Below are my top five (and a half).
Click here for 6-11.
5. The New Frontiers - Mending
"The Day We Fell Apart" (mp3)
The New Frontiers is Radiohead if Thom Yorke was from Texas. While this description probably insults both bands, I stick to it. Mending is a supremely chilled-out rock album with some country influences injected for good measure. I don't really like using the word "rock" because nothing in this album is particularly cutting or hard. It's more like a river rock, worn smooth from having sat on the bottom and endured heavy currents over time.
In fact, this is not my generally preferred style of music. It's far too relaxed. (I could say the same thing about Snow Patrol, for example, whose most recent album is good but failed to make my Top 10.) But this album penetrated my hunger for hooks and bombast with some great harmonies and a melancholy sweetness that I find tough to explain.
4. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
One of my favorite mix CD bands of the 21st Century is The Go! Team. It's quite possible Girl Talk has surpassed them with this album. What the Go! Team does with retro sounds and muffled cheerleaders Girl Talk does with every damn song you've ever heard and another hundred or so you might not have.
This album is like the super-tough edition of a music trivia game, except it never stops, never slows down, and never comes across as anything less than fun.
The one knock I have is that, when all is said and done, the songs have no message, no meaning. There isn't some thematic or lyrical intent linking "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" with a Busta Rhymes hit. He just mashed 'em 'cuz it sounded awesome. And it does. Sound awesome. It even sounds awesome several months after I first heard it, which is unexpected.
Sometimes, it's OK for music to mean little beyond bringing a smile to your face.
"Meet Me by the River's Edge" (mp3)
Mix two parts Flesh for Lulu, two parts The Killers, and a sprinkling of Vigilantes of Love, and I'm pretty sure the resulting mixture would sound like The Gaslight Anthem. Reviews I've read of this band keep using the word "punk," which is a big head-scratcher for me. Was Flesh for Lulu "punk"? Does anyone beside me know who Flesh for Lulu even is?
Anyway, because I love Flesh for Lulu and enjoy what I've heard from Vigilantes of Love and, yes, have a weak spot in my heart for the first Killers album, the Gaslight Anthem's album just warms me to the bone. Several reviews use the dangerous word "Springsteen" when discussing this band, but other than both being from Jersey, I don't get it. Might as well use "Bon Jovi" in there, since it's equally ludicrous. The title track is sublime, but there's nary a weak moment in the bunch.
If this is punk, sign me up. (And you can sign up too, for cheap! This sucker is on sale at Amazon.com for $3.99.)
2. The Rescues - Crazy Ever After
I must confess a particular vulnerability to the story of The Rescues. You have three hungry singer-songwriters who don't quite seem to be making it on their own, and some serendipitous occasion brings them all into the same room, whereupon they decide to throw their fates into a single hat.
Either because they were all desperate enough or humble enough, or because they actually liked one another from the get-go, the resulting album is something greater than its parts, although I'm not quite sure of the genre's title under which their music falls. Indie Pop? Folk Pop?
Regardless, the music is often tender, sometimes leaking into sappy. Occasionally it's fun and light. Apparently their music is regular fodder for a variety of TV shows, but that's not how I found them, nor do I hold such a "crime" against them. What up-and-coming band would turn down "Grey's Anatomy" or any show for that matter? It's not in the same boat as selling your song for an ad.
1. Mates of State - Re-arrange Us
"Blue and Gold Print" (mp3)
I've already said what needs to be said about this album. Most of these songs could be used in old Scooby-Doo chase scenes when the meddling kids are running from the ghost du jour. Theirs is an acquired taste, and if their first single "Get Better" doesn't perk up your ears, then nothing on this album is likely to convert you. The good news is, you'll know with one song and one listen whether you're gonna like this band.
Some of their following, whose adoration and critiques I've read on other blogs, find this latest album a little too poppy, not quite as off-kilter as their previous work. Which is precisely why I find this new album to be their most compelling and endearing. They're dancing with the devil (contemporary pop) in the pale moonlight, but it never feels like they're selling out or moving away from the music they love to make.
Plus they have their own cool-as-hell blog (Band on the Diaper Run), which just makes someone like me like them even more. ABC News even ran a story on them, 'cuz they're just that damn cool.
0. The Format - Dog Problems
"Inches and Falling (I Love Love)" (mp3) -- previously posted
This is #1 with a Bullet (point) because it technically is cheating. Dog Problems was released in 2006, which by even the wackiest of standards is too long ago to be considered the Best Album of 2008. However, I'd never heard of these dudes 'til March of this year, so they were totally new to me. And this is my list, dammit. So I'm putting them at #1.
This album is an alternative pop carnival of break-up songs, and I mean each and every word of that description. "Alternative" because Nate Ruess' voice will never be confused for David Cook or someone who could have even made the first cut on American Idol. "Pop" because these dudes can craft a sticky hook like nobody's business. "Carnival" because several of the songs quite intentionally convey that feel. Much like clowns can amuse or sometimes scare the shit out of people, Dog Problems can sound on the surface like a Funhouse album when it's actually more of a Horror House of Mirrors with some amusing makeup. "Break-up songs" because the dude can't get over it. I mean, at least half of U.S. states would arrest this guy for obsessing over whoever it was that stomped his heart flat.
I'd start breaking down individual songs, but the truth is, the reason this tops my list is because it's the most cohesive and consistently strong collection of songs on an album I bought this year. The only weaknesses are the first and last songs, which serve more as a way to allow the listener to slowly enter and exit this Format carnivale without getting the bends.