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The Best This and That in Music from 2008

What a year it’s been in music.

Indie got hip, hip got indie; Paste Magazine pissed a bunch of people off and various quiet bands (i.e., Bon Iver) made some noise. Coldplay managed to go from the brunt of hipster jokes to actually being hip with their remarkable album Viva La Vida and thanks to Justen Vernon of Bon Iver, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket scruffy beards and flannel shirts are in again. Thank God! Oh, and Britney came back. So did Bob.

It was the year of miraculous debuts (Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, Son Lux, Johnny Flynn and many others) and booming sonic soundscapes (Sigur Ros, Son Lux, Coldplay, TV on the Radio, even MGMT and Kanye West). We saw more Dylan-esque folksters (Ezra Furman, round 2 & Tallest Man on Earth). And we’re still on the lookout for tunes from the hipsterest hipster of them all – Mr. Sufjan Stevens, that is.

Despite the plethora of indie rockers who found fame this year, some of the best music of the year still was born from the lush, lyrical sounds of Appalachian banjos, blue grass harmonicas, and blues guitars (Abigail Washburn, Jolie Holland to name a few).

But I’m not going to list my top albums here. They will be up at Into the Hill early next week. The following are my favorite various odds and ends from the year, culminating in my top 25 songs of 2008.

Enjoy!

1. FAVORITE ORIGINAL ALBUM ART:
rook300

There is something so magical and haunting – yet profoundly beautiful – about this cover from Shearwater’s album Rook. The figure appears like a scarecrow unless you look closely; it’s too human. And the colors are beautiful.

2. FAVORITE ALBUM ART THAT EMPLOYS UNORIGINAL VISUALS:

5099921211416_Coldpl_VO
A perfect use of this painting, it fits so well with the tone and mood of the album, as well as the epic themes and beautiful – but paranoid – sound of the album.

3. FAVORITE MUSIC VIDEO:
Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”

This Wes Anderson-esque video was shot in one gorgeous long take and features some hilarious choreography. Also its VERY open to interpretation. Vampire Weekend is cool like that. “Oxford Comma” is not, however, the best song on that album.

4. FAVORITE SHOW I SAW THIS YEAR:
Over the Rhine; November; The Visulite Theater, Charlotte, NC

Nobody owns a stage like Detweiler, Berquist & Co, and nothing fills up a room like Kerin Berquist’s voice. They love to perform, they love their art, and it shows. Each time I have seen them perform their joy permeated the place and seeped into the word work and the beer glasses and into shoes and hair pins and wallet chains.

On this particular OTR tour, they played a number of their older songs, even going back as far as 15 years ago. It’s been almost 20 years since the band formed and its an enlightening joy to be able to look back and see the transitions and developments in their sound. My guess is they could be a pretty dang good punk rock band if they wanted to.

Cheers to 20 years of Over the Rhine! Make them a part of your holiday season.

5. FAVORITE ALBUM I FIGURED I WOULD HATE:
Kanye West, 808’s & Heartbreak

Despite it’s awful attempt at album art, Kanye’s newest album is pretty dang good. I have a spot for hip-hop and this time around West eschews some of the crappy hip-hop cliche’s so prevalent amongst his colleagues and instead dials into the sounds of 80’s pop and psychedelia. The man can croon and his lyrics stand out from the crowd. I know he’s taken some heat for the album, but that’s for the better, I say. Shows he’s not simply buying into the money making machine. Give it a chance. It’s got some good hooks.

6. LEAST FAVORITE ALBUM I THOUGHT I WOULD DIG:
TV on the Radio, Dear Science

Everybody from Rolling Stone to Paste’s Andy Whitman love this album. Not me. Yeah, its creative and speaks fairly well to the malaise and zeitgeist of modern times, but I couldn’t get into it. I found it abrasive at times.

7. FAVORITE NEW WEBSITE:

Well, Into the Hill, of course!

8. FAVORITE ALBUM TO DRIVE TO AT NIGHT:
Sigur Ros, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust

Seriously. Try it. Especially in the mountains or in the rain. Brett McCraken refers to their music as “dreamscapes” and I heartily concur.

9. FAVORITE BAND YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF. YET.:
Public Radio

This “rocktronic” indie band from South Carolina is led by folk singer Mark Mathis in what is certainly a departure from his solo work. Also in the band is his wife, Jessie.

The following is from their myspace page:

Public Radio is the 50th wedding anniversary of well-written rock n’ roll and catchy electronic music. On a mission to make a difference, Public Radio has crafted songs that are both energetic and inspiring for social and personal change.

Give ’em a look. They rock hard. Their live shows are amazing and each of them are rock solid musicians, no pun intended.

Keep an eye out (or both eyes) for a brand new album soon.

10. FAVORITE BAND I DISCOVERED THIS YEAR WHO DID NOT RELEASE AN ALBUM THIS YEAR:

The Everybodyfields, Nothing is Okay

Here is an excerpt from my review at Into the Hill:

Hailing from the Johnson City/Knoxville areas (up in the smoky mountains of East Tennessee) the Everybodyfields are, without a doubt, one of the best alt-country-ish, folk-ish, bluegrass-ish bands performing today and their newest album Nothing is Okay is one of the best of its kind. Their’s is a soft, melancholy sound, lonesome and mournful. But in a way that lingers and resounds, never dreary, never fully morose. Like a southern folk tale or legend. Or, think autumn, when the leaves are falling from the tress and crunching beneath your feet, when the skies are becoming gray and those northeasterly breezes are riling up the birds and squirrels; think sweater weather.


11. TOP 25 SONGS OF 2008:

I wasn’t entirely sure how to construct this list. Should I do a playlist where I can only include one song per artist or should I just make a list of the 25 songs I like best from the various albums I heard this year? Well, I compromised. At little of both. I chose to include the 25 songs regardless even if an artist appears twice. But I decided to choose no more than 2 songs per album, since any album that has more than two – let alone two – of my favorite songs this year likely will show up on my top ten list (which, as I said, will appear at Into the Hill and here soon). Take this as a preview of that list, if you will.

So, here they are, my favorite 25 songs from 2008:


Honorable Mention:

The Killers, “Human,” from Day and Age
Love the mystery of this song and how catchy it is, but not sure that it will have lasting power. We’ll see.

25. Shearwater, “Leviathan Bound,” from Rook
This is one of those songs that really grows on you. This gorgeous song starts slow but concludes with a lyrical (not in the sense of song lyrics) flourish.

24. Brave Saint Saturn, “These Frail Hands,” from Anti-Meridian
Pure BS2 emotion. Unyielding. Unflinching. Always inspiring.

23. John Mark McMillan, “Death in His Grave,” from The Medicine
One of the most poetic and beautiful ballads of the year.

22. Okkervil River, “On Tour with Zykos,” from The Stand-ins
I can’t decide if I just really like this album or love it. Regardless this is a standout track from this outstanding indie rock album. It’s about the life of a rock star.

21. The Tallest Man on Earth, “The Gardener,” from Shallow Grave
So much like Dylan its crazy. In this case thats a good thing. Like Dylan, Tallest Man… isn’t trying to be Dylan. He’s just singing, and it sounds amazing – “… so could stay the tallest man in your eyes babe…”

20. Johnny Flyn, “Cold Bread,” from Alarum
This Shakespearean scholar takes on Dickens. He’s hungry on this anthemic folk song.

19. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal,” from Fleet Foxes
Great as an alarm clock. Try it.

18. Gaslight Anthem, “Miles Davis and the Cool,” from The ’59 Sound
One of the coolest songs of the year. I’ve had it on repeat. Great title too.

17. Jolie Holland, “Palmyra,” from The Living and the Dead
Holland plugs in for this one and her brand of bluesy, jazzy folk is downright sexy. A foot tapper if ever there was one. Play it while you’re driving.

16. Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken, “When the Lights Go Out,” from The Ampersand EP
Speaking of sexy, this beautiful love song by the husband and wife duo is haunting and catchy. Fall asleep to it.

15. Son Lux, “Stand,” fromAt War With Walls and Mazes
On his debut, Ryan Lott (aka Son Lux) crafts classically influence, hip-hop infused electronic rock. Light on lyrics (he often just repeats a few lines and lets the music do the rest), but heavy on impact.

14. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”, from For Emma, Forever Ago
Could – maybe should – be higher on this list. This is where Bon (aka Justin Vernon) is at his best. The guy can belt it out – wish he would do it more.

13. The Submarines, “Fern Beard,” from Honeysuckle Weeks
Catchy, lush, and hopeful.

12. Jolie Holland, “Fox in It’s Hole,” from The Living and the Dead
Think Tom Waits.

11. The Tallest Man on Earth, “The Sparrow & the Medicine,” from Shallow Grave
Gorgeous. Folk. Song. What a poet.

10. Ezra Furman, “Faceless Boy,” from Inside the Human Body
Furman and Co. let loose on this hilarious, but powerfully effecting punk driven folk ballad.

09. Anathallo, “The River,” from Canopy Glow
Best song on a wonderful album. This band is finally getting the love they deserve.

08. Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet, “Strange Things,” from Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet
One of the best vocal performances of the year. I get chills listening to it.

07. Coldplay, “Death and All His Friends,” from Viva La Vida
Evidence that Coldplay is re-born. Gorgeous harmonies and epic soundscapes to conclude a remarkable album.

06. Vampire Weekend, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” from Vampire Weekend
Not as high on the album as others are, but this song ends so wonderfully I can’t quit playing it!

05. Bob Dylan, “Tell Ole’ Bill,” from Tell Tale Signs
One of the best songs Dylan ever recorded. Can’t believe it hasn’t been released yet.

04. Bob Dylan, “Red River Shore,” from Tell Tale Signs
See above. Dylan at his finest, most poetic, compassionate, understanding self. Dylan with gray hair, that is.

03. Matthew Perryman Jones, “Motherless Child,” from Swallow the Sea
A great epic rock song built for large arenas that will come across just as beautifully and powerful in an intimate indie venue.

02. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida,” from Viva La Vida
Yeah, so? The lyrics are profound, the music inventive, catchy, and gorgeous. What more can you ask for? And the i-tunes video rocks too.

01. Sigur Ros, “Ara Batur,” from með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Simply the most beautiful, intoxicating, powerful soundscapes anywhere this year. The last half of this song matches anything Sigur Ros has ever done.

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