The best music of 2008

 

Each year, we poll those who've contributed music writing to The A.V. Club about their favorite music of the year. All the writers—this year there were 19—were given 100 points to distribute among their favorites, with no record receiving more than 15 points per ballot. Equal weight is given to each person's opinion, with no sneaky electioneering—it's a purely democratic process that simply provides an aggregate opinion. That might sound a little dispassionate, but it's resulted in a list of truly excellent listens. For further reading, the individual ballots—which include added commentary and runners-up lists—are available as a separate feature.

30
Beach House
Devotion
(15 points, 2 votes)
On its self-titled debut, Beach House stripped "autumnal" of its clichéd status. Devotion is something else entirely: From its opening sandpaper shuffle, Beach House channels brick-thick consistency in service of a bolder, brighter sound. When a song like "Heart Of Chambers" soars as epically high as any Flaming Lips epic, it's easy to forget that the group is conjuring up space trips with little more than keyboard presets and gorgeous vocals. (Rizov)
 
29
The Helio Sequence
Keep Your Eyes Ahead
(17 points, 2 votes)
Brandon Summers, the singing half of the duo Helio Sequence, lost his voice in the gap between 2004's Love And Distance and this year's Keep Your Eyes Ahead, but returned with a stronger sound than ever. The album creates a romantic swirl of synths and guitars that sounds like what new wave might have grown up to be had it tried a little harder. (Phipps)
 
28
Girl Talk
Feed The Animals
(18 points, 2 votes)
Though it lacks some of the freshness and novelty of his rapturously received debut, Girl Talk's Feed The Animals proves that there's still plenty of pop left in the massive mash-up madness of one-man musical army Greg Gillis. Feed The Animals is the sound of today colliding with yesterday, hip-hop mashing into arena rock, and disparate spheres intermingling until all that's left is a sweaty, pulse-pounding party. Flagrantly ignoring copyright laws has never been so much fun. (Rabin)
 
27
Department Of Eagles
In Ear Park
(18 points, 2 votes)
True, it's basically a Grizzly Bear record without Ed Droste, but the first fully realized album from Daniel Rossen's Department Of Eagles has plenty going for it—not least of which is that it's basically a Grizzly Bear record. With his kitchen-sink blend of old acoustics and warped synthesizers, Rossen occasionally borders on the vaudevillian with his love of Van Dyke Parks' skewed-pop pastiche, but he tempers his showy, theatrical arrangements with a songwriting sensibility that's pure Ram-era Paul McCartney. The result is tunes that are slightly more straightforward in their AM-radio sentimentality than Rossen's main gig, but which still scribble thrillingly outside the lines. (O'Neal)
 
26
Sigur Rós
Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
(19 points, 2 votes)
Calling a Sigur Rós album "accessible" is kind of like describing a Britney Spears song as "edgy," but Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust—which might mean "we speak Icelandic and you don't"—feels less artsy and even more triumphant than its predecessors. The inventive Reykjavik outfit is still painting with an atmospheric brush, but the main thing that stands out on its fifth studio disc is how truly beautiful the songwriting is, rather than just how otherworldly the whole production sounds. (Hawthorne)
 
25
Flying Lotus
Los Angeles
(19 points, 2 votes)
On his second album, Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, refracts dusty-loop hip-hop through an armchair-techno lens, resulting in the most kaleidoscopic beat pileup of the year. As full of surface noise and odd detours as the city itself, Los Angeles mines everything from nervy electro ("Parisian Goldfish") to space jazz (Alice Coltrane, Ellison's aunt, is sampled twice) to lugubriously bass-heavy hip-hop ("Golden Diva," "GNG BNG"), and makes it all sound brand-new. (Matos)
 
24
Flight Of The Conchords
Flight Of The Conchords
(19 points, 2 votes)
Musical-comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords is about the laughs first and foremost, but the musical part of the equation is just as enjoyable on their self-titled full-length debut. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are capable mimics, aping everything from world-beat to hip-hop to straight-up novelty, but their album has a low-key acoustic spin that makes the jokey songs as singable as they are quotable. Because of that balance, the funny holds up over repeat listens—even after it's been co-opted by that dork in the next cube who won't stop giggling, "It's business time!" (Koski)
 
23
Wolf Parade
At Mount Zoomer
(19 points, 3 votes)
Wolf Parade features two excellent frontmen whose voices and songwriting styles are just similar enough to provide perfect complements: Dan Boeckner—who sounds like a gruffer Beck—offers the straight-ahead indie-rockers, while Spencer Krug gets a little more glammy and weird. At Mount Zoomer's climax combines their sensibilities into a brilliant, epic 11-minute opus called "Kissing The Beehive." (Modell)
 
22
The Cool Kids
The Bake Sale
(20 points, 2 votes)
2008 saw the emergence of a brash new strain of hipster hop, as an exciting new crop of buppie rappers with indie-rock attitude and old-school swagger made a mark on a stagnant scene. It was a banner year for acts like The Knux, Kidz In The Hall, and especially The Cool Kids, a breakout duo that walked a fine line between charmingly brash and outright obnoxious. The Bake Sale is the most irresistible blast of muscular hip-hop minimalism this side of Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury, though the Chicago duo was less concerned with documenting the drug game than bringing back the spirit of '88. (Rabin)
 
21
Black Mountain
In The Future
(21 points, 3 votes)
When the appeal of cooed folksongs and elaborately arranged pop-ballads begins to wane—when you're craving massive, sludgy, enveloping riffs and the kind of pummeling instrumentation you couldn't parse if you had all night—Black Mountain's second LP, In The Future, delivers thick, menacing sagas about witches and barbed wire. Black Mountain borrows heavily from well-worn hard-rock titans—see Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Iron Butterfly—but the band tempers its metal with oddball psychedelic flourishes; the resulting tracks are druggy, disconcerting, and cathartic. (Petrusich)
 

[pagebreak]

20
Frightened Rabbit
The Midnight Organ Fight
(23 points, 2 votes)
This Scottish band's second album is plenty dour, but there's uplift to be found in its tales of failed love, bad sex, and general desperation. A huge amount of the credit goes to singer Scott Hutchison, who tops the band's indie-rocking sounds—think early U2, a dash of Sebadoh, and some Long Winters—with sad, biting, funny lyrics. "It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm," goes one revelation. (Modell)
 
19
Drive-By Truckers
Brighter Than Creation's Dark
(23 points, 2 votes)
When Jason Isbell took a hike from the decade's greatest Southern-rock band, many fans were left to wonder whether Drive-By Truckers could ever be as good again. In light of the excellent Brighter Than Creation's Dark, those fears seem incredibly shortsighted. Isbell was far from being the band's only great songwriter—he wasn't even the band's principal great songwriter, a title Patterson Hood defends with terrific songs like "The Man I Shot," one of the best (and angriest) rock songs about the Iraq War yet. Throw in Mike Cooley—whose Keith Richards-style cool sometimes obscures his proficiency at turning out first-rate story-songs—and new songwriting contributor Shonna Tucker, and the Truckers earn the right to overstuff an album with 19 songs, especially when there's nary a dud among them. (Hyden)
 
18
Mates Of State
Re-arrange Us
(24 points, 2 votes)
It's easy to dismiss Mates Of State as cutesy claptrap: The duo is married, they're attractive, they write catchy pop songs, and they gave their 2003 album the nauseatingly twee title Team Boo. Still, judging them for those things shortchanges their considerable skill. Re-arrange Us isn't full of bubblegum songs about how much drummer-singer Jason Hammel and singer-keyboardist Kori Gardner love each other. The album has plenty of nuance and pathos—check the suicide-bomber-at-a-costume-party video for "Get Better"—that show depth generally not associated with the duo. That will change, as Mates Of State has quietly crafted one of the best pop albums of the year. (Ryan)
 
17
American Music Club
The Golden Age
(24 points, 2 votes)
On The Golden Age, American Music Club more clearly defines what its recent reunion means; now fully relocated to a quiet world of directionless loners and crushed spirits, the band's music is still as meaningful as anything from its original run. The Golden Age is a fascinating storybook of modern malaise: With atmospheric-yet-catchy songs such as "All The Lost Souls Welcome You To San Francisco," Mark Eitzel's vocals drift through anguish and empathy, finding truth in afflicted characters and their delicately painful lives. Though Eitzel isn't completely devoid of hope, few can craft melancholy with such soft force. (Mincher)
 
16
Sun Kil Moon
April
(25 points, 2 votes)
Mark Kozelek has been known for writing mumbly, long-winded, impossibly gorgeous songs since his days with Red House Painters, so it might be tempting for some to write off April—Kozelek's second set of all-original tunes under the Sun Kil Moon moniker—as more of the same. But give the record some time, and it reveals itself as a career benchmark that perfectly accompanies SKM's brilliant 2003 release Ghosts Of The Great Highway. Not since Bob Dylan has a singer-songwriter been able to stretch songs out for so long doing seemingly so little, while still being absolutely captivating. (Hyden)
 
15
Hercules And Love Affair
Hercules And Love Affair
(25 points, 3 votes)
Nobody wants to be the square hunched over a computer screen, typing and chin-stroking about a record as sweaty and propulsive as Hercules And Love Affair's Arthur Russell-aping debut. Plenty came to this record just to hear Antony Hegarty stretch his odd, warbly pipes, but a good chunk stuck around to dance: Hercules And Love Affair is the kind of album that demands motion, even for those whose club skills are relegated to head-nodding and the occasional shoulder-pop. Hegarty's mews are well-matched, even surpassed, by DJ Andrew Butler's production, and together, they manage to make greasy old disco feel entirely unprecedented. (Petrusich)
 
14
Lupe Fiasco
The Cool
(26 points, 5 votes)
In a grim year for hip-hop both commercially and artistically, Lupe Fiasco's sophomore effort The Cool was a heartwarming success story. After flopping with a much-buzzed debut, Lupe Fiasco's Food And Liquor, Fiasco hit it big with an ambitious though fairly abstract concept album about morality that scored a pair of big, seductive singles in "Superstar" and "Paris, Tokyo." Fiasco found success on his own iconoclastic terms, without relying on big-name guests (though Snoop Dogg drops by for "Hi-Definition"), hot producers, or, to paraphrase the title of one of the album's most pointed tracks, dumbing it down. (Rabin)
 
13
The Gaslight Anthem
The '59 Sound
(27 points, 3 votes)
A group of young Jerseyites who split the difference between Against Me and Bruce Springsteen, The Gaslight Anthem quietly put out one of the most exhilarating records of the year with The '59 Sound. The group's heartfelt, well-crafted lyrics have drawn innumerable comparisons to the Boss, and the blues- and soul-laced punk that pulses underneath it all is nostalgic and timeless at the same time. The monster title track's heartbreaking lyrics and propulsive rhythm epitomizes The Gaslight Anthem's amalgam of sincerity and rock 'n' roll brio, a combination that's as difficult to pull off as it is easy to love. (Koski)
 
12
Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes
(27 points, 3 votes)
One of the only things more remarkable than the caliber of Fleet Foxes' rich, amber folk songs is the baffling reality that the band's honey-voiced frontman, Robin Pecknold, is barely 22: The Seattle band's self-titled debut feels old and lived-in, a warm, gently battered collection of ancient-sounding tracks that, in spite of an annotated list of influences (from shape-note singing to Brian Wilson to Gram Parsons), somehow feels unique. Pecknold, seated mid-stage, eyes angled down, his considerable beard sticking out all angles, accidentally commands every room he sings in; when his bandmates join him in four-part harmony, it almost feels like time stops. (Petrusich)
 
11
Lil Wayne
Tha Carter III
(28 points, 3 votes)
Lil Wayne made an unorthodox move in 2008 simply by releasing an official album—as opposed to the (awesome) bootleg mix-tapes and countless collaborations on which he'd started getting weirder and more visionary as a writer than anyone this side of City Lights Books. Tha Carter III isn't as unhinged as some of Wayne's looser mix-tape showings, but he still slides between vocal registers and tonal deliveries with a thrilling lack of inhibition (not to mention logic) that shouldn't be half as rare. Whether he's getting anointed by Jay-Z in "Mr. Carter" or drawling like 20 different countries' spokesmen in "A Milli," Wayne sounds like a live wire who could plug in or spark out in any given verse. Keeping track of which is which is half the fun. (Battaglia)
 

[pagebreak]

10
Portishead
Third
(30 points, 3 votes)
Between the in-concert return of My Bloody Valentine and the release of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, 2008 has been a year of improbable comebacks. But none were as unlikely, or as flat-out triumphant, as the first album in 11 years from trip-hop standard-bearer Portishead. Producer-musicians Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley re-imagined their sound from the ground up, replacing the hip-hop breakbeats and '60s spy-flick soundtrack strings with rhythms that alternately tumble ("Silence") and shock ("Machine Gun"), along with textures and timbres that evoke Night Of The Living Dead—all perfect bedding for Beth Gibbons' undead croon. Even a little ukulele number (the 90-second "Deep Water") adds to the overall dread—a sense Portishead still captures like no one else. (Matos)
 
9
Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs
(32 points, 3 votes)
Multi-instrumentalist/producer Chris Walla warned people early on that Narrow Stairs would polarize DCFC fans, but that statement proved overwrought: Although the album has a sharper edge than the group's 2005 breakthrough, Plans, it was still in character. Songs like "Bixby Canyon Bridge," "No Sunlight," "Long Division," and "Pity And Fear" pulse with the kind of rock energy bands forgo as they "mature," though they segue well with Stairs' more subdued moments, like "Talking Bird" and "The Ice Is Getting Thinner." What's behind this urge to rock? Despair. Death Cab has never been an especially sunny band, but it was easy on Plans for the mix-tape-worthy charms of "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" to distract from the devastating "What Sarah Said." The album's sunniest musical moment, "You Can Do Better Than Me," is also one of its saddest. Then there's the sham marriage of "Cath…" and the ominous undertones of "No Sunlight," and the list goes on. The silver lining? People make their best art when miserable. (Ryan)
 
8
Erykah Badu
New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War
(35 points, 4 votes)
R&B; had a very good 2008, but no one in the field—or damn near any other area of music—demonstrated the off-the-charts ambition Erykah Badu flaunts throughout New Amerykah. Breaking five years' silence with the freest music of her career, Badu threw a T1-age sheen on several crucial soul touchstones: "The Cell" rides circa-1973 Stevie Wonder drums and keyboards through a harrowing depiction of cocaine addiction. The velour-lined drum-machine pulse of "Me," a free-floating musing about Badu's public persona, calls up early-'70s Sly Stone. The opening song is a retrofitted Roy Ayers track. But even with a couple of dead ends ("My People" could lose half a minute), this is one of those albums that's more than the sum of its parts, thanks to the woman who made it in her image: Whimsical, aggressively experimental, unexpectedly vulnerable, and funky as hell, it thrives on doing whatever the hell she, and it, wants to. (Matos)
 
7
Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend
(36 points, 4 votes)
Vampire Weekend was far from the first band to bring Afro-pop influences into North American pop; they probably get some of their acclaim just because no one on this side of the ocean has performed that particular bit of recycling in a while. But Western neglect alone doesn't explain the appeal of the way the band weaves clanging guitar lines and propulsive rhythms into an indie-pop moment badly in need of both. Whether Vampire Weekend will be able to pull the trick off twice—and avoid clunkers like "One (Blake's Got A New Face)" on future releases—remains an open question, but for now, they sound ridiculously full of promise. (Phipps)
 
6
The Hold Steady
Stay Positive
(36 points, 4 votes)
Through three albums, The Hold Steady managed to add legions of devoted followers to its fan base with every record, while somehow becoming a better and better band. Stay Positive is best described as The Hold Steady's "mountaintop" record—it doesn't shake up the formula or reach out to new fans, it just revels in what Craig Finn and company do well, in a straightforward, meat-and-potatoes manner guaranteed to drive members of the band's "unified scene" to even greater ecstatic levels of bromantic adoration. And as Finn gushes on the title track, the feeling of love is mutual. (Hyden)
 

[pagebreak]

5
Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago
(39 points, 6 votes)
For Emma, Forever Ago has so much soul and so many striking songs that it's almost offensive to consider that when Justin Vernon finished the record, he decided it'd make a halfway decent demo tape—nothing more. Though Emma was written and recorded almost entirely within a small hunting cabin during a Wisconsin winter, it's a warm, spacious album that also overcomes the myopia associated with most completely solo projects. Vernon's generous layering of his ghostly vocals and his careful arrangement of the rest (guitar, frugal drumming, and two horns on the title track) make for music that's as sensitive as it is prone to unexpected swells of bliss. More than folk or singer-songwriter fare, songs like "Flume," "Skinny Love," "Creature Fear," and "Re: Stacks" represent a new brand of soul music that invites stargazing as much as it does lovemaking and the occasional good cry. (Martins)
 
4
Los Campesinos
Hold On Now, Youngster…
(42 points, 3 votes)
Early adopters who picked up the 2007 EP or caught the band live knew to have high expectations for Los Campesinos' full-length debut Hold On Now, Youngster…, but it was still hard not to get bowled over by the joy and energy of its headlong rush. Track titles like "Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats" and "You! Me! Dancing!" capture some of the British band's quirky attitude, but little of the charisma generated by its combination of hyperkinetic chamber-pop orchestration and vocal back-and-forth between frontman Gareth Campesinos and keyboardist Aleksandra Campesinos. (No relation; all seven band members adopted that last name.) To lock 2008 down as their year, the band even released a second, almost-as-good album in the fall, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. Here's hoping that title isn't prophetic. (Phipps)
 
3
The Walkmen
You & Me
(45 points, 4 votes)
Perfectly timed for a year that easily felt like five, The Walkmen's groggy grower of a record captured those first tentative steps from roaring 20s to reflective 30s with the band's now-signature mix of teeth-gritting optimism and misty-eyed romanticism. Sounding wintry and rain-swept even when it's sending "Postcards From Tiny Islands"—just one of several homesick meditations on holidays that are far more "Galveston" than "Margaritaville"—You & Me takes a morning-after look at all the roads traveled, bottles emptied, and days and nights wasted on the way to wherever we woke up this morning. The Walkmen always strive for a vacuum-sealed timelessness, whether in the rattle and hum of the band's echo-laden guitars and fireside Farfisa, or Hamilton Leithauser's peculiar affinity for grandpa's "gin and cigars." Even better, You & Me managed to translate those saws about getting older—especially the exciting/enervating moment when the party's over and "we'll wed our girls and move away"—into a warm embrace instead of a lament. And when the future is so uncertain, who doesn't need a hug? (O'Neal)
 
2
Fucked Up
The Chemistry Of Common Life
(63 points, 6 votes)
Fucked Up's Matador debut could create a problem for listeners who (rightfully) hear strains of Swell Maps, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and other pealing, guitar-saturated art-rock icons coursing through the Canadian band's music: Who's the fat skinhead, and what's he doing in the middle of all that beauty? It's vocalist Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham, and his roar—a bellicose, unpleasant thing—is the primal, pissed-off lifeline that binds Fucked Up to hardcore punk. Abraham and his cohorts emerged from the wildly creative Toronto hardcore underground, and those who've seen Fucked Up play live (spilled blood is as common as dripping sweat) won't question the band's dedication to the form. With The Chemistry Of Common Life, though, Fucked Up opened the floodgates on the artier influences it previously kept secondary: krautrock, shimmering post-punk, and Eastern-tinged psychedelia, most prominently. The result is one of the angriest art-rock records—and without question, the artiest angry-rock record—of 2008. (Burgess)
 
1
TV On The Radio
Dear Science
(83 points, 9 votes)
After 2006's densely packed po-mo opus Return To Cookie Mountain, it's no surprise that a peaking TV On The Radio turned in another list-topper this year. What is surprising—almost baffling—is that after wowing with an arty experimentalism just barely kept in check by solid editing and an ace producer (the band's own David Sitek), the Brooklyn quintet succeeded this time by making a slick album. The "s" word is typically a pejorative in music criticism, but Dear Science proves that it doesn't have to be. Though each song—barring, perhaps, "Dancing Choose"—is superficially smooth, the payload is in the depth of field, and for the first time, it's the bigger picture rather than the details making a TVOTR album exceptional. The record's bookends, "Halfway Home" and "Lover's Day," are enormous songs where all those trembling guitars, drum bursts, percussive quirks, sheets of brass, and perennially gorgeous vocals melt into atmosphere. And what dwells in that domain—namely nine other fantastic songs—never disappoint. With Dear Science, TV On The Radio catches the listening public unawares yet again, renewing its claim to the mantle of most successfully innovative band on the planet. (Martins)
 

More Article