Everyone's a Critic: The Top 10 Albums of 2008

I'm more well-known for my political commentary, both on Huffington Post and elsewhere, but I cut my critical teeth in the world of music journalism. Indeed, without music, I would never have come to politics -- the two are surprisingly similar in many respects, but that's a post for another day. In any case, despite having abandoned music journalism a couple years ago, I still do my annual top 10 albums. Here's this year's, as first printed in today's issue of my day-job employer, South Florida's City Link/Metromix.com. Of course, every music geek worth his or her salt has a top 10 list as well. A good summation of the lists from other pros can be found at Metacritic, here. So how 'bout you, folks? Post your own top 10 in the comments, or at least offer snide commentary as to why my list is dangerous, stupid and wrong. Happy New Year.

In compiling a list of the 10 best albums of 2008, I had to set up a few ground rules to pare the list down to the proper round number preferred by OCD-ridden music geeks. First, no live albums. That ruled out awesome releases by The Clash and Neil Young. Also, no re-releases or compilations. Goodbye to Pavement's Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition and Bob Dylan's Tell Tale Signs. Keeping in mind that I only included new studio releases, here's the top 10 of 2008:

10. Hey Ma by James
The Manchester-based group released its first record in almost a decade this year. It went largely unnoticed, but for those of us for whom the Madchester sound was an important part of high school's soundtrack, the album proved a welcome return to form.

9. The Renaissance by Q-Tip
The year's biggest comeback album proved that Q-Tip still has the goods that made A Tribe Called Quest the most important voice in the conscious-rap movement, combining important messages with deep grooves into a total package that will shake your ass and free your mind.

8. Tennessee Pusher by the Old Crow Medicine Show
Turn off that country-music station and buy this album if you want to know what country music would sound like today had the sounds of the Appalachian jug band beat out the influences of Texas swing and Nashville twang.

7. Brighter Than Creation's Dark by Drive-By Truckers
Like the No. 1 band in this countdown, the Truckers are an undersung act that has released brilliant album after brilliant album with not a single misstep among them. As on "Methamphetamine" off Old Crow Medicine Show's Tennessee Pusher, the Truckers handle rural America's drug epidemic on "You and Your Crystal Meth." It's a subject about which mainstream country has been deafeningly silent. The Truckers continue the dark, harrowing feel with tunes such as "Daddy Needs a Drink" and the outstanding "Checkout Time in Vegas," from which the album gets its title. The album seals the deal by never sinking into the sluggishness that often accompanies such gloom-and-doom lyrics. In a perfect world, the Truckers would be our modern version of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Instead, we got Kid Rock.

6. The Fabled City by The Nightwatchman
More than a few critics cracked wise over the earnestness of erstwhile Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello's political-folk alter ego. But the joke's really on those reviewers, who read as if they had never heard of Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg, much less actually used a few brain cells to read A People's History of the United States. In fact, with this album's first-person tales of depravation at the hands of the moneyed class, Morello falls more in line with those folkie antecedents than he did on The Nightwatchman's debut album, which occasionally sounded like anti-war chants set to music.

5. Real Animal by Alejandro Escovedo
The previous album by the genre-defying Escovedo, The Boxing Mirror, made my top 10 list in 2006. That album was Escovedo's first since his near-death at the hands of hepatitis, and it sounded like the sort of thing produced by a man who has stared death in the face: ambitious, brilliant, a determined effort to leave a mark in a world where a life span is, in the grand scheme, a mere twinkle. "Real Animal" is Escovedo's return to form, and though this record doesn't reach for the heights of Boxing Mirror, outside of that album, it's Escovedo's best work in a decade. And for an artist as consistently good as Escovedo, that's saying something.

4. Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket
Back in 2005, MMJ hit No. 1 on my list for "Z," the album that marked the band's departure from countrified classic rock to... well, something weirder, more original and definitely more interesting. This year's Evil Urges cemented the band's new, experimental direction, bursting with juicy funk elements and psychedelic fuzz. My Morning Jacket is now the most exciting thing to rise out of the alt-country bin since Wilco. Its recent albums are stunning, and it may just have the best live show in the country... provided singer-songwriter Jim James doesn't fall off the stage like he did in Iowa City a couple months back.

3. Third by Portishead
Only the third album by trip-hop pioneers Portishead and the first in more than a decade, "Third" had plenty of hype to live up to, which makes the fact that it blew the hype out of the water all the more impressive. Electronic music has rarely, if ever, sounded so human as on this disc, with its messy beats and the requisite ethereal female vocals that were ripped off by a thousand other acid-house and electronica acts in the wake of Portishead's debut in 1994. Somehow, despite the group's sound becoming the model for electronic music for much of the mid-1990s, Third manages to sound current. Listen after listen has failed to tell me precisely why, and I suppose that's the magic of the thing; despite all the '90s electronica features, this is undeniably a contemporary-sounding album, for reasons that cannot be properly explained. You just have to listen to it, preferably while on some fashionably retro drug like ecstasy or absinthe.

2. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Perhaps the most darkly lyrical album yet in a 25-year career known almost entirely for its dark lyricism, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! burns with death, horror, dirt, dope and, most of all, sex. And not the pretty romantic kind of sex, but the whips-and-blood sort of sex that the Marquis de Sade enjoyed on a typical weeknight cooped up in the manor house with a few close friends. If he were around back then, Nick Cave would have been one of them.

1. Stay Positive by The Hold Steady
With Stay Positive, The Hold Steady has released four outstanding albums in a row, beginning with its debut, 2004's Almost Killed Me. There are other records on this list that I believe to be technically better, but none of them has seen as much time in my CD player as this one. It's so rare to find a band that defies the sophomore slump, much less puts out four great albums in its first four tries, but that's what we have with The Hold Steady, currently the best band in the country. But for a band that sounds like Bruce Springsteen if he were of our generation and grew up on punk rock and The Replacements, this is hardly surprising.

Honorable Mentions:
I had a hard time cutting Ryan Adams and the Cardinals' Cardinology, Thievery Corporation's Radio Retaliation and Fucked Up's The Chemistry of Common Life to get to 10. I even considered a top 13, but I figured there'd be riots. Also, it's worth noting that local acts Rachel Goodrich, Zombies! Organize!! and the Jacob Jeffries Band all released excellent albums this year (Tinker Toys, Before It's Too Late and Wonderful, respectively). In the half-decade or so that I've been compiling these lists, only one local band has actually gotten onto the list alongside the national acts (that would be The Freakin Hott for 2006's Slip on the Lips), but all three of the aforementioned discs are worthy of multiple spins.