Ten Favorite Recordings from 2008
(Give or Take Fifteen)

What would it mean to offer “The Top 10 Albums of 2008″?

Not much. Even an elaborate description of how the selection process would not be enough to make sense of such a list. We all experience music differently. We have very personal encounters. And while there is such a thing as excellence, and yes we can discern the difference between a good song and a better song, it’s almost impossible to come to a decision about which works of art are “the best” of a given year. It takes years, decades, even centuries for us to see clearly which art is really built to last.

And considering how many hundreds of albums were released this year, who can really claim to have heard and comprehended them all?

So… instead, let me humbly offer you a list of the music that caught my attention, held it, thrilled me, and ministered to my mind, heart, and soul in 2008. I highly recommend you check them out. But keep in mind, if you ask me in a few years about the music of 2008, you might get a very different list. That’s the way art works. And aren’t you glad?

1. Sam Phillips – Don’t Do Anything
Since the late 1980s, Sam Phillips has been, in my opinion, America’s best answer to The Beatles – an inspired songwriter, a poet, a whimsical imagination, and a writer of profound spiritual insight.

As she outgrew the limitations of the Christian music industry’s propaganda machine, and left behind the name “Leslie” for her childhood nickname “Sam,” the legendary producer T-Bone Burnett made her the primary focus of his creative energies. He’s produced more of her work than anyone else’s, to the point that it’s been hard to imagine them apart. When their marriage of almost two decades ended, Burnett stayed on as her producer, even overseeing A Boot and a Shoe – that beautiful piece of heartache, that monumental breakup record.

Thus, it was 2008’s most exhilarating surprise when Phillips released her first self-produced album this year, and it turned out to be inspired, unpredictable, and even hopeful.

She’s learned quite a few tricks from Burnett, but she’s got a spirit and an impetuous style all her own. And the songs on this record have what it takes to live on. One in particular, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” has already been covered by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant on their acclaimed record Raising Sand, where it was hailed as the best track on that collection.

Phillips deserves to be recognized as a standalone talent, and with Don’t Do Anything, she spread her wings and soared, solo and spectacular, for the first time. Here’s to the wild blue yonder of her future, in which reviews may at last forego any mention of her former producer, and simply consider the riches that this mystic pop poet has to offer. She hasn’t released a bad record yet, and one can’t help but suspect that her best work is still ahead of her.

(Watch for my in-depth interview with Phillips about her career in the next issue of Image.)

2. Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs
In 2008, the word “maverick” was used, abused . . . beaten senseless. But Bob Dylan is stealing it back.

Does this project really qualify as an “album”? It’s more like a scrapbook of music recorded over the last 20 years. Tell Tale Signs is a double-album, 27-track treasure trove of adventure, poetry, humor, wisdom, folk music, and rock-and-roll. Even more amazing – these songs, like those on Tom Waits’ awe-inspiring Orphans collection, are leftovers from Dylan’s recording sessions dating back to 1989. Other artists have every right to shake their fist at their muses and cry, “It’s just not fair!”

Some of these cutting-room-floor discoveries are better than the studio versions of the same songs that we’ve known and loved for years. (An alternate take of “Born in Time” and a live version of “Ring Them Bells” are particularly memorable.) Dylan’s castaways are better than most artists’ best work. Here’s hoping he’ll keep recording for another 25 years, so listeners can continue to enjoy new discoveries like this for a century to come . . . or more.

3. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Real Emotional Trash
For the hilarious cleverness of the wordplay and rhymes, for the inspired and invigorating – sometimes exhilarating – guitar work, and for the fact that most of these long songs never wear out their welcome . . . this is the most extravagant and exciting release of Malkmus’s career, the record that fulfills the potential he’s shown all along. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it rivals the best work he did with his 1990s band Pavement. But be careful if you’re thinking of putting this disc in your car stereo – it’s likely to turn even the most responsible citizen into a reckless driver.

4. Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue
Imagine if The Arcade Fire went to a big family renion and had a jam session with their crazy uncles. Or, imagine if they moved to a hippie commune full of nostalgic rockers. Montreal seems to be a flourishing hotbed of community-rock efforts, and Plants and Animals is barrels of fun.

5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig! Lazarus! Dig!
Two years ago, Nick Cave released a glorious double-album of subversive psalms and apocalyptic prophecies: Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus. This year, he introduced another album of Biblical proportions, but this one is darker, stranger, more accessible, and sometimes downright rude. Cave, always a formidable and threatening presence, has never swaggered with more machismo than he does in the open number, or rocked with tongue so firmly in cheek. And the mustache he sports on the liner notes . . . that’s worth the price of the record.

6. Allison Moorer – Mockingbird
It should have been billed as Allison Moorer & Buddy Miller, because Mockingbird has Buddy Miller’s signature guitars and style all over it. Moorer’s voice is both powerful and flexible, bringing fire and eloquence to such ambitious covers as “Ring of Fire,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and Gillian Welch’s “Revelator.” Here’s hoping that this singer/producer team stays together for many records to come. (And here’s hoping that the Buddy and Julie Miller album Written in Chalk, coming in 2009, is every bit as good.)

7. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
I’m late to the Truckers’ party, but I’m glad I showed up, because this is a generous album full of humor and heartbreak, powered by blazing guitars and whiskey with lemon. It’s as rusty and dusty as an old Ford truck, and yet the singers aren’t afraid to turn whole songs into meditations on the cinematic philosophies of the great John Ford. The Truckers have made their camp at the border of Country and Rock, and it’s the biggest bonfire in that region. Watch out for rattlesnakes.

8. The Welcome Wagon – Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
The best record for Sunday morning came from Sufjan Stevens, and sounded like the much-anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Illinoise. Strangely enough, though, he was just the producer: The songs belong to the husband-wife team of the Reverend Vito and Monique Aiuto. It’s as casual and improvised as Stevens’ own Christmas albums, but it has moments of real rapture, and enough humor and courage to include a cover of The Smiths’ “Half a Person.”

9. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
Seattle’s Fleet Foxes prove that the Emerald City will not tolerate being classified as “the Kingdom of Grunge” any longer. With harmonies so pristine that Crosby Stills & Nash would weep to hear them, these Foxes are aiming alternative rock in the direction of monastic chants. In a year of maddening campaign cacophony and bad news everywhere you turned, there was something especially affecting about such distilled and timeless beauty.

10. Fifteen-album tie!
Portishead – Third
The year’s most welcome comeback, Portishead sound as bleak and desolate as ever, while smashing their techno-punk sound into alarming, abrasive new shapes.

Loudon Wainwright III – Recovery
Need cheering up? Spend some time in Wainwright’s contagiously joyful company. In the hands of producer Joe Henry, he’s some of the best songs of his career and rerecorded them in the warm, simple settings that serve them best. The lyrics may be blue, but the deliver is bright as yellow.

Lizz Wright – The Orchard
Her debut album of covers was a breakthrough. Her follow-up, filled with her own songwriting, is just as enjoyable. And most of that is due to her astonishing, sultry vocals. There’s nothing showy about this record at all, but I’m smitten. If I was up past nine any evening this last year, I was most likely listening to this seductive, luxuriant, exquisite music.

David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
This, their second collaboration of Byrne and Eno in 27 years, will only make you ache for the records they might have made if they’d worked together during all those years in between. And while Byrne has a reputation for cryptic lyrics and and a satirist’s smirk, Everything That Happens is pumped full of pop optimism. Unless I’ve missed something, this is the Talking Heads’ most enthusiastic performance since the Talking Heads parted ways. Eno’s inventive production recalls his work on Paul Simon’s underrated Surprise . . . and that’s a good thing.

Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby
My favorite instrumental record of the year. A fusion of so many styles, it’s hard to keep track – but why bother? Invisible Baby makes a great score for any day of frantic multitasking. One moment, you’re thrilling to the power chords of anthemic rock a la Oasis or Sigur Ros, and the next you’re shooting Asteroids on an old Atari. Fun, funny, and phenomenal. If there’s a film that fits this soundtrack, I want to see it.

Calexico – Carried to Dust
I’m also late to the Calexico party, but I was entranced by this record. It feels like a world-music jam session on the border of Texas and Mexico. Or a cinematic soundtrack to a dangerous road trip. Or a spaghetti-western with meatballs.

She & Him – Volume One
At her best, Zooey Deschanel is charming in her retro, girl-nextdoor style. And M. Ward understands that, capturing her personality in a perfect pop package. Personally, I think she has a lot of room to grow as a vocalist – there are a few sour notes here. (The opening line of “Take It Back” really makes me cringe.) But nevertheless, this is a contagiously good-humored record, and it became my record of choice for sunny afternoons.

Mudcrutch – Mudcrutch
Tom Petty should take a break from the Heartbreakers and stick with this impressive band for a while. It’s more collaborative than anything he’s done since the Traveling Wilburys, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a very generous record-fourteen songs long with one track nearing ten minutes. And there’s not a bad track in the bunch.

T-Bone Burnett – Tooth of Crime
If Cormac McCarthy made rock music, it might sound something like this. Burnett’s songs from the Sam Shepard play of the same title have been anticipated by his fans for about two decades. It’s hard to believe that the record is finally here. It’s also amazing that it’s been worth the wait, especially since Burnett’s last solo record was something of a letdown. And isn’t it a little spooky to hear Burnett singing heartbreak duets with Sam Phillips?

Sigur Ros – Meõ Suõ í Eyrum Viõ Spilum Endalaust
I was beginning to think Sigur Ros had run out of good ideas. I was wrong. You may not be able to pronounce this album’s title, but you sure will enjoy listening to it. Sigur Ros sound like a band tired of their own conventions, turning themselves loose to run naked into new fields of discovery. Okay, if you think that description’s ridiculous, just take a look at the album cover.

B.B. King – One Kind Favor
A solid performance from a living legend, produced with remarkable restraint by T-Bone Burnett. Other producers might have felt compelled to give King a showy, flashy package for his work, but this is just the kind of frill-free recording the master deserves. It lets his artistry speak for itself. In a time when the music industry tries to make pop out of everything, this is what stylistic integrity looks like.

Bill Frisell – History, Mystery
My favorite soundtrack for creative writing this year – a moody, 30-song program from one of America’s most adventurous guitarists. Frisell’s musical wanderlust is so ambitious, it’s hard to know what a “typical Frisell record” might sound like. Perhaps this is as close as he’ll come to it: A fusion of almost everything he’s done so far, characterized by simmering strings. At AllMusic.com, Thom Jurek takes a stab at summing up the styles represented here: ” . . . bebop/post-bop, Malian folk music, tangos, Delta blues, modern classical music, vintage soul, and rock.” Get the idea?

Elvis Costello – Momofuku
Costello’s albums have become mixed blessings. I haven’t heard one that was a knockout beginning to end since All This Useless Beauty. Momofuku may not be as adventurous stylistically or improvisational as other recent works like When I Was Cruel, but the songs are solid and rowdy rock and roll numbers. Given time, they open up as impressive, thoughtful, well-written works recorded while the songwriter was still enthusiastic and inspired.

Over the Rhine – Live From Nowhere, Volume Three
My favorite band celebrated their 20 years of composing underrated, overlooked treasure by putting on a three-concert weekend in Cincinnati. It’s the first time I’ve ever taken an airplane to see live music, and it was worth all of the trouble. Those performances will be ringing in my ears for a long time to come, more exciting than any recorded “best-of” the band could have assembled. But since that anniversary celebration is, alas, unavailable as a recording . . . check out Live From Nowhere, Volume Three – the third installment in Over the Rhine’s series of special releases “for the fans,” a collection of memorable live-performance highs from the preceding year.

U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Okay, it’s not here yet. But the superlatives being thrown around by Bono, the producers, and those who have heard snatches of what is reportedly another ambitious reinvention have filled my head with wild guesses. And I like what I’m imagining. Let’s hope it delivers.

I also enjoyed:
• Bon Iver РFor Emma, Forever Ago
• Beck РModern Guilt
• Jolie Holland РThe Living and the Dead
• Woven Hand РTen Stones
• Sun Kil Moon РApril
• Sixpence None the Richer РMy Dear Machine
• Ryan Adams and the Cardinals РCardinology
• Ron Sexsmith РExit Strategy of the Soul
• Lucinda Williams РLittle Honey
• Emmylou Harris РAll I Intended to Be
• The Dodos РVisiter
• DeVotchka РA Mad and Faithful Telling
• Cat Power РJukebox
• Beach House РDevotion

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.