The Top 50 Albums of 2008
Conventional wisdom be damned: the cd is far from dead, in fact maybe more alive than ever since independent bands and artists have reclaimed their turf from the major labels. Most of what’s here are independent releases, with a few smart independent labels represented. For all the disclaimers, whys and wherefores related to this list, we set up a disclaimers, whys and wherefores page if you really must know all the details.
Three of these cds in particular stand out from the hundreds of thousands – or maybe even millions – released in 2008. Our pick for best album of 2008 wasn’t by a multimillionaire New Jersey trust fund kid living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or a computer nerd with glasses the size of Elton John’s head, or a silicone-poisoned porn actress with a cable tv reality show. Rather, it was put out by a veteran Irish-American rock band whose lone brush with mainstream stardom came and went in the blink of an eye about fifteen years ago. Iraq by Black 47 isn’t just a good collection of rousing, Celtic-tinged rock tunes: it’s the most important album of the year, an unforgettable look at the war through the eyes of the soldiers just trying to get out of there alive. Black 47 frontman Larry Kirwan is also an accomplished novelist, and it shows in these songs: the black humor, the dialogue and the war’s sad drama have never been portrayed more powerfully or evocatively than they are here.
The party album of the year, the one that everybody was talking about and to which we assigned the #2 spot, was Sonido Amazonico by Chicha Libre. With this wickedly smart, fun, sometimes lovingly satirical collection of classic covers and originals, the Brooklyn band singlehandedly spearheaded a revival of the wildly psychedelic, surfy sound that was all the rage in the slums of the Peruvian Amazon 35 years ago. With its playful, hypnotic bounce, it made an irresistible soundtrack for the summer of 2008.
The darkest and most haunting album of the year, clocking in at number three, was Celestina by long-running California art-rockers 17 Pygmies. Based on a short story by frontman/guitarist Jackson Del Rey about love and betrayal in outer space, it’s a majestic, epic, eleven-part symphonic rock masterpiece.
And the rest of the list is incredible as well. Last year, our best albums list stopped at #20; this year, it felt egregiously unfair to cut this one off at #50. Many of these you know; some you may not. Enjoy!
4. Marcel Khalife – Taqasim
A dark, stately, beautiful trio suite for oud, bass and percussion from the great Palestinian oud virtuoso.
The Iranian multi-instrumentalist string player/composer teamed up with the adventurous Brooklyn string quartet for a lush, intensely beautiful, powerfully compelling collection.
6. Matt Keating – Quixotic
This gorgeously jangly double cd marks the high point in the New York rock songwriter’s career.
7. Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – Snowblind
The NYC noir Americana songwriter/chanteuse proved equally mesmerizing at janglerock, bossa nova and even an early 70s style heavy metal song.
8. Mascott – Art Project
Simply gorgeous, sunny, gemlike guitar-and-keyboard pop song perfection.
9. System Noise – Give Me Power
The NYC rockers’ second official release proved they could be as melodic and danceable as they are savagely ferocious, frontwoman Sarah Mucho’s unearthly wail soaring over the din.
10. Aimee Mann – Fucking Smilers
She just keeps going, maybe better than ever; this one’s more keyboard-based but no less brilliant than anything she’s ever done.
11. Elvis Costello – Momofuku
A return to his lyrically dazzling, scorched-earth late 70s style guitar-and-keyboard lyrical rock, yet another addition to his pantheonic body of work.
12. Steve Wynn – Crossing Dragon Bridge
Wynn’s best cd studio cd since…his last one is a sometimes majestic, sometimes stark detour into hauntingly orchestrated rock, his trademark menace front and center as always.
13. Melomane – Look Out!
Frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s ongoing disaster song cycle is a clinic in brilliantly lyrical, orchestrated rock understatement, a particularly timely release.
14. Ward White – Pulling Out
His best album: the New York underground janglerock songwriter has never been more catchy, more brilliantly acerbic or savagely funny.
15 Mavrothi Kontanis – Sto Kafesli Sokaki
One of the oud virtuoso’s two debut cds released this past summer, this is a haunting mix of Greek and Turkish songs from decades past, many of them obscure but all of them first-rate
16. Mark Sinnis – Into an Unhidden Future
The Ninth House frontman’s solo debut, a haunting collection of Nashville gothic songs, was impeccably produced with the same dark, minimalist restraint as Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin albums.
17. Amanda Thorpe – Union Square
The darkly riveting chanteuse’s second solo release was worth the wait, all stark, rain-drenched beauty and anguish.
18. Patty Ocfemia – Heaven’s Best Guest
There are few songwriters who tell a story as well as this relatively under-the-radar New York artist with a strikingly subtle, breathy vocal delivery.
19. Curtis Eller’s American Circus – Wirewalkers & Assassins
The oldtimey banjoist is also a first-rate songwriter with a potently lyrical edge and a distinctly oldtimey New York ragtime feel.
20. Teslim – Debut cd
The Bay area Middle Eastern improvisers blend klezmer and Arab maqams into a deliriously psychedelic acoustic brew.
21. Ljova & the Kontraband – Mnemosyne
The multistylistic Russian/Balkan string band mix rousing dances, haunting ballads and atmospheric soundtrack-type stuff on their superb debut cd.
22. Natacha Atlas & the Marzeeka Ensemble – Ana Hina
A career-best for the former Transglobal Underground frontwoman, mostly acoustic, heavily Fairuz-influenced versions of classic Arab film music and also a Frida Kahlo poem set to music.
23. Sounds of Taarab – Zanzibar, NY
New York‘s pioneering Zanzibar revivalists have singlehandedly renewed interest in the great dance music and ballads from the area from the 20s and 30s, dark Middle Eastern melodies over catchy African rhythms.
24. Katie Elevitch – Kindling for the Fire
The NYC noir siren’s finest hour, a rivetingly lyrical, passionately intense effort.
The brain trust of the RMA’s Bluegrass Band of the Year, 2008, Buddy Woodward and Brandi Hart are the Richard and Linda Thompson of the bible belt, pushing the envelope with a fire and a dark vision unsurpassed in their field.
26. Mavrothi Kontanis – Wooden Heart
The second of the great oud player’s debut cds released this year – the title refers to the oud, made of wood – is a stark, mostly instrumental mix of Mediterranean classics and originals that sound like classics.
27. Des Roar – Demo ep
One of NYC’s most exciting rock bands, with a viciously satirical edge, their punk/garage intensity never lets up. This one contains the classic Ted Bundy Was a Ladies Man
28. Black Fortress of Opium – First cd
Aptly titled, this dark, anthemic Boston band adds a majestically beautiful Middle Eastern tinge to their eerie, macabre, noisy gothic-tinged anthems.
29. The Dog Show – Nicotene & Bluz
The band may be on hiatus, but frontman Jerome O’Brien keeps writing and recording good songs, in a smart, virtriolic mod punk vein not unlike the Jam.
30. Metropolitan Klezmer – Traveling Show
One of New York’s finest live acts, this live cd was a stroke of genius and is pure bliss to listen to, every style of haunting or boisterous Jewish roots music you could ever want.
31. The Roots of Chicha compilation
Barbes Records’ collection of brilliant, obscure Peruvian surf-dance songs available for the first time ever in North America.
32. Lee Feldman – I’ve Forgotten Everything
A subtly powerful, rivetingly dark piano-based concept album that traces one man’s descent into madness.
33. Patti Rothberg – Double Standards
The powerpop masterpiece that the Go Go’s should have made after Talk Show but didn’t.
34. Municipale Balcanica – Road to Damascus
The Italian Balkan dance band crosses genres and raises the temperature to boiling point with their fiery instrumentals.
35. Jenny Scheinman – Crossing the Field
The latest smart, counterintuitive instrumental album from the multistylistic violinist/composer and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator
36. Willie Nile – Live from the Streets of New York (live)
Also available as a DVD, this is the great underground NYC anthem songwriter and his volcanic band at the absolute peak of their power, live at the Mercury Lounge.
37. Serena Jost – Closer Than Far
Imaginative, subtly nuanced, utterly captivating, artsy songs that bridge classical, jazz, torch song and rock, by the former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist.
38. The Nice Outfit – Kissing Jocelyn (ep)
Slashing, somewhat Radio Birdman-inflected garage punk from these excellent Milwaukee vets.
39. The Lash Outs – First cd
True to the spirit of classic punk, this ferocious Dallas band refuses to submit to authority, stands up for the cool kids and generates a lot of laughs on their debut cd.
40. This Reporter – Five Smooth Stones (ep)
Mostly acoustic dreampop with sultry vocals from frontwoman Jennifer Curtis. One of the most captivating ipod albums of the year.
41. Devi – Get Free
This snarling yet beautifully melodic, guitar-fueled, female-fronted power trio just gets more and more interesting, with a smartly improvisational edge.
42. The Romeros – Better Than Your Girlfriend
Roaring punk-pop in the style of Stiff Little Fingers from this fiery Chicago band.
43. Lazy Lions – Keep Your Love Away
When they’re at the top of their game, this New York band’s snarlingly lyrical, sardonic songs rank with anything Elvis Costello ever did.
44. Burning Spear – Jah Is Real
The best studio cd in ages from this roots reggae legend, a contemporary of Bob Marley who though now in his sixties remains absolutely undiminished.
45. Mighty High – Mighty High in Drug City
Arguably the funniest album released in many moons, this heavy metal parody band nail absolutely everything they set their sights on because they know the source material so well.
46. Zikrayat – Live at Lotus
Classic and obscure Levantine dance music, slinky and gorgeous, recorded all-acoustic so as to capture the vitality of the originals.
47. Little Pink – Gladly Would We Anchor
Frontwoman Mary Battiata and her rootsy Washington, DC band evoke Richard & Linda Thompson at their most lyrical on this impeccably crafted, often haunting cd.
48. The Bedsit Poets – Rendezvous
The harmony-driven New York band explore new territory – pretty much every cosmopolitan European style from the 60s – as well as bossa nova and Mediterranean ballads on their sophomore effort.
49. The Sweet Bitters – Debut ep
The folk/pop duo of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir blend their beautiful voices together in a mix of deviously funny and wrenchingly haunting songs.
And just for fun – and to add some perspective to this list – here’s Lucid Culture’s pick for best album of 2007 along with our predecessor e-zine’s picks for best album of the year going all the way back to its inception in 2000:
2007: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years
2006: Radio Birdman – Zeno Beach
2005: LJ Murphy – Mad Within Reason
2004: Botanica – Botanica vs. the Truth Fish
2003: Richard Thompson – Semi-Detached Mock Tudor
2002: Bob Dylan – Love & Theft
2001: Steve Wynn – Here Come the Miracles
2000: Mary Lee’s Corvette – True Lovers of Adventure