– Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) I will admit that I am late to the party with these guys, but what a great mellow return of the Byrds/CSNY/Simon and Garfunkel harmonies in a post-grunge era. This is a CD/dongle to chill to in the long wet winters of the Pacific Northwest, which probably explains why KEXP (90.3 FM in Seattle or http://www.kexp.org/ for the planet) choose it to top their 2008 list.
– Company of Thieves, Ordinary Riches I believe this CD was released first in 2007 but resurfaced in 2008. I first heard their single “Oscar Wilde” and loved it on first listen with its chorus “I am my own devil/ and I make this world a Hell” – a chorus refrain that I think both Augustine and John Calvin would applaud. One reviewer compared them to a mash up of Neil Young and Fiona Apple… not a bad mix, eh?
– She and Him, Vol. 1 If there is a selection on this list that I expect to garner abuse about, it is probably this one. Granted, the idea of Zooey Deschanel (of Will Farrell’s “Elf” and SciFi channel’s “Tin Man” fame) and M. Ward joining together for a CD smites of the sad, sad run of actresses trying to become singers. Heck… it works this time. Paste Magazine was willing to go with this retro vibe project as their top CD of 2008 and it is a winner.
– Dustin Kensrue, Please Come Home (Equal Vision)- this is another one that came out in 2007 but only got to my iTouch in 2008. I never thought Kensrue’s band Thrice was anything special, but his two solo projects – Please Come Home and his Christmas Cd released this year – have taken a page directly out of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker CD and run with it (I wouldn’t be surprised if Kensrue had Heartbreaker playing in the sound room during the mixing…). Nice stripped down alt.country vibe complete with Cormac McCarthy raw lyrics yet spiced with hope in the midst of blood and death.
– Flobots, Fight with Tools (Universal) – what do you do when you are a Denver-based hip-hop act that incorporates radical elements into your music – string sections, banjos, and optimism? You come out with a kickin’ CD in 2008 that really punches a hole in both your earbuds and your mind. Hard-driving from the opening track, the Flobots challenge the status quo of hip hop that sees social change as only possible through violence and fueled by anger. Here is a message (prophetic at that) of world revolution bought through critical reflection, challenging the status quo, giving up consumerism, and learning to listen to our brothers and sisters again. This is a challenging, powerful band worth paying attention to.
– The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant) – I became a big, BIG fan of the Hold Steady a couple of years back with the release of Boys and Girls in America. One reviewer notes that their classic bar-room aesthetic is the mash up of Springsteen’s lyrics with Thin Lizzy’s driving big open chords. Craig Finn, the lead singer, is not afraid to peel back the facade of suburban America (“Constructive Summer”; “One for the Cutters”) and show the dark side writ large. And yet, amidst all the punch and roll of the muscular guitar riffs there is a heart and hope for redemption that bleeds through. And as they sing on the opening track – ‘their songs are sing-along songs’. True that!
– Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti -) – The fact that Nick Cave and Tom Waits now share a record label (Anti- records) is to know the address of the coming apocalypse. If the bomb drops, you want to be at Anti – since these guys are the ones chosen by God to sing the songs as the world burns to the ground. Nick Cave has both a disfigured beauty and simple-minded lament that few singer/songwriters have today. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is not his best album, but by industry standards he could drop a water glass into a garbage compactor and still make my top 10. Like Boatman’s Call and Murder Ballads, this CD centers around themes of sinning beyond the reach of redemption and living in the reality of death and destruction with a heart that hopes for love. It is the pain of longing yet the reality of living that strains the protagonist Southern preacher in the title track as well as “We Call Upon the Author” and “Today’s Lesson.” The man is dark like an espresso shot that refuses cream… biting and burning in all the right ways…
– The Pogues, The Very Best of the Pogues – Fair enough… putting a “best of” collection on a top 8 list is pretty lame, especially since the CD was first released in 2001, so sue me! Basically, the “very best” collection was an import for US buyers till this year when they re-released it in early 2008 as a dongle on iTunes and amazon.com. Lead singer Shane MacGowan sings like he has been in too many bar fights (which may be true) but is still one of the best examples of Celt rock. Fans of HBO’s series “The Wire” will of course recognize “The Body of an American” which played at the wake of every fallen police officer. The collection is strong and it is great to have these gems of an oft-forgotten band ready for download stateside.
Lastly, one honorable mention to round off 2008…
High School Musical 3: Graduation Year (Disney) – try as hard as you might to get all emo and high brow, but the HSM trinity could very well be the best thing to happen to Disney since Goofy and the Tea Cups ride. If we all just ‘got our head in the game’ and realized that ‘we are all in this together’, perhaps… yes, perhaps… we could admit that we too are ‘breakin’ free’…