Thursday, January 22, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: 15-11

15. Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

I didn't pay much attention to last year's The Stage Names even though it got a lot of attention and acclaim. Everything about Okkervil River seemed affected and too clever for me. Right off the bat, though, The Stand Ins is impossible to ignore. "Lost Coastlines" is an infectious, joyful piece of songwriting that never failed to cheer me up and get my head nodding, and the rest of the album actually keeps that energy going.

Will Sheff's lyrics are, to use a too-often-overused descriptor, Dylan-esque. In this case, it's the madcap, stream-of-consciousness Dylan of the Bringing It All Back Home era. It's almost as if he's afraid that the words are going to fly right out his ears if he doesn't get them out. This results in a singing style that I would describe as the exact opposite of Willie Nelson; whereas Nelson is always a quarter beat behind, Sheff is a quarter beat ahead.

"Pop Lie" is another raucous gem that really gets me going, but it's the quiet moments on the record that push it to another level for me. People with Sheff's talent with words often come across as disingenuous when they attempt to be heartfelt and earnest, but he pulls it off beautifully. When he sings "God knows I just want to make this white light big enough to climb inside with you," I really believe him.

14. Matthew Ryan - Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State

Sensitive singer-songwriters usually don't come out with with innovative, career-defining albums. They tend to plod along gently, gradually perfecting their craft until they get to the level of Grant Lee Phillips - respected but not groundbreaking. Some notable exceptions are Josh Rouse's Under Cold Blue Stars and Patty Griffin's Flaming Red. Add to that list Matthew Ryan's latest.

A lot of people think that Ryan's last record, From a Late Night High Rise was his masterpiece, and while that record was incredibly powerful, Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State trumps it in terms of songwriting maturity and breadth. Ryan's raspy whisper of a voice is able to convey an incredibly dense and complex web of emotions here, and his songs stick in the head without becoming annoying or mundane.

He's a lyricist of rare talent, an introspective writer who never comes across as self-indulgent of navel-gazing. "American Dirt" is one of his best, an intense and caustic meditation on regret that gets better with every listen. Given where he's been as a songwriter, this record is a quantum leap and, hopefully, a sign of even better things to come.

13. Santogold - Santogold

Forget the hype and just listen to it with fresh, non-judgey ears. This is a fantastic record. Nuff said.

12. Walkmen - You & Me

From its very first notes, You & Me feels like an album that captures our present like few others do. It's music for this recession, not just any recession. This recession still feels unreal in a lot of ways. We see financial disasters, we know people who have lost their jobs, and yet it still feels distant and hazy. The Walkmen strike a perfect balance here between nervy, brooding melodies and lyrics that, for all their darkness, are actually pretty optimistic.

Those expecting a dramatic departure in sound from their previous records will be disappointed. The jangly guitars, half-screamed vocals and five boroughs imagery are still here in spades. What's different about this record is that all of that stuff has finally been put into a relevant package. I don't think many people actively disliked the Walkmen, but they weren't a very exciting or interesting band. Their strange mix of optimism and darkness just feels right now though.

Everyone talks about "In the New Year" as the quintessential song on the album, but for my money the opener, "Donde Esta La Playa," captures everything that's great about this album. It begins with rolling drums and bass, with a world-weary vocal performance that then gives way to a screaming chorus, and then it all goes quiet again. The record is a wonderful ride, from start to finish.

11. Sigur Ros - Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust

I feel like I've never really "gotten" Sigur Ros. They were good music to fall asleep to, or background music for staring off into the distance, or music to play before a staff meeting. They were novel but not interesting.

"Gobbledigook" smashes that all to hell. It begins with a single snare, followed by a strumming acoustic guitar, followed by an entire jungle of percussion screaming along in a joyous cacophony. It's fantastic, energetic and unlike anything they've done before.

My friend Tara described this album as "like standing on top of a mountain." I really can't think of a better description. It makes you glad to be alive, and I can't think of a better purpose for music than that.


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