Like every other publication in existence, each year at this time, we survey our resident music critics to find out which albums they liked best in 2008. Here, then, is the second and final round of results from that survey.
(in alphabetical order)
Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War (Universal Motown)
Looking for an R&B album that addresses sociopolitical issues like inequality, racism and Sept. 11? Badu brings it with what is the strongest urban-pop album since, hell, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Her voice is deadly; her lyrics are polished to razor-sharpness; and the overall sound of this record is as massive as the problems it confronts.
Joan Baez, Day After Tomorrow (Razor and Tie)
Steve Earle takes folk-icon Baez down a religious-themed road she might've never explored otherwise. Along with some Nashville musicians, Baez offers interpretations of God-oriented songs by contemporary artists--songs that are a little bit rock (Tom Waits' title-track) and gospel (Earle's own "Jericho Road").
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Rattlin' Bones (Sugar Hill)
Mainstream country is so bad, it takes two Australian musicians to remind us how authentic the genre can be when approached the right way--with artistry. Chambers and Nicholson snake their voices together so exquisitely, and with such wounded beauty, you almost don't notice the dark subject matter (lust, murder, redemption).
Jesse Cook, Frontiers (Koch)
Instrumental music is for elevators--unless "nuevo flamenco" guitarist Jesse Cook is involved. Inspired by a move to Spain and the birth of his child, Cook conjures an upbeat, sensual and searing set of melodies punctuated by tasteful soloing. Songs like "Matisse the Cat" and "Café Mocha" will have you humming along and dancing the rumba in your living room before you even know what hit you.
GEISHA, Die Verbrechen der Liebe (Crucial Blast)
Noise-rock terrorist Anton Maiof returns with his band GEISHA's second full-length, an absolutely lacerating shoegaze-meets-sludge-metal firestorm that's as catchy as it is crushing. If you want to hear music that cross-pollinates the blurry cacophony of My Bloody Valentine with the bludgeoning riffs of Jesus Lizard, grab this CD--and some gun-range earplugs. Enjoy (but beware of) "Sportsfister."
Vladimir Horowitz, Horowitz in Hamburg: The Last Concert (Deutsche Grammophon)
The last recorded concert by the master pianist at age 84. Never mind what you've read about his memory loss at this point in his career; he burns his way up and down the keys. Horowitz's late style, with all its nuances, is fully displayed in Chopin's "Mazurka in B Minor," transforming the Polish dance into a tapestry of nimble, chromatic romanticism.
Pharaoh, Be Gone (Cruz del Sur)
Forget DragonForce. If you want to hear serious power-metal glory, Pharaoh picks up where Iron Maiden's Powerslave left off, building epic-sounding tunes out of a limitless well of face-lashing riffs, searing guitar solos and unbelievable pipes. Be Gone is a concept album about Earth shrugging off humans like dandruff. Scarier than anything Al Gore can create in PowerPoint, Pharaoh is the greatest metal band of this or any era.
Suicide, Live 1977-1978 (Blast First Petite)
The history of experimental and electronic pop music wouldn't be the same without the aggressive contributions of Suicide, a New York City duo of vocalist Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev. They wrote songs about fucked-up Vietnam vets ("Frankie Teardrop") and comic-book characters ("Ghost Rider"), and made it sound seamless and very dangerous. This limited-edition, six-CD box set of crude live recordings captures the band's early shows at places like CBGB.
Sun Kil Moon, April (Caldo Verde)
No other artist has mastered the range of folk- and rock-guitar stylings that Mark Kozelek has. From grungy Neil Young-like chugging to Richard Thompson-esque hybrid picking, Sun Kil Moon's six-stringed splendor washes over the listener, making you feel like you're cruising a wide-open highway at dusk. Kozelek's lyrics, meanwhile, chronicle every melancholy stutter of the human heart.
Verbena, Souls for Sale (Fat Possum)
Best Reissue of the Year goes to this little Southern blues-punk opus, first released by Merge more than a decade ago. This Birmingham, Ala., band packed a down-and-dirty wallop, taking cues from the Stones and the Stooges, and making it sound like Wise Blood's Hazel Motes rocking the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. Once you hear a track like "Junk for Fashion," you won't settle for anything less.
Why?, Alopecia (Anticon)
At last, Yoni Wolf's bandmates provide the proper kind of shuffling, spacious arrangements for him to stretch out his bemused anti-rapping upon. Alopecia coalesces into a solid aural meal, feeling altogether less thrown-together than previous Why? efforts.
Beck, Modern Guilt (Interscope)
On Modern Guilt, Danger Mouse lends his skilled hand to Beck, becoming a restraining influence on our favorite musically hyperactive Scientologist. Call DM the King Midas of keeping outsize performers in proper check. The result? Beck's best effort this decade.
Atmosphere, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (Rhymesayers)
Atmosphere's commercial breakthrough record is also one of its best, and "You" is the kind of single that strikes the perfect balance between staying true to the band's essence and making an unabashedly pop statement. But the best songs on the record are too dark for radio, and hopefully it will be ever thus for Slug and Ant.
Lil' Wayne, Tha Carter III (Cash Money)
The cleverest rapper alive always seems to be effortlessly free-associating onto more Top 10 lists than there are in the writers' files at The Late Show, but the truth is that even if Tha Carter III wasn't the near-masterpiece it is, it gets on this list by dint of its cover alone, for it is axiomatic that nothing is funnier than toddlers with prison tattoos.
Tobacco, Fucked Up Friends (Anticon)
The pleasantly queasy analog synths that are the trademark of Tom Fec (Black Moth Super Rainbow) get the hip-hop treatment on this excellent, largely instrumental record. If none of that makes any sense, just imagine it as "space jazz."
The Streets, Everything Is Borrowed (Vice)
Mike Skinner seems to be calming down from the post-fame guilt trip of The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, and on Everything Is Borrowed, he returns to the easygoing "mock"ney character who was your tour guide on the first two Streets albums. This isn't to say he's gotten soft, though--he's still rakish on "Never Give In" and appropriately misanthropic on "The Way of the Dodo."
Calexico, Carried to Dust (Quarterstick)
Calexico's best record since The Black Light.
Crooked Fingers, Forfeit/Fortune (Merge)
The underground's Bruce Springsteen wonders "Why trade old habits / for newfound devotions?" on Forfeit/Fortune's best song, "Let's Not Pretend (To Be New Men)." Agreed, especially when the old habits are this good.
Times New Viking, Rip It Off (Matador)
Columbus, Ohio, has a rich punk-rock tradition that is ably continued by this young trio, sounding like Vampire on Titus-era Guided By Voices filtered through a wall of overdriven 10-watt Gorilla practice amps. Here's hoping they don't turn the distortion down to sound more "mature."
She and Him, Volume One (Merge)
Thesis: Actor bands are always horrible vanity projects. Antithesis: Volume One is a pleasing, timeless-sounding, fun record without much trace of vanity to be found. Synthesis: All would-be actorockers should be forced to make albums with M. Ward.
Estelle, "American Boy" from Shine (Atlantic/Homeschool)
The song of the summer features guest rapping that is the best thing Kanye West did in 2008.
Honorable mention: Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal (Back Porch); TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope); Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar); The Cool Kids, The Bake Sale (Chocolate Industries); The Avett Brothers, The Gleam II EP (Ramseur); The Gutter Twins, Adorata EP (Sub Pop).
Deerhunter, Microcastle (Kranky)
I arrived late to the Deerhunter party (Microcastle is the first Deerhunter album I heard), but after all the hoopla and controversy, to my ears, this sounds like a plain ol' fashioned indie-rock album with great tunes. And sometimes, that's enough.
Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)
Sure, he's "just" a mashup artist, but Gregg Gillis knows how to keep your attention whether you're shaking it in da club or nerdily playing "spot the sample" on your Powerbook. I spent the better part of the day this was released listening and re-listening to it, doing a lot of the latter--and maybe even engaging in a bit of the former. If, by "da club," we're talking my living room.
Grand Archives, Grand Archives (Sub Pop)
Two harmony-rich, early-'70s-leaning Seattle bands release their debut albums on Sub Pop within a few months of one another; one becomes the (rightful) darling of, well, anyone who cares about these things, while the other is (wrongfully) criminally ignored. Yes, Fleet Foxes released a great record, but so did Grand Archives, who logged the most playtime in my listening devices of any album released this year.
MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (Red Ink/Columbia/Sony)
A mighty auspicious debut. Great almost from front to back, but "Time to Pretend" is a youth anthem for the ages. Almost makes me wish I were 18 again--and that's quite a feat.
Port O'Brien, All We Could Do Was Sing (self-released)
A dude who has recently fallen in love heads to Alaska to make some dough by following in his pops' footsteps in commercial fishing, and he attempts to justify his absence to his faraway lover. Wow, that doesn't sound all that good, does it? It is.
The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely (Warner Bros.)
Jack White and Brendan Benson cherry-pick all that is great about indulgent '70s rock and toss the too-much in the scrapheap. If you've unashamedly cranked up the Foghat anytime in the last 10 years, this one's for you.
She and Him, Volume One (Merge)
Let's face it: As an actress, Zooey Deschanel has gotten by based almost solely on her acute loveliness--which should make it even more difficult to take her seriously as a singer/songwriter, as the actor-turned-recording-artist path is a well-trodden road full of punchlines. But she's clearly a music fan who's taken notes on vintage country, Tin Pan Alley and '60s girl groups, and M. Ward is a sympathetic bandleader/producer. Utterly charming.
TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)
You'll find components of everything from krautrock to '70s soul, Devo, Bowie and falsetto funk on the latest--and, yes, greatest--from these sonic inventors. Yet, nothing else sounds remotely like TV on the Radio, who hold a prime spot next to Radiohead on the art/rock continuum.
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL)
It shouldn't work: four fresh young Columbia grads with a penchant for preppy fashion and African guitar runs crafting literate, if kinda wimpy, pop tunes. Backlash be damned: In practice, it's irresistible.