Last year, I grouped indie rock and alternative into one list. This was because 2007 was somewhat of a lackluster year for alternative rock. However, 2008 is a very different story. Indie rock has moved into a completely separate genre, and the ten albums left in the alternative category are even stronger than last year. If you are a fan of alternative rock or are shopping for, you have a number of great albums to chose from without having the settle for the Coldplay and Nickelback albums that the industry wants you to buy.
Dead Confederate is a band that exemplifies the greatness of rock music. Yes, the band is more associated with alternative and indie than mainstream and hard rock, but that has more to do with the indie community’s appreciation for new and artistic sounds than the actual sound of Dead Confederate. There is a heavier grunge influence here than just about any post-grunge album released in the last decade, yet this isn’t a grunge album in the slightest. Wrecking Ball is raw, gritty, and full of passion, something that pure rock music has been deeply lacking in recent years. The album also contains a far share of ballads, none of which feel forced or out of place in the album’s context. Wrecking Ball is one of my personal favorite albums of 2008, and while some filler keeps from being an A-quality record from an objective standpoint, I love this album to death, and I highly recommend it.
The Seldom Seen Kid
While Elbow is often classified as indie rock, The Seldom Seen Kid is an album that should please any fan of alternative music, not just the indie crowd. Their sound is just as accessible and radio friendly as that of any other band in this category, which is why I think it fits better into the general alternative section on this list. It’s really quite amazing that this band isn’t a household name at this point, as fans of bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and other famous indie rock bands should be obsessing over Elbow. The Seldom Seen Kid is the evolution of accessible indie rock, and it has something for just about any alternative fan. Trust me when I say that when that uniformed pre-teen you’re buying for asks for the new Coldplay or Death Cab for Cutie album, he really means this one. He just doesn’t know it yet.
The Odd Couple
While nothing on Gnarls Barkley’s second album received as much radio play or mainstream exposure as their hit “Crazy,” The Odd Couple is every bit as good and catchy as their first album. In a world where idiotic pop music is far more widespread than the intelligent form of the genre, Gnarls Barkley are the rare group that makes pop music that is as catchy and fun as it is creative and intelligent. Danger Mouse’s production is top notch and Cee-Lo Green’s vocals are as powerful and unique as they were on the band’s debut. The Odd Couple is certainly an odd album, but it’s also a surprisingly polished one that is at times beautiful, consistently fun, and always creative. Whether you’re a fan of alternative, pop, soul, funk, or hip-hop, The Odd Couple has something for you. It’s a very solid choice this holiday season for just about any music fan.
Murder By Death
Red of Tooth and Claw
Featuring deep vocals, unique hard rock riffs, creative lyrics, a beautiful violin, and the imagination to hold it all together, Murder By Death’s Red of Tooth and Claw is one of the easiest albums to recommend from this past year. Murder By Death doesn’t fit it any particular category of rock music, yet they are one of the purest rock bands left. They play a blend of alternative rock that is unlike anything else out there, and rather accessible to boot. Anyone from metalheads to indie fans to straight up rockers should give Red of Tooth and Claw a try. It’s a gorgeous gem of an album that sees one of rock’s best kept secrets reaching their full potential.
Nine Inch Nails
Originally released as a free album earlier in the year, The Slip came out of nowhere to be the best Nine Inch Nails album since The Downward Spiral. If you downloaded the album for free, there really isn’t any reason to buy the physical copy other than to support the artist (unless you want the DVD that comes packaged with the album), but anyone that missed out on The Slip last spring should not miss it this holiday season. The album strikes a balance between hard and soft, accessible and unique, and formulaic and experimental. The Slip had a large amount of hype when it first released, so it’s hard to imagine a fan of Trent Reznor that doesn’t already own this in some form. However, this is a great starting point for anyone new to Nine Inch Nails, and any old fans who lost interest after NIN’s more mainstream period may want to give this album a chance. It truly is the best Nine Inch Nails record in more than a decade.
Accelerate is an album for R.E.M. fans. It’s been over a decade since R.E.M. released even a decent album, and while Accelerate isn’t necessarily a great album, it’s the closest thing the band has had to one in far too long. R.E.M. sounds like R.E.M. again, and Accelerate marks the return of deep lyrics and intelligent songwriting to R.E.M.’s sound, as well as the return of true guitar driven music with substance. While the album is short, there’s no filler to speak of, and it’s a huge step in the right direction. If you know an R.E.M. fan or happen to be one yourself, Accelerate makes for a solid purchase.
Songs in A&E
Not unlike the band that made it, Songs in A&E is somewhat of an underrated little album. It rarely has moments where it does anything particularly spectacular in comparison to other alternative albums, but it remains consistently simple and beautiful from start to finish. This is an album that’s difficult to criticize and very easy to like, even if it isn’t one of the 10 or 20 best albums released in the past year. Spiritualized sticks to what their good at, and the result is an album that is just that. Songs in A&E is just a solid beautiful alternative album that anyone can appreciate. For that reason, it makes a great holiday gift, as it’s hard to imagine a music fan not finding something to like in Spiritualized’s sound.
The Butterfly Effect
Final Conversation of Kings
Although it was somewhat overlooked, few albums showed as much improvement as The Butterfly Effect’s Final Conversation of Kings. At first glance it may seem like a huge departure from the post-grunge and hard rock sound of the band’s previous albums, but what separates The Butterfly Effect from other bands in the genre has always been their willingness to experiment with alternative and progressive rock. Final Conversation of Kings is a full transition into alternative rock, and it has more in common with experimental alternative bands than generic radio rock artists. The songs are longer and more varied, and the band has struck the perfect mixture between mainstream accessibility and more obscure experimentation. The Butterfly Effect have finally reached their potential, and Final Conversation of Kings is an album well worth getting for any fan of alternative rock.
The Gaslight Anthem
The ’59 Sound
2008 was not an especially great year for punk music, but that doesn’t mean The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound is the best punk album of the year by default. While it didn’t have a lot of competition, this is the one 2008 album that punk fans need to get. The Gaslight Anthem play punk in its purest and most raw form, and in doing so put most modern punk to same. They don’t do anything particularly unique here, but they do it better than just about anyone else. If you listen to punk, you’ll know what to expect once you hear the opening of the first track, but you’ll also love the album for it. It uses classic punk conventions the way they should be used, and it’s the type of raw rebellious album that has becoming increasingly rare in punk over the last few years. If you’re looking a punk album this Christmas, this is by far the best once released in the past year.
The Bedlam in Goliath
In what turned out to be a year full of “A” quality albums, The Mars Volta’s The Bedlam in Goliath was the first release to make my “Essential Albums” list in 2008. To say it’s unique would be stating the obvious, as The Mars Volta have been one of the unique bands in music for the past decade. This, however, is different even for them, as it’s their heaviest, fastest, and most focused album to date. The Mars Volta have taken a number of risks in making this album, and most of them pay off. From the first note of the opener “Aberinkula” all the way to album’s end, The Bedlam in Goliath plays out like an energetic jam session that could be described as a far more focused version of their live show. The lyrics are as cryptic as you’d expect from The Mars Volta, and despite its massive energy, this is an intelligent and challenging album that is nearly impossible to classify. The Bedlam in Goliath is the most focused Mars Volta album yet, but it’s the one that takes the most risks and ends up being the most unique. Anyone willing to take a few listens to get used to it should find this to be a very enjoyable album.