The actual list was completed in late February, but the write ups were not complete until late August. It's been quite a year, hope you all find this better late than never...
50. Diplomats of Solid Sound - Diplomats of Solid Sound featuring The Diplomettes - Jazzy Soul from Iowa City, IA? You betcha. A trio of female vocalists help guide the proceedings, and while this effort has more polish than the 60's sound they emulate, they manage to stay on the rougher side of similar revivalists such as The Commitments.
49. The Dutchess & The Duke - She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke - Another throwback folkie group, but this duo is more of the Greenwich Village/berets variety that the more common barefoot hippy version. Good tunes simply performed.
48. The Knux - Remind Me In 3 Days... - 2008 was a leaner year for hip-hop in my opinion, but The Knux manage to find a real nice blend of De La Soul/A Tribe Called Quest rhymes with Neptunes-ish production touches. Not the new rap revolution, but a good head-nodding listen.
47. My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges - Every now and then, a really solid band with a strong following goes out on a limb to stretch themselves musically. My Morning Jacket does here, mixing some funky twists and turns into the mix. It doesn't always shine, but it does in parts and I give them a lot of credit for not making the same album over and over when they easily could.
46. White Denim- Workout Holiday- On the surface, another band of above-average garage rock revivalists. Dig a little deeper and you can find post-punk and psych influences making this fuzzy, sloppy mess of an album worthy of repeat listens.
45. Deerhunter - Microcastle - A Timmy awards repeat artist, and these guys are likely to be back again. Psych meets experimental meets pop meets krautrock. Not an easy album to just put on and listen to, but when they hit a groove like midway through "Nothing Ever Happened", they are a force to be reckoned with.
44. Micah P. Hinson - Micah P. Hinson and The Red Empire Orchestra- Another Timmy Award regular. Nobody does heartache like Hinson, from his plaintive voice down to his rootsy accompaniment, but there is a hopeful note underneath the surface, and originality throughout...
43. Parts & Labor - Receivers - Another blend of noise/experimental sounds and pop hooks- not easy listening, but some great melodies and great fuzz combine in a big beautiful mess.
42. Wale' - The Mixtape About Nothing - What does it say about hip-hop in 2008 when two of the three rap albums in my top 50 are mixtapes (as opposed to official releases?) I think it means the mixtape has really come into its own as an artform, with artists now going to some unusual themes to keep things interesting. Any Seinfeld fan would recognize the album's title and cover as an homage to the long running show, and the theme goes deeper. Not only are there drop-ins from the show throughout (and the infamous Michael Richards standup outburst plays nicely as an intro to "The Kramer"), but Wale' brings an intelligent shot in the arm to the mixtape genre, as Seinfeld did for sitcoms.
41. Women - Women - Not women at all, these four dudes from the Pacific Northwest make a noise/psych/pop/punk/rock blend that's a nice blast of very low-fi goodness.
40. Al Green - Lay It Down and Mavis Staples - Live: Hope At The Hideout - One of the nice things about this list is that I can create my own rules- if I want to deem a tie, then deem one I will. Two soul legends reminded us that they were alive and kicking in 2008. Reverend Al teamed up with ?uestlove of The Roots and some superstar guests to create some songs in the vein of his classic early 70s Hi Records days. Mavis takes a more gospel approach on her live record from Chicago's Hideout (a great, tiny bar) but produces a goose-bump inducing bit of soul in her "I'll Take You There" finale. Both solid outings and worth repeated listens. B.B. King's 2008 album almost made it here too...
I couldn't find worthwhile 2008 YouTube clips, but found a couple of classic clips with all-star casts:
Al Green from the Late Night with David Letterman's 7th Anniversary Special, performing with Toni Childs, Carlos Santana, Tito Puente, David Sanborn, Melissa Etheridge and others.
Mavis Staples from Night Music (amazing show long overdue on DVD) with Dr. John, Jeff Healey, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn and more.
39. Chris Walla- Field Manual - Ben Gibbard's right-hand man in Death Cab for Cutie steps out on his own with a set of songs that bears resemblance to his day job in Death Cab but shows him as a powerful songwriter, adept multi-instrumentalist and competent singer.. A nice, poppy debut- fans of Matthew Sweet's quieter moments will feel right at home.
38. Hellsongs - Hymns in the key of 666 - OK, so the the very idea of a female-vocalist-led trio of Swedes doing lounge/coffeehouse covers of heavy metal hits doesn't seem like much more than a quick chuckle. The band and album names also smack of novelty act. Now I'm not saying these guys are going to be around forever and that this concept has a huge future, but it works far better than it should. The song choices are good, and they handle them with equal parts love, admiration and inventiveness. I love the version of Thunderstruck- let's hear that to start off some White Sox games this summer...
37. The Baseball Project- Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails - Boy, was this one destined for the Timmys- alt-rock all stars doing songs about baseball? R.E.M's Peter Buck, Steve Wynn and Young Fresh Fellow/R.E.M. touring guitarist Scott McCaughey get together to do songs about baseball. It sounds just as I describe it. If you like any of the artists mentioned above and baseball, rush out and get this one.
36. James Hunter - The Hard Way - A repeat Timmys winner, Mr. Hunter takes his Sam Cooke-like croon and applies it to another solid set of songs that are steeped in the traditions of early rock and soul but are more than just a tribute to the sound of yesterday.
35. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - Like Tom Waits, Nick Cave is umpteen releases into his unique career and still making albums that are worth a listen. Nothing new, nothing revolutionary here, not in the same class of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus of a few years ago- just a set of raw rocking tunes that have the usual Cave imprint as well as a bit of an Iggy Pop vibe at points. All artists should have this kind of staying power.
34. Eli "Paperboy" Reed & The True Loves- Roll With You - America, meet your version of James Hunter (or one of them.) A recording artist who seems somehow frozen in time, Reed is Otis Redding to Hunter's Sam Cooke. A little more raucous, a little louder, and every bit as in debt to Sixties soul, yet still making it sound fresh. There is room for a LOT more guys like these two. (Note: Solange Knowles joins him on backing vocals in the video below when they both appeared on Later with Jools Holland. Pretty cool..)
33. Lucinda Williams - Little Honey - Lucinda has been around for a while, has done tracks with my boy Elvis Costello a few times, but she never really floated my boat. Then I heard her cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top", and I decided to give her latest a listen. I'm glad I did. The singing is great, the songs are solid and varied- a good album from start to finish with the right mix of country and rock throughout.
32. Rhymefest - Mark Ronson presents Rhymefest in Man in the Mirror - The third rap album on my list and the second that's a mixtape- an unofficial release usually made as a teaser to an upcoming album. And similar to Wale', Rhymefest goes high concept. This is all Michael Jackson influenced and infused. Rhymefest does some funny stuff when he "interviews" the gloved one, sings along with the Jackson Five and makes "Man in the Mirror" somehow worth listening to. May there be more releases like this, official or not.
31. The Hold Steady- Stay Positive - The Hold Steady took the top spot in the Timmys two years ago and number nine a year before that, so I had high hopes for this one. I found it to be their weakest release yet, but still worthy of a year-end nod, albeit much lower than I would have guessed before I put it in the player. The songs don't pack the same punch as their previous albums, and I believe a couple tracks are just filler (they borrow a lot from classic rock but they should have left that trend alone). It starts with a wallop with "Constructive Summer" and never quite gets back there again. They still dip deep into the Husker Du meets Springsteen well, but they just didn't find the right combination this time out. It's still a good album and it didn't kill them, so let's hope it makes them stronger for the next one.
30. The Lost Fingers - Lost in the 80s - OK, high concept cover albums- the loungey new wave of Nouvelle Vague, the comedy kitsch or Richard Cheese- are good for a listen or to play at a party but won't make too many year-end lists (even amateur ones like this). The Lost Fingers succeed where others have failed by picking a very distinct style - the acoustic gypsy jazz a la Django Reinhardt - and staying true to that, and letting the comedy come second. Really, the only thing funny or novelty about this is the source material- all 80's hits (hence the album title.) They play them straight, which makes them both hilarious at first- gypsy jazz takes of "Pump Up The Jams" or "You Give Love A Bad Name" - and listenable in their own right. Not sure if they can repeat the formula, but who cares. This is good fun and good playing.
29. Department of Eagles - In Ear Park - Every now and then there will be a band that I'm not nuts about but I like their side projects. OK, I can't think of any right now- other than this one. I heard the Grizzly Bear album Yellow House and was less than impressed. I think I listened to it once. So I had little interest in hearing a Grizzly Bear side project, but thanks to XM radio, I heard Department of Eagles and thought it was pretty decent. I saw a lot of favorable reviews for the album so I'd thought I'd check it out and I was so glad I did. I don't remember if I mentioned the Beach Boys yet in this Timmys, so let me start with it here. I almost was going to say "it sounds like Pet Sounds if the Beach Boys never saw the sun", but that's not entirely true. There are some very bright moments here, but there is a fragile beauty that runs throughout musically and lyrically (the album is dedicated to the songwriter's recently deceased father and Ear Park is where they went when he was a child). A real charming headphone album, and yes, if I ever finish this year's Timmys, I'm going to give Grizzly Bear another shot...
28. Vivian Girls - Vivian Girls - So there's this guy, Henry Darger, who was a janitor who lived in Chicago, kept to himself and lived in a small apartment on the North Side. Oh, in his spare time, he wrote a 15,000 page book titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion and painted several hundred illustrations to accompany the story. No one knew about Darger's work until his landlords discovered it after his death- it is now considered "one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art" (thank you, Wikipedia). So that's a long intro for the review of an album that doesn't crack 30 minutes in length. But it shows a little background into the insider art that is Vivian Girls. By naming themselves after Darger's heroic seven little sisters, they put a very intellectual background behind their simple, sweet vocals and rough, feedback driven riffs. Coming in somewhere between the truly primitive Shaggs and the calculatedly primitive Jesus & Mary Chain (or Velvet Underground), Vivian Girls take sweet vocal, girl group harmonies and buries them in a thick layer of sonic sludge. The sweetness comes through and the result is more listenable than the high concept would lead you to believe.
27. Jay Reatard - Matador Singles '08 - Who makes singles these days? Jay Reatard, that's who! Small black vinyl records are the ideal way to enjoy these short blasts of poppy, lo-fi garage punk, but thankfully the good people at Matador Records let Jay do his thing throughout the year and then compile it for those of us who find the CD just a little more realistic then spending Saturday afternoons buying the latest vinyl. (*sigh*)
26. School of the Seven Bells - Alpinisms - So, in a similar vein as the Department of Eagles/Grizzy Bear issue above, I read lists of School of Seven Bells alleged influences- My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees- and I really don't care for them. I also see Medicine mentioned, and maybe that's why I like School of the Seven Bells. Dreamy female vocals and sheets of guitars and synths is the short description- the long version would include ramblings on how Ben Curtis brought some of the krautrock influence that made his previous band Secret Machines awesome when they were on their game (almost all of Now Here Is Nowhere and very little after.). Melodic, a little psychedelic at times and dreamy without being too spacey or too sweet. OK, I think there are a few other bands I need to check out again...
25. Dr. Dog - Fate - Dr. Dog was the little band that could a few years back, breaking out of Philadelphia and into the national consciousness (well, somewhat) with Easy Beat. They obviously loved the Beatles and 60's pop and had a bit of a low-fi bent to their sound, though not as rough as someone like Guided By Voices. At some level, I think they guys actually think they can be The Beatles- and there are some moments in a few songs that have a Beatle-esque feel to them. Dr. Dog manages to walk that fine line between classic rock familiarity and skill and indie rock inventiveness and rough edges.
24. The Wave Picture - Instant Coffee Baby - Give a revival of a musical era long enough to grow, and I suppose you will find that even the most unique bands will find someone using them as a reference point. Amongst a smattering of keyboard-laden Cure disciples, The Wave Pictures take more than a few chapters out of The Smiths book, with some Orange Juice thrown in for good measure. Very British, very literary and a sly sense of humor, these clever songs benefit from melancholy vocals and peppy Johnny Marr-ish guitars. Fans of Belle & Sebastian will find much to enjoy, as The Wave Pictures often replace moments where Morrissey would get forlorn with clever cuteness.
23. Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue - So Jenny struck out on her own with the excellent Rabbit Fur Coat, then went back to her day gig in Rilo Kiley with an overproduced mess of a major label debut. So she returns to the solo side and things are right with the universe again. Sometimes country rock, sometimes singer-songwriter, Lewis jumps from genre to genre but her smooth voice and improving lyrics help keep things unified. Having Elvis Costello join in on "Carpetbaggers" helps keeping things moving along, too.
22. Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It - Soul revivalists abound- from Sharon Jones to Duffy to James Hunter to your crazy uncle- but surprisingly, they seem to aim more for the would-be-critic audience (including yours truly) than an urban audience. Not so much the case with Raphael Saadiq, even though he did merit an NPR profile story, more in line with the above mentioned artists' crowd than the Vibe/BET bunch. Saadiq dabbled with classic soul sounds while in Tony! Toni! Tone! and veered more toward 60's style soul as a solo artist. He went whole hog here, from the cover art to the background vocals, but there is still a very contemporary feel throughout.
21. Neon Neon - Stainless Style - Side projects can be a mixed bag, throw in a heavy concept and your chances of falling flat increase greatly. Yet in the hands of some Super Furry Animals members, a concept album about John Delorean works quite well. They dust off a lot of equipment that went away after 80's new wave faded away, and the result is an album of catchy melodies and "what one hit wonder does that keyboard riff sound like?" moments. Oh, and Alderaan is in a song title. If that means something to you, you may like this album.
20. Times New Viking - Rip It Off - So there's low-fi, and then there's LOW fi Times New Viking is about as low as it goes. Pop melodies compete with cut-rate guitars and tape hiss, drums that are close at times to wet cardboard boxes and cymbals that crash like Ringo's early work. Messy, sloppy, sometimes ugly, almost always fun.
19. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali - If you're blind and you're from Mali, the chances you'll become internationally known is smaller than small. Yet in world music circles, Amadou & Mariam's stock keeps rising. And for good reason. With each album, they become sonically more adventurous, incorporating electronics into their catchy melodies and remarkable singing. If you're interested in checking out African music, this is an excellent place to start.
18. The Bug - London Zoo - So while I'm talking about world music, let me talk about a cool new trend- taking modern sounds and mixing them up with sounds from another part of the world. Like M.I.A., The Bug (London producer Kevin Martin) takes western electronics and infuses them with ethnic beats. The Bug takes top dancehall vocalists and gives them a musical bed rich with grime and dubstep, with a result that sounds like the world getting smaller, darker, a little more sinister and a lot more exciting.
17. Seasick Steve - I Started Out With Nothing And Still Got Most Of It Left - Seasick Steve hails from San Francisco, spent many years as a hobo and recently started making a living with his music- and he's now in his 60's. He is a bluesman through and through, and his is a rough, unwashed and often funny brand of the blues. There's a little John Lee Hooker in there, but Steve retains his own voice and style.
16. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound - If you grow up in New Jersey and play guitar, the shadow of Bruce Springsteen must loom pretty large. The Gaslight Anthem was certainly not immune to Bruce's influence, and perhaps this is what Bruce would have sounded like if he was born a few decades later. Lyrically, there's a lot of Springsteen going on here, and sonically they fall into a Social Distortion groove most of the time. So this isn't the most groundbreaking album on the list, but sometimes you just want to hear a good rocking record, and this will fill the bill nicely.
15. The Ting Tings - We Started Nothing - In my ideal world, The Tings Tings we be on the radio as often as Britney- "That's Not My Name" would be a nice replacement for "Womanizer." Pop with an edge, or punk dipped in chocolate, this is in many senses a very commercial record. The hooks are in all the right places, most of these songs have a singles-type quality to them. This is a lot like the first Killers album- may the Ting Tings stay on the right side of their egos and keep making scrappy, dancy punk pop just like this.
14. Portishead - Third - So even though this year-end list is severely late, the ranking order was done at the very beginning of the year. If I were to re-rank them now, this would be higher, it really grew on me. A short ELEVEN years after their second album, Portishead is back. This album is dark and unsettling, but and the same time it's highly listenable. Highly recommended for fans of Radiohead.
13. The Explorers Club - Freedom Wind - So, if you've read the Timmys in the past, you know I have a great love for Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and bands influenced by that sound. The Explorers Club haven't been influenced by Pet Sounds- they have breathed it in, swallowed it whole and otherwise absorbed every note and nuance. The Beach Boys stopped making music like this close to 40 years ago, so it's nice to have a young band pick up the torch so nicely.
12. Flight Of The Conchords - Flight Of the Conchords - Soundtracks don't usually stand up to repeat listens, nor do comedy albums. So it's quite the testament to how solid this record is that it ranks so highly on my top 50. It's both extremely funny and musically spot on- they cross genres with the greatest of ease.
11. Elvis Costello - Momofuku - It's now mere coincidence that my son and Elvis Costello (originally Declan McManus) share a first name. I've been a big Elvis costello fan for most of my life, so for his albums to land in my top 50 is no major shock. What was a shock was that this album came out of nowhere- it was recorded, announced and released rather quickly. So it's appropriate that it was named after the inventor of the cup noodle- this is instant music. And that's where a lot of the beauty of the record comes from- it clearly wasn't over thought. These songs were written and recorded quickly and the result is an immediate, energetic and very likable collection of songs.
10. Little Joy- Little Joy - Another side project, this being the vehicle of The Strokes' drummer Fabrizio Morretti, Brazilian singer Rodrigo Amarante and L.A. singer Binki Shapiro. They moved into a house in L.A., named their band and album after their local pub and put together an album that is clearly the sum of its parts. There are Strokes-ish melodies, a Brazilian breeziness and a laid-back California vibe throughout. A great album for a sunny afternoon, hammock and cocktails optional.
9. Kylie Auldist - Just Say - You don't have to be black, American and live in the 1960's to have soul. Sure, all of those things could help, but none are necessary. Proof of this is Kylie Auldist- Australian, young and a self proclaimed "suburban housewife and mother of two." Her debut album is full of bright sunny soul that sounds like a collection of lost Motown gems. This is upbeat, poppy soul and sounds both retro and fresh at the same time.
8. Buraka Som Sistema - Black Diamond - Gotta love the Internet. Pre-internet, would I know that there was a dance sound coming out of Angola called Kuduro? Actually, I think I learned of it in one of the way too expensive British music magazines I read, but I digress. This is another one of those familiar sounds mixed with another culture type of albums- and M.I.A. makes an appearance herself. If you can imagine her sound with more energy, you have a general of idea of what's going on. Likely too world music for the dance crowd and too dance-y for world music eggheads, this is great stuff for musical mutts like me.
7. The Dodos - Visiter - The world is truly shrinking and today's music truly reflects this. The Dodos hail from San Francisco, but their guitar sound is from the backwoods of rural America and their drums are from Africa. The end result is indie rock with worldly influences and a unique twist that raises The Dodos above may of their peers. Oh, and they write good songs, which never hurts.
6. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend - In the last Timmys, I pegged these guys as a band to watch. They had a good year, although they experienced quite a backlash from blog hipsters who originally praised them. This album was my favorite for the first few months of 2008 but faded- a lackluster performance at Pitchfork in July of 2008 added to this. Still...this is a fine, fun album. Like an updated Graceland, they take African influences and merge it with their own sound, which is Ivy-league smart indie pop. At times, their preppy, Columbia University roots show and they come off a little smug. But when they are on, they are fresh, fun and unique. Where they go from here should be really interesting.
5. Jamie Lidell - Jim - Back to soul from unusual places- a UK electronic artist decided to move in a more classic soul direction, and he hasn't looked back. Lidell is really finding his voice, and it's starting to sound like Otis Redding. His dance music background keeps the sound modern when it needs to be, and there are some very contemporary moments. The neo-soul wins out- Lidell is becoming a master of his game.
4. TV On The Radio - Dear Science - These guys just keep getting it right. They used doo wop on their debut, and this one begins with Ramones-esque "bah bahs". The genre bending continues throughout, and there are Bowie-type flourishes at all the right moments. A really inventive band making very interesting but still quite listenable records.
3. Blitzen Trapper - Furr - 2008 was good year for guys with beards- they figure prominently in my top 5 albums. Portland's Blitzen Trapper has perfected a mix that takes 2008 indie-pop sensibilities and merges it seamlessly with classic rock sounds of Dylan and The Grateful Dead. Of course, the songs have to be good, and they most certainly are. A nice solid album that could find a home on classic rock stations if they weren't afraid to play something new...
2. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago - This is the stuff of legends. Justin Vernon broke up with his band, his girl and decided to spend the winter in his dad's rural Wisconsin cabin, eating venison and writing and recording all day long. He titled his project Bon Iver, a play on the French phrase for good winter. His falsetto is as lonesome as the woods in the middle of winter and just as haunting, and the emotions come across loud and clear. A unique story, unique voice and a solid album that rarely has a note out of place. Not a record you'd play at a party, for sure, but excellent for rainy- or (0f course) snowy afternoons or late nights.
1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes - The Pet Sounds vibe has been mined many times, and almost as many times praised on my annual lists. Rarely has someone started that base and added a whole new twist to it. What if The Beach Boys went all hippy on us after Pet Sounds? Well, it would probably sound like this. Angelic harmonies meet folk meet country meet rock. White Winter Hymnal is one of my favorite songs of the year- it has a timeless quality to it and is extremely catchy. The first three songs are among the best starts to an album that I can remember in recent years and may very well hold up to some classic first three tracks. A fantastic debut.