2008 has proven to be a fairly conservative year as far as album purchases go. I’ve found my taste to be much more scrutinizing and it takes more than just hype to get me excited about an album. As a result the amount of purchases I made declined heavily, which is good for me, but bad news for Atomic Records, Milwaukee’s greatest record store, which is closing this February and WMSE, Milwaukee’s greatest radio station, which is sputtering on its lack of public funding. It is sad to see Atomic go, and I can’t imagine a city without it, or WMSE (which, thankfully, seems to be here to stay, despite the financial dry up).
But the truth is, while Atomic was a beautiful hole in the wall, there was little in stock I wanted, and anything I could ask them to order I could simply do myself. And lately, some bands aren’t offering much in the way of tangible stock, offering mp3 downloads only. Atomic did its best to offer more than just music, but an experience, featuring in–store live performances and other off–the–cuff thrills, but it just wasn’t enough to counter AmazonMP3’s Daily Deals.
This year many Top 10 lists put She and Him, Bon Iver, and the Fleet Foxes at the top indicating the beardier the better. I tend to disagree. My most cherished albums this year have been imported from around the world.
But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because I run my Top 10 a little differently. It is much more personal. I list albums that defined my personal 2008, not simply the albums released in 2008. There is a lot of great old music that deserves to be honored more than just the year in which it was released. So you might see releases from last year or even releases from 30 years ago. The only discrimination is that it has got to be interesting. So, without further ado…
Download: Laser Beam
This very loud Japanese punk metal band turns up everything past eleven: the volume, the noise, the fuzz and speed, but thankfully they don’t do it on every track, which balances nicely between the need for a bitchin’ tune and the need to give us a break every once in a while. Where the album falls short the band makes up for in their live performance, which provides a healthy dose of awe and lust.
Artist: Adult Swim
Album: Ghostly Swim
Download: The whole album. It’s free!
Adult Swim has found a lot of success in their silent bumpers, and this radical idea has carried through the rest of their choices, deftly pairing appropriate music to whatever message they were carrying out. The entirety of the program’s efforts, from the shows they choose (though that may be on the decline in recent seasons) to their marketing ideas to design and implementation has been quite solid. So Adult Swim packaged up a few of their great electronic tracks and released them, for free, under the appropriately titled “Ghostly Swim.”
This Danish band impressed me with their skilled arrangement and musicianship including piano, flute, violin, choir, brass and much more. Their music creates pastoral, picturesque landscapes, but sometimes the album goes from soaring to overblown, trying too hard to drive home the point that this is supposed to be beautiful. Nevertheless this album merits purchasing some high quality headphones to examine the layers of instrumentation heavily applied throughout.
Artist: Tim Fite
Album: Fair Ain’t Fair
Download: Big Mistake
I saw Tim Fite open for Man Man this year. Before the show I did a little research and found out that he had found popularity with hip hop, which honestly had me rolling my eyes. I don’t find white guys singing ironic hip hop to be funny anymore (and it’s been a looong time since I’ve thought it was). But when he took the stage there was more sincerity than irony in his lyrics and his live performance truly sold it. There was storytelling, audience participation, and animation. It wasn’t just funny, it was fun.
Artist: Streetlight Manifesto
Album: Somewhere in the Inbetween
Download: We Will Fall Together
Streetlight Manifesto started with former members of Catch 22, most importantly vocalist Thomas Kalnocky. Their first album, “Everything Goes Numb” came much too long after Catch 22s “Keasbey Nights” and, while it showed a promising return to form, it was only above mediocre. Then, several years later Streetlight released a new album that ended up being a controversial redux of “Keasbey Nights”. The music was more polished and skilled, but the edge and rawness was reduced. It left people wondering, simply, why? Finally this year, a decade after the Kalnocky found infamy his band has released “Somewhere in the Between”, a record to prove that he’s still a punk-ska powerhouse. I have to admit that while I’ll always be a fan of third wave ska, lately I find less and less of a reason to listen to it these days. All of my once favorite bands are getting harder and harder to stomach. But while “Somewhere in the Between” wears on a little too long and a little too hard there is enough solid instrumentation and sing–a–long/scream–a–long to keep this one in my rotation without skipping over it out of disdain.
Album: A Mad and Faithful Telling
Download: Blessing in Disguise
DeVotchKa found success with their inclusion of “How it Ends” in the faux–indie “Little Miss Sunshine” and while the hype may have ultimately driven their sales, ultimately the music outshone the movie. “A Mad and Faithful Telling” was their follow up, though while it contained equally impressive musicianship I can’t say it tugged on the heart strings quite so skillfully. On the flip side, though, the band continues to feel quite driven and that power shines through.
Album: Teeny Shiny
Download: Warp, Back Spin
The Japanese noise punk outfit are able to maddeningly throw a bunch of shit in a box (whistles, sirens, impossibly fast drum kicks, camera clicks, off–key yelling), shake it around, and come up with something that is amazingly both structured and not annoying. Normally something like this would be bound to throw a person instantaneously into a bad mood, but every time I listen to the album I’m ultimately happier by the time the last track ends.
Artist: Langhorne Slim
Album: Langhorne Slim
Download: Rebel Side of Heaven
Langhorne Slim mixes together equal parts country, folk and Americana to make, quite possibly, the catchiest album of the year. A lot of people are turning towards Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes for their helping of folk, but neither of them seems as genuinely pleasing as Mr. Slim (I think it’s the lack of beard).
Artist: Desmond Dekker
Download: Pickney Gal
Desmond Dekker was one of the original godfathers of ska, waaay back before punk existed (back then it was called Rockabilly). Before Reel Big Fish, Operation Ivy, and Fishbone. Before The Specials, UB40 and the English Beat. Before Elvis Costello, Bob Marley, and Toots and the Maytals, there was Desmond Dekker. He did it first and he did it best. It’s hard to get people to take first wave ska seriously because it has been so thoroughly tainted by the Americanization of it, but Dekker is an under appreciated master of soul.
Download: Nasirli Eller
In 1974 Turkish musician Selda was writing folk songs mixed with hints of psychedelia, progressive rock, Bollywood, and numerous other styles. The album bounces around between genres, but the strength of this Turkish diva’s conviction and voice is more than enough to hold it together. I don’t really know what she’s saying, but she became an instant favorite in my regular rotation.
Artist: Animal Collective
Album: Strawberry Jam
Download: For Reverend Green
It seems odd to include this album, since it was released and critically acclaimed only last year and their newest album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is pending release mere days from now, but this album seldom dropped from my rotation through all of 2008, so it’s good enough to mention again this year. “Strawberry Jam” swings between pumping dance beats to drug–induced audio rambling offering up some strange moves that are hard to predict, including one track where the tune briefly skips as if there’s a scratch on the CD. But I couldn’t get “Peacebone” to die, no matter how many times I listened to it on repeat. My only tiny complaint is that the albums last track is not enough to close it out.
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