The Hurst Fifteen: Favorite Recordings of 2008
The standard disclaimer applies: I make no pretense of listing the objective best albums of the year, but, rather, the ones that have moved me, entertained me, rewarded me, and challenged me the most. Here are the fifteen classics that made 2008 a great year to be a music fan:
01. TV on the Radio
It’s not for nothing that TV on the Radio earns the occasional comparison to Prince– and it’s not just because of their sleek and sexy brand of funk ‘n’ falsetto, either. Brooklyn’s best and brightest art-rock troupe taps into the signs o’ the times better than anyone else in the 2000s, following their grim but determined masterpiece of paranoia– 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain— with the flagship album of the age of Obama, Dear Science. But to call it a political album is to significantly undervalue it; this music isn’t about left or right, it’s simply about being human, a poetic and profound album of joy and renewal that marries David Sitek’s artier inclinations with his band’s most giddily hooky, accessible tunes yet. Here they survey the darkness around them and give it a stern rebuke, bringing a message of hope in love, sex, God, and an age of miracles, and providing the dancefloor beats to back it up.
02. Barry Adamson
Back to the Cat
Adamson has made a career out of composing “soundtracks in search of a film,” and indeed, it’s hard to imagine any movie that could live up the the imagination and stylistic diversity on display on his latest. Adamson plays the role of our narrator and tourguide, an easygoing hep cat and misanthropic wiseman leading us straight through the gates of night and into a sleazy underworld crawling with addicts and junkies, lovelorn losers and cynical deadbeats. It’s enough to make Tom Waits proud, but Adamson’s broad, cinematic flourishes are entirely his own, and he plays on all the tropes and archetypes of film and pop music to create a beautiful, fractured mythology all his own, an album that drips with humor and venom, compassion and heartache.
03. The Tallest Man on Earth
It’s the ultimate kiss of death for aspiring singer/songwriters: The “new Dylan” tag. But this Swedish troubadour– who, incidentally, has crafted the best brew of Americana heard in 2008– takes a giant-sized step over the inevitable Dylan comparisons by harnessing the same effortlessness and organic ease that made those early Dylan records so great to begin with, creating a rare album that draws from an obvious influence but stands completely on its own thanks to its skill and imagination.
04. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
Season of Changes
Charles Mingus once said that making the simple sound complicated is easy; making the complicated sound simple is true creativity. It’s a shame he’s not around to hear what Brian Blade is cooking up– playing rich, complex compositions with such a great degree of harmony and unity that you almost miss the subtle texturing and the astonishing chemistry of the musicians, this is jazz that sounds earthy and spiritual at the same time, jazz that’s rich and varied and robust– and makes it all sound very, very simple.
05. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
Revitalized by his bluesy, boozy working holiday on last year’s Grinderman LP, Cave moves beyond his midlife crisis and gets down to the business of what he does best: Playing the professional shit-stirrer, rabble-rouser, snake-oil salesman, street preacher, doomsayer, and Lothario, spinning complex fables and absurdist mythologies with more wit and vigor than he’s ever shown before. His Bad Seeds keep up with his rollicking pace, turning in their sleekest, most primal and groove-centered record yet. Who else could make the decline of civilization and the end of the world sound like so much fun?
06. Jenny Lewis
While her band, Rilo Kiley, turns to crass commerical pop and seems to stray further off course with each new album, indie rock’s poster girl sounds more inspired than ever before on her second solo album, dipping into the creative well of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1970s and topping it off with girl-group harmonies, prog-rock ambitions, gospel choruses, and a few glorious bursts of ragged rock and roll. BFF Elvis Costello shows up for a ripping duet on one track, and his presence here only confirms that Lewis is emerging as one of the most musically sophisticated and creatively restless songwriters of her generation.
07. Jolie Holland
The Living and the Dead
She may have plugged in for this record, but that doesn’t mean she rocks– at least not in a conventional sense. This is Holland’s most ragged and raucous album yet, but it’s also her most textured and her most eclectic. That it’s her most expansive and diverse collection yet, despite also being her shortest, speaks to just how much she continues to grow as a songwriter, and if her tales of addiction and broken lives give the album its big heart, her sultry drawl gives it its sexy edge.
08. Elvis Costello
Named after the inventor of just-add-water noodle dishes, Costello’s latest appeared seemingly overnight, very befitting of an album that was recorded quickly and rocks with a gleefully abandon and a zeal for the simple, communal act of music-making. It’s the first Costello album in ages that doesn’t have a conceptual thrust or genre conceit behind it, which of course means that it’s his loosest, funniest, most laid-back and compulsively listenable record since All This Useless Beauty— the sound of a big band in a tiny room stirring up an enormous ruckus.
09. David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
The album was assembled piece by piece, with the two principal artists mailing their home recordings back and forth to one another and stitching it all together using almost exclusively electronic instruments, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to the music, which is warm, spontaneous, communal, and lived-in– in other words, it more than lives up to its intent of capturing the spirit of gospel music using 21st century technology. It’s a funny and touching and completely joyful, optimistic recording, the most immediate and visceral recording yet from two of pop music’s most notorious eggheads.
10. Joan as Police Woman
Joan Wasser describes her aesthetic as “beauty as the new punk rock,” but you almost have to hear the music for itself to really find out what that means. Her second album is indeed blindingly, hypnotically beautiful– even more so than her excellent debut– and its emphasis on straightforward songcraft and genre-bending compositions make it feel as edgy and revolutionary as it is mesmerizing and addictive.
11. Loudon Wainwright III
When Wainwright and producer Joe Henry set out to make an album updating and re-interpreting many of Wainwright’s classic tracks from his first few albums, they vowed that they wouldn’t re-record anything just for the sake of doing it– all the songs here take on an entirely different light now, forty years after being written, that makes what could have been a glorified greatest-hits album a genuinely creative, coherent album about growing up, growing old, and living the life of an artist. Loudon’s never sounded better, and, as first evidenced by last year’s Strange Weirdos, he’s found the perfect creative foil in Henry.
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
Coldplay always did sound like they wanted to be U2, so it’s not too surprising to find them collaborating with longtime U2 ally Brian Eno; what is surprising is that, rather than make them sound even more like U2 knockoffs, Eno brings focus and a sense of adventure to the band, resulting in their first album to truly reflect the individuality and creative vision of its auteurs. Eno doesn’t change the familiar, well-mannered Coldplay sound very much, but he pushes it in exciting new directions; the music is colorful and bold, the lyrics concise and rife with provocative imagery, the record itself their shortest yet, but also their most creatively rich and vibrant. Coldplay has delivered– finally.
13. Drive-by Truckers
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Even given their penchant for big statements and long albums, the Truckers’ latest is a stunning work of creative endurance– nineteen tracks, and not a dud in the bunch. It’s their Exile on Main Street, an expansive statements that hops from one genre to another and showcases the individual gifts of every band member, pulling together the disparate stylistic and poetic conceits of three very different songwriters into a unified album about the competing pulls of decadence and responsibility.
14. The Fireman
The least McCartney-like album in ages happens to be one of his only solo albums that actually earns comparison to The Beatles, a strange and often exhilarating album that follows its own idiosyncratic logic from one style to another, McCartney and collaborator/producer Youth following their more adventurous tendencies and leaving all their rabbit holes and loose ends in tact. Would that Sir Paul could make albums this unpredictable more often.
15. Marco Benevento
Is it jazz? Pop? Avant-garde? Classical? The answer is yes to all of the above. Pianist Benevento’s skill is dizzying, his imagination irrepressible, and his songs so melodious and tuneful, all you have to do is make up your own lyrics and sing along.
More year-end wrap-up:
– Five honorable mentions
– On listmaking
– The best compilations and re-issues
– The year’s most pleasant surprises
– The year’s biggest disappointments
– Best new artist
– Best rap album
– Best jazz album