A Different Kind of Music List: Best of 2008

It’s that time of year again!

Following our successful outings the past four years, we’re at it again. Our (belated) Different Kind of Top 10 Music List for 2008.

If you missed prior versions (2007 and 2006 and 2005 and 2004), then here’s the deal with what makes this list different:

There are a gazillion Best of Lists out there (and one list to rule them all). Most of these lists aren’t relevant to adults (yes, I am now putting myself into the category of adult, about 26 years late). If you have a family, career, hobby, you probably don’t watch a ton of films or listen to 200 new CDs each year.

Hence, this list. Rather than cranking out yet another list of CDs you likely never even heard of (much less even heard), this is a more useful list: What a relatively informed music fan has been playing the hell out of all year. These are what was most frequently spinning in the car/ipod this past year — my personal soundtrack for 2008.

Let’s get busy:

Elvis Costello & The Imposters Momofuku: One of the greatest rockers of all time returns to form. This disc reminds you why Elvis was so great — hard edged yet hook laden, rock-n-roll with catchy tunes, and as Elvis always does, lyrics that are both witty and acerbic. His none-too-subtle wordplay remains as clever as ever.

Is Costello really that curmudgeonly Englishman? His recent US television appearances (A Colbert Christmas, ) somehow belies the acerbic anger of his music. Perhaps writing whimsical melodies as counterpoints is the way he exorcises his raging demons.

Regardless, much of this disc sounds like the The Attractions have reunited, none the worse for the passing of the years. The classic early-Attractions organ, the driving rhythms all give Momofuku its familiar feel.  I am a huge fan of Elvis, but especially the early work: My Aim Is True, Armed Forces, and This Year’s Model. No Hiding Place, American Gangster Time, Flutter And Wow, Stella Hurt and Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve could have fit in easily on any of those classic discs. Its a return to his 1977 song writing punk, and is Costello’s most straightforward album since Punch the Clock.

This CD has the added attraction (no pun intended) of being one of the most overlooked albums this year.

Herbie Hancock River: The Joni Letters:  Speaking of overlooked: The mellowest selection this year is this gorgeous stunner that slipped by nearly everyone. That is, until it won both Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album atthe Grammy Awards in February 2008.

The disc is lovely — cool and richly textured all the way through. As both a pure Jazz disc, and as a reinterpretation (homage really) to Joni Mitchell, it is a delight to listen to. The guest musicians are terrific: Hancock’s delicate piano playing matches well with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and they are joined by guest vocalists Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae and Luciana Souza, as well as Joni Mitchell herself. The sublime recording perfectly captures the poignancy and melancholy of the songs in their languid new jazz format.

Trivia:  Not only did this disc face stiff competition from Kanye West, Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse, and Vince Gill, but River was the first jazz album to win “Best Album Grammy” in over 4 decades. The 1965 winner was the brilliant Getz/Gilberto (Stan Getz and João Gilberto). Time will tell if River has the staying power of Getz/Gilberto — but its off to a good start.

I guarantee that any jazz fan will find this disc a wonderfully enjoyable diversion.

Death Cab for Cutie Narrow Stairs: One part King Crimson, One part Coldplay, 2 parts Ben Gibbard.

I find this album vastly more satisfying than 2005’s Plans, which was too uneven, but had a few great songs. Narrow Stairs is more open, consistent, and has less of a restrained formulaic feel to it. Like Plans, it has a few high points, but doesn’t suffer the same weaknesses of the last album.

The first two songs — Bixby Canyon Bridge and I Will Possess Your Heart — are immediately recognizable as Death Cab’s, but have have a harder edge and a better (for lack of a superior word) flow. No Sunlight is a typical DCFC pop song, as is Cath…

Where the disc really soars is on Grapevine Fires, a song I played compulsively all year.  Its a gorgeous melody, deftly using subtle instrumentation and lush harmonies to full effect.

If this is what Chris Walla’s production does, he should have been used by Coldplay (rather than Brian Eno). No one is going to accuse this disc of being overlooked. It haunted me most of the year, with melodies I could not get out of my head.

Bonus — the MP3 version is $5.

Adele 19: Imagine a smarter, sober version of Amy Winehouse, and you get Adele Adkins. Her voice is bluesy, rich, voluptuous. In addition to Winehouse, her other influences include the likes of Etta James, Dusty Springfield, and Billie Holiday. Those 4 alone are reason to give this disc a whirl.

The jazz influence gives her voice a timbre, almost a world-weariness, far beyond her 19 years. Much of the disc itself is spare, stripped down. You can only produce songs like “Best For Last” or “Crazy For You” with just a bass, a piano, and Adele’s vocals with a very special voice, and she delivers.

Despite being a technical virtuoso, she knows what to do with her instrument, as opposed to the histrionics of a Mariah Carey. For those who say she has no Winehouse influence, listen to “Chasing Pavements” or “Cold Shoulder”).

David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today I was such a big Talking Heads fan that I bought the last Eno/Byrne disc, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and actually listened to what was essentially an early experiment in mash ups, loops and recording technologies.

This disc is nothing like that earlier effort. First off, it was made to be listened to, a huge improvement over the prior effort. The new album is intriguing and surprising in how accessible and interesting the songs are.

Surprisingly, this is the closest to a Heads album we have heard from him since the end of the T-Heads. Given how prolific and eclectic Byrnes has been since then, that’s saying something.

Byrne himself has described the music as ”folk electronic gospel” to which I would add new age, pop and ambient.The music is slow-to-midtempo, and Eno’s effervescent sonic gloom always nearby. Yet despite this, the disc is uplifting. Its sublime, kinda bizarre — and very listenable.

Bonus: $5 MP3 download of the album too good a deal to a pass up.

Mocean Worker Enter The Mowo! and Cinco De Mowo!: During my writing stint, I tried to avoid discs that have lyrics (too distracting), or I knew too well (ruling out most classic Jazz). Filling in on occasion was Mocean Worker (pronounced “Motion” Worker).

It’s kinda hard to describe exactly what genre this music is: It’s definitely jazz-based, but layered and looped with various electronica and horn instrumentation. There are elements of funk, big-band and swing. It’s loud, foot-tappingly rhythmic, smooth, and jazzy. Genre wise, I would say it falls somewhere between Electronica and  Jazz — call it Nu-Jazz. The beats are inventive and the samples are creatively applied.

The two albums that got lots of play were Cinco de Mowo, is my favorite of Mowo’s 5 discs and the most raucous; Enter the Mowo is mellower, with both Jazz and World music cuts, but is also interesting. The occasional retro videos that accompany the music is also compelling.

NPR notes that Mocean Worker is Adam Dorn, who comes with a jazz pedigree: He’s the son of famed record producer Joel Dorn (Roberta Flack, John Coltrane, Leon Redbone), and he grew up around the jazz and R&B discs produced by his father for Atlantic Records in the ’60s and ’70s.

Shelby Lynne Just A Little Lovin’:  This is my retro entry for the year.

A somewhat risky homage to Dusty Springfield that pays huge dividends for both the listener and Ms. Lynne herself. It works fabulously well.

The sparse arrangements and languid pacing are perfect for the melodies and the updated arrangements. The beautifully quiet instrumentation is punctuated by Lynne’s powerful and haunting voice.

To paraphrase a reviewer’s line, a successful melding of retro-reverence with contemporary moderation. Well worth the time of both Dusty fans and non fans alike.

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Raising Sand This late 2007 release was almost on my list last year, but it didn’t qualify — I simply hadn’t played it enough. That changed this year, as this seemed to be the disc that got the most spins in the car.

On paper, the pairing of Led Zep‘s Robert Plant and Nashville crooner Alison Krauss makes no sense. Yet the two together are really an astounding combination. Perhaps its the fantastic production of T Bone Burnette, who supposedly selected these obscure but lovely songs for the disc. The arrangements are dreamy and ethereal, spare yet contemporary. Its one of those discs that you simply could never have imagined on your own — the vocalists, the musicians, the song choices. That it works at all is fairly miraculous. That it works as well as it does is testament to Burnette’s genius.

It transcends genre, making a mockery of such titles as bluegrass, heavy metal, and country. This is simply great music, and categories be damned.

Bonus: Check out the HD Net concert of these two playing live together — just awesome.

Vampire Weekend: One part Paul Simon’s Graceland, one part Magic Numbers, this nerd rock is mostly good clean kitschy fun.

Songs like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, Oxford Comma, A-Punk, and even Mansford Roof are why we even are discussing this disc. It is far from a perfect record, but given the power of these simple songs, these guys are at least worth watching. We’ll find out if those 4 tunes were random accidents or something more.

Any other year, I’m not sure if this disc would have made the list. Why? Its half of a fantastic album. The first 4 songs are great, while the rest of the disc rapidly decays into something not quite as interesting as the rest — some rather bland, some unremarkable, some even filler. But damned, if those first four aren’t catchy, kitschy gold.

Bonus: $5 MP3 download of the album.

Kings Of Leon, Only By The Night I was never a big Kings of Leon fan — despite the admonitions of friends who were mad about Because of the Times — until this fourth disc. Sure, its kinda slick, and in its own heavily polished way, a bit mainstream. But the sound and feel of the disc is pitch-perfect for all that happened in 2008.

I hear bits of Black Keys, Rocco DeLuca & The Burden, JJ Grey & Mofro, even the Black Crowes. There’s something off kilter about the album that I cant put my finger on, which keeps me coming back to it.

If you like melodic rock performed by a tight combo, with, as one reviewer described, “aching sincerity,” this is the album for you.

• Randy Newman, Harps And Angels: This slipped in as my political choice of the year.

I lamented on the 2006 best of list how “muted the artistic community’s response” was to the Iraq War. Newman unleashes any number of smart satirical swipes at the powers that be. As the year progressed and things seemed to spin out of control, the disc sardonism became all the more poignant.

The lyrics to this album are darkly cynical. Newman’s take on the world is clever, very funny and poignant to boot. If you have any interest in satire set to a New Orleans Blues beat, call it irony in ragtime, than this disc is worth a spin.

My biggest complaint about this album is its 3 or 4 years late . . .

• Video selection: This is my favorite video this year: It All Comes Crashing Down

• Lastly, on my list of things to catch up with:

Again, given my lost half year, lots of things simply were bookmarked for future listening. Of course i have Coldplay Viva La Vida and R.E.M. Accelerate  — I just haven’t really played them much.  I plan on catching up with them, and all of the following in the new year: Pretenders, Break Up the Concrete, Black Keys, Attack and Release, Band Of Horses, Cease To Begin, TV ON THE RADIO, Dear Science, The Hold Steady  Stay Positive, Beck, ‘Modern Guilt, JJ Grey Orange Blossoms, Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue, R.E.M.  Accelerate.

Anything really worthwhile that I missed?  (use comments to add)

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