1. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
The cover made clear its ambitions of being a classic in the tradition of Nas’ Illmatic and Biggie’s Ready to Die, but Tha Carter III became an instant cultural phenomenon in a way that even those masterworks never did. Tha Carter’s many singles flooded the airwaves, while the tracks too bizarre for radioplay spread like viral videos (did you hear the one where he raps like an alien?) Whether playing the paranoid thug or the lovelorn lothario, Lil Wayne buoyed these blockbuster songs with his big, big heart and his weird, weird voice. He was inescapable in 2008, and 2008 was a better year for it.
2. Los Campesinos! — We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
If Los Campesinos!’ debut album, also released this year, was the sound of eager youth feverish with the possibility of easy sex, their wildly amusing, rush-released follow-up is the work of curmudgeonly young adults who've learned there's no such thing. Mining countless cathartic thrills and shout-along hooks from romantic frustration, sexual humiliation and general schadenfreude, We Are Beautiful tempers its prickly disposition with incongruously cheerful indie-rock sonics.
3. Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak
As if Kanye West wasn’t already iconoclastic enough, he managed to record a rap album devoid the very foundation of rap albums: the rap. 808s and Heartbreak isn’t the vain exercise early press dismissed it as, though, nor is it the relentless bummer it could have been. On even the bleakest of these breakup songs, Kanye’s arrangements hint at brighter days. The set is rich with fierce percussion, sulking synths and in-and-out guest vocals, while introducing moods and sentiments until now utterly foreign to hip-hop. It’s the first album of its kind, but it certainly won’t be the last.
4. The New Year – The New Year
The New Year’s third album is a short story told from behind the wheel on a cross-country drive to a new life, a trip plagued by lingering doubts about loved ones left behind. It’s a small story, but it yields big payoffs, which the band hits home by showering its already swollen triple-guitar waltzes in boisterous, radiant piano. The record closes in a wailing blaze of glory, while the story marches to its inevitable, anticlimactic end. “I saw the headlights coming, but I didn’t change my course,” Matt Kadane moans, his fate determined by the very inertia he’d resolved to thwart. “I moved away, I guess.”
5. Dead Confederate – Wrecking Ball
Sonic nods to Nirvana are abundant on Dead Confederate’s debut album, in both the band’s thrashing, uneasy guitars and Hardy Morris’ pained vocal tics, but with their unhurried pace and ghostly, implied twang, the band’s true allegiance lies to a southern songwriting tradition that predates Kurt Cobain by a century. Like the enigmatic but destructive characters they warn of, these harrowed songs compel you deeper and deeper toward darkness.
6. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins
The jauntiest Okkervil River record yet, The Stand-Ins is also Will Sheff’s most explicit tribute to the American songbook, an homage to sun-soaked folk-rock and brooding alt-rock in all their sweetly sung and succinctly stated glory. Where its more burdened, elaborate predecessor The Stage Names exposed pop music’s smoke and mirrors, The Stand-Ins celebrates the subterfuge. “We feel alright though we know it’s all wrong,” Sheff sings, his default cynicism eclipsed by the sheer joy that only a great pop song can bring.
7. Al Green – Lay It Down
Finding a cozy, natural balance between the hazy Hi organ swoops of his mid-’70s albums with Willie Mitchell and the crisp arrangements of the neo-soul elites who back him here, Al Green has created another record that feels as lived in as his classics.
8. Crystal Castles – S/T
The mechanical grind and video game chirps of Crystal Castles’ caustic electro-pop may not be new, but singer Alice Glass is unlike anything else in the genre, a shrieking corpse kitten, as diminutive as she is feral. Even when she screams herself hoarse, it’s hard not to take pity on her. She’s trapped in a nightmarish, 16-bit wonderland, unsure whether to resign herself to it or claw her way out.
9. Frank Black (Black Francis) – Svn Fngrs
For even longtime fans, by this point the arrival of a new Frank Black album is about as exciting as the opening of another Subway restaurant, so it’s easy to see how this little gem was so overlooked. Quality control has been an issue for Black, but this pared-down mini-album remedies the problem by limiting him to seven snappy songs, which eagerly capture that spark he’s shown only intermittently post-Pixies. The closing “When They Come to Bury Me,” where Black spits in the face of death, is as definitive an affirmation of Black’s awesomeness as he’s provided this decade.
10. Nas – Untitled
Untilted’s infamous aborted title no longer seems like a crass marketing gimmick after you’ve heard the album, a piercing dissertation on race as focused as it is uncomfortable. With fingers pointed in all directions, Nas derides the cultural identity that so many other rappers take pride in, but “Black President” closes the album with one blinding ray of light: the possibility that a new administration could one day render the rest of the album’s lamentations obsolete.
These are damn great, too:
11. Lykke Li – Youth Novels
12. The Cure – 4:13 Dream
13. Vampire Weekend – S/T
14. Deerhunter - Microcastles
15. Jaguar Love – Take Me to the Sea
- Evan Rytlewski