If you’re gracious enough to link to this list, the complete Top 50 is concurrently being updated in the original post. If you’re going to drink one clear cola this year, make it Crystal Pepsi. Please.
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”
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”
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
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”
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”
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)
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”
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)
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
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