The Red Alert's
Best Albums of 2008
Each year, the team behind The Red Alert convenes in Los Angeles and spends most of the front half of December holed up in a remote guest cottage in Topanga Canyon. The mission: to put democracy in semi-action and hammer out the annual Best Of list, as required by state and federal law. In between fistfights and surprise visits for tea by Devendra Banhart,
the list slowly begins to take shape.
2008 was a big comeback year. Chinese Democracy is now something you can actually buy. Metallica made their best record in a long time. Britney Spears did, too. None of them made our list.
Which ones did? Below you'll find the wonderful creatures that make up #15 through #1.
If you missed the first 15 albums on the list, you can find them here.
Warm wishes for a wonderful 2009,
The Red Alert
15. Thao - We Brave Bee Stings & All (Kill Rock Stars)
Indie-folkie Thao Nguyen and her Get Down Stay Down band are eccentric enough to be a tourmate of Xiu Xiu and universal and loveable enough to be a tourmate of Rilo Kiley. We Brave Bee Stings & All is among the year's most immediately winsome albums. Inspired at an early age by Lilith Fair and now a member of the Hotel Cafe mafia, Thao transcends any stereotypes about coffeehouse chick singer-songwriters.
"Bag of Hammers" [via Kill Rock Stars]
14. The Helio Sequence - Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)
The Helio Sequence sound reinvented on Keep Your Eyes Ahead, and their press release discloses a contributing factor: singer Brandon Summers sharpened his vocal and lyrical discipline after being forced to stop singing for two months (thanks, shredded vocal cords). Keep Your Eyes Ahead is an epic work, to be sure - a pop album that pulls from the folk and electronic genres, or perhaps an indie-rock album with an atypically grand scope.
"Keep Your Eyes Ahead" [via Sub Pop]
The Helio Sequence - Keep Your Eyes Ahead - Album Review
The Helio Sequence - Live - June 16, 2008
13. Haale - No Ceiling (Channel A)
After a pair of headturning EPs in 2007, Haale made her full-length debut with No Ceiling - a vibrant pop album with a buzzing underbelly of psychedelic guitars and bracing Eastern percussion. Despite the ambitious variety of arrangements, everything comes back to her voice, which conveys riveting emotional depth - from spiritual ecstasy to sensual longing (or is it spiritual longing and sensual ecstasy?). Expectations have been exceeded. No Ceiling indeed.
Haale - No Ceiling - Album Review
12. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
With My Morning Jacket chasing after their inner Prince on this year's audacious but let's-face-it-not-career-highlight Evil Urges, someone needed to step in and fill the void for reverb-loving rock fans. Fleet Foxes more than fit the bill on tracks like "Ragged Wood," then put on their own spin with the sort of effervescent male harmonies that channel the likes of the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Singer Robin Pecknold is poised to be a lasting star in the indie universe - and, who knows, possibly even beyond.
"White Winter Hymnal" [via Sub Pop]
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes - Album Review [via Metromix]
11. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
Sometimes in a man's life, the time comes to retreat to an off-the-grid cabin in northern Wisconsin and sort some shit out. Bon Iver's Justin Vernon did just that, but what sets him apart from other reflective cabin dwellers in Wisconsin [full disclosure: we know several] is that Vernon emerged with one of the year's most lovely and lonely albums. For Emma was originally self-released in 2007, so we're cheating a little bit here - but it's just too good to leave out in the cold.
"Skinny Love" [via Jagjaguwar]
10. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Anti-)
Nick Cave is single-handedly decreasing our dread of aging. At 51, he's still the baddest motherfucker this side of Stagger Lee. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a jubilant, muscular, tongue-twisting album that shows some residual piss and vinegar from Cave's Grinderman adventure last year. He gets bonus points for putting on the show of the year at the Hollywood Bowl.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! - Album Review [via Metromix]
9. The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia (Sub Pop)
Just when it looked like Sub Pop had cleaned up and was hiding all the pictures of themselves from the grunge age, they combined Afghan Whigs leader Mark Dulli with Screaming Trees leader and Master of Gravitas Mark Lanegan and turned them loose to think about heaven and hell and sins of the flesh and god knows what else. It's a good idea on paper and an even better idea on Saturnalia.
"Idle Hands" [via Sub Pop]
The Gutter Twins - Live Review - April 2, 2008
The Gutter Twins - Live Review - July 10, 2008
8. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (XL)
Another one that feels like it's been kicking around for a long while, thanks to the avalanche of buzz and blogger buildup that preceded the band's debut in January. The synopsis on the band is that they're young, dress preppy and take inspiration from the "world music" leanings of Paul Simon and Talking Heads. No music story in 2008 was more lamely predictable than the backlash that has since followed. For anyone who isn't afraid to like bands that other people like - even uncool people! - Vampire Weekend has proven durable in its pop charms.
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend - Album Review
7. The Submarines - Honeysuckle Weeks (Nettwerk)
Husband/wife duo Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti tug on the heartstrings with Honeysuckle Weeks, an indie-pop confection of yearning orchestral movements and happy-go-lucky melodies. There was no shortage of lyrical fodder, as it's their first album since breaking up and then getting back together (and getting married). Pretty much every television viewer will recognize "You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie" from iPhone 3G commericals.
The Submarines - The Red Alert Interview
The Submarines - Live Review - December 5, 2008
6. Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City)
"Poetic" is an overused and misused word in music criticism, but head "Joo" David Berman is an honest-to-goodness published and well-received poet. He's also one of indie music's most reliable treasures. Nearly 20 years into his career, he's suddenly become more tour-friendly, and wife Cassie has emerged as an indispensable member of the ensemble. After a kaleidoscope of colorful narratives, their earnest duet on "We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing" lingers as one of the year's most indelible moments.
Silver Jews - The Red Alert Interview
Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea - Album Review [via Metromix]
5. Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar)
Few bands have running hot streaks to compare to Okkervil River, who have been tearing it up in prolific fashion with Black Sheep Boy (2005), The Stage Names (2007) and its partner The Stand Ins. Will Sheff's rapidly expanding body of work is marking him as one of the most interesting songwriters in his generation - and his live performances still have the gung-ho, from-the-gut passions of yesteryear, even as the time passes and the venues keep getting bigger.
"Lost Coastlines" [via Jagjaguwar]
Okkervil River - Live Review - September 23, 2008 [via ARTISTdirect]
4. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular (Columbia)
After a digital release in '07, MGMT got its proper physical rollout in early '08 and seemed to steadily increase their traction as the year wound on. By the time they played a big end-of-summer bill in L.A., it seemed like more people were talking about them than the acts for which they were opening: Beck and Spoon. A listener has to be a hardened hipster to resist the gleeful dance hooks of "Kids" and "Electric Feel." There's plenty of style, but also more substance under the surface than one may initially suspect. Now the big question: will Oracular Spectacular be a bottled lightning moment for MGMT, or simply a rough cut of further genius to come?
MGMT - Oracular Spectacular - Album Review [via Metromix]
3. Grand Archives - The Grand Archives (Sub Pop)
In an interview with The Red Alert earlier this year, Grand Archives leader Mat Brooke talked about the perception that his band was being fed by a silver spoon - as Brooke's previous stint with Carissa's Wierd had opened a lot of doors that wouldn't be open to upstarts (working hard and making friends over the years - what a sellout). After being passed over for buzzier labelmates like Fleet Foxes and No Age, Brooke should have his underdog status fully restored. His last band proved that Brooke could write a slow-n-somber heartbreaker with the best of them. Grand Archives serve him sunny side up - and it's the best debut of the year. The harmonies are fantastic throughout, drawing on the California sun-baked sounds of '70s FM radio. As a treat for lingering Carissa's Wierd fans, Jenn Ghetto guests on "Swan Matches" - and holy hell do those two still sound good together. But blissful work like The Grand Archives - not to mention finding out that their old drummer is a helluva singer-songwriter, too (see #30) - makes us a little more patient for the reunion.
"Torn Blue Foam Couch" [via Sub Pop]
Grand Archives - The Red Alert Interview
2. TV On The Radio - Dear Science (Interscope)
Dear Science has proven to be more popular than science itself, and TV On The Radio have transcended genre to become universially regarded - critically speaking, at least - as not just a good band but an important band. There may not be a complete consensus here, though. The songs attracting the lion's share of attention have been the ones that make folks dance: the frantic clip of "Dancing Choose," the triumphantly brassy "Golden Age" and the funk freakout "Red Dress." Fine songs, all. But surely we can't be alone in preferring the perfectly presented balance to their glorious hyperactivity - the quiet reflection and gorgeous orchestration of tracks like "Family Tree" and "Stork and Owl." Or maybe we are alone. In any case, when all the colors are combined, it results in an album that's impossible to imagine coming from any other band.
TV On The Radio - Dear Science - Album Review
1. Shearwater - Rook (Matador)
Jonathan Meiburg has made a habit of starting Shearwater shows by stepping to the microphone and singing a cappella - very dramatically, mind you, and not just when they're headlining in front of friendly faces, but even when they're opening in front of hostile strangers. Their albums lately are beginning in a similarly bold manner; Rook starts with Meiburg's haunting vocals over a pretty, sparse piano line - until his band springs to violent life 90 seconds in with crashing cymbals and bleating horns. Then the storm passes and the piano leads us out. The adventure hardly ends there, though, as the band seamlessly shuffles dramatic orchestration, minimalist tension, hard-charging rockers and achingly brittle ballads. For TV On The Radio (#2, above) and Shearwater alike, their 2008 releases cap a dazzling three-album stretch, with Dear Science and Rook presenting their power and potential like never before. They both belong on a shortlist of best American bands.
People have different ideas on what an "album of the year" is supposed to mean. Is it the album that you flat-out listened to the most often? The first album you throw at friends when they ask you for hot tips? By those measures, Rook may have placed lower on the list. But if we hold ourselves to loftier criteria - and hold out for an album with the capacity to challenge us, inspire us and possibly even change us in some way - then 2008 deserves to be captured by the Rook.
"The Snow Leopard" [via Matador]
Shearwater - The Red Alert Interview