The Halfway Mark: The Best Albums of 2008 So Far

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mojo-photo-2008.jpgHappy bottom of the year, everybody. It’s hard to believe, but 2008 is already half done, with only six months remaining for us to get our year-end best-of lists together! How will we manage? Sure, we’re waiting for new discs from Beck, Black Kids, The Faint, maybe U2, and, uh, New Kids on the Block, but in the meantime, here’s an admittedly subjective list of the finest full-length releases of the year so far (complete with videos!), as well as a “next 10” list of CDs nipping at their heels. Will Party Ben like experimental hip-hop and droney noise-rock this year? Click the “continues” button and find out!

mojo-photo-t10-flying.jpg10. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles (Warp)
While it’s clear the Californian producer is an heir to J Dilla’s woozy, scratchy style, Flying Lotus faces forward on this 17-track album, combining soulful, jazzy beats with throbbing electronic buzzes and strange, swirling effects. He’s clearly listened to the spacey dubstep of Burial as well, but Los Angeles is a place all his own: an ominous, static-y broadcast from a city on the brink. Check out “RobertaFlack,” where the R&B vocal is suffused under waves of sound:

mojo-photo-t09-raveonettes.jpg9. The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust (Vice)
Oh, Raveonettes. So cute! Hanging out in Denmark, creating their own little world where fuzzed-out ’60s surf-rock and the Velvet Underground never went out of style. While Lust stays safely within that zone, it pulls back from the brink of cliché, doing more with less: less hokey retro cover art, less production, and perhaps, even more bleak than ever. Witness single “Dead Sound,” a wry reference both to their iconoclastic style and the feeling you get “when nightfall comes and you’re still alone.” Ulp.

mojo-photo-t08-lilwayne.jpg8. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III (Cash Money)
Okay, I wasn’t so hot on this album when it came out, but the more it spins in my iTunes, the more I catch myself humming along. So what if it’s a sell-out: Wayne is one of the most fascinating, colorful figures in popular music, as curious as Kanye but with a much greater tolerance for emotional depth. He matches wits with Jay-Z on “Mr. Carter,” growling, “I got summer hating on me cause I’m hotter than the sun,” and with a million CDs sold and counting, it’s hard to argue.

mojo-photo-t07-hercules.jpg7. Hercules & Love Affair – S/T (DFA)
Everyone’s always talking about the New York “disco resurgence,” but it seems to me like disco never left; it’s like the strutting, thumping soundtrack of the city. Essentially a solo project with multiple guest vocalists, the album’s most brilliant (and natural) idea was bringing in Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, whose haunting vibrato fits perfectly over the retro boogie. Check out “Blind,” where the obtuse lyrics somehow complement the propulsive funk:

mojo-photo-t06-vampire.jpg6. Vampire Weekend – S/T (XL)
Boy did I want to hate these guys, and who could blame me: they’re smirky, lily-white NYC preps bastardizing Afropop with the hype meter set at 11. But it turns out they’re making quirky, infectious tunes with a direct line back to fellow Afropop-inspired New Yorkers Talking Heads, and in single “A-Punk,” they have one of the unlikeliest, and giddiest, hits of the year.

mojo-photo-t05-noage.jpg5. No Age – Nouns (Sub Pop)
With so many people heading to LA to “make it big,” it’s always hard to define an “LA sound,” but the noisy, psychedelic, energetic punk of No Age is at least a nominee. A D.I.Y. duo who doesn’t shy away from electronics, they make fuzzy rock that’s not afraid of a little sunlight: single “Eraser” has bright, open chords under the unsettling layer of feedback.

mojo-photo-t04-beach.jpg4. Beach House – Devotion (Carpark)
This Baltimore duo have the patience of Low but the eclecticism of Arcade Fire, filling out these delicate ballads with surprising instrumentation: harpsichords, organs, pedal guitars. Over it all, singer Victoria Legrand’s classically-trained voice rings out in clear, pure tones, like on single “Gila,” where she sings, “Sure, you’ve got a handle on the past/It’s why you keep your little lovers in your lap.”

mojo-photo-t03-m83.jpg3. M83 – Saturdays = Youth (EMI)
While ’80s nostalgia is nothing new, it usually takes the form of dancing happily to “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Yet it took a lone Frenchman to spelunk the ’80s caverns and find a neglected grotto: dramatic, soundtrack-y, Miami Vice-ballady, faker-than-fake gauzy synth pop. The cover, a Breakfast Club-referencing photo of fashion-damaged teens, makes the reference clear, and despite the artifice, the album is unexpectedly emotional, like a letter of forgiveness to our hopelessly screwed-up youthful selves. Check out “Graveyard Girl,” with its references to New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen:

mojo-photo-t02-santogold.jpg2. Santogold – S/T (Downtown)
Sure, she’s the “new M.I.A.,” a genre-bending hipster-beloved singer who gets stuck in the wrong bins at the record store. But if part of M.I.A.’s legacy is to inspire young record company assistants to bravely strike out on their own musical paths, then more power to her, and the artist formerly known as Santi White has a path all her own. The album jumps between genres, but is unified by reggae’s loping backbeat, whether it’s on the warbling, synthetic “Creator” or on the guitar-led “L.E.S. Artists,” a passionate, mournful cry that sounds like nothing so much as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

mojo-photo-t01-portishead.jpg1. Portishead – Third (Go!)
A result of a nearly unheard-of pact between artist and listener, to put our ten years apart behind us and do the hard work necessary to get reacquainted. The band did their part, throwing out all their old instruments to force themselves to reinvent, and we did ours, letting our eardrums adjust to the shocking blast of “Machine Gun.” Against all odds, we did it, we and Portishead, we got back together, and like the best, most surprising make-up sex, the music is awe-inspiring: at times rough, at times delicate, united by lead singer Beth Gibbons’ ice-cold voice. “In my thoughts I have bled, for the riddles I’ve been fed,” she sings on “The Rip,” which evolves from a simple ukulele ballad into a majestic electronic arpeggio.

Next 10: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig Lazarus Dig, The Duke Spirit – Neptune, Bun B – II Trill, Fleet Foxes – S/T, Crystal Castles – S/T, Black Mountain – In the Future, Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours, Atlas Sound – Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, Belye Flagy Zazhigaite Medlenno – Even if the Proletariat Takes the Power Into Its Own Hands, the Spring Will Be Left For Us and the Aims of War Will Remain the Same, MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

Okay, Riff commenters, have at it; but as always, I plead with you to criticize without name-calling.


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