Not to be confused with the epic, Eric Roberts, Tae Kwon thriller.
50. Benoit Pioulard–Temper (Kranky)
Have you ever been in one of those nutty meditation classes, where the crackpot instructor tells you to close your eyes and imagine that you’re in the middle of a forest? Don’t be surprised if we eventually learn that this is what Portland-via-Michigan, singer/songwriter/producer, Benoit Pioulard, nee Thomas Meluch, does prior to picking up his guitar and turning on his mic.
Like Precis before it, Meluch vividly narrates a pastoral jaunt, creating a mood that approximates a walk along the banks of the Willamette River, with the cold current splashing rocks and the water chilling your shoes. Other songs, particularly “Ahn,” scald like hot cocoa in your hand as you peer out your window at snow covering your car and everything else in sight. And just like the landscape after a fresh flurry, Temper is a pretty and pristine piece of work.–Douglas Martin
MP3: Benoit Pioulard-“Brown Bess”
49. The P Brothers–The Gas (Heavy Bronx)
The grimiest New York album made in 2008 came from Nottingham, UK? (What’d you think it was, “Pop Champagne?”). The P Brother’s magnum opus, The Gas, rattles and shakes in the surly shadows of towering Bronx tenements. With an elite cadre of rappers, the East Midland production team neatly side-step the questions of cohesion that plague most contemporary producer-led efforts.
In business for nearly two decades, from the melodic keys of album opener ‘Cold World,” to the swirling guitar licks and downtempo skulk of “Don’t Question Me,” The Gas delivers an infectious, stripped down aesthetic, with few concessions to the mainstream. All the underground Bronx MCs bring heat, dropping dark, Ox-sharp verses that weave themselves into the beats and establish an almost pretenatural consistency. The Gas is rap music by heads, for heads, and it’s all the better for it.–Dan Love
MP3: The P Brothers-“Digital B-Boy ft. Milano”
48. Times New Viking–Rip It Off (Matador)
The number one complaint I hear about this band is that they need to be recorded better—which means that anyone who makes it has no clue what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s not just that you have to aurally sift through audible barbed wire to reach the tangy riot of *Rip It Off*, it’s that the production actually adds to the songs themselves. Trying to fight through the clangs, hisses, and screeches—given equal volume attention as the songs—trains your ears to approach the tracks in a new way. And it is precisely the forgoing of any straightforward approach to listening that makes Rip It Off one of the better albums this year, because it reminds you that sometimes the best burgers are made on the shittiest grills. –Tal Rosenberg
MP3: Times New Viking-“Drop Out”
47. Dub Colossus–“A Town Called Addis” (Real World Records)
Had Nick Page, a.k.a. Count Dubulah, a.k.a. Dub Colossus, taken a dilettantish approach to A Town Called Addis, it would’ve been a colossal bust. After all, the plotline of white British musician heads to Ethiopia in search of authenticity, finds local reggae and jazz artists and creates a tasteful homage to be released on Peter Gabriel’s record label, sounds like a late-period Wes Anderson film (with Owen Wilson playing Nick Page and Adrien Brody as Peter Gabriel).
A Town Called Addis’ success lies in Page’s adroitness in appropriating and advanced world music–something he’s done since 1990, when he founded the Trans-Global Underground, a group with a pan-global focus long before Ezra Koenig had encountered his first Oxford Comma. Collaborating with a team of Ethiopian musicians, A Town Called Addis is the rare modern-day reggae record worthy of its 60s and 70s forebears. Tinged with an afro-beat, Azmari, and jazz filagree, Dub Colussus create pure stoner soul: soft, narcotic nods that float in vernal bliss.–Jeff Weiss
MP3: Dub Colossus-“Azmari Dub”
46. Tobacco–Fucked Up Friends (Anticon)
The quasi-front-man from Pittsburgh psych-weirdos Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tobacco’s solo debut is a darker and harder-edged, with arterio-sclerotic hip-hop beats bearing the brunt of the Rural Pennsylvania isolation they were recorded in. Outwardly anachronistic, Tobacco’s nostalgic impulses are rooted deeper than cheap irony. A close listening reveals the conflict embedded in Tobacco’s genetics, between a desire to craft a futuristic hybrid of hip-hop, electronica and psychedelia, with a vanished world of Bazooka Joe mellotrons, blinking boardwalk lights and epileptic video arcade clatter. Like Dandelion Gum, Fucked Up Friends delivers on the notion of sound as color as well as anyone this side of Dungen and Caribou. To quote Homer Simpson, “with friends like these, who needs friends.”–Jeff Weiss
MP3: Tobacco-“Truck Sweat”
45. Koushik–Out My Window (Stones Throw)
The ethereal and dizzy disarray of Koushik’s Out My Window simulates what it’s like to spend an hour or two hovering over a stove, taking knife hits of lumps of black tar opium. Grounded alternately in Dilla-like hip-hop instrumentalism and sepia 60s pop, the Canadian-born, Vermont-based Koushik most frequently evokes 4Tet, Caribou, Shadow and James Yancey. Yet in its paring of B-Boy breaks to druggy, frail guitar chords, Koushik creates an entirely unique aesthetic. Handling vocals himself rather than sampling or enlisting guests, Koushik’s voice floats membrane-thin, pale and ghostly, wriggling its way into the gut of each track. It’s the album as hazy swirl of dust, full of blissed-out guitars and scuffed drums. Few windows afford such gorgeous views.–Jeff Weiss
MP3: Koushik-“Lying in the Sun”
44. Karl Hector & The Malcouns–Sahara Swing (Now-Again)
Karl Hector seeks to effect an air of mystery–which can be expected from a man saddled with the hardship of being born with two first names. Information about him is scarce and his discography is even scarcer, with only a previous 7-inch recorded a dozen years ago during his tenure as the ringleader of an ostensibly aviation-clad outfit called the Funk Pilots. Yet his influences are unmistakable: Fela’s slick, seraphic swing and James Brown’s filthy pigpen R&B. Backed by a Krautrock-weaned, German backing band, intimations of Can’s proggy funk are also salient throughout the breezy 45-minute Sahara Swing. Sure, it’s easy to chide Malcoun for his retrograde leanings and inability to better his canonized forebears, but few records cut in 2008 can match its graceful glide, crisp jazzy jams and disco-inflected and deep dance grooves.–Jeff Weiss
MP3: Karl Hector & The Malcouns-“Nyx”
43. Raphael Saadiq–The Way I See It (Sony)
Raphael Saadiq is successful, accomplished, talented, respected, and has constructed a catalogue that will live forever in the annals of R&B and funk. That’s why, The Way I See It, feels like a big “fuck you” album. As though Saadiq made the album after watching VH1 Soul for 17 hours straight thinking, “Really? Y’all are getting more shine than me?!?”
Maybe that’s too far, but something lit a fire under Saadiq, who has spent the last decade producing and appearing on records for friends and lovers, but never matching the commercial success of his groups Tony to the Third Power and Lucy Pearl. Borrowing from Stax and Chess and Ike and Otis–if tambourine players had a union, this album would feed Rhode Island. He reanimates the Motown sound without sounding desperate–Stevie Wonder just blows his harmonica on “Never Give You Up” then goes back to wearing velvet suits. “Sometimes” swings while channeling Sam Cooke. “Just One Kiss” is tender and soothing, even with an appearance from his snowflake boo Joss Stone. “100 Yard Dash” sounds like happy hour in Chicago. “Calling” is the McFly’s prom song at Enchantment Under the Sea. It’s a back-to-basics approach to let these sumbitches know that his .22 is always on the ankle. And it’s dipped in soulful honey. And it will still blow your face off.–Zilla Rocca
MP3: Raphael Saadiq-“Sure Hope You Mean It”
42. Damu the Fudgemunk–Overtime (Self-Released)
Despite having one of the silliest monikers in contemporary hip hop, Washington D.C.’s Damu The Fudgemunk has mastered the craft of making beats. A part of the Panacea crew, ’08 has seen Damu release a number of free EPs and tracks to keep his rep simmering and earn him placement on the radar of a broader audience.
What makes both Spare Time and its follow-up, Overtime, so enjoyable is their unbridled sense of joy and indulgence. Agenda-free, both releases reveal a love and appreciation for the dusty grooves that defined the late golden era. Rather than ignore the past, Damu embraces the aesthetic wholeheartedly and ultimately, his creativity yields infectiously enjoyable, punchy drum-packed, warm, crackling grooves. Few hip-hop producers understand the importance of courting a net-based audience and even fewer have done it with such gusto. Just leave the jibes about homosexual rodents out of it.–Dan Love
ZIP: Damu the Fudgemunk-Overtime (Left-Click)
41. Okkervil River–The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
I’m usually what some critics call a “poptimist,” because I supposedly give populism too much credit as a criterion for Good Music. So why did I keep cueing up Okkervil River’s cynical, overdramatized “Pop Lie” long after I got sick of Katy Perry’s and Lil’ Wayne’s chart-friendly charms? Because it’s musically and lyrically juicy enough to be my generation’s “Radio Radio,” that’s why. Will Sheff is the cleverest bookworm of his ilk, so if he doesn’t have John Darnielle’s heart or Craig Finn’s reach, he has the gift of snide, ragged bite to lend to kiss-offs like “Singer Songwriter” (“You wrote your thesis on the Gospel of Thomas”) and isn’t too cool to let the tambourine perpetuate his own classic-rock lies in “Lost Coastlines.” His band sounds like a Wilco that never advanced from Being There, and his voice sounds like a shredded throat. But more importantly, he’s not afraid to lie in his pop songs.–Dan Weiss
MP3: Okkervil River-“Lost Coastlines”
Face it, *Nouns* is this decade’s *Let it Be* (The Replacements, not The Beatles): A ragtag posse of scruffy dudes sonically illustrating their homes with spectacular tunes and pure passion. Indeed, no band this year, and few bands in recent years, has given music fans so much to be excited about. The reason everyone’s searching for the right words to express just why No Age deserves a supplementary chapter in *Our Band Could Be Your Life* isn’t because of their setup or ethos or the YouTube videos of Black Flag and The Minutemen they post on their blog, it’s due to a shared spirit, one where youthful ardor and sonic ingenuity emphasizes simple messages.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Sleeper Hold,” a dynamic flurry through corridors of sloppy feedback and cymbal washes, where drummer/singer Dean Spunt spews words that might be describing drugs or sex or both, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. A line like “With passion it’s true” can describe any number of things—seriously or sarcastically—that the very vagueness of the message gives it an odd power, like a Zen koan or a line from Kabbalah. But this ain’t religion, folks. This is the sound of two dudes honed in on the wavelength that connects the sky to the ocean like an azure mirror, a perpetual sunrise/sunset of blissful vistas and the ocean crashing softly on the shore. With passion it’s true. With passion it’s you.–Tal Rosenberg
MP3: No Age-“Teenage Creep”
39. Blitzen Trapper–Furr (Sub Pop)
The rare net-hyped band that seamlessly and painlessly swathed their next musical step in all the right blankets: tighter structures, layered melodies that stop short of overkill and “maturity” done right in the form of small, Neil Young-esque folk ditties to cleanse the rock palette (which is more generous here than on last year’s more acrid Wild Mountain Nation). They began with a fetish for Pavement’s scratchy sidecrawling dubbed through My Morning Jacket weirdness, and came out probable successors to Built to Spill. 13 songs in less than 40 minutes will hit you in the face so many times at such speed you’ll need to play it again to remember all the sweet spots. The first one sounds like a countrified Elliott Smith.–Dan Weiss
MP3: Blitzen Trapper-“Gold for Bread”
38. Gza–Pro Tools (Babygrande)
Conceived as a compilation, Pro Tools is the Gza’s most complete work in years. Ever-abstract and thought-provoking, Gary Grice’s rhyme style has continued to develop and mature in ways that most vets can only dream about. Not only the lyrical content stands out, with the GZA ever self-assured and poised, his Shaolin zen ever cryptic. But RZA and the Wu satellites turn in an exceptionally strong slate of beats to help buoy the Genius’s finely honed lyrical darts. However, it’s the brutal Black Milk-molded “7 Pounds,” that yields the album’s finest moment, with Grice bringing relentless momentum to the iron mic. Indeed, thirteen years after Liquid Swords, Pro Tools proves that the GZA’s rhyme thoughts still got tremendous speed.–Dan Love
MP3: Genius/Gza ft. Masta Killa & Rza-“Pencil”
37. Love is All–100 Things Keep Me Up At Night (What’s Your Rupture?)
If Love is All were American, they’d probably be Mika Miko.* After all, they both boast seething riot grrls as front-women and take their cues from all the right reference points: The Germs, The Misfits, X-Ray Spex. Instead, they hail from unlikely musical hotbed, Gothenberg, Sweden–a land where Jens Lekman can be considered top 40 and even the punk bands never forget that The Ramones were pop. So it’s no coincidence that 100 Things Keep Me Up At Night, packs more sticky hooks and rapid locomotion than a Benjamin Franklin’s worth of pixie sticks, despite lyrics that wallow in emotional unrest and love-lorn laments. I’ll assume this is because sprightly russet-haired frontwoman, Josephine Olausson, is tired of being surrounded by nordic platinum-haired giants. Her revenge? Writing the Swedish post-punk version of “99 Problems” as run through the filter of “99 Luft Balloons. “–Jeff Weiss
* Who are good, just significantly rawer and less poppy than Love Is All.
MP3: Love Is All-“Wishing Well”
36. Beach House–Devotion (Car Park)
Between the gauzy glacial guitars, the shaken percussion, the rusting boardwalk organs, and frail, Faberge vocals, Devotion manages to win the 2008 Panda Bear Award for Album That Fucks Up the Most Futons in Ft. Greene.* It’s R&B for indie kids–you just have to listen closely, preferably with some $700 headphones and a trust fund. Rhythms unravel slower than the waltz, but at heart, they’re hot, buttered soul. Or in the case of Vassar graduate and lead singer, Victoria LeGrand, steamed soy margarine soul.
Legrand’s wraith-like vocals sound woozy and desolate; they’re deeply moving but never saccarine, barely there and yet overwhelming. The aesthetic signifiers are different. There’s no horn section, the gospel influence is absent and the swing is more drugged-out Brave New World than New Jack Swing. But don’t be fooled, at its core, there’s as much rhythm and blues to Devotion as to another great song whose name it shares. Or, this one, for that matter.–Jeff Weiss
* Except for maybe Fucked Up.
MP3: Beach House-“Gila”
35. El-P Wearegoingtoburninhellmegamixx 2 (Def Jux)
Hanging out with El-P is either a real drag or a total religious experience. After all, Jamie Meline spends the vast majority of the tour-only, Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixx2, spitting jeremiads in his self-anointed role as funcrusher plus of hip-hop. An hour of trademark, synthetic, buzz-from-hell instrumentation and dystopic, off-kilter rhymes, the mixtape is mostly a vehicle for El-P to continue to prove that he’s the most original producer alive. On the scorching “Drunk On The Edge Of A Cliff”, El-P does a warped Neptune impression, taking their Clipse collaboration “I’m Not You” and splattering it with enough 8-bit video game blips and chaos to constitute an apocalyptic anthem. The mind of El-P must be scary, but as long as he continues viewing humans through his paranoid lens, consider the world gifted. –B.J. Steiner
ZIP: El-P-Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixx 2 (Left-Click)
34. The Black Keys–Attack and Release (V2)
It took Ohio duo The Black Keys to find a good use for the too frequently anodyne gravedigger, Danger Mouse. The producer’s predilection for vintage aesthetics, as seen on his less-than-stellar knob-twiddling for Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley, more often results in him replicating museum pieces rather than engaging in the inspired revivals of lost ideals with which he is frequently credited. On Attack and Release, however, DM helped the Black Keys capture the energy and excitement of sixties-era blues rock without reducing the exercise to renaissance fair play-acting. The Black Keys remember one thing about the blues that so many contemporary copyists forget: it’s about rhythm, not authenticity. Attack and Release struts and swaggers like hip-hop; its addled crawl is as effective riding music as anything dreamed up by a sub-Mason-Dixon rapper in ’08. The sound is so enjoyable that The Black Keys hardly needed to come up with well-written songs to accompany it–but they did anyway. Of the 11 top-notch tunes here, none is better than “Strange Times,” a pop song as direct and immediately appealing as anything currently blasting out of commercial radio.–Jonathan Bradley
MP3: The Black Keys-“Strange Times”
33. Zilla Rocca–Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca (Beat Garden)
Why is Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca one of the best albums of 2008?
Because along with Nas’ The Nigger Tape, El-P’s Megamixxes, Wale’s The Mixtape About Nothing, and yes, Lil Wayne’s 3,212,211 tapes, Zilla’s first solo mixtape is one of the first to grasp the potential of the medium. Specifically, that it can be more than a hodge-podge of freestyles, skits and collected feature appearances. Because its title is inspired by Peckinpaugh’s bleakest film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Because Zilla dodges the dilemma of underground white rappers–who typically fall into two lanes: ironic, “clever” and non-threatening (MC Paul Barman, Grand Buffet, Conor Oberst) or overcompensating and dull (Half of Eastern Conference Records, Haystak, David Silver). Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca is smart without being soft, cool without being cloying; the beats are on-point, the punch-lines are ready to rewind. And its album cover is better than your favorite rapper’s. –Jeff Weiss
* Yes, of course, Zilla writes for this website. However, no one here is in the business of associating with wack rappers. If we did, we’d go resucitate Hip-Hop Infinity.
ZIP: Zilla Rocca-Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca (Left-Click)
32. Hot Chip–Made in the Dark (Astralwerks)
If we were going to forget a Hot Chip record, couldn’t it have been Coming on Strong? Please? Instead, Made in the Dark, released in early February, seemed—if not necessarily overlooked–then too quickly shelved by those of us with a whole fresh year’s worth of new music to anticipate. Lost in that winter spell though was another very good Hot Chip album, perhaps the one which most nimbly blended their cheeky songwriting with their arch brand of dipshit hedonism (the dancing side, silly). If the Knife brought trance-synths to gloomy Swedish pop, then Hot Chip put it to more jubilant uses on Made in the Dark. Listen to “Shake a Fist,” for example, where their deep synth smears and stern rhythms form an absurdly infectious loser’s anthem, or “One Pure Thought,” a stout guitar-led groove that seems almost impossibly ravenous in how it slowly consumes a track so full of forward motion. In looking back though, Hot Chip’s most defining musical point of the year—and perhaps my favorite few minutes of sound–was “Don’t Dance”’s trance coda, a simple breathtaking moment of foolish, braindead glee. For a band that’s often been too merry-pranksterish both lyrically and musically, it’s great to hear them set such a clear mark and nail it: a minute of glow-sticking so dead of higher consciousness you have only to nod your head in time, concussed, newly delighted.–Derek Miller
MP3: Hot Chip–“Hold On”
31. Brightblack Morninglight–Motion to Rejoin (Matador)
There’s gospel and then there’s gutter happy Hallelujah. The duo of Rachael Hughes and suitably-named Nathan Shineywater most certainly sing in the tone of the latter, though it’s often hard to tell from the surface for just how slow and sludgy their swampsongs are to take shape. Toe the edge and you’ll note it’s one marked by a kind of clear-as-river-mud spiritualism, a warm soil-suck earthiness that’s part tattered hymn and part porchfront blues. Subtle, slow-take anthems that snaked odd shapes in the bayou-dew. In fact, Brightblack Morning Light mark the kind of fever-spirit godspell you’d find nudged under the benches of a two-seat pew on many a Highway 66 on stained parchment. But on the duo’s third album proper, Motion to Rejoin, they’ve arguably made their most beautiful statement of artistic fatigue to date. They’ve added soulful background singers—a touch of true gospel–to round out a sound that sometimes felt just too threadbare. What strange church songs now, what slurry bed-hair sense for torchlight hours. So beautiful, so narcotized, such belly-warm wineskin music. Let’s lie flat on our backs and never move again.–Derek Miller
MP3: Brightblack Morninglight-“Hologram Buffalo”
30. Los Campesinos–Hold On Now, Youngster (Wichita/Arts & Crafts)
Gareth Campesinos and Co. clearly grew up not just liking music but being obsessed by bands, and they’ve done the only honourable thing you can in that position: they’ve created the first band both worthy of and rewarding to obsession in quite some time. I don’t just mean the second album, the fake fanzine, the great videos, the lyrics that kids will probably be deciphering for years to come, the indelible not-really-hit, the incredible concerts and this, a near-perfect debut – although sure, those help too – but rather that Los Campesinos! are the first buzz band in my recent memory to actually sound like they’re everything that’s important about music in one package, that can successfully fool you into thinking that listening to everything else is superfluous.–Ian Mathers
MP3: Los Campesinos-“My Year In Lists”
29. Seun Kuti + Fela’s Egypt80–Seun Kuti + Fela’s Egypt80 (Tot ou Tard)
Less than a minute into Seun Kuti + Fela’s Egypt80, those unmistakable horns come in. “Many Things” is a sparer introduction than you’d think from the propulsive, packed arrangements of his pop, more of a blues with call-response soul interjections than a storm of huge-band protest funk. But just because Fela’s youngest son chooses to build and sculpt as he goes along rather than groove tight all the way home (or for half an hour apiece) doesn’t make him any less of a miracle heir. Don’t think lightweight though. Think Stereolab-level pulsating, with sax solos, a burbling constancy of rhythm and patient virtuosity, and the occasional surprise—is “Fire Dance” hiphop? “Mosquito Song” some new clattering breed of salsa? This is like if Jakob Dylan made Highway 61.–Dan Weiss
MP3: Seun Kuti+ Fela’s Egypt80-“Many Things” (Left-Click)
28. Black Milk–Tronic (Fat Beats)
Any hip-hop producer worth his weight in vinyl would fall over himself to be favorably compared to the legendary J. Dilla, especially if said producer was from Detroit. That wasn’t good for Black Milk. On Tronic, he washes his boom-bap with layers of techno (“Bounce”), G-Funk (“Without U”), live instrumentation (“Give the Drummer Sum”), and appregios with avant garde textures (“Overdose”), all while still dishing out post-Dilla soul (“Try”), and beating Just Blaze at his own game (“Losing Out”). Nearly topping his beats, Milk’s raps weave through drum patterns with a flow strong enough to bar-for-bar with Royce da 5’9″, arguably the D’s best rapper. One of the rare producer/rappers whose lyrical prowess matches his beatmaking, how, with Tronic, Black Milk has finally escaped Dilla’s long shadow.–Douglas Martin
MP3: Black Milk ft. Pharoah Monche, Sean Price & DJ Premier-“The Matrix”
27. Hercules & Love Affair–Hercules & Love Affair (Mute)
Like most young artists these days, Andy Butler is a historian first. With the help of the best engineering the DFA could find, his first album under his fabulous moniker assembles favorite bits from early Chicago house, Cerrone, Patrick Cowley, and boring VIP section background music into a mournful palimpsest. Butler understands that the essence of great dance music lies in the intersection of anxiety and abandon; even on the dance floor his characters constantly look over their shoulders, or watch their partner’s eyes as they follow a handsome stranger to the bar. But this collector of exotica’s shrewdest decision was hiring Antony to sing “Easy” and the heartstopping “Blind,” on which his tremulous high notes insist on flight from the nervous breakdown described in the lyrics.–Alfred Soto
MP3: Hercules & Love Affair-“Hercules’ Theme”
26. Gang Gang Dance–Saint Dymphna (The Social Registry)
“Oh shit. Gang Gang.” And just like that—only a minute into “Princes”– the UK’s MC Tinchy Stryder nailed the listener’s experience of first hearing one of the year’s most diverse ‘dance’ records. Named after the patron saint of rebels and outcasts, Saint Dymphna was the kind of schizo world rhythm record Gang Gang Dance is making their creative legerdemain. Liz Bougatsos has a cross-breed urban scrawl made of famous city voices: part Siouxsie Sioux, part Cyndi Lauper, part Kate Bush.
The record has the internal sense of a long forming storm, following the fierce nonsense rhythms of wind and slanted rain, elements of chaos and clatter, but with a kind of natural enveloping rhythm. And yet, even with that haphazard sense of creativity at its base, the band follows its most roughly narrative terrain to date. Well, ‘narrative’ is a stretch, but you can make out actual words this time. They include vague musings about cows and McDonald’s cashiers that, in Gang Gangs’s hands, sound somehow like pagan poetry. But if the band’s breakout record, 2005’s God’s Money, laid out the band’s garbage-find logic, Saint Dymphna seems stitched together out of forty-five patch-quilt moments, odd cerebral rhythms and degenerate synth-n-bass patterns that give its songs if not, well, song then at least something you might identify since the word for these things ain’t around just yet. In a year where the consensus holds that dance music lost its momentum, Gang Gang Dance fittingly forged 2008’s best gap-crossing dance album out of world music spoils and scummy drum patterns, a little bit demented but wholly enthralling.–Derek Miller
MP3: Gang Gang Dance-“Desert Storm”
25. Lindstrøm – Where You Go I Go Too (Feedelity)
Norway’s Hans-Peter Lindstrøm has always operated on the expansive end of the cosmic disco spectrum, but never has he expanded so far as he has on Where You Go I Go Too, his first full-length solo album. With only three tracks clocking in at 55 minutes, including the nearly 30-minute title track, WYGIGT found Lindstrøm injecting his linear brand of electronic drift was an extra dose of helium, causing it to rise further into the ether than ever before. With a five-minute template, Lindstrøm often pushed his work to the very edge of the dancefloor; given 10, 15, or 30, he’s floating peacefully above it, still shaking tail feathers behind him enough to provide the propulsive energy needed to alleviate mere drift. Alongside from the epic title track, “Grand Ideas” is Moroder on steroids, and closer “The Long Way Home” a mid-tempo meander. All three are built on the same shimmering spine of pulsating synths, a gentle but insistent rhythmic push, and a slowly unfolding fractal vision that allows Lindstrøm both the flexibility to grow in different directions and the space to examine each and every glistening detail without losing sight of the whole. Repeat visits are highly recommended.—Todd Hutlock
24. Menahan Street Band–Make the Road By Walking (Dap Tone)
Thank Sean C and LV for the world’s introduction to the Menahan Street Band on their not-so-subtle flip, of 7″ inch single, “Make The Road By Walking” into Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys”– with its Brooklyn basement vibe and smoldering horns capturing the unique essence of the band’s retro soul. Their full-lenth debut, arriving two years later, is nothing less than spectacular. There’s nothing to fall back on here, no way of disguising shortcomings with novelty or gimmicks. To pull off a record like this you need immaculately sculpted arrangements, ones that demonstrate a discerning ear for detail The dubby lilt of “Montego Sunset” and the Latin flourishes of “Birds,” make Make the Road By Walking stand-out, its bronze horns and soulful flourshes almost make you feel like you’re at Wattstax. –Dan Love
MP3: Menahan Street Band-“Make the Road By Walking”
23. The Hold Steady–Stay Positive (Vagrant)
Four albums into the Hold Steady’s career of hard-drinking, hard drugs and good time rock ‘n’ roll, Stay Positive is the comedown. The parties start lovely, but they get druggy, and they get ugly, and they get bloody. The guys hanging round the scene are a little too old, the girls at the shows aren’t having as much fun as they used to, and now, when things get messy, it can’t be so easily laughed off. Dead bodies haunt the album, with Finn describing the killing of a grisly, harpsichord-driven “One for the Cutters,” as a “fight with a butterfly knife” resulting in “one drop of blood on immaculate Keds.” While the rustic “Both Crosses,” sounds tormented, oppressively humid, and unlike anything the band has done prior.
Not to suggest that the Hold Steady has abandoned its predilection for raucous bar-band rave-ups, nor for songs about partying, punk rock and pills. This record contains all the references to classic rock songs, unified scenes and getting almost killed in Ybor City that every Hold Steady fan craves. It’s just that, far from being golden with bar-light and beer, the band is now discovering they can’t get as high as they got on the first night. At such times, as Finn will tell you, you gotta stay positive.–Jonathan Bradley
MP3: The Hold Steady-“Slapped Actress”
22. Q-Tip–The Renaissance (Universal/MoTown)
Dilla’s gone. Common did “Terminator 4.” The Roots added Jimmy Fallon to the Okayplayer roster. Talib Kweli is delaying Jean Grae albums. Mos Def raps out of annoyance. Lupe is kind of a douche. And Busta is the starting nose tackle for the Houston Texans. Things could be better for the Abstract and his contemporaries, yet The Renaissance, his first album since 1999’s Amplified, sounds isolated from the doom and gloom around it.
Jabs at record label drama are kept to a minimum. Live instrumentation is used sparingly to great effects. The rhodes are back. Basslines turn your neck into linguini. And elements of The Love Movement (“Johnny is Dead”) and Beats, Rhymes and Life (“Official”) are utilized a decade and change later to more rewarding and less divisive results. The singles bare no influence of the synth/80s aesthetic that wins over (new) rap critics–“Gettin’ Up” has a Greg Nice rhyme scheme and a two-step beat perfect for a family barbeque or a Mark Ronson coke party. “Move” is another sublime Dilla single that is right in Tip’s wheelhouse. And “Won’t Trade” has Tip so in pocket with the Black Sheepish beat, you forget this man made his first record when cable TV was a luxury. The Renaissance isn’t a masterpiece, it’s just a damn good hip hop album in a post-Dilla/hipster hop world. Q-Tip, like Bruce Wayne and stoner movies, just endures.–Zilla Rocca
MP3: Q-Tip-“Gettin’ Up”
21. Vivian Girls–Vivian Girls (In The Red)
As the hoary adage avers: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” So what are we supposed to make of Vivian Girls, a Brooklyn-based, all-girl punk band who manage to rip off Tiger Trap, The Ronettes, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, plus seminal first-wave punk band The Wipers, all in one fell swoop? Say what you want about the theft from such specific source material, but between the charging drums of “All the Time,” the guitars in “Damaged” sounding like buzzsaws cutting through rusty metal, the throwback elegance of “Who Do You Run To” (written by former drummer Frankie Rose), and the gorgeous harmonies of… uh.. every song on the album, you have a record that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Vivian Girls is what every punk album should be: fast, uncomplicated, defiant, brief, and, most importantly, endlessly replayable.–Douglas Martin
MP3: Vivian Girls-“Where Do You Run To”
20. Al Green–Lay It Down (Blue Note)
What more did you want from Al Green? Did you want him to wear Levar Burton sunglasses and use auto-tune? Did you want him to do a ladies only tour? Did you want him to employ interplanetary metaphors to soundtrack your supernova sex life? (You can say yes to this one). The point is, Al Green did everything he was supposed to, which is, be Al Green. Sure, he updated the formula, recruiting John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton to impress people who shop at Whole Foods. He brought in ?uestlove, James Poyser and one of the Dap Kings to do their best Willie Mitchell imitation. But nearly 40 years later, it’s still all about that voice–still knee-buckling, sounding as though its been preserved in amber. In a year where Isaac Hayes and Al Wilson waddled off this mortal coil, this album is ongoing proof that we should feel blessed to still have Al Green to teach us how to lay it down. –Jeff Weiss
MP3: Al Green-“No One Like You”
19. Vampire Weekend– Vampire Weekend (XL)
Still trying to figure out why Vampire Weekend became the only Harlem-based album worth a shit since Purple Haze? Like most great hip-hop debuts, the band managed to forge a readily knowable personality that allowed you to experience their story-songs as if the narrator was already someone you knew, and obviously, people completely unfamiliar with irony got rubbed the wrong way. Well, unless there’s absolutely no crossover between bloggers who were aghast at the Republican meme of anti-elitism and the bloggers who caught feelings because Vampire Weekend had the nerve to be happy, well-off, educated and not from Malawi.
But in the end, despite the silly arguments about whether it was OK to listen to Afro-pop as long as you never, ever, ever tried to sound like it, VW was the only internet-fueled band that made commercial inroads in 2008 because they crafted eleven songs of instant familiarity, sturdy and keen detail, with only one (or, only “One”) being a complete dud. I suppose the Strokes comparisons make sense, considering Vampire Weekend, like Is This It? or even Illmatic is so fully-formed on touchdown that it almost seems impossible that the band can do it again. But at least the inevitable sophomore backlash is going to be way more fun this time around.–Ian Cohen
MP3: Vampire Weekend-“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”
18. Sic Alps–U.S. EZ (Siltbreeze)
Sometime after Bob Zimm begged to stomp on that leopardskin pillbox hat, Sic Alps was one letter deletion from designation: point of departure, signpost, a bit of juvy Braille carved from a jr. high desk covered in penciled prattle of cock ‘n’ cunt. Sic Alps seem the sort predisposed to cipher. Codes, keys, symbols apparent and obtuse. Doubt it fucking formed up any a priori notion of what their music was s’posed to “sound like.” More than willing to glide down Spiral Stairs (see/hear U.S. EZ’s “Bric Jaz,” replete with Pavement’s predilection for linguistic tomfuckery), the duo works well balancing focus and fuzz; avoiding cliché as it flirts with the sort of classicism (dis)embodied by big rock ‘n’ roll ghosts. When Donovan sings: “I know I put down every word and letter in its place;” it’s clear he’s not establishing apologia. We could sing-song, “First there is a mountain / Then it seems the mountain’s gone.” We could mumble, “Ev-reee-thin. Ev-reee-thin. Inits rye-ght place.” Or we could offer: slack-jawed wonder in the face of the impermanent. First there is a mountain… But rock ‘n’ roll’s always offered a strained and flexed ontology; it’s been as good at soapboxin’ grand generalizations as it has slurring nonsense from a street corner. Sic Alps are wont to fuck with both brands, as “Hey! Sofia” is every bit the California dreamin’ encapsulated by Alice in Chains’ “Would.” Nothin’ like screaming technicolor pop, feeback so slow-mo it might as well join the perso-tag traffic crawl. They’re too disinterested to delve into the messianic. They may be singing and playing about motherfucking everything that’s around them—whether coming in or out of being. But they’re light-years removed from rock ’em sock ’em social commentary. No one’s lookin’ for a fight. Sic Alps are just alright.–Stewart Voeglin
MP3: Sic Alps-“Gelly Roll Gum Drop”
17. Wolf Parade–At Mount. Zoomer (Sub Pop)
For a while, it appeared that Spencer Krug had permanently strayed from the pack. Add that to Dan Boeckner’s Handsome Furs joints and Dante DeCaro’s ongoing celebration of no longer being in Hot Hot Heat and the death knell seemed to ring particularly loud for a young, promising band. However, that freedom to explore and experiment somehow made Wolf Parade more cohesive and greater than the sum of their parts. While At Mount Zoomer is not as initially striking as instant classic, Apologies to the Queen Mary, it stands as an excellent document of a band that has grown together and apart.
The drums are clean. The guitars are clean. The vocals aren’t shrouded in reverb or buried in the mix. The Bowie influence has been muted, while the Springsteen aping has become more prominent. At Mount Zoomer finds the band both moving forward and looking to their past. Familiar lyrical themes like water, ghost towns, and horses abound, but Boeckner and Krug manage to make them sound fresh. The competition that exists between the two primary songwriters has always been what made Wolf Parade so great–this tension allows them to explore both traditional and avant-garde structures, which results in songs that don’t sound recycled but rather feel like two different chapters of the same book. Too bad the album cover looks like it was designed by a mentally deranged 8-year old who escaped from a Soviet Gulag.–Trey Kirby
MP3: Wolf Parade-“Call It A Ritual”
16. DJ Rupture–Uproot (Agriculture)
In his scrumptiously succinct review of Uproot, Mike Powell began, “If you want to understand DJ/rupture’s music without hearing it, read his blog.” It’s an appropriate suggestion; for instance, take a look at Jace Clayton’ most recent entry, which features an excerpt from an interview he participated in for Plan B. He states,
“I don’t care what ‘Westerners’ fetishize. They’ve been fetishizing black people for centuries now, who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. Fetishism is so vague. I care a lot when Westerners rip off non-Western musicians, even by rendering them anonymous like Sublime Frequencies often does, but random concepts of fetishization don’t really mean much. It’s almost too abstract to matter.”
Then he posts a spy flick-flavored, house piano-filled, baritone choir-backed Brazilian song about an elephant. Dilettantes: step off. –Tal Rosenberg
MP3: DJ Rupture-“Reef: Baby Kites & Nokea”
For their sophomore stunt, Islands perform the nearly-impossible-to-pull-off White Album trick of absorbing a crazy quilt of styles without approaching imitation. In the course of Arms Way’s hour-plus run time, they inseam everything from concert hall symphony to stoner-prog, rum cocktail calypso, to hair-cut indie, to dizzy Sondheim-esque rambles. Hell, they even sample “A Quick One While He’s Away,” from fellow genre-swiping masters, The Who. Despite frontman Nick Thorbun’s lyrical obsession with death, his songs retain a sonic levity that never feels tacky, and a sly playfulness that would ostensibly leaden similarly grim songs. Capturing a sense of exoticism, adventure, and whimsy without coming off corny or simplistic, Islands blend disparate ingredients into a strong tropical brew. Stick an umbrella in it, garnish with a side of pineapple and drink up.--Jeff Weiss
MP3: Islands-“Arm’s Way”
14. Cut Copy–In Ghost Colours (Modular)
Like a dream, In Ghost Colours shifts hazily from idea to idea according to its own internal logic. It is not a selection of songs, but a collection of images coalescing with vivid clarity for brief, wonderful periods before dissolving back into sonic vapor. The lyrics are vague and occasionally trite, yet the mood is swooning and romantic. The music shimmers and sparkles, seemingly making perfect sense, even as it discards things like song structure as elements of the conscious world. Waking up when it’s all over, you remember only moments, instances that seem nonsensical if you try to explain them to someone else: “It was disco, but all the songs were compact and melodic, like pop music! ‘Strangers in the Wind’ was Fleetwood Mac turned into a dance band, and there were lights and music, and also a song called ‘Lights and Music’! Somewhere there were girls, and they were crying, and sometimes they were talking on the phone, and I think it probably all happened at night, except ‘Feel the Love’ was a sunny summer morning at a music festival, and, and, and, then in the middle of it all there was a saxophone…” –Jonathan Bradley
MP3: Cut Copy-“Hearts on Fire”
13. The Kills–Midnight Boom (Domino)
From the bass throb and telephone tone treble of opening tune “U.R.A. Fever” on, Midnight Boom is no ordinary indie rock album. For a start, it’s strikingly empty. The drums are flat, and often synthetic. The brittle guitar lines stretch taut over a black bass rumble. VV’s voice alternates between expressionless murmur and expressionless yowl. The effect is hypnotic; The Kills’ most striking contribution to the record is the expanse of blank space rather than the actual sounds interrupting it. The resulting void is music to get lost in, and because these tense, tight constructions never dissolve into messy release, there is no way out. You just have to stick with VV and hope she guides you safely through the madness. Run with it; as she sings on “Cheap and Cheerful,” “I want you to be crazy because you’re boring, baby, when you’re straight.”–Jonathan Bradley
12. Esau-Mwamwaya + Radioclit-The Very Best (Self-Released)
In which, a Malawian singer/junk shop owner now living in London teams up with British/Parisian, Mad Decent-affiliated producers to sing a smattering of African tongues over the hottest beats of recent vintage on a mixtape done Piracy Funds Terrorism style–meaning bloggers are contractually obligated to fawn. With Mwamwaya’s gorgeously crooning over samples ranging from M.I.A.’s “Boyz,” and “Paper Planes;” to Hans Zimmer’s True Romance theme; to Cannibal Ox’s “Life’s Ill,” the effect is the rare zeitgeisty type record as fun to listen to as think about. Particularly, when the East African singer re-re-appropriates Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and turns it into post-modern commentary on culture stealing, the Manute Bol arms of the Internet and the mixtape medium shedding its chrysalis. More importantly, it shows them kids how to rhyme.–Jeff Weiss
ZIP: Esau-Mwamwaya + Radioclit-The Very Best (Left-Click)
11. Flying Lotus–Los Angeles (Warp)
With even the slightest change in form enough to beget a new (pointless) House sub-genre and increasingly powerful gear opening bold new frontiers for electronic producers, Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles stands as an anomaly. Too funky and organic for glitch, too glitchy for hip-hop, too jazzy and atmospheric for IDM, too smart for Trip-Hop, too American for Dubstep but too alien for downtempo, Los Angeles actively resists classification. Instead, the album thrives on its compositional value: it’s not what Flying Lotus does but how he does it. Static is repurposed into percussion, tribal drums and sitars melt into off kilter boom-bap, weed-inspired washes of sound crash into scratch-aping synthesizers and the whole of the project is cast in a deep, dark haze. The gloom is seductive, all analogue warmth and popcorn crackle and in making a record for LA’s massive sprawl, FlyLo unwittingly frees electronic music from the cramped confines of the club. This is music that works just as well on a lonely desert road as it does in the subways of a Metropolis gone mad. By grabbing the best ideas from Ninjatune, MoWax, Stones Throw and Warp but ignoring their formal constraints, Flying Lotus has dropped an incredibly progressive album that doesn’t flaunt its novelty at the expense of its character. Call it Electronic Soul.–Sach O
MP3: Flying Lotus-Breathe . Something/Stellar STar
It’s tough to write about Why?’s breakout record without anxiously jotting down a few choice lyrics from songwriter Yoni Wolf’s notebook. Not to downplay its musicianship, but Alopecia is foremost a lyrical masterpiece. Wolf muses on relationships, sex, and especially death (the album opens with him faking his own death and ends with him actually doing the deed) with the detailed eye and wisecracking smirk of an admitted hero of his, David Berman (whose Silver Jews are shouted out on the record). Unlike Berman, however, Wolf occasionally spouts his incisive lyrics through rapping, whether it’s droll and monotone (“Good Friday”), excitedly nasally (“The Fall of Mr. Fifths”), or assured and sing-songy (“The Vowels Pt. 2”). And when he’s not rapping, like on “Fatalist Palmistry,” Wolf– backed by the most driving, pop-friendly music on the album– is confidently singing a tune (probably) about the uncertainty of dating a palm reader. But death seems to creep its way back in, note the last lines: “But God put a song on my palm that you can’t read/I’ll be embalmed with it long before you see.”–Douglas Martin
MP3: Why?-“Fatalist Palmistry”
9. Portishead–Third (Island)
Third is fucking scary. Emerging from 10 years in the Wilderness (Axl who?), Portishead sound as if they’ve spent their downtime getting physically and emotionally raped in robot concentration camps while the rest of the world was off wanking to bad 80’s pop music. Not since El-P’s Fantastic Damage has a record captured the utter bleakness of contemporary times so poignantly. Their craft is impeccable: Beth Gibbons’ voice is a beautiful razor, Geoff Barrow’s drums eat speakers for breakfast, Adrian Utley’s guitar lines shimmer in the darkness and every piece interlocks to form this painstakingly wrought machine of blood and bone. The minute you hear this record you realize that this past decade of amateur-hour protools-n-plugin enabled indie music has been an utter waste of our time…their sound is too frail, their ideas fall apart and everything they stand for is crushed under the Portishead steamroller. Put Third up against any “experimental” record and it’s weirder, catchier, more unique and just plain superior. There’s a lot of Hip-Hop here: ask Barrow and he’ll name-drop Marley Marl, The Bomb Squad, Madlib and Flying Lotus as influences, but it’s rap’s primordial energy and rawness he subscribes to now, not any specific sound or style. Yet for all of these qualities, Third’s greatest allure remains its mystery. In an era where rappers document their bowel movements on YouTube and rockers whine ad nauseum on their blogs, Beth Gibbons’ absolute refusal to grant interviews means we’ll never know the story behind this utterly desolate record and that’s ok, it doesn’t need to be about anything other than the listener’s own experience. Rather than a cliché break-up record or an academic exercise in seriousness, Third can stand proud as one of the few, true pieces of great human art the new millennium has produced.
So yeah, Third is scary. But if you’re an artist you shouldn’t be scared. You should be goddamn terrified.–Sach O
8. Elzhi–Europass (Self-Released)
“All I hear is nonsense, blasé blah,” and so Elzhi commences Europass with seven words that cut to the core of rap, pop music, and culture in the year 2008. What follows is a tour de force of technical skill, beats, and out and out warfare. Based solely off of Europass, Elzhi is the best technical rapper rapping. One could also claim that he’s the best storyteller rapping. And the best battle rapper rapping. Europass is just that good. Vividly re-telling an attempted robbery from three different points of view, topping Royce Da 5’9″ on a track where Royce drops an insane verse, El displays a versatility and commitment to craft that was unparalleled in 2008. To say nothing of the production, mostly handled by Black Milk, and mostly stellar.
Most confounding is that Europass is a stopgap release, not meant as anything other than a cash grab at a merch table. That something so esoteric (really? A Europe-only release of a former Slum Village member’s “debut” record is number 8?) could explode onto the collective conscious of hip-hop heads speaks to both Elzhi and the power of the internet. Which presents a strange conundrum. The very thing that El blasts in the first line of his debut record, “nonsense,” has helped make him known. Europass shows that in this age of easily discarded memes and instant gratification, a dedication to quality can still allow one to rise above the muck.–Trey Kirby
MP3: Elzhi-“Talkin’ In My Sleep”
7. Wale–Mixtape About Nothing (Self-Released)
Like Jerry Seinfeld and Trent Reznor, Wale slyly used “nothing” as a self-deprecating code word to signify “everything.” Even more impressive than the microphone dexterity he displayed on the “Roc Boys” freestyle is the sheer scope of The Mixtape About Nothing, wherein this DC upstart keenly engaged all manner of hot-button topics like Ethan Hunt, skillfully working without hitting any tripwires. “The Kramer” navigated sticky race relations better than the entirety of Nas’ Untitled, his introspection about the record business and his place in it stung with more precision than the complaints of any MySpace new jack or A&R, and placing his verse from The Roots’ “Rising Down” right next to a complete banger featuring Malice and Bun B said a lot more about unity and hope than any fucking TV on the Radio song. And to top it off, he’s reverent enough to solicit his only feature from Lil’ Wayne, have it be the best thing Weezy blessed this year and call it “The Cliché Lil’ Wayne Feature.” Forgive us for being overly excited about Wale: this it what it sounded like to be a complete fanboy of this rap shit in 2008 and still feel like it was worth it.–Ian Cohen
ZIP: Wale-The Mixtape About Nothing (Left-Click)
6. The Knux–Remind Me in Three Days (Interscope)
While the rest of the world was wasting their time with the other “avant-garde” (as if…), “weirdo” (no really, as if…) rap act from New Orleans, the world slept on the Knux’s genre-melting, utterly killer debut album, “Remind Me In 3 Days…”. The Knux borrow from everybody from Outkast (“Fire (Put It In The Air,”) to David Bowie (“Roxanne,”) to Fergie (“Daddy’s Little Girl,”) to the Pharcyde (“Cappuccino,”) and use it to craft the year’s most original debut. This record is full of funny, furious rapping, wildly inventive musical experimentation, catchy hooks and song-writing that exhibits an eye for poignant, social satire. The Knux are able to do all of this to help craft a record that is a sly send-up of the inane vacuousness of The Hills-era, Hollywood social scene. And to make it a bit more obvious, this is the record that some unfortunate music critics think “The Carter 3” sounds like but actually really, really doesn’t. Yeah, I said it. –B.J. Steiner
MP3: The Knux-“Fire”
5. M83–Saturdays=Youth (Mute)
Tal Rosenberg, dream state, age 14: “Girl, I love you. Sometimes, when I see you across the lawn with your eyeliner, smoking a cigarette, I think to myself how I’m the only one that understands you. If only you could hear my mind, perfectly attuned to what you’re thinking and seeing that all these shallow losers don’t know anything about you, even though they pretend to. When you’re lying down on my bed, your hair perfectly splayed on my pillow, the light from my bedroom pouring onto your delicate features, I think to myself how lucky I am that you’re here with me. When we kiss, I don’t have to imagine being with anyone else, because you’re just so fucking perfect and I can’t picture anyone else that’s more gorgeous than you. And after we make love, for the first time, because you’re so special, we can go for a ride in my flying car through the night sky. We’ll shoot lasers. And probably make out some more. Awesome.” –Tal Rosenberg
MP3: M83-“Graveyard Girl”
Music is meant to be enjoyed. That sounds simple but often isn’t when you listen to 322 records a year–really, I counted. That’s nearly one new album a day, many of them for pay, many to keep current so that I don’t completely plummet into a cannabis coated cavern of Fela Kuti and The Grateful Dead. At times, it feels like that Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Satan/Ned Flanders consigns Homer to a hell of hovering around a conveyor belt eating nothing but donuts. Yet it’d be cheapening Dungen’s 4 to compare it to any sugar-coated confection. The sound might be pure euphony, but the ease belies a master’s symphonic sleight of hand. Gustav Estjes, stays lysergically bent out in the frozen forests of Sweden and returns once a year, possessed with visions of Madlib, a Bitches Brew Miles and a Hot Rats-era, Zappa, kicking in the doors of our skulls–staying sanguine even though this is his fourth album and he ain’t made a dime. I don’t know if this is the best album of the year, but it’s my favorite to listen to; one of the rare modern records warm enough to warrant endless loops. Yes, drugs help. –Jeff Weiss
MP3: Dungen-“Satt At Se”
3. Madlib–Beat Konducta V0l. 5: Dil Cosby Suite (Stones Throw)
Throughout their respective careers J Dilla and Madlib have shown they each possessed an understanding of groove far beyond that of their peers, and with their unique approaches to artisanal hip-hop clearly shared not just a collaborative relationship, but a friendship borne out of mutual appreciation and respect. So if there was anything positive to be gleaned from the tragic passing of Dilla, it’s that we ought to appreciate Madlib that much more.
The latest in Madlib’s Beat Konducta series, Vol. 5 Dil Cosby Suite and Vol. 6 Dil Withers Suite may not be Madlib’s best work, but they are his most meaningful. What was once merely impressive is suddenly elevated by the music’s expressed purpose: across both suites Madlib’s compositions continuously acknowledge Dilla’s contribution and influence. The tribute isn’t in explicitly appropriating Dilla’s approach, but rather creating tracks that evoke what he stood for: fearlessness and selflessness. This may not necessarily be music Dilla would or even could have made, but he would have enjoyed it.–Disco Vietnam
MP3: Madlib-“Do You Know? (Transition)”
2. Erykah Badu–New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War (MoTown)
On a purely musical basis, the aesthetic progress that Erykah Badu has made from Baduizm to this album is remarkable. Madlib and Sa-Ra performed the ultimate makeover: taking the unfortunately titled genre tag “neo-soul” and exemplifying the artistic adventurousness which it claimed to do. Really, there wasn’t a better sounding hip-hop album all year, and this is from an album that’s not supposed to be hip-hop! Whisking Lee “Scratch Perry, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Minnie Riperton, RAMP, Martina Topley-Bird, Miles Davis, and Roberta Flack in a big bowl, this was the stew that kept on giving, pumping blood into the low-end, kicking ass on the treble, and taking names in the process.
Then there was Erykah, cooing and chanting and giggling and whispering and spanking and slamming her way through every nook and pocket, nudging her pinched baby voice into heretofore unimagined places, bringing her persona front-and-center in a way that it had never been brought before.
But based purely on the significance tied into what is a “2008 album,” there is absolutely no competition. All this month and next month, when every end-of-year-issue tells you that this was “The Year of Obama,” “The Year of Change,” or “The Year of Hope,” the actuality is that the throwback cartoon image of Erykah punching her name through the casing is what I’ll remember. If M.I.A.’s Kala was a telescope into the Third World—the one that Americans refused or were unwilling to see—then New Amerykah is a giant mirror reflecting the U.S. that we refuse to acknowledge. The one in which an educational system fails year after year; the one where racism persists despite the media’s insistence of otherwise; the one in which the media continuously feeds bald-faced lies to the public; where everyone’s out of work; and most importantly, where politicians fail us by falling prey to their own interests. The pervasive, Shepard Fairey-designed image of Barack won’t bear the significance to me it will to many others, not when Obama capitulated on FISA; crafted a Clintonian cabinet that adhered to Beltway Establishment politics; and entered his presidency on an inauspicious foundation.
The point is that though we finally have a black president in the White House, little has really changed. Yet. And that’s Erykah’s masterstroke at the denouement, concluding with “Honey.” By exiting on a note of (relative) optimism, she acknowledges that there’s always a future ahead, one that offers even more opportunities for real progress to occur. New Amerykah Part One is a truly American document because it emphasizes a perennial and fundamental component of our history, that it takes furious and indignant motherfuckers to improve a temporarily moribund country beset by ethical and infrastructural maladies. This is 2008’s Civil Disobedience.
I can’t wait for Part Two. –Tal Rosenberg
MP3: Erykah Badu-“The Healer”
1. Kanye West–Heartbreak & 808s (Roc-A-Fella)
Heartbreaks & 808s is Kanye West’s Electric Circus. It’s his Love Below. His Life of Chris Gaines.. His Trans–except done directly in the prime of a white-hot career. It’s “emo pop.” It’s too much like Tears for Fears. It’s not enough like his first album. It’s got too much techno. It’s not techno enough. His production is inspired by Gary Numan. No, it’s inspired by El-P. But it’s not hip-hop! Why can’t he sing? His use of auto-tune is stupid. No, it’s a brilliant way to project a robotic and detached despondency. It’s artistic overreach. It’s a genius in his prime following his muse in whatever warped direction it takes him. It’s a work wrought by tragedy. It’s the product of self-indulgence. The lyrics are fourth grade poetry. The album sounds incondite and muddled. Its hasty construction lends it an immediacy and raw power. It’s ephemeral at best. It’s a Zeitgeist tapping, tour de force, that captures the personal and political at their lowest ebb. It’s a Rorschach blot designed to elicit every possible emotion and opinion. It may be all these things combined. It may be none of them. It may be the best album of the year. It is. –Jeff Weiss
MP3: Kanye West-“Heartless”