The Best Albums Of 2008 (So Far), In Bigger Than The Sound

Erykah Badu, Death Cab, Vampire Weekend, Hold Steady make our columnist's halfway list.

On The Record: The Best Albums From The First Half Of 2008

If my math is correct — and believe me, there’s a very good chance it might not be — then today is the official halfway point of 2008. So what better time to roll out a list of my favorite albums from the first 182.5 days of the year? (It’s a rhetorical question; there really isn’t one.)

What follows are the 20 albums that I’ve been obsessed with thus far in ’08. There’s been no shortage of really great music made this year, and looking at the list now, I realize that I’ve already forgotten to throw Beck‘s Modern Guilt (hey, it leaked yesterday!), My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges and Bun B‘s II Trill on there. But that’s the beauty of the halfway point: I’ve got a whole six months to rectify those errors.

I’ve broken things down into two groups. The first is honorable mentions, which are albums that, for whatever reason (usually because I am incredibly lazy), I haven’t given proper attention to just yet, though I realize there’s something there and I’m sure I’ll get around to them one of these days. The second group is a standard top 10, which is, well, my 10 favorites so far.

If you’ve got a halfway list, I’d love to see it — and if there are any records I’ve missed, feel free to let me know about them: BTTS@MTVStaff.com is the address. And now, on to my picks.

Honorable Mentions

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago – Bearded dude records somber acoustic album in a log cabin. This is why I hate Iron & Wine, right? Still, people kept recommending this one to me, and so I’m finally getting around to giving it a proper try. So far, the results are promising.

British Sea Power, Do You Like Rock Music? – Why, yes … yes I do. For years, BSP have been churning out angular, angsty rock with a flair for the dramatic, and their latest only continues that trend. Unfortunately, it also continues the trend of them never getting enough respect for doing so.

Deerhunter, Microcastles – I’ll be honest. I’ve only heard the leaked version of this one (doesn’t it come out in, like, October?), so I’m giving it an incomplete grade for now. But I like the compression and focus and sheen I’m hearing so far, except that they cut out a whole lot of “Calvary Scars,” which is sort of bumming me out. Last year DH mastermind Bradford Cox promised that the song would be part of “a three-song suite … [in which] I would like to attempt — though I’ll probably fail — to kill off the adolescent character that haunts everything I write.” And I like my self-flagellating song cycles to be as long as (in)humanly possible, dammit.

Islands, Arms Way – An album full of proggy guitars, trilling strings, herky-jerky time signatures and disco bass lines that’s also a concept record? Where do I sign up? Still, no matter how much ephemera Nick Thorburn and co. stuff into it, I can’t shake the notion that Arms is sort of a leaky piñata, and I’m 90 percent certain it isn’t as good as their 2006 effort, Return to the Sea (though the cover art is certainly way more awesome).

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III – Hey, 1 million Wayne fans can’t be wrong, can they? Truth be told, III is really only part of the Weezy phenomenon, one that stretches across mixtapes and message boards and “no he didn’t” proclamations and guest spots too numerous to mention, which goes a long way toward explaining just how scattershot it is. But it’s also biting, bruising, hilarious and completely confounding, by far the most interesting and compelling hip-hop album released to this point, and probably the only album in history that makes Robin Thicke (who sings on the haunting post-Katrina tune “Tie My Hands”) seem interesting. And that’s including Thicke’s own records.

M83, Saturdays = Youth – A loving ode to raccoon-eyed girls, drinking in graveyards, kissing with tongue and the general splendor of being young and free and unafraid of death, coated in a lacquer of synthesizers and starbursts and even a guitar or three. Or basically like every John Hughes film ever, only dancier and dreamier. And made by a French guy. And not “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

MGMT, Oracular Spectacular – I really wanted to hate these guys because of their headbands and because someone told me they were “fake major-label hipsters” (which is hilarious). But then — much like with the Bon Iver disc — people kept telling me how great their album was. Lo and behold, people knew what they were talking about. There’s so much sumptuous electro-pop going on here (“Time to Pretend” might be the anthem of ’08) that I’m sure this one will end up ranking much higher on my year-end list. I wish they’d ditch the shtick, though.

She & Him, Volume One – These kinds of things are never supposed to work, only Zooey Deschanel‘s voice is so big and pure and clean (it sounds like her eyes look, if that makes any sense), and M. Ward’s production is so dusty and crackly and warm that somehow everything falls directly into place. A genuine treat of an album, full of songs about love and loss and sounds that burble and plink; it reminds me of Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Scarlett Johansson should take note.

Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea – David Berman can’t sing to save his life, but that’s never been the point of Silver Jews. It’s about what he’s singing, which, on Lookout, means wordy odes to bluegrass drummers washing dishes in 24-hour restaurants and multi-part epics about bungling burglars in San Francisco, to name just a few. Plus, given that he currently resides in Nashville, he’s able to use the phrase “squirrely” in the proper context.

The Teenagers, Reality Check – An album that OMGWTFed its way into my headphones based solely on the strength of “Homecoming,” a bawdy slice of synth-pop that proves that American girls are dumb and European guys are scumbags. As a whole, Reality Check might be a bit too long (it plays like one long, long, long tumble through PerezHilton.com), and it’s got the shelf life of an episode of “Gossip Girl,” but if you’ve ever been curious to know what Pulp would’ve sounded like if Jarvis Cocker were an erudite, Peter Pan-ish French guy, well, here you go.

The Top 10

10. The Plastic Constellations, We Appreciate You – That this, their final beery hurrah, came and went without so much as a whimper is pretty much the way things have always gone for the Plastics, a hard-charging, harder-partying Minneapolis quartet who sang about brotherhood and metaphorical dragons and stuff and never got the love they deserved. Basically recorded as a thank-you note to their loyal fans in and around the Midwest, Appreciate also displays TPC at the pinnacle of their powers — check the stop/startiness of “Stay That Way” or the doomy guitars of “Phantom Canyon” — and is about as close as you’ll ever come to witnessing the sweaty glory of their infamous live sets. It’s also one of only two albums I can think of this year (the other sits at #1 on this list) that furthers the concept of “inclusion rock” (which I wrote about back in March ), meaning that right up until the bitter end, TPC were fighting the good fight, metaphorical or otherwise.

9. Girl Talk, Feed the AnimalsThe album LL Cool J doesn’t want you to hear , the one that samples Kanye and Metallica and Jimi Hendrix and Radiohead (plus about 300 others) and does so bravely and without apology. Girl Talk couldn’t have existed in any other era (OK sure, I know all about Double Dee and Steinski), inasmuch as he’s been raised on MTV and he’s got both the musical palate and attention span to prove it. And if nothing else, Animals is Exhibit A — a whiplash-fast trip through the past 50 years of recorded music, cut-and-pasted without regard to anyone’s feelings and played back like an iPod in a blender. Words are twisted, beats broken and copyright laws tested. It’s dance music you can’t really dance to, but that’s sort of the point now, isn’t it?

8. The Breeders, Mountain Battles – In 2002, when I was drunk all the time, I wrote the following review of the Breeders’ Title TK album on a napkin, in the hopes of having it published in Spin magazine: “The broken guitars, the charred crystalline of Kim Deal’s voice … like finding a golden broach pinned to a cigarette butt, this is an album of disgusting, dirty beauty.” Now, aside from that being totally awesome, it’s funny how well it also applies to Battles, an album of even more disgusting and dirtier beauty. Over the course of 37 raucous, raw minutes, the Deal sisters prove that the more things change — time, weight, space — the more they stay the same. Plus, this time, they sing in German and Spanish!

7. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles – Welcome to the future, as imagined by a couple of hipsters from Toronto and played through an Atari 5200. Chippy, bitty and occasionally really beautiful — like all good electronic albums should be — their self-titled debut stands out from the fold thanks to the moments when frontwoman Alice Glass is allowed to unleash her guttural growl (songs like “Alice Practice” and “xxzxcuzx Me”), which instantly change the Castles into some sort of electro version of the Distillers. Trust me, the record is better than that last sentence indicates.

6. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend – Look, I was just like you. I saw the boat shoes and the oxfords. I shuddered at the social ramifications of statements like “Upper West Side Soweto.” I sat through the video for “Mansard Roof.” Believe me, I wanted to dislike Vampire Weekend so, so badly … probably more than anyone out there. But I just couldn’t. Turns out, they’re a pretty great band, and their self-titled album is probably better than you remember (since you probably stopped listening to it the moment the blog backlash started). In fact, it’ll probably end up wedged a bit higher on this list at year’s end. Snappy like a piqued polo, sharp like a pair of Ray-Bans and a pastel sweater tied jauntily ’round the neck, Vampire Weekend make you realize things about yourself — things you probably don’t want to think about, like how you’re a snarky, judgmental jerk. Or maybe that’s just me.

5. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War) – So far, this is the year’s most certifiably batsh– record, a labyrinthine mix of chittering beats, rattling bass and gauzy, hazy vibes, and one that jumps through time like Desmond from “Lost” — from the past to the future and back to the present — only to remind us that things have always been as messed up as they are right now. So we get somber ’70s soul rolled up into harrowing postmillennial doomsday proclamations, with Badu — part priestess, part transistor radio — hovering above the din, holding the world in the palm of her hand and spinning it faster and faster on its axis. A positively vital record — probably the most important of the year — full of social commentary and smoky quests for spirituality in these troubled times, one full of hope yet also realistic enough to point out that we’re probably teetering on the brink of something very bad. Also, proof that you probably don’t want to spend the night alone in Badu’s head.

4. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow StairsI wrote an entire column about this album back in March, calling it “unquestionably the best thing they’ve ever done … full of songs that thrash and rattle and bounce around echo chambers … an early contender for the best album of 2008,” and, well, nothing’s changed since then. Stairs is a marvelous album, full of crags and pockmarks that make me scratch my head and songs that give me goose bumps for days. If possible, it’s only grown on me over the past month as I’ve been driving around Los Angeles for “FNMTV”, and though I am aware Ben Gibbard is an avowed anti-L.A. guy, Stairs recalls nothing quite as vividly as it does driving around the city — it’s sad and beautiful, and there are terrifying moments when all hell breaks loose and you have no idea what’s happening, which is sort of like trying to merge onto the 405.

3. Constantines, Kensington Heights – “You can tell by the way we walk/ We’ve got hard feelings!” Cons frontman Bryan Webb growls at the beginning of his group’s fourth full-length, and quite frankly, it’s all downhill from there. Midway through, he’s mumbling about how “time can be overcome,” and by album’s end he’s been reduced to bellowing that “you do what you can do with what you got.” Welcome to blue-collar anger, circa 2008. Webb knows that he can’t win, can’t escape and can’t afford not to show up, so instead he pours his heart into Kensington Heights, penning songs about falling short of previous generations (“New King”), having sh–ty credit (“Credit River”) and the beauty that comes with living proud in the face of overwhelming obstacles (“I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song”). There’s a disarming directness to his approach, one that resonates long after the last chord has been struck. Uneasy listening at its finest.

2.No Age, Nouns – Welcome to the future as imagined by a couple of hipsters from Los Angeles and played through a wall of indiscernible feedback. No Age certainly aren’t the only band making gloriously lo-fi noise these days, they’re simply the best. Recalling the DIY spirit of ’77 punk and the bedroom aesthetics of ’91 indie rock, they’re a band operating at the peak of its powers, only you sort of expect there’s a whole other level yet to be tapped. “Eraser” is part sunny psych, part spiky guitars; “Teen Creeps” is electronic whirs and crunchy chords; and “Keechie” is a squealing, dreamy instrumental that sounds like sunshine through the tops of trees. It’s noise like you’ve never imagined noise could be. There’s a reason the liner notes to Nouns are packed with photos documenting the L.A. scene that birthed the band: It sounds like a momentous document of an era, a touchstone noise-rock record that’s never gonna be topped.

1. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive – The best band in America make the best album of their career, a sprawling, profane opus that takes the singular world frontman Craig Finn has created over the course of four albums — dead-end kids doing dead-end things, usually down by the banks of the Mississippi River — and folds it in on itself, creating something entirely new in the process. There is still plenty of drinking (on water towers, in the woods, in Memphis) and drugging (in hotel rooms, at laser-light shows, in “cute little cars”) and dance floors, but things have somehow gotten darker this time around, as if Finn himself knows that the party can’t last forever and Sunday morning’s gotta come someday. So accordingly, kids are crucified, canonized and catch spears in the side, while VFW Halls and 7 Seconds cassettes are revered like Bethlehem or the Old Testament. Bar bands aren’t supposed to be this God-fearing, unless they’re drinking the sacramental wine, which, knowing the Hold Steady, doesn’t seem all that improbable at this point.

Questions? Concerns? Lists of your own? Send ‘em to me! BTTS@MTVStaff.com