As you may know I am a huge music slut. It is one of those things that convinces me that there is more to our existence than this life. If there is a Divine, music is the Divine's language. At the end of every year I count down my top 10 favorite records from the previous 12 months. I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of these countdowns, starting with 2008. I have kept a countdown since 2005, but have lost those lists. Looking back, in all honesty, there are a few of these albums that would not make said list if I were doing it today.
Top 10: 2008
@#%&*! Smilers, Aimee Mann
Mann’s best collection since 1999’s Bachelor No. 2: or, The Last Remains of the Dodo, and that’s saying a lot. There’s an apathetic wit to her voice that simply cannot be copied. She can make something that might come off as silly or mundane in the hands of another songwriter, and turn it into a profound statement of regret. From the daring of a speed junkie (“Freeway”) to the desparation of the bored and lost (“Looking for Nothing”, “It’s Over”) to the warped narrative of a fairytale (“Borrowing Time”, originally written for Shrek 3), hers is the voice of America’s fumble into the 21st century.
Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay
They might be the most important rock band since U2. Coldplay constantly offers intelligent rock music that’s as great to listen to as it is to think about. They have never put out a bad CD. Parachutes is still my favorite, but this one comes damn close. They tried a different route with this one: not as radio friendly, with massive shifts in temperament mid song. But it works. And Chris Martin is a poet. “Viva la Vida” is as fantastic a political song as I’ve ever heard, and “Death and All His Friends” is at first mournful and then inspiring.
Promised Land, Dar Williams
Dar’s best work since 2000’s The Green World. She tackles everything from hypocrisy (“Buzzer”) to the environment (“Go to the Woods”), but as always with Dar, the strength is in the storytelling. And she’s a fantastic storyteller with a real gift for the rhyme. Her ode to reluctant but necessary personal change “It’s alright” hits very close to home, and “Holly Tree”, the tale of a farm widow, is a heartbreaker. There’s also a knockout remake of “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig & the Angry Inch.
A Larum, Johnny Flynn
I’m a fan of Nick Drake and Alexi Murdoch and this young fella fits right in there with those masters. His songs aren’t as plaintive, though. There is something of that in his voice, a Celtish wail that’s perfect for a folk song. But he’s got a snarky wit to him as well. Songs like “The Wrote & the Write” and “Tickle Me Pink” are showstoppers in my opinion. Listening to this CD makes me think of one of my favorite books, Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys. Maybe it’s the Joycian undercurrent.
Day & Age, The Killers
Their previous CD, Sawdust, a collection of B-sides and rarities, was okay. Not great. With this CD I think they’ve very nearly topped Hot Fuss. There’s everything from synth (“Human”) to David Bowie-like glam rock (“Neon Tiger”) to just plain rock brilliance (“Spaceman”). It’s dance-inducing and fun, and in the end isn’t that all you want from a Killers album? Well, besides a picture of Brandon Flowers on the sleave.
This is the Life, Amy MacDonald
What a knockout voice MacDonald has. I heard “This is the Life” on Graham Norton and had to get this CD. She’s only 19, but she can write a good tune. Her lyrics are way ahead of her age. Finally, a teenage rocker I can get behind. And did I mention her voice? Like Brandi Carlile and Neko Case, MacDonald’s is a voice that haunts you whether she’s singing about an infatuation with Jake Gyllenhaal (“L.A.”) or ripping on certain aiimless soccer wives (“Footballer’s Wife”).
Our Bright Future, Tracy Chapman
I’m so glad to see her back in form. This is my favorite Chapman record since Telling Stories. Her soothing vocals lead us through the troubles of our times, and behind those vocals there’s a hint that everything will be okay in the end. “I Did it All” ponders a life lived to the fullest and its consequences, and the gospel-sounding “Save Us All” questions religious identity. It’s fantastic writing.
Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst
Speaking of poets (and I did), I am dumbfounded by this guy everytime he releases something. It’s unfair that he has such muses at his command. Unfair! I don’t think I’m overstating when I say the guy is brilliant. This is his first solo record, but under Bright Eyes he has crafted some of the most personal songs I have ever heard. He keeps it up here with the easy-going road trip ode “Moab”, the clever and fun “I Don’t Want to Die (in a Hospital)”, and I get chills on the last stanza of “Danny Callahan.” I thought that song was going in a completely different direction until I heard those last few lines. They put a lump in me ol’ throat.
All That I Intended To Be, Emmylou Harris
Girl can sing a sad song. She’s the best at them. And this collection has thirteen of them. Nothing beats her one-two punch of Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl (so far), but this isn’t trying to reach those heights. These are simpler songs, more along the lines of Emmylou’s earlier stuff. Her remake of Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have is Your Soul” sounds as if it was written for her. Her fallen angel voice fills in every inch of that song. And in “Sailing Around the Room” dying actually doesn’t sound half bad. In fact, it sounds kinda gorgeous!
Oracular Spectacular, MGMT
This is the most consistently original CD I heard all year. Everything about it – instrumentation, vocals, writing, and song production – is so different than most of the stuff out there. It’s a psychedelic throwback with modern slang. In “Time to Pretend” the lead singer ponders getting high on heroin and fucking beautiful models, not giving two shits about the future. It’s one of the most nihilistic, yet undeniably catchy songs ever conceived.
And one to Grow on:
Volume One, She & Him
Zooey Deschanel sings lead in this duo (M. Ward is the other half). She sounds like something straight out of the 1960s, sometimes edging toward Motown, others with a more country flair a la Patsy Cline. It’s groovy stuff, relaxing and very “California.” And just for shits and giggles, go to Youtube and watch the video for “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” It’s a hoot.
Favorite CD not from 2008 that I bought or received this year:
South of Delia, Richard Shindell (2007)
This collection of remakes is a gorgeous showcase for Shindell’s haunting, ghostly voice. He’s a storyteller and he’s picked some humdingers to tell. My favorites: Jeffrey Foucault’s “Northbound 35” where he sings plaintively and quite profoundly “Grace is just the measure of a fall”; Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Pride)”; Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”; and Josh Ritter’s amazing ode to struggle “Lawrence, KS.”