Best Albums 2008 (11-15)

15. Hot Chip — Made in the Dark

The Warning was a classic neither-nor album: rhythmically too abstract and lyrically too introspective for dance-pop, yet lacking the textures or turns of phrase required for close listening. After I heard what Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard could do on this follow-up, I no longer felt the need to become worthy of its predecessor. Adjudged too glib by fans who overvalue their insights and showoffy by those who prize electronic austerity, these forthright hooks and lyrics are straight-up pop if that overused and abused word still means a thing. From the knockdown “Ready for the Floor” to the pensive “One Pure Thought,” a full-blooded and un-stupid indulgence in the fantasy that relationship issues can be worked out on the dance floor, so long as you can both shout loud enough over the DJ.

14. Vampire Weekend — Vampire Weekend

 

Like so many children of (relative) privilege before them, Ezra Koenig and his fellow dilettantes ransack their parents’ record collections and sing about their peers. Unlike most, they acknowledge that privilege and its fascinations, glancing a few rungs up the ladder for their subjects rather than slumming it with just folks. Their literary Afro-prep pretends to be nothing it ain’t: The Columbia quad is at least as fruitful a milieu for sociological study as any dive bar, Graceland is a juicier monument of ’80s worthiness than The Joshua Tree, and what’s bright and bouncy about African music (which they know more about than 99% of their detractors) offers more honest pop attractions for Western admirers than what’s trance-like and exotic.

13. Jean Grae — Jeanius

This neurotic wordsmith has more reason to hate the biz than most underachievers, and not just because she’s more talented. “My Story,” about an abortion, is the obvious set piece on her best LP, originally scheduled for a 2004 release and rescued from oblivion by Talib Kweli. By the disc’s real emotional core is the relationship between Jean and her wounded pride – she nurtures it, resents it, channels it into braggadocio, turns it back upon herself. And the seamless flow of 9th Wonder’s production serves to throw her psychological complexity into relief. If his pop élan permits Jay-Z to make success his sole topic, your stubborn refusal to recognize her brilliance should allow Jean to make as much of her failure.

12. Taylor Swift — Fearless

Women who’ve outgrown her target demo might be wise to mistrust the critical acclaim showered on a blonde good girl by both old farts impressed that she-writes-her-own-songs and young poptimists basking in her vast sonic rootlessness. But Swift’s the most passionate country star since Garth Brooks, her virginal image rendering lust acceptable to her fans’ parents just as Garth’s doughy unhunkiness placated his devotees’ husbands. For a kid raised to expect men to be Disney princes, she seems healthily skeptical of the good intentions of the sex she’s fated to desire. And skeptical young feminists whose expectations she’ll never meet should note that her most moving songs are about other women: “Fifteen,” dedicated to the girls of that age and a real-life best friend, and “The Best Day,” spent with her mom.

11. El Guincho — Alegranza

Barcelona post-hippie Pablo Diaz-Reixa draws comparisons to (and hangs with) lots of fuzzy noodlers who defy my powers of concentration. But unlike his Animal Collective pals, who seem determined to convince the world that Brian Wilson’s pop would have purer if only he’d never heard Chuck Berry or wanted to be famous, Diaz-Reixa reproduces his extracted sounds and styles with vivid precision. He mixes and matches world-pop elements, once-trendy but now degenerated into overly familiar indie-pop indicators of eclecticism, into such distinct fusions — doo wop Afrobeat, Tropicália dub – that he simulates a community all on his lonesome.

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