1. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster...
For those unfamiliar with this group of Welsh rockers, I am not to blame for that exclamation point at the end of their name. Although I have been guilty of being extremely excited about bands, that use of punctuation is all their doing. One listen to their debut and you'll understand why that exclamation point has permanently etched itself in the band's name. Hold On Now, Youngster... is as hyper emotional and hyper literate as any album you're likely to come across this decade, with nearly every song being either furiously jubilant or deliriously wordy or a lot of times both. It's also my favorite album of 2008. Making good on the excellent promise of last year's single, "You! Me! Dancing!", Los Campesinos! have delivered a full-length album stacked with twee pop songs filtered through heavy distortion and manic energy, all while displaying a healthy balance of unyielding earnestness and eye-rolling sarcasm. The result is an experience that is just as likely to make you bounce around as it is to make you smile at its wit.
2. Solange - Sol-Angel and The Hadley St. Dreams
I don't think I'm sticking my neck out that far when I say that this is better than any solo Beyonce album I've ever heard. No, there aren't any money songs like "Crazy In Love" or "Irreplaceable" on here, but that's really insiginificant in the grand scheme of things. When you've created one of the year's most ambitious R&B albums, you need not bother with yourself with pithy things such as club bangers or ballads. Hadley St. Dreams concerns itself more with doing anything it can to set itself apart from Big Sis by building its backbone on 60's R&B, 70's soul and the gall to include a rave-up, a Boards of Canada sample and a song about a one-night stand. What Solange lacks in vocal firepower, she more than makes up in gumption and fearlessness. Songs like the IDM-tinged "This Bird" and the dramatic "Valentine's Day" show thematic and musical risks that would probably kill the elder Knowles' career, but it's that consistent adventurous spirit and the tuneful songs that make this one of the more rewarding albums of the year.
3. Portishead - Third
The wait is over and boy, was it worth it. Having not released a studio album since 1997, the Bristol trio made a grand return to recording with an album that stands proudly among the rest of their catalogue. Ditching their standard trip-hop sound for a more apocalyptic and hazy soundscape, Third is always compelling and often nightmarish. One thing that I've always loved about Portishead is how cinematic their music has always sounded, and although their sound has changed, the majestic drone of "We Carry On" and the patience of "The Rip" are prime examples that they have yet to lose their knack for drama. Bonus points for having the best album closer of the year in "Threads", which sizzles with the tension of an Ennio Morricone score on a bad acid trip.
4. Dungen - 4
Poor Dungen. All they do is release terrific album after terrific album, but they're never talked about when it comes to the big indie heavyweights of the moment. All of the lyrics are in Swedish and no one in the band seems to realize that music exists after 1972, so yeah, they're a pretty hard sell for hipsters only concerned with the Next Big Thing. Dungen keep their album filled with the same psychedellic flourishes that their listeners have become accustomed to, but the big difference this time around is the spotlight on other band members, not just leader Gustave Ejstes and a focus on jazzier compositions. In return, the songs are more lush than ever and an added emphasis on piano and strings might have been the best thing to ever happen to this already magnificent group.
5. The Plastic Constellations - We Appreciate You
If this is the last Plastic Constellations album we get for a while, it simply won't be enough. Call me greedy, but I wish these guys weren't going on indefinite hiatus and could still crank out a great rock album every couple of years. I'm addicted to the unpredictable turns that each song takes and how they manage to sound so vibrant even when they're cranking out tunes with jagged guitar riffs and thrash-like intensity. One listen to the opening track, "Stay That Way", with its shout-to-the-sky harmonies and twisty arrangements and you simply wish they hadn't called it quits. We Appreciate You is filled with the same buoyancy, urgent energy and tight musicianship that The Plastic Constellations have long made their trademark and manages to surprise many listens after initial first one.
6. Little Jackie - The Stoop
This album was the perfect soundtrack for my summer. With its hip hop lite grooves, Motown inflections and catchy hooks, The Stoop and the sun seemed like the perfect combination. The fantastic thing about a great album though is that it still sounds good no matter what the season. Credit goes to Adam Pallin's sunny production and Imani Coppola's insightful lyrics for providing the neccessary amount of substance to keep this album from fading from memory anytime soon. Its running time is brisk and there's not one duff track to be found. The Stoop is heavy on the kind of charm and thoughtfulness that is missing too often from modern radio and provided some of the best pop moments of the year, most notably the scathing yet humorous tale of a socialite on "Black Barbie" and the brash "Cryin For The Queen" among others.
7. M83 - Saturdays=Youth
By tightening up the song structure, Anthony Gonzalez, who holds the M83 moniker all to himself now, delivered the closest thing to an accessible M83 album by leaning more towards shoegaze than the ambient textures prevalent on past records. At times, Saturdays=Youth comes off as a lost Cocteau Twins album, song after song soaked in ethereal synths and vocals but only with a poppier twist. It all creates an experience that isn't quite as challenging as previous albums, but nonetheless still gorgeous.
8. J*Davey - The Beauty In Distortion/The Land Of The Lost
Combining their two previous EPs into one single release, J*Davey has released a collection of some of the year's most adventurous and experimental urban music. The Beauty In Distortion channels the Los Angeles duo's smoother side with slinky, futuristic slow jams while The Land Of The Lost displays a harder shell through hip hop tracks built on robo-funk and abrasive synths. Overall, it's what sensuality should sound like in the 21st century. If Prince had kids old enough to own iPhones and play Xbox 360, they would probably make music like this.
9. Yelle - Pop-Up
Since I know very little about French, I'm very limited in how I can approach this album, but the joy it brings is limitless. I've always been a sucker for good dance pop and this debut by the French trio is one of the better albums from the genre this decade. The production shines with colorful textures of electropop, house and disco, but the album distinguishes itself through Yelle herself (the group's moniker is taken from the singer's stage name), who spits out songs in a distinct, bratty trash-pop delivery and an attitude that needs no interpreter. For a prime example, check out "Je Veux Te Voir". Like I said, I don't know French, so she might actually be saying something sweet, but nice or not, all the components make me want to dance myself silly.
10. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
With detailed lyricism and bar ready choruses, this New Jersey quartet have proven that there is still vitality in churning out good ol' fashioned rock music. Don't let their stint on the Warped Tour fool you though; they sound like how Against Me! would have turned out if they spent more time with Bruce Springsteen records instead of The Clash. The album does have a very punk spirit, but its sound is rooted in rocking the pub, not the mosh pit. The '59 Sound is one of those albums that reaffirms why you like rock music in the first place and the universal nature of the songs remind you of the simple power that a good band with good songs can have.
11. Duffy - Rockferry
12. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
13. Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree
14. Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It
15. De Novo Dahl - Move Every Muscle, Make Every Sound
16. Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends
17. Q-Tip - The Renaissance
18. Al Green - Lay It Down
19. Lucinda Williams - Little Honey
20. The Mae Shi - HLLYH
21. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair
22. Kanye West - 808's & Heartbreak
23. Lykke Li - Youth Novels
24. Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful. We Are Doomed.
25. Pas/Cal - I was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura
26. Juana Molina - Un Dia
27. Laura Marling - Alas, I Cannot Swim
28. Jazmine Sullivan - Fearless
29. Kathleen Edwards - Asking For Flowers
30. Firefox AK - If I Were A Melody
31. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
32. Esperanza Spalding - Esperanza
33. The Knux - Remind Me in 3 Days...
34. Adele - 19
35. Shugo Tokumaru - Exit
36. Karina - First Love
37. Lil' Wayne - The Carter III
38. Dragonette - Galore
39. Butch Walker - Sycamore Meadows
40. Estelle - Shine
41. The 88 - Not Only...But Also
42. Yo Majesty - Futuristically Speaking...Never Be Afraid
43. Ludo - You're Awful, I Love You
44. Beck - Modern Guilt
45. Dengue Fever - Venus On Earth
46. Soy Un Caballo - Les Heures De Raison
47. Ladytron - Velocifero
48. Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married, But I've Got Feelings Too
49. I'm From Barcelona - Who Killed Harry Houdini?
50. Weezer - Weezer (The Red Album)
88-Keys - The Death Of Adam
All Girl Summer Fun Band - Looking Into It
Drew Andrews - Only Mirrors
Bitter:Sweet - Drama
Brazilian Girls - New York City
Cordero - De Donde Eres
Nikka Costa - Pebble To A Pearl
Does It Offend You, Yeah? - You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into
The-Dream - Lovehate
Dressy Bessy - Hollerandstomp
Genki Rockets - Genki Rockets I - Heavenly Star
Inara George with Van Dyke Parks - An Invitation
Ne-Yo - Year Of The Gentlemen
Jim Noir - Jim Noir
The Postmarks - By The Numbers
The Raveonettes - Lust Lust Lust
The Roots - Rising Down
The Ruby Suns - Sea Lion
Sons and Daughters - This Gift
Tilly & The Wall - o
The Ting Tings - We Started Nothing