2008: a completely biased compilation of the year’s best and worst in music

Here are my music lists for 2008. I’m not trying to be objective here. I’m no real music critic. I just know what I like, and maybe you’ll like some of it, too.

Anyway, here are my picks.

Best albums of 2008
More lists below

1. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges. For years, I’ve had this love-hate thing going with My Morning Jacket. I would love their hard-driving tunes but was less enamored with their mellower stuff. Plus, I thought they should try harder to subdue their Kentucky roots. But with Evil Urges, MMJ has managed to mitigate my worries, and now all I have is a love-love thing for the band. (This was also true of Z, their 2005 offering. But Evil Urges sealed the deal.) Alternating between solid guitar-driven rock and sublime ballads, Evil Urges blends it together into a nicely balanced elixir for the ears.

2. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive. Not just another band out of Boston, the Hold Steady can easily lay claim on one of the nation’s best rock bands. Earlier claims that lead vocalist Craig Finn was little more than a Springsteen clone don’t hold up these days. With lyrics that sound like Raymond Carver set to music, Finn and company sing about Jesus on the cross, drinking binges, guilt and regret and love and desperation. And for good measure, they name-check Joe Strummer. The Hold Steady has proven its staying power, and Stay Positive is positively this one-time bar band’s best album ever.

3. John Mellencamp, Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Over his 30-year career, John Mellencamp has come close to crafting the masterpiece. Two albums — Scarecrow and Human Wheels — fell just short of the mark. But Mellencamp hits his stride with this gritty, heartfelt album. With world-weary vocals and lyrics, Mellencamp takes the mantle from John Prine and Johnny Cash, giving us a great slice of Americana.

4. The Raveonettes, Lust Lust Lust. Sweet Jesus and Mary Chain, the Raveonettes’ mix of ’60s surf and pop with ultra-modern noise is the best echo/reverb sound to come out since, well, The Jesus and Mary Chain. I love it.

5. Santogold, Santogold. Listeners of a certain vintage may compare Santi White’s sweet voice to that of Dale Bozzio, lead singer of early ’80s new wavers Missing Persons. Other, younger listeners may detect a hint of Gwen Stefani. But those comparisons fail to tag the inventiveness White, aka Santogold, shows in this debut album. Mixing new wave and pop influences with hip-hop, soul and R&B, Santogold creates a near-perfect pop album. And she’s proving to be a good capitalist, cashing in on her sound with licensing deals. (You’ve probably heard some tunes from this album in Bud Light commercials.) When it comes to licensing, Santogold could probably teach even Moby a thing or two.

6. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend. I think they call the Vampire Weekend sound chamber rock or baroque rock, but this debut album fuses ska and power pop sentiments with the chamber music influences to create an innovative sound that few others have yet to imitate. (Ra Ra Riot is one exception, and maybe Vampire Weekend stole the sound from RRR and improved upon it.) In the wake of Vampire Weekend’s success, look for more bands going for baroque in the future.

7. Sprengiuhollen, Sprengiuhollin. The best thing to come out of Iceland since Bjork. There’s only one song in English on this album, so I don’t know what they’re singing on any of the other cuts. Well, except for the one song where I can make out the words “I am the walrus.” Still, it’s catchy alt-pop with groovy, guttural Nordic vocals.

8. The Coal Porters, Turn the Water On, Boy. My pick for bluegrass band of the year. It’s pretty straightforward bluegrass/country, but it’s well executed. Sometimes innovation is overrated.

9. Beck, Modern Guilt. Beck doing what beck does best: being Beck, fusing sounds into a colorful, upbeat bricolage that draws from myriad influences, from surf to space rock.

10. Cat Power, Jukebox. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) pays tribute to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and others by re-imagining the cover album. The Cat’s voice is smooth and mellifluous.

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11. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals. For fans of Big Country, Rod Stewart, Sam and Dave, Kenny Loggins, Michael Jackson, Tag Team, Twisted Sister, Lil Wayne, Pete Townsend, Of Montreal, Sinead O’Connor, Radiohead, Tom Petty, Madonna, Queen, Busta Rhymes and dozens of other artists sampled in this masterful mashup.

12. Basia Bulat, Oh, My Darling (2007). The voice of an angel.

13. The Breeders, Mountain Battles. The Deal ladies put together a great album. I only wish there was a touch more Pixies influence.

14. Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping. Beautifully odd, as any Of Montreal album should be. (By the way, Of Montreal are from Georgia.)

15. She Keeps Bees, Nests. A sultry songstress along the lines of Cat Power. You’ll be hearing more from her.

16. The Fireman, Electric Arguments. The latest Paul McCartney project is inventive and inspiring — much better than last year’s Memory Almost Full. Quite possibly McCartney’s best post-Beatles album ever. At least, it gives Band on the Run a run for its money.

17. British Sea Power, Do You Like Rock Music? Well, do ya, punk? I know I do. BSP serves up a good dose of goth-inspired, orchestral rock.

18. Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line. More chamber rock (see No. 6, above). Could this be a trend?

19. Okkervil River, The Stand Ins. These guys make interesting roots rock.

20. TV on the Radio, Dear Science. A solid offering from a solid postpunk band.

Top newcomers of 2008

1. Santogold. I think I’ve said all I need to say about Santi White (Santogold) in my commentary above (her debut album is No. 5 in my year-end list). But she delivers the goods with style.

2. Vampire Weekend. Yeah, I’ve already talked about them, too. They were one of the year’s most hyped bands among indie-rock aficionados, but they live up to it.

3. Basia Bulat. I’ve listened to Oh, My Darling I don’t know how many times now, and I’ve yet to tire of it.

4. Liam Finn (technically, 2007, but I didn’t find out about him until 2008). His debut I’ll Be Lightning is definitely in my top 50 for the year.

5. She Keeps Bees. The next Cat Power, which I think I’ve already said.

Biggest disappointments of 2008

1. Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping. Yes, this album made my top 20 list, but compared to last year’s excellent Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? this album was a letdown.

2. The Old 97s, Blame It On Gravity. A decent album, but I always go back to Wreck Your Life as this southern rock band’s high-water mark. Gravity comes nowhere near that.

3. Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal. Real disappointment.

4. Flogging Molly, Float. Flogging Molly? Yep. I don’t know what I was expecting here. Maybe my hopes are just too unrealistic.

5. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs. This made many end-of-year “best of” lists. I’m not sure why.

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