Remember the teachers that graded on a bell curve? They would ensure that only a few would receive top honors, and only a few would flunk, and most everyone else would find themselves ranked as somewhere between good, average, and ok.
When I thought back at the music that helped to distract me from a recession, endless layoffs, friends dying from cancer, and an increasingly nasty (and long) presidential campaign season, I realized that most everything that came to mind was simply 'good'. I didn't hear too many records that blew me away, and I didn't hear too many that were flat out horrible. I even enjoyed "Chinese Democracy" to some degree.
Maybe we're tired. Most artists, one would think, have been going to the well of frustration, anger, and disillusionment for 8 long years now, and, well, maybe that well is dry. And that's ok now. I hope?
1. Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West)
There are very few great rock bands today comprised of multiple top-tier songwriters. I would count The New Pornographers among them. And like The New Pornographers, we should count our lucky stars each time they come together and record an album as a unit, instead of imploding like so many other bands overflowing with talented songwriters: see Jayhawks, or Uncle Tupelo. Although the Truckers lost one, the brilliant Jason Isbell, Shonna Tucker has stepped up, and the band has overcome that temporary setback to record a 75-minute opus. Mike Cooley delivers several of the finest country songs that will unfortunately never see the light of day on country radio. Patterson Hood continues to produce some of the most honest depictions of hard-working Americans this side of Bruce Springsteen. And although a handful of the 19 tracks could possibly have been put aside to create a leaner, meaner record, not one is a stinker. Although it takes repeated listens before the record fully reveals itself, it is one of the few from 2008 that I feel we will look back upon as a true classic. And it is one of America's finest bands redeeming themselves after a significant loss, through good old hard work and a return to their roots.
2. Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (Colimbia)
This one almost feels like cheating on a best-of 'album' list. The 8th in a series of sanctioned releases of previously unavailable work, "Tell Tale Signs" is essentially comprised of recent Bob Dylan throw-away tracks. I remember remarking to someone that it says a lot about Bob Dylan that his album of discards towers over most other artists' bona fide releases. Not only is the record simply a stellar listen, we also get to peek behind the curtain to hear different arrangements, sometimes almost unrecognizable, of works that we have become familiar with through other interpretations. I count Dylan's last three records among his best, and these outtakes from his recent output would have been welcome additions to any of those records.
3. TV on the Radio - Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)
TV on the Radio, until this album, have never quite clicked with me. I enjoyed their previous records a good deal, but I always felt that they were a band still in search of a musical identity. The songs were purposefully messy. But beneath the racket, there were usually some infectious melodies, and interesting lyrics. But they always seemed like a work in progress. This record finds TVOTR settling into a comfortable accessible groove, somewhere between dance music, funk, and avant-garde rock, with nods to Talking Heads, Prince, Pere Ubu, Peter Gabriel, and others.
4. Parts and Labor - Receivers (Jagjaguwar)
This one came out of nowhere, and completely blew me away upon first listen. "Receivers" is a wet dream for any old school Rush or Yes fan that can't stomach the goofy lyrics and cheesy execution of actual progressive rock bands. Somehow, though, they seem to work in vocal melodies and harmonies you'd more likely hear in "Godspell" or a Byrds album. It really works.
5. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
The best way to describe Fleet Foxes to the uninitiated is to say that they sound like a gentler, early My Morning Jacket, except better. Some of the vocal arrangements and harmonies, however, verge on greatness, reminding the listener of "Smile" and "Pet Sounds"-era Brian Wilson melancholic beauty.
6. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (XL)
Vampire Weekend was surely voted Most Likely To Succeed by the Class of '08. Basically, if you liked the Police, "Graceland", and the Talking Heads, you like Vampire Weekend.
7. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive (Vagrant)
Not sure how you follow up "Separation Sunday" and "Boys and Girls In America", two of the best Rock meditations of American youth since "Born To Run". It seems they decided to go a bit melancholy, and go a bit meta. The uninitiated might need a primer to get all the references to previous characters and places in The Hold Steady's growing mythology. It's a solid record, one that takes several listens to open up. But it's so hard to not judge a record against it's older siblings, especially when they were crowned the homecoming queen and king.
8. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life (Matador)
I really began to lose myself in this record during the late heat of the 2008 presidential election. At the time, it seemed to be the only music that simultaneously mirrored my growing restlessness and anxiety and worked as a release for that very thing. The record is a sprawling orchestral art-punk, post-hardcore meditation on religion and of birth, life, and death.
9. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (Geffen)
There's this sub-genre of bands that have been winning me over the past decade, and I have no idea how to refer to them. Bands like The Delgados, Engineers, and The Earlies. They seem to be unconcerned with image or popularity, but simply interested in making serious, melodic, complex, orchestral, rock music. Equal parts Pink Floyd (minus the pretension) and Flaming Lips (minus the goofiness).
10. Lambchop - OH (Ohio) (Merge)
Arguably their most solid release since 2000's "Nixon", Lambchop's "OH (Ohio)" doesn't blaze any new paths. With Lambchop, you almost prefer the comfort of the old worn shoe. It's a continued progression down the same quiet, contemplative, lush countrypolitan path. At times I long for the more rambunctious Kurt Wagner. But when he keeps cranking out such great stuff, it's hard to ask for anything else.
11. Mercury Rev - Snowflake Midnight (Yep Roc)
Mercury Rev started to become a bit too precious on their last few records. The records began to become increasingly one-dimensional, losing much of the adventurousness that had won me over in the early 90s. They seem to have gotten their mojo back, and not by returning to a working formula, but rather expanding upon it. They have lost some of the endearing messiness of "Boces" but have gained an otherworldliness through use of electronica, waves of percussion, and a larger sonic palette.
12. Winterpills - Central Chambers (Signature Sounds)
This Northampton, MA quartet follows in the footsteps of Ida, Low, and Innocence Mission, in making powerful, plaintive, chamber pop. It's beautiful stuff, equally heartbreaking and uplifting.
14. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali (Because UK)
Probably the one record this year truly deserving of the adjective "refreshing". You know how you used to wonder why bands from America could be so loved in countries where most people couldn't understand the lyrics? Well, this is that in reverse. Quite simply a great pop/rock record. Made me wish more American bands would pay attention to what's coming out of Africa.
15. DJ /rupture - Uproot (Agriculture)
Hands down the best electronic release I heard this year. Not as aggressive, abrasive, or instantly enjoyable as DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing", but as artful, as sprawling, as well-conceived, and as well-executed as that now-classic masterpiece.
16. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (Mute)
2003's "Dead Cities, Read Seas & Lost Ghosts" took my head off. It was, and still remains, one of best electronic releases I've ever heard. That being said, M83 is moving on. The duo is not interested in treading water. This time around, they are trying their hand at a more accessible sound, influenced by Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, and others. Initially, i was let down by this record, and I still long for the sonic mindfuck of 2003, but as a purely enjoyable and aesthetic piece of work, this will do just fine.
17. Blitzen Trapper - Furr (Sub Pop)
What a weird band. You could probably elicit the same response playing this for a Grateful Dead fanatic as you'd get playing it for a Pavement aficionado. Like My Morning Jacket, Blitzen Trapper seemed to have tapped into that bizarre netherworld between Freedom Rock and indie rock, and I don't think anyone quite realizes how difficult that is to pull off. Blitzen Trapper does it as good as anyone, and they keep getting better.
18. Grails - Doomsdayer's Holiday (Temporary Residence)
I've become bored with Mogwai, Sigur Ros, and all those post-rock bands with extremely long names. Enter Grails. They came to that same party, but they brought a big fuckin' truckload of Eastern instruments, a huge-ass bong, and some microdots.
19. Juana Molina - Una Dia (Domino)
On Una Dia, Juana Molina is interested in creating fascinating music out of the layering of sounds, loops, vocals, and a wide array of instruments. The result is hypnotic, never dull, and mostly quite beautiful. Camille and Bjork have ventured into similar territory, but Juana Molina is certainly capable of holding her own, and the results here are arguably as good as what either has offered up recently.
20. Metallica - Death Magnetic (Warner Bros.)
Quite simply a return to form, and one of the most enjoyable rock albums of the year. As goofy and as over-the-top as these guys can be, and as bad as some of their recent records have been, this is a solid offering right up there with the records that made them a household name to begin with.
21. Beck - Modern Guilt (Interscope)
As far as Beck records go, this one is a minor chapter in a career of mostly stellar releases. It seems awful slight, coming in under 40 minutes. But even a slight offering from Beck is usually more interesting than most of what gets put out these days.
22. Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (Southern Lord)
Take one of the slowest, sludgiest bands on the planet -- one that serves as godfather of sorts to the drone rock that spawned most of their Southern Lord label-mates -- and throw in avent-jazz guitar legend and one-time Naked City guitarist Bill Frisell, and you have one hell of a party. Granted, it's a barbituate party, but it's a killer. It's like dying a slow, dreamy, aural death.
23. Lil Wayne - The Carter III (Cash Money)
Yeah, I was surprised, too. I come from the school of thought that Hip Hop hasn't produced any truly great major acts since the days of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and Boogie Down Productions. I miss the cerbral aspect of Hip Hop. Sure, NWA was fun. The Clipse, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco have done much to raise the bar a bit. But Hip Hop has largely lost it's ability to shake me, to alter my perception. And in a strange way, this record did just that. Not by schooling me, but by being entertaining, exhilerating, and insane enough to not care that I wasn't being schooled. There are some moments of clarity, where Wayne touches (albeit disjointedly) upon the timely (Katrina, race relations, politics), but mostly it's about letting go and taking a crazy ride through Wayne's brain.
24. My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges (ATO)
First listen, I did not know whether this record was a complete disaster or some amazingly bizarre transformation record. I have grown to realize that it is neither, or perhaps both. Although a few songs border on laughable, they somehow are able to (just barely) pull them off. I'm not sure just why I am able to suspend disbelief for these few tracks, but I can. And partially it may have to do with the fact that MMJ have earned it. The rest of the record finds the band in good form, and at times, truly great, following up where they left off with "Z", into a band increasingly more difficult to pigeonhole. As much as I hoped this would be the record that finally propelled them towards legendary band status, this is not that record. I do think they have that record in them.
25. Q-Tip - The Renaissance (Universal Motown)
It seemed Q-Tip lost his way for a bit. After Tribe Called Quest went their separate ways, he'd show up here and there, but mostly it was a weak version that showed up. This record isn't so much Q-Tip 2.0 as it is a reminder of what we loved about him to begin with. He's breaking no new ground, but with Hip Hop in the sorry state that it is, it's like John Coltrane showing up at a Kenny G show.
Jay Reatard - The Matador Singles '08
John Zorn - The Dreamers
Stephen Malkmus - Real Emotional Trash
Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married
Belle & Sebastian - The BBC Sessions
Umalali - The Garifuna Women's Project
Horse Feathers - House With No Name
Lucinda Williams - Little Honey
Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and The Amorphous Strums - Dark Developments
Patty Loveless - Sleepless Nights
Deerhoof - Offend Maggie
Rebecca Martin - The Growing Season
Department of Eagles - In Ear Park
Brian Wilson - That Lucky Old Sun
Steinski - What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective
Caroline Herring - Lantana
Calexico - Carried to Dust
Peter Von Poehl - Going to Where the Tea-Trees Grow
Deerhunter - Microcastle
Weezer - The Red Album
Aimee Mann - Smilers
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson - Rattlin' Bones
Santogold - Santogold
Melvins - Nude With Boots
Centro-Matic / South San Gabriel - Dual Hawks
Devotchka - A Mad and Faithful Telling
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - Pershing
Tindersticks - The Hungry Saw
The Constantines - Kensington Heights
American Music Club - The Golden Age
Joan as Police Woman - To Survive
Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords
The Very Best - Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit Are The Very Best
Gary Louris - Vagabonds
The Whigs - Mission Control
The Dodos - Visiter