2008: Tiny Mix Tapes Favorite Albums of 2008
25 Albums that Defined 2008 for TMT

It's no surprise that music listening is a social affair. Pure music listening is at best a dated notion and at worst a spoiled illusion held by those privileged enough to afford such idealism. This tension — between music as autonomous and music as a social process — reaches confusing heights when the fluidity of musical taste ironically reinforces the very idea it seems so fit to counteract. Is it any wonder that the underground and mainstream are adopting once-contentious styles like disco or ’80s pop, well after history has smoothed out any signifiers of their being lame? Who ever said they were lame anyway? Hindsight isn't always 20/20; every viewpoint is just as socially motivated and culturally loaded as the other.

With this year's favorite 25 albums, our particular viewpoint embraces both the culturally hip, such as Deerhunter, TV on the Radio, and No Age, and the slightly askew, such as Earth, Ponytail, and Evangelista. (For our far left picks, check out the 25 albums in our equally important Eureka! list.) But we have also included a couple albums — one by The Music Tapes, the other by Zazen Boys — that especially articulate the social specificity of our list. These albums didn't cut through "critical consensus" on aesthetics alone; their appearances are due in large part to discussions on our private message board, which is also perhaps why Vampire Weekend didn't make our list. It makes you wonder what this list would look like had we discussed every album that ran across our radar. Also makes you wonder which albums we might have overlooked.

It took almost a century before Bach was canonized in the classical music world; the same could happen to any album by any artist at any time. It's not like Nick Drake's Pink Moon was always a household album. However, the last thing TMT wants to do is create a canon of any sort. The moment TMT starts striving to be a pure buyer's guide or to dictate what constitutes "good taste" is the moment to throw in the towel. We ain't doing any pure listening here. A lot of the albums on our list won't be reinforced through future best-of lists, but who cares? It's all context anyway. This list of albums screams NOW for us, in all its loaded glory, and we're damn proud of it.

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25. The Magnetic Fields
Distortion

[Nonesuch]
by Mr P

On "The Nun's Litany," Shirley Simms sang about a nun's desire to be a porno starlet, a dominatrix, and a topless waitress, among other prurient desires. Working with two definitions of litany -- both the liturgical form of prayer and its relaxed meaning as a prolonged account -- the nun's sexual sublimations weren't just impious; they were downright subversive. The perversions didn't stop here. Throughout, distortion and feedback coated nearly every instrument on the album, undermining not only the songs' content, but the noise itself. (If noise is supposed to signify disorder and rebellion, why does it sound so appropriate behind a pop ballad?) The distortion even managed to exacerbate the impurities of the album's cast of characters -- who ranged from alcoholics and the elderly to California Barbies and courtesans (prostitutes) -- with the juncture of noise and lyrical content reaching its most obvious union in a song about necrophilia ("Zombie Boy") and its most awkward in "Xavier Says." Subversion wasn't just a tool on this album; it was a goal. Amazing, since Distortion was one of the happiest-sounding albums released this year.

The Magnetic Fields - Nonesuch - Album Review
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24. Marnie Stern - This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That
[Kill Rock Stars]
by Nobodaddy

Okay, raise your hands: who here was pretty darn sure after In Advance of the Broken Arm came out last year that Marnie Stern's face-melting, yip-yelping, hyphen-requiring spazz-rock was nothing more than sheer novelty? Just as I thought — lots of guilty faces and elevated arms in the room. But with This Is It, Stern, bassist and engineer John Reed Thompson, and drummer Zach Hill proved that not only can songs that submissively bend and twist to the coquettish (read: convulsive) whims of their capricious creator still manage to remain memorable, but they can also end up sounding more cohesive and uniquely resonant for all of their diversions. And even for their relative lack of meaningful lyrics and sing-along melodies, each song on This Is It manages to encapsulate a day-in-the-life through sheer “feeling” alone: there's the proclamation, hope, dread, weariness, caffeine, traffic, shuffle-button, strain, rain, exhaustion, cocktails, dizziness, fuzziness, clarity, and resolution to try again; all wrapped up in, typically, four minutes or less. They may be hard to quote or to cover, but these are songs that we can relate to physiologically. Some might call Stern — her ADD-style, her shrill gasp, her fatiguing album title, and the songs contained within it — exasperating. We call it universal.

Marnie Stern - Kill Rock Stars - Album Review
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23. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig! Lazarus! Dig!
[Mute/ANTI-]
by Jason P. Woodbury

Grinderman was a jolt to Cave and the Bad Seeds' aging edifice, a lurching beast that found the 51-year-old awash in primordial garage goo. Dig! Lazarus! Dig! was a refined version of that vibe, applying the same caveman juju to an all together more complete product. 2008 found Cave's quill the sharpest it's ever been, as he probed the biblical tale of Christ's greatest miracle: raising Lazarus from the dead. As we wandered along with a traumatized “Larry,” Cave pondered the Big Ones: God, love, death, sex, Bukowski, and Berryman, as per usual, and did so with a stinging wit that put artists half his age to shame. My good friend and fellow TMT-er Ed Irving called this Cave's "Vegas album," and while I think maybe he meant it as an insult, the grimy, flesh-ridden implications utterly work. When Cave shouted “rampant discrimination, mass poverty, third world debt, infectious disease/ Global inequality and deepening socio-economic divisions,” and demanded that God or somebody explain, it was impossible not to join him in shaking fists at the “punishing rain,” and to utterly dig the Bad Seed's electrifying rock ’” roll.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Mute - ANTI- - Album Review
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22. Earth - The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull
[Southern Lord]
by Bryan Reed

The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull is not merely another Earth album; it might come to be known as the Earth album. At the very least, it's the Earth album we'll remember not for its heavy drones, but for its melodic finesse and its seamless intersection of sap-thick pacing, subtle twang, Gospel uplift, and jazz clarity. Talk all you want of the record's subtle and masterful instrumental interplay: Adrienne Davies' deliberate, understated, and rock-solid percussion; Dylan Carlson's effortless melodicism and featherlight suspension of perfect riff after perfect riff, augmented magnificently with the periodic counterpoint of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; Steve Moore's warm organ comps; Don McGreevey's full-bodied and, umm, earthy bass. Revel in the humid hum of Earth's legendary amps, the juxtaposition of polish and grit and its reflection on the band's simultaneously mournful and hopeful tone (see that Gospel influence in full-force, eh?). But forget not the truest test of a record's universal merit: its immediacy — something that often lacks in downtempo instrumental work. And rest assured that this latest from Carlson and co. delivers its eased-in, slowly uncoiling enchantment from the start and never lets up in its seamless and effortless evocation of the spirits of American music.

Earth - Southern Lord - Album Review
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21. No Age - Nouns
[Sub Pop]
by Kyle Lemmon

I saw No Ages's Randy Randall (guitar) and Dean Spunt (drums) at a My Bloody Valentine concert this fall, and though they sound nothing like Kevin Shields and Co., they sure rustled up their own rumpus in ’08. Last year, we gushed over their self-titled debut, (it landed at 19), and Nouns fares reasonably well again. Bah to sophomore slumps! If there was too much blogarrhea sluicing through the web about L.A.'s The Smell, Nouns reminded us that all the hyperbole was as razor-sharp as No Age's sound. Bands like No Age, Abe Vigoda, Bodies of Water, and The Mae Shi spearheaded a noisy revolution, jolting punk's rotting corpse and shaking off the maggots. As Nouns' simplistic title suggests, No Age stitched together samples of noisy ligaments for big, jolting, Frankenstein-rock. “Miner”’s symphony of sampled noise burrowed into your cerebral cortex; “Teen Creeps” was a devil-may-care anthem that detonated speakers; and when the deliriously fuzzed-out noise-pop of “Eraser” hit MTV, it was a sure thing that, even if No Age's Daydream Nation-era noise blew our minds (and it did), the duo's submerged melodies would pick up the pieces.

No Age - Sub Pop - Album Review
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20. Department of Eagles - In Ear Park
[4AD]
by Heidi Vanderslice

In Ear Park, the second full-length album from former New York University roommates Fred Nicolaus and Daniel Rossen, is this year's best example of good things coming to those who wait. The record was pieced together as a four-year quest to dig deeper into the sensitive, nostalgic songwriting rapport that Rossen and Nicolaus found in each other, with the help of Rossen's bandmates in Grizzly Bear. Department of Eagles serves as a place for Rossen to draw on more personal, raw parts of his subconscious than he explores in Grizzly Bear. Call it a magnificent slow burn. In Ear Park reverted to Rossen's early childhood and memories of his recently deceased father, employing antiquated melodies and carefully constructed instrumentation that audibly shook off the dust. Nicolaus' production expertise lent a velvety, concise undercurrent to the vague melancholy permeating the record. The ascending, howling harmonies of "No One Does it Like You" and "Floating on the Lehigh" were straight out of an MGM classic movie soundtrack, except the big band's been traded for banjos, guitars, mammoth percussion, and the hollow acoustics of a deserted concert hall.

Department of Eagles - 4AD
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19. Fennesz - Black Sea
[Touch]
by Split Foster

Kafka hoped for books that would be the axes for the frozen seas within us. Fennesz' work reminds us that an album, too, can aspire to that violence and beauty and to the achievement of both with the same stroke. Black Sea took a blade to our frozen insides and opened up a dark, rippling gulf of sound and possibility, becoming both weapon and world. It's not so much that the sounds themselves or the seams between them were new; on the contrary, Fennesz conjured both delicate slurries and mighty glaciers with little more than static and echo. We've heard and cherished his elegant dissections of the guitar before. But amid a surfeit of marketing and news cycles that tunnel ever further into themselves, static and echo may be, at bottom, the sad currencies of this giant, slippery culture of ours. And this is perhaps why Fennesz is most worthy of praise: he took the gritty precipitate of modernity and built something dark, looming, and blissfully locomotive with it. Listen to Black Sea and let his axe cleave the ice within you.

Fennesz - Touch
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18. The Walkmen - You & Me
[Gigantic]
by Gumshoe

This was the plan all along, wasn't it? You all schemed maliciously…vociferously…judiciously…and for what? The joy of pumping them up after knocking them down a peg? Fu-huuuck. So I guess The Walkmen are…back? Hmmm... No, I just can't go along with that, because they never left; their last album, 100 Miles Off, was amazing. So now they're back with another amazing album; a boring punchline, no? But You & Me was so different, so of its own mend, you best not turn the page before you've read every sentence line for line. “Donde Esta La Playa,” every time I listened to it, conjured a dark alleyway at early evening, with distant city lights and bar bands and — yes — tom-toms accenting the orange glow of the street lights. That's the first song, of 14. The penultimate track, “I Lost You,” was modern Dylan, plain and simple. Album-closer “If Only It Were True”? Icing on the cake, a Dylanesque rejection. Easy as it is to pine for the late ’60s, early ’80s, or whatever, I'm glad I'm here, experiencing the career arc of The Walkmen firsthand. Or, should I say, I'm glad You & Me are here, experiencing the ca— awww, fuck yrselves.

The Walkmen - Gigantic - Album Review
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17. Women - Women
[Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye]
by C. Schell

On the surface, the story of Women seems typical for the age of the internet; a band records some songs, releases a few online, and the music blogs fall in line. Their subsequent debut album is self-released or released on a small label (in this case, Flemish Eye) to glowing reviews, causing it to be picked up by a more well-to-do label (Jagjaguwar) in a move most agree is smart. But Women's excellent self-titled debut wasn't your typical indie rock record. One minute it was a haunted and howling rock ’n’ roll powertrain; the next minute it was a noise ’n’ drone instrumental surf party. While songs with jagged and jangly hooks, such as "Cameras," "Black Rice," and "Group Transport Hall," would lodge themselves in your head all day, the ambient trashcan soundscapes of "Woodbine" and "Flashlights" kept you up all night. This record sounded more alive than the person standing next to you and, over the course of 10 songs and a 29:35 length, expertly combined noise and hooks in song after song. Ultimately, this was why Women resonated with us this year. The group culled a variety of sounds and expertly blended, layered, and crafted them into one of the strongest records of 2008.

Women - Jagjaguwar - Flemish Eye - Album Review
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16. Juana Molina - Un Dia
[Domino]
by Jeff Roesgen

One of the best musical innovations of this decade has been the marriage of electronica's melodies and sounds with acoustic ones. Though she exhibited a certain mastery over such compositional urges with 2000's Segundo, 2002's Tres Cosas, and 2006's Son, this year's magnificent Un Dia found the Argentinean songstress Juana Molina in unprecedented territory. Gone were the Nick Drake-inspired, minor-chord, glitch-laden ballads that had dominated these former releases. Un Dia was both an exploration and celebration of the subtlety of sounds — the ones looming like ghosts in dark corners and humming through the pipes of Molina's childhood home. There were the gentle murmurs of children's choirs and the distant plucks of acoustic guitar deeply embedded in the mix. There was also a new emphasis on rhythm and repetition that evoked styles as disparate as jazz, samba, and non-Western musics. As if descending into a dream, Molina delivered her lyrics like a mother reading a storybook. The resulting album was fascinating in its contradiction of itself at every turn: sparse though richly textured, gentle and disorientating, familiar though wildly novel. Here at the year's end, we celebrate Un Dia not for Molina's mere assembly of both manufactured and organic sounds, but rather for the hypnotic, symbiotic relationship that she synthesized between the two.

Juana Molina - Domino - Album Review
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15. Atlas Sound - Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
[Kranky]
by Brendan Phillips

Establishing a presence with last year's formidable Cryptograms — a record of dark meditation filtered through equal parts blissed-out psych-rock and droning ambience — Bradford Cox pulled out all the stops during 2008 with both the triumphant Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. and this equally vital solo album. Made for "ideas that can't work in a five piece rock band," the Atlas Sound project was previously just a haven for releasing curiously fractured half-tracks and scribbling ideas at rapid speed through his controversial blog. Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel was, however, fully-formed and stunningly layered bedroom-pop. On paper, the record appeared harmless and almost formulaic: self-contained sonics, insistent loops, simple beats and melodies — negative descriptors associated with the individualism of "bedroom" music. But this wasn't "simple" music, and when listening to the record, the delicate universe that Cox created became impossible to deny or even describe: relatively basic song structures and thin narratives, overwhelmed with frosty shimmer, became coated in a thick, ethereal glaze. For Cox, the focus on emotional reaction assumed priority over personal context — the teenage numbness experienced by an aunt's passing, the isolation and loneliness of quarantined children with AIDS, the chilly torture of a cold ex-girlfriend, and a Subway freezer. Best experienced at length as a colorful, extended dream, the wanderlust of Let the Blind helped make a major case for Bradford Cox as one of indie rock's most treasured talents, a man wonderfully overflowing with ideas.

Atlas Sound - Kranky - Album Review
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14. Zazen Boys - Zazen Boys 4
[Matsuri Studio]
by munroe

Japanese group Zazen Boys have existed on the fringe of North America's consciousness for nearly five years, obscured by vocals that are both foreign in language and delivery. Sure, 4 tossed the American listeners a bone by including audible English words like "weekend," "idiot," and "memories," but Mukai Shutoku twisted them to such a degree that they became, at least to English-speaking audiences, phonetic instruments well-suited to battle the relentless drums, bizarro-world melodic guitar, and hypnotic bass lines. Zazen Boys even added samplers and drum machines this time around. But rather than positioning them as primary elements in the music, they adopted them to both enhance and lay a foundation for their core instrumentation. "The Drifting..." was the perfect showcase for the new sound, with a laid back electronic build and a destructive bass line that kicked in at 7:12, completely shifting the song to awesome new territory; meanwhile, "Honnoji," a pummeling drum attack with an pleasant upbeat interlude, could've been the song that would finally land them a Stateside distributor. But even without an American distributor or label, Zazen Boys still managed to muscle their way into our top 25, and most of our staff hasn't even heard it.

Zazen Boys - Matsuri Studio - Album Review
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13. Evangelista - Hello, Voyager!
[Constellation]
by Benjamin Bernstein

Carla Bozulich and her crew torched our hearts and ears yet again with a collection of demented ballads and maniacal testimonies that made Marnie Stern sound like Muzak. Chet Baker would have been happy to hear a vocalist sizzle as much as himself on tracks like "Lucky Luck Luck" or "Paper Kitten Claw," two of several compositions that seared with the calculated precision only taught at the Bozulich school of voice. Although all those diminished chords and tortured guitars made for quite a dark album, the sheer fact that Bozulich continually commanded attention made it such a triumph. Never does the cacophony (or even her own lyrics) conceal the immensely strong musician and writer that Bozulich once again proved herself to be. The eponymous final track — a 12-minute sermon about love, undoubtedly recorded during an operation on Bozulich's vocal chords — found our heroine spewing wisdom above the doom metal riffs and drunken surf guitar. Fiercely in touch with the cohesion that melancholy music can possess, Hello, Voyager! pushed the monsters back under the bed, although it certainly kept them company in the process.

Evangelista - Constellation - Album Review
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12. Ponytail - Ice Cream Spiritual
[We*Are*Free]
by Judy Berman

Last fall, when Ponytail's guitar player Dustin Wong told me he was leaving his fantastic other band, Ecstatic Sunshine, I was kind of upset. But then, a few weeks before Ice Cream Spiritual's release, I listened to the glorious dilation that is "Celebrate the Body Electric," and all was forgiven. As the album made clear, Ponytail have become the kind of band that requires each member's single-minded devotion. As its title suggests, Ice Cream Spiritual's songs were exuberant and childlike but felt like religious revelations. Instead of singing recognizable words, vocalist Molly Siegel screamed in tongues, her entire body writhing and shaking with the holy spirit of 21st-century punk rock. At a time when most indie rock is about as stale and commodified as the crap on MTV, Ponytail was chock full of what makes music exciting: youth, energy, immediacy, and independence. They are the rare band that manages to be wholly original, bravely experimental, and also a shitload of fun.

Ponytail - We*Are*Free - Album Review
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11. WHY? - Alopecia
[anticon.]
by Scott Lauer

Staying true to anticon.'s policy of delivering catchy tracks through slightly off-center filters, WHY?’s Alopecia managed to push and shove its way onto our year-end list. While the album was incredibly catchy, the lines that stuck in your head for hours (if not days) always left you uneasy. Hitting the floor running, WHY?’s frontman Jonathan "Yoni" Wolf boasted, “I'm not a ladies man/ I'm a landmine filming my own fake death.” Now riddle me this: how can a line like that be so damn catchy? I sure don't know, but Alopecia was absolutely loaded with some of the most penetrating (if not the most disturbing) lyrics of 2008. Continuing where they left off with 2005's Elephant Eyelash, WHY? transitioned into a serious, full-fledged band, offering up their most consistently rewarding album to date. Rap/singing their way through 14 tracks, WHY? floored you with their wordsmith abilities and incredibly laid-back beats, quietly blending genres to create something both original and accessible. Standout tracks like “The Hollows” tested your multitasking abilities, as you were tapping your toes, scratching your head, and wondering where in Wolf's deep, dark mind these ideas came from.

WHY? - anticon. - Album Review
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10. Mount Eerie - Dawn / Lost Wisdom
[P.W. Elverum & Sun]
by Doug Schrashun

Phil Elverum was holed up in northern Norway in 2002 and 2003 when he wrote the songs that appear on Dawn. This context writes its own review: American guy goes to Scandinavia, bringing along naught but a guitar, to engage in a musical vision quest among coniferous forests and snow, emerging with 19 deeply spiritual songs about man's inner darkness and symbiotic relationship with nature. Luckily, that context didn't write the album, because it's way better than that. Dawn, and its companion piece Lost Wisdom, read more like breakup records than personal statements. While Mount Eerie's imagery often centered around the idea of, duh, a mountain — something indelible and permanent — these albums were about coming to terms with change. They told the story of someone who made an ardent attempt to separate himself from an unsatisfying society, only to realize that life needs to be lived among other people, accepting whatever pain and flux they bring. There was regret in these songs, especially in "Lost Wisdom" and "Moon Sequel," but any sense of melancholy that emerged was overcome by "I Say ‘No'" and "You Swan Go On," which may as well have been the sound of serenely letting go.

P.W. Elverum & Sun - Album Review (Lost Wisdom) - Album Review (Dawn)
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09. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
[The Social Registry]
by Papaya

I thought it would never happen. I thought it was impossible. I thought everyone had forgotten how. But Gang Gang Dance did it. They released, in 2008, a highly danceable album that sounded NOTHING LIKE DAFT PUNK. Sure, it sampled a lot of dance genres, but it was really refreshing to be able to move to an album that didn't worship at the alter of Discovery. Even the recognizable influences, such as the chopped and screwed Loveless vibe on "Vacuum," always contained more than enough GGD style to avoid falling into the realm of plagiarism. The album took a lot of risks, but it succeeded in pretty much all of them. Brief sections of sound collage blended nicely with the more beat-driven sections, and the juxtaposition gave both elements room to breathe. DJs take note: next time you're tempted to play “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” for the third time that night, try something from Saint Dymphna instead.

Gang Gang Dance - The Social Registry - Album Review
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08. Times New Viking - Rip It Off
[Matador]
by Dose

The title to Times New Viking's Matador debut was an utterly unnecessary suggestion in an age when indie rock has become increasingly self-reflexive. Who was really prepared for the day when bands started aping the ’90s? While many of their contemporaries were still trying on their influences to figure out what fits, Times New Viking looked you straight in the eye and gave you exactly what you want. With lyrics that, when intelligible, read like hipster riffs on rock's gloried past, it was obvious that the band was one of us: avant-addicts who scoured the web for new (and old) noise highs. Like the best DIY bands, from The Shaggs to Beat Happening, TNV made it seem easy, but you or I (apologies) never made anything like “Faces on Fire” or “Another Day.” Much is made of how, unlike the lo-fi, lo-budget bands of the ’90s, TNV don't have to sound like they do. But this was Times New Viking Music, energy matched only by the dog whistle treble, as identifiably singular as it is derivative, and it didn't change one iota for Matador. Sonic Youth (might) be on your side, but Jesus and the Mary Chain were definitely on theirs. And if time's passage proves TNV to be an exquisite gimmick, well, it sounded just right in ’08, accomplishing one very important thing: it destroyed iTunes' shuffle. It's impossible to rest easy knowing that your Bon Iver track might be succeeded by the hyper decibels of Rip it Off. Rock ’n’ roll.

Times New Viking - Matador - Album Review
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07. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
[Modular]
by Chris Norton

Forget one nation under a groove. Forget repping a whole scummy North American continent. Cut Copy took the 14-hour flight up from Down Under in 2008 to join Daft Punk and Justice in uniting one globe under the beat of their infectious, feel-good, rocked-up electro. In Ghost Colours packed the most enjoyable parts of every song ever traded in good vibes into every minute — and even if it was nothing new, that was no problem. The standard-issue, heart-on-fire lyrics might not have looked like much on paper, but like Alex Ross wrote, they're made to give meaning to the music, not the other way around. And Dan Whitford and co.'s trick was to make the music about you, just you: your summer, your friends, your sex. Quick now, here now, always, no matter how many people are pogo-ing next to you. Pop, rock, disco, house, whatever. Who needs genres in 2008? Here's to packing the dance floor New Order-style with the new sincerity, cranked up to maximum sound.

Cut Copy - Modular
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06. Beach House - Devotion
[Carpark]
by Ajitpaul Mangat

Devotion ended right where you'd expect it to: at a Beach House, “waiting for a friend.” Victoria Legrand, singer/organist-in-Nico's-clothing, reflected: there is “something about the way a heart is nailed above a hand” while “swimming in the cold water.” Weary. Pastoral. Melancholic. This seemed like an archetypal narcotic dirge from Beach House's middling self-titled debut, until Legrand mused, “Now let's swim/ Out of your ocean.” "And into mine," she seemed to want to say. But that's where the music ended. (Maybe she succeeds.) Provocative. Metaphysical. Solipsistic. This is, in fact, Beach House elevating their music to Miltonian heights, by moving melancholy inwards, à la John Milton's “Il Penseroso.” Much like that poem, Devotion was about a devotion to oneself — narcissism, a removal from the world. But, whereas Milton employed this self-absorption for comic subversion, Beach House employed it for profundity. Take “You Came To Me,” on which Lengrand moans, “You came to me/ In my dreams/ And you spoke of everything/ Sweeter than the days that I was breathing.” Here, desired romanticism was found deep within Lengrand's subconscious, where it was fated to remain — much like Beach House's Devotion, an album that affected the listener as deeply as any album this year.

Beach House - Carpark - Album Review
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05. The Music Tapes - Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes
[Merge]
by David Nadelle

Julian Koster may be getting warm December praise for his Yuletide singing saw collection and recent Christmas caroling tour, but his greatest coup this year came in August when he finally released his second proper Music Tapes album, Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes. It was easy to get caught up in Koster's flights of fancy, but it never approached novelty or trite territory. It may seem like Koster was an unexplicated character detached entirely from any sort of “real”-world existence, but by mining rarely-touched or forgotten eras for inspiration and creating a utopian ideal of his own devising, he was actually trying to coalesce the human and natural spheres in this life through his music. Koster's world was a compassionate one, where delving headfirst into new adventures was encouraged and searching for mad musical discoveries clashing with an emotionally-deprived world was mandatory. Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes was crammed full of cracked laments and stories told sparely, never kowtowing to convention and taken-for-granted instrumentation, making it a favorite among many TMT writers for its profoundly tender, deceptively simple ways. Koster not only gave as lovely a performance as a listener could hope for — often using nothing more than his voice, a banjo, and his beloved musical saw — but he gave a sense of dreamy hope among us dreamy-hopers, and there was nothing fanciful about that.

The Music Tapes - Merge - Album Review
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04. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
[Sub Pop]
by Tamec

For many music lovers, 2008 was the year of Fleet Foxes. The Seattle group was introduced to the world by way of the terrific Sun Giant EP along with their self-titled full-length, becoming one of the least controversial critical darlings in recent memory. A listen to Fleet Foxes made it easy to guess which coast the band was from — harder was guessing their decade. The record was a blend of CSNY prog-folk with elements of doo-wop and chamber pop, all soaked in just enough reverb. Dynamic rock suites like “Ragged Wood” and “Your Protector” gently rubbed against simpler gems like “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Meadowlarks.” Along with labelmates Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes have inherited the Northwest's damp mantle of cool from the likes of Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. The band appears to be the genuine article: incredible songwriting paired with fine musicianship. Fleet Foxes was the rarest of debuts: a fully-arrived group with a timeless sound somehow perfect for the times.

Fleet Foxes - Sub Pop - Album Review
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03. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
[Interscope]
by Joe Davenport

With Dear Science, TV On the Radio captured something quite elusive: they managed to craft an album that only could have been the product of a specific moment in time and place: pre-election America in 2008. Coming off the back of the deplorable Bush years and anticipating an Obama White House, the album constructively criticized the past in order to construct a more perfect future. “Dancing Choose” was so pointed in its attack and “Family Tree” so poignant an elegy that you'd have to be made of stone not to feel something when you heard them. Although lyrically damning, much of the album's music sounded optimistic. It melded electronic textures to rock beats without sounding much like anything else but TV On the Radio. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone each have such distinct voices that, when paired with David Andrew Sitek's sonic blueprint, seemed capable of uniting even the most disparate of sounds into a cohesive whole. The album was informed by everything from shoegaze to free-jazz and fueled by both the personal and political. TV On the Radio, and in particular Dear Science, is the sound of a new America, and it arrived at exactly the right moment.

TV On The Radio - Interscope - Album Review
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02. Portishead - Third
[Mercury/Island]
by Willcoma

A near-incinerated songbook of starkly beguiling, musclebound eulogies, this belated evolution of one of the best doom-cabaret trios in existence was undoubtedly overwhelming. The metronomic, unnervingly simple, yet often dramatically upsetted grooves were not as inviting as the blue moonlit lulls of the past. It was a shear-drop dystopia, and Beth Gibbons' desperate laments were given decidedly more weight than before, as these songs refused to head-noddingly drift by. Even the sweet little detour “Deep Water” had the feel of a tiny hymn popping from tiny speakers lying in wait between the gear notches of machines too massive to fathom. Like any classic album, it stayed with the listener, and like a classic horror film, it didn't relent in its commitment to a unified, oppressive mood. Among other events, 2008 was the year of one of the best comebacks in pop music history. Third's beauty was innate, and its gothically novel atmosphere corresponded to no current trends whatsoever. For a band whose past commercial success was likely tied with being “good come-down music,” this was truly a risky album to make. Third was music for coming down, going down, and staying down — and more than worth the stress.

Portishead - Island - Album Review
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01. Deerhunter - Microcastle / Weird Era Cont.
[Kranky]
by Jared Bier

To examine Microcastle in light of last year's unabashedly schismatic Cryptograms is tempting; with this year's follow-up and its accompanying sweetener Weird Era Cont., Deerhunter moderated what laissez-faire mentality dictated as the outcome of their previous efforts and focused instead on the minutest of details. The result, naturally, was deliberate, bloodless, and anything but alluvial. And despite the appeal of the term “ambient punk” (a designation once offered by the band in self-evaluation), Microcastle now nearly renders it inapplicable, as this record demonstrated a piercing fastidiousness not generally associated with either of the two referenced genres. Rather, this record was the drastically complex accrual of thousands of subtleties that, after listening to Microcastle so many times, are so plainly imperceptible in past songs like “Lake Somerset.”

But, truthfully, to backdrop this album would be to undermine its genius as an entity purely in itself. Ultimately, Microcastle was a gloating study in the oft attempted but rarely effective art of reconstruction, each song culling influential elements and merging them into one experimental dovetail, simultaneously dismantling and assembling every sound in order to demarcate a distinct identity for each track. In fact, listening to songs like the pop-inflected shoegaze washes of “Little Kids” or the strikingly sparse title track makes it difficult to imagine that the album could have complied any more with what lead singer Bradford Cox had verbalized during the album's gestation period: that Deerhunter had hoped to explore and highlight the structure of each song on the record. Consequentially, Microcastle made a strong case for premeditated self-realization.

The subsequent culmination of this diligent construction process, however, was far from fortified. Microcastle was excruciatingly fragile, at times masochistic, and perversely conscious of one's own indigence, owing as much philosophically to the broken human condition as it did artistically to that treatment of song structure. The allusions to Christ's crucifixion in “Calvary Scars,” the distorted sense of consolation in “Agoraphobia,” the recollections of “Nothing Ever Happened” — the whole of this record underscored a tenuous, vulnerable existence via probing introspect, precariously resolving itself between a forced quotidian sustenance and a complete, eventual unraveling.

Microcastle's year-end standing largely hinges on this dazzling exposition of brilliance, a procuring of this racking susceptibility from razor-sharp aesthetic. This record's breathtakingly fathomless quality fulfilled an appreciation for a grandly polished amalgamation of droves of sources, substantiating Deerhunter's flair for elaborate alchemy on top of the in-your-face reputation they had already established with Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey. And the themes of this album, imbued from beginning to end with frailty, were capable of resonating on a very personal level. In fact, that Microcastle is our favorite record of the year actually tells just as much about the listener as it does the band, and what could possibly be nobler than that?

Deerhunter - Kranky - Album Review

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