It's become an annual rite of passage in the music business.
Every year, the trade papers are filled with stories about how this year was worse than last year. If the music execs were hoping we'd get so tired of reading that story that we'd start to ignore it — you know, 'the boy who cried wolf' routine — it hasn't happened. Instead, the tearing of clothes, the wailing, and the gnashing of teeth have only reinforced the idea that there is no good music being made these days so you might as well not buy any of it. That's genius level marketing if I ever heard it.
The first thing I need to say about this list is that a lot of great albums released in 2008 didn't make it. This is just my Top 10. There was plenty more where this came from. In order to make the process of narrowing down the list just a bit more manageable, I opted to exclude compilations, live albums, re-issues, and EPs.
That means David Gilmour's excellent Live in Gdansk was excluded, as was Glen Phillips' wonderful EP Secrets of the New Explorer. Both are worthy of mention owing to the repeated listens I gave each throughout the year. As for what did make it, we've got jazz and we've got blues. We've got Southern rock veterans, British rock titans, and standard bearers of the ancient Seattle sound.
10. The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia: I guess this is me showing my age. I grew up on Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs and am an outspoken, unapologetic Mark Lanegan fanboy. Saturnalia is a bit uneven but the strength of the good (the opening trio) makes up for an occasional lesser cut.
9. Coldplay – Viva La Vida: I wonder if this album was all part of Brian Eno's evil plan to get U2 to hunker down and make something great. Bono is a competitive sort who likes the idea of fronting the biggest band in the world. I don't know if Coldplay holds that title, but their collaboration with Brian Eno yielded a surprising and fantastic record. Coldplay sound much less emo and a lot more anthemic this time out and it suits them well. The opening 1-2 of "Life in Technicolor" and "Cemetaries of London" and the closing "Death And All Of His Friends" frame the album brilliantly.
8. R.E.M. – Accelerate: I had a lot of trouble deciding where, if anywhere, this album fit on my list. I have some real beefs with this record (and the mastering is only one of them), but I listened to it so much I obviously found something to like. To leave it off the list would feel dishonest. It's great to hear Peter Buck's rockin' Rickenbacker revved up again; it's one of those sounds you don't realize you've missed until you've heard it again. The title track is one of the best things the band has recorded in 10 years.
7. Mudcrutch – Mudcrutch: Tom Petty has been with us so long you'd think it impossible for him to surprise us anymore, but that's exactly what he did with Mudcrutch. For those of you who don't know the story, Mudcrutch was Petty's pre-Heartbreakers band featuring future (and current) Heartbreakers Benmont Tench (keyboard) and Mike Campbell (guitar) in addition to Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh. This is no Heartbreakers-by-another-name record, though. Western swing, Bayou blues, and hippie jams have been integrated with the more familiar Heartbreakers' sound. This record is so good you'll be hoping Petty can find a way to balance Mudcrutch and The Heartbreakers. Something this good should be repeated.
6. The Bittersweets – Goodnight, San Francisco: This is a smart, rewarding record for listeners willing to step out just a little bit. Much like Dan Wilson's 2007 gem Free Life, Goodnight San Francisco is D.O.A. in the mainstream pop world. That isn't what makes this album great — that would be Hannah Prater's vocals and Chris Meyers' songs — but it does explain a lot. A tip o' the cap goes to fellow BC Magazine editor A.L. Harper for turning me onto the Bittersweets earlier this year. "Birmingham" was one of my songs of the year.
5. B.B. King – One Kind Favor: It bothers me that this checks in at #5 because that doesn't begin to do justice to just how great this album is. B.B. King turned in one of the greatest albums of his career at the age of 83. Think about that! The man has been recording and performing for six decades and he made a record that is both one of the best of 2008 and is also one of the best of his career. That's a lot of music to compete with. T-Bone Burnett should get a Grammy for Producer of the Year for his work with King. Together they chose perfect songs and captured the vintage B.B. King '50s sound.
4. Dave Carter – Commitment and Change: I've seldom been disappointed by anything that has come to me from Barrett Martin's Fast Horse Recordings label so my expectations were high and Dave Carter's Commitment and Change eclipsed them all. This album dominated my October and I still love listening to it. The interplay between Carter's trumpet and the rest of his quartet (drummer/producer Barrett Martin, standup bassist Luis Guerra, pianist John Rangel) make the compositions on this album richer.
3. The Black Keys – Attack & Release: The Black Keys are my new BFF. It's that simple. What Guster was in 2006 and Peter Karp was in 2007, The Black Keys are for 2008. I can't listen to them enough. I can't extol their virtues and sing their praises enough. Not being a hip hop enthusiast, I wasn't thrilled with the band's choice of Danger Mouse as producer for Attack & Release but the results speak for themselves. Danger Mouse's production broadened the band's sonic palette without destroying the core of what makes these guys great. "So He Won't Break" is one of the best songs of the year. If you haven't heard it, spend the $1 at iTunes or Amazon and download it now!
2. Oasis – Dig Out Your Soul: The most amazing thing about Oasis is the way they've become a real band since bringing Gem Archer and Andy Bell on board. Archer, Bell, and Liam Gallagher have joined Noel as songwriters. Liam is singing better than ever. Producer Dave Sardy has been behind the boards for two of Oasis' strongest records to date. Dig Out Your Soul is what 1997's beautifully polarizing mess Be Here Now wanted to be. Be Here Now was a bloated record because it didn't have enough songs to hold up under the weight of the band's ambitions. With Soul, the vastness of the sound is backed up by songs sturdy enough to carry them. Oasis is doing some of their best work right now.
1. Counting Crows – Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings: I actually thought about listing the album twice, once for Saturday Nights and one for Sunday Mornings but decided against it because it was tough enough narrowing this list down as it was. This twin album on a single CD finds one of the best bands of the '90s at the absolute top of their game. They've never rocked harder, with more vengeance and purpose, than they do on Saturday Nights. Adam Duritz has never sounded more disgusted, despairing, or desperate than on the Sunday Mornings record. The impact of both records is something that will stay with you long after they're over. An album that, at least in part, deals with repeated mistakes and a downward spiral demands repeated listens.