Jesse is a news editor and reviewer here at Punknews.org. He also runs the own short fiction website Bitter Press. You can follow Jesse on Twitter. - ed.
Some years just pass you by without notice. Sure, you can get five or six albums you really like and can fudge the rest. But Jesus, 2008 was one for the record books. Twelve of my top 20 were albums I was actually anticipating. I was waiting for twelve albums. By past years, you can tell I usually don't pay enough attention. Not so for 2008. It was a year of expectations met and the buzz returning to real bands who play real music. It's years like this that make me happy to live in the time I do. Now let's get on with the show.
Top 20 Albums
#20. Dead Meadow - Old Growth
Dead Meadow's a divider. Some people really dig on their grooves, and other dudes get bummed. For this album, the group dropped their second guitar player and their newly adopted spacey sound and got back to their roots.
#19. mc chris - mc chris is dead
mc chris LLC
There are some clunkers on this album, but "pizza butt" and "reese" teamed up with the skits (feat. Jon Benjamin) are gold. And it's motherfuckin' mc chris, the only nerd rapper who spends 3/4 of his time rhyming about drugs and dirty sex.
#18. Ida - Lovers Prayers
Husband and wife bands are usually lame, but Ida proved that they weren't by traveling deep into the Appalachian mountains to stay at and record at the house of Levon Helm. You know, one of the best drummers ever, played with the Band? No? Regardless, a touch of roots were applied to these sweater wearin', harmonizin' folkies, and it was much deserved.
Melvins destroyed everything with (A) Senile Animale, but this album was a bit scattershot. Still, Melvins make music no one else has the balls to, but if I was going to recruit Big Business to be my rhythm section, I'd try to use them better -- like on their first album with them.
#16. Jason Collett - Here's to Being Here
Arts & Crafts
This guy used to play with some big Canadian band, but now tries to be Bob Dylan. That's a bit harsh 'cause he's quite good at it. Collett has a knack for taking classic chord progressions and turning them into original and new songs -- just like all our favorites. A stellar release that fades a bit after the first 20 listens, but a great record to come back to.
#15. Triclops! - Out of Africa
Future-punk supergroup from the Bay that can shred circles around your favorite prog bands. Exactly what you'd expect to be released through Alternative Tentacles.
Tee Pee Records
Long-haired Swedes got a tickle to play some old hard rock from the late '60s, then smoked too much weed and forgot they actually lived in the aughts. These guys wail. Bluesy, earthy and just enough cowbell to make you start looking for your denim jacket and aviators.
#13. Cale Parks - Sparklace
Cale Parks is by far the best drummer who plays in an indie rock band. The dude is like Animal the Muppet when he's pounding on stage for Aloha. So a subdued electronic album that spans new wave and Peter Gabriel-esque instrumentaion was not expected. It was, however, appreciated.
When Nick Cave was supposed to have made a "rock" record with Grinderman, he secrety wrote a bunch of ass-kickin' songs that were too good to not use for Him & the Seeds. Loose, jangly, hard-edged and raw, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! really is a departure for Cave, but one just as welcome as his work as a screenwriter.
Kill Rock Stars
Deerhoof really know how to pound out a hard riff. It's true. If they took out the weird stuff, they'd play two shades away from the aforementioned Graveyard. Rhythmically complex, well-thought out and brilliantly conceptualized, Offend Maggie pulls more from singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki's Japanese influences in the music, and, well, the language the album is sung in. I never really dug 'em before, but this album has turned me around.
#10. Fucked Up
- The Chemistry of Common Life
What a solid album. Pushing aside all the wacky arrangements and auxiliary instruments, Chemistry is a solid fucking pop album played a bit too loud and hard. Their actual riffs sound like Black Flag trying to cover the Ramones. Layer everything on top, and you've got a conceptual hardcore art project from six record nerds who're pushing the boundaries to push the boundaries. At times, the band acts like an '80s hardcore minstrel show. You can be a hater if you want to, but it's more fun to be in on the joke and laugh along with the band.
- Fuck All Y'All Motherfuckers
Chris Owens doesn't make one move without thinking it through all the way. So during the spoken word intro (performed as a guy announcing the band on a stage to a bunch of jeering fans) when the speaker announces Lords on Jade Tree Records when the album was dismissed by the label (subsequently released on the up-and-coming Blackmarket Activities), Owens was well aware of the misstep. The album, then, is almost like a challenege to the old label and the listener. Core member and drummer Stan left the group before the album was completed, leaving Eric from Lickgoldensky to fill in and changing the tone of the music. Regardless, Owens is a mad scientist, and his pissed-off brand of noisy, thrashy riffage is one to be reckoned with -- especially if you're on his bad side. You might just get punched out outside a club.
Jon Pfeffer. What can I say about this kid? He's a madman. His first album as Capillary Action was mainly recorded all by him with the help of his friends. Then he did an ear-blistering audio-collage album that often paired grind next to jazz interlayed with breakbeats. So Embarassing, then, feels like the first fully realized Capillary Action album. Pfeffer lives for juxtaposition and contrast, but instead of thorough programming he's cooked up a full backing group with strings, horns and other weird instruments to samba their way through metal riffs and elevator muzak. It's really indescribable. But at the same time, it's a masterpiece by a young artist.
#7. Crooked Fingers - Forfeit/Fortune
Constant Artists / Red Pig
Eric Bachmann has to be one of my favorite songwriters ever. Archers of Loaf's White Trash Heroes is an album that still sounds far off and futuristic today, 10 years after it was released. So it's fitting that after exploring the glossy, empty, neon future of indie rock, Bachmann turned to the past and the casual flow of the singer/songwriter era. His recent affair with Spanish music has made his new band's latest album sound like Bruce Springsteen playing traditional Spanish music with the produciton team from David Bowie's Berlin period. It's traditional, original and may be hard to "get" at first, but damn does it pay off. Special nod to "Your Control" for being the single of the year.
When the Sword released Age of Winters, I was ready, willing and able. Bands I had met on the road prophesized of their forthcoming, praising them like traveling mystics preaching the gospel of warrior shamanism. And it was a pretty fucking good album. Then the backlash came. Everyone ripped on the band for being derivative riff-heavy metal, a somewhat popular trend at the time. Preparing to hate their new album, I gave it a chance. Boy am I glad I did. The Sword cut the low end, took the shine off the production and made a bigger, faster, harder and more complex album. They amped up their stoner riffs with some solid guitar thrashin', and threw it in a stewing pot of '70s prog-rock for that extra umph. It is truly a cerebral album -- albeit, one that you'll find yourself headbanging to in your car.
Four kids from Columbia graduate, start a band. They dress like weiners, play Baroque and African-inspired indie rock about wealthy New Englad characters. And it's really, really fucking good. I don't give a shit about what anyone else says. The album is a perfect debut of 10 well-crafted songs. It's the perfect companion to anyone who grew up listening to Paul Simon's Graceland and the Talking Heads. And while I know most people don't want to hear it, but strip away the African and classical flair, and the group sounds like their a late '70s punk band slowing down for their growth album.
Arts & Crafts
This band kills me they're so good. It's indescribable. I've never played them for someone and had them go "meh." Kensington Heights is the first album from the band that shows their wide range. Their debut self-titled album was more of a subdued rocker; Shine a Light was a raw, kick in the pants from some singer/songwriter punks. Tournament of Hearts was a mindblowing experiment in minimalism. This album sees the band attack full-on rockers paired with folksie finger-pickers and even a few ballads. It's a message to the world: "Hi world, we're Constantines. And we play a few different types of songs, just like they used to do."
Some groups defy classification. 31Knots is definitely one of those groups. But their mix of post-hardcore, noise rock and other buzz-word genres have culminated with an added bonus for Worried Well: a dash of piano pop and cabaret. It's this newfound dramatic flair that's tied together their previously difficult albums with an air of approachability. It's hard to describe how this album works, but I'm damn sure it does.
This is one of those albums I've been waiting a very long time to hear. A riff-heavy, boozy metal/hardcore tornado with a sense of humor and a dedication to Led Zeppelin gets serious and writes a 45-minute opus about shark attacks on the New Jersey shore in 1916. The album gives Jon and Nat a chance to show off their powerhouse rhythm section chops, while fairly new guitarist Aaron shreds the hell out of the extended instrumental sections. Back in the ancient days of Greece and Rome, art wasn't a voluntary thing; you were inspired by a Goddess known as a Muse and your participation in the creation was beyond your control. This is how this album was created. The writing process was labored and slow, allowing the group to write and release Navigating the Bronze concurrently. The album tour saw the band playing the album live in its entirety every night. 43 or so nights later, playing the album isn't always going to be fun. But then, artistic intent outweighs environments, and if that means you have to play the album to 20 people in a small duplex basement in Indianapolis, you play that album. It's a stunning achievement that's worn out the group a bit. This is one of those albums that changes the trajectory of a group forever.
It's hard to write a flawless album. Albums can be "perfect," and yet have single flaws that are overlooked. Maybe it's a slightly tinny production. Perhaps it's a single trumpet that plays one note you think could be a touch flat. Perfect describes an overall state -- it's a euphoric descriptor, one that glosses over the nicks, scratches and bumps. Flawless, however, is a word that means "being entirely without flaw or imperfection." Lie Down in the Light, friends, is a flawless album. From start to finish, not one note is missing, out of place or glaringly played wrong. End of story.
This year was really the year of the metal/hardcore crossover band. Not only was my top 20 full of these albums, but so is my honorable mentions list. Indian
pulled out a killer doom album on Seventh Rule
, and Racebannon
put out a thunderous, riff-heavy beast. Sweet Cobra
reissued their amazingly fantastic heavy skate-metal album from the year before, and Saviours
put out a decent album too. On the throwback side, Eli "Paperboy" Reed is rocking the soul scene like it's 1963 and King Tuff
was burnin' the midnight oil with some early '70s rock and roll. Blackstrap
made us all nostalgic for early '90s shoegaze. Sigur Rós put out a real album that sounds like real music, and Dillinger Four
released a solid album after six years silence, one that lives up to their previous effort.
- Saviours - Narcotic Sea
- 31Knots - The Breaks
- Akimbo - Rogue
- Vampire Weekend - Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Lie Down Here (And Be My Girl)
- Indian - Second Death
- Melvins - The Savage Hippy
- Jolie Holland - Mexico City
- Rough Parade - Blackstrap
- Bonnie "Prince" Billy - For Every Field There's a Mole
- Light Yourself on Fire - Love and Death
- Circles - Deacon
- Ida - The Killers, 1964
- The Sword - The Frost-Giant's Daughter
- Jason Collett - No Redemption Song
But What About... (The Hater Speaks...)
- King Tuff - Connection
- Lords - Fucking with Fire
- Sigur Rós - Inní mér syngur vitleysingur
- Cancer Bats - Hail Destroyer
- Cale Parks - Every Week Ends
- Constantines - Trans Canada
- Crooked Fingers - Your Control
- Dead Meadow - The Queen of All Returns
- Eli "Paperboy" Reed - Take My Love with You
- Capillary Action - Bloody Nose
- Fucked Up - Son the Father
- Triclops! - March of the Half Babies
- Graveyard - Submarine Blues
- Deerhoof - Snoopy Waves
- Medusa - Body Count
Here's the thing: I get it. I understand that the band conjures up the same kind of energy and affinity for '50s rock 'n' roll culture that Bruce Springsteen did in his heydey. I understand that. But I have issues with this album. If you strip away the image, the styling, the cultural references and overlays, you're left with basic mid-tempo four-chord boring modern punk music. Now, it's understandable that Born to Run's Spector-ish production might be a little intimidating. There are a lot of bells on it. But Max Weinberg didn't play the same drum pattern for every song, 15 to 20 beats a minute difference in tempo. And Bruce didn't let Stevie Van Zandt play the same crappy guitar parts over and over. And Bruce built his songs on basic chord progressions. It's hard to say this (maybe it isn't), but Gaslight Anthem is just another gimmick band. Replace the tattoos and Chuck Taylors and white Lincolns with Balkan music and you've got Gogol Bordello. Replace it with Irish instrumentation and you've got Flogging Molly. These bands are all just flavors of the week. Now I think these kids may be onto something, but we've got to be honest here: It's unimaginative, repetitive, and derivative. And hey, if we're all shouting "It's just like Bruce Springsteen" as a selling point, why don't we just go back and listen to Bruce Springsteen. The man has at least six albums worth of solid material. There's no need for a half-assed tribute if we've got the original at our fingertips.