the best recordings of 2008

Did pop music slip into hibernation during the last third of 2008? It sure seems that way.

In compiling an annual critic’s pick list of the year’s best recordings, an odd statistic emerged. Without realizing it, every entry came from the first eight months of the year. Usually, “best of” lists can’t help but favor more recently released product. If for no other reason, such music is fresher in everyone’s minds. While a few autumn items caught the ear (including albums by Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon and Chrissie Hynde’s ageless Pretenders), all of these Top 10 picks were released by early August. Nine of them came out by the end of June.

Even an unusually lengthy list of runner up albums by Elvis Costello, Adele, Bill Frisell, Vampire Weekend and John Hiatt all surfaced before summer began to fade.

Maybe the keener pop visionaries knew the economy was going to tank. Maybe they were glued to the election. Who knows? But a look at the finer music of the year this time meant sifting further back through the calendar than usual.

From Randy Newman’s vicious Americana postcard to Fleet Foxes’ new generation psychedelia to Tift Merritt’s country music from a foreign shore, the year’s richest recordings surfaced before 2008 went South.

Here’s the list:

randy newman: harps and angels

randy newman: harps and angels

1. Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (August) – On a brilliant but frightening return to pop duty, Newman offered a sadly hysterical testament of the times – a saga full of warped patriotism, bloated self-worth and ways those demons designed an ugly world vision.

fleet foxes: fleet foxes

fleet foxes: fleet foxes

2. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (June) – While not a debut record, Fleet Foxes nonetheless introduced the Seattle band’s modern view of pop psychedelia – an atmospheric, spiritual, folk-based sound that referenced The Beach Boys, Fairport Convention, My Morning Jacket and more.

tift merritt: another country

tift merritt: another country

3. Tift Merritt: Another Country (February) – The best country album of 2008 that country radio never touched. Merritt’s third studio outing was more appealing, emotive and lyrical than any modern Nashville fare, but was inspired by the singer’s recent pilgrimage to Paris.

marcin wasilewski trio: january

marcin wasilewski trio: january

4. Marcin Wasilewski Trio: January (May) – As Tord Gustavsen did last year on Being There, Polish pianist Wasilewski created an ECM record of understated instrumental grace that is jazz by definition more than execution. I’ve listened to no other 2008 album more than this one.

marc ribot: party intellectuals

marc ribot's ceramic dog: party intellectuals

5. Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog: Party Intellectuals (June) – Aided by a fearless new electric trio, New York avant-garde guitarslinger Ribot cranked up the volume and emerged with a dance album for the apocalypse. Rich in distortion, dissonance and radical groove.

teddy thompson: a piece of what you need

teddy thompson: a piece of what you need

6. Teddy Thompson: A Piece of What You Need (June) – The sleeper pop treat of the year, A Piece of What You Need came packed with vintage Merseybeat melodies, twilight cool, articulate storylines and a seasoned sense of musical adventure and fun.

james mcmurtry: just us kids

james mcmurtry: just us kids

7. James McMurtry: Just Us Kids (April) – “I like to pretend I’m just a visitor here,” sings a crackhead heroine in one of Just Us Kids‘ murkier tales from the on-the-edge outskirts. Such songs reaffirmed McMurtry as a master spinner of dark, rural Americana yarns.

dr. john and the lower 911: city that care forgot

dr. john and the lower 911: city that care forgot

8. Dr. John and the Lower 911: City That Care Forgot (June) – Lamenting his native New Orleans, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack fashioned eulogies for the past, protests for the present and prayers for the future with the celebratory soul/funk spiritualism of his homeland.

jenny scheinman: crossing the field

jenny scheinman: crossing the field

9. Jenny Scheinman: Crossing the Field (April) – The second of two recent albums by the New York violinist (the first was a vocal effort) mapped out a panoramic instrumental journey of animated jazz, classical and folk terrains as well as the wonderfully indefinable locales in-between.

marah: angels of destruction!

marah: angels of destruction!

10. Marah: Angels of Destruction! (January) – The Philly-turned-Brooklyn rockers designed a pop tabernacle of joyous pub-style righteousness. Banjos and bagpipes along with hints of minstrel music and vaudeville fueled Marah’s infectious rock ‘n’ roll revival.



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