Saturday, May 8, 2010

Best Albums of 2008

Most people don’t realize it, but 2008 may be one of the best years in music history. Because of technological advances, ordinary people can self-record music that traditional recording companies might find too risky and get it listed on iTunes and other download services. We’ll see how the recession affects this trend in 2009.

If you’re still buying CDs from music stores, you’re probably not being exposed to all of this music. That’s why the previously defunct term “album” has made a comeback as a collection of songs, whether they end up on a CD or not.

The biggest trend this year is the return of R&B/Soul. It’s been happening throughout the decade, but in 2008, the more melodic genre seems to have finally displaced Rap/Hip-Hop as the music of choice for many young artists. Several of those artists are white and many are women. The door that was opened by Joss Stone and Christina Aguilera was knocked down by Amy Winehouse last year, and their successors are flooding through, including Adele, Duffy, Elisa, and even a few with two names like Hilary McCrae, Leigh Jones, and Shoshana Bean. They have joined more traditional R&B artists to make this year very special.

Rock also changed as Emo has faded, replaced by musicians playing varied instruments in songs with interesting changes fronted by singers who refuse to whine. As such, this year conjures images of artists who express themselves fully in a variety of ways. My tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Rap, Death Metal or traditional folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list.

For all others, I actually found 120 albums worth listing, so I numbered the top 30 and left the rest for “Honorable Mention.” Here they are in ascending order:

30. Big Blue Ball: “Big Blue Ball” This collection of World Music is the brainchild of Peter Gabriel and World Party’s Karl Wallinger, who compiled songs by a wide range of artists. Outstanding cuts include “Whole Thing” and “Big Blue Ball.”

29. Pepper: “Pink Crustaceans” This Hawaiian band combines buoyant tunes with inventive, sometimes outrageous lyrics for a delightful combination of songs. Included are “Things That You Love,” “Love 101,” and “Musical 69.”

28. School of Language: “Sea from Shore” A side project of Field Music’s David Brewis, this album shows outstanding musicianship and songwriting. Listen to “Rockist Pt. 1,” “This Is No Fun,” and “Tear Me a Part.”

27. Fleet Foxes: “Fleet Foxes” If you like vocal harmonies, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes is a band for you. Their songs are rich and full, and seem appropriate in this holiday season. This album includes “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood,” and “He Doesn't Know Why.”

26. Amanda Palmer: “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” The lead singer from the Dresden Dolls brings her compelling quirkiness to this solo effort, featuring “Astronaut,” “Runs In the Family,” and “Strength Through Music.”

25. Lalah Hathaway: “Self Portrait” The daughter of Donny Hathaway and a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lalah Hathaway has been recording since 1990, but this may be her best effort, combining sultry jazz tones with interesting R&B riffs. My favorite tracks include “Learning to Swim,” “What Goes Around,” “Breathe,” and “On Your Own.”

24. Sunny Day Sets Fire: “Summer Palace” This indie pop band from London wins this year’s award for the best late-Beatles-influenced band. Songs include “Wilderness,” “Teenagers Talking,” and “Map of the World.”

23. Buckcherry: “15” This rollicking rock band from California recorded what is easily their best collection to date, featuring such (not suitable for all audiences) gems as “Crazy Bitch” “Everything,” “Sorry,” and “Onset.”

22. honeyhoney: “First Rodeo” Using guitar, violin, and clear vocals to combine, jazz, blues, and country into a delightful alternative mix, this is one of my favorite new bands. Listen to “Black Crows,” “Little Toy Gun,” “Give Yourself to Me,” and “Naughtiness of Me.”

21. Duffy: “Rockferry” Bursting onto the scene this year, Duffy is another throwback to the early 60s, with an interesting blend of neo-soul that includes “Mercy,” “Warwick Avenue,” and “Syrup & Honey.”

20. Jack Peñate: “Matinée” This 22-year-old South London songwriter is another of the year’s best new performers, combining inventive music and infectious lyrics. Songs include “Spit at Stars,” “Have I Been a Fool,” “Torn On the Platform,” and “Second, Minute or Hour.”

19. Raphael Saadiq: “The Way I See It” Formerly with Tony! Toni! Toné!, this album could have been recorded in the 60s, but then it wouldn’t have included performances by Joss Stone and Jay-Z. Tracks include “100 Yard Dash,” “Love that Girl,” and “Never Give Up.”

18. Josh Kelley: “Special Company” Talk about prolific, Josh Kelley released three albums in 2008—“Special Company,” “To Remember,” and “Backwoods.” All are good, but the best is “Special Company,” featuring 14 songs including “Unfair” and “Fallin in Love With You.”

17. Maiysha: “This Much Is True:” She didn’t show up on most critics’ radar, but this is one of the best new R&B artists and one of the many new performers coming from Brooklyn these days. Pay attention to “Over My Head,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Hold Me,” and “Matter of Pride.”

16. Beck: “Modern Guilt” One of music’s most interesting and influential artists, Beck seems to be getting more prolific with age, and always worth hearing. On this release, some gems include “Chemtrails,” “Orphan,” “Modern Guilt,” and “Profanity Prayers.”

15. Gnarls Barkley: “The Odd Couple” Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse are indeed an odd couple, but only because they continue to redefine modern soul, with songs like “Who's Gonna Save My Soul,” “Going On,” and “Run (I'm a Natural Disaster).”

14. In the Heights (Original Cast Recording) With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this Wesleyan-conceived musical is truly the best that Broadway has to offer, featuring Latin-rhythm songs like “It Won't Be Long Now,” “When You're Home,” and “The Club.”

13. Kate Nash: “Made of Bricks” This Irish Londoner combined theatrical tendencies with playful tunes to make one of the year’s most enjoyable song collections, including “Foundations,” “Mouthwash,” “Skeleton Song,” and “Merry Happy.”

12. Ben Sollee: “Learning to Bend” The only cellist on this list, Ben Sollee makes really good music and plays it really well. I love “How to See the Sun Rise,” “It's Not Impossible,” and a wonderful version of the all-time classic and this year’s post-election ballad, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

11. The Autumn Isles: “Wish Lists & Sunken Lands” Hailing from Perth in Western Australia, the Autumn Isles recorded this seven-song gem that reminds me of vintage Beatles/Beach Boys. This is one where I say to buy the whole album, which includes “It’s Been a While,” “A Gift to You,” and “Love's Not a Thing.”

10. Usher: “Here I Stand” Usher Raymond is a very talented artist, and on this album, he shows why he’s at the top of the R&B charts, with a combination of ballads and dance tunes that will warm your soul. They include “Love In This Club” “Moving Mountains,” “Here I Stand,” and “Hush.”

9. The Raconteurs: “Consolers of the Lonely” Fronted by Jack White and Brendan Benson, the Raconteurs have carved a special niche in the alternative rock world—one that combines well-written songs and outstanding musicianship. This list of gems includes “Old Enough,” “You Don't Understand Me,” “Many Shades of Black,” and the title track.

8. Jenny Lewis, “Acid Tongue” Most famous for fronting the superb band, Rilo Kiley, Lewis lets her amazing vocal talents and singing style shine on this solo effort, featuring “Trying My Best to Love You,” “Sing a Song for Them,” and “Pelican Bay.”

7. Beyoncé: “I Am... Sasha Fierce” How can you not love Beyoncé Knowles? She’s one of the world’s biggest stars, yet she continues to stretch the limits with efforts like this 19-song effort that showcases the two sides of her personality—the beauty in the ballads and the wild woman waiting to dance. Don’t miss “If I Were a Boy,” “Ave Maria,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”

6. Death Cab for Cutie: “Narrow Stairs” I used to think of them as the other band fronted by the Postal Service’s singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, but with this release, Death Cab for Cutie came into its own. A complete effort, this album features “I Will Possess Your Heart,” “No Sunlight,” “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division.”

5. Forgive Durden: “Razia's Shadow: A Musical” If it wasn’t for the annoying and unnecessary narration, this might have been my #1 album of 2008. As it is, the complex music and terrific singing by a slew of artists from other bands make this an album worth having. It includes “Genesis,” “Life Is Looking Up,” “It's True Love,” and “The End and the Beginning.”

4. Of Montreal: “Skeletal Lamping” This indie rock group gets better with every album, and Skeletal Lamping is their best effort to date, conjuring images of young Queen and Bowie. All the songs are great, but among the standouts are “Nonpareil of Favor,” “For Our Elegant Caste,” and “An Eluardian Instance.”

3. Adele: “19” London’s Adele Adkins is the best of this year’s new crop of white soul artists. At first overlooked because she doesn’t have movie-star looks, Adele has wowed critics and audiences alike and will doubtless be a fixture on the scene in the coming years. Among her wonderful repertoire are “Hometown Glory,” “Best for Last,” “Chasing Pavements,” and “Make You Feel My Love.”

2. TV On the Radio: “Dear Science” Brooklyn’s best band takes disparate sounds like electronic, punk, and soul music and mixes them into something special and new, which is hard to do in this world of sameness. Each track is wonderful, and they include “Crying,” “Dancing Choose,” “Shout Me Out,” and “Red Dress.”

1. Vampire Weekend: “Vampire Weekend” The year’s best album is the debut of this New York band that uses African rhythms to back a superb array of songs that make you want to dance, sing, and enjoy music as it is meant to be enjoyed. These infectious tunes include “The Kids Don't Stand a Chance,” “Walcott (Insane Mix),” “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Mansard Roof,” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).”

The following deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

The Academy Is...: “Fast Times At Barrington High”
Air Traffic: “Fractured Life”
The Airborne Toxic Event: “The Airborne Toxic Event”
Akon: “Freedom”
Alamance: “Moving On”
Alanis Morissette: “Flavors of Entanglement”
Albert Hammond, Jr.: “Como Te Llama?”
Alkaline Trio: “Agony & Irony”
The All-American Rejects: “When the World Comes Down”
All Day Sucker: “The Big Pretend”
American Princes: “Other People”
Anathallo: “Canopy Glow”
Annuals: “Such Fun”
Army of Freshmen: “Above the Atmosphere”
Baldwin Drive: “Orange & Black”
Blind Pilot: “3 Rounds and a Sound”
Bodies of Water: “Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink”
Brendan James: “The Day Is Brave”
Broadway Calls: “Broadway Calls”
Charlotte Sometimes: “Waves And The Both of Us”
City and Colour: “Bring Me Your Love”
Counting Crows: “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”
Delta Spirit: “Ode to Sunshine”
Dwele: “Sketches of a Man”
Ed Harcourt: “The Beautiful Lie”
Elisa: “Dancing”
Elvis Costello: “Momofuku”
The Fratellis: “Here We Stand”
Gabriel Kahane: “Gabriel Kahane”
Hilary McRae: “Through These Walls”
The Hold Steady: “Stay Positive”
The Hoosiers: “The Trick to Life”
The Horror the Horror: “Wired Boy Child”
Inara George & Van Dyke Parks: “An Invitation”
Irma Thomas: “Simply Grand”
Jakob Dylan: “Seeing Things”
James Morrison: “Songs for You, Truths for Me”
Janelle Monae: “Metropolis: the Chase Suite”
Jason Mraz: “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things”
Joe Jackson: “Rain”
John Legend: “Evolver”
Joshua Radin: “Simple Times”
Katy Perry: “One of the Boys”
Kerli: “Love Is Dead”
The Kooks: “Konk”
Kylie Minogue: “X”
Leona Lewis: “Spirit”
Los Campesinos!: “Hold On Now, Youngster...”
Low vs. Diamond: “Low vs. Diamond”
Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s: “Animal!”
Marié Digby: “Unfold”
Mates of State: “Re-Arrange Us”
The Morning Light: “The Morning Light”
The Mountain Goats: “Heretic Pride”
My Baby Wants to Eat Your P***y: “Ignorance & Vision”
Ne-Yo: “Year of the Gentleman”
News At Six: “What Startling News”
Newton Faulkner: “Hand Built By Robots”
Nickelback: “Dark Horse”
O.A.R.: “All Sides”
Obi Best: “Capades”
The Offspring: “Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace”
Okkervil River: “The Stand Ins”
P!nk: “Funhouse”
Panic At the Disco: “Pretty. Odd.”
Passing Strange (Original Broadway Cast)
R.E.M.: “Accelerate”
Ra Ra Riot: “The Rhumb Line”
Rachel Zylstra: “Before You Could Decide”
Ray LaMontagne: “Gossip In the Grain”
Rehab For Quitters: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rehab for Quitters”
The Republic Tigers: “Keep Color”
SafetySuit: “Life Left to Go”
Sam Phillips: “Don't Do Anything”
Secondhand Serenade: “A Twist In My Story”
Shoshana Bean: “Superhero”
Snow Patrol: “A Hundred Million Suns”
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin: “Pershing”
Sparks: “Exotic Creatures of the Deep”
T-Pain: “Thr33 Ringz”
These Modern Socks: “Picking a Lock At the Speed of Light”
Tilly and the Wall: “O”
The Virgins: “The Virgins”
Waves On Waves: “Waves On Waves”
We Are Scientists: “Brain Thrust Mastery”
The Week That Was: “The Week That Was”
Weezer: “Weezer (Red)”
What Made Milwaukee Famous: “What Doesn't Kill Us”
The White Tie Affair: “Walk This Way”
The Wombats: “A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation”

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