Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Best Albums of 2008: From #30 to #21 (and then eventually to #1)

Now that Christmas is over, and now that no one still cares, I figured it was as good a time as any to post my obligatory Best Albums of 2008 list. Over the next few days/weeks/however long I choose to draw this out for, I'll be counting down the 20 best albums released in the past year with an individual post containing a mini-review pertaining to each. But first, and in the interest of covering as much ground as possible, I'll first count down the top ten albums that didn't make the cut, as well as the most disappointing albums of the year and the best non-full length releases.

Note: Due to the density of albums here, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums seen here, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

Biggest Disappointments:

It's worth noting that I don't consider any of the following albums bad, merely disappointing for one reason or another, be it due to hype or my own personal expectations.

Cynic - Traced in Air

I'm probably alone in this one, but I don't really care. After the paradigm-shifting record that was Focus, this just feels empty by comparison.

Foxy Shazam - Introducing...

After the madcap zaniness of The Flamingo Trigger, it was disappointing to see the Cincinnati natives move away from their earlier hardcore-leaning sounds to more keyboard-focused music. And yet, on songs like "Ghost Animals" and "Introducing Foxy", the focus works incredibly well, coming off like piano rock on acid. So what's the problem? While half of this album sounds like the ravings of a demented Billy Joel (I mean this as a compliment), the other half falters, coming off as anywhere from contrived to just plain irritating.

Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

There was a lot of good hardcore music released this year. This wasn't even in my top ten.

Murder By Death - Red of Tooth and Claw

With their fourth album, Murder By Death stick with the Old West stylings and story-telling motifs that have made past releases so strong, but forget to include enough musical variety to keep it interesting. The album peaks after the first song ("Coming Home"), and the song quality, not to mention the quality of singer Adam Turla's incessant Johnny Cash impersonation/homage, goes downhill from there.

Subtle - ExitingARM

Pitchfork called this "Subtle's pop album", and as far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty accurate descriptor. Unlike Pitchfork however, I'm not sure I can consider this a positive development. ExitingARM sees Subtle move away from the already estranged hip-hop they originated with, further showcasing the side of the group that likes swirling melodies and electronic sounds. The idea is sound, considering this was never a group to confine themselves within conventions anyway, but there are a few problems in the execution. For one, there is an unnecessary level of polish on display in places, occasionally obscuring the voice of its most distinctive vocalist, Dose One (it almost feels like he's on auto-tune). Subtle still manages to pull off a strong pop song on occasion, but they do so with a lower rate of success than before, making long-time fans more likely to just listen to A New White for their fix.

Best Extended Plays (EP's, Splits, etc.)

65daysofstatic - The Distant And Mechanised Glow Of Eastern European Dance Parties

65daysofstatic are post-rock band from the United Kingdom, known primarily for their blending of electronic influences with guitar-heavy build-ups and crescendos. But on The Distant and Mechanised Glow of Eastern European Dance Parties, the group shows off their electronica influences, creating a collection of songs that sounds like a house mix at a high-scale rave. The result is a swirling, infectious concoction that stands up to, and possibly surpasses anything else 65daysofstatic has done. Here's hoping that the dance influences remain apparent on their next release.

Andrew Jackson Jihad - Only God Can Judge Me

This will get its own post soon. These guys were one of my favourite discoveries from this year.

BATS - Cruel Sea Scientist

See Here.

Envy/Jesu Split

This is actually more than long enough to qualify as a full-length, but I'm putting it here so that I can give it its proper due. With Envy, by now you know what you're getting, so you either like it or don't, but Jesu's side features some of Justin Broadrick's best work this side of Godflesh. Broadrick's dense, lengthy, metal-tinged shoegaze is at its strongest here, making this the best of Envy's many EP releases from the past year.

Fire Team Charlie - ...And Everything Will Be Undone 10"

Solid band reminiscent of Daniel Striped Tiger makes intricate and noisy emotive post-hardcore.

The Gaslight Anthem - Senor and the Queen

In the aftermath of The '59 Sound, I had almost forgot about this. These four songs, totaling just over eleven minutes in all, act as the stopgap between the band's first and second albums, with songs like "Say I Won't (Recognize)" showing where they've been and "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?" signifying where they were going.

The Mountain Goats - Satanic Messiah

Fantastic free release courtesy of John Darnielle. More on him later.

Red Sparowes - Aphorisms

On this EP, the Red Sparowes create guitar-driven post-rock that burn with intensity. The climaxes are booming, the build-ups are superb, and the song titles are never longer than twelve words, all of which suggests that the band is headed in the right direction. Here's hoping that their next album is the one to finally capture this group's massive potential.

Wingnut Dishwashers Union/James K. Polk and the Family of Friends Split 7"

James K. Polk’s side is delicate folk music which ends up marred by lyrics that make the Andrew Jackson Jihad look like Paul Baribeau, a juxtaposition which makes their two songs very hard to get into. But they're ultimately irrelevant to my enjoyment of this split, because the other side of the split features some of Pat the Bunny’s best work yet. “Free and Alone” is a song about the loneliness and weariness that results from the singer’s state of constant travel, and “Fuck Shit Up (Wha-Na-Na)” is a song that almost manages to be beautiful in spite of its self, showcasing the introspective punk ethos that Wingnut Dishwashers Union exemplifies so perfectly.


And now, the best albums of the year, starting with #30.

30. United Nations - United Nations

I am not a fan of Glassjaw or Converge. Glassjaw either bores me or does nothing for me and Converge is just too much for me. As for Thursday... well, that's better left unsaid. Suffice then to say that I was not one of the many fanboys heavily anticipating the so-called grindcore/power-violence (really, that's exaggerating it) release from this super-group, featuring Daryl Palumbo of Glassjaw, Geoff Rickley of Thursday, and Ben Koller of Converge. But I ended up checking it out regardless, and I'm glad that I did, because once you get past the deliberate attempt at inaccessibility made by the band, you find an uproarious hardcore release that's far more progressive than it lets on. Is it worth the hype, well, no, not entirely, but it's still a strong album with some vicious commentary that more than matches the belligerent tone of the music. "Say Goodbye to the General Figment of the USS Imagination" deserves special mention for its fantastic use of a saxophone solo drenched in feedback and distortion, the ultimate fall-out after such a relentless onslaught.

29. Black Ships - Omens

Have you ever wondered what sludge metal would sound like if it was sped up to 80 mph? Wonder no more. Straight out of Montreal comes some of the dirtiest hardcore you will ever hear, featuring densely layered guitars tuned all the way down and an angry, throaty roar that perfectly matches the din of noise surrounding it. Or, to put it in layman's terms: This. Fucking. Rips.

28. The Riot Before - Fists Buried in Pockets

Folk-punk generally takes one of two directions (an over-simplification, but bear with me): there is the more folk-sounding, but punk-inspired bands that you'll see on the Plan-It-X roster, and then there's the more true-to-the-name amalgamation of punk and folk, which generally utilizes both acoustic and electric guitars in their application of punk. This is of the latter. On their debut album, Fists Buried in Pockets, The Riot Before create an angry, literate punk album for every Orgcore kid looking for something new. "5 to 9" is a highlight here, telling the tale of a Mexican man who crosses the borders looking for work to support his family. The message isn't subtle in the least, but the song kicks too much ass to fault it for its overtness. The Riot Before balance these political songs with more introspective turns, such as "Words Written Over Coffee" wherein the singer presents an analysis of himself and his choices in life, eventually concluding that the path he has embarked on was the necessary one. Recommended for anyone who liked The Falcon or Chuck Ragan's solo turn.

27. pg.lost - It's Not Me, It's You

2008 was a very strong year for post-rock, and few albums were better than pg.lost's debut album, It's Not Me, It's You. Featuring soaring peaks and searing crescendos, this is the kind of aggressive, treble-heavy post-rock not seen since How Lonely Sits the City!, albeit not quite up to the level of that album. When the band climaxes, the results are often spectacular; the rest of the time, however, their music often reaches a lull, unsure of what to do when not building to a finish. Regardless, pg.lost are better more often than not, and the impression they leave is one of a delicate balance between intensity and nothingness, a prime example of crescendo-core done right (ew, now I feel all dirty).

26. Mesa Verde - The Old Road

What is most impressive about Mesa Verde is their ability utilize a number of techniques of band's that came before them and apply those influences into their music while still sounding like a breath of fresh air in an over-exposed genre. Mesa Verde manages to encompass both extremes of what you would expect from European screamo at the same time, switching back and forth between glistening post-rock build-ups (“A Deep Sleep Without Dreams”), and unkempt bursts of raw energy (“Return to Victories”), never content to rely solely on one or the other. At their most progressive, they sound like an even more post-rock leaning version of Sed Non Satiata, and at their most violent, they border on a more abrasive La Quiete.

25. Killing the Dream - Fractures

Killing the Dream are a hardcore band from Sacramento that utilizes the heaviness of metal with the musical harmonies of melodic hardcore. Fractures is the band's third full-length album, taking the formula from their past outings and refining it through the course of twelve superb bursts of forceful, energetic hardcore. The result is one of the year's best hardcore releases, one that manages to be both progressive in focus and aggressive in practice (Fucked Up, take notes).

24. Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling

Mogwai, though long considered a benchmark for post-rock, have never been a band that has thrilled me. Their so-called opus, Young Team, feels terribly overrated to me, albeit definitely different when presented with the stereotypical example of post-rock, and my other experiences with the band have left me even more apathetic. But The Hawk is Howling changed that for me. While it was met with lukewarm hype by most, to me it showcases a band that never tries to do too much, and as a result never manages to completely blow the listener away, but instead focuses on churning out interesting melodies and captivating riffs. Unlike on Young Team, where Mogwai's emphasis is on volume, The Hawk is Howling shows a lot more variety to the band; the trippy synesthesia of "The Sun Smells Too Loud", the haunting piano of "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead", the gentle yet ominous progression of "I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School"... all great songs, all of which show different musical emphases by the band. The Hawk is Howling may not have much in peaks, but it more than makes up for that in its absorbing and refreshing manners of progression.

23. ...Who Calls So Loud - ...Who Calls So Loud

Taking their name from Dickens and their pedigree from Funeral Diner, ...Who Calls So Loud have created some of the best and most varied emotive hardcore of 2008 with their self-titled debut. Through the course of this album, the California four-piece works its way through some of the most intensely passionate epics since, well... Funeral Diner.

Hey, did I say they were ex-Funeral Diner? I did? Alright, just making sure. I wouldn't want to violate a statute of limitations or anything.

However, while the comparisons to their former group are inevitable, it's not like ...Who Calls So Loud don't deviate from their parent group, as the band makes a point of showing more variety to their assault than Funeral Diner ever did. For example, "Assume the Power Focus" begins with a delicate country lick that comes off as beautifully emotional without a word being uttered, a far cry from the dark, dense, and viciously aggressive approach of The Underdark. The result of this more varied approach is that ...Who Calls So Loud ends up feeling more refreshing than redone, making it one of the year's strongest releases.

22. Baader Brains - The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers

Mike Kirsch is back, and with yet another band. The former member of Please Inform the Captain... and Bread and Circuits has returned with The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers, the first full-length album by Baader Brains. Baader Brains was formed back in 2005 by Kirsch and former Swing Kids/Bread and Circuits member Jose Palafox, with their name acting both as a play on Bad Brains, as well as a tribute to the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof group. They play a relentless, heavy and revolutionary brand of hardcore that could be very aptly compared to the members' former band, Bread and Circuits. Like in previous Kirsch bands, sampling is used prominently, breaking up the fiercely defiant anthems with sarcastic educational film clips and the like. Angry, pointed, and resistant to the end, The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers is another chapter in the life of a musical revolutionary.

21. Made Out of Babies - The Ruiner

Noisy, tumultuous, and occasionally terrifying, The Ruiner is the third album of New York noise metal band, Made Out of Babies. Featuring members of Red Sparowes and Battle of Mice, Made Out of Babies take the deafening guitars of the former and the ominous post-metal temperament of the latter, combine them, and then add a lot of noise for good measure. Where it works is in the incredible atmosphere created, much in part due to the vocals of singer Julie Christmas, who may or may not be a banshee (I haven't confirmed it). Christmas sings much like the secretly evil child in a horror movie talks - you know, the one who insists upon saying everything in a really unsettling voice as the music around him suddenly builds to an operatic tension, just so you know that he's fucking evil. When surrounded with the kind of unholy racket the rest of the band puts up here - as emphasized by some stellar guitar work courtesy of Brendan Tobin and Eric Cooper - Christmas sounds like she might just be the anti-christ.

Additional entries will be posted in the days to come.


gabbagabbahey said...

wow, I forgot about Baader Brains.

Mesa Verde didn't do much for me - or rather, it sounded like perfectly good if unremarkable screamo. But then I only did listen to it once.

you definitely do have an interesting taste in hardcore. looking forward to the rest!

cretin said...

the baader brains album is good stuff, possibly surpassing bread and circuits, but it ultimately doesn't live up to PITCTIAH for me (not that that should be overly surprising). mesa verde is notable in that they're much better when they focus on build-ups (the first song on their album is actually my favourite, despite its lack of vocals), but the middle of the album doesn't represent much progression from their previous works, except that it has better production values.

it's worth noting though that only six of my top twenty albums could be labeled hardcore, so there's a lot more variety in the upcoming picks. it just so happened that my listening habits for the year were heavily slanted in that direction, so it's much more well-represented than any other genre at this range.