1. “The Midnight Organ Fight” by Frightened Rabbit
Don’t be, um, frightened by Frightened Rabbit’s fey name and blurry album cover. This Scottish foursome put out one of the most brilliantly heartfelt rock albums of the year. Singer Scott Hutchison sounds like a drunken poet as he sings about falling in love, breaking up and doing it all over again, while his band churns out scrappy arena rock with shades of U2.
Hutchison definitely has a way with words, dropping bon mots like “While I’m alive, I make tiny changes to earth” on “Heads Roll Off,” “Poke at my iris, why can’t I cry about this” on “Poke” and “My clothes won’t let me close the door, my trousers seem to love your floor” on “Backwards Walk.” “The Midnight Organ Fight” is a major breakthrough from a band with seemingly unlimited potential. By the way, Frightened Rabbit is scheduled to play at The Maintenance Shop in Ames on Jan. 23.
“The Modern Leper”
2. “The ’59 Sound” by The Gaslight Anthem
If Bruce Springsteen had grown up on punk rock, he might sound something like The Gaslight Anthem. This New Jersey group’s songs are drenched in allusions to “the good old days,” a time when boys greased their hair, girls wore long dresses and everybody danced all night by the light of the moon.
While this might seem like an odd thematic goal for a contemporary rock band, The Gaslight Anthem pulls it off, with singer Brian Fallon’s slight Southern accent leading the way. “We could run all night, and dance upon the architecture,” Fallon sings on “Casanova, Baby!” The Gaslight Anthem makes me want to do just that.
3. “Re-Arrange Us” by Mates of State
Husband-and-wife duo Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner keep getting better with every Mates of State album. Hammel drums and sings, Gardner plays piano and sings, and the result on “Re-Arrange Us” is heavenly. Anyone who thinks marriage equals boredom needs to listen to Mates of State.
Domestic issues usually aren’t a hot topic for a pop band, but Mates of State not only tackles these subjects, they make them sound catchy as all get out. “Bought a home, we bartered right/Two kids two cars, delight,” Gardner sings on “My Only Offer.” And all the cool kids sing along.
“My Only Offer”
4. “Heart Burns” by Tom Gabel
Tom Gabel is the frontman for political-punkers Against Me!, and “Heart Burns” is his first solo outing. Gabel quickly is becoming this generation’s Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer rolled into one, here singing about John McCain (“Cowards Sing at Night”), the election (“100 Years of War”) and sacrifices made by soldiers (“Amputations”).
5. “III” by The Bronx
Anyone disappointed by Axl Rose’s over-the-top “Chinese Democracy” might want to check out The Bronx. The Los Angeles band’s searing boogie-rock has been getting some comparisons to early Guns N’ Roses (although overall The Bronx’s sound is a bit heavier). “III” finds The Bronx streamlining its hard-rock sound but maintaining its intensity.
6. “Conor Oberst” by Conor Oberst
On “Cassadaga,” Conor Oberst’s 2007 album with his band Bright Eyes, a symphony orchestra appeared on several songs. Here, on Oberst’s solo debut, there’s nothing nearly as pretentious, as Oberst settles down with some solid roots-rock musicians and puts out an album that’s nearly perfect in its simplicity.
7. “Float” by Flogging Molly
Flogging Molly slowly has become one of the world’s most popular Celtic-rock bands, with fourth album “Float” debuting at No. 4 on Billboard’s album chart in March. Singer Dave King’s displaced Irish brogue is the band’s biggest strength, and his songwriting reaches new heights on this album.
“The Lightning Storm”
8. “Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis
“Acid Tongue” is Jenny Lewis’ third album in three years, counting 2006’s solo “Rabbit Fur Coat” and 2007’s “Under the Blacklight” with main band Rilo Kiley. “Acid Tongue” finds Lewis embracing the famous Laurel Canyon, Calif., sound of the ’60s, updated for the new century with some hints of snark.
9. “Alas I Cannot Swim” by Laura Marling
U.K. soul singers Duffy and Adele got all the attention this year in the wake of Amy Winehouse, but here’s betting U.K. folk singer Laura Marling will be the name that lasts the longest. Marling’s voice is a treasure, and her beautiful, world-weary songs belie the fact that she’s only 18.
10. “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay
Coldplay accomplished the nearly impossible with “Viva La Vida” by creating an album adored by both mainstream listeners and snooty music critics. Brian Eno’s production heightens Coldplay’s artistic tendencies, while the band still reaches for the sky on songs like “Viva La Vida” and “Violet Hill.”
“Viva La Vida”
What are your favorite albums of 2008?