Sunday, November 30, 2008

The 10 Best Albums of 2008

OK, this was hard to compile this year. And that's the best confirmation that it was an outstanding year for music. New faces, some old faces returning in big ways... I have no complaints.

As always, this list is the opinion of one person and it is meant to foster discussion and debate. No need to call me an ignorant SOB... if you think something is grievously wrong, just say so... who knows, you might open our ears to some new music.

Like last year, I'm including a link to a "second opinion" so you know I'm not nuts. And, when possible, I've linked to some tracks so you can hear for yourself... as you'll see, not all of these bands are mainstream.

Let's start with a list of honorable mentions that werejustthisclose but didn't make the top 10:

  • Beck - Modern Guilt - Another solid entry from my favorite Scientologist. In any other year, probably on the list.
  • Juliana Hatfield - How to Walk Away - A surprisingly good disc by someone who managed to stay as fresh as she sounded in 1993.
  • Mates of State - Re-Arrange Us - An album about the marital strife that comes with any move from one place to another. Unfortunately out of balance though. First six songs are some of the year's best stuff. Last few, not nearly as good.
  • Nine Inch Nails - The Slip - Where was this in 1998 instead of the over-indulgent double album? And the price? Free.
  • R.E.M. - Accelerate - And where was this instead of flipping Around the Sun? Michael Stipe & co. had a cup of coffee and got back to being a great band.
OK, here goes, friends:

10) Q-Tip, The Renaissance
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Amazing what can happen when you keep it simple. Some great beats, perfectly-chosen samples and tremendous lyrical work and, voila!, a great rap album. And you have to give the man some credit when it comes to guests on his album. You can almost hear the record label saying "Oh you should call up L'il Wayne or T-Pain" but Tip dials up Raphael Saadiq, D'Angelo and Norah Jones. Why? Good instincts, apparently. Q-Tip, like a few others on this list, knew not to ask how to stay relevant after a long absence. That's because good music is always in demand.

Key tracks: "Won't Trade," "Official," "Gettin Up"

9) Duffy, Rockferry
Second Opinion:Rolling Stone

While Beck dabbled in 1960s psychedelia, Duffy brought the soul of the era. Despite inevitable Amy Winehouse comparisons, a few listens reveals Duffy to be more than a blond, non-strung-out repackaging. Her songs have depth and her voice is, honestly, a lot better than Ms. Winehouse. Plus, I always can make room for a Welsh accent.

Key tracks: "Rockferry," "Warwick Avenue," "Mercy"

8) Santogold, Santogold
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

I barely know where to start here. Pounding beats on some tracks, 1980s quirks on others, good singing on some... awesomeness all around. Santogold picks carries M.I.A.'s torch and freakin' adds to the flame. This is no small task. Not quite as politically-motivated as her Sri Lankan comparison, Santogold puts a funky spin on traditional themes of relationships and life in Brooklyn. And if you watch any TV, you caught one of her songs on any number of commercials and didn't even know it. Well-suited for the dance club and a lazy day, Santogold is one of several new artists that have set a high bar for their sophomore efforts.

Key tracks: "Say Aha," "Creator," "Lights Out"

7) Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line
Second Opinion: Entertainment Weekly

"You know that dying is fine/but maybe/I wouldn't like death if death were good." So it goes on "Dying is Fine," one of many standout tracks from this amazing debut from Syracuse, NY outfit, Ra Ra Riot. Death is all over this album, and the fact that the band's founding drummer and songwriter died last year is certainly part of the reason. If channeling the grief onto this disc is what they needed to get by it, at least we can all enjoy the outcome. No band other than The Arcade Fire is using strings as well as this new band and even the weaker tracks on the disc are as good as many others' best songs this year. Bravo, kids.

Key tracks: "Dying is Fine," "Ghost Under Rocks"

6) N.E.R.D. - Seeing Sounds
Second Opinion: Entertainment Weekly

Is there a less likely inclusion here? I mean, their second album sucked. No need to dress it up. This time, though, Pharrel, Chad and Shaye bring their best: infectious beats, good songs and a bit of humor. All that made this one of the best discs of the summer, but what truly set it apart were two soulful tracks, "Sooner or Later" and "Love Bomb" that just, to paraphrase the latter, blew us away. And the modernized, hip-hop send up of "You're So Vain" that is "Yeah You" still has me wondering who the damn song is about.

Key tracks: "Windows," "Love Bomb," "Sooner or Later"

5) Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

A group of Ivy Leaguers are not the usual suspects to put out one of the year's most creative, infectiously-catchy albums. It's so not Brooklyn hipster enough for this world! What we get here is African-influenced indie-pop. Amazingly good African-influenced indie-pop. From songs about a campus crush ("Campus") to crosstown bus musings ("M79"), this disc was a refreshingly new sound that one can only hope bodes even better things to come from this Upper West Side ensemble.

Key tracks: "Oxford Comma," "Bryn," "Campus"

4) Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple
Second Opinion: Entertainment Weekly

There are few things in this world as the sophomore album that is better than the original. I know some might argue with me this album doesn't quite achieve that mark, but I will defend this stance. It may not have the instant pop appeal of St. Elsewhere, but this album has grown on me with every listen. First, songs like "Going On" grab you, but then you're drawn into more subtle tracks like "Surprise" and finally, the song-so-good-it-scares-you-once-you-get-it "Open Book." That track, is one you skip the first few times, and then one day you hear it and have to re-listen two or three times because you're going, "Whoa, really?" A startling step up for a band that once seemed like a novelty act. Dare I say that, if they can keep this up, they're going to be leading the league by this time two years from now.

Key tracks: You know, just sample the whole damn album

3) Portishead, Third
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

The thing about making music that defies categorization is that it can almost never be dated. So, 11 years after we last had new material from the band (and 5 since we had new Beth Gibbons material), Portishead sounds as good as ever. In fact, the absence of "competitors" such as Massive Attack and Tricky make them sound all that much better. Beth could always sing, but the production behind these tracks, from the beat-crazed "We Carry On" to the sparse banjo of "Deep Water,," is second to none. An astounding return to the scene.

Key tracks: "Silence," "Machine Gun"

2) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

Simply put: astounding. Lush harmonies, layers of instrumentation, a jam band that doesn't jam... so much to say about this. They do forlorn well. They do exuberant well. They do it all well. The crime of the year is that, somehow, this has flown under the radar. Drawing comparisons to My Morning Jacket, the Foxes go a step further than MMJ if you ask me. Every song brings a surprise and, this is scary, it music that probably not only plays well now, but would have played well 50 years ago and will, in all likelihood, play well 50 years FROM now. In fact, I'm going to make a bold statement: I don't care what you like, you should like Fleet Foxes. Country fan? It's all there. Classical fan? It's all there. Rock fan? It's all there.

Key tracks: "Ragged Wood," "White Winter Hymnal," "Blue Ridge Mountains"

1) Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and all His Friends
Second Opinion: BBC

I could make an argument that Fleet Foxes had a case here, but their undoing is that there was an amazing album that gained a huge amount of attention. And that album is this one. Perhaps no other band is derided as much as Coldplay. I struggled to find a critical review that didn't say something to try and deflate what we have on this album. And yet, almost universally, this is the disc that just about all my friends can agree on. What we have on this album is the once-and-for-all dethroning of U2 as "biggest band in the world." A title the Irish boys got only because R.E.M. decided to step aside. Coldplay, which has gotten better with every disc, clears this final hurdle with seeming ease (though if you read about recording this album, you know they felt they had to make an amazing album). Every song works and each is bolstered by the songs (or silence) that bookend it. Be honest, when the first chirps of "Life in Technicolor" kick in, you're hooked. "Lost" is the kind of instant classic track we have grown to love this band for and, despite its omnipresence, even "Viva La Vida" is tough to get sick of. It's a can't miss album from one of the highest profile bands in the world. That happens... not so often. To have a mainstream album reach such heights is something we should all take a breath and appreciate.

Key tracks: "Lost," "Cemeteries of London," "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love"

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

I totes agree with Duffy and Coldplay but, um, I don't see Jessica Simpson's "Do You Know?" on here! Haha, I jest!