Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Listless: My Top Ten Albums of the Year

Without further ado (since I'm sorely lacking in "ado" these days), here are my top ten albums of the year (with a few mp3s scattered here and there like winter's gentle frost):

10. Okkervil River, The Stand-Ins
The Stage Names was a terrible album. Overworked and too clever by half, it was an album that thought writing a song where you just add one number to iconic rock songs with numbers in them (97th tear, 100 luftballoons, etc) would somehow create pathos. The Stand-Ins, however, is great. From the forgotten one night stand in "On Tour with Zykos" to the jilted boyfriend of a star actress (no Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in "Calling and Not Calling my Ex," the characters on the album have missed the party completely and now have spend their lives with the rest of us schlumps. When you're as self-conscious and literate as frontman Will Sheff, it's always going to be better to write from the perspective of the (relatively) losing end of the rock star-fan equation, because writing from the rock star's perspective, as he did on Stage Names, he sounded unconvincing and actorly.

9. Obsession, Various Artists
This psych compilation from Bully Records is the coolest. Featuring everything from Brazilian weirdoes Novas Bainaos to Turkish guitar shredders Ersen ("Gonese Don Cicegim") and Arif Sag, it highlights the insane wealth of music out there for fans of 60s and 70s psychedelic rock. Compiled by Mike Davis of The Academy Record Store in New York City, Obsession doesn't feel thrown together like so many other psych comps, where half the songs are foreign bands covering American hits.

8. The New Deal, Various Artists
I pretty much said it all here, but I still can't believe how good of a compilation this is. No DJ shoutouts, no throwaway freestyles over tinny beats, just one great rap song after another. Sure, this leans heavy on "hipster rap" and reeks slightly of Sparks and sweaty neon bandannas, but so what? With tracks as good as Wale and Brother Ali's "2nd Time Around" and Kidz in the Hall's "Cool, Relax," you can put neon shutter shades on me anytime (actually, please don't.)

7. Zilla Rocca, Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca
This technically isn't an album, but you could have fooled me. When you hear Zilla rhyme, something occurs to you: "Oh, so this is how great rappers sound, I had almost forgotten..."
The fact that a rapper this talented is also just a really cool and smart blogger is still kind of mind-blowing. Add the fact that all the other rappers on the mixtape, from Nico the Beast to 2ew Gunn Ciz to ASK? are all as good as Zilla and it seems almost unthinkable: a whole crew of great rappers unknown by the majority of rap fans? A sad of state affairs but one that can hopefully be remedied.

6. Saudade, The Hooded Ones
I downloaded this album like months and months ago off Saudade's blog, but, dumb me, I didn't start listening to it until now. They're from Portland, they play ambient/drone music reminiscent of Stars of the Lid and Grouper, and they're giving their album away for free--that's an embarrassment of riches. The song "Sleep's Walk" is painfully gorgeous, while the rest of the album is just plain gorgeous. 

5. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
For as many reasons as there are to hate Greg Gillis (that stupid Microsoft commercial springs to mind), there are just as many thirty second mash-ups he's made that trigger childlike joy in me. I can't help it--the guy keeps pushing my buttons. "Popping Bottles" and Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike"? "Throw Some Ds" and Aphex Twin's "Boy/Girl" song? It's a Pavlovian response, I can't help it.

4.Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak
I thought I was going to hate this album, but now I think it's the best thing Kanye's done since The College Dropout. Sure, the lyrics are pretty cliched, but emotions are real and raw and the songs almost uniformly catchy. I wish I hadn't found out that Kanye swiped the chorus to "Coldest Winter," my favorite song on the album, from Tears for Fears, but it's great nonetheless. I'm confident most rappers are going to learn the completely wrong lesson from this album ("the public wants more auto-tune, right?").

3. Grouper, Dragging a Dead Up a Hill
Liz Harris, where have you been all my life? Back when I was thirteen and idolizing scenesters in Smiths t-shirts, I could never have imagined such impossibly cool people listening to something so pedestrian as music with verses and chorus'. I figured they were listening to something like Grouper, something dark and beautifully vague, and too mysterious to come out and declare its intentions. If you can, listen to Grouper at work and see if doesn't turn your workplace into a strange and poignant place you've never been to before.

2. Valet, Naked Acid
Wow. This record is everything that's great about twenty first century psychedelic music. You've got your acid rock guitar workouts, your tape hiss symphonies, your mushroom-addled drones, your stoned nature walk ballad, your loop pedal junkie blues...This album is druggy and warped and perfect.

1. Vampire Weekend, S/T
Like the Strokes first album, I listened to this one over and over and over. Sure, it's made by a bunch of rich kids and the lead singer is a ham, but there's simply not a better collection of songs made this year. When it works correctly, pop music can temporarily transform your life, make it charmed and unique and bursting with possibility. During the first few weeks I was listening to this album, I had to go to a clinic to get my meds refilled because I had no job and no health insurance. Objectively, I wasn't in a great place, but inwardly, I felt as privileged as Ivy League kids with balls enough to declare Hyannisport, home of the Kennedy's, a "ghetto." That's the power of a great record.