Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Staff Writer Greg Schwartz’s picks

2008 has been a fantastic year for rock & roll to this reporter’s view. Last year, I felt like I was struggling to come up with enough albums just to fill a top 10. It’s been a far different story this year as sifting the top 10 from the many worthy honorable mentions has been a tough process that has required rigorous listening and re-appraisal. When new albums by longtime personal faves like the Black Crowes and King’s X can’t quite crack my top 10, I can only pay homage to the music gods for such a plentiful bounty.

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. Jefferson Starship: Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty
One of the greatest rock heroes of the ‘60s comes back with superb new relevancy as Paul Kantner hits the jackpot again with Cathy Richardson, the band’s dynamic new vocalist. The soaring harmonies between Richardson, Kantner and David Freiberg are simply majestic, adding a revelatory new flavor to songs that are mostly covers of ‘60s tunes that inspired the Airplane back in the day. But the new “On the Threshold of Fire” might be the song of the year – no other gave me chills like it did.

2. Susan Tedeschi: Back to the River
The blues diva delivers her best album yet, packed with soulful rockers, guest stars and oh so compelling vocals that assure the blues are in good hands with the current generation. “People” is one of the top tracks of the year and should have been Obama’s victory song in Grant Park. It’s among several tracks that offer a taste of the musical magic that occurs when Tedeschi and hubby Derek Trucks (slide guitar) join forces. Look for a Soul Stew Revival album featuring that combo to top this list in 2009 or 2010.

3. Michael Franti & Spearhead: All Rebel Rockers
Franti and his rock/reggae/hip-hop/funk/soul crew help keep the Bay Area at the cutting edge of the music revolution with their best album since 2001’s album of the year, Stay Human. There’s no one else mixing it all up like Franti, and no one else lyricizes the zeitgeist of the times like he does. Guest vocalist Cherine Anderson sounds like a star in waiting.

4. Guns n’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
It’s overproduced, should probably be labeled an Axl Rose solo joint, and should have been released at least six years ago. But all that aside, Rose has finally delivered the unique type of kick ass rock n’ roll that only he can (although the lyrics aren’t nearly as accessible as they used to be.) He’ll probably never live down the backlash over the album’s tardiness, but tunes like “Better,” “There was a Time,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “I.R.S.” are epic rockers that conjure that classic Gn’R sound. Now if only Axl would pick up the phone, apologize to Slash & Duff for being so difficult, and get the band back together. They’d sell out every arena in America.

5. Blue Turtle Seduction: 13 Floors
I’d never heard of these Lake Tahoe jam rockers until they saved last New Year’s Eve in San Francisco with their stellar “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the 12 Galaxies” show to usher in 2008 in festive style. Then they issued this superb album packed with tight playing and a bunch of tunes that sound like instant classics. Is it rock? Bluegrass? Funk? Punk? All of the above and more.

6. Sound Tribe Sector 9: Peaceblaster
These electronica-oriented, yet still organic jam rockers make their bones with their incendiary live shows, but this release captures that energy and delivers it in an album form that can get ya bumping in your car or grooving around the living room. The production value is dazzling, as the electronic layering is expertly mixed with top-shelf percussion and superbly tasteful guitar on songs that still inspire deep thoughts even though they’re instrumental. The band also put up a great informational companion site, www.peaceblaster.com

7. Alanis Morissette: Flavors of Entanglement
Alanis joined up with British electronica producer Guy Sigsworth to create a dynamic album that’s her most compelling work since her 1995 breakthrough. Tunes like “Citizen of the Planet,” “Straightjacket” and “Giggling Again for No Reason” ripple with unique sonic energy, while the rock goddess delivers an array of dazzling vocals demonstrating she’s still one of the best in the biz.

8. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cardinology
This album could have ranked higher but the songs are too short (it clocks in at a mere 40 minutes) and it could really use a couple more rockers. Still, Adams’ uniquely cathartic vocals are superb, the pedal steel guitar from Jon Graboff is majestic and it’s another solid collection of tunes. But it’s starting to look like Adams is falling victim to jam band recording disease – plays amazing live shows, can’t quite capture the same fire in the studio. Still waiting for another album to approach 2005’s best of the year Cold Roses.

9. The Watson Twins: Fire Songs
These Los Angeles-by-way-of Louisville gals break through in a major way with this compelling platter of alt-country magic. The identical twins’ otherworldly mix of country, soul, gospel and rock is mesmerizing – their voices are akin to the sirens they sing of on the ethereal last track, “Waves.” The girls can sort of rock ya too, on tunes like “Bar Woman Blues” and “How Am I to Be.” This is the first album since I can’t remember when that I was inspired to rush out and buy after witnessing a performance by a band I wasn’t so familiar with, following their revelatory Saturday night set opening for Railroad Earth at the Fillmore in September.

10. Anti-Flag: The Bright Lights of America
These political Pittsburgh punks polished up their sound a bit here to deliver an album of arena-ready rock that sounds big but still rails with punk angst and energy. The lyrics are a spot-on indictment of Uncle Sam’s paradigm of Titanic turmoil, and what could be more punk than that? Rolling Stone should be utterly ashamed to have given Bright Lights only two stars. Green Day’s American Idiot is the only punk album of the decade that tops it.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order)

King’s X: XV
Ty Tabor: Balance
The Black Crowes: Warpaint
Donna the Buffalo: Silverlined
Indigenous: Broken Lands
Widespread Panic: Free Somehow
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue
Tea Leaf Green: Raise the Tent
Joan Osborne: Little Wild One
Railroad Earth: Amen Corner
Mike Gordon: The Green Sparrow
Lotus: Hammerstrike
Los Lonely Boys: Forgiven
Aimee Mann: @#%&*! Smilers
The Black Keys: Attack and Release
Taj Mahal: Maestro
Buddy Guy: Skin Deep

Strong albums by unsigned regional bands

Cleveland – Mifune: Time Is Watching Us
Husband and wife team Jacob (guitar) and Chris (vocals) Fader dial up a dazzling sound on their second album that blends the rhythms and horns of an afro-beat instrumentation with a groovy psychededelic jam vibe. The politically edgy lyrics continue a band tradition of looking for trouble with authority, and modern rock can always use more of that.

Dallas – The Bright: In Lucid Dreams
Formerly known as Superstring, the Bright’s mix of alt-rock edge with power pop grandeur and charismatic vocalist Julie Lange is a winning formula. The production value here is superb. They’ve licensed songs to MTV, but the major labels still haven’t called for some reason. The band’s cover of “Kashmir” is epic.

Oakland – The Passive Aggressives: Conflict Resolution
Take an alt-rock power trio with a heavy Les Claypool influence, add in a vocalist who’s like a cross between Alanis and Amy Lee, and you’ve got a powerhouse sound. Former Israeli Defense Forces member Keren Gaiser is a breakout star on the verge now that she’s shed her Celine Dion-style past and found her inner rock goddess.

Breakthrough artist of 2008

Cathy Richardson of Jefferson Starship – She not only sounds amazing on the album, she delivers stunning power and mesmerizing rock ‘n’ roll mojo onstage, from Airplane classics to the new mashup “Imagine Redemption.” She’s got the skills to land next to Grace Slick in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some day.

Live performance awards

Multiple-night performance of the year

Phil Lesh & Friends @ the Warfield Theater, San Francisco CA
May 13-14, 16-18
This monumental run of five shows in six nights to close down the Bill Graham Presents era at the venerable Warfield was simply stunning, in so many ways. Start off with the fact that the 68-year-old bassist is not only still truckin’, but is at the height of his powers. The first three shows offered the Grateful Dead’s first six albums played in their entirety, but of course way more jammed out, which was tremendous. The sets featuring the GD’s eponymous debut album on night one and American Beauty on night three were among the best sets that Lesh has played since Jerry left us.

Night four featured two live albums in their entirety and then the finale was a three-set, six-and-a-half hour marathon akin to New Year’s Eve in May, complete with “Sugar Magnolia” balloon drop to kick off the last set. Lesh topped that off by offering up a free soundboard of the electrifying 5/13 show, a magnanimous gesture he is generally known to grant at least once per tour. How many other artists can say the same?

Unprecedented collaboratory jam of the year

New Monsoon + EOTO @ The Fillmore – San Francisco, CA – February 9
EOTO, the new electronica project from String Cheese Incident percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann, warmed up the night – with guest help from SCI mandolinist Michael Kang – for a set that blew the roof off. New Monsoon’s second set opener then built one by one until all members of both bands were onstage for an epic jam that summoned all of the Fillmore’s legendary psychedelic power.

  

Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Staff Writer Michael Fortes’ picks

This year has seen some extraordinary new music come our way. I’ve heard the opposite opinion from elsewhere, but for me, being on the West Coast has a lot to do with my enthusiasm. In fact, seven of the albums in my top ten are by West Coast artists, some more well-known than others. Not only that, three of the albums in my top ten aren’t albums at all. The “EP” is an anachronistic term that originally referred to a 7” vinyl record with more music crammed on each side (usually at the expense of volume and general sound quality) than what a normal single would hold. It’s an abbreviation for “Extended Play.” And yet, today’s EP is really just a half-length CD. They tend to be overlooked, either because they’re too short to warrant much attention or they contain songs not deemed strong enough for a full album, or both. But, like Bob Dylan said, “things have changed.” Our lives are busier, our attention spans are shorter, and our disposable income is shrinking by the hour. What better time for the EP to make a mini-resurgence than now?

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. The Parson Red Heads: Owl & Timber (EP)
There’s a timelessness to the sound and the vibe of the Parson Red Heads that’s beyond explanation. You can single out the familial harmonies, the guitar interplay that recalls the Byrds and the Dead, the irresistibly solid pop songs, or their flowery evocation of a bygone era. But when it comes down to it, this band’s music simply feels good. No other band has released music this irresistible and uplifting in years, and only a select lucky few up and down the West Coast have had the luxury of being able to see and hear them live. With a little luck, this may change, and we’ll be able to look back at Owl & Timber as one of the elements that made it happen.

2. Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun
Following up the 37-years-late Smile with another similarly built song cycle seemed like little more than a fantasy in 2004. But here we are in 2008, and Brian Wilson pulled it off. Mike Love would be proud to hear that there’s only one “downer” on the album (the beautiful, Pet Sounds-worthy “Midnight’s Another Day”), while all the rest are upbeat, aural murals depicting the sunny side of Southern California. It’s Brian doing what he does best, and outside of Smile, it’s easily his best, most enjoyable solo work.

3. Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Technically, Tell Tale Signs is an archival release, but the recent vintage of the material (1989 through 2006), the abundance of never-before-heard songs, and the fact that most of it was recorded during the same period in which Guns n’ Roses’ 14-years-late Chinese Democracy gestated, qualifies it as new. And even if it didn’t qualify, it would still be listed here, since it does as good a job (if not better) as any of his last three records of proving that, even in his old age, Dylan has lost none of his power to inspire, confound, delight and move his audience.

4. The Gutter Twins: Saturnalia
Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli have collaborated in the past on a few tracks from Greg’s Twilight Singers albums, and while those duets were pretty good, they were never major stand-outs. Not until the two covered Massive Attack’s “Live with Me” on last year’s A Stitch in Time EP, anyway. As good as that cover was, this full album of originals by Greg and Mark is even better. Dulli stretches himself here, eschewing his usual rockin’ R&B swagger and falling under Lanegan’s dark, spiritual influence.

5. Chris Robley & The Fear of Heights: Movie Theatre Haiku
That straight-laced dude from Portland with the Harry Nilsson fixation strikes again, this time crediting his road band and turning in an even more confident record than last year’s The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love. If the 1966 Beatles were a young band today, they’d likely be playing songs like Robley’s “User-Friendly Guide to Change.”

6. Joseph Arthur: Vagabond Skies (EP)
Of the four EPs and full-length album Joseph Arthur released this year, Vagabond Skies rises to the top not only for bearing some of his most captivating and ethereal songs, but also for containing the year’s most memorable guitar solo, in the EP’s centerpiece “She Paints Me Gold.” Plus, the cover art is damn cool.

7. The Happy Hollows: Imaginary (EP)
They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re tight as a conservative’s behind, and they’re the most exciting live indie rock band in L.A. right now. Imaginary is just a short burst of five songs, but what a burst it is – from the simple exclamatory chant of “Colors” to the almost prog-like tour-de-force of “Lieutenant” with singer/guitarist Sarah Negahdari’s Eddie Van Halen-esque guitar tapping, Imaginary tantalizes and teases, just like you want it to.

8. Guns n’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
Yes, it’s bloated and overproduced. No, it’s not the old, sleazy Guns n’ Roses of the late ‘80s. Yes, it should have been out ten years ago, and would have sounded even more contemporary in 1998 than in 2008. But Axl Rose is still the king of tortured, overwrought power ballads and menacing rock n’ roll screams, and on these counts, Chinese Democracy more than delivers – it beats you over the head with its twisted logic.

9. Metallica: Death Magnetic
Metallica sounds like Metallica again! It may be clichéd to say this is their best album since …And Justice for All, but it’s true, and it bears repeating: Death Magnetic is Metallica’s best album since Justice.

10. My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
Evil Urges goes to great lengths to prove that My Morning Jacket is no typical southern jam band. Not that they ever needed to go so far as to throw some Prince-like falsetto singing and funky R&B into the mix, but as it turns out, it sounds pretty cool.

Honorable Mentions

The Fireman: Electric Arguments
Rachel Taylor Brown: Half Hours with the Lower Creatures
Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
Portishead: Third
Neil Diamond: Home Before Dark
Juliana Hatfield: How to Walk Away
Randy Newman: Harps and Angels
Deerhoof: Offend Maggie
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Sunday at Devil Dirt

  

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