Narrowcast's Top 50 Albums of 2008 (Part 2 of 2)

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

1. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War
I was a skeptic of this album back when it dropped in March, but by the end of June, I had completely fallen under its spell, and haven't come out of it since. Even though I know, objectively, that this album has a context, both in Badu's career and in the last few years of post-Dilla weirdo R&B production, she did an incredible job of creating her own world, a rarefied air that permeates every note of every song. It's twisted, political, abstract head nod music, and I'm really curious to see what Part Two sounds like.

2. Jaguar Love - Take Me To The Sea
I'd never really listened to either band they splintered off from, the Blood Brothers and Pretty Girls Make Graves (although I'm finally getting into the Blood Bros. now), but I was hooked on Jaguar Love from pretty much the first time I heard "My Organ Sounds Like..." And the album that followed was everything I hoped it would be based on that song: crashing, careening jangle punk and squealing vocals that sound so impossibly high that they must be electronically treated but aren't, and lyrics that are half poetic nonsense, half disarmingly articulate and impossible to parse until you read the lyric sheet.

3. Young Jeezy - The Recession
While his Mini-Me's like Rocko and Shawty Lo ran amok this year and everyone else kept running with the ad libs and the trap talk, Jeezy scaled back his schtick to just his most strained croak and the most monolithic beats his core production team could come up, strung them around a vague but evocatively bleak album title concept, and ran delirious circles around every other major label rapper that put out a muddled, compromised album this year.

4. Parts & Labor - Receivers
It's getting kind of boring, putting this band in my top 10 for 3 consecutive years now (in fact, I just realized they've been in the #4 spot every time, weirdly enough). But, y'know, I'll stop when they drop a bad album. "Sattelites" revving up might be my favorite sound of the year.

5. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
I finally checked it out after the 3rd or 4th time that Tom Breihan raved about it and kept making it sound like something I'd really like, and he was right. A bunch of scrappy kids who evoke Springsteen as much as they possibly can, but also can't help but hide the fact that they think Counting Crows are some deep shit too. They actually have the kinds of hooks to back up the influence that's rung hollow in the hands of so many other bands in recent years, though, and the singer sounds so much like Brandon Flowers that you can pretty much just close your eyes and pretend that Sam's Town ended up being really good.

6. Evangelista - Hello, Voyager
This album doesn't encompass everything Carla Bozulich is capable of, but it covers a lot of ground: grinding noise, minimal spoken word soundscapes, 2-minute bursts of post-punk, swinging blues, and beautiful ballads, all thrown together for her best album of original material since Scarnella a decade ago.

7. Robin Thicke - Something Else
On the surface, Thicke comes off like an overly reverent quiet storm traditionalist who's a little too proud of his falsetto. But in a year full of decent albums by R&B auteurs, he made a more consistent and varied album than anyone else, alternating babymakers with hard grooves like "Sidestep" and left turns like the Hendrix homage "Hard On My Love" and gorgeously cinematic productions like "Dreamworld."

8. Fall Out Boy - Folie à Deux
With the pummeling tom toms and wind tunnel singalongs of "Thnks Fr Th Mmrs" as their new blueprint. Fall Out Boy have created a relentless sugar rush of an album, with hooks so big that for once you can actually ignore all the dumb bullshit Wentz calls lyrics.

9. Grand Buffet - King Vision
Back when they were rapping on almost every song, it was hard to rationalize my love for Grand Buffet in the context of my distaste for 99% of all goofy whiteboy underground hip hop, but now that they've mostlly abandoned that element of their music, I can just rep for their them as the best absurdist synth pop act on the planet.

10. Jonathan Richman - Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild
To some, Richman will always be the goofy, starry-eyed young guy with the songs about girls and rock'n'roll, and even as he's continued to mine that territory and strip the instrumentation to its barest elements for over 30 years, he's kept adding more emotions and languages and jokes to his repertoire, and this year he made one of the most memorably and deeply felt albums in his long career.

11. Sloan - Parallel Play
After the almost overwhelming high water mark of the 30-song Never Hear The End Of It (#1 on last year's list), such a comparatively short and breezy album should be underwhelming, but the good half of it contains some of the catchiest tunes they've written since the '90s.

12. The Raconteurs - Consolers Of The Lonely
With their first album, I finally started to let go of my hate of Jack White, and while I still credit Brendan Benson with the band's better melodies, I have to admit that White is the engine behind the classic rock grandiosity of collosal jams like "Rich Kid Blues."

13. A.B.N. - It Is What It Is
I've always liked both Z-Ro and Trae but didn't really feel motivated to check out a full album by either until they did one together. Apparently there's a fair amount of old/recycled material on here, but aside from a sequel to "Get Throwed" that noone asked for, it all sounds pretty fresh to me.

14. Pink - Funhouse
In November, a genre-bending pop star released an autobiographical breakup album, full of sounds they'd never explored before and surprisingly confessional and soulful lyrics. But most people ignored it because Kanye West released a piece of shit stopgap record at the same time.

15. Scarface - Emeritus
Like most rap retirements, this one probably won't last, but if he wants to milk it for some heavy-hearted significance and call in favors from all the MCs that owe their careers to him, he may as well. He's earned it.

16. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
If an engineer kept a log of recording dates for everything Wayne's made in the past 3 years, and we'd be able to see exactly when things were recorded and not when they ended up coming out, I'm pretty sure you'd be able to trace a pretty direct trajectory of his increasing skill and sharp syrup-driven decline, and that line would probably cut right through about half of this album's track list. There's a good chance he'll never make a decent album again, and the half full of vocoded slurring keeps this from being even as good as Carter II, but still those handful of songs that this album is worth listening to for are really something.

17. Walter Becker - Circus Money
When someone is part of the creative heart of a beloved band, but isn't the voice you associate with the group's best material, it's hard to know whether to follow them onto solo ventures (this is why, as much as I've been into Squeeze this year, I just couldn't bring myself to want to hear Chris Difford's album). But I was pretty delighted to find that, while Donald Fagen's wonderful voice hadn't aged terribly well on Morph The Cat, Becker has actually somehow become a pretty respectable Zevonesque vocalist in his autumn years, and on his own has come up with a crisper, livelier sound than any Steely Dan record's had since Aja.

18. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip
After a strangely muddy, rambling, inert Year Zero, it was really refreshing to hear some of Trent Reznor's sharpest, ugliest, most killer production ever on such a short, concise set of songs.

19. My Brightest Diamond - A Thousand Shark's Teeth
Retroactively, I'd have to say that Bring Me The Workhorse is one of my favorite albums of 2006, and really this isn't much of a step down, it's just kinda more of the same.

20. Raheem DeVaughn - Love Behind The Melody
I don't think people in the rest of the country realize just how huge Raheem is in the D.C. area; I live about 15 minutes from where dude went to high school, and one of my favorite musical moments of 2008 was taking out the trash, and hearing someone totally BLASTING "Mo Better" in the parking lot. I love that song, too, it was on the playlist at my wedding reception. In the months since dropping his gorgeous and sprawling second album of R&B hippie neo-soul rock star music, DeVaughn has made increasingly misguided grabs for a younger demographic with terrible trend-chasing singles like "Text Messages" and the T-Pain collab "Club Hop." But if he keeps going in that direction and his next album is a disaster, we'll always have this one.

21. Coldplay - Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
Many mega-selling but widely ridiculed and disliked bands are aware and self-conscious about their haters. But not many are willing to actually address those controversies while still successful with any response other than "if it ain't broke don't fix it." And while a band so often accused of aping U2 hiring Brian Eno isn't exactly a bold move, the fact that he told them things like "Your songs are too long, and you're too repetitive, and you use the same tricks too much, and big things aren't necessarily good things, and you use the same sounds too much, and your lyrics are not good enough" and they actually listened to him is kind of remarkable. They're still a watery middlebrow band, but bands of their type almost never make a 'difficult fourth album' that's actually better than the early stuff.

22. Prodigy - Product Of The 80s
P's 3rd album in the space of 2 years had no right to be this good; with no Alchemist beats and copious weed carrier verses, it should've been by far the weakest of the bunch. But Sid Roams stepped up to the plate and established themselves with some weird-ass beats, and Prodigy can talk down on "space shit" all he wants, but that's basically what his crazy conspiracy theory ass is rapping about now.

23. Anthony Hamilton - The Point Of It All
He still has the best pained yowl in R&B, and while I don't hear any songs on here as indelible as "Charlene," but this is still an extremely likable record.

24. Q-Tip - The Renaissance
I have a lot of goodwill towards Q-Tip for being, y'know, the driving creative force of one of the greatest rap groups of all time, but there was really no guarantee I'd enjoy his new shit, and I'm really glad I took a gamble on it, there's some pretty nice stuff on here.

25. Sheek Louch - Silverback Gorilla
So he's the 3rd best member of the Lox, but name me another crew in hip hop with a better 3rd-stringer (not counting big groups like Wu Tang). And this album really packed a surprisingly large number of dumb bangers that I actually felt like listening to throughout the year. I'm still kind a mad that Jada and Styles didn't drop anything in '08, though.

Narrowcast's Top 50 Albums of 2008 (Part 1 of 2)

Monday, December 29, 2008

26. Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It
Saadiq has paid homage to the same era less overtly and faithfully over the years to better effect (especially on Instant Vintage and with Tony! Toni! Toné!). But he has more talent and credibility to make a record like this than pretty much anyone else on the retro soul bandwagon in the past couple years, and the album flies highest when he breaks out of the stifling production aesthetic towards the end on "Never Give You Up" and "Sometimes."

27. T.I. - Paper Trail
In terms of production and guests, his previous album that this one strikes closest to is Urban Legend, a lot of hit-and-miss crossover attempts with small pockets of T.I. doing what T.I. does best mixed in here and there. But the reason it's not T.I. Vs T.I.P. muddled (i.e. much much worse) is the titular gimmick, as he raps with more clarity, thought and precision than he has in years, even over some of the goofiest pop beats of his career.

28. Rich Boy - Bigger Than The Mayor
His 2007 self-titled debut got by so much on the fact that his in-house producer happened to be one of the premier hitmakers of the past couple years, that I really didn't think Rich Boy had it in him to make a mixtape full of original tracks, and zero evident assistance from Polow Da Don, and actually end up with a totally dope record nearly equal to the official album. And based on that "Drop" bullshit that Polow came up with to push the next RB album, there's a good chance this'll be better than his official sophomore effort.

29. Blake Leyh - X-Ray Yankee Zulu Tango
I just wrote about this album a couple weeks ago, so I'll just direct you to that.

30. Ne-Yo - Year Of The Gentleman
Based on his 6 appearances on my list of favorite singles this year, you might think I'd be crazy about anything and everything Ne-Yo did in 2008, and you'd be pretty much right. But there were enough exceptions on this album that it kinda dragged for me, no matter how much I loved the singles.

31. The B-52s - Funplex
When a band comes back from a 16-year hiatus, all you can really ask for is that they top the unmemorable album they left things on, and they sure as hell outdid Good Stuff, even if they're not giving any of the '80s albums serious competition.

32. David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
I probably would enjoy a lot of the stuff these guys have made separately over the past 20 years, but it took them getting back together for me to pay attention.

33. Firewater - The Golden Hour
I still maintain that the quality of this band's albums has been going downhill on an almost mathematically perfect slope, but a really great live show based on this subpar material reminded me that even their worst is pretty damn fun.

34. Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV
For years, Trent Reznor has been issuing platters full of experimental and instrumental music under the NIN banner, but usually with remix albums, and finally this year he gave up a double dose of the kind of freaky scraping textures that only he can really provide, with no angsty goth poetry to get in the way.

35. Dan Friel - Ghost Town
One half of Parts & Labor's synth noise nucleus, letting the same squeals and skrees and thrums wander around beautifully without any rhythm section in sight to tether the tunes to something more rock-based, and yet surprisingly maybe even more accessible than P&L at times.

36. R.E.M. - Accelerate
If we're going to play the "their best since _____" game, I'm only going to go as far back as Up, but I really liked Up, and I really really hated Reveal. I was really surprised to find myself actually going back and listening to and enjoying these songs well past the initial 6 months of obligatory feigned interest, though.

37. Ludacris - Theater Of The Mind
Luda's run of non-classics has been so consistently underwhelming over the years that it's impossible to be disappointed when he drops a hyped up new album. But that also means it's easier to take the thing at face value, and enjoy the handful of jams that there are on it.

38. Guns 'N Roses - Chinese Democracy
Not amazing, not awful, it just is. The fact that this seems like such a minor blip just a month after its release date is in itself remarkable.

39. John Legend - Evolver
After the earth tones and classic singer-songwriter pop of 2006's great Once Again, a move into synthy modern production for John Legend seemed rife with disaster. But a few missteps aside, he pulled off the switch better than anyone could've predicted.

40. Prodigy - H.N.I.C. 2
About to head to jail and drifting further into increasingly foggy conspiracy theory rap, P went from one of the most boring figures in rap to one of the most interesting practically overnight.

41. Maroon 5 - Call And Response: The Remix Album
I'd probably be excited if Adam Levine ever made a solo album with Swizz Beatz and Bloodshy & Avant and Just Blaze and Tricky Stewart and ?uestlove, but ultimately I know it wouldn't be as good as just giving them the vocal tracks from his previous hits and letting them go nuts with those instead of trying to collaborate on new hits.

42. Ron Browz presents The Wonder Years
Released in May, mere weeks before Browz bought an AutoTune plugin and became hip hop's hottest new hitmaker with the awful digital vomit of "Pop Champagne" and "Arab Money," this compilation documents the Ron Browz that made "Ebonics" and "Ether," and dozens of other lesser known NYC hardhead anthems.

43. T-Pain - Thr33 Ringz
The reigning cameo king of 2007 locked up his spot for the second year in a row, but it was with the complacent wheel-spinning of a sitting incumbent, and most of his for-hire work paled in comparison to "Reality Show," "Therapy," "Karaoke" and the singles off this album. It'd be way way higher on this list if not for the 6 minutes of awful skits, though.

44. Mike Doughty - Golden Delicious
It's a given that Doughty's post-Soul Coughing career would never be as bold and weird and fun as that band, so it's kind of heartening that he's settled into a nice Westerbergian balladeer groove without sanding off the edges of what he contributed to that band's weirdness. And if he keeps making songs as dark and gorgeous and "Wednesday," I will try not to write him off just for contributing to prime time soap opera soundtracks.

45. various artists - The Wire: " … and all the pieces matter"
I'll be the first to admit bias (hell, I'm thanked in the liner notes), but it was still a thrill to get so many great songs from the show all in one place, including all those versions of "Way Down In The Hole."

46. AZ - Undeniable
While the peer and rival he'll always live in the shadow of flails with manufactured album title controversies and underselling event releases, AZ just keeps chugging along, releasing humble indie albums with glittering R&B hooks that don't feel as conflicted or compromised as Nas's softer material.

47. Ace Hood - Gutta
By far the best Miami rap album I heard this year, but being better than Flo Rida, DJ Khaled and Rick Ross ain't sayin' much.

48. The Pretenders - Break Up The Concrete
Only Chrissie Hynde could slink into middle age with slide guitars and still make music as tense and sardonic and crisply minimalist as her debut.

49. Slim - Love's Crazy
The voice of 112 sans harmonies, which doesn't sound as naked and thin without them as I thought it would be, due largely to some pretty killer production.

50. The Roots - Rising Down
Game Theory Part Two was a much better idea in theory than in practice, especially since they didn't improve on the sound when continuing to cover the same ground. The exclusion of "Birthday Girl" is the only reason this made the list at all, though.