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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Top ten musical highlights of 2008

Published: January 16, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

This year saw some of the finest, envelope-pushing music of the decade. From extraterrestrial hip hop to country folk rock fusion, newcomers to fixtures in the music world, artists expanded their channels of expression to an unprecedented degree. Without further ado, I am pleased to provide my official list of this year’s best albums.

diverse-city-1-16-09_page_1_image_00071. TV on the Radio “Dear Science”

On previous albums the Brooklyn art rock ensemble stirred up concoctions of as many genres and textures as they could manage. From gospel to electro to funk to post-rock, the band was the aural equivalent of a cocktail that tastes delicious on the first sip but makes you nauseous by the end of the glass. But on “Dear Science,” the band has really found its groove, which means more hooks and less brooding. Paradoxically, they seem to focus their sound by letting their sonic imaginations drift. From the percussive quasi-rap of “Dancing Choose” to the evocative, strings laden piano ballad of “Family Tree,” the most talented quintet in indie rock today has finally given us an album that’s worth toasting.

diverse-city-1-16-09_page_1_image_00052. Fleet Foxes “Fleet Foxes”

Many modern indie bands have tried to pull off the rural Americana sound, but most just sound boring. Fleet Foxes captures the essence of that burgeoning subgenre while besting most of its competitors. The group’s trademark harmonized vocals carpet the pastoral scenes its songs evoke. With echoes of Band of Horses and early My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes manages to exist in its own special realm. If the songs on the band’s debut simply expressed Appalachian folk nostalgia we wouldn’t have paid attention, but their sound cuts across time and space to an emotional terrain where categorizations are rendered meaningless. This is an album to listen to while taking long, soul-searching walks.

diverse-city-1-16-09_page_1_image_00083. Dodos “Visiter”

Just when you thought you Flight of the Conchords has conquered the market on indie folk duos, San Francisco’s Dodos have emerged at the top of their league. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Meric Long manages the fuse personal struggles with the universal experiences in a way that few lyricists can. His unique finger picking style, modeled after country-blues but elevated to a whole different level gives the songs a distinctive twang. Drummer Logan Kroeber’s percussion, infused with West African influences, dynamically interlocks with Long’s picking. The combined forces of the two musicians give the music a propulsive quality, which is probably the reason “Visiter” tops my best traveling albums list.

diverse-city-1-16-09_page_1_image_00064. Lil Wayne “Tha Carter III”

Is there any praise I can heap upon Lil Wayne that the ubiquitous rapper hasn’t already attributed to himself? While every other MC was just busy trying to make a fast buck and look cool, Lil Wayne honed his talents through mix tapes released for free online and guest tracks on other rappers’ albums. His diligent work ethic paid off when “Tha Carter III” sold a million copies in its first week and Weezy became a true pop culture icon. Lil Wayne’s production is sui generis, a layered mix of throbbing beats, hypnotic riffs, and expansive arrangements. But his rhymes remain outrageous and bold at a time when most hip hop sounds like recycled garbage. Some of the lyrics on “Tha Carter III” might offend, but you’re more likely to perk your ears up and think, “Did he actually say what I think he did?”

5. The Hold Steady “Stay Positive”

The Hold Steady is the kind of band that can bring generations together. Its straight-ahead approach to rock hearkens back to bands ranging from the Stones to the Replacements. Critics like to call them a bar band, but that term only remains accurate if used to describe the quantity of alcohol its members imbibe. This release finds the band embracing a kind of hard-edged exuberance, not to mention song-along potential. The single “Sequestered in Memphis” features a horn arrangement and harmonized chorus that make it a centerpiece. But the gritty, atmospheric “Slapped Actress” steals the show, exploring the relationship between film and life. The familiar never sounded so fresh.

6. Okkervil River ”The Stand Ins”

The sequel has never quite caught on in music the way it has in film or literature. Ever since Dylan recorded “Blonde on Blonde,” musicians seem more willing to release their material in multiple disc sets than in separate installments. Luckily, Okkervil River decided to buck the trend with The Stand Ins, an addendum to “The Stage Names,” which explores disillusionment and cynicism over the cult of the celebrity. Songwriting has always remained the band’s tool for transcending the indie folk rock masses. Will Sheff’s ability to convey the real emotions that lay beneath artificial ceremonies of modern life continues to astound me. “Pop Lie” is an ironic hook-filled ode to radio-friendly singles, while “Blue Tulip” is a slow, searing ballad between a movie star and his would-be love. A perfect album for cynical artists and dejected poets.

7. Bon Iver ”For Emma, Forever Ago”

I used to think that falsetto was a technique bound to fail when employed by white boys. That was before I heard Justin Vernon’s angelic choir of sky scraping melodies. The folksy singer songwriter gets back to basics on his debut album, which features gently strummed acoustic guitars and his anguished, searing vocals. By layering his voice over itself into a mass of orchestral triumph he achieves a sound that ought to have its own effects pedal setting. Bon Iver’s velvety rich acoustic palette retains exudes a rustic charm that reflects the Wisconsin cabin retreat where he recorded the album. This album is a grower, and after a few listens its sepia-toned grandeur gets under your skin.

8. Vampire Weekend “Vampire Weekend”

It’s easy to dismiss a band that gets over-hyped in a very short amount of time. Nevertheless, Vampire Weekend’s media saturated debut proved to have staying power, at least through the year. The sunny, Afro-pop influenced rock tunes inevitably hook their way into your head and stay there. “Walcott” stands out as a simple, yet endearing number featuring a straight ahead beat and dueling tremolo guitars. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” shows off some killer tribal drumming and a riff you’re sure to be whistling for days. The four Columbia students that make up the band have been dissed for their elitist tendencies, but when a band makes an album this original and addictive, they deserve to act as preppy as they like.

9. Erykah Badu “New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)”

It turns out that the best R&B album of the year came from the woman who released the best R&B album of the year over ten years ago. After receiving bizarre comparisons to Billie Holiday’s vocal style, Badu has gone on to explore stylistic territory from funk to hip-hop. Her latest release is held together less by genre constraints than an expression of social consciousness. She challenges the injustices of a country that treats citizens unequally and demands subservience to a greedy government. Badu doesn’t tell us anything that hasn’t been said before, but her chief asset is her vocal prowess, which remains unchallenged. From buttery swells on the introspective “Me” to quavering flourishes ornamenting “Master Teacher,” Badu’s powers of expression remain unchallenged.

10. Hercules and Love Affair “Hercules and Love Affair”

When I first heard Antony Hegarty’s voice under the guise of an Antony & the Johnsons record, I couldn’t have imagined that the same high, sexually ambiguous vocals would adorn one of the best dance records of the decade. Although, truth be told, DJ Andrew Butler deserves the most credit for crafting electro beats that evoke the lost era of disco while pointing the way toward a new fusion style. “Blind” is sure to get any party started with its insistent beat and bouncing bass line. The album sounds confident and assured without compromising its inventiveness. The only thing more surprising than hearing Antony Hegarty’s voice on a neo-disco album is hearing my own voice singing along as I convert my room into a dance floor. Trust me, you’ll be doing the same after a couple of listens.