As promised, here’s the first installment of our obligatory best of ’08 respects. We were originally going to do this as five posts over five days, a full feature on each album. As we started kicking around ideas, we realized that we’d have a real hard time limiting the list to five, and Johnny has already done lengthy features on almost every single one of the candidates. So we decided instead to do just two posts- the top ten albums, in two installments. Here are the bottom five.
First, each of us submitted a personal top ten. Five albums were on both lists, and then we used a rough brackets system to pick the rest. Fuck Rolling Stone and Pitchfork’s lists. These are the albums that you shouldn’t leave 2008 without. -Skwerl
Tricky originally recorded Knowle West Boy in London, close to his homeland and the album’s namesake, but scrapped the sessions, calling them too generic. He packed up his shit, moved to LA to start over, and ironically, found his roots. With this new batch of tracks, Tricky re-emerges as trip-hop’s Architect of Tomorrow, as unpredictable and atmospherically seductive as musically possible.
Knowle West Boy delivers the goods as an ideal blend for those who cut their trip-hop teeth on Pre-Millennium Tension and Maxinquaye, pushing envelopes in the strangest ways with everything from futuristic blues and flamenco to reggae and, well, even a Kylie Minogue cover. In other words, it’s all over the fucking place.
The evolution of sophistication is evident throughout Knowle West, with a depth of sonic saturation that’s easily on par with his old bandmates Massive Attack. Tricky’s vision is a unique one, and if there was any question of his title as trip-hop pioneer, it’s laid to rest here. After five years of hopping around the planet, partying supernatural and kicking it with the celebrity elite, Tricky’s back, and the break seems to have done him a world of good.
On Christmas Day in 2003, Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan started working on some music. The duo took their good ol’ time, letting things progress naturally, without promise or hype. The end result was this year’s Saturnalia, which, despite the slow start, still managed to slip beneath our radar in March. After missing that boat, we did a feature on a covers EP they released entitled Adorata, but Saturnalia remains one of the best records the 2008 harvest brought to market.
The Eagles’ garage-glam scuzz metal hops up a few rungs on the danceability scale this time around, as they dig into fuzzier blues leanings and deeper shades of chunk-riffage than their previous releases.
Clever, jagged percussion leads the parade more often than not on the album, leading one to believe that Josh Homme is, quite possibly, just as happy behind the kit as he is on the mic.
They’ve often been written off as a joke band, much like the Darkness, but Heart On definitively calls bullshit on that notion. If anything, the Eagles prove with this album that it’s possible to ride the sex rock wave in style, mirrored aviators, leather pants, Idol snarl (that’s Billy, kids, not American) and all, and stay above the parody line. Spinal Tap spoof-rock it aint. Where Queens Of The Stone Age ditches the kegger and dives downward into gut-groove Halloween rock, Eagles Of Death Metal stick around at the party, take whatever pills are left, and grab the mic when nobody’s watching. The end result it three albums of solid sport-fuck rock joy all about chicks, man. And the world is a better place for it.
Most of Nas’ previous work resides in the shadows of 1994’s Illmatic, but chasing the dragon of his debut has yielded sicker rhymes than most rappers will come anywhere near on their best days. He doesn’t fill bars to get through to the hook- almost every lyric in his catalogue seems plotted and structured to be as hard-hitting and poignant as possible. He’s been the torch-bearer of battlelicious, intelligent rhymes for over a decade, increasingly visiting themes of inner-struggle. Specifically, he seemed torn between staying thuggishly spitfire and walking a higher road over the years (the highest road, actually, given his messiah complex)- but on Untitled, the rapper finally turns the fire outward. He takes the crushing urban manifesto of 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead and reaches for ambitious new heights, without the weight of self-righteousness that dragged some of his previous material down. Untitled pulls no lyrical punches, but by no means does that take the fun out of things. Intensely and unapologetically political, Nas takes aim at institutional racism, the media, the failures of black leadership and the historical ironies of the “N” word, all without seeming to take himself too seriously.
Despite the lack of atmospheric continuity, with Untitled Nas finally raises the bar and steps out of his own shadow. He’s traded bravado for honed insight and sociopolitical commentary this time around, and it suits him to a T. Chuck D should be proud.
Sure, an album called Nigger won’t get sold in Wal-Mart, but “The people will always know what the real title of this album is, and what to call it,” the rapper said.
I just call it my favorite Nas record.
The Mars Volta have taken the art of the concept album to a new level. The sixth-dimension latin-funk math rockers, founded by vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/composer Omar Rodríguez-López, have returned with The Bedlam In Goliath, an uncompromising juggernaut of an album that, as they put it, “didn’t want to be born.”
The pace of Bedlam is relentless, the mid-song changes orgasmically surprising, and the overall feeling is that these guys have harnessed the best parts of what they do and stepped it up a good four or five notches, despite recent lineup changes and supernatural resistance. The Mars Volta have risen from months of turmoil to deliver a crushing, funk-driven concept album, relying less on their tried-and-true latin influences than breathless grooves and breakneck, jaw-dropping prog arrangements, assisted in no small part by their new drummer, 24 year old Thomas Pridgen, tearing up the backbeats like a dreadlocked Animal from the Muppets. Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics are directly inspired by the messages delivered by the troublesome ouija the the album is centered on, although the design seems pretty much par for the course for the king of cryptic wordcraft.
With The Bedlam In Goliath, The Mars Volta have risen above the inspired but murky noise of their last two albums, which had some good jams but ended up more filler than killer. This is clearly not a collection of music you can put on and zone out to; it demands your full attention. Once you grant it that, you’ll undoubtedly agree: this album can only be called a masterpiece.
Stay tuned for the top five.