Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Year in Music - 2008

2008 Shows

Wilco with John Doe – 2/23 at the Tower Theatre
Son Volt – 4/26 at the Trocadero
Black Crowes – 7/3 at the TLA
Alkaline Trio – 7/15 at the TLA
Old 97's – 7/30 at the Trocadero
Nada Surf with Delta Spirit- 12/4 at the Trocadero

2008 Albums I Didn't Get, But Probably Will at Some Point in 2009

The Cure 4:13 Dream (Geffen). I downloaded about 4 or 5 tracks I liked from this album. It's probably their best release since 1992's Wish. I'll probably end up getting the rest of the album at some point.

Alejandro EscovedoReal Animal (Back Porch). I came across this guy when I heard Springsteen covered one of the songs from his latest album. Then I heard the Bruce version of the song. I had known of Escovedo for awhile now, as he is often name-checked by many artists and critics. But I had never heard anything by him until I sampled his latest album and it was very good.

Best Live, Rare, EP, Compilation, Reissues, Covers, and Older Albums of the Year

Unless otherwise noted, these releases are just reissues of the original album, often with extra bonus tracks or bonus live discs.

Alkaline TrioGoddammit: Deluxe Edition (Asian Man).

BeckOdelay: Deluxe Edition (Geffen).

Death Cab for CutieSomething About Airplanes: Deluxe Edition (Barsuk).

Tom GabelHeart Burns EP (Epic). Very enjoyable 7-song EP from the lead singer of Against Me! "Cowards Sing at Night", "Anna Is a Stool Pigeon" (a song about a real case - read more about it here and one of the best songs of 2008, in my opinion), and "Harsh Realms" are worth the price of admission alone. It's a stripped down set of tunes owing much to Billy Bragg's 1980's sound, with most of the tracks consisting of just Gabel's vocals and a guitar. If this was a full-length release, it'd have probably cracked my top 10 best of the year.

The Gutter TwinsAdorata EP (Sub Pop). This 8-song EP is kind of like a companion to their proper release, Saturnalia. I actually enjoyed this better as a straight-through listen.

The LemonheadsIt's a Shame About Ray: Collector's Edition (Rhino).

Jesse MalinOn Your Sleeve (One Little Indian). This is a covers album Malin recorded. Between the UK version and the US version, I think there are about 19 tracks in all. The UK version had 12 and the US version had 15 with many duplicated.

The Mighty Mighty BosstonesMedium Rare (Junket Boy ). This contains 9 previously unreleased rarities and 3 new songs recorded during the band's semi-reunion that began in 2007.

MudhoneySuperfuzz Bigmuff: Deluxe Edition (Sub Pop).

PavementBrighten the Corners: Nicene Credence Edition (Matador).

RancidB Sides and C Sides (self-released). The title speaks for itself. These are a collection of Rancid b-sides and previously unreleased tracks from the around '95-'03.

The ReplacementsSorry Ma Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsStink (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsHootenanny (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsLet It Be (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsTim (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsPleased To Meet Me (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsDon't Tell a Soul (Rhino/Rykodisc).
The ReplacementsAll Shook Down (Rhino/Rykodisc).
WhisketyownStrangers Almanac: Deluxe Edition (Geffen).

2008 Disappointments

Ryan Adams & The CardinalsCardinology (Lost Highway). Most reviewers have raved about this album. I think it's a solid effort by Adams, and this along with his last few releases with the Cardinals – Easy Tiger and Cold Roses – are probably among his most focused and consistent releases of his least since Gold. But I think this sort of laid back country rock that Adams has been recording now, while good, just isn't capturing his best qualities. Don't get me wrong – the songs are solid in a Chris Isaak meets Tom Petty meets Grateful Dead kind of way. But it just feels like he's going through the motions a little bit, like he's in this phase partially because it comes so easy to him and he's not really pushing himself. It feels like he's capable of writing most of these songs in his sleep. And part of what made Adams such an important artist over the last decade or so, in my opinion, is that he was unconventional. Sure, he'd release some clunkers and because he released so many albums (often more than 1 in a year), they'd have their share of crap on them. But it was the chances he took mixing different influences combined with his erratic style (probably a result of his erratic lifestyle) that would often result in some magical moments. And the songs of his that I find myself liking the most, no matter what genre they happen to be in, are the ones that have a raw, off-the-cuff feel.

This is probably the first time since his days in Whiskeytown that he's covered similar musical ground on consecutive albums. Previously, he's bounced around between country, punk, rock, and folk. Yet even as Adams covers the same ground, though, there are still a handful of really good tracks. "Go Easy", "Born Into a Light", "Magick", "Cobwebs", "Let Us Down Easy", and "Evergreen" are pretty high highs. But overall my main complaint about this album is it sounds way too similar to Easy Tiger, which also happened to be better from start to finish. It has the feel of an album that was rushed out only a little more than a year since Easy Tiger, with tracks which often feel like b-sides leftover from the those sessions. It seems for me as Adams' records become more consistent, they also have grown more predictable. And at least for me as a fan and for an artist like Adams, predictable usually equals boring.

Beck Modern Guilt (DGC Records). Beck bounces back and forth between personas and this seems to be a return to the darker more subtle songs he wrote on Sea Change. He paired up with producer Danger Mouse for this effort, so expectations were pretty high. It's an enjoyable album and I appreciate its brevity. "Gamma Ray", "Soul of Man", and "Chemtrails" are good tracks and the rest are fine. But maybe I just have Beck burnout right now. Three of his last five releases haven't really grabbed me. I enjoyed Sea Change and Guero a lot, but Midnight Vultures, The Information, and now Modern Guilt, I could take or leave.

Dead ConfederateWrecking Ball (Tao Records). I read a few great reviews of this band and decided to check them out. In the reviews, they were made out to seem like everything I had hoped Kings of Leon were, but fell short of being. I started reading comparisons to Nirvana crossed with Southern Rock and some Pink Floyd influences as well. There just seems to be a little too much going on here. They actually remind me a little bit of a band called Vietnam I saw open for the Lemonheads a few years ago. Lead singer Hardy Morris' voice does sound a bit like Kurt Cobain's at times (or at least like that guy from Silverchair who was basically imitating Kurt Cobain). It just feels like it's been done before. "The Rat" is the best track and there are a handful of other goodies on here like "All the Angels" and "Start Me Laughing", which sound like they would have been huge alt/rock radio hits if the year was 1995 instead of 2008. But it is a tough listen straight through, without great flow.

The Gutter TwinsSaturnalia (Sub Pop). This was a pretty good album, but I guess with Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, et al) and Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers) collaborating on this album, I was expecting it to be great. I think this combination works, since Dulli and Lanegan have always seemed to write similar songs and their vocal differences provide a nice contrast. And they share a few common bonds in that both came up in the Seattle scene fronting good albeit underappreciated bands and both have had long battles with substance abuse. It's just that the songs aren't as good as I was expecting. I actually enjoyed their 8-song companion EP, Adorata, more. It has 6 covers, but most are pretty obscure and 2 originals that didn't make the cut on Saturnalia.

They actually began recording together nearly 10 years ago, but due to other commitments, this project was put on the backburner. As other reviewers have noted, Dulli's material on here sounds pretty much exactly like his Twiilght Singers material. "Circle the Fringes", "God's Children", "Idle Hands", and some others are very good. Overall, it's worth checking out, as is anything that Lanegan and Dulli are usually involved in.

Murry HammondI Don't Know Where I'm Going, But I'm on My Way (self-released). This is the solo project of the bass player and main songwriting partner for Rhett Miller in Old 97's. There are a few bright spots. But mostly it is stark, acoustic folk songs, mixed in with some old bluegrass. And a few of them are traditional cover songs. There's nothing too exciting on here and I would imagine only diehard Old 97's fans would be interested in it.

Kings of LeonOnly by the Night (RCA). I've always found Kings of Leon a frustrating band. They have some high highs on every album, but have yet to really make that album that knocks my socks off. Prior to their 3rd album, Because of the Times in 2007, they seemed to alter their garage-y country rock sound and go for something that wouldn't seem out of place on a U2 or older Radiohead album. And I guess it worked, as it garnered a lot of buzz overseas and their last 2 releases now have topped the UK charts. A few reviewers have humorously pointed out just how lame the rock scene is in Britain right now that a fairly mediocre import like Kings of Leon is getting so much hype. "Sex on Fire" (what does that even mean? the first song ever about gonorrhea?), "Use Somebody", and "Revelry" are 3 good songs. And "Be Somebody" is pretty good too. But the most frustrating thing about Kings of Leon is I just have a hard time enjoying Caleb Followill's voice. It's a weird combination of a nearly untraceable accent and a marble-mouthed delivery. Think of Lemmy Kilmister or Tim Armstrong, but with a little Southern drawl. Kings of Leon are a decent band, but I'm thinking more and more that they just aren’t for me.

Gary LourisVagabonds (Rykodisc). This was Gary Louris' first release since he and the Jayhawks called it quits in 2004. He wanted to take some time off from the writing/recording/touring grind the Jayhawks had been on for over 15 years as of one of the original bands in the alt/country movement. I was looking forward to this release, figuring Louris had a few years to separate the wheat from the chaff and also Black Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson was tapped to produce it. "She Only Calls Me on Sundays" is good and some others are notable like "Black Grass" and "Omaha Nights." But overall, it's kind of a flat boring set of songs.

Paul Westerberg49:00...of Your Time Life ( Wood). The theme here is the number 49. Westerberg celebrated his 49th birthday on the last day of 2008. And the album title and price reflect the emphasis on this number, as it was sold for $0.49 on Amazon. One of the traits I always found charming about Paul Westerberg was his seeming indifference to pleasing his masters. You can always have that circular argument whether the Replacements would have been more popular and iconic if they played the game and been more conventional or if the reason the Replacments became legendary was because they didn't really try hard enough and sabotaged their own chances to become more popular. Westerberg always struck me as the kind of artist who tried to hide his own insecurities in booze and a certain level of detachment. That is the bulletproof vest he's always worn. You don't have to worry about failing epically and disappointing yourself and others if you lower expectations and don't try that hard.

49:00 seems to be the work of a guy who either has no idea what he wants to do at the moment and is just filling time until he figures it out, or someone who is trying to keep playing the role of the artist who won't do things the easy way. I think the artistic statement here is not in the songs themselves, but in the method of delivery and the crude lo-fi recordings in today's digital age. It feels like his way of rebelling against the times. It's not a bad record. It's actually very good in some spots (although his other single download track "Bored of Edukation" is better than anything on here). In some ways it's kind of surprising that this old curmudgeon would be one of the first artists to have an mp3-only album release on Amazon. They were the only retailer willing to sell a complete album as a download for as low as $0.49.

So the result is a 43-minute album with no file names and no breaks in betweem them. A few fans on a fan forum on Westerberg's website have constructed a track listing based on the choruses of songs, but that's as close as anyone has come to deciphering it. You are forced to listen to it as 1-track straight through, since you can't skip ahead. There are about 8 or 9 real songs on here, and they are pretty good, following in the footsteps of his releases earlier this decade like Stereo/Mono and Come Feel Me Tremble. And the rest contain snippets of songs and some others that appear to be half-finished. Some songs start before the previous one is over. And towards the end there's a segment where he plays several cover songs all on top of each other. It was definitely worth owning, but compared to his other recent releases it was a slight disappointment.

Honorable Mentions

Jay BennettWhatever Happened I Apologize (Rock Proper). This is a pretty standard DYI, acoustic-based folk-rock release from Jay Bennett. He wrote every song, plays every instrument, and not surprisingly produced the record as well. It's been described as a concept album inspired from his days hanging around a girl in college, who he really didn't know. So perhaps these songs have been around for awhile now. He's been cranking out these kinds of albums pretty regularly since he was fired from Wilco in 2001. This was a free download-only release from late November, so it was a pleasant surprise at the end of the year.

The songs cover similar musical territory as his previous solo albums, so there's nothing really new here and his releases from around 2004 were probably better. But there is just something about Bennett's voice that always draws me in. He has that nicotine and whiskey-stained baritone that is perfectly imperfect and ends up sounding like some kind of combination of Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, and Replacements' era Paul Westerberg (also coincidentally three of his biggest influences). It breaks and cracks at times, but it always feels real. "I Don't Have the Time", "The Engines Are Idle", "How Dull They Make the Razor", "Wicked World", and "Little Blue Pills" are the high points.

The Black KeysAttack and Release (Nonesuch). The Black Keys have done a good job keeping things interesting. This is their 4th full-length release after a nearly 4-year break since their last full-length – 2004's Rubber Factory. So they chose Danger Mouse as producer and created their most spacious, trippy album to date. The primal, rugged sound of the minimalist 2-piece Akron, OH duo was replaced with something that wouldn't sound out of place on a Beck album. I heard comparisons to Tom Waits also, but I don't know his music enough to make that case. There is still enough old style songs on here though for long-time Black Keys fans to like. Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach's vocals are really strong on here, as he appeared to have discovered his more soulful side and even croons a little bit. That actually began with the Keys' 2006 EP Chulahoma, consisting of all Junior Kimrbrough covers.

"I Got Mine", "Strange Times", "Psychotic Girl", "Remember When (Side B)", and "Same Old Thing" are similar to their older material and are good songs. The rest have the Keys entering into Soul and R&B territory. You can see the musical growth on this album, but the immediacy of their earlier records is gone. In 5 years we might look at this as their best record. It's surely their most expansive thus far. But at the moment, it's my least favorite of their releases.

Billy BraggMr. Love and Justice (Anti). Since 1991's excellent, Don't Try This at Home, most of Billy Bragg's releases have been spotty at best. And his best recordings since then were the two Mermaid Avenue albums he collaborated on with Wilco. Mr. Love & Justice is an enjoyable return to form for Bragg. It's not as raw or as angry as some of Bragg's earlier work. I think it has something to do with how his voice seems more soulful, which removes the rough edges. Songs about socio-economic topics are still covered here – "Sing Their Souls Back Home" and "Farm Boy" (Iraq War), "I Keep Faith" (standing up for your rights), "O Freedom" (losing civil liberties), and "The Johnny Carcinogenic Show" (Big Tobacco). But Bragg does a good job of covering universal themes about relationships too with tracks like "I Almost Killed You" and "Something Happened", which are two of the best tracks on the album. And musically, Bragg recorded this album with the Blokes once again, who he has been playing with for a decade now. And the chemistry shows well on here. He and the band do an excellent job of blending Bragg's soul, folk, and punk influences together to create a seemless album.

Drive-By TruckersBrighter Than Creation's Dark(New West). Legendary critic Robert Christgau has been singing this album’s praises since he got the advance copy of it back in December '07 and I believe it made his top 5 best of list for 2008. This is a talented band to survive the departure of guitarist/songwriter Jason Isbell after 2006's solid A Blessing and a Curse. That left guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, along with bassist Shonna Tucker to collaborate on these 19 songs. The Truckers are a guitar band at heart, but they also delve into folk and country with pop leanings. They were probably unfairly pigeonholed into being similar to Lynyrd Skynyrd early in their career because some members are from Alabama and they boasted a 3-guitar attack. They always had as much in common with bands like Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo, however, having been influenced by punk as well as country, rock, and folk. "The Righteous Path", "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife", "Bob", and "That Man I Shot", and "Self Destructive Zones" are the best of a good bunch of songs. I just feel at 19 tracks it runs a tad too long and gets repetitive. There are 8 or 10 really stand out tracks on there that would make a fine album, but at 19 tracks I feel bombarded with too much filler. Less is more sometimes.

Guns N' RosesChinese Democracy (Geffen). I feel like I could have written half of this review without actually hearing one note of the album. The mythology behind this 15-years-in-the-making album has already been dissected for much of the last decade. And the same words will pop up in almost every review – epic, sprawling, eclectic, etc. The best way I could describe this is: think of an album that sounds quite a bit like the Illusions albums from 1991, but with about half of it consisting of ballads similar to "Don't Cry", "Breakdown", or "Estranged" and the other half recalling rockers from that era like "Pretty Tied Up" with a touch of Nine Inch Nails influence thrown in for good measure. Was it worth a 15-year wait? What album could possibly be worth a 15-year wait?

The 15-years-in-the-making tag actually sells the total time between most new GNR material a little short. It actually had been 17 years since their last albums of original studio recordings, Use Your Illusion I & II, were released in 1991. And many of those tracks like "Yesterdays", "November Rain", "Coma", "Right Next Door To Hell", etc, were actually written during or right after Appetite For Destruction was being recorded in the mid to late 80’s. 17 years is an eternity in pop culture. Take any time period in the Rock 'N' Roll Era (the last 40-50 years) and then think about what was the popular style of music 17 years prior to that and how different it sounded. The most amazing thing about Chinese Democracy is that considering it's been 17 years, it doesn't sound as dated as you would expect.

The key components of GNR all brought different influences into the band. And that stew made up the "Guns N' Roses sound." Izzy Stradlin was a fan of the Stones and Faces, Slash was a big Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Hendrix fan, Duff McKagan brought the garage rock and punk influeces, and while Axl Rose and the others all liked bits of all of that, Rose brought the more poppy Elton John and Queen influences into the music.

Overall, I liked Chinese Democracy. I went in half-expecting a trainwreck and not sure what it would sound like. Rose's dabbling in techno or Industrial music or even rap/metal was overhyped, as that influence is only evident in a few songs. And that probably scared off some older fans. And I think because some people expected it to be so different, it limited the excitement for the release. People didn't really want a new GNR sound. If anything, they wanted the old band to get back together and to just record a 00's version of Appetite. And signing an exclusive distribution contract with Best Buy turned out to be an unwise business decision also.

The band, if you can call it that, is solid. Tommy Stinson plays bass on every track but one. Dizzy Reed plays keyboards on a few songs. And guitarists Robin Fincke of NIN and Buckethead do a decent job of trying to recreate some Slash-esque solos. And if you have any questions about who played what on which song, it's all listed in excruciating detail in the credits. But ultimately it never feels like a real band and I think the entire project would have been better served if they had called it Axl Rose and the New Roses or something like that.

This album almost feels like an edited version of the Illusions – like what the Illusions would have sounded like if Rose had 15 years to tweak and twiddle with every remix like a mad scientist, instead of just releasing what they had, as is. Keep in mind they spent nearly 2 years writing and recording the Illusions as well, so it wasn't like that materialized fast either. What I think is missing here is the raw qualities that made me a fan of the original GNR lineup.

The title track is kind of a bummer and I'm not sure why that was the choice for lead single. "Better", "There Was a Time", "Street of Dreams", "Catcher in the Rye", "Shackler’s Revenge", and "Madagascar" are all very good. And I'd say at least half of the other tracks are decent to good. I think the colder impersonal production style helps, albeit probably unintentionally, to strike the right mood for the album. This is a collection of songs about Rose's reclusive, narcissistic lifestyle and his internal demons, as well as his battles with the record industry. But they are written in a very detached, matter-of-fact kind of way. Again, I appreciate what Rose was trying to accomplish here. I just wish he had released it 10 years ago when there was more of an audience for it.

Albert Hammond Jr.Como Te Llama? (BMG/Black Seal). I really liked Hammond's solo debut last year, and for much of this year I liked this as much. Maybe I just got tired of it, and it does cover similar ground as his debut, although this does sound a lot more like the Strokes than his debut. But by November I was kind of sick of listening to this album and this sound in general. I'm suffering from indie pop/rock fatigue at the moment and all of those bands who sound similar to Spoon – guitar based pop/rock with some fuzz, basically. And this album qualifies as part of that collective.

I think part of what made Hammond's solo debut so enjoyable was that it was so unexpected. It sounded like a fresh upbeat Strokes album with more pop/rock and less garage rock. But now with a few months of perspective gained, I do still like this album quite a bit, it's just a tad less enjoyable than the debut, even though some of the individual songs are actually stronger. "The Boss Americana", "GFC", and "In My Room" are stellar. And some others like "Bargain of the Century", "Borrowed Time", "Rocket", "Miss Myrtle", and "G Up" are very good, as well. "You Won't Be Fooled By This" sounds like a leftover from the last Strokes album, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It appears that these solo and side projects by Hammond and drummer Fabrizio Moretti will be coming to an end soon as the Strokes are currently working on their next album slated for release in late 2009/early 2010.

The HeavyGreat Vengeance and Furious Fire (Ninja Tune). I remember reading about a recommendation of this band some time last year, so I decided to check them out. They’d best be described as lo-fi funk/classic R&B. It's almost like a marriage of Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, and Pavement, leaning less on the latter and more on the former two. Or as one review said, it sounds like they combined Isacc Hayes with Gnarls Barkley. They are a co-ed interracial quintet from England. It's a traditional quintet – guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals. Guitarist Dan Taylor and singer Kelvin Swaby founded the band earlier this decade and added the rest of the band members.

The percussion is very lo-fi and that combined with some sampling of horns gives this album a different kind of sound. It feels both retro and very modern at the same time. "Coleen", "Girl", "That Kind of Man", the very Stones-y "Set Me Free", "Dignity", and "Our Special Place" are the best tracks. Overall, it flows very well and at only 10 tracks long it never gets stale. It is a little uneven at times, but the raw retro sound makes it an enjoyable listen.

Trever KeithMelancholics Anonymous (Antagonist Records). It's not surprising that Trever Keith's debut solo album sounds a lot like his previous band, Face to Face. It was initially offered as a download-only release with only a few thousand CD's actually pressed. This isn't a classic punk album like Face to Face's Don’t Turn Away, Big Choice, or How to Ruin Everything. It has much more in common with what is probably the most derided Face to Face album, Ignorance Is Bliss. This is probably the type of solo debut album you'd expect from an old punk around 40-years old. It's a little mellower and also has traces of some of Keith's other influences like the Cure, Bob Mould, and the Smiths. And this appears to be a true solo effort with sparse arrangements and even drum machines on a few songs. It lacks the ambition of Ignorance Is Bliss, which I always imagined was their attempt to soften their rough edges and create some songs that would sound at home next to the Foo Fighters or the Goo Goo Dolls and other similar bands of the late 90's. "Bleeding Out" and "Incommuincado" are probably most similar to Face to Face's recordings on this album, although they seem to miss the mark. "Polish", "Pushover", "Half Asleep" and "Say Goodbye Again" are strong tracks. And at only 10 total tracks, the album seems to fly by with very little filler.

Stephen Malkmus & the JicksReal Emotional Trash (Matador). Even back when he was fronting Pavement, Stephen Malkmus' influences were fairly obvious. He grew up listening to country-rock like CCR and then melded that with his collegial influences like R.E.M. and some noisly garage-rock outfits like Sonic Youth and The Fall to produce the Pavement sound. Since he went solo in 2001, he's continued more along the CCR route, producing something that could be called "hippie punk" or "punk jam band" music. It still has that punky indie-rock sound, but it also has a lot of jams and a rhythm that recalls that laid-back 1970's CA sound of the Grateful Dead or Jackson Browne or CCR. This is Malkmus' 4th post-Pavement release and although I don't think any have quite captured the pure fun and pop/rock high points of his solo debut, this is a good follow up to 2005's Face the Truth. Of his 3 more jam-based solo albums since his solo debut, this is probably his 2nd best – just a notch below Face the Truth.

The main difference between 2005 and now is that former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss is now playing in the Jicks and that has added a little harder edge to the jams. "Gardenia" is the catchiest song on here, reminiscent of the highlights on his solo debut. "Baltimore", "Dragonfly Pie", "Cold Son", "Out of Reaches", and "We Can't Help You" are the best of the rest. Malkmus is still an acquired taste and at this point even a lot of Pavement fans have to be losing interest in the direction he's taken. But somehow he makes it work pretty well.

MarahAngels of Destruction (Yep Roc). South Philly's David and Serge Bielanko have done a good job shaking off the label of being Bruce Springsteen knockoffs. Their first 2 albums were almost like tributes to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen, and due to the similarity between David Bielanko's voice and Springsteen's, it was unavoidable. This is their 6th album in 10 years and you can see the growth. But Marah have always looked backward for inspiration to the rock and pop music from the 60's and 70's, along with a dash of Mummers' string band stuff. Five of their six releases have covered similar ground now musically, with 2002's Oasis-inspired effort being the only oddity. I liked this record, but I thought their most recent two releases were just better overall. It has its moments on "Angels on a Passing Train", "Santos De Madera", "Can't Take It with You", and the title track. You'll hear some accordion, horns, and bagpipes throughout the album. There is just a bit too much filler on here to be one of their best.

MudhoneyThe Lucky Ones (Sub Pop). Mudhoney have been around over 20 years and they have lost very little off their fastball. And all these years later, they are really the only Grunge band left. All of the other bands have burned out, faded away, or evolved into something else. In many ways they are the AC/DC of Grunge rock. They rarely alter their formula and just keep finding inspiration somehow.

I think this is their best release since My Brother the Cow (which would surely be in the running for the title of "Most Underrated Album of the 1990's"). But many of the songs wouldn't feel out of place on Superfuzz Bigmuff. And maybe it was a coincidence that they reissued Superfuzz Bigmuff this year on its 20th anniversary, but it certainly seems Mark Arm, Steve Turner, and company drew some inspiration from their rawest career material on this album. After My Brother the Cow in 1995, they released the spotty Tomorrow Hit Today and then appeared to break up. The hiatus lasted about 4 years and they returned with the trippy Since We’ve Become Translucent in 2002 and the much better Under a Billion Suns in 2006, which signaled a return to form. "The Open Mind", "I'm Now", the title track, "Inside Out Over You", and "Tales of Terror" are the stand out tracks.

No AgeNouns (Sub Pop). No Age is a lo-fi duo and they manage to pull this off pretty well. They do a good job of layering most of these songs with catchy melodies in between the noise, feedback, and other associated imperfections that were left in there. It's actually a quick enjoyable listen, even though there are challenging instrumental fragments of noise rock in between. "Eraser", "Here Should Be My Home", "Cappo", "Teen Creeps", and "Sleeper Hold" are worth the price of admission alone. And some others are good too.

The RaconteursConsolers of the Lonely (Warner Bros). As much as I have enjoyed both Raconteurs albums, at this point I'm sort of puzzled by the purpose of this outfit. When they started up a few years ago it seemed like a more melodic fun side project for Jack White and a nice change of pace from his last artsy album with the White Stripes. But since he returned to rocking with the White Stripes in 2007, what they are doing in the Raconteurs almost seems redundant. I appreciate that Brendan Benson probably has a better ear for pop melody, so with this collaboration, the songs end up sounding like poppier, more melodic versions of the blues-rock that White has been cranking out for a decade now with the White Stripes. And thanks to Benson's contributions, at this point they do seem like a full-fledged band and not just a side project for White. It's just odd for a guy who is basically a dictator in his main project to begin a side project where his voice is just 1 vote out of 2, or in some cases 4.

The title track, "Old Enough", "The Switch and the Spur", "Hold Up", "Top Yourself", and "Five on the Five" are all good tracks. And most of the rest are pretty good too, although overall the album has a very 70's rock feel to it (Led Zeppelin, Stones, Rod Stewart, etc). And even "Salute Your Salution" was enjoyable before it became FOX Sports' theme song last fall.

Overall, I'd rate this is a better album than their debut, Broken Boy Soldiers. But because of where White and the White Stripes were at that time, that seemed fresher and more enjoyable. I found myself left wanting after listening to this album, more enthusiastic to hear the next White Stripes album, but feeling like I could take or leave the current Raconteurs album.

Lucinda WilliamsLittle Honey (Lost Highway). At this point Lucinda Williams is a legendary singer/songwriter. So it's disappointing that there is very little on Little Honey that would suggest just how great she is to those who may be discovering her for the first time. This is the shortest time between releases in her career – about 18 months. Previously, in the 2nd phase of her career, she's released new studio albums in 1988, 1992, 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2007. So she takes her good old time with now only 7 releases in the last 20 years. It's a good album, but by her standards it is just ok. Lyrically, the album is a bit subpar by her standards. Like one reviewer noted – it's one of the few times in her career where the lyrics on the record sound like lyrics and not poetry turned into lyrics. The record is also probably her most polished sonically in a long time, maybe ever.

There are some standout songs, but it's just a little below par overall. "Real Love", "Tears of Joy", "Little Rock Star", "Honey Bee", "If Wishes Were Horses", "Jailhouse Tears" (a duet with Elvis Costello), and "Knowing" stack up pretty well with her best work. But the rest of the album misses the mark a little and the album closes with a rather disappointing cover of AC/DC's "It’s a Long Way to The Top." Her albums have a way of aging well though, so I imagine I'll find myself liking this more in 2009.

Top 20 Albums of 2008

20. Times New VikingRip It Off (Matador). This OH-based lo-fi trio has drawn comparisons to Guided by Voices and Sonic Youth and I think they are fairly accurate. I'd even reference early Pavement and Sleater-Kinney, along with My Bloody Valentine to describe their sound. Or probably most accurarately would be a bunch of lo-fi noisy rock bands from the 80’s and 90’s that hardly anybody has ever heard of. This is their 3rd album and their first on Matador. And it's short and sweet – 16 songs averaging less than 2 minutes per, with only 1 song longer than 2 and a half minutes. Like with the aforementioned bands and even like with Bleach, underneath all of the noise, there are some pretty melodies present. Like with many of these lo-fi acts, if you remove the fuzz you hear a lot of 60's British Invasion-influenced pop/rock melodies in there. The trio consists of keyboard player Beth Murphy, guitarist Jared Phillips, and drummer Adam Elliott, with Murphy and Phillips both singing. And you'll notice that much like other lo-fi/garage bands of this generation like the White Stripes and Black Keys, there is no bass player.

This album is not an easy listen. It does kind of feel like an audio assault at first. It goes down hard like that first shot of jager. But on repeated listens you can hear the other stuff that is going on and eventually it sounds just like a noisy pop/rock record, once you get accustomed to the sound. It's still a little jarring though, especially if you play it right after hearing something more conventional. "Teen Drama", "My Head", "Drop-Out", "Faces on Fire", "Another Day", "The Apt.", "Off the Wall", and "The End of All Things" are my favorites. There isn't much variation and it's hard to even notice when one song ends and another begins, but overall this was an enjoyable listen. I find it more enjoyable to put this album into a playlist with a few other albums. That way it doesn't get monotonous and you really appreciate their sound more.

19. Bob MouldDistrict Line (Anti). This album seems to be a combination of Mould's more electronic experimental stuff and his harder guitar-oriented Husker Du/Sugar era stuff. He started in that direction with 2005's Body of Song and has continued on this course. This is basically the kind of album that Mould fans have been hoping he'd release since Sugar's last album. We know he wanted to experiment with techno and electronic music, so this is as close as a new Mould album would get to his older classic stuff in Husker Du and Sugar. And we'll take it. "Stupid Now", "The Silence Between Us", "Very Temporary", "Return to Dust", and "Who Needs to Dream" are the best of the bunch. Overall, I would bet this was the most satisfying album for Mould to release since the early to mid 90's, as far as it being something that excites him and is also well-received by most of his fans. It's definitely his best album since the very underrated The Last Dog and Pony Show in 1998, and probably since Sugar's File Under Easy Listening.

18. Death Cab For CutieNarrow Stairs (Atlantic). A lot has happened in recent years as Death Cab moved from Barsuk to Atlantic in the middle of this decade and had a breakthrough album, a Grammy nomination, and a few minor hits. This is their first full-length album since 2005. I thought this album was a little subpar at first, but it grew and grew on me and ended up being one of my favorites of 2008. The material seems to be a little darker on this album, compared to the more sunshine-y Plans from 2005. Besides the common subject matter of songs about relationship struggles, some of the songs are about such topics as a stalker, and the CA wild fires. But overall these are some of Ben Gibbard’s most personal lyrics to date, as they seem to be more specific.

There were rumors that there were some creative tension during the recording of this album with singer/guitarist Gibbard wanting something with more commercial appeal and guitarist Chis Walla wanting something noisier and heavier. Those creative clashes often result in good music. And it sounds like they tried to marry the two concepts on this album and you have quite a few songs that start slow and build to heavier parts. So in a way they created a very orchestral sound on parts of the album. The decision to release "I Will Possess Your Heart" as the lead single was a little puzzling. It's a decent song, but it starts really slow and the unedited album version checks in at nearly 8 and a half minutes. The highlights were "Cath", "Bixby Canyon Bridge", "No Sunlight", "Long Division", "Your New Twin Sized Bed", and "You Can Do Better than Me", with a riff which recalls Summerteeth-era Wilco. Overall, it's a pretty solid effort from start to finish though.

17. Tom Morello (aka the Nightwatchman)The Fabled City (Epic/Red Ink). This is Tom Morello's 2nd release under his alter ego, the Nightwatchman. And from all accounts, it is no longer a side project and appears to be his main focus, now that Audioslave is finished and the short-lived reunion with Rage Against the Machine appears to be over. And based on the results of The Fabled City, that is encouraging, since he seems to have found his groove.

Many of the tracks on here sound as if they are stripped down versions of songs that would fit nicely on an old Rage album. You can almost imagine them as anthemic Rage songs with Zach de la Rocha screaming the lyrics. "Whatever It Takes" fits this description, as well as "The Lights Are On in Spidertown." Morello and producer Brendan O'Brien made a concerted effort to add more instrumentation to this album, as its predecessor, One Man Revolution, consisted of mostly just vocals and acoustic guitars. These songs deserve a full sound and many of them benefit from a more robust sound. Morello's vocals have improved as well. His baritone voice shows more range and he even reminds me of Neil Diamond, of all people, on a few tracks. Besides the tracks mentioned above, the highlights include the title track, "The King of Hell", "Night Falls", "Saint Isabelle", and "The Iron Wheel."

16. Ra Ra RiotThe Rhumb Line (Barsuk). Ra Ra Riot formed in 2006, consisting of 6 members attending college in upstate NY, and then relocating to NYC. It's not typical to find an indie rock band with a celloist and a violinist and they help give Ra Ra Riot a unique sound. They remind me a little bit of the New Pornographers and the Shins. The band suffered a tragic blow in 2007, when drummer John Pike drowned shortly before they planned to release their debut EP. After taking several months off, they decided to continue on and signed with a new label and readied their debut full-length album in 2008. Not unexpectedly, Pike's death seems to haunt the album. All of the songs Pike was involved in writing are noted in the liner notes and the album is dedicated to him. Cameron Wisch played drums on all of the tracks, but no official replacement for Pike was named. "Ghost Under Rocks" and "Dying Is Fine" are the most obvious tracks inspired by Pike's death. And the somber mood on the album owes much to the string section of celloist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller. The rest of the band consists of a typical guitar, bass, keyboards 3-piece, with keyboardist Wesley Miles handling the vocals. The other standout tracks include "St. Peter’s Day Festival", "Winter '05", "Can You Tell", "Too Too Too Fast", and the stellar cover of Kate Bush's "Suspended in Gaffa."

15. MetallicaDeath Magnetic (Warner Bros). After 25 years, there isn't much new ground for a band like Metallica to cover, if they are to remain in the hard rock/heavy metal genre. So I think they did a smart thing on this album, by going back to basics and trying to recapture the sound and spirit of 80's classics like Master of Puppets and ...And Justice For All. They hired Rick Rubin to produce this album, their first album produced by someone other than Bob Rock since before the Black Album. Rubin came in and bluntly told them that their best work was in the 80's and he wanted them to go back to that style. This has been hailed as their best release since the Black Album, which even though is absolutely accurate, also isn't saying much, since they've only released the decent Load and Re-Load and the disappointing St. Anger since 1991.

St. Anger has grown on me over the last few years, but my initial thoughts on the album turned out to be what most fans still remember: no guitar solos. A Metallica album without long complex guitar solos is sort of like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without jelly. So some are saying this album is the revenge of Kirk Hammett. His guitar solos are featured much more prominently on here. Overall, I think the album sounds a little like Puppets and Justice, but also with less rougher edges like the Black Album or Load era. So in some ways it sounds like an album that perhaps could have been released after Justice and before they adopted a more mainstream sound on the Black Album. It's still an encouraging return to basics for this band, after they have seemed to be functioning without a whole lot of direction or focus since the mid 90's.

You can't help but noticing while listening to this album, that even as they are in their mid 40's, there is practically no other band around who sounds as sonically thunderous as Metallica. Some bands are faster, some are heavier, but hardly anybody is as fast and loud as they are, and also as melodic. And speaking of loud some fans even started an online petition because they complained that the band purposefully mixed the album too loud, which threw everything else ouf of balance. I did notice the volume being higher, but didn't think it affected the overall sound of the album. I guess the theory is that today a louder album will stand out more from the rest of the competition, so now many hard rock bands are in an arms race to keep mixing the albums louder and louder.

The highlights are "The Day That Never Comes", "The Unforgiven III", "The Judas Kiss", "This Was Just Your Life", "All Nightmare Long", and "Cyanide." The rest of the album is decent to good. Overall, in spite of my skepticism, this was a pretty solid comeback album by a band whom I will always have a soft spot for in my music fan's heart.

14. R.E.M.Accelerate (Warner Bros). This is a bonafide "rocker" of an album by this legendary band. And while it does bear similarities to the somewhat recent albums it will be most compared to – 1994's Monster and 1996's Adventures in Hi-Fi – I think this is a much heavier album, whereas those albums were just noisier more so than rocking.

It is a good album and a very good comeback album for them – probably their best most cohesive set since 1992's Automatic for the People. Since 1992, they released the sloppy but enjoyable Monster and Adventures in Hi-Fi – kind of a sequel to Monster. Then drummer Bill Berry retired and the band didn't even really seem like a band since then. They made the best album they could in 1998 with Up – an art-rock, keyboard-heavy album, where bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck switched instruments for the album just to keep things interesting. And then they followed that up with two lackluster albums – 2001's Reveal and 2004's Around the Sun, which might be good enough to be one average album if you combine the best parts of both. I am a big fan of the band, but by 2004, I was bored with them. I hadn't really been interested in anything they had done since 1998 aside from a stray song here or there like "The Great Beyond", "Bad Day", and "Imitation of Life."

Like I said this is the band's most straight-ahead simple rock album in at least 15 years. And it's brief - ripping through 11 songs in 36 minutes. It even harkens back to their 80's classics Reckoning, Life's Rich Pageant, and Document. There seems to be a conscious acknowledgement and embracing of their past history with this album. They seem to have set out to show that they can still make an album like this if they chose to do so. This return to their roots may seem a bit calculated, but it works. It doesn't match the raggedness of their early albums, but they know what it takes and do their best to make a modern, big budget album sound a little lo-fi. The highlights are "Supernatural Superserious", "I'm Gonna DJ", "Hollow Man", "Mr. Richards", "Living Well Is the Best Revenge", and "Horse to Water."

13. The FratellisHere We Stand (Cherry Tree Records). On the surface there isn't much original about the Fratellis. They are a punk/pub rock trio from Glasgow, Scotland, with a sound that would fit nicely in between songs by the Clash or the Strokes on your iPod playlist. They took "Fratelli" as their surname in the manner of the Ramones and some other bands. Jon is the singer/guitarist/keyboardist, Barry is the bassist, and Mince is the drummer. And the rumor is that the the inspiration for the band's name came from the villainous family in the movie The Goonies. I discovered them late in 2007 and immediately loved their debut album, Costello Music. They were big in the U.K., getting as high as #2 on the charts, but never really sparked much interest in America. And that was in spite of their tunes being featured in commercials for iPods and Amstel Light.

They wrote and recorded all of these songs during a 4-week period between December '07 and January '08. And even though this is a more polished album, it still has that immediate, raw, "live" quality to it, probably due to the speed with which all of this occurred. The songs on Here We Stand are initially less catchy and anthemic than the ones on Costello Music, but musically they appear to have more depth. The rough edges are smoother and the vocals are stronger, with more singing and less shouting. Jon Fratelli's voice is actually similar to that of Liam Gallagher of Oasis, when he's doing more singing.

There are more songs on here that make you think more of Oasis or Coldplay with mixed results, rather than, say, the Arctic Monkeys or the Faces or the Clash. The person who mixed the album has also mixed albums by U2, Oasis, and the Stones, so that probably is part of it. And ultimately this makes the album a little less memorable. On Costello Music, "Chelsea Dagger", "Flathead", and "Gutterati" were songs that stayed with you for awhile after your heard them. Your feet would be tapping and you'd be humming the choruses. On Here We Stand, there are a few songs like that – "Shameless", "Look Out Sunshine!", and "Mistress Mabel" come to mind. But they are a notch below the best songs on Costello Music. "Lupe Brown", "Acid Jazz Singer", "Babydoll", "Tell Me a Lie", and "A Heady Tale" are all pretty good. In spite of it being a notch below their debut album, it was still a very good record. I'd compare it to many other sophomore efforts by bands like, for instance, the Clash and the Strokes – good albums, but just less influential and possibly less enjoyable than their debuts.

12. Delta SpiritOde to Sunshine (Rounder). I had read some good things about Delta Spirit, so I was excited to see them open for Nada Surf in December. And I wasn't disappointed. They combine their indie and punk influences well with their alt-country and power pop influences creating a sound that would fit well with bands like Wilco or Dr. Dog, or Philly cult-fave Grand Fabric. And singer Matt Vazquez's voice often sounds like Jeff Buckley. And a few reviews compard them to the Violent Femmes, which is also apt. Ode to Sunshine was actually released by the band on their own in 2007 and was reissued by their new label, Rounder, in 2008. The album was recorded in a cabin and that helped to capture a raw, stripped-down sound. The track "Trashcan" exemplifies this, with the band trading off instruments, while vocalist Vasquez switches from guitar to piano, and band members take turns banging trash can lids. The live performance of this was one of the most exciting things I've witnessed in a few years. The Replacements used to do this during the song "Hootenanny" and the improvisational spirit lives on in this band. Besides "Trashcan", "Parade", "Strange Vine", "Streetwalker", "People Turn Around", and "Children" are the best of the rest. All 11 songs work well together though, and there is no filler.

11. De Novo DahlMove Every Muscle, Make Every Sound (Roadrunner). I stumbled across this band last spring. In trying to familiarize myself with the band, who was opening for Jesse Malin (at a show that ended up being cancelled), I sampled some of their music and eventually picked up this album. The odd band name comes from a reference to Roald Dahl, the author of children's books, and "De novo" which is Latin for "anew." The principals in this band had played together in high school and then reunited in 2001 and released their debut EP in 2003. This album is their 2nd full length release. They operate on the same plane as bands like the Flaming Lips or the B-52's with their quirky pop sounds. However, I read a few reviewers who made the identical observation, that is, this band is nowhere near as weird as they would want you to believe. They wear crazy costumes and have adopted these weird personas and names, but musically they sound very much like a traditional pop/rock band. You could imagine these songs getting spun on the local alt/rock station, if it was any good, but you could also imagine them getting airplay on a good 70's or 80's pop/rock station as well, right next to Elvis Costello, Prince, Cyndi Lauper and U2. Singer/keyboardist Mark Bond (Vovo Dahl) and singer/guitarist Joel McAnulty (Joel. J. Dahl) seem to have that gift for writing catchy pop/rock melodies. "Shout", "Make Some Sense", "Means to an End", "Shakedown" (which wouldn't feel out of place on an old Prince album), "Marketplace", "The Sky Is Falling", and "Heartbreaker" are the best of a good crop of songs.

10. The Hold SteadyStay Positive (Vagrant). This was a good follow up to their breakthrough album – 2006's Boys and Girls in America. Singer/guitarist Craig Finn moved from Minneapolis to Brooklyn in 2000 and formed the Hold Steady a few years later. The band seems to consist of a stew of Finn's influences – the Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, along with classic rock acts from the 70's (Thin Lizzy, Led Zep). And Stay Positive is their 4th release since they debuted in 2004, and it's probably their most challenging yet. They kind of seem like a group of nerdy guys and that's probably not helped them in becoming bigger than they are. Finn, in fact, looks less like a rock star than anyone in recent memory. He actually sort of resembles Stanley from Life Sex & Death, a little bit. But the E-Street Band was never going to win any beauty contests either, and like them the Hold Steady put on a high-energy live show.

Finn's lyrics are similar to Springsteen with stories about girls, cars, and bars. His voice is also similar, so those comparisons are obviously going to be made. Actually, I think his voice is kind of a cross between Bruce and Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows. Finn also namechecks a lot of figures from rock's past in his songs, as well as characters in his own songs.

The highlights are "Constructive Summer", "Sequestered in Memphis", "Yeah Sapphire", the title track – which oddly recalls Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.", "Magazines", "Slapped Actress", "Joke About Jamaica", and "Slapped Actress" – which wouldn't have been out of place on a mid 90's grunge album. Most of the rest are decent. And a few like "One for the Cutters" are just too busy. It could have been a great song, but there seems to be too much going on with the piano and harpsichord, that overshadows the lyrics and melody. For a big stretch of 2008, I listened to this as much as any other album.

9. Alkaline TrioAgony & Irony (Epic). This is yet another good record by this band – who have grown into one of my favorites over the past decade and they rarely ever disappoint. Yet, Agony & Irony likely ranks no higher than their 3rd best album of this decade. Many would rank it as their worst this decade. The fact that even though it's a subpar effort for them and yet still is good enough to crack my top 10, probably speaks volumes for how highly I regard them.

The title was a humorous take on Stevie Wonder's "Ebony & Ivory" and this marked the Trio's major label debut after spending the previous 7+ years on Vagrant. To their credit this release does not sound overly polished or overproduced, as is the case with so many pop/punk bands when they make their major label debut. If anything, it sounded like the vocal mix was a little too low in some songs. Of course major labels aren't what they used to be and don't hold the same status, but that's another story for another day.

This sounds a little different than some of their older stuff, but that's a direction the band has been moving in since Good Mourning in 2003 – with more complex musical arrangements and more ghoulish lyrics. This probably is due to the addition of drummer Derek Grant in 2002, who plays a host of instruments and also writes many of the string arrangements in their songs. Agony sort of picks up where Crimson left off, but there are enough kinds of tracks to please fans of every album they've released. Once again, bassist Dan Andriano contributed some solid songs to go along with guitarist Matt Skiba's usual allotment. Andriano usually writes more about love and relationships to give balance to Skiba's darker subject material.

And the more I listen to this album (and especially the acoustic My Space sessions), I've come to feel that Andriano's "Love Love Kiss Kiss" may be the album's true gem and is my favorite track on here at the moment. It's sung from the perspective of a person who is sick of seeing other couples being happy when he is miserable – "Love love kiss kiss /Blah blah blah, you're making me sick /I wish you'd just stop showing off /For the rest of us that no one wants to love /It's hard enough trying to drink another winter all alone." Dan also contributed "In Vein" and "Don't You Wanna Know", which are standouts. And as is often the case, one of the best tracks from these recordings didn't make the cut for the album – "Burned Is the House." I'm still not sure why, since it's such a great song. Oh well, overseas additions had it as a bonus track.

The best from Matt are the lead single "Help Me", "Over and Out", "Live Young, Die Fast", and "Calling All Skeletons." But there really isn’t a bad track on here. Although I was puzzled at the selection of "Skeletons" as the second single, when in my opinion there are probably a half dozen better tracks on the record. And even some others like "Lost and Rendered" and "I Found Away" don't grab you as quickly as some of the others, but they are enjoyable on subsequent listens. "Over and Out" is the story of a final conversation between spouses before one is killed during the war. "Help Me" was actually inspired by the suicide death of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, after Skiba saw the biopic about him last year. Overall, it was about what you'd expect from Alkaline Trio at this point in their career and that's still pretty damn good.

8. Old 97'sBlame It on Gravity (New West). Old 97's have been together for over 15 years now. It's actually quite an accomplishment in this era. There aren't too many bands that started 15-20 years ago, who are still together without having either broken up or replaced some members over the years. Usually by around the 8-10 year range, if the band hasn't gotten really big and made some money, they either break up, go on hiatus, and/or the singer pursues solo stardom. Quick, I'll spot you Green Day and if you can name 5 other bands that fit this criteria (bands that started between 1988 and 1994 and are still together with all of the original band members) without having to spend 30 minutes on Google, I'll buy you a beer. Actually, it is really amazing that U2 is going on 30 years together with no breakups and no lineup changes. They are in a category all by themselves.

This quartet – singer/guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peoples are still at it showing a youthful vigor even as they are in or approaching their 40's. This is their 7th album together and it is a return to form after what I thought was a subpar Drag It Up in 2004, after their trio of great releases starting in 1997 with Too Far to Care, followed by Fight Songs in 1999, and then Satellite Rides in 2001. Since 2001, the band has taken more time off. They have toured less and spent more time with their families. All have gotten married and had kids in the last 10 years and they relocated to other parts of the country, away from their native Dallas. And in between they filled in that time with some solo albums and side projects. It's obvious that real stardom isn't in reach for this band at this stage, yet they are still together because they genuinely like each other. And they leave themselves enough down time between albums to pursue solo interests (Rhett Miller has his next solo set due for release in June).

Sonically, Blame It on Gravity probably resembles their ragged classic Too Far to Care more than any other Old 97's record. The catchiest tracks on here are the Latin-influenced lead single "Dance With Me", "The One", "My Two Feet", "I Will Remain", "The Easy Way", and "She Likes the Sunset." And Murry contributed two really good tracks in "This Beautiful Thing" and "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue." The former is a pop gem and the latter a laid back folky, country-tinged track. A writer in Rolling Stone last year noted how the band seems to combine the best aspects of two of their biggest influences – the Beatles and Johnny Cash. It's true that they are repeating themselves a little and Ken Bethea seems to have run out of new solos to play. But after 15 years they are still going strong, still making high-quality underappreciated rock records, and putting on some of the most consistently good live shows of any band of this era.

7. Jay ReatardSingles '06-'07 (In the Red) and Matador Singles '08 (Matador). OK, these were 2 separate releases in the same year, but I sort of looked at them as one huge Jay Reatard release. It's not like either of them is any kind of conceptual, thematic album in the old sense of the word. It is literally just a collection of singles he's released individually the past 3 years all culled together over separate releases. Reatard began recording in his bedroom about a decade ago. He was born Jay Lindsey and started a band called the Reatards about 10 years ago. After a few releases under this name, he started a side project called the Lost Sounds and they broke up in 2005 after several releases. And since then he's been recording at a frantic pace under the name Jay Reatard and is releasing the equivalent of about an album's worth of music every year, since his first proper release, Blood Visions, in 2006.

His music is very lo-fi with nods to 60's British Invasion and 70's punk. I even heard him compared to Buddy Holly, which is also apt. The highlights from the 2 releases are "All Over Again", "I Know a Place", "Don’t Let Him Come Back", "Haunting You", "See Saw", "Screaming Hand", "Always Wanting More", "You Mean Nothing to Me", "Hiding Hole", "No Time", and "I'm Watching You." There are about 30 tracks total on the 2 releases and most are pretty good.

6. Dr. DogFate (Park the Van). When I saw Philly's own Dr. Dog open for Dinosaur Jr a few years ago, I didn't know what to make of them. I thought they were great live, but yet in my mind I couldn't really place them in the musical lexicon. They seemed a little like a jam band, but also an indie rock band. Artists like the Talking Heads, Flaming Lips, Pavement, Wilco, and the Band were rattling around in my head. It didn't matter. I picked up 2007's We All Belong shortly after and the rest of their back catalogue shortly after that.

Dr. Dog started as a collective of musicians early this decade with the principals being guitarist Scott McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman. Other members include guitarist Andrew Jones, keyboard player Zach Miller, and drummer Juston Stens, along with revolving door of local musicians as guests.

They seemed to purposefully leave a lot of cracks and pops in the mix to give the album an older feel, like something you might be queueing up on an old phonograph 40 years ago. This album continues right where We All Belong left off. "Hang On", "The Old Days", "The Rabbit, the Bat, & the Reindeer", "From", "100 Years", "My Friend", and "Army of Ancients" stand out as my favorite tracks. The rest are decent too and the album flows very well together. I can't wait to hear where this band goes on the next album.

5. The Black CrowesWarpaint (Silver Arrow). How does a band known more for great live performances, release a stellar comeback album and yet deliver such a disappointing live show? I've been pondering that almost every time I listen to this album. I wrote a scathing review of their July 3rd show at the TLA.

I still enjoy this album more every time I listen to it. It's the first new album by the Black Crowes since 2001 and I would say this is probably their best album since 1994's Amorica, and that is coming from a person who thought 1999's By Your Side was very good, inspite of the poor reception from many longtime loyal fans. If you would categorize the Black Crowes' seven studio albums, I think you'd probably say their debut Shake Your Money Maker and By Your Side were similar (some critics of By Your Side would say it was almost identical), 1996's Three Snakes and One Charm and 2001's Lions were similar and 1992's The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Amorica, and Warpaint are similar. These 3 albums seem to form a trilogy of a southern-fried stew of blues, Stones/Faces-influenced British invasion rock, and even a little folk and gospel.

I'm actually shocked that Warpaint is this good. After their reunion in 2005, it seemed like the band was content to just grind it out on the road for the next umpteen years, with no motivation to release anything new. The lineup is a little different now after former North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson replaced Marc Ford in 2007, but otherwise this is the same lineup that began the reunion in 2005. The album has a real cohesive feel to it and I think the 3 years on the road together since their reunion probably helped create that. The highlights are "Walk Believer Walk", "Oh Josephine", "Evergreen", "Locust Street", "Movin' on Down the Line", and "Wounded Bird." Even a weird cover like "God's Got It" or the psychedelic "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution" work well here, as well as the country blues of "Whoa Mule." There isn't a bad song on here and it stands as a surprising return to form by veteran band.

4. Low vs. DiamondS/T (Epic). It would be easy to dismiss Low vs. Diamond as yet another unoriginal band of this era in the mold of the Killers or the Bravery, who sort of mix garage rock with 80's Brit rock (Cure, New Order, Smiths). I was surprised to find out they were from L.A., since they seem to have a definite East Coast vibe to them. They remind me a little of the Killers without all of the Vegas bombast. Interestingly, the 3 founding members – singer Lucas Field, drummer Howie Diamond, and keyboardist Tad Moore – actually cut their teeth in college playing in jam bands, so they bring that influence into the mix, as well. The keyboard sections and hooks in their songs seem to come from a more traditional pop/rock influence than that of a lot of other similarly-labeled bands. The horrible name for the band is supposedly an inside joke related to drummer Diamond and the arguments with his ex-girlfriend who was nicknamed, Low. Ultimately, their songs just have more hooks in them than most of their contemporaries. But whereas the Killers and the Bravery seem partial to latter day Cure and latter day U2, Low vs. Diamond's sound owes more to early U2 and early Cure. And the result is both a catchier and more soulful and more authentic-sounding album.

There's not a bad track on here. "Don't Forget Sister", "Killer B", "Song We Sang Away", "This Is Your Life", "Actions Are Actions", and "Cinema Tonight" are all top-notch and the rest are good too.

3. Jenny LewisAcid Tongue (Warner Bros). When Jenny Lewis is not fronting Rilo Kiley, she is now part of this collective of indie rockers who were raised on twangy pop/rock tunes from the 1970’s. And they hang out now in Laurel Canyon bouncing ideas off of each other. On her 2nd solo album, she continues playing twangy folk-rock with an edge that is still a little rough, although less so than on her debut solo effort. It's tough to pigeonhole Lewis at this point. Because of the combination of her songwriting prowess and her wide vocal range, she is able to pull off pop, country, rock, blues, and R&B songs all equally well. Even a few of her pop ballads ("Trying My Best to Love You", "Bad Man's World", and "Sing a Song For Them"), which would normally cause my alarm for vomit-inducing sappy schmaltz to go off, are pretty good. That is because they are steeped in R&B and country traditions and have more soul than your typical pop ballad. And the sequencing of songs was done very well, giving the album a live sound. You could almost imagine it being a setlist, mixing the up tempo and low tempo songs together well.

The catchiest song on here is rollicking duet with Elvis Costello, "Carpetbaggers." Costello seemed to have a lot of free time this year as he appeared on albums with Lewis, Lucinda Williams, Fall Out Boy, and a few others. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Zooey Deschanel, and M Ward also make guest appearances on this album. Ward also appeared on her first solo album. Some other song highlights include the epic, nearly 9-minute long "The Next Messiah" – which sounds like 2 or 3 different songs, "Black Sand", "See Fernando", "Jack Killed Mom", and the title track. This is another stellar album from Lewis, her 4th quality release in the last 5 years – 2 solo and 2 with Rilo Kiley. At this point I'd say she is probably my favorite female artist.

2. Little JoyS/T (Rough Trade). Who'd have thunk that one of the best records of the year would be delivered by a trio consisting of the Strokes' drummer, his girlfriend, and some Brazilian indie rock dude that nobody knew before this album? That would be Fabrizio Moretti, Binky Shaprio, and Rodrigo Amarante of the band Los Hermanos. Amarante plays guitar and sings on most of the songs, but Moretti wrote or co-wrote every song and also plays guitar and bass on some tracks. Fab is actually half-Brazilian, so knowing that makes this collaboration seem less strange. And this is probably the best side project by a drummer in a successful band since, uh, well Peter Criss' solo album, I guess. The point is it's pretty rare.

I believe the key to the album's suprising success is its simplicity. It's the kind of album that seems easy to play and it goes down pretty easy on the initial listenings. The influences on the album range from soul, reggae, latin folk, classical guitar, early 70's pop/rock, and even a song or two that wouldn't be too out of place on a Strokes album. The result is the kind of all encompassing "worldly" rock album probably not heard from a mainstream act since Joe Strummer died. There isn't a bad song on the album and it is so strong throughout, it's often hard to even pinpoint your favorite tracks. For those who are more into the Strokes and may find the other stuff too challenging, you can start off with "Keep Me in Mind", which sounds very Strokes-y, and actually sounds very much like something that would have fit nicely on fellow Strokes-er Albert Hammond's solo albums. There are a few notable guest appearances too, namely Nick Valensi of the Strokes and Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches.

The highlights are the aforementioned "Keep Me in Mind", "Next Time Around", "No One's Better Sake", "Brand New Start", "How to Hang a Warhol", the bossa nova influenced "Unattainable", and the folky "Don't Watch Me Dancing", the latter two with Shapiro on lead vocals. This was the most unexpected good release of 2008. My only complaint about this album is its brevity. It's so enjoyable you don't want it to end.

1. Nada SurfLucky (Barsuk). The biography of New York-based Nada Surf reads like a warning for all aspiring singer/songwriters. The band formed in the early 90's when longtime school friends, singer/guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, reunited. After trying their hand at a few different projects, they settled on Nada Surf. After some European-only EP's, one of their demos found its way into the hands of Ric Ocasek and shortly after the band was signed to Elektra.

In 1996 they released High/Low with Ocasek producing. The band was viewed as another version of Weezer and "Popular" became a surprise radio hit and things were going well. When they delivered their follow-up, The Proximity Effect, in 1998 the label refused to release it because they felt it didn't have anything on it that would be a potential hit. This was during the consolidation of the major labels during the late 90's, where this fate befell so many other promising acts, who had showed potential but lost momentum and saw their fanbases dwindle and then move on to other acts during the lull. Many artists completed albums and then were told that their label had dropped them or was refusing to release the album because of a lack of commercial potential.

And then it took Nada Surf, like many of the others, a few years to buy back the rights to the album and/or to get out of the current deal and get signed by another label. In Nada Surf's case, the label released the album in Europe, but refused to release it in the U.S. And it would be almost 2 years later when Nada Surf got the rights back to the album and released it in the U.S. in 2000. But by then many of their fans had moved on to other bands.

The Proximity Effect was certainly no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but it was a solid album and Nada Surf soldiered onward. They didn't tour much so they were basically on hiatus from about 1997 to 2002. They signed to Barsuk in 2002 and shortly after released their career best album Let Go. Now they were showing their power pop influences - think more Lemonheads or Death Cab for Cutie or older Foutains of Wayne, rather than Weezer. They followed up Let Go with The Weight Is a Gift in 2005 and then Lucky in 2008.

Lucky opens with “See These Bones”, a warning to aspiring bands to be more careful so they don't fall into the same traps Nada Surf did. And the catchy tunes just keep on coming – "Whose Authority", "Beautiful Beat", "Weightless", "Are You Lightning?", "I Like What You Say", "From Now On", and "Ice on the Wing" are stellar. And the rest are pretty good. And they left off a gem – the b-side "I Wanna Take You Home" duet with Juliana Hatfield, which was included on the bonus disc. Lucky completes a trilogy of excellent power pop/rock albums for this band and even though it's no better than the 2nd best of the three releases, it ended up being my favorite of 2008.

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