Dungen, ‘4’ (Kemado)
Long known as a one-man band (at least in the studio), “4” finds Dungen principal Gustav Ejstes reaching out to other musicians to help build his hazy indie rock. And whether its those other guys’ influence, or Ejstes’ own desire to avoid the psych-rock pigeonhole, this album is an unveiling, of sorts, of its mastermind’s apparently endless interest in all types of music. Eyebrow-scorching, guitar-based psych jams made Ejstes (relatively) famous, but here, he dabbles extensively in jazz, putting his piano to heavy use. There are also folk, classical, blues and ambient touches winding throughout, touches that were hinted at in Dungen’s previous work, but are given full exposure on “4.” At its loudest, Dungen is still Dungen. But the softer side revealed here sounds like the coolest, trippiest elevator music you’ve ever heard.
My Morning Jacket, ‘Evil Urges’ (ATO)
Over the past 10 years, My Morning Jacket has become known as one of the best live bands in the world by cranking up the amps and rocking out with hirsute abandon. But with “Evil Urges,” the Louisville, Ky. quintet continues its quiet quest for an unparalleled catalog, too. While some bands find a comfort zone and make the same record over and over, and others are so hell-bent on fighting expectations that they trip over the boundaries they’re trying to leap, My Morning Jacket does on its fifth full-length what it’s always done: stretch, in a compelling direction, just the right amount. This time, Jim James and the boys dig into soul, funk and even prog music, integrating Prince-ly falsettos, robotic drum machines and keyboard bleeps into what used to be a reliably bluesy classic-rock band. The first three tracks here — especially the over-the-top, theatrical electro-funk of “Highly Suspicious” — will send the band’s hardcore Southern-psych fans running for their Telecasters. But for folks who love listening to a band grow and develop at a perfectly natural pace, “Evil Urges” is a delight.
The Black Angels, ‘Directions To See A Ghost’ (Light In The Attic)
This Texas band’s sophomore album is 60 solid minutes of sinister, slow-burning psychedelia spiked with heavy doses of drone and doom. Not recommended for the chronically paranoid.
Darker My Love, ‘2’ (Dangerbird)
While many of their psych-rock contemporaries keep their riffs mired in sludge, L.A.’s Darker My Love goes the other way, riding a sharp pop sensibility into the stratosphere.
TK Webb & The Visions, ‘Ancestor’ (Kemado)
Drawing from his background in punk and blues, TK Webb’s new band creates a raunchy clatter that reflects the grittier side of their hometown, New York City.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, ‘Pershing’ (Polyvinyl)
This short-but-sweet slice of pure indie-pop is the most deceptively wonderful record of 2008. Here’s why: Way back in April, when “Pershing” was released, indie tastemaking Web site Pitchfork derided its “general sense of inoffensiveness” while comparing the frivolously named Missouri band to The Shins. (I think they’re more Rogue Wave-ish, but you can’t split a much finer hair, can you?) But therein lies the problem of online record reviews; they’re inherently biased against earworms. And “Pershing” is quite the earworm. While songs like “Glue Girls” and “Think I Wanna Die” will have you tapping your toe from day one, just wait until six months passes and you suddenly find yourself unable to stop humming “Modern Mystery” and the album’s other subtle superstars.
Throw Me The Statue, ‘Moonbeams’ (Secretly Canadian)
Pity the bedroom auteur, toiling in obscurity in his messy “recording studio” (picture dirty laundry piled by the microphone) with no one to hear his songs. Indie-rock has given rise to more than one of these one-man wonders, and this year’s model — Seattle’s Scott Reitherman — does buzzy, lo-fi pop-rock as well as any of them on “Moonbeams.” Like many songwriting dudes, Reitherman writes about girls, and liking girls, and telling girls you like them, and getting dumped by girls. The result is bittersweet songs with titles like “This Is How We Kiss” and “Written In Heart Signs, Faintly.” From the titles down, Reitherman’s tunes are catchy and hand-clappy no matter how the stories end, like Guided By Voices without the drinking problem. And lest you worry about their author, holed up in his apartment alone, don’t fret; when a chorus of buddies joins in on “Take It Or Live It” and Reitherman sings “my friends support what I completely believe in,” you’ll practically feel the sunshine pouring in through the windows.
Blitzen Trapper, ‘Furr’ (Subpop)
This Portland-based six-piece ditches the genre-hopping fuzz-pop of its debut and puts out an album of pastoral tunes that sound like they were dubbed off an old hippie’s radio. The title track is an instant classic.
The Helio Sequence, ‘Keep Your Eyes Ahead’ (Subpop)
No band does more with fewer members than this Portland-based duo. On their fourth album, their masterful mixture of indie-rock and electronica reaches new heights.
The Swimmers, ‘Fighting Trees’ (MAD Dragon)
Baroque pop that incorporates the sugar-rush drive of the New Pornographers and the soaring choral sensibility of The Polyphonic Spree.
Raphael Saadiq, ‘The Way I See It’ (Columbia)
You know how when you watch “Mad Men” on TV, the sets and wardrobe are so perfect, you feel like you’re watching a show from the early ’60s, not one set in the early ’60s? That’s exactly what “The Way I See It” is like. Saadiq, the former lead vocalist for Tony! Toni! Toné!, has created an album so steeped in retro soul and R&B, you might feel guilty slapping it on your MP3 player rather than a turntable. Saadiq’s voice is silky smooth, the backup singers ooh and ahh in all the right places, and the production is expertly vintage. Even guest spots by Joss Stone and Stevie Wonder won’t impede your trip back in time. (The Jay-Z collaboration will, though. Shut it off before you get to that one.)
Wale, ‘The Mixtape About Nothing’ (www.elitaste.com)
At the beginning of the year, if someone had told you that one of the most interesting hip-hop releases of 2008 would be a free, 19-track mixtape of songs based around a “Seinfeld” concept by a little-known Washington D.C. rapper, you might’ve asked, “What is the deal with this guy?” Well, he’s Wale, and as odd as it sounds, it works. “Nothing” is a wall-to-wall showcase of Wale’s rhyme skills, which are prodigious, and if you ever watched “Seinfeld,” you’ll grin at the interspersed dialogue clips from the show and the clever references to the program sprinkled throughout. (The song titles are plays on the show’s naming convention — tracks include “The Manipulation” and “The Hype.” Elaine Benes even makes a cameo.) How a 24-year-old dude comes up with an idea like this and then executes it so perfectly, who knows? Thank goodness for reruns, I guess.
Erykah Badu, ‘New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)’ (Universal Motown)
Funky, soulful, political and, perhaps most of all, weird, “New Amerykah” is further proof that Badu, despite her quirks, is the reigning queen of urban music.
Jamie Lidell, ‘Jim’ (Warp)
Lidell sets aside the electronic touches of his previous work and, on “Jim,” focuses on making classic, soulful pop music that sounds decades old and belies the generally downcast lyrics.
Santogold, ‘Santogold’ (Downtown)
Santi White makes music for the 22nd century. Hip-hop, pop, dub, new wave; there are no boundaries here. Be sure to track down the Diplo mixtape version, “Top Ranking.”
Fleet Foxes, ‘Fleet Foxes’ (Subpop)
If the stringy hair, unkempt beards, tattered flannel shirts and suddenly new-folk-friendly Subpop imprint didn’t give away Fleet Foxes’ modus operandi, certainly the first 20 seconds of their self-titled debut does: five-part harmony, rustic and gnarled, like something straight off a porch in dear old Appalachia. The Seattle five-piece has drawn comparisons to rock legends like Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and “Fleet Foxes” is indeed a classic-sounding album. But more importantly, head Fox Robin Pecknold writes timeless songs. The roller-coaster hook in “White Winter Hymnal” is instantly memorable. The ominous bridge (“You run with the devil”) in “Your Protector” would fit snugly into your dad’s LP collection. And you won’t be able to resist craning your neck to sing along to the cascading chorus in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” But it’s “Ragged Wood” that perhaps best summarizes the Fleet Foxes experience: “Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long,” Pecknold sings. “The spring is upon us, follow my only song.” In an age when the Internet thrusts too many bands into the spotlight too quickly, the Foxes are one worth following.
Will Quinlan & The Diviners, ‘Navasota’ (Ironweed)
For a glimmering year or two in the late 1990s, alternative country was sure to be the next big thing. Then bands broke up, or they started making pop music, or they’re still out there touring in vans and sleeping on floors, despite the fact that that y’allternative bubble burst years ago. Will Quinlan, a longtime Tampa troubadour, makes music that recalls alt-country’s heyday. Named after a blue-collar east Texas town, “Navasota” is a charming collection of sparkling acoustic guitars and dusky melodies that reward repeated listens. But it’s Quinlan’s voice that will really take you back. Gritty and somber in all the right ways, Quinlan’s vocals are reminiscent of Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz; they’ll wrap around you like a warm flannel shirt. Unlike most of the albums on this list, “Navasota” doesn’t have far-and-wide distribution, so you’ll need to visit Quinlan’s label site, www
.ironweedmusic.com, to sample some tunes and buy the album. Do it. It’s well worth the effort.
George Strait, ‘Troubadour’ (MCA Nashville)
Other country singers come and go, but ol’ George continues to set the bar. “I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song,” he sings on the title track. “I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone.”
Hayes Carll, ‘Trouble In Mind’ (Lost Highway)
Littered with song titles such as “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “She Left Me For Jesus,” you know what this album is: true, old-school country. But not like you’ll hear on the radio; Carll’s style recalls that of all the great Texas songwriters who came before him.
Kathleen Edwards, ‘Asking For Flowers’ (Zoe)
Edwards is a Canadian and a spitfire, and a helluva songwriter, too. “Asking For Flowers,” her third record, puts her solidly among the best Americana artists working today.
Sigur Ros, ‘Meo Suo I Eyrum Vio Spilum Endalaust’ (XL)
If the early work of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros approximated the sound of glaciers slowly melting (as good a description as any for music so beautiful), this record is the resonance of happy humans playing in the puddles left behind. Where Sigur Ros’ first couple albums were challenging in their ambience and intensity, their fifth studio effort is, at least in parts, warm, lush and inviting — as close to pop as these four guys may ever get. Translated from Icelandic, the album’s name means “With Buzzing In Our Ears We Play Endlessly.” This band, considered inscrutable by some, could not have picked a more plainly perfect title.
Tobacco, ‘F---ed Up Friends’ (Anticon)
Black Moth Super Rainbow member follows up that band’s excellent 2007 album with more of the same: trippy, fuzzed-out analog grooves. Totally awesome.
Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’ (XL)
What else can be said about these fresh-faced fellows? This: Ignore the hype, focus on the songs, and you’ll find one of the catchiest releases of the year.
Benga, ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’ (Tempa)
The rising star of dubstep drops a bomb on the genre with “Diary,” a pulsing beast of an album that feels like the sound of the London club scene coursing through your veins.
Various Artists, ‘DECA: A Hush 10th Anniversary Compilation’ (Hush)
You know the big names on Portland’s music scene. But bubbling underneath is an undercurrent of fine, quirky folk music made by young hipsters, anthologized here by one of the Northwest’s great record labels. (Download it for whatever price you want at www.hushrecords.com.)