Top 20 Albums of 2008

As I was struggling to rank my top albums of 2008, I read Roger Ebert's top twenty films of 2008 where, finally giving up winnowing his choices down to just ten, he wrote:

If you must have a Top 10 List, find a coin in your pocket. Heads, the odd-numbered movies are your 10. Tails, the even-numbered.

This served as a moment of inspiration. Rather than ordering twenty albums, I thought, I would put them into two tiers and then write a bit of code to randomize their ordering within the tiers with each page refresh.

Perhaps luckily for my readers, in the end I decided against this. As I started to write my little blurbs, momentary preferences started to sink in. But I admit they are just that: momentary preferences. I still like my number one album from last year, but man that Spoon album, which I ranked #16, sure has been getting a lot of play this year.

So here it is: a snapshot of what I currently think are my top twenty albums of 2008. Last year, some of the recommendations in the comments became new favorites, so please tell me where I went astray.

Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
20. Kanye West -- 808s & Heartbreak

When I heard the first singles coming from this percussively stripped-down and AutoTune-obsessed breakup album, I was expecting throwaway tracks, some filler before his next proper album. But it turns out that this is a proper album, with only the live freestyle on the final track meriting the skip button. It isn't quite Kanye at his finest, but it just goes to show that we all benefit by his persistent sincerity.

Favorite tracks: Paranoid; RoboCop

El Guincho - Alegranza
19. El Guincho -- Alegranza

Yes, it sounds like it was produced in exactly the same way as an Animal Collective album, but on Alegranza the loop components come almost strictly from the tropical realm (think steel drums and maracas). But it's never exhausting in the way Animal Collective can be, and it's surprisingly danceable throughout.

Favorite tracks: Antillas; Fata Morgana

Coldplay - Viva la Vida
18. Coldplay -- Viva la Vida

While I've always had a guilty pleasure like of Coldplay's singles, their past albums have been filled with aimless, tiresome songs. On Viva la Vida, they still wear their influences on their sleeves (along with colored ribbons), but the songs are rarely boring and benefit from Brian Eno's light touch.

Favorite tracks: 42; Death and All His Friends

Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
17. Gang Gang Dance -- Saint Dymphna

How to describe this eclectic album? I could say Pure Moods meets Battles, but that really only describes a few tracks on here, and doesn't manage to explain the electronic touches or dancefloor moments. I guess I'll give up and say this is the best compilation album of 2008 by one band.

Favorite tracks: First Communion; House Jam

Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
16. Hercules and Love Affair -- Hercules and Love Affair

Yes, 2008 was the breakout year of new-wave/disco (see also Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours). And it's not even "retro-influenced" anymore -- much of this album sounds straight out of the 70's, with the exception of Antony's voice, which has finally found a comfortable home. It started with the Junior Boys a few years ago, but I've been a sucker for this stuff ever since.

Favorite tracks: Hercules Theme; Blind

Why? - Alopecia
15. Why? -- Alopecia

Why? has always been a bit of an acquired taste, but they make it much easier to acquire on Alopecia. I've slowly grown to love Yoni's oddly specific lyrics and unpredictable cadence, as only he could sing "In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court, just a slight jingle of pocket change pulsing" -- and make it sound so present and real.

Favorite tracks: The Hollows; Exegesis

Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
14. Girl Talk -- Feed the Animals

With each track made up of several layers of mostly radio-friendly samples, each lasting 10-30 seconds, Feed the Animals is annoying on its face. Yet how can you not have fun listening to how Gregg Gillis manages to mix samples from Avril Lavigne, Jay-Z, Aphex Twin, The J. Geils Band, and Rod Stewart all on the same track?

Favorite tracks: What It's All About; Don't Stop

The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely
13. The Raconteurs -- Consolers of the Lonely

I decided to purchase this album almost purely because it was released by the Radiohead model -- digitally (initially) and with a short lead time. And I'm glad I did, as it almost sounds like it could be a great classic rock album from the 1970's.

Favorite tracks: Old Enough; The Switch And The Spur

Marnie Stern - This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That
12. Marnie Stern -- This Is It & I Am It & You Are It & So Is That & He Is It & She Is It & It Is It & That Is That

When I first heard Marnie Stern shredding her guitar last year on her first album, In Advance of the Broken Arm, I was overwhelmed. I'm not sure that This Is It... is a better album yet, but this time I was ready for her. I dig her Van Halen-esque guitar style, her sliding screaming voice, and, of course, the Metal.

Favorite tracks: Transformer; Steely

School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
11. School of Seven Bells -- Alpinisms

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that School of Seven Bells, especially the vocals of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, remind me of a more energetic version of the Cocteau Twins, even if the latter band didn't actually have any twins in it. And I think having both twins singing is essential, as Claudia's appearances on several Scott Herren (Prefuse 73; Savath & Savalas) albums were rarely as effective as here.

Favorite tracks: Half Asleep; Sempiternal/Amaranth

DJ /rupture - Uproot
10. DJ /rupture -- Uproot

From listening to his Mudd Up! radio show on WFMU, it's obvious that
DJ /rupture is one of the finest music curators out there. On Uproot, he mixes together house, dubstep, dancehall, and assorted international dance tracks together in a seamless beautiful mix that's too meditative to consistently dance to, but for the musically overwhelmed like me, it's a glimpse inside of an unknown urban dance culture.

Favorite tracks: Reef: Baby Kites and Nokea; Capilano Bridge: Jenny Jones

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
9. Vampire Weekend -- Vampire Weekend

There is no rock band out there who wears their New England/New York privilege on their sleeves like Vampire Weekend. It's all very Wes Anderson-y, brie/wine-chamber-music-y, yet excluding their Afro-pop missteps, I have to hand it to them for putting out such a solid debut album.

Favorite tracks: A-Punk; M79

Beck - Modern Guilt
8. Beck -- Modern Guilt

I've been a consistent Beck fan, but his last two albums have suffered from a glut of lifeless tracks that warrant skipping. Modern Guilt is short, catchy, and to the point, as if Beck was taking advice from Spoon. And songs like "Chemtrails" show a promising new direction, even if already blazed by others.

Favorite tracks: Chemtrails; Modern Guilt

Santogold - Santogold
7. Santogold -- Santogold

This album grabs you as soon as you hear it, single after single, to the point where I didn't even mind how overplayed some of the tracks were via television ads. Santogold has the best pop/rock debut album of the year, and I'm looking forward to her followup.

Favorite tracks: L.E.S Artistes; Shove It

Lindstrøm - Title
6. Lindstrøm -- Where You Go I Go Too

There is nothing new here on its face -- just three slow-building electronica tracks, with influences ranging from Disco to Steve Reich. There are only three tracks on the album, the first one nearly 30 minutes long and all three multi-layered, and while I've returned to this album many times over the year, I can never remember its constituent parts. It's simple to listen to yet too big to keep in your head at once.

Favorite tracks: Where You Go I Go Too; Grand Ideas

Portishead - Third
5. Portishead -- Third

I came late to a lot of music I enjoy now, but I'm still surprised that I never once listened to an entire Portishead album before Third. What I was most amazed by this album was that the album doesn't sound like anything else, whether contemporary or from their 1990's heydey. And as I've written here before, The Rip is an amazing track.

Favorite tracks: The Rip; Plastic; Magic Doors

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Lie Down In The Light
4. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy -- Lie Down In The Light

This is some real backporch, toe-tapping American country rock, except with Will Oldham's trademark fragile voice and stripped down instrumentation as opposed to the overproduced cheese that usually comes out of Nashville. It's all summed up for me on "You Remind Me of Something" -- tribal rhythm, finger-picked guitar, male/female duet, hoedown strings, and electric drone.

Favorite tracks: Easy Does It; You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes); For Every Field There's a Mole

Paavoharju - Laulu Laakson Kukista
3. Paavoharju -- Laulu Laakson Kukista

Every time someone mentions this album one of these three things are mentioned: 1) It's by a collective formed by two Finnish born-again Christians; 2) It sounds like shortwave AM radio transmissions; 3) It's creepy. All three are true, but I'm not sure it's possible to describe this album in words. Here's my best effort: It sounds like being transported around Old World Europe in a half-conscious stupor, where every time you come to you see something different: an underground Italian horror cinema, a Nordic goth club, a Roma celebration. Paavoharju has cultivated a reclusive persona similar to early-2000's Boards of Canada, and an album as satisfyingly mysterious as their (completely dissimilar) Geogaddi.

Favorite tracks: Pimeänkarkelo, Italialaisella Laivalla; Kirkonväki

Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing
2. Fuck Buttons -- Street Horrrsing

This might be the least accessible album on this list, as most of the tracks consist of a loud tonal buzz and the occasional banshee scream. If you heard a five-second clip, you might think of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, but when sustained over its lengthy tracks the tribal drumming, buried dulcet tones, and cathartic chord progressions wash over you. Probably the most aesthetically beautiful album of 2008, in a year when blissed-out noise was king.

Favorite tracks: Sweet Love For Planet Earth; Okay, Let's Talk About Magic; Colours Move

TV on the Radio - Dear Science
1. TV on the Radio -- Dear Science

I'm a latecomer to many bands, appreciative but often waiting for their poppier moments. Last year, I finally embraced Animal Collective and this year, after respecting but ultimately finding myself unable to love Return to Cookie Mountain, I've turned to TV on the Radio. This is for me without a doubt the catchiest album of the year (I've listened to "Halfway Home" an uncountable many times), and while the Bowie connection has always been there (even literally as a guest vocal on Cookie Mountain), on Dear Science I can almost believe it's from a Bowie comeback phase, maybe a Lodger 2008, replete with Eno-esque production. Excellent stuff.

Favorite tracks: Halfway Home; Crying; Love Dog

<<< Ebert's best films of 2008    Green Sahara >>>

I like these lists and I like that there is a Carbone out there really into music. I could not name ten albums that came out this year. I am not exaggerating.

Los Angeles Anthony | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 1:43am

Excellent and fun list. All the more so since I don't know who the fuck half of these bands are, which means I now get to go digging around. Cheers.

ludditerobot | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 10:29am

When you say

but man that Spoon album, which I ranked #16, sure has been getting a lot of play this year.

I assume you mean play by you, and are not saying you like the album more because you've heard it more, right?

Thanks for posting the list -- it's good to have a guide, even if our tastes don't quite overlap (I don't think I'll be purchasing #2). Like LAA, I am embarrassed to not be more aware of current music, especially living in a place where so much is so easily accessible and promoted and such.

Jon May | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 10:30am

"I assume you mean play by you"

Yes, and by others in my household.

crazymonk | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 10:40am

The cat is big into Spoon.

The only thing I've been listening to lately that could be described as "new" is "Boxer" by The National.

Lorelei | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 11:25am

Dead-on with the School of Seven Bells and the BPB.

I can't really locate the allure of Vampire Weekend, though. It's the privilege-on-their-sleeves sentiment that's precisely what makes the band insufferable, IMO. And I think you're downplaying how bad the Afro-pop pretense is. Maybe in '99 it would have worn better. But in '08?

Substitute with any of the following:
The Acorn: Glory Hope Mountain
Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted (Iraq 25-29)
Grouper: Dragging a Dead Deer
Hala Strana: Fielding

Windy & Carl's latest might be great, too; not enough time to be certain yet.

And the album I've listened to most in '08 was probably the best of '07: Stars of the Lid's And their refinement of the decline.

Thanks for posting this, though, despite the humble disagreements. It's good to get a tasteful reminder of some of the best of the year.

Jim | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 11:26am

Fleet Foxes wear fairly well despite the hype, too. It's a good record, not a revolutionary one, but it has its pleasures and avoids the pitfalls of pretense.

Jim | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 11:27am

I tend to agree with the Dis of Vampire Weekend and am surprised you ranked it so high. I relate to them as I do The Police -- it's nice to hear a song in a mix of other stuff, but listening to the album leaves me weary after four songs or so. Whereas Girl Talk, perhaps unfairly advantaged in the way the periodic "all crunch-berries" cereals are because it's made up of nothing but hooks, has stuck with me much more.

Jon May | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 11:33am

I think even to liken VW to the Police is too lofty a position. For as shallow as Sting can be, and for as much sugar as there was in that particular cup of tea, that was really a crack ensemble of musicians that was road-tested. And their early material at least had some of the energy of the punk era and an exploratory approach to "world musics" that was not such a total exercise in recursion.

Byrne and co. certainly did this in a much more interesting way, of course -- and I think that's the robe the music media are trying to fit them with. VW of course enjoys this kind of attention. It's annoying as hell.

Again, The Acorn are mining some similar territory with far more pleasing results and less undeserved hype.

Jim | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 11:50am

I knew I'd get shit for VW, but since I live in Reno I feel like I'm in a hype bubble, and that stuff doesn't bother me so much for the moment. I'd actually compare VW more to solo Paul Simon than The Police, and not just because of the obvious musical parallels. Graceland annoys the shit out of me, yet somehow I find it captivating.

And their refinement of the decline is a great album, and I've listened to it quite a bit this year. I've listened to Grouper maybe 2 or 3 times now, and maybe it just needs to sink in like Stars of the Lid had too. I liked it, but it hasn't ingrained itself into me yet. I'm pretty sure the W&C album won't get there.

The others you mentioned I'll have to check out.

crazymonk | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 12:03pm

Also, Fleet Foxes I respect but doesn't quite work for me. No one's mentioned them yet, but the same goes with Beach House (although there a few tracks I really dig).

crazymonk | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 12:05pm

Did you have an opinion on Subtle's exitingARM? I liked it, but it felt like I didn't have the patience it required.

Things I loved that it seems like they're at least potentially in Marco territory:

Passion Pit - Chunk Of Change -- I had a rare transcendent concert experience when I caught the second half of their set, having no idea who they were. ( - especially "Sleepyhead")

These New Puritans - Beat Pyramid -- Kind of like The Fall but more interested in trance. Lead singer and drummer are identical twins, constantly fighting; when onstage singer wears what looks like homemade chainmail, etc. ( - try "fff", "Elvis", the lower version of "Swords Of Truth")

Max Tundra - Parallax Error Beheads You -- Actually, wait, didn't you get me into this guy?

Aaron | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 1:08pm

I don't mean to put VW in the same league as The Police, I'm just saying my experience of listening to them tends to be the same. Whereas I could listen to hours of Simon's Graceland-and-previous stuff without getting that odd feeling not unlike nausea that comes with too much VW or Police. Graceland in particular I have an adolescent-instilled fondness for and I always think of summer trips to Cape Cod when listening to it.

Jon May | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 1:24pm

"Graceland in particular I have an adolescent-instilled fondness for and I always think of summer trips to Cape Cod when listening to it."

I can already hear someone saying this exact same thing about VW in 20 years. (Especially with all their Cape Cod references.)

"Did you have an opinion on Subtle's exitingARM? I liked it, but it felt like I didn't have the patience it required."

I was pretty much in the same boat.

I'll have to check out Passion Pit and These New Puritans. As for Max Tundra, yes, I was a huge fan of MBGATE and I probably proselytized! I liked PEBY well enough, and am always impressed by his discipline, but I think his song-writing skills have been stagnant.

crazymonk | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 2:46pm

I will take this opportunity to mention Grails. Been at it for some years now I guess, but I only recently learned of them. I haven't yet listened to their 2008 release, Doomsdayer's Holiday, but it's supposed to be pretty fantastic, and older records bode well.

Jesse | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 7:50pm

Oh, and I'm going to take this opportunity to pointlessly add that I've listened to TV on the Radio's previous records a ton, but for some reason I'm just not feeling it this time out. I think the band sounds great on all the tunes I've heard, but for some reason I just don't get drawn in. I'm having a really hard time coming up with any kind of reason for this, except that it might have something to do with the vocals/lyrics.

Jesse | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 7:57pm

Jesse, your comment re: TV on the Radio reminds me exactly of one of yours from last year re: Animal Collective:

Sometimes, not listening to lyrics can be ignorant bliss (see, e.g., Nine Inch Nails).

crazymonk | Thu, 12/11/2008 - 8:00pm

I'm surprised myself to see TVOTR at the top of many lists (though not necessarily on the lists, per se). I think part of it's because they're a hard-working band, and 4/5 of them are nice guys, and they are, relative to the mainstream, pushing the somewhat modest boundaries of what passes for rock these days.

Jesse's right, though, the lyrics, especially in comparison to Cookie Mountain, aren't as consistently brilliant throughout, and they get a lot of mileage out of "la la la" and "do do do" choruses, to the point they seem cop-outs this time around. On another note, singles don't really matter much in terms of what's on the radio anymore (they seem to matter more in films, ads, and blog posts), but "Dancing Choose" is a pretty weak single.

I will say there are 4-5 songs on that record that point to the band's mastery - and to the notion that a truly great record, end-to-end, is in their future.

Also, I'm curious to hear how the new songs sound live.

Jim | Fri, 12/12/2008 - 5:52am

Lastly, regarding Jesse's '07 comment:

I thought it at the time, and I think history'll bear it out: Person Pitch vs. Strawberry Jam is no contest. The Panda Bear record ends it in a first-round KO, and it's in no small part because we don't have to hear or understand lyrics about Goofy Gus or touching breasts - melody wins.

Jim | Fri, 12/12/2008 - 5:57am


Well done. I'm both excited and saddened after browsing through your list. Excited because you have become such a music expert at this point in time and I'm throughly impressed by your concise and descriptive thoughts about each album-- you could do music writing for any publication you wanted.

I'm saddened because I am so removed now from knowing who these groups/bands are and hearing their music. I wish I had time like I used to-- but sometimes it's simply impossible to keep up with everything. That's the way I am with movies now too, although I've held my grip slightly longer on what's going on there after entering parenthood and moving abroad.

I hear a lot of music in Spanish now, and there is a lot of good stuff that doesn't make it stateside-- mostly rock and pop. It's not the same though hearing mainstream stuff with a sprinklin' of the lesser heard tunes in your second language. Harder to get excited.

I will try to download some of these when I get a chance though.... We should try to talk by Skype soon... finally got a webcam... we are mid-move though... finally moving into our new apartment in Lima tommorow. Visitors welcome!

Slater | Fri, 12/12/2008 - 7:33pm