The Best Music of 2008 

Nate Seltenrich's Top 10.

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals

From the opening collision of OutKast, Roy Orbison, and the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin," it's clear Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis of Pittsburgh) knows his way around a mash-up. But it's the schizophrenic way he does it that counts. Gills knows there are two components to a successful mash-up: first, matching the beats of two or more songs with different tempos and rhythms (which he does expertly by setting contemporary hip-hop tracks to decades' worth of pop and rock); and second, delivering shock value by violating listeners' expectations. Girl Talk maximizes both through a constantly roiling stew, blending one jumble into another at the rate of about twelve per song. You can't turn away for a second without missing something good. (Illegal Art)

The Helio Sequence, Keep Your Eyes Ahead

Some say the Helio Sequence has done better, that its 2001 sophomore record Young Effectuals is still its high-water mark despite the progress made since. Keep Your Eyes Ahead doesn't offer much of the old Helio Sequence — dense, shoegazey squalls tempering noise with harmony — but it does give plenty in return. It's this year's indie-rock masterpiece, in fact, for the same reason that purists may balk: not only does it phase out much of the psychedelic wall of sound in favor of simpler, cleaner pop songs built upon gorgeous instrumentation, melodies, and vocals, but it's also brazen enough to toss in three songs of Dylan-esque folk. The result is perfect balance and a loop that endlessly feeds itself, with each track complementing and anticipating the next. (Sub Pop)

Chicha Libre, ¡Sonido Amazonico!

In Peru, chicha refers not only to a fermented corn beer but also any informal, populist, often transient blend of ideas. "Chicha music," then, made the perfect label for a style of music that originated there in the late 1960s mixing traditional cumbia with contemporary Western instrumentation — electric guitars, drums, and keyboard — and psychedelic innovations like wah-wah and Moog synthesizers. The resulting cumbias Amazonicas never achieved much international exposure, but find new life at the hands of these six Brooklynites. Chicha Libre's sincere tribute hits all the right notes, even for those unfamiliar with its origins. These fourteen mostly instrumental tracks maintain a low-key '70s art-house vibe, the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino would kill to get his hands on. Nothing else so authentically cool was released in 2008. (Barbès Records)

Grip Grand , Brokelore

Now that hyphy has come and gone, albums like Brokelore define the new paradigm of Bay Area hip-hop. Grounded more in worldly balance than the extreme of going dumb, Oakland emcee/producer Grip Grand's excellent second record masters retro ("Hip-Hop Classic") and progressive ("But Anyway"), gangsta ("Handle That") and conscious ("Remember the Time"), funky ("96 Tears") and jazzy ("Paper Cup"), all while tiptoeing the line between indie ethics and mainstream appeal. Grip tempers his genre's requisite braggadocio with humility and humor (as in the career-defining single "Poppin' Pockets"), and understands that nothing is owed to him; not only did he write all fourteen songs, but he produced half of them. So when he says Broakland is the best place, we know he's being real. (Look Records)

M83, Saturdays=Youth

Since when do the French have a stranglehold on the American 1980s? Since Anthony Gonzalez and his Antibes-based ambient/electronic group M83 came out with Saturdays=Youth, it seems. Traditionally, the seven-year-old outfit has fallen more on the Brian Eno side of things with droning, ethereal synth — and there are fine examples of that here. But more notable, not only for their escape to pure pop and moody teenage melodies, are transcendent gems like "Kim & Jessie" and "Skin of the Night," which feel even more romantically '80s than our nostalgia. Genesis, Phil Collins, the Cocteau Twins, and others are paid homage, but M83 escapes mimicry by hyper-stylizing and dramaicizing these familiar sounds until they become something new that belongs to the present as much as it does the past. (Mute)

Langhorne Slim, When the Sun's Gone Down

In the folk-revival wars of the past decade, there must be a winner. Let that winner be Langhorne Slim. Leaps ahead of your standard guy-with-a-guitar trying to make it on old songs and methods, New York's Slim is a risk-taker who sings his comfortable yet fresh tunes in a rich, high-pitched voice that immediately sets him apart. Little else in the field is as exciting or expressive as his wailing about Loretta Lee Jones, an electric love letter, the sun going down, or whatever it may be. The rest is less consequential, although bandmate Charles Butler works wonders on the banjo, and Slim's songwriting, informed but never dominated by homegrown styles from bluegrass to gospel, is equally his and his alone. This isn't folk revival, just folk in 2008. (Narnack Records)

Josh Fix , Free at Last

San Francisco's answer to Queen and Elton John, Josh Fix is a one-man retro machine. Fix is flawless on vocals, guitar, bass, piano, percussion, and a heckuva lot more across this sophomore record, which he also produced, co-engineered, and designed. But Fix's genius is in his songwriting. From basic composition to the nitty-gritty of instrumental and vocal arrangements, Free at Last's piano-rock rings true with all the attitude, bombast, and, occasionally, tenderness of his heroes, those relics of the '70s who first introduced cabaret classiness to the unbuttoned joy of rock 'n' roll. A few bulletproof melodies and snarky lyrics make his modern appeal irrefutable. (1650 Entertainment)

Dizzy Balloon, Dizzy Balloon

Opening with a Beatles-aping ditty about the "Raindrop Residence," where everyone is happy, we're all friends, Dizzy Balloon's self-titled debut seems to wear its heart on its sleeve. Indeed, these charming boys and their exuberant, magnetic pop-rock are popular among the girls, something that comes to the forefront in sweetly romantic songs like "What Can I Do" and "Young Love." But they'll need more than that to get where they want to go. As Panda, these five East Bay teens first conquered Piedmont, then Oakland, then San Francisco without losing their cool or alienating their fawning base. This long-due debut, issued as the guys take time off college to pursue the band, represents Dizzy Balloon's attempt to court the entire country. Thankfully, all eleven songs are fantastic and truly worthy of a large audience. (self-released)

Okay, Huggable Dust

You can hear the pain in Marty Anderson's creaking voice, both physical (he suffers from Crohn's disease) and emotional (This boy, he really wanted this girl, but he didn't have the time, from "Tragedy"). As Okay, the Fremont native has been responsible for songs that are beautiful, moving, and often profound within a genre that is rarely beautiful, moving, or profound (one might call it indie pop or twee pop or simply compare to Grandaddy and Sparklehorse) for many years, but never so consistently and convincingly as on Huggable Dust. Anderson's interlacing of acoustics and electronics is innovative and satisfying, but it's his vocals, in their sound as much as their meaning, that elevate this record to a rarely reached plain where joy and sadness are one. (Absolutely Kosher Records)

WHY?, Alopecia

Alopecia is a great record — not only frontman and songwriter Yoni Wolf's best work, not only one of the best local releases of the year, but one of 2008's finest overall. Its assimilation of hip-hop, twee pop, indie rock, and electronic production will earn top-ten votes well beyond the Bay Area, likely around the world. Yet the very virtues that make it impressive also destine it for a lifetime of obscurity. Wolf's nasal sing-rap style, oft-impenetrable lyrics, and bizarre rhymes can put off as many listeners as they can turn on. And that's fine; this isn't highbrow art for the aesthete elite, but an experiment in pop-minded genre-bending that succeeds in being complex, beautiful, and deeply fascinating. (Anticon Records)


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