Frankly, I thought 2008 paled in comparison to 2007 music-wise -- any one of my top 5 albums from last year would likely have topped this year's list. Still, disappointing as the year was, there were some gems. Below are my 25 favorite albums from 2008:
25) Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
The debut album from this New York electronic outfit features some of the best dance tracks of the year with propulsive beats that avoid falling into monotony or kitsch as many dance/techno tracks do. Vocals by Antony of Antony & the Johnsons fame elevated what could have been a typical dance record to a new realm.
Watch Hercules and Love Affair - "Blind":
24) Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers
Aimee Mann is not a particularly versatile artist -- she's been refining the same sound for most of her career -- but she's a very talented songstress, as this album proved once again. She has a unique ability to take songs filled with melancholy and merge them with the sunny pop of her California home.
Watch Aimee Mann - "Freeway":
23) MGMT - Oracular Spectacular
MGMT blasted onto the music scene in early 2008 and the best songs off their debut album stuck around throughout the year. This New York-based duo have undeniably eclectic tastes -- the best tracks fall somewhere between between psychedelia and prog-rock, two genres I normally despise. And yet there's no denying how much fun they are to listen to.
Watch MGMT - "Time to Pretend":
22) Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires
This British trio's debut album is short and sweet, filled with pulsing pop songs that each clock in under four minutes. If only more new bands were so efficient.
Watch Friendly Fires - "Jump in the Pool":
21) The Dodos - Visiter
A beautiful, utterly strange album filled with intricate drum solos and other acoustic pleasures, the sophomore album from this Bay Area band constantly surprises. It's a bit longer than it needs to be, but that's a small price to pay for the innovative pop experiments these guys pull off.
Watch The Dodos - "Fools":
20) French Kicks - Swimming
The Walkmen are the New York band everyone claims had a resurgent 2008, but for my money the French Kicks outdid their big city counterparts in every meaningful way. Finding a more mature sound, Swimming was filled with lush harmonies and arrangements that recalled and improved upon the band's earlier promise.
Listen to French Kicks - "Abandon":
19) The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
I actually thought Stay Positive was a bit of a letdown following the band's stellar Boys and Girls in America from a couple years ago, but I'm fully on-board with the more melodic direction that Craig Finn has decided take the group. Now the band's melodies are nearly as sophisticated as the lyrics Finn is renowned for.
Watch The Hold Steady - "Stay Positive":
18) Randy Newman - Harps & Angels
For people who primarily know Randy Newman for his cutesy scores in Pixar movies, it's worth noting that Newman also happens to be a fantastic solo artist. But what's truly surprising is that a man who has been in the business for so long can still put out an album as funny, vibrant, and touching as this one.
Listen to Randy Newman - "Harps and Angels":
17) Beck - Modern Guilt
The combination of Beck Hansen with producer Danger Mouse, two of the more innovative players in rock music, was bound to deliver interesting results. Fortunately, the album that emerged, while darker and less consistent than much of Beck's previous works, is a short burst of his typical energy.
Watch Beck - "Gamma Ray":
16) She & Him - Volume One
Zooey Deschanel has always been an eminently watchable actress, and it turns out that she's got quite the set of pipes on her on as well. This folky pop record she made with M. Ward was one of the better surprises of the year, filled with sprightly originals and well-made covers.
Watch She & Him - "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here":
15) Taylor Swift - Fearless
I don't really follow the country music scene, so I had no idea who Taylor Swift was when Sasha Frere-Jones first wrote about her in the New Yorker. The critics are right though -- this 18 year old country star is a preternaturally gifted singer and songwriter and Fearless, her sophomore album, suggests she's going to be country's biggest crossover star for some time to come.
Listen to Taylor Swift - "You Belong With Me":
14) Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
Despite the use of AutoTune on most of the the tracks, the latest Kanye album is a lower key and less showy affair than his earlier albums. Coming off a year of personal tragedy, West trades in his typical braggadocio for songs that are almost doleful in nature. Who knew a sympathetic and heartbroken Kanye would be so fascinating?
Watch Kanye West - "Love Lockdown":
13) Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer
This Canadian rock band's sophomore effort never reaches the heights of their dazzling debut album, but the patented Wolf Parade energy and inventiveness are still on display. To top it off, they also put on the best live show I saw this year.
Listen to Wolf Parade - "Language City":
12) Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster...
This Welsh band's debut LP is a sugar-infused rush of energy, each track emanating infectious joy. I thought the first album they made this year -- they were prolific enough to produce two -- was the stronger of the pair, with addictive hooks and clever lyrics in every song.
Watch Los Campesinos! - "Death to Los Campesinos!":
11) Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
Girl Talk, the stage name of musician Greg Gillis, continues to make utterly original music from mashed-up samples of artists as wide-ranging as Roy Orbison to Jay-Z. His fourth album, which is available at a price you choose, is a non-stop thrill ride from beginning to end.
Listen to Girl Talk - "Set It Off":
10) Deerhunter - Microcastle
Recorded over the course of a week, this album from Georgia's Deerhunter is wonderfully mysterious and ethereal. With songs that shift constantly between hypnotic ambient noise and more purpose-driven rock, this was one of the most innovative and compelling albums of the year.
Listen to Deerhunter - "Nothing Ever Happened":
9) The Black Keys - Attack & Release
The most underrated album of the year, Attack & Release found the blues rock band from Ohio collaborating with Danger Mouse to create their most accomplished and satisfying record to date. Some people may miss the band's rawer early sound, but I think a little polish is just what they needed.
Listen to The Black Keys - "I Got Mine":
8) Islands - Arm's Way
The sophomore album from this young Montreal-based band was an ambitious attempt at producing a richer, more cohesive work than anything the band had done before. Songs like "Creeper" and "Arms Way" are proof that they succeeded on those terms and then some.
Watch Islands - "Creeper":
7) Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
Hands down the best hip-hop album of the year. After churning out an astonishing number of bootlegs in anticipation of this album, Lil Wayne proves that he is better at seemingly off-the-cuff wordplay than anyone else in the rap game. He's also raunchy as hell, but that's just part of his charm.
Watch Lil Wayne - "Lollipop":
6) Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
My fellow Columbia alums made a magnificent first album, combining genres spanning everything from post-punk to afropop. Sure, the too clever lyrics and the preppy attitudes can be cloying, but the melodies are mesmerizing and addictive.
Watch Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk":
5) Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
Cut Copy's last album, Bright Like Neon Love, is one of my favorite albums of the past few years, so I was primed to be disappointed by this follow-up effort. Turns out I had no reason to worry -- while not quite in the category of their debut, Cut Copy's sophomore album is a heart-pounding tour through 80s-style synth hooks and irresistible beats. It's like a really good New Order album updated for the new millennium.
Watch Cut Copy - "Hearts on Fire":
4) Santogold - Santogold
The year's most crowd-pleasing album, this debut from Philadelphia's Santi White features the catchiest songs of 2008 like "L.E.S. Artistes," "Lights Out," and "I'm a Lady." With her eclectic tastes and immense talent, this is probably just the beginning of an endless supply of magical Santogold numbers.
Watch Santogold - "Lights Out":
3) Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Bon Iver, also known as Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, made the best solo album to come out this year. With subtle lyrics and enchanting melodies, his debut effort was an absolutely stunning demonstration of what one can accomplish with a simple rhythm guitar and startlingly soulful vocals.
Listen to Bon Iver - "Skinny Love":
2) TV on the Radio - Dear Science
New York's TV on the Radio have always been critical favorites because of their brainy, experimental music. But it turns out their best album is their most accessible one to date, one where all the wild experiments produce immensely satisfying outcomes. With all the tags that get thrown their way -- how does a band sound "post-racial" anyway? -- it's becoming impossible to define TV on the Radio as anything but just plain good.
Watch TV on the Radio - "Dancing Choose":
1) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Can an album that feels like a throwback still seem utterly original? Seattle's Fleet Foxes proved that it can, for their debut is about as old-fashioned as you can get -- choral harmonies, acoustic instruments, lyrics about nature -- and yet felt fresher and more alive than anything else that came out this year. Count the fabulous Sun Giant EP they delivered in the spring and Fleet Foxes made more gorgeous music in 2008 than anyone else.
Watch Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal":