Every December or January, in a yearly ritual that somehow became more and more of a chore, I do a roundup of my favorite albums I heard throughout the year. Last year’s sorry excuse for a list was the result of writing exhaustion: what else could I really write about Boxer or Sound of Silver that hadn’t already been written?
Unlike the real critics, though, I included everything, old and new, in my year-end list — for the simple reason that musical excavation was a lot easier (and many times a lot more rewarding) than trying to keep up with new releases. I don’t get free advance CDs, after all. 2008 was the year I plunged deeply into irrationally different discographies: Led Zeppelin, Wilco, Ricardo Villalobos, Broken Social Scene, Arab Strap, and almost every compilation of ’70s African music (especially the wonderful Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6) I could get my hands on.
This year it seemed even harder to write up a list because my musical consumption, and perhaps my attention span as well, had been downsized. I had caught up, finally, with the iPod Generation, and succumbed to the sonic implications of the shuffle function, my beloved MusicIP Mixer, the Genius Playlist, Last.fm, and downloadable tracks from iTunes and Amazon — all features designed, it seems, to be at cross-purposes with the overarching framework of an album.
Such features make it easier to subvert and/or disrespect the artist’s intentions somehow. Surely Radiohead, for instance, wanted you to hear “All I Need”, a total stunner of a track, between “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” and “Faust Arp”. But random playlists and shuffles also work in the service of a song. One might say that the shuffle liberates a song from the confines of the album, recontextualizes it, and makes it new. Stateless’ “Bloodstream” popped up that way (on a Last.fm Radio station based on Clara Hill), and Captain Audio’s “Lemon” came bubbling out of the speakers on an Austin radio station like some long-lost Liz Phair track.
Hearing songs in different contexts played a huge part of my musical listening in 2008. My iTunes statistics tell a different story from the list later below: my most-played songs were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”, OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” (really — with 42 and a half million views on YouTube, you don’t even have to click the link), and Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” — and you players of Rock Band know why. Jill Scott’s “Golden”, a total declaration of independence, was one of my favorite songs this year since I saw strippers ironically dancing to it… in Grand Theft Auto IV.
So was Antony and the Johnsons’ “Hope There’s Someone”, from an album that didn’t make much of an impression on me until I heard the song at the conclusion of Wayne Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska. (Here’s my review, by the way.) Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s “New Year’s Kiss” plays during the opening credits of Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (another quick review here). And yes, also Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend”, from “Harvest Moon” — an album I always thought of as being all about the gorgeous title track — because Tunde Adebimpe sings it a cappella in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.
Which is not to say that there weren’t any albums I played all the way through until I wore out the grooves — oh wait, I haven’t done that since “Dark Side of the Moon”. Little Dragon‘s 2007 debut album was, hands down, my favorite album of the year (you all need to watch the video for “Test”), as were a couple albums noted below, and two older albums — Houses of the Holy and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — which I had listened to back in the day, but only really clicked this year.
But here, nonetheless, is a sweet surrender to the joys of song, all released in 2008 for real (with the exception of the Vampire Weekend track, which Pitchfork cognoscenti probably found out about in 2007). They’re actually ranked in order, too, which is something I’ve never attempted before. As it is, the order will probably change (as I type this, Point Juncture WA‘s “Melon Bird” is threatening to crack the top 15).