Happy holidays! It’s that time of the year again where us music critics honor our favorite albums of the year. Since Spectrum Culture is new this year and has such a small staff, we decided to forgo the usual consolidated staff list and instead publish our own favorite albums of the year, spread over three days. Like any good list, we hope ours inspires you to check out any of these artists who may have flown past your radar. I also want to take this time to thank you for your support and promise you more exciting content from Spectrum Culture in the impending New Year. Much love to everyone.
–David Harris, Editor-In-Chief
3. J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher –
Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies [Standard Recording]
Authored by musicians J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher, and originally conceived as part of the February Album Writing Month project in 2006, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies was an ambitious effort that explored the mythology and history of the American presidency and the men who have alternately honored or shat upon that office. Ranging from songs of sympathy to those of scathing criticism and satire, and featuring contributions from many indie musicians, it successfully avoided the overindulgence and self-importance that sometimes plagues concept albums.
The songs were often structured as either character portraits or deathbed confessionals, with many of the presidents judged harshly. Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison were dismissed as war profiteers, Chester Arthur was depicted as an egotistical bastard, and George W. Bush was derided as stubborn and uncompromising fundamentalist. Even George Washington reeked of cynicism and Machiavellian expediency, with Kiefer portraying him as a silver-tongued political shyster:
Yet there were still some genuine moments of compassion, sympathy, or praise. Bill Callahan transformed John Tyler into an object of pity who unintentionally fell ass-backwards into the presidency after his predecessor’s unexpected death in 1841. Pitcher imagined Harry Truman as a morally conflicted man and a mess of warring emotions. In perhaps the album’s best song, the gorgeous and aching “Helicopters above Oakland,” U.S. Grant was presented as a tired former soldier looking back in dismay at the ruin caused by the Civil War.
As Americans we tend to mythologize the presidency into beyond-epic proportions. This release looked past that bullshit and instead focused on the nation’s leaders as regular, and sometimes very flawed, people.
2. Wilderness – (k)no(w)here [Jagjaguwar]
Conceived as a single musical piece and inspired by a collaboration with artist Charles Long, (k)no(w)here was a foreboding and menacing release from the Baltimore collective. Songs bled into each other without any discernible break; to the listener it created an odd effect of being trapped inside a lunatic’s mind. Throughout the album lead singer James Johnson yelped, barked and howled on top of the band’s aggressive guitars and drums, his words oddly enunciated and often times unintelligible save for a few repeated phrases or snatches of lyrics. When Johnson’s words were understandable, they almost always hinted at some type of upcoming but unnamed disaster, usually with a heavy dose of social or political undertones. Evocative of bands like PiL, Fugazi, and The Jesus Lizard, (k)no(w)here was both difficult to comprehend and yet, in the election year of a country with an economy going into the crapper and an outgoing administration that can’t slink away soon enough, also somehow perfectly timely.
1. Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums – Dark Developments [Orange Twin]
An album that combined Vic Chesnutt’s ability to craft melodies and darkly humorous lyrics with his penchant for distortion and electricity, Dark Developments was the singer’s best effort since The Salesman and Bernadette. Joined by Elf Power and frequent backing band the Amorphous Strums, Chesnutt set aside the plodding vocal arrangements and murky production that plagued Ghetto Bells and the bursts of random noises that made North Star Deserter sound too experimental for its own good in favor of tight songs that relied heavily on background vocals and melodies you could even hum.
The album served up a big helping of anger and cynicism. Chesnutt spat out insults in “Little Fucker;” though the target was never named, it was tempting to view the song as a much-deserved dismissal of any number of people from the outgoing Bush regime. Other songs like “Stop the Horse” and “Teddy Bear” were also fodder for similar political interpretations.
Yet the album never got bogged down in political polemics; the subject matter was specific enough to suggest a certain topic but vague enough to allow music fans and overzealous critics to speculate wildly about each song. Overall the album was a cohesive synthesis of what still makes Chesnutt’s music so original and fascinating – a melody that lodges in your brain and won’t get out, a disturbing or bleakly humorous lyric and a keen eye for the mundane details of life and death.
Dr. Dog- Fate [Park the Van Records]
Wasting no time after last year’s We all Belong, Dr. Dog’s summer release, Fate, proved the indie band is here to stay. With similarities ranging from The Allman Brothers to The Beatles to even Elton John, the Philly quintet has been emulating classic rock’s best qualities under their own vision since the beginning of the century. Their early work up to the magnificent Easy Beat incorporated an innate sense of quirkiness. Bits of Zappa-style freak-outs and fairy-tale psychedelia peppered these albums, which helped embolden Dr. Dog’s one-of-a-kind sound. On Fate, this bold tendency is all but replaced with a more mature songwriting approach, and although the band’s quirks are surely missed, it’s impossible not to appreciate their bouncy, rocking sound. It’s a bit more 1970s than previous releases, the result of a more polished production value. Gone is the lo-fi veil that made Easy Beat sound like a pioneering ’60s album. But Fate is merely a fun and passionate record, and it is rare to hear these two elements balanced together in contemporary rock. They are one of the best bands the ’70s never had and if Fate reaches the right number of ears, they may become one of the biggest bands of the 2000s.
MGMT– Oracular Spectacular [Sony]
After a string of film and television showcases and late-night talk show performances during the first half of 2008, MGMT’s debut album catapulted in popularity by summer. And rightfully so. Oracular Spectacular brims with the colorful production of Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), but it’s the songs themselves that transcend anything currently in mainstream rock. They’re very reminiscent of old-school funk and psychedelic while sporting anthemic, larger-than-life attitudes and plenty of grooves and falsetto vocals. But what also makes this album a 2008 highlight is the possibility of a new era of rock it may help establish. Few rock albums in recent years have explored their full potential, often yielding to formulaic structures and the uninspiring chug-chug-chugging of power chords. Oracular Spectacular verifies the notion that it’s possible to be innovative and still rock hard. Hopefully big-time producers will realize this may be the answer to burying the pabulum that music has become of late.
Michael Giacchino– Lost Season 3 Soundtrack [Varese Sarabande]
Lost wouldn’t be the same without Giacchino’s dynamic score, season after season. At once driving, sweeping, somber and enigmatic, it assists the diverse storylines and settings the show demands, and Giacchino has proved in Seasons 1 & 2 that he is no one-trick wonder. The Season 3 soundtrack continues the familiar trend of sweeping passage and incidental ditties, but there is more of an emphasis on composition. Some of Giacchino’s best work erupted this season, most notably during the game-changing finale. It’s a pleasure to be able to listen to this work in its uninterrupted entirety. “Flying High” is the perfect, delicate backdrop to Jack’s emotional breakdown during the finale’s teaser, and in the final, pivotal, cliff-hanging moments, the closer “Flashforward Flashback” accentuates the mysterious, unraveling story. The minimal strings and synths are profoundly eerie and are a fitting end to the volatile season. Few television soundtracks trail so many boundaries and do it so well.
Yael Naim and David Donatien– S/T [Atlantic]
How many Israelis can turn a Britney Spears cover into a mystical journey incorporating bare-bones subtle instrumentation with a smooth, lilting voice? Yael Naim does just this in her stirring cover of “Toxic” on her self-titled album. Though born in Paris, Naim spent much of her childhood just outside of Tel Aviv. Her two years served in the Israeli military contributed to her wide-eyed view of the world and her own internal songs. She incorporates her native language of Hebrew (so rarely heard in mainstream music) with English, offering up a historical tour of sounds that enhances her songs. David Donatien, a West Indian drummer, blends traditional drum kits and electronic tools, rotating rhythms and tones. Accompanying Donatien and Naim are musicians integrating the sounds of cello, bass, and mellotron. Recorded in Paris, each song incorporates her own rotation of moods and emotions. She is very reminiscent of Tori Amos with her sweet tonality and emotional sway of lyrics. This album appears to be a testament toward the quest for home and her continually progressing autobiography.
Adele– 19 [Sony]
I think back to when I was 19: first time in love coupled with a deep internal struggle of self. Most times in life, we are not offered a microphone to offer sound to our mind’s many voices. That is probably a good thing, though in Adele’s case I am glad for her vocal discovery. On her debut album 19, she writes from the voice of someone stuck inside that age because she is just that–19. A self-described, “heartbroken soul”, Adele sings with a voice that is aged far beyond her years–stretching beyond the instrumental pull of strings, chords, and keys. The theme 19 is love–the typical pattern of discovery, lust and heartbreak. To sing about something that has set a scar so deep inside you, creates a sense of sweeping sincerity that is thoroughly represented on this album. The beauty of Adele lies in the bluesy aroma of her words winding around the instruments with ease. This album is sad, but in a way that allows the listener to enter into her despair and travel alongside. Her voice feels each word because she lived it–something that is not often felt with other artists that tend to rely too much on flashy dance moves and heavy beats. This album is a refreshing dive back into soul and the poetry of sorrow.
William Joseph- Beyond [Warner Brothers]
To listen to an album that offers no distraction to the instruments–simply, time to savor the beauty of unrestrained sounds–is more than just indulgent, it creates a moment of stillness. William Joseph packs a 72-piece orchestra alongside his breathtaking piano playing on his latest album, Beyond.In “Once Upon Love”, I travel through the layers and levels of love. Through Joseph’s meticulous navigation of keys and accompanying strings, it is difficult not to feel the emotion intended to offer illustrations with each note played. The track, “Leningrad” is a somber stretch of piano keys merged with strings. Images of lust, sorrow and erosion of self come to mind when listening to the display of instruments swaying like ocean waves–offering texture through resonance and heightened emotion. Joseph allows the listener to narrate and construct words to the instrumental tracks, allowing each listen to feel new depending upon setting and mood of the day.
1. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago [Jagjaguwar]
Every good thing that’s been said about this album is absolutely true. I”m hesitant to throw around words like “masterpiece,” but Justin Vernon has earned it on his first release as Bon Iver – it’s a fully formed statement, passionate while remaining understated and beautifully rendered. Much has been made of the fact that Vernon recorded it alone in a cabin in the frozen Wisconsin winter, and that environment is at times a heavy presence in the songs, whether it’s the desolate, icy backing of “Flume,” or the constant lyrical references to snow and isolation. But it’s the way Vernon forms his emotions into a complete experience that’s really impressive. Each song on the album marks a shift in emotional temperature, carrying the listener along through a series of exquisite moments – now haunting, now desperate, now bittersweet – and then quietly dissipating, like a moment from a dream you can’t quite remember but still leaves you feeling strange and different. Vernon’s writing, playing, and especially singing are pretty much flawless. He’s got a sense of melody and inflection equal parts Motown and folk that he uses to perfect effect – Witness the goosebump-inducing harmonies on “The Wolves (Act I and II)” and his strident falsetto on “For Emma.” His guitar licks and chords are insidiously simple and effective, and he often dusts the songs with touches of percussion and electronic flourishes that flesh them out while you’re just basking in the sheer elegance of it all. Remember the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie imagines his teacher being so enraptured by his essay that she takes up her chalk, and marks his grade A ++++(etc. etc. pluses to infinity)? This is the grade I give to Bon Iver.
2. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer [Sub Pop]
Wolf Parade’s second album is a much more stately affair than Apologies to the Queen Mary, its highs and lows more carefully honed compared to the first album’s jagged edges, everything a twitch more precise. But that doesn’t disqualify them from being unpredictable. Spencer Krug’s spectral weirdness and Dan Boeckner’s gravelly bravado bounce off each other in ways that make complete sense if only because they’re near-total opposites. Krug is the more avant garde of the pair, offering up odd time signatures and key changes, all anchored by his distinctive yelp, while Boeckner likes the straight-ahead, from-the-belly rock. The combination of their two creative forces makes the band fascinating, and after months of listening this album has only grown on me. It carries twitchy dread in its first half, anchored by forceful opener “Soldier’s Grin,” which swirls together restless synth and guitar while Boeckner cautions: “What you know can only mean one thing.” The Boeckner songs here are some of his strongest to date. “Language City” is perfectly paced and delivered for maximum effect, climaxing with a huge coda. And “Fine Young Cannibals” is probably the best surprise on the record; dirty and funky in its groove, nimble in its vocal and instrumental interplay.
1. TV on the Radio– Dear Science [DGC/Interscope]
Brooklyn quintet TV on the Radio has emerged, after three full-lengths and a handful of EPs, including the brilliant Young Liars, as the most consistently engaging, boundary pushing, and dynamic American band. Like Radiohead in their prime, they combine a restless spirit with a willingness to experiment with the immediate, visceral qualities of vintage rock ‘n’ roll. What’s more they’re one of the few rock bands that you can dance to. Though Dear Science does not top their masterpiece Return to Cookie Mountain, it is nonetheless in the same league. From the rushing, layered opener, “Halfway Home” to the dense victory march of the closer, “Lover’s Day,” the album is full of surprises and styles–embracing many, but sounding like little else. The album’s midsection shows their versatility: the swelling, funky single “Golden Age” is followed by the slow, lovely “Family Tree,” and then the agitated, angry (“Fuck your war”) “Red Dress.” As with their other work, the music is textured and full, and the vocals are distinctive and layered. TV on the Radio is in the rarefied sphere of setting the standard so high that they only have themselves for competition.
2. The Walkmen– You & Me [Gigantic]
Perhaps one of the most underrated bands out there, The Walkmen, after 2006’s curious recreation of a Harry Nilsson album, have returned in excellent form with You & Me. As with their great Bows + Arrows, it’s full of well-crafted, but slightly woozy songs that could make up the soundtrack to any number of late nights, long walks home, and punch-drunk nostalgia sessions. What makes them so good is the subtle, intuitive interplay of the five musicians and the clean production, which gives every member enough space: dramatic, crisp drumming, full-bodied bass lines, sharp, melodic guitar, and, the element that sets them apart, the warm, swirling organ. At the center is Hamilton Leithauser’s rich voice, which can either rise to a punk-like bark or relax into a velvety moan, like a lounge singer after a hard night. They subtly deploy horns on a number of tracks and create an atmosphere that is both bracing and bittersweet, lovely and a little melancholy. The first song, “Donde Esta la Playa,” rolls in on crashing wave-like drums and everything feels a little far away and out of focus, with a swirl of memories and a hard-won optimism. You & Me has the flow and even narrative of an older album and shows The Walkmen as masters of both dynamics and dramatics, of the brief, but important moments, and as the foremost purveyors of indie torch songs for sleepless romantics.
3. Titus Andronicus– The Airing of Grievances [Troubleman Unlimited]
Titus Andronicus is a ramshackle, unruly bunch from New Jersey, named for an early, bloody Shakespeare tragedy. On their impressive debut, they combine the fury and energy of punk with a classic rock bar band feel. Like Dylan in the mid-’60s or early Springsteen and the E Street Band, they have a sweaty, anthemic quality. But they’re more unhinged, playing as if the entire band is on fire and the apocalypse around the corner. There is something thrillingly unbalanced and tortured about the desperate vocals and shouted choruses. “Titus Andronicus Forever” could stand as the anthem of the year, with its hard charging music and its memorable, paranoid refrain, “The enemy is everywhere.” Currently barnstorming across the country, Titus Andronicus may be the most exciting of the new bands, performing (even for a tiny audience in Portland) as if they were on the edge of a cliff. This is be the album everyone would be reaching for if the election had turned out differently, a galvanizing howl from the guts of the country.
[Illustration: Sarah Goodreau]