The 40 Best Albums of 2008

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The 40 Best Albums of 2008

We’ve been looking back at the music of 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago with the best albums of 1998, 1988, 1978 and 1968. Now it’s time to look back a decade to a year when Paste was writing about music as it happened and published our own year-end list. Many of the following albums were on that list, but we wanted to see which ones stood the test of time for our current editorial staff. The following list has the advantage of 10 years of hindsight, so it looks quite a bit different.

The following 40 albums range from indie folk to loud rock to jazz, hip hop and even country. It contains a surprising number of debuts, especially near the top of the list, as 2008 saw the launch of a number of artists who continue to do great things. These are the albums that we keep going back to, a decade later, and will probably keep going back to for decades to come.

Here are the 40 best albums of 2008:

malkmus-trash.jpg40. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: Real Emotional Trash
As a 41-year-old father of two in 2008, Stephen Malkmus had settled into a comfortable mid-career groove, avoiding self-parody and creative complacency with a series of albums that explored his inner guitar geek while toning down his impish charm. With Real Emotional Trash, he proved he could retain both, leaving behind the controlled one-man-band environment of 2005’s Face the Truth and issuing his most eclectic and unpredictable album yet. With former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss anchoring a muscular rhythm section, Malkmus had a Jicks worthy of his trust, and here he plays with more imagination and whimsy than he had since his playful 2001 solo debut, spinning yarns about murder mysteries, and unfurling marathon guitar solos. Here, all the influences that had percolated below the surface of his body of work burst forth, as Malkmus presides over a classic-rock parallel universe where Black Sabbath doom riffs rub up against Grateful Dead boogies and Boston-aping pop anthems, with prog-rock detours and multi-section epics thrown in for good measure. —Matt Fink

portishead-3.jpg39. Portishead: Third
A decade removed from reigning over trip-hop’s dark kingdom, Portishead returned in 2008 with more uneasy listening. Portishead’s version of trip-hop has always overweighted the “trip” quotient when compared to hip-hop worshipping contemporaries such as DJ Shadow, U.N.K.L.E. and fellow Bristolians Massive Attack and Tricky. Resident beat alchemist, Geoff Barrow was as likely to sample film-noir soundtracks or the minor-key orchestrations of Lalo Schifrin as he was to go crate-digging in the Eric B. & Rakim archives. And then there was Beth Gibbons’ shadowy voice, which often sounded more like a sampled artifact than the rare grooves in which the band traded. Her voice gave Portishead’s music a wounded, heartsick quality that elevated it to an altitude safe from the passing fads of pop culture. Trip-hop may have died a quiet, timely death in the intervening years, but Gibbons’ otherworldly gift guaranteed that Portishead’s music would survive any drought with its soul largely intact. Third is far and away the best, most punk thing in the Portishead catalog: a deeply transgressive album that bears a passing similarity to its predecessors but leaves most of the baggage behind in favor of a full-blown reset. What Barrow and Gibbons cooked up here ain’t no party, ain’t no disco, ain’t no fooling around. Third’s songs begin in a foreign tongue as though we’re accidentally walking in on a scene we’re not meant to see (the Portuguese soliloquy that opens “Silence”), they end without warning or are cut off in the rudest possible fashion (the tribal-sounding death knell “Nylon Smile”), and they strike Teutonic poses that seem more like Krautrock-meets-“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (the devastating “We Carry On,” the electronic weaponry of “Machine Gun”) than the mood music for which Portishead is known. —Corey DuBrowa

foals-antidotes.jpg38. Foals, Antidotes
English rockers Foals kicked off their career under the equine name with the anxiety punk of their debut album Antidotes. Influenced by pop music, some of the album’s repetitive, dancey tracks are much heavier and lyrically darker than their pop counterparts. On “Cassius” the flittering guitar riff is like filigree in the pounding momentum of the song. The vocals of lead singer Yannis Philippakis push the song forward, each syllable sticking out. “Cassius these daydreams, these daydreams decay!” he sings. Philippakis’ gruff and shouted singing adds a roughness to the band’s already jittery sound, and so they play and dance on a ledge—moments away from barreling out of control, but in a way that feels like release. Even the melancholic lyrics can’t drag down the pace; instead they evoke the thought that if we’re going to die we might as well also dance, which is essentially what “Two Steps, Twice” chants: “Sun side dance step for two/ Sunset disco this is for you.” On the head-bobbing “Electric Bloom” the instrument panning pulls the ear one way then another, almost distracting from Philippakis’ voice beaming straight down the center. “It’s just another hospital,” he sings, the awareness of death threatening to sink the song into gloom while the bright keys keep it above water. —Anna Haas

sun-kil-april.jpg37. Sun Kil Moon: April
Mark Kozelek’s Ohio childhood, his classic-rock album collection, his love for the guitar, his friends and especially the death of loved ones—including the tragic passing of an important early muse—have made him the songwriter he is. He takes solace in the beautiful landscapes that surround him. He travels to faraway cities and dreams of home, and then he comes home and dreams of elsewhere. He’s always been obsessed by longing and desire. 1992’s accomplished Red House Painters demo-tape-turned-debut-album Down Colorful Hill was a Technicolor tragedy filled with tortured romances and aching childhood memories, a perfect fit for the boutique 4AD label that released it. The young man who composed that record has changed over the years. Nothing dramatic, no abrupt refutations of his past; just a deepening, a settling into the man he has become. Kozelek’s music on April is warmer, more able to reconcile its classic-rock roots within its ethereal structures. The reverb canyons and domineering vocals have given way to richer guitar textures and sweet, anguished mumbles. His songs remain personal, as likely to express shockingly candid details as to wrap them in personal symbolism only he can unravel. When Kozelek sings “I promised always through me she would shine” on April’s 10-minute centerpiece “Tonight the Sky,” you picture the man alone, howling at the moon, shaking his fists in frustration at the universe. —Rob O’Connor

jamey-lonesome.jpg36. Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song
Jamey Johnson looks like an escapee from The Hell’s Angels, so you’d be forgiven if you expected some sort of death metal caterwaul to erupt from your stereo speakers. Instead, Johnson sounds like a good ol’ boy from Montgomery, Ala., which is what he is, and his second album, That Lonesome Song, recaptures everything that was great about those classic Merle Haggard and George Jones honky-tonk singles from the mid-to-late ’60s. The pedal steel weeps, the lead guitar rumbles deep in the bass range, and Johnson unleashes one of those voices that is equal parts heavenly soul and red clay dirt. Like another good ol’ boy from Montgomery, Hank Williams, Jamey’s lived a hard life. After an eight-year stint in the marines, Johnson got off to a belated start, recorded the superb 2005 debut album The Dollar, which was both a critical and commercial smash, and then proceeded to drink and drug himself right out of a career. Erratic gigs, the emotional devastation resulting from a separation and divorce, and general boorish, obnoxious behavior led to him being dropped from his first label in 2007. For the record, you have to work pretty hard to do this when your first album generates a Top 10 hit. But give the man credit. He screwed it up royally. But he returned with the best country record released in 2008. Hands down. Chronicling the sordid and sad events of the three prior years, That Lonesome Song is both a traditional country music tour de force and a harrowing singer/songwriter confessional album. Imagine Late for the Sky-era Jackson Browne hitchhiking to Redneckville and given a George Jones voice transplant. This is wild, untamed music sung in a wild, untamed voice, and it’s brilliant. —Andy Whitman

deerhunter-micro.jpg35. Deerhunter: Microcastle
Though 2008 found Deerhunter’s lead singer Bradford Cox trading dresses, rants and provocations for a steady, serious normality, Microcastle still finds him uncertain and a bit paranoid (on “Agoraphobia,” he blurs the distinctions between “cover me,” “comfort me” and “come for me”), but the shifts from languid ambience to hard-edged rock are much less stark than on the band’s previous album. Indeed, if Cryptograms asked the listener to swim around in the murky depths before shaking a fist in the air, Microcastle is instantly ingratiating. The short intro is a burst of almost kitschy instrumental lushness, while “Never Stops” is a pulsing, revelatory masterpiece, its shimmering guitars meshing beautifully with Cox’s hypnotic voice. The rest of the album balances the meditative and the direct, but it’s the uptempo songs that leave the strongest impression. On Microcastle, Deerhunter has written genuine anthems. —Mark Krotov

age-understatement.jpg34. The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement (2008)
Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner dreamed up an improbable side project with fellow 22-year-old Miles Kane (of Brit band The Rascals), featuring youthful takes on the melodramatic ’60s pop once proffered by Shirley Bassey, Anthony Newley and James Bond composer John Barry. Composed by the little-known Owen Pallett, production numbers like sultry tune “The Chamber,” Brecht-Weill-style drinking song “Calm Like You” and the over-the-top title track come across with the playfully surreal grandiosity and twisted charm of 2007’s The Good, the Bad and the Queen, Damon Albarn’s project with similarly string-crazed trickster Danger Mouse. (My suspicion is that Pallett is Danger Mouse, and that Kane is Turner.) This record is not for everybody—including, I suspect, the majority of Arctic Monkeys fans. Nonetheless, Turner deserves props for unleashing his inner Bowie and embracing artifice with such nerve and verve. —Bud Scoppa

consolers.jpg33. The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely (2008)
Although Jack White had previously played the part of both the coy adolescent and the Southern-gentleman-on-the-skids, the lead White Stripe’s work with the Raconteurs is perhaps most akin to late musical puberty. Given the former Jack Gillis’s preoccupation with stage character, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to hear the Raconteurs as an acknowledgment that White needed a new creative persona to deal with the tingly arena-rock feelings he’d been having. With a machine-gun groove, parts of the opening title track on Consolers of the Lonely, sound like the “love gun’s loaded” bridge to Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” And while one can easily imagine smoke machines spurting during many of the album’s 13 other tracks, there is no irony in the mix. Just fun. After all, it’s Jack White and the dudes: indie-pop charmer Brendan Benson and the Greenhornes’ Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler. Sometimes, White and Benson play off each other in pleasingly predictable ways. On “You Don’t Understand Me,” they pull a Lennon/McCartney: White digs into a typical put-down ballad before they alight into a rich, obvious Benson chorus, eventually combining to echo one another. There’s also the spitfire joy of “Salute Your Solution” and plenty that sounds like it could’ve been on a Stripes disc, like the Stonesy refrain of “Hold Up.” The negative space White carved between the Stripes’ peppermint swirls remains such a strong gravitational force that it all but carries the record. The Raconteurs make big, joyous songs with all the trappings of delicious summer jams. —Jesse Jarnow

lucinda-honey.jpg32. Lucinda Williams: Little Honey
Lucinda Williams has a great laugh—it’s a joyful sound to hear on the aptly titled Little Honey, the 10th album in her now-four-decade career. A sweet sense of renewal imbues the album, which encompasses all the elements of her eclectic catalog with varied, impeccable writing. Aided by loose-limbed playing from her band Buick 6, some notable party guests, and a voice full of everything from righteous gusto to hard-won wisdom, Little Honey is Lucinda Williams at her best. A sharp contrast to the studied tapestry of sound and embittered lyrics of West, Little Honey finds Williams in celebratory mode, with raucous rock, bluesy testimonies and tongue-in-cheek twang. Her brooding introspection—found here on a handful of moody tone poems and mournful ballads—adds depth to the proceedings. A decade before, the Louisiana-born Williams proffered that her best work was borne of emotional crises and the ensuing solitude. But Little Honey proves that philosophy doesn’t tell the whole story: This time out, Williams has found “Real Love,” the barnburner that kicks off the album, and she sings “Tears Of Joy,” a stunning Chicago-meets-Texas blues. On both tracks, her chansons d’amour are abetted by the straight-ahead backing of her touring group: longtime (for Williams) guitarist Doug Pettibone, joined by axman Chet Lyster, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton, who give the album its punch. Little Honey is the happy ending to 1998’s “Joy.” During the finale of her late-’90s concerts in ever larger halls, Williams and her band were known for vamping on the song’s rhythmic hook, “You took my joy/ I want it back.” A decade later, she’s got it and she gives it. How sweet it is. —Holly George-Warren

atmosphere-gold.jpg31. Atmosphere: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
On When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, the sixth studio album from lyricist Slug and producer Ant, the duo dropped Ant’s sampled beats in favor of live instrumentals to back Slug’s rhymes. The move results in a sound that’s far more textured and intricate than their previous five efforts and coincided with Atmosphere rounding up some uncharacteristic guest artists, including Tom Waits beat-boxing on “The Waitress” and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe singing backing vocals on “Your Glasshouse.” Strange pairings, yes, but they work, particularly on “The Waitress,” a song written from the point of view of a homeless man that has lyrics like those straight out of Waits’ catalogue. In another marked departure from Atmosphere’s previous work, Slug, who typically used his rhymes as a cathartic public diary, became a storyteller, threading a fatherhood theme through all 15 songs on Lemons. The beats are a bit softer and slower here, and the lyrics a bit more dense, but repeated listens unveil a deeper side of Atmosphere—a complexity in both its lyrics and beats only hinted at previously. Listen closely, and you might just discover the maturation of Slug and Ant. —Liz Lawson

elbow-seldom.jpg30. Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid
It seemed like everyone was surprised when Elbow beat out the likes of Radiohead, Adele, Last Shadow Puppets, Laura Marling and more for the Mercury Prize in 2008, an annual award that goes to the best album from the UK and Ireland. But in retrospect, the Manchester rock band, helmed by frontman Guy Garvey, may have had the strongest release that year with their stunningly gorgeous The Seldom Seen Kid, a record that somehow grows even stronger with age. The group’s fourth album, complete with heavily distorted guitar riffs (“Grounds for Divorce” and “The Bones of You”), life-affirming strings-backed anthems (“One Day Like This” and “Mirrorball”), and some of the most beautiful lyrics in recent memory (“You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in,” “So yes I guess I’m asking you to back a horse that’s good for glue and nothing else/ But find a man that’s truer than, find a man who needs you more than I,” “The violets explode inside me when I meet your eyes/ Then I’m spinning and I’m diving like a cloud of starlings/ Darling, is this love?” all from album opener “Starlings), launched them to superstardom in the UK, where they performed “One Day Like This” in the 2012 Closing Ceremonies of the London Olympics. They’re likely the only band that could get an entire venue to headbang one minute and prompt a man to propose to his girlfriend the next (which actually happened at their 2014 performance at Webster Hall). One of the strongest full albums of its decade, The Seldom Seen Kid is one of those records that only comes around a couple of times a generation, a pitch-perfect listen front to back. —Steven Edelstone

a-larum.jpg29. Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit – A Larum (2008)
English boarding-school alum, former choirboy, and erstwhile Royal Shakespeare Company actor Johnny Flynn goes slumming on his debut album, adopting a Dickensian ragamuffin persona that is so engaging that you quickly forget that he’s never gone dumpster diving in his life. There are echoes of Trad stalwarts throughout—Martin Carthy and Mike Waterson in the singing, Bert Jansch in the supple guitar work—but Flynn is no retro iconoclast, and his biting social commentary owes more to Billy Bragg than Billy Billington. The Sussex Wit, Flynn’s backing band, unleashes a frenzied Pogues approximation behind him. Alarum (a Shakespearian term for general mayhem) is a fitting title for an impressive debut. —Andy Whitman

king-khan-shrines-supreme.jpg28. King Khan and the Shrines: The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines
It’s difficult to pinpoint the undeniable charm of The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines. The hour-long album, a compendium of 16 highlights from King Khan and the Shrines’ discography, is full of upbeat garage-rock jams, from the groovy “Sweet Touch” to the swinging “Outta Harms Way.” Toronto-born Arish Khan, a confident, swaggering frontman, belts out each song like a bar-band hero working overtime. He’s at his best when he’s confidently driving the Shrines, a large crew supplemented by horn players and a cheerleader(!),as they run through the triumphant ’60s-era soul of “Live Fast Die Strong” and devise lowdown themes like “Destroyer” and “I Wanna Be a Girl.” On The Supreme Genius of…, King Khan seems to enjoy playing a rock ’n’ roll cad. —Mosi Reeves

gt-feed.jpg27. Girl Talk: Feed the Animals
After the profile-raising success of his last album, Night Ripper, mash-up wizard Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) continued weaving intricate tapestries from uncleared samples of mainstream pop, rock and rap, making him seem either incredibly ballsy or kind of nuts. His second musical highlight reel is dense with rib-nudging gags and indelible moments: Gillis imagines a world where Avril Lavigne rubs shoulders with Jay-Z; The Band with Yung Joc; The Jackson 5 with the Beastie Boys—in other words, he doesn’t imagine anything, because this multivalent stew is precisely the world in which we live. Gillis simply digested it into a crunky, continuous mix. There are no contradictions here; it’s just like scanning across several radio stations simultaneously, while everything magically synchs up. The real fun of Feed the Animals is the act of recognition, so I won’t say much more, except this—Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” over the riff from Metallica’s “One?” Damn! —Brian Howe

frisell-history.jpgBill Frisell: History, Mystery
One of the greatest jazz shows I’ve ever seen was Frisell’s concert at Washington’s Lisner Auditorium in November, 2006. Flanked by a trumpet/sax quartet on one side and a string trio on the other, sitting by an array of electric pedals, the guitarist was finally able to combine the various currents in his music: the straight-ahead post-bop, the Americana pastoralism, the chamber-jazz and the experimental electronica into one unified whole. Several songs from that evening and that tour were released as History, Mystery, persuasive evidence that Frisell has emerged as a major figure in jazz history. While others insist that jazz has to be one thing, Frisell proves that it can be many things—and here he proves those many things can happily coexist. —Geoffrey Himes

mates-rearrange.jpg26. Mates of State: Re-Arrange Us
We all know That Couple: professionally accomplished, interpersonally fluid, slaloming between challenges as though doing nothing more demanding than strolling down senior hall from Trig to AP English (yawn). Then the kids came, and That Couple pulled off parenthood with aplomb as well, their rug monkeys demonstrating enviable manners and scarily perfect genetics. It’s enough to make most mere mortals throw up their hands in frustration. Mates of State’s husband-and-wife team, keyboardist Kori Gardner and drummer Jason Hammel sing in close harmonies. They are indie-rock’s That Couple, and Re-Arrange Us is their fifth attempt to perfect the sunny-day real estate they’ve claimed as their terra firma. It’s a record about life’s small domestic joys, sung with enough gusto and bug-eyed wonder to make you question how in the world you’ve overlooked such unappreciated gems as household color schemes (the rolling cadences of “Get Better”), patterns in the paint (“Now”), small talk in the bedroom hall (“My Only Offer”) and red colonial houses on snow-white streets (pretty much the rest of the album). Mates of State may have begun a decade prior as something of a curiosity—plainsfolk from Lawrence, Kan., singing idiosyncratic love songs with Hammond organs where the guitars should’ve been—but they evolved into something far greater: pure pop for adults who haven’t quite grasped that they’re adults yet. The rhythms still shift unpredictably, often throwing down from third to fifth gear within a single track (“You Are Free” starts out bossa nova, then swiftly graduates to bottom-heavy swing at the coda)—but they’ve become easier on the ears. Think of Re-Arrange Us as the antidote to Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights: an album about the undying perpetuity of love. —Corey DuBrowa

lil-wayne-iii.jpg25. Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III
Without a doubt, 2008 hip-hop belonged to Dwayne Carter. After giving away countless songs for free leading up to the release of Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne proved that his saturation plan was effective, selling a million copies in a week. Fitting, as it felt like the album’s “A Milli” found that many freestyle versions from Wayne’s peers as well. “I don’t rap, I sell movies,” he spits on “Playing with Fire.” But if Lil Wayne was a movie, he’d be Richard Pryor’s Live at the Sunset Strip. Unlike Jay-Z’s recent American Gangster, he doesn’t portray a character whose adventures add up to a plot full of triumph and tragedy. Instead, Weezy freestyles about life like a smoked-out dude on the corner, and all sorts of crazy opinions tumble out of his mouth. He ridicules the Rev. Al Sharpton on “Dontgetit,” and says, “You’re just another Don King with a perm.” He claims to be a Martian on “Phone Home,” and on “Tie My Hands” he riffs on Hurricane Katrina, “I lost everything, but I ain’t the only one / First came the hurricane, then the morning sun.” Tha Carter III hearkens to when rap meant rapp: Isaac Hayes talking for days about some girl he broke with, or Bobby Womack signifying while strumming a blues guitar. It’s a testament to Lil Wayne’s imaginative use of words that he’s grown so popular on the strength of what are essentially soliloquies. Most of the songs don’t even feature a topic, just a beat and a perfunctory chorus to tie it together. Meanwhile, the production adds to the dank, Southern vibe. Betty Wright sings the chorus on “Playing with Fire,” Kanye West loops a crying soul vocal for “Let the Beat Build,” and Nina Simone’s rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” girds “Dontgetit.” Tha Carter III sounds wild and loose, a testament to Lil Wayne’s inimitable, iconic voice. —Mosi Reeves

hot-chip-dark.jpg24. Hot Chip: Made in the Dark
Hot Chip’s fusion of dancey sounds (rave, house and two-step garage) with more rock-rooted sounds (funk, indie-pop and soul) lies at the end of a long evolutionary chain, where rock and electronic music first battled for supremacy, then gradually fused together, their previously intractable ideological divisions blurring and dissolving. The band’s story summarizes rock’s gradual embrace of electronic drums and samples; a story about a band that loves molten beats and fey vocals in equal measure, tentatively moving out of the cloistered bedroom and onto the dance floor (without, in reality, leaving the bedroom—i.e., the home studio where Hot Chip recorded Made in the Dark). The band’s third album was happily unsurprising, adding new depths of energy, color and confidence to Hot Chip’s extant sound. I was the band’s most rock-centric record, and also the band’s most effortlessly propulsive. Its glitchy grooves now cascade, rarely tangling themselves as they once did. Tripping funk reappears on “Hold On,” but Hot Chip has fully embraced the rowdier sounds inherent in its electronic tools. But Hot Chip didn’t neglect its soulful meditations here. On Made in the Dark, Hot Chip stopped trying so hard to integrate the dance and bedroom sounds it loves, instead segregating them to eliminate the compromises of the first two albums. —Brian Howe

tallest-man-shallow.jpg23. The Tallest Man on Earth, Shallow Grave
Kristian Matsson is not even close to being the tallest man on earth nor is he a mid-20th century hero. But the Swedish singer/songwriter’s debut album as The Tallest Man on Earth is the stuff of folk legends. On Shallow Grave Matsson’s wavering, sometimes yodeling, voice is joined by an acoustic guitar and not much else. There isn’t a need for an abundance of instruments and production in these intimate recordings though—the intricate guitar picking that embellishes some of the tracks and the lyrical stories have their own gravitational pull. On “This Wind” the phrasing shifts the time-space feel of the music: “You said, ‘Damn be this wind it’s still movin’ on in to the bones and the bed of my soul.’” As the album’s title suggests, death permeates the record. On “The Gardener,” it appears literally as the death of the speaker’s competitors—he is a gardener because of the graves he’s dug: “So now he’s buried by the daisies, so I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe,” Mattson sings. The hesitancy in Mattson’s vocals and vulnerability of lyrics like, “When we’re covered by the thunder we’d become just one and feel the lightning shard,” from “The Sparrow and the Medicine” invite the listeners into the intimate space of the record. —Anna Haas

okkervil-stand.jpg22. Okkervil River: The Stand Ins
The cover of Okkervil River’s 2007 album The Stage Names featured a hand waving outstretched toward an embroidered, sunburst sky, basking in the glow of celebrity exposure. But the album periscoped into the masks and corroded identities of fame’s situation from its post-cinematic preamble to its tailpiece chantey for poet John Berryman. The Stand Ins’ cover dives beneath, revealing the skull-headed hand-owner who (as real film-industry stand ins do) supports the performance without getting to see the lights himself. This thorny relationship is conceptualized, schematized, scrutinized and historicized on The Stand Ins through characters like glam-rocker Jobriath and a now-famous actresses’ pining ex-boyfriend. And Okkervil River itself performs here with an organic ease that’s dramatic without reaching for histrionics, continuing to tattoo its rough folkish flesh with Motown horns (“Starry Stairs”), power-pop overdrive (“Pop Lie”) and chugging New Wave bass (“Lost Coastlines”). The inclusion of three orchestral interludes, along with singer Will Sheff’s easing off the words-per-measure count a bit, lend some welcome breathing room to the set. “Lost Coastlines,” the album’s first proper song, sets its sights on the band’s own struggles. And after Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg wail together “we have lost our way/ but nobody`s gonna say it outright,” the track hits, retracts and then comes back twice as strong—an elegy to what’s always being lost, even as an achievement like The Stand Ins is only beginning. —Henry Freedland

mgmt-oracular.jpg21. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser’s Dave Fridmann-produced debut album as MGMT is best-known for its murderer’s row of airwave-dominating electro-pop smashes: “Time to Pretend”, “Electric Feel” and “Kids” have endured as millennial anthems, widely embraced by listeners who either connected with the band’s cynical, self-aware psychedelia or were having too much fun on the dance floor to pick up on all the existential despair. There’s much more to Oracular Spectacular than its singles, of course—the jangling and jaded “Weekend Wars,” the droning mysticism of “4th Dimensional Transition,” the piano-pounding menace that is “The Handshake”—but the greatest trick MGMT ever pulled was smuggling the opening salvo of their artistic mission statement into those breakout hits: “This is our decision to live fast and die young/ We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun/ Yeah it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do?/ Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?” They’ve been pretending ever since. —Scott Russell

gnarls-odd.jpg20. Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple
In considering the follow-up album from a group with a breakout debut, there is often that natural-but-nagging concern that the first record was a fluke. Gnarls Barkley’s sophomore release, The Odd Couple, cemented Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green’s collaborative voice. Their re-invention of modern soul came across loud, funky and clear, picking up right where they left off. St. Elsewhere (2006) introduced us to Gnarls’ unique pairing of Cee Lo’s soulful, penetrating lyrical style and Danger’s psychedelic sound-forging wizardry. The Odd Couple echoes that format, transporting the listener to a refreshing universe where the old school meets the computer age, where Al Green intermingles with Portishead. But this description is unfair, as Gnarls is completely unique, and The Odd Couple only tightens that singular sound. Danger showcases his love of vast musical styles, layering in everything from trippy choral arrangements, melancholy pop and spaghetti westerns while Cee-Lo continues to explore lyrical questions of loneliness and mortality, punctuating them with his incredible voice. —Matt Price

eddy-primary.jpg19. Eddy Current Suppression Ring: Primary Colours (2008)
Australia has been stomping the rest of the world at rock ’n’ roll for over a decade now, and Eddy Current Suppression Ring are a big reason why. This current wave of antipodean rock owes a lot to three friends who started informally jamming at the record pressing plant they all worked at 15 years ago. They named themselves after an obscure piece of technology that probably keeps some kind of large machine from blowing up and immediately started making some of the most crucially frills-free rock records of the last decade or so. Primary Colours, their second album, is their best, a hook-filled blast of no-nonsense rock that lumbers with a beautiful and intentional gracelessness that still leaves room for surprising nuance. It reveals so much of modern day “garage rock” for the pretentious schtick and fashion-first playacting that it is. —Garrett Martin

charlie-darwin.jpg18. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (2008)
Charles Darwin hasn’t taken this much abuse since the days of William Jennings Bryan. But while creationists fight the theory of evolution in schools, this Rhode Island band attacks the societal applications of “survival of the fittest.” “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin,” Ben Knox Miller laments in a lovely, layered falsetto, “The lords of war just profit from decay.” If The Low Anthem’s argument is for community and collaboration, Exhibit A is the gorgeous chamber folk this trio of multi-instrumentalists crafted on its third album. Following the path cleared by Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, The Low Anthem is at its best composing songs fit for a hipster orchestra, with Knox’s delicate vocals backed by an assortment of quirky instrumentation. After two tracks of quiet intimacy, the band erupts into a pair of foot-stompers, grounding an album that otherwise might get blown away by the slightest breeze. Jack Kerouac-by-way-of-Tom Waits tune “The Horizon is a Beltway” and the roadhouse rumpus “Home I’ll Never Be” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Avett Brothers’ record, and they balance the quieter tracks. Whether soft or loud, these 12 songs are exquisite. —Josh Jackson

m83-sat-youth.jpg17. M83: Saturdays = Youth
Frequently making music to test your speakers with, M83 has always been keen on orchestrated drama. With guitars gliding across translucent synth lines, the songs on Saturdays = Youth are big statements rendered in cold neon. The dazzling thing about M83 maestro Anthony Gonzalez’s serene, nostalgic and expansive fifth effort is his uncanny success at recapturing the heart-leaping whirl of his generation’s ’80s touchstones. An admitted John Hughes tribute, “Graveyard Girl” collides Ride and the Cocteau Twins in an Encino arcade while “We Own the Sky” is heady digital shoegaze for a fog-filled ice bar. The clear standout, though, is “Kim & Jessie,” which convincingly recaptures the magic gloss of Tears for Fears with a propulsive undercurrent and an elegant use of space. The best song on the album, it’s the key destination in a stunning journey. —Jeff Leven

she-him-1.jpg16. She & Him – Volume One
Five years after Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf stumbled in on Zooey Deschanel’s Jovie singing a steamy rendition of the classic Christmas duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Deschanel paired her smoky voice with that of alt-folk artist M. Ward for the first time as She & Him. The duo’s dreamy, dusty arrangements on their debut Volume One are timeless, and two years later they released the second volume of equally enjoyable standards, followed by a Volume 3 in 2013 and a few lovely Christmas albums. Songs like the vintage-pop ditty “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” and the Sinatra-esque “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” felt like instant classics, and 10 years later they’re still beloved by serious folk fans and Deschanel’s devoted following alike. Together, Ward and Deschanel know how to make soothing mid-century pop without sounding antiquated in the least. —Ellen Johnson

lykke-li-youth.jpg15. Lykke Li, Youth Novels
Listening to Lykke Li’s debut record Youth Novels is listening to a young artist still developing her sound with no preconceived defined edges. The album incorporates spoken word and opens with Li telling her audience in “Melodies & Desires” to “Follow these instructions, do exactly as I do,” and that “love is the melody now sing it with me.” The short “This Trumpet in My Head” is akin to an interlude track with Li’s hushed recitation tying back to spoken-word styling. From the open, percussion-centered “Let It Fall” and “Little Bit” to the straining baby voice on “Time Flies” and the stronger, longing vocals on “Tonight,” Lykke Li refuses to be locked into one sound. Li released her latest album so sad so sexy this year, leaning further into the hip-hop rhythms she’s explored before—rapper Aminé even lends his voice to the track “two nights.” —Anna Haas

tvotr-science.jpg14. TV On The Radio – Dear Science
The year 2008 may have been fraught with war, economic recession, poor housing markets and all kinds of bad news, but TV on the Radio sounded more party-ready than ever. With a few notable exceptions scattered across its catalog, the innovative Brooklyn quintet has most often opted for the meditative over the motivational, the somber over the sensational. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. TVotR is also frequently gorgeous, triumphant and astounding; Before Dear Science, you just usually didn’t want to dance to its music. While the band had wowed with slow(er) jams, it’s the up-tempo bangers and funky grooves on Dear Science that truly resonate. The band’s third full-length album opens with “Halfway Home,” which is interesting if only because the song is closing-credits epic. Silver-throated frontman Tunde Adebimpe kicks things off with buh-buh-bah-bah-bums before switching to mellifluous verses joined by claps, walls of shoegaze guitars and various percussion, to name just a few of the accompaniments. Layering is the name of the game here. It’s a style TVotR has been brandishing for years, and the band is only getting better at it. Elsewhere, “Dancing Choose” (say that out loud if you don’t catch the title’s wordplay) comes rushing out of the gate, again led by Adebimpe, who—like some madcap preacher with eyes rolling back into his head—chants, “He’s a what? He’s a what? He’s a newspaper man. And he gets his best ideas from a newspaper stand.” Constantly cranked to 11, the song’s lyrics can be interpreted as political discontent, only adding to its vitriol. No one really sings or writes lyrics quite like Adebimpe, and even his band’s lesser songs sound better when you strip away the music and read his words by themselves. —Austin L. Ray

bh-devotion.jpg13. Beach House: Devotion
Beach House’s otherworldly music is a sly pickpocket of reveries from that delicate time between when your head hits the pillow and you hazily submit to slumber. Although “dream pop” sounds like would what happen if Rainbow Brite got the hankering to rock, it nevertheless became the elected label for the band’s muted sound. While the duo of vocalist/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Scally wrote their self-titled debut in Baltimore and garnered ill-fitting comparisons to more docile bands such as Slowdive and Galaxie 500, their sophomore record, Devotion, is a child from a different climate. Penned during tours with the likes of the Clientele and Grizzly Bear, the cozy music crawls with MicroKorg synth chords, slide guitars and Legrand’s breathy alto. Its dreamy, reverb-soaked songs are the perfect soundtrack for wintertime solitude. —Kasia Galazka

sigur-med.jpg12. Sigur Rós – Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
Prior to 2008, Sigur Rós had pretty exclusively given sonic expression to the wintry fjords and barren interiors of Iceland—the cold, somber but strangely beautiful landscapes most of us have only seen in pictures. But Med sud is a summer record, full of the joy and playfulness of a warm weekend roadtrip. A little sunshine does the band well. Some of the most exhilarating peaks of the album (whose title translates from Iceland to “With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly”) are found in its hushed sonic valleys, especially the anguished opening strains of “Festival.” The first half of the song scrapes away all sonic clutter, featuring a minimalist aria of keyboard swells and lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s falsetto soaring beyond heaven to an even more blissful plateau. On album opener “Gobbledigook,” though, the drumbeat propeled the band to its most joyful rhythmic heights, a pulsating abandon unlike anything they’d released to date. —Josh Jackson

kanye-808s.jpg11. Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreak
808s and Heartbreak is a masterpiece in simplicity and huge emotions, making every sound and shift impactful. It’s Kanye at his most vulnerable and destroyed, trying to find some solace after a relationship has ended. The pinnacle of this comes in “Love Lockdown,” 808s and Heartbreak’s biggest single that is iconic of the themes and style of the album. With “Love Lockdown,” it’s all about how these little shifts occur and come together. There’s the basic TR-808 drum machine heartbreak underneath, as Kanye’s distorted voice and basic piano piece go through the first verse before gigantic drums blast in, leading to a conclusion full of animalistic sounds and power. On “Street Lights,” you can almost hear the next wave of hip-hop artists getting inspired for their own work. The gorgeous repetition and hazy sounds are reminiscent of Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, and Drake, especially considering the introspective tone of the album. —Ross Bonaime

Veckatimest.jpg10. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (2009)
After spending 2008 opening for Radiohead and appearing on late-night TV shows, Grizzly Bear was suddenly ubiquitous—even without a new album to promote. But while they were on stage they perfected the material that would comprise their third full-length release, and Veckatimest sounds like the final product of a meticulous and exacting evolutionary process—one that adds depth and color to their swooning chamber pop arrangements, crispness to their intricate rhythms and intensity to their careful performances. Their group mind pulsating in unison, the scrappy quartet are wistfully plaintive on the gorgeously swaying “Two Weeks,” pristinely longing on the spectral “Dory” and haunting on the darkly lunging “I Live With You.” But underneath the orchestral flourishes and children’s choirs, beneath even the frequent textural shifts and melodic detours, are a set of melodies that find novel ways to cut straight to the listener every time. —Matt Fink

no-age-nouns.jpg9. No Age: Nouns
There’s a subtle poetry to No Age’s very unsubtle pounce. Maybe it’s a time and space thing. The L.A. blast-punk duo has always been known for their relentless dedication to the underground circuit; if there’s a co-op floorspace in your city, that’s where you were most likely to find them. The second album, Nouns, jingles like a tribute to wide eyes and full hearts. With lo-fi charm with their psychedelic dreams of grandeur, it delivers directly, and passionately, to its disciples. No Age is a band loved enough by the California faithful that their name is still proudly enshrined on top of The Smell, straight-edge, all-ages, and deeply adored DIY icon where their legend begins. Nouns is built for that wonderfully disaffected youth, those brave enough to explore the bare, fringe outskirts of the music industry—vegan, solar-powered, and absolutely pumped with vagabond soul. —Luke Winkie

jm-just.jpg8. James McMurtry: Just Us Kids
James McMurtry delivered one of the year’s best albums (and best live shows too) not because his political songs were so scathing (though “Cheney’s Toy” is viciously funny), but because his character portraits were so sharply drawn. His characters—kids in a parking lot, drinkers during a hurricane, a heartbroken veterinarian, an angry daughter, a country drummer—are caught in a pattern of trying their best and fucking up. Their contradictions—our contradictions—are reflected in the music that surges forward on twitchy rhythms and loud guitars but never seems to find a harmonic resolution. McMurtry is able to sustain that tension without releasing it for stanza after stanza until he has conjured up his characters and their surroundings in astonishing detail. —Geoffrey Himes

marling-speak.jpg7. Laura Marling: Alas, I Cannot Swim
Laura Marling once claimed she had no idea what she was doing until six months after she signed her deal with Virgin. But this apparent ignorance still resulted in a debut album full of folk-pop bliss. Produced by Noah and the Whale frontman and then-boyfriend Charlie Fink, Alas, I Cannot Swim was sonically a simple affair with finger-picking acoustics, sparse percussion and melancholic strings. But this rootsy, timeless approach proved to be the perfect foil for then 17-year-old Marling’s quietly affecting tones and poetic observations on adolescent romance. Coincidentally Alas was released just a week after another much bigger-selling lovelorn teenage debut, Adele’s 19. But with lines as cynical as “Lover please do not fall to your knees/ it’s not like I believe in everlasting love” and tracks based on the poetry of Philip Larkin (“Tap at My Window”), Marling’s introductory effort was far more beguiling. —Jon O’Brien

hs-stay-pos.jpg6. The Hold Steady: Stay Positive
Craig Finn has always been one of the most self-aware frontmen in rock ’n’ roll. “Our songs are sing-along songs,” he declares on Stay Positive’s opener “Constructive Summer,” and a couple verses later he shows instead of tells. “Me and my friends are like,” begins the line, before Finn is joined by backing vocals for “double whiskey, coke, no ice.” It’s a moment that begs for a full room’s worth of shouting as uniting as “LEONARD BERNSTEIN!” during that R.E.M. song about the end of the world. Finn intuitively knows this, tossing off lines just like it throughout Stay Positive. Finn and his Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis crew build upon the same monstrous guitar riffs, lyrical witticisms and Springsteeny rock chug they’ve purveyed since day one, upping the stakes with bigger choruses, even more self-referential/clever lyrical nuggets, and an everyman aesthetic grew the band’s devoted fanbase. If you like raising beers, pumping fists and yelling out choice phrases, then you’ll find Stay Positive nearly flawless. As Finn puts it, “It’s a pretty good feelin’/ Yeah, it feels pretty good.” —Austin L. Ray

santigold.jpg5. Santigold: Santigold
Santigold made a quiet comeback this year with her mixtape of soulful dance pop, I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions, which is a fitting commemoration of her debut album’s 10-year anniversary. In 2008, the multifaceted singer (then Santogold) burst onto a variety of scenes: She has never restrained herself to one sound or genre, blending electronic dance, dub, punk and sometimes hip hop on her debut to make one uproariously funky milkshake. Santigold is loud and fun, an exploration of sonic explosions (On “Creator,” Santigold is right on the money when she sings “Tell me no, I say yes, I was chosen/ And I will deliver the explosion”). The album’s anchor is pop’s rattling tribute to indie rock, “You’ll Find A Way,” a driving, upbeat tune revealing surprises around every corner. Santigold’s Santigold is music for the blissfully indecisive—she never fully commits to one sound, and that’s what keeps us coming back to the album even 10 years later. —Ellen Johnson

fr-midnight.jpg4. Frightened Rabbit: Midnight Organ Fight
After demonstrating their rough-around-the-edges charm with a frantic 2007 debut, Frightened Rabbit was just about the last band you would have expected to aspire to arena-sized rock anthems. That they pulled it off while retaining their homespun aesthetic is remarkable, as Midnight Organ Fight startles with its heartfelt directness and sing-along immediacy. The album is singularly focused yet emotionally visceral, refining and sharpening the band’s rousing sprawl. The late vocalist/guitarist Scott Hutchison wrote songs that tread the fine line between overwrought emoting and startling self-revelation, his wounded Scottish yelp perfectly suited for the unflinching accounts of joyless sex and religious apostasy. The band used a straightforward palette of dexterous drumming, reverb-heavy electric guitar and homey acoustics. But, on their sophomore release, Frightened Rabbit favored major-key immediacy over melancholy inhibition. It’s a familiar template, but few bands do so well making songs built for arenas sound like they also belong in bedrooms. —Matt Fink

vampire-weekend-st.jpg3. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
When a record has not only no bad songs but no bad moments, when basslines bounce like rubber, when drums do more than keep time—when they roll and tumble in hypnotic patterns—and when vocals glide between the mannered crooning of an over-privileged indie boy and the spastic yelping of a shocked dog, well, what are we supposed to do? Not love it? Vampire Weekend is Anglo-Afro fusion on par with Graceland. It sounds like David Byrne fronting Orchestra Baobab. It sounds like The Strokes with a sense of humor. It sounds like indie rock simultaneously gentrifying and miscegenating—despite rumors to the contrary, the neighborhood’s getting better, more interesting and more colorful. These days, it ain’t just surly white dudes playing shitty guitar for other surly white dudes. Indeed, this cosmopolitan quartet has streamlined ska, post-punk, chamber music and Afropop into a glorious ultramodern groove. —Nick Marino

ff-fleet.jpg2. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes constantly calls to mind images of wintry isolation and loneliness: Robin Pecknold seems to be a lonely traveler going through each of the songs’ worlds, focused more on nature and the introspection of his own existence that the boundless world around him causes him to contemplate than any interpersonal relationships he might have. What makes the band’s debut such a great record is that it’s a meditative look at nature and Pecknold’s relationship to it, but songs like “White Winter Hymnal” explore how that relationship actually effects his interactions with those around him. He seems obviously lost in the woods, on the outside of the “pack” that he follows; it’s a terrific examination of the manifestations that loneliness might take when projected into society at large. —Jeff Pearson

for-emma.jpg1. Bon Iver, For Emma Forever Ago
Not since a creek drank a cradle in 2002 had anyone so quietly overtaken the indie-music community as Justin Vernon did in 2008 with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, when Jagjaguwar gave the album a wide release after Vernon pressed 500 copies himself the year before. This lonesome post-break-up album—with its mythic origin story in a remote Wisconsin cabin—is drenched in the kind of melancholy that feels a lot like joy, and sounds just as vivd. Rather than wallowing in loss, Vernon’s otherworldly falsetto and warm acoustic guitar provide a hopeful contrast to impressionistic lyrics like “Saw death on a sunny snow.” Vernon’s real trick was imbuing such hushed music with so much feeling and such seemingly nonsensical lyrics with such specific meaning to individual listeners. It was less like the end of a relationship and more like the promise of a new beginning. —Josh Jackson

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