Music writer Chad Berndtson picks the good, the better and the best of 2008.
My favorite albums of 2008 and a recap of the music year with a few superlatives:
BEST NOBLE FAILURE: Kanye West’s ``808s & Heartbreak'' is a bold overreach – an attempted (and yes, failed) marriage of confessional, arty hip-hop that contains only minimal rapping and, well, is still impressive in its ambition.
BEST COOL IT WITH THE PUNCTUATION, PLEASE: Los Campesinos! and Portugal. The Man. Great on the ears, hell on copy editors.
BEST REUNION NEWS: I’d like to go all hipster on you and say Boss Hog or something, and I’d be betraying my fellow Jamband Nation ambassadors if I didn’t admit the upcoming Phish reunion was completely titillating news. But the Faces tour? With the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea potentially on bass? Just put up the dates already, guys. I’ll be there.
BEST OUT OF MOTHBALLS: For anyone who’s always loved the country-rock side of Tom Petty, a mini-revival of his long lost band Mudcrutch – complete with album – was manna from heaven. All we need’s an East Coast follow-up to those few West Coast dates you did, Tom. Ahem.
BEST SECOND ACT: Joan Osborne was big in the last decade, telling us God was one of us and such. She faded into obscurity, battled back to niche appeal with gigs with the Funk Brothers, the Holmes Brothers, the reconstituted (Grateful) Dead and others, and this year released the excellent ``Little Wild One.'' Welcome back, Joan.
BEST COVER: Cat Power’s reworking of the cheatin’ hearts standard ``Dark End of the Street'' is great, and My Morning Jacket in concert made stunningly soulful work of, of all things, Erykah Badu’s ``Tyrone.'' But when you hear Woodstock icon Richie Havens tackle Jackson Browne’s ``Lives in the Balance'' (with slide guitar accompaniment from Derek Trucks) on Havens’ latest album, ``Nobody Left to Crown,'' the contest is over.
BORN IN THE USA AWARD FOR BEST POLITICAL NO-YOU-DON’T: Speaking of Jackson Browne, he was among a slew of artists telling the John McCain campaign ``no frickin’ way'' with regard to appropriating his material (in this case ``Running On Empty.'')
CLIPSE AWARD FOR HIPSTER HIP-HOP: The Knux. Rather than your kids, ask your indie rock pals about this one instead.
BEST GETTING BACK TO WHAT YOU’RE GOOD AT: After the Springsteen-aping mess of 2006’s ``Sam’s Town,'' the Killers returned this year with ``Day & Age,'' restoring the danceable, pop cheeseball charm that made ``Mr. Brightside'' and ``Somebody Told Me'' so tasty.
BEST PROOF OF CHICKS, ROCKING: Britney’s return? Pretentious Madonna? Surely, you jest. We’ll take the hairstanding punk and shoegaze madness of Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls, whose gossamer harmonies over a sandstorm of guitar squall and hammering drums will both steal your heart and strip the paint off your car.
I’LL STILL SHOW YOU HOW IT’S DONE AWARD: Tina Turner. Make way.
BEST INDIE-ROCK MARKETING: Blogs? Yeah, if you read ‘em. And sure, soundtrack appearances in otherwise forgettable films like ``Mr. Foe'' and ``Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist'' are doing much for the profiles of indie rock bands like Bishop Allen and Sons & Daughters. But the indie rock-to-the-mainstream tastemaker remains Apple, whose iPod commercials had us all humming Feist’s ``1,2,3,4'' last year and this year brought us Chairlift’s ``Bruises'' (you know, ``I will do handstands for you''?).
MOST IMPORTANT NEW MUSIC MEDIUM: Guitar Hero and Rock Band. What’s going to teach your kids the history of rock ‘n’ roll faster? That scratched up collection of vinyl and CDs you keep in the basement – or their fleet thumbs?
BEST EXCUSE FOR LINER NOTES: Have you seen that manifesto – the studios in double digits, the careful wording, the galaxy of b.s. – occupying the sleeves for Axl Guns N’ Roses’ ``Chinese Democracy?'' Good reading, dude! Oh, the music itself? Eh. It’s OK. Yeah, epic. Overindulged. Can I get my Dr. Pepper now?
BEST SECOND ACT 2: His successes as frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish fade further into memory every year. But beneath Darius Rucker’s pop-rock acuity has apparently long existed a bona fide country singer waiting for a little nurturing, and Rucker’s second solo album, ``Learn to Live'' is a marvel.
BEST COUNTRY ALBUM YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD: Speaking of country, it’s tough to argue with both the enormous fan adoration and impressive critical accolades bestowed on Taylor Swift. Why? Have a listen to ``Fearless,'' and if you’re still unwilling to tip your hat to Swift just because she’s 19 and the new jewel of the Nashville country-pop establishment (for better and for worse), then you’re in denial.
BEST COUNTRY ALBUM YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T: You’re a country fan, or you know one, who’s beyond jaded and needs something that’s as professionally crafted as it is emotionally devastating. Jamey Johnson’s ``That Lonesome Song'' is your next purchase – the next link in a chain that hits guys named Kristofferson, Jennings and Jones on its way back in time.
ANNUAL I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE OF POP AND IT IS SWEDISH AWARD: The pixieish Lykke Li has in ``Youth Novels'' one of the year’s most engrossing, eclectic pop albums. Don’t ask me to describe it. It’s Swedish. Just listen.
BEST EVIDENCE BANDS NAMED FOR FOREST CREATURES ARE STILL EN VOGUE: Great albums this year from Fleet Foxes, Frightened Rabbit, White Rabbits and Providence’s own Deer Tick.
BEST EVIDENCE THE COOL KIDS ARE ACTUALLY ON TO SOMETHING ELSE: Crystal Stilts, Crystal Antlers, Crystal Castles
BEST EVIDENCE OF NEVER GOING OUT OF STYLE: The Black Keys, Black Angels, Black Ghosts, Black Kids and Black Crowes – all black, all with terrific 2008 releases – and hotly anticipated new releases in 2009 from the Black Swans and Black Lips.
MOST OVERRATED BAND: I’ll give ‘em credit where its due – they’re catchy – but in this humble estimation, rare has a band elicited such an ``eh'' response to its extraordinary hype and critical praise as Vampire Weekend.
BEST PROOF SOME ACTORS CAN CROSS OVER: The number of famous actors that have attempted to crossover into music is slightly longer than the number of failures. But Zooey Deschanel made a great duo with indie rock favorite M. Ward as She & Him. And actor Billy Bob Thorton’s a gas with his Boxmasters – a gig they played at New York’s Highline Ballroom was one of the better country shows I’ve seen this year.
BEST PROOF SOME MUSICIANS CAN, TOO: ``Cadillac Records – great idea for a film, mediocre in execution. But that Beyonce Knowles and her lived-in portrait of Etta James? Let’s just say she’d wipe the floor with any of the ``Dreamgirls.''
MVP YOU HEAR A LOT ABOUT: In addition to a new album (``Momofuku''), opening duties on the last leg of the Police reunion tour and his appearances on everything from ``The Colbert Report'' to Fall Out Boy’s new album, ``Folie a Deux,'' Elvis Costello is also the host of Sundance’s ``Spectacle.''
MVP YOU DON’T: Marc Ribot is a guitar genius – a legend of New York’s downtown jazz scene. This year his stylings were an essential ingredient to at least three of the year’s great albums – his own ``Party Intellectuals,'' the Black Keys’ ``Attack and Release,'' and John Zorn’s ``The Crucible'' – and book-ending that work were his appearances on 2007s Robert Plant/Alison Krauss disc ``Raising Sand'' and 2009’s upcoming Allen Toussaint release, ``The Bright Mississippi.''
BEST PERSONAL THAWING OF FROST: Look, I’ve never much liked Coldplay – precious, cloying, overproduced, annoying. All said, I’ll tip my hat to infectious 2008 single ``Viva La Vida,'' whose epic-sounding catchiness I’ll begrudge the band (even though I maintain it sounds so good ‘cause it sounds like U2.)
BEST ‘YOU GO, JOE’: Speaking of Coldplay, they’re in a bit of an imbroglio with shredder par excellence Joe Satriani, who claims ``Viva La Vida'' lifted heavily from his work and earlier this month decided to sue the band. Who knows how it’ll get settled, but we’re not ones to mess with Satch, and neither should Chris Martin.
BEST CONCERT BILLS: I can’t say enough about Neil Young and Wilco – I mean, how about that for humbling concert pairings. But to be honest, I’m giving it up – mostly for a way-more-affordable price and more unpredictability in song selection – for the ``Rock ‘n’ Roll Means Well'' Tour with the Drive-By Truckers and the Hold Steady. I can still smell the beer.
BEST MARRIAGE OF MUSIC AND TELEVISION: What, you thought this was going to be some kind of eulogy for TRL? Come now. If you never caught HBO’s ``The Wire'' while it was still in first-run up through March 2008, go get yourself some DVDs. ``''Watch the show, and you’ll understand why you’ll never hear like the Pogues’ ``Body of an American,'' Jesse Winchester’s ``Step by Step'' or, especially, Tom Waits’ ``Way Down in the Hole'' (and other versions of the song used throughout the Wire’s five seasons) without thinking of David Simon’s Baltimore-based tragedy.
BEST LAWSUIT WAITING TO HAPPEN: Gregg Gillis, who as Girl Talk mashes up hundreds of songs from all corners of the pop music spectrum to create a never-ending party, is as exciting and maybe-so-maybe-not illegal as a guy who plays a laptop can get. (He also upped the hipster quotient of Showcase Live – if just for one sold-out night in November – by 100 percent.)
BEST PROOF IN PHIL LESH’S ABILITY TO PICK ‘EM: There were delectable albums from the likes of San Francisco folk-blues upstart Jackie Greene (``Giving Up the Ghost''), the superbly inventive guitarist Jimmy Herring (``Lifeboat'') now tearing it up as a member of Widespread Panic, and former enfant terrible Ryan Adams, whose ``Cardinology'' proved sobriety – and a solidified band, the Cardinals – has been a blessing. One link between the three of them? They’ve all toured as former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Friends at some point in the last five years.
BEST NEW HAUNTS: I’m a venues guy as much as anything else – there are certain clubs and venues in the Boston area, just like any place with a healthy music scene, that can elevate even a mediocre show on the basis of their charm. To that end, I welcome the standouts among a string of new hotspots: Church in the Fenway, Precinct Bar in Somerville, Showcase Live! in Foxboro, and the new C-Note in Hull. The big story in the next few months will be whether the brand new House of Blues on Lansdowne Street – which opens in February and has already booked Dropkick Murphys, BB King and Jimmy Eat World – lives up to the hype.
THE RAT MEMORIAL AWARD FOR HEARTFELT BON VOYAGE: There’s been many a Boston-area venue to go under in the last two years, but, none hurts worse than Somerville’s Abbey Lounge. Never thought I’d feel so bereft for a particular beer-stained floor, but if you had your ears blown out at 3 Beacon St. near Inman Square around midnight at any time in the last decade, you know what I’m talking about.
BEST JUST CAN’T DENY IT: Say what you will about the man – boastfulness or whatever else. It’s part of the game. Lil Wayne is owning hip hop this year, and while the pop charts and radio will say ``Lollipop,'' I’ll take ``A Millie,'' instead, if pressed for favorite tracks. Regardless, Wayne’s dominance is undeniable. And understandable.
BEST ARCHIVAL ALBUM: At the peak of their popularity, The Clash played Shea Stadium in 1982 – as an opener for The Who. While there are more punked-up Clash releases out there, ``The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium'' is a formidable testament to the reputation. Runners-up: Neil Young’s ``Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968,'' Phish’s ``At the Roxy'' and David Bowie’s ``Live in Santa Monica ‘72.''
BEST BOTTLED LIGHTNING: Boston-area music fans have some die-hard institutions. If you’ve ever been among the faithful at Cambridge’s Toad on a Monday night, you know how special Tim Gearan’s ongoing, 10-year-old residency there is. Gearan’s 2008 album, ``No Remedy'' is recorded with that band and nails the spirit of those nights so acutely your mind is already off work and into your second or third nightcap with old friends.
BEST LOCAL MUSIC WEB SITE: You’re surfing those darn Interwebs, looking for the most insightful mix of rock ’n’ roll commentary and mp3s – but hoping, too, for a stylish local angle and an author well-versed in Boston and indie rock history alike. You need Bradley’s Almanac (www.bradleysalmanac.com/blogger.html) more than you know.
BEST PROOF MAYBE WE DON’T NEED A COME REUNION: Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw are often asked about reforming their influential 90s band Come. But when both are putting out such vital solo material this year – Brokaw with ``Canaris'' and Zedek with ``Liars and Prayers'' – maybe we can wait a little longer.
BEST 2008 ALBUM BY A NOW-DEFUNCT BOSTON BAND: The Silver Lining. A throwback to shiny, happy ’60s and bands like the Mamas and the Papas, they released their debut in 2006, built a local reputation for killer shows and readied a follow-up this year nothing short of majestic. And yet... they’ve called it quits. Sigh.
BEST PROOF BOSTON’S GOT BLUE-EYED SOUL: Listen to Jesse Dee’s ``Bittersweet Batch'' and Eli ``Paperboy'' Reed’s ``Roll With You.'' Feel better about life.
BEST PROOF IMAGE-RICH, BLOG-READY INDIE-FOLK GROWS ON THE SOUTH SHORE: Scituate-bred Casey Dienel, aka White Hinterland.
ALSO, SOPHISTICATED POP: Marshfield-rooted Age Rings.
SAME WITH TOUGH-BUT-FEMININE BLUES: Norwell’s Susan Tedeschi, and her terrific ``Back to the River''
OH, AND HOW ABOUT GENRE-BENDING PUNK?: Abington’s Feels Like July.
WHILE WE’RE AT IT, WHERE DID THEY GO?: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, in 2005 the toast of indie rock blogs and hip critics from coast to coast (and all five with South Shore roots), has gone all but AWOL in the last two years.
MOST UNDERSUNG LOCAL MUSIC VENUE: With all manner of local venues – especially folk- and acoustic blues-friendly places – shutting their doors or selling out to generic formats in an attempt to stay ``relevant,'' Perks Coffeehouse in Norwood is an oasis. Some of the world’s finest in folk, blues and roots come through Ray Brady’s humble room on a regular basis. Pay the place a visit. Eat there, too.
BEST SOUTH SHORE MUSIC STORY: When we were handing our accolades left and right to Girls Guns & Glory’s 2007 album ``Pretty Little Wrecking Ball,'' we met the Scituate country-rock crew’s decision to release another album, this year’s ``Inverted Valentine'' so soon with trepidation. Would it be as top-shelf a release as ``Wrecking Ball'' had led us to think they were capable of? No. It would be better.
FAVORITE SHOWS: Hard to pick just five, but these were the Boston-area shows I’ll relish most from 2008: 1. Neil Young and Wilco, DCU Center (Worcester), Dec. 13; 2. Gov’t Mule’s Pink Floyd Halloween, Orpheum (Boston), Oct. 31; 3. Murder By Death and O’Death, Middle East Downstairs (Cambridge), April 5; 4. My Morning Jacket, Bank of America Pavilion (Boston), Sept. 6; 5. Phil Lesh & Friends and Levon Helm Band, Bank of America Pavilion (Boston), June 21
FAVORITE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR: Jaded ears require challenge, and to that end, at least half of my 10 favorite albums (alphabetized below), go to genre crashers with the zeal to push the envelope and not exactly play things safe. TV On the Radio, for example, has an all-in approach – even their failures are interesting. The great White Denim, out of Austin, Texas, proffers gale-force, psychedelic garage rock that floors me every time. Then comes (Expletive) Up, a Toronto band with an unprintable name and an impossible amount of soul in their hardcore punk (yeah, you read that right). And three cheers for the majestic violinist/singer and contemporary jazz genius Jenny Scheinman, who with two releases – one instrumental, one vocals – confirms genre classifications are utterly futile.
Overall, I still fear the best albums, songs, experiments or whatever of 2008 are still sitting my stacks, or on an as-yet-un-accessed MySpace page, or waiting their zeitgeist-injection through Guitar Hero or an Apple commercial. For now, Murder By Death, from Bloomington, Ind., makes Gothic, apocalyptic-sounding country rock of the highest order; the Black Keys and Drive-By Truckers proved changing things up a bit (the Keys their production values, the Truckers their lineup) wouldn’t ruin their essential mojo; the explosive Glasvegas (from Scotland) came roaring out of nowhere with a thunderclap of a shimmering, fuzzed-out pop debut; and the one and only BB King took a pause from vanity projects and living off his wholly-deserved legendary status alone to deliver one of his best albums, a wonder of a record produced by T-Bone Burnett. To hear the old master burn through ``See That My Grave Is Kept Clean'' and other chestnuts is to be taken to church. Seriously.
Chad’s Ten Favorite Albums of 2008
1. WHITE DENIM, ``Exposion''
2. TV ON THE RADIO, ``Dear Science,''
3. F***** UP, ``The Chemistry of Common Life''
4. JENNY SCHEINMAN, ``Jenny Scheinman'' and ``Crossing the Field''
5. MURDER BY DEATH, ``Red of Tooth and Claw''
6. THE BLACK KEYS, ``Attack and Release''
7. GIRLS GUNS & GLORY, ``Inverted Valentine''
8. BB KING, ``One Kind Favor''
9. DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, ``Brighter Than Creation’s Dark''
10. GLASVEGAS, ``Glasvegas'' Hearty cheers, and we’ll see you next year.
The Patriot Ledger