It’s hard to believe an entire decade has passed since 2008. The year was filled with amazing music from bands like Sigur Rós, TV on the Radio and Girl Talk, but what really made 2008 special was the impact of brand-new artists putting out their first records. Ten years on, these debut albums have kept their luster, and while tacking a 10-year anniversary onto albums like For Emma, Forever Ago might make them feel like they came out, well, forever ago, it also reminds us of a time without songs like “Blindsided” to sink into.
If you know anything about Bon Iver, it’s probably that A) the name is pronounced like partially botched French (bone ee-vaire) and B) that the debut record was written by Justin Vernon in his father’s remote cabin in Wisconsin. On For Emma, Forever Ago Vernon’s at-times tremulous voice suffuses the record with longing as he sings of love lost—something like a confessional letter written too late but still warm with feeling. It’s hard to pick a “must listen to” track off a record that itself is a must listen, but if you haven’t soaked yourself in the layered vocals and buzzing guitar strings of “Creature Fear” you’re missing out one of the record’s best tracks. Bon Iver continues to reshape expectations with each release, including his latest record 22, A Million, abandoning the folkier sound of For Emma in favor of electronic influences.
Listening to Lykke Li’s debut record Youth Novels is listening to a young artist still developing her sound with no preconceived defined edges. The album incorporates spoken word and opens with Li telling her audience in “Melodies & Desires” to “Follow these instructions, do exactly as I do,” and that “love is the melody now sing it with me.” The short “This Trumpet in My Head” is akin to an interlude track with Li’s hushed recitation tying back to spoken-word styling. From the open, percussion-centered “Let It Fall” and “Little Bit” to the straining baby voice on “Time Flies” and the stronger, longing vocals on “Tonight,” Lykke Li refuses to be locked into one sound. Li released her latest album so sad so sexy this year, leaning further into the hip-hop rhythms she’s explored before—rapper Aminé even lends his voice to the track “two nights.”
Seattle’s indie folk band Fleet Foxes started off their career with a self-titled record that had the power to define not just the band but the whole indie folk genre; artists like Mumford & Sons and Lumineers found mainstream audiences shortly after. Fleet Foxes felt like it had come sweeping in off the coastline in a warm current. Robin Pecknold’s soaring lead vocals are surrounded by a chorus of backing vocals for much of the record, and these engulfing harmonies wrap the listener in their embrace. From the winter of “White Winter Hymnal” to the spring described in “Ragged Woods,” the record radiates the soft glow of the golden hour—appropriate with the leading track being “Sun It Rises”—and the warmth of crackling vinyl. And this space is where the whole album seems to linger—moments before the sun cracks the sky. The line “Image and a light as the morning nears,” from “He Doesn’t Know Why” echoes the opening track “Sun It Rises”: “Hold me dear, into the night. Sun it will rise soon.” Ruminating on death and love, the album is full of natural imagery and a preoccupation with change. The group released its second album, Helplessness Blues in 2011, but it would be another six years before Fleet Foxes would return with their third. With Crack-Up, named after an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay, lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold aimed to hold opposing ideas in the same space and still have it work, as he described to Paste.
Punk went preppy on the debut from Vampire Weekend in 2008. Luckily, the band of Columbia students knew how to dance along to that irony. From Ivy League English-major Ezra Koenig complaining about the Oxford Comma on the inspiringly named “Oxford Comma” to lines like “Cut his teeth on turquoise harmonicas,” on “A-Punk” (a punk? Apunk like atypical? Did we ever find out?), word play and peculiar phrasing gives the record a fun and intriguing personality. Despite the somewhat inherent highbrow-ness of their complicated lyrics, along with the trust-fund airs, the colliding worlds of college life and bright guitars made it entirely approachable. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” incorporates elements of African drum beats, while the lyrics simultaneously cop to a bougie Cape Cod lifestyle and poke fun of it. The line “it feels so unnatural” in context of the song’s story may refer to the connection with the girl mentioned, but it also plays into how the band has taken these sounds that aren’t theirs and dropped them into a white country-club landscape. Koenig’s elaborate vocal runs—now a signature trick in VW’s discography—are so jumpy they’d be laughable if they weren’t so much fun to sing along with. It’s been five years since the band’s last album, Modern Vampires of the City, but new music is supposedly “94.5 Percent” complete for the group who performed their first show in four years earlier this summer.
What started as the duo of Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski has expanded into a whopping six-piece band that, in its live shows, gives the audience the same enveloping feeling created on the records. But the band’s debut 3 Rounds and a Sound stuck with a sparser folk sound. Nebeker’s voice gently guides the way through the album, addressing love and loss, tugging the “One Red Thread” to find his destiny as a musician with his new listeners by his side. The album opens with “Oviedo,” a story of separated lovers, and closes with title track—a couple’s wish to be together “till kingdom come.” Throughout the years the group has maintained the personal, heartfelt lyrics that built their audience. Progressing beyond bike tours, Blind Pilot has also left behind its musical training wheels and reached a more expansive, enveloping sound while maintaining its soulful folk essence on its more recent releases. Nebeker’s voice still flows soothingly through the 2016 record And Then Like Lions like the coursing Umpqua River that appears on must-listen-to track “Umpqua Rushing.”
School of Seven Bells opens its debut album with a declaration of intent. “Iamundernodisguise” establishes the rhythmic focus of the record’s sound, steeped deeply in electronic music: “Solely in my chest is my heart, a drum of water/ I am under no disguise.” The repetition of that title phrase builds into a mystical chant, summoning individual strength. The record’s final track “If I Had Glass Hands And Glass Feet” piles its own chant on top of a churning whir and metallic clanging. “Would the sound of a life discarded even resonate in a strangers ear?” lead vocalist Alejandra Deheza asks. Towards its end, the song seems to sink down and hum as static prickles through the close. Deheza’s layered vocals add force throughout the record with her tone and vocal production shaping each song’s ethos—her shaking, choppy voice in “Wired for Light” injects anxiety; on “Connjur” she is breathy, the monotonous, almost robotic vocals at the beginning transforming in the emotive third verse as though enough air finally reached the story to bring it back to life. In the middle of the record, the 11-minute “Sempiternal / Amaranth” with its hospital equipment-like beeping showed School of Seven Bells wasn’t afraid to experiment. The band’s most recent, and final, record was released in 2016 following the death of bandmate Benjamin Curtis in 2013. SVIIB is both a cathartic letting go and a memorial to Curtis; as Deheza describes it, it’s a love letter.
English rockers Foals kicked off their career under the equine name with the anxiety punk of their debut album Antidotes. Influenced by pop music, some of the album’s repetitive, dancey tracks are much heavier and lyrically darker than their pop counterparts. On “Cassius” the flittering guitar riff is like filigree in the pounding momentum of the song. The vocals of lead singer Yannis Philippakis push the song forward, each syllable sticking out. “Cassius these daydreams, these daydreams decay!” he sings. Philippakis’ gruff and shouted singing adds a roughness to the band’s already jittery sound, and so they play and dance on a ledge—moments away from barreling out of control, but in a way that feels like release. Even the melancholic lyrics can’t drag down the pace; instead they evoke the thought that if we’re going to die we might as well also dance, which is essentially what “Two Steps, Twice” chants: “Sun side dance step for two/ Sunset disco this is for you.” On the head-bobbing “Electric Bloom” the instrument panning pulls the ear one way then another, almost distracting from Philippakis’ voice beaming straight down the center. “It’s just another hospital,” he sings, the awareness of death threatening to sink the song into gloom while the bright keys keep it above water. Foals’ latest album, 2015’s What Went Down is much smoother and more melodic than the staccato heavy Antidotes.
Kristian Matsson is not even close to being the tallest man on earth nor is he a mid-20th century hero. But the Swedish singer/songwriter’s debut album as The Tallest Man on Earth is the stuff of folk legends. On Shallow Grave Matsson’s wavering, sometimes yodeling, voice is joined by an acoustic guitar and not much else. There isn’t a need for an abundance of instruments and production in these intimate recordings though—the intricate guitar picking that embellishes some of the tracks and the lyrical stories have their own gravitational pull. On “This Wind” the phrasing shifts the time-space feel of the music: “You said, ‘Damn be this wind it’s still movin’ on in to the bones and the bed of my soul.’” As the album’s title suggests, death permeates the record. On “The Gardener,” it appears literally as the death of the speaker’s competitors—he is a gardener because of the graves he’s dug: “So now he’s buried by the daisies, so I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe,” Mattson sings. The hesitancy in Mattson’s vocals and vulnerability of lyrics like, “When we’re covered by the thunder we’d become just one and feel the lightning shard,” from “The Sparrow and the Medicine” invite the listeners into the intimate space of the record. His most recent record Dark Bird is Home sports a fuller sound with backing vocals and a larger instrumental section. But the purity and emotiveness of Matsson’s voice in Shallow Grave has us turning back often to his debut.
British singer/songwriter Laura Marling released her debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim at 18, and even as a time capsule of youth it still resonates. Marling opens with the story of a youthful lover and “the ghosts that broke his heart.” The charming, dinging “Ghosts” showcases her powerful vocals and begins an exploration of relationships, with lovers and oneself, that continues throughout the record. “Crawled Out of the Sea (Interlude)” braces the middle of the record. Just over a minute long, it begins a cappella with Marling progressively joined by more instruments including a lively accordion and a group of background vocals (think a swaying crowd of sailors rather than a gospel choir). Twittering birds begin the seven-minute closing track “Your Only Doll (Dora).” After three minutes, though, the story of the broken girl and her broken relationship, transitions into two minutes of ambient bird noises before revealing a hidden song bearing the album title. “There’s a house across the river, but alas I cannot swim,” Marling sings. These final moments recall earlier mentions of her fears of the future, as in “Failure” when Marling sings, “Don’t cry child/ You’ve got so much more to live for.” In “Alas, I cannot swim,” Marling seems to be struggling with regret for a future she sees coming; she has time to find a way across the river, but has resolved that she can’t make it because she can’t swim and so already cuts herself off from future possibilities. But the album ends on a hopeful note as Marling concludes that what’s across the river is no longer meant for her. Marling’s most recent album is a project with Mike Lindsay called LUMP. Their self-titled debut was released this year and in contrast to her solo debut a decade ago, LUMP is a murky, electronic-influenced record.
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down released their debut album We Brave Bee Stings & All a few years after frontwoman Thao Nguyen’s solo debut Like the Linen. Her distinct vocals, both breathy and forceful, stand out immediately. On “Swimming Pools” the album title and its emotional core is revealed: “We brave bee stings and all, and we don’t dive, we cannonball/ And we splash our eyes full of chemicals just so there’s none left for little girls,” Nguyen sings, conjuring both childhood bravery and the prejudice and violence women face throughout life. They brave beestings “and all”—other, worse, pains—and then work for change to protect future generations of little girls. The strength of women, making a splash to create change for a better future, is a recurring theme on the album. On “Feet Asleep” Nguyen sings of an unappreciated caretaker, and on “Fear and Convenience,” a destructive relationship. The repeating lyric of “Did he hurt you in a new way?” in this latter song may refer to emotional hurt, but creates a double take calling to mind abusive relationships. On their latest album A Man Alive (2016), Thao & the Get Down Stay Down lean away from some of their early folk influences, present on We Brave Bee Stings & All, to a heavier, more beat-driven sound with an assist from tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus.