At long last, my list of the Top 10 albums of 2008. After weeks of scrounging through blogs, MySpace, and other year-end lists in a desperate attempt to fill out the last couple slots, I’m now confident in saying this was a subpar year. For whatever reasons, it seems that the odd-numbered years have been better than the even ones lately. Hopefully form will hold in 2009. Still, while there was no Kala or Late Registration last year, we did get five albums that I’ll probably still be listening to in 2013. Indeed, the first five on the list could have been in almost any order, and for the first time in several years, the No. 1 spot was in play right down to the wire. But in the end, pure sound narrowly trumped high concept.
When I heard that Portishead was releasing its first album of new material in more than a decade, I was skeptical, even faintly annoyed. Generally when bands stay away for longer than five years, they’re best advised to pack it in entirely (you will find very few exceptions to this rule in the rock era). But Third is no throwback to the trip-hop days of the mid-’90s, but rather a thorough reinvention, combining the band’s moody lounge pop and fractured beats with a bold psychedelic-rock bent, evoking the likes of Syd Barrett (“Small”) and the Silver Apples (“We Carry On”). And singer Beth Gibbons outdoes her mid-'90s self: her haunting, haunted vocals wade tentatively through “Deep Water” and quaver majestically on “Magic Doors” without ever striking a false emotional chord. The result is the band’s best album to date and this year's improbable No. 1.
(“The Rip” “Machine Gun”)
2. Kanye West—808s and Heartbreak
Given Kanye’s prolific rate of production over the past five years, it’s hardly surprising that the obligatory Difficult Third Album arrives one release late. This dark, death-haunted opus provoked some truly idiotic reviews—with a few honorable exceptions, the critical establishment really missed the boat. Musically, 808s moves away from hip-hop to further explore the synth-pop influences that surfaced on Graduation (to the point of including a Tears for Fears cover). Rap yields to Auto-Tuned singing in what amounts to an album-length version of John Lennon’s “My Mummy’s Dead.” A few songs here work better conceptually than musically, but the six-track stretch beginning with the melodically nimble “Heartless” and ending with the gently despairing “Street Lights” was the best 25 minutes of music I heard all year.
(“Amazing” “Love Lockdown”)
3. The Bug—London Zoo
The best album yet to emerge from England’s dubstep scene is not the work of some unknown young producer, but the latest from veteran English writer-musician Kevin Martin, who’s recorded with various collaborators under various monikers including Experimental Audio Research, Ice, Techno Animal, and, um, God. Employing a wide range of vocal talent, from the suitably combative Warrior Queen to the deep-voiced Ricky Ranking, London Zoo is further proof—as if more were needed—that the musical and aesthetic legacy of dub remains far from exhausted.
(“Poison Dart” “Too Much Pain”)
4. Drive-By Truckers—Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Following the 2006 misfire A Blessing and a Curse, Patterson Hood & Co. return to form and then some (see "The Righteous Path," posted August 9). Never formal innovators, these Alabaman disciples of Lynyrd Skynyrd are only as good as their songwriting, and by my count this album’s got only one dud out of 19 songs. Not too shabby.
(“The Righteous Path” “Bob”)
5. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes
A new band featuring young white guys with guitars that I don’t hate. That in itself is a rare-enough thing these days, but the Fleet Foxes did far better, combining strands of American musical history ranging from Brian Wilson to Appalachian folk songs, and in the process proving there’s still a place for musical virtuosity in the mostly moribund world of indie rock.
(“White Winter Hymnal” “Blue Ridge Mountains”)
6. Lil Wayne—Tha Carter III/The Leak EP
I was half expecting this album to be a disappointment, given its oft-postponed release date and the accompanying mountains of hype, but Wayne largely delivers on his latest major-label outing, scoring with conventional hip-hop tracks like “Got Money” (featuring T-Pain) and proving he can go deep and soulful when he chooses, as on the Katrina-inspired “Tie My Hands” (with Robin Thicke). Personally, I prefer the looser Weezy of his mixtape work, but the all-star roster of producers and guest vocalists on Tha Carter III does at least guarantee some musical variety even as it also guarantees a somewhat disjointed listen. Of the two songs I dislike, one was a No. 1 hit single. I am perversely proud of this. And don’t forget about The Leak EP, where the sonics finally take a backseat to Wayne’s zingers: “I graduated from hungry and made it to greedy,” he boasts on “Gossip,” still keeping it real.
(“A Milli” “Tie My Hands”)
7. Kaiser Chiefs—Off With Their Heads
With producer Mark Ronson on hand to give the Kaisers’ music a shapeliness and sonic unity missing from previous efforts, the third album from these Britpoppers is easily their best. The songwriting is sharper as well, particularly on the single “Never Miss a Beat.” There should definitely be more anti-youth-culture anthems.
(“Never Miss a Beat” “Can’t Say What I Mean”)
8. Deerhunter—Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
The music of my youth, reprocessed and spat back at me.
(“Nothing Ever Happened” “Dot Gain”)
With Josh Davis apparently having succumbed entirely to his hip-hop roots and the Avalanches on a decade-long hiatus, there have been far fewer first-rate sample-based albums this decade than I would’ve predicted 10 years ago. This mix album from Jace Clayton (aka DJ/Rupture) touches on an unusual variety of styles and moods, even for its genre. Supposedly his 2004 Special Gunpowder is even better. I intend to find out.
(“Plays John Cassavetes Pt. 2” “Hungry Ghost (Instrumental)”)
10. Erykah Badu—New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
I’ll just come right out and say that this doesn’t make the list in an average year, but the always game Badu takes some chances here, with a few standout songs, including two produced by the incomparable Madlib, mingling with the album’s solid but conventional R&B tracks, of which there are many.
(“Soldier” “The Healer/Hip Hop”)
Top 5 songs not on those albums
1. Gang Gang Dance—“House Jam”
2. Hercules and Love Affair—“Hercules Theme”
3. Lindstrøm—“Where You Go I Go Too”
Twenty-nine blissful minutes of Norwegian techno from the man responsible for the year's best album cover.
4. Four Tet—“Swimmer”
5. Hercules and Love Affair—“Blind”
Finally, an Antony Hegarty vocal on a song I actually like.