2008 was a banner year for music around the Welle household. Well, it was for me at least. I don’t know that my wife listened to any music this year. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen her since summer ended…
Setting that issue aside for the moment, here are my favorite albums of 2008:
The Hold Steady: Stay Positive
These ex-Minnesotan rockers now stationed out of Brooklyn just keep getting better and better. Like Bruce Springsteen crossed with American Movie’s Mark Borchardt, singer/songwriter Craig Finn pens lyrics that examine waning youth, Midwestern adolescence, and defiant Catholicism and chemical dependency. Despite the fact that none of those themes has any personal resonance for me, I find my ears straining to catch the next great line out of my favorite rock lyricist (my favorite from this album was the logical conundrum, “If one townie falls in the forest, does anyone notice?”) Meanwhile, the rest of the band rocks along like the greatest bar band in purgatory. This was my favorite album of 2008. Everybody should own at least one Hold Steady album, and I hope that Barack Obama will make this vision a reality.
Fleet Foxes: S/T
I don’t know much of the backstory of this group, but judging from the band’s sound and appearance, five Appalachian hill people wandered into a time-travel vortex in 1911 and were transported into a 2008 Seattle recording studio. The songs are rustic, melodic, and otherworldly – strikingly pretty and familiar while remaining unconventional. The four-part chamber harmonies don’t hurt either.
Coldplay: Viva La Vida
Whether it be the momentous hype that heralded the album’s arrival, the pedestrian first single, or just nine years of Coldplay fatigue, I heard a few friends express a resigned ambivalence about this album. Whether the album is what they wanted is one matter, but I think it’s a confident step in a new direction for this great band. Producer Brian Eno seems to have really stretched them to take some of the air out of the songs and go for smaller, less obvious pleasures. Whereas X&Y felt like A Rush of Blood to the Head, only with a longer runtime, Viva La Vida is elusive, and rewards repeated listens. Song fragments dip in and out, and structures are much more untraditional. The title track is one of the odder hit singles in memory – a rock band putting out a song with only a string section and timpani, yet the song flies out of the speakers. (The excellent addendum EP Prospekt’s March only heightened my esteem for the album by showcasing the beautiful songs they intentionally left off.)
Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid
Yes, this was about the same as 2006’s Leaders of the Free World, but it’s still a damn good album. The thing about Elbow is that the absolutely gorgeous singing and stirring melodies distract from the fact that the musical textures they create are wholly original. They sound more conventional than they actually are. Haunted instrumentation, oddball production flourishes, and patient buildups mark the Elbow sound, yet it’s never hard work to like them.
The Hopefuls: Now Playing at the One-Seat Theatre
These Minneapolis rockers (formerly The Olympic Hopefuls) feature the tandem talents of my two favorite local musicians, John Hermanson (Storyhill) and Darren Jackson (Kid Dakota). Their brand of power pop features a slippery bed of guitars and tinkling percussion, sweet synth like the Cars, and classical songwriting like Fountains of Wayne. The eleven songs don’t let up to take a breather and leave you with a sugar headache by album’s end, but it’s worth it.
(Download a free mp3 of Stacey, by the Hopefuls, compliments of the John Larroquette Project!)
Other solid albums from this year:
Snow Patrol: A Hundred Million Suns
Pretty much like their last two albums – solid, agreeable stuff with a few great singles.
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Rural Wisconsin dude retreats to a hunting cabin to record a haunting lament in multitracked falsetto. Tough to return to repeatedly, but compelling stuff.
Neil Halstead: Oh! Mighty Engine
Mojave 3 frontman records a pretty solo album indistinguishable from Mojave 3, but that’s fine with me. This guy shits wistful.
Peter Bradley Adams: Leavetaking
L.A. songwriter’s second solo acoustic album is tastefully written, produced, and performed. I keep it at my desk at work – it’s background music, but it’s legitimate.
Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul
Now in their late 30s, these guys dug out some dirty grooves on this album. Some of it is filler, like it always is with them, but some of it is turn-up-your-speakers great.
Neil Diamond: Home Before Dark
Second stripped-down album helmed by uber-producer Rick Rubin. The law of diminishing returns was perhaps in play here, but Diamond’s eternal skills as a songwriter are still sharp, and that’s good to hear.
Ben Folds: Way to Normal
Dude, looking down on the characters in your own songs starts to turn people off after a while. You’re a talented, witty songwriter – how about saying something positive instead?
Travis: Ode to J. Smith
In an effort to shake up the doldrums, our Scottish friends wrote and recorded an entire album in a few weeks. The sound is refreshingly rough, but the songs just weren’t there.
Favorite songs of 2008, for you chronically impatient downloaders out there:
Oasis: The Shock of the Lightning
Best rock song of 2008, hands down.
Bon Iver: RE: stacks
A haunting heartbreaker of a tune.
Fleet Foxes: Ragged Wood
A great, beautiful, otherworldly tune.
Ben Folds: Cologne
Amid a snarky, coarse album lies this gem of a song for saying goodbye to someone dear.
And lastly, though this song isn’t technically from 2008, here’s a free mp3 for you: Nels, by aging Minneapolis hipsters Kubla Khan, perhaps the most inexplicably awesome song I came across this year.