2008's Top 11: Because Cutting One Out Proved Too Difficult

by Jono Russell

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11. Joshua Radin -- Simple Times

The first I -- and I'm guessing many others - heard of Josh Radin was during a surprisingly sad conclusion to an episode of NBC's Scrubs. His song "Winter," when combined with the script, packed the sort of emotional punch rarely seen on TV; especially in 20-minute sitcoms. The problem with his first full length, We Were Here, was simply the curse of repetition. The other nine cuts just sounded too much like (and not as good as) "Winter."  Simple Times is by no means a radical variation on the Radin formula: it's still a guy with a guitar that, for the most part, is singing about falling in love and/or having his heart broken. Rinse and repeat. But there's maturation here that makes it, on the whole, much more interesting. Perhaps that's a result of a devastating break-up that Radin kept awkwardly referring to during a live set in London, perhaps due to two charming duets or perhaps it's the kiss-off-ish "You Got Growing Up To Do." The song sees Radin's vocal lose the characteristic raspiness, albeit briefly, in favor of a loud (by his standards) delivery of: "The best thing I can give to you / Is for me to go / Leave you alone / You've got growing up to do." Regardless of whether the ex-lover has, Radin certainly has -- and the result is an immensely listenable album.

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10. She & Him -- Volume One

I wanted to hate this, I really did. Perhaps that was one way of getting back at actress Zooey Deschanel for subjecting me to the train wreck that was the movie The Happening.  But instead of failing miserably (like another actress-turned-musician this year), Deschanel's collaboration with folk troubadour M. Ward was unexplainably addictive.  There's a certain beauty in the simplicity of the songs, the earnestness with which Deschanel delivers them and the understated arrangements that seemed designed for the era of AM radio, not iTunes and mp3s.  It's not flawless: at times it struggles to keep your attention, but on the whole this is the surprise hit of the year.  The best part is that the title suggests more to come.

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9. Cut Copy -- In Ghost Colours

Dance is by no means my favored genre, so although some have called In Ghost Colours "generic"' and basically said it's a re-treading of a well-worn path, I'm including it anyway. Even if there's nothing groundbreaking about it, it's so deliciously hook-filled and fun to listen to that, in my books, it's one of 2008's best. It's one of those discs that is as suited for headphone consumption as it is as dance floor accompaniment -- or even inclusion in EA Sports games. Its strange but catchy blend of rock and electronica have made it, at least in some circles, a critical darling (including at one site that I'll attack before this list is through) and it's not hard to see why. There are layers of complexity that don't become immediately apparent, as the first time round it's likely you're too busy dancing.

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8. Los Campesinos -- Hold On Now, Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

Two albums in one year? That's something out of the ordinary, unless your name is Ryan Adams. British indie outfit Los Campesinos didn't suffer the way Adams' output has when racing to get LPs out the door. Both Hold On Now, Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed provided the perfect antidote to the emotionally draining albums of the year, with a playful exuberance that saw their debut labeled by Drowned In Sound as the "best British indie debut since (Belle & Sebastian's) Tigermilk."  High praise indeed.  As with Adams there's a certain arrogance about it all: on their best track, "You! Me! Dancing!", it takes well over a minute for the intro proper to begin.  But by the time it's in full swing -- complete with hand claps, endearingly off-key boy-girl harmonies and, erm, glockenspiel -- you know this is not only the catchiest song of the year but also a much needed breath of fresh air.

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7. Of Montreal -- Skeletal Lamping

Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? was my favorite album of 2007.  It was a work that needed to be consumed as a whole in order to be fully appreciated: it's a fascinating journey into the slightly schizophrenic mind of Kevin Barnes after a break up, culminating in a 12-minute musical exorcism and a rebirth as fictional character Georgie Fruit.  The seemingly impossible task of a follow up took less than a year and is not a disappointment.  The listing of 15 tracks is somewhat deceptive, as Skeletal Lamping is essentially a long string of non-related musical passages with mid-song tempo and key changes the norm. The need to be enjoyed from start to finish is even greater here, as this is truly an eccentric epic of a record.  There's just one thing in indie rock that's weirder than Of Montreal's studio albums: Of Montreal's stage show.

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6. Death Cab for Cutie -- Narrow Stairs
Death Cab for Cutie sees Los Campensinos' 90-second intro and raises them a further three minutes.  Then, convention be damned, chooses "I Will Possess Your Heart" as the first single from Narrow Stairs. On first listen you're unsure whether to be creeped out by Ben Gibbard's character (we'll assume it's not Ben himself) earnestly detailing a plan to win over a girl he's stalking. It's a minor shift from the reminiscing of summer dalliances that peppered both Transatlanticism and Plans. The lyrical content is much darker than the aforementioned records -- most tracks have an element of sadness attached -- but the result is an emotionally rich collection of songs that Death Cab is still one of the best acts around. The track "Grapevine Fires" sees Gibbard's lyrics paint a vivid picture that few could in just four minutes.  The music ain't half bad either.

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5. Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes is to mountain ballads as The Decemberists have been to sea shanties. From the moment I heard "White Winter Hymnal," I was hooked: it's the Shins with rich and warm vocal harmonies that, without wanting to sound too hippie, take you to another place. From the hauntingly beautiful "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," which concludes with "I don't know what I have done/I'm turning myself to a demon", to the devastation of the death recounted in the final track ("Oliver James washed in the rain no longer"), this self-titled debut is effortlessly captivating and, at the same time, cathartic.

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4. The Mountain Goats -- Heretic Pride

I've been saying it to anyone who will listen for a while now: John Darnielle, Mountain Goats frontman, is the new Dylan.  His voice is just as likely to grate with some as Dylan's does, he's surely one of the most prolific songwriters in existence today and his lyrics, for the most part, are extraordinary.  Earlier albums of Darnielle's sound like they were recorded on equipment manufactured in the 10th century but Heretic Pride is far from low-fi -- it's without a doubt the most musically sophisticated Goats album yet.  But musicianship has always been secondary to Darnielle's absorbing lyrics and this effort is no different, even though there's been a shift away from the auto-biographical tales that made The Sunset Tree so powerful.  That is, unless Darnielle really has been encountering swamp monsters and serial killers.  Either way, Heretic Pride still makes for a richly rewarding listening experience months after release.

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3. Ben Folds -- Way To Normal

It's about this point in proceedings that I feel I should relinquish my membership to the Church of Folds (buying deluxe editions of Folds' albums costs almost as much as Scientology membership), as I've left his latest solo outing languishing at number three. But that's more a sign of just how good this year has been for music than a drop in quality on Folds' part. Way To Normal has received a mixed reaction among the music press -- Pitchfork spent much of its review slagging off the man himself, saying the 42-year-old sounds "silly, sad and incredibly smug."  Which, coincidentally, is how I imagine most Pitchfork reviewers.  Many have incorrectly seen this is a break-up album -- and yes, the song "Cologne" could well document the end of Folds' third marriage -- but much of that territory was covered in Songs For Silverman. Way To Normal is not as serious but no less witty, as Folds is back to his piano pounding form of yesteryear. Lyrically it’s disappointing -– "Hiroshima" in particular -–  but it’s fun in a way that Silverman wasn’t.  Another "antidote" record.

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2. Amanda Palmer -- Who Killed Amanda Palmer? If you’d told me at the start of the year that the lead singer of The Dresden Dolls would top a Ben Folds album, I’d probably have thrown my shoes at you. I got this simply because Folds was listed as producer -– after all, Shatner’s Has Been was a surprising success –- and, after a rocky start, it didn’t leave my stereo for weeks.  It’s a strange album, with a bizarre mix of styles that leave you uncertain of just what Palmer will do next. Exhibit A: A (presumably) ironic cover of "What’s The Use Of Wond’rin," featuring St. Vincent, is followed by a jaunty, but unbelievably catchy, tune about rape, abortion and Oasis. But it’s the softer moments that make this a true gem: Palmer, armed with just a piano and unrelenting honesty, shows herself as an immense songwriting talent.  More, please.

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1.  Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago I stumbled on Bon Iver by accident, really.  A friend couldn’t make it to one of their gigs so, at the last minute, obtained a copy of For Emma, Forever Ago to decide if it was a band worth seeing live. On first listen I was intrigued enough to commit to going but more out of curiosity than anything else.  The album, on first listen, seemed nothing more than a guy and his guitar, albeit one with a fragile falsetto, wailing into below par recording equipment in a remote cabin.  Just how would that translate on stage, at a venue known for its noisy crowds?  From the outset it was clear noise wouldn’t be a problem.  The crowd was completely mesmerized from start to finish, as Justin Vernon bared -- and this is no hyperbole -- his soul.  Suddenly everything about For Emma, Forever Ago made sense: Vernon’s heartbreak and loneliness captured sublimely in nine varied tracks, with lyrics that somehow simultaneously manage to tear you apart and uplift you.  In a year in which I lost an immediate family member, this has proved an unwanted but ideal soundtrack.  Vernon reminds us that even in the depths of despair, there’s hope for redemption.  It just so happens, the vehicle used to deliver that message is an unforgettable work of art.
 



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