Instead of ranking every single album, I've decided that the bottom 30 of the 50 are all equally good for the most part and there are a lot of albums not even mentioned here that will probably end up dominating my playlists in the coming months. The top 20 will be ranked, and will be posted later on, but here are some honorable mentions. Lots of my favorite artists are here, lots of the albums in this 30 I would consider outstanding, but didn't listen to enough, some I listened to a whole ton at the beginning of the year and they slowly faded. It's a nice mixture and was another good year in music.
Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet - Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet
(May 20) (RCA) (Myspace)
RIYL: Uncle Earl, Bela Fleck, Nu-Grass
You may remember my gushing about Uncle Earl and their banjo player Abigail Washburn last year. Well, while that album was my #4 (and still remains one of my favorite records of the decade), her other band the Sparrow Quartet released their first real album this year. It's more great banjo playing and singing by Abigail but she is joined by legendary banjo player Bela Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddle player Casey Driessen. Based on the resumes of these players, the album doesn't quite live up to its potential, but it's still an engaging listen. Mixing bluegrass and string bands with chinese traditionals and gospel and all executed with a glossy sheen. Accomplished musicians making music.
Arborea - Arborea
(Apil 28) (Fire Museum) (Myspace)
RIYL: Espers, Feathers, Marissa Nadler
Arborea's 2006 debut Wayfaring Summer was my #20 of 2006. On this, their self-titled new release (and the first with some actual promotion), the husband-wife duo of Buck and Shanti Curran continue their otherworldly folk music. With Buck providing almost all the instrumentation himself and Shanti singing over the top of all sorts of stringed instruments, the record is gentle, but also pretty dark. The album doesn't effect me as much as the debut, though I am glad Buck is allowed more singing time on this release. Great nighttime record.
Bar Kokhba Sextet - Lucifer: Book of Angels Vol. 10
(March 18) (Tzadik) (Myspace)
RIYL: John Zorn and most of his Tzadik disciples
Just barely missed the top 20 cut, I've already written and posted a link to this album about a month ago which has around 100 or so downloads, so people are paying attention. A truly masterful album that I didn't give enough time and perhaps the best in the entire Masada/Book of Angels series and one of the best Zorn related releases I've heard. It's jazz but it's klezmer influenced. It's easy on the ears, it's the perfect introduction and the musicianship is unrivaled.
Barry Adamson - Back To The Cat
(April 22) (Central Control) (Myspace)
RIYL: Nick Cave, Richard Hawley, Film Noir muisc
I'm not really sure how Barry Adamson had slipped under my radar for so many years, but around February this year I downloaded Moss Side Story on a whim and when this album came out, I gobbled it all up. Execution wise, this might be the most accomplished and thoroughly engrossing record on the entire list. A master of the craft. A blend of cheesy lounge-style vocals, amazingly creepy jazz music and great songwriting, this is definitely an album that will stick around for awhile.
Benoît Pioulard - Temper
(October 14) (Kranky) (Myspace)
RIYL: Nothing really. Male-fronted Grouper hanging with Grizzly Bear recording during the winter.
Cokemachineglow just gave this album the award "2008’s Soundtrack to the Winter Inhaling the Air From Your Lungs while the Canadian Government Crumbles Award" and while that is certainly silly and mostly irrelevent, it may nevertheless be a perfect description of the music. A definitely autumn and winter album, Temper picks up where the masterpiece Precis (2006) left off. Pioulard's unique blend of closet pop/folk with all the percussion and fuzz. The whole album just happens before your ears. It's a soundtrack album to the winter and just like his previous release: it's great.
Bill Frisell - History, Mystery
(May 13) (Nonesuch) (Myspace)
RIYL: Jazz Guitarists I guess (Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot, Scofield, Pat Metheny)
Bill Frisell has been making great and relevant music for quite a while and the two-disc History, Mystery is no exception. Though the music on these two discs actually dates anywhere from between 2000-2007 (you probably heard the second disc on NPR), this is the first official release. It's varied as all hell. His cover of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (my favorite song ever) is basically light jazz, with his guitar acting as the vocals, before that is a swinging jazz number. There's noisier bits, there is smoother bits, but it's all very distinct, it's all very Frisell and it's all very good. Also of note: Bill played on 3 tracks on the new Earth album this year that I hardly listened to. Shame on me.
Black Milk - Tronic
(October 28) (Fat Beats) (Myspace)
RIYL: Slum Village, Dilla with more Synths
This is the part of the story where I tell you that Black Milk should be named 2008's artist of the year. I will also say that this man is probably the most important person in hip hop right now and if he isn't right now, he will be in the coming years. This album is great, his production is up a whole bunch, his rapping has improved but still isn't great, but one of the best hip hop albums of the year regardless. But his 2008 was insane. He released two mixtapes by himself (Music from the Color Purple, Elec), put out Caltroit with Bishop Lamont late last year. Produced a bunch of Elzhi's fantastic recored, produced a bunch of Invincible's fantastic record, put out a collab album with Fat Ray, produced some of Guilty Simpson's album, produced some of Royce's mixtape, produced a track off of Buff1's record, produced some of Kidz In The Hall's record, and is at the forefront of the whole Detroit underground movement which in the wake of Dilla and Proof's deaths has become the center of good hip hop this year. Somebody stop this man.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Lie Down In The Light
(May 12) (Drag City) (Myspace)
RIYL: Smog, Neil Young, Lambchop
2008: The year in which my favorite musician releases a really great album that I somehow don't connect with immediately and don't include in my top 10 albums of the year. Listen: it's great, but I'm just now realizing it. Will Oldham is my favorite, this album is good, definitely really good. I just hardly listened to it in comparison to all his other albums under all his monikers.
Brethren Of The Free Spirit - All Things are From Him, Through Him And In Him / The Wolf Also Shall Dwell With The Lamb
(April? / November 11) (audoMER / Important) (Myspace)
RIYL: James Blackshaw, John Fahey, Religious Music
Take two of the most talented and praised young instrumental virtuosos in this whole weird freak-folk scene, get them inspired by 13th and 14th century Christianity and religious music, have them perform and record in old churches and what comes out is some of the most beautiful music to be created this year. James Blackshaw released a wonderful solo album this year, but these collaborations with lute player Jozef von Wissem are my personal favorites. Both albums are pretty different from each other but both are executed amazingly.
Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
(April 8) (Universal) (Myspace)
RIYL: LCD Soundsystem, Human League-ish, Poppy Dance Music
The album I didn't want to like. Virtually every song on this album is destined to be a single or a advertisement on television and yet where so many singles-oriented album, these songs are all part of a greater whole. A pop album that works best when taken as a whole. The interludes, the fades, the way the tracks build of each other. Try as I might, I cannot dislike this record. It's probably the best pure pop album of the year, believe the hype.
DeLa - Changes In Atmosphere
(September 9) (???) (Myspace)
RIYL: Pete Rock, Jazz Liberatorz, Jazz-Rap
Some French Canadian dude releasing and album over in Japan with guest spots from some of the best in the underground (Blu, J-Live, J. Sands, Teminology, Dynas, etc.) As well as songs with hip hop legends like Talib Kweli and Large Professor. This is that classic jazz rap stuff. A real feel good record. Jazz Liberatorz put out a similar album this year (as well as all that jazz-rap stuff that the Japanese love) but this is my favorite. The songs are short, it moves along and it's just refreshing. It's been done before, but DeLa is definitely one of the best doing it.
Elzhi - The Preface
(July 29) (Fat Beats) (Myspace)
RIYL: Black Milk, Slum Village, Detroit Hip Hop
Remember all that gushing I did up at the Black Milk post? Well you can take that, take away most of the electro influence, go back a couple years, take the best member of Slum Village and you get The Preface. Elzhi's first proper release (Europass which is equally good if not better was tour-only) is one of the best hip hop releases of the year without a doubt. Unhindered by the rest of the deadweight that is Slum Village in the last few years, Elzhi just further establishes the prominence that Detroit was this year in hip hop. Not a bad song on here, just everything solid.
Evening Fires - Figures Of Earth
(???) (Digitalis) (Myspace)
RIYL: La Otracina, Jackie-O-Motherfucker, Six Organs of Admittance
One of my favorite experimental releases of the year. Released on the great Digitalis label with a run of only 75 copies, I obviously didn't get one. This album is 6 tracks. 2 are under two minutes, one is about 6 minutes and the other three are 11, 15 and 10 minutes long. It's an experimental/drone record that has ambient noise, horns, random percussion and some awesome banjo. Just something about this record stuck with me more than all the other drone records I heard this year. Check it out if you can.
Flying Lotus - Los Angeles
(June 10) (Warp) (Myspace)
RIYL: J Dilla, Prefuse 73, Four Tet
If you've paid attention to the press at all this year, you probably saw something about this record somewhere. The go-to hip electronica album. I actually thought it was way overhyped and not very good for most of the year but lately I've been loving it. Intense, abstract soundbursts and in your face electronic drums sounding like a million different 8-bit games blended together while you're high.
The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
(August 25) (Side One Dummy) (Myspace)
RIYL: The Killers, Lucero, Against Me!
Balls to the wall, hearts on the sleeves, over the top, pump your fist, drive your car, sing at the top of your lungs, Springsteen-inspired, Sam's Town done right. The Gaslight Anthem put out the most fun rock n roll record I heard this year. The songs are written well, if not cheesy. It's just bombastic, but I can't help but love it. The sound is so intense, it's hard to resist.
Jackaszek - Treny
(May 27) (Miasmah) (Myspace)
RIYL: Murcof, Arvo Part, Max Richter
One of the most haunting records of the year, truly. Last year I ran a haunted house for the city and created a playlist on the ol' ipod to play inside for ambience and if I were to do that again, many of these songs would make the cut. Not such much frightening as just ominous, that may be where the beauty lies. Album was released on Murcof's Miasmah label which continuously puts out some of the best modern classical and ambient recordings there are. Michael Jackaszek provides the sparse electronics and percussion but is joined by Stefan Wesolowski and Ania Smizek-Wesolowska on cello and violin and it's all given an even more somber tone by the wordless vocals of Maja Siemenska. It's graveyard or soundtrack music. It sets a mood, it's not ambient music to sleep to, but it is definitely a night time record and solely that.
Jamie Lidell - Jim
(April 28) (Warp) (Myspace)
RIYL: Darryl Hall, Jamiroquai, Blue-Eyed Soul
People on the internet have slagged this album a lot because it isn't nearly as inventive as Multiply or even his remix projects. Well, that's true. But it's one of the most fun pop-soul records I've heard in quite some time. I gotta give it to Jamie Lidell for doing what he wants to do (and he's been interviewed as saying he just wants to make pop songs). He's inspired by 60s soul here, so he's created something huge. The songs are based on huge hooks, the music is funky as all get out. The ballads are cheesy. What more could we want? It's not the best sure, but it's still fun.
Jóhann Jóhannsson - Fordlandia
(November 3) (4AD) (Myspace)
RIYL: Max Richter, Sigur Ros, Steve Reich
By now it's no secret that Johann makes beautiful music. The Icelandic native takes that whole modern classical/electronic idea, adds the most heartwrenching string arrangements you can bear and makes great album after great album. I'm not going to get into the themes found on this album, there's 3. You can go to AMG and read about it, because it's definitely interesting. The point is, if the title track (all 13:23) is not one of the most emotional songs you've heard, I don't know if you have ears. It's not Mozart, it's not Bach, it's not Barber, it's not Part and it never will be. But the fact of the matter is that Johannsson is carving his own niche that's just at home with Sigur Ros as it is with those musicians. It's not for purists, but it's fucking beautiful.
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson - Rattlin' Bones
(April 21) (Liberation) (Myspace)
RIYL: Gram/Emmylou, Good 70s Country
If you are Australian and reading this, you are probably scoffing, well shutup. Last year was all about country and americana for me and this year I have only a few notable releases and this is likely the best pure country record I heard all year. It was huge overseas, I don't know what it did here in the States, probably not much. It's great though. Kasey got rid of that travesty of sound that was Carnival and her husband Shane comes outta nowhere and the two of them put out a genuinely great country record. Say what you will, it is great. Good songwriting, classic instrumentation and some of the best male/female harmonies I've heard for a long time in country. This is like Dolly and Porter, Gram and Emmylou, Conway and Loretta just with a little less twang in the voice. Get it.
Lawrence English - Kiri No Oto
(July 22) (Touch) (Website)
RIYL: Philip Jeck, Belong, Sound-artists
First time I listened to this record, I was in bed, I hit play with my little imac remote and was was subsequently blasted by the fuzz that emanated. I expected something soft like the album cover showed, but "Organs Lost at Sea" slayed me, gave me a heart attack and it wasn't until the next song came on that I had recovered. It's not that it's that heavy, it's not. It's actually beautiful. The record is distorted organ, guitar and found sounds and its just layer upon layer of experimental, droning beauty. A real achievement in the genre. Apparently there is more to the technique than I understand, but whatever, I'm not that heavy into these "sound sculptors" and this one got more play than most other releases in the same vein because it's great.
Lykke Li - Youth Novels
(January 30) (LL/Atlantic) (Myspace)
RIYL: Robyn, Peter, Bjorn & John, El Perro Del Mar
One of my most listened to records for the first 6 months of the year, this album definitely started to fall of towards the end. But good for her and the public (even American public!) to pick up on this album. Lykke Li is one of the next big pop stars and it's really bizarre, because this is pop music that doesn't really sound like anything else out there. Bjorn (PBJ fame) gives Lykke really sparse and minimal arrangements and her voice is somewhere in between Robyn and Joanna Newsom, but sweet. It's a light record, it can just be put on. Sure a lot of it is just crazily cheesy or silly, but it all works somehow.
Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling
(September 22) (Matador) (Myspace)
RIYL: Explosions in The Sky? It's Mogwai guys.
It's a Mogwai album, it's not really anything new. It sounds like Mogwai. It has guitars, it's epic, the songs are the right length. There are quiet moments and loud moments. It's sort of all the same, yet I would go ahead and say this is the best Mogwai album since Come On Die Young. It always just boils down to the fact that the band is named after the cutest little creature ever imagined.
Natural Yogurt Band - Away With Melancholy
(June 30) (Jazzman) (Myspace)
RIYL: Galt McDermot, 70s funky movie soundtrack jazz Definitely one of the coolest records I heard all year. Natural Yogurt Band are a duo who specialize in that funky 70s jazz sound. Their debut record was even put out on Jazzman, which usually only does awesome reissues. You got drums, funky funky bass, organ, guitar, some vocal samples, whatever. There's not a lot of info on the band but the music speaks for itself. If you love those old Blaxploitation films, you need this album. If you are just looking for something that has a nice groove, you also need this album.
NOMO - Ghost Rock
(June 17) (Ubiquity) (Myspace)
RIYL: Antibalas, Daptone Records, Afro-jazz
Just nothing but the funkiest record around. Nomo's 3rd full-length stripped away some of the bizarre sonic experimentation of their last album and comes full force with the funk. Equally inspired by Bootsy, Fela and Dolphy, Nomo is just creating a sound that is uniquely their own, without actually sounding too unique. It's just a group of 8 musicians with the help of some friends going into the studio, wherever that may be and just getting down. One of the ultimate feel-good records of the year.
Richard Skelton - Marking Time
(September 6) (Preservation) (No Myspace)
RIYL: ECM Records, Stars of the Lid, Kranky Ambient artists
You may remember A Broken Consort's A Box of Birch as my #14 album last year. Well, the man behind that, Richard Skelton has stepped away from his psuedonyms and released an album outside of his own label and the results are striking. This might be his very best album. Almost entirely composed of Richard's expert skills of manipulating various stringed instruments, the album floats by but keeps the listener paying attention as well. Truly a beautiful album
Sigur Rós - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
(June 24) (XL/EMI) (Myspace)
RIYL: Well...It's Sigur Ros
Sure we expected the band to continue moving towards the poppier sound they were adapting on Takk but no one expected the full on Animal Collective-esque "Gobbledigook" Try as I might, I can't help but continue to love Sigur Ros. They have changed their sound slightly, but they're still basically the same thing. It just so happens that I'm not ready to grow out of this sound. If that makes me fey, whatever. They've put out another beautiful record, I just hardly listened to it.
The Tallest Man On Earth - Shallow Grave
(September 1) (Spunk) (Myspace)
RIYL: Devendra Banhart doing 60s Dylan
This is basically how I wanted Devendra Banhart to sound. Maybe that's unfair, maybe not. I don't love this album, but there is definitely something here. The songs are pretty excellent, easy to sing along to as well. The voice is that weird warble that works for some of these folksingers. It's just well done folk music and I like it. It's a grower, the songs get stuck in your head, and it's worth a listen. Sometimes I love this record more than any others this year, sometimes I just want it to end. Bad review, good album.
Thomas Function - Celebration
(March 11) (Alive) (Myspace)
RIYL: Buzzcocks, Violent Femmes, Destroyer
Thomas Function is a power-pop/punk band that hails from Alabama. This is their debut album and it really sounds like a combination of the above 3 mentioned bands all wrapped up in 3 minute pop songs. Mixing equal parts punk, country, and blues, the songs all have this sort of snotty brat feel to them and are just a blast. 13 songs, relatively short album that definitely deserves the little hype it's gotten. A lot of fun, great driving music. Will be interesting to see what these dudes come up with in the future because they seem accomplished enough that they can go in a few different directions.
Ty Segall - Ty Segall
(???) (Castle Face) (Myspace)
RIYL: The Sonics, Trashmen, Mark Sultan/BBQ/King Khan, Coachwhips
This whole lo-fi garage punk scene that was really gotten huge in the last couple years (Siltbreeze, all the shit out of SF, everywhere else) is really one of the most exciting things to happen in music in a long time. While bands like Times New Viking and No Age got MTV2 airplay and features and bands like San Diego's Wavves are being talked about on virtually every indie music blog there is, my favorite record I heard in this movement this year is Ty Segall's self-titled full length. Though there were tons and tons of great lo-fi records, this one is definitely one of the most fun. Ty does it all himself, guitar and drums at the same time and does it well. It's just classic, in your face garage rock. Muffled vocals, thrashing guitar, steady foot-propelled drumbeats. It's a back to basics rock record and it's a fucking riot.
Women - Women
(???) (Flemish Eye / Jagjaguwar) (Myspace)
RIYL: Chad Vangaalen, Blitzen Trapper, No Age
Definitely one of the coolest indie rock records of the year. Women are a four piece band from Canada who have taken the lo-fi aesthetic and basically mixed all the different sub-genres within the grand scheme of things that gives us a record of acoustic tunes, drone and noise music, garage rock, and everything in between. It's sort of a record that is made to please everyone in its variation and is just done well. Vangaalen helped with some of the instrumentation and I believe production of the record and it shows. It's just quite the accomplishment for the young band to produce an album so varied that somehow still works as a whole.