their live shows are so good, concertgoers asked them for an encore — when they were the opening band.
5) GZA – Pro Tools
GZA may not be as ubiquitous as his brother-in-arms, Ghostface, but he shows on this year’s Pro Tools that he can still bring it with the best of them. From the schoolyard origin story of “Groundbreaking” to the biting G-unit diss track, “Paper Plates,” GZA’s lyrical daggers are at their sharpest. The production is no slouch either, with RZA and other Wu staples such as True Master and Mathematics lending a hand.
4) Kanye West – 808’s and Heartbreak
The album has only been out for a little less than a month, but it’s quickly become one of the most addictive albums of the year. To see a producer at the top of his game experiment so freely with old school pop textures is only a positive thing to see in an industry built on parroting and playing it safe. T-Pain may have brought Auto-Tune to the limelight, but he could never give it the weight or the classic feel that tracks like “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless” exude… and it takes balls to name a song “Robocop” and make it sound that insane.
3) Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies
A genuinely intelligent rap album from a genuinely intelligent artist, Afterparty Babies is a breath of fresh air. Cadence Weapon, aka Rollie Pemberton, flies lyrical rockets around frenetic party-crashing beats while covering topics such as the rap game, MySpace fashion, TomKat, and the general feebleness of youth. The energy is remarkable and the beats are unfuckwithable.
2) No Age – Nouns
Take Weirdo Rippers, make it anthemic, and try not to wear yourself out. Nouns takes the torrid energy of No Age’s no-fi rock and gives it a backbone. Though some purists may detest the almost sing-along catchiness they’ve adopted, Nouns is still about the thickness and density of sound.
1) Constantines – Kensington Heights
The Constantines are still one of the best rock bands out there and thoroughly flex their muscle on this fantastic album — their best since Shine a Light. Kensington Heights does what the Constantines do best: soulful, meaningful rock and roll. Songs like “Transcanada” and “Our Age” haunt me long after they end.
5) Santogold – S/T (Downtown Records)
I was so excited for this record to come out that I went to the record store several times before its release date. The songs are upbeat, creative, and breaths of fresh air. I’m happy that Santogold it big, although it’s a little weird to hear the songs I like so much used as soundtracks to Bud Light commercials.
4) Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (JagJaguwar)
I was hooked on this album from the moment I heard the first song. All the praise for it is completely justified, and I, for one, have been waiting for a long time for a record like this. From start to finish, every song is beautiful, and the whole record works as a masterpiece — especially when played live.
3) School of Seven Bells – Alpinisms (Ghostly International)
School of Seven Bells totally wowed everyone at CMJ, but I missed them there. Therefore, I was very happy to find this album amongst the mess of my local record store, and it has really got me hooked. I first heard the opening track when remixed by Prefuse 73, who happens to be the brother of the two singers, and one of my favorite DJs ever.
2) Hercules & Love Affair – S/T (Mute Records)
Nothing gets my serious boyfriend dancing like Hercules & Love Affair, and he doesn’t dance… ever. This record is incredibly fun, exciting, unique. They are amazing live as well; you might even see a conga line.
1) Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (Atlantic Records)
I was shocked to see that this record didn’t make more Top 10 lists for this year. Because of my obsession with St. Elsewhere, I was scared about the typical “sophomore slump” for such a big act. Luckily, Gnarls Barkley came through big time, and every song on The Odd Couple is amazing.
5) The Loved Ones – Build And Burn (Fat Wreck Chords) / A Loss For Words – Webster Lake (Self-Released)
This year was a pretty big year for pop-punk. Two polarizing bands that I was attracted to were Philadelphia’s the Loved Ones and Boston’s A Loss for Words. The Loved Ones continue a tradition of melodic, gritty punk rock that is catchy as hell. It’s for the type of person who grew up on a steady diet of NOFX, Face to Face, and Descendents. Though we may be closer to 30, the Loved Ones remind us that you don’t have to lose your punk persona. A Loss for Words, on the other hand, represent the new jacks out there who were raised on the last Blink 182 record and Good Charlotte. Yet unlike those other bands, A Loss for Words follows closer to examples set by Lifetime that meshes pop-punk hooks with hardcore sensibilities.
4) 2*Sweet – Sleep Without Dreams (C. Walrus)
Even though they’ve broken up, 2*Sweet released one hell of a debut album with Sleep Without Dreams. It’s one of the most creative pop-punk records I’ve heard in a while. Borrowing elements from the Misfits, jazz, metal, and a grab bag full of inspirations, 2*Sweet will go down as a band who really did break up at the top of their game.
3) Solange Knowles – Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (Geffen Records)
Like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse, Solange Knowles has taken the retro route and added a twist of modernity to the soul sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. Taking cues from watershed labels like Stax, Knowles sophomore record is funky and exciting, while putting her inner turmoil out on vinyl.
2) City and Colour – Bring Me Your Love (Vagrant Records)
Man, Dallas Green has gotten a lot of miles out of his solo effort, particularly in this publication. This is like the billionth time I’ve given him a shout out. Green’s acoustic project, City and Colour, is a far cry from his day job as the frontman for screamo outfit Alexisonfire, but Green’s earnest voice and eerie channeling of erstwhile band, Red House Painters, is what makes Bring Me Your Love so damn good.
1) Nas – Untitled (Def Jam)
In general, Nas’ career seems to be about openly criticizing society using the method that most Americans would refer to as the “Shock and Awe.” As is the case with this last Nas album, which was originally titled The Dreaded N-Word and retooled to Untitled after Def Jam honcho L.A. Reid shat himself silly. Despite controversy, the album actually contains some really strong songs, such as the uplifting anthem, “Hero,” the anti-Rupert Murdoch jam, “Sly Fox,” and the mixtape gem, “Fried Chicken.”
5) The Morning Of – The World As We Know It (Tragic Hero Records)
The quintet’s debut, full-length album features the band’s first recordings with new female vocalist Jessica Leplon. The 13-track production features piano introductions and male-female harmonies perfect for teenage heartbreak anthems and scene dance-offs. The track “Pilot to Base” shines as the most emotionally dynamic of all.
4) Forever The Sickest Kids – Underdog Alma Mater (Motown Records)
Underdog Alma Mater intertwines straight-shooting lyrics with layers of catchy harmonies, claps, and a hint of synth. The first full-length project from these Dallas boys keeps a consistent high energy vibe through and through. Tracks, My Worst Nightmare and Believe Me, I’m Lying take the cake on this album.
3) A Static Lullaby – Rattlesnake! (Fearless Records)
Forget dancing here — unless it’s in a circle pit. Vocalist Joe Brown introduces listeners to his dark psyche in Rattlesnake! Shiver-worthy double kick drum and throat-shredding vocals bring ASL back to their roots after their 2005 pop failure, Faso Latido. Even their cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” elicits nods of approval from post-hardcore lovers.
2) The Maine – Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (Fearless Records)
These Arizona natives have found the perfect recipe for new-age pop punk. They’ve taken the same chord progression and spun it twelve different ways. As much as you want to hate bands like this, The Maine offer clean vocals and sex-driven, bouncy lyrics that listeners can’t help but relate to.
1) The Cab – Whisper War (Decaydence / Fueled By Ramen)
The Cab have kept their catchy, eccentric, and slightly flamboyant sound for their second album. Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy and Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco lend their vocal chords to selected tracks, contributing to the vocal overlap, frantic drum beats and classy piano that have gained the Las Vegas five their popularity.
5) Universal Studios Florida – S/T
Forget freak folks. The New Weird America truly exists amongst the denizens of bedroom enthusiasts banging away at Garage Band on their laptops. On their debut EP, Seattle newcomers Universal Studios Florida have managed to create a wholly unique sound as only oddball music outsiders could. Their seamless blend of eclectic sampling and pulsing 4/4 rhythms, along with the palpable enthusiasm dripping through each track, gives the album just enough buoyancy not to be sunk by an abundance of ambience and melancholy. Quite a feat for a first effort.
4) Anja Schneider – Beyond The Valley (Mobilee)
The consensus amongst dance enthusiasts seems to be that 2008 was the year of disco. Don’t tell that to Anja Schneider. While critics put house and techno on the backburner, Schneider was busy creating the best minimal techno LP of 2008. Beyond the Valley‘s standout track, “Maki,” puts most of 2008’s other dance tracks to shame. So if the minimal craze might be dying down, Schneider’s Beyond the Valley would make one hell of a curtain call.
3) Atlas Sound – Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Kranky Records)
Solo records typically suffer from stereotypes of overly saccharine introspection or sprawling, pretentious wankery. Thankfully, Bradford Cox’s solo debut as Atlas Sound has neither. While it’s true that Let The Blind largely blunts the hard edges of his full-time band’s musical output, the record contains enough sonic peculiarities and thematic coherence to make it a musical achievement unto itself. Cox anchors his dreamy soundscapes in a frayed and fractured nostalgia. The standout track, “Quarantined,” captures his experience as a teenager, bedridden in a hospital bed for a whole summer. While Let the Blind is no stranger to anguish, the album also reveals how memory inevitably creates fondness for the past as well.
2) Portishead – Third (Mercury Records)
2008 was the year Portishead showed the kids how it’s done. While it had been 9 years since their last release, time had only helped hone their mastery of sound. More than anything, Third is an object lesson in texture. While groups like Cut Copy and TV On The Radio gained popularity for their great big walls of sound, Portishead proved that restraint and economy doesn’t mean relinquishing your sonic palette. Maybe it’s the wisdom that comes with age. Or maybe Portishead are just in a league of their own.
1) Flying Lotus – Los Angeles (Warp Records)
While it’s unmistakable that Flying Lotus channels the ghost of J Dilla, his second full-length, Los Angeles, has taken Dilla’s pioneering brand of off-kilter hip-hop into hereby uncharted territories. FlyLo’s relentless infusion of earth-shattering bass does little to take away from the washes of ambience and Warp-like textures he injects into every one of his tunes. In fact, he matches the two perfectly, making Los Angeles one of the most unique hip-hop records to come out in a long, long time. If Flying Lotus remains at the vanguard of future hip-hop, the genre should flourish for years to come.