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2008: Year in Music
The 25 Best Albums & Singles of 2008

If there's any truth to the nihilist's credo that things are only as bad as they've ever been, what's gone wrong culturally in 2008 nonetheless seemed to sting more sharply than before, which can make the idea of reflecting upon this year an unappealing proposition to even the most dedicated of list-makers. The global economy tanked. Singular, iconic talents both established (Paul Newman, George Carlin, Bo Diddley, Eddy Arnold) and in their prime (David Foster Wallace, Heath Ledger) died. Galveston, Texas was swept out to sea and, thinking of how things played out in New Orleans, Americans just shrugged. A case study in willful ignorance fascinated the nation and, for a few tense weeks, seemed poised to stand just a heartbeat—or a pop of a rickety, 72-year-old artery—away from the presidency. As for the year's music, the cliché that oppressive Republican political administrations foster the most compelling music was disproved over nearly each of the last 52 Tuesdays. It's telling that one of our top albums is three years old and another took over a decade to materialize, while two of our Top 10 singles are delayed-gratification hits from two of 2007's most memorable albums. Without a common, recurring theme or an overarching aesthetic to unite these records, perhaps what's instructive about the best music of 2008 is that appreciating it requires recognition and acceptance of its apparent flaws—a bit of Krautrock austerity here, a dash of rich-kid entitlement there, the occasional retro genre exercising mixed in for flavor—and how those flaws still translate into legitimate, important progress. In that way, the year's best music reflects the spirits of hope and change that will likely define 2008. Jonathan Keefe

Albums

Portishead

1Third was cause for more anticipation this year than even Chinese Democracy, but what makes it such a compelling listen isn't simply that it's a new, decade-overdue record from Portishead. Instead, it's that the album finds the trio making a needle-precise assessment of their strengths—Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley's sonic palette, which draws as heavily from punk as dance, and Beth Gibbons's nearly fathomless sorrow—and then experimenting with those strengths with a ferocity that made even the best efforts by their direct descendents (Goldfrapp, My Brightest Diamond, the Raveonettes) sound dated by comparison. Jonathan Keefe

2A three-year-old dance record should feel like a stale piece of bread, but Robyn's Robyn, which finally saw a stateside release this year, proves to be a surprisingly durable product. The album is a slow-burner (unusual for a dance record, which typically provides more immediate, transient gratification), but it's also everything pop music should be: provocative, poignant, inventive, and fun. Sal Cinquemani

3Hercules and Love Affair earns bonus points for turning Antony Hegarty into a disco siren and, in doing so, placing his inimitable voice in a context that's enjoyable as more than a gender studies dissertation. Not that this affair is any less heady or challenging to traditional gender constructs than Antony's other projects, given that it draws its inspiration from the queer subtexts of Greek myths and its androgynously-voiced lineup from DJ Andrew Butler's underground NYC party circuit. But those academic concerns are secondary to the fact that, under Butler's direction, Hercules and Love Affair is perhaps the first act to truly pull off an honest-to-God disco record since 1983. JK

4Rap music used to be called the ghetto CNN. "DLZ," the ominously prescient hymn to instability at the heart of TV on the Radio's Dear Science, does rap one better by somehow seeming to represent the truth of the current financial crisis more accurately than actual CNN. Not to mention the fact that "I'm scared to death that I'm living a life not worth dying for" was the year's best lyric, and the stone-cold confidence extant in the shuddering disco of "Golden Age" and the mournful surf rock of "Halfway Home." Dear Science isn't TVOTR's most coherent or experimental album, but it's their most vibrant and vital. Dave Hughes

5Lil Wayne is on it. In a year of great hip-hop, Tha Carter III reigned supreme, a heady succession of hot-like-fire beats, provocative rhymes, audacious correlations, and references both twisted and playful to songs, artists, and ideologies past and present, not to mention latex. Lots of it. Weezy F. Baby conflates oral sex and violence, asks where Erykah Badu is at (see below), samples and distorts "Umbrella," and with a little help from Nina Simone, metarifically dares another preacher man, Al Sharpton—and by extension, us—to misunderstand his complex affronts. Ed Gonzalez

6Pairing Nordic, perky-voiced songbirds with ice-capped Euro-house is a no-brainer and Kleerup's got the formula in spades. It's clear Kleerup only knows a handful of chord progressions and has a finite number of options in his reservoir of synth sounds (including synthesized-handclap percussion and what can best be described as icy droplets of water hitting an umbrella), but it's what he does with those chords and sounds that's revelatory. SC

7M83's Saturdays=Youth is a nebulous haze of an adolescent fairy-tale nightmare, beginning with a wispy cloud of a song ("You, Appearing") and the repeated refrain "It's your face/Where are we?/Save me," moving fluidly into the dreamy detachment of "Skin of the Night" and the exuberant "Graveyard Girl," and ending with a somber Lynchian drone. Anthony Gonzalez's most mature and accessible album to date perfectly embodies the drama and the heightened sense of practically everything that defines youth. SC

8Like her Worldwide Underground, Erykah Badu's New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War) is a promise and benediction, lush with big beats and even bigger ideas, braving to suggest that hip-hop has become a mode of learning more crucial than religion. Grandiose and intense, it pays homage to the teacher, the solider, the dreamer, the healer, the telephone—which is to say, the messenger. EG

9Santogold, née Santi White, has a plan. The new new-wave sound of Santogold recalls the Pixies, Blondie, Siouxsie & the Banshees, even Grace Jones, and across a sea of slippery, incantatory, and wise little songs, this immaculate dabbler ruminates on the forces of change, understanding the political significance of personal action and creating a pop record full of startling emotional doubt and great musical scope. EG

10With Alopecia, Why? fashions a bizarre storybook of twentysomething anxiety out of equal parts vivid lyricism and cavernous, hip-hop-indebted instrumentation. Yoni Wolf's gift for unsettling, super-precise images is on brilliant display here, and one can only nod fervently along to the bathroom-stall revelations, jokes about sexual idiosyncrasies, and scenes of blowing chunks in the parking lot behind Whole Foods. Wilson McBee

10It's not that no one thought Nicholas Thorburn was capable of an album as sprawling, death-obsessed, and gorgeously overproduced as Islands's Arm's Way, there was just little reason to expect it would come so soon. Layering on the pop daredevilry that often appears dangerously close to crashing and burning—even while singing extremely catchy songs about crashing and burning—Thorburn solidifies his spot as one of music's bravest auteurs. WM

10An album of Sleepless Nights's caliber would stand as career-best work for just about any other mainstream country music star from the '90s, but Patty Loveless has set the bar for herself entirely too high over the course of her celebrated career. Still only her second-or-third-best album, this is nonetheless a testament to Loveless's mastery of traditional country forms and an indictment of how too many of the genre's current stars have diluted that music's soul. JK

10There's nothing groundbreaking about Jamie Lidell's shiny new time capsule of a second album, and while that's kind of the point, it's also probably why it didn't make much of a broader impression. Songs like the gospel-tinged sex-strut "Wait for Me" and the hushed ballad "Rope of Sand" are sparely produced and structurally faithful iterations of timeless forms. Progressive soulman Lidell has demonstrated his facility with funk and soul before, but Jim finds his songs stripped of any customary futurism. DH

10Cut Copy's sophomore effort is not a perfect record, but its strengths so easily pummel its weaknesses to death with glimmery neon hammers that it's hard to say what I might have been thinking when I slandered In Ghost Colours as a "slump" last summer. On songs like the widescreen Fleetwood fairy tale "Strangers in the Wind" and the anthemic "Lights and Music," the lads had the audacity and ambition to turn dance-punk into pop worth investing in. I'm glad I finally did. DH

10In a year that was supposed to be dominated by the absurdist lyrical goblin Lil Wayne, who would have thought that the mush-mouthed realist Young Jeezy would be Wayne's near equal in capturing the hip-hop zeitgeist? Jeezy named his album The Recession not because he foresaw the worldwide financial collapse but because he understood that everyday Americans had been tightening their belts long before anyone had ever heard of subprime lending. The thug motivator's latest is filled with gritty perseverance, black humor, and Atlanta-bred beats that plunge to gothic depths while maintaining an essential veneer of inspiration. WM

10The guys in Fleet Foxes may look like hobos, but they sing like angels, and the band's self-titled debut transcribes the sunburnt harmonies of Brian Wilson to the Pacific Northwest while renewing appreciation for music that is unapologetically pretty. The sum of Fleet Foxes's obvious influences would be nothing without the unique concoction of youthful naïvete and world-weary wisdom that makes Fleet Foxes recall both a woodland fairy tale and a front-porch yarn. WM

10Of course, the title of Deerhunter's Microcastle is a misnomer. There is little about the band's ambitious play for indie-rock immortality that is miniscule or diminutive. With its outsized teenaged emotions and wild streaks of guitar fuzz, Microcastle demands to be played at nothing less than extremely loud volumes, whether on headphones or five-foot-tall speakers. WM

10Once something of a pariah for daring to wear an AIDS ribbon on the CMAs, Kathy Mattea has always been more progressive than the average country star. So leave it to her to release a concept album about Coal during the same year that most everyone developed a complex about the size of their carbon footprint. Mattea sings these songs about the challenges of the coal-mining process and lifestyle with grace and empathy, even if they're unlikely to change anyone's opinions about alternative energy sources. JK

10An album of deliciously exasperated electro-funkish grooves that uses its evocative sound to correlate the vibrations of love to that of intertwining cosmic systems, Kelley Polar's I Need You to Hold on While the Sky Is Falling is nectar for art fags, taking us to the heavens and back and making me, at least, feel things I only thought the Great American Scream Machine was capable of. EG

10Bon Iver's delicate set of lonely ballads For Emma, Forever Ago has an appeal so simple that you might initially miss it. It's a familiar story: Boy and band break up, boy retreats to an isolated cabin in Wisconsin and records a minor masterpiece full of spare androgynous American heartbreak. Maybe it's not actually familiar, but only seems so—the musical equivalent of a grandma-knit sweater found in a thrift store, an artifact at once comforting and profoundly alienated. DH

10A girl I know once tasted cocaine in her purportedly clean boyfriend's mouth, told him she'd left men for far less, and turned around and walked away. He never did coke again. It's unclear whether Sia's nearly identical ultimatum—"No, I don't need drama, so I'm walking away/I'm just a girl that you lost to cocaine," she sings on Some People Have Real Problems—met with similar success or not, but the album is successfully sad and despondent, irreverent and funny, and stuffed to the rafters with love songs that lift and lull and occasionally put you in your place. SC

10Columbia, Upper West Side Soweto, Graceland, colonialism, privilege, race, grammar, the M79, the Strokes, David Byrne, mp3 blogs, hipsters, sweaters, Topsiders. Deep breath. Vampire Weekend's studiedly complacent debut, Vampire Weekend, was the best album about which to have stupid, pointless arguments in 2008, and it was a lot of breezy summer fun t'boot. DH

10The Magnetic Fields's no-synth Distortion is a sterling collection of bittersweet reminiscences, odes to not-being and stunted creatures: the zombie, the courtesan, the nun, the broken-hearted dreamer. Stephen Merritt & Co. look back (to the sound and sun of Brian Wilson), up (to mistletoe), and forward (to bitter ends), always down but always kicking their feet, tossing off lyrics that feel as if they were written on napkins stained in tears, sweat, and whiskey. EG

10Auto-Tune might be the worst thing to happen to popular music since Kanye West's ego. And that ego, like the singing rapper's heart, isn't so much broken on 808s & Heartbreak as it is deflated like a balloon, making for purposeful (mis)use of the pitch-correction software as a symptom of said heart defect. Now it's time to pull the plug on Auto-Tune, shall we? SC

10If observational humor is years past its sell-by date, no one passed that message along to Wale. Co-opting the premise of Seinfeld, the D.C.-based rapper's free-on-purpose The Mixtape About Nothing did a whole lot more to renew Jerry Seinfeld's relevance than the comic's interminable series of commercial appearances. Wale lays shit out as he sees it and as it relates to his immediate life and social circle, which happens to include some awfully big names in commercial hip-hop. But when he riffs on "The Artistic Integrity," he proves that he has enough of his own to back up all of the punchlines. JK

Singles

M.I.A.

1A song about immigration whose sound draws a provocative link between violence and capitalism, "Paper Planes" was the bomb way before that conundrum known as M.I.A. licensed it to Sony and Fox and Billboard and Grammy dutifully responded. This ubiquitous anthem is the singer's least murky provocation to date, an ironic address of terrorism as a matter of moral and political judgment, but feel no guilt for stomping along to its driving beats. That's just M.I.A.'s way of pulling up the people to her cause. Also, you know Noam Chomsky's got it on his iPod. Ed Gonzalez

2No amount of fake scandal and misbehavior (A-Rod! McCain=Hitler!) can make up for the fact that Madonna's bid for hip-hop relevance flopped. So it's fitting that Hard Candy's best song, "Beat Goes On" (a Pharrell-derived, note-perfect hybrid of "Ring My Bell" disco and darkwave tech-hop that also features Kanye West's best rap of the year), hasn't even been officially released as a single yet despite garnering substantial airplay on the nation's biggest dance station. Three cheers for the counterintuitive! Dave Hughes

3It starts off as "Hollaback Girl" by way of the Raveonettes, and that's a pretty nifty trick in its own right, but "That's Not My Name" shows off The Ting Tings's pop smarts best in its glorious final third, when no less than four separate vocal hooks crest in a tsunami of sarcastic cheerleader chants and auto-critiques about the song being monotone and lacking soul. And soul's great, sure, but a sneered, staccato "Stacy," "Mary Jo," or "Lisa" does just as well. Jonathan Keefe

4Andrew Butler's Hercules and Love Affair outfit pays homage to the queer man's feelings of yearning, wish fulfillment, and survival on their sensual, vaporous, and bittersweet self-titled debut album. Consider their splendiferous "Blind" a post-mortem address by Sylvester, who reminisces on libertine days gone by via the gender-bending voice of Antony. A groovilicious foot-stomper that stirs the soul. EG

5Give Lil Wayne credit for his full-disclosure policy. Thirty-odd seconds into "A Milli" and he lays it out: "I don't write shit 'cause I ain't got time." The idea that something this transcendently stupid-on-purpose is just an effortless ad-lib is almost as infuriating as, well, its own chopped-and-screwed vocal sample. Swagger is part of the game, but most people have to try at least a little bit, Weezy. JK

6Beginning but not ending with sick beats that proudly inch forward before gigantically and triumphantly leaping ahead, Santogold's "L.E.S. Artistes" gives melodic and melancholic expression to dreaming, creating, and striking out on one's own, that uncertainty nipping at your heels be damned. EG

7Technology was the subject and thrust of the music—swaths of tension, really—that electronic pioneers Kraftwerk orchestrated during their heyday, but imagine them going where Miss Janet, nasty as all hell, went with the infectiously bizarre "Feedback." With it, Janet Jackson got her 4/4 back, spinning a mad association, at once playful and scorching, between her stereo and her vagina. EG

8That the iconic loop that drives "Time to Pretend" was inspired by the movements of a praying mantis only gives further structural depth to MGMT's ode to rock's inherent sexual cannibalism. That the duo shrugs, "Everything must run its course," at its conclusion makes the song something of a nihilist's counterpoint to LCD Soundsytem's "All My Friends," and hip posturing has never come across as quite this predatory of a mating dance. JK

9Standing proudly in the long shadows cast by the regal "Blind," Hercules and Love Affair's "You Belong" is actually the single best example of the band's ability, since it focuses less on guest singer Antony's breathtaking pipes and more on proprietary strengths—like Andy Butler's effortless ability to channel the spirits of Chicago house into something crisp and powerful, and singer Nomi Ruiz's frigidly passionate take on his genderfucked, tragic lyrics. No song this year banged harder with more meaning. DH

10The structural perfection of "Gunpowder and Lead," the way the anticipation of the low-key verses explodes into the shotgun-loading hook in the chorus, recalls "Since U Been Gone," but it's the fearlessness and conviction of Miranda Lambert's first-person performance that elevates the single into a groundbreaking genre classic. Thanks to country radio's ongoing crusade against good taste, it took nearly six months to do so, but the single also gave Lambert her long-overdue first Top 10 hit. JK

10Whatever its origin (be it an obscure Congolese soukous record, an episode of National Geographic Explorer, or a Peter Gabriel Song), the riff in Vampire Weekend's "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" is a marvelous bit of cultural appropriation. That it underpins a song that deals in the faux-pretentiousness and eager lust of Ivy League undergraduates while inspiring cheerful toe-tapping instead of nausea is a further testament to the undeniable abilities of these obnoxiously talented Wes Anderson wannabees. Wilson McBee

10Deerhunter's "Nothing Ever Happened" starts out as a great indie rock song—two verses, two choruses, and a bridge—before morphing into a spangled, noodly, marvelously drawn-out guitar-and-keyboard jam that sounds like New Order trapped in an acid-rock vortex. WM

10In dance music terms, when a producer can drop the most gripping bit of a track while still retaining its heart, like Holy Ghost! did on their rework of Cut Copy's "Hearts on Fire," it's a pretty good sign. Their classic disco rerub completely abandons the original's attention-grabbing hip-house instrumental break but keeps all the other choice pieces, like the morosely searching vocal, the monster bassline, and the totally perfect, wistful saxophone solo. It's nice to have a hook surplus. DH

10Before 808s and Heartbreaks launched a symphony of perplexed critical hand wringing, Young Jeezy's "Put On" presented the definitive statement of sad-faced KanyeTune. Parachuting into the song after three-and-a-half minutes of Jeezy's stony, stormy swagger, Kanye unloads an electronic pity party of unrelenting loneliness, misplaced misogyny, and even religious inadequacy. WM

10Two retro fetishists converged when Brandon Flowers and producer Stuart Price united to capture the glory of the '80s on The Killers's third album Day & Age. Surprisingly, Price's slick production doesn't permeate the band's signature sound, even on lead single "Human," which is the closest Price gets to reprising his fantastic remix of "Mr. Brightside." The lyrics were inspired by a quote by the late Hunter S. Thompson, lamenting the softness of America's youth, and while it's a mild social statement coming from Flowers, the song's hook is as strapping as anything the band has written to date. Sal Cinquemani

10Kelley Polar is a weird dude. We're talking about a guy who, upon dismissal from Juilliard, retired to an isolated cabin in Maine to record an eccentrically charismatic disco record. So it's probably unsurprising that "Entropy Reigns (In the Celestial City)," said record's biggest-sounding party track (replete with urgent strings and a Human League-style interlocking duet), is also an unrelentingly bleak condemnation of the repetitious debauchery of party life. It's also pretty unequivocally great. DH

10Blending the quick, acerbic wit of Mike Skinner with the tender, open-heartedness and piano prowess of Regina Spektor, Kate Nash recounts with exhaustive detail the pitfalls of a glaring mismatch on the bouncy and sadistic "Foundations," beneath which hides an underlying sadness and likeability many of her female British contemporaries sorely lack. SC

10What Madonna's "Beat Goes On" is to '70s disco, Moby's "I Love to Move in Here" is to late-'80s and early-'90s house. The two songs are, in fact, like cross-generational siblings, right down to their cameo raps (Madge got Kanye, Moby got Grandmaster Caz) and accompanying looped yelps. Moby's nod to period dance music is far less intuitive and more academic than Madonna's, but it's been a while since the bald electronic guru has sounded this joyous. SC

10Ethan Kath and Alice Glass are 8-bit wunderkinds with a fondness for Atari—hence Crystal Castles—whose music is a madly abstract, throbbing, out-of-breath seduction of electro beats and knob-twirling, and the nearly-indecipherable lyrics to their "Courtship Dating" seem to describe the layout of Jan Svankmajer's backyard. Essentially, this is what it sounds like when pixels fuck. EG

10Kanye West went all Volta on our asses with "Love Lockdown," the lead single from his first post-collegiate LP, laying a simple piano line down alongside an 808 loop, a chorus of tribal percussionists and Japanese drums, sleek outro synths, and some freaky jungle howling. Rather than prop up his limited vocal ability by overcompensating with gigantic production values, Kanye matches it with arresting minimalism. SC

10Half of No Age's summer smash "Eraser" is pure anticipation. For over a minute the L.A. vegan-punk duo basks lazily in elements of effects-laden guitar riffage and soggy, gutbucket drum kicks, so when the song proper finally arrives, it's an explosion of noise-pop ecstasy whose potency is in direct proportion to its brevity. Like a rainbow or a nasty skateboard kickflip, the thing is over in the amount of time it takes to say, "Wow." WM

10All chirping birds, handclaps, and piano power chords, Jamie Lidell's "Another Day" is as purely joyous as anything released in an otherwise grim year. The song's optimism and Lidell's lithe pipes make it easy not to care that his Stevie Wonderbread conceit conveys all the sincerity of a Sacha Baron Cohen character. JK

10The pleasure Hot Chip's rough-hewn gem "One Pure Thought" offers is derived from the delicacy of its tension and release. It begins by tossing together burbling percussion, vaguely classic-rock guitar lines, and wistful lyricism, and the pieces don't seem to quite fit. About midway through, everything dissolves into a huge-sounding synth breakdown that, in proper context, almost sounds like a huge, happy robot powering up. Because from that point on, all the sounds click into place, and the song transforms into a beautifully modulated, gliding bit of bliss. The more you listen to it, the smarter it sounds. DH

10"Lights Out" is Santogold paying respect to the 1980s and showing why she sometimes moonlights as professional songwriter for the likes of Ashlee Simpson: The song exemplifies both Santi White's expert chops and her unique stylishness. Cooing a drawled "Daaaarling" over a pulsating, downtown drumbeat and Pixies-ish guitar riff, she becomes the epitome of hip, patient affection, like your cool older sister showing you how to dance, or the girlfriend who is way out of your league consoling you once again. WM

10From an album stacked with club anthems that double as socio-political battle cries, Cyndi Lauper's "Into the Nightlife"—which combines Peer Astrom's Euro-disco sensibilities with the pop proficiency of Max Martin (check out that heady chorus)—is unabashed in its debauchery and tenacious in its resolve to simply and plainly pay homage to the shirtless wonders of an NYC nightlife that will live on long after Alicia Bridges. SC

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