Back to 2008 (Re-Ranking the Best of Lists)

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This week’s jaunt in the Tardis takes us back to 2008. A bittersweet year that I looked upon with so much hope, and in retrospect, have so much regret and disappointment. The watchword for 2008 is change. Our country elects its first black President upon this message, and it’s echoed in my journey as well. Change. Hope. Personal changes, professional changes, societal changes, and musical changes. All wrapped with a belief and hope that we are progressing forward and moving toward something better. And before long, all of this culminates in a massive economic recession not long after I have decided to sell AbsolutePunk to Buzznet.

But first, the staff list.

Looking at the AbsolutePunk staff list from 2008 shows me a year where tastes expanded to more indie-flavorings. Artists like Fleet Foxes, The Hold Steady, and Vampire Weekend were starting to be mentioned amongst the staples of Fall Out Boy, Underoath, and Jack’s Mannequin. This is the year of the Coldplay’s, Augustana’s, and Lydia’s. The year of Forgive Durden releasing a musical that I still don’t think I understand, but we ate it all up anyway. A year where melodic mood-setting and introspective soul-bearing took center stage. A year where Bon Iver tore us open on For Emma, Forever Ago1 and City and Colour helped put us back together with Bring Me Your Love. And it was a year where some of the staple pop-punk bands put out extremely polarizing albums within the community, and many of the newer pop-punk bands struggled to find hooks that grabbed me.

And on top of all of that, we had the release of The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound, an album that I now consider one of my favorite of all time. An album that, in hindsight, completely shifted my entire musical tastes and aesthetic almost overnight. To this day, an album that shocks me with its frenetic energy, masterful songwriting, and heartbreaking clarity.

I am also fascinated by the albums that were once seen as incredibly divisive and how time has changed their status. Take Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux, an album that reached new levels of hyperbolic hatred on the website. An album that saw the band take an extended hiatus not long after its release. And now an album that I think is widely considered by many fans to be one of their best albums and full of some of their strongest songs. And we have Panic! at the Disco following up their massively successful debut album with the psychedelic event of Pretty. Odd. and the takes were ranging from “Beatles-wannabe-trash” to “masterful.” And not long after, the band would go through a massive lineup change before reinventing themselves as a pop-powerhouse and one of the largest acts in modern music. In many ways Folie a Deux and Pretty. Odd. stand as testaments to the final stage in the shift from the pop-punk music I loved in my youth. Because pop-punk in 2008 started to turn neon.

It started with the album covers and clothing. From Cute is What We Aim For’s Rotation to Hit the Lights’ Skip School, Start Fights, I spent most of the next few years thinking more time went into press photos and merch runs than catchy choruses or lyrics. There will still be pop-punk albums that show up on my lists for the next decade, but there’s a specific change around this time where the bands coming out and the music being created just weren’t reaching me in the same way. On the other hand, I was discovering new bands that would shape my entire life and albums that would become just as ingrained in my soundtrack as any that came before. And those albums became guardrails; guardrails to guide and steady the train of life that was barreling ahead with increasing speed.

By 2008, I’d been out of college for about three years, and the website was making a pretty steady income off of web advertisements. I had teamed up with IndieClick to sell ads, and record labels and other companies wanted to put their ads in front of our readers. And that readership was growing monthly. Before all the garbage tracking, all the lousy inventory fills with punch the monkey bullshit, and before Facebook and Google destroyed the web advertising economy for virtually everyone. I was as shocked as any that this fun side-project from late high school had become something I was doing as a full-time job, but the website showed no signs of slowing down. By this time, I had moved back to Oregon (because rent in California was obnoxious, and my family was still here) and was running the website out of a spare bedroom with giant six-foot plastic tables as my desk. Two close friends from college moved into an apartment just down the street from me. Most of my memories from this year are of hanging out with them and watching a lot of Arrested Development while spending late nights waxing poetic about being in the real world and none of us having any clue what we were doing. This was all pre-marriages and pre-kids for most of my friend group, and instead, we were trying to find who we were between our adolescence and this early adulthood. Really that just meant buying a sweater and khakis from Banana Republic and ordering a microbrew at the bar. It meant trying to put together Ikea furniture and hand me down couches from my parents where I’d stay up way too late fretting over a creaky web server infrastructure and what I wanted to do with the website going forward. What I wanted, at that time, was to become as massive as possible. I wanted to be the biggest music website on the internet.

At 25, I was arrogant and still trying to make a mark on the world by faking it and hoping I could make it in any way possible. I also knew that I was far out over my skis when it came to being able to keep servers running for the traffic we were doing or being able to handle what I considered the next part of the business: being able to hire staff members to work on the website with me full time. Hindsight is 20/20, but even I don’t know what would have happened if I had tried to bootstrap a company, right before a massive recession, and tried to get outside funding to keep AbsolutePunk independent. Instead, I sold the website to Buzznet (which would become BuzzMedia, which would become SpinMedia). My thinking at the time was this: I’d already been in contact with the people at Buzznet and liked them.2 I would have to raise funding myself for the next steps of the business or take out loans, and they had already raised a new round of venture capital and were willing to let me keep running the website as I had been but with their funding, servers, and capital to expand. The upfront payment and promise of a salary were a level of security I had so far never had and would, therefore, be a reduction of personal stress. The decision was difficult, but I thought there was virtually only upside given my options. I was excited to expand and grow and unbelievably naive about corporations and the media industry. I’d get a crash course in venture capitalists and boards of directors and metrics and goals and charts and McDonald’s ads, oh my god, the McDonald’s ads. Not everything played out how I thought, obviously. I’m sure I’ll touch on that as we progress through the next few years in the following weeks.

Looking at my original list from 2008, I see the musical equivalent of trying on a new sweater and khaki combo with a microbrew. It’s unsure of itself, trying to find a new look while still feeling oddly uncomfortable with the scent of faux overconfidence. There are still many albums on this list that I listen to and enjoy to this day, but also quite a few missing and quite a few I haven’t returned to in years. With that, here’s my re-ranking using the same rules as the past three weeks: it’s all arbitrary, but it’s based on what I like and think now without removing/changing too much of the spirit of the original list and what I was listening to at that time and a few years after.

Best of 2008 (Re-Ranking)

  1. The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
  2. Fall Out Boy – Folie a Deux
  3. Lydia – Illuminate
  4. Augustana – Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt
  5. City and Colour – Bring Me Your Love
  6. Jack’s Mannequin – The Glass Passenger
  7. Panic at the Disco – Pretty. Odd.
  8. Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends
  9. Girl Talk – Feed The Animals
  10. Wolftron – Flesh & Fears
  11. Underoath – Lost in the Sound of Separation
  12. Now, Now Every Children – Cars
  13. Copeland – You Are My Sunshine
  14. Valencia – We All Need a Reason to Believe
  15. Good Old War – Only Way to Be Alone
  16. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
  17. Anberlin – New Surrender
  18. The Matches – A Band in Hope
  19. Rise Against – Appeal to Reason
  20. Thrice – Alchemy Index, Vols. 3 & 4: Air & Earth
  21. The New Frontiers – Mending
  22. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
  23. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
  24. Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
  25. Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
  26. Astronautalis – Pomegranate
  27. My Favorite Highway – How to Call a Bluff
  28. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
  29. Right Away, Great Captain – The Eventually Home
  30. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

The Gaslight Anthem taking the new top spot here has been the most uncomplicated call I’ve had to make yet. Sometimes I think it’s my favorite album of all time, and I know it’s in my top five. It’s an album that perfectly encapsulates early adulthood, and I can find myself playing in any mood, in any season, for any or no reason at all.

From there, I struggled. I think that Lydia album is by far their best work, and it was a huge and essential record around the website in 2008, but man, that Fall Out Boy album has aged perfectly. It just edges out Lydia due to replay count over the past 12 years. Augustana was underrated in 2008, they’re underrated now, but Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt is an album that was just ahead of its time and a genuinely compelling mixture of Americana-tinged pop. A shocking realization for me is how much I have listened to that Wolftron album over in the past decade. My previous number one, Astronautalis, just didn’t find its way into my rotation as often.

Girl Talk and Frightened Rabbit weren’t on my original list, but they’ve become such staples of my life that I would feel remiss to exclude them. Bon Iver also gets added, even though it wasn’t until after Bon Iver, Bon Iver that I went back and discovered this album and fell in love. That’s the reason for the relatively low ranking.

My new list feels as all over the place as the original. There’s no theme or structure to the year in the way there has been in the past. It’s a kaleidoscope of sounds and blurry edges just out of focus, and yet the bands and albums feel completely me. There are hints of where my musical taste once was and signs of where it’s headed. There’s rock, atmospheric introspection, and yet not how I would have predicted my future self would have morphed in the following years. Funny how that happens. You know you’re going to change, you even have an idea in your head of what that may look like, but it so often feels just outside of your control — little moments and small choices over time taking you in unforeseen directions.

I ended 2008 unsure of the future, but hopeful. I started a new episode of my career, and we were finally putting the Bush years behind us as we walked forward with President Obama. Hope. Change. I remember watching his inauguration in an apartment with old friends that had become new again; I was back in my home state. Back from the sunny California I had always thought I’d escape to and never return. We were all there trying on new personalities like they were new clothes, and I was thinking about how far we had come. We were finally real adults in the real world, making our way, making names for ourselves with real careers, and so much optimism on the horizon. In the following years, we’d see successes, failures, happiness, and unbelievable tragedy. But in 2008? For a moment, oh, how we had the greatest of expectations.

I’ve put together a playlist on Spotify and Apple Music featuring music from the re-ranked top thirty.

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  1. While it was self-released in 2007, it saw a wider release in February of 2008, and we included it on this year’s list.

  2. One by one, all of the founders would end up leaving, but I am still friendly with quite a few of them.