If there is any up side to these dire, perilous and truly frightening economic times, it is this: History has shown us that music is one of the only things in life that seems to be recession- (and depression-) proof. In fact, it thrives in times of crisis.
Remember, the blues arose in part as a cathartic response to economic hardship. Jazz came into its own during the Great Depression. And some of the greatest sounds in the history of rock 'n' roll were made during bleak economic times, including the recession of the mid-'70s (which gave us punk) and the era of trickle-down economics in the mid-'80s (which gave us hip-hop and the first flourishing of indie rock).
Millions of words have been written in the new millennium about the precarious state of the music industry, and the digitally-induced seismic changes in the ways that music is distributed continued in 2008. A clear model for how the business will adapt still has not emerged. But that's the music business.
Through it all, the musicians themselves continued to create works of incredible depth, poignancy and artistry, just as they always have. And in the end, 2008 was as difficult a year to winnow it all down to a annum-closing Top 10 list as 1958, 1968, 1978 or any other "golden era" you'd care to name.
Here is my look at the 10 best albums of the last 12 months--any or all of which would make a great (and economical, even in these times) holiday present for the pop-music fan on your gift list--followed by the next 40 entries in my 2008 tally of recordings I'd grab if the house was on fire (regardless of whether or not they were still accessible in the Internet "cloud"). And remember that even if things don't get much better in 2009, we'll at least continue to find solace, inspiration or an outlet for our frustrations in music.
1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" (Anti-)
The 14th studio album from the long-running Australian cult hero continued in the noisy, nasty mode of last year's self-titled effort by Grinderman, with just as much venom but with even funnier, smarter and more wonderfully twisted lyrics. If there was a more joyful raging against the machine in 2008, I didn't hear it. (My original review can be found here.)
2. David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" (http://everythingthathappens.com)
More than a quarter of a century after their first collaboration on "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," two of the most visionary artists in the history of rock came together again for an album that is stronger--a collection of instantly winning and familiar tunes in what Byrne called the "folk-gospel" mode. It's impossible not to be moved by its warm and optimistic vibes. (My original review is here.)
3. Vivian Girls, "The Vivian Girls" (In the Red)
This indie-rock trio from Brooklyn takes its name from the fantasy world created by the late Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, and just as he captured a strange but intoxicating world of childhood innocence and burgeoning sexuality on canvas, this group brings those complex feelings to its melodic but edgy brand of rock, offering the perfect antidote to the Miley Cyrus/"Juno" bizarro world of young femininity so often seen in the media.
4. The Knux, "Remind Me in 3 Days" (Interscope)
This sibling duo relocated from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and made one of the most inventive and playful hip-hop albums since the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique" or De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising," creating intoxicating and always surprising collages of gurgling analog synths, classic-rock guitar riffs, clattering percussion, lovably cheesy beat-box grooves, gleefully melodic hooks, gonzo sound effects, Valley Girl voiceovers and a thousand other ingredients (plus the kitchen sink). (My original review is here.)
5. Brazilian Girls, "New York City" (Verve)
Born in Rome, raised in Nice and Munich but so at home in the capital of American polyglot that her group has named its third album in the Big Apple's honor, singer Sabina Sciubba is both the alluring seductress and the threatening dominatrix as she navigates this Brooklyn trio's irresistible mix of space-age bachelor music, the pioneering synthesizer sounds of'70s legends Krautrock and the best of the current underground electronic dance scene. (My original review is here.)
6. Local H, "12 Angry Months" (Shout Factory)
From Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" to Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear," and from Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" to... well, almost everything in the Rolling Stones' catalog, rock 'n' roll has never suffered from a shortage of great breakup records. Long-running local heroes Scott Lucas and Brian St. Clair made another that very much deserves to be named in such prestigious company--an instant classic that will speak to anyone who's ever endured gut-wrenching heartbreak. (My interview with Lucas is here.)
7. Saul Williams, "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!" (niggytardust.com/Fader)
Produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, the third album by this fiery political poet and rapper employs Reznor's minimalist industrial/electronic percussion as a wildly inventive musical backings for Wiliams' impressionistic lyrics surveying the ugly realities of life as an African-American in the new millennium. (My original review is here.)
8. Fleet Foxes, "Fleet Foxes" (Sub Pop)
The "baroque harmonic pop jams" of this Seattle quintet show a deep and abiding love of traditional British Isles folk music as well as the orchestral filigree of '60s West Coast pop a la the "Smile"-era Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The beautiful harmony vocals, killer melodies and entrancing vibe of songs such as "White Winter Hymnal," "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Your Protector" simply cannot be denied. (My original review is here.)
9. Kanye West, "808s & Heartbreak" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
Living with this album nonstop for four days as I struggled to write my review for the Sun-Times, I kept vacillating between 3 and 3.5 stars on the paper's 4-star scale; like many fans, I was thrown by how astonishingly different it is from the rest of West's work. But I just haven't been able to get it out of my head since, and with every listen, the poignancy of these personal tales of loss grows deeper, perfectly matched by the cold, lonely, robotic but nevertheless winning grooves that accompany them. Upon further reflection, it is a brave and daring 4-star effort that deserves to be heard by any fan of adventurous pop music. (My original review is here.)
10. Erykah Badu, "New AmErykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War" (Motown)
The first masterpiece of 2008, I wrote when this disc was released early this year, and the dark, soulful epic of self-reliance has lost none of its power in the months since. Think of George Clinton or Curtis Mayfield working in New Orleans with a sampler and the most diverse bands of their careers, and you'll still only be half way toward understanding the brilliance of what the queen of neo-soul has created. (My original review is here.)
And the next 40 (click on the titles to link to my original reviews):
11. TV on the Radio, "Dear Science" (DGC/Interscope)
12. Parts & Labor, "Receivers" (Jagjaguwar)
16. The Black Angels, "Directions to See a Ghost" (Light in the Attic)
25. Ladytron, "Velocifero" (Nettwerk)
28. Lykke Li, "Youth Novels" (Atlantic)
29. The Gutter Twins, "Saturnalia" (Sub Pop)
34. Beck, "Modern Guilt" (Interscope)
35. Tim Fite, "Fair Ain't Fair" (Anti-)
36. Deerhunter, "Microcastle" (Kranky)
37. Shot Baker, "Take Control" (Riot Fest)
38. Tokyo Police Club, "Elephant Shell" (Saddle Creek)
39. Nine Inch Nails, "The Slip" (nin.com)
40. Alejandro Escovedo, "Real Animal" (Back Porch)
41. Sia, "Some People Have Real Problems" (Hear Music)
42. Joan as Police Woman, "To Survive" (Cheap Lullaby)
43. Darker My Love, "2" (Dangerbird)
44. AC/DC, "Black Ice" (Columbia)
45. King Khan and the Shrines, "The Supreme Genius of King Khan" (Vice)
46. Disfear, "Live the Storm" (Relapse)
47. Super Furry Animals, "Hey Venus!" (Rough Trade)
48. Black Mountain, "In the Future" (Jagjaguwar)
49. Amy Ray, "Didn't It Feel Kinder" (Daemon)