Fair Warning (for the third time): This is going to be a looonnnggg post! To see last year's Chris vs. Rolling Stone Battle click here. To see 2006's entry click here.
Huppa! Third time makes it tradtion! 2008 is winding down and once again I find myself in the ring with the granddaddy of music tabloids. Click here to see the actual Rolling Stone Magazine's Top 50 Albums of 2008. For the handful of people who like to keep count of these kind of things, I had heard, purchased, or otherwise obtained 17 of the albums on the list. A few instant messages later and Indie Maven Sean came through in the clutch with an additional 14, as well as a few albums not on the list he thought I should pay attention to. So an extra special thanks to him as I indulge my list-fetish and dive into the convoluted waters of what will once again be sterling examples of completely uninformed opinions. Just like last year, I'll follow this up with my own list of my Favorite Albums of 2008.
'Nuff said, let's get going. Reviews are in order of rank, from Rolling Stone:
1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science: Everything has been amped up on the follow-up to 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain. The songwriting's better, the sound is deeper and more cohesive, and the whole things works really well as an entire album as opposed to a collection of tracks. Punk, funk, indie rock pop and soul all strung together with smart, passionate lyrics. I think before I liked the idea of TV on the Radio more than I actually liked the music; Dear Science has completely changed that. This is a tremendous record, and one I have no problem occupying the top spot.
2. Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Dear America: Put aside, for the moment, your love of Bob Dylan (I know, it's hard). Should a series of outtakes, live versions and demos be considered for an Album of the Year? It's hard, but I put bootlegs and outtakes in the same vein as live albums and greatest hit packages - by their nature they become automatically ineligible for any End of Year list. I love Dylan, and if anything this latest edition to the Bootleg series emphasizes just how strong a lot of his most recent output has been (Dylan's Modern Times wasd Rolling Stone's top choice last year). This is a great album, but its natures condemns it, and I have to take it off the list.
3. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III: There's no denying, even if you're not a hip-hop fan, how great the production value is on what I'm assuming is Lil Wayne's third release. Likewise his vocal stylings - the melodies and rhythms used for the vocals are unique and refreshing. Too bad the actual words that are coming out are absolute garbage. I thought the whole "I'm Great/Bling Bling/Sex Sex Sex" thing was about played out in hip=hop and rap. Apparently I was mistaken. I'm sure millions of people love this stuff, but I'm not one of them.
6. Santogold - Santogold: I don't know if this is a fair comparison to make, but Santogold for me fits in the same mold as artists like last year's RS #1 pick, M.I.A. A mix of world music with a heavy emphasis on dub and reggae. She's got a good voice, and an interesting way of blending the different styles of music she works with together, but I'm not a huge dub fan, and prefer her straighter, pop-oriented stuff. And that is one ugly album cover!
7. Coldplay - Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends: I listened to the new Coldplay at least 5 times in the past month. I still can't remember any of it. I feel pretty bad about this - I like their first album Parachutes a lot, and there are swaths of A Rush of Blood to the Head that I think are great. But whenever I try to play this or their previous album X an Y (or something like that) I just keep waiting for "Yellow" to come on. And this was the 7th best album of the year?
8. Beck - Modern Guilt: This is my favorite kind of Beck music - heavy on the melancholy and chock-full of subtle yet intricate arrangements. A collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse brings the requisite funk and bass, but everything, including the upbeat single "Gamma Ray" is infused with a sadness and weariness that makes Modern Guilt perfect for quiet, rainy introspection. I think this is the best album he's put out in years.
9. Metallica - Death Magnetic: Look. I'll be the first to say that Metallica are a bunch of whiny divas who have been consistently shooting themselves in the face ever since taking their "stand" against Napster (and arguably causing even more illegal downloading of their music out out sheer spite). And I completely understand those people who refuse to acknowledge the band's existence or ever pay for any of their merchandise again out of principle. But the fact remains (as I wrote here) that Death Magnetic is the best Metallica record in over 15 years, and despite its myriad issues (tinny production, "The Unforgiven pt. III") I love it - it makes me feel young again.
10. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend: Is it really possible to admire something, even if you don't actually like it? That's the case with Vampire Weekend, whose African-inspired rhythms and New-Wave sensibilities I appreciate and respect for its individuality, even as I move to hit the Fast Forward button more often than I like to admit. It never leaves my iPod, but it never really gets played, either. On a completely different note: Does anyone really use the Fast Forward button any more? I usually just hit the Next button.
11. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes: The question "What does modern Appalachia music sound like?" can finally be answered. Aren't you glad? You should be, because Fleet Foxes are one of the best things to come out of 2008. Focusing on vocal arrangements that border on the hymnal, Fleet Foxes bury their pop hooks in a folky blend that sounds great on record, and is amazing live. Where everyone and their mother is showering in the influences of Europe and Africa, it's refreshing to hear an American tradition so lovingly embraced.
12. Guns 'N Roses - Chinese Democracy: Axl Rose hires dozens of musicians over 13 years and the result is a bloated, over-the-top homage to the music that was popluar, well, 13 years ago. That being said, I think Chinese Democracy is at least as good as the bloated mess that was the Use Your Illusion set. Rose goes all over the map with different styles, and shows he can still write a hook that sticks in your head for days ("Better"). It's all dated, sure, but fun nonetheless. And I firmly believe that anything that features Buckethead is worth the price of admission.
13. Blitzen Trapper - Blitzen Trapper: The happy go lucky, feelgood creamy 70's throwback of the hour? Mebbe so, but after a few "meh" listens Blitzen Furr's exuberance grows on you. Little beeps and woodwinds creep around the edges of songs, and a good time is had by all. Am I supposed to think that big, bushy fur trappers make this music, or is it just the album name that's making me think that? 'Cause that's what I think about - a bunch of ragged Neil Youngs sitting around a campfire singing together. With some hot coffee.
14. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cardinology: I don't know if Cardinology is any better or worse than Ryan Adam's other albums, either solo or with the Cardinals. I just know that I can take or leave Cardinology's mix of Neil Young chanting ("Magick") and easy country/gospel. It's not bad, but between some of his older stuff and the double album Cold Roses I think I have all the Ryan Adams I need.
15. The Black Keys - Attack & Release: Everyone told me I needed to listen to The Black Keys. Their mix of blues, funk, and rock was just what the doctor ordered. They're all over movie soundtracks, and they mixed it up with Danger Mouse, who already made his presence known on this list with Beck. So I picked this up along with an earlier album and I'm at a loss as to what all the fuss is about. It's okay, the production's in your face and everything's in place, but quite frankly Attack & Release leaves me a little cold. Every couple of weeks I come back to it to see if I like it any better. I don't. However, their earlier album Thickfreakness is pretty cool.
19. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah: Part 1(4th World War): Man, I love Erykah Badu. In a world where we're constantly besotted by one-name wonders like Beyonce and Rihanna, it's the quiet ones like Badu (and Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott and others) who really step up and move the genre forward. New Amerykah is Badu channeling George Clinton and like all the Parliament/Funkadelic albums, you have to sidestep some crap to get to the gold. But the gold is great, and songs like "The Cell" and "Master Teacher" make the trip worthwhile.
21. Kaiser Chiefs - Off With Their Heads: The Kaiser Chiefs do a really good job of channeling early XTC and the Punk/New Wave that was so popular in the late 70's. After stumbling a bit with their second album, Off With Their Heads brings everything up a notch, and feels more like a cohesive album than a series of singles. There's nothing as great as "Everyday I Love You Less and Less," but on the whole this may be a stronger record.
23. Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst: Solo album by the Bright Eyes guy? I never really got into Bright Eyes until their last album, and this one feels like it warrants a couple more listens before I pass any kind of judgment on it. More of a lyric record than a music record, Oberst has a storyteller quality reminiscent of Bob Dylan that I don't want to like, but do. It comes across really well on "Get-Well Cards."
24. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals: I've been hearing about Girl Talk left and right from every hip podcast and Internet talk show for the past year, but never heard anything more than 10-second snippets. Greg Gillis takes dozens of songs and mashes them up into massive funk/hip-hop party jams. Using everything from the latest R&B and Rap to Faith No More, Twisted Sister and Metallica, my jaw dropped the first time I heard his new "album" Feed the Animals. Maybe it's because I've been so underexposed to mash-up as a genre, but I think this is incredible stuff. If I have any complaint, it's an unfair one - I'd like to see Gillis or someone take this brand of music and use it fro something more lofty than the background to a slammin' party. Regardless, I love this record.
29. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago: Rolling Stone once again drops the ball. Not because For Emma, Forever Ago is a bad album; it's really good, as a matter of fact. But it was self-released last year (in fact, it made Pitchfork's Best of in 2007). So like the Dylan record, I can't in good conscious allow it to be on a 2008 list. All that being said, Bon Iver put out a beautiful, sad album that feels cold and warm at the same time.
30. Duffy - Rockferry: There's a 60's vibe that feels fresh on Duffy's album. The press compares her to Dusty Springfield, which feels warranted, so if you like the young siren music that seems to be pouring out of Great Britain (Duffy's Welsh), this might be right up your alley. Everything is crafted with a pop precision, and her smokey voice insinuates itself around the chord progressions instead on just belting its way through, a la Amy Winehouse.
35. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!: I always tend to think of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as the poor man's Tom Waits, which is really unfair to Nick Cave, who's been putting out singular music for over 20 years (although the cover to Dig...looks suspiciously like Wait's Big Time). Moving away from the sordid and soiled tales or murder and death that have brought him his fame, Did, Lazarus, Dig!!! might be the best record he's ever put out. Full of churning guitars and crushing percussion, this is an album to play loud on hot, humid evenings after a couple of ice cold beers. This has been on constant rotation since I got it.
36. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive: Every year I "discover" a band that I immediately love. It may be right before or as they explode, or it may be years after the fact, but every year it happens. This year it was The Hold Steady. If you told me a year ago I was going to flip for a band that sounded like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band filtered throught the rage and chaos of youth in the 21st century, I'd laugh in your face and tell you to fetch me another beer. The you would have played me Stay Positive, or 2006's Boys and Girls in America, and I would have cried, put my arm around you, and bought you a beer. "Lord, I'm Discouraged" is quite possibly the most beautiful song I've heard this year.
37. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip: I already wrote about this album in detail back in May when it was released. I liked it then (with the glaring exception of "Corona Radiata") and it holds up pretty good now. I don't think it comes close the brilliance of Year Zero, but considering it was initially offered free as a "thank you" to the fans, I'm certainly not going to complain. And there are plenty of rockin' tracks like "1,000,000" and "Letting You" bringing the Trent Reznor awesomeness.
38. Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line: String-laden pop that feels British, even though I understand they're from New York. Second track "Each Year" is pretty fantastic, undulating from happy to melancholy with each glassandi of the synth strings. It may be that I'm under the spell of the year-end, and the coffee and new-found ability to breathe through my nose again are making me more susceptible to this stuff, because The Rhumb Line is coming off as an affecting piece of pop that I'll be playing more of in the coming weeks.
41. AC/DC - Black Ice: Did you think AC/DC retired? After listening to Black Ice, don't you think they should? Everyone and their brother is hailing this as a return to form after eight years, but after listening to the first three tracks it sounds like a bunch of old men who are afraid to turn their amps up. Even turned all the way up it still sounds soft. For years AC/DC have been putting out variations of the same record and I've been completely fine with it. Until now. Guys, it's time to retire gracefully into the sunset. The Razor's Edge was the last "good" record, and we'll always have Back in Black. Thanks.
43. Nas - Untitled: I may not ever listen to it again, but I can appreciate and respect the way Nas weaves his personal life stories into a commanding delivery that never sacrifices its soul for commercial success. I'll take this over Lil' Wayne and its ilk any day. Actually, scratch the first sentence - songs like "Hero" and "Louis Farrakhan" have an immediacy that emphasizes the underground, political nature of the songs. Any rumors that Nas was no longer relevant are premature.
44. The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely: Maybe I was a lone voice, but I thought the first album by The Raconteurs was awful. Not only awful, but pointless - a mundane, pedestrian version of The White Stripes, with none of the vinegar. Well, Consolers of the Lonely doesn't have a whole lot of bite to it, either, but the songs are a lot better and the album as a whole feels more of a group effort than an attempt to sound like Jack White's other band with some bass.
45. Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward: Ooh, yes! Fuzzed-out punk that sounds like it was recorded 25 years ago! This is music that needs to be played loud, and may also require head shaking and at least one attempt to shoot alcohol out of your mouth like a fire hose. Man, the guitars snarl. I may have just fallen in love with lead singer Jemina Pearl, who reminds me of a nasty Belinda Carlisle when the Go-Go's were a hardcore punk band. If I tried to kiss her she'd hit me over the head with a beer bottle, then make out with me when I was passed out and bleeding on the floor. Frickin' awesome!
47. Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping: I bought Skeletal Lamping the day it was released based off of how much I liked last year's insane Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Bad idea, as Skeletal Lamping feels like a bunch of odd leftovers and ideas that never coalesce into actual songs. What was inspired and avant-garde last year feels a little forced this year...maybe I'm not the target audience for what Kevin Barnes is trying to sell, but that's not excuse for throwing all of your excesses on disc and calling it an album.
49. Hot Chip - Made in the Dark: Electro! By the time I got to the third track, "Ready For the Floor" I just wanted to jump up and shout "Electro!", then immediately pop-lock and body-rock. Of course, I'm 35 years old, about 25 pounds overweight, so I suspect I would have looked like David from the UK version of The Office. So instead I sat down and tried not to let anyone see me shaking my rump in my chair. Really, this is silly music, but fairly innocuous and fun if you turn your brain off.
50. No Age - Nouns: After listening to the first 10 seconds of No Age's new album Nouns, you'll be reminded of My Bloody Valentine. In a good way. Keep listening and shades of older Sonic Youth will start creeping in. The things will settle down into a comfortable blend of the two. The whole "wall of noise" thing can be horrible if not done just right; fortunately, these guys do it dead right. I'm not always in the mood for this kind of music, but when I am, Nouns is a great one to pull off the shelf. Definite headphone, though - I don't know if I would catch all the nuance with it blaring through car speakers.
Whew! I'm sure there are plenty of comments and statements made in the above reviews that will piss off fans - screams of "unfair!" and "you just don't GET IT!" can't be far over the horizon. Please, fire away in the comments. Overall, I'm actually surprised by how much I liked out of what I reviewed. In a year where John Mellencamp made the Top 5 (no way was I reviewing that one), Rolling Stone managed to turn me on to a couple bands and performers I'll be keeping an eye on in the future.
Which in the end is really the point of lists. To find things you may like, and find out what things you don't like.
Next up I'll bare my pitiful soul and list mt favorite records of 2008. Yes, there will be an inordinate amount of Metal records on there. No, it won't be nearly as long as this list.