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
Rag & Bone Buffet
In 2008 A few old favorites took up residence in my CD player. Death Cab for Cutie's Narrow Stairs satisfied all my sweet spots, with its complicated calculus rock and ambient prog and Tori Amos-lite rock and lonely weepers. R.E.M.'s Accelerate found the band turning guitars, bass, vocals and production gloss up to eleven (and thankfully losing the ponderous perfection that had dragged down recent work). And both Damien Jurado's wintry acoustic introspection on Caught in the Trees and Jack's Mannequin's autumnal piano optimism on The Glass Passenger built on the promise of their past work.
Lemuria's brittle punk on Get Better drew from the fuzzed-out flannel dreams of the '90s, but never aped them fully; same thing with the Whigs, whose brash, Southern-garage-rock opus Mission Control barnstormed like the Replacements and the Who and yet wasn't a rip-off. Alphabeat, in contrast, shamelessly borrowed from Day-Glo '80s synthpop kings and queens on its import-only This Is Alphabeat — Bananarama! Roxette! Human League! — but songs like "Fascination" and "Boyfriend" were so gloriously retro that it didn't matter.
On Cat Power's scorched-velvet covers collection, Jukebox, Chan Marshall skillfully melded her brassy soul present and skeletal-blues past. The Broken West's Now or Never shed the band's bland Cali-pop ambitions for a far darker (and far more satisfying) sound influenced by the Church. And Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin combined familiar influences — the Beatles, heartfelt rock, puppy-dog-eyed indie-pop — on Pershing, but it still engaged.
In terms of singles, the biggest hit that wasn't belonged to Rihanna's duet with Maroon 5, "If I Never See Your Face Again." Despite M5 vocalist Adam Levine's decidedly unsexy nasal honk, the song's blazing synth-funk riffs, lithe grooves and Rihanna's tasteful seductions combined for delicious tension — but never the satisfaction of sweet release.
— Annie Zaleski
Jazz: The Final Frontier
The sheer amount of music released these days means that even the most diligent music critic or reporter is likely to miss some good stuff in any given year. Couple that with the inherent subjectivity of criticism itself, and the notion of compiling a comprehensive year-end "best of" list can start to seem like an exercise in futility. So, let's just call the following a list of a few personal favorite 2008 musical moments:
M For Mississippi: Over the last several years, St. Louisan Jeff Konkel has done an exemplary job of recording lesser-known Mississippi blues performers on his label, Broke & Hungry Records. This documentary film, which was produced by Konkel and former St. Louis resident Roger Stolle, adds an essential visual dimension to the audio, while providing a fascinating, poignant and often funny look at a musical world that many thought had disappeared decades ago.
Mike Stern at Jazz at the Bistro, Wednesday, March 12: Accompanied by St. Louisans Dave Weckl on drums and Tom Kennedy on bass, Stern clearly had a blast putting on what amounted to a high-energy, high-volume clinic in post-fusion jazz guitar.
Zappa Plays Zappa at the Pageant, Monday, June 9: Since their last appearance in St. Louis two years ago, the ensemble of young players and Frank Zappa alumni (which is led by Zappa's son, Dweezil) has evolved from a capable tribute act into a real working band. Its June show delivered confident, spirited renditions of music from the elder Zappa's vast and diverse catalog of compositions.
On CD, highlights included Miles From India — an all-star project featuring American jazz and Indian classical musicians reimagining the music of Miles Davis — and Pass It On, from bassist Dave Holland's superb new sextet. One Kind Favor was the strongest release in years from blues legend B.B. King, while a group of young Chicagoans named the James Davis Quintet released a sleek, nimble, modern-jazz album called Angles of Refraction.
— Dean C. Minderman
Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal: The best album of the peripatetic Austin songwriter's career owes a considerable debt to Chuck Prophet, the guitarist and co-songwriter of these thirteen limber and loud rock and soul songs. All of Escovedo is here, minus the conceptualism — unless you call hooks a concept. His previous album, The Boxing Mirror, was a surrealist death trip. This time, the trip is life.
Kathleen Edwards, Asking For Flowers: On her third studio album, the Canadian songwriter pulls off an unlikely trifecta: the year's best antiwar song ("Oil Man's War"), the best murder ballad ("Alicia Ross") and the best hockey song ("I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory"). Each of Edwards' songs is a self-contained world worth exploring, and the killer session players — Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz and Jim Bryson, and that's just for starters — set those worlds on fire.
Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: On which the gloomy old cuss answers the question: Does the world need three alternate takes of "Mississippi," when the official version was a latter-day equivalent of "Like a Rolling Stone"? The answer is yes, and there's more where that came from: improvised destinies, live fabulas, unknown legends, acoustic demos and self-portraits in postmodern blues.
Dengue Fever, Venus on Earth: Multi-cultural, obscurantist cool gets trippy with LA's Dengue Fever, a band that plays Cambodian psychedelic surf-rock, a genre that represents a pyrrhic victory for the catastrophe of U.S. imperialism and a temptation to novelty-sampling hipsters. But with Cambodian soul diva Chhom Nimol purring and moaning in native and English tongues and a band sworn to jazz grooves, they create a soundtrack for living and dancing dangerously.