Looking back over my picks for the best albums of 2008, I’m struck by the lack of wild-card picks. If you look back over my top tens after 2008, there’s usually one or two albums from artists that most people aren’t paying attention to (i.e. The Olive Tree in 2012 or Liz Vice in 2014). But in 2008, these albums line up pretty well with either the best-selling albums or the most critically acclaimed. I’m not sure what the root of that is- whether it’s because those albums are usually the ones that grow in stature over the years or if it’s just a coincidence or if I was brainwashed as a 19-year-old to like what everyone else liked. Who knows?
There are several high-profile albums that I didn’t make the list though. I’ve never enjoyed I Am…Sasha Fierce that much. There are a bunch of great singles on that album that don’t coalesce into much when collected together, a problem that Beyoncé has not had since. 808s & Heartbreak is a sleeper favorite for Kanye fans, but it’s always left me cold, save a few songs. And I’ve never really understood trip-hop, so Portishead’s Third has never made much of an impression on me.
Anyway, here are my contenders:
10. Coldplay, Viva la Vida: In 2008, I was becoming acutely aware of the areas in which my taste was lacking, due to not paying attention to music for almost all of my childhood. Coldplay was one of the first bands that I liked when I first downloaded Limewire and was pure of heart. Then I started to read more about music and saw that Coldplay was respected by critics, but only to a certain extent. So I was skeptical that year of Viva la Vida‘s quality, especially the lyrics, though I really enjoyed the album. I don’t care so much now; this album remains one of my favorite listens, respectability be damned.
9. The Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound: If ever there were a band engineered to fit my tastes exactly, The Gaslight Anthem is it. They play nostalgia and that Springsteen shout-singing to a perfect pitch, with a little punk-rock flavor thrown in. Over the years, they’ve leaned more heavily on pop hooks and a studio-produced sound. But on this breakthrough album, they still sound like the Platonic ideal of a bar band struggling to make it. And while I’m glad they’re successful now and have made a ton of money, I’ll always go back to the simplicity of “Great Expectations,” or the older-than-their-years yearning of “The Backseat.”
8. Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight: It’s impossible to know what Frightened Rabbit’s legacy would be if front man Scott Hutchison hadn’t committed suicide this May. It’s barely important, of course, but this band meant a great deal to me in 2008. Back then, I was struggling with self-image a great deal, and the mangled vision of self on The Midnight Organ Fight was comforting. A line like “And vital parts fall from his system / And dissolve in the Scottish rain / But vitally, he doesn’t miss them / He’s too fucked up to care” told me it wasn’t just me that wasn’t okay. The legacy of an album could never match up to the value of a man’s life, but this album matters to me.
7. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III: I remember being repulsed by this album in 2008, and lines like “I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed” or the ever-present misogyny confirm my 19-year-old instincts. But in the decade since, my threshold for repulsion has raised considerably. Whether that’s for good or ill (not sick), you’re free to judge, though I think it’s allowed me to recognize artistry even when my values aren’t in line with the content of the art. Regardless, this album is one sick piece of shit, with little care for anything but our basest desires- but it’s the most well-sculpted piece of shit of the last decade. Nothing has challenged my capacity to handle the ratio of artistry to baseness like Tha Carter III, but it’s on this list, so it clearly passed the test.
6. Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: I had already listened to much of DBT’s catalog by the time they released this magnum opus, and I was fully in love with them. Jason Isbell had already been kicked out of the band, and Shonna Tucker had yet to leave. The band would go on to miss Isbell’s songwriting, but Brighter didn’t show any signs of their songwriting declining just yet. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley contributed some of their best work, and Tucker made her first songwriting contributions to any of the band’s albums, and the three of them, with visiting keyboardist Spooner Oldham, crafted their most stripped-down album to date. There’s a purity in the backwoods country on Brighter that DBT has yet to match, but at least we got 19 songs and 75 minutes of it.
5. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago: I’ve already extolled the virtues of “Skinny Love” on this blog, so I’ll try to rehash what I wrote about that song. Nothing else on For Emma really compares to the searing power of “Skinny Love,” but as a debut album, it’s incredible how fully formed Bon Iver’s sound was from the start. Justin Vernon’s recording story is almost more legendary than the album at this point. His band had just broken up, so he retreated to a cabin, and For Emma was the album that resulted. Of course, the next record sounded very little like this one, a habit that Vernon has continued indulging with each album since, but we’ll always have this perfect slice of melancholy.
4. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend: 2008 was a simpler time, and look no further than Vampire Weekend for your proof. If their debut had been released in 2018, cries of cultural appropriation and colonialism would have been far louder, and they may have drowned out the beautiful simplicity of this record. Please don’t hear me dismissing those cries as illegitimate- they are not, and Vampire Weekend should be held accountable for their often cavalier approach to naming and sharing their influences. But while their messaging has often been poor, their borrowing from Congolese soukous resulted in music both elegant and joyous. They leaned less on Afro-pop on their last two albums, but their celebration of the style on their debut remains one of the best preservations of its delights to make it big in America.
3. TV on the Radio, Dear Science: Now here is a band with a white producer (Dave Sitek) that used Afrobeat stylings to great effect without controversy, perhaps because a white-dominated music media didn’t know what to do with African-American front men named Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. The members of TV on the Radio are still mysteries, having eschewed the spotlight for artistic independence, even as their star has faded since 2008. But few stars were brighter that year; Dear Science had TV on the Radio’s best hooks and most accessible themes, confronting hope and the possibilities of freedom head-on in less of a minor-key fashion than their previous albums. To date, it is their most critically acclaimed album, and at the time was their highest-charting album by far. This was TV on the Radio’s peak, and since they were the most forward-looking band of the 2000s, maybe it was our peak as well.
2. Taylor Swift, Fearless: There was a stretch of time in which I couldn’t listen to anything from this album. I associated it with a girlfriend, and when we broke up in 2010, it hurt too much to hear these songs. I remember getting depressed while friends were listening to it in a park in Italy while we were studying abroad for a few weeks that summer- I mean, you really shouldn’t get depressed in a park in Italy. (I understand this is pretty pathetic, but it’s also true, and I’m into sharing true things.) I tried listening to Speak Now and Red when they came out and just couldn’t do it. That break-up soured me on Taylor Swift for a long time, well after I had moved on and met my future wife.
I listen to songs from this album all the time now. I have a patient at my job who lights up when I pull up the “You Belong with Me” or “Fifteen” videos on an iPad, so I’m listening to pre-1989 T-Swift quite a bit. It’s impossible for me to see this patient smile or to think of how much these songs affected me eight years ago without deep appreciation and respect for Swift’s ability to evoke those feelings. This is why I can’t fully buy into any backlash against her: she articulates something so true about youthful dreams and desires and pain. I can understand other people being turned off by who she has become and the career she has made for herself, but I can’t shake how Fearless made me feel.
1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes: When I first heard Fleet Foxes ten years ago, I was home for the summer following my first year at college. That’s obviously a formative time of any person’s life, so it’s only natural that the music I liked felt important to who I was becoming. But hearing Fleet Foxes’ debut album was a unique experience for me, like hearing a sound I had always wanted to hear without knowing what it was before. This has happened to me two other times: once, in high school, when I heard the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” for the first time, and most recently a few years ago when I heard Leon Bridges’s “Lisa Sawyer.”
The folk pop explosion that came after has reduced what Fleet Foxes was doing in 2008 to nothing more than part of a trend, even though none of the Americana or indie folk acts of the time sounded anything like them. Fleet Foxes used the tools of Americana, but not the twang, which is just a reminder that the idea of what defines “Americana” is tenuous. And indie folk bands that followed Fleet Foxes (or their contemporaries, like Band of Horses) lacked their earnest commitment to abstraction. A Fleet Foxes song doesn’t fit into a genre, nor does it make more logical sense the longer you listen to it, but it sure sticks with you.
So much of this album is tied up in my experience of 2008, which was a year in which I fell in love with a girl and found my footing at my university, but was also a year in which I felt like I was going to fall apart at any second. I hesitate to say that I was suffering from depression or anxiety, because I want to take those struggles seriously, but what do you call it when you’re constantly feeling like shit about yourself without reason?
Whatever was wrong with me, Fleet Foxes was both a comfort and a hope. Songs like “Oliver James” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” comforted me with familial love, and songs like “White Winter Hymnal” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” gave me hope in their darkness. The darkness was hopeful for me, because, in a twisted way, I was beginning to understand that darkness was okay. Fleet Foxes was an affirmation of my need for it to be okay that I wasn’t okay. It was among the first in a large collection of art that has helped me process this world, and it may have been the most crucial.
Another Fifteen (alphabetically)
Ben Rector, Songs That Duke Wrote: Rector seems like he’s getting big, so I can truly say I loved him with this album before he was popular.
Blitzen Trapper, Furr: Blitzen Trapper were an enigma to me in 2008, mixing genres from track to track on a captivating album.
Downhere, Ending Is Beginning: This Canadian four-piece took the best elements from CCM (Christian contemporary music, for the majority that didn’t grow up on the genre) to tackle the tension between doubt and conviction on album after album, and Ending Is Beginning may be their best.
Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War): I listened to this in 2008 and didn’t enjoy it much, but with new ears, it sounds like the present and the future meeting, and I’m about it now.
Girl Talk, Feed the Animals: Absolutely ridiculous mash-up album, and I love every second of it.
The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: Less epic than 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, but it has plenty of hooks and riffs to please your inner hoodrat.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song: Before Chris Stapleton, there was Jamey Johnson, except without the CMAs or Justin Timberlake and with a knack for story songs, especially on That Lonesome Song, which sounds more and more timeless as time goes on.
Jimmy Needham, Not Without Love: Needham was still finding his voice at this point, and he leaned more into extra production on this album than on his 2006 debut, Speak, but the level of the songwriting from front to back is still astounding.
John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom: The “Jack and Diane” guy still sounds good after all these years, mastering the truth-telling of folk music the same way he mastered hooks in his ’80s heyday.
Jon Foreman, Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer: Fronting Switchfoot for a decade could make one cynical, but this collection of EPs reveals a man who knows what’s important in life and only needs spare production to tell us about it.
Josh Garrels, Jacaranda: Not sure what I was expecting when I went back to listen to Jacaranda, having only listened to everything since his 2011 breakout, Love & War & the Sea In Between, but I definitely wasn’t expecting a sound so fully formed and confident, or an album even more beautiful than his breakout.
M83, Saturdays = Youth: This is what I wish every My Bloody Valentine album sounded like, with a firm grasp on hooks without sacrificing any of the dream-pop atmosphere.
MGMT, Oracular Spectacular: Technically, this album came out in 2007, but its singles give it its entire weight, and those didn’t explode till 2008, so I’m putting it here, sue me.
The Michael Gungor Band, Ancient Skies: Before Gungor was Gungor, they relied more heavily on worship songs, but they’re some of the best-written worship songs you’ll hear.
Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It: Famous for being the lead singer in Tony! Toni! Toné! and for being a prolific R&B producer (D’Angelo, TLC, Mary J. Blige), The Way I See It was the album where he made us sit up and pay attention to his skill as a solo act.
Future Top Tens
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt
Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything
Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War
John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord