Normally, it would be the custom to do one of those top-ten best-of articles for the year right about now. The thing is, at least if I am being 100-percent honest, I would have a pretty hard time filling such a list this year.
It's not there wasn't any good music out there in 2008 — because there most certainly was. It's just that unlike say, 2006, when you had a record that really stood out the way that Dylan's Modern Times did, or even 2007, when you had no less than great new albums by Wilco, Springsteen, and Radiohead to consider, there just weren't any new albums that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the pack the way that those did.
Although I will admit that I considered Radiohead for this year's list. My reasoning there being that although In Rainbows was first released in 2007 in its download-only version, the physical release which came out on January 1st of this year simply sounded so much better.
Oh well, I guess I'll leave that for the folks at the Grammys to decide.
Anyway, what I ended up doing was going back through all the articles and reviews I did this year, as well as revisiting a few releases that for whatever reason I never actually ended up writing about. So, this list is not necessarily a best of the year for 2008. It does however represent the music I probably listened to the most this year. It is also in no particular order.
Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun
Brian Wilson's love letter to his beloved California is also one of the most personal, bittersweet sounding pieces of music I have heard by just about any artist in recent memory. While much of the music here recalls the simpler, more innocent vision of what he calls the "Heartbeat Of L.A." (read: vintage surf and sand Beach Boys) — especially on songs like "Forever My Surfer Girl" — other songs like "Oxygen To The Brain" and "Midnight's Another Day" provide an open-book, autobiographer's sort of sketch into the artist's often troubled life. The music is sweeping and gorgeous throughout.
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs: Rare And Unreleased 1989 – 2006
The latest entry in Dylan's Bootleg Series of unreleased music from the vaults, actually plays more like a unique new album in its own right than a mere collection of leftovers. Focusing on the period from 1989's Oh Mercy right on up through Dylan's much more recent creative renaissance on the albums Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft, and 2006's Modern Times, songs like "Someday Baby," "Aint Talkin," and no less than three versions of "Mississippi" are reworked so radically here as to become entirely new and different creations. As such, they provide unique insight into Dylan's ever-evolving songwriting process.
Steven Wilson – Insurgentes
The first ever full length solo album from Porcupine Tree's main man Steven Wilson is every bit the sort of all over the place mix of styles you'd expect from a guy whose projects range from the prog-metal of PT to the ambient-pop of No-Man. The sounds on Insurgentes range from the chiming U2-ish guitars of the opening track "Harmony Komine," to the dense layers of "Salvaging," to the doomy, avant-prog of the King Crimson like ""No Twilight Within The Courts Of The Sun." Wilson originally released this in a limited run of 3000 copies (which quickly sold out), but word is there will be a commercial release early next year.
John Mellencamp – Life Death Love & Freedom
Mellencamp could have easily taken the easy road here by following last year's Freedom's Road, and it's highly visible (thanks to those Ford Truck ads) single "Our Country," with a similarly commercial record of Americana tinged pop tunes. Instead, he got together with producer T-Bone Burnett to produce a stark, stripped down sounding album with folk and blues based arrangements that sound a lot closer to the dust bowl than the arena bowl. The result is some of Mellencamp's darkest sounding music to date, while the lyrics of songs like "Without A Shot" and "Troubled Land" are all about the search for redemption.
Mudcrutch – Mudcrutch
I was a bit of a late bloomer to Tom Petty's revival of his looser, rootsier pre-Heartbreakers band. But when their version of the Byrds' "Lover Of The Bayou" eventually hooked me, I was pretty much all-in. For what's been mostly advertised as something of a one-off, this is actually some of Tom Petty's most arresting, yet completely natural and relaxed-sounding stuff in years. It's also a place I'd personally like to see him revisit a bit more often.
Marillion – Happiness Is The Road
The latest entry from these British prog-rock cult heroes was an ambitious double-CD, divided into two separate parts (Essence and The Hard Shoulder) that all-told contained over two hours of music. And while there was plenty here to keep the band's diehard prog-rock fans happy, the band also stretches out quite a bit musically. The muscular sounding guitar riff of "Thunder Fly" recalls The Beatles' "Paperback Writer," while other songs mine new territory for this band ranging from funk to psychedelia. The common thread is the musicianship, which is absolutely stellar throughout.
Coldplay – Viva La Vida (or Death And All His Friends)
Current plagiarism scandals notwithstanding, this album was Coldplay's attempt to regain some of their original critical mettle following the backlash which arrived at right about the same time they became one of the world's biggest bands. The answer for Chris Martin and company was to recruit producer Brian Eno. Obvious comparisons to U2 albums like Joshua Tree aside, the combination works quite well for the most part. While "Violet Hill" and the title track reclaim this band's common ground of catchy melodies and yes, even that whiny Chris Martin falsetto, songs like "Yes" find the band stretching out with eastern and psychedelic inspired atmospheric sounds. It's not perfect, but it aint' half-bad either.
My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
It actually took me a while to warm completely up to this one, but I've since found myself coming back to it many times this year. My initial reluctance came mainly from the fact that I wasn't that keen on the whole idea of MMJ resurrecting the spirit of Prince here, as much of the pre-buzz for this album seemed to indicate. And while it is true that songs like "Highly Suspicious" and the title track represented a funkier direction, the live MMJ show I saw this past fall confirmed that this band has lost none of their celebrated improvisational spirit. They just had better songs.
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Everything you've heard with regard to the most buzzed-about band of 2008 is actually true. These shaggy young hippie kids — from Seattle of all places — really do summon the mid-sixties folk-rock spirit of groups like the Mamas And the Papas and the Buffalo Springfield as expertly as they say. With their pastoral sounding wash of gorgeous multiple-part harmonies — take equal parts CSN&Y and Buffalo Springfield, cross-pollinate that with "Good Vibrations"-era Beach Boys, and you've got the idea — the only thing that remains to be seen is if they can do it all again the next time out. Listening to "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" or "White Winter Hymnal," I'm betting they can.
Steve Winwood – Nine Lives
Despite a high profile tour with Tom Petty this summer, this album didn't get anywhere near the attention it should have. On Nine Lives, Steve Winwood abandons the slick, glossy soul-pop of his eighties hits like "Back In The High Life," and instead rediscovers his pedigree as the great blues and soul singer he was during his younger years in groups like Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group. The result is a stew of Hammond organ fueled blues, and percolating Latin percussion that also represents his best work in years. Eric Clapton's filthy sounding guitar solo on the track "Dirty City" alone is worth the admission price here.
A Second Ten: Black Keys – Attack & Release; Ryan Adams – Cardinology; The Hold Steady – Stay Positive; AC/DC – Black Ice; Raconteurs – Consolers Of The Lonely; Neil Young – Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968; David Gilmour – Live At Gdansk; Duffy – Rockferry; Metallica – Death Magnetic; No-Man – Schoolyard Ghosts
Best Reissues: Creedence Clearwater Revival – The Fantasy Records Remasters; Cheap Trick – Budokan!; Love – Forever Changes; U2 – Boy