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Westword's favorite national albums of the year

As I compiled this year's edition of Nationalistic, I was struck by how diverse our Backbeat scribes' tastes were in 2008. Unlike with Moovers & Shakers, the roundup of our favorite local albums of the year that ran in last week's issue, there was hardly any crossover. Not even with my picks, which are running online (at blogs.westword.com/backbeat) to make room for those of my colleagues, writers whose opinions I hold in the utmost regard. Like the musicians they're writing about here, they're an amazing array of knowledgeable, opinionated and talented artists who share an unabashed love for music of all kinds. — Dave Herrera

The Avett Brothers, The Second Gleam (Ramseur Records). Gleam touts all of the warm acoustic tones and sterling vocals that made the Avett Brothers a highlight at this year's Monolith festival. With melodies and strings that recall the best Appalachian musical forebears and powerful lyrics rooted in loss and redemption, these tunes are both timeless and novel. — A.H. Goldstein

Beach House, Devotion (Carpark Records). A collection of requited torch songs and hazy twilight daydreams put to music, this sophomore effort from Baltimore's Beach House is full of warmth and gentle flourishes. Victoria Legrand's expansive, resonant voice is like an affectionate embrace sweeping you off into candlelit fantasy stories worthy of a John Crowley novel. — Tom Murphy

Gus Black, Today Is Not the Day... (Cheap Lullaby Records). With black humor and an even blacker soul, aptly pseudonymed singer-songwriter Gus Black gently but incisively dissects human nature, human relationships and his own delicate emotional state. His lightly weathered baritone and Leonard Cohen-esque production add depth and pathos without ever descending into rote sentimentality. This is possibly one of the most quietly poignant records of the year. — Eryc Eyl

Black Angels, Directions to See a Ghost (Light in the Attic). Urgent, gritty and expansive, these songs bridge the gap between psychedelic garage rock's narcotic bite and the otherworldliness of shoegaze. Trippy yet bracing, jagged yet flowing, this entire record is rife with the menace, paranoia, anger and currents of defiance prowling the American zeitgeist for the past eight years. — Murphy

The Black Keys, Attack & Release (Nonesuch). Previous Black Keys platters have been enjoyable, but their post-blues raucousness sometimes felt creatively limiting. Not so Attack & Release, whose production, by Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, opens up new vistas for partners Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. "Things Ain't Like They Used to Be" speaks to the disc's ingenuity, both figuratively and literally. — Michael Roberts

Black Milk, Tronic (Fat Beats). Having studied under the late, great J Dilla, Black Milk displays a skill level that is comparable to that of his mentor. The same soulful, neck-snapping, Detroit hip-hop sound that informed Dilla's work runs throughout Tronic, helping sustain the respectability of hip-hop coming out of the Motor City. — Quibian Salazar-Moreno

Blitzen Trapper, Furr (Sub Pop). Although critics aplenty have likened Blitzen Trapper's latest to American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, the comparison is superficial at best. True, Furr feels pastoral and bucolic at times. But there's an indie-rock sensibility to songs such as "Stolen Shoes & a Rifle," which features the line "I just can't seem to stay dead." Or Dead. — Roberts

Blood Ceremony, Blood Ceremony (Candlelight Records). If you like your witch rock laced with plenty of Traffic-esque organ and a couple of flute solos (uh-huh), then this female-fronted Canadian occult outfit is for you. Doom-metal cliches are offset with wicked Wiccan musicianship and a commitment to the genre that you can't help but admire. — Eyl

Bohren & der Club of Gore, Dolores (Ipecac Records). The second album by this German instrumental outfit to be brought to the States by Mike Patton's Ipecac label, Dolores explores brooding, jazzy and slightly ominous audio landscapes, and somehow manages to turn them into the most seductively sexy music you've heard in a long time. Put this record on and let things get freaky. — Eyl

Braille, The IV Edition (Syntax). For his fourth album, Braille tapped such top-notch producers as Marco Polo, Oh No, DJ Spinna and J-Zone, who all turned in their best work in years. And while the beats are first-rate, Braille's no slouch on the mike, getting both battle-ready ("The IV") and reflective ("Blessed Man"). — Salazar-Moreno

Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway). Carll is capable of penning some of the most guffaw-worthy ditties imaginable. For proof, sample the honky-tonk lament "She Left Me for Jesus." Yet he's just as credible a tunesmith when he explores the darker side of life, as on "Don't Let Me Fall," or uses witty lines for deeper purposes, as he does throughout "Drunken Poet's Dream." — Roberts

Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel, Dual Hawks (Misra). South San Gabriel is essentially Centro-Matic plus a few other musicians, but the music on these two discs is quite different and highlights the duality of prolific songwriter and frontman Will Johnson. The Centro-Matic songs pack a rocking wallop, while Johnson peels back layers on the wistful, heartfelt South San Gabriel tunes. — Solomon

 

Cloud Cult, Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) (Earthology). This Minnesota-based septet's eighth studio album fuses the most compelling elements of the band's previous records with steps in promising new directions. Songs like the album's opener, "No One Said It Would Be Easy," bursts with Cloud Cult's insistent harmonies, while tracks like "It's What You Need" boast engaging synth-based, syncopated sounds. — Goldstein

The Cool Kids, Bake Sale (Chocolate Industries). When the Cool Kids track "Black Mags" hit the airwaves, hip-hop fans gravitated toward the duo because of the retro but modern style. The rest of the album follows that approach without ever sounding dated. From the production to the rhyme style, Bake Sale reminds you why you still love hip-hop. — Salazar-Moreno

Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles (Last Gang Records). Crystal Castles is what happens when your Nintendo grows up and starts going to raves, dressing all hipster and dating digital hardcore. Its mix of psychotronic vocal edits, primitive digital timbres and stark, rigid beats created a whole new style of funky that was the perfect soundtrack for 2008. — Casciato

David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo). While Today isn't Byrne and Eno's first collaboration, it shows considerable growth since their last outing, in 1981. Songs like "Strange Overtones" and "The River" mix moments from the Talking Heads catalogue and from 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The ideas seem more fully fleshed-out here, as if both artists have benefited from their years apart. — Goldstein

Deadmau5, Random Album Title (Ultra). Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, is a north-of-the-border mixologist whose best tracks are more than utilitarian dance aids. "Brazil," "Some Kind of Blue" and others sport arrangements that work wonders whether the listener is sitting in a chair or shaking his ass under a strobe light. "Sometimes things get complicated," a voice concedes early on — and thank goodness. — Roberts

The Dears, Missiles (Dangerbird). From the irrepressible creative mind of Murray Lightburn comes the latest dose of melancholy, deliciously rich, meticulously layered orchestral pop. Abandoning the stripped-down aesthetic of Gang of Losers and returning to the over-the-top sonics of No Cities Left, Lightburn, Natalia Yanchak and their co-conspirators create an unforgettable and un-ignorable intellectual and emotional experience. — Eyl

Mike Doughty, Golden Delicious (ATO Records). Just over half of this album is any good, but the good parts are so damn great that they manage to haul the dead weight around without being dragged down too much. Doughty's a love-him-or-hate-him type of talent, and Golden Delicious won't change anyone's mind, but fans should know it's his best release since his first solo work. — Casciato

El Ten Eleven, These Promises Are Being Videotaped (Fake Record Label). The post-rock duo takes its electronically laced instrumentals into hard-rockin' territory. A two-minute thumbnail sketch of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" — in which Kristian Dunn covers nearly all parts with a double-neck guitar/bass — is an excellent point of entry. Though this album is bound to be fetishized and canonized by your music-geek friends, don't let that put you off: It's that good. — Eyl

Elzhi, The Preface (Fat Beats). Before he was a member of Slum Village, Elzhi was a burgeoning Detroit MC ready to break out. He finally released his debut album, which was mostly produced by J Dilla apprentice Black Milk, and it was definitely worth the wait. Here's hoping his budding solo career continues to blossom. — Salazar-Moreno

EMC, The Show (M3 Hip-Hop). There's no question that Masta Ace, Wordsworth, Stricklin' and Punch are beasts on the mike, but as a collective? They're even better. Backed by beats from Nicolay, Ayatollah and Marco Polo, this thematic album is definitely one of the best projects of the year. — Salazar-Moreno

Tim Fite, Fair Ain't Fair (Anti-). Part performance artist, part mad musical scientist, Tim Fite offers a chaotic mixture of hip-hop, folk, spoken word and theatrics at his live shows. It's a dense dynamic successfully conveyed on Fair, with loping, hummable songs like "Big Mistake" paired with strident chants like "More Clothes." Somehow, the unlikely combination works well. — Goldstein

Gang Gang Dance, Saint Dymphna (The Social Registry). Drawing inspiration from a multitude of non-Western musical styles and injecting them into electronic dance music has been this band's genius. As this album underscores, Gang Gang Dance has created a blueprint for 21st-century dance-club music with a hybrid worldbeat sound that is gleefully unmindful of geographical or cultural boundaries. — Murphy

Inara George with Van Dyke Parks, An Invitation (Everloving). Parks's gift for orchestration is unparalleled in pop, and on An Invitation, he finds an ideal collaborator in The Bird and The Bee's George. Symphonic offerings such as "Accidental" recall the lushness of late-period Gershwin, but with a contemporary edge that makes them feel like artifacts from this century as opposed to a throwback to the last one. — Roberts

 

Tigran Hamaysan, New Era (Nocturne). By the time he was ten years old, Tigran Hamaysan was already immersed in the work of Bud Powell. On New Era, the 22-year-old pianist takes that Powell influence to an entirely fresh place with some fierce and muscular playing on up-tempo cuts like his own "Part 2: New Era" and Miles Davis's "Solar." — Solomon

High Places, High Places (Thrill Jockey). Seemingly created entirely out of electronic instrumentation and sampled, non-traditional percussion, this album sounds like the music a tiny village on an imaginary tropical island might create. With playful vocals and effervescent melodies, High Places has crafted futuristic pop music as conceived by people with a secondhand knowledge of such things. — Murphy

The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant). The band's fourth effort is worthwhile as much for its dark, cautionary lyrical themes as for its consistent pace and dynamic sound. Lyricist, guitarist and singer Craig Finn presents haunting profiles of excess, veering from the positive notes rung on the album's opener, "Constructive Summer," to tales of addiction, abuse and loss. — Goldstein

Indian Jewelry, Free Gold (We Are Free). A visionary fusion of droning psychedelia, post-punk's dark, forbidding edges and the frayed incandescence of noise rock, this collection of songs charts new boundaries for dub and tribal sounds. Themes of disaster, the collapse of civilization and transcendence abound. It's the sound of cyberpunk's dystopian outlook realizing itself. — Murphy

Jake One, White Van Music (Rhymesayers). The name Jake One may not be familiar to most, but his beats for 50 Cent, Nas and De La Soul probably are. The beats he crafted for his debut album are just as hot, with verses from MCs as diverse as M.O.P. and Busta Rhymes to Little Brother and Pharoahe Monch. — Salazar-Moreno

Kidz in the Hall, The In Crowd (Duck Down Records). The Kidz left Rawkus Records for their second album and joined Duck Down Records without skipping so much as a beat. Led by the summer anthem "Driving Down the Block" and the super smooth "Love Hangover," Crowd basically picks right up where they left off on their debut. — Salazar-Moreno

Lake, Oh, The Places We'll Go (K Records). A charming soul-pop record coming seemingly out of nowhere to remind us that simple songs performed with earnestness can make for some of the most moving music around. The infectious songs on this album could easily have been created forty years ago or yesterday. — Murphy

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (Cash Money Records). Not often is one of the year's most popular albums also among the weirdest — but that's the case here. From its twisted production and synapse-snapping rhymes to Wayne's woozy delivery, Tha Carter III springs one sonic surprise after another. That's why America isn't sick of him yet, even though he cameos on about 70 percent of all current hit singles. — Roberts

M.A.N.D.Y., Fabric 38 (Fabric). These days, I rarely listen to club music outside of a club, but M.A.N.D.Y.'s Fabric mix spent a long stretch in my CD player. Something about its selection of tracks that reference everything from old-school Warp IDM to Congotronics to electro to minimal house just refused to let me go. — Casciato

Matmos, Supreme Balloon (Matador). I love synthesizers — love them — and this disc is a big, sloppy mash note to oscillators, filters and the knobs that control them. From the opening notes of "Rainbow Flag" to the closing seconds of the final, hidden track, Matmos applies its usual attention to detail to pure electronics. The results are beautiful. — Casciato

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, This Is Our Moosic (Hot Cup). This disc's packaging nods to Ornette Coleman's epochal 1960 platter This Is Our Music, as do the recording's vibrant originals. Fortunately, though, Moppa Elliott and his cohorts are interested in capturing the spirit of Coleman's sound, not its specifics. The young quartet's exuberant style somehow manages to encompass free jazz and Billy Joel. Really. — Roberts

Neon Neon, Stainless Style (Lex Records). Neon Neon is Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys's take on slick, danceable '80s synth pop. It's an unabashed love letter to a musical style most of us consider, at best, a guilty pleasure. As enjoyable as the results are, there's no reason to feel guilty any longer. — Casciato

N.E.R.D., Seeing Sounds (Interscope). The Neptunes have made multi-platinum hits for a wide array of artists but have yet to realize the same success with their own albums. Even though N.E.R.D.'s sound is nothing like Jay-Z's, it still bangs hard, giving the urban-music landscape that super rock-star sound. — Salazar-Moreno

 

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti-). While it revels in some familiar themes and cues, Dig still sounds refreshing and finds Cave revitalized. Playing like a somber epic, Dig explores biblical themes of damnation and redemption over succinct minor chords, plodding cadences and Cave's evocative voice. — Goldstein

Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl). Musically, Skeletal Lamping is constantly in motion, jumping with ease from glam to disco to lush pop to smooth soul in the space of a single song. Lyrically, it sexes you up and bathes you in androgynous sleaziness and practiced indolence. The sum of those parts is delightful and impossibly catchy. — Casciato

OST, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Muntant Enemy, Inc.). Despite a general disdain for musicals, there was no way I could resist a Joss Whedon supervillain sing-along about an underachieving, lovelorn mad scientist. The fact that it's so much fun and as clever musically as Whedon usually is with dialogue didn't hurt, either. I couldn't stop listening — or singing along. — Casciato

Amanda Palmer, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? (Roadrunner). When the Dresden Dolls' drama-queen frontwoman steps out with piano-pop impresario Ben Folds, the results are simply charming. Palmer's lyrics are as barbed and brilliant as ever, but her collaborator brings radio-friendly sheen, nerdy swagger and ingenuous affability that complement the performance artist's theatricality and make the whole affair possibly the best work Palmer has released yet. — Eyl

Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note). On the opening cut of Invisible Cinema, Aaron Parks sounds as if he's ready to fill the young piano-lion seat that Brad Mehldau held nearly two decades ago. And as the album unfolds, the 24-year-old pianist's profundity begins to reveal itself in his innovative compositions and refined touch on the ivories. — Solomon

Parts & Labor, Receivers (Jagjaguwar). Possessed of all the nervy energy, experimentation and artistic daring of early Wire, Receivers rushes forward with incredible momentum. Dizzying cascades of sound swirl around and churn while disarmingly melodic vocals keep pace. An amalgam of diverse musical sources, it's a combustible masterpiece of enthusiastically processed sound. — Murphy

Pat Metheny Trio, Day Trip (Nonesuch). Pat Metheny, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez toured together for four years before recording Day Trip in just one day. Urgency and cohesiveness both inform the thoroughly remarkable interplay on the disc, which comprises mainly new compositions and reworkings of "The Red One" and "When We Were." — Solomon

Ponytail, Ice Cream Spiritual (We Are Free). Spastic, energizing and playful, Ice Cream Spiritual overflows with spirited performances. It sounds as though the band is performing after ingesting a dose of unbounded exuberance and the joy of living. The music here is noise rock's winningly chipper cousin that demands you dance along to its irresistible rhythms. — Murphy

Port O'Brien, All We Could Do Was Sing (Self-released). Singer-songwriter Van Pierszalowski knows of what he sings. Crooning hauntingly and affectingly about life on a fishing boat — a theme that may seem too specialized for city dwellers — he exhibits a sufficient amount of authority and sincerity on tunes such as "Stuck on a Boat" and "Fisherman's Son" to make the rural themes immediate and resonant. — Goldstein

Kurt Rosenwinkel, The Remedy: Live at the Village Vanguard (ArtistShare). One of the most amazing things about Kurt Rosenwinkel's guitar playing is his fluidity. And his playing on this two-disc live album is virtually seamless, which is especially remarkable considering the complexity of his solos. Tenor sax player Mark Turner is right there in the trenches as well. — Solomon

Shy Child, Noise Won't Stop (Kill Rock Stars). It's nearly impossible to feel anything other than giddy while listening to this barebones duo. Though keytar (that's right) and drums are their only weapons, Pete Cafarella and Nate Smith rock harder than many other acts tagged with the electro-rock designation. Heroin hooks and cold-sore choruses lend a party-till-you-drop vibe that's damned hard to resist. — Eyl

Skeleton$, Money (Tomlab). If Can had become more of an avant-garde jazz band, it might have sounded a bit like Skeleton$ does on this album. Zappa-esque prog collides with obtuse jazz dynamics, generating a frantic energy that sounds hectic, on the verge of sloppy, without ever quite careening off into jammy self-indulgence. — Murphy

Soy un Caballo, Les Heures de Raison (Minty Fresh). This stunning gem of an album, which was just released by Minty Fresh in the States, features some delicate songwriting from Belgian couple Auriele Muller and Thomas Van Cotton. Bonnie "Prince" Billy sings in French on a few cuts, and producer Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas wraps the whole thing in a magic gloss. — Solomon

 

Sparks, Exotic Creatures of the Deep (Lil' Beethoven Records). My love for this record makes absolutely no sense. How do falsetto vocals, utterly silly songs and chintzy-sounding, synth-laden arrangements somehow combine into compulsive listening? Maybe any album with songs called "Lighten Up, Morrissey" and "I Can't Believe You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song" is destined for greatness. — Casciato

Marnie Stern, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars). "I can make it make sense," Marnie Stern declares at the outset of This Is It, and she manages to do just that using the most rudimentary of tools: unadorned vocalizing, primitive rhythms, skewed hooks and expressionistic guitar playing that's more about nailing emotions than hitting that perfect note. Oh, what a glorious noise. — Roberts

Frank Turner, Love, Ire & Song (Xtra Mile Records). Though ex-punk Turner stumbles into the occasional cliche of working-class folk rock, most of his songs hit the righteously indignant, hopelessly idealistic and downright-pissed-off nail on the head. Comparisons to Billy Bragg aren't far off, though a British Dashboard Confessional might hit closer to the mark. The songwriter's second full-length is insightful, incendiary and occasionally very funny. — Eyl

TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope). An underlying theme lurks in the impressive kaleidoscope of sounds on Dear Science. Amid the percussive bouts of hand claps, evocative synth lines, crisp bursts of rhythm guitar and vocals that alternate between insistence and vulnerability, there's an eerie feeling of foreboding. It's a cohesion that's at once unsettling and impressive. — Goldstein

Various Artists, Of Great and Mortal Men (Standard Recording). No denying that this collection of 43 original songs about each U.S. president through George W. Bush is gimmicky. But it's also elegiac, funny, rich and strange, thanks to contributions from a sprawling cast of notable undergrounders (members of Low, Red House Painters et al.) and compositions by Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher that take the crazy concept seriously. — Roberts

Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL Recordings). Like everyone else, I was over this band by the time the album came out, but then a funny thing happened: Every time I heard any part of it, I found myself smiling, humming along and digging the tunes despite myself. Set aside the backlash and you've got a pleasant, polished and fresh debut. — Casciato

Ween, At the Cat's Cradle, 1992 (Chocodog). Ween's output during the past decade has shown a marked evolution and maturation in terms of sound, so it's a treat to revisit the duo's absurdist, minimalist roots. This stripped-down show from 1992 features the group's progenitors, Gene and Dean Ween (aka Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo), performing early classics solo, backed only by a DAT machine. — Goldstein

Jim White, A Funny Little Cross to Bear (Luaka Bop). Following up his brilliant Transnormal Skiperoo, Southern Gothic alt-country shaman White unleashes a tasty EP of live gems. A couple tracks from Skiperoo get a reprise, but unreleased nuggets like "Jim 3:16" — with its refrain of "a bar is just a church where they serve beer" — provide unmistakable proof of White's erudite, folksy charm. — Eyl


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