There’s a lot of writing on this post not because I got inspired but because I wrote about so many of these albums and films in real time, so most of what you see hear is cut-and-paste from of-the-moment coverage or (more likely) published year-end-lists, with some minor alterations.
This is the most recent year I’ve tackled so far on a project originally intended to cover 1965-2014 (I’ll still do those but may dip back further at some point) and it’s no accident that it’s also probably the most esoteric set of lists so far, at least on the music side.
By 2008, whatever used to be a center had pretty much dissolved and it was a time of no big things. The top two albums from 2008’s Pazz n Jop national critics poll (TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend) both made my Top 5 a decade later (neither that high at the time), two of the other PnJ Top 5s (Portishead, Fleet Foxes) I found/find barely listenable.
The idiosyncrasy of the film list is less trend than one-off. At the time I proclaimed 2008 the Worst Year Ever for movies, and while there’s plenty of good stuff, there aren’t many candidates for the cultural time capsule: WALL-E, I guess, but I found its second half too conventional, and The Dark Knight, still the best of the era’s dominant commercial genre.
ICYMI, all of the previous years so far:
Anyway, the lists ….
- Hold On Now, Youngster … — Los Campesinos!: On this full-length debut as apotheosis, co-leaders Gareth and Aleksandra trade off verses like conjoined twins completing each other’s thoughts while their bandmates bop around behind them in a tumult of handclaps and vocal interjections, dancing to the breakbeats of broken hearts. This young band obsesses over their messy lives (favorite title: “My Year in Lists”) and is always ready with a sardonic rejoinder (“I cherish with fondness the day before I met you”). But they’re the kind of sarcastic, introspective wallflowers delighted to discover themselves actually having fun (“You! Me! Dancing!”). The music is springy, chaotic, breathless: It has to be to keep up with their overactive minds and racing hearts. It sounds like a dorm-lounge lark. It’s beautiful.
- Brighter Than Creation’s Dark — The Drive-By Truckers: Though Brighter Than Creation’s Dark peaks at the very beginning with the saddest, loveliest song Patterson Hood will ever write, it holds its shape for an epic 19 songs and 75 minutes. Hood takes the toll of the Iraq war from two vantage points, ruminates on road life, and spits in the wind of recession. Musical life-partner Mike Cooley spins one wonderful, low-rent character sketch after another, several of them probably autobiographical, led by a definitive metal-to-grunge saga he’s old enough to have lived and a shaggy confession that outs country storyteller Tom T. Hall as this great band’s biggest influence.
- Dear Science — TV on the Radio: “Williamsburg Radiohead” transforms and transcends with album of defiant dance-rock, full of rhythm and joy but with tinges of darkness and noise adding gravity.
- Vampire Weekend — Vampire Weekend: From the write-what-you-know department: detailed, insightful, witty, and not at all uncritical evocations of collegiate lust over perhaps the decade’s most sprightly guitar music.
- Made in Dakar — Orchestra Baobab: The follow-up to this vintage Senegalese band’s unlikely 2002 comeback triumph Specialist in All Styles, Made in Dakar combines fresh versions of unknown-in-these-parts West African standards with new songs. As always, guitarist Barthélemy Attisso spins indelible melodies and launches entrancing grooves with his vibrant but deliberate style, while sax man Issa Cissokho offers droll, elegant counterpoint.
- Rising Down — The Roots: First half of a two-album peak that resulted from pairing down the band’s drums-first funk and appointing lead voice Black Thought first chair in an orchestra of voices that comprise one notion of a community.
- The Way I See It — Raphael Saadiq: There were plenty of artists tapping into ’60s and ’70s soul sounds, but former Tony Toni Tone singer Raphael Saadiq had been working in the vein for 20 years. He wasn’t a tribute artist; he was (is) a practitioner. And the nonstop groove, compositional detail, and sometimes surprising songwriting (“Keep Marchin'” the campaign theme Curtis Mayfield wasn’t around to write; “Sometimes” a family meditation of Smokey Robinson-level grace) here is still the closest he — or anyone else — has been to the muse since his old band’s 1996 swan song, House of Music.
- Fearless — Taylor Swift: Half high-generic (ok, very high) rootsy teen-pop and half classic album unlike any other classic album, a not-entirely-a-self-portrait of a gifted, generous, empathetic — aka totally normal — teen girl. It’s telling that the lesser half is heavy on Music Row collaboration and the better half is driven by solo writing credits. Those solo credits include the album’s biggest hit, about daydreaming through Honors English, and it’s two great songs. One is about freshman year. The other is about how much she loves her mom.
- Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails — The Baseball Project: Alt-rock journeymen Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) — neither of whom meant much to me in their previous pop lives — spin a baker’s dozen of terrific songs about America’s onetime pastime. With jangly bar rock as apt a song-for-song’s-sake vehicle as solo-acoustic, and with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and forgotten hurler Harvey Haddix as worthy of the troubadour treatment as Pretty Boy Floyd and John Henry, you might call this the best non-Dylan folk record of the decade.
- Feed the Animals — Girl Talk: By and large, this masterful mash-up mix layers rap vocals over pop hits from the ’60s to the present. Though I do wish his taste in hip-hop samples more often reached beyond the declamatory and carnal, he mines his juxtapositions for plentiful comedy. I couldn’t tell you how this works in the club, but as a pop-addict album listener I know it never lets up, its tricks never stop working.
- Alphabutt — Kimya Dawson & Friends: Juno soundtrack star follows up her rather unlikely rise to fame with this silly, scatological concept album about kids and parents. With “friends” of all ages joining in to give the record a rambunctious, campfire spirit, Dawson lets songs about hungry tigers, splashing bears, and potty-training triumphs commingle with songs about pregnancy anxiety, schoolyard lessons on egalitarianism, and the ethics of food availability. This collection of deceptively simple acoustic ditties alternately for, to, and about Dawson’s own kid — and maybe yours too — is her most engaging album, though perhaps too sweet, too homely, and too messy for a lot of listeners. A family touchstone in my house.
- Stay Positive — The Hold Steady: The fourth and last essential album from America’s most literate bar band opens with something of a master statement: “Constructive Summer,” which spins some Springsteenian imagery off a title almost surely inspired by Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer” before splitting the difference with a song-ending dedication to the Clash’s Joe Strummer. This fits an album where songwriter supreme Craig Finn literalizes more than ever his band’s mission to unite classic-rock grandeur with the regular-guy modesty and small-scale ethical sense of the hardcore and punk scenes that weaned him.
- The Dusty Foot Philosopher — K’Naan: A folkish warm-up that introduces a pop one-of-a-kind, a kind of good-hearted Eminem from Mogadishu.
- Tha Carter III — Lil Wayne: At his very best, and this is it, Lil Wayne was something akin to rap’s Al Green — an idiosyncratic vocal genius who combines cutesy with carnal while deploying a wide range of verbal registers and tics. This commercial tour de force is his finest album because it’s the first and maybe last time he’s reined in his logorrhea and put it at the service of so many conceptually focused songs. And yet this 16-song, nearly 80-minute opus drags a little down the stretch — and would have been better as a tidy, 10-song banger climaxing with the Kanye West-produced “Let the Beat Build.”
- Lay It Down — Al Green: On the third and final of the secular “comeback” albums Green cut during this period, the 62-year-old icon finds, in the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, both a drummer and producer capable of pushing him. Thompson stated flat-out that he wanted to make the best Green album since the last acknowledged classic, The Belle Album. And though this peaks early with the opening title track repetition and the grateful “Just For Me,” he probably succeeded.
- Primary Colors — Eddy Current Suppression Ring
- Nouns — No Age
- Wamato — Les Amazones de Guinee
- Singles 06/07 and Matador Singles 08 – Jay Reatard
- Harps and Angels — Randy Newman
- Conor Oberst — Conor Oberst
- Untitled — Nas
- Distortion — Magnetic Fields
- That Lonely Song – Jamey Johnson
- Just Us Kids — James McMurtry
- “Paper Planes” — M.I.A.
- “Lights Out’ — Santigold
- “Sequestered in Memphis” – The Hold Steady
- “Time to Pretend” — MGMT
- “Geraldine” — Glasvegas
- “Black President” — Nas
- “In Color” — Jamey Johnson
- “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” — Beyonce
- “More Like Her” — Miranda Lambert
- “I’m Not Gonna to Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” — Black Kids
- “Lay it Down” — Al Green
- “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came From an Angel)” — Ponytail
- “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” — Ice Cube
- “A-Punk” — Vampire Weekend
- “Golden Age” — TV on the Radio
- “A Milli” – Lil Wayne
- “L.E.S. Artistes” — Santigold
- “Rockin’ That Thang” — The-Dream
- “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” — Vampire Weekend
- “Kids” — MGMT
- “Love Lockdown” — Kanye West
- “Disturbia” — Rihanna
- “White Horse” — Taylor Swift
- “High Cost of Living” – Jamey Johnson
- “My Year in Lists” — Los Campesinos
- “Swagga Like Us” — T.I. featuring Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne
- “Oxford Comma” — Vampire Weekend
- “I Feel It All” — Feist
- “Daddy’s Gone” — Glasvegas
- “Love Story” — Taylor Swift
- “Gunpowder & Lead” — Miranda Lambert
- “Hot n Cold” — Katy Perry
- “Heartless” — Kanye West
- “I Like It, I Love It” — Lyrics Born
- “Furr” — Blitzen Trapper
- “Last Call” — Lee Ann Womack
- “Takin’ Off This Pain” — Ashton Shepherd
- “Electric Feel” — MGMT
- “American Boy” — Estelle featuring Kanye West
- “Little Bit” — Lykke Li
- Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh): From the dreamy, on-the-move triptych opening credits to a serene closing seemingly indebted to ’70s art-house classic Celine & Julie Go Boating, British master Mike Leigh (see also: Topsy-Turvy, Naked, Vera Drake) has never exhibited as light a touch or been as inspiringly humanistic as with this portrait of a London schoolteacher (Sally Hawkins) whose sunny demeanor is challenged by others’ ways of seeing — and being in — the world.
- Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani): This “New South” indie rewrite of the Cannes-winning Iranian film Taste of Cherry pairs a charismatic Senegalese immigrant (Souléymane Sy Savané) with an aging white Southerner (Memphian Red West in a career performance) for a rich, moving on-screen partnership. With his film’s feel for urban isolation and cultural assimilation, Bahrani evokes a more sincere, less mannered Jim Jarmusch.
- Cadillac Records (Darnell Martin): Better than Ray. Even better than Walk the Line.
- Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme): Demme directs this blend of intense family melodrama and Robert Altman-style party sequences with the same intimacy and purpose he put into such masterful concert docs as Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold. The tumultuous homecoming of Anne Hathaway’s doe-eyed narcotics addict is shown as an oscillating series of white-knuckle interactions and quiet retreats, a handheld camera capturing furtive reaction shots. As the gonzo wedding celebration fights against the family tension, Demme turns indulgence into strength, and the viewer is sucked into the middle of a kind of audacious home movie.
- Man on Wire (James Marsh): This documentary about the day in 1974 that French tightrope walker Philippe Petit spent 40 amazing minutes on a strand of wire between the World Trade Center towers was a more-exciting-than fiction caper flick. And it’s all the more effective because its wonder at dual human achievements (Petit’s walk and the buildings’ construction) and its melancholy that Petit outlasted the towers are both allowed to emerge without direct commentary.
- Milk (Gus Van Sant): Gus Van Sant’s fiercely patriotic biopic of martyred gay politician Harvey Milk (perhaps Sean Penn’s best lead performance) is novel for celebrating Milk as simultaneously a principled leader and a hard-nosed, pragmatic politician.
- Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson): A vampire procedural suffused with adolescent melancholy.
- The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan): As an almost sympathetic critique of post-9/11 government overreach, The Dark Knight achieved resonance without straining for topicality. The late Heath Ledger’s agitated, sarcastic performance as the Joker managed the impossible task of exceeding pre-release hype, but credit director Christopher Nolan with making a movie that wasn’t overshadowed by it. There’s a procedural tension and insistent, palpable anxiety to The Dark Knight more common to great crime films (from Fritz Lang to Michael Mann) than comic-hero adaptations.
- Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
- The Class (Laurent Cantet): A doc-like feature about a French middle-school class, embedding its camera within the volatile action.
- Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman): An animated, nonfiction fever dream built on first-person stories from Israeli soldiers who fought in the 1982 Lebanon war.
- WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
- Hunger (Steve McQueen)
- Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller)
- Red Cliff (John Woo)