Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Albums of 2008

There was a wealth of inspiring music this year, but it can't all make it onto the list. I'm sure they're endlessly disappointed at not making it on Country Caravan's annual wrap-up, so I wanted to assure The Walkmen, Love is All, The Gutter Twins, Of Montreal, Frightened Rabbit, Health, Women, Deerhoof, Destroyer, Marnie Stern, Crystal Castles, Portishead and Vivian Girls that it's nothing personal. I should also mention that Bob Dylan's fabulous Tell-Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Volume 8, is not a new album of all unreleased material, so I felt it should be ineligible. It's 30 incredible Dylan songs, however, so you should really check it out.

Another disclaimer: I got a bit confused with my numbering, so I ended up writing blurbs for 26 albums this year, not 25. I couldn't bear to remove any album from the list, so I give you

The Top 26 Albums of 2008

26) Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Real Emotional Trash
A grower, Malkmus' fourth album since the Pavement break-up sees him embracing classic rock while still adhering to the frenetic song structure he's so well known for. Some of the instrumental bits can drag, but the sound here is solid and contains some real standout tracks. "We Can't Help You" is the album's catchiest song, recalling the upbeat melodies of Terror Twilight's "Spit on a Stranger" or Face The Truth's "Post-Paint Boy." Below is the video for "Gardenia."


25) Calexico - Carried To Dust
The prolific Calexico returns with Carried To Dust, a moody and subtle collection of gothic alt-country songs. I used to listen to Feast Of Wire over and over when trying to write a dark, western screenplay (I never wrote it). While Carried To Dust isn't as exciting as Feast Of Wire, it captures the Calexico sound and is probably a great starting-off point for the uninitiated. The first two tracks are the best. Below, the video for "Two Silver Trees"


24) Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins
The Stand-Ins is the thematic sequel to last year's The Stage Names. Will Sheff sings these pop songs as if beaten and chained, with such spare bleakness that you're wondering why his writing is so pleasant-sounding. There are eight songs in between three "Stand-Ins" interludes, but the songs are immediate and chilling. "Pop Lie" is the album's tightest rock song and probably its most memorable. The first single is "Lost Coastlines"


23) Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
I don't even want to talk about the rest of the album. "Feel The Love" is one of the most addictive songs of the year.


22) Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
Deerhunter follow up Cryptograms with a more structured and superior album. Microcastle has that ambient, mythical sound the hip kids can't get enough of today, but the melodies and vocals are what elevate Deerhunter. The second disc, Weird Era Cont., is nearly as good as Microcastle and well worth repeated listens. Here's the video for "Agorophobia".


21) Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
It would still be a great listen even if the album were just the work of DJ Andy Butler, but having Antony and the Johnsons' Antony Hegarty sing on a big chunk of it doesn't hurt one bit. The video for second single "Blind" displays the best of Antony's involvement while keeping the electronic dance beats front and center.


20) Blitzen Trapper - Furr
There's certainly no "Country Caravan" on the latest Blitzen Trapper album, but Furr builds on Wild Mountain Nation in the best way, offering a handful of Basement Tapes-era-Dylan and a pastiche of other Americana songs. Furr is certainly more accessible than the frenzied Wild Mountain Nation and has some great crowd-pleasers that should sway even the most stringent of mainstream music advocates at your next cocktail party. Here they are performing opening track "Sleepytime in the Western World" at a St. Louis record store.


19) The Ruby Suns - Sea Lion
African-influenced folk pop and it's not Animal Collective! A bright bunch of songs that kind of make you want to dance around on the beach. I bought Sea Lion around the same time as Fleet Foxes, which kind of overshadowed them for a time. The Ruby Suns make great music in their own right and can really brighten your mood. Below, the video for "Oh, Mojave" that I also saw saw in a commercial a few days ago. Can't remember which one.


18) Sigur Ros - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
The album's title means "With Buzzing in Our Ears We Play Endlessly" and the onomonapoeiac "buzzing" accurately reflects Sigur Ros' continuing venture into more condensed songwriting and away from the ambient sound euphoria that introduced them stateside with Ágætis byrjun. "Við Spilum Endalaust" is another contender for pop song of the year. In the chorus, Jonsi Birgisson sings in the intentionally gibberish-sounding "Hopelandic," but it always sounds to me like he's saying "Is this here, or is it all gone?" and since the "Hopelandic" aesthetic is to interpret the sounds to your liking, I'm sticking with it.


17) Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Lie Down In The Light
With Lie Down In The Light, Will Oldham has released probably his most acclaimed album since I See A Darkness. While I prefer Ease Down The Road myself, Lie Down provides Oldham a great chance to create more sexually suggestive lyrics with "love" as a pretense. He's one of the greatest living songwriters and I could easily listen to this album over and over and find new surprises in the lyrics each time. Here's 'ol Beardie's video for "Easy Does It".


16) Brian Wilson - That Lucky Old Sun
Brian Wilson's love letter to southern California really sounds like an album written by a 24-year-old from another time in a fantasy Happy Days-esque world. The songs are catchy, full of life, and you can really picture yourself driving up Pacific Coast Highway listening to it. Now that he finally got Smile off his chest, Wilson is focusing on the bright and sunny pop he's embraced so well over his 40+ year career. His voice remains one of the cleanest and most untouched products of the 1960s.


15) Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak
It really is hard to feel bad for Kanye West. I know he has problems like all the rest of us, but he's the biggest rapper in the world and he didn't even come from the projects. He's had two straight masterpieces, which (sort-of) earned him the right to knock off a quick, vocally-manipulated batch of R&B tunes. Luckily for us, they're enthusiastic, moody and fun, and you can still dance to it. Most one-off rap artist pet projects will be in the dollar bin within a week (Hello Re-Up Gang), but Kanye offers a fresh approach to experimental hip-hop. Here's an intense performance of "Love Lockdown" on David Letterman (it gets better after the first minute).


14) High Places - High Places
Spankin' new Brooklyn-duo High Places learn from Animal Collective as well. Mary Pearson's light and airy vocals are backed up by tribal percussion on one of the year's most interesting and provocative debuts. Though Pearson's vocals headline most printed commentaries on High Places, it's Rob Barber's instrumental verve that gives this band its texture. I've previously featured a segment from Pitchfork Live's coverage on Country Caravan, but here's another taste.


13) Beck - Modern Guilt
Like all new Beck albums, you need to forget about what's come before and appreciate what you're given. It's never going to be Odelay again, but high expectations always seem to make new Beck albums underwhelming to the majority of music critics. Modern Guilt, however, has so much to appreciate that multiple listens are very rewarding to the loyal listener. I had the privilege of seeing Beck perform at a very small show at El Cid in Silverlake, and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. I also predict that many tracks on Modern Guilt will be heard in commercials for years to come. Here's "Gamma Ray" behind some footage of 2008's Coronado Speed Festival.


12) Beach House - Devotion
Beach House is another musical duo with a female lead singer. Devotion is their breakthrough album, a collection of beautiful, heartwarming songs that I swear would have broken through on traditional radio had it had consistent playtime. "Heart of Chambers" is the album's centerpiece. I imagine everyone sings along when they play it in concert.


11) Black Mountain - In The Future
One of the biggest snubs from Best of 2008 lists this year is Black Mountain's sophomore album In The Future. Deftly blending a psychedelic stoner sensibility with modern alternative, Black Mountain turn in one of 2008's most engaging and intense rock albums. The music video for "Angels" on YouTube is one of the better user-edited videos I've seen, with footage taken directly from Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. I've played this song at least once a week all year.


10) Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing
Fuck Buttons are actually quite clean, their music uncharacteristically approachable, despite the lack of lyrics and the occasional warped wail. A British electronic-drone duo, Fuck Buttons debut LP Street Horrrsing opens with the nearly 10-minute "Sweet Love for Planet Earth," a track whose subdued first minutes build to a melodic cacophony that sets the tone for the next 45. A startling debut and one of this year's indie-electro darlings.


9) Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer
Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner are two of today's most inventive pop songwriters, and on their second album as Wolf Parade, the duo take another step forward from the crowd-pleasing immediacy of Apologies to the Queen Mary, and produce an album that rewards multiple listens, as there's just too much to hear at once. Dan Boeckner's opening track "Soldier's Grin" is the most memorable at first, but the textures behind "California Dreamers" and "Kissing the Beehive" really show themselves the third or fourth time around. Wolf Parade also gave me the second best show I saw all year, with 90 minutes of rock that even had the eye-rolling hipsters dancing in place. "Kissing the Beehive" is one of several songs this year to mention me by name, though, amazing, they may be referring to Jonathan Carroll, who wrote a book of the same name. Here is the lyric: "Jonathan, Jonathan, waterfalls are running thin you know. Here's a holy grail for you to hold." The 11-minute song, with vocals by both Krug and Boeckner, if you've got the time:


8) Department of Eagles - In Ear Park
I feel a bit sheepish putting Department of Eagles so high on the list, since it's the slightly less popular project of Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen, and I'm probably the only list-maker who hasn't heard anything from the latter band's acclaimed canon. I can say, however, that In Ear Park is an immensely fulfilling album, with a couple of stand-out tracks that make you want to figure out how the hell to put a song on repeat on an iPod. I couldn't just choose one song, so I grabbed three from Seeqpod.


7) TV on the Radio - Dear Science
This was the TV on the Radio album I had been waiting for. Though I loved Return to Cookie Mountain, it seemed a bit labored, without the energy I knew this band was capable of. Dear Science puts the fun back in Fundamentally Liberal Free Jazz Post-Punk. Rolling Stone's album of the year is filled with infectious dance pop and pounding African beats. Tunde Adebimpe is having quite a year. He's the lead singer of TV on the Radio and starred as Rachel's fiance in the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married. Listen to some of it on Seeqpod.


6) M83 - Saturdays=Youth
This is the album I would have wanted if I were a teenager in 1986. Too bad for all those people, but M83 hadn't yet produced this masterpiece. This entire album could be the soundtrack for a John Hughes movie, and unlike those songs, I'm not sure I could really get tired of hearing "Kim & Jessie" or "We Own The Sky." Saturdays=Youth was previously featured on Country Caravan, but here's the video once again for "Kim & Jessie."


5) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant EP
I've put Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut and Sun Giant EP together, because if you listen to all the songs on shuffle you likely won't know which came from where. This is okay, since Fleet Foxes' 15 recorded songs are all a dreamy bit of folky Americana, and took this year by storm, earning Pitchfork's Best Album of 2008 honors. That distinction brings with it quite a bit of success in the indie realm, as Arcade Fire, Interpol and Panda Bear know so well. It also brings with it the inevitable backlash attached to anything that was once hip that became lame by how hip it is. I still think it's cool. I can promise you that I still will once you start liking it as well. "Ragged Wood" uses my name in a non-me-centric way as well. Download a full Fleet Foxes concert from NPR or watch them perform "English House" from the Sun Giant EP on Conan O'Brien.


4) Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend is the brainchild of Ezra Koenig, who formerly wrote comedy songs and appeared in the goofy rap group L'Homme Run. Vampire Weekend's debut album reflects this childlike whimsy. The album is so enjoyable that after a few listens you'll stop thinking about it as a guilty pleasure. Your friends may not be convinced that it should be taken seriously, but don't let that get you down. Chances are they're not taking themselves so seriously either. The video for "Oxford Comma" is a playful parody of Wes Anderson-style filmmaking.


3) No Age - Nouns
This is where the decision-making got hard. How could No Age's explosive, furiously noisy Nouns fall to #3? The best rock album of the year, No Age blows through about 30 minutes of guitar driven intensity that it's probably dangerous to drive to. As dynamic as last year's Weirdo Rippers, the Los Angeles-based group is classified as experimental noise rock, but it builds upon traditional structures and gets to the point quickly. Absurdly rich, Nouns paints the modern sonic landscape with a gut-punch, bang-the-drum approach. They get a bit messy in the video for "Eraser."


2) Sun Kil Moon - April
April was likely a disappointment to everyone who picked it up expecting Ghosts of the Great Highway. That album had the alt-country crowd on its knees with inviting melodies and a Tex-Mex, slightly Latin acoustic-guitar flare. April is much less immediate, but is arguably more gratifying than its predecessor. The 70-minute album has some of the best songs of Mark Kozelek's career. The slow ballads "Lost Verses" and "The Light" sound like warm spring evenings, and would be almost comforting if it weren't for the overwhelming loneliness contained in their lyrics. Will Oldham guests on the seductive "Like The River".


1) Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
I tried to enjoy another album more in 2008, but what can I say? As Weezy says on opening track "3 Peat," "Me! You watch me!" We certainly do. Lil Wayne is bold on this album. It is all undeniably and unabashedly "him." On Tha Carter III, Wayne discusses the usual suspects in modern hip-hop: Cocaine, lascivious women, money, rapping, and why he is the best at it. There's a certain ceremonial didacticism on Tha Carter III, where Weezy is the omniscient professional and you are the lowly pupil. Take "Dr. Carter," where a nurse reads off a list of vocal ailments to the doctor, who prescribes, through verse, everything you need to get that swagger back. But, as you know, noone on the corner got swagger like he do. Even "Let The Beat Build," the album's most memorable non-single, is in itself a lesson. The repeated line: "Now, that's how you let the beat build, bitch." Yes, he says bitch often. And nigger. Just deal with it. His outspoken misogyny is shocking, even by modern rap standards. I'm not a woman, but if I was, I still think I'd have a hard time resisting Tha Carter III's tractor beam. It is the best album I heard all year, and I urge you to listen to it below.


Or, if you just want a quick video, watch "Mrs. Officer."


Thanks for reading! (or, for most of you, thanks for scrolling to the bottom). See you in 2009!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Ongoing Vertical Discrimination

My friends--

I'm writing today to bring up a great injustice that even in the 21st century still pervades our daily lives and brings shame to our diverse nation. Hateful acts are still being perpetuated on a significant portion of our population. They're not going away and their cause is a just one.

To stand in solidarity with these oppressed people, I have a major announcement to make here on Country Caravan.

I, Jonathan Harris, am short.

The discriminatory history against those of us with limited height is shameful and wrong. Though you may not immediately recognize the restrictions placed upon us, let me tell you a brief story that exemplifies our plight.

A few weeks ago I thought I could make some extra income by donating a resource of which I have no shortage. Sperm banks pay up to $100 a donation and allow you to give up to three times a week (there are donation limits due to some strict campaign finance reforms). You can imagine my disappointment when I came upon the following restrictions from the California Cryobank:


You're reading that correctly. Not only must you be young, straight, a legal American, intelligent or a macho asshole, but you must be at least 5'9". California Cryobank, I thought you were better than this. Also, that sentence isn't even grammatically correct. "Must be at least 5'9" or taller" is repetitive. It could be "Must be at least 5'9" or "Must be 5'9" or taller" but using both "at least" and "or taller" is highly unnecessary. You don't need to rub it in.

But, it's not all the Cryobank's fault. The lonely and childless women who attend this facility have also made a stand. Where are the cries for short man sperm? You are complicit in this injustice by continually seeking offspring that will be taller than the average man. Do you think you can effectively weed us out of society? I assure you, we are not going away. We will not be stranded like Napoleon on this metaphorical Elba indefinitely into the future. Our sperm is just as good as the tall folk.

In fact, the more intelligent among us are likely to have even better sperm than your standard paramedic or firefighter.

Here is scientific proof from the UK Institute of Psychiatry, suggesting that men with more intelligence have higher quality, more mobile sperm:

The study, which appears in the journal Intelligence, appears to support the idea that genes underlying intelligence may have other biological effects too.

Therefore, if tiny mutations impair intelligence, they might also harm other characteristics, such as sperm quality.

Average sized and tall folk of the world, be aware: We're here, down here, get used to it. My diminutive brothers and I will no longer stand for the hate and discrimination thrust upon us. At 5'6"....ok, dammit....5'5 1/2", I have just as much right to have my sperm surgically implanted into a foreign uterus.

We have progressed much as a nation, but there is more work still to be done. Help us reach the cookie jar. Join with us.