Top 10 Albums of 2008: First Edition

by David Mickelsen

So pop culture publications the world over have compiled their “Best Albums of the Year” lists. Well, I’m quite a list-man myself, so naturally I’m taking part. The problem I have with publishing a “final copy,” however, and part of the reason I didn’t post this earlier, is that my Top 10 Albums of 2008 list is not static; it is fluid, changing, forever evolving as my tastes evolve, forever shifting as I hear more music. And there will always be more music to hear; I will likely hear 2008 albums in the future that will make their way onto this list, and anything I hear in any context will inform the way I hear and think about 2008’s (and every year’s) music. So with all this in mind, here is my “first edition” Top 10 Albums of 2008 list: the list as it stood at the end of 2008.

First, a couple of honorable mentions:

808s & Heartbreak – Kanye West

808s & Heartbreak undoubtedly wins the Polarizing Album of the Year award, and it’s no surprise, given Kanye’s abandonment of rapping in favor of auto-tune-aided singing. While I too was a bit taken aback by this choice, I was a believer once I heard the results. True to its title (808s & Heartbreak also wins my Album Title of the Year award), it is an album of heartbreak, the result of a hard year for Yeezy. To be sure, it’s a departure from the cocky, hilarious Kanye of old, far darker than anything he’s done before. Also true to its title, it is heavily 808-driven, in addition to being heavily synth-washed. The result is an affecting, emotionally charged album (it’s even been called emo), and for me, it ranks close to Kanye’s best, if not quite on the level of a College Dropout.

Tha Carter III – Lil Wayne

I feel like all the “best rapper alive” talk is a little overblown—best freestyle rapper alive may be a more plausible claim—but either way, there certainly are some great things about this album, particularly how all-over-the-map it is, and how effortlessly Wayne jumps between such disparate pop culture references as Orville Redenbacher, Gwen Stefani, Sidekicks, and Dennis Rodman (that’s all in the same song, by the way). And you have to appreciate what a pop culture phenomenon Weezy is himself, no matter what you think of the music.

Santogold – Santogold

This album is really cool.

…and on to the top 10:

Los Angeles10. Los Angeles – Flying Lotus

J Dilla was the first person that came to mind for me when I first heard Flying Lotus. Anna heard this resemblance as well, comparing Los Angeles to Dilla’s Donuts (incidentally, this is also the only album on both Anna’s list and mine). What strikes me, however, is that while the two albums have almost identical runtimes (just over 43 minutes), Donuts feels incredibly varied and expansive (so much so that I still haven’t completely gotten my head around it, even as it stands as one of my favorite albums of all time), while Los Angeles feels like a very cohesive, shorter composition. Part of this is due to the disparity in track count (Donuts’ 31 to Los Angeles’ 17), but it’s also due to the fact that Dilla and Lotus are going about what they’re doing in pretty different ways, with different approaches, different methods, and different master plans in their respective heads. The staticky, stoned-out beats on Los Angeles are some of the most organic I’ve ever heard, loosely structured and flowing together fluidly, each track still maintaining its distinctiveness. The tracks on Donuts are more diverse and hold a bit more structural integrity, and while it also has a great flow, its changes are far more erratic—as Anna said, it’s all coitus interruptus. So now I’ve spent this whole summary talking about Donuts…but hopefully I’ve at least given somewhat an idea of how I think about this album as well.

Sample Track: “Beginners Falafel

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today9. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne/Brian Eno

David Byrne and Brian Eno have long been associated. Eno worked on three of the Talking Heads’ best albums, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980), and Byrne and Eno teamed up for the first collaboration under their names, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in 1981. Now, 27 years later, Byrne and Eno offer their follow-up, the even-longer-titled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

My Life was aggressive, experimental, and sample-heavy, influencing the hip-hop and electronic music of the coming decades. Everything That Happens is not that album. Now closer to age 60 than age 30, Byrne and Eno take a less-jarring, more melodic approach to electronic music, and the result is one of the most beautiful records of 2008, especially on the incredible “Strange Overtones.” Musically, it’s stunning, and Byrne gives an inspired reading of some pretty inspiring lyrics, albeit ones that are a bit counterintuitive at times: “This groove is out of fashion/These beats are 20 years old,” he sings…over some of the most interesting grooves and beats of 2008.

Sample Track: “Strange Overtones

The Odd Couple8. The Odd Couple – Gnarls Barkley

Jeff and I agree on a lot of things, but Cee-Lo is one of our biggest musical disagreements. I won’t make any attempts to speak for Jeff, but for me, Cee-Lo has been one of the most interesting figures in hip-hop and neo-soul for over a decade, from his ’90s work with the Goodie Mob, to the Cee-Lo Green albums of the early 2000s, to his most recent collaborative effort, his alliance with DJ/producer/keyboardist Danger Mouse as Gnarls Barkley. When their debut album, St. Elsewhere, came out in 2006, it blew me away, and its lead single “Crazy” took over my life that summer, along with the lives of a few million other like-minded souls.

I still feel like I haven’t completely absorbed their second album, The Odd Couple, as deeply as its predecessor, but I like it a lot nonetheless. Danger Mouse brings his usual brilliant mix of soul, funk, psychedelia, and hip-hop to the project, with sampled vocal harmonies, melodic synth lines, heavy drum breaks, and some very effective ambient noise here and there. Cee-Lo’s vocals, always impassioned, are often on the verge of psychotic here, a fitting terrain for his darkly moving lyrics. St. Elsewhere‘s themes of mental instability and detachment from reality are present here (“I’ve been entered by evil,” he sings on “Would Be Killer,” and I believe him), but Lo hasn’t lost his sense of dark humor either: “She has no idea I’m ugly,” he sings of his unsighted lover on “Blind Mary,” but follows up with “I’m so much prettier inside”–even when singing through a character, Cee-Lo has trouble being self-deprecating.

Sample Track: “Would Be Killer

Acid Tongue7. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis

I didn’t know much about Jenny Lewis before hearing this album; I hadn’t heard much Rilo Kiley, and none of her solo material. This album was recommended to me by a friend, however, and it immediately made an impact on me. Lewis blends folk, rock & roll, country, and the blues into an album that sounds like it would not be out of place in the early ’70s, but also sounds at home in 2008.

Sample Track: “Carpetbaggers

Dear Science6. Dear Science – TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio just don’t sound like anyone else. Being unique doesn’t necessarily make you good, but when you also write great songs, and that unique sound is gripping, palpable, and captivating, there’s some good stuff going on. Such is the case with TV on the Radio, and Dear Science, their third full-length, expands on and refines that sound. It’s a hard one to pin down; it’s full of contradictions, as it’s at once melancholy and joyous, driving and atmospheric, packed with disparate influences but cohesive and whole.

Sample Track: “Crying

Attack & Release5. Attack & Release – The Black Keys

The Black Keys have been one of my favorite bands for awhile, and one of my favorite things about them has always been the unpolished garage rawness of their sound, and the roughness of Patrick Carney’s production. So I wasn’t sure what to think when I heard that their new album, Attack & Release, was going to be produced by the aforementioned Danger Mouse. The result is a different sound for the band, to be sure, but rather than feeling like something has been lost, Danger Mouse’s sense of atmosphere and the psychedelic add a new dimension to the band. In the end, my favorite Black Keys records are still their earlier, grittier ones, but this one deserves a lot of praise as well.

Sample Track: “Strange Times

Modern Guilt4. Modern Guilt – Beck

It was a busy year for Danger Mouse, and by my measure, a great one, as he produced three of the ten albums on this list. This was another pairing that I didn’t necessarily expect, but again, one that I’m pleased with since hearing the results. I don’t know if it’s because of Danger or despite him, but Modern Guilt feels like Beck returning to a more straightforward rock approach, after the all-over-the-map the Information of 2006. This is a confident, weird Beck: Beck in his element.

Sample Track: “Gamma Ray

Volume One3. Volume One – She & Him

Some people probably dismissed this project as “an album by a hot actress who got to make an album because she’s a hot actress.” If that’s the case, it’s a shame. Zooey Deschanel is an actress, and she is really hot (see Failure to Launch), but she’s also an extremely talented songwriter and singer, as she proves on Volume One, her collaboration with indie-country artist M. Ward as She & Him. M. Ward certainly deserves a lot of credit for how good this album is; his sense for bright, warm production is in full evidence here, and he plays several of the instruments on the album, as well as providing arrangements for many of the songs. But this is Deschanel’s show; she writes all the songs here, besides one co-written by Jason Schwartzman and three covers (Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better”, and the traditional “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), and her wonderful singing is front-and-center, often layered in multi-part harmonies, part of what gives the album its ’60s pop feel.

That ’60s pop feel is formidable throughout the album; Deschanel’s influences are clear. “I Was Made for You” is pure ’60s girl group, and “This Is Not a Test” sounds like Rubber Soul-era Beatles while utilizing some Mamas & the Papas-style harmonies. Even the album’s instrumentation and production have a ’60s air. But rather than sounding like a band out of time, She & Him use their influences to create fresh, vibrant music, and some of my favorite music this year. Almost seems like Zooey should have been a singer all along. Wait…I just remembered her in Failure to Launch…nevermind.

Sample Track: “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

Welcome to Mali2. Welcome to Mali – Amadou & Mariam

During the summer of 2005 I came across a world music program, an area of music I was not at all familiar with, on a local college radio station. One of the tracks in heavy rotation on the program that summer was “La Paix” by the blind Malian couple Amadou & Mariam, from their album Dimanche à Bamako. I was quickly in love with both Amadou & Mariam and world music as a whole. But while Dimanche à Bamako was somewhat of a breakthrough for the group in Europe, it failed to make any real inroads in the States. Now, with Welcome to Mali, released in November in the UK and due for a March release in the US, the duo may be poised to do just that. It’s gotten nothing but high praise since its UK release, and it’s already being called their “big breakthrough album” (NME) and an “assault on the Western pop market” (Uncut).

I don’t know if Welcome to Mali is going to be all these things, but I do know that it’s one of the most enjoyable sets of music I’ve heard this year. Amadou & Mariam are one of two African musical artists that rarely leave my playlist for very long, the other being the late Ali Farka Toure (also from Mali). Both are heavily indebted to American blues, but where Toure was more firmly rooted in traditional African folk music, Amadou & Mariam explore a wide range of more modern musical styles, including funk, soul, rock & roll, and electronic music. All these are evident on joyous “Masiteladi” (it sounds joyous, anyway; I can’t claim to understand anything that’s said). Mariam’s singing, even mostly as backup on this track, is incredible; she may be my favorite female vocalist in music today (it’s a tough call between her and M.I.A.). Amadou sings beautifully as well, but it’s his guitar playing that’s really amazing, and it’s grittier here than anywhere on Dimanche à Bamako.

Sample Track: “Masiteladi

Consolers of the Lonely1. Consolers of the Lonely – The Raconteurs

As much as I like all the other albums on this list, and as good a year 2008 was for music, Consolers of the Lonely stands far and away as my favorite album this year. Nobody had as great a sound, nobody wrote songs as good, nobody flat-out rocked as hard as the Raconteurs in 2008.

I’m not gonna lie: Jack White is one of my favorite musicians of all time. The moment I first heard the White Stripes, when “Fell in Love With a Girl” started getting radio play back in 2002, I knew a life-long love affair had just begun. The first Raconteurs album, 2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers, took some time to grow on me (I think I wanted it to be another White Stripes record), but once I accepted that this was something different, I found that the Raconteurs were a powerful, talented band as well, with fellow Detroit rocker Brendan Benson sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties, and bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler (borrowed from the Greenhornes) forming a full rhythm section that White had never had behind him.

Upon many listens, Broken Boy Soldiers became a favorite of mine, so when Consolers came out, I was ready to love it. But it too threw me for a loop: I was looking for another Broken Boy Soldiers, which it most assuredly is not. The first noticeable difference is how much longer Consolers is (55 minutes to Broken Boy Soldiers’ 34). It’s a telling difference: Broken Boy Soldiers was a concise power pop statement, 10 songs of straight-ahead rock & roll, whereas Consolers is a sprawling, epic masterpiece, careening through genres and hitting a wide range of lyrical themes. White’s guitar playing is furious (see “Salute Your Salution” for one example), and his vocals are completely unhinged (see “Salute Your Salution,” again). These are also some of my favorite Jack White lyrics ever (which makes them some of my favorite lyrics in general). The word raconteur means “a person skilled in telling stories” (thefreedictionary.com), and while there was some storytelling on Broken Boy Soldiers, this is the album where the group really begin living up to the name they’ve taken. The first major exhibit for this is “The Switch and the Spur,” a Benson-sung tune. It’s an Old West tale of an escaped convict, trying to escape through the desert, bitten by something venomous, and the imagery is striking: “The saddle spotted with sweat and blood/The poison pumps through his veins/There’s no stopping this, and now he’s powerless/Still holding the reins.”

But the truly epic story here is the one told on the closing track, “Carolina Drama.” The story of a dysfunctional family set in western South Carolina, it’s a tale of jealousy, revenge, and redemption. I don’t know how to do it justice without retelling the entire thing, so I’ll just say that for me, anyway, it’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect album, and let you hear it for yourself.

Sample Track: “Carolina Drama

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