Exactly two years I stopped burning or receiving copied CDs, because I came to the decision that, even though it is a widely accepted cultural practice -- even among Christians -- its illegality meant I ought not to participate in it. Before that I had already made the decision not to download music without paying for it. (My exception to these rules is if the creators of the music, as band or artist, make explicitly clear that they encourage such free transmission of their own music. Derek Webb is an example; Radiohead similarly offered their most recent album for free download.)
I don't mention that to highlight my own amazing ethical rigor, but only to emphasize that, when paying for all of one's own music, it is a difficult thing indeed to buy and listen to "enough" music from a single year to make a list that doesn't have crater-sized holes in it! In that way movies are much easier, because with the advent of Netflix, you could literally watch 200+ movies a year averaging $1 or less per film. That is also why music is the best area for sharing favorites, because if you recommend something highly enough that I'm missing, I just might be willing to shell out for it.
So, without further adieu, my picks for the best music of 2008.
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Top 20 Best Songs/Singles From 2008 (limit one song per album)
1. Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal"
2. Bon Iver - "Skinny Love"
3. Beyonce - "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"
4. Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
5. Fleet Foxes - "Mykonos"
6. Duffy - "Mercy"
7. Jamie Lidell - "Another Day"
8. Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"
9. Vampire Weekend - "Oxford Comma"
10. She & Him - "Sentimental Heart"
11. M.I.A. - "Paper Planes"
12. Langhorne Slim - "Rebel Side of Heaven"
13. The Black Keys - "Strange Times"
14. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "I'll Be Glad"
15. Sigur Ros - "Gobbledigook"
16. Peter Gabriel - "Down to Earth"
17. Okkervil River - "Lost Coastlines"
18. The Low Anthem - "Charlie Darwin"
19. TV On The Radio - "Halfway Home"
20. Slow Runner - "Love and Doubt"
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Top 10 Best Albums of 2008
Blind Spots: Kanye West -- 808s and Hearbreak; Deerhunter -- Microcastle; The Welcome Wagon -- Welcome to the Welcome Wagon; Cat Power -- Jukebox; Lucinda Williams -- Little Honey
Honorable Mention: Langhorne Slim -- Langhorne Slim; Silver Jews -- Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea; The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive; Jamie Lidell -- Jim; The Black Keys -- Attack & Release
Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard -- The Dark Knight
Thomas Newman -- WALL-E
I don't think it would be fair to include either of these original film scores in the normal list, nor do I in all honesty know how I would if I wanted to. So a special mention seems in order, precisely because the work of these composers demands attention. And what surprise is it that two of the year's best films would have two of the most distinctive, original, and powerful scores in recent memory? For The Dark Knight, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard expanded on the themes begun in their work on Batman Begins, but it was particularly their theme for The Joker that pushed the entire score -- and the film with it -- to the next level. The eerie, anxious silence that begins the movie makes you think something with the audio might be wrong ... until you hear that unnerving, shrill drilling growing louder, and you realize it's some sort of disturbing note being played. Christopher Nolan's deft use of Zimmer and Howard's score is nothing less than brilliant.
In a similar way, the opening music of WALL-E sets the tone from the outset. But this time there is tension, because the happy lyrics from Hello, Dolly set to gorgeous images of the universe give way to the sparse, sad plucking of the recurrent theme as the camera shifts from the cosmos down into the polluted, cluttered muck of earth. Somehow, Thomas Newman delivers a score that walks this tightrope act without ever forsaking the mood or honesty of either side. WALL-E is about falling in love head over heels, following that love to the ends of the universe, and the willingness of that self-sacrificial love to die for the beloved. It is also about ecological degradation, consumerism, obesity, laziness, technology, power, and homecoming. Somehow, Newman delivers the goods. (Not only that, his work with Peter Gabriel on "Down to Earth" offers us one of the best songs of the year.) Quite simply, these are two of the best pieces of music made for films in recent memory.
10. The Low Anthem -- Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
This one caught me by surprise. I heard the first song, "Charlie Darwin," by chance on a Paste Mix, and it hooked me instantly. The album as a whole is equal to its beginning, an energetic mix of acoustic harmonies and electric hooks. But the lyrics are the biggest draw, evocatively interlocking -- as the album's title suggests -- God and world in an intimate dance. Consistent water imagery overlays the music with the sense of a threatened narrative, a worldview under siege, waters rising but somehow stayed. Time and life "float above the storm," and "them ghosts who write history books" look back at the chaos and pen the songs that tell the story of a world that keeps marching along. The Low Anthem's music and words themselves become the means through which that chaos comes to order.
9. TV On The Radio -- Dear Science
I am similarly new to the TVotR party, though I had certainly heard of them, particularly from their phenomenal single "Wolf Like Me" from a couple years ago. Their style simply did not seem like a fit -- music made more on laptops than instruments is usually not my thing. However, I finally relented and gave them a shot with Dear Science, and what I found was a profoundly smart band whose words matched the cerebral brilliance of their weirdly danceable music. Try out these lyrics, sung like a rollercoaster by lead man Tunde Adebimpe (who won me over in a separate creative venture, Rachel Getting Married, in a classic musical scene) from the song "Crying": "And Mary and David smoke dung in the trenches. While Zion's behavior never gets mentioned. The writings on your wall. And the blood on the cradle. And the ashes you wade through. God you callin' God's name in vain. Leave the damned to damn it all! 's got you cryin'." Yes, please.
8. Okkervil River -- The Stand-Ins
Okkervil River skyrocketed to the upper echelons of my favorite bands with their masterpiece of literary musicality -- and my pick for best album of 2007 (to my wife's eternal chagrin) -- The Stage Names. Their decision to make a kind of sequel to it a year later was exactly the kind of thing you would expect them to do, and while The Stand-Ins may not be quite equal to its predecessor, it is certainly a worthy further step in the vast tapestry Will Sheff is weaving with his music and words. "Lost Coastlines" kicks the album off in good fashion and is probably the best song of the bunch; and among that bunch we find, like their previous albums, a wide swath of upbeat, slow, rockin', and ballad. Of course, the catch for most people is Sheff's warbly, emotional baritone. For me, it's perfect: its honesty sans sentimentality and power without perfection render it ideal for the type of aural novels Okkervil's songs, and albums, play out for us. Here's hoping for only more zags from this zig-confounding band.
7. Vampire Weekend -- Vampire Weekend
It was not a good start, Vampire Weekend and me. I had been reading about this new band and how good their debut album was, but what got me to go out and buy it was someone's (I don't remember whose) inexplicable likening of Vampire Weekend to The Arcade Fire. That was as direct a command to go forth and buy as I could have received -- The Arcade Fire is one of the most innovative and important musical artists of this decade. You can understand my disappointment, then, when song after song on Vampire Weekend only deepened my increasing bewilderment. Goofy Afro-pop by Ivy Leaguers does not an Arcade Fire sound-a-like make. Suffice to say, it has been an uphill climb, but once you give them a chance, this happy little album is as catchy, musically diverse, and worthwhile as everyone says. Just don't expect the next Funeral.
6. Coldplay -- Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends
Talk about getting an unfair rap. The waters of Coldplay critic-love must still be poisoned from the disaster (and it was a disaster) of X&Y, because Viva La Vida is a fantastic album, but nearly nobody in critics' circles gave it much more than a "well, they didn't screw the pooch twice in a row." How about some recognition for turning the boat around right in front of the waterfall? Coldplay could have cemented itself as the king of global napping music by churning out another overwrought, sentimental, meaningless disc of ballads and bore; instead, they changed their style, went against their own (well hewn and well known) tendencies, introduced new elements from other musical cultures, and decided to start singing about something (other than fake break-ups and chromosomes and such). The first half of Viva is solid, rhythmic radio rock (not to mention the fact that they begin the album with an instrumental song); but the second half is when things really get interesting. "Viva La Vida"'s pulse never seems to stop, and the words ring out like George W. Bush looking back on his presidency through a medieval lens. Prophetic and smart. And the closer, "Death and All His Friends," is a powerful conclusion to an album speaking, in all of its potential popularity and artistic change-ups, against a world and a culture of death. To which I say: amen and amen.
5. Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago
"It just makes me so sad." Such are the (oft-repeated) words of my wife whenever listening to For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver's epic folk tragedy. Every song is steeped in the depths of sorrow and loneliness, and even when the pace picks up or you hear something other than voice and guitar, the mood never departs. Such is the tonal consistency and truthfulness with which Justin Vernon constructs his wide vista of loss and solitude. "Skinny Love" most perfectly captures the angry, yelping yearning of all that he has lost. Nothing captures better the sense that place -- emotionally and geographically -- is inescapable in knowing ourselves. A product of separation from loved ones and literal separation into a cabin, Vernon's time in the silence of the woods has produced for us a window into the music that springs out of such an experience, and we are invited to share in it.
4. She & Him -- Volume One
Paste Magazine's pick for best album of the year caught me by surprise, but their track record (excluding 2005) has been excellent, so I gave She & Him a shot. And what a payoff! The unpredictable brainchild offspring (mixing metaphors...) of M. Ward, he of independent music fame, and Zooey Deschanel, she of independent movie fame, Volume One is an odd experiment gone right. The music is a mix of folksy country, 50s pop, and gooey lyrics, without ever following the false trail of buying into one's own ingenuity. The backup vocals, arrangements, and accompanying music are fantastic, but it is the singular voice of Zooey Deschanel that holds everything together. Sweet, even adorable, yet strong enough -- on a debut album no less! -- to hold her own as the center of every song: undeniably an achievement worthy of a second volume.
3. Sigur Ros -- Med Suf leyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
I did not see this coming. After the strange non-outing of ( ) and the solid but generally forgettable Takk..., I thought the ground-shattering glories of Agaetis byrjun were a thing of the past. So when I heard that Sigur Ros had released a new album, my response was a hearty "meh." I gave in late in the year, upon reading so many favorable reviews, and am happy to report (as the last person in line!) that Sigur Ros is, indeed, back. Not back from the dead, mind you, but back, instead, from the cycle of trying to "be" Sigur Ros. The failure of ( ) is understandable as trying to follow up an epoch-inaugurating classic, but Takk... felt like a retread, like an attempt by a gifted band known for being "X" trying to be the best "X" they could be. With Med Suf leyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, Sigur Ros sounds, for the first time in a long while, fresh. They don't sound like they're "trying" to do anything, much less to fulfill others' expectations -- instead, simply like they're having fun making good music. And when Sigur Ros is having fun making good music, it is good news for everyone else.
2. Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes & Sun Giant EP
Much ink has already been spilled (does that metaphor still work online?) on the fantastic surprise that is sitting down and listening to Fleet Foxes beginning to end. You don't need to see its cover (or the equally great EP's) to feel yourself transported back in time, to a place medieval and earthy and pastoral ... yet with electric guitars. (You know, like Oregon.) The thick harmonies and diverse instrumentation blend perfectly for a musical experience unexpected and unprecedented. It is one thing to be good; it is another to change the shape of popular music for the foreseeable future. (Their phenomenal performance on Saturday Night Live can only have helped them in this regard.) Few would have imagined music like Fleet Foxes' making waves in 2008, but their flag is planted and we can expect the trendy followers to be showing up soon enough. For now, before someone else comes along and ruins it, we can enjoy Fleet Foxes' songs for what they are: powerful, prescient, groovy ballads that sweep us away to another world.
1. Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Lie Down in the Light
I do not believe that anything, music included, can be properly assessed or engaged in a vacuum; even albums are part of a story. Thus it is not possible to understand the achievement of Radiohead's Kid A apart from what led up to it, particularly the universally acclaimed masterpiece that was its predecessor, OK Computer. On the other hand, I wonder if fresh ears can offer an alternative perspective when approaching greatness that has become so routine, so expected, that its wonder has lost its original shine. Thus do I come to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Lie Down in the Light: it is my first album by, and hence my introduction to, the music of Will Oldham. So it is possible that my reaction to and appraisal of his most recent work is not complete or fully informed, precisely because I do not know its place in the "story." However: regardless of the extent to which I need to go back and fill in the pieces -- a task I am already in the process of completing! -- I can testify that Lie Down in the Light is without a doubt the best album I have heard from 2008. Twelve songs of heartfelt precision, spiritual vulnerability, musical honesty, virtuoso performances, perfect pacing, ideal diversity, glorious crescendoes, enveloping quietness, and endless depth. Beautiful and sad and funny and truthful. In other words, a masterpiece.