Best of 2008 - Adam's picks (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Best of 2008

Adam's picks (2008)

staff picks

Adam White is a news editor and reviewer here at, he also provides our weekly Navel Gazing recap. Follow Adam at his blog 2:59 or at Twitter. - ed.

Roll on Oblivion

Looking at my picks for 2008 I realize that I've had something of a breakthrough. When I started writing for Punknews nearly 10 years ago I was simply a music fan, not a critic. If I was to have written a year-end list in 1999 it would likely be heavy in releases from Epitaph and Fat Wreck (and probably packing a good deal of already-past-its-prime third wave ska). To the reader it would have clearly been the work of a fan, not someone with a legitimately critical voice. In the ensuing years I fretted over finding that tone and projecting a more professional and universal vision. I probably ended up recommending some technically excellent records that I personally had no emotional attachment to whatsoever. Sorry about that.

This year the numbers betray any sense of objectivity on my part. Of the 20 full-lengths I've recommended below you'll find a whopping 15 Canadian bands and merely 5 from the States. While I maintain that Canadian independent music is in the midst of a rather remarkable renaissance, I can't hide the fact that CBC Radio 3 and Exclaim have had a disproportionate influence on my discoveries. Below you'll find an astonishing seven bands from Toronto. If you count all of Ontario there's 10. There's three from Vancouver. When it comes to labels I'm no better, with three releases below from Arts & Crafts, three from Jagjaguwar, and two from Deranged. My record of the year is from my longtime favourite band and if you can't guess what it is then you haven't been reading the site for very long.

What's all this mean? I think it means I'm thinking like a fan again. The internet, and services like eMusic in particular, have allowed me to chase my interests as far as I choose to. I'm not limited by what's on the shelf at the record store or how much I want to shell out for mailorder. To be a music fan in the new digital world is to embrace your myopic vision, to build your own one-person niche that intersects with others in new and surprising ways.

I like it better this way.

Who Rocked the Casbah in 2008

20. Teenage Bottlerocket - Warning Device
January 8 on Red Scare Records
I consider Teenage Bottlerocket to be the greatest active example of an archetypal punk rock band. Their influences are classic, rooted directly in the Ramones, and yet they never sound like revivalists. It's fast, fun, dumb and the attitude's perfect. The band never falls into `70s anachronisms nor do they make the mistake of co-opting currently trendy ideas. If decades from now friends are still getting together to play punk music, it's going to sound a hell of a lot like this.
19. Statues - Terminal Bedroom
June 10 on Deranged Records
Statues have grown immensely in the past few years, and this collection of recent singles is an absolute blast. Their straight-up garage punk sound's become increasingly quirky, with shades of the Jam continuing to shine through. There's a new element emerging that's actually reminds me of the Futureheads: a subtle hint of Gang of Four's angularity mixed with nicely harmonized group vocals. It's a sound that wears incredibly well on their short, engaging songs.
18. Tranzmitors - Busy Singles
September 23 on Deranged Records
Tranzmitors are finally starting to grow into their hype. This singles collection showcases some remarkably strong tracks, with songs like "Bigger Houses, Broken Homes" and "Teenage Tragedy" eclipsing anything that the group, or even their predecessors the New Town Animals, have ever done. The band's earlier work was enjoyable but not quite worth the attention, but if they continue to release tracks like these you're going to see a lot of people rightly take notice.
The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir
July 7 on S.A.P. Recordings
Calgary's Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir is ostensibly a blues band, but that isn't saying much. The band spends a good deal of time stomping through swamps and dragging their roots music kicking and screaming through the muck. It's been said before, but the Agnostics' gruff vocals and aggressive tendencies really puts them in a class with Hot Water Music and their satellites on No Idea. I can't yet say if this album tops their last, but regardless, they're one of the most engaging and fun bands going.
16. Plants & Animals - Parc Avenue
March 25 on Secret City Records
I pick up on one of these quirky indie folk acts every year. One's usually enough, as I'm certain that listening to this stuff exclusively would turn you into a filthy hippy. Plants & Animals are filling the slot in my playlist occupied by Akron/Family a year ago. Weird and wonderful sounds surround some quality pop songwriting, and the band keeps things fairly tight without spinning out into outright jam band territory. There's a rather great rock'n'roll act buried in here somewhere.
15. Born Ruffians - Red Yellow & Blue
March 4 on Warp Records
Born Ruffians are what one of those aforementioned indie folk bands would sound like if you filtered it down to all the good stuff. Tight and quirky, moving from a charming little sing-along on one track to a ball of nervous energy on the next. Red, Yellow & Blue's such an engaging little record, packing enough well-constructed and memorable tracks that it allows what's otherwise a fairly typical three-piece indie rock band to punch well above their weight.
14. Arkells - Jackson Square
October 28 on Dine Alone Records
If any band had to work for my love this year it was Arkells. I'm quite a bit bored by some of the other Sprinsteen-inspired punk acts making the rounds, so that bit of hyperbole in their press releases was setting them up for a pass. Furthermore, this band was introduced to me with songs that found vocalist Max Kerman doing a really spot-on impression of the Constantines' Bryan Webb. That's sacred territory for me! However, Jackson Square turned out be a great record with some of the catchiest songs of the year. I very well may have just looped the track "John Lennon" for a week. Once they emerge from the shadow of their influences they could grow into a truly great band.
13. Broken Social Scene Presents Brendan Canning - Something for All of Us
July 22 on Arts & Crafts
How did this happen? I had enjoyed Broken Social Scene but I hardly considered myself a huge fan. Yet when I look at my recent playlists I find that their collective membership has quietly taken over. To say nothing of Feist, as she conquered the world on her own accord, I've been heavily listening to Apostle of Hustle, last year's Kevin Drew record, and this year's stellar offering from Jason Collett. Brendan Canning's solo effort snuck in just recently but I'm simply enthralled with songs like "Hit the Wall" and "Churches Under the Stairs." This is a record you can relax and zone out to.
Black Mountain
12. Black Mountain - In the Future
January 22 on Jagjaguwar
I didn't quite like this record at first but it's gotten under my skin since. Black Mountain's thunderous brand of fuzzed-out, retro stoner metal is still far more clever and self-aware under the surface than it lets on. Despite a brilliant pair of opening tracks, it took me a good while to unwind In the Future's charms from its heavy, droning mass. For an album so purposefully and relentlessly epic, it took the sweet little tune "Stay Free" to turn me around and force me to keep digging. I'm glad I did.
11. Ladyhawk - Shots
March 8 on Jagjaguwar
Ladyhawk completely clicks for me on an aesthetic level, to the point where I'll overlook shortcomings in the band's records because I so enjoy the atmosphere they project. The band owes a lot to `60s psych bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and garage innovators like the Seeds. They're schooled in the type of heavy, melodic rock that Neil Young and Crazy Horse popularized. And while their roots go that deep, their aesthetic and attitude owes much to Dinosaur Jr. (and by extension the Replacements). I'd love to see this band release three records a year, warts and all, because they could pull it off without becoming tiresome. There's plenty bands I love that I wouldn't even ask that of. (excerpted from my full review)
10. FemBots - Calling Out
September 16 on weewerk
There's a class of independent music coming out of Canada that's so frustratingly genre-agnostic and post-everything that to even bother labeling it is an exercise in futility. FemBots are often lumped into some quasi-fictitious indie-folk genre, and that's an absolutely uncomfortable fit. The duo of Dave MacKinnon and Brian Poirier once toured as members of the the Weakerthans and that connection's far more revealing. The groups share an aesthetic if not a worldview. FemBots are more ambitious and experimental than the Winnipeg favourites, more of an ongoing studio project than a traditional band. They're content to toy with melancholy atmospherics and layers of sound. Their sights aren't set on writing anthems, but rather on the loving craftsmanship that comes with record making. (excerpted from my full review)
Elliott Brood
9. Elliott Brood - Mountain Meadows
June 24 on Six Shooter Records
With Mountain Meadows, "death country" three-piece Elliott Brood have created a record that completely bridges their lively Tin Type EP and the sinister depths of their last record, Ambassador. They've reintroduced a sense of life and dynamism to their work while staying true to their lyrical and thematic outlook. Their acoustic roots are in full display but their sound isn't bogged down by nostalgia or revivalism. Four songs into Mountain Meadows, Elliott Brood croons "What are you down about?" After this effort? Not a heck of a lot. (excerpted from my full review)
8. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
July 14 on Vagrant
The Hold Steady's greatest asset is the universe they've created. I rather dislike the characters that populate Craig Finn's songs, but I believe in them. I don't listen to Stay Positive and dwell on it musically as much as it draws me in with its stories. I find myself associating the townies and wayward adolescents with people I've known. I find myself frowning on their lifestyle and ambitions because at some point in my youth I chose not to walk that path. That the record has that power is remarkable. The hero worship paid to the Clash and Dillinger Four is just icing on the cake.
7. Deerhunter - Microcastle
August 13 on Kraky
I don't feel qualified to say anything about this record. Deerhunter has this ability to render critics' words into incomprehensible mush and I'm hardly a qualified enough wordsmith for the task. The band's mix of psychedelia, ambient noise, garage rock and indie experimentalism sounds much more focused here than it has in the past. Microcastle is captivating and haunting. It promises to continue to unveil and endear itself over the next few months. An important and potentially influential release.
Vivian Girls
6. Vivian Girls - Vivian Girls
September 30 on In the Red Records
Vivian Girls run headfirst through 10 lo-fi rock'n'roll songs in 20 minutes. There's a momentum and urgency to their delivery that even the most obvious Ramones followers on this list have a hard time maintaining. While the monotone vocals recall `70s punk and the female harmonies twee-pop, the record turns out much greater than the sum of its parts. Taken all together (which isn't much of a chore) it's as if the album consists of one 20-minute shoegaze track. Fascinating stuff.
5. Jason Collett - Here's To Being Here
February 5 on Arts & Crafts
The second showing from a Broken Social Scene regular on this list, and the one that sounds absolutely nothing like that band. Jason Collett's new solo outing sounds like it could have emerged from the late `60s or early `70s. It's grounded and folky, entirely radio-ready in a universe where the radio still cared. There's, of course, elements of Dylan and Sprinsteen shining through here, but it's Collett's amiable songwriting that keeps me coming back. Hardly a challenging record but one that fits like a comfortable old sweater.
Parts and Labor
4. Parts & Labor - Receivers
October 21 on Jagjaguwar
Parts & Labor took a curious turn with Receivers, as the noise punk act, for the most part, toned down the maniac percussion and walls of distortion they were known for. It may just be the new drummer, but the band's entire approach has been overhauled and refined. This record instead finds the Brooklyn group writing songs that are at the same time unabashedly poppy and sweepingly epic. Parts & Labor has always sounded remarkably triumphant and puts me in the best of moods, so this this remains the top band on my "riding into glorious final battle" playlist.
3. Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers
March 4 on MapleMusic Recordings
This is a hauntingly beautiful record. There are songs in this collection that can make me cry. I've actually found myself skipping tracks because they're too sad. There are some parts of this album that fill me with national pride ("You're the Great One, I'm Marty McSorley") and others disgust ("Oh, Canada"). With genuinely moving lyricism backed by a dynamic voice and performed with rootsy perfection, this comes very close to what I'd consider a perfect album. Absolutely essential.
2. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
October 7 on Matador Records
Hardcore was a phase for me, and it lasted all of a summer and left me with a pile of records that in the end I found absolutely joyless to listen to. I respect the genre and hold the bands at its roots in high regard, but there's some fundamental disconnect in my brain which renders it unable to hook me in the long term. Perhaps I'm just not that angry a person.

Fucked Up, however, exists on an entirely different level. I enjoy the band immensely because they have a sense of whimsy. Their work fully embraces the ridiculousness of the genre without making a mockery of it. That's the central, intriguing balance the group maintains. They're seemingly unconcerned with the usual trappings, politics and rules of modern hardcore, and they're fully willing to have some fun while exploring beyond its borders. Fucked Up is, at their best, a gleeful, epic celebration of excess.
The Constantines
1. Constantines - Kensington Heights
April 15 on Arts & Crafts
There's a very Canadian notion that underscores the Constantines' entire body of work. While most of us live in cities, urbanites by birth and habit, we take great pride in portraying ourselves as rural creatures. We've romanticized the pioneer, that ideal of the rough hewn, nature-conscious, working-class figure that's at the heart of the Canadian myth. We'd like to think that deep down we're all Voyageurs out there in the hinterlands, even if we're only ever pulled north on summer weekends to fight off Muskoka black flies. There's a lingering sense of loss, a worry that we're sacrificing some nobler heritage for the comforts and tensions of city life. Perhaps by adopting the weary yet wise demeanor of this (largely fictional) woodsman, we'll at least keep our wits about us. Thematically, this dynamic has absolutely everything to do with the Constantines.

As the Constantines matured they've incurred something of a backlash. There's scattered criticism that as the band moved on from their Fugazi-weaned origins they grew too comfortable. If Kensington Heights proves anything, it's that while Fugazi is hardly lost, they are fighting for stage time with Young, Lightfoot and Cohen. That's the dynamic. "Waiting Room" is too tense for cottage country and alienated kids on the subway probably don't blow off steam to the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." The Constantines straddle both worlds, but those looking for tension and rebellion are going to come up short and will undoubtedly find the record overlong. There's a tipping point where one becomes confident enough in their worldview that they stop having to nervously scream about it, and the Constantines crossed that line two records ago. Your mileage will vary if that's what you're seeking. For me? It feels like home. (excerpted from my full review)

Honourable Mentions

2008 was a bountiful year and 20 slots isn't nearly enough. This year saw two fantastic singles collections from Jay Reatard, who seems hell-bent on turning the indie scene's ear onto a long-running wealth of garage punk sounds. The same could be said for Gentleman Jesse & His Men, who channeled the pop instincts of the Exploding Hearts with their recent record. The Slackers remain the most consistently great ska band of their era. Destroyer is ever the artist even if his latest record didn't hook me like his list-topping previous. The Raveonettes were prolific this year with quality singles and a full-length. Nine Inch Nails is probably the only mainstream alt-rock act to fully leverage the new digital reality. Dillinger Four's C I V I L W A R didn't hook me at first but gets better every time I spin it. Finally, a pair of Mint Records acts brought the goods, as we saw strong outings from Novillero and the Pack A.D.

Video Proof

Brendan Canning - Churches Under the Stairs Arkells - Oh, The Boss Is Coming!
Constantines - Our Age Kathleen Edwards - I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory

Looking Forward

In May of 2009 I'll be married, and that's such a blinding light on the horizon that it's hard for me to think of much else. What I do know is that there are records on the way from A.C. Newman, Neko Case and the Joel Plaskett Emergency. The ever-delayed Rancid record probably won't reclaim past glories, but I'm as curious as anyone. Outside of that I'm quite content to let the current take me where it will.

Happy New Year's everyone. Punknews exists because of your contributions and participation and I sincerely thank you for making us a part of your lives.