The Best Albums of 2008

PopMatters presents our 60 best albums of 2008, highlighted by the return of British trip-hop legends and some infectious American indie rock by way of the Cascade Mountains.

Artist: Maiysha

Album: This Much Is True

Label: Eusonia


US Release Date: 2008-08-26

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 60

I've been waiting to completely surrender myself to a new artist, an artist who is just getting started, yet is so obviously equipped with a singular talent to ride out the unpredictable course of styles, trends, and popular opinion. Maiysha is that artist. This Much Is True, her debut, socks you with 13 tracks of undiluted soul. Producer Scott Jacoby surrounds her with nothing less than note-perfect production, allowing a bit of rawness to seep through in all the right places. Her phrasing is direct and inspired. Check out "Chase", where she mercilessly taunts a suitor and brings you along for the ride or "Orbit", where she makes an astronomical term sound seductive. Maiysha shows aspiring celeb-utantes for what they are on "Celebrity" and "Gods" while "Hold Me" finds her emotionally naked and unafraid to let listeners in on her private yearning for intimacy. There's only one thing to do with This Much Is True -- savor the surrender. Christian John Wikane


Artist: Harvey Milk

Album: Life...The Best Game in Town

Label: Hydra Head


US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-06-30

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List number: 59

"Woke up, got out of bed, put a pistol to my head." Harvey Milk's savage paraphrasing of the Beatles at the conclusion of the astonishing "Death Goes to the Winner" sums up the grim mood of the Athens, Georgia band's fifth album perfectly. The darker side of human emotions has always gone hand in hand with heavy music, but not since Eyehategod's 1996 album Dopesick has a record blended some truly harrowing lyrical content with the kind of thick, dense, monolithic sludge that could only come from the American South. The ironically titled Life... the Best Game in Town might at times lumber along with a heaviness that would make the Melvins envious, but there's actually a lot of ingenuity in the ten songs, which run the gamut from hardcore punk, to heavy blues, to swaggering Southern rock, making for a listen that's as bracing as it is grim. Adrien Begrand


Artist: Coldplay

Album: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

Label: Capitol

Label: Parlophone


US Release Date: 2008-06-17

UK Release Date: 2008-06-12

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List number: 58

Four albums in, and Coldplay finally gets it right. They needed Brian Eno in the role of sonic guide and steely-eyed editor to do it, focusing their universalist ambitions into Impressionist watercolors of modern global empathy. Where previously they might have extrapolated a good concept or two into a bloated stadium ballad of unchecked ostentation, on Viva La Vida, those concepts finally get the stage to themselves. Song fragments are arranged like triptychs, and complete songs juxtapose evocatively with others on the same track. The renewed artful focus works wonders on Chris Martin, who delivers both his most effective vocal performances and his least clumsy lyrics to date. A uniformly strong record, Viva La Vida spikes to greatness with "Lovers in Japan" (the giant leap forward from "Clocks" that we've been waiting six years for) and the shimmering "Strawberry Swing". But the record will forever be remembered for its monster hit title track, which finds Martin channeling his habit for epic self-deprecation into an affecting lament on the transitory nature of power and glory. Ross Langager


Artist: Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara

Album: Soul Science

Label: World Village


US Release Date: 2008-05-17

UK Release Date: 2007-10-01

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List number: 57

Soul Science might be the first ritti/blues-rock guitar duet album in history. It's difficult to see how a second one could surpass it. The two musicians -- one British, one a Gambian immigrant to the UK -- came together in a spirit of casual experimentation which turned out to be a miraculous fit. The music has a roughness that suits the characters of the instruments themselves, the dark thump of the guitar, and the high slangy zest of the ritti, a Gambian fiddle with a single string. Anyone who thinks that cultural crossovers invariably lead to one side being compromised and impoverished should listen to this. It might change their mind. Deanne Sole


Artist: Ben Folds

Album: Way to Normal

Label: Sony




US Release Date: 2008-09-30

UK Release Date: 2008-09-29

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List number: 56

Ben Folds has always been flawed; it's part of his appeal. Still, he's never really put his flaws out front quite the way he does on Way to Normal, and it's this realization behind a mask of cocky self-assuredness that makes the album listenable over, and over, and over again. "Cologne", at the center of the album, is really the only straightforward song on the album, and it's utterly heartbreaking. The self-loathing is palpable throughout, as he not only faults himself, but he faults the very stereotypes that he finds himself falling into. It would all be a terrible downer if not for the execution -- somehow, putting some of the best, most vibrant pop hooks he's ever written behind all of the depression turns it into a celebration, an embracing of everything that's wrong with all of us and the ways in which it makes us interesting. Every listen reveals a new nuance, and it's right up there with Rockin' the Suburbs in the fight for the best album Folds has ever put together. Mike Schiller


Artist: Black Mountain

Album: In the Future

Label: Jagjaguwar


US Release Date: 2008-01-22

UK Release Date: 2008-01-21

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List number: 55

If you thought Black Mountain didn't sound big enough, didn't have enough muscle mixed with its beautiful nuance, then you are a person that cannot be pleased. Ever. Still, if you're that person, then Black Mountain made In the Future just for you. Because it is a giant of a record. Stephen McBean's onslaught of heavy guitar riffs is on full display throughout In the Future and, on "Stormy High" and "Tyrants", at its tightest and most infectious. But then there is the swell of soaring keyboards all over these songs and the other-worldly keen of Amber Webber's voice, making those songs all the bigger. Elsewhere, they take on everything from acoustic balladry ("Stay Free"), to road-dusted Americana ("Angels"), to Bowie-esque space-pop ("Wild Wind"). And these are all songs that take their time getting where they're going. "Tyrants" starts in a fury, then cools into spacious and cold verses before breaking out into a brutal guitar attack. "Wucan" glides along for six minutes on a perfectly stoned echo of a riff.

But, like Roy Harper before them, just when you thought Black Mountain had made their biggest song, you get to the end of the record. "Bright Light" is a 17-minute opus and has every element that makes this band great -- hard-churning guitars, propulsive drums, haunting vocals, droning keys. And each element goes to its breaking point on the track, before giving into the next, until they finally all converge in a sound too grand and euphoric to truly describe. That In the Future can shoulder the weight of that huge track and not collapse shows how sturdy it is as a whole, how well built. But this isn't music that is well thought out, it is music that is beautifully felt. Because, again like Roy Harper, they build intricate compositions but always surrender them to feeling, to immediacy. In the Future is a triumph, from beginning to end. It is the biggest rock record to be heard in 2008, and it is also the best." Matt Fiander


Artist: Goldfrapp

Album: Seventh Tree

Label: Mute


US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: 2008-02-25

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List number: 54

Watch Goldfrapp change! The duo of Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory should offer consulting services to artists who can only do one thing well. This time around it's stamping their own identity on a mix of '80s British New Wave (smoother and more expansive than the hiccup-y North Americans) and '90s dream pop. Seventh Tree sounds like one big crescendo with the crash coming so gently that the listener can miss it, as she soars in the clouds with the melodies. This is modern day church music for brokenhearted atheists, if the services are led by Ingmar Bergman. The cinematic feel is inherent in who Goldfrapp is, no matter what style they're mastering or inventing. The truth is, Goldfrapp may be larger than life and no one has truly recognized that yet. They may even be our Abba. Stay tuned. Jill Labrack


Artist: Kathleen Edwards

Album: Asking for Flowers

Label: Zoë

Label: Rounder


US Release Date: 2008-03-04

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 53

On Back to Me, Kathleen Edwards’ 2005 release, the Canadian singer/songwriter proved she was capable of making a thoroughly enjoyable Lucinda Williams record. All the hallmarks were there: steel guitar-infused songs that rock as often as they roll; big, raggedy choruses; lyrics that are beautiful in their emotional simplicity; and aching vocals filled with gravel and glass. Asking for Flowers is the work of an artist who has come into her own. Sure, many of Lucinda’s roots rock flourishes are still present, but the result is something truly singular: songwriting that’s tight and self-assured; production that’s stark and modest; lyrics that are equal parts bite and yearning; and choruses that are filled with shimmering, sing-along hooks. Most importantly, Asking for Flowers shows a Kathleen Edwards that’s not taking herself so seriously anymore. And in a singer/songwriter genre supersaturated with melodrama and nihilism, that’s an extraordinary thing indeed. Asking for Flowers isn’t an album that shatters musical genres or forges across new sonic terrain, but it’s an album that will remain on your MP3 player for a long time. Michael Kabran


Artist: Opeth

Album: Watershed

Label: Roadrunner


US Release Date: 2008-06-03

UK Release Date: 2008-06-02

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List number: 52

Opeth have always been a band that can be embraced by a diverse crowd. Their death metal credentials are impeccable and they know how to lay down a devastating riff. They’re artistic and experimental enough for the post-rock chin-strokers. They fuse melody and brutality in the way that makes screamo kids cream their skinny jeans. They scream authenticity in the same breath as they beckon with accessibility -- or as much accessibility as a progressive metal band known for songs regularly in excess of ten minutes can muster.

Watershed, their ninth studio album, is a much less brutal affair than their high-watermark albums from the turn of the century. In fact, it owes as much to the brains of 1970s prog-rock and metal than to death metal muscle. Yet it never feels like a compromise -- it’s the most logical evolution of their metal-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. With this brilliant, virtuosic effort (Exhibit A: the organ solo in “The Lotus Eater”), Opeth both guarantee their place in the metal pantheon and venture even further beyond genre limits. David Pullar


Artist: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Album: Real Emotional Trash

Label: Matador

Contributors: Stephen Malkmus, Janet Weiss


US Release Date: 2008-03-04

UK Release Date: 2008-03-04

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List number: 51

Leader of one of the two or three most important bands of the 1990s, Malkmus has spent the ensuing years producing increasingly idiosyncratic, densely layered, and generally un-Pavement-like material. Indeed, to the dismay of many who spent their formative years rocking out to the slacker haphazardry of Pavement’s best work, Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks have turned towards ever more tightly constructed (dare I say it: progressive rock) approaches. Back in the mid-1990s, Phish’s Trey Anastasio famously announced that Pavement was his favourite band. Well, there seems now to be little doubt that the appreciation was mutual. There is a decidedly phishy whiff about this extraordinarily fun rock record. It is exuberant, joyful, packed with electrifying riffs and fuzzy retro guitar tones, and is everywhere dripping with the kind of expository inanity that always drove me nuts about Phish’s lyrics, but curiously never bothered me much about Pavement’s. Huh. Anyway, this is the most unreservedly pleasurable listen I’ve had all year. Stuart Henderson


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