As 2008 slowly recedes out of view, we’re looking back at the best in pop culture over the course of the year. Because nothing’s more American than ranking artistic expression as if it were a horse race, here’s our list of the top 10 albums of 2008.
Surprisingly, a lot of the list is made up of debut albums, which I think reflects the fact that there’s a lot of emerging new talent out there right now. It’s not all gay, it’s not all disco, but it’s what kept us moving all year long.
Do tell us how this list is totally off by giving us your faves of the year.
1. Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
Complain about the shameless use of the Auto Tune all you want, Kanye West has crafted a pop album that combines a Warholian love of artifice with a stab at genuine emotion. Highly underrated and destined to grow in stature over time.
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (Anti-)
Funny, mean and blessed with the best lyrics of the year, Nick Cave’s 14th album is criminally good. The title track makes Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard” look like a walk through the park, and the gritty garage rock turn that Cave has made recently keeps the cynicism sharp and sly, not preachy and depressing.
3. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (Columbia Records)
“Time to Pretend” may very well be the anthem of the year, even if half the people listening don’t get that the song’s coke-fueled, rockstar-obsessed manifesto is mocking the impulses of excess, not espousing it. If you have to pick up one French electro-inspired rock outfit this year, MGMT’s the best.
4. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Look, when you’re getting compared to Brian Wilson, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Animal Collective on a regular basis, you’re doing something right. Fleet Foxes feels like a throwback to a simpler time. With a predilection for multi-part harmonies and spiritual overtones, the group feels at once brand new and timeless.
5. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL Recordings)
About five times better than it has any right to be, Vampire Weekend takes African pop sound and marries them to yuppie lyrics about mansard roofs and Oxford commas. Somehow, the whole thing works, even if the shelf life for the group seems to already have expired.
6. Santogold, Santogold (Downtown Records)
After years of New York being dominated by the twee sounds of soft-spoken indie rockers, Santogold’s “L.E.S. Artistes” promises to bring back some edge to the downtown scene. The music’s great (as is that album cover of her vomiting glitter), but the fact that she’s calling out music stores and critics who call her sound R&B or hip-hop simply because she’s black makes her rock all the more.
7. Sam Sparro, Sam Sparro (Island Records)
While “Black & Gold” is the hit everyone knows and loves by openly gay Australian multi-hyphenate (singer, producer, actor) Sam Sparro, it’s “21st Century Life” that wound up on my iPod shuffle for months. Sure, he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but the trick to pop greatness is to make old sounds young again, and Sparro’s got a knack for making infectious disco-pop. The fact that I have the biggest crush ever on him doesn’t hurt, either.
8. Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol Records)
If you had said a decade ago that Brian Wilson would be a prolific and exciting musician who performed regularly, I would have laughed in your face. But pop music’s wunderkind emeritus seems to be enjoying a late-life renaissance. First he completed his long-gestating “teenage symphony to God”, “SMiLE” and then followed up this year with “That Lucky Old Sun,” a paean to Wilson’s beloved California. It’s an uneven album with at least one stinker, but overall it’s vintage Wilson: achingly personal and heartfelt while infectiously catchy.
9. Estelle, Shine (Atlantic)
For “American Boy” alone, Estelle deserves to be on this list, but the charms of the UK’s biggest female hip hop star are many, and she manages to stand out on her own (never mind that her album’s piled high with guest artists and producers). If it seems the entire hip hop world wants to make Estelle a huge success, it’s only because they recognize just how talented she is.
10. Madonna, Hard Candy (Maverick)
Just because this is a gay blog, doesn’t mean Madonna gets a nod automatically. When it comes to pop, Madge casts a long shadow across the industry and “Hard Candy” is entertaining partly because so many upcoming stars are on it, genuflecting to the greatness that is later-day Madonna. Still, this is her least interesting album since “American Life” and at times it feels more like the soundtrack to an early morning spin class than a late-night party album. Although to be fair, that seems to be where Madonna is now in her life.