20 best: albums of 2008

By , Dec 20 2008
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A year is a long time in music, and although the fuss that surrounds end of year round-ups can get silly to say the least, nothing ever seems to tell the story of a year quite like a pulling down a big fat pile of records down from the shelf and arranging them in a more or less arbitrary order of preference.

We’ve already shared with you our favourite Mixes and Reissues of 2008; we now proudly present the third of our end of year round-ups, and undoubtedly the one that caused us the most conflict, strife and stress. Never have you seen four grown men argue more viciously, or lengthily, over whether The Chap’s Mega Breakfast is a 21st century pop masterpiece or mere camp twaddle.

In the event of it, The Chap, like Friendly Fires, Hot Chip, Shed, Autechre and countless other worthy combatants fell to the wayside in favour of our chosen twenty. And it’s too late to change anything now. Our nuts are on the chopping board, so chop away, dear reader, chop away.

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20. M83

SATURDAYS = YOUTH
(MUTE)

Antony Gonzalez has always looked back to the ‘80s for inspiration and Saturdays = Youth sees M83 in full-blown new-wave pop mode. This is not an album of simple pastiche or homage; every song is lovingly crafted as to sound utterly fresh. In keeping with Gonzalez’s past work, the sound is still epic in scope, but it’s also his most focused and listenable album to date.

Each track embodies a different type of teenage experience; ‘Kim & Jessie’ is a love song of secret encounters and unabashed idealism, whilst ‘Graveyard Girl’ is the story of the misunderstood goth who at “fifteen years-old, already thinks it’s too late”. ‘Couleurs’ sees the band piling in vast brooding synths one on top of another to create the very embodiment of teen angst. Gonzalez’s nostalgia-tinted view of endless summers and teen romance might appear clichéd, but when tied to music this beautiful all is forgiven.

Jeremy Parkinson


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19. HUSH ARBORS

HUSH ARBORS
(ECSTATIC PEACE)

I first stumbled across singer-guitarist Keith Wood as one-half of the raga-psych-folk duo Golden Oaks. For a while he seemed to be everywhere: hanging with Sunburned Hand and James Toth and releasing some terrific solo-sets on Harvest and 3-Lobed under the Hush Arbors umbrella. Here, he teams up with guitarist Leon Dufficy for what might be his commercial breakthrough.

‘Rue Hollow’ is stunning: a delicate, dream-smeared spider-web of acoustic guitar and broken-hearted vocals. ‘Gone’ is a bluesy acid-rock hymn that somehow coaxes Neil Young and Amon Duul into the same sleeping bag, while ‘Water II’ rolls home at 4am after getting wasted in 1971. ‘Sand’ is pure goosebumps: a sun-dazed horse-ride under endless blue skies. ‘The Light’ originally surfaced on the 7″ Swappin’ EP and though it doesn’t quite match the naked emotion of that earlier incarnation this lovely, fuzz-dappled version is as tender and moving as it is accessible. Given his current form, Wood’s place in some spectral pantheon of cult singer-songwriters seems pretty much assured.

Kek-w


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18. CLARO INTELECTO

METANARRATIVE
(MODERN LOVE)

In a year positively besieged with dumb and/or boring techno albums, Claro Intelecto’s Metanarrative was a beacon of sense and sensuousness. The work of Mancunian Mark Stewart, this album’s debt to Chain Reaction, Model 500 et al was strongly evident, but its soul, and ultimately its sound, was very much its own – a grievously honed, dub-infused Rainy City techno.

More plaintive and measured than the pummelling fare found on his acclaimed ‘Warehouse Sessions’ 12″ series, Metanarrative found Stewart really letting his machines sing; in doing so he identified a bruised humanity lurking in the blues, blacks and greys of the industrial cityscape. Seriously: I challenge you to find a recent piece of music that’s as emotionally fraught as ‘Dependent’ or ‘Before My Eyes’, regardless of genre. Metanarrative is a work of shameless auteurism that’ll outlive 99% of electronic music farted out by Berlin this year. And you can dance to it n’all.

Kiran Sande


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17. KELLEY POLAR

I NEED YOU TO HOLD ON WHILE THE SKY IS FALLING
(ENVIRON)

Kelley Polar’s second album is the sound of a voice being released. After the refined understatement of his debut, here the man who’s both a reclusive cattle farmer and Metro Area’s viola player stands centre-stage, and sings songs that soar up and out. Desperately passionate, thick with struck-by-wonder gasps and winningly camp, I Need You… is a little like listening to a glitzy musical, albeit a musical based around metaphysical puzzles, the beginnings of the universe, Greek mythology – and disco.

However, in place of the usual Environ/Metro Area lushness, here the disco elements are stripped back to a stark, often willfully tinny, sound, that recalls the more minimal end of Italo pioneered by the likes of Alexander Robotnick. All the better, perhaps, for Kelley Polar’s remarkable voice to hold your attention. The album has a fairytale atmosphere; wrapped up in starry eyed, child-like awe, but with a backdrop of dread and creepiness. Oh, and to give your body something to do while your head’s spinning, it’s very, very funky too.

Simon Hampson


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16. THE BUG

LONDON ZOO
(NINJA TUNE)

At first, Kevin Martin’s second album as The Bug seemed more admirable than enjoyable – he’d intended it to reflect London in its current hardened state, so it was never gonna be an easy listen, but an entire album in Martin’s extreme, bass-heavy sound… Well, it seemed a bit too much at the time; especially after caning the three singles that had preceded it so hard. But coming back to it now, London Zoo is brilliant.

Those three 12″s, ‘Poison Dart’, ‘Skeng’ and ‘Jah War’, sound even better now the ‘Spongebob’-style cock-step that contextualized them in 07 is firmly out of favour. ‘Warning’ maybe out-does all three; Flowdan putting in his most monstrous vocal performance to date. Martin re-cast Kode9 and Spaceape’s ‘Fukkaz’ the way it always should have been, and Roger Robinson’s voice drifts through the empty streets of ‘Judgement’ like ‘Cool Out’ stranded in a sleeping Metropolis, ready to stir into life. The natural step on, and step up, from 2003’s Pressure, this was as inimitable and London-informed as Burial, but trading wistful samples for booming ragga spokesmen. How do you even follow something like this? Well, with King Midas Sound, naturally.

Tom Lea


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15. VAMPIRE WEEKEND

VAMPIRE WEEKEND
(XL)

The past year saw the unthinkable happen; firstly, the resurgence of boat shoes as the fashionista’s footwear of choice, and, more startlingly, the USA became cool again. You can trace both these outcomes back to Vampire Weekend, four Ivy League graduates furnished with a kind of confidence that only a healthy trust fund can bestow.

Their self-titled debut specialised in tight, Afro-pop-inspired indie rock which saw critics falling over themselves to phone in the Paul Simon comparisons.Tracks like ‘Campus’ and ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’, with their starchy tales from within the quad set to sparky mbaqanga rhythms, revelled in a kind of fey intellectualism that appealed to an audience sick to death of the conceit that creativity should be borne out of garret hardship. Rather, charismatic front-man Ezra Koennig proved that you could be militantly erudite – ‘Oxford Comma’ presumably sent the text message generation into the arms of Lynne Truss – and unfeasibly cool. Literariness in chart-bothering indie? About as likely as America electing a black president.

Louise Brailey


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14. 2562

AERIAL
(TECTONIC)

Aerial is indicative of the ways in which dubstep, once exclusively associated with South London, is now an international sound. 2562 is producer Dave Huisman’s postcode in the Hague; the name, like the music, implying a non-specific suburban anonymity, a global Croydon of interchangeable shopping malls, ring roads and apartment blocks.

Aerial is also significant as a moment in the convergence between minimal techno and dubstep. With its gaseous, crackly electronics, Aerial is clearly as indebted to the godfathers of minimal, Basic Channel, as it is to the bass weight of dubstep. Sometimes, the album can sound like a rather obvious outcome of Minimal + Dubstep. At its best though, it seductively explores the logic that two genres share. Gratifyingly skippy rhythms – and the presence of bongos, of all things – lift Aerial out of the sluggish torpor that can weigh down dubstep. The worry, though, is that Aerial presages a final phase of the ‘cleaning up’ of the hardcore continuum which dubstep had already begun: a graffiti-spattered street converted into a gentrified, minimalist flat.

K-Punk


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13. PONYTAIL

ICE CREAM SPIRITUAL
(WE*ARE*FREE)

Baltimore’s body-rock/brain(less)-dance scene has been has been the discerning indie kid’s dance genre of choice for the past year or so. With IDM and glitch-core last heard disappearing up the rectum of a malfunctioning MacBook somewhere in the Bay Area, what the world craved was something kookier and up for audience participation. But while the likes of Dan Deacon and the Death Set have failed to sustain their, frankly, fucked-up momentum, Maryland’s Ponytail look set to ride out any claims of bandwagon jumping or scene fatigue with enviable ease. Why? Because their music is as good on your headphones as it is at the dance-party.

Erring to the manic, improvised nature of Lightning Bolt’s style – and minus the latter’s tedious, testosterone bombast – over Wham City power electronics, Ice Cream Spiritual is day-glo-joyous: an explosive, urgent statement of intent, all synapses frazzling synth bursts, drunken octopus drums and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder call and response vocals. Indeed, Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritualism is all about having your cake and eating it. Tuck the fuck in.

Rich Hanscomb


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12. HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR

HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR
(EMI)

More and more, this album seems to be about ‘Blind’. It stuck out as a highlight and obvious first single on first listen, but now, after dozens, ‘Blind’ hits harder, gains in power, after every play. Truly, this is one of the most astonishing songs to be released in years; a cascading force of unstoppable nature. It already feels like a masterpiece, and Anthony Hegarty sounds like he was born to sing this song.

But to hear ‘Blind’ within this album is to hear it at its best; the teasing slinkiness of the opening tracks all full of promise and expectation, then the eruption of ‘Blind’ itself, then the immediate come-down of ‘Iris’ and ‘Easy’, where the band seem dazed and enraptured by what’s just happened. 2008 was the year that disco (re-)broke, but Hercules & Love Affair stand out distinctly as spectacular escapism. After countless plays, the album still seems like an event, a special occasion. If I could it be in only one band, it would be them. It sounds like a blast.

Simon Hampson


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11. HIGH PLACES

HIGH PLACES
(THRILL JOCKEY)

After teasing us with a singles collection, High Places’ first album proper proved to be a masterclass in wonky charm, where a resolutely DIY aesthetic collides with anything-goes experimentalism. Despite being recorded at home in Brooklyn, High Places is steeped in a love of nature and particularly, the sublime.

Primitive sounding percussion and snippets of found sound are used as a hypnotic counterpoint to the otherworldly prettiness of Mary Pearson’s childlike vocals. It may sound hopelessly studied on paper, but beneath the rich textures and dense polyrhythms lies an exotic, breezy warmth, particularly evident in the humid ambience of ‘You In Forty Years’, or the slightly out of tune steel pans that appear frequently throughout the album. Hell, ‘Papaya Year’ even descends into jungle sound effects. But ultimately, this implementation of such a broad global palette is a natural extension of the duo’s enthusiastic embrace of sound in all its forms. Listening to this album, with its strangeness and almost accidental beauty, it’s impossible to be unmoved by that same enthusiasm.

Louise Brailey

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10. FLYING LOTUS
LOS ANGELES
(WARP)

Los Angeles wasn’t just one of 2008’s best albums, it was arguably its most important. Steve Ellison, the latest step in the Coltrane family’s musical dynasty, said in 2007 that he felt, “like I represent a movement. A lovely thing is about to happen, and my generation is at the forefront of it.” The brand of off-kilter hip-hop that Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, produces, was – more so than techy dubstep, and more so than UK house – the bass music trend of choice in 2008, and in Los Angeles, he produced its best full-length so far.

Although part of what makes FlyLo exciting is that he’s one figure in a musical movement much bigger than him or any of his individual peers, Los Angeles could have been made by nobody else – those stuttering melodies, piped through virtual wear ‘n’ tear, like old relics recently uncovered, are instantly recognisable as his work. That movement – gloriously disparate, taking in Rustie’s LuckyMe camp, Kode9’s Hyperdub family, Californian producers like Gaslamp Killer and Edit, Dabrye, Harmonic 313 and everyone in between – had found its poster boy.

Tom Lea


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09. DEERHUNTER

MICROCASTLE
(4AD)

Earlier this year, Deerhunter’s polemical preacher of a frontperson, Bradford Cox, described Microcastle as a, “very conservative album”. Well sure, by Deerhunter’s standards, but that’s not to say they’ve gone all ‘hot shot’ on us… yet. You see, with Microcastle, Bradford’s shown the world that he can do pop at the drop of the hat.

That peculiar aura of petulance – so vital to Deerhunter’s sensibility – still suffuses the album, but washes the white noise out with a glistening melodic sensibility far removed from the Kranky Records endorsed drones of yore. Silver Jews producer Nicolas Vernhes might have something to with softening (not taming) this notoriously spiky band but with the move to a bigger label and this suit of sun kissed songs, who’s to say Cox hasn’t got an eye on realms bigger than Pitchfork’s blogosphere? Like their Southern Gothic forefathers, R.E.M, it could happen. Imagine Deerhunter on prime time radio, or on you and your Dad’s iPod? Wonders never cease. And in the spindly sweet hands of Bradford Cox they’re never likely to either.

Rich Hanscomb


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08. THOMAS BRINKMANN

WHEN HORSES DIE…
(MAX ERNST)

Thomas Brinkmann, a German producer and conceptualist who’s operated at the vanguard of experimental techno since 1997, was tired with the smoothness of modern-day minimal, claiming that the sound has been drained of all its punk and soul, its “hurt”. But who could’ve expected this dissatisfaction to be chipped and chiseled into such a rich and clear statement as When Horses Die? Brinkmann, who’s now in his early fifties, abandoned the clicks-n-cuts approach of his most celebrated work and set about making an introspective singer/songwriter album, channeling the spirit of post-punk, goth and industrial music into brooding, mainly beatless electronics and uneasy acoustic textures.

Tellingly, Tuxedomoon singer and puppeteer Winston Tong contributes lyrics to opening track ‘Words’, but Brinkmann’s baritone croak is the star of show – like a drunker, crankier Nick Cave, he summons the moral torpor of Weimar cabaret, the sex-death complex of Death In Venice. Mark this: the year’s most important and thought-provoking techno album wasn’t a techno album at all.

Kiran Sande


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07. MGMT

ORACULAR SPECTACULAR
(COLUMBIA)

A good year needs its big, brash and largely uncomplicated anthems, and Brooklyn’s MGMT provided an album’s worth of the buggers. Dave Fridmann’s production gives Oracular Spectacular uncommon sparkle and energy, but really it’s all in the tunes – ‘Time to Pretend’ (a celebration, and a parody, of rock ‘n roll excess), the virulently catchy ‘Kids’, and even ‘Electric Feel’ – which sounded great despite basically being a Scissor Sisters track.

Forget the “psychedelic” tag that’s been bandied about – Oracular Spectacular is about as psychedelic as a burnt banana skin. MGMT’s brilliance lies in their ability to come across as knowing, disaffected and, at the same time, naïve, romantic and hopeful. This was the album that bonded hooligans and hipsters alike in 2008, because it nailed the universal paradox of youth: the feeling that you’ve seen it all before, and the feeling that all is yet to come.

Trilby Foxx


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06. JAY REATARD

MATADOR SINGLES ‘08
(MATADOR)

With friends like Jay Reatard, who needs enemies? Most people have seen footage of the 28-year-old punching fans or storming off stage, the Memphis-born singer pulls out of shows at the last minute, his last album, Blood Visions, was a concept record about killing a girl he knew, and God knows he wasn’t having it when we tried to interview him.

Which, weirdly, makes ‘No Time’ – the last of the 7″ singles compiled here – even more affecting. Because, without resorting too much to Winehouse-ism, Jay seems a bit out of control, and resentful, and frustrated, and when he sings, “it seems I never have the time/to make my mind feel fine”, it’s moving, you know? Tucked away in the tail-end of a record featuring his cover of Deerhunter’s splatterhouse examination of dead idols, ‘Fluorescent Grey’, or ‘Screaming Hand’, the tale of a child’s relationship with his father destroyed by alcohol, and the rest of his three-min courses in wicked, straight-up punk rock, it kills any doubts about Matador Singles being one of the albums of the year, and it totally fucking hits you. Like, right there.

Tam Gunn


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05. LATE OF THE PIER

FANTASY BLACK CHANNEL
(PARLOPHONE)

In which Late of the Pier pick up the remnants of tired indie bands, clichéd ‘80s electro, overblown prog-rock and the woefully hyped ‘nu-rave’ genre and do something spectacular with them. Fantasy Black Channel transcends its influences to create a noisy, exuberant whole that pulses with the frantic energy of a band brimming with ideas.

Erol Alkan’s production is also a major factor, tweaking the songs to messy perfection without ever feeling heavy handed or sanitised. ‘Space and the Woods” guitars and synths bustle around unashamedly eccentric lyrics before bursting out in a triumphantly 80s pop chorus. ‘Focker’ is a schizophrenic medley of songs changing tack at will: one moment it’s synth-pop, the next it summons the spirit of ‘70s glam, then crashes into a dazed freakout before breaking itself down into pure electro. But Fantasy Black Channel is a breathless listen that has more to recommend it than just the sum of its parts – Late of the Pier simply sound like no one else.

Jeremy Parkinson


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04. PORTISHEAD
THIRD
(ISLAND)

Portishead are smart, politically sussed, Mark Ronson-baiters from Bristol: what’s not to like about them? Still, somewhere along the way ear-fatigue set in and the thought of yet another album of smog-smeared torch songs sent me scurrying under the bed-covers. I needn’t have worried: Third is bloody good. Forget trip-hop, this is UK noir: post-industrial micro-dramas set in the outsourced limbo-land formerly known as Britain. Portishead songs seem to inhabit some emotional aftermath, a musical wasteland haunted by phantom strings and juddering, dysfunctional beats. Try playing ‘We Carry On’ at your next dinner-party, yuppie scum.

But Third also suggests some new, unexpected form of urban folk: ‘Machine Gun’ is Sandy Denny sings grime, while ‘The Rip’ is, well, almost too beautiful to bear. The least successful tracks – ‘Threads’, ‘Silence’ – are the ones that still sound a bit like the old Portishead. But they’re still inching forward, still finding new ways to sing in amongst the rubble. Dream on, England, you wonderful broken little country. Dream on.

Kek-w


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03. ZOMBY

WHERE WERE U IN 92?
(WERK DISCS)

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain,” goes the Roy Batty/ Blade Runner sample on Zomby’s ‘Tears In The Rain’, and it’s entirely apt for this exercise in undead uncanniness: Blade Runner was frequently sampled in the rave and hardcore that is ruff and readily reconstructed on Where Were U.

The 00s generation have much in common with replicants – immersed in a culture given over to retrospection, it is as if they have had other people’s memories implanted into their minds. In the end, though, the album contradicts Batty’s plaint – in the digital age, nothing is lost; everything comes back. Where Were U invites comparison with Burial and V/VM’s The Death Of Rave, but where they disembody hardcore, transforming it into translucent, spectral traces, Zomby is both more full-on physical and smiley-face humorous, the air horns coming from a party that’s still going on rather than mournful whale song echoes of now deserted dancefloors. It’s not ghostly so much as chopped together, in the Frankenstein-like spirit of original rave.

K-Punk


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02. NO AGE

NOUNS
(SUB POP)

The LA scene based around Jim Smith’s Smell venue has produced some of the best rock music of recent years. Nouns, No Age’s first album proper (last year’s Weirdo Rippers was a round-up of past singles) was the highest profile record to come from that community, and by far its best.

Like Gang Gang Dance, TV on the Radio and Deerhunter, 2008 saw No Age clean up their sound, but despite being their poppiest record to date, Nouns is still messy as fuck. Most tracks begin and end in fuzz, and stylistically it’s all over the place, ranging from the Weezer-esque naivety of ‘Here Should Be My Home’ to the Jesus Lizard mud-trip of ‘Miner’ like it’s the most natural thing in the world. But where as Randy Randall and Dean Spunt’s wicked ear for pop melody spent most of Weirdo Rippers fighting for air in a sonic swamp, Nouns allows it to skim the surface of the murk. Rather than missing the obliqueness of their earlier work, we’re better off for seeing both sides of No Age.

Tom Lea


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01. GANG GANG DANCE

SAINT DYMPHNA
(WARP)

In a year when Brooklyn ruled the world, the New York borough’s scene godfathers Gang Gang Dance finally came good on their early promise, fusing the primal energy of the tribal experimentalism for which they’re best known with a newfound pop ambition and wilful embrace of electronic dance music. The resulting album, released via Warp, was a startling surprise, arriving at a time when it seemed that past musical innovators were running short on steam as well as ideas.

Saint Dymphna provided both in spades, fizzing with energy, awash with innovation, throwing up curveballs while cohesively recasting genuinely diverse and far-ranging musical influences into something that sounded like Gang Gang Dance, and no one else. In an age when your average music fan, yours truly included, has the attention span of a newt, Saint Dymphna feels even more remarkable – an 11-track album that commands your attention from start to finish, from the ear-pricking bass and synth washes of ‘Bebey’ to the drifting, bucolic ‘Dust’, via the euphoric post-punk pop of ‘House Jam’ and the Slits-meets-Wiley, post-grime masterstroke ‘Princes’, featuring none other than Tinchy Stryder. Oh, and the sleeve art wasn’t bad either.

Sean Bidder

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