...Wow, you know, for me 2008 was actually quite a fantastic year for new music. Some years I've had trouble picking a Top 5, but this year I nearly could have done a Top 20. As it is I had to make some painful arbitrary cuts. Acts I've loved for years such as REM and Beck put out swell new albums, but I also discovered a ton of excellent acts this year (many thanks to cool blogs*) -- like the Hold Steady, Wolf Parade, NZ's own Flight of the Conchords and She & Him.
The order of my Top 10 could easily shift given a change of mood, and there's still a couple of '08 albums I really want to hear but haven't had a chance yet. All that as a caveat, in my humble opinion you can't go wrong with any of these discs from the year that nearly was:
1. Hold Steady, "Stay Positive"
Anthemic, inspirational and literate good ol' rock 'n' roll, and a constant in the stereo/iPod all year long. Frontman Craig Finn is one of these dowdy rock poets you see every once in a while, worshipping at the altar of Costello and Springsteen, and on his band's fourth album, creating a rockin' record that never ignores the tough moments, but ultimately seems one hell of a life-affirming document. Swinging from singing about being too old for the "scene" to crooning about cult filmmaker John Cassavetes, Finn manages the tricky business of juggling knowing when to rock and when to go for the killer lyrical hook. A great album has layers, and I'm still digging down deep into this one.
2. Cat Power, "Jukebox"
I know, an album of cover tunes? But nobody does covers like Cat Power, who takes a song and massages it into her own blood. Her takes on tunes by Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday are grooving, sultry and utterly her own. I'd have to say she's my favorite singer performing these days. Seeing her live back in March performing these songs was one of the year's highlights.
3. Wolf Parade, "At Mount Zoomer"
Broody, swirling and strange, the second album by this Canadian group is also kind of beautiful because (or in spite of) all the left turns. Sometimes it feels as if a few songs have been squashed together into one. It's got the grandeur of their mates Arcade Fire but sometimes also reminds me of The Doors without the boozy pretension. There's an urgency to it all that keeps the tunes in your head.
4. The Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride"
I'm finally going to see them live this Wednesday, and I'm psyched. John Darnielle is one of "low-fi" pop's best writers, cunning with a turn of phrase and a fine eye for detail. He started out with boom-box recordings that were faint, tinny and strangely absorbing, but expands into a full band here with glorious results.
5. TV On The Radio, "Dear Science"
This one's on everyone's top 10 lists this year. Am I being a dork by saying I've been into them since 2004? I am so cool. Anyway, TV On The Radio abandons their more prickly side for a bit more mainstream sound, but their industrial-strength doo-wop punk-soul is still hugely compelling stuff, backed up by the dueling vocalists, dense instrumentation, and a state of mind that unerringly captures the confused, battered yet optimistic post-Bush, pre-Obama mindset of the world today.
6. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!"
The Australian high priest of weird doom and gloom, back with a roaring album of lust and temptation and sprawling story-rant lyrics. Like hearing a deranged preacher yelling at you in the subway, but backed by a garage band so propulsively cool you can't help but listen. If that doesn't sound like a recommendation, you don't know Nick Cave.
7. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, "Real Emotional Trash"
Combines the quirky whimsy of his old band Pavement with long, groovy psychedelic guitar jams, like a mash-up of Guided by Voices and Television. Wonderfully loopy and unexpectedly emotional, it's the best he's done since Pavement broke up and a terrific guitar record. Put it on, turn it up and stare off into space.
8. Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs"
Strictly speaking, not "new" music but what a revelation of material from Bob's work of the last two decades. Gorgeously packaged alternate versions, unreleased songs and live tracks -- it's like getting a couple of new Dylan albums this year! I don't know if three versions of "Mississippi" were needed but "Red River Shore" is a sheer classic and just about justifies the album on its own. Dylan never really "finishes" a song and this look at his sketchbook is fascinating. (Now when do we get an official "Basement Tapes," dagnabit?)
9. Liam Finn, "I'll Be Lightning"
OK, this is a technicality, because it actually came out in New Zealand in 2007, but was released in America in 2008 and I bought it in 2008, so thppppptt. Liam, the Kiwi son of the great Neil Finn of Crowded House, crafts honey-sweet tunes that combine the House's melancholy beauty with a ramshackle, fuzzed-out charm. He's a one-man band, playing nearly every single instrument on this dense album (see him live, it's great how he recreates the sound). It's one of the more promising "famous musical kids" discs I've heard, and grows on me more with each listen.
10. Calexico, "Carried To Dust."
Moody Tex-Mex Americana rambles along through one of this Arizona band's best albums. It's the kind of music you listen to while driving through red dirt and ever-setting sunsets. There's a genuine warmth to Calexico's work, which is like soundtracks for epic western movies that never quite existed. In terms of evoking a mood, these guys are hard to beat.
The almost-tops, tied for #11:
Ryan Adams, "Cardinology," Jenny Lewis, "Acid Tongue," She & Him, "Vol. 1," Elvis Costello and the Imposters, "Momufuku," Beck, "Modern Guilt," REM, "Accelerate."
Best live show:
Tough call as Wilco, Sonic Youth and Cat Power all delivered most excellent Auckland shows, but the massive Big Day Out back in January squished Arcade Fire, Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Bjork, Liam Finn and Billy Bragg into one hell of a day, so that gets the nod. One of my all-time great musical memories -- here's hoping Neil Young, TV on the Radio and Prodigy can deliver a fitting follow-up next month!
(*As always, go to Largehearted Boy for the coolest dang wrap-up of just about every blog in the universe's Top 10 lists!)