Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in Music: My Picks

I don’t listen to a varied enough swath of music to do any kind of definitive Best of ’08 list. I'm sure there's a lot of great stuff that I don't listen to. All I can do is offer up a few of the albums that made me ridiculously happy this year, and a few that didn’t.

My Favorite Albums of 2008

The Glass Passenger – Jack’s Mannequin
It’s hard to remember a time when Andrew McMahon’s music wasn’t in my life and my ears. Actually, it’s not that hard – it was 2002 and the musical landscape was so bleak that I had actually completely turned away from popular music to the glittering embrace of showtunes for seven or eight years straight. But then a friend sent me an mp3 of Something Corporate’s “Konstantine” and I was effectively lured out of my Broadway cave. (This dovetailed nicely with the bleakening of the Broadway landscape, when movie musicals and jukebox musicals were starting to take over.) When Andrew moved over to his side project, Jack’s Mannequin, I was worried that the sound I had enjoyed on the first three SoCo albums would be destroyed. That became the least of my worries when Andrew was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005. It hit home because here was someone my age, someone who was so young and seemed so healthy, diagnosed with the same disease that had ultimately killed my grandmother (she technically survived breast cancer, but the chemo had caused leukemia, and her body was too weak to fight off a second horrible disease). Instead of doing the press tour for the first Jack’s Mannequin album, Everything in Transit, he was in and out of the hospital getting treated. When EIT finally dropped in August, I was instantly in love, but it was also difficult listening to the frothy, bouncy, Southern California sun-infused songs knowing how much the songwriter’s life had changed since writing and recording them. But Andrew bounced back, and I was lucky enough to be at his first post-treatment concert in New York City at Irving Plaza in April 2006. It was an emotional experience on both sides of the stage, as Andrew had received the leukemia diagnosis while in New York, and he commented several times throughout the night about how difficult it had been coming back to the city that held such dark memories for him, but how being in a room filled with friends and supporters was doing much to turn his feelings around. So we come to The Glass Passenger – the first album Jack’s Mannequin has released since then, the first one that reflects his battle with leukemia. And don’t worry, it’s still the classic Jack’s/SoCo sound, but if his earlier work sounded like a Southern California day, then this is a Southern California night. A cooler kind of warm, beaches still pretty but with a foreboding edge, neon replacing sun. From the moody/sexy “What Gets You Off” to the classic SoCal pop-ditties “Suicide Blonde” and “Miss California” to the you’ll-get-through-this anthem “Swim” to the album ending one-two emotional punch of “Orphan” and “Caves” – there’s not a bad track on this album. And Jack’s Mannequin/Something Corporate does something that I personally find amazing: each album improves on the last. Every time I think “This is as good as it gets,” I get proven wonderfully wrong. And I look forward to getting proven wrong again and again, as long as Andrew keeps writing. Especially if he gives me lyrics like these, from “Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby)” – I can think of no better rallying anthem in these troubled times:
"I need something to believe in
A breath from the breathing
So write it down,
I don't think that I’ll close my eyes
‘Cause lately I’m not dreaming
So what’s the point in sleeping?
It’s just that at night I’ve got nowhere to hide.”
To the sleepless, this is my reply:
I will write you a lullaby.

You’re Awful, I Love You – Ludo
It’s hard to believe that this time last year, I’d never heard of Ludo. I feel like I’ve loved them forever, but in fact, it wasn’t until “Love Me Dead” was used in a House promo that I heard of them. But I fell hard for the band, this album, and their back catalogue to boot. “Good Will Hunting By Myself” off their debut self-titled album is the meanest, funniest breakup anthem ever. And The Broken Bride is that rare concept album that’s as tuneful as it is moving. But You’re Awful, I Love You is definitely Ludo’s best album to date, from beautiful songs like “Mutiny Below” and “Streetlights” to quirky fare like “Go-Getter Greg” and “The Horror of Our Love” to my favorites, “Topeka” and “Lake Pontchartrain.” These guys also put on a fantastic live show, and I’m happy to say I’ll be starting off 2009 right by seeing them in concert in February.

Raise the Dead - Phantom Planet
How sad is it that Phantom Planet can release the best album of their career and break up in the same year? If this is to be the last call from the band that gave us “Big Brat”, “Knowitall”, “The Local Black and Red”, “In Our Darkest Hour”, “Nobody’s Fault” and, oh yeah, that other song, then at least they’re going out at the top of their game. Raise the Dead is technically a concept album, but the songs all stand alone, and each one is catchier than the one that preceded it. "Raise the Dead" and "Do the Panic" are dead infectious, while the moodier songs like "Quarantine" and "Demon Daughters" will crawl under your skin and stay there. This is what Phantom Planet does - did - best, mixing bright cheery pop with unsettling, darker fare. Viva La Planet.

Fast Times At Barrington High - The Academy Is...
Unlike Jack’s Mannequin, I’m sad to say I actually love each new The Academy Is... album a little less than I loved their first one, Almost Here. But I really, really, really love Almost Here, so I still really love Fast Times At Barrington High. For their third album, TAI went back to high school for inspiration and came out with songs about first love and second love and cougar love and all that good stuff. Now that that’s out of their system, I can’t wait to see where they’ll head to next. This album has some solid tracks including “After the Last Midtown Show” and “About A Girl.”

Honorary Mention: Folie a Deux – Fall Out Boy
It sometimes takes me a while to get into a new album by one of my favorite bands. I’m one of those listeners who often has to hear a song quite a few times before I truly like it. (And sometimes, songs I love quickly are ones that I tire of quickly as well, so it’s usually in a band’s favor if I take a while to warm up.) And since this hasn’t been out for even a month, I haven’t fully cleaved to it yet. But the first single, “I Don’t Care”, is classic FOB rocktasticness.

I Wish I Loved This More: Pretty. Odd. – Panic! At the Disco
It’s funny, back in June I emphatically recommended this album, and to be sure, I listened to it for most of the summer. But as soon as the air cooled, so did my feelings towards this album. The same thing happened with their first album, too, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. For me, Panic! albums are like perfect summer crushes – heady, intense, and over in a month or two. No staying power but fun while it lasts.

And Then There’s...: Vampire Weekend
My friend recently downloaded some songs by Vampire Weekend. Shortly afterwards, his computer died. Mere coincidence, or early signs of AI self-awareness with the ability to commit suicide?

My 2009 Music Wishlist:
I’d love to hear some new stuff by Head Automatica, OK Go, We Are the Fury, and Franz Ferdinand. I would also like Phantom Planet to un-indefinite their hiatus.

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