Right, time for week three of my rundown of the best music of 2008. This week it's the best albums of 2008 as I see it. 2008 is the first year in a while where I didn't have a particular album in mind for the top spot for some months before the list – although that isn't to say that there hasn't been a lot of good releases this year. In fact there have been quite a few, and this list was a lot harder to compile than I thought it might be! Obviously, not everyone will agree with my list – feel free to let me know what you think in the comments and indeed what your favourites are in the comments.
After a near-inpenetrable album (Catch Thirty-Three) and 20 minute single (I), my hopes initially for the new Meshuggah album were not all that high, fearing that they were going to go further down the prog-wank route that those releases were taking them. So I was stunned to hear obZen – instead of said prog-wank were nine tracks with an almost laser-like focus and despite having some long, long tracks it doesn't waste a second. In fact, the blueprint for the album is set out nicely by the roar of the opening track Combustion, one of the best Meshuggah tracks ever (and only four minutes long). Still, this isn't a reinvented Meshuggah, per se – to many they will remain simply too technical and difficult – which is their loss.
Key tracks: Combustion, Bleed, Pravus
I can only think that the reformation of Emperor, and the playing of the old songs again on a regular basis, inspired Ihsahn to move back to more "traditional" territory. I wasn't a fan of The Adversary at all, but this is something else entirely. While not exactly BM as we know it, some of the tracks here writhe and thrash like some of Emperor's best, but with a production level – and application of melody – that leaves no doubt that time has moved on, although I'm still not totally sold on the ballad-like track Unhealer that features Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth. Either way, one of the best and most progressive metal albums I've heard all year.
Key tracks: Misanthrope, Malediction, Alchemist
It's amazing to think that at first, I almost dismissed this album upon first listen, disappointed by the new direction and the apparent lack of anything interesting. The minimal, folk-like whimsy really didn't appeal. Still, I stuck with it, and over the (many) months since release, I've come to like it a hell of a lot. Contrary to my first opinions, this album is actually really quite great – a summery, folksy-pop album, with a slightly darker undertow in parts (criticism of religious cults in Happiness, the suicide attempts in A&E, for starters). Over time, though, the true stars of the album finally came clear – the glorious psychedelia of Little Bird and the sixties-ish Cologne Cerrone Houdini. The very definition of a "grower", this album, and it's well-worth persevering with.
Key tracks: Little Bird, Cologne Cerrone Houdini, Caravan Girl
Claiming – if you believe the liner notes of this CD – to "thank Fritz Lang and no-one else", like everything else to do with this project it appears to have to approach this with something of a sense of humour and an open mind. Better still, you'll have heard Death Audio Blow Your Brains somewhere in an industrial club this year and will already be sold. It's not hard to be – this is an album stuffed with track-after-track of catchy, danceable, fun tracks that I'm sure is going to be a favourite of many for a long while to come. Either way, the album is apparently a concept based upon the title, not that it really matters. It also includes a track that borrows from sixties track Love Buzz, although turning it here to Robot Buzz! So, let's recap – Fritz Lang, sixties pop, industrial dance music? Honestly, this just works.
Key tracks: Death Audio Blow Your Brains, Death Comes (Sale Traître), Get Your Ass To Mars
At last, another romantic doom band to cherish. Previous material was good, but not all that noteworthy, so this album really took me by surprise when it got released at the start of 2008. Song after song of epic, lovelorn doom with a brilliant use of both male and female vocals that actually complement each other rather than simply conflict, as is often the case. Not a single wasted note, this is just bloody glorious.
Key tracks: Seasons Apart, Earthbound, The Empty Stare
To Mega Therion
The Blood Rituals
not on label
The title of the act translates from Greek as The Great Beast. Which about sums this up nicely. Dark, snarling, and very, very loud. Merging the atmospheres of Black Metal with brutal industrial noise, the first six tracks are a punishing set densely packed with appropriate samples and such aggression and volume that it makes for an exhausting listen, then the second six tracks are a collection of remixes of those tracks, most of which sound nothing like the originals and indeed in some cases (W.A.S.T.E., take a bow) up the ante even more. Of all the attempts to merge these two disparate genres, no one else has even come close to the power of this.
Key tracks: Purification Ritual, We Are Immortal, We Are Immortal (W.A.S.T.E. Blood and Fire Remix)
The idea of an industrial dance album, taking cues from industrial, noise, and the techno scenes, was hardly one untouched during 2008 – seemingly everyone was trying it at some point or another. In my opinion, though, no-one managed to provide as complete an album as this in the genre during the year. Barely pausing for breath over sixteen tracks (twelve new tracks and four top-quality remixes), this is another album aimed squarely at the dancefloor, full of rampaging beats, angry samples and not a lot else. The only minus? Do we really need yet another track sampling Full Metal Jacket?
Key tracks: Arm of Justice, Burn, Hardbeat Trauma
Of the many great releases on new label Tympanik this year, this was my favourite by far. Breakcore, IDM, industrial noise, dark ambient and seemingly every other genre going was chucked in the mix somewhere, and somehow the myriad of collaborative tracks on the album didn't affect the flow or style. A very, very long album though, that is worth sticking with and listening to again and again. As a debut, this is an impressive statement that puts this artist as one to watch for the future, but in the meantime, this will do very nicely indeed.
Key tracks: Blackout, Mercy Of A Bullet, P4TR10T
It would be a shame if record label issues (lack of promotion, some questionable treatment of the artist by the label) affect this album – but then again, the angry reaction by fans to said treatment may actually have done Amanda Palmer the world of good. Criminally ignored when released, this is a marvellous album by the lead singer of The Dresden Dolls – that rather than the instrumental minimalism of that band (vocals, piano, drums) has just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink thrown at it, has a number of collaborators, and despite all this still shines through as a brilliant collection of songs. I'll be here all day picking highlights, but worth noting here are the marvellous opener Astronaut: A Short History Of Nearly Nothing, and the two-hits-that-somehow-never-where in Guitar Hero and Leeds United. The vast majority of the tracks on the album have videos, too, unusually, so you can pretty much hear the whole album on Youtube if you so wish (and if you haven't, you really should).
Key tracks: Astronaut: A Short History Of Nearly Nothing, Guitar Hero, Leeds United
Another grower, this one, but only that it simply got even better from the initial reaction of "christ, this is really good". A brilliantly varied and solid album, building on the strengths of his previous album and widening out the scope so that it didn't sound like a rehash. In particular, the experimentation with vocals (stripping out all distortion for the stupendous highlight that is The Siren), the changing of pacing (even the ballads work), and the overall concept – not just violence, but seemingly all about channelling violent energy to make a positive difference. A truly staggering album that while it was delayed, was worth all the wait and more. Daniel, just don't make us wait so long next time, eh?
Key tracks: The Siren, Living The Wasted Life, The Great Depression
Other albums that were under consideration, but didn't make the final ten:
Autoclav 1.1 | Love No Longer Lives Here
Ad·ver·sary | Bone Music
ESA | How Pure Would Your Utopia Be?
KLOQ | Move Forward
Modulate | Detonation
Nine Inch Nails | Ghosts I-IV
Portishead | Third
Rabbit Junk | This Life Is Where You Get Fucked
Torrent Vaccine | Tentative Response