Neon Filler’s round up of the best ten alternative and indie albums of 2008 is dominated by US acts, with the UK’s so-called next big things failing to live up to expectations.
Of those that made our top ten, seven are from the US, one from Canada and just two from the UK. Shamefully poor releases by the likes of Pigeon Detectives, Razorlight and Keane ensured that a Brit pop revival is unlikely in the near future.
Although the most interesting music of the year came from the US, the nation of the free shouldn’t get too above itself. There was no Is This It, no Nevermind, nothing to make a thousand teenage bands drop what there doing in their droves and embrace a new way of playing music.
Those that narrowly missed out include Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River, Amadou and Mariam and MGMT.
1. Walkmen – You & Me
From the reverbed guitar on opening tack Donde Esta la Playa to the end of last track, the ballad ‘If Only It Were True’, it is obvious You & Me is among the best releases of the year. Not only has it that increasingly rare quality of being consistently good throughout, it signals a dramatic shift in The Walkmen’s creative output. Gone is the emotionless pounding of previous singles such as The Rat and in comes a slower, emotionally charged 60s garage sound. The album, the band’s fourth, also marks a milestone for lead singer Hamilton Leithauser. His emotion is there for all to hear, perhaps for the first time in the Walkman’s back catalogue, especially on ‘Red Moon’. Standout track is undoubtedly In the New Year, an organ drenched epic.
2. Boston Spacehips – Brown Submarine
After a disappointing set of 2007 releases it looked like things were going to get worse in 2008 with the release of the below par Superman Was a Rocker album. But Robert Pollard rallied well with the excellent Robert Pollard Is Off To Business and seemed to be showing signs of his old self. And with the release of Brown Submarine, the first release from his new band Boston Spaceships he really got into his stride.
‘Ready to Pop’ and ‘Psych Threat’ burst with energy as well as horn and string flourishes. ‘Soggy Beavers’ could be an outtake from the classic Alien Lanes LP. ‘You Satisfy Me’ is an album high-point and ‘Two Girl Area’ would stand up favourably against any Pollard song.
Being in a proper band again has clearly revitalised Bob and this could be the best album he has released since he broke up Guided by Voices.
3. Shearwater- Rook
Created by Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff Shearwater have in the past been regarded as a mere folk off-shoot of their band Okkervil River. The beautiful but patchy Palo Santo (2006) began to change that and 2008’s Rook cemented Shearwater as a powerful musical entity in its own right. Minus Sheff and with Meiburg full time, after quitting Okkervil River to concentrate on Shearwater, Rook is packed full of sweeping, impressive tracks, steeped in natural imagery.
Meiburg’s distinctive baritone on songs such as ‘Snow Leopard’ and ‘Leviathan Bound’ have earned the band comparisons with TalkTalk for good reason. Stand out tracks include ‘Rook’ and ‘Hunter’s Star’, on an album that takes the sound of Palo Santo to another level and announces Shearwater’s emergence from Okkervil River’s shadow.
4. Bon Iver – For Emma Forever Ago
The story of Bon Iver is a compelling one. Justin Vernon splits from his band and retreats to a cabin in the woods for four months. He creates the nom de plume Bon Iver and records the songs that would become For Emma Forever Ago. The songs on the album are as remote and haunting as their origins would suggest.There are overdubs, guitar, drums, vocals and, on the title track, even horns. But these are in keeping with the haunting sound of the record and never smother it.
There are no weak tracks on the album, and several outstanding ones. ‘Skinny Love’ showcases Vernon’s vocals, and ‘Creature Fear’ has a great chorus amid the drama. It is album closer ‘Re:Stacks’ that best captures the sound of isolation, and ends the album beautifully. For Emma Forever Ago’ is the most accomplished debut of the year and showcases a real new talent.
5. Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
After three albums of autobiographical introspection the Mountain Goats John Darnielle arrived in 2008 with one of the band’s best albums yet. While Darnielle’s past subjects have included his own shocking childhood experiences of abuse on Heretic Pride, which is produced by John Vanderslice and Scott Solter, there is no such thread, just a collection of immediate and powerful songs. Gone is the autobiographic to be replaced by grand yet homely images of teenage love, religion, motels and middle America.
The opening half is particular powerful from ‘Sax Rohmer #1’ through to ‘Autoclave’. True, some may find Darnielle’s voice jarring but particularly on the album’s standout track ‘San Bernadino’ this album shows a far greater vocal range. Darnielle says on the album’s title track, “they come and pull me from my house, and they drag my body through the streets,” perhaps a passing reference to his confessional previous albums. With Heretic Pride this public ordeal has ended and the Mountain Goats emerge the better for it.
6. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
TV On The Radio really are cooler than cool. They’re based in Brooklyn, Bowie records backing vocals for them and in their spare time they are actors, producers, painters and make music videos for other hyper-cool bands.
Their 3rd album, Dear Science, is their most satisfying yet. It mixes Talking Heads (circa Remain In Light) with a contemporary sonic experimental streak, and comes out as something pretty unique.
‘Halfway Home’ is an excellent choice of opener, propulsive, hypnotic and featuring some great falsetto vocal flourishes. ‘Dancing Choose’ is a frenetic chant built around a great pop chorus. ‘Golden Age’ sits at the centre of the album and is brilliantly funky, like Midnite Vulture’s era beck with the jokey irony.
7. Dodos – Visitor
In the Dodos’ world of indie-folk, drums, acoustic guitar, good melodies and just a hint of Africa are all you need. This third album by the California based Dodos is their most accomplished to date, marrying classic folk and African rhythms with a rock edge through frenetic finger picking and off-kilter percussion. What is most immediate about Visitor is that at its heart it is just two people bashing away at drums and guitars, a back to basics approach that gives the album a unique warmth.
Stand out tracks include ‘Red and Purple’ and ‘Jodi’. ‘Fools’ is another track worth mentioning, a firm favourite at live shows. Its Matt Amato directed video also garnered heavy interest pre-album release via the likes of YouTube, creating a justifiable buzz around the band.
8. The Week That Was – The Week That Was
The decision to put Field Music on an indefinite hiatus was bad news for anyone who had heard their brilliant 2007 release Tones of Town. The good news was that this meant two albums from the Field Music camp, David Brewis’ School of Language and Peter Brewis with the Week that was.
The self titled album owes a lot to the sounds of the 70s, particularly XTC. Listening to stomping opener ‘Learn to Learn’ it is hard to believe that Brewis wasn’t taking production notes at the Drums and Wires recording sessions. The string laden ‘The Story Waits for No One’ could have been an outtake from XTC’s career high Apple Venus. ‘The Airport line’ could well be the best new wave chamber pop song ever recorded.
The album is more complex in arrangement than Field Music, with strings and pianos playing an equal part to the guitars and drums on many tracks. But it is still a compact pop album weighing in at 8 tracks and just over 30 minutes.
So any disappointment at the demise of Field Music is soon forgotten. Maybe we’ll be treated to four new bands in 2009?
9. Neon Neon – Stainless Style
The Super Furry Animals were one of the most interesting and enjoyable bands to come out of the UK 1990s scene. But since 2001’s Rings Around The World album they seem to have been in something of a rut. The albums aren’t bad, they just sound like a band repeating itself to an ever smaller audience.
Singer Gruff Rhys clearly just needed something new to energise him as his collaboration with producer Boom Bip, as Neon Neon, is something of a triumph. Stainless Style is a concept album about John Delorean, the Back To The Future car designer and drug trafficker. This unlikely backdrop produces a set of sparkling songs that, in the most part, could have been recorded in 1982. Songs featuring guests Yo Majesty, Spank Rock and Fat Lip have a more modern Hip Hop feel, but it is those with the 80s sheen that work best.
‘Dream Cars’ and ‘I Told Her on Alderan’ are as good as it gets and are probably top 10 hits in an alternate reality where the DeLorean dream lives on.
10. Broken Social Scene Presents Brendan Canning – Something For All Of Us
While it may seem like half Canada’s musicians are in the Broken Social Scene collective, from Jason Collett to Leslie Feist, at its core it is guitarist and lead vocalist Kevin Drew and bassist Brendan Canning. The first in the Broken social Scene Presents series, Spirit If (2007), showcased the work of Drew and last year Canning had his chance to shine with Something For All Of Us. It is a challenge he more than meets, bettering Drew’s album in terms of pure pop and creating some of Broken Social Scene’s best and most melodic tracks.
Standout songs include the singles ‘Church Under the Stairs’ and ‘Hit the Wall’. The album has its fillers, such as ‘Been At It So Long’ and even one duffer, the misjudged reggae influenced track ‘Love Is New’, but these are minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent addition to the BSS catalogue.