Yes, this is only 8. But #8 is technically 2-in-1, and #5 is technically only one-half but #4 is technically three halves. This list is so full of EPs and concept releases and fancy projects that the numbers don’t really matter. So let’s go.

#8. Relient K
The Bird And The Bee Sides EP

Known for releasing a small EP between full-lengths, Relient K went overboard this time and gave us 26 tracks of new and old stuff. With something that ambitious there’s naturally a lot to skip over, but there’s plenty of great classic Relient K here. I’m really digging their current direction of a more laidback, layered acoustic sound that still has their classic creativity and instrumentation but without the old simple 1-2 punk rhythms.

#7. Showbread
Anorexia and Nervosa

I used to write these guys off as crazy guitar-crunchers, but the energy of their shows and the earnestness of their songwriting has been growing on me. In May they won me over with a strange simultaneous release of two entirely distinct albums, many of the tracks having the same titles. If that wasn’t already different, the whole thing was a concept, telling the story of two sisters (Anorexia and Nervosa, respectively) who each pursue self-destruction, one by building a tower and one by digging a hole, before finding redemption in Christ.

The music is meant to be a background to the two stories that are included in the CD booklet – with minute and second markers every now and then to tell you when to read on. The whole thing was just crazy enough to work, and the final redemptive track (my #1 song of the year) on Nervosa is powerfully beautiful. Separated from the story, the albums make nice vaguely intense background music for expressing frustration or weariness coupled with peace and rest, or as a soundtrack while performing monotonous tasks.

#6. House of Heroes
The End Is Not The End

Most of this list is made up of releases I was expecting that lived up to my expectations. This is one of the two delightful surprises. House of Heroes had always been just another Tooth & Nail band to me (there are so many of them now and they get smushed unless they do something to stand out) until all the kids at kept raving about it so much. This album adds some spice to the rock world with Ludo-like flair, Relient-K-like creative instrumentation, and Beatles-like harmonies.

At times they almost try too hard to be clever, but there’s a lot of good, catchy stuff in a solid release (I’m listening to it right now, actually). There’s some good songwriting, too, and many songs explore the philosophical complexities of war. “In The Valley Of A Dying Sun” says, I’m thinking of you, I’m thinking of you when you kill a good man, to keep yourself from being killed by him. “Code Name: Raven” declares, There’s no virtue in killing a man. Neither is there virtue in being afraid to stand. And, well, “Baby’s A Red” is just a cheeky tune about falling in love with a communist…

#5. Deas Vail
White Lights

From my AbsolutePunk review:

The familiar Deas Vail elements are present on this five-song EP, once again treating us to the cohesion of Laura’s flowing keys, Kelsey’s deliberate rhythms, Justin’s nimble bass, and Andy’s undulating guitar work. Fans looking for progression will note the added influence of strings, which throughout sounds not unlike a string quartet coming out of the background to add accentuating flavor.

For the most part, the lyrics contain typical Deas Vail abstractness, although there may be some growth. “White Lights” is simultaneously Wes’s most complete metaphor and most straightforward tale to date. “From Priests to Thieves” is a haunting admission of loss: We’re not coming back / It’s all our fault / We loved ourselves and lost it all / What have we done / What have we become? Wes carries it, but it’s Laura’s softly wrenching harmonies that sell it.

Deftly creating an engaging musical landscape, listeners will wade through smart rhythms and subtle time signatures in an atmosphere of flawless production that brings out the talents of each band member without ever sounding busy. The keys and vocals of the debut reminded many of Mae or Mew; the soothing guitars here are drawing more comparisons to Edison Glass. Complemented by the natural tone of a few strings, this is the perfect EP to experience over and over on a lazy swing as you watch summer turn into fall.

#4. Jon Foreman
Winter, Spring, and Summer

The Switchfoot frontman took a break from anti-materialistic anthems to give us more stripped-down and personal reflections about life and love. Beginning late last year with Fall, Foreman released the rest of the six-song seasons throughout 2008, and they all hit the spot for me. It’s mainly just his voice and his guitar here, although there’s some nice accentuation of clarinet or trumpet or bells throughout.

The songwriting is more vulnerable than Foreman lets out through Switchfoot – and also more spiritual. He alternates between sweet songs about love or longing and borrowed prayers and praises from Scripture. He wants to get lost “Deep In Your Eyes,” pleads to be washed “White As Snow” – and then scolds the pompous church, asking it to pursue justice and righteousness “Instead Of A Show.”

#3. Thrice
The Alchemy Index: Volumes III and IV (Air and Earth)

Now Jon Foreman wasn’t the only artist to release a four-by-six project between last fall and this summer. Thrice recorded four EPs each with six songs, exploring the concepts of the four ancient elements (fire, water, air, and earth – respectively). The impressive Fire & Water came out last October, and this spring we got the second set, Air & Earth.

It’s pretty awesome stuff. The music on these second two is a little less embellished than the intensity of Fire or the atmospheric layering of Water, but it’s just as captivating and soothing – and it also allows for a lot of cool acoustic guitar skills.

But as with the first set, the lyrics are what give this project excellence. Dustin Kensrue creates moving images and settings with allusions to Greek mythology (“Daedalus” gives the father’s perspective of Icarus’s fateful high flying and melted wings), ancient fables (“The Lion and the Wolf” paints metaphors about outside attacks along with self-destruction), and a myriad of Biblical references (“Moving Mountains” takes 1 Corinthians 13 and confesses the singer’s ignorance about love, and “Come All You Weary” is an all-inclusive invitation to rest).

All-around, it’s impressive and incredible songwriting and musicianship.

#2. Underoath
Lost In The Sound Of Separation

I was so close to naming this my #1. 2006’s Define the Great Line was the solid album that introduced to me to the wonderful world of all things heavy and hardcore, and this is the solid album that is keeping me there. While my tolerance for blatant dissonance and discordance is slowly increasing, Underoath consistently treads the perfect balance of “screamo” (purists hate that word) and melody, building intense layers of guitar and synth and ambiance and ridiculous tom fills.

In one sense this one’s got even more intensity – Aaron doesn’t sing until halfway through the second track – but in another sense it’s more precise and experimental. The end of “The Created Void” is reminiscent of The Almost with just the strumming guitar and Aaron’s wailing voice, and “Too Bright to See…” is an unlikely slow build filled with handclaps and even some singing by Spencer.

The entire album creates a solid, deliberate atmosphere, and there’s almost nothing wrong with it. Just as with their previous album, I love travelling through its twists and turns, its frenetic attacks and teasing pullbacks.

Besides, it’s got some more 5/4 breakdowns.

#1. Children 18:3
Children 18:3

Rarely do I give the big spot to a debut. Bands usually take a few years to hone their sound and skills – if they haven’t run out of creativity by then. But this energetic creation smacked me in the face. It’s one of those rare groups of musicians that have such a solid connection, cohesion, and confidence that they create fans out of almost everyone I introduce them to. I have to print my AbsolutePunk review in full:

I wasn’t sure what to make of this trio of home-schooled siblings – two brothers and a sister – whose name feels like some youth group worship band, who dress like some kind of goth death metal rockers, and who sound like Shiny Toy Guns meets Paramore meets MxPx meets your neighborhood ska band meets I don’t even know what else. But it only took one spin through their Tooth & Nail debut for me to decide that Children 18:3 are the most refreshing that punk rock has sounded in years.

Children 18:3 leave behind the ambient, multi-layered lovefest of the modern day and simply play their instruments and impress with a crisp and tight sound. When it comes to punk rock, this strategy usually leaves us trapped inside the doldrums of a two-step four-chord whining contest, but the Hostetter siblings churn their creativity to the max to keep things catchy. In addition to the standard upbeat punk tunes, songs like “The City” incorporate ska-like offbeats and a dancing bass, while songs like “Mock the Music” feature Panic!-esque dance rhythms. The mellow “A Chance to Say Goodbye” flows like a good ballad from your old friends MxPx or Blink-182 (you know you used to like them, too). There’s even a few guitar solos that, mixed in with the hooks and riffs, would feel right at home on Guitar Hero.

However, the strongest weapons in the children’s arsenal are the vocals of David and Lee Marie. David sings with a likable intensity that carries the melodies with its sharp inflection, occasionally falling somewhere between the professional quirkiness of mewithoutYou and the frenetic dexterity of that one Ludo song. Lee Marie shines with a piercing resonance on typical catchy anthems like “Search Warrant.” At other times she lets out her true colors with more of an intensity that feels neither misplaced nor presumptuous. But what is most delightful is the trade-off between the siblings, singing back-and-forth or together with nearly perfect timing. Their seamless integration blows Shiny Toy Guns out of the water while adding the icing to an already smart cake.

Children 18:3’s lyrics are just as refreshing. Often they create clever pictures that stand well enough on their own, or can be searched for a deeper meaning. “All My Balloons” declares, The words I wrote are a broken chain / Holding me from the criminally insane / But its gone and there’s no stopping / All my balloons are popping. Other songs give food for thought to the faithful without turning off the rest. “Final” jeers, Their fathers killed the prophets / Hallelujah! They’re going to kill us too, while “You Know We’re All So Fond of Dying” projects a sarcastic cry from the unborn.

The fact that I’ve made so many comparisons should not lead you to believe that these are aspiring punk rock posers without a solid sound. Just the opposite is true. Their sound feels so unique that it’s impossible to pin down to a single artist, and it’s probably why every reviewer is reminded of someone different, from Superchick to the Clash.

There were a lot of heavyweight veteran releases this year, but Children 18:3 is a pleasant surprise you’ll want to keep spinning. It’s practically required to be on any punk fan’s annual list, and is original and exciting enough to sneak in as a viable contender for the rest of us from the broader musical world as well. Children 18:3 have the potential to generate a legendary trans-genre fanbase akin to the late mewithoutYou or the late Five Iron Frenzy. This is your invitation to join.