2008 has been a hurricane of emotions, man. The Ergs!, Shorebirds, and uh, Hootie & The Blowfish broke up. Nakatomi Plaza is in the process of disbanding. Foo Fighters went on hiatus. Nine Inch Nails followed up last year’s Year Zero, my favorite NIN album yet, with two really uneven records. Deftones suffered a huge tragedy when bassist Chi Cheng was in a car accident. As of this writing, he’s still in a coma. And mainstream music continues to get shittier. Throw in some personal problems that I won’t bother you with, and it’s been a rough year.
But Blake Schwarzenbach is making music again with Thorns of Life. Some of my favorite bands released top notch records this year. Thursday, New Found Glory, and H2O all bounced back from the major label death machine. And Punknews.org, this site you’re reading, asked me to become a staff member back in April. I’ve been reading the Org since high school, and it’s been a mighty source of information. To finally give back to one of my favorite music sites is a dream realized, even if like half of my reviews are about shitty screamo bands.
As for my country, 2008 was a mixed bag still. I did not work a single day of retail this year (yes!!). My preferred presidential candidate (after Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel anyway) won the general election, which is good. But the American economy is in the pooper. We still haven’t gotten off of fossil fuels, even though they’re killing our planet. We still haven’t legalized gay marriage, even though it would help the economy and, honestly, it really isn’t that big of a hurtle. We still haven’t pulled out of the Middle East, even though our armed forces are useless without a clear political strategy. And while we’re at it, why the hell was Twilight so popular?
But hey, The Dark Knight was pretty sweet, right?
New Year's Resolutions
1. Quit drinking for a year… starting after my birthday.
2. Start a band.
3. Listen to The Hold Steady more.
Before I start celebrating the year, let's take the time to complain about some of the bad albums released in 2008, shall we? To be honest, only the top four of the albums hurt my heart and soul; the rest were just annoying to have to deal with.
Top 10 Most Disappointing Albums of 2008
10. Secondhand Serenade - A Twist in My Story
I try to avoid listing negative reviews for records I never had any hopes for, but Secondhand Serenade's sophomore album was just such a pain in the ass to put on. And I tried so hard to find something nice to say, to add balance to this review. But there was nothing, save for more anal leakage.
9. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
I spent too much time railing against Vampire Weekend this year to NOT include them here. Now here's the thing; Vampire Weekend is not a bad band. In fact, their self-titled debut is prolly the strongest album on this list. But it's just so predictable and vanilla and watered down, yet so massively acclaimed, that it became a record I began to hate more and more. Friends would back me into a corner over this record at parties, forcing me to come up with more and more vitriol to spew at an album that, at best, was just OK. 2009 is here now, though, and already the overhype behind Vampire Weekend is dying down. Now I can spin my Paul Simon and Talking Heads records in peace...
8. Joe Jackson - Rain
Ordell Robbie: "What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit, your ass used to be beautiful!"
7. Mudcrutch - Mudcrutch
Tom Petty decided to reunite his pre-Heartbreakers band this year and record a bunch of lackluster slumpers. And to think, these guys never took off in the '70s...
6. Alkaline Trio - Agony and Irony
The latest from Alkaline Trio actually sounds decent live, but there are so many layers of studio processing piled on to these recordings that they hardly feel like Alk3 tunes anymore. Go back to Asian Man and redo this, please.
5. The B-52's - Funplex
One of the best, quirkiest pop groups of yesteryear just stopped being fun one day.
4. Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV
Trent Reznor spent 2008 shaking up the music industry with bold new business strategies for getting across the dullest music of his career.
3. Ben Folds - Way to Normal
Tuneless, directionless, and, ultimately, pointless, Way to Normal is an embarrassing misstep in Ben Folds' legacy. Dude was bleeding great pop songs just a few years ago on EPs and collaborations, and now I wish he had just saved 'em for this turdburger.
2. Shorebirds - It's Going to Get Ugly
I've been a pen pal and open lover with Shorebirds ever since they dropped their self-titled 7" last year. Every new 45 has been a sweet little surprise since then. Sadly, Shorebirds broke up not long after recording their full-length debut, and I really wish they'd called it quits before even that. Sure, It's Going to Get Ugly serves up the rapid fire punk rock I loved the band for, but so much of the albums seems rushed out, from the album cover to the recording quality. And the songs are just so... juvenile. A good chunk of the album concerns itself with Olympia scene politics and fighting squares and blah blah blah. I used to love Shorebirds for their insular business style. I liked the mail-order. I liked writing and receiving letters. I liked the lo-fi approach. But on It's Going to Get Ugly, that aesthetic collapses in on itself. What once was intimate and localized just seems small-minded and petty now.
1. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
It's odd that a record that seeks to honor the old rock 'n' roll style would end up igniting a debate usually reserved for hip-hop, namely, how much can you sample from other songs before you become a plagiarist? I was a huge fan of The '59 Sound when it first came out. The music is a riveting Born to Run blast of desperation and hope and sexual tension, complete with retro treble. It's all very dramatic. But as I learned more about the album in the weeks after its release, the more I realized how many lines frontman Brian Fallon cribbed from other artists. The Counting Crows rip on "High Lonesome" is pretty blatant, and I had a hard enough time ignoring it before I learned that one of my favorite lines from the album - "You got Monroe hips / And a young boy's pride," from "Film Noir" - was cribbed from a Tom Waits song. Now it's hard to love The '59 Sound, because I can't trust The Gaslight Anthem. You wanna write a song about Tom Petty ("Even Cowgirls Get the Blues")? That's fine. But don't steal his music and then not give him proper credit. Yeah, The '59 Sound is a pretty rocking record, but that's because it steals from all the greats.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I promise the rest of this post will be blindingly positive. BEHOLD!
Top 10 Honorable Mentions
1. Bloc Party - Intimacy
2. The Ergs! - Hind Sight is 20/20 My Friend
3. Hot Water Music - Til the Wheels Fall Off
4. Have Heart - Songs to Scream at the Sun
6. Lemuria - The First Collection
6. The Loved Ones - Build & Burn
7. The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely
8. Rancid - B Sides and C Sides
10. Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue
Looking at the honorable mentions, it sure seems like 2008 was a good year for nostalgia, thanks to great rarities compilations from Rancid, Hot Water Music, The Ergs!, and Lemuria (which is to say nothing of all the time I spent listening to David Bowie and John Lennon this year...). Throw in the re-release of Pacific Ocean Blue by deceased Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson while you're at it. Dennis could be just as stunning as his brother Brian, though he tended to focus his hooks in the instruments instead of the vocals. Just a great, breezy '70s rock record. The second disc, featuring the previously unreleased follow-up Bambu, is also top-notch. As far as underrated Beach Boys albums go, I definitely prefer this one to Smile. A lot of the new releases on here managed to not embarrass the band's previous work, like on Bloc Party's Intimacy. It doesn't tarnish my memories of Silent Alarm, but it does get the bad taste of A Weekend in the City out of my mouth via bombastic beats and the occasionally searing guitar line. Same goes for Consolers of the Lonely and Build & Burn... they're not bad, but not quite great. Have Heart's Songs to Scream at the Sun, however, is just a pretty great hardcore record. Call it my top 26th pick.
Now, on to the main course...
Top 25 Albums of 2008?!
My God what a perfect winter record. Censored Colors is such a radical departure from Portugal. The Man’s last album, Church Mouth. Where that album was a red hot prog-rock record bordering on funky, Censored Colors is an insular, mostly acoustic, low key collection. The band is less driven by instrumental fireworks this time out, pushing the vocal arrangements to a new high instead. It’s such a weirdly moving piece, existing somewhere between Rubber Soul and Wish You Were Here.
Ladytron took a step back from the vamped-up goth pop of their last album, Witching Hour, to turn in the slightly more haunting, slightly less dynamic electropop record Velocifero. The whole thing kind of sounds like a throwback to 604, which is fine by me. Lead single “Ghosts” has a pseudo-glam rock stomp a la Goldfrapp, albeit channeled through Ladytron’s cooler demeanor. It’s a pretty chill record coming off of Witching Hour, but it’s definitely something worth spinning during one’s downtime.
Dreaming of Revenge continues the soft, ethereal turn Kaki King took on 2006’s …Until We Felt Red, although the occasional classic rock guitar tone creeps up here and there. Also like on …Until We Felt Red, King sings on a few cuts on this mellow effort, and her gentle voice matches the compositions well. Her writing has gotten a lot tighter, allowing for some solid potential pop singles. “Life Being What It Is,” and “Pull Me Out Alive” in particular, have catchy choruses and infectious atmosphere. They’re not quite shoegaze or new wave, but they’ll certainly appeal to fans of both genres.
Mew’s dreamy yet propulsive brand o’ rock. Pretty in Pink. Grave rubbings. Rain. Angst. Cocteau Twins swirling and churning and bubbling. Living in my car. Sleeping. Listening to “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths on repeat when I was 17. And uh… keyboards, I suppose. “Kim & Jessie” is the hit, but “Graveyard Girl” is the secret success.
“Oh, you know, just bein’ awesome. Getting’ ready to tour Europe. Writin’ catchy songs that are shorter, louder, and faster.”
Oh, you mean like Kid Dynamite?
“Yeah, you could say that. Hey, you wanna get some taquitos from Trader Joe’s and watch Big Trouble in Little China?”
Boy would I!
2008 was unquestionably the shittiest summer I have ever faced. I kicked off the season by graduating from college and promptly losing all societal value. You know who wants to hire a guy with a BA in English? Call centers and the U.S. Army. About a month after my graduation, my cousin was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in his leg. The cancer soon spread to his ribs and lungs. While my cousin was lucky to be diagnosed early, he still had a long road ahead of him, and we were all feeling pretty grim.
Two weeks later, GNV FLA came out. Like an old friend come to cheer me, the record offered me 14 ska-punk songs like the kind I used to find on Hello Rockview and Borders and Boundaries. Is GNV FLA a pandering retread after the utter failure that was In With the Out Crowd, Less Than Jake’s last album? I don’t care. This record enveloped me in its anthems while I dealt with losers, kings, and fucking medical diagnoses I didn’t understand. Taken solely as a lyrical reading, a song like “Abandon Ship” shouldn’t make me feel better – it’s about failing hard. But throw in a fast punk rock beat, horns, and a bitching guitar solo, and top it all off by singing those bitter words as loudly as possible, and it becomes an exorcism. My college pals and I are still struggling to find our footing, but at least my cuz is on the mend. As for Less Than Jake, well… thanks, guys. Months later, I still put this record on some nights and just drive around, singing.
Darnielle is great at writing affirmations, and this song is one of them. “Heretic Pride” is just that – pride and ecstasy over never breaking under societal norms, always standing for what one believes in, even finding meaning in death. And that’s what being into punk rock has always meant to me.
This list has constantly been in flux. In fact, it’s only presented in this order because it’s due, not because it’s ready. But one thing will not change: Heretic Pride is my favorite album of 2008. Nothing tops the emotional resonance I feel from this record. Nor does anything else sound as catchy to me. Heretic Pride dropped in February, and I still spin it like it just came out. Nothing catches hold of my imagination so firmly.
Top 10 EPs of 2008
1. The Gaslight Anthem – Señor and The Queen
2. The Mountain Goats and Kaki King – The Black Pear Tree EP
3. The Measure [SA] – Songs About People... and Fruit N' Shit
4. The Mountain Goats – Satanic Messiah EP
5. The Percentages – No Pants O’Clock
6. Stay Sharp – Four Songs
7. Nate Adams – Useless Music for Useful People
8. New Found Glory – The Tip of the Iceberg EP
9. Fake Problems - Viking Wizard Eyes, Wizard Full of Lies
10. Debtor - Deliverance
While I have reservations about The Gaslight Anthem's sophomore full-length, I've found nothing to make me feel guilty about loving Señor and The Queen... yet. It's a concept EP about wooing, four songs, romantic and yearning. It rocks. In addition to Heretic Pride, The Mountain Goats dropped two great EPs this year. The Black Pear Tree EP, with Kaki King, is a subtle stunner about failed romance and video games. Love the dichotomy. Satantic Messiah EP is a throwback to John Darnielle's solo days, plus it big-ups Satan (Just like on "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton!"). A slew of local acts - Debtor, Stay Sharp, The Percentages (and their guitarist Nate Adams) - released great EPs as well. Rounding out the list is a trio of punk EPs - Fake Problems got more country rock, New Found Glory got more hardcore, and The Measure [SA] straight up got better. Songs About People... and Fruit 'N Shit is arguably the group's best release yet. I love their approach to releasing music; Historical Fiction aside, the group drops a 7" or 10" as soon as they've got enough high quality tunes. No point in trying to stuff a full-length with filler. In a world of Internet immediacy, The Measure [SA] gives listeners great pop punk songs as they're ready... and on vinyl, no less!
Top 10 Live Acts of 2008
1. The Cure
2. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
4. Smoke or Fire [2x]
5. Tom Gabel [2x w/ Against Me!, 1x solo]
6. The Mountain Goats [2x]
7. Kimya Dawson
8. The Secret Machines [2x]
9. The Eels
10. Ted Leo [2x]
The Cure were unquestionably the best band I saw this year, performing a perfect set list for almost three hours. Even Bloodflowers got some love live, much to my surprise, and the night also included a version of "Just Like Heaven" that sounded so beautiful that it made my girlfriend cry. I will always hold that moment with me. The Mountain Goats should be #2 for their brilliant set at the TLA with Kaki King back in November. Unfortunately, I also caught the band's set at the First Unitarian Church in March, which is when frontman John Darnielle had a mental breakdown, ended the show after a half-hour, and then canceled his tour. So yeah, gotta dock some points there.
Not that my show attendance was hurt too badly by John's health issues. I caught a stellar set from Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band over the summer at Hershey Park. The team busted out a lot of rarities and fan favorites. Bruce always interacts with his fans much more than any other stadium-touring act ever, which is incredible. I finally saw X this year, front and center at the TLA. Those Californian rockabilly punks can still crank out fury and desperation like any of us youngins. I hope they keep touring forever, 'cause I fully intend to see them again and again. Smoke or Fire has a well-earned spot on this list, if only because both of their sets were fraught with peril. I saw them get dicked over for time in February, and singer Joe McMahon deal with a sore throat (and a very drunk Gwomper) in October. Both sets were still pretty great, made all the better by the band's refusal to give up. This Sinking Ship came out in 2006; I'd say it's about time dudes dropped another record.
Tom Gabel gets a solo listing here because, while Against Me! are still pretty great live, it was his solo/acoustic set at the Barbary that was transcendent, rife with stories and surprises. And I bumrushed the stage and sang with him, which was awfully cool. Kimya Dawson, Ted Leo, and E. from The Eels are good storytellers too, not to mention top notch songwriters and performers. The Secret Machines, meanwhile, just sound really, really good when they crank out their special brand o' atmospheric rock and/or roll. New guitarist Phil Karnats is a godsend, as his mustache and string skills fit in perfectly with the band's live sound.
Top 5 Albums of 2007 That I Didn't Hear Until 2008
1. The Dillinger Escape Plan - Ire Works
3. Siouxie Sioux - MantaRay
4. St. Vincent - Marry Me
5. We are the Union - Who We Are
This year's list is only a top 5 because, honestly, I spent more time in 2008 checking out older records (David Bowie, John Lennon, Ride) than hitting up 2007 for advice. In fact, Ire Works, MantaRay, and Marry Me were all on my radar in 2007; I just didn't get around to spinning 'em until after New Year's Eve. Ire Works is easily my favorite Dillinger Escape Plan record to date... it feels less concerned with jerking off to weird time signatures, at times whipping out glam rock-like verses. A few songs even remind me of Rocket From the Crypt. St. Vincent and Siouxie Sioux both surprised me with remarkably solid records. Marry Me is a charming indie pop affair, while MantaRay tweaks the Banshees formula a wee bit, to great success. The Menzingers were a legitimate surprise, though. I caught these folk-punk troubadors opening for Smoke or Fire and Fake Problems on Valentine's Day, and man am I glad I showed up early to review the show. I really, really want Menzingers to blow up, and if they can scrounge up a second top-notch LP, there's no doubt in my mind success will follow. As for We are the Union, well, Who We Are just so happens to be one of the better albums Punknews.org has sent me to review since I joined their staff in April. I opened that review with "Set Your Goals with horns." I still think that about sums 'em up.