The Best Music of 2008 

Kathleen Richards' Top 10.

Land of Talk, Some Are Lakes

While everyone's strumming banjos and pretending they live in the woods, Montreal trio Land of Talk continues to offer some of the most refreshing, straight-ahead, guitar-driven indie rock. Though not as raucous or immediately grabbing as its Applause Cheer Boo Hiss EP that put it on the map last year, the band nevertheless crafts a moodier, more musically intriguing atmosphere harnessed by singer-guitarist Elizabeth Powell's emotionally honest — though never cloying — vocals. It may not move you on first listen, but will enrapt you suddenly and without warning. Listen with an open heart, and Powell will mend whatever's broken. (Saddle Creek)

Torche, Meanderthal

Another disc to file under the thinking-man's metal genre, courtesy of the consistently reliable Hydra Head label. The Miami/Atlanta band, known for its penchant for ridiculously detuned blasts of fuzzy sludge (delivered via the "bomb string"), gets faster, more trebly, and '90s-alt-rock-oriented on its second album than on its self-titled debut. Heaviness still permeates throughout this ambitious, genre-stretching disc, but it's the attention to melody that reels in the listener (given that said listener isn't averse to Steve Brooks' higher-range singing). Highlights include the warm, fluid distortion of "Across the Shields" and the long winding buildup of "Fat Waves," which climaxes into a colossal breakdown. Truly transcendent. (Hydra Head)

Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes

The pastoral, church-like, four-part harmonies created by this Washington-state group open up the pores like a humidifier — and it feels oh so good. Even if you're skeptical about the current neo-folk movement, there's something undeniably classic about this music, which draws influence from the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and Buffalo Springfield, to name a few. At times euphoric, other moments resigned, dark, and sparse, it's the pop melodies — crafted with acoustic and electric guitars, buzzing organ, and giant tom drums — that rise above it all. Would be best heard in an outdoor amphitheater shrouded in fog. (Sub Pop)

The Helio Sequence, Keep Your Eyes Ahead

Another great release from the Sub Pop label. This Portland duo continues to reinvent itself, this time culling from a darker, more organic palette — and, surprisingly, with a couple of Dylan-esque acoustic numbers following vocal problems for singer Brandon Summers. Though it's a tad uneven, what makes this album such a standout (and that's saying a lot considering the band set the bar high early in its career) is the duo's crystallization of its layered, larger-than-life indie-pop sound: shimmering guitar, big hooks, and a propulsive beat by a monster of a drummer, Benjamin Weikel. "Lately" and "Keep Your Eyes Ahead" are two of the band's best song ever. Seen live, they're amazing. (Sub Pop)

Imaad Wasif with Two Part Beast , Strange Hexes

Psych rock can be iffy, especially because most try too hard to invigorate theirs with an enthusiasm that not only feels forced, but fake. Wasif takes a completely different approach, and it's an instant — though subtle — hit. His album fades in with a gentle, undulating riff, and Wasif's soothing voice riding over of the wash, which builds into a chugging live-wire solo. Though there are definitely some moments of wankery on this disc, generally Wasif uses his riffage to rope in the listener with melodic hooks, and has the sensibility to avoid becoming obnoxious. (self-released)

Gojira, The Way of All Flesh

Move over Mastodon. France might not seem like the bastion of metal, but it's home to Gojira, a band that sounds like Godzilla trudging through the countryside and decimating everything in its path to an incredibly gratifying end. (Its name isn't the Japanese pronunciation of Godzilla for nothing.) Hence, the machine-gun-firing riffs of "Yama's Messengers" and the start-stop skewed riffing of "Toxic Garbage Island." There are some prog-ish moments (generally far more palpable for the masses than Meshuggah, save for the grating "Adoration for None"), as well as a pretty, reflective instrumental interlude. For musicians, the band's technical prowess is drool-worthy. (Prosthetic Records)

Intronaut, Prehistoricisms

Describing Los Angeles' Intronaut as "jazzy" is just a tad misleading, considering the metal band contains enough heft to blow apart a small apartment building. That said, there are definite progressive, sensitive elements to the group's second album, Prehistoricisms — delicately light bridges, melodic bass lines, shifting time signatures — lurking among the charred-black vocals, sludgy riffs, and crushing bleakness. At the best moments, like the triumphant "The Literal Black Cloud" and heady "Australopithecus," Intronaut strikes just the right balance between heavy and arty, so that neither element gets in the other element's way. Bravo. (Century Media)

Saviours, Into Abaddon

In the realm of old-school '70s riff-rock metal without the cookie monster vocals, you can't get much better than Saviours. These Oakland metalheads and buddies of High on Fire considerably up their game on their sophomore record. The band — featuring former members of Drunk Horse and Yaphet Kotto, and influenced by "partying, the occult, girls, drugs, loud music, Black Sabbath, old Metallica, and Slayer" — doesn't just rehash a past era, it gives it its own gritty Oaktown seasoning: a little psychedelic, a lot stoney, with a punk-rock ethos. Dig "Cavern of Mind," chugging riffage over which vocalist Austin Barber delivers his shouty, cheese-free vocals. Live, they play with enough force to nearly destroy their instruments. (Kemado)

Shuteye Unison, Shuteye Unison

Though the band itself is relatively new, the members of Shuteye Unison are no strangers to the Bay Area music scene, which may explain why their debut feels so fully realized in effort and execution. Picking up where their excellent former outfit the Rum Diary left off, singer/guitarist Daniel Mckenzie, singer/bassist Jon Fee, and drummer Jake Krohn continue their venture into the post-/noise-rock terrain, crafting dreamy hypnotic melodies with bass, drums, shining guitar, and hushed vocals, which intertwine into a mesmerizing mix. Ghostly closer "Through Dunes" builds as a head-nodding narcoleptic track, then culminates into a crashing wave of noise. Atmospheric yet hook-filled. (Parks and Records)

Triclops!, Out of Africa

Only in the Bay Area could such an amalgamation of punk-noise-weirdo-experimentalism be borne. Though it takes a certain threshold for noise to endure Triclops!, what makes the band compelling is the fact that the weirdness - whether synthesized high-pitched vocals or scribbles of noise spiraling out of orbit - is built upon the foundation of clear, strong hooks (immediately evident in opener "March of the Half-Babies"). For something quite frightening, listen with headphones while on a mind-altering substance. (Alternative Tentacles)

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