Here, then, is the first round of results from that survey. The second will appear here next week.
Beck, Modern Guilt (Interscope)
Every new Beck album is an event, and here, the chameleonic singer/songwriter allows his 21st-century ennui and anomie to be filtered through some psychedelic-blues textures crafted by sonic swordsman Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton of Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz fame. The melodies are generally simple, but the ethereal groove is as deeply moving as any this year.
The Black Keys, Attack and Release (Nonesuch)
A magical funk-soul stew boils when this Ohio duo teams up with--guess who?--Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton for this stunning tour de force. On the guest list, jazz musos Marc Ribot and Ralph Carney add chops and bite. The record is most thrilling on the gutbucket-boogie stompers "I Got Mine" and "Strange Times," into which are folded elements of Beatlesque pop.
Cat Power, Dark End of the Street (Matador)
This late-year EP--of six more unorthodox cover tunes recorded at the same time as the early-year Jukebox--is a lesson in restrained beauty. Chan Marshall delivers the songs with melancholic intensity, and the low-key soul arrangements are artful. If you haven't "heard" John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" for decades, her interpretation will blow you away. I must be careful not to overdose on Marshall's take on Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?"--the damn thing brings me to tears.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (ANTI-)
Apocalypse, resurrection, trashy garage-blues noise. Must be the new Nick Cave record, right? But the hellfire-preaching King Ink hasn't sounded this sexy in years, probably a result of his most empathetic blending of toughness, terror and tender mercies. He sees degradation around him, but he still hopes for salvation. And the Bad Seeds' embrace of dark-art rock gets better and better.
Cold War Kids, Loyalty to Loyalty (Downtown)
My favorite single of 2008, "Something Is Not Right With Me," is contained here, but most of the other tracks on this young SoCal band's second album are its equal. The Kids infuse their jittery guitar rock--elements of Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Teardrop Explodes arise--with touches of Latin, jazz, cabaret and Tom Waits' clatterblues. They're as much about making elegant melodies and rich mood as they are about creating distortion.
Kathleen Edwards, Asking for Flowers (Zoe/Rounder)
This year's best storytelling in alt-country can be found on the third album by this Ottawa-bred singer-songwriter with the delicate voice and iron will. Fired in the forge of Petty, Springsteen and DiFranco, Edwards makes songs that are feisty, haunting, rocking, heartbreaking and simply lovely.
The Knux, Remind Me in 3 Days ... (Chic Freak/HHH/Interscope)
The up-from-the-underground phenomenon of the year is this New Orleans duo of brothers Krispy Kream and Rah Al Millio, who escaped the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, relocated to Los Angeles, opened a bunch of shows for Common and made this jaw-dropping album. They play their own instruments, take their cues from alternative rock and make the freshest, most eccentric hip-hop around. The new N.E.R.D.?
Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway)
One of the best country and/or rock singers of our day takes on songs made famous by one of the best of the past: Dusty Springfield. Lynne's previous albums have varied from revelatory to disappointing, but her razor-sharp focus and the jazz-inflected arrangements on this masterpiece (produced by the legendary Phil Ramone) put it solidly in the former category.
My Brightest Diamond, A Thousand Shark's Teeth (Asthmatic Kitty)
Imagine a haunting combination of Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush--and that's just the beginning. Opera-trained singer, multi-instrumentalist and pop-bred songwriter Shara Worden (formerly with Sufjan Stevens' band) proves herself a true visionary on this second album from her Brooklyn-based project, on which she performs timeless avant-cabaret and chamber-rock songs. Pure heaven, this.
Q-Tip, The Renaissance (Universal Motown)
Nine years after this MC's solo debut (and 10 since his remarkable group, A Tribe Called Quest, disbanded), 'Tip's return to record-store shelves is totally welcome, especially when he comes correct with that patented easy flow and a seamless blend of old-school hip-hop and Native Tongues-style consciousness. The relationship rap of the year is "Gettin' Up," which balances nostalgia, perspective and a charming, classic-R&B groove.
The Big Sleep, Sleep Forever (French Kiss)
Maybe it's the guitar tones reminiscent of Fugazi, but the energy of this record makes me want to throw myself against a wall of speakers--in a good way.
Chairlift, Does You Inspire You (Kanine)
Since the members of Chairlift claim they weren't actually listening to the 1980s music that Does You Inspire You channels, the album's existence makes a good case for the presence of a collective unconscious. And "Evident Utensil" is the catchiest song about a pencil you'll ever hear.
Cloud Cult, Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) (Earthology/Rebel Group)
Cloud Cult's obsession with the supernatural just keeps getting weirder and weirder, while their electro-pop rock gets better and better: Their blends of sounds are akin to a blend of what is natural, unnatural and supernatural.
Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst (Merge)
What makes Conor Oberst's solo record a Conor Oberst record and not a Bright Eyes record is that it showcases all of Oberst's songwriting styles (rock, country, folk, etc.) in one beautifully minimalist and cohesive record.
Coldplay, Viva La Vida (Capitol)
Wow, there are a lot of bands whose names begin with "C" on my list this year. And I didn't even include The Cure. Anyway, Viva La Vida is short, sweet and completely pristine commercial rock. Sometimes, this is not such a terrible thing.
Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)
Aching, arching emotions; guitars and metaphors of treachery; a romantic, hypnotic song about stalking ... what's not to love?
Eef Barzelay, Lose Big (429)
While a bit disjointed as an album, many of the individual songs on Lose Big are on permanent rotation in my head. As Tucson Weekly music editor Stephen Seigel said to me during Barzelay's show at Plush a few months back, "Dude can write a song."
Firewater, The Golden Hour (Bloodshot)
Tod A's international Middle Eastern and Asian trek accumulates into a raucous, angry, rocking and uplifting record that I cannot get enough of.
Jamie Lidell, Jim (Warp)
Call me blasphemous, but I think Jamie Lidell's nostalgic '60s tribute is far more successful than Beck's. Please don't throw bricks at my house.
Sigur Rós, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (XL)
Any year that sees a Sigur Rós release is a good year in my book, even if that year includes financial meltdowns and whatnot. The opening track ("Gobbledigook") alone is a large enough injection of bliss to stave off even the darkest desolation.
With apologies to Calexico, Beck, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and others I'd pick if I really were playing the game, here are 10 little mostly under-the-radar records I enjoyed the heck out of and played a bunch in 2008. I just don't want the year to pass without sharing them with you.
1. Elf Power, In a Cave (Rykodisc)
These folks are legitimate indie-pop Top 10 contenders, but in smaller and smaller circles. If you're a fan of endless imagination and first-rate musicianship, in any category, this is my pitch. A dark record for the Elves, it still makes me smile every time.
2. Headlights, Some Racing, Some Stopping (Polyvinyl)
Noisy pop in the tradition of Yo La Tengo, the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, etc., but neat-clipped and almost mathematical in its incisiveness--these tunes get straight to the heart of the head-bobbing reflex.
3. All Girl Summer Fun Band, Looking Into It (agsfb)
Girls RAWK! File these Portland, Ore., poppers alongside The Donnas and the Muffs in your category for fastloudfunpunk girl groups. What a kick! For pounding on the dashboard at stoplights and pretending you're in high school again.
4. Cuchillo, Cuchillo (Sinnamon)
Swoon to the seduction of far-off places that are just down the road from this gentle Barcelona duo. Experimental pop, singer-songwriter, slowish-core with a soupcon of prog, it fits most any mood not covered by noisemakers Nos. 1 to 3 above. Except country; see No. 9 below.
5. Magic Mirror, Champagne and Hostages (Magic Mirror)
More prog, more texture from more players, this El Lay troupe is pals with Cuchillo, with whom they hung out on the Barcelona sojourn that inspired this record. Dig the culture clash and mash-up memories of an American abroad.
6. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quintet, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quintet (Nettwerk)
With its pristine sound quality and impeccable picking by Washburn, Bela Fleck and their string-mates, this is a back-porch banjo-and-guitar symphony for Sunday afternoons; it's amazingly restorative on sick days. If rustic is your flavor, check out this collection's kickin' cousin, Get Off Your Money, by the San Francisco bluegrass Stairwell Sisters (Yodel-Ay-Hee).
7. Cordero, De Donde Eres (Bloodshot)
I have a thing for girl drummers anyhow, but Brooklyn Chicana Ani Cordero has also got the smarts and the grit to put across a singular, urban-punk-inflected take on Latin pop for the rest of us. She drives a top-notch band of players who know no musical borders. Translations at corderomusic.com.
8. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors, Passenger Seat (Magnolia)
If Bruce Springsteen played li'l nightclubs, but with wife-harmonies like Blue Mountain ... never mind. I hate reviews like that. Here we go: If alt.country still mattered, this band would be huge.
9. Hal Ketchum, Father Time (Curb)
When you've got the country blues, and ol' Hank's just too heartbreaking, open up to the warmth of a beating, trad-country heart under the wisdom of this aging former Nashville hottie. If you like your country crooners more alt. (and, maybe, younger), try Justin Townes Earle's The Good Life (Bloodshot).
10. Gary Louris, Vagabonds (Rykodisc)
Gary Louris could sing the phone book and make my Top 10. It's hard listening, though, without feeling bereft of the Jayhawks he helmed, post-Mark Olson. Man. That band was as tight as it was beautiful, and incomparably consistent live. Oh, I'm sad now. Well ... "Auld Lang Syne" and all that. Anyway, in just a couple of weeks, Louris and Olson end their decade-long split with the release of their new Ready for the Flood (New West). Hello, 2009 Top 10.