Dec. 31, 2008 -- You wouldn't know it by listening to most commercial radio, but it was an excellent year for music. In fact, this list was very difficult to narrow down. Many excellent albums from this year still didn't make the cut, but here is a list of my picks for the best albums of 2008.
First up: Nos. 50 to 26 -- check back later this week for the top 25 albums of the year.
50. Guns n' Roses: "Chinese Democracy"
For many, it's a small miracle that this album was even finally released, but it's a complete and welcome surprise that it isn't an over-cooked mess. Sure, old fans may gripe that this isn't a true GNR album since Axl Rose is the only original member, but get over it. The modern electronic flourishes may also intimidate and upset some. In all, however, "Chinese Democracy" plays like a continuation of the band's old sound. Songs like "Better" and "Catcher In The Rye" hold up next to the other GNR classics. The truth is, so much hype was built around this album that it can't please everyone. (It's the "Star Wars" effect, if you will.) If you don't like it immediately, give it the time and spins it deserves. Think of it as a long-delayed "Use Your Illusion III." Read my original review.
"Catcher In The Rye"
49. Rachael Yamagata: "Elephants ... Teeth Sinking Into Heart"
This is a double-disc collection from the singer-songwriter. The first disc is mellow and delicate with a more atmospheric feel, while the second is a harder-edged, darker affair. Together both discs only add up to about 70 minutes or so, so my guess is that the disc division is due to the different moods of the material. In any case, this album is a good introduction to Rachael Yamagata, who is most famous for her 2004 single "Worn Me Down." Here, her voice is smooth as she tackles a vast range of stylistic ground. She's a star waiting for her big crossover move.
"What If I Leave"
"Duet" (with Ray LaMontagne)
48. Sia: "Some People Have Real Problems"
Released back on Jan. 8, this is the oldest record on the list. It's also Sia's second solo album to see a wide U.S. release. The sometime Zero 7 vocalist branches out and expands from her last album "Colour the Small One." While that album mined the same chilled coffee-house terrain as her band, this album is more adventurous. The single, "Buttons" (here as a hidden track) is straight-up, slinky-sounding pop, while "The Girl You Lost to Cocaine" boasts a classic soul vibe. The Beck-assisted "Academia" is like a cleverly twisted, haunted mathematical nursery-rhyme. Elsewhere, she delivers an incredible, morose and moving cover of the Kinks' "I Go to Sleep." It is for all of these reasons and more that Sia is a singer worthy of your attention. Read my original review.
"The Girl You Lost to Cocaine"
"Day Too Soon"
"I Go to Sleep"
"Academia" (with Beck)
"Little Black Sandals"
47. Randy Newman: "Harps and Angels"
"Harps and Angels" finds Randy Newman is in a grumpier mood than ever. His tongue is still sharp, his trademark wit is still intact and he's still not afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way. Whether he's discussing death, politics, immigration or "kids today," he gives his listeners his unique perspective. On warmer, softer numbers like the not-so-new, frequently-covered "Feels Like Home" and fresher "Losing You," he proves he can still be touching as well. There have always been two sides to Randy Newman. Sometimes he's a biting social critic and sometimes he's a sweet songsmith. "Harps and Angels" finds him more in the former category, but it also shows that both sides are still very much alive and kicking. He's still one of our smartest songwriters. No doubt, this album gives its listeners a great deal to contemplate. Read my original review.
"A Few Words In Defense of Our Country"
"Harps and Angels"
"Laugh and Be Happy"
"Feels Like Home"
46. Brain Eno & David Bryne: "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today"
Brian Eno had a pretty amazing year. Not only did he help produce the latest album by a band called Coldplay (perhaps you may know them) but he also got back together with one of his most-valued collaborators, David Byrne. Back when Byrne was leading the Talking Heads, Eno helmed some of that band's most challenging work. "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" is the duo's second proper record together under their own names following the 1981 album "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." While that record was a strange whirlwind of beats and sounds, this record is happy and pop-driven while still remaining somewhat surreal. It's not without its odd detours (see "Wanted for Life" and "I Feel My Stuff") but it still for the most part sits comfortably in a pop universe. It's very reminiscent of later-period Talking Heads records. Simply put, this is the work of two musical geniuses coming together to create something unique and innovative yet still comfortably familiar. The end result is oddly uplifting.
"Life Is Long"
"One Fine Day"
"Wanted for Life"
45. M83: "Saturdays = Youth"
Do you remember the mid-'80s? Imagine if the soundtrack to an '80s teen movie was reworked today by the acts on the "Lost in Translation" soundtrack. Somehow, the French electronic group M83 have found a balance between these two worlds. "Saturdays = Youth" is simultaneously retro and unbelievably fresh and hip. Everything goes in cycles and so everything old is once again new. The record simultaneously recalls Kate Bush, Air, My Bloody Valentine, the Cocteau Twins and "Disintegration"-era Cure. In exploring the past, M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez has created his best work to date.
"Skin of the Night"
"We Own the Sky"
"Kim & Jessie"
44. The Whigs: "Mission Control"
Athens, Ga.'s the Whigs are a hard-charging trio who specialize in frantic, pounding numbers. "Mission Control" is the band's second album. Much like Bloc Party, Radio 4, the Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand, they have obviously listened carefully to their Gang of Four records, but there are also other influences at work. The album's title track sounds a little like Spoon, until it decides to freak out, and "I Never Want to Go Home" sounds like a lost Foo Fighters cut. At the same time, "Right Hand on My Heart" hints at a harder-edged My Morning Jacket. All together, this is one of the most appealing and promising rock records of 2008.
"Right Hand on My Heart"
"I Never Want to Go Home"
"Like a Vibration"
"Need You Need You"
43. Bloc Party: "Intimacy"
Bloc Party's third album originally appeared as a download in August. In October, it appeared in hard-copy with three added tracks. Musically, it sounds like a combination of their stellar debut and last year's slightly softer "A Weekend in the City." It sea-saws back and forth from harsh, abrasive tracks to quietly lush, atmospheric numbers. It's an acquired taste. You'll either find opening track "Ares" unbelievably cool or tremendously annoying. That being said, it sounds like nothing you've ever heard before. Singer Kele Okereke has a distinctive yell and the track serves as a battle cry for what's to come. The band members have added more electronic elements to their sound. There are now drum machines working beside Matt Tong's jaw-dropping beat-work. This is the third stellar album from a ground-breaking band. Something tells me that this is just the beginning.
42. Sloan: "Parallel Play"
Bloc Party made this list last year. So did Sloan. If you haven't heard of Sloan, you should have. They are a power-pop combo from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and "Parallel Play" is their ninth studio album. Signed to DGC in the early '90s by the same person who signed Weezer, they failed to become big names in the United States, but they have consistently released solid records. "Parallel Play" continues in the vein of last year's expansive "Never Hear the End of It," but it's a tighter, shorter set. All four band members still write and alternate singing duties, giving the band a kind of Beatle-esque eclecticism. The most obvious highlight on the set is Andrew Scott's "Emergency 911," a rousing punk anthem questioning safety and authority. Scott also gives us, "The Dogs," a slow-burning, woozy, meditative, effective, psychedelic rocker. Chris Murphy fronts "I'm Not a Kid Anymore," while Patrick Pentland delivers the '70s-pop inspired, "Witches Wand." Jay Ferguson hands in the similarly sunny, "If I Could Change Your Mind." All of these tracks make "Parallel Play" a solid collection of classic-minded, pop-driven rock and roll.
: "Emergency 911"
"All I Am Is All You're Not"
"I'm Not a Kid Anymore"
"Living the Dream"
41. She & Him: "Volume One"
Actress Zooey Deschanel and indie-songsmith M. Ward come together in this collection of originals and covers to deliver one of the nicest surprises of the year. Deschanel is an astounding vocalist and a strong songwriter. The album recalls a simpler time with its early '60s girl-group harmonies and memorable hooks. Deschanel and Ward make an excellent team. I'm still not too sure how I feel about the Hawaiian/country-flavored reworking of the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better," but still, this album is definitely not to be missed. Read my original review.
"I Was Made for You"
"Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
"I Thought I Saw Your Face Today"
40. Moby: "Last Night"
Quite simply put, this is Moby's ode to the '80s house music that originally inspired him. Along the way, there are doses of hip-hop and chill. As an album, it oozes a slinky sensuality and is perfect soundtrack for late-night get-togethers. Read my original review.
"I Love to Move in Here" (with Grandmaster Caz)
39. Duffy: "Rockferry"
Welsh singer Duffy follows the trend of outstanding, classic-minded pop vocalists from across the pond. Sounding like a mixture of Lulu and Dusty Springfield she busts out some distinctly European soul. Her voice is uniquely appealing yet nasally, but at the same time she can really wail when it's necessary. Her song "Mercy" was a hit. If that's all you know, then you really need to hear the rest of the record. Read my original review.
"Syrup & Honey"
38. Toadies: "No Deliverance"
You no doubt remember the Toadies for their alt-rock radio staples "Possum Kingdom," "When I'm Away" and "I Come From the Water." Well, after taking a seven-year break, they are back with their third album. It's a hard-hitting, hard-charging dose of aggressive rock that wouldn't have sounded out of place back in 1995. In fact, the Toadies sound stronger than they've ever been. "No Deliverance" stands up well next to (and is just as good if not better than) their classic album, "Rubberneck."
"Song I Hate"
"So Long Lovely Eyes"
"I Am a Man of Stone"
37. Raphael Saadiq: "The Way I See It"
Raphael Saadiq has been churning out vintage soul for a while now. For "The Way I See It" he tries to sound as authentic as possible in his mining of old sounds. This is his tribute to classic soul (mainly Motown, but Stax and other power-houses as well), yet it's a collection of originals. On tracks like "100 Yard Dash" and "Sure Hope You Mean It," he sounds a little like Smokey Robinson fronting the Temptations. It's that old, classic Motown sound, from back when the Funk Brothers gave that label's songs real instrumental kick.
"100 Yard Dash"
"Sure Hope You Mean It"
"Big Easy" (with the Infamous Young Spodie and the Rebirth Brass Band)
"Let's Take a Walk"
"Staying in Love"
36. Nine Inch Nails: "Ghosts I-IV"/ "The Slip"
In 2008, Trent Reznor made the most of his new free-agent status by releasing two albums from his Web site for bargain-basement prices. ("The Slip" was actually a free download!) Both albums were later issued in hard-copy CD form and both stand among his best work. "Ghosts I-IV" is a two-disc instrumental exploration, while "The Slip" is a more traditional Nine Inch Nails album. In any case, Reznor, who once was known for releasing an album every five or six years, has suddenly become prolific. He may very well still have his best work ahead of him. Read my original review of "Ghosts I-IV," and of "The Slip."
Favorite Tracks ("Ghosts I-IV")
"05 Ghosts I"
"07 Ghosts 1"
"13 Ghosts II"
"17 Ghosts II"
"22 Ghosts III"
"24 Ghosts III"
"26 Ghosts III"
"29 Ghosts IV"
"34 Ghosts IV"
Favorite Tracks ("The Slip")
"Lights in the Sky"
35. Scott Weiland: "Happy in Galoshes" (Two-disc edition)
There shouldn't even be an option of the single-disc or the double-disc versions of this album. It's a great album from start to finish. I must confess, as a fan of Stone Temple Pilots, I did not like Weiland's previous solo record, "12 Bar Blues" all that much, nor was I big fan of either of the albums he recorded with Velvet Revolver. "Happy in Galoshes" made a believer out of me again. It showcases Weiland's new sense of musical adventurousness. He has always been a chameleon, but here he takes his eclecticism to new levels. He even includes a trippy cover of David Bowie's "Fame." This album is Weiland at his best.
"Tangle With Your Mind"
"Pictures & Computers (I'm Not Superman)"
"Killing Me Sweetly"
34. Coldplay: "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends"/ "Prospekt's March"
Coldplay have never deserved the amount of flak they have received. If they sold fewer albums but made the exact same records, some of those who have decided to hate them would be drooling over them. Sure, they aren't the best band working today, but they are the best band moving a lot of records. In the days of pop fakery, it's nice to see a group of skilled musicians do well. Both "Viva La Vida…" and "Prospekt's March" show significant growth from the band's last effort, the more difficult "X & Y." Heavyweight producer Brian Eno challenged the band to go above and beyond its normal comfort zone to create something more intriguing and complex. Sure, the "Lovers in Japan" video is cheesy, but get over it. Listen to the record without concentrating on the hype. They are still just as good if not better than they were when "Parachutes" was released. Guitarist Joe Satriani might have caused them a little damage by suing them for copyright infringement over the song "Viva La Vida," but that's beside the point. Any similarities to Satriani's song could possibly be chalked up to unfortunate coincidence. Love them or hate them, Chris Martin and company are a powerful force and worthy of praise. Read my original review of "Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends."
Favorite Tracks ("Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends")
"Viva La Vida"
– "Prospekt's March"
"My Feet Won't Touch the Ground"
"Lost+" (with Jay-Z)
"Glass of Water"
33. Gza/Genius: "Pro Tools"
The Wu Tang Clan have never been for the easily offended or the faint of heart, so if you have never been a fan of their style, this album probably won't convert you, but on his latest record, GZA once again separates himself from the ranks of the Wu to deliver another quality solo record. His flow is as cryptic and dense as ever. The album especially benefits by some quality beats and production from a variety of different sources. Some might argue that this album is nearly as good as his landmark, "Liquid Swords."
"Pencil" (with RZA and Masta Killa)
32. Cut/Copy: "In Ghost Colours"
This Australian dance outfit sounds like a cross between New Order and Daft Punk. It's an appealing mix, indeed. This solid set of tunes is guaranteed to keep the party going.
"Hearts on Fire"
"Feel the Love"
"Lights & Music"
"Nobody Lost, Nobody Found"
31. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: "Real Emotional Trash"
The former leader of Pavement gets jammy and psychedelic on the fourth record under his own name. He once again proves himself as a worthy guitar god and enlists former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss to pound away behind the kit. This is an album for fans of both indie and long-winded classic rock. Countless critics loved Pavement. In his career since that band's breakup, Malkmus has continued to grow as both a writer and a player, creating a surprisingly seamless and solid legacy. Read my original review.
"Out of Reaches"
"We Can't Help You"
30. Kaiser Chiefs: "Off With Their Heads"
With the exception of the single "Ruby," last year's album, "Yours Truly, Angry Mob" was sort of a tepid-but-adequate, mid-tempo exploration. Thankfully, with the help of producer Mark Ronson, the Kaiser Chiefs have re-found their rock souls on their third album, "Off With Their Heads." It recalls and betters their incredible debut, "Employment." It's a record that should make them stars. As always, the Kaiser Chiefs sound like the snarky lovechild of the Clash and the Kinks, with a touch of the English Beat thrown in for good measure. Read my original review.
"Never Miss a Beat"
"Can't Say What I Mean"
"Good Days Bad Days"
"Like It Too Much"
"Tomato in the Rain"
29. Earlimart: "Hymn & Her"
The veteran indie rock act Earlimart released their best album to date this year. Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray know how to craft infectious and wounded anthems of skepticism and dissatisfaction. Here, they are as beautiful as they are tragic. The highlight is the Murray-led "Before It Gets Better," an Aimee Mann-style number where she declares in a strikingly deadpan tone. "It's a bloodbath" and "It's a deathtrap and it's getting worse." It's one of the best songs of the year and had it gotten any radio play, I'm sure it would've been one of the biggest crossover hits of the year.
"Before It Gets Better"
"Face Down in the Right Town"
"For the Birds"
28. The Fireman: "Electric Arguments"
"The Fireman" is the moniker used by ambient/rock producer Youth and Sir Paul McCartney. It's an unlikely but thoroughly effective pairing. Youth has served time in ground-breaking bands like Killing Joke and the Orb. His hard-rock and electronic backdrops wouldn't at first seem like they would suit McCartney. But at 66, Paul has resurrected his inner innovator. Remember, this is the man who 40 years ago wailed on "Helter Skelter." Back when he was a Beatle, during their highly psychedelic later period, he freely experimented with fully malleable sonic elements. Listening to him now belt out a hard-edged blues like "Nothing Too Much Just out of Sight" is downright revolutionary. He's buried in a mighty load of echo in "Sing the Changes" and is singing a spooky, low-voiced hymn on "Light From Your Lighthouse." This album is the duo's third and highest profile collaboration. It's an album that proves McCartney still has a great deal of innovation in him. Combined with his last two (excellent) solo albums, "Memory Almost Full" and "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," this continues McCartney's long-overdue awakening.
"Sing The Changes"
"Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight"
"Dance 'Til We're High"
27. Bell X1: "Flock"
European readers are probably saying, "Wait, didn't that album come out two years ago?" In the United States, it didn't see release until January 2008. It also came with a slightly altered track-list. Members of Bell XI used to be in a band called Juniper. Back then, Damien Rice was their lead singer. When Rice left the band, Bell X1 came to be. They are a mighty Irish band writing literate songs that somehow revel in their own importance. Tracks like the utterly magnificent, "Eve, the Apple of My Eye" and "Rocky Took a Lover" make bands like Keane and Snow Patrol seem like side-players. "Eve…" is the most beautiful love ballad you will hear this year, period! (For those of you who find the track to be familiar, it's because three years ago, an earlier, different, less-developed version of the track appeared on one of the soundtracks for "The O.C.") Bell X1 is definitely a band you need to hear.
"Eve, the Apple of My Eye"
"Rocky Took a Lover"
"Bigger Than Me"
"Bad Skin Day"
26. Thievery Corporation: "Radio Retaliation"
The still expanding "chill" scene has seen many noteworthy groups, such as Air and Zero 7. The members of Washington, D.C.'s Thievery Corporation belong in the company of those groups, but they have always been more upbeat with a wider-ranging international flare. "Radio Retaliation" is quite possibly the duo's best album. It's not often you can find a group that possibly appeals to indie-hipster snobs, dancehall-reggae fans and hip-hop heads. In Thievery Corporation's world a sitar sits comfortably inside a Latin rhythm. Indian and Middle Eastern influences merge with such beats with ease. Add the reggae element and you get one of the biggest international musical melting pots releasing records today. Guests range from Brazilian singer Seu Jorge (yes, of "The Life Aquatic" and "City of God" fame,) Femi Kuti, Anoushka Shankar (Ravi's other famous daughter besides Norah Jones) and others. It's obviously a heavily political record dealing with various issues of global unrest, but it also serves as a grooved-out party soundtrack.
"The Numbers Game"
"Sound The Alarm"