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CD Reviews:
The Best Music Of 2008

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2008

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The album is dying, they say.

Well, “they” are not listening.

True the numbers side with the naysayers, showing that full-album sales continue to decline as digital downloads of individual songs (which topped the 1 billion mark in 2008) grow. But predictions that such a paradigm shift is the death knell for the album as an art form are grossly premature — as evidenced by the long-form fare that rolled out during the past 12 months, including a lineup of durable and inspiring works rich beyond whatever hits happened to spin off them.

Here, then, are the top dozen albums of 2008, followed by a second dozen that also merit attention ...

The Black Keys, “Attack & Release” (Nonesuch): The minimalist Akron blues-rock duo shook things up by teaming with Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse for its fifth album, bringing some welcome new energy and collaborative daring to the group at just the right time in its career.

Buena Vista Social Club, “At Carnegie Hall” (World Circuit/ Nonesuch): The long-overdue release of the historic 1998 concert filmed for Wim Wenders’ documentary of Ry Cooder’s Cuban music reclamation project is as revelatory as the original album — made all the more poignant because of how many of the performers are no longer with us.

Coldplay, “Vida la Vida or Death and All His Friends” (Capitol): There’s no denying that Chris Martin and his cohorts know how to write great songs, tying craft and creativity into soaring, anthemic epics. Tapping Brian Eno (Talking Heads, U2) to co-produce only broadened the already arresting sonic palette.

Rodney Crowell, “Sex & Gasoline” (Work Song/Yep Roc): Singer-songwriter Crowell has been on a creative a roll since “The Houston Kid” took him into boldly autobiographical territory in 2001. His 14th album is typically pointed and passionate and benefits from the production of Rochester Adams grad Joe Henry and the hot band he assembled to support Crowell’s vocals.

Dr. John, “City That Care Forgot” (429/Savoy): The post-Katrina state of his hotel has left the Night Tripper from New Orleans mad as hell, and ready to give it to those he feels are responsible for the tragedy. Fortunately, his vitriol drives these songs into a deeply felt state of funk that strikes an even more righteous groove.

Kathleen Edwards, “Asking For Flowers” (Zoe/Rounder): Four albums into her career, the Canadian singer-songwriter is in full bloom. This 11-song set filled with literate and provocative lyricism, vivid characters and cinematically engaging scenarios, resulting in an album that demands you listen from start to finish.

Firewater, “The Golden Hour” (Bloodshot): The iconoclastic Tod A’s world travels through the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia inform a cascading aural travelogue that’s rich in both melodic songcraft and rhythmic dexterity.

Girl Talk, “Feed the Animals” (Illegal Art): Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” popularized the mash-up concept, but nobody does it with such skillful invention and cheery playfulness as Pittsburgh’s Gregg Gillis. He’ll slam together Busta Rhymes, the Police, Argent, Kanye West, the Jackson 5 and Queen — and that’s just in one of the shorter songs on this celebration of one man’s vast taste.

Metallica, “Death Magnetic” (Warner Bros.): “Comeback” is too strong of a term for what the kings of metal wrought on their ninth studio album, but this is certainly a fair bit stronger than 2003’s “St. Anger” and on a breakneck par with vintage fare such as “Master of Puppets” and “Ride the Lightning.” This is some kind of monster indeed.

My Morning Jacket, “Evil Urges” (ATO): Pigeonhole this Louisville troupe as a Southern Rock band and you may miss the broad, genre-defying palette from which it operates. The group’s fifth studio album runs from falsetto-sung funk to pillow tone poems, old school soul, folksy country vibes and ’60s-style garage rock. Dizzying ... and delightful.

R.E.M. “Accelerate” (Warner Bros.): For those who say they’ve missed R.E.M. rocking, hooky and harder, the modern rock pioneers bring it. The songs blast forth with the bristling, rough ’n’ tumble punky energy of the group’s earliest days, with a few tastes of the moody late-period stuff and some of Michael Stipe’s most potently political lyrics, which are even clear enough to understand these days.

Santogold, “Santogold” (Downtown): The year’s most refreshing and arresting debut came from a Philadelphia singer, songwriter and producer, (real name Santi White). She honed her vision in punk rock, African-American college studies and even the corporate side of the music business before delivering a sonic maelstrom that’s hip and hooky and moves fast enough to always yield some new look.

And another dozen must-hears from 2008: Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, “Cardinology” (Lost Highway); Beck, “Modern Guilt” (DGC); David Byrne and Brian Eno, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” (Total Mundo); Nick Cave, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (Anti-); Fleet Foxes, “Fleet Foxes” (Sub Pop); The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive” (Vagrant); Lil Wayne, “Tha Carter III” (Cash Money/ Universal Motown); MGMT, “Oracular Spectaular” (Columbia); Mudcrutch, “Mudcrutch” (Reprise); Adams & the Cardinals, “Cardinology” (Lost Highway); Beck, “Modern Guilt” (DGC); David Byrne and Brian Eno, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” (Total Mundo); Nick Cave, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (Anti-); Fleet Foxes, “Fleet Foxes” (Sub Pop); The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive” (Vagrant); Lil Wayne, “Tha Carter III” (Cash Money/Universal Motown); MGMT, “Oracular Spectaular” (Columbia); Mudcrutch, “Mudcrutch” (Reprise); Randy Newman, “Harps and Angels” (Reprise); The Raconteurs, “Consolers of the Lonely” (Third Man/ Warner Bros.); Raphael Saadiq, “The Way I See It” (Columbia); Was (Not Was), “Boo!” (Rykodisc).

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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