Like last year, I used a scale that ranks albums out of 10*:
- 9.0-10: Brilliant in every way, a soon-to-be classic album
- 8.0-8.9: Very good, not to be missed
- 7.0-7.9: Good and worth listening to, but nothing to write home about
- 6.0-6.9: Meh
Overall it was a good year for music, but 2008 didn't produce an obvious choice for top spot, nor did any album make it into my 90th percentile. This isn't typical, as there's usually one album that stands out from the rest. As a result, there is a tie for first place this year; and in all, 25 albums qualified for a spot in my 8.6 to 8.9 slot.
So, without further ado, here are the best albums of 2008:
ObZen (8.9)Well into their second decade, these Swedish prog-metal thrashers have yet to disappoint. This album has everything metal fans could want and expect: powerful riffs, extreme aggression and mind-boggling technical precision. And more than ever, Meshuggah has brought these elements together to create a flowing and organic-sounding album that drives and pushes limits. ObZen is relentless and full of rage. It opens with the blistering "Combustion," a showcase for the power and fury that Meshuggah is famous for. And with "Bleed," they have not only introduced a soon-to-be metal classic, but an impossible standard for prog-metal drummers everywhere; Jens Kidman's kick-pedal work is as incomparable as the band itself. Vocalist Tomas Haake's growls have never sounded more tense and angst-ridden. Other track highlights include "Pravus" and "Pineal Gland Optics." This is an album that's not to be missed.
Third (8.9)Portishead's first album in 11 years is an absolute stunner, making this the comeback album of the year (with all due respect to The Black Crowes at #5). Third is spooky, mysterious and unsettling. It's also a brilliant artistic achievement that's cerebral and challenging. Each track is an epic worthy of exploration in it's own right: "Machine Gun" is full of drama and tension -- and oddly reminiscent of The Terminator soundtrack; "Small" starts off hypnotic and then beautifully transitions to a loungey organ and ride cymbal trip that lightly touches upon Pink Floyd; "Plastic" has an inexplicably Jefferson Airplane quality to it; "The Rip" is eerie and beautiful (the sustained vocal note slays me every time). This is an album that will speak differently to you with every listen. Simply fantastic.
Keep Your Eyes Ahead (8.8)A duo from Portland, Oregon, The Helio Sequence combine American country-folk with atmospheric Brit-pop; Keep Your Eyes Ahead sounds like what you'd get if John Denver jammed with Travis. And it works. The album is blessed with a host of memorable and melodic songs, poignant lyrics and all sprinkled with hints of psychedelia and dream pop. Track highlights include "Lately," "Shed Your Love," Keep Your Eyes Ahead," and "Hallelujah."
At Mount Zoomer (8.8)No sophomore jinx here; Montreal's Wolf Parade have now come into their own, forever shedding comparisons to Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. But like those bands, Wolf Parade has created a sound that's distinctly their own. At Mount Zoomer's sparse use of guitar is offset by swirls of synth, harpischord and piano. The album has a definite Doors-like quality to it, but it's never obvious. At Mount Zoomer has its share of fantastic moments, like the dreamy synth break-down in "Soldier's Grin," the crescendoed ending to "California Dreaming," and the epic "Kissing the Beehive" with its gorgeous melodic phrasing and repeated cries of, "Fire in the hole!" The Canadian music scene is as strong as ever.
Warpaint (8.7)With Warpaint, The Black Crowes have released one of the finest blues albums in recent memory. And most people, I dare say, completely missed it. The Black Crowes, after some exceptionally hard times and even a temporary break-up, have returned with a magnificent album that features Chris Robinson's finest work as a vocalist to date. Warpaint showcases a band that has rediscovered itself and discovered God in the process; there's a definite gospel-like quality to this album that gives it its soul and focus. Track highlights include "Evergreen," "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution," "Locust Street," "Oh Josephine," and "Movin' on Down the Line."
Trouble in Dreams (8.7)There's no question that the New Pornographers are a bona fide supergroup; how many bands can boast the likes of Neko Case, Carl Newman and Destroyer's Dan Bejar? Each is a successful artist in their own right. And what makes the New Pornographers so great is that each of them bring their unique style to the band. In the case of Dan Bejar, it's his distinctive vocal delivery and quirky musical sensibility. Indeed, after the first few listens through Trouble in Dreams one is left scratching their heads -- it's a true curiosity. But familiarity brings illumination. Trouble in Dreams is rich in detail and charm. Bejar's tracks are strong, complex, and written with lyrics that would make Bob Dylan proud. Another stellar Canadian release for 2008. Track highlights include "Blue Flower/Blue Flame," "My Favourite Year," and "Libby's First Sunrise."
The Hawk is Howling (8.7)The best post-rock album of the year goes to one of the most influential bands in the genre, Mogwai. With The Hawk is Howling, these Scots have dipped into their past and re-introduced the sonic intensity and sophistication that they're known for. In some ways, though, The Hawk is Howling sounds like a rebirth. Unlike their previous effort, Mr. Beast, the tracks are massive, dark and full of complex emotion. Track highlights include "Batcat," "Scotland's Shame," and "Danphe and the Brain." Mogwai remain among the elite.
Nouns (8.7)No Age, a lo-fi duo from California, perform minimalistic noise-rock that's not for everyone. While they may be an acquired taste, their no compromise attitude has earned them a loyal following and critical acclaim. No Age continues to craft strangely beautiful and complex songs out of noisy guitar and drum parts. Buried beneath all the fuzz and drone is a remarkably listenable and engaging album that, when all is said and done, is actually quite accessible. Track highlights include "Teen Creeps," "Things I Did When I Was Dead," and "Sleeper Hold."
Vampire Weekend (8.7)Vampire Weekend's debut album is more fun than anyone should be allowed to have; it's an instant mood enhancer (I swear the track "M79" is better than Prozac). The band incorporates African and Caribbean music with a pepped up form of chamber pop; the album has hints of early Police and Graceland era Paul Simon. Vampire Weekend is filled with lyrics that are smart, quirky and irreverent. Track highlights include "Oxford Comma" "A-Punk," and "One (Blake's Got a New Face)."
Only By the Night (8.8)Firmly established as one of America's most respected acts in mainstream rock, Kings of Leon released Only By the Night a mere one year after Because of the Times. But this year's album is more than just a continuation of their new 'big sound,' it's also a refinement. These guys can write incredible songs. And given their new commitment to a larger, fuller sound, their tracks shine more than ever. Track highlights include "Crawl," "Manhattan," and "Sex on Fire."
13 Blues for Thirteen Moons (8.6)Formerly known as A Silver Mt. Zion, these Montrealers are the post-rocker spin-offs of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But despite the odd name re-adjustment, the band remains as bleak and angry as ever. Within the first few moments of the opening track we hear Efrim Menuck cry out, "Your band is bland! Your band is bland ambition!" Indeed, ASMZ could never be accused of pandering to mainstream sensibilities and predictability. That said, the tracks on 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons are tighter and more focused than their previous efforts. It's a touch less experimental than what their fans may be used to, but it's still got all the ASMZ hallmarks: orchestral arrangements, string plucks, massively heavy riffs, and lots and lots of room to breathe. Track highlights include "One Million Died to Make This Sound" and "Blindblindblind."
In Ghost Colours (8.6)Third time's the charm for this Australian electronic trio. Drawing influences from 70's disco, 80's pop (I keep hearing Culture Club), and the IDM of the past 15 years, Cut Copy have put together a highly listenable and enjoyable album that offers much more than the disposable dance music that's characteristic of the genre. In Ghost Colours is filled with gorgeous tracks, catchy hooks and the sweetest ear candy. Track highlights: "Feel the Love," "Hearts on Fire," "So Haunted," and "Strangers in the Wind."
Fleet Foxes (8.6)Coming off the heels of the shockingly beautiful Sun Giant EP, Fleet Foxes have answered the impossibly high expectations with a stellar and mature debut album. Fans of My Morning Jacket and Great Lake Swimmers will be at home with Fleet Foxes, a Seattle-based band with roots in folk, country and classic rock. Fleet Foxes, with its stunning melodies, warm harmonies and wistful lyrics, will take you places and give you goosebumps. Track highlights: "Blue Ridge Mountains," "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," and "White Winter Hymnal."
Saturdays = Youth (8.6)Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau, the duo that make-up M83, have come a long way since their classic indie-electronic CD, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. The harshness of the clicks, beeps and zaps have been replaced with soundscapes of shimmering beauty and dreaminess. This is very much a fantasy pop album with the band generously dipping into the 1980's well. But it's the incredible production and sound design that makes Saturdays = Youth such a stand-out album. Track highlights include "Kim & Jessie, "Coleurs," "Graveyard Girl," and "Midnight Souls Still Remain."
Oracular Spectacular (8.6)My introduction to MGMT came late last year when I saw them open for Fiery Furnaces. I remember them looking like a bunch of rag-tag and over-confident kids straight out of high school. What was more shocking, however, was how freakin' good they were; I watched them alongside only a dozen other audience members, but I realized that they were not going to play empty houses for much longer. Indeed, with their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, MGMT have quickly found themselves alongside Vampire Weekend as the darlings of new American music. And it's hard to not like this band. Their music contains bits of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and even some Supergrass. Track highlights include "Time to Pretend, "Weekend Wars," and "Electric Feel." Believe the hype.
Dig Lazerus Dig (8.6)Hey, it's Nick Cave -- what the hell else do I need to say? Track highlights include "Midnight Man" and "Jesus of the Moon." Favorite lyric, "'Cause people often talk about being scared of change, But for me I'm more afraid of things staying the same, 'Cause the game is never won, By standing in any one place for too long."
Watershed (8.6)One of the most respected acts in metal today, 2008 finds Sweden's Opeth releasing their ninth studio album, Watershed. While it may not be a watershed in terms of exploring new musical territory (save for the organ solo on the stunningly beautiful "Burden"), the band is found at their absolute best. Their ability to intertwine crushing brutality with the tenderest and sweetest moments is truly their hallmark and one that they've worked to refine on Watershed. Flavors on this album include the usual gothic touches, traces of Swedish folk and 70's classic rock (think Deep Purple). Track highlights include "Heir Apparent," "The Lotus Eater" and "Hessian Peel."
Can't Go Back (8.6)This album caught me by complete surprise this year, resulting in a seriously high number of repeated listenings. Led by Jason Quever, Papercuts play a style of indie-rock that's gentle, intimate and at times whimsical. Though the inclination is to consider them as a kind of classic-rock wannabe, the Papercuts sound goes beyond that. Yes, there are hints of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and and even Enrico Morricone, but there's a timelessness to their sound that's a part of their distinctive charm. And Quever is one hell of a song writer; there isn't a single throw-away track on Can't Go Back. Highlights include the whole goddamn album from start to finish.
Antidotes (8.6)Antidotes is the eagerly awaited debut album from Oxford, England's Foals. These guys have a high-energy and frenetic sound that brings together a diverse set of influences, including indie-rock, math-rock, post-rock and even some new-wave. Fans of Interpol, Bloc Party and Battles would likely find a place for Antidotes in their CD collection -- which is saying something given how different those bands are. What makes this album particularly special is Foals' ability to bring in prog aspects like pattern-based melodies and rhythms, put them in an atmospheric space, and still come out sounding like an alt-rock band. Track highlights include "French Open" and "Big Love (Fig. 1)."
Consolers of the Lonely (8.6)Best band in rock 'n roll today? Hard to argue. And why wouldn't they be? This band has more talent than the 1927 Yankees: Ranconteurs is comprised of Jack White, Brendan Benson, Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence. In addition to being able to churn out quality tracks they have one of the best stage shows in the business; Raconteurs is better live than in the studio. Track highlights include "Consoler of the Lonely, "Many Shades of Black, "The Switch and the Spur."
Rising Down (8.6)The Roots have largely avoided mainstream attention and commercial success, but they continue to put out some of the best beats and rhymes in the business. With their latest effort, Rising Down, they have produced by far and away the best rap album of 2008. The Roots intermesh social commentary with cool beats and dynamic arrangements ("You don't see that something's wrong, Earth's spinnin' outta control, Hello hello hello hello, Everything's for sale, even souls, Someone get God on the phone..."). It's a diverse album with a hard edge and a flurry of innovative touches. Track highlights, "I Will Not Apologize," "Rising Down," and "75 Bars."
Station (8.6)Chicago's Russian Circles have taken a slight turn from devastatingly heavy post-metal to a more nuanced sound that touches upon some of the more delicate areas offered by the post-rock genre. As a result, Station is a complex and challenging album that finds the band exploring some new sonic and rhythmic spaces. While some listeners may be frustrated with the minimalism and drawn-out expanses, it's within these areas that the real beauty and intricacy of the album can be found. Like so many of the great albums on this list, Station yields its true bounty after repeated listens. And despite the post-rock touches, Russian Circles is still capable of some extreme heaviness, as witnessed in the chug-chugging "Youngblood." Other track highlights include "Harper Lewis" and "Station."
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (8.6)The Silver Jews put out a campy, tongue-in-cheek version of country with surprising musicality and lyricism. In other words, they put out great albums that are an awful lot of fun and with lyrics that'll either make you spit out your milk or scratch your head in utter bewilderment (I'm still trying to figure out what the hell "Aloysius Bluegrass Drummer" is all about). Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is an absolutely wonderful album with highly memorable and want-to-sing-along tracks. Its musical touches are often reminiscent of Johnny Cash and the B52's. But again, it's the lyrics that'll keep you coming back for more: "He came at me with some fist cuisine..."; "She had become a vocal martyr in the vegan press..." Track highlights: "What Is Not But Could Be If," "San Fransisco BC," and "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat."
You and Me (8.6)The Walkmen are one of New York's finest gems. They've got that characteristic NYC sound, but they're a band that would never be mistaken for anyone else. On You and Me, The Walkmen sound more yearning and distraught than ever. Their instruments are awash in reverb, while Hamilton Leithauser's vocals are distant but never detached -- there's an eerie intimacy to his delivery which gives him his great power and presence. Track highlights include "In the New Year," "Canadian Girl," "Red Moon" and "Postcards From Tiny Islands."
4 (8.6)Sweden's Dungen brings together neo-psychedelia, free jazz and the prog-rock sound of the 1970s. With their latest release, 4, Dungen take their sound even further afield, exploring folk, alt-rock (I swear these guys are listening to Doves) and 1960's style easy-listening. Flute, violin, piano, and xylophone are regular fixtures on 4. The album also features some outstanding production and sound design; they've created an acoustic space that's from a different time and place altogether. Track highlights include "Mina Damer Och Fasaner," Fredag," and "Sätt Att Se."
(8.0 to 8.5)
26. Beach House: Devotion (8.5)
27. Cult of Luna: Eternal Kingdom (8.5)
28. Deerhoof: Offend Maggie (8.5)
29. Deerhunter: Microcastle (8.5)
30. Earth: The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (8.5)
31. Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid (8.5)
32. Evpatoria Report: Maar (8.5)
33. Genghis Tron: Board Up the House (8.5)
34. Grails: Take Refuge in Clean Living (EP) (8.5)
35. Kelley Stoltz: Circular Sounds (8.5)
36. Made Out of Babies: The Ruiner (8.5)
37. Nik Freitas: Sun Down (8.5)
38. The Dodos: Visiter (8.5)
39. The Raveonettes: Lust Lust Lust (8.5)
40. Tapes 'N Tapes: Walk it Off (8.5)
41. The Whigs: Mission Control (8.5)
42. Breeders, The: Mountain Battles (8.4)
43. Girl Talk: Feed the Animals (8.4)
44. Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple (8.4)
45. Stam1na: Raja (8.4)
46. The Duke Spirit: Neptune (8.4)
47. Tim Fite: Fair Ain't Fair (8.4)
48. 3: The End is Begun (8.3)
49. Atlas Sound: Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel (8.3)
50. British Sea Power: Do You Like Rock Music? (8.3)
51. Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (8.3)
52. Firewater: The Golden Hour (8.3)
53. The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath (8.3)
54. Okkervil River: The Stand Ins (8.3)
55. Red Sparowes: Aphorisms (8.3)
56. Sigur Ros: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (8.3)
57. Black Keys: Attack and Release (8.2)
58. Born Ruffians: Red, Yellow & Blue (8.2)
59. The Bug: London Zoo (8.2)
60. Drive-by Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark (8.2)
61. Fate: Vultures (8.2)
62. Have a Nice Life: Deathconsciousness (8.2)
63. Jim White: Transnormal Skiperoo (8.2)
64. Matmos: The Supreme Balloon (8.2)
65. Robyn: Robyn [or The Album] (8.2)
66. RZA (as Bobby Digital): Digi Snacks (8.2)
67. Shogu Tokumaru: Exit (8.2)
68. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Real Emotional Trash (8.2)
69. Coldplay: Viva La Vida (8.1)
70. Ef: I Am Responsible (EP) (8.1)
71. Frightened Rabbit: Midnight Organ Fight (8.1)
72. Paul Weller: 22 Dreams (8.1)
73. The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement (8.1)
74. The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (8.1)
75. Calexico: Carried to Dust (8)
76. Datura: Reverie (8)
77. Joan of Arc: Boo! Human (8)
78. Kayo Dot: Blue Lambency Downward (8)
79. Neon Neon: Stainless Style (8)
80. Puscifer: V Is for Viagra: The Remixes (8)
81. Shearwater: Rook (8)
82. Trivium: Shogun (8)
83. TV on the Radio: Dear Science (8)
(7.0 to 7.9)
84. 65daysofstatic: The Distant and Mechanised Glow of Eastern European Dance Parties (EP) (7.9)
85. Bury Your Dead: Bury Your Dead (7.9)
86. GZA : Pro Tools (7.9)
87. Hercules and Love Affair: Hercules and Love Affair (7.9)
88. My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (7.9)
89. Protest the Hero: Fortress (7.9)
90. Sun Kil Moon: April (7.9)
91. The Dears: Missiles (7.9)
92. The Orb: The Dream (7.9)
93. Autechre: Quaristice (7.8)
94. Constantines: Kensington Heights (7.8)
95. Epicurean: A Consequence of Design (7.8)
96. The Gutter Twins: Saturnalia (7.8)
97. Hot Chip: Made in the Dark (7.8)
98. k.d. lang: Watershed (7.8)
99. Kathleen Edwards: Asking for Flowers (7.8)
100. Mercury Rev: Snowflake Midnight (7.8)
101. Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul (7.8)
102. Ray LaMontagne: Gossip in the Grain (7.8)
103. Slipknot: All Hope is Gone (7.8)
104. The Dresden Dolls: No, Virginia (7.8)
105. Why?: Alopecia (7.8)
106. Alejandro Escovedo: Real Animal (7.7)
107. Clinic: Do it! (7.7)
108. Gloria Morti: Eryx (7.7)
109. The Teenagers: Reality Check (7.7)
110. UFOmammut: Idolum (7.7)
111. Cat Power: Jukebox (7.6)
112. Duffy: Rockferry (7.6)
113. The Plastic Constellations: We Appreciate You (7.6)
114. Front 242: Moments... (7.5)
115. Origin: Antithesis (7.5)
116. Stereolab: Chemical Chords (7.5)
117. Blood Red Shoes: Box of Secrets (7.4)
118. Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles (7.4)
119. Liam Finn: I'll Be Lightning (7.4)
120. Los Campesinos!: Hold On Now, Youngster (7.4)
121. She & Him: Volume I (7.4)
122. The Duhks: Fast Paced World (7.4)
123. Aimee Mann: @#%&*! Smilers (7.3)
124. Black Mountain: The Future (7.3)
125. Cold War Kids: Loyalty to Loyalty (7.3)
126. Juliana Hatfield: How To Walk Away (7.3)
127. Kaiser Chiefs: Off With Their Heads (7.3)
128. Nada Surf: Lucky (7.3)
129. Supergrass: Diamond Hoo Ha (7.3)
130. Adele: 19 (7.2)
131. Audrey: The Fierce and the Longing (7.2)
132. Boris: Smile (7.2)
133. Cloud Cult: Feel Good Ghosts (7.2)
134. Teddy Thompson: A Piece of What You Need (7.2)
135. The Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride (7.2)
136. Bob Mould: District Line (7.1)
137. DeVotchKa: A Mad and Faithful Telling (7.1)
138. Lambchop: OH (7.1)
139. The Dirtbombs: We Have You Surrounded (7.1)
140. Joan As Policewoman: To Survive (7)
141. North Mississippi Allstars: Hernando (7)
142. Primary 5: High Five (7)
(6.0 to 6.9)
143. Okay: Huggable Dust (6.9)
144. The Hold Steady: Stay Positive (6.9)
145. Tricky: Knowle West Boy (6.9)
146. James: Hey Ma (6.8)
147. Jason Collett: Here's to Being Here (6.8)
148. Ministry: Cover Up (6.8)
149. Nine Inch Nails: The Slip (6.8)
150. Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping (6.8)
151. Porcupine Tree: We Lost the Skyline (6.8)
152. REM: Accelerate (6.8)
153. Sloan: Parallel Play (6.8)
154. The Killers: Day & Age (6.8)
155. Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman: The Fabled City (6.8)
156. Forward, Russia!: Life Processes (6.7)
157. Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue (6.7)
158. Sheryl Crow: Detours (6.7)
159. The Stills: Oceans Will Rise (6.7)
160. Headlights: Some Racing, Some Stopping (6.6)
161. Motorhead: Motorizer (6.6)
162. Reckless Kelly: Bulletproof (6.6)
163. Heaven Shall Burn: Iconoclast (Part 1: The Final Resistance) (6.5)
164. We Are Scientists: Brain Thrust Mastery (6.5)
165. Goldfrapp: Seventh Tree (6.4)
166. Islands: Arms Way (6.4)
167. Jim Boggia: Misadventures in Stereo (6.4)
168. Mudhoney: The Lucky Ones (6.4)
169. Shinedown: The Sound of Madness (6.4)
170. Cavalera Conspiracy : Inflikted (6.3)
171. Jakob Dylan: Seeing Thing (6.3)
172. Man Man: Rabbit Habits (6.3)
173. Mates of State: Re-Arrange Us (6.3)
174. Colour Revolt: Plunder, Beg and Curse (6.2)
175. Ferras: Aliens & Rainbows (6.2)
176. Metallica: Death Magnetic (6.2)
177. No-Man: Schoolyard Ghosts (6.0)