Best of 2008: Top Albums

This is the final article in my long-incubating series reviewing the best music I heard in 2008. Earlier I wrote about my criteria for selection, honorable mentions and best songs.

    Top Albums of 2008

  1. Raising Sand by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: When I first heard that these two had gotten together to record an album, I was a bit perplexed. Aside from his brief stint with The Honeydrippers in the 80s, Robert Plant has always been the penultimate heavy metal singer, one who dwells a couple of octaves above where most of us live. Putting him together with Krauss’ gentle soprano made no sense to me until I heard the results of this wondrous collaboration. Pushed outside their comfort zones by famed producer T-Bone Burnett, these two combined to produce a sound that neither could make by themselves. Burnett picked most of the material for the album and it’s hard to argue against his choices. “Killing The Blues”, in particular, showcases how well Plant and Krauss are able to weave their voices together, occasionally stepping out for a phrase or a word to subtle but pleasing effect. Burnett’s influence is so profound that he deserves to be credited with Krauss and Plant as an album artist. The production itself is atmospheric and would be best appreciated in a quiet and possibly dark environment. This is the ideal album for driving down the road by yourself at midnight when you wished you were already home.
  2. In Rainbows by Radiohead: When Radiohead delivered their 1997 concept album, OK Computer, it drew many comparisons to Dark Side of the Moon. Since then their output has been brilliant but uneven. Still, it was obvious that they were pushing their own boundaries and the limits of rock and roll, much like Pink Floyd before them. If OK Computer was their Dark Side, then In Rainbows is surely Wish You Were Here. The emphasis is on musicianship and making interesting sounds rather than on lyrical themes and telling a story. As always, Thom Yorke’s vocals soar above everything and provide the baseline anchor for the melody. More than any other singer, Yorke’s voice acts less like a vehicle for delivering the lyrics and more as another instrument in the beautiful cacophony of sound. Songs like “15 Step” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” start with a bare drum pattern with Yorke’s vocal and slowly layer instruments on top until the song has morphed into a complex, lush aural concoction. This is music that completely lacks ego. Guitar solos are eschewed for catchy rhythm loops and all the bass parts are inaudible unless you go hunting for them. I can’t wait to hear Radiohead’s equivalent of The Wall.
  3. Songs for Silverman by Ben Folds: In the pantheon of rock and roll, the superstar guitar players probably outnumber the superstar piano players by at least four to one. In fact, the list of singing piano player artists is quite short: Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, Billy Joel, Tori Amos and perhaps Fiona Apple. To this list you should add Ben Folds and his 2005 album, Songs for Silverman. While many of the aforementioned artists are sometimes content to consign their instruments to the background of the song, Folds always keeps his piano at the forefront as the lead instrument. I’m tempted to compare him to Jerry Lee in this regard, but his music is much more extraordinary and complex than Lewis’. Think of how beautiful Joel plays on “Piano Man” and you have an inkling of Folds playing style. In addition, Folds is a talented songwriter who writes catchy melodies that are well-suited to his lovely voice. “Gracie”, written for his daughter, is bound to resonate with parents in the same way that Jimmy Buffet‘s “Little Miss Magic” does while “Jesusland” is an ironic but earnest take on modern suburbia. There’s a quality to Folds’ voice that makes it easy to empathize with him and his point of view.
  4. It’s A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads: I don’t know how this 1992 album slipped under my radar for so many years. More amazing is that a power pop album with lightly country overtones could become popular when grunge was taking over the world. Part of the reason is Evan Dando’s voice, which is both distinctive and familiar. Production (by The Robb Brothers) emphasizes the liberal use of acoustic guitars over late 80s “alternative” band arrangements (think R.E.M.). Dando’s lyrics are incisive and resonant, such as on “Bit Part”, a paean from a desperate, spurned lover (“I want a bit part in your life, a walk-on would be fine”) which leads perfectly into the optimistic “Alison’s Starting To Happen”. The songwriting is disciplined as no song goes much beyond three minutes and most stay under two. The album ends perfectly with “Frank Mills”, a cover of a song from the musical Hair.
  5. Down by the Old Mainstream by Golden Smog: Years ago I read about something called “alt-country”, a pseudo-underground musical movement based around traditional country music but with none of the commercial aspirations that you find with the artists that Nashville tries to shove down our throats on country radio. Golden Smog is a “supergroup” with a shifting cast of musicians from bands that have made their name as alt-country artists. For this particular incarnation, the cast includes Jeff Tweedy (from Uncle Tupelo and Wilco), Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) and Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum), all of whom also serve as the primary songwriters. Excellent harmonies and acoustic instrumentation are featured heavily on songs that tear down the boundaries between rock and roll, pop, folk and country music. The presence of numerous vocalists also reminds you that it’s all temporary until everyone returns to their own band. In the meantime, this is a very enjoyable diversion.
  6. Accelerate by R.E.M.: After a couple of ho-hum albums, R.E.M. roared back into musical relevance with this rocking 2008 album. Although it’s short (34 minutes) by the standards of the digital age, there’s not a single clunker on this CD. If you’re a long-time R.E.M. fan like I am, this album might remind you of Monster, 1994’s failed attempt to break from their previous work with straight rock and roll. Fourteen years after that gloomy record, it’s clear that R.E.M. has learned from their mistakes and produced an album that stands up to repeated listening. Although they dip into the dark for their subject matter here and there (as in their take on the New Orleans disaster, “Houston”), they balance it with careful optimism (“Accelerate”) and unbridled joy (“I’m Gonna DJ”). Guitarist Peter Buck also experiments with several different tones on this album, unlike Monster where the glam-rock crunchy guitar eventually became overdone.
  7. The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine: Iron & Wine is one of those bands that simply defy categorization. Singer-songwriter Samuel Beam has a distinctive vocal delivery technique that borders on whispering which he melds perfectly with sparse and mostly acoustic instrumentation. Iron & Wine became most famous when the last track from this album, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”, was picked up for the Twilight soundtrack but there are many tracks on this album that are just as good. I have a particular fondness for “Boy With A Coin”, “White Tooth Man” and “Resurrection Fern”. Beam’s voice glides along so easily that it is disarming when he reaches for the higher notes. The fact that he does so with equally clever lyrical turns only serves to make the effect that much more pleasant. Enjoying The Shepherd’s Dog at that level will probably require isolated listening but this album also lends itself quite well to listening with others.