Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 10 Best Albums of 2008 - #'s 5 - 1

5. Q-Tip - The Renaissance: While people waited 17 years to be disappointed by Chinese Democracy, fans of Q-Tip waited over nine years for the oft-delayed follow-up to his solo debut Amplified. Luckily the similarities between the two albums end there, since The Renaissance is a tightly-focused collection of Funk/Jazz/Soul/Hip Hop that is instantly likable, while Chinese Democracy is a convoluted cacophonous mess.

After being jerked around over the years by five different record labels, Q-Tip was finally able to release the album he had been hoping to give fans since 2002. With help from a slew of special guests (including the late J Dilla), Q-Tip was able to produce perhaps the most enjoyable record of the year. The first six tracks alone are enough to sell anybody on how great this album is. There's plenty of homages to old school 70's boogie and 80's Soul, and almost every track is single-worthy. If I had to pick my favorite song my answer would change each time you asked me, so why even limit myself and just listen to the entire thing from start to finish?

4. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours: This was THE album of the Summer for anyone who reads Pitchfork, owns a MacBook, and wears skinny jeans with a zip-up hoodie. While I don't quite fit that caricature (skinny jeans look pretty ridiculous on me), I can understand what the fuss was all about. Cut Copy just flat out know how to party.

As if there was any doubt such an infectious dance album would be produced by anyone else, DFA legend Tim Goldsworthy help craft the band's sound into something that is both at home in a warehouse party and on the radio. Yes, there are obvious nods to early Depeche Mode, New Order, and Disco, but Cut Copy manages to avoid bastardizing any of those influences. Instead, they meld those influences with 80's New Wave, Madchester, Psychedelic rock, and Pop to create a sound that is meant to take over any space it is played. As a result, we are treated to a few bonafide Dance anthems like "Lights and Music", "Far Away" and "Hearts on Fire," while ensuring that I have yet to grow tired of this record.

3. Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.: OK, OK, I know what you're thinking, "another post about how great Deerhunter is." I'm not trying to shove these guys down anyone's throat, but it's hard to deny they make (if nothing else) interesting music. Bradford Cox manages to keep things interesting based on his preoccupation with corpses, endless stream of new music, and his general eccentricities, but the man knows how to keep moving forward, which is something I always respect.

Microcastle is definitely the most accessible thing Deerhunter has ever done. It's less deliberate than Cryptograms in its attempts to sound profound, using the sprawling sound of that album and channeling it to more structured compositions ("Nothing Ever Happened", "Little Kids"). Lyrically, Cox spends most of his time recalling his days as a childhood outcast instead of talking about exclusively about death.

Weird Era Cont. is a nice bonus album that stays truer to Deerhunter's noisy, experimental roots. It sounds much less like an album than Microcastle, but what it lacks in continuity is more than compensated by the plentiful moments of avant-punk and psychadelia that shine through ("VHS Dream", "Dot Gain," "Cavalry Scars II/Aux. Out"). With or without the inclusion of Weird Era, Deerhunter would've still made this list, but why give the fans one great album when you have enough material for two?

2. Portishead - Third: For anyone who loves to sit in a dimly lit room, strap on a pair of headphones, and revel in their own saddness, Third was your Chinese Democracy. The album you thought would never come finally materialized and (unlike Axl Rose's narcissistic exercise in prog-rock masturbation) it was a triumphant success.

How did they do it? For one, they didn't try to recreate Dummy or their self-titled second album. Nor did they try to reinvent the wheel and attempt to bite off more than they could chew. Instead, they took the core components of their sound (haunting vocal delivery, masterful drum and synth programming, and guitar noise) and used different musical influences to amplify them. Having such a strong distaste in being characterized as "Trip Hop" will cause a band to do that sort of well as allow them to take 11 years to complete it.

In order to completely divorce themselves with their 90's era aesthetic, Portishead relied exclusively on analog instruments and recording devices. Songs like "We Carry On" and "The Rip" artfully pay homage to Silver Apples and Krautrock studio nerds like Harmonia and Cluster, yet they are so much more complex than that simple description indicates. That's because there's an overarching theme of uneasyness that keeps the listener off balance by interchanging the mood from bleak melancholy ("Hunter", "Silence", "Threads") to chaotic self-doubt ("Machine Gun", "We Carry On", "Magic Doors").

Of course, Beth Gibbons is the perfect muse for this brand of painful narration as both her voice and lyrics conjure up nothing but images of loss and isolation. This is perfectly OK because the musical accompaniment offers such depth and organic feeling that she never manages to sound whiny or repetitive. It also doesn't hurt that her voice is among the most unique I've ever heard . In fact, this entire album proves that even after an 11 year hiatus Portishead is still a wholly original band.

1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science: It's hard to imagine that anything this year was better than Third, unless you are already familiar with TV on the Radio. In which case it shouldn't surprise you these guys were able to pull off such a tall order. Dear Science is simply the poster child for all the music that mattered in 2008. As if the band had listened to every acclaimed band/record of this year and decided to take ingredients from all of them, stick them in a blender and then poured it on top of their own signature sound.

Name a genre and TV on the Radio seemingly incorporated it in some way on this album. Thanks to their in-house producer/guitarist/keyboardist Dave Sitek, TVOR is well-versed in melding seemingly disparate musical influences into a cohesive composition. This produced some of the most memorable songs of 2008, like the Prince-aping "Golden Age" (so good that Prince probably sent his lawyers after TVOR before he realized he didn't in fact write the song) and hyper-paced "Dancing Choose", both of which brought together Funk, Afrobeat, Hip Hop, Soul, Art Punk, Dance, and noise to a convergence point that you couldn't help but listen to over and over again.

Lyrically the co-lead duo of Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe write songs that try to make sense of a world that is chaotic ("DLZ"), sad ("Crying"), and hopeful ("Family Tree") all at once. Considering the music and production quality echo those same sentiments, everything manages to sound coherent as a whole. This is no small feat and it is undeniable proof that TVOR's brand of creative is something that is all their own.

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