Music: The best (and worst) of 2008

 A IS FOR AGREEMENT Spanish producer El Guincho's spacy tribal grooves pleased crowds (and critics) in 2008

A IS FOR AGREEMENT Spanish producer El Guincho's spacy tribal grooves pleased crowds (and critics) in 2008 Photograph: Oliver Faig


Jay Ruttenberg, Music writer

1. Randy Newman Harps and Angels (Nonesuch). The master songwriter unveils a casually ambitious record that flaunts contemporary America in all its shame and glory, pathos and humor. Any dope could have scored a hit with the ballads—except, of course, Randy Newman. (Download now)

2. Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend (XL). There is a simplicity to this band’s complexity, and vice versa. The youngsters’ rapid rise from the indie ghetto is a no-brainer. (Download now)

3. Raphael Saadiq The Way I See It (Columbia). Who said only British Jewesses could spice up old-time soul? (Download now)

4. Larkin Grimm Parplar (Young God). Trippy folk gains an eccentric new voice, creeping in from the margins. (Download now)

5. Ne-Yo Year of the Gentleman (Def Jam). A luminary of R&B’s back rooms peeks out from behind the curtain on a startlingly professional solo album; hits ooze from his mouth like saliva. (Download now)

6. Hercules and Love Affair Hercules and Love Affair (DFA). Finally, indie-rockers of the ’00s get a disco queen to call their own: Antony Hegarty. (Download now)

7. Jeffrey Lewis 12 Crass Songs (Rough Trade). Alternately ignored and maligned by critics, Lewis’s covers album unravels and reconstructs a bunch of old punk songs left for dead. (Download now)

8. The Magnetic Fields Distortion (Nonesuch). Apparently, it takes more than feedback to drown out Stephin Merritt’s old-fashioned pop wit. (Download now)

9. Portishead Third (Mercury/Island). The trip-hop forerunners wake from a decadelong slumber, feeling spooky. (Download now)

10. El Guincho Alegranza (XL). A high-octane Spanish producer and singer throws an after-party to M.I.A.’s global ball. (Download now)

Colin St. John, Music writer

1. The Walkmen You & Me (Gigantic). It wouldn’t have been smart to bet the farm on these guys, but the cascading, complex rhythms surrounding Hamilton Leithauser’s raw, emotive vocals lifted the Brooklyn band to the top of the heap. (Download now)

2. El Guincho Alegranza (XL).Pablo Daz-Reixa flipped the switches on his Roland SP-404 to illuminate a pastiche of tribal beats, Iberian chants and nightclub hooks. (Download now)

3. The Black Keys Attack & Release (Nonesuch). Balls-out blues-rock from Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney (not to mention producer Danger Mouse) grabbed you by the throat: a ton of attack, not much release. (Download now)

4. Love Is All A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night (What’s Your Rupture?). The most fun your ears could have this year came courtesy of Josephine Olausson’s creaky, Bjrkian howl and her Swedish band’s loose, rambunctious progressions. (Download now)

5. Portishead Third (Mercury/Island). The ethereal, crisp voice of Beth Gibbons floated above Geoff Barrow’s blistering beats. Song of the year: “The Rip.” (Download now)

6. Deerhunter Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (Kranky/4AD). Bradford Cox and his crew assembled an accessible collection of odd sounds, coupled with the best bonus disc in recent memory. (Download now)

7. Death Vessel Nothing Is Precious Enough for Us (Sub Pop). Joel Thibodeau is a thoroughly weird yet competent songwriter, but this one made its mark on the strength of his castrato-like voice. (Download now)

8. Bonnie “Prince” Billy Lie Down in the Light (Drag City). Will Oldham gets back to grass roots by issuing another collection of gorgeous, sparse country songs with a message. (Download now)

9. T.I. Paper Trail (Atlantic). The new King crafted the pop-rap record of the year on the shoulders of bombastic beats, potent guest spots and utterly enjoyable (if not demonstrably intelligent) lyrics. (Download now)

10. No Age Nouns (Sub Pop). Punk rock lived on in the rock-’em-sock-’em, fuzzed-out thrash of Randy Randall and Dean Spunt. (Download now)

Hank Shteamer, Music associate editor

1. Graham Smith & KGW Yes Boss (via Raw pain ricocheted off ultraliterate quirk on this sprawling double album from a veteran bedroom-popster.

2. Cynic Traced in Air (Season of Mist). A revered cult outfit returned to prove that jazz-metal fusion was much more than a novel tangent. (Download now)

3. Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue (Caribou/Epic/Legacy). Brian’s misfit younger bro viewed sun, surf and sand through an eerie, heartsick lens on this CD debut of a 1977 classic. (Download now)

4. Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy (Geffen). A riotous parade of WTF moments, Axl’s comeback also boasted enough gripping hooks to shush haters. (Download now)

5. Krallice Krallice (Profound Lore). No record this year featured more rapturous guitarwork than this grimly visionary debut from a local black-metal supergroup. (Download now)

6. Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton Dreams Come True (Joyous Shout). Posthumous records tend to be footnotes, but this never-before-issued 1993 session stood as a highlight of warmly eccentric pianist Andrew Hill’s five-decade career. (Download now)

7. Metallica Death Magnetic (Warner Bros.). The metal titans convincingly reconciled ...And Justice for All’s fret-busting tech-thrash with the Black Album’s rousing catchiness. (Download now)

8. Josh Fix Free at Last (1650 Entertainment). This Bay Area Renaissance man—imagine a post-Radiohead Elton John—obliterated slacker chic with a virtuosically glossy piano-pop opus. (Download now)

9. Randy Newman Harps and Angels (Nonesuch). The sly showman’s latest drew you in with caustic politics and kept you riveted with plainspoken tenderness. (Download now)

10. Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend (XL). If only every year’s No. 1 buzz record were as charming and wholesome as this tropical-pop confection. (Download now)

Raphael Saadiq
FAITH OF OUR FATHERS Raphael Saadiq tapped into vintage soul sounds on one of the year's best CDS.

Photograph: Shannon Taggart

Steve Smith, Music editor

1. Nas Untitled (Def Jam/Columbia). Not Illmatic II. Not as unfettered as The Nigger Tape. Still, here’s the sound and spirit of the year that brought Obama to the White House. (Download now)

2. Lil Wayne Tha Carter III (Cash Money/Universal). And the flip side—unapologetically commercial, defiantly ubiquitous and convinced he’s the best in the business. This year he was right. (Download now)

3. Kanye West 808s & Heartbreak (Def Jam). This icy slice of alienation, by an auteur who couldn’t handle not being in complete control of his life, was the year’s most misunderstood triumph. (Download now)

4. T.I. Paper Trail (Atlantic). The death of a friend and the threat of a prison stretch made this ATL rapper take stock, but his cocky side shines through in the radio hits. (Download now)

5. Ne-Yo Year of the Gentleman (Def Jam). The man who penned hits for Beyonc and Rihanna dropped the sunniest R&B disc since the King of Pop forgot how. (Download now)

6. Little Jackie The Stoop (S-Curve). One of the year’s two best old-school soul-mining discs fit Imani Coppola’s sharp tongue into Adam Pallin’s smooth grooves... (Download now)

7. Raphael Saadiq The Way I See It (Columbia). ...while the other found this dazzling young singer brazenly copping moves from vintage icons like Smokey and Marvin. (Download now)

8. El Guincho Alegranza (XL). Spanish producer-performer Pablo Daz-Reixa updated the Os Mutantes sound for the Panda Bear generation. (Download now)

9. Hercules and Love Affair Hercules and Love Affair (DFA). No dance record—no record period—evoked the disco era’s mix of joy, pain, sweat and sex better than the one by Andrew Butler, Antony & Co. (Download now)

10. Miles from India Various artists (Times Square). What might have been an exercise in colonialism instead used Miles Davis’s canon to prove jazz remains a uniquely pluralistic culture. (Download now)


Elisabeth Vincentelli, Arts & Entertainment editor

1. Gabriella Cilmi “Sweet About Me” (Island; U.K.). Production team Xenomania crafted a typically ace tune for this 17-year-old Aussie, and her unassumingly sexy delivery brought it all home. (Download now)

2. Miley Cyrus “Fly on the Wall” (Hollywood). Make no mistake: Miley is here to stay. (Download now)

3. Estelle featuring Kanye West “American Boy” (Atlantic). Estelle, Kanye and producer took nonchalance to a whole new level. (Download now)

4. Mylne Farmer “Paradis Inanim” (Polydor; France). The ruling queen of goth disco continued to lord it over her puny admirers.

5. Girls Aloud “Miss You Bow Wow” (Polydor; U.K.). Xenomania delivered yet another over-the-top pop nugget for the world’s best girl group. Still no American releases for Girls Aloud: scandal!

6. Kleerup featuring Titiyo “Longing for Lullabies” (EMI; Sweden). Sweden, melancholy so becomes you...

7. Little Jackie “LOL” (S-Curve). Imani Coppola’s lyrics are so funny that it took a few listens to realize the rhythm section is killer. (Download now)

8. Rihanna “Disturbia” (Def Jam). If Rihanna moved better, she’d truly overtake Beyonc—her hits certainly kill Miss B’s. (Download now)

9. She & Him “Sentimental Heart” (Merge). Romance didn’t need a thing but Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward. (Download now)

10. Sugababes “Every Heart Broken” (Island; U.K.). If ELO wrote a musical episode for Law & Order, it’d sound just like this nutty ballad from the world’s second-best girl group.


Jay Ruttenberg, Music writer

Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy (Geffen). What a wonderful 15 years it’s been not hearing this dreadlocked man shriek. Couldn’t Dame Axl have left the stage on a comparative masterpiece, The Spaghetti Incident? (Download now)

Colin St. John, Music writer

Kanye West 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella). It wasn’t a terrible record, but it could have been great if West hadn’t stepped on his own toes with ridiculous electronic overproduction. (Download now)

Hank Shteamer, Music associate editor

The Raconteurs Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man/Warner Bros.). Jack White’s side concern debuted strong with ’06’s lean Broken Boy Soldiers, but this follow-up drowned in campy gimmickry. (Download now)

Steve Smith, Music editor

Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy (Geffen). After long refusing to sell no whine before its time, Axl revealed how bare his cellar was. Next stop, Ernest and Julio Gallo pitchman? (Google it.) (Download now)

Elisabeth Vincentelli, Arts & Entertainment editor

The continued decline of American indie rock Navel-gazing, self-important, derivative, lacking in passion, wit and verve: Die, die! (And take Pitchfork with you.)

Report card

Record companies, continuing their agonizing death throes, made it nearly impossible for us to hear their biggest new releases this year—at least until they’d been safely leaked to the Interwebs. (Us, bitter? You bet!) A bunch of the perks journalists used to enjoy dried up in 2008—more importantly, so did a lot of the outlets. It would have been easy, too easy, to give in to despair. But then we stopped to think about the discs we did hear this year, not to mention the shows we caught, and we remembered what this job was really about. We might not have agreed on everything this year (Axl, Kanye—discuss!) but any year in which most of us could groove to a utopian Spanish producer, a melancholy neodisco combo or any number of retrosoul miners was a good year to have ears.