- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

There’s no scientific way to measure when a band breaks out. For the band itself, it might mean touring in a rental van and staying in hotels instead of cramming into an old station wagon and couch-surfing.

It could mean breaking out of genre charts into the mainstream. This year’s big breakout happened early, when the Columbia University quartet Vampire Weekend released its self-titled debut in late January - and instantaneously became a cool signifier for sexagenarian pundits and preteen hipster wannabes alike. Listening Station reviewed its share of debuts and albums by young artists and bands on the verge of mainstream success. Here are four that, in retrospect, we might have included.

Bon Iver

For Emma, Forever Ago

Jagjaguwar

Justin Vernon sings with a spooky falsetto, like a charismatic Dust Bowl preacher out of Steinbeck, croaking out Armageddon on parched, paper-thin lips. The circumstances surrounding the composition of “For Emma, Forever Ago” have similarly mythic proportions. The album reportedly was written during a three-month sequestration in a remote cabin in Wisconsin. The result is a wintry album of songs that recall the bleak, depressive beauty of Elliott Smith. Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Vernon has the ability to sum up existential crises in pithy, elegant lines, as on “Re: Stacks,” in which he sings, “I’m twisting to the sun/ I needed to replace.” Check out “Skinny Love” and “Flume.”

TV on the Radio

Dear Science,

Interscope Records

With the September release of “Dear Science,” TV on the Radio went from alternative-rock darlings to full-fledged pop stars. The album is also one of the few unifying elements on otherwise wildly disparate top-10 album rankings from critics. What’s all the fuss about? The band coolly crosses over effects-driven dance music with funk jams to create one of the most satisfying rock sounds since the Isley Brothers. The musicians keep in touch with their alt-rock influences on the mopey, shoe-gazing “Family Tree” and “Stork and Owl.” The album’s true strength, though, comes from such tracks as “Golden Age” and “Red Dress” that recombine the guitar licks, beats, harmonies and idiosyncratic lyrics of classic soul with an undercurrent of electronic fury.

My Morning Jacket

Evil Urges

ATO

The Louisville band has been around awhile but enjoyed two hallmarks of the breakout band in 2008: It played “Saturday Night Live” and got its first peeved backlash review in the online music mag Pitchfork. On “Evil Urges,” its fifth studio album, the genre-defying band focused its diffuse stylistic strands - dance, trip-hop, alt-country, funk - into a unitary sound. Occasionally the group sounds a bit like the Bee Gees, occasionally like early 1980s the Who, and here and there like a Curtis Mayfield project. Guitarist Carl Broemel is more restrained than on albums past, but his choices are bold and precise. Check out the title track, “Evil Urges,” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 1” and “Aluminum Park.”

Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes

SubPop

It’s hard to characterize the Fleet Foxes without coming off as flip or reductive. The band, founded by high school friends Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset, has an affinity for old-time structures and folk-revival hootenanny-style vocals. Its use of reverb gives the group’s vocal sounds a kind of spaced-out ethereal flavor. Mr. Pecknold has an a plaintive, almost stern singing style that matches well with Mr. Skjelset’s understated guitar playing. It’s an album of gentle sounds played with appealing fury. Listen to “Ragged Wood” to get a sense of Fleet Foxes’ brand of old-time-inflected alternative rock.

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