Looking back at the music of 2008, it was not a great year for musical innovation. But it was a year of some great debuts, artists flowering to their full potential, and some great comebacks as artists regained their touch.
So many of my favorite artists released albums in 2008 and so many new artists caught my attention that it was hard to keep up. There were many worthy albums, but I have whittled it down to my 10 best list with a few honorable mentions. It is in alphabetical order because I do not think I could quantify a list that includes so many genres.
Architecture in Helsinki – Like it or Not
Architecture in Helsinki are certainly not afraid to embarrass themselves.This EP mixes indie dance-pop, electronica, and 80’s New Wave together in a potential cheesy mash. But the band’s fearlessness and flawless execution prevent it from it from ever being cheesy. In fact, I would easily consider it the most fun album of 2008.
Beck – Modern Guilt
Beck gives us his most consistent and best album since 2002’s Sea Change. Like every Beck album this is his take on yet another genre. This time the genre (or genres) is IDM/ambient/slo-core. That could be boring but Beck brings his electric guitar, his pop sensibilities, and his personality to prevent that. It could have been overindulgent like his recent albums but this time he reins himself in. Every Beck fan should give this a listen.
Bloc Party – Intimacy
2007’s Weekend in the City was more subdued than Bloc Party’s debut Silent Alarm.Instead of continuing in the “mature” direction this album returns to the ferociousness of their debut. Their Gang of Four meets U2 post-punk sounds angrier than ever. That is not a bad thing. Despite all their obvious influences, their sound is still fresh and easily the most exciting thing to happen in the alternative/punk genre in years.
Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreaks
Kanye does something crazy. Most rappers, even great ones, release overlong, bloated albums with only a few good songs and a lot of filler. He himself has been guilty of this sin. Instead he makes a short, consistent album. This 11-track album has no filler on it all; every single song is a good one. Some fans may lament that Kanye has abandoned his cinematic production style and chipmunk vocals for quiet synth production and autotuned vocals. But this downbeat style fits the album’s themes of heartbreak and loss. Plus “Love Lockdown” is still a barn-burner.
Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity
Early Old 97’s albums were alt-country played with punk energy and spite. The albums eventually become more poppy. The songs became more story-driven then heartbreak driven. On this album frontman and songwriter Rhett Miller continues to mature. The songs deal with heartbreak in a reflective way, instead of a lamenting way. Miller’s considering it, instead of living it. The band is no longer trying to blow you away with their energy. They still play tight, but the sound is much more relaxed. Miller’s rhymes are natural; the showiness he used to sometimes implement is gone. The stripped down sound showcases what has always been true; Miller is a fantastic songwriter and storyteller.
Pink – Funhouse
Pink has proven that dance music can be personal, political, and empowering. So what does she do after going through messy public divorce? She makes her least personal, least political, and most cheerful album yet. Instead of wallowing in misery, Pink is defiant about still having a good time. The album has much more in common with Pink’s hits like “Trouble” and “Get The Party Started” than with the diary like songs on Mizzundaztood. While some of the melodies strain a little too much to be catchy, Pink still knows how to get the party started.
Rivers Cuomo – Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Many have complained that Weezer’s recent output has felt uninspired and cold compared to their early work. Apparently primary songwriter Rivers Cuomo has been keeping all his more personal and humorous songs to himself. This album is his second collection of demos that Weezer the band never recorded. There is quite a bit of production for demos. There is full band instrumentation, and Rivers has recording his own backing vocals in many songs. The actual sound of the album is not much different from typical Weezer punk power-pop, though it is more experimental and piano is sometimes featured. What is surprising is the quality. While the album overall is uneven, the majority of these songs are vastly superior to the latter half of the Red Album.
She & Him – Volume One
Zooey Deschanel is primarily known as an actress, so many could see this as simply a vanity project. But it is not in the least. Zooey has an amazing, deep, distinctive voice. Her musical partner M. Ward had already risen to prominence as a solo artist and guest musician. Musically, She & Him are singer/songwriter with an array of different influences. Touches of torch songs, soul music, folk, traditional country and more can be heard in Volume One. All of it combines into something that sounds both familiar and new at the same time. The whole time though, the focus is always on her voice.
Tilly and the Wall - o
Tilly and the Wall are probably best known for being that indie rock band that clogs. This album is not a great example of that; it is simply a great indie rock album. The clogging can no longer be looked at as a gimmick; it is fully integrated into their sound. Clogging is not the only thing that sets them apart from other indie rockers, it is hard to describe their sound without going on and on. But the sound is unique and infectious, and this album is the best example of it so far.
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
This is a band I was not expecting to like. Vampire Weekend’s light indie-pop sounds inspired by Paul Simon’s world music phase, second wave ska, and other hipster indie bands. On one song they name check Peter Gabriel. Their lyrics seem like they are trying to sound like hip New York-New Englanders from the upper class. What makes this playful instead of annoying, is that the band is in on the joke. Oh, and they sound just weird enough to sound different and interesting but not weird enough to be “avant-garde” and difficult.
Honorable Mention: My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges, Duffy – Rockferry, Frank Black – Svn Fngrs, Flight of the Conchords – Flight of the Conchords