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BEST OF 2008
Just like last year, I gave the esteemed Mother Jones the first crack at my "Best of 2008," listing my top 20 albums and singles on The Riff back in mid-December. So good old Party Ben Information Systems is a little less important in the grand scheme of things (and by "grand" I mean the seven people who are actually interested in my musical opinions). But here, for your general bafflement, are my full lists.
1. Portishead - Third (Island)
It's impossible to separate this album from its triumphant context--a band rising from, if not the dead, at least the comatose, tossing out all their old instruments in pursuit of something new. What they created still sounds both shocking and inspiring, seven months after its release: an experiment in sometimes brutal, sometimes delicate sonics, held together by the perfectly-executed vocals of Beth Gibbons. While the lyrics explore the depths of despair, Gibbons sings with soaring confidence, sometimes hitting what sounds at first like a wrong note until the careening music shifts to resolve it. While it was clearly the musical achievement of the year, Third is such a challenging listen it's hard to recommend to the uninitiated. But like a dive into icy water, it may sting at first, but you'll emerge exhilarated, and feeling joyfully, utterly alive.
2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science (4AD/Interscope)
Our country's greatest band has managed to capture the hidden zeitgeist underlying the Obama party: confused, anxious dread, with progress in sight but far from certain. The beats shuffle along in syncopated grooves while the guitars add funky riffs, but vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone can't help but acknowledge their doubt, both in society and themselves: "I'm living a life not worth dying for," go the lyrics to "Red Dress," and you know they mean both us and our war, both a hope for change and a cry for help.
3. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III (Cash Money)
Sure, I wasn't quite ready for this album when it finally came out--accustomed to Wayne's eclectic mixtapes, the familiar hip-hop tropes at work here at first felt like a throwback. But what I've realized is that the 26-year-old Dwayne Carter has devoured the lyrical and musical themes of hip-hop and spit out a strange, sometimes menacing and sometimes hilarious subversion of the genre. Fuck the police? Wayne takes that literally, turning the siren of "Mrs. Officer" into a come-on. Bragging about your gunshot wounds? A 12-year-old Dwayne shoots himself on "Shoot Me Down." By nature a scattershot collection of the wildly prolific Wayne's material, a little focus could have made Tha Carter III transcendent. But its abounding strangeness makes it great.
4. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (Mute)
Frenchman Anthony Gonzalez' tribute to the most guilelessly dramatic music of the '80s hasn't appeared on a lot of year-end best-ofs, so I wonder if maybe you had to be there. But to those of us raised on the Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, and, well, The Breakfast Club, Saturdays = Youth is like a long-overdue vindication--our love and angst was real! More so even than a mash-up, this is deeply referential music, its sounds inextricably linked to memory: "Kim & Jessie" pounds with Phil Collins drums, "We Own the Sky" swirls with New Order guitars. The album's philosophy is encapsulated by the final line of "Dark Moves of Love," "I will fight the time and bring you back."
5. Hercules & Love Affair - S/T (DFA)
With the ascendance of neo-disco hipsters like LCD Soundsystem, it's easy to forget that funky 4/4 beats weren't always cool. But this album, a product of New York DJ Andy Butler and a shifting lineup of producers and vocalists, reminds us where disco came from: the gays, dammit! It was a profoundly queer mix of celebratory beats and outsider passions that gave anthems like Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" their power, something H&LA understands intuitively. Bringing gifted vocalist Antony Hegarty into the mix was inspired, and his voice, both melancholy and strident, lifts up these reimaginings of classic sounds like a mythical hero.
6. The Very Best - Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit Are the Very Best (self-released)
The most last-minute entry into my Top 10, The Very Best is a head-spinning mixtape that puts the ground-breaking promise of M.I.A.'s world-conscious beats into exhilarating practice. UK combo Radioclit represent edgy electro, and vocalist Mwamwaya represents kwaito, a syncopated South African dance style, but this mix goes everywhere: a melodic version of M.I.A's own "Paper Planes," a stomping remix of Vampire Weekend, a newly vital sample of the Beatles. But as Pitchfork said, while this is joyfully global music, it's neither "condescending nor touristic," since it aims not to capture a tradition, but to express a personal vision.
7. Santogold vs. Diplo - Top Ranking (Mad Decent) / Santogold - S/T (Downtown)
A tie is a cheat, I know, but Diplo's wildly eclectic rework of the young singer's already-diverse debut serves as a companion album that both subverts and enhances the original. Santogold's array of styles touched on dub, new wave, and indie rock, channeling the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Sleater-Kinney only to turn and dive into bassy electronic weirdness; Diplo's 35-track (!) mix delves even deeper, expanding the palette into reggaeton, classic rock and, er, Gerri and the Holograms. Like TV on the Radio, Santogold doesn't so much trample genre as surf its waves, making sense of the turbulence with balance and conviction.
8. Flying Lotus - Los Angeles (Stones Throw)
It's unfair, but understandable, to compare SoCal producer Steven Ellison to the late, great J Dilla: both are quirky solo producers making boundary-pushing, often instrumental hip-hop. But while Dilla's woozy, soulful tracks were products of isolation and melancholy, Ellison's sound crackles with energy, like the swirling maelstrom of its namesake city. Samples range from sitar to harp, and even what sounds like a bleepy transmission from space, but this heir to the Coltranes arranges the cacophony into a jazzy, atmospheric whole.
9. Beach House - Devotion (Carpark)
The Baltimore duo's lilting ballads have the gentle appeal of Mazzy Star or Low, but you can tell they've had classical training, since each note and syllable is placed with seemingly effortless precision. Moreover, they use just about every instrument around: organs, pedal guitars, harpshichords. On top of it all floats Victoria Legrand's voice, pure and without a trace of vibrato. Her lyrics all focus on "you," whether it's offering that "your wish is my command" on "Wedding Bell" or begging "please do not go" on "You Came to Me." Whoever she's devoted to haunts the record like a ghost.
10. Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak (Island Def Jam)
Honestly, it was watching Kanye this weekend on Saturday Night Live that sealed the deal for me: his rendition of "Love Lockdown" was sloppy and often out of tune, but it was delivered with such raw emotional force that it left a lump in my throat. The LA Times quoted 19th century German philosopher Heinrich von Kleist in their review, saying that "grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness." On 808s, Kanye has tried to strip himself of his aching consciouness, burying his voice in fuzzy auto-tune and robotic beats, but what emerges is indeed graceful, and more human, not less. The fact that hip-hop's most radical experimenter was able to once again crash through the genre's boundaries is a shock in and of itself, but that he focused his agonized despair into art is all the more courageous.
11. Vampire Weekend - S/T (XL)
Too-smart white boys ape Afropop with such joy and wit that you put aside your Paul Simon memories and dance.
12. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours (Modular)
The Australian combo separate themselves from the pack of '80s revivalists with a surprising stragegy: sincerity.
13. Deerhunter - Microcastle / Weird Era Cont. (kranky)
Georgia combo inherit the blistering guitar work and pensive edginess of Sonic Youth.
14. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali (Because)
The duo bring their melancholy take on Malian music to the world, taking on electro, reggae and the Smiths like the coolest 50-year-olds around.
15. Friendly Fires - S/T (XL)
UK combo takes dance rock to euphoric heights, evoking both shoegaze and Hot Chip.
16. The Raveonettes - Lust Lust Lust (Vice)
The garage revivalists push their fuzzy retro-rock into gritty, modern territory.
17. Fleet Foxes - S/T (Sub Pop)
Hymnal, reverb-drenched odes avoid folk-rock clichés with Beach Boys harmonies.
18. Quiet Village - Silent Movie (!K7)
Dance dudes make strange and wonderful lounge-exotica.
19. No Age - Nouns (Sub Pop)
LA kids deconstruct punk rock.
20. Dungen - 4 (Kemado)
Swedish psychedelia comes down to earth.
21. Tobacco - S/T
22. Raveonettes - Lust Lust Lust
23. Primal Scream - Beautiful Future
24. Erykah Badu - New Ameryka Pt. 1
25. El Guincho - Alegranza
26. Ladyhawke - S/T
27. Benga - Diary of an Afro Warrior
28. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
29. Neon Neon - Stainless Style
30. Crystal Castles - S/T
31. Beck - Modern Guilt
32. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular
33. Black Mountain - In the Future
34. Brightblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin
35. The Chap - Mega Breakfast
36. Deadmau5 - Random Album Title
37. T.I. - Paper Trail
38. Glasvegas - S/T
39. Michna - Magic Monday
40. School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
41. Mr. Oizo - Lambs Anger
1. Santogold - "LES Artistes"
There's a new genre in town: the song about becoming famous that helps make you famous. I suppose the White Stripes "Little Room" got it started, but Santi White's clear-eyed look into her own future covers the joy, the nerves, the trepidation, and the regret involved in creativity and fame. "I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up," she sings, over a soaring backdrop that out-rocks anything Metallica or G N' R could spit up by about a million, er, rock-points, a moment where greatness and ambivalence are inextricably linked.
2. Lil Wayne - "A Milli"
The most sonically menacing three and a half minutes in pop music this year. Consisting entirely of a gargantuan bass drum, a slowed-down sample of A Tribe Called Quest, and Wayne's growling vocals, the track maintains an almost unbearable level of tension; in terms of, well, notes, the bass drum is one step up from the sample, and Wayne's rap holds a note two steps down, creating an uncomfortable harmony that never resolves. It's a perfect backdrop for lyrics whose braggadocio is so surreal as to be both hilarious and kind of terrifying.
3. MGMT - "Time To Pretend"
The second of two "get ready to be famous" songs this year, Brooklyn's MGMT take the opposite road from Santogold, choosing to see pop music and fame as a game, sarcastically imagining their rock star futures: "Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives." However, it's paired with music that couldn't be more sincere: a massive keyboard riff and the dance-rock rhythm that's anchored great singles from "Float On" to "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
4. Glasvegas - "Geraldine"
This Scottish quartet found the sonic link between U2 and the Jesus and Mary Chain, adding the kind of charming, heart-tugging lyrics you could sing in your local pub. The simple two-chord backing track shudders with reverb, providing a perfect background for singer James Allan's precision vocal melodies, which add syllables to the words in a thick brogue: "My name is Geraldine, Iy-yeem yee-er soh-cial woerr-er-kerrr!"
5. Fake Blood - "Mars"
There was a moment in the early '90s when great rave singles seemed to discover an aweseome trick: access the driving intensity of techno and the uplifting drama of house by alternating the two! Genius! Bizarre Inc. did it most memorably in "Playing with Knives," but the mysterious UK producer known as Fake Blood has updated the formula for the oughts with cutting-edge production tricks and a silly sense of humor. A bass line careens like an out-of-control spaceship, giving way to a strangely filtered set of exultant chords, back and forth, and then a quick vocal sample as an afterthought: "Mars!"
6. Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"
Even on this list of crazy tunes, this may be the strangest song of them all. A minimalistic combo of a tuned bass and cheesy electronic piano chords gives way to massive, pounding tribal drums in the chorus, all underneath a mechanized, muffled Robo-Kanye. It's categorized as "hip-hop" on iTunes, but it's most akin to mechanical electro like Royksopp's "Remind Me" or even The Human League's "Don't You Want Me," using machines to form a perfect expression of the frozen emotional landscape of heartbreak.
7. Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk"
An irresistible slice of chiming ska-inflected Afropop, made all the more charming by the fact that it turned out to be four white dudes from New York singing about Washington Heights and, er, Sloan-Kettering. The jangling guitar gives way to a keyboard line of simple major chords, and even the line, "Look outside at the raincoats coming" can't dampen the song's sunny spirit. It's over in two minutes and you want to start it right back up again.
8. DJ Mujava - "Township Funk"
Leave it to the UK's Warp Records to discover that the South African dance music style kwaito is sounding a lot like the early experiments in proto-techno that came out of Detroit and Chicago. This track has a three-chord pattern and an immediately catchy, blippy keyboard line, but it still sounds exotic and mildly unhinged. It could be the syncopated, marching drum pattern, or maybe the rumors are true and Mujava's got some issues. Either way, he created one of the strangest dancefloor killers this year.
9. Portishead - "Machine Gun"
Whether this is the finest moment on Third is debatable, and it isn't even the point. But as the first "teaser" single released before the highly-anticipated album, "Machine Gun" was the shot heard round the world. The distorted, staccato samples that comprise the backing track are even more disturbing than the song's namesake, mechanized but utterly alien noises, like alarms or warring space robots. The message couldn't have been more clear: this ain't your mama's Portishead.
10. Cut Copy - "Hearts on Fire"
The lyrics describe a moment that "could change your life," and the ecstatic, propulsive music rises to meet the promise.
11. Kid Cudi - "Day 'n' Nite" (Crookers remix)
An unassuming new singer from Cleveland gets a storming, stuttering remix from the Italian techno duo of the moment.
12. Pitbull - "Krazy"
Another inspired combination of American hip-hop and Italian techno. Who knew?
13. Deerhunter - "Nothing Ever Happened"
Punk rock energy meets drone-rock expansiveness; the chorus contains the only half-step vocal harmony I think I've ever heard.
14. Hercules & Love Affair - "Blind"
A funky dance tune that understands the melancholy at disco's heart.
15. T.I. & Rihanna - "Live Your Life"
A cavalcade of cheesy references creating a moment of pure pop joy.
16. TV on the Radio - "Golden Age"
Who else could rhyme "natural disaster" with "ghetto blaster" and get away with it?
17. Friendly Fires - "Jump in the Pool"
An ecstatic moment of dance-rock glory that floats up effortlessly.
18. T.I. & Jay-Z - "Swagga Like Us"
The weirdest Paper Planes remix ever.
19. Busta Rhymes - "Don't Touch Me"
A weirdly organic, jazzy turn from the fastest rapper in town.
20. Tie: Gnarls Barkley - "Going On" / Beck - "Gamma Ray"
Danger Mouse explores two sides of the same double-time beat.
21. Dizzee Rascal - "Dance Wiv Me"
22. MGMT - "Kids"
23. Kanye West - "Flashing Lights"
24. Wiley - "Wearing My Rolex"
25. Black Ghosts - "Repetition Kills You"
26. Neon Neon - "I Lust You"
27. Ladyhawke - "Magic"
28. Flo Rida - "Low"
29. Black Kids - "I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You"
30. M83 - "Kim & Jessie"
31. Lil Wayne - "Mrs. Officer"
32. Surkin - "Next of Kin"
33. Moby - "I Like to Move In Here"
34. Tobacco - "Hairy Candy"
35. Little Boots - "Stuck On Repeat"
36. Estelle - "American Boy"
37. Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal"
38. Lil Wayne - "Got Money"
39. Ladytron - "Ghosts"
40. FM Belfast - "Tropical"
41. Sam Sparro - "Black and Gold"
42. School of Seven Bells - "Half Asleep"
43. Ting Tings - "Shut Up and Let Me Go"
44. Count of Monte Cristal - "Bounce That Ass"
45. Moby - "I Love to Move In Here"
46. Crystal Castles - "Vanished"
47. Crystal Castles vs. Health - "Crimewave"
48. Lil Wayne - "Lollipop"
49. Presets - "This Boy's In Love"
50. Common - "Universal Mind Control"
51. Treasure Fingers - "Cross the Dancefloor"
52. Herve - "Cheap Thrills"
53. Friendly Fires - "Paris" (Aeroplane remix)
54. Benga & Coki - "Night"
55. Does It Offend You, Yeah - "We Are Rockstars"
56. Metronomy - "Radio Ladio"
57. Mystery Jets - "Young Love"
58. Raveonettes - "Aly, Walk With Me"
59. Ting Tings - "Great DJ" (Calvin Harris remix)
60. Ne-Yo - "Closer"
61. Robyn - "Cobrastyle"
62. Rihanna - "Disturbia"
63. Sam Sparro - "21st Century Life" (Count & Sinden remix)