Jan. 2, 2009 -- The year 2008 may be over, but its music is definitely still worth a listen. Start off the New Year with some of the best tunes from the one that just passed. Check out my picks for the top 25 albums of 2008.
25. The Cure: "4:13 Dream"
The Cure began the promotion of their 13th studio album with the advance release of the album's four singles. They were released on a monthly basis counting down to the album's arrival. Each packaged with an additional B-side, these recordings were mandatory listening for any Cure fan. By the time the album dropped, all these songs were familiar. Indeed, "4:13 Dream" is one of the band's most accessible records. It's radio-friendly with few embarrassingly cheeseball "Friday I'm In Love" moments. For the past decade and a half, Robert Smith and company have obviously been struggling with finding that balance. Their last album was excellent but murky, whereas this album revels in the band's pop side. Of course, they do jam out a little from time to time, and that's where the true equilibrium lies. The album actually plays best with the four singles' B-Sides tacked onto the end as bonus tracks. Really, this is what the band should've done. (But never mind the needless remix EP the band also released. Oh, well, they can't all be winners!) That being said, "4:13 Dream," as is, is one of the band's most consistent song-cycles to date. The Cure released their first album back in 1979. How come they haven't yet been put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
"The Only One"
"Sleep When I'm Dead"
"The Real Snow White"
"Underneath the Stars"
24. Danny!: "And I Love Her: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"
As far as I know, there is no actual movie attached to this album. I first became aware of this album when I was bemoaning the lack of quality hip-hop to one of my co-workers. In response, I was asked if I'd ever heard of Danny! This album is hard to find in hard copy but is available as a download from Amazon and iTunes. Danny! hails from South Carolina. He's as rapid-flowing a lyricist as he is a top-notch producer. It's evident listening to this record and the numerous references that he's sick of being compared to Kanye West. The truth is Danny! doesn't compare. He's a billion times better than Kanye. This album brings to mind the vintage Native Tongues records from the late-'80s and early-'90s. De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest leave large, evident shadows here. Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are also obvious influences. Danny! is a gifted beat-maker, bringing to mind luminaries like Prince Paul, the Dust Brothers and J Dilla. He also has an interesting Beatles fixation. The album's cover and title make this clear, as does the track, "Yoko Ono." All together, this makes Danny! one of the most interesting new, still up-and-coming figures in hip-hop. I hope more people continue to check this album out or hear about it from word-of-mouth, as I did. It's obvious not only that he's an excellent rapper but also a very talented musician.
23. The Walkmen: "You & Me"
Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen is the best caterwauler this side of Tom Waits. Somehow, each song by his band sounds spooky and old, as if ghosts were being harbored beneath every sonic crevice. Their albums are produced so that they sound live and spontaneous. They have a very natural yet uneasy sound full of clanging guitars and dust-caked organs. All the while, the drums clatter along like a half-drunk marching band. "You & Me" is among their best work and "In The New Year" should be mandatory listening for all of you on New Year's Eve. It would probably be better suited, though, for after the party is over and you are sitting in a room by yourself contemplating your hopes for the future.
"In the New Year"
"Dónde Está La Playa"
"I Lost You"
"On The Water"
22. Leona Naess: "Thirteens"
It's named after an unlucky number but Leona Naess' "Thirteens" is quite exceptional. It's an occasionally haunting and captivating batch of songs. She has never been stronger, more alluring on record than she is here. There's a gentle, beautiful sadness spread throughout the album. Read my original review.
"Swing Swing Gently"
"Heavy Like Sunday"
"Shiny on the Inside"
"Ghost in the Attic"
21. Mike Doughty: "Golden Delicious"
"Wednesday (No Se Apoye)" is among the most beautiful songs of the year. It's the kind of song that stops you in your tracks and the most obvious highlight of Mike Doughty's fourth solo collection. The former Soul Coughing leader has ditched most of his old band's hip-hop influences to become a wonderfully quirky singer-songwriter. If you were a fan of Soul Coughing, you probably won't be disappointed by this set, even if he is sporting a different vibe these days. Read my original review.
"Wednesday (No Se Apoye)"
"I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep on Dancing"
"Like a Luminous Girl"
"Navigating the Stars at Night"
20. The Caesars: "Strawberry Weed" (Expanded version)
You know the Caesars from their song "Jerk It Out." The song was used in an Ipod ad a couple of years ago and, in turn, became a small hit. In their native Sweden, their latest album, "Strawberry Weed," was released as a 24-track, double album. In the United States, someone made the unfortunate decision to cut the album down to a 12-track single disc. If you want to get the album in hard-copy, this seems to be the only domestic version available. But the "real" version is available here as a download from places like iTunes or Amazon. And if you are a fan, this is the version you should get. Strangely, the album in its entirety only clocks in at 74 minutes, thus fitting on a single disc, after all. It's a wonderfully retro-filled collection of slightly electro-infused, '60s-style garage rock. Think of it as a modern equivalent of one the "Nuggets" boxed-sets. The Caesars prove to be likable pop-smiths. You'll be go-go dancing and humming these tunes to yourself in no time.
"Turn it Off"
"Stuck With You"
"Watching the Moon"
19. Elbow: "The Seldom Seen Kid"
Do you like Peter Gabriel? Do you like Coldplay? Elbow are cooler than Coldplay but they mine similar territory. And with his Gabriel-esque voice, lead-singer Guy Garvey is a strong presence. "The Seldom Seen Kid" won this year's "Mercury Prize," an award given each year honoring excellence in British music. Tracks like "Mirrorball" and One Day Like This" are examples of intricate sonic beauty. This is a beautifully produced album that is meant to be listened to at a high volume so that each one of its layers can be thoroughly enjoyed and digested.
"One Day Like This"
"Weather to Fly"
"Grounds for Divorce"
"The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver"
18. R.E.M.: "Accelerate"
R.E.M.'s past few records were somewhat sleepy, so with "Accelerate" the band decided to thoroughly wake up again and rock out. In some places, they rock harder than ever before. It's a quick, action-packed ride and a welcome return to form. Read my original review.
"Horse to Water"
"Living Well Is the Best Revenge"
17. Andy Yorke: "Simple"
As the younger brother of Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Andy Yorke has an uphill battle ahead of him. In the '90s, he led the band "The Unbelievable Truth" and here on his solo debut he shows himself to be a stellar songwriter in his own right. He sounds like a less experimental, more folk-tinged answer to his brother. Even if his brother weren't one of the biggest and most brilliant rock stars in the world, "Simple" would be worth your time and attention. Read my original review.
"Found the Road"
"Rise and Fall"
"Twist of the Knife"
"One in a Million"
16. The Stills: "Oceans Will Rise"
Back in 2003, Montreal's The Stills released their fantastic, moody, new-wave-soaked debut "Logic Will Break Your Heart." Three years later, they returned with the rootsier "Without Feathers," this time taking inspiration from the more acoustic, laid-back, expansive music of the '70s. "Oceans Will Rise" is closer to the sound of the band's debut but the sound has evolved as if informed by the experiments of their previous outing. Having yet to release a bad album, the Stills stand as one of the strongest bands of the new-wave revival. Unlike the Killers, who are aiming to cover half-baked ideas and idiotic lyrics with slick, overdone production, the Stills deliver real songs here. The quiet majesty of "Everything I Build" is one of the highlights of the year. The Stills also aren't as stuck in the past as some of their peers. "Eastern Europe" should be a modern rock hit considering it sounds like one of the best songs Dave Grohl never wrote. "Snow in California" sort of sounds like a slightly brighter answer to Interpol. I am making these comparisons but the truth is that the Stills have their own sound. They are a modern band able to effectively build off influences from the past. If this sounds interesting to you, please pick up "Oceans Will Rise." You probably won't be disappointed.
"Everything I Build"
"Snow in California"
15. The Ropes: "What They Do for Fun"
There hasn't been all that much written about the Ropes. They are a duo from New York consisting of vocalist-bassist Sharon Shy and a multi-instrumentalist who simply goes by the name Toppy. I stumbled onto one of their online pages and liked what I heard, so I downloaded their album (which is available on both iTunes and Amazon.) It is the follow-up to last year's excellent "Cry to the Beat" EP. If in the '90s you liked Garbage and Poe, then you'll probably like this. Add a healthy pop sense and somewhat disarmingly cynical lyrics and it's pretty amazing that they haven't gotten more attention. Hopefully, this is only the beginning for them. The acoustic number "Let On" alone should make them stars.
"I Stand for Nothing"
"Water and Headphones"
"Street I Never Lived On"
14. Oasis: "Dig Out Your Soul"
The Gallagher brothers returned in 2008 with one of their darkest, hardest and most appealing albums to date. They have aged well and on this album (and its predecessor, "Don't Believe The Truth") they proved that they still can deliver. I'd say they are at a second creative peak. Read my original review.
"I'm Out of Time"
"Shock of the Lightning"
"Bag it Up"
"Waiting for the Rapture"
13. Jim Noir: "Jim Noir"
Jim Noir is a British singer-songwriter who uses '60s-style production techniques (sunny harmonies, extreme stereo-mixing) and combines them with Zapp and Roger-esque electronics and trippy beats. He's essentially a one-man band who has managed to create a unique and striking sonic concoction. A song like "Don't You Worry," for instance, demands repeated listens. Read my original review.
"Don't You Worry"
"Look Around You"
"Day by Day by Day"
"Good Old Vinyl"
12. Nada Surf: "Lucky" (Bonus disc edition)
The members of Nada Surf make some of the smartest, most reliable indie-rock today. "Lucky" is their fifth full-length and it's another batch of well-crafted, indie-rock songs. If you can, pick up the expanded edition with a four song bonus disc. It is well worth it. Read my original review.
"I Wanna Take You Home" (Bonus Disc track, featuring Juliana Hatfield)
11. Weezer: "Weezer (Red Album)" (Deluxe edition)
Weezer's sixth album is most noteworthy because Rivers Cuomo has finally allowed the other members of the band to write and sing. All four members front the band at various points and it really opens up their sound. Cuomo's lyrics are still alarmingly simple for a Harvard-educated English major but that's beside the point because the songs are strong in so many other ways.. After the disappointing "Make Believe," this is one of Weezer's best albums to date. Read my original review.
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on s Shaker Hymn)"
"King" (Deluxe Edition)
"Pork and Beans"
"Thought I Knew"
10. Be Your Own Pet: "Get Awkward"/"Get Damaged E.P."
Regular readers might remember that three tracks from the American edition of "Get Awkward" were deleted from the album when Universal deemed them too violent. Luckily, their British label, XL, eventually stepped in and released those tracks as the "Get Damaged E.P." Put together (as they should be) this is one of the most fun, most dangerous albums of the year. Some of the subject matter can be ugly but violence has had a long history in popular music. Back in the '50s, both Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" and the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" were huge hits. Both are just as violent as Universal's main target, "Becky," a song about a high-school girl who murders her "B.F.F." and then goes to jail. Not all great songs are about great subjects. Universal should've allowed the Parental Warning sticker to do its job. To make things worse, in August, the band seemingly announced its breakup on its Myspace page. Perhaps the fights with Universal were a factor, perhaps they weren't. But, in any case, considering they only released two full-length albums, they parted way too soon. Read my original review: "Get Awkward." "Get Damaged E.P."
"Becky" ("Get Damaged EP.")
"The Kelly Affair"
"Black Hole" ("Get Damaged" E.P.)
"You're a Waste"
9. Longwave: "Secrets Are Sinister"
The year 2008 was full of great rock songs but Longwave's "Satellites" is downright perfect. Its fuzzy bass and pounding drums usher in a wonderfully ghostly guitar intro. It has a killer chorus with great pop-crossover potential. Modern rock stations across the country should instantly add this song to their playlists. Given the right exposure and radio support, it could easily go to No. 1. It's a song you have to hear. The rest of the tracks on "Secrets Are Sinister" are also appealing. Lead singer Steve Schlitz has a wonderfully distinct, natural, clear, almost deadpan delivery that he alternates with occasional falsetto passages. The New York band is probably best known otherwise for its 2003 single, "Tidal Wave," and for its stint as an opening act for the Strokes. One thing is obvious. This is Longwave's fourth full-length and the group has long deserved a hit.
"Eyes Like Headlights"
"The Devil and the Liar"
"Secrets Are Sinister"
8. Jenny Lewis: "Acid Tongue"
Rilo Kiley vocalist and former actress Jenny Lewis ups her own high bar with this collection of soulful blues, country, classic rock and folk-flavored tunes. She has assembled an all-star cast to back her up, including everyone from Elvis Costello to Zooey Deschanel. "Acid Tongue" is a timeless record and further shows Lewis as an emerging talent. Read my original review.
"Jack Killed Mom"
"The Next Messiah"
7. Liam Finn: "I'll Be Lightening"
The son of Crowded House's Neil Finn proves he has inherited all his father's gifts while showcasing an experimental side that is all his own. This album is amazing. Read my original review.
"Better to Be"
"This Place Is Killing Me"
6. Beck: "Modern Guilt"
Along with Radiohead, Beck is probably one of the most consistently innovative performers working today. For "Modern Guilt," he teamed with Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame) to record a psychedelic, '60s-influenced record. The album is a brief but tight song-cycle and it continues his line of classics. Read my original review.
"Soul of a Man"
5. Juliana Hatfield: "How to Walk Away"
After a long career as a '90s alt-rock also-ran, Juliana Hatfield delivers her best album to date by far. It's a smart, gorgeous, well-crafted record. Andy Chase (of Brookville and Ivy) produced the set and he gives it a spacy depth. Guests include Richard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf and Tracy Bonham. Hatfield has long deserved an album this great, so this is indeed a welcome surprise. Read my original review.
"This Lonely Love" (with Richard Butler)
"The Fact Remains"
"Such a Beautiful Girl" (with Matthew Caws)
4. Death Cab for Cutie: "Narrow Stairs"
I didn't go into "Narrow Stairs" expecting to like it but it's a stunning set. It rocks harder than you'd expect and has more highlights than you might expect, too. Ben Gibbard has reined in his cloying lyrical tendencies to create something amazing. In short, this album truly justifies all the hype Death Cab have ever received. They have won me over and they just might win you over, too. If you think you might not like it, you really should give it a listen anyway. It's career-making gold. Read my original review.
"Your New Twin Sized Bed"
"I Will Possess Your Heart"
3. Q-Tip: "The Renaissance"
Forget the excessive hype around Lil Wayne. The best hip-hop album of the year was by Q-tip. The former leader of A Tribe Called Quest had not released an album in nine years. His 2002 album "Kamaal The Abstract" had been shelved by his label claiming it wasn't commercial enough. For any Tribe fan, "The Renaissance" is mandatory listening. It recalls Tip's work with Tribe and yet breaks new ground. Live instrumentation sits beside dusty samples and he proves himself to be a true artist. Listening to this record, as with any Tribe album, it's evident that he has never been about making the easy hit. He's in it for the love of the music and his passion shows through. In the pop-driven world of hip-hop, he's a rare artist who will always keep his integrity. This is a masterpiece. Perhaps he will now find some way to release the canceled "Kamaal the Abstract." It's an album many fans are dying to hear. Read my original review.
"Life Is Better" (with Norah Jones)
"Johnny Is Dead"
2. Santogold: "Santogold"
Santogold are a ground-breaking duo from Brooklyn. They center around Santi White who has been around for a while and is just getting her own little dose of glory. In 2001, you might remember an album by an R&B singer, Res. White wrote many of the songs on that record. In Santogold, she channels her energy toward an innovative mixture of sounds. Mostly she floats around in a sort of new-wave reggae universe. A song like "Creator" has gotten her many comparisons to M.I.A. But on a song like "Find a Way," she sounds more like a middle-ground between the Slits and Blondie reinterpreting Men At Work. Like recent ground-breaking acts Gorillaz, Beck and the previously mentioned M.IA., the debut by Santogold is an album for people who enjoy pop music but like it with an intelligently eclectic edge. This is an enjoyable party record. It's also cool beyond belief. It will appeal to a wide range of listeners.
""I'm a Lady"
"Find a Way"
1. Elvis Costello & The Imposters: "Momofuku"
It's quite possible that my opinion of the album was enhanced by first hearing it on vinyl. Costello released his 24th album this way a few weeks before it arrived on CD. He's one of the few real musical titans who hasn't mellowed with age. He's only expanded his scope and gotten better. This album works in movements, almost changing moods with each of its four record-sides. It's a rough recording but that only adds to its appeal. It feels spontaneous and banged-out. The first three songs recall the angry early part of his career, while, elsewhere, he experiments with cocktail jazz, soul and country. It's a sum of everything Costello does best all packed into one place. With background work by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice and songs co-written with Roseanne Cash and Loretta Lynn, there's something here to please any kind of Elvis Costello fan. Overall, however, it's a refreshing old-school rock record. By choosing this album as the best album of the year, I am not hyping an undeserving veteran as, for instance, the Grammy Awards do every year. I really feel like he deserves this honor. Thirty-one years into his career he's as relevant and biting as ever. This was the album I went back to the most. He's one of the smartest songwriters around and he's released what I believe to be the best album of 2008. Read my original review.
"No Hiding Place"
"Flutter & Wow"
"American Gangster Time"
"Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve"
In closing: It was a great year. I wasn't able to include every important album of the year. I wasn't able to include every album I loved. Honorary mentions go out to the new albums by The Breeders, Portishead, Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys, Ryan Adams and Lykke Li. I'm sure that I missed some of your favorites but feel free to use the comment section below to list your favorite albums of the year. Let's hope 2009 is just as good. if not better.