Top 35 Albums of 2008
It was a year that chimed in with idealism, and clanked out with pragmatism. "Hope" began the political season as an optimistic revelation, but concluded the year as a is-that-seriously-the-best-we-can-do? mantra right up there with "don't be evil."
Perfection was the goal, so music set itself to the task of eliminating the blemishes. Auto-Tune diluted the rough edges, but the economy fell apart and Kanye's mom died while undergoing plastic surgery. So much for perfection.
By the end of the year, we were searching for compromises. Once garish, Will.I.Am's take on "Hope" ended up sounding down right utopian.
There's a lot of fun to be had in the albums below, my picks for the best of 2008. Some of you will be disgusted by the likes of Lady GaGa, whose filthy rich party lifestyle is more gaudy than throwing a potlatch outside a homeless shelter (which is not that dissimilar from Kanye's Gucci soliloquy on SNL).
But compare that party-with-what-ya-got materialism to whatever "hopeful" nostalgia that the cosmoblogosphere was scolding you into: Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend. When asked to pick between a luxury simulacra and faux authenticity, I'll take the loot any day. I have no idea where these indie kids found cause to overuse the word "beauty" in this weary pastoral, but this year's Pitchfork bands felt more like a retreat from the future than nothing else since -- fuck, I dunno -- prohibition. Fantasy, indeed.
Then again, I banged my head to Chinese Democracy, so what the fuck, right?
Here they are, my favorite albums of 2008:
1) Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
Depending how you want to construe it, Girl Talk is either the most cynical thing happening in music right now or the only relevant culture for our time. Or you can just ctrl-alt-delete the historicizing and declare it the Finnegans Wake of pop music: a difficult mashup classic that is as fun to discuss as to ingest. (And as my Joycean college mentor would proclaim, dance to.) Nothing this year made me think more about music: how it's created, where it's distributed, how it's discussed, who owns it, how fans have become critics, and how critics have become artists.
2) MGMT, Oracular Spectacular
It wasn't easy, but they survived the summer.
3) Santogold, Santogold
It felt like an eternity between the moment you first heard "L.E.S. Artistes" in 2007 to when the album finally became available. And then another eternity between the album and the inevitable Bud Light commercial. The elongated backlash sine wave was the funnest roller-coaster ride of the year.
4) Juno, Soundtrack
There's a little Mark Loring in all of us. Who? Mark Loring -- that would be Jason Bateman's character in Juno (and one of the many coded references for Minneapolitans -- a memorial to the famed posthumous Loring Bar). Trapped between eras, Loring couldn't find the right place between his rocker past and grown-up future. Like the Alice in Chains tee that his wife (Jennifer Garner) splotches in eggshell yellow, he's ill-equipped for the upgrade. That tension, which is also a prevailing narrative of our time, is the essence of this soundtrack.
5) Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak
Kanye is your needy friend, Kanye is your worst blog commenter, Kanye is your John the Baptist, Kanye is your spoiled crybaby, Kanye is in your closet, Kanye is your form swallowing your content, Kanye is your everything, Kanye is your new bicycle.
6) Lykke Li, Youth Novels
Blonde, Swedish, design-damaged girl makes blippy, sullen, vulnerable album made for dancing around your apartment on a rainy day while waiting for your lipdub to finish uploading to Vimeo. Forget Suicide Girls, she's like the Tumblette of my dreams.
7) Lady GaGa, The Fame
Downtown NYC desperately needs a new hero. The hipsters, who eat their young faster than they can become zygotes, have already chewed up and spit out Lady GaGa, but she's the last great hope for a Madonna-esque crossover from naughty street creature to shiny pop diva.
8) Guns 'N Roses, Chinese Democracy
On the last page of the extensive liner notes, Axl gives his thank-yous for an album that he began recording before Dakota Fanning was born. Like the music itself, it's a hodge-podge of mysterious choices, with recognizable names and places jumping out of the jumble: Donatella Versace, Hoobastank, Suicide Girls, Ferrari, Weezer, SoHo House, Mickey Rourke, Bungalow 8, Apple Computers, Lars Ulrich, and Alice In Chains. If you stare at this list long enough, cross your eyes, spin around a few times, and throw some Hail Mary's at the Falun Gong -- Chinese Democracy sorta begins to makes sense.
9) Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles
This year I almost ceded victory to the music blogs, MySpace, and HypeMachine. The single seemed to finally drive the nail in the jewel case coffin of the album, so I nearly replaced this annual "best albums" list with a "best songs" list. (How else can I tout Teyana Taylor's "Google Me" or The Count & Sinden's "Beeper" or Kid Sister's "Pro Nails" -- songs all released in early 2008 but still have no accompanying albums.) With producers rushing out tunes and leaks fueling an embeddable culture, the time gap between hearing the song and getting the album now seems agonizingly long [see above]. But so what? No one will care about Crystal Castles this time next year, but "Crimewave" was the best Depeche Mode song never made.
10) Beyonce, I Am... Sasha Fierce
Slinging "fierce" into your lexicon at this point is like lighting the fuse on the ticking timebomb of obsolescence. Unless you're Beyonce, who can slap on a robot glove and look like she just dropped in to say hi! from 2012. The futuristic, angry Beyonce songs are always her best, and half of this two-disc package is throw-away R&B, but the other half is loud, bitter, and -- okay sure, whatever you say, Comandante Knowles -- fierce.
33) Foals, Antidotes