Musically speaking, 2008 was a year of highs and lows. For me personally, the latter outnumbered the former by far. I’m grateful for my two greatest discoveries of the year, Australian duo An Horse and Scottish troubadours Frightened Rabbit, but a slew of lackluster offerings from the likes of R.E.M., The Killers, and most egregiously, Shiny Toy Guns, made for a disappointing year overall. On top of those, the appeal of most of the albums that critics completely fawned over, from artists like Vampire Weekend, The Hold Steady and Fleet Foxes, just went right over my head. Last year, I had trouble narrowing down a field of several what I thought were excellent albums into a top 10. This year, my picks (for the most part) are the result of separating the less mediocre from the more. The first four albums are wonderful records that I truly believe are worthy of a top 10 mention in any year. But in a year with better musical offerings on the whole, I doubt the final six would even crack my top 20. It was difficult to place them in order because none of them particularly stood out to me. They’re all fine records, but I’m eagerly looking ahead to 2009 for a better musical buffet.
1. An Horse – “Not Really Scared” EP
I guess I’m cheating a bit here by allowing a five-song EP to qualify as an album, but these 18 minutes courtesy of a fledgling Australian duo was the best thing I heard in ’08 by far, and I’ve been obsessed with it since I first heard it back in May. I’ve already reserved a slot on my 2009 Top Ten for their full-length debut, which will be released in the U.S. in March.
Download: “Warm Hands”
2. Frightened Rabbit – “The Midnight Organ Fight”
A solid, no frills rock record from this Scottish band offered a welcome reprieve from the navel-gazing noise rock that seems to have usurped the indie landscape.
Download: “Fast Blood”
3. Ra Ra Riot – “The Rhumb Line”
This record took a while to grow on me, but I find that that’s often the case with my favorite albums. For all those Arcade Fire fans anxiously waiting out the band’s hiatus, here’s something to tide you over.
Download: “Ghost Under Rocks”
4. Uh Huh Her – “Common Reaction”
Harmonized airy vocals, catchy rhythms and loads upon loads of synthesizers kept this album in heavy rotation on my iPod all year long.
5. The Ting Tings – “We Started Nothing”
You may be wondering what set this duo’s album apart from other 2008 releases in the indie-dance-rock genre, and to be honest, I can’t really put my finger on it. I just know that it’s impossible to sit still for the vast majority of this album, and that’s good enough for me.
Download: “Shut Up and Let Me Go”
6. Ladytron – “Velocifero”
Exploring a darker, more industrial sound on their latest effort really paid off for this Liverpool foursome.
7. Gaslight Anthem – “The ’59 Sound”
Like Bruce Springsteen on speed, this punk band channels The Boss’s blue collar groaning and takes it up a notch.
Download: “Great Expectations”
8. Coldplay – “Viva La Vida (Or Death and All His Friends)”
I realize I’m putting a major chink in my credibility by including this in my top 10, but the juggernaut that is Coldplay can always be relied upon to follow the formula of what makes an anthemic rock song. And, say what you will about Chris Martin, the man knows how to write a ballad that cuts to the core.
Download: “Viva La Vida”
9. Horse Feathers – “House With No Home”
Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” made a lot of top 10 lists this year, but the underappreciated Horse Feathers elevates his acoustic, folksy shtick to the next level.
Download: “This Is What”
10. Kanye West – “808s & Heartbreak”
West continues to redefine his persona and hip-hop in general by showing his softer side. Armed with beats and a vocoder, West channels his grief after his mother’s death and a split with his fiancee into some of his strongest material to date.
Runners-up: The Raveonettes, “Lust Lust Lust”; The Airborne Toxic Event, “The Airborne Toxic Event”; Amanda Palmer, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?”; Girl Talk, “Feed the Animals”
Best Songs of 2008
1. MGMT – “Kids”
2. Chairlift – “Bruises”
3. Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake – “Four Minutes”
4. Rihanna – “Disturbia”
5. Katy Perry – “I Kissed a Girl”
6. Santogold – “L.E.S. Artistes”
7. T.I. feat. Rihanna – “Live Your Life”
8. Dragonette – “I Get Around”
9. Death Cab for Cutie – “Grapevine Fires”*
10. The Stills – “Being Here”
(*Technically not a single, but the standout track on what was otherwise a bland and disappointing major label debut from Ben Gibbard and company.)