i was a skeptic at first

12Jan09
I know, I know, when I got back in the swing of updating a few months ago, I said I was going forward in a literary direction. So why have my past few updates been all about music? Because I haven’t read anything since I finished Twilight in December and I’m doing a whole lot more listening to music than reading as a result.

And I know it’s technically the middle of January, but my pretty extensive recap of 2008 yesterday failed to include any kind of record of what I listened to last year. (Sure, you could take a look at my last.fm, but what fun would that be, without commentary?)

So here they are, my top five albums of 2008, in order of release date:

Marah—Angels of Destruction (January)
I was sitting on the freezing floor of my 10 x 10 bedroom on Yuma Street NW one January evening, reading The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby when I decided that, since I pretty much agreed with his take on all the books he was reviewing, I would probably agree with his musical inclinations as well. He kept talking about this band, Marah, who were the best band he’d ever seen live, and my curiosity was piqued. At the same time, Lis had some meme or another going on her blog where she would distribute a couple songs to folks who left comments. Without me having ever mentioned to her that I was getting ready to go hunt down Marah myself, she slapped me with two of their tracks: “Pizzeria” and “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft”. I instantly hunted down the rest of their discography, and was very, very pleasantly surprised that they had just released Angels of Destruction at the beginning of January.

Marah was the soundtrack to my DC experience. This album, specifically, really helped me adjust to all the changes I was going through at the time. It kept me happy, it made me think, and it put quite a bit of pizzazz in my step. The first time I listened to it all the way through, I thought I was going to bounce out of my Metro seat, I was so joyous. Dave Bielanko’s blue collar voice made his songs sound like street corner poetry—the perfect blend of lightheartedness and contemplation, and just rough-around-the-edges enough that drinking a bottle of red wine while listening to it on repeat didn’t seem like too much of an indulgence.

Standout track: “Angels on a Passing Train”
Standout line: “Your laughter is my Jesus / cut down from the cross, shaken but alive / Conversation lags with the day’s first fags / it drags and drags and drags” – “Angels on a Passing Train”

Death Cab for Cutie—Narrow Stairs (May)
It rains a lot in the spring in Washington, DC. When I wasn’t cooped up at the AU library, I was cooped up at Starbucks on Wisconsin, reading and trying (unsuccessfully) to flirt with the barista. When May rolled around and I was finally able to get a copy of Narrow Stairs, I completely lost track of time and ended up sitting in the same chair at Starbucks, coffee gone cold, for three hours, while I waited out the rain and listened to this album on repeat. I really loved Plans, so I had high hopes for Narrow Stairs. Ben Gibbard didn’t disappoint.

Right away, the album grabbed me with “Bixby Canyon Bridge”. It’s such a fierce song that the four-and-a-half minute intro to “I Will Possess Your Heart” gave me just enough time to calm down again. (The shortened version of “I Will Possess Your Heart” that was circulating on the radio didn’t do the full-length, nine minute song justice.) Every song seems to blend into the next, like ink running in the rain. Death Cab can always make a sad song sound happy, and I’m inclined to think that might be one of the main reasons I love them.

Standout track: “Grapevine Fires”
Standout line: “I guess you decided that that old queen was more space than you would need / now it’s the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says it’s free / and that I hope you have more luck with this than me” – “Your New Twin Sized Bed”

My Morning Jacket—Evil Urges (June)
I was never the biggest My Morning Jacket fan. I’d always kind of liked them, but not enough to convince me to really pay attention. When I moved to Nashville and lived with Melinda, she would listen to them, and eventually, I noticed how much fun they were. When I started hearing “I’m Amazed” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1” on the radio, I decided the to check out the rest of the album.

I spent the first two or three times I listened to it in a state of confused absorption. I liked it right away, but I couldn’t figure out why. Jim James has an incredibly unique voice, but it seemed incongruent set against the drum-heavy, almost synthesized music. But I couldn’t deny how absolutely happy they made me. If I was exceptionally tired in the morning, I would play the album while I was in the shower and instantly feel revived. The title track is so energetic that it’s impossible for that momentum not to carry over into the rest of the album. If I wanted to dance around my apartment when no one was looking, I’d put on “Highly Suspicious” and giggle. Without even being aware of it, I would tap my toes or nod my head whenever I listened to the album at work. The beauty of this album is in the fact that even though I nearly played it out when I first got it, I can still put it on when I need a boost and feel perfectly carefree.

Standout track: “Smokin’ from Shootin’”
Standout line: “It’s not like you’re not trying / with a pencil in your hair / to defy the beauty / the good Lord put in there” – “Librarian”

The Hold Steady—Stay Positive (July)
The Hold Steady are categorically the best band I was introduced to in 2008. They are rock ‘n’ roll at its finest. They are everything I love about poetry, music, and alcohol compiled in a tight little package. Craig Finn’s writing is absolutely beautiful—managing to balance true poetry with storytelling, and still make the music accessible to people who may not pay the closest attention to the words. I owe Lis my life for these guys, too.

This album is wonderful, start to finish. It’s got such cool undercurrents, such thoughtful stories, and such admirable tomes that it’s hard to find anything that isn’t worth loving on this album. It starts out on a high note (“Constructive Summer”) and gradually slips in to something more melancholy (“Lord I’m Discouraged”) before finally coming full-circle with “Slapped Actress” and the three-track bonus track that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. The Hold Steady are kind of like The Decemberists, but much, much more gritty and with a certain amount of fucked-up-Catholic charm. Even when he writes about religion, Craig Finn makes Catholicism seem like the sexiest thing in the world—and that’s said with only a touch of irony!

Standout track: “Lord I’m Discouraged”
Standout line: “You dress like contestants / at some desperate pageant / You fall asleep in your make-up / you wake up with a blemish” – “Two Handed Handshake”

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals—Cardinology (October)
I’ve always been a fan of Ryan Adams. Whiskeytown always gets me, and Rock ‘N’ Roll is one of the better albums in my collection. But something about Adams’s gravelly voice always prevents me from listening to his music for too extended a period of time. I get irritated, even though the lyrical payout is usually worth it, and turn him off. Which is exactly why I was surprised by just how much I really enjoyed Cardinology from the get-go. Lightning 100 here in Nashville spotlighted the album for a week, and each day on my way to work, I would hear and fall in love with a different track from it.

It might not be classic Ryan Adams, but the album definitely has its moments. “Go Easy” is tender and sweet, “Magick” is snappy and makes me want to dance in my underwear. The album weaves itself well into the scenery of a long drive, but it also has the ability to warm me up on cold nights. It’s a little bit New York, but a little bit Nashville, too. There’s a little too much hyperbole and not enough poetry, but there’s still something about Cardinology that makes it worth the listen. The only thing that really detracts from the rhythm and flow of the whole thing is its final track, “Stop”, which is just so grating and moody that it almost ruins the whole experience.

Standout track: “Cobwebs”
Standout line: “I wish I could tell you / just how I felt / I don’t pray, I shower / say good-night to myself / And when I close my eyes / I feel like a page / with a crossed out name” – “Crossed Out Name”

If I were to list these albums in order of preference, it might go something like this:
5. My Morning Jacket—Evil Urges
4. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals—Cardinology
3. Death Cab for Cutie—Narrow Stairs
2. Marah—Angels of Destruction
1. The Hold Steady—Stay Positive.

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