By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
2008 was a weird year for music. Gloom and doom predictions about sinking album sales overshadowed the industry, and labels seemed to throw trends at the wall just to see what would stick. But despite these portentous omens, what didn't change is that a few diamonds in the musical rough still emerged. Over the following pages, the RFT's music writers weighed in on what they liked this year — the shows, the singles, the albums that rocked their world. (For what they didn't like, check out page 43.) For more from Village Voice Media writers, head to blogs.riverfronttimes.com/atoz/2008_music_lists, where we'll be rolling out a few top-ten lists per day.
Get Your Indie Kicks
While it was difficult to find an album that was stellar from start to finish, more than a few exceptional releases arrived in 2008. The self-titled debut from Seattle's Fleet Foxes was breathtaking, an album whose soaring, layered vocal harmonies and subtle (but driving) percussion sounded like a sunset viewed from the top of a rain-soaked Pacific Northwest mountain. It was a pleasure to hear Conor Oberst mature as a songwriter, as he ditched his Bright Eyes moniker and penned some of the finest songs of his prolific career, particularly "Danny Callahan," a darkly upbeat reflection on mortality and the after-life. Bonnie "Prince" Billy blew me away with the first two tracks on his album, Lie Down in the Light, where his warbling voice was simultaneously haunting and heartening. In indie rock, nothing was better than MGMT's Oracular Spectacular; songs like "Time to Pretend" perfectly embody the hipster combination of angst, irony and the desire to dance.
In the rap game, T.I. reestablished himself as king. The infectious singles "Live Your Life" and "Whatever You Like" dominated clubs and airwaves, while the strongest songs on Paper Trail ("No Matter What," "Dead and Gone") offered an honest, introspective take on his imminent trip to prison. Hip-hop hipsters had to love the flashy, flossed-out flow of the Knux, while the iconic emcee Q-Tip proved that the old school is still cool with his superb solo release The Renaissance emerging as the chill-out record of choice. Mashup master Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis exceeded all expectations with Feed the Animals, which kicked off with a badass blend of UGK and "Gimme Some Lovin'" and never looked back. And locally, the funky, futuristic beats of Black Spade on To Serve With Love were best.
— Keegan Hamilton
TV Blinded Me With Science
My favorite major release of 2008 was TV on the Radio's Dear Science. Holy crap, was I unprepared to deal with the magnetic, schizophrenic brilliance of that release. I tried to listen casually — you know, in the car, while doing the dishes, etc. — but I soon found myself up late at night, incapacitated by the weight of big-ass headphones, wide-eyed in wonderment and smiling in the dark.
After bumping hip-hop newcomer Kid Sister's tune "Beeper" on the daily, I spent an unprecedented amount of time — and a sickening level of ass-kissing — trying to scam an advance copy of her debut LP, Dream Date, from better-connected industry friends. Though it won't be released until March 2009, Kid Sister's playful, fly girl charisma permeates every song on the debut, and this hip-hop cutie has the skills to back up her Next Big Thing hype.
There were some hot reissues this year, including R.E.M.'s Murmur, Verbena's Souls for Sale, A.A. Bondy's American Hearts and the remastered Replacements discography. All were greatly appreciated — and rocked accordingly.
The best concert I saw in town was Sharon Jones at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room in January. I knew she would be good, but I had no idea how good. The sold-out, sticky, sweaty, shoes-off, swinging hair, soul-filled basement show had me jumpin' and forced my booty to do things heretofore unthinkable. Hallelujah.
Locally, I still crush on Bunnygrunt, the Humanoids, Sex Robots, Rum Drum Ramblers and Pokey LaFarge. I've seen each about 27,856 times this year and I'm still amazed at the spirit and passion their performances ignite. In addition, I can't say enough good things about the Livers. This extraordinary rock duo is relatively new, but it consistently churns out one of the most exceptional live acts in the city.
— Jaime Lees
BritPop Goes the World
Neither as loopy as their Henry Darger-inspired name would suggest, nor as fashion-addled as their Brooklyn buzz would portend, Vivian Girls made the record to fall in love with in 2008. Every few years, a record proves anew that short songs, simple melodies and hissy recordings can hold more possibility than any pristine, twenty-minute prog odyssey. This time, that record is Vivian Girls, 22 minutes of high emotion in lo-fi.
So what if the title conceit of the Magnetic Fields' Distortion amounted to little more than spackling some fuzz over a set of typically superb Stephin Merritt songs? If he keeps coming up with witty, melancholy gems like "California Girls," "I'll Dream Alone" and the brilliant "Drive On, Driver," he can play them with that barking-dog synth sound for all I care.