Another year has come and gone, which means it's time to bring you that time-honored tradition of telling you what I thought the best stuff of 2008 was. Sure, it's pretentious to assume that I know better than, well, every single other person with a blog and the ability to type just what the best albums of the year were, or even to assume that my list is somehow more important or worthwhile than theirs. But hey, this is the internet, where everyone assumes their voice is worth more.
Honorable Mentions: some of these albums were good, they just didn't quite make the cut. Sad, really.
My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges: I wanted to love this album, I really did. But so much of it was either just too weird (I'm looking at you, "Highly Suspicious") or just kinda boring ("Librarian," "Sec Walkin"), and I was left wanting more songs like "I'm Amazed" and the awesome title track.
Cat Power, Jukebox: I like the way she interpreted the songs, I just didn't care for the songs she chose. Though it was nice to see Dylan's "I Believe in You" receive such an awesome treatment.
Counting Crows, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings: It's not that it was a bad album, per se, just that there wasn't anything that really jumped out and grabbed me about it.
Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs: Not bad, but again, nothing about it really jumped out and grabbed me.
The National, The Virginia EP: Almost made the cut, but the songs just weren't quite finished enough in many cases. But hey, it's an EP, not a real album, so we can forgive that.
The Decemberists, Always the Bridesmaid: A series of singles and an EP, it was easily some of the most awesome music I heard all year. If this'd been released as a whole thing instead of in a series of singles, it would've totally cracked the top ten.
Jesse Malin, On Your Sleeve: A fun set of covers with just enough of a twist on 'em to make them sound different and familiar. Includes "You Can Make Them Like You," a Hold Steady tune Malin regularly covers in concert.
REM, Accelerate: Fast, energetic, and fun. Three words you don't associate with the REM of the past decade or so. But this record certainly brings those traits back with a vengeance, and thank God for it.
The Fireman, Electric Arguments: A Paul McCartney album with a fresh coat of paint and some youthful production help. This record finds McCartney sounding more with-it and aware of the world around him than anything else he's done in the past ten or fifteen years. He sounds vital and fresh, not rehashed, and you get the sense he still has something left to say with his music, so hurray for that.
The Top Ten: For the longest time, I didn't feel that this year was as strong as last year. That being said, I found some albums this year that were absolutely fantastic.
10. Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue: This is what I expected last year's Rilo Kiley album to sound like: clever lyrics, soaring vocals, and a variety of instrumental variation from the simple title track (with it's lone acoustic guitar and swelling backing chorus) to "Fernando" (which has some fun slide guitar). Plus, it's got a duet with Elvis Costello, "Carpetbaggers," that is just pure awesome.
9. Elvis Costello, Momofuku: Speaking of Costello, his latest is also wonderful. There's nothing particularly surprising about the record, it's just Costello doing his thing and doing well.
8. The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely: More varied in style and sound than their first record, with a bit more overt Jack White control in evidence. This plays like a full-band version of a White Stripes record in some places, but the Raconteurs have still carved a separate existence apart from White's other band. "Salute Your Salution" is currently the most-played song on my iPod, if that tells you anything.
7. Coldplay, Viva La Vida: I admit it: I only got this album because of the use of the song in that iTunes commercial. I am officially Apple's bitch. That being said, it's a strong album, full of solid craftsmanship and polished, catchy songs that you can't help but sing along and tap your toes to. I know it's stylish to dog on them for being so earnest and bombastic (kinda like U2), but this is honestly a strong album from start to finish and different enough from their usual thing to be worthwhile.
6. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: "Our songs are singalong songs," the band boasts in the opening number, "Constructive Summer." And it's true: "Sequestered in Memphis" is the sort of shout-along bar song that has everyone joining in, while "Magazines" rocks in a convincing Bruce Springsteen sort of way. This album's been compared to the Boss's The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, but that comparison only works if you think of every single song on here being as good as "Rosalita."
5. Jakob Dylan, Seeing Things: I'm a sucker for all things related to the Dylan family, so a Jakob Dylan solo album was right up my alley. The spare instrumentation and introspective lyrics are exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from a solo record, but the warmth and occasionally even joy that permeates these songs is a welcome breath of fresh air.
4. The Walkmen, You & Me: Atmospheric, thumping, and jangly as all hell, it's everything I wanted the new My Morning Jacket album to be (but wasn't). The shout of "hey!" in the chorus of "Four Provinces" just invites you to shout along with it, and the reverb-heavy early days of rock and roll vibe that permeates the album is just perfect for these late-night tunes.
3. The Gaslight Anthem, The 59 Sound: Damn, Gina. Talk about energy and owing a debt to the Boss. Not only do they reference his songs in at least three or four tunes here (along with a passing nod to Tom Waits, Tom Petty, and probably a dozen other classic rockers), they manage to do so in a way that doesn't sound like a tribute band or as though they have to cop lyrics and motifs from their idols to make it. There's not a band song on here, from the thunderous opener "Great Expectations" to the title track (the most driving meditation on death and dying I've heard in ages), the Counting Crows-quoting "High and Lonesome," and the quieter closer "The Backseat," this is simply one of the best records I've heard all year.
2. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs: Collecting b-sides, rare cuts, alternate and live takes, and soundtrack work from the past twenty years, the latest entry into the Bootleg Series may not be as essential as the first couple of sets, but it's no less revelatory or amazing to listen to. Hearing the songs that Dylan left on the cutting room floor is always an interesting (and occasionally frustrating) exercise (I'm still not over him dropping "Blind Willie McTell" from Infidels). There are a couple of frustrating points this time out: two versions of "Dignity" seems a little superfluous, especially since I didn't care much for the song to begin with. The two alternate takes on "Mississippi" are less annoying, though I'd have still been fine with just one version of it and maybe some stuff from the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack instead (I'm still waiting for that solo acoustic version of "I'll Remember You" that was featured in the film but never released otherwise!). Definitely a must-have for any fan of Dylan, and a reminder that this man's leftovers are usually just as strong as anyone else's a-game.
1. She & Him, Volume 1: Maybe I'll catch flack for this. it's not an Important Album, it's not some experimental conceptual record designed to challenge our notions of what music can do. All it is is great music. Simple, direct, fun, with a sense of humor, longing, and sentimentality. I wouldn't have thought the record could have grabbed me the way it did, but it's held sway over my listening since essentially the moment I first downloaded it. I don't get tired of listening to it, and that's as high a compliment as you can really pay to a piece of music, I feel.