2008: The Year in Music For People Who Had Too Much On Their Plate To Worry About What Type Of Year It Was In Music
Like a lot of people, I barely had enough CDs in my collection to come up with a “best of” list this year. There was a lot of stuff going on in peoples’ lives in 2008, stuff where music could easily take a back seat. Folks who were busy obsessing over the presidential election might not have noticed that Lucinda Williams came out with a new album. Other folks would have liked to pick up those two covers albums by Cat Power, but were a bit busy reformatting and sending out their resumes because they feared for their job. And others would have loved to have picked up that Lil Wayne album, except their house payment suddenly sucked up an extra $300 a month out of their wallets.
When times are tough, the luxuries are the first to take a back seat and music, for many, is a luxury. The best artists of the year were able to overcome buyer fickleness by either releasing material that reflected these uncertain, chaotic and sometimes scary times or provided some much-needed escapism.
Nine Inch Nails -- The Slip
“This one’s on me,” Trent Reznor proudly put on his website for his first post-Nothing/Universal release. If you were looking for quality, Nine Inch Nails should have given away Year Zero and With Teeth and charged full price for The Slip. It’s his tightest, most ferocious album since The Downward Spiral, but unlike other artists who have released retreaded versions of their defining recordings (see Metallica’s Death Magnetic), The Slip is the furthest thing from a regression.
The Roots -- Rising Down
The award for most disturbing album cover of the year goes to Rising Down, which, according to ?uestlove, was taken from a post-Civil War American painting, demonstrating the Confederate Union’s fears once the slaves were freed. The cover, like the album itself, is an unsettling listen. The Roots are probably the only major-league hip-hop artist that produces pissed-off music. Like the best agit-punk albums, The Roots’ last two albums are both scathing indictments of the times we live in and immediately gripping to listen to. Don’t let the album cover and subject matter fool you, Rising Down is as accessible and flat-out enjoyable as Game Theory. “Criminal” is a brilliant slow-burner of a song, and the title track shows that even with Mos Def on the track, Black Thought is one of the best emcees in hip-hop.
8. Sigur Ros -- Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum End Alaust
There’s a slight oddity in the music world when the summer album of the year came from a band from Iceland. Even casual listeners will notice a sunnier Sigur Ros with the first listen of Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust. For first time fans, Sigur Ros’s latest is a great starter album. For longtime fans, it’s a testament to the band’s deceptive simplicity. While detractors say Sigur Ros’ sound is limited, each album has a distinctiveness to it that merits a purchase. Nearly a decade into their career, the band has yet to release a bum album.
Q-Tip -- The Renaissance
Rap and hip-hop has been known as a young person’s game. But this year, 38-year-old Q-Tip upstaged all of his younger peers, including the hip-hop star of the year, Lil Wayne, to release the best hip-hop album of the year. While most hip-hop artists may have used their first album in almost a decade to talk about how the music world has changed and how inferior hip-hop albums have been in their absence, on The Renaissance, Q-Tip simply acted like he never left the game (which, in fact, he didn’t -- his production credits have been extensive since 1999’s Amplified). Songs like “Gettin’ Up” and Manwomanboogie” create a new genre: the grown-up hip hop anthem.
6. Deerhunter -- Microcastle
Few artists do drone core better than Deerhunter. Cryptograms was a great sounding album with heavy emphasis on sounds and less emphasis on actual songs. With Microcastle, Deerhunter reigns in some of their artier excesses in favor of more straightforward rock. Though it’s far from Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, Microcastle is a great reminder that accessibility and artistic compromise can comfortably coexist.
Portishead -- Third
Eleven years since releasing their last studio album and the best title the band could come up with was Third. Works for me. The first two minutes of “Silence” was a whirling menace that was an instant highlight for the band. The next song, “Hunter,” may have been a bit too off-putting for some listeners, but every track after that was Portishead at their foreboding finest. For these sour times, Third is a great soundtrack.
4. Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago
Justin Vernon holed up in a cabin in Wisconsin for four months to record For Emma, Forever Ago. Quiet, beautiful, and resolutely intimate, Bon Iver’s debut was usually just Vernon and his guitar. We’ve heard this before, especially with contemporaries such as Iron & Wine and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. That fact that something so familiar could still result in songs that immediately stuck in your head after the first listen is a testament to Vernon’s talent.
3. TV On The Radio -- Dear Science
The only significant flaw of Dear Science is that its opening track is among the best opening tracks of any album this decade. But when you start on such a high mark, it’s difficult for an album to go anywhere but down. It definitely can’t be a slow grower as “Halfway Home” builds and builds for three minutes before unleashing a ferocious buzz saw of a guitar riff. Still, pull yourself away from that first track and Dear Science is as good as their excellent Return To Cookie Mountain, if not better in some areas. Tunde Adepimbe’s falsetto makes songs like “Crying” and “Lover’s Day” sound like pure soul. Utterly unclassifiable in the best way, Dear Science, is TV On The Radio utterly decimating the so-called sophomore slump.
Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes
Arguably the best rock debut since the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, like Bon Iver, manage to create an album that you can instantly remember most, if not all of the songs from the album after only one listen. A great feat, given that both artists have a great deal of ‘60s-era folk. The acapella opening of “White Winter Hymnal” reels you into Fleet Foxes’ assured debut and keeps you riveted to the closer “Oliver James,” which is also acapella. In a year dominated by noise, Fleet Foxes made an album that showcased how powerful a few moments of silence can be.
The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive
Coming less than two years off of Boys And Girls In America, Stay Positive was The Hold Steady’s New Day Rising -- an album that wasn’t so much a departure as it was a 45-minute condensation of what the band does best. Tighter than Boys and Girls…, Stay Positive was simply the best album of this year, not because any new ground was broken, but because every song was so damn good. Every element of what makes The Hold Steady so great is present, from the party anthems (“Constructive Summer”) to songs that were really excuses for storytelling (“One For The Cutters”) and even a devastating pilsner anthem (“Lord, I’m Discouraged”). The latter song, a song about two of Craig Finn’s favorite subjects -- drugs and crisis of faith -- even raise the bar a bit for the band by including an indulgent guitar solo by Tad Kubler, a rarity for the band. Other albums may have been more original, but no album rocked as hard or was needed as much as Stay Positive.
Close calls: Al Green’s Lay It Down, Stone Coyote’s VIII, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III and Lucinda Williams’ Little Honey.
(but wait, there's more)
Rereleases of the Year...
On the horizon….
Liz Phair -- Exille In Guyville
I have mixed feelings about the rerelease of the best album of the ‘90s. Credit goes to Dave Matthews’ pet record label project for wanting to give this classic the deluxe treatment. The DVD looks like it could have been shot with your standard camera phone, but that is indicative of the way Exile In Guyville was originally recorded. A few unremarkable extra tracks and a relatively amusing story John Cusack relates about trying to score drugs in Chicago doesn’t justify the purchase of this rerelease. The album itself, however, is worth buying twice.
Beck -- Odelay
Now THIS is more like a rerelease if you’re going to ask people to buy a beloved album again. In addition to Beck’s defining masterpiece, an entire separate disc of B-sides (some, such as “Burro” and “Trouble All My Days” are as good as anything on Odelay) and remixes by artists like U.N.K.L.E and Aphex Twin are included in a filled to the gills album package. Thurston Moore adds some thoughtful comments in the liner notes, but Dave Eggers’ interviews with high school students of today about an album that some have yet to hear and some who are indifferent will have Gen-Xers either laughing or shaking their heads in dismay. No heralded treatment of a masterpiece here, Odelay’s reissue marks the event with a bracing degree of unpretentiousness.
3. Pavement -- Brighten The Corners
All Pavement albums before Brighten The Corners have been given the deluxe reissue treatment. It just seems like the right time for Brighten The Corners to get its due. In addition to its beautiful packaging, the album has more than 60 pages of liner notes. Fans have given the album a cool reception due to its relatively accessible sound. It was the band’s most accessible album and die-hard fans may have been afraid of embracing an album that millions of casual fans actively embraced. No worries there. The deluxe edition gives fans another chance to come out of the Corners closet and embrace the album. Next stop -- Terror Twilight.
2. The Replacements -- Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash; Stink; Hootenanny; Let It Be; Tim; Pleased To Meet Me; Don’t Tell A Soul; All Shook Down
Happy day indeed. Rhino’s rerelease of The Replacements’ entire catalog gave thousands of fans a reason to finally repurchase the beloved CDs by the ‘Mats that may have been damaged by repeated moves (from apartments into houses), numerous alcohol spills, and general wear and tear -- or in general terms, the trials of adulthood. Let It Be was the best overall reissue, while Pleased To Meet Me had covers that they were known to tear into when the liquor was flowing (“Tossin’ N’ Turnin’,” “Route 66”). Don’t Tell A Soul and All Shook Down we rightly included because removing them would be like removing a mistake on tape. And in their heyday, no one screwed up better than The Replacements.
Bob Dylan -- Tell Tale Signs – The Bootleg Series Vol 8 Through scores of Dylan reissues, fans who weren’t alive when Blonde On Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited only had his albums and their own sense of history to compare and contrast the songs on the reissues. With Tell Tale Signs, newer fans had a great chance to have a direct relationship between the albums they purchased when they came out and the reissues on Tell Tale Signs. The outtakes from Oh, Mercy, Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times could have easily been rerecorded and would most likely have made a better album than Modern Times. Listeners probably didn’t need two versions of “Mississippi,” but everything else was absolutely essential, from the flat-out honest delivery of “Someday Baby” to great live versions of “Lonesome Day Blues” and “High Water (For Charley Patton).”
It’s hard to believe that next year, we’ll not only be making our “year end” list, it’ll be time to make our “decade’s best” list. With new releases by Bon Iver, Neko Case, M. Ward, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, Mos Def, Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens, hopefully we will need another year before making up that “decade’s best” list. I still have hope that the album of the decade has yet to be made. For the train wreck factor, Chris Cornell’s album, produced by Timbaland, and U2’s next one will almost be too irresistible not to buy.
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