Everyone and their dog got sick of these best-of lists weeks ago, but I couldn’t be a self-respecting blogger if I didn’t throw mine out there. Late though it may be, it has the advantage that I at least waited until the year was actually over – any record that comes out in December is screwed in most of these lists. Though, looking over my selection, I didn’t actually pick any December albums, so…
In fact, what didn’t make the cut is as notable here as what did. Much-hyped blog bands Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes, near the top of many lists, turned out to be just that: hype. Kanye West, who rook the bronze medal last year, didn’t even make the top twenty-five with his spotty AutoTune-fest 808s and Heartbreak. And Bon Iver, whose For Emma, Forever Ago has topped many lists, is MIA here since it came out first in 2007.
So that’s what didn’t make it. Below is what did. My top twenty-five records of the year, with a sample track for each. If there’s interest, I can put them all up in one big zip file – let me know. Either way, happy reading, and happy new year!
25: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
After a couple years of detour with Grinderman, Cave brought the Bad Seeds back with a distortion-fueled, speed-freak aural assault to regain his stature as an avant-garde punk poet. Channeling Kerouac and the Ramones, his stream-of-consciousness rants don’t reveal all their cards until several listens, but are worth the wait.
Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
24: The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely
There’s no “Steady As She Goes” on Jack White’s other band’s second disc, but stronger album cohesion makes up for the lack of a single. Whether the band is rocking on the blues-laced psychedelia of “Five on the Five” or doing the Mexican hat dance to the horn-laden “Many Shades of Black,” the foursome jams with loose precision, the other three holding their own beside the charismatic White. All comes together on the closing “Carolina Drama,” an epic tale from the 19th century of betrayal and murder that leaves you with more questions than answers.
23: ITtheVerb – Very Prehistoric EP
An unknown two-piece from Boston, these thrashing instrumentalists create riff-heavy cacophonies of galloping sound, more Led Zeppelin than the White Stripes. Their fellow instrumental rockers Explosions in the Sky have been getting some blog love of late, so perhaps this self-released EP will get more listeners soon.
22: Coldplay –Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends
I know you’re as sick as everyone else of the ubiquitous title track, but try to remember back when you first heard it and thought, damn that’s a catchy song. Though I’ve hated Coldplay ever since I first saw the “Yellow” music video on MTV, the sugar-pop perfection and dense Brian Eno production here has made me reevaluate. Chris Martin and the boys finally leave their Radiohead pretensions behind and, though the 17th-century military theme is getting a bit old, claim their place as U2’s worthy successor.
Cemeteries of London
21: Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
After a nine-year hiatus from solo recordings (he did plenty of movie soundtracks though, most recently Leatherheads), Newman comes back with a biting satire of American life, leaving behind his unlikable characters to give us his own perspective on mortality, immigration and, of course, lost love. A piano man at heart, he brings a Dixieland jazz combo along for the ride here, bathing his froggy croak in brushed drums and shuffling horns.
20: The Mars Volta – The Bedlam in Goliath
The Mars Volta are an acquired taste to be sure. The only thing stranger than the story behind this album, involving a demonic Ouija board the band found, is the music itself. Jerking and arrhythmic, a song switches gears just when you think you’ve figured it out and, though the words may be in English, god knows what they’re saying. I realize that blurb doesn't sound too good, but it's a tough sound to describe. It speaks its own language.
19: Little Jackie – The Stoop
Just starting the make the circuits on the blogosphere, Little Jackie’s debut adds a fresh energy often missing from the introspective-tastic world of indie. Combining soul swagger with pop hooks, she struts her way through swirling funk and banging jams. Though her sound is 70’s throwback, her topics are all 2008: texting and the ghetto.
Guys Like When Girls Kiss
18: Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Parting Through Tornadoes)
Combining the airy sounds of Sigur Rós with the folksy pop of The Decemberists, Cloud Cult use violin and gender-blending harmonies to propel the best songs Sufjan Stevens didn’t write.
Everybody Here Is a Cloud
17: TV on the Radio – Dear Science
This one’s topped more than its fair share of year-end lists already and, though it didn’t make it quite so high here, it lives up to the critical hype. They infuse their glitchy electronics with just enough soul to avoid being headache inducing (like 2006’s much-vaunted Return to Cookie Mountain). TV on the Radio as a dance band seems a weird concept, but these pop sensibilities are well taken and give their music a fun vitality sadly lacking before.
16: Sons and Daughters – This Gift
Jangly riffs and girl-power vocals recall vintage Blondie, but the joyful exuberance this Scottish four-piece brings to each track is all their own. Their third release, This Gift explodes with sing-along potential, an unrelentingly fun album that only improves with time.
15: The Killers – Day & Age
The Killers have never been able to escape their brilliant debut Hot Fuss, and the media is quick to brand each subsequent release another disappointment. Sure, there may not be another “Mr. Brightside” here, but the band’s new-wave pop has never been more enjoyable. Reverb riffs and punchy bass lines propel incredibly catchy songs like “A Dustland Fairytale” and the single “Human,” but Brandon Flowers teaches the crew some new tricks too, like the African chanting of “This Is Your Life.”
This Is Your Life
14: Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun
The Beach Boy enjoyed a late career resurgence a few years back with the release of the long-delayed SMiLE, but his follow-up hasn’t received the same attention. It’s a shame too, as this one is even better. Where SMiLE’s pop melodies lurched all over the place, Wilson focuses in here to tell the story of his love for LA in seventeen songs and spoken word pieces. His large band can handle any harmony his throws at them, and Wilson’s ear for a joyful melody hasn’t left him. He may not be able to hit those high notes anymore, but his artistry is in peak form.
Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl
13: We Are Scientists – Brain Thrust Mastery
There’s no explaining the album’s title, but these hyper-catchy rock gems speak for themselves. From the synth-laden opener “Ghosts” to the echoing funk of “That’s What Counts,” these boys cram in about ten hooks a song. They sing about nothing but partying – and the morning after – and their music makes you want to do just that.
Let’s See It
12: Buddy Guy – Skin Deep
Pushing 73, Guy hasn’t lost a trick in his decades of performing. From his start backing Junior Wells, he never got the recognition he deserves until 1991’s Damn Right I Got the Blues when people recognized the man who inspired Hendrix for the talent he was. This new disc of blues originals, written and produced with Tom Hambridge, shows Buddy’s legendary guitar is as powerful as ever, schooling guests from Eric Clapton to Derek Trucks (not an easy feat). The real hidden treasure here is Guy’s voice though, squeezing emotion into each ferocious yelp or soulful come-on.
Too Many Tears (ft. Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks)
11: Guns ‘n’ Roses – Chinese Democracy
It’s no secret that by putting this album on my list I lose all blogger credibility, but I don’t care. The most widely ridiculed release of the year, it’s true Chinese Democracy may not have been worth a fifteen year wait. Critics have called it overblown, pretentious, indulgent, ridiculous. And you know what? It is all those things. But where they see overblown, I see elaborate; where they see pretentious, I see meticulous. Sure, the songs may not need the incredibly layered production, but to my ears that makes the record so enjoyable, a sonic Sgt. Pepper’s that draws you deeper in with each listen.
10: Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
Mash-up maestro Greg Gillis finally hit his stride in ’08 with a pay-what-you-want release that catapulted him from college cult status to the Lollapalooza main stage. If his formula is standard – hip-hop lyrics over a classic rock rhythm – his results are unique. Whether throwing it on at a party or just singing along in your dorm room, Feed the Animals is more than just an exercise in name-that-song, but a true new musical creation in its own right.
Give Me a Beat
9: My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
Jim James and co. hit their traditional genres on this record, from rocking metal (“Aluminum Park”) to crooning Americana (“Thank You Too”), but that didn’t stop them from venturing into uncharted waters. The grunge-funk of “Highly Suspicious” took awhile for fans to get used to, but the electro-thump of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” was immediately hailed as a mid-career masterpiece.
Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2
8: The Streets – Everything Is Borrowed
British rapper Mike Skinner has always been loved in the blog world for his offbeat street-urchin rhymes about drinking, girls, and drinking some more. He finally grows up on his fifth release though, spitting hooky rhymes about standing tall through poverty (“Everything Is Borrowed”) or contemplating suicide (“On the Edge of a Cliff”). Through all the grief he never loses his toungue-in-cheek humor though – he decides not to jump when an old man tells him he has strong genes.
Everything Is Borrowed
7: Kid Harpoon – The Second EP
When you’ve only got six tracks to work with, you’ve got to put your best foot forward, and on wharf-rat rambles and jaunty shanty sing-alongs the Kid does just that. Whether talking about running away with his girlfriend or killing her, he channels The Decemberists in all the right ways. He’s unknown outside of his Kent hometown, but once he releases a full length his intricate melodies and saucy lyrics should vault him straight into blogosphere glory.
6: The Gaslight Anthem – The ’59 Sound
Bands these days seem too self-conscious to make in-your-face rock songs these days, but the Gaslight Anthem proudly bucks these trends with Clash swagger and fist-pumping passion. Being from the same Jersey shore as Springsteen isn’t the only connection these boys have to the Boss; they name-check him on half their songs and find no shame in appropriating his working class anthem styles into their own tracks. They wear their influences on their sleeve, but create a joyous rock sound all their own that should shake the hipsters out of their sullen shuffle.
The ’59 Sound
5: Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III
Dozens of freely released mixtape raised the stakes for an official release from Mr. Carter, but his skills for rapping more than match those for marketing and as his spits sharp rhymes about – what else – how talented he is, it’s hard to disagree with him. The singles made him the king of 2008, but the deeper cuts are what truly make this a special hip-hop release, whether he’s sampling the Rolling Stones in “Playing With Fire” or jousting Jay-Z on “Mr. Carter.”
4: Islands – Arm’s Way
As indie as indie gets, Islands’ layered melodies and dense instrumentation never loses sight of the basic song and keeps things fun whether having violin-guitar duels or ripping off The Who. An underappreciated gem, Arm’s Way brings a sense of adventure to the indie scene, never letting twelve songs about injury and death get remotely depressing.
3: The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
With this and the Gaslight Anthem, it was a good year for rocking out. Craig Finn’s stream-of-consciousness poetry gives way to actual singing here, while the band spits riffs and solos like it 1975 again. Their songs about disaffected drug-addled youth avoid either condescension or approval, painting three-minute pictures of a scene of bored suburbanites just looking for a way to live.
2: The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
This reserved Danish duo prefers to keep their cult status, but fans of My Bloody Valentine or Motown would do well to take notice. Their fuzz-pop sounds like Buddy Holly sides playing on a distorted turntable, waves of reverb failing to swamp the poppy fun running underneath all the noise.
Aly, Walk With Me
1: Sigur Rós - Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
The album name may be unpronounceable to everyone outside their native Iceland (it means “With a Buzz in our Ears We Play Endlessly”), but the emotion running through every note of these angelic swirls is transnational. Bowed-guitar meets xylophone in cascading melodies, harmonies, counter-harmonies that define ethereal. The sound is unmatched, any influences they may have a secret to everyone but themselves, but suffice to say this: If God were in a band, it would be Sigur Rós.
Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur