10. Dr. Dog – Fate
A long and winding Abbey Road leading to right to Big Pink’s door. There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve as long as you find something interesting to say with them. Dr. Dog has focused its previously rambling, wild-hare sound into a precise, nimble approach where every instrument and voice makes itself known with a unique (and endearingly simple) role within the song, contributing to a mighty whole.
KEY TRACKS: “Hang On” “The Rabbit, The Bat, And The Reindeer” “My Friend”
9. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Pity poor Vampire Weekend. Praised to the skies in the blogosphere before the release of their first album, these collegiate cardigan enthusiasts then suffered a backlash as nasty as it was rapid. Know-it-all amateur critics giveth…and taketh away. Pay no mind. Their pleasant Afro-pop (shades of Paul Simon and Talking Heads) is still fun to listen to, and their head-scratching lyrics haven’t lost their ability to both puzzle and please.
KEY TRACKS: “Oxford Comma” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”
8. Beck – Modern Guilt
Of the many creative folk who made 2008 a memorable year, production whiz Danger Mouse (mentioned twice elsewhere in this very list) must be at the top of the heap. Everyone’s favorite alt-rock troubador/sonic prankster Beck seemed to have lost his way on 2006’s unfocused The Information, but this fruitful collaboration with D.M. snaps him back into high gear. Like 2002’s melancholy Sea Change, Beck’s lyrics veer into some dark territory here, this time mourning not just his own personal heartbreak, but lamenting an entire world going down the wrong path. The bleakness of his words are offset by the propulsive, slinky arrangements (the slow-burning “Volcano” ranks among the very best songs he’s ever written).
KEY TRACKS: “Volcano” “Gamma Ray” “Modern Guilt” “Youthless”
7. Black Mountain – In The Future
Dark, disturbed tales of witches and sorcery eminating from a group of what appears to be mild-mannered, bearded Canadian grad-students? As a recent vice-presidential candidate might say, “you betcha.” Some of the more egregious Sabbath/Zeppelin bombast is reigned in by a natural indie-rock sense of decorum and self-consciousness, but enough Misty Moutain gloom and doom push through to ensure that by putting this album on at your next D&D tournament, you will be the coolest half-orc (or whatever) in the coven.
KEY TRACKS: “Stormy High” “Wucan” “Stay Free”
6. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
No ambitious artist wants to be known as a “jam band.” Being lumped in with Dave Matthews and The String Cheese Incident does no one any favors, and MMJ know it. They have been rebelling against that ridiculously reductive label ever since it was first stuck to them a few years ago, so their last two albums increasingly reigned in their reverb-heavy, country-tinged instrumental stretch-outs with touches of urban R&B (lead singer Jim James occasionally breaks out his Prince falsetto) and concise, straight-up hooks. Try to convince me 2005’s “Off The Record” or this album’s “I’m Amazed” doesn’t smack of old-school AM Top 40 pop.
KEY TRACKS: “I’m Amazed” “Librarian” “Thank You Too” “Sec Walkin’”
5. Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity
This Dallas quartet has been a mainstay of my Top 20 lists for a decade, and their latest once again goes from strength to strength. They pull off a fantastic musical trifecta of powerful pop hooks combined with countrified lyrics of superior depth and literariness…and they’re a shit-hot live act to boot.
KEY TRACKS: “No Baby I” “Color Of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” “My Two Feet”
4. The Raconteurs – Consolers Of The Lonely
Basically the White Stripes minus the White Stripes’ arbitrary, self-imposed restrictions, the Raconteurs demonstrate the full flowering of Jack White’s preoccupation with rooting around in America’s musical attic. And oh, what dusty treasures he finds. When combined with co-leader Brendon Benson’s village-green Anglophilism, the result is an interesting batch of songs that give the listener a kaleidoscopic glimmer of old folk, old blues, and old Tin Pan Alley stylings while remaining comfortably anchored in the electric rock genre.
KEY TRACKS: “You Don’t Understand Me” “Old Enough” “Many Shades of Black” “The Switch And The Spur”
3. Marah – Angels Of Destruction!
Marah have sometimes been accused of “trying too hard.” Well, what the hell is wrong with that? It beats not trying at all. (Listen to Weezer’s latest. Or better yet, don’t.) AOD! is overproduced, yes. But the overproduction here feels like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thrill ride, rather than fussy technical wankery. The thinking man’s bar band, Marah churns out their best collection yet, careening from barreling rattlesnake shakes to torch songs awash in spritual imagery and regret, and always playing as if each song is the final encore.
KEY TRACKS: “Coughing Up Blood” “Angels On A Passing Train” “Blue But Cool”
2. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
The Gaslight Anthem have simplified and concentrated the tortured angst-rock of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” and the booming drama of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town-era E Street Band by forcing it through a spiky, post-punk filter. They don’t have a full orchestra or dozens of overdubbed Springsteens. Just a couple of battered Telecasters. Their lyrics are the most truly romantic of 2008, in the original, 19th century Byronic sense of the word. No greeting card platitudes here. The Afghan Whigs without the soul-music fixation and murder fantasies? A rougher, riskier Gin Blossoms? Something in between, I suppose. But those two bands were gone too soon, and I hope The Gaslight Anthem sticks around for a good long time.
KEY TRACKS: “Great Expectations” “Meet Me By The River’s Edge” “Old White Lincoln” “The ’59 Sound”
1. Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Blitzen Trapper race from idea to idea and mood to mood in an excited frenzy. Even their slower, melancholy songs seem to demonstrate their thoughts streaking ahead of their singing and playing. Rather than seeming schizophrenic (as last year’s Wild Mountain Nation sometimes did), the thirteen songs on Furr present themselves like an anthology of thirteen tiny one-act plays. The story and atmosphere is different for each one, but the listener can tell it’s the same creators and cast telling each tale. Like a series of fever dreams, a dusty Rocky Mountain saloon dissolves into an urban underground disco which becomes an open, unrecognizable stretch of lonely road. Not necessarily in that order. Then you wake up and try to put the pieces together.
KEY TRACKS: “Sleepytime In The Western World” “Furr” “Black River Killer”