Matt Whelihan is a staff reviewer here at Punknews.org. Check back next week for year end lists from the Punknews editorial, and soon after the lists decided by your votes. - ed - ed
Let's Take Another Crack at This Intro Thing
Ah, 2008. I moved back to Philadelphia, I started grad school, and I probably did a lot of other things you're not interested in. But you know what, instead of going for the "a few paragraphs can never encapsulate an entire year in music" route that I've meandered through on past intros, I'm going to give you a little something to think about, pass along, maybe even deny vehemently.
Besides taking up an incredible amount of time, time I could have spent finding enough albums to make a top 20 instead of the 10 you see below, my classes provided me with a pretty solid, sort of gaudy frame to view the music of 2008 through. While reading the works of Modernist writers like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot I couldn't help but notice that the tenants they preached about poetry -- re-contextualizing, rather than imitating, tradition in order to provide contemporary art with something it was lacking -- could be applied to a lot of music from 2008. Whether it was the Hold Steady re-working classic rock-isms into poetically-laced barn burners, the Cool Kids taking chopped and screwed vocals and letting them hit hard over a Rick Rubin beat circa '88, or Paint It Black using contemporary production and studio wizardry to take the old school of hardcore well beyond the new school, 2008 was a year of musicians inverting, subverting and (in some cases) reverting to tradition.
Top 10 Albums of 2008
From the Bottom combines the gruff, bass-heavy cadence of Midwestern punk with the energetic pop sensibilities of the early Lookout! Records catalog. The result is a pop-punk album that is just as drunk and snarky as it is unabashedly infectious. Sure, Off with Their Heads have been relying on this formula for the past few years, but now we've finally got it in full-length form.
Get Lonely introduced a more subdued John Darnielle, one that offered melancholic vignettes that were honest to the point of being uncomfortable. On Heretic Pride, that calmer, studio-savvy Darnielle returned to teach another course on songwriting for anyone with a pair of ears. This time things are a bit sunnier and the old John -- you know, the manic, yelping one -- even turns up for a few moments of well-earned catharsis.
There's a fine line between gratuitous noise and welcome chaos, and on Nouns, No Age dance dangerously close to that line. Layers of fuzz, echoing guitars and buzzing loops only strengthen what lies at the base here: a guitar-and-drum duo that simply want to pound the shit out of their instruments. Throw in the fact that these dudes know how to write buried melodies like it ain't no thing and you've got songs that are just as memorable as they are abrasive.
The "punk" and "pop" scales that Dillinger Four have so craftily balanced over the years finally tipped in the favor of "pop" this year. Sure, the group's super-thick signature tone -- the aural equivalent of a massive, rickety train fueled by Pabst and cheap whiskey running non-step from coast to coast -- is missing on C I V I L W A R, but the cleaner guitar and bass tones compliment the four-piece's new knack for power-pop licks, instrumental melodies and alternating tempos. Veteran pop-punkers take note: This is how to age gracefully.
Fucked Up are an anomaly. Their shows draw both hardcore fanboys hoping to storm the stage and get sweaty with a guy dubbed Pink Eyes and indie kids who want to see why everyone from Final Fantasy to the Vivian Girls want to work with them. They take guitar tones straight out of '77, vocals from early '80s hardcore and a sense of experimentation that...well, it really has no precedence in punk and hardcore. What other band is going to turn four-chord, pummeling punk songs into layered, sprawling masterpieces full of squealing guitar leads, extended instrumental climbs, sci-fi synth hum and flute accents? Yet again, Fucked Up have crafted an album of intelligent rage that is not content to rely on convention.
By moving away from crisp, rapid-fire youth crew anthems and embracing the ragged, restrained mid-tempo brilliance of Modern Life Is War's Witness, Have Heart have crafted an emotionally complex and nuanced hardcore album. Vocalist Patrick Flynn manages to elicit feelings of desperation, anger, exhaustion, loneliness and confinement while the rest of his band employ a masterful sense of dynamics. They shift from sparse and moody moments of tension to brash minor-key barrages like it's the most natural thing in the world.
The first track on the Hold Steady's debut album was a "Positive Jam," and now (on their fourth album in five years) they are telling us to "Stay Positive," something that shouldn't be a problem as long as Craig Finn and company continue to produce albums of this caliber. The band may have branched out a bit on this one (see new wave keyboards, pastoral acoustics) but the backbone is still the same. Finn still sounds like he's performing a well-researched, hyper-descriptive street-corner rant while the musicians backing him are still stealing all the things from classic rock radio we're too cool to admit we love, and then making them even better.
On Midnight Organ Fight, Frightened Rabbit start with a base of guitar-driven indie pop that would have been right at home in the '90s, and then meticulously adorn it with an array of genre-signposts and instrumentation. They manage to touch on everything from floor-stomping folk and country twang to unrestrained guitar-bashing crescendos and shoegazing sonics. Add to that the fact that singer Scott Hutchison manages the difficult feat of singing Morrissey-like lines without inducing cringes and you've got yourself a unique yet strangely familiar indie album.
In my original review of Alopecia I said that if Elephant Eyelash was the soundtrack to an all-night party where indie kids and hip-hop heads could both get down, then Alopecia was the music for the morning after. Why? are still crafting a pastiche of indie rock instrumentation, Eno-esque sonics, spoken-word poetics and hip-hop bounce, but now the tone is darker. This is hangover music, complete with uncomfortable introspections into depression, failure, sex and death courtesy of one of one of indie's best lyricists.
Because 13 Was Just Too Awkward of a Number...3 Very Honorable Mentions
Not since The Shape of Punk to Come has a band so consciously attempted to expand the parameters of the hardcore genre and succeeded. By combining a continual push forward in the songwriting department with brilliant production work, courtesy of Dälek, Paint It Black have breathed new life into the sore and tired lungs of hardcore punk. The Philly four-piece don't just tear through songs anymore, but establish moods, intersect aggression with melody and utilize feedback like it's another instrument. This just may be the shape of hardcore to come.
Three other albums I had on repeat this year were Echoes of Harpers Ferry's Never Forget
, Disfear's Live the Storm
and Polar Bear Club's Sometimes Things Just Disappear
- Oxford Collapse - John Blood
- Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - Dead Right
- Constantines - Our Age
- The Cool Kids - Eighty Eight
- Death Cab for Cutie - Your New Twin Sized Twin
- Static Radio NJ - Green Hoody
- Be Your Own Pet - Becky
- Girl Talk - Shut the Club Down
- Lil Wayne - A Milli
- Alkaline Trio - Calling All Skeletons
- Bears - Wait and See
- Belle and Sebastian - Sleep Around the Clock (BBC Sessions)
- Calexico - Two Silver Trees
- Clipse - Big Dreams
- Human Highway - The Sound
- Vampire Weekend - The Kids Don't Stand a Chance