Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

The Best Albums of 2008

| 40 Comments | No TrackBacks

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" (

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!" (

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)

13. Jenny Lewis, "Acid Tongue" (Warner Bros.)

14. Spiritualized "Songs in A&E" (Fontana)

15. Sigur Ros, "Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust" (XL)

16. The Black Angels, "Directions to See a Ghost" (Light in the Attic)

17. Girl Talk, "Feed the Animals" (Illegal Art)

18. Gnarls Barkley, "The Odd Couple" (Atlantic)

19. Weezer, "Weezer" (Geffen)

20. Lou Reed, "Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse" (Matador)

21. Portishead, "Third" (Mercury)

22. Q-Tip, "The Renaissance" (Universal/Motown)

23. Rise Against, "Appeal to Reason" (DGC/Interscope)

24. Flight of the Conchords, "Flight of the Conchords" (Sub Pop)

25. Ladytron, "Velocifero" (Nettwerk)

26. Bob Dylan, "Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased, 1989-2006" (Columbia)

27. Moby, "Last Night" (Mute/EMI)

28. Lykke Li, "Youth Novels" (Atlantic)

29. The Gutter Twins, "Saturnalia" (Sub Pop)

30. Wire, "Object 47" (Pink Flag)

31. Randy Newman, "Harps and Angels" (Nonesuch)

32. Sons and Daughters, "This Gift" (Domino)

33. Death Cab for Cutie, "Narrow Stairs" (Atlantic)

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" (

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)

50. Madonna, "Hard Candy" (Warner Bros.)

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:


A fine list, Jim, although I can't nearly agree with that Brazilian Girls record, and I'm one of the few who's still struggling to figure out what the big deal about Fleet Foxes is. But that notwithstanding, I admire your moxie for putting up the Byrne/Eno record. In fairness, though, you and I are both Eno marks, and I was especially happy to hear this collaboration turn out so well, especially considering how completely flat the Coldplay record fell (though that wasn't all Eno's fault). I'm also not ready to call "New AmErykah" a "masterpiece," though it's a very, very good record. Generally speaking, "masterpiece" is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and if a "masterpiece" is only the tenth-best album of the year, that puts the ones ahead of it into a much higher echelon. Again, though, nitpicking.

I'm still off-board on Weezer, though. One of the fifty best records of the year? C'mon, man, you're kidding, right? Thanks for the Super Furry shoutout, though. That is a fantastic record.

Typical old man trying to be cutting edge list. Who in the heck would ever have a top 10 2008 list that totally ignores anything thats main stream, with the exception of Kanye West.
Take a look at what sells Jim. Thats what the masses prefer. I guess you just have to go ahead and continue your questionable music taste that would get you laughed out of any dorm room and I'm sure your spouse has a ipod that has none of this.

That's a fantastic list... you can't go wrong with Nick Cave at number 1.

My only real complaint would be that NiggyTardust was last year, though there's no question it's great.

Eh... I'll take some of it, but Nick Cave... I don't know, he's made the same record over and over and over again... I didn't think he was a very good interview on the show either... he seemed like he didn't want to be there, and you and Greg wouldn't stop kissing his butt. I don't know, it's nice to know if I want to make sloppy music and keep doing the same thing every album I can have a career like Nick Cave.

Fleet Foxes, Moby, TV on the Radio and Erykah Badu are irrelevant... Feed The Animals is nowhere NEAR being a top 20 album of '08, FOTC is only a great listen if you have the show/videos to go along with it... not an enjoyable album by any means... quite annoying actually.

The Knux? Never heard of it... NEXT!

Kanye, Byrne/Eno, Gutter Twins, Death Cab and Beck would have been a sufficient list.

It looks like you tried to hard to be obscure on this one Jim... but that's just my opinion... I openly admit that I have to have somewhat of a "pop" factor in my music, but I also like to keep it indie... not "out there".

I'd be interested to hear your argument for why TV on the Radio are irrelevant, Adam. That's one of the most absurd statements I've heard this year. And it was an election year.

Nice list, Jim. There are a couple in your Top 10 I haven't gotten around to (Local H, Brazilian Girls), and your praise just gave me the final push to do so.

Adam's right - Moby is irrelevant. That's all he's right about though. TV on the Radio are hardly obscure or irrelevant. They sell out shows night after night all over the country....check and are making music that will be aped for years to come (and I don't even like the new album THAT much).

Simply because your musical tastes are incredibly safe (see e.g., death cab and beck) does not mean this list is obscure.

Safe choices... not really... it's just MY OPINION... sorry, I saw TV on the Radio (what a band name) as many as ONE time and guess what... BORING!

I love Jim, I just don't agree with a majority of his list.

So Kyle and Taylor I'd be interested in hearing your list of at least five albums this year that you thought were good... chances are they aren't very good at all.


1) Jeff Beck-Performing This Week Live At Ronnie Scott's
2) The Pretenders- Break Up The Concrete
3) Fireman (McCartney)-Electric Arguments
4) K.D.Lang -Watershed

Where are Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos, Okkervil River, and The Hold Steady?

Conor Oberst? Not seeing his album on many lists. That album was #1 for me. I also enjoyed the new Cloud Cult album.

Not a bad list, but these 2 MUST be in a 2008 Top-50 list:



What no Paul Weller? I know it was just a mix tape, but I loved RhymeFest's ode to Michael Jackson. No Foxboro Hot Tubs, no Monkey? Tsk Tsk...That's really all I've got against this list, that and a bunch of albums not many people have heard of.

Nick Cave rocks. Great choice. "The Chemistry of Common Life" by f'ed Up should have been #2, but that 's what they get for having a name that can't be printed in a newspaper.

Bon Iver's 'for emma' and Paul Weller's '22 Dreams' are the 2 albums you must have completely forgotten about or not listened to at all.

I started feeling you more when you got past the top 10... but come on, man! Beck's weak offering and freakin' *Madonna* both make it to the top 50, but NO love for Wolf Parade's "At Mount Zoomer?!?!" Also, if I were to include NIN, I'd list "Ghosts I-IV" before "The Slip," but that's just my undying love for random ambitious concept shit speaking :)

It makes me laugh that you guys are being critical of Jim's choices, particularly because these were HIS favs, not musically best, not artistcially best, or most critically acclaimed, but his favorites. Its like being mad at someone for saying that red is their favorite color.

You totally missed out on one of the best of the year (maybe last year depending on indy v. Jagjaguar) Bon Iver. Really awesome. Guy breaks up with band and girl, goes to cabin in Wisconsin to find solace and creates "For Emma, Forever Ago". Had a chance to see them live and they absolutely blew me away. You NEED to hear it!


I agree with you on that one. I'm just saying Nick Cave can't keep getting away with making the same album over and over and getting praise...

and TV on the Radio can't get attention for recreating early Genesis/modern Peter Gabriel mixed with hints of Big Audio Dynamite and expect me to sit silently... TV on The Radio is far from brilliant, they are even worse live... I don't GET the fascination people have with them... at all.

Why isn't the Hold Steady's "Stay Positive" showing up on anyone's best of '08 lists? That's such a good record. Also, "the Midnight Organ Fight" by Frightened Rabbit was fantastic. I agree with the post about Nick Cave making the same record over and over. I'm not a fan of that or the Fleet Foxes record. That Vivian Girls record belongs up there, though.

Indeed, Nick Cave takes first - I agree there. But where's Robert Forster's "The Evangelist"? How can such a compelling album be overlooked?

How could both of y'all miss Bon Iver's fantastic album. Justin Vernon's heartache is our pleasure in this dark, sweet and compulsively listenable album. Please give him some credit.

Steven Malkmus. "Real Emotional Trash". The best music of his career.

I'm kinda baffled The Hold Steady's "Stay Positive" isn't on more lists also. It's a really solid album with some great songs.

The Knux is a great album. Thanks for giving me something to read in the ST Jim.

I listen to your show every week, and love it, but sometimes you creep a little too close to old fogie-trying-to-be-hip Rolling Stone blandness in your music choices.

I understand that this is a list of your favorite albums of the year, and that's a totally subjective thing, but for someone with so much musical knowledge, I find it hard to comprehend some of your choices, as well as some of the things that are missing. I mean, are The Knux really on par with The Pharcyde? How many of the albums on this list would match up favorably with past classics like "Loveless", "Chairs Missing", "Tago Mago", "Kid A", "Closer", "Remain in Light", "Psychocandy", "Mezcal Head", etc.? I'm not seeing a real high ratio of future classics here (maybe "Third", Erykah Badu, Deerhunter, and a couple others).

The best music is like a great single malt scotch, and takes some time to acquire a taste for. That's why I'm constantly disappointed in how safe "indie" tastes have gotten this decade. And anytime someone tries to urge people to expand people's tastes, you're seen as too pretentious. I like pop music too, but GREAT pop ALBUMS are few and far between. Just because something is obscure doesn't mean that it isn't great. It isn't about pretentiousness, it's about seeking out the best things in life rather than settling for what is handed to you. I'm hoping you just didn't have a chance to listen to:

Fennesz "Black Sea"
Grouper "Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill"
Kangding Ray "Autumne Fold"
Mount Eerie "Lost Wisdom"
Leviathan "Massive Conspiracy Against All Life"
High Places "High Places"
Autechre "Quaristice"
Xiu Xiu "Women as Lovers"
Nachtmystium "Assasins: Black Meddling, Pt. 1"
among others

How could this list not have Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Okkervil River, Conor Oberst, Langhorne Slim, Helio Sequence, Ra Ra Riot, Calexico, Horse Feathers, MGMT, and Wolf Parade. If you are trying to gather attention by being controversial it worked.

P.S. Seeing Madonna on the list made me really wonder the following: What were you thinking?

No Wolf Parade??

No Frightened Rabbit? Best band too few people have heard of.

There are two GLARING ommisions from your list.

First and foremost, you missed the best and probably the one CD that will most likely be one of those cd's that will transcend time: Bon Iver "For Emma, Forever ago..."

The second is the Little Joy "Little Joy". Absolutely a great record.

I know music is a subjective thing, but these are not only artistic gems, but shining example of what can be accomplished with the bare minimum.

Some other omissions on Jim's list:

The Presets - Apocalypso
Walter Meego - Voyager
Flying Lotus - Los Angeles
The Black Keys - Attack & Release
GZA - Pro Tools
Stereolab - Chemical Chords
Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

The one question I really would like answered is this: how could anyone with functioning eardrums actually ENJOY the new Weezer and Moby albums MORE than Wire??? I mean, seriously? I feel like a few of these picks are simply on here to give people like us a rise. "Oh, I'll throw Taylor Swift in between Gang Gang Dance and that Animal Collective EP...that'll give them all a WTF moment."

P.S. Danger Mouse neuters every artist he touches, whether it is Beck, Cee-Lo Green, The Black Keys, The Beatles, or Jay-Z. His production techniques are "Law and Order" to J Dilla's "The Wire".

Did you or Greg even listen to Blitzen Trapper's Furr? Shocking that it didn't make the list considering that I agree with most of your other selections. Oh well, that's what these lists are for... all about opinion.

Great list. Here's mine.

Oh, I forgot, Jim -- check out that Ponytail record, Ice Cream Spiritual. It's like Television without a bassist fronted by Yoko Ono. And I mean that in the best possible way.

I am so glad that you are keeping Scott Lucas and Local H alive. I saw them a couple of months out here in Phoenix and it was ashame that nobody out here has heard of them (and they have been here several times). And it's another great album from these guys. I was suprised that Gnarls was not in the top 10. Great list.

I like your pick for #1! Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds made a fantastic, energetic, fun record with just enough introspection to keep it cerebral. That was by far my most-listened to album of the year.

And to all the haters--it's just one person's opinion; an opinion he's paid to have. So you might disagree, but don't be so quick to complain about ommissions or trying to seem "hip" or whatever. We all have our likes and dislikes, these are Jim's.

Of course, with that said, I have to ask where Kings of Leon are on this list... to me they should be in the top 5! But everyone's entitled to their musical tastes.

Great list, I've missed out on a few in your top 10 - I'll definitely check them out. Three of my top ten missing from your list: Bon Iver - "For Emma..." Boombox - "Visions of Backbeat" and Cloud Cult - "Feel Good Ghost..." I notice them missing from many lists - What's up wit dat?

Nice list, I appreciate seeing some mainstream acts that I'm not seeing on other lists.

I thought it was an excellent list. I can't agree with every choice but at least you guys seem to care about what was really the best of what was a great year in music. And for the people who are complaining about the choices, take a gander at the list that my local newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, came up with. Its literally a "who is who?" of music today.

1.Third Day, Revelation
2.Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
3.Kylie Minogue, X
4.Ricardo Arjona, 5to Piso
5.Anthony Hamilton, The Point of It All
6.Metallica, Death Magnetic
7.AC/DC, Black Ice
8.Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
9.Jorge Villamizar, Jorge Villamizar
10.Al Green, Lay It Down

Yeah, I'd list the top concerts of the year but then my eyes would start bleeding. Lets just say they start off with Tina Turner and end with Sarah Brightman. Oh thank you Jim and Greg for rescuing me from the land of no taste.

In a day and age where most radio is DEAD to those of us who wish it were a source for discovery of new music, critics such as Mr. DeRogatis do we audiophiles and thinking listeners a real service . . . but here's one notion that, I believe, is not often even thought about, let alone talked about: if I (or you) have not heard the music before, it is indeed "new" to us. The whole idea of a "best of (fill in the year)" list is to pimp for what has been newly released within the last twelve months (when is the last time a critic had the sheer balls to put a reissue on his or her "best of" list? I'm going to go with "never".).

For me, 2008 marks the year I discovered the Miles Davis Sextet's Birth of the Cool and (thanks in large part to the podcast of the show Mr. DeRogatis cohosts, Sound Opinions) the earliest Parliament and Funkadelic albums. Both of these finds are decades old, but they are new to me.

So if you want to reduce true musical art to the level of "this year's fashions" and the rage about what all of "in" and "it" girls are going to be wearing, be that way (i.e. a turd). But if you want to get real, get real.

Better yet, kill yourselves and stop crowding the exits.

God bless Lester Bangs and good night, nurse.

This might be lag of update. So the best album for 2010 are ...

Foals - total life forever

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles II

Broken Social Scene- Forgiveness rock record

These New Puritans- Hidden

Fuck Buttons - Tarot sport

Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

The Joy Formidable - A Balloon called moaning

Broken Bells- Broken Bells


Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on December 8, 2008 4:48 PM.

Quincy Jones announced as SXSW keynote was the previous entry in this blog.

Fall Out Boy, "Folie A Deux" (Island) [3.5 STARS] is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.