Ten Great Albums of 2008

It was a great year for music with lots of destined to be classic albums to pick from. This shortlist represents the records that will no doubt be stand the test of time. Vampire Weekend had a good year but will the whitest band around really be remembered twenty years from now? Lil Wayne stirred things up but was he the best Hip Hop had to offer this year?

We’ll see how this list stands up to time. Until then here they are, Ten Great Albums of the year in no particular order.

Portishead, Third

Of all the comebacks and regroupings–Guns and Roses’ overly hyped Chinese Democracy, My Blood Valentine’s magnificent tour but lack of new material, or The Smashing Pumpkins unnecessary half-reunion–the most rewarding return came from Portishead. After two equally exciting trip-hop outings from the early 90s, the Bristol, England trio went on a twelve-year hiatus destined to drift into nostalgia. The group’s third record, appropriately titled Third, showed a musical maturation that few bands ever achieve. Instead of resurrecting its trip hop roots Portishead went an entirely different route blending carefully orchestrated electronic harmonies and rhythms with Beth Gibbons’ ethereal pipes. While each of the album’s tracks stand out in their own way the absolute moments of brilliance come with the opener, “Silence,” guided by a driving bass and drum beat and featuring an otherworldly vocal sample (in this case a recording of someone speaking in Portuguese) and “The Rip,” a dreamy ballad with a crescendo of electronics and vocal range that make it the album’s one true repeat track. That Johnny Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead both covered this song extensively during the sound checks on their last tour only adds to the song and this album’s genius.

Q-Tip, The Renaissance

Sure Lil Wayne will probably steal the thunder of best of Hip Hop this year (and Tha Carter III is indeed a great album) but one of the most exciting and rewarding albums to be released was from one Jonathan Davis, known around the Hip Hop community as Q-Tip. It seems like ages since A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and it’s been a striking nine years since Q-Tip’s first solo album, Amplified hit the streets. The Renaissance is a closer venture to Quest’s jazz funk influenced, socially conscious hip hop than Amplified and shows that Q-Tip still remains one of rap’s best lyricists–nasally, sarcastic, and electrifying. The album features a number of guests most notably from Norah Jones whose appearance on “Life is Better” dwarfs her work on Outkast’s The Love Below. “Believe” makes good use of D’Angelo’s still active pipes while Raphael Saadiq (whose 2008 album The Way I See It is just shy of being a top contender) shines on the hook of “We Fight/Love.” Q-Tip has long been a hip hop favorite but has been out of the spotlight in recent years primarily landing guest spots on other artist’s records. The Renaissance may not end up being as important or timeless as The Low End Theory but amidst other hip hop artists working today it’s nice to see that one of raps pioneers still has what it takes. 

Brian Eno & David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Much like Radiohead’s pleasant internet download surprise with last year’s In Rainbows, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s unexpected collaboration and subsequent internet stream/release of new material was the stuff of music geek’s dreams. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is a testament to just how perfect some musical matches are. Absent were the now predictable African polyrhythms and worldly samples of the duo’s previous collaborations–the stand alone project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the three peat of Talking Heads masterpieces culminating with Remain in Light–instead loyal fans were treated to a rare mix of uplifting electro pop gospel songs the likes of which neither musician has ventured towards before. Sure a bit of nitpicking would find flaws in the album’s two minor tracks–the penultimate “Poor Boy” or “Feel My Stuff,” a track that needs to be heard/seen live in order to truly appreciate–but overall this is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. “The River” alludes to early Heads quick hit pop tunes. “Strange Overtones” brings the duo’s appreciation of groove and funk to the forefront and the album’s title track–a heavenly ballad anchored by the album’s hopeful money line From the milk of human kindness/From the breast we all partake­­­–is quite simply a joy for the ears. Both artists have continued with solo and producing careers over years but nothing comes close to matching the masterful music they produce together.  

M83, Saturdays = Youth

Often donned this year’s ultimate homage to the 1980s, M83’s latest album is much more an ode to the teenage wildlife. Musically the album carries on the torch of electro and synth pop outfits like The Orb and dream pop pioneers like Cocteau Twins, while lyrically referencing adolescent angst, naïve love and wonder. On “Kim and Jessie” M83’s chief Anthony Gonzalez sings, Kids outside worlds / They are crazy about romance and illusion behind a blanket of keyboards and thunder drums. “Up!” alludes to cosmic travels of two characters who may or may not be carefree intergalactic vampires (of the galaxy we fly we feed we suck we bleed we need…), while “Skin of the Night” feels like a forgotten soundtrack to the countless fantasy films of the 1980s, from Labyrinth to, as a friend hinted to in her enthusiasm for the album, Ridley Scott’s “so bad it’s good” Tom Cruise vehicle Legend. Saturday = Youth is the ultimate ode to the synthesizer, a relic from the advent of sampling and electro pop that has seen a resurgence in years past mainly in the hip-hop world (Common’s recent lackluster release, Universal Mind Control is very much a similar wink and nod to the electro funk forefathers) but rather than merely a silly collection of dated melodies M83 gives us fresh, modern take on the 80s electro pop glory days.


TV on the Radio, Dear Science

TV on the Radio’s follow up to the universally celebrated Return to Cookie Mountain somehow got lost in a sea of other new albums and failed to get the monumental release it deserved. Sure it was instantly a critic’s darling with many claiming that it improves on its predecessor by straying away from the dark undertones and ultimately being more accessible musically but in terms of popularity it didn’t make as big a splash. Dear Science is proof once again that there are few groups working today as unique and innovative as TV on the Radio. Musically trying to classify the songs that make up Dear Science is a futile exercise for Radio has always been a band to just soak up and experience. Funk, hip-hop, art-rock, EMO…the list could go on. Lyrically the messages on Dear Science aren’t as bleak as its predecessor but still manage to convey a level of political and social unrest. 

TV on the Radio is a band that doesn’t require adoration. It has realized its place in modern music and is currently in the state of simply showing off the extents that it can take its sound. “Halfway Home,” arguably one of the best opening tracks to any album in recent years (world’s apart from Mountain’s terribly bleak opening “I was your lover, before this war”), is a promising start to what ends up being a flawless album from start to finish. “Family Tree” propelled by an electronic symphony of strings and reverb drenched piano is a heartbreaking love song set, one would assume, during times of slavery, alluded to in the verse, “And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree / There’s a hundred hearts or three / Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young.” “Crying” returns to the band’s penchant for commentating on society’s woes with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe crooning, “Gold is another word for culture / Leads to fattening / Of the vultures” while the album’s closer “Lover’s Day” may be the closest thing to an unadulterated, uplifting love song the group’s ever released–a highly erotic and exuberant tribute to the physical act of love. TV on the Radio established itself as the “IT” band to keep an eye on with Return to Cookie Mountain. Dear Science secures their future legacy as one of the few bands that mattered during the 00s. 

Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

Like TV on the Radio’s follow-up to their massive hit The Odd Couple didn’t make nearly as big a splash as its predecessor, St. Elsewhere. Much of this might be attributed to Barkley’s refusal to provide another runaway hit single. “Crazy” was arguably the song of 2006 and up their with “Hey Ya” as possibly one of the best of the decade. Many viewed Elsewhere as nothing more than a vehicle for “Crazy,” an attitude that hindered an otherwise triumphant debut record. 

The Odd Couple continues Barkley’s mission of blending psychedelic rock with soul, funk and hip-hop in a bizarre melting pot of sounds and influences. To truly respect what these two innovators are doing you have to appreciate Cee-Lo’s soulful pipes and DJ Danger Mouse’s tight production. The Odd Couple is not only better than its predecessor but arguably one of the forgotten gems of the year. The lyrics are more poignant (i.e. “Got some bad news this morning / Which in turn made my day”), the production more varied and interesting and Cee-Lo’s vocals have never been better. Add this to a bizarre internet download leak of the album played backwards in its entirety from the group themselves and you have one of the year’s most weirdly rewarding releases from a band that proved its beyond a mere one-hit-wonder legacy.


Erykah Badu, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Those who said the neo-soul movement was ancient history were only half correct. It seemed fitting that the artist who helped start this budding genre would be the one to help propel it in a completely new direction. It had been eight years since Erykah Badu’s last proper album, five since her 2003 EP Worldwide Underground and fans were starting to fear Ms. Badu had gone the way of D’Angelo. New Amerykah: Part One is the first of what appears to be a series or duo of albums with Part Two: Return of the Ankh slated for release next year. The album is a hodgepodge of sounds from soul’s varied past brought to a modern, politically fueled stage. Its opening track “Amerykahn Promise” sounds like a forgotten piece of the Parliament catalogue featuring sirens, sound effects, driving funk guitar and dance rhythms unlike anything Badu has ever done before. What follows are a series of wildly varied tunes borrowing sounds and styles from damn near every genre even remotely linked to soul and R&B. “The Healer/Hip-Hop” takes the album down a notch to a dark bumping groove, while on “Me” Badu dishes out a down to earth personal message about getting old and becoming one with herself and her surroundings. New Amerykah is one of the early albums of 2008 that may have been forgotten amidst what followed it. Its release marks a new day for Badu and a radically different musical direction that is not only fascinating but also welcomed. Part One’s only flaw is that we must wait till sometime next year to see how she continues this new project.

Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Sigur Rós continues to release music that can’t really be described with words; it must be experienced firsthand. Much of the band’s success over the years is its blending of traditional and new sounds with lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s signature falsetto. To say that Sigur Rós is a bit of a one-note wonder may be a bit of a stretch but the fact is album after album they continue a formula that consistently works. A little ambient pop, a bit of building crescendo for each song and lyrics that are only familiar to Icelanders and sometimes solely the band itself. If one were to categorize Með suo… among Rós’ other albums it could be described as the most stripped down and folk oriented release to date. There are few songs that utilize the band’s signature bowed electric guitar sound instead the group rely on acoustics and an array of live horn arrangements. Sigur Rós will remain one of those rare groups that are embraced no matter what they put out. Ranking this album among the rest is pointless. They are band to see live, a band whose albums should be listened to whole, and preferably with good headphones, and so far the group can’t seem to go wrong.

She & Him, Vol. 1

The move from music to acting has always been an easier feat to accomplish than the opposite. Zooey Deschanel is the last person who you’d expect to be part of one of the best albums of the year but here we are. Deschanel is the She of the duo with indie darling Matt Ward wearing the shoes of Him. Together they have crafted one of the most enjoyable albums of the year–a collection of pure, unadulterated catchy throwback pop tunes. Unlike other actors making the jump to music (Scarlet Johannson’s failed Tom Waits covers album comes to mind) Deschanel has long been an amateur songwriter with a voice of gold. On Vol. 1, which is comprised of all original songs (may written when Deschanel was younger) and two memorable renditions of standards, Zooey sings of love lost, broken hearts, love found, dreams come true, and being “alone on a bicycle for two.” M. Ward’s music mixes acoustic folk rock with the big sound production of yesteryears, fully equipped with string arrangements, female backup singers and plenty of “ooooohs,” “lalalala’s,” and “oooh dum dee-das”–enough finesse to make The Supremes proud. “Sweet Darling” feels like a time capsule from the wall of sound production days, “I Thought I Saw Your Face” features some of the best whistling solos of any album this year, and the duo’s acoustic picking cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is enough to send shivers down the spine. There have been many throwback albums from female artists in recent years, particularly post Amy Winehouse but none feel as honest or unique as She & Him’s debut. Deschanel and Ward have both stated in interviews that Vol. 2 is just around the corner and will be even better and it’s in the opinion of this writer that they just keep ‘em coming. 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

It’s fitting that Nick Cave, a well-seasoned veteran who’s been writing and performing for over thirty years now is currently making some of the best records of his career. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! comes on the heels of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ side project Grinderman and its eponymous debut album and is in many ways its continuation. Gritty guitar heavy garage rock married with Cave’s densely written lyrics, and Ellis’ penchant for traditional instrumentation. Cave has always been an intriguing writer with his lyrics and crooning voice being his trademark. At 51 Cave is at the peak of his talents. The album’s opening title track alludes to the tale of Lazarus set in modern day with the subsequent tracks referencing other biblical common themes–love, war, murder, sin, etc. Cave has always been a storyteller first and foremost and the tales he weaves song after song are fascinating. Venturing into the Southwest on “Albert Goes West,” and tackling the day in the life of a hooker in “Today’s Lesson.” On “We Call Upon the Authors” Cave references his influences in the literary world, fellow storytellers who use the written word to comment on the world around them. Musically Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! showcases the influence that Warren Ellis has had on The Bad Seeds since his arrival in the band in the mid 90s. The multi-talented musician shines on the album’s most tender moments, primarily when he’s behind the viola and mandolin. The two have gotten closer than ever over the years having collaborated on side projects including Grinderman and two memorable film scores, most notably for The Proposition. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! may not be as personal as past Bad Seeds efforts (The Boatman’s Call comes to mind) but its refreshing testament to just how well Cave has aged and matured over the years.  

NOTABLE RUNNER UPS

The Roots, Rising Down-The talented lineup from Philly continues to release poignant, socially conscious hip hop that reflects the past and present. Musically they remain the crème of the crop in instrumental hip-hop.

Raphael Saadiq, The Way It Is-Motown harmonies and production blended with modern day, adult-themed vocals make this yet another successful throwback to the past.

Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes-Stunning debut album from some of best vocalists working in the indie rock arena.

King Khan and the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines-Technically a compilation album this first official wide release from Khan and his funk star orchestra is the most fun dance record you’ll find this year. James Brown style soul combined with often slapstick dirty lyrics makes Khan a rising name in the genre bending psychedelic rock genre.

AC-DC, Black Ice-The hard rocking album Axel Rose wishes he could put out. AC-DC does, well, AC-DC, again. But it’s still some of the best sounding roadhouse rock around. 

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals-The second best dance record this year. 50 minutes of the finest mish-mosh of pop music history money can’t buy. 

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV-It was a good year for Trent Reznor. This collection of inspired instrumental cuts shows NIN is currently making the most of its independent musical freedom. 

Two albums that will undoubtedly be appreciated more with time: Kanye West, 808’s and Heartbreak, My Morning Jacket’s, Evil Urges 

Best stand along song: The so good its worth buying: “I will Possess Your Heart” Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs

Best Underrated Release From an Underrated Musical Powerhouse: The Black Keys, Attack and Release

Best Epic Album Closer of the Year: “Kissing the Beehive” Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

 

 

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