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: Hercules and Love Affair

Album: Hercules and Love Affair

Label: Mute

Label: DFA


US Release Date: 2008-06-24

UK Release Date: 2008-03-10

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List number: 50

The songs and imagery of Hercules and Love Affair reside in some sort of alternate universe: a modernist, ancient Greek-themed 1977 New York City dance club, where sexual orientation is not even a concept, and neither AIDS nor Saturday Night Fever ever existed. Within this world, three androgynous vocalists (Antony Hegarty, Nomi Ruiz, and Kim Ann Foxman) explore emotions, ranging from boastful confidence to existential feelings of emptiness over detailed compositions, juxtaposing sounds of joy and melancholy to create moments of incredible sublimity. Andrew Butler is a true student of the cultural and conceptual origins of both disco and acid-house. Judging by his compositions, he can also be viewed as a very convincing advocate for each genre’s capacity for genuine artistry. The self-titled debut from his brainchild project can best be described as an ensemble of incredibly talented musicians trying their best to recreate the sounds which have been playing inside the head of this New York City DJ since childhood. The term “disco revivalism” might make critics cringe with visions of catchy, simplistic exploitation. Given the near-unanimous praise it received, consider Hercules and Love Affair an overwhelming exception to that notion. Anthony Henriques


Artist: Nas

Album: Untitled

Label: Def Jam

Contributors: Nas




First date: 2008-07-15

US Release Date: 2008-07-15

UK Release Date: 2008-07-14

Internet release date: 2008-07-15

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List number: 49

Nas must be crazy. First, he says hip-hop is dead. Then he threatens to host a séance-by-album-title for the N-word as if the NAACP hadn't hosted a mock funeral for it. But, like Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Nas removed the N-word, left the album untitled, and he let his rhymes speak from a place his former title couldn't. In the past, Nas's political compass has pointed in many directions, but this time he's at his most focused and insightful. Untitled opens with a stunning verse over a piano that could've been transported from the ragtime era. From there, it covers the heroism, and lack thereof, in rap, alongside issues involving the media, the current impact of the N-word and language in general, and a look at where we are headed as a society. It makes you wonder what corner Nas will talk himself into, and then triumphantly rhyme his way out of, next. Quentin Huff


Artist: Okkervil River

Album: The Stand Ins

Label: Jagjaguwar


US Release Date: 2008-09-09

UK Release Date: 2008-10-13

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List number: 48

Will Sheff continues his deconstruction of fiction, and Okkervil River continues to flesh out its rock leanings on this follow-up to last year's The Stage Names. Populated with lost sailors, hacks, stars, liars and, above all, the people who believed them, The Stand Ins is a jaded, but still enraptured, take on just how important we make stories in our lives. Sheff focuses his novelist's eye on a collection of people coming to realize they'll never find salvation in a pop song, and the band meets his dramatic touches with its most boisterious sound yet. Album centerpiece "Blue Tulip" might be the most heartbreaking song of the year, a piercing ode to anyone who's ever put their faith in an idol -- only to find them wanting. David Berry


Artist: Sigur Rós

Album: Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Label: XL


US Release Date: 2008-06-24

UK Release Date: 2008-06-23

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List number: 47

Finally, Sigur Rós got bored with themselves. Following the massive success of the cinematic classics that were 1999's Agaetis Byrjun and 2002's ( ), change was bound to come for best export since Björk. Though the more grounded 2005 disc Takk... hinted at what was to come, no one was entirely prepared for this -- Sigur Rós' pop album. Even as lead track/single "Gobbledigook" gallops with furious drums that would make even the Animal Collective jealous, it's the remarkably straightforward rock moments that garner the most attention, as if, somehow, we knew that the band was capable of crafting something as propulsive and exciting as "Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur" all along. Although songs like "Við Spilum Endalaust" could have been alt-rock hits in some alternate universe, the band never forgets what got them to where they are, and here, ballads like "Ára Bátur" are as affecting as ever. Sigur Rós has always been one of the most intriguing and surprising rock outfits of this past decade, but for them to unleash their most accessible, optimistic, and flat-out fun album to date -- yeah, we sure as hell didn't see that one coming. Well played, boys, well played. Evan Sawdey


Artist: The Raconteurs

Album: Consolers of the Lonely

Label: Warner Bros.

Label: Third Man


US Release Date: 2008-03-25

UK Release Date: 2008-03-24

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List number: 46

In 2008, the graying -- or in one notable instance, the flamehaired cornrowing -- of rock continued unabated, with respectable, but hardly essential, outings from Metallica, AC/DC and Guns 'N Roses. Still, rock's (current) Last Great Hope, Jack White, on vacation from the White Stripes, and with plenty of help from Brendan Benson and the two dudes from the Greenhornes, put them all to shame with Consolers of the Lonely, a gem of a record that dropped a mere week after its existence was confirmed this March. (Axl, are you taking notes?) Bigger, more muscular and weirder than the Raconteurs' lightweight debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, Consolers commanded attention with an urgency and passion that most musicians don't throw into their day-job bands, let alone supposed side projects. From the Led Zeppelin III-isms of "Top Yourself", the stunning mariachi arrangements of "The Switch and the Spur", the old, weird America of "Carolina Drama" and two of this year's best examples of the redemptive powers of old-fashioned guitar rave-ups, "Hold Up" and "Five on the Five", the Raconteurs proved that rock 'n' roll is still a young man's game. Stephen Haag


Artist: Lizz Wright

Album: The Orchard

Label: Verve Forecast


US Release Date: 2008-02-26

UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 45

Inspired by the rhythms, beauty, and people of her hometown, Hahira, Georgia, Lizz Wright, on her third release for Verve, Orchard, captures brilliantly the distinctiveness, truthfulness, and awesome courage of the Southern black voice. Eclectic as ever, the gifted songwriter refuses to subject her sound to one genre, choosing instead to explore the rhythms of pop, rock, country, and the blues. Unpredictable musical forays and emotional shifts mark her performances. Terrific covers of Ike and Tina Turners’ “I Idolize You” and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Hey Mann” exist alongside brilliant readings of Patsy Cline’s “Strange” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”. It is clear that Wright possesses deft interpretive skills, though the brilliance of “Speak Your Heart” and “When I Fall” proves that she’s no slouch in the songwriting department. Wright’s Orchard was definitely one of the gems of 2008. Claudrena N. Harold


Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Album: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Label: Anti

Label: Mute


US Release Date: 2008-04-08

UK Release Date: 2008-03-03

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List number: 44

Though Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC both reemerged with new studio albums in 2008, it Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds who delivered this year’s more fiery rock LP. Working off the edge of 2005’s Abattoir Blues, Cave brings his new Seeds lineup to a full-tilt gothic boogie, spearheaded by Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three, who traded in his Aussie gentleman look for a more fitting outback Wildman motif and plays his trademark fiddle like Neil Young pounds on Old Black. And each moment of electrified bombast (“Dig Lazarus Dig!!!”, “We Call Upon the Author”) is counterbalanced an equally poignant moment of soulful clarity (“Moonland”, “More News From Nowhere”), delivered as seamlessly as anything Cave has done since Murder Ballads, an album which, of course, this album totally blows away. Thirty years after his emergence with the Birthday Party, Lazarus is the career-encompassing masterpiece Nick Cave fans have been waiting for. Ron Hart


Artist: The Roots

Album: Rising Down

Label: Def Jam

Contributors: dice raw, peedi peedi, malik b., common, talib kweli


US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-04-28

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List number: 43

When the Roots release an album, it has become customary to see it on any critic's year-end list. And 2008, of course, is no different. Rising Down, the Legendary's eighth studio effort, features the group treading into the darkest and grittiest corners of the hip-hop universe while emcee Black Thought rips apart every track with a hunger not heard in years. Street anthem "Get Busy" and lyrically-poignant "I Can't Help It" wouldn't be as hard-hitting without Black's signature robotic, but on-point flow. And that only goes double for "Criminal", though Saigon nearly steals the spotlight, and "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)", a track akin to "Web" and "[email protected]" on which Black spits nonstop for almost three minutes. Some might hate on the number of guests, but they cannot deny the Roots' ability to remain relevant and innovative while dropping one of this year's best hip-hop albums. Andrew Martin


Artist: Santogold

Album: Santogold

Label: Downtown

Label: Lizardking


US Release Date: 2008-04-29

UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

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List number: 42

It'd be tough to come up with another artist this year who can perfectly appeal to both the mainstream and the hipsters, without backlash from either group. OK, so Santogold hasn't broken through to the masses quite yet, but it feels like it's just a matter of time. She can play these two worlds effortlessly because she seems to exist in dichotomy. Her record lives in '80s ska and Missing Persons/Siouxsie land, but it also sounds as if it's being beamed to us from the future. The real thrill of this album, though, is the intimacy captured from start to finish. It's proof that steadfast vision is at least half the battle. This is a fully formed debut -- a quirky trip down a dark tunnel that also happens to be a glittery pop gem. I may have rated a couple of records higher this year, but there is none I listened to more. Jill Labrack


Artist: Shugo Tokumaru

Album: Exit

Label: Almost Gold


First date: 2007-10-17

US Release Date: 2008-09-02

UK Release Date: Available as import

Japan release date: 2007-10-17

Display as: List

List number: 41

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Shugo Tokumaru play a small club in Tokyo's Yoyogi neighborhood. Upon being approached by me at the merch table, Tokumaru seemed genuinely surprised, as if he couldn't fathom a foreigner having even heard of him, let alone coming to one of his shows. I, however, was thinking just the opposite: how had such an immensely talented and original songwriter remained both unsigned and relatively unknown outside of his native Tokyo? As it turns out, I wasn't the only one asking this question. Earlier this year, Almost Gold saw fit to re-release Exit, Tokumaru's third full-length LP, in these United States. And what an LP it is. Building on the maximalist, broken toy shop aesthetic of L.S.T., Exit's densely-layered melodies squeak, rattle and clatter their way into your heart like tiny clockwork music boxes made from common detritus. The end result is a whimsical, intricate, modest pop album that quietly stands as one of the year's best. Mehan Jayasuriya


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