I’ve never specialized in being ahead of the times or even remotely near them. As a result, perhaps my list of the best music of the year is kind of irrelevant. Every album and just about every single I reference in my top 10 lists has been around for a long time. Just remember, they were new for me, and I bet they’ll be new for somebody…
To make the 2008 list, the album had to be more than good, it had to be right for the moment in my life. For whatever reason, these ten albums and ten singles just were. The sound of each album has some vastly different properties, but they worked.
Enough already, the list.
Top Albums of 2008
1. Music From Big Pink (The Band)
This album, perhaps more than any other, is one that I am confident will maintain its importance to me for the long haul. In addition to posessing what is my most important single of the year (see below), the extended edition of Music From Big Pink has classics like “The Weight,” some great blues like “Long Distance Operator,” and “Orange Juice Blues [Blues for Breakfast].”
Admittedly, a lot of this album will be cross-referenced with the time that my girlfriend spent in South Africa. As painful as it is to admit it, it was a rather sappy time, and “Katie’s Been Gone” was a regular on my playlist. The music is absolutely classic, in my opinion timeless, and I look forward to getting my hands on their self-titled album. Was just given a copy of “Rock of Ages” and have played through it once. It’s awesome.
Best Tracks: “Chest Fever,” “The Weight,” “Long Distance Operator.”
2. In Our Nature (Jose Gonzalez)
A friend of mine introduced me to Jose Gonzalez at WRGW, and I first heard “Cycling Trivialities.” It was great, and I was inspired to buy the album. I was absolutely blown away. One of my great regrets of 2008 will likely be not going to his show at the 9:30 club because of work. Gonzalez, who apparently is Swedish, puts together an all-acoustic album of minimal production and instrumentation, and what comes out is one of the most beautifully haunting albums I’ve ever heard. It’s really one of those albums that you can play straight through over, and over, and over again.
Great tracks? “Teardrop,” “Down the Line,” and “Cycling Trivialities.”
3. Real Life (Joan As Police Woman)
The girlfriend sent me the song “Real Life” by Joan as Police Woman (fronted by Joan Wasser) while she was in South Africa, and while it was nearly too sappy even for me, I loved Wasser’s voice and the sound of the song. I downloaded her album, and was truly blown away. It’s got a drunken swagger, a soulful blues, and, from time to tim, a piano that drives in ways that Chris Martin only wishes that he could. Even better? I got the chance to go to see JAPW at Iota in Arlington, Va., and her two-man show was excellent. We had the chance to talk to her after the show, and she was a lot of fun.
I haven’t yet given her second album a serious listen, but signs point to it being good.
Great tracks? “Eternal Flame,” “I Defy,” “Christobel.”
4. Fakebook (Yo La Tengo)
This summer, I decided that it was important to diversify my music portfolio. I decided to consult the mother of all pretentious music snobs, yes, Pitchfork, to take a look at the best of indie music. I decided to start with Fakebook by Yo La Tengo. I didn’t regret it for a second. Yes, it’s from 1991, and yes, it’s mostly covers that don’t sound anything like the rest of the Yo La Tengo discography. I don’t think that it matters. Channeling the sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis or very early Beatles with “Emulsified” and offering some beautiful sounds on “What Comes Next,” this is another album that’s a joy to listen straight through.
Great tracks: “What Comes Next,” “Yellow Sarong,” “You Tore Me Down.”
5. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco)
I had really enjoyed Summerteeth and A Ghost is Born and was not sure how I felt about Sky Blue Sky. I decided it was a good time to finally listen straight through to YHF. It’s incredible. Flat-out, 100%, undeniably excellent. Jeff Tweedy is excellent as ever, sounding cocky, vulnerable, and free-wheeling from time to time. If you don’t have it, get it.
Great Tracks: “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Pot Kettle Black,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
6. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek & the Dominos)
It seems like each year, a different side of Eric Clapton becomes important to my life. Last year, it was Blind Faith (listen to “Can’t Find My Way Home” right now), this year it was Derek and the Dominos. On top of having one of the best rock songs of all time in “Layla,” LAOALS has it all. With covers of Big Bill Broonzy and other great tracks, it’s some incredible blues. The appearance of Duane Allman from time to time breathes life into the album to an extent that’s pretty remarkable. You probably already have this if you like blues and rock. If not, get it.
Check out: “Layla,” “I am your,” “Key to the Highway.”
7. Chess Blues (various)
A four CD set outlining the best of the incredible Chess Record label’s recordings, this set introduced me to some amazing artists, especially Howlin’ Wolf. Oh, Howlin’ Wolf.
Put this in the car on a long evening drive. It won’t make you want to start dancing, but the range and history that comes through is completely under-valued in American music. Because it encompasses so much, I don’t really know how to describe it all, except to credit the producers of this set for both an impeccable track selection.
Greatest track: “Evil” by Howlin’ Wolf.
8. Kid A (Radiohead)
Countless people have advocated on behalf of Radiohead to me. I listened to In Rainbows and liked it, but didn’t love it. I could recognize the “genius” of it, but didn’t really get it. Radiohead struck me as the independent equivalent of Alternative rock radio’s Pearl Jam or the Red Hot Chili Peppers – they could make whatever they wanted to, and it would be considered gold by DJs around the world.
I gave Hail to the Thief a listen earlier this year, and while I loved There There (The Boney King of Nowhere) and Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased),” songs like “A Wolf at the Door (No No No)” confused me and undermined the consistency of the album. I wasn’t sold on Radiohead.
Then, I listened to Kid A. Kicking off with one of my favorite tracks of the year in “Everything in its Right Place,” the album is innovative and avant-garde with enough restraint to be coherent, consistent, and pleasurable. It refuses to move out into the realm of innovative for the sake of being different. It incorporates everyting beautifully, and in gateway fashion, the rest of Radiohead seems to make sense.
Favorite tracks: “Everything in its Right Place,” “Optimistic.”
9. Person Pitch (Panda Bear)
Panda Bear, a portion of the animal collective, was another album that I seleted upon reviewing some of Pitchfork’s best reviews. Listening to Person Pitch coincided with my first real listen to Pet Sounds. It put me in the right frame of mind for the trance-like music that drifts out of the long, meandering, heavily-sampled tracks of the album. Take The Shins, Pet Sounds, and a DJ with a knack for samples an a haunting voice, you have Person Pitch. It was great to listen to for finals, and has a calming influence. It’s so heavily layered that you identify something new inside of it you discover someting every time.
10. Places Like This (Architecture in Helsinki)
Hard to explain why Places Like This worked so well for me this year. While Ok Go is power-pop that goes to the bar and gets slowly, surely, and enjoably sloppy drunk, Places Like This is playing drinking games in your Mom’s basement and playing ridiculous pranks on other people after drinking too much cough syrup. It’s fun, it employs horns at just the right time, and it begs you to hang out and have a good time.
Great tracks: “Lazy,” “Debbie,” “Heart it Races.”
Honorable Mentions: Fela with Ginger Baker Live! (Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ’70), Pet Sounds The Beatles
Top Singles of 2008
1. Chest Fever (The Band)
2. Go to Sleep (Radiohead)
3. Gronlandic Edit (Of Montreal)
It’s all about the bass line. Oh, yeah, and a sweet video.
4. What Comes Next (Yo La Tengo)
5. Eternal Flame (Joan as Police Woman)
6. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
A song that I had always liked, but now love. Check out the performance from Woodstock.
7. Everything in its Right Place (Radiohead)
8. List of Demands [Reparations] (Saul Williams)
9. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel)
10. The Truth (Handsome Boy Modeling School)
Honorable Mentions: Smell Yo Dick (Riskay) [so funny], Evil (Howlin’ Wolf), I’ve Been Thinking (Handsome Boy Modeling School f. Cat Power)
Artists I’m Keeping an Eye on for 2009: Fleet Foxes, Goldfrapp, Saul Williams