As 2008 comes to a close, I feel compelled to write a retrospective on the 10 albums I most enjoyed, as so much of my personal writing has been about music this year. Typically, this would be the point where the author makes some grandiose claim about the state of the art, that this is a banner year for whatever reasons, blah blah blah. If you really do pay attention to music --- I mean really live for the stuff, in your house, in your car, every day --- then there's never such thing as a "banner year." Art forms don't somehow get "better" in the way one typically thinks of progress; there's no defining characteristic of one year versus another in terms of cultural relevance. Music doesn't get "better," it gets "different," which is why writing a top 10 list such as this is a futile effort unless it's based on anything other than opinion. The real trick is figuring out where to look for music that speaks to you, from city to city, genre to genre, friend to friend.
The Best Albums of 2008 According to Me
10. Nas & DJ Green Lantern - N****r Mixtape
The instinctual Id to Nasir Jones' revised untitled album's Ego,focusing on the same subject matter, this mixtape features Nas at his most pissed-off, which is when he's got the most bite. Where his (forcibly) buttoned-down Untitled shoots for somber relevance with diatribes on Louis Farrahkan, Bill O'Reilly and even fried chicken, his mix-tape with DJ Green Lantern puts the N-word squarely in its sights. The album's high point is Nas's hesitant-yet-moving Obama tribute "Black President," which takes the crown out of the crowded field of Obama-related jams this year.
Watch: Nas & DJ Green Lantern - "Black President"
9. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Craig Finn and The Hold Steady's songs exist in a specific, self-contained universe, which explains why comparisons with The Boss and Bon Jovi are so commonplace. The characters all seem to know each other, weaving in to and out of songs a la Jay & Silent Bob in the Kevin Smith canon. There's plenty of drinking and drugging, but it seems somehow darker this time around, as if the band seems to know the party can't go on in to infinity, and Sunday morning has to come someday. Toss in enough sing-along choruses and clever one-liners from singer Finn, and this is one of the year's best albums to lose yourself in for a while if you're 24, really like booze, but constantly wondering what the hell you're going to do with your life. The highlight of the album is the straightforward shout-along "Sequestered in Memphis," which I challenge you to not want to at least hum along to the chorus after one listen.
Watch: "Sequestered in Memphis"
8. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
I'm a lot like you: when I first heard of Vampire Weekend, I really wanted to hate them. The constant references to the fact that they hailed from the Ivy League, the boat shoes, the vaguely "African" guitar patterns... no band sounds, ON PAPER, more obnoxious than Vampire Weekend. However, after listening through their self-titled debut, I really couldn't bring myself to do it. They're too snazzy. Vampire Weekend pulls off the remarkable feat of making a pastel sweater tied around the neck and a pair of wayfarers seem cool without the "so-dated-its-modern" irony so prevalent in "hipster" culture these days. Listening without tapping your foot is nearly impossible, and might even make you realize a few things about your own pretensions in the process.
7. The Streets - Everything is Borrowed
The Streets, aka Mike Skinner, has always infused his strange breed of hip-hop with a sense of poetic lyricism, using wordplay to floridly describe relatively mundane events, such as receiving a surprise "insufficient funds" message when trying to use a debit card, or the dangers of doing cocaine as a celebrity in the age of camera phones. On this album, however, Skinner seems to have "grown up" a bit, and dwells on weightier themes such as religion, mortality and accountability. His literary tendencies include a true sense for how setting can influence story, which leads to smooth-sounding live band arrangements supporting the sense of intimacy in the lyrics.
Watch: "The Escapist"
6. Kings of Leon - Only By The Night
Kings of Leon's transformation from Americana rockers to U2-channeling arena packers follows their touring with U2. The Followill clan has had critical success in America but their commercial success has been confined to Europe until this wonderfully-crafted album, which sees them swapping out their gospel-soaked Strokes impressions for songs shooting for the cheap seats, as the ligher-raiser "Use Somebody" does so expertly. I also challenge you to drink a bottle of wine by yourself and see if you don't end up air-guitaring and singing along with Caleb Followill as best your weak voice will allow when "Sex on Fire" comes up on your Party Shuffle.
Watch: "Use Somebody"
5. The Roots - Rising Down
Hova's MTV Unplugged accompaniment released their best album on their 8th studio effort this year, which sees the Philly hip-hop elders taking an interestingly pessimistic view of the world in light of the changes in the world seen in 2008. In spite of Barack Obama's groundbreaking victory, this album could be sub-titled "No We Can't." The darker, angrier nature of the music propels MC Black Thought to new hights (listen to the killer, "75 Bars" and tell me if you don't get goosebumps) while drummer/ producer ?uestlove brings them back to... well, their roots, by keeping it simple. The album also does a fantastic job of showcasing a nice crew of talented but lesser-known MCs such as Wale, who features prominently on the DC go-go sounding groove "Rising Up," the album's high point and most optimistic track. A very interesting track featuring Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump singing the hook called "Birthday Girl" was left off the final release but worth a listen, if only for the weirdness of Black Thought & Stump crooning to a looker who's just achieved legal status for viewing R-rated movies.
Watch: "Rising Up"
4. Weezer - Weezer (The Red Album)
Following a series of disappointing releases that saw Weezer beginning to emulate the bands it seemed to accidentally-on-purposely be mocking in its first two albums, the "Red Album" as Weezer have nicknamed their latest release, marks a return to form for the simple hitmakers. Admittedly as much a brand as a band these days, the "Red Album" sees the results of self-described "old man" Rivers Cuomo returning to the idiosyncratic auteurship of the original Blue Album... at least on the songs he holds the mic for. Weezer sounds like the band we all remember on jams like "Pork and Beans" and "Troublemaker," the latter being the album's high point for me and well worth a look on YouTube (they set a few remarkable world records during the filming). I, for one, am happy to have the Weezer I know and love back: simple power-pop, straight-faced sincerity, from normal looking guys who became famous for being simple, and then simply complain about it.
3. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
I know, I know... Kanye West doesn't need anything else to make his head bigger, and this album is a SERIOUS departure from his clever, boastful hip-hop backed with expert production on his collegiate trilogy. This album sees the robotic persona Kanye began to assume following the success of last year's single "Stronger" and the subsequent Glow in the Dark tour dipped in some serious sadness. From a man who lost his mother and fiancee over the last year, it's a fitting route to take. Kanye's singular self-confidence in his ability as an artist come through in the real risks he takes, opting to "sing" (via AutoTune... love it or hate it) rather than rap on at least half of the tracks. If hip-hop stays alive via innovation, it can thank Kanye (and Lil Wayne, who features on the high point track "See You In My Nightmares") for its continued existence.
2. My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges
Known more for their epic live show than their studio efforts, My Morning Jacket cemented their place as America's premier band with their 2008 release. Although even casual fans are aware that singer-guitarist Jim James is a true guitar hero, this album marks their transcendence from the loving-yet-limiting jam band scene, much in the way Radiohead transcended BritPop to become "Radiohead" so long ago. Singles such as "I'm Amazed" and "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt. 1" show that MMJ's still got what made them good, but leaps in creativity on songs such as "Evil Urges," which seems to over-utilize falsetto on the first go-around but then ends up stuck in your head for days, and the strangely Prince-esque "Highly Suspicious," which is destined to blow minds at Bonnaroo for years to come.
Watch: "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 1"
And the Number 1 Album....
1. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
The year's top seller and best album is in truth only a small part of the phenomenon that is Weezy F. Baby, from multiple freely-available mix-tapes to guest spots on seemingly every hip-hop album worth mentioning over the last 2 years to a live show that sees him alternate from spitting with AutoTune, seeming to nearly gasp for air while managing to enunciate effectively, then soloing on a Stratocaster, which goes a long way towards explaining just how scatterbrained this studio album is. Despite this, however, it's at once poignant, scathing, hilarious, and completely bizarre, with a seemingly-endless stable of radio singles and songs begging for remixes. The highlight is the minimally-produced "Misunderstood," where Wayne follows a hard-hitting rap with an articulate and insightful diatribe against Al Sharpton and his ilk, making sure to reference the fact that he's hitting a blunt the whole time.
Watch: "Let the Beat Build"
Agree with me? Disagree? Put it in the comments!