Kanye West did not make the cut for my top ten albums of the year, though Graduation probably got as much play on my car stereo as everything else combined. It’s not because it’s a bad album, in fact I think it’s a great pop record, maybe even a great album in that it actually gave me a couple things to think about – the line from “Stronger” that titles this article, for instance. I glanced at the top ten lists of friends, peers and idols and the things that struck me were 1) its all good music, mostly and 2) I don’t care about any of it. So many bands exuded charm enough to win our hearts, but our hearts are just as saleable as the bands are. We are looking to be seduced, we want instant gratification and retribution. We want Britney Spears to suffer and Kanye West to lose his shit at an award show, but when it comes down to it, I don’t think we really care if any of it actually happens. It is energy dully wasted.
I looked at groups like The Besnard Lakes and Band of Horses; they sound great when they are on but dissipate like ghosts the second they pass. I look at LCD Soundsystem, a project that takes its ironic stance so seriously that I don’t think it’s ironic anymore. It is taking the marketing strategy and twisting it into a Moebius strip we endlessly ride, pausing only to check our sunglasses in the mirror. I looked at Deerhoof and Electrelane and well, I set myself a limit at 10, so assume Friend Opportunity and No Shouts No Calls are on standby waiting for The National and Of Montreal to have those nervous breakdowns already. Radiohead, eh – I think I got my money’s worth on that one. I liked my review of the Arcade Fire album better than the album itself.
There were lots of records I loved for a moment and then forgot about moments later, and that is a sorry excuse for love. I went through my potential contenders and whittled it down to not only records I loved, but records that actually mattered, that I thought had some sort of existence outside of the vibrations issued thoughtlessly into the air. Subsequently, here is the realest shit of 2008.
10. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger (Lost Highway)
There are at least two people who came back around to Ryan Adams this year; myself and Ryan Adams. Easy Tiger is a great record, with his navel gazing encoded into the best example of Glam Country around. It’s as he was a wolf pup adopted by George Jones and Marc Bolan and raised to be a resolution of them both. It is maudlin as hell, but Adams knows how to climb that mountain of maudlin with only a denim jacket and vintage guitar to lift aloft at the summit and shout “guitar solooooooo” for all the world to hear.
9. The National – Boxer (Merge)
I think the first album you hear by The National is the greatest album you’ve ever heard, and I had heard Alligator before this one (my #1 of 2005) so I was already inured of their missives to aching white collar heart. Boxer is every bit as good, and will serve as the gateway drug for everyone’s once-again new favorite band.
8. Chicago Underground Trio – Chronicle (Delmark)
Jazz in the contemporary practice tends to exists on one of two forms: a bastardized amalgam of other popular music (like it always has been) or a pleasant but often tiring exercise in reverence (ditto). Chicago Underground Trio issue a clear fuck-all-that on this album that gleefully leaps of the ledge to which Medeski, Martin and Wood furtively cling, go more postal than any post-rock combo around. Chronicle is music of the spheres in the vein of Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Coleman and, quite possibly, a groundbreaking record for the future paths of jazz.
7. Bill Callahan – Woke on a Whaleheart(Drag City)
Bill Callahan is hopefully the first of many to drop their obscurest project names (his was Smog) and reinvent the singer-songwriter in their own image. The raspy voiced that once sang about “Prince Alone in the Studio” has emerged sage and weathered, practically reciting rather than singing on the first record under his own name. I feel like all these songs are love songs, but they are complicated, fraught with mixed emotion and hesitancy and grad gesture, just like real actual love is. The record dense, multifaceted, even fractured at places, but each song unravels as their own unique piece of art. It’s less a set of songs as it is an exhibition.
6. James Blood Ulmer – Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions(Hyena)
This one came with a bias, in that I love New Orleans and the weak platitudes that came form everywhere grate like pity always does. James Blood Ulmer, perhaps better than anyone, expressed outrage about it, and through his cosmic expansion of the blues, the outrage against the world and the way it operates. This record is a wrecking ball swinging wild, which is OK, because everything in its reach needs a good smack.
5. Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Nation Lidkercow)
Blitzen Trapper gets saddled with a sounds-like-Grateful-Dead tag which they deserve, but it bears reminding that they also sound like Wilco, Captain Beefheart, Paul McCartney, Pavement, Nick Drake – in other words, they are everyone. Now I am not one to consider the mirror an example of great portrait, but this scrappy Portland manager to build an incredible beast out of our culture’s spare parts. Their band is like the best mix tape I’ve never made.
4. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?(Merge)
Maybe it’s telling about our milquetoast times that the most dangerous record I heard this year did not come from church-burning Vikings but an ambisexual disco spazz who lost his marbles living among them for the dark season. Kevin Barnes unravels and tightens up over and over on this masterpiece, pushing every cliché into his lo-fi sonic cuisinart. The epic “The World is a Grotesque Monster” is the sounds of our collective freakouts issued in clean post-punk order – even Rolling Stone had to agree, putting it at lucky number 18 - but it’s the line from “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider “- I need a lover with soul power, and you ain’t got no soul power was the best nugget of protest against the machine I heard this year, regardless that it came from a total bliss-out Casio-grade roller skating jam.
3. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
So what if it’s dad rock? Father knows best, you little sniveling bastards, and while you are living under my roof, you’re going to do things my way. Now go get me some of that weed I know you have hidden in that messy room of yours. Wilco backs up my general claim that they are the best band around with going gloriously mellow on this note perfect record, leaving wanky lyrics behind for direct wit and candor. Don’t just stand there, go get me that weed already, before that awesome guitar part in “Impossible Germany” comes on.
2. Common – Finding Forever(Geffen)
Hip-hop is so engrained in the marketplace that a body has to retire or threaten to do so just to have any kind of bullshit arc to his character. Not so for Chi-Town’s other favorite son Common. The most beautiful thing created this year is “Forever Begins” where Kanye uses his powers for good. This song is implausibly uplifting, crafted from a rib lifted Paul Simon, punctuated by Syreeta Wright’s “why”, capped off with gravitas form Common’s dad. And every other song on here is just as good. You can keep your Jay-Z’s and Nasii and whoever you got jockeying for a non-existent executive position and let people like Common cut through the crowd and make some enlightenment happen.
1. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga (Saddle Creek)
I’ve always had a soft spot for Bright Eyes, but he finally came back slinging stones with the jawbone of an ass on Cassadaga. The hands-down best song of the year is “Four Winds” where he upends the prostrated worship of Bob Dylan 2007 was plagued with by revisiting Highway 61 with a stolen grader. He puts war, and sadness and poetry and sneers and flies and blood and holy books into a bonfire taller and grander than that of burning man, where the nation’s bright eyed children are called to cast all that is wrong with the world into its consuming blaze. It howls like the wolf pup referenced in #10 without the tempering agents of adopted fathers. Instead it is desperate, convulsive and real. The whole album is this good, piling up every conceivable take on all his influences, calling them out when need be and sitting atop the pyramid he’s erected, blinking in the sun.