MAGNET’s Top 25 Albums Of 2008

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25. BRIAN ENO AND DAVID BYRNE | Everything That Happens Will Happen Today [Todomundo/Opal]
Given the intellectual firepower and eclectic tastes of this duo, you might’ve expected their second collaboration (fifth if you count the three Talking Heads LPs) to be an abstruse, inhospitable Afro-beat adventure. Surprisingly, what they delivered is a set of big-hearted country and gospel-tinged pop songs. The record’s uplifting vibe isn’t just folky; it’s downright folksy, not to mention wondrous and strange and beautiful. Sure, Byrne’s inherent peculiarity and Eno’s penchant for atmospherics are on display, but both are in service to a sound entirely unexpected and new for the pair: traditional American music. [everythingthathappens.com]
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24. CLOUDLAND CANYON | Lie In Light [Kranky]
This German-American duo coyly acknowledges its image as a neo-krautrock band; the opening track of sophomore album Lie In Light is titled “Krautwerk,” after all. Yet nothing here suggests Simon Wojan and Kip Uhlhorn are the detached calculator operators of yore. Lie In Light is an animalistic howl into the abyss, whipping up a storm of instrumentation wherein feedback generates wind gusts and keyboards suggest birdcalls from a dense jungle of noise. Mogwai and Spiritualized used to flirt with this kind of stomach-churning sonic disaster a decade ago; Cloudland Canyon does the apocalypse now. [kranky.net]
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23. THE LAST SHADOW PUPPETS | The Age Of The Understatement [Domino]
Teaming up two piss-and-gripe rockers with the London Metropolitan Orchestra sounds like one of those horrible ideas only MTV could dream up. But when said rockers are Artic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and the Rascals’ Miles Kane, and they happen to be channeling Ennio Morricone and Scott Walker, the results are as exhilarating as they are charmingly absurd. Over galloping rhythms and cinematic strings, Turner and Kane trade brotherly barbs as tremolo-ed guitars snake through an intoxicating din of mariachi horn bleats and rumbling timpani. Like a good spaghetti Western, Understatement is gleefully over-the-top, coolly intense and surprisingly affecting. [dominorecordco.us]
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22. HELIO SEQUENCE | Keep Your Eyes Ahead [Sub Pop]
Speak softly and carry big sticks. This Portland, Ore., duo’s fourth album is fluent in the romance language of ’80s British mood pop (refer to any of the trenchcoat-wearing, angular-haircut groups represented on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack) but swaps out feeble synth percussion for the raw power of drummer Benjamin Weikel. An arena-rock octopus in a sea of bar-band amateurs, Weikel provides perfect counterbalance to frontman Brandon Summers’ gossamer guitar jangle and keyboard bloops. Keep Your Eyes Ahead is a shining example of how to go retro while still moving forward. [subpop.com]
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21. PORTISHEAD | Third [Mercury/Island]
9_30Who could’ve foreseen that one of the year’s best albums would be the work of one of the most reclusive (and unproductive) bands of our age? Or that said band would’ve been wraith-like survivors of the maligned trip-hop era of the mid-’90s, a period that seems light years away culturally and musically. After a decade-long hiatus, Portishead emerges triumphant with a twisted, nervy record of borderline disintegration; one that hovers between fractious atonality and beguiling beauty, one that reestablishes Beth Gibbons as one of the most startling, disconcerting vocalists of this or any other decade. Above all, Third is a quietly deliberate fuck-you to those who’d dismissed Portishead’s work as the overly smooth soundtrack to smug 30-something dinner parties. It’s a masterpiece of uneasy listening. [portishead.co.uk]
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20. VAMPIRE WEEKEND | Vampire Weekend [XL]
rec_vampire-weekendAny band flip enough to call its sound “Upper West Side Soweto” either has an amazing record collection with egocentricity to match or a complete lack of self-awareness. Or both. New York City’s Vampire Weekend represents the sound of four lovesick ex-schoolboys, Columbia grads with a penchant for chamber rock, Afro-pop and Postcard-era Scottish post-punk (listen to the guitars closely; Orange Juice or Aztec Camera, anyone?) and lyrics high on the fumes of their own cleverness and/or academic in-jokes. (“Oxford Comma” refers to the use of a comma in a list of three consecutive items.) Not exactly worldbeat but infatuated with the idea of it all, Vampire Weekend dropped one of the year’s best albums by assembling various Internet leaks in one convenient package: more songs about buildings and moods. [vampireweekend.com]
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19. WE ARE SCIENTISTS | Brain Thrust Mastery [Astralwerks]
This California-bred, Brooklyn-based duo plays ‘80s-inspired dance music for indie rockers who don’t dance, but what Keith Murray and Chris Cain really excel at are insanely catchy pop songs that deserve to be radio hits. (Instead, their tunes populate the soundtracks to movies, TV shows, commercials and video games.) There’s not a wasted moment on We Are Scientists’ second proper album, an 11-song collection that could teach a few things to the Killers and Franz Ferdinand. Sure, Brain Thrust Mastery sometimes sounds a little too much like Duran Duran or the Thompson Twins or Spandau Ballet, but closer inspection reveals Murray and Cain to be nearer in spirit to career-minded artists like Ween than the buzz-bin bands on your hipster friend’s iPod. [wearescientists.com]
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18. THE ROSEBUDS | Life Like [Merge]
The Rosebuds are led by a married couple, but the band’s fourth album springs forth like a bastard out of Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.’s Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have always lent a subtle Southern charm to their indie-pop anthems via sweet-tea melodies, call-and-response vocals and country-living lyrics about birds and wildcats. Life Like, too, incorporates old family tales of pine-forest wildmen and ruminates on a backyard fox, but this isn’t a folk album: It’s gently rolling shoegaze, moody post-punk and glossy Britpop, all commingling under one comfortable tent. In the process, the Rosebuds have evolved from catchy and cute beginnings to mysterious and sophisticated ends. [therosebuds.com]
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17. PARTS & LABOR | Receivers [Jagjaguwar/Brah]
It was only a year ago that we were busy singing the praises of Parts & Labor’s Mapmaker. Not a band to rest on its laurels, P&L continues on its path toward constructing the perfect post-apocalyptic pop song on Receivers. Unlike Mapmaker’s bite-sized anthems, Receivers stretches out its sonic squalor without stretching it thin or compromising its thunderous momentum. In addition to singer Dan Friel’s equally excellent solo album Ghost Town (also released in 2008), P&L has crafted another LP brimming with sweeping hooks and arena-sized choruses for those willing to look beneath its seemingly dissonant veneer. [partsandlabor.net]
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16. THALIA ZEDEK BAND | Liars And Prayers [Thrill Jockey]
Prophet, seer, sage, town crier. From Live Skull to Come to her current incarnation fronting a Bad Seeds-like combo, Thalia Zedek’s career has been one sustained litany of kicking against the pricks. In her ravaged, bluesy wail, you hear echoes of everyone from Janis to Patti to PJ, full of nuance and purpose as she gazes with disgust at the contemporary socio-political landscape while chronicling her own fears and shortcomings. The band matches Zedek howl-for-howl, a persistent, rhythmic throb spiked by abrupt upheavals of dissonance and leavened by an undercurrent of melancholy: intimate, yet cinematic. Pray for ’em all. [thrilljockey.com]
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15. R.E.M. | Accelerate [Warner Bros.]
rem115Thirty-five minutes. That’s all it took for these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers to resuscitate a 28-year career that had started to frustrate and anger even the band’s most ardent fans. Michael Stipe hasn’t sounded so pissed about the state of America since before the first Bush was president (lyrically, this is a very good thing), and what’s most striking about the music is that Peter Buck and Mike Mills seem to be having the time of their lives playing it (2004 predecessor Around The Sun was reportedly as joyless for them to make as it was for us to listen to). Accelerate isn’t perfect or even one of the band’s five best albums, but it does serve notice that R.E.M., like U2, has the potential to be as relevant and inspiring now as it was back in the glory days. [remhq.com]
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14. BON IVER | For Emma, Forever Ago [Jagjaguwar]
It’s a commonly held belief that pain often leads to great art. This certainly holds true for Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. Following a break from his band and his girlfriend, he holed up for the winter at a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin and recorded the most achingly beautiful album of the year. For Emma is murky and haunted, with Vernon’s otherworldly, heart-rending falsetto narrating a journey of emotional torment. Calling these songs cathartic is a vast understatement; the feeling displayed is so raw, Bon Iver is more akin to Vernon ripping off his skin and revealing what’s underneath. [boniver.org]
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12. BOSTON SPACESHIPS | Brown Submarine [Guided By Voices Inc.]
Woody Allen is a prolific auteur whose massive discography won’t be fully appreciated until long after he stops creating his art. Whenever Allen issues a sub-par effort (Celebrity, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion), the general consensus is that he has lost his magic and, at the very least, should self-edit more and release less. The same can be said about Robert Pollard. Since breaking up Guided By Voices in 2004, he’s put out upward of 25 records. While there have been some definite high points (From A Compound Eye, Blues And Boogie Shoes), they were often overlooked because of the sheer volume of stuff he did that was mediocre. So although Brown Submarine might not be a return to form as celebrated as Allen’s Match Point, you can make the argument that it’s Pollard’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona: a fun and entertaining effort that will never be mistaken for a masterpiece like Bee Thousand (or Annie Hall) but stands on its own as a great piece of art. [robertpollard.net]
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12. SILVER JEWS | Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea [Drag City]
rec_silverjews11Silver Jews has long been the craggy hermitage of David Berman, recluse poet/songwriter and Stephen Malkmus’ smart friend. This relatively isolationist arrangement began to change with 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers and Berman’s concurrent drug rehab/conversion to orthodox Judaism. With wife Cassie assuming a more prominent vocal role on Lookout Mountain, Berman sounds playful (“Party Barge,” “Candy Jail”) and loose, scattering his American-drifter narratives and lyrical cryptoquips over loping, “Range Life” country pop. Longtime fans may grouse about missing the cranky, solitaire Berman, but Lookout Mountain confirms it’s better when he deals you in. [silverjews.net]
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11. DR. DOG | Fate [Park The Van]
drdog_cover_final_select21On their fifth outing, these backward-gazing Philly boys aren’t exactly reinventing sliced bread. But by ditching the last vestiges of the reverb-drenched, lo-fi weirdness that gunked up their early albums, the quintet has finally boiled down its Beach Boys/Beatles/Band musical gumbo to its key ingredient: tight, honest songwriting. Alternating between co-frontmen Scott McMicken’s gentle piano reveries and Toby Leaman’s ragged-voiced Motown blues, Fate whips up a nostalgic batch of Americana-laced pop tunes. The familiarity might help it go down easy, but the deceptively simple melodies hook in without letting go. Comfort food rarely sounds this good. [drdogmusic.com]
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10. THE DODOS | Visiter [Frenchkiss]
Unplugged? Try unhinged. The Dodos—choirboy-voiced singer/guitarist Meric Long and tambourine-shoed Logan Kroeber (a Ewe-style drummer on trucker speed)—prove you can teach old instruments new tricks. On a dizzying album that crossbreeds the exotic animalism of Animal Collective with the acoustic-blues dalliances of Page and Plant, the San Francisco duo fucks up fretboards, dents drum rims and tromps through a rhythmic forest of seasick séances, twangy backwoods stomps and stormy, metallic-tinged flameouts. All of this happens within the seven-minute, shape-shifting “Joe’s Waltz,” an amp-straining mission statement and Americana music’s stairway to 11. [dodosmusic.net]
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9. TV ON THE RADIO | Dear Science [DGC/Interscope]
As the economy crumbled, wars raged on and 90210 returned, all TV On The Radio wanted to do was dance. In the two years since releasing the remarkable Return To Cookie Mountain, the Brooklyn indie rockers evolved their too-smart sing-along anthems into too-smart, funky dance-floor fillers, prolonging their impressive (and catchy) winning streak. From the stop-and-go guitar diddles of “Crying” to the profundity in guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone’s line “I’m scared I’m living a life not worth dying for” on “Red Dress,” Dear Science might be the most exquisite and enjoyable end-days soundtrack—for this leap year, at least. [tvontheradio.com]
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8. MATES OF STATE | Re-Arrange Us [Barsuk]
The negative reactions from some longtime Mates Of State fans to Re-Arrange Us came across like children in denial that their unhappy parents are divorcing. Just because Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel lost their audible smiles on their fifth album doesn’t mean it’s anything less than a second straight pop powerhouse. Opening up their closed-off drum and organ circles to a full suite of horns, strings and keys, the Mates found something deeper: a snapshot confessional of an entwined career/relationship in transition, but one still set to the same propulsive backbeat, for better and for worse. [matesofstate.com]
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7. FRIGHTENED RABBIT | The Midnight Organ Fight [FatCat]
How did Frightened Rabbit go from U.K. indie-rock upstart to author of one of the year’s top albums? Tiny changes: simple guitar melodies distilled more than single-malt Scotch; a quivering, mouth-filling brogue cracking at the edges with naked emotion; and sexually charged songs beating strong with a bleeding heart. (Thesis couplet: “You won’t find love in a hole/It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”) In lesser hands, lyrics as uneasily honest, direct and revealing as these could have been a deal-breaker. Coming from the brothers Hutchison, they are a revelation. [fat-cat.co.uk]
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6. SLOAN | Parallel Play [Yep Roc]
Insert a dad-rock joke here if you must—“parallel play” is a term relevant to toddler development, not to mention the band members’ own maturity—but don’t underestimate the agility and energy of the ninth album by Canada’s only hall-of-fame alt-rock group. Like cockroaches, Sloan will be around forever; like Teenage Fanclub, Sloan will continue to eat the young of other species of power pop, exposing trend-dependent bands’ limited skill sets. A product of the group’s four songwriters, Parallel Play is less a jumble of disparate voices—the singers’ harmonies alone bleed all over each other from one track to the next—than a coordinated, 37-minute movement through arena rock, psychedelia, Beatlesque pop and buzzsaw punk. It’s an impressive display at any age. [sloanmusic.com]
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5. THE WHIGS | Mission Control [ATO]
While the playing on Mission Control is too tight to conjure the sloppy majesty of the Replacements, when it comes to the Whigs, folks have been playing fast and loose with the Westerberg comparisons. You can hardly blame them, as the Georgia trio’s indie-informed meat-and-potatoes rock is a heady nostalgia trip for those of us who came of age in the halcyon years of alternative rock. Although it’s easy to imagine the Whigs honing their chops at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club circa 1987, the reality is just as compelling (and fitting): The Whigs got their start in the same Athens basements as R.E.M. and Love Tractor. [thewhigs.com]
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4. NO AGE | Nouns [Sub Pop]
More than just fuzzy flag-carriers for Los Angeles’ Smell scene, No Age solidified its position in 2008 as indie-rock nouveau riche thanks to Nouns. The duo’s first proper full-length is a relatively cleaner affair than the lo-fi rumblings it had sent forth in the series of EPs gathered on last year’s Weirdo Rippers. But that doesn’t mean its hooks were any less infectious or its noise washes any less bracing. Sweet and sweaty and even bruising at times, Nouns is the beautiful sound of two dudes finding a way to bring the warehouse and basement to us. [subpop.com]
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3. NADA SURF | Lucky [Barsuk]
rec_ucky1For better or worse, Nada Surf albums are often barely tinted windows into frontman Matthew Caws’ sensitive-guy psyche. From the young man’s angst of 1996 hit single “Popular” to the post-divorce wreckage littering 2005’s The Weight Is A Gift, Caws’ personal life is projected onto his songwriting with shaggy vulnerability and a choirboy’s voice. The mellow, softly glowing Lucky finds him calm and finally collected. It’s a sleeper album by Nada Surf standards, and it will (sadly) raise no eyebrows to assert that, with its delicate piano and chamber-orchestra strings, Lucky is the most well-arranged guitar-pop album of the year. But you don’t have to be Jack Nitzsche or Elliott Smith to recognize a recording so sublime as this. [nadasurf.com]
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2. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS | Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! [Anti-]
Clearly something has gotten into Nick Cave since last year’s Grinderman. Or, more accurately, something keeps coming out of him, since that side project’s raw grudge rock furiously launched Lazarus, an aptly named rebirth for rock’s dark knight. Equal parts bile and black humor, Cave’s return to the ever-energized Bad Seeds found him equally at home simmering through barbed, bluesy pop and raving like the smartest street-corner prophet. While most artists his age opt for the tribute circuit, Cave is still howling into the void for answers, and there wasn’t a better spokesman we sinners could’ve asked for in 2008. [nickcaveandthebadseeds.com]
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1. AMERICAN PRINCES | Other People [Yep Roc]
americanprinces_otherpeople1When a relatively unsung, jagged-edge power-pop band from Little Rock, Ark., takes a great leap forward, does anyone notice? Nobody’s buzz band, American Princes earned the crown this year for reinventing the retro-’80s wheel and bending it to their considerable songwriting skill. With its dewdrop guitar effects and dead-on Tears For Fears vocal forays, Other People borrows and steals from decades-old college rock. The album isn’t a Big ’80s theme park, however; co-frontmen David Slade and Collins Kilgore employ enough hot-wired pop/punk hooks and lonely-hearted lyrics to melt plastic. 2008 was rife with one-dimensional albums that paid homage to prescribed styles and offered mementos of life and love during wartime; only the fun, unflagging Other People sparked a true rock ’n’ roll flame. [americanprinces.com]

Q&A with American Princes

Written by Chris Barton, David Bevan, Miles Britton, Corey duBrowa, Neil Ferguson, Matthew Fritch, Kory Grow, Eric T. Miller, Fred Mills, Noah Bonaparte Pais, Matt Ryan, Matt Siblo and Bret Tobias

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