Before I get into this, I'll offer a disclaimer: I haven't heard most of the new releases of 2008. Who has? So my best of is composed of what I've been listening to the most.
Is it definitive? Not at all.
In fact, I hope that it spurs conversation and gets people telling me about what other albums I should consider. I'm always on the lookout for new music.
I do hope, however, that it also gets people thinking about these albums. They wouldn't be here if I didn't think they were genuinely worthy of purchase.
With that said, here it is.
1. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends -- Coldplay
Rare is the album that can strike the balance between a dominant hit and a larger piece that plays well throughout. However, Coldplay's Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends is not only an excellent vehicle for "Viva La Vida," which topped the Billboard Hot 100 on June 28, it is an album that sees an already accomplished band spreading its wings and venturing into new, bigger sounds. And they find great success doing so.
The title track to the band's fourth album has been unavoidable this year, and for good reason. First of all, it was a part of an iTunes ad, and we've all seen what that has done for certain songs in the past (Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" and Feist's "1234" come to mind.)
But more importantly, a well-crafted rock anthem is hard to dislike, and "Viva La Vida" is certainly worthy of the anthem moniker.
Narrated from the perspective of a deposed monarch, the lyrics are certainly sad, but if one simply listens to the music and the sound of Chris Martin's voice, it's difficult not to find uplift in this song. The orchestral background music and flourishes of bells are nothing like the mellowness Coldplay has been known for in the past.
And these efforts to expand their musical base resound throughout the album. While anyone familiar with the band's work can no doubt identify it as their own work, but they can also see differences. "Life In Technicolor," the opening instrumental, is played on a Persian santur, a hammered dulcimer common in Iraq.
While any time a band attempts to change its sound, it is met with mixed reaction, but in the case of this album, Coldplay has struck a vein it should likely follow in upcoming albums.
2. Mr. Love & Justice -- Billy Bragg
England's Billy Bragg has spent more than a quarter century defining himself at the corner of punk rock and folk. While they seem to be two contradictory genres, they often share an undoubtedly leftward political leaning. And since the early '80s, Bragg's voice has been ardently speaking for the working class and against the greed hypocrisy he often sees in western culture.
On Mr. Love & Justice, we find a kinder, gentler Billy Bragg. While political songs are still present in tracks like "O Freedom," "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show" and "Sing Their Souls Back Home," the album is much more personal than one might expect.
Songs like "I Keep Faith" and "M for Me" are much more the musings of a family man on keeping a relationship strong and the value of the person across the dinner table at the end of the day.
Even "Sing Their Souls Back Home," which tackles politically-charged subjects like poverty and war, is a heartfelt plea to bring people back home safely, not a sermon.
An added bonus for anyone interested is the album's deluxe edition, which features the regular versions on disc one, which are Bragg and his band, the Blokes. Disc two is just the singer and his guitar. In most cases, one version of the track is clearly stronger than the other, but both are very revealing. The second disc reveals much about how an artist can interpret his own song in two very different ways.
3. Honest for Once -- The Doc Marshalls
For a traditional country and Cajun sound, Brooklyn might not be the first place one would look. But in that case, the seeker would miss the Don Marshalls.
But the Marshalls aren't simply city boys imitating Southern music they like. Lead singer, acoustic guitarist, accordion player, washboard player and driving force Nick Beaudoing is the real deal, a Texas-raised Cajun with the voice to prove it. Two of the album's tracks are even sung in French, with the liner notes providing translations.
Honest for Once can also be classified as traditional country when one sees the subjects of the songs -- heartbreak, loss, life on the move, drinking and even murder.
"Ticket Out of Texas" kicks the album off in a with a rousing melody but slightly sad lyrics. Other strong tracks include "Dakota," "Never Found My Emmylou," and "St. Dymphna," but one can find few bad things to say about any of the album's 11 songs.
A gem hidden near the end of the album is "You Know What the Law is In Texas." A story told by an ex-convict who leaves prison and gets married only to have his wife leave him, it displays an anger rarely found in modern country music.
The Doc Marshalls show us that to find the country music of the past, sometimes we have to venture outside of Nashville, Austin or even the South all together.
4. The '59 Sound -- The Gaslight Anthem
What would happen if Bruce Springsteen were a Generation X'er who emerged from the New Jersey hardcore scene of the turn of the millennium? Pick up the Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound and find out.
In terms of energy and nostalgic themes, the sophomore effort by the Gaslight Anthem is worthy of the band's older Garden State brethren.
As one might expect of a band that cut its teeth on punk rock, the music is about rebellion, living fast and dying young. But the narrator seems to be one of the survivors. The lyrics don't glorify this way of life or necessarily put it down. It simply tells the story, and with a bit more wisdom than one might expect. There are ex-wives and life experiences one doesn't find in teenage rebellion music.
This is the music of survivors. Perhaps tough times are mentioned, but the music is hard-driving throughout. It makes the music more about continuing to move forward and live life, whatever the world might throw at you.
5. Blame It On Gravity -- The Old 97's
The Old 97's were one of the alt-country darlings of the '90s. They were one of the flag bearers for the genre who seemed for several years on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough.
But the breakthrough never came. It never really has come for the genre in general.
But on Blame It On Gravity, the band seems to show that they're at peace with this. With all four members around 40 years old, they seem happy to be still making the music they want to make.
And on the album, they sing a variety of songs that range in subject from love and love lost to shipwrecks and bank robberies.
On the opposite ends of the spectrum are the rocking "Dance With Me," sung by usual lead singer Rhett Miller, and the slow, mournful "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue," on which bassist Murry Hammond provides the vocals. This band can be happy, this band can be sad and this band can just be about fun. They do them all well.
"Here's to the Halcyon" is just such a funny song, as Miller laments the loss of the Halcyon, his small boat. He spends the song bargaining with God to save him. He promises to stop drinking, start reading his Bible and just become a good person if God only gets him out of his mess. The irony there is nothing sad about the song.
The next five
Nothing much to say about these. I could go on, but you've probably read too much already. Suffice it to say that these are also all good. Check them out.
6. Evil Urges -- My Morning Jacket
7. Day & Age -- The Killers
8. 19 -- Adele
9. Take Me to Town -- Skybombers
10. Float -- Flogging Molly