The Year in Music: 2008

I think it’s safe to say 2008 is the year Rock came back.

On November 23, Axl Rose finally put a period at the end of what was arguably the biggest story in music. Guns N’ Roses “new” album (does it qualify as a “new release” if it takes the better part of two decades to produce?) hit the streets.

Chinese Democracy was so anticipated that Dr. Pepper gave everyone in America (except Slash) a free drink to celebrate the album’s release. Of course, because Dr. Pepper chose to get involved with Axl Rose, they’re now on the receiving end of the opening salvo of a legal battle.

It doesn’t get much more Rock and Roll than that.

But what’s more interesting to me is the incredible string of albums that led up to the release of Democracy. It seems as if the entire pantheon of rock legends decided to drop a record in ’08. And every one of those albums amounted to little more than an opening act for Rose’s record.

We had new albums from White Lion, Whitesnake, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper (ALICE COOPER!) and Motley Crue. Rush put out a live record and Faith No More gave us a greatest hits compilation. AC/DC got in bed with Wal-Mart and released Black Ice in an exclusive arrangement with the worlds largest retailer – save yourself twelve bucks and dig through your closet for your original vinyl copy of Back in Black.

And non-rock acts got in on the action too. New Kids on the Block got back together for The Block. I wonder how many 35 year old women ran out to buy this the day it was released. They were probably all screaming “Donnie!” too. An even more surprising re-appearance was Vanilla Ice, turning in the aptly titled “Vanilla Ice is Back,” which I didn’t bother to listen to.

A quartet of albums brought us all back to the Reagan years. The Cure, The Breeders and Bauhaus all put out new collections, while Morrisey dropped a greatest hits retrospective. Not a bad year for ’80s Death Rock fans.

This year gave us more than just new releases by old faces though. A lot of albums by younger artists were released in 2008 as well.

It seems Panic At the Disco spent every waking moment since the release of their first album listening to Sgt. Peppers Lonley Hearts Club Band and renaissance music. Then they somehow digested that into the really-quite-wonderful Pretty. Odd. which was released early in 2008. Fall Out Boy bracketed the year with its own new release: Folie à Deux. These records are a little softer edged than either band’s earlier releases; but both are infinitely listenable – and some tracks are, honestly, just about perfect (like this one).

On the Pop/Rock front, December was very good to us. In addition to the Fall Out Boy release, we got a new album from the All-American Rejects. And nobody does this genre like the Rejects. Nobody. When the World Comes Down is a solid record from start to finish.

Actress Scarlett Johansson released a truly weird record. Anywhere I Lay My Head is an album of (mostly) Tom Waits cover songs sung by Johansson as a sub-alto, bizarro-universe Annie Lennox. Her voice is actually more grating than Waits’, if you can imagine that. But fans of Waits may enjoy these interpretations. And there’s a chance that Johansson’s stylings may be an acquired taste, though I very much doubt this is true.

Both Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw put out new pop music buffets. You can say what you want about the ability or sentiment of artists like Mraz and Degraw, but you can’t deny that, sometimes, a little sugar coated pop nugget is just what the doctor ordered. I defy you to listen to I Have You to Thank(from DeGraw’s self-titled sophomore outing) and not bop your head and smile for a minute or two.

Britney Spears put out a record. It was called Circus. You make your own joke here.

In the world of Rap, there were several new releases that I paid absolutely no attention to. Snoop Dogg dropped Ego Trippin’ (ya think?) and was completely upstaged by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. Lil Wayne is currently the best rapper out there, period.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. “What about Kanye West? He put out a new record this year too.”

I know. And I listened to it. And it’s a wonderful record. 808s & Heartbreak is one of the best records of the year. But it’s not a Rap album. 808s is a gorgeous piece of Pop Art that refutes genre definitions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an artist do as a good a job of setting a mood from track one and keeping it consistent for every track on the disc. By the end of the record, you kinda feel like you got punched in the gut.

And, while we’re on the subject of Rap albums that defy genre, I have to mention M.I.A. Kala was re-released this year. And this record is the finest blend of Hip Hop, Techno and World Music that I’ve heard.

Girl Talk put out Feed The Animals as a follow-up to The Night Ripper and It Feels Like This. It’s worth a listen for the novelty if nothing else. The record features songs you know and love cut up and mashed up with original music and Hip Hop cuts from various artists.  The New York Times Magazine got it right when they called Girl Talk’s music “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Red of Tooth and Claw was released this year by Bloomington, Indiana Indie/Post-punk quartet Murder By Death. This collection of songs is spookier than a zombie movie. Lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla sounds like the ghost of Johnny Cash in a street fight with Roy Orbison.

Ryan Adams and his new band The Cardinals gave us Cardinology in 2008. This record is every bit as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from Adams and company. Cardinology seems to be a delivery on Adam’s claim that he is primarily influenced by classic rock. This disc shows that influence and is an instant classic in it’s own right.

If quirky pop is your thing, a trio of releases this year should make you pretty happy. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled outing and Skeletal Lamping by of Montreal are both excellent releases with interesting melodic twists and subject matter that hops between the ethereal and mundane. There are moments when both bands seem to be weird for its own sake, but these moments are well-balanced with great tunes that give the listener a quick pop pick-me-up while retaining a quirky and charming self-consciousness.

Rounding out our quirk-pop trio is the latest offering from Death Cab for Cutie. Narrow Stairs is a wonderful collection of easy-to-listen-to tracks that offer new bits of ear candy on repeated listens. There’s no shortage of gems, but Your New Twin Sized Bed is one of the best songs of this year, bar none.

Finally, here are my top five album picks for 2008.

5.) A Tie! Panic at the Disco – Pretty. Odd. AND Fall Out Boy – Folie à Deux
4.) Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
3.) Murder by Death – Red of Tooth and Claw
2.) Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
1.) Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – Cardinology