The Five Most Pleasant Surprises of 2008
Part 5 of The Hurst Review’s eight-part end-of-the-year musical wrap-up, which will continue off and on through the first half of December, culminating in the Top 15 Albums of 2008.
I didn’t expect much from any of these albums. Based on the recent track records of the below artists, I’m not even sure why I listened to these at all, beyond pure, morbid curiosity. But I’m glad I did listen, and I’m as surprised as anyone to say– proudly– that I’m very thankful for each of these albums this holiday season.
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
They made their name and reputation with mannerly, toothless British pop, U2 and Radiohead knockoffs, and Chris Martin’s dainty piano recitals. But they made their best album by teaming with producer Brian Eno to make an album that’s as short, concise, and focused as any they’ve ever made, but also covers more ground; an album that finds them tweaking their familiar sound only slightly, yet coming up with an album that sounds boldly adventurous; an album marked by craft and passion; and an extraordinarily colorful, at times even exhilarating pop album about death that is, in the end, exquisitely life-affirming. This is a terrific record, and it makes one thing very clear: We all underestimated Coldplay.
02. Glen Campbell
Meet Glen Campbell
The octogenarian country legend– long written off as a peddler of kitsch– covers songs by Green Day, U2, The Velvet Underground, and Travis. The surprise? That it doesn’t feel like a desperate attempt to appear hip, to rekindle a fading career, or to be something he’s not. This is really a pure pop album, immaculately produced and performed with heart and real warmth, and Campbell somehow bends all of these tracks to conform to his own style and play to his strengths, making for a welcome re-introduction indeed.
03. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
Sobriety really agrees with Ryan Adams, who focuses on simple songcraft and modest, unpretentious performances for an album that’s mercifully free of his usual excesses and arrogant posturing. In fact, this album is not only his most concise, but one of his tightest, most melodic, and most heartfelt, an album that’s wonderfully hooky and awash with classic rock influences, but ultimately sounds like a personal album that only Adams could have made. Oh, and his Cardinals have never sounded better.
04. Rivers Cuomo
Alone II: The Home Recordings
Cuomo dips into his vaults a second time for an odds-and-sods collection that, like its predecessor, provides a fascinating look into the creative process. Unlike that set, though, this one actually works well as an album, an enjoyable and delightfully rough batch of songs that includes a few real gems, and some left-field twists that indicate that Cuomo is much looser and more adventurous on his own than wieth his band. It doesn’t reach the same highs as the new Weezer album, but it may actually be more consistent.
Frankly, it wouldn’t have been difficult for R.E.M. to top their last album, the abysmally sleepy, lifeless Around the Sun; the mere presence of electric guitars here is enough to make this a return to form. But this isn’t just a retreat to classic R.E.M., but, rather, a 21st century update of their familiar sound, including a couple of snarling rockers that will no doubt be concert staples, some solid, hooky pop songs, and even a couple of pleasantly dark, brooding folk numbers. It’s not exactly an R.E.M. classic– not even close– but it’s enough to prove that they’ve still got some gas in their tank, and they may have another truly killer record in them yet.