50 Best Albums of 2008
TV on the Radio partied as the world collapsed, Dylan hit the vaults, Lil Wayne topped hip-hop and Metallica thundered back
TV on the Radio
The year’s finest rock record was also the one that sounded the most like America in 2008, with infernal visions of war and economic desperation. But amid the fear and loathing, there was defiance: “No bombs are falling on me for sure,” sang Tunde Adebimpe; he also called this “the age of miracles/The age of sound.” These Brooklynites greeted the historical moment with awe ”“ and responded with art-rock party music. Call it the audacity of hope. Producer-guitarist Dave Sitek has streamlined and deepened the band’s fusion of doo-wop, punk and soul; there are swooning ballads, wind-whipped funk and even a Tom Petty bite. And then there’s ”˜Lover’s Day,’ the greatest hipster booty call ever recorded, in which TVOTR greet millennial terror with the oldest form of transcendence. “Ball so hard, we’ll smash the walls,” shrieks singer-guitarist Kyp Malone. “We could build an engine out of all your rising stars.” On Dear Science, the sky’s the limit.
Tell Tale Signs ”“ The Bootleg Series Vol 8
This is one of Dylan’s most consistently gripping albums, even though it is a roundup of outtakes and orphaned songs, many cut for the haunted triumphs Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. Like any night on his Never Ending Tour, each track is a fresh portrait of Dylan at the crossroads, cutting new roads in rhyme, tempo and emotional emphasis: the introspection of ”˜Most of the Time,’ the looming apocalypse of ”˜Ring Them Bells’ and the heavy weight of ”˜Ain’t Talkin’.’ The veering tempers of Dylan’s medicine-rattle rasp are a wonder to themselves. His enraged growl in the piano demo of ”˜Dignity’ ”“ “In the next room a man fightin’ with his wife/Over dignity” ”“ sounds like he’s ready to jump right in.
Tha Carter III
Cash Money/Universal Motown
“Next time you mention Pac, Biggie or Jay-Z/Don’t forget Weezy Baby,” croaks Lil Wayne, and he earns that audacious boast. The most eagerly anticipated hip-hop album of the decade is also the best, from the joyously silly Auto-Tune-on-steroids chart-topper, ”˜Lollipop,’ to the uproarious ”˜Dr Carter,’ in which Wayne dons scrubs to revive moribund hip-hop. The dadaist punch lines hit their marks, but Lil Wayne’s greatness lies not just in what he says, but in the way he says it ”“ the virtuoso variations in mood and meter, tone and timbre that mark the MC, as much as any singer, as one of 21st-century pop’s great vocal stylists.
My Morning Jacket
Jim James and his bearded crew became the year’s mightiest rock band by embracing indie, Southern and hippie rock, but also by transcending what those categories mean. Evil Urges, the Kentucky group’s fifth studio album, took My Morning Jacket’s pigeonhole-dodging style to wild and crazy new lengths: James indulged in a Prince-style soulman falsetto on the title track, and ”˜Highly Suspicious’ stepped to a brittle New Wave funk groove that was nearly unrecognisable as My Morning Jacket ”“ at least until the Lynyrd Skynyrd-flavoured multiguitar break kicked in. On Evil Urges, the band pledges loyalty to only one genre: itself.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom
John Mellencamp’s growling fatalism and T Bone Burnett’s scorched-blues production made this the darkest, most compelling Mellencamp album in years. It was also the perfect run-up to Election Day in the US: 14 songs about a nation going broke and a generation on the ropes. “But nothing lasts forever/Your best efforts don’t always pay,” Mellencamp sings in ”˜Longest Days.’ He didn’t call himself Little Bastard for nothing. “Beware of those who want to harm you/And drag you down to a lower game,” he snarls in ”˜Troubled Land.’ “Just know the truth is coming,” he adds, a line that now sounds like the Election Day we deserved.
Before going solo, the singer-rapper Santi White fronted a punk band, studied African drumming and co-wrote a song for Lily Allen. As Santogold, she wields those influences like hot wax, sealing together icy electro, pogo-worthy ska, fierce dancehall anthems and downtown art-rock for the most ear-opening debut of 2008. Like MIA, Santogold specialises in off-kilter street jams. But on songs like ”˜L.E.S. Hipsters,’ she also has the creative ambition and the pop hooks to play venues bigger than Brooklyn basements.
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
During the sessions for Viva la Vida, Chris Martin consulted a hypnotist to help with the pressure of writing the Great American Rock Album. And it worked. Coldplay got ambitious, calling in Talking Heads and U2 producer Brian Eno, drawing on exotic instruments like Indian tablas and the Persian santur, writing about world events instead of their own feelings, and making music as far-reaching as their global fan base. They ended up with an album that’s massively expansive yet intimate enough to incite lighter-waving from London to Tokyo.
“We do the best with the souls we’ve been given,” Beck sings in this deft balance of son-of-Odelay bricolage and the confessional charge of his 2002 ghost-folk beauty Sea Change. Modern Guilt has plenty of electricity and playful funk ”“ the go-go guitars in ”˜Gamma Ray,’ the rubbery-Kraftwerk gait of ”˜Youthless’ ”“ but not so much that you can’t hear the blues moralist and psychedelic seeker inside. Beck’s acoustic guitar drives the midnight-at-the-crossroads ”˜Soul of a Man,’ while his high-tenor voice hangs in the inky Doors-like church of ”˜Chemtrails’ like a worried ghost.
It’s an overdue return to the extended, episodic whiplash of 1986’s Master of Puppets and 1988’s ”¦And Justice for All. James Hetfield’s staccato-rhythm guitar and Lars Ulrich’s drum-orchestra charge are right up front in ”˜That Was Just Your Life,’ and Kirk Hammett’s wah-wah leads light up the mayhem with a ’68-Hendrix vengeance. Hetfield’s lyrics are an unflinching examination of the big finish, particularly the terrible allure of suicide ”“ sung with the raging vigour of a man fighting for life. “We die hard!” Hetfield crows, summing up heavy metal’s resurrection of the year.
This African-inflected Ivy League success story nailed the zeitgeist this year, but it’ll sound good in 2018 because it has great songs. Chalk it up to the simple melodies and lean, midrange rhythms. The falsetto-and-expletive singsong of ”˜Oxford Comma’ and the antsy mouse-click ska of ”˜A-Punk’ are immediate, hook-filled pleasures; ”˜Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,’ with its dry, sparkly guitar lines and hand drums, sounded utterly fresh alongside indie rock’s parade of New Wave revivalism. Casual as a cardigan, willfully optimistic, ultratuneful and surprisingly danceable, Vampire Weekend is built to last.
This remarkable debut from five scruffy Seattle guys was the prettiest album of the year, and the warmest. Singing gentle but spacey arrangements, the folky ensemble could fill up a room like the smell of fresh-baked bread. Highlight: the gorgeous, pastoral ”˜White Winter Hymnal.’
Guns n’ Roses
Axl Rose has not lost his appetite for disorder. Democracy could never live up to every expectation, but it is audacious and unhinged: the mass of strings, choir and Mellotron in ”˜There Was a Time’; the Spanish guitar and blaxploitation funk of ”˜If the World.’ It’s hard rock without apology ”“ which is enough.
The other great breakout band from the Pacific Northwest (see Number 11, above). Singer Eric Early makes his deepest impression on the title track, a dubby, Dylanesque coming-of-age tale as romantic as it is hallucinogenic. The rest of Furr is positively boisterous, jumping from glam-y folk rock to latter-day REM.
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
Adams’ best LP in years seeks the heights of Gram Parsons’ country and U2’s stadium rock. He belts out his heartland gospel on ”˜Born Into a Light’ and gathers himself for the sobriety ballad ”˜Stop.’ And then ”˜Magick’ shows that he’ll never totally calm down.
The Black Keys
Attack & Release
The Keys always sounded like more than two guys, but now they sound like a real band. The garage-R&B ambience here is so thick, you can practically touch the grime coating on ”˜All You Ever Wanted’ and ”˜Strange Times.’ You don’t count the parts inside; you just dig the sum.
Harps and Angels
Newman’s sidesplitting ”˜A Few Words in Defense of Our Country’ offers continuing proof that the man who wrote ”˜Political Science’ is still fully armed with hilarious rage. The simple comforts in ”˜Feels Like Home’ also confirm that he hasn’t lost his touch with smaller, private victories.
One Kind Favor
America’s most famous bluesman lived his version of the stories in these standards. But King hasn’t been this close to home on record in ages: The gnarly backing band (with Dr John on piano) and T Bone Burnett’s tough-as-gravel production bring out the late-Fifties fire in the 83-year-old singer-guitarist.
Lucinda Williams has been channelling hard-won wisdom into laments for so long, it is a shock to behold the singer love-struck. Williams being Williams, the happy songs hedge their bets, but high spirits predominate, as do snarling Stones-ish guitars, brisk tempos and a slew of funny punch lines.
New Amerykah: Part 1 (4th World War)
Amerykah is a hip-hop update of Funkadelic’s brain-melting sonic stews. Odd sound effects, wobbly bass lines, woozy tones that bubble up through the mix, shape-shifting beats ”“ a foreboding backdrop for Badu’s parables on racism, poverty and apocalypse.
Kings of Leon
Only by the Night
The Followills finally reach the “young manhood” promised in the title of their 2003 debut. And their newfound confidence comes through with layered guitar interplay and production drama ”“ it’s a brighter, fuller Southern rock. They’ve broken the grip of their influences without losing their roots.
Off With Their Heads
These Brit-rockers’ third album is ingenious hooks (the falling-chord riff in ”˜Half the Truth’) and irresistible surge (the pulse of ”˜Good Days Bad Days’), but the fun comes in barbed wire. “It’s cool to know nothing,” Ricky Wilson sings, with a menace that suggests he will never believe it.
Time the Conqueror
Time reconciles Browne’s two passions as a songwriter: current events and interior drama. ”˜Off of Wonderland’ is a fond reminiscence of the late Sixties, while explicit accusations like ”˜The Drums of War’ and ”˜Where Were You?’ are the sound of an older, wiser man with fighting spirit to spare.
The Bright Eyes frontman headed down to Mexico to record this freewheeling ramble-tamble, and he came back with melodies so indelible, they sound like they were born in the dust left behind by country legends. Tracks like ”˜I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)’ feel like lost Hank Williams demos.
Feed the Animals
Gregg Gillis’ wide-roving, fair-use-law-exploiting creations combine Jay-Z, Huey Lewis and Twisted Sister into megajams that electrify dance floors. But his juxtapositions also work as commentary: Gillis can find the pathos in gangsta rap and the funk in Mike and the Mechanics.
The Magnetic Fields
Tin Pan Alley-style songwriter Stephin Merritt took a left turn into 20th-century noise rock and ended up with one of the best records of his career. Taking his cues from the Jesus and Mary Chain, he wrenched distortion and emotion from guitar, cello and piano, evoking old AM-radio tunes remixed by a mad genius.
It’s the country-rock classic Tom Petty’s old band never got to, with a mix of time-tested covers (the Byrds’ ”˜Lover of the Bayou,’ the Burrito Brothers’ ”˜Six Days on the Road’) and strong originals that deserve to be. But the biggest surprise is the guitar fireworks in the jammed-out epic ”˜Crystal River’ and in ”˜Bootleg Flyer.’
That Lucky Old Sun
This modest treasure has the same warm glow of the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey. There is a tender irony in the way Wilson refers to his late brothers Carl and Dennis in ”˜Southern California’ ”“ for all of his recent healing, Wilson knows that without them, he can never feel entirely whole again.
Remind Me in Three Days”¦
Two New Orleans natives busted hip-hop wide open on this hard-rocking debut, a mash-up of old-school rap playfulness, acrobatic rhymes, monster hooks and grimy punk riffs played by the MCs themselves. It’s a masterpiece fit for free-thinking heads who prefer Chuck Taylors to bling.
For Emma, Forever Ago
Along with Fleet Foxes, this record put beardy-boy folk on the map with stark meditations on love, regret and the ice-encrusted northern Midwest. The sentiments are grim, the production low-fi. But with his homey materials, Justin Vernon builds big sounds that warm you from within.
Haters dismissed Duffy as a cleaned-up, bottle-blonde Amy Winehouse. But she was really a modern-day Dusty Springfield, with vocal delivery that’s both tough and fluttery. Add a passel of melodies cribbed from old Motown and Brill Building hits, and you get the best LP to emerge from the UK’s R&B renaissance this year.
A freaky, tuneful record about growing up that’s equal parts tongue-in-cheek and heart-in-mouth. MGMT wrap their idealism in sweet, woozy tunes that know how to groove ”“ check the ecstatic disco funk of ”˜Electric Feel.’ But they also spike their bliss with absurdity and darkness: It’s acid rock for realists.
The Lonesome Song
The year’s best country album, The Lonesome Song chronicles Johnson’s real-life divorce and overflows with vivid details about drugs, booze and tossing an ex’s possessions into a bonfire. The Alabama-bred former Marine worked up a meaty neo-traditionalist sound while playing both a sensitive guy and an entertaining hell-raiser.
Year of the Gentleman
Chivalry’s not dead, ladies. In a natty Rat Pack fedora and crooning oaths of fidelity, Ne-Yo launched a one-man crusade against the thugification of R&B, bringing harmonically rich songcraft back to hip-hop soul, pouring classically shapely melodies over buttermilk-smooth beats. Well done, gent.
Real Emotional Trash
Pavement’s wonky guitar hero finally unleashes some balls-out jams. His secret weapon is a great drummer: While Malkmus surrenders to his own private prog-rock Nirvana, former Sleater-Kinney member Janet Weiss keeps the band charging forward.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
The gospel according to Nick Cave feels timely: Lazarus gets raised from the dead, only to find himself broke and on drugs. Cave’s roots in Lou Reed’s dystopian tumult are especially vivid, and the Bad Seeds deliver the best bang and harangue since Cave’s garage quartet Grinderman.
The Hold Steady
Brooklyn’s finest bar band delivers an empathetic portrait of midlevel rockers in their 30s, with details so sharp they’d make John Cassavetes weep. All boozy power chords and singalong choruses, it’s their most tuneful album. Bonus points for one-liners like “Me and my friends are like the drums on ”˜Lust for Life.’Â ”
Nine Inch Nails
Freedom suits NIN’s Trent Reznor, who celebrated the end of his major-label contract by offering this album as a free digital download. It’s a hell of a deal: The Slip compresses the emotional breadth of 1999’s double CD The Fragile onto a single disc filled with granite funk and stark-naked confessions.
Ra Ra Riot
The Rhumb Line
When life’s unfairness doesn’t break a band, it makes for a heart-wrenching album. After the accidental death of drummer John Ryan Pike, this New York group churned out gorgeous orchestral rock anthems that find sorrow and loss are inextricable from understanding joy. Pike, who co-wrote the record, would be proud.
Even in a recession, the formula for a bestselling pop hit is simple: All you need is the perfect chorus and the poet laureate of 10th grade to sing the damn thing. With indelible guitar chords and teenybopper charm, Swift proves no one can match her ninjalike professionalism. She should have called it Peerless.
A Little Bit Longer
Can a teen band save power-pop? Kevin, Joe and Nick proved that they are more than Disney Industrial Complex toy-boys here, writing and playing nearly every note. And even skeptical grown-ups succumbed to the charms of ”˜Burnin’ Up’ and other fuzzed-up pop-rock nuggets.
Angus and Malcolm Young have not strayed an inch from what they do best: brutal riffs, soccer-crowd choruses and lyrics about rattling bedposts. What sets it high above the last 20 years of average AC/DC records: Brendan O’Brien’s muscular production and unexpected rhythm change-ups (see ”˜Black Ice’).
David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
It’s the strongest song set either of these visionaries has released in ages, with floaty pop tunes that draw on gospel, disco, African music and hopeful observations about Where We’re At Now. Call it “Life During Wartime 2.0.”
Originally called Nigger, this battle-rhyme tour de force blasts institutional racism like nothing since It Takes a Nation of Millions”¦. Nas satirises fried chicken and the n-word over minimalist beats and soul hooks, and he’s as funny as he is pissed off. But if there’s outrage here, it’s designed to instigate change.
Consolers of the Lonely
Third Man/Warner Bros
Jack White and Brendan Benson finally come together as an ecstatic, fully integrated live band, writing according to their evolving strengths. Thankfully those include not only Who’s Next reverberations and Badfinger vocals, but also the White Stripes’ blues-train locomotion.
Be Your Own Pet
Jemina Pearl isn’t the punk singer this generation needs, she’s the snarling hellion we deserve. Get on her good side, and she’ll unleash wild riot-grrrl odes to food fights and badass Valley girls, while her band pulses with the precise formulism of X-Ray Spex. Get on her bad side, and you’re in for a full-blown hell ride.
The Academy Is”¦
Fast Times at Barrington High
This soaring pop-punk ode to senior year is so thrillingly alive, it’ll make you forget you hated high school. Over giant, Warped Tour-finale hooks by S*A*M and Sluggo, these emo kids capture enough wrenching graduation-day wistfulness to fill a thousand yearbooks.
This glam-rock coming-out party proves that music, like sex, is a playground of reinvention. “We can do it softcore”¦/But you should know that I go both ways,” squeals singer Kevin Barnes, and that’s just the tip of this riveting journey through Day-Glo disco and funk.
The Way I See It
A tribute to classic soul that saves some golden-era magic for the next generation. With a tenor that hits Smokey Robinson’s highs, Saadiq salutes vintage New Orleans R&B, Philly soul and Motown. But cameos by Jay-Z and Rocio Mendoza revamp those classic models with hip-hop flair.
Made in the Dark
With irresistible party-starters like ”˜Bendable Poseable,’ Made in the Dark proves Hot Chip’s status as international hipster darlings is entirely warranted. But what elevates this British electro-pop quintet is their wit. Giddiest moment: the rising cry in ”˜Wrestlers’ of “Half-nelson, full-nelson, Willie Nelson!”
This LA duo want to take punk back to its art-rock roots. Nouns is a thrilling string of two- and three-minute guitar rants punctuated by rough-edged ambient soundscapes. And the album’s low-fi, high-wattage aesthetic channels the heart of SST Records, which defined art-punk ambition in the Eighties.
Contributors: David Fricke, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Melissa Maerz, Jody Rosen