Last year, I had every intention of compiling a best-of list, but I never got around to it because of, well, life. This year, I have a ton of time on my hands, so I figured I’d give it a go.
It was really hard restraining myself to 10 albums, so I didn’t — I’m giving you my top 20. I actually put together a top 50, and if you tune in New Year’s Eve for the Friday Mixtape, you just might find out which albums make up the rest of my list.
1. Robyn, Body Talk: I firmly believe that Robyn is the heir to the Queen of Pop throne that Madonna has inhabited since the early 1980s. Every single song released under the three-part Body Talk title is a little piece of amazing. I have not been this in love with an album (and I’m lumping all three parts together here) in years. And Robyn’s live show is not to be missed.
Favorite track: “Hang with Me”
2. Laurie Anderson, Homeland: I only discovered the brilliance of Laurie Anderson a few years ago and have been a little obsessed ever since. When I first found out that she was going to release a new album, her first in many years, I was giddy with anticipation — and she did not disappoint. I really connected with this album as I listened to it during a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City this summer and it’s been under my skin ever since. I realize her experimental, quirky sound isn’t for everyone, but I encourage you to give this record a chance.
Favorite track: “Strange Perfumes”
3. Ra Ra Riot, The Orchard: I fell in love with Ra Ra Riot the first time I saw them live a couple of years ago. They are such dynamic performers who obviously love what they’re doing — making incredible music. Their debut album, The Rhumb Line, was my one of my favorite records of 2008 and I’ve been eagerly anticipating their follow-up ever since. The new songs are mature and complex and prove that this is a group of musicians ready to make their mark, which they definitely have.
Favorite track: “Shadowcasting”
4. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: While I adored Arcade Fire’s first album, I was not very enamored of their sophomore effort, Neon Bible. So, I went into my first listening of The Suburbs with hesitation and I’m very happy to report that the Arcade Fire I first fell in love with is back. I know it’s probably expected that they’ll show up on best-of lists this year, but they deserve it. Their most ambitious project yet, at 15 tracks, The Suburbs could’ve easily found the band overreaching. But it doesn’t at all — every note, every lyric works perfectly. I would even go so far as to say this is their best album yet.
Favorite track: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
5. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid: From the first note of Janelle Monáe’s first full-length album, I was hooked. I admit that it is a little all over the place at times, and some of the songs don’t fit very well within android/Metropolis concept she’s working with, which started with her 2007 EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite, but I still love it all the same. She’s taking a lot of risks and proves that she’s got great range, covering just about every genre except maybe metal. As epic and wonderful as The ArchAndroid is, I think Ms. Monáe is just getting started and we’ll be hearing a lot more great things from her in the future.
Favorite track: “Cold War”
6. Cee-Lo Green, The Lady Killer: The moment I heard “Fuck You,” the controversial first single from The Lady Killer, I knew Cee-Lo’s latest solo effort would kick major ass — and it does. The thing I love most is that “Fuck You” isn’t even terribly representative of the rest of the tracks on the album, which is filled with catchy pop, R&B and old-school soul. This album got a lot of hype — possibly the most hype of any release this year — and, if you ask me, that hype was deserved.
Favorite track: “Cry Baby”
7. The Roots, How I Got Over: I admit to being a late-comer as a fan of the Roots and How I Got Over is the first proper record of theirs I’ve owned (and, yes, I am catching up with their back catalogue). I’m blown away by the sophistication they bring to the table with every single track. I mean, how many R&B/rap groups do you know that would sample Joanna Newsom? Also, I kind of have a Twitter crush on ?uestlove.
Favorite track: “Right On”
8. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh: I thought New Amerykah, Part 1 was one of the best albums to be released in 2008, so I couldn’t wait to see what Part 2 would bring. The answer? An even better album. Every single track is catchy as hell and full of Ms. Badu’s bad-ass attitude. The lady knows how to bring it every single time — and no crazy stripping stunts are needed.
Favorite track: “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long”
9. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, I Learned The Hard Way: If I could smuggle my way on to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings tour bus, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’ve seen them perform twice and both shows were exhausting in the best way. They’re one of the few bands that do a good job of taking the energy of their live performances and transferring it to their recorded material (of course, there really is no substitute to seeing them in-person). While I Learned the Hard Way isn’t my favorite of their albums (that honor goes to 100 Days, 100 Nights), it is still a very strong effort and is getting them a lot of much-deserved attention. I think James Brown would be proud.
Favorite track: “Better Things”
10. The National, High Violet: I don’t have much to say about this album other than what I said in my review earlier this year. I am ecstatic that this album, and this band, have done so well this year. Cincinnati represent!
Favorite track: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”
11. John Legend & the Roots, Wake Up!: I’ve never been much of a John Legend fan, but I admit that the man can sing. Put him together with the Roots and some of the most incredible songs from the ’60s and ’70s, and I think I’m sold.
Favorite track: “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”
Favorite track: “Kids”
13. Kelis, Flesh Tone: I had resisted Kelis after getting really sick of hearing “Milkshake” all the time several years ago. For some reason, though, I decided to give this one a chance. I am so glad I did because it is one of the best dance albums I’ve heard in a long time. It, along with Robyn’s Body Talk, Pt. 1 soundtracked my summer. I just wish I could’ve seen them tour together.
Favorite track: “Scream”
14. Devo, Something for Everybody: I didn’t know what to expect when I heard Devo were releasing a new record. I figured it would probably be good, but Mark Mothersbaugh has spent so much time the past couple of decades scoring movies and working on Yo Gabba Gabba that I didn’t know if he and the rest of the group still had it in them. I should’ve known better than to doubt them.
Favorite track: “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)
16. Goldfrapp, Head First: After taking a slightly more downtempo turn for 2008′s Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp returns to the electro dance/pop that made their fans love them so much with Head First, a nine-song, 38-minute whirlwind of fun.
Favorite track: “Alive”
17. Yeasayer, Odd Blood: They’re quirky and they’re weird, so Yeasayer are right up my alley. Before Odd Blood, I’d only heard of this band, but had never actually listened to their music. Boy, was I missing out.
Favorite track: “Ambling Alp”
18. Sade, Soldier of Love: When I was a kid, my dad and I would frequently have sing-alongs to “Smooth Operator” when it would come on the radio. But outside of that song, and a few other singles, I’ve always been more of a casual Sade fan. With the release of this record, however, I’ve decided to upgrade my status and remove the “casual” part. The woman still has it — not that she ever really lost it.
Favorite track: “Soldier of Love”
19. Cotton Jones, Tall Hours in The Glowstream: I first became a fan of Cotton Jones after seeing them perform at Schuba’s in Chicago last spring, a show I ended up at accidentally. Their last album, Paranoid Cocoon was one of my favorites of last year and I think this record is even better. With understated, yet lovely, vocals and arrangements, this is just simply a beautiful album that never fails to put me in a good mood.
Favorite track: “Somehow to Keep It Going”
20. Agnes Obel, Philharmonics: I came upon the gorgeous debut album of Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel quite by accident and it’s one of the happiest accidents I’ve had all year. She’s been compared to Ane Brun, St. Vincent and Joanna Newsom — and I can see why — but I think her gorgeous, haunting music stands out on its own merits. This is definitely someone to watch.
Favorite track: “Just So”