Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Staff Writer Carlos Ramirez’s picks

Musically speaking, 2008 was all about nostalgia for me. Not only did my all-time favorite album get the reissue treatment, largely-forgotten genres like synth-pop and power-pop crept their way back onto my playlists. So in that spirit, I’ve compiled a year-end list with my top choices in 10 separate categories. Now if 2009 could only bring back hair-metal, I’d be A-okay.

Best Metal Album

Scar Symmetry: Holographic Universe
As out-of-control great as Scar Symmetry’s songwriting and musicianship proves to be on Holographic Universe, the jewel in their crown is without question vocalist Christian Alvestam. His death-metal vocal attack is an absolute force to be reckoned with. Its deep tonality and razorblade-kissed harshness drives the heavier sections with brute force. But what really makes Alvestam’s appearance a revelation are his cleaner vocals. It’s the kind of powerhouse voice that is usually reserved for AOR bands like Survivor, Toto, and Journey; not in a Swedish death-metal band. It definitely doesn’t sound like a great idea on paper, but when you hear the mixture of his melodic crooning and piercing guitars coming out of your speakers, your doubts swiftly fall by the wayside. Alvestam’s performance on the album is nothing less than a tour-de-force that should get praise from both the heavy metal and more mainstream hard rock/AOR communities.

Best Synth-Pop Album

The Foxglove Hunt: Stop Heartbeat
If you’re as devout a synth-pop fan as I am, you’ll know about the lack of quality groups releasing records these days. Throughout the late 1980s, it seemed like every major and indie label had at least two or three synth-pop acts on their rosters. Outside of die-hards like Depeche Mode and a handful of other groups (on the A Different Drum label), the genre has been relatively quiet. The Foxglove Hunt is comprised of Ronnie Martin (Joy Electric, The Brothers Martin) and Rob Withem (ex-Fine China) and the duo’s list of influences reads like a KROQ playlist from 1987. The dramatic Giorgio Moroder-styled keyboard melodies and Neil Tennant-worthy vocal performances make Stop Heartbeat feel like it comes from an entirely different era. “The Life Highrise” could have been on Dare while the fluid bass lines on “That’s Getting Personal” have Peter Hook written all over them. From start to finish Martin and Withem get it right. Even when they take on the Psychedelic Furs’ haunting “Love My Way,” the duo hits the mark.

Best Comeback Album

Mudcrutch: Mudcrutch
After releasing an unsuccessful single in the mid-’70s, Florida jangle-rockers Mudcrutch went their separate ways. This, of course, wouldn’t be more than a mere footnote in the annals of rock-n-roll if the band’s singer/bassist wasn’t none other than a young Tom Petty. Now we all know how things turned out for Petty and his fellow Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell, but most of us had only read about their former band’s work through the years. When it was announced that the Gainesville, FL rockers were reuniting for an album and tour, record geeks waited with bated breath. Mudcrutch didn’t disappoint. Reflecting the band’s love of southern and country-rock, the record is filled with ample amounts of lush vocal harmonies and twangy guitars. If the band would have released “Scare Easy” back when they were originally together, there might have never been the Heartbreakers.

Best British Album

Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid
Elbow’s first three albums were all top 10 list contenders in the years they were released. But The Seldom Seen Kid is “album of the year” material from top to bottom. For one second just picture Peter Gabriel fronting Radiohead and you’ll have a good idea of what this British quintet is going for. Like the Gabrial in his Genesis days, vocalist Guy Garvey’s lyrical muse is suburban England. The songwriter shines a light on the every day tedium of life in the burbs on songs like “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” and “Grounds for Divorce” proving his work here is worthy to all the hype it’s been showered with lately. In “One Day Like This,” Garvey and Elbow have the song that Chris Martin wishes he wrote for Viva La Vida.

Best Undiscovered Album

Gentleman Jesse & His Men: Gentleman Jesse & His Men
There’s something magical about the sound of a Rickenbacker busting out an open A chord. This 12-track collection of energetic power-pop is bursting with bubblegum sweet vocal hooks and the kind of guitars Chris Stamey and Tommy Keene championed back in their heydays. GJ & HM have every power-pop trick mastered, but everything is funneled through with garage-rock charm. Unlike the Raspberries, who had the majestic flair of Eric Carmen, the Georgia band’s rough and tumble performances instantly makes them attainable to the lo-fi and punk crowds. This stuff is strictly for fans of the Replacements, Big Star, and the Exploding Hearts.

Best Indie-Rock Album

The Mary Onettes: The Mary Onettes
From the look of my list this year, it seems like everything that was old is new again. Maybe it’s because I’m in my mid-30’s now or perhaps it’s a genuine disconnect with the palette a lot of newer bands are working off of, 2008 had me falling for the albums that looked backwards in terms of musical style. Sweden’s Mary Onettes must feel the same way I do lately. The glistening guitars, ringing bass runs, and melancholic choruses wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack to a John Hughes film. Philip Ekstrom’s vocals quake and quiver on earwigs like “Pleasure Songs” and the completely addicting “Lost” making him a frontman to keep an eye on. Hopefully the band can find a label with a stronger presence in the States because I have a feeling these lads would be huge if more people had a chance to hear their hooky guitar-pop, they’d be huge.

Best Punk Album

Dillinger Four: Civil War
Dillinger Four are one of the few bands that most punk fans can agree on. The more fickle traditionalists go absolutely gaga for the Minnesota act’s streamlined and high-energy approach. But even listeners who take their punk with two helpings of melody in it adore D4’s hooky choruses. The road that led to the release of Civil War was a bumpy one. The album was mired by studio delays, day-job hassles, and even an internet leak. But boy, was it worth the wait. The filthy power-chords that kick off opening track “A Jingle for the Product” gets your blood boiling and it’s all butt-kicking from there on. Erik Funk’s vocals never sounded as snotty. His singing style embodies the same rebel spirit that made punk icons like Howard Devoto (Buzzcocks) and Milo Aukerman (Descendents) so irresistible to listen to so many years back. In Lane Pederson the combo have one of the more exciting, tough-as-nails drummers going today. His relentless attack anchors fast-movers like “Like Eye Contact In An Elevator” perfectly while he holds back just enough on “Fruity Pebbles” to give the song enough breathing room for Funk’s melodies to creep in.

Best Dance Album

Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles
On Crystal Castles’ debut full-length, old Atari sound effects pierce through the mix, synthesizers are abused, and frontwoman Alice Glass shrieks over the top of everything with menacing punk-rock attitude yet they’ve somehow constructed the dance album of the year. The tracks comfortably jump from techno to house to synth-pop sometimes even doing it within the span of one song. Ethan Kath is the master audio manipulator here dismantling Glass’ vocals, bending and tweaking them so much that they almost become unrecognizable in moments. But the soundscapes are king here. The keyboard melodies on “Crimewave” and “Vanished” are instantly memorable, almost haunting at times. There’s a timeless quality to everything here. For once, the hipsters were right.

Best Single

“Black and Gold,” Sam Sparro
It sounds like a long-lost Gamble & Huff gem produced by Prince and then remixed by Afrika Bambaataa circa 1982, yet “Black and Gold” feels more vital than 98% of the singles released in 2008. Written and sung by Australian newcomer Sam Sparro, “Black and Gold” was a smash throughout Europe but it barely made a dent here in the U.S. when it was released during the spring. A bank of frothy keyboards pad the track but it’s the pulsating bass and percussion that drive the song. Sparro obviously studied the great American soul singers of the ’70s because every line is pushed through with a brilliant balance of sensuality and macho bravado. I guarantee if Justin Timberlake would have released this track it would have been a Number One single.

Best CD Reissue

Billy Joel: The Stranger 30th Anniversary Edition
The original 1977 version of The Stranger is probably my favorite album of all time. That said, I wasn’t expecting more than a remastering job and new liner notes when Legacy Recordings announced that they would be releasing a 30-year anniversary edition of the classic recording. So you could imagine my surprise when news leaked that a live 1977 concert from Carnegie Hall would also be included as a second disc PLUS a DVD of promo videos, an appearance on the “Old Grey Whistle Test” and a 30-minute documentary about the making of the record would also be included! This is the kind of treatment an album this important deserves. The Carnegie Hall performance had mythical status on the Billy Joel fan boards for years, and rightfully so. It’s the kind of career-making show that most fans only dream about attending, so having it here is really a treat. The documentary is ripe with all kinds of behind-the-scenes information and compelling interviews with Joel and producer Phil Ramone so even the most devout fans have something to salivate over. Hopefully Legacy does the same thing for the rest of his late 70’s work.