Albums of the Year, 2008

It’s that time of year: best of this, best of that, yadda, yadda, yadda. Depending on the subjects, and who writes them, such lists can be frightening, maddening or, worst of all, predictable and boring. Hopefully my contribution to the cacophony isn’t any of those.

First off, it’s not a list. It’s a top pick and a few runners-up. I lay no claim that they’re truly the “best” or perfect for everyone, as adjudicating music is – though some may be loathe to admit it – a wholly subjective process. Which new releases did I buy in the past year? Which ones did I play the most? Which one(s) could I not live without? That, in a nutshell, is the criteria I use. Highfalutin analysis, in other words, it ain’t. Breaking down meters and rhymes and obtuse lines about love, lust, war and more leaves me cold. What matters is whether the songs percolate through the heart and mind long after you’ve turned off the computer, MP3 player or stereo.

In short: “It takes you there, wherever there is.” At concerts, that means communal Raise Your Hand moments—the Boss and E-Street Band barreling into “Badlands” while you and 20,000 other fans jump to your feet, pump your fists in the air and shout the lyrics with him – and private entries to Heaven, such as the Little Diva (Maria McKee) levitating the soul with a mesmerizing “Breathe.” Recorded music, though, is a slightly different beast. Shorn of the physical presence of the artist, the music takes flight (or not) on its own accord. It’s an ethereal, magical experience, listening. You fall not for the singer, though you may be a fan, but for the songs themselves.

A case in point: my first runner-up, Duffy’s Rockferry. Its retro pop-soul sound initially caught my ear, but it stuck around due to the strength of the music. The title cut…

…has an utterly timeless feel, conjuring the likes of Procol Harum, Lulu and Petula Clark, and she sings from the heart throughout, most notably on the weepy “Warwick Avenue” and yearning “Distant Dreamer.”

Another artist whose music earns an honorable mention: jazz vocalist Melody Gardot, who slips her chanteuse soul into syllables, words and phrases with hypnotic precision on the sparse and stark Worrisome Heart. The songs are a mix of downbeat, bittersweet and romantic, and linger in the subconscious once the music’s stopped. Highlights include the ruminative title track, the sultry “Quiet Fire” and “Sweet Memory.” I hasten to add, however, that – as with each of my picks – it’s an album that should be heard in full.

On my Amazon “40 Albums That Demand Repeated Listens” list, I call the next runner-up, Rattlin’ Bones by Aussie twang queen Kasey Chambers and her husband Shane Nicholson, “the best album that Gram and Emmy never made.” It recalls the Original Carter Family in spirit if not practice, and possesses a contagious hillbilly charm that’s feverish in its ferocity. (Or something like that.)

Tift Merritt’s Another Country, the final runner-up, is extraordinary. It’s plaintive, yearning and hopeful, often in the same song, and reminds me of everything good from the third Flying Burrito Brothers album, the one when Rick Roberts joined the fold with the majestic “Colorado.” “I think I will break/but I mend,” she sings – like an Americana songbird, I should mention – on the meditative “Broken.”

As with “I Know What I’m Looking for Now,” about achieving clarity of purpose, it’s one of those songs that finds you (or, at least, me) hitting repeat ad infinitum.

Juliana Hatfield’s wondrous How to Walk Away is my Album of the Year – the fourth time she’s topped my year-end charts (2005’s Made in China, 2004’s in exile deo and 2000’s Beautiful Creature being the other three). It’s a lush, hook-laden song cycle filled with melodies guaranteed to sweep away all but the hard-hearted and lyrics imbued with honesty, humor and pathos galore.

“This Lonely Love,” my Song of the Year, captures the very essence of loving an intangible – that is to say, music. That it borrows the guitar and piano riffs from in exile deo’s “It Should Have Been You” makes it all the more sweet: “I am only the song you sing,” indeed. The wistful yet poppy “Shining On,” “My Baby” (“where does love go when it goes?”) and “Now I’m Gone,” which has to be the peppiest breakup song this side of Greg Kihn’s, are additional delights. “Such a Beautiful Girl,” yet another favorite, articulates the flip side to “This Lonely Love,” honing in on a girl who “writes and dreams” in order to escape an ugly world. It’s masterful—as is the album as a whole.

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