1. Teddy Thompson - A Piece of What You Need
Last year I was the only blogger to list Teddy Thompson's Up Front And Down Low on their year-end "best of" list. So what does the usually non-prolific Teddy do? He releases an even better album in 2008. A Piece Of What You Need finds Teddy in about as upbeat a mood as you can imagine from the young man for whom "End Of The Rainbow" was written. Producer Marius de Vries (Bjork, Madonna) adds enough pop flourishes (handclaps!) to keep things bright, even if he can't stop Teddy from turning the gun on himself. A Piece Of What You Need is simply a brilliant album that takes Teddy out of his famous parents' shadows once and for all (Richard & Linda who?).
2. Duffy - Rockferry
My wife likes to listen to our local pop music station in the mornings. Because I'm a good husband I only complain about this semi-incessantly. One morning something really weird happened. I actually liked a song they were playing. This was a good song. No, actually it was great. "Who is this?" I asked (they never say who they're playing on pop radio, you're just supposed to know). Soon enough I figured out it was a young British woman known as Duffy. I picked up the CD at Starbucks that very day (remember when Starbucks used to sell music?). Later I picked it up on LP too, not because the CD sounded bad, but because the music was so good I just wanted to own it on LP. As I noted in a previous post, Rockferry (on CD or LP) has lots of dynamic range relative to most contemporary productions, proving that an album can be massively successful in 2008 without having every last bit of life compressed out of it.
3. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
I don't think I need to say much about Vampire Weekend. This will be on every other blogger's list. This might be the most over-hyped album of the year, but that doesn't mean it isn't also good.
4. Mudcrutch - Mudcrutch
Mudcrutch's debut album was already the subject of much discussion on this blog.
It's an iconic story. A rock band torn apart by external forces over thirty years ago reunites to see if they can recapture the old magic. Against all odds they do, and the now middle-aged rockers find their belated debut album on the bestseller charts. It's a story that would carry the force of Greek Mythology were it not for the inconvenient fact that one of the members (a guy named Tom Petty) has a day job as one of the world's most successful rock-stars, and two others (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) punch the clock as members of his long-running backing band the Heartbreakers. Guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh haven't kept quite as high a profile over the past thirty odd years, but from the sounds of the album they have lost none of their considerable chops.If you can still find a copy, it's worth the extra money to pick up the LP with bonus "uncompressed" CD.
5. Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
Neil Diamond has never made music to impress rock critics, and in return rock critics have never been very impressed by Neil Diamond. But Home Before Dark sounds like a different kind of Neil Diamond album. No, it doesn't sound like it was made with the approval of rock critics in mind (heaven forbid), but it does seem to be an attempt to make a "serious" album in the way that even his previous collaboration with super-producer Rick Rubin, 12 Songs, did not. It's a quiet album intended for intimate listening. I don't see how these songs reach the back rows at a Neil Diamond show. Nevertheless, the songs are full of the kind of drama and showmanship that characterizes Diamond's best work, it's just a quieter, more subtle kind of drama than we're used to from Neil. Unlike Rick Rubin's other big production this year, this album is emphatically not a victim of the "loudness wars." There's oodles of dynamic range on this album, and those shifts in dynamic range really are an essential ingredient in allowing the drama inherent in the songwriting to unfold. Congrats to Neil on the first number one album (and perhaps the best studio album) of his career.
6. Beck - Modern Guilt
This is another album I wrote a bit about already. At the time I was more interested in writing about the novelty of the album being offered on LP with an MP3 download sourced from vinyl than the music itself. Now I'd like to say a few words about the music: it's terrific. (I realize that technically this statement only counts as a few words if you consider the contraction "it's" as two words, but I believe it is legitimate to do so.)
7. She & Him - Volume One
I do not care that "She" is a pretty actress. I do not care that "Him" is M. Ward. This is very enjoyable classic pop music. If you've ever found yourself with a lump in your throat while listening to The Stone Poneys' "Different Drum" you need to add this album in your collection.
8. Orchestra Baobab - Made In Dakar
Hey kids, are you interested in checking out the roots of Vampire Weekend's Afro-Pop influenced sounds? Well, you won't find them here (for that check out Paul Simon's Graceland). Senegal's Orchestra Baobab came roaring back to life in 2002 with the release of Specialist In All Styles, and Made In Dakar suggests they are back to stay. Orchestra Baobab present a potent mix of Afro-Pop and Afro-Cuban sounds. Honestly, I'm not knowledgeable about this kind of music to say anything intelligent about it (that never stopped me before), but I really enjoyed this skillfully played and passionate album.
9. Mudhoney - The Lucky Ones
Twenty years into their career and Mudhoney are still the loudest thing going on. The secret to their longevity? Clean living. Mudhoney doesn't offer anything groundbreaking with their latest album; maybe their primal fuzz sounds a little wiser with age ("the lucky ones have already gone down"), but never sounds grown up. Mudhoney still offers retrograde, knuckle-dragging, loud fun. When Mudhoney debuted twenty years ago, few would have predicted they'd still be going strong in 2008. Even fewer would have predicted the long playing record album would still be going strong as well. But here it is 2008 and I bought Mudhoney's new album on LP with a code for a free MP3 download and a bonus 7" single that includes covers of Pere Ubu's "Street Waves" and The Troggs' "Gonna Make You." This is almost as much fun as collecting limited-edition, colored vinyl Sub-Pop 7" singles circa 1989.
10. R.E.M. - Accelerate
R.E.M.'s most exciting music in years was definitely a victim of the "loudness wars." On CD Accelerate sounds like total crap. Eric Zimmerman at REMring diagnosed the problem with this album quite effectively. The expensive 45 RPM double LP sounds better than the CD, but the relative lack of dynamic range (while made worse by CD mastering) seems to have been a choice made at the recording and mixing stage of this production. Pity, because there are some really good songs here. Personally, I think they would have sounded better with a little more room to breathe.