1. Crystal Castles — Crystal Castles
There’s something arresting about Crystal Castles, and it’s not just because hearing the harsh vocals on “Alice Practice” for the first time is as jarring as getting mugged in a very dark alley at four in the morning. This album is angry, wounded, and sharp like youth, and it oozes cool. Alice Glass sings, or rather, shrieks, like a long-suffering woman trying to pick up the pieces of an abusive relationship, while Ethan Kath cleans up the damage with smooth, catchy rhythmic lines interspersed with messy synthesizer and computerized glitches. 2008 was a great year for electronic music, with new material out from artists such as the Whip, Justice, and HEALTH, but Crystal Castles’ debut stands out due to its musical complexity and subtlety.
2. Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes
This is a deeply American collection of songs that plays like a city dweller’s bucolic dream, painting a picture of idyllic country life. Fleet Foxes’ lyrics are full of mountains and rustling creatures of field and wood, with all the troubling undertones of a good fairytale: “And Michael you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime,” goes a chant on “White Winter Hymnal,” a top blogger pick this past Christmas season. The band doesn’t stray far from its out-on-the-front-porch sound, despite influences from regions as varied as the Deep South and the west coast. Layers of instrumentation and good old-fashioned melody combine to make an album that’s softly wondrous, though it is full of folk songs that belong to modern youth and a big-city music scene, and not to any country chapel.
3. Hercules and Love Affair — Hercules and Love Affair
Disco can be good, if it’s as ambitious and confident as this brassy, danceable set of faintly retro tunes from New York DJ Andy Butler. The expansive brass lines are charming, the songs well-paced, and overall, sometimes it’s a pleasure to listen to an album that simply delivers on what it sets out to do.
4. Los Campesinos! — Hold on now, youngster...
If you chatted with Los Campesinos! online, they would probably type in all-caps and overuse Japanese emoticons and constantly change their profile picture. Exhausting in long installments, but charming in the right quantity, their songs are full of pop-culture references for the self-conscious geek set, accompanied by bright guitars and glockenspiel. The album’s fine production vindicates the band’s self-cultivated reputation for precociousness. Not content with a debut, Los Campesinos! released two albums in 2008—so don’t miss We are beautiful, we are doomed, particularly that title track.
5. Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
In some cosmetic ways, this LP is more approachable than sigur rós’ previous stuff—not only does every song have a title, there’s even a bit of English thrown in with all that Icelandic. But it’s also more joyful. Though the hand-clapping energy of “Gobbledigook” soon makes way for the grandioise “Ara batur” and “Illgresi,” the album as a whole maintains an idyllic tone due to its stately chords and the sweeping vocals of a full choir. This is music to sleep to, or music to pray to, and it’s a compliment to the band that it can be both.