2008 was a nutty year. Chinese Democracy finally came out, Portishead released a third album, Q-Tip released a second one and we elected a black guy to be President. If someone had told you in 2007 that you’d witness all of that in the upcoming year, you probably wouldn’t have believed them.
On the other hand, some things didn’t change. Local record stores moved closer to extinction, rap continued its descent into inanity and BET is still the most depressing channel.
But why dwell on the negative? Here are my picks for the best albums of 2008, in alphabetical order, as always.
Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
First off, you’ve got to love an album where the first single is actually the bonus song. Of all of the albums that attempted to capture the present of 2008, this is the one that made it sound the most fun. There’s fear and optimism all set to head-nodding grooves provided by the likes of Madlib and Sa-Ra Creative Partners.
Some of the other notable parts of the album are Erykah at her most vulnerable on “Me” and the most memorable liner art in quite some time. Plus, seeing her perform much of the material live over the summer was literally awe-inspiring. With every new release, Erykah Badu impresses. Here’s to hoping that the wait for the next one isn’t excruciatingly long.
Beck – Modern Guilt
Beck is mysterious and he confounds. The Information wasn’t particularly impressive, whereas Midnite Vultures has become a classic. And that’s how his canon is; either tolerate it or love it. Obviously Modern Guilt is the latter, but it’s also possibly the best Beck album to date. It probably has something to do with the fact that he seemed neither morose nor full of irony.
Of course, it also most likely has a bit to do with the production by Danger Mouse. At times, the album’s got a throwback vibe to the 1960s or 1970s, and the harmonies and melodies aren’t just upbeat—they’re infectious. You could practically see kids on Happening ’68 dancing to “Gamma Ray”.
The high points on the album are the first single “Chemtrails” and the album closer “Volcano”, which are both incredibly reflective songs. But honestly, even the album b-sides are worth listening to. This might be the album that got the most spins this year for me.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
There’s something about For Emma, Forever Ago that’s hard to put a finger on, and it’s that something that makes this album great. It’s really difficult trying to explain exactly why this album is worth all of the acclaim.
It’s probably the earnestness. The lo-fi adds something that a budget, recording studio or label backing couldn’t bring to the table. It’s reminiscent of Cody ChesnuTT’s debut in that you see something in the purest form. For Emma, Forever Ago is about as pure as it gets.
But again, it may be the intimacy. The album is a stunning and sometimes frightening look into the emotional state of a dude spending a winter in a cabin. This album is like an awesome indie film—it reminds you that all that’s really necessary to create something lasting is equal parts talent and passion.
Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Kudos for Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green for not trying to run the “Crazy” train to the bank. Not that it was ever really a possibility, as “selling out” doesn’t appear to be in either artist’s vocabulary.
Still, The Odd Couple is impressive in that it surpasses expectations. Danger Mouse provides soundcapes with more nuance and Cee-Lo continues to shine the light on the dark corners of his psyche. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” is a brutally honest song about the loss of a legend and inspiration, where he admits to things most wouldn’t.
While it may not be as “fun” or upbeat as St. Elsewhere, The Odd Couple is the stronger album. It’s a much richer experience and it makes the listener richer for having heard it.
Nas – The N[U]gge[T] Tape/Untitled
It’s hard to find someone in hip-hop more controversial than Nasir Jones. There’s always an opinion to be had about the guy (Top Five Dead or Alive? N[U]gge[T] publicity stunt or legitimate button pushing? Is hip-hop really dead?) Still there’s no denying that Untitled saw the emcee in rare form.
Nas squashed some beefs, attempted to “ether” Fox News, pulled his suburban fans’ cards, brought up dietary concerns and even addressed the infamous “N Word” a couple times. Love the guy or hate him, he gets props for actually having lyrical content in 2008.
And the The N[U]gge[T] Tape is the perfect complement in the form of a street album. Clever soundbites and even more clever production by DJ Green Lantern gave us the grand return of Nasty Nas, a ferocious lyricist not burdened by the label pressure of moving units.
Portishead – Third
How does a group not disappoint a decade’s worth of expectations? By sidestepping them. Instead of trying to emulate the sound the helped pioneer in the ’90s, Portishead showed ten years worth of growth on Third. It’s almost like jumping from The Bends to In Rainbows but skipping everything in-between; the sound is drastically different, yet it’s still unequivocally a Portishead album.
As haunting as always, but refashioned for the new millennium, Third bustles with energy. “Silence” opens with Portuguese before a rapid drum pattern bursts in followed by strings, cowbell, violent guitar and builds for two minutes before the vocals arrive. It makes quite the impression.
Over the next forty-odd minutes the listener is taken to vaguely familiar place and some almost foreign elements—”Machine Gun” lands like a blow to the face and “Deep Water” is unplugged. By the time album closer “Threads” (the closest to a vintage Portishead track) arrives, the group has reaffirmed the faith placed in them and shown impressive maturity by trusting their fans matured with them.
The Roots – Rising Down
This album best exemplified the uncertainty that was nearly omnipresent in 2008. Rising Down could have easily provided the soundtrack for the uneasiness about the election, the economy and even the future that many Americans felt. The title track is about as grown-up as major-label hip-hop got this past year, seeing Styles P, Mos Def and Black Thought trading rhymes about ecological disasters and pharmaceutical dependence.
Black Thought is really the star of the album—whether he’s losing his temper on the album intro or we get a glimpse at his rhyming prowess at two different points in his life, it’s his lyricism that propelled the album and shaped the tone. Not even the guests lighten the mood, they add up to a Greek Choir of Doom.
That said, the album closer and title track offers a light at the end of the tunnel. With its throbbing go-go beat and a guest verse by rising star Wale, it almost sounds like The Roots are ready to party again.
She & Him – Volume One
Chalk this one up to “going in with an open mind.” History tells us that credible actors make horrible music, yet Zooey Deschanel is a glorious anomaly. M. Ward and Deschanel have crafted a snark-less, irony-free throwback to a bygone era. Is there anything Gen-X can’t do?
At thirteen songs, it feels too short, but Volume One implies a promise that, if unfulfilled, would be a tragedy because the music is both vintage and timeless. It’s a guilt-free pleasure of pop from a time before pop was laden with sappy sentiment and milquetoast melodies. This isn’t a vanity project; it’s a genuine classic.
TV on the Radio – Dear Science
TVOTR continue to defy classification other than awesome, Dear Science is easily the group’s most accessible album to date; “Crying” is funky enough to dance to and “Family Tree” is a straight-up ballad. But that’s really just the group exploring a new frontier.
Still, TVOTR can be a tough sell to the uninitiated. Lyrics that need to be studied and deciphered, sounds that toe the line between chaotic and cacophony. But those are the moments that band seems the most alive, and Dear Science is the most energetic that we’ve seen them. The harmonies are still present, but most importantly, the magic is still there.
Wale – The Mixtape About Nothing
Easily the most refreshing thing to come out of hip-hop in some time, Wale’s use of his love of Seinfeld as a basis for a mixtape was genius and certainly made him stand out from the pack. But then again, so did his humor. And his use of go-go percussion. OK… so the entire album is unique.
Whether he’s rhyming over “Roc Boys”, discussing the state of the industry on “The Perfect Plan” or tackling “n[U]gge[T]” on “The Kramer” (back-to-back-to-back) he rhymes with the clarity of a journalist. On “The Remake of a Remake” and “The Bmore Club Slam”, he showcases his wit. In a perfect world, Wale would truly be the future of hip-hop.
*Janelle Monae – Metropolis: The Chase Suite
This is a bonus one. It wouldn’t be right to bump a full-length for an EP, but Metropolis deserves some props. At a time when Black music seems uninspired, Janelle Monae dreams up a storyline set in the future and plans suites. She casts characters and tells a story. And she even has time to draft a letter to the President. It’s the definition of a splashy entrance, but thank god she crashed the party.
And that’s it. Those were the 10.5 best albums of 2008. Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line.
Tags: Beck, Danger Mouse, Erykah Badu, Guns n' Roses, Madlib, Mos Def, Nas, Q-Tip, She & Him, The Roots, TV on the Radio, Wale