Larry Koestler's TOP 10 of 2008!!!
I've always loved doing my year-end top ten albums list, but I'm not sure I've ever been as excited to write my annual music wrap-up as I am for this year's edition.
Simply put, 2008 has been an absolutely monster year for power-pop fanatics. In years past it's been something of a struggle to determine which albums merit the 9th and 10th slots on the list; this year there was so much amazing music that the albums in slots 6 through 10 could have easily made the top 5 in a weaker year.
10) Wisely - S/T: This is just a wonderful, happy, warm and free album with a mellow yet glowing vibe throughout its duration. Once again, my thoughts from my original review back in August still hold more than true: "Willie Wisely released an album called PARADOR two years ago which was hailed by many in the power-pop community as a classic, given Wisely's status as something of an elder statesman of the genre. I didn't quite see at the time, but this self-titled follow-up has made me a believer. Talk about a beautiful, nuanced, mature record of blissful power pop. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I definitely found myself shining up to this record a lot more than I may have a few years ago. Wisely has such an easy way about his voice, and the songs are powerful and moody yet still sunny and irreverent. While their voices sound nothing alike, I would almost equate Wisely to a slightly more grown-up Pete Yorn, as far as songwriting sensibilities go. This is a really easy record to listen to, and I highly recommend it for anyone more interested in the singer-songwriter end of the power-pop spectrum."
9) The Crash Moderns - GOODNIGHT GLAMOUR, GOOD MORNING DISASTER: Do you long for the halcyon days of alternative rock circa 1998/1999/2000, a time when Butch Walker still wrote great songs and performed with the now-legendary Marvelous3 and bands like Lit, Tsar, Stroke9 and Eve6 were churning out hyper-melodic kick-ass pop-rock records? If so, then your days of pining are over, as the Crash Moderns have crafted an album that sounds as if someone took all of the aforementioned bands, stuffed them in a blender, hit puree, and poured the results into a 200-CD Changer. Kicking things off as appropriately as possible with"This Time," the band races through catchy song after catchy song, never letting up, and ensuring that the album is eminently listenable the entire way through. Standouts include "Pimp My Life," "Everybody Hates Me," and in true late-90's alterna-rock fashion, the record culminates with "Closer is Better," a stereotypically slow-building closer that bursts into an anthemic, epic-sounding chorus that will have you repeating the title phrase on infinite loop.
8) The Crayons - WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU: This was one of the first albums I heard in 2008, and it stayed with me for the entire year. That's some longevity right there. One thing I love about this album is that, despite some stylistic similarities to other acts here and there, there really isn't one band you could compare the Crayons' sound to. While they have the unmistakable hooks of a tried-and-true pop-rock act, the lead singer's unique voice really elevates the material to a new level. Here's what I said earlier this year: "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU is just a solid album of mostly mid-tempo power-pop, with great vocals and arrangements. Reminds me of the Tories in parts, and the Rosenbergs elsewhere. It starts off strongly, and then it surprisingly actually gets even better in the middle of the record (an area where, as we all know, a lot of records tend to sag), highlighted by the 1-2-3 punch of 'Well,' 'Maybe' and 'By the Way.' Seriously, try to get 'By the Way' out of your head, what with that little guitar lick throughout and then the sweet-ass lyrical shift and minor chord in the coda - that's great stuff."
7) Paper or Plastic - DON'T BE LIKE THAT: In a year of outrageously strong debuts, this one ranks right up there with the best. At an all-too-short 9 tracks, Paper or Plastic deliver a knockout punch of piano-driven power-pop, doing their best to patch the hole that Scott Simons and the Argument left in our hearts post break-up. "Move It Away" starts the proceedings off on the right foot, giving way to the killer one-two of "For Christ's Sake" and the astonishingly good "Postcards and Technology." In fact, if I were doing a top 5 songs of the year, "Postcards and Technology" would probably be in the top 3 -- that's how damn good it is. What an astonishingly catchy chord progression, and the vocals are absolutely perfect. A fine, fine album.
6) Jack McManus - EITHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT: Basically take what I just wrote about Paper or Plastic and multiply it by another factor of awesome. This is piano-driven power-pop at its finest, and a worthy companion to our album of the year (you'll have to keep reading to find out who earned that most coveted of positions). I've read a handful of negative reviews of this album, but I can't fathom what record these idiots were listening to, as McManus' energy, clever arrangements, hooks by the bowlful and outright catchiness pervade every single song. There's just no getting away from it on this album - these songs are astounding and you can't possibly listen to this album and not smile. You just can't. If you like power pop, you will love this album. If you are a critic and hate this album, you are a miserable human being who should probably find another profession because you clearly don't know a damn thing about good music. "Bang on the Piano" is easily one of the highlights of the year, and can stand up to anything produced by any of the go-to top modern pop pianists, Elton John included.
5) The Wellingtons - HEADING NORTH FOR THE WINTER: I had initially slotted this album for around 9th or 10th on the list, but over the last few weeks it has made an aural charge into my brain that simply cannot be ignored. I've loved the Wellingtons for a few years now, ever since their debut made the top 10 back in 2005. My first few listens to HEADING NORTH seemed to confirm that they had once again put together another nice record, but it didn't immediately grab me. However, by the 4th or 5th listen the band's extra-large hooks started taking up residence inside my brain, and I could not stop hitting replay on my iPod for a solid two weeks. And then I began to realize just how incredible this band is at crafting the absolute sugariest, stickiest, flat-out extraordinarily catchy music -- I don't know that any band has crafted power-pop this cavity-inducing since Second Saturday. Lead singer Zac Anthony's voice pretty much IS the vocal embodiment of modern-day power-pop. Truly, as one listens to the first six amazing and outrageously sugary tracks of "Heading North for the Winter," from the bouncy infectiousness of "Song for Kim" to the slightly slower, wonderfully ebullient and background vocal-buoyed "Natalie" and the four hook-drenched power-pop gems in between, you almost can't help but feel as if you are being beaten to death with a giant, life-sized candy cane, and I of course mean that in the least-violent, nicest way possible.
4) Captain Wilberforce- EVERYONE LOVES A VILLAIN: This record came out of left field for me, as I can't say I was expecting all that much from a band with another ridiculous moniker, and I still wasn't all that into after a couple of listens, but by the third go-round I realized that I had discovered something wonderful. The lead track "No Strings or Ties" propels the album with a pulsating energy that never wanes, and the entire record feels as if it's been comfortably nestled among the top power-pop albums of the decade for years, although this is not to say it sounds unoriginal or dated, in fact far from it. This brilliantly catchy, creative and inventive record teems with unexpected chord changes and melodies throughout, and even the more conventional-sounding stuff sounds fresh and incredibly engaging. This is exactly what I hope to hear when listening to a new album - songs that stick in my head and beg to be replayed, while also providing something new for the brain to digest and enjoy. The most appropriate comparison for this band would be Jackdaw4, which, seeing as how BIPOLAR DIVERSIONS was my top album of 2007, I think it's safe to say Captain Wilberforce delivers the goods.
3) Bryan Scary - FLIGHT OF THE KNIFE: When I first listened to this album, I figured it was a lock for album of the year, no questions asked. Truth be told, you could probably reorder my top 3 albums any which way you please and I wouldn't complain, but the two albums I've ranked ahead of it really do deserve their rankings. Still, this is an utterly astonishing record, one that absolutely begs many, many repeated listens, and also the only album on this list I've managed to hear live. Unfortunately, as talented as the Shredding Tears are, I didn't actually love the band live, as they played every song about 4 times faster than they should have, but I guess it's hard to blame a band for being too keyed up. Anyway, here's what I had to say about the record earlier this year: "At this very moment, the album that has taken up full residence in my brain and refuses to let go is FLIGHT OF THE KNIFE, the new disc from Bryan Scary & the Shredding Tears. Some of you may recall Bryan Scary from last year's brilliant debut, and incredibly he's managed to outdo himself on this sophomore effort. It's almost impossible to describe everything that's going on here, as Scary literally runs the gamut through seemingly every possible musical genre imaginable - pop, rock, '50s doo-wop, glam, orchestral baroque pop, vaudeville, carnival whimsy, chamber pop, prog, post-punk, and probably several other genres that I can't think of right now - and somehow seamlessly melds everything together in an utterly brilliant hook-drenched pastiche of a concept record. Seriously, every single song tosses off about 8,000 hooks, and you could listen to each track several times and still catch new hooks that will quickly lodge themselves into your brain each time. The story has something to do with spacecrafts and other assorted flying vehicles, but as always for me, the lyrical content is secondary to the outstanding songwriting and musicianship. Scary manages to evoke the Beatles, Queen and Bowie to name a few points of reference, and as far as more recent bands, there's some Chris Brown (my #2 record of '07), Jackdaw4, a ton of Jellyfish and traces of just about every good power pop band I've ever name-checked. Even though we're only in April, it's going to take an absolute monster to surpass this album as #1 record of 2008." Well, it turns out not one but two absolute monsters came out.
2) Roger Joseph Manning Jr. - CATNIP DYNAMITE: April 2008 will probably go down as one of the greatest months in power pop history, as that was the month that both FLIGHT OF THE KNIFE and CATNIP DYNAMITE came into my world, basically providing a nonstop soundtrack of incredible music for the next two straight months. As incredible as FLIGHT OF THE KNIFE is, CATNIP DYNAMITE might be even more amazing, demonstrating how ridiculously talented Roger Joseph Manning Jr. really is. I mean, every song on this album is just absurdly good. Well, except for "Drive-Thru Girl," but despite one clunker, I still feel this album merits second place. Here's my write-up from earlier this year: "A big-time contender for top album of 2008, I grabbed this record right around the time Bryan Scary's album came out, and was subsequently in pure power pop heaven for several weeks as a result. For those unfamiliar with his pedigree, RJM was one of the founding members of that most reverent of modern-day power-pop bands, Jellyfish, which means the expectations for him from fans of the genre are astronomically high, and probably super-unrealistic for him to ever reach. That being said, he comes awfully close. Track-for-track this album is a knockout, with hooks by the barrelful and intricate, interesting and unexpected arrangements sprinkled throughout, making repeated listens extra rewarding. It doesn't get much better than opener 'The Quickening,' and RJM doesn't waste any time after that firmly establishing his astounding ability to craft insanely catchy songs that will never leave your head. "Love's Never Half as Good" is an addictive-as-hell ballad, 'Down in Front' is a straight-ahead uptempo, energetic rocker and 'Imaginary Friend' is a fun 60s-style British invasion number. And it gets even better as it goes on. 'Haunted Henry' is flat-out awesome -- this beautiful, somber minor-key masterpiece literally sounds like a dirge that wouldn't be out of place on a ghost ship in the high seas somewhere, or at least that's what I can't help but envision. 'Tinsel Town' has a fun, easy hook in the chorus with a lot of pop-cultural reference points, which then gives way to the best track on the album 'The Turnstile at Heaven's Gate.' Wow. All I can say is, what a fucking chorus. I couldn't get this one out of my head for weeks. Not only are the hooks plentiful throughout, but there is an olde-timey-'Step right up and see if you can knock down the glass bottles'-carnival-music-style breakdown in the bridge. If that's not awesome, I don't know what is. The epic-length 'Survival Machine' is a bit on the gloomy side and very baroque (it basically sounds like a funeral procession being played at high mass), but also includes a carousel-style-music breakdown in the middle, which, again, just wow. Definitely one of the best albums of the year, if not the decade." Check, and check.
And if you're somehow still reading this disgustingly lengthy top 10, here's my pick for album of the year:
1) Josh Fix - FREE AT LAST: I pretty much knew it from the first moment I heard the astoundingly creative Queen-inspired kickoff track, "Don't Call Me in the Morning," that Josh Fix had written the album of the year. Talk about talent -- in any other year, I don't see how a complete newcomer bests two established power-pop behemoths in Bryan Scary and RJM, but Josh Fix not only hit the ball out of the park with FREE AT LAST, he somehow managed to sock an 8-run home run in the process. I could throw all the power-pop cliches and accolades in the world at this album, and they would be more than apt, but tossing away hyperbole for a second, moreso than anything this record flat-out makes me happy. It feels inspirational just listening to it. I love music, and I especially love catchy-as-hell music that I can sing along to, but when catchy-as-hell music also makes my soul feel good, well, you know you've found something special. Once again, I will defer to my gushingly praiseful write-up from earlier this year to expound on how much I love this album: "Holy motherfucking shit. Where did this guy come from? I had initially heard the lead single off this album, "Don't Call Me in the Morning," last year, and instantly loved it, but figured there'd be no way he could pull off the insane catchiness of this song across an entire album. Turns out I was dead wrong. FREE AT LAST is a stunning accomplishment. I read a review that called his style 'Queen meets Elton John,' which definitely isn't that far off, although it's probably closer to 'Queen meets a wide variety of awesome piano-based power-pop bands with a little bit of soul and R&B tossed in for good measure.' Fix arranges the songs primarily around his piano, but man, does this album fucking rock. If your blood pressure doesn't get going with the thumping and joyously soul-uplifting 'Jethro' (seriously, try listening to this song without a huge smile plastering itself across your face when the chorus comes on), rollicking and bombastic 'Whiskey & Speed' and 'Tiger on a Treadmill,' then I can't help you. Fix also does slow-burn ballads with equal dexterity, as evidenced by the title track, 'Rock and Roll Slut' and 'The Water in My Brain.' This guy is a huge talent and absolutely, criminally under-the-radar. This is a phenomenal album - not only 100% in the top ten of 2008, but a serious contender for album of the year. Oh yeah, and did I mention he plays every instrument on this record but drums? Sweet Jesus, just buy this already." If there's any negative to be drawn from all this, it's that Josh Fix has set the bar outrageously high, but if anyone can clear that hurdle, I have to figure it would be him.
(For the full, uncut article, click here.)
Anyone else got a best of 2008 list? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll post it! Everyone's got an opinion!!