The Best Albums Of 2008, In Bigger Than The Sound

Major-label blockbusters, quiet indie fare, hip-hop, electro and some LPs that are all of the above.

Is the album dead? I guess it depends on who you ask. Your Web-savvy nephew would probably tell you "yes." [artist id="510062"]Lil Wayne[/artist], [artist id="1111141"]Coldplay[/artist] or [artist id="501686"]Britney[/artist] would beg to differ. Me, I'm not sure. What I do know is that of the thousands of albums released this year, there were 25 that shone brightly, that made me think, laugh, cry and dance and sometimes even restored my faith in humanity.

And I've compiled those 25 below ... my favorite albums of 2008. Major-label blockbusters, quiet indie fare, hip-hop, electro and some that are all of the above. Hopefully, there's something for you, your nephew and the Coldplay fan in your life ... because we all lived music this year. And, to that end, if you'd like to send me your thoughts — and, of course, lists — hit me up at

So without further ado, on to the list:

25. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III

The year's most unlikely success story and the rare case of 1 million people getting it right. On Tha Carter III, Wayne spins tales both humorous and harrowing (sometimes at the same time), dropping mentions of Tennessee Titans QBs and retail chains and sounding very much like a guy who realizes he is probably the greatest, most unchained rapper alive (sometimes he also sounds like a stoned Yoda). It's either a minor miracle or a happy accident that he went platinum in a week or that he grabbed eight Grammy noms. With Wayne, you can never be sure — which is just another layer to the legend.

24. Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

At best, it's probably the most sonically adventurous album from a major major-label rock act since Green Day's American Idiot (or even Radiohead's Kid A), a swirling mix of massive and minimal, of cathedral guitars and glacial synthesizers, tiny tablas and tack pianos. At worst, it's still the second-best Coldplay album. So, you know, win/win.

23. [artist id="3000112"]She & Him[/artist], Volume One

The anti-Scarlett (or, really, the anti-any-actor-turned-musician), Zooey Deschanel defied the odds and made one of the year's most satisfying albums, a crackling, sunny listen that recalls 1960s C&W, '70s AM radio and the stylings of Carole King and Linda Thompson. Sure, [artist id="1224909"]M. Ward[/artist] helped out a bunch, but it's Zooey D's big, brassy voice that brings the whole thing together.

22. [artist id="1225558"]The Walkmen[/artist], You & Me

An exercise in simplicity and sadness from one of NYC's most underappreciated acts, You & Me creaks like old floorboards and shudders like a 10-bell hangover. Over the course of 14 blurry, damp tracks, frontman Hamilton Leithauser's world-weary howl somehow gets even wearier, and the band's time-tested loud/soft dynamics start to fray at the edges. If their last album — a song-for-song piss-take on Harry Nilsson and John Lennon's Pussy Cats record — was the party, well, You & Me is most certainly the morning after. Hope it was worth it.

21. [artist id="1119"]Portishead[/artist], Third

An exercise in simplicity and sadness from one of Bristol's greatest acts, Third took the Portishead sound as we knew it — foggy, film-noir beats (your parents called it "trip-hop") floating beneath Beth Gibbons' harrowing voice — and rebooted it. What we got this time around was spooky synthesizers curling around simple drum patterns, acoustic guitars that disappeared into dense electronic plumes — a sound that was equal parts human ("The Rip") and machine ("Machine Gun"). Expect the next album sometime around 2030.

20. [artist id="970"]Beck[/artist], Modern Guilt

My favorite thing about Beck's eighth studio album (and something like 12th overall) isn't the hazy sheen applied by Danger Mouse, the singularity of its theme or the straightforwardness of the lyrics. It's the fact that, if viewed in the context of Beck's entire career, Guilt makes total and complete sense. Here is a former Golden Child edging gracefully (if not exactly willingly) into his 40s, still not sure where he fits in. Like I wrote last week, "Obsolescence has never sounded so good."

19. [artist id="2008947"]Panic at the Disco[/artist], Pretty. Odd.

An album unfairly skipped by fans and critics alike, Pretty. Odd. is what happens when a bunch of kids in their early 20s get together in a cabin, get baked (or, for legality's sake, don't), listen to a ton of Beatles records and think, "Why don't we do that?!?" because they don't know any better. In other words, it's exactly the kind of record I would've made when I was 21, except replace "a cabin" with "an apartment in Gainesville, Florida."

18. [artist id="974"]The Breeders[/artist], Mountain Battles

When you're really drunk in a really shady bar, looking at the yellowed jukebox in one corner and a bunch of Korean War vets in the other, and the bartender — who's been giving you the stink eye since the moment you first came in — finally decides you're OK and slides you a glass of Michelob on the house, and the air is dense because they don't give a sh-- about the smoking ordinance, and there are tiles on the ceiling and peanuts in a bucket and a picture of an old boat called "The Wild Rose" or something tacked to the wall behind the bar, and it's Christmas, that's basically what this record sounds like. That probably doesn't make sense.

17. [artist id="2509172"]Crystal Castles[/artist], Crystal Castles

Lead singer Alice Glass' whole "drinking blood/ playing with knives/ I am the undead" shtick might get a little tiresome, but there's no denying that the best moments on the Crystal Castles' self-titled debut come when she opens her mouth and just roars. Actually, the chippy, blippy instrumentals dreamed up by mastermind Ethan Kath are pretty great too. Part cyber-punk skuzz, part minimalist perfection, Crystal Castles might be the future, or no one might give a crap by this time next year, but there were few albums released in '08 more invigorating than this one.

16. [artist id="2552793"]MGMT[/artist], Oracular Spectacular

Take everything I said in that last sentence and apply it here too, except replace "cyber-punk skuzz" with "hippie-dippie noodling" and "minimalist perfection" with "burbling synthesizer overkill." Everything about these guys leads me to believe that we'll never hear a note from them again, but it's not as if that matters. For 12 glorious months (OK, more like 14, since the album was released digitally last year), MGMT were the shining poster boys for a Brooklyn scene that never was and the world's leading purveyors of wide-eyed electro optimism. Though that just might be the drugs talking.

15. Hercules and Love Affair, Hercules and Love Affair

Sumptuous, sprawling neo-disco/post-house (as if I can tell the difference) from New York-based DJ Andy Butler, Hercules isn't so much a band as a "musical project," one unafraid to blur genders and genres and genealogy, which is about the only way to explain gems like "Blind" and "Hercules Theme." It's probably why Antony Hegarty got involved too. Gay, straight, man, woman or something else entirely, this album is guaranteed to make you feel funny in your special place(s).

14. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago

The year's most interesting backstory — bearded dude gets dumped, ditches band, nearly dies, moves to cabin in northern Wisconsin to recuperate, gets even more bearded, is utterly and completely alone — also made for one of the year's best albums. (OK, OK, Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, actually released this by himself in 2007, but who's counting?) Emma is a creaky, delicate and deliberately lo-fi take on love and loss, played wonderfully and sung in Vernon's husky, hushed tones. In other words, it sounds exactly like an album recorded by a bearded guy in a cabin in Wisconsin in the middle of winter is supposed to sound. Also, my wife really likes this one a lot.

13. [artist id="1694056"]M83[/artist], Saturdays = Youth

Anthony Gonzalez pens a loving ode to his faded youth, an album full of gauzy fantasy pop, starbursting synthesizers and gull-wing guitars (he grew up in the '80s, if you couldn't guess). Saturdays = Youth sounds like every single John Hughes film ever made, not to mention the rush of hormones that come with "Enchantment Under the Sea" dances or holding hands with a girl in a graveyard or drinking your first bottle of Boone's Farm in a parking lot. The sensations of being invincible, indestructible and, most of all, free ... and being too young to know any better. So basically, it's the soundtrack to universal youth — but, of course, some of us are old enough to realize that fact.

12. [artist id="2584573"]Vampire Weekend[/artist], Vampire Weekend

The boat shoes. The pique polo shirts. The musicology classes. The Ivy League diplomas. These are the things great bands are made of, no? Regardless of what you might think about VW — that they are snobs, that they are overrated, that they are kind of wieners — you cannot deny their ear for pitch-perfect indie pop. Their self-titled debut packed more hooks into a scant 34 minutes than any other album released this year. And perhaps, in doing so, it also gives us reason to reconsider the very idea of what a rock act should be these days. If a dude named Ezra can rock, well, then certainly anyone can. Also, this was the whitest album of the year, at least until Kanye dropped 808s & Heartbreak, that is.

11. Constantines, Kensington Heights

It's perhaps a testament to the growl of frontman Bryan Webb that even when he rumbles, "You can tell by the way I walk/ I've got hard feelings," you get the sense that he's somehow holding back. If anything, that's a pretty good way to sum up the fourth album from the Cons, a slab of blue-collar rage that tries very hard to keep it all stuffed up inside. The end result is songs like "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song," "New King" and "Do What You Can Do," which bristle with anger as much as they do with, well, restraint. Webb might be drowning in debt, crushed by the expectations of previous generations, jobless, shiftless and generally helpless, but he's somehow managed to swallow all the rage that comes along with that, and only after letting it ferment for a while does he finally let the venom fly. There might not be a more happily angry album released this decade. Which means, in a way, the anger is a gift.

10. [artist id="710356"]Death Cab for Cutie[/artist], Narrow Stairs

There are so many moments on Stairs where something seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse — the reverb-drenched middle of "Bixby Canyon Bridge," the wobbling bass and guitars in the intro of "I Will Possess Your Heart," the tablas (!) in "Pity and Fear," Ben Gibbard's psyche on "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" — that it's a testament to Death Cab's skill that they're able to pull it off. It's a testament to their dedication that they let things get that far in the first place. From the beginning, they claimed Stairs would be "bloody" and "loose" — a conscious step away from the polish of their Plans album — and it most certainly is both of those things, and then some. It's a perfectly imperfect album, which is to say that it sounds very much like a band, setting up in a room and just letting it rip, and that makes it perhaps more compelling than 90 percent of the rock albums released this year.

9. [artist id="872"]Erykah Badu[/artist], New Amerykah, Part One (Fourth World War)

Time isn't really important in Badu's New Amerykah, which is why she jumps from the smoke-filled streets of the 1970s to the darkened and desperate projects of the present day to the post (pre?) apocalyptic future without much concern for the narrative arc. What is important is the message she conveys throughout those travels: that no matter how hard we try, things keep falling apart. They have been and they are and they will continue to do so, unless we wake up, stand up and — most of all — fight. So she puts the gun to our backs, orders us to march headlong into the darkness. She might not tell us where we're going — or what we'll see when we get there — but no one ever said revolutions were easy. This is a story told through stony beats, crackling samples and smoky voices, and rather terrifyingly so. Welcome to post-millennial tension.

8. [artist id="2542022"]No Age[/artist], Nouns

If someday, an archeologist uncovers the ruins of L.A. club the Smell, they will undoubtedly also uncover copies of Nouns, the best album by the best band to be birthed from the scene (maybe the discs are in a supply closet or something). And when they finally figure out how to play the things on their 3-D holographic decks (these will be like giant laserdisc players or something, only with holograms) what will they think? Probably something to the effect of "Wow, these dudes can't play their instruments," at which point, some nerdy rock historian/ architect guy will turn to them and say something like, "Oh yeah? Well neither did the Ramones." And everyone will sort of nod in agreement and then move on to uncovering Pink's Hot Dogs or giant statues of Kobe Bryant from the rubble.

7. The Plastic Constellations, We Appreciate You

For something like 13 years, TPC were mythic warriors of rock ... writing songs about slaying mighty beasts and brotherhood and drinking on front stoops, playing legendarily boozy live shows, partying — and playing — harder than mere mortals ought to. Of course, this eventually caught up with them (they never made a dime doing any of it), so they were forced to tackle decidedly un-mythic tasks like fixing cars or selling real estate to make ends meet. They managed to keep the balance between rock and responsibility going for a few years, but in the end, guess which side won? So, in early '08, when they announced they were calling it quits, I was saddened, but certainly understanding. One cannot rock forever. That their farewell album, We Appreciate You, is so awesome — full of big dumb hooks and even dumber lyrics — makes me reconsider that sentiment. Their riffs will most certainly be missed, though it's good to know they were buried with their swords and shields. We'll meet up again someday in the afterlife, dudes.

6. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals

In theory, this is just dance music, except you really can't dance to it. It's probably also illegal, only it just might be protected under the concept of "fair use." It could be art, but most art I'm familiar with doesn't contain samples from Too Short's "B---job Betty" and Dr. Dre's "Bi---es Ain't Sh--." So why don't we just call it all of the above? I don't think anyone involved with Feed the Animals — not Gregg Gillis, not the folks at Illegal Art, not anyone who's work is sampled on the album — intended it to become the lightning rod for 21st-century discourse that it somehow did ("Who owns music?" "What is intellectual property?" etc., etc., etc.), so perhaps it's just best to agree that everyone's right. Perhaps Animals will become the bedrock for a landmark Supreme Court decision ... perhaps Gillis will be sued within an inch of his life ... or perhaps he's the greatest media artist currently working, and we should all be grateful for that. Or maybe not. Because, really, f--- art, let's dance. Or at least attempt to.

5. [artist id="1244759"]The Hold Steady[/artist], Stay Positive

I don't think I can ever sum this one up any better than I did back in July. Why even bother trying: "The best band in America makes the best album of their career, a sprawling, profane opus that takes the singular world frontman Craig Finn has created over the course of four albums — dead-end kids doing dead-end things, usually down by the banks of the Mississippi River — and folds it in on itself, creating something entirely new in the process. There is still plenty of drinking (on water towers, in the woods, in Memphis) and drugging (in hotel rooms, at laser-light shows, in "cute little cars") and dance floors, but things have somehow gotten darker this time around, as if Finn himself knows that the party can't last forever and Sunday morning's gotta come someday. So accordingly, kids are crucified, canonized and catch spears in the side, while VFW halls and 7 Seconds cassettes are revered like Bethlehem or the Old Testament. Bar bands aren't supposed to be this God-fearing, unless they're drinking the sacramental wine, which, knowing the Hold Steady, doesn't seem all that improbable at this point."

4. [artist id="1230523"]Kanye West[/artist], 808s & Heartbreak

Kanye has spent the past 12 months being wronged. Wronged by life. Wronged in love. And wronged by his contemporaries (especially those at the Recording Academy). So is there any wonder why, on Heartbreak, he's eternally the victim? Then again, it takes an artist of his skill — and one possessing his ego — to make an album so one-sided, let alone one that's this great. His detractors might say that the Auto-Tune thing is played out, or that he made a mighty mistake by ditching the rapping, but that's only because they're probably put off by everything he's accomplished here, if not made a little uncomfortable. Unflinchingly honest (even when he's probably bending the truth a bit), emotionally unbalanced, this is West as we've never seen — or heard — him before. He's alone on an island (Would 50 ever consider making an album like this? Could he?) establishing himself as one of the few great artists of the 21st century. And on Heartbreak — an album of singular focus and purpose — he's created a great piece of art.

3. The Gaslight Anthem, The '59 Sound

If Brian Fallon is sincere — and given his snarl, his growly voice and his leather jacket, there's no reason to believe he isn't — then he's perhaps the most hopelessly romantic kid to ever have been raised in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And I don't mean that in the "flowers and candy" sense of the term. Rather, he's in love with romantic ideals: of rock-and-roll Saturday nights, of magical drive-in theaters, of the fins on the back of an old Cadillac. On The '59 Sound, he's created a world where all of those things coexist — where a punk act from Jersey can move crowds like the Boss, or share the stage with Tom Petty, where rockabilly chicks leave you stranded in all-night diners, where salvation can be found at the turn of a radio dial. And to that end, there's an unmistakable nostalgic streak through his lyrics and the band's go-go-go guitars, but it's nostalgia in the sweet, straightforward, black-and-white sense ... the kind you see projected on screens. Because life can be a movie, but only if you believe it so.

2. Deerhunter, Microcastle/ Weird Era Cont.

It's difficult to commend a band on their restraint when it released two albums in 2008, but over the course of a pair of discs — and 25 songs — Deerhunter managed to show nothing but restraint, reeling in the sonic terrorism and just writing knee-buckling tunes. "Nothing Ever Happened," "Saved by Old Times" and "Operation" were plenty good — swoony, scary, driving stuff — that delivered on the promise of their 2007 output (particularly "After Class," the song they released on the Rare Book Room Records comp) and showcased a band quickly turning into one of indie rock's best. Frontman Bradford Cox's lyrics were still open-wound raw, and there were still moments on both albums of hissy, misty experimentation, but Microcastle and Weird Era sharpened the focus, and because of that, they're both massively great, not to mention welcome additions to the legendary list of albums released by the 4AD label. Legacies are tough to figure — especially when you're talking about Deerhunter, a band that seems determined to destroy whatever good will it's built up — but I have the feeling that in 10 years' time, we'll look back at both of these albums as being landmark indie. There's magic here. You've just got to sift through a bit of detritus to find it. That's the Deerhunter way.

1. [artist id="1236818"]TV on the Radio[/artist], Dear Science

An album that wrestles with big questions: How does humanity survive in the era of technology? How do we find beauty in an increasingly ugly world? Why do we continue when the odds are stacked against us? There might be no answer to any of those things — and TVOTR are smart enough to realize that — so instead, they can only offer up unflinching optimism and a steadfast resolve to never give up searching for those slippery solutions. Dear Science is, on the surface, a very mechanical beast — full of shimmery synths, pulsing electronics, otherworldly falsettos — and it's an album about the 21st century, to be sure, but there's also a very human heart beating beneath it all, because it's mainly an album about love, family, life, happiness and the kind of things that have buoyed man since the very beginning of time. Is love all we really need? It sounds vaguely ridiculous, but then again — who knows? Perhaps a little faith in the timeless is all we really need. At least, I hope so.

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