By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
In the "taken for granted" file, the Hold Steady (Stay Positive), Supergrass (Diamond Hoo Ha) and Dirty Pretty Things (Romance At Short Notice) made great rock albums that sound pretty much how you'd expect them to. The Dirty Pretty Things album was the most unjustly overlooked, with "Tired of England" and "Plastik Hearts" proving that Carl Barât needs his old Libertines partner Pete Doherty like a junkie needs a virus. (Alas, the record fizzled and Barât broke the Things up in October.)
But the most unexpectedly great record I heard in 2008 wasn't released in 2008. It wasn't released at all, except in France, in late 2007. It's Time To Take Sides, the second album by the British band the Dead 60s. Their debut was an underwhelming set of Sandinista! sound-alikes, swiping the Clash's funk and reggae moves so baldly it put Radio 4 to shame. So I was blindsided by the passionate, punkish-rock fist-wavers found on Take Sides. This is what I always wanted bands like the Alarm to sound like: arena-scale guitars and catchy choruses, but yet still intimate and without an ounce of fat on the songs. Evidently, American record buyers will never legally hear it. But that's why file-sharing was invented.
— Jason Toon
C30, C86, C90, Go!
Most Unexpected Trend: C86 as an influence. It's been 22 years since NME released the C86 cassette, a compilation of noisy but tuneful British pop that made household names (granted, select households only) out of the Shop Assistants and Mighty Lemon Drops. It's been even longer since the Jesus and Mary Chain released Psychocandy, which answered the musical question, "What if we replaced Phil Spector's wall of sound with sheer distortion?" These records have been influential to generations of small indie-pop bands, but American bands explored the style on a grand scale in 2008.
In January the Magnetic Fields released Distortion, which was meant to be a conscious homage to Psychocandy's production style. Every instrument (even the drum kit) leaks controlled feedback over Stephin Merritt's typically Abba/bubblegum melodies and darkly witty lyrics. All this noise may have been surprising, even unpleasant, to those who came to the Magnetic Fields through 69 Love Songs and Merritt's recent theater scores. For long-time fans, however, Distortion was a welcome return to the simplicity of earlier works, and the most audibly fun Merritt-related release in years.
Two Brooklyn bands took the approach even further. Vivian Girls became the year's designated buzz band through a collision of sugary pop melodies and garage-rock energy. Its self-titled debut CD sounded like a melding of the Shop Assistants and the Shangri-Las. When it all came together — most notably on "Tell the World" and the haunting "Where Do You Run To" — the Vivian Girls were as sublime as music got in 2008. Crystal Stilts' Alight of Night took a darker approach, with lead singer Brad Hargett's deep croon seemingly emerging from a chamber deep beneath the studio.
There were many other bands exploring the C86 terrain in 2008, including Nodzzz, Cause Co-Motion! and their European counterparts Love Is All and Sexy Kids. But don't call it a "revival" on the order of the failed garage-rock and "dance-punk" scenes: All of these recordings sound absolutely current and vital, and their influence is sure to reverberate for years to come.
— Mike Appelstein
All Souled out
"You will not believe 2008!" squealed comic Patton Oswalt, during his show at Lumière Place this November. During a bit centered around an imagined back-to-the-future trip to the mid-'80s, he accosts the archetypal boombox-toter: "In 2008, any music you can imagine — more music than you will ever have time to hear — will all fit on a Walkman the size of a stick of gum! And guess who's gonna be president? A cool black guy!" He's right: It's been a revolutionary year, and my tiny, shiny blue Nano is packed with 2008 finds. Several tracks are from artists associated with endemikmusic.com, including my favorite new emcee, Portland, Maine's Sontiago (née Sonya Tomlinson). Her latest album, Steel Yourself, is inexplicably San Frantastic — she delivers bright, brittle lyrics over a warm cacophony of golden, occasionally folksy, funk. Yourself's "Crush the Rainbow" features another 2008 discovery, Montreal-based emcee bleubird, who would be a blustering lunatic if he weren't such a bleeding heart. He's as smart as Sage Francis, but he's hilarious and romantic, too, and endemik's production team buoys the sentiment on RIP U$A (The Birdfleu).
On the instrumental front, the Octopus Project's new album, Hello, Avalanche, is endearingly retro fun — the band has seen the future and has returned to us unscathed to reassure with tracks such as "An Evening With Rthrtha" and "Snow Tip Cap Mountain." Innovation notwithstanding, Hello, Avalanche makes me nostalgic, an emotion that's always caused the mercury in my timeless barometer to rise. My local favorite remains "Move Man" by Nato Caliph. I spent the early part of my St. Louis summer listening to Cipher Inside, which was produced with the help of Gramophone owner Andrew (Roo) Yawitz. In fact, the innocuously titled "Add On" remains my favorite local track of the year — balmy and effortlessly confident, it's the perfect summer song.
— Kristy Wendt