Like the past few years, 2008 is shaping up as more of the same for music fans. There was something to get excited about early, with the January release of Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut, a strong contender for Album of the Year released at the halfway point - My Morning Jacket's Evil Urges in June - and a whole lotta records we'll forget about by December scattered throughout. Still, 2008's third quarter delivered some of the year's most buzzed-about CDs (and there's still more to come - record companies will release their top-shelf albums over the next couple months). Here's a roundup of some of our favorites:
What's the buzz? This Florida fivesome actually contains two black kids, so we won't dock any points for indie-rock irony. Plus, their take on bouncy '80s new wave is way more fun than anything made by sulky, sharp-dressed all-white hipsters. Their debut EP, which was available for free on MySpace last year, led to a major-label deal.
Believe the hype? At its best, Partie Traumatic packs more Cure-like hooks than anything the Cure's recorded in 20 years. On highlight "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You," frontman Reggie Youngblood plays around like a pop-minded absurdist ("You are the girl that I've been dreaming of ever since I was a little girl") who just discovered all the neat little tricks his synthesizer can do.
Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists: 65 percent. Partie Traumatic gets indie-rock kids dancing like nothing else that's come out this year. But all those synth flourishes and pop hooks sound sorta hollow after about a half-hour. Besides, the Black Kids were blogger faves initially. History shows that doesn't leave them with much of a future.
The Hold Steady
What's the buzz? This was the year the Hold Steady broke out. They played Letterman. They toured with the Counting Crows. Frontman Craig Finn talked baseball on ESPN. They united old-school rock fans (tired of those Springsteen comparisons yet?) and MP3-posting indie-rockers. And Stay Positive isn't even their best album.
Believe the hype? The band's fourth CD in five years doesn't break any ground, and the new instruments (theremin, harpsichord) are kinda obtrusive. Plus, Finn's cast of drunk and horny characters - who've made recurring appearances since 2003 - are mostly MIA, leaving a set of typically wordy songs without much personality.Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists: 90 percent. Critics love these guys because 1) they still make some of the most solid rock 'n' roll around, and 2) most of them look like the schlumpy Finn. They've got another album in them before the real backlash begins.
What's the buzz? You're probably asking yourself why Oberst - who usually records as Bright Eyes - decided to release this album under his own name. Good question. We have no idea, since it really doesn't stray too far from the indie-rock singer-songwriter formula he's been mining for the past decade.
Believe the hype? This the best thing Oberst, or Bright Eyes, has released since 2002's breakout, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. He recorded the album over two months in Mexico, and it sounds like a fevered vacation at times: "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)" consists mostly of Oberst singing the title over and over, hoping that's all it takes to keep the doctors away.
Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists: 50 percent. As Oberst gets older (he turned 28 this year), he's getting more settled in his ways. That means sprawling 10-minute centerpieces like Lifted's "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved)" could be a thing of the past. Still, his songwriting on Conor Oberst has never been more assured.
TV on the Radio
What's the buzz? These art-rock weirdos drop their guard on their third album, pushing aside the densely layered aural architecture of 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain to make room for a booty-shakin' dance-floor jam. Club kids still won't get it, but unlike TVOTR's other records, Dear Science approaches something resembling pop.
Believe the hype? The noise collages that utility member and producer David Sitek assembles here are filled with hums, buzzes and splendid symphonies of noise. Each listen reveals new sheets of sound that glisten atop the wobbly but surprisingly durable structures.
Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists: 93 percent. Critics love this band more than they love the Hold Steady - even if they can't figure out what Kyp Malone is singing about half the time. Plus, an apocalyptic drone underlies everything TVOTR does, hereby making it cooler than anything else you'll shake your ass to this year.
Feed the Animals
What's the buzz? Mash-up maestro Gregg Gillis once again skirts copyright laws with a hyperactive mix that plays like a music geek's iPod on "shuffle every 15 seconds." Make room for OutKast, Roy Orbison, Twisted Sister, Huey Lewis and the News, Ludacris, Rage Against the Machine, Sinead O'Connor and Jay-Z - they're all on the first track.
Believe the hype? Feed the Animals is every bit as frenetic as 2006's breakthrough Night Ripper. The way Gillis juggles genres - hey, there's Fergie! Now, it's Kenny Loggins! Wait, is that Cat Stevens? - is mind-blowingly awesome.
Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists: 80 percent. You get the feeling that Gillis took tons of Ritalin when he was younger, but nobody else has his skills - or his record collection. Animals' best cut, "Set It Off," manages to weave Radiohead, Mary J. Blige, the Guess Who and Dexys Midnight Runners into three-and-a-half minutes of pure, party-starting joy.