The Best Albums of 2008

December 10, 2008

walkmen

10) The Walkmen: You & Me

“You and Me” is like a homecoming log for someone who has spent too long on an aimless, cheap vacation. “There is still sand in my suitcase…there is still salt in my teeth,” Hamilton Leithauser, the lead singer narrates in such away as to imply he’s trying to shake off certain aspects of a retreat he just quite can’t. “I know that you’re married, the rings on your hand, so I didn’t stay ‘till the end,” he says later in the same song, “Donda Esta la Playa.” The album sort of works as a journal of the fall through winter following that same years-long vacation. “Last Christmas was black and blue, this year’s is white.” Is followed by the song “The New Year”, a horn filled hopeful song about the common hope that the coming year will be better than the last. “It’s been 7 years of holidays, cafes, bars and sunny days” goes “ “Seven Years” but it doesn’t sound like a great thing. It sounds like a period of aimless wandering, fun yet unfulfilling times in which the narrator was left not knowing where to go or what to do with his life.
“You & Me” perfectly occupies the space that The National’s “Boxer” did last year. Walkmen singer Leithauser doesn’t have the southern gothic bible-black baritone of National singer Matt Beringer, nor does the music either band makes sound overly similar. What makes them occupy that same spot, at least for me, is the songs that manage to sound beautiful and tragic, happy and sad, regretful and hopeful at the same time. The lyrics are backpack-poet literate, the music is often understated and low-fi. The layers unravel the more times you hear the songs, in a very positive manner. The layer of garage rock fuzz that covers much of the album initially invokes a more intelligent Strokes, but after repeat listens peels back that fuzz a bit you hear the other sounds more strongly. The overwhelming bass lines that pull “Donda Esta la Playa” along, the country road at night of Dylan and the Band in “I Lost You.” The short, sad and pretty instrumental “Flamingos (For Colbert).” Tambourines and flair round out a garage folk sound. Admittedly, I’m a newcomer to the Walkmen party, so I’m not sure how this new disc adds up to the well-received “Bow + Arrows,” or the band’s other work, but 2008 had very little as warm, intelligent and introspective as “You & Me.”

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9)Guns N Roses: Chinese Democracy

Sure, call it self-indulgent. Axl spent 15 + years, millions of dollars and countless hours, severing ties with friends and band mates on his road to craft “Chinese Democracy.” What’s odd though, is that the lightning in a bottle that Axl and his earlier group created with “Appetite For Destruction” all those years ago wasn’t anywhere close to being topped with this , but I’m not sure it’s even fair to compare the two. The earlier was a drunken, smashed, fast and raunchy rock rip, the newer is a layered, dense, technical somewhat proggy rock record. Each song seems to contain ten songs–multiple hooks appear one after the other, technically virtuoso riffs courtesy of guys like Buckethead erupt mid chorus, and Axl piles on a “wall of sound” not unlike a metal Phil Spector. So, yeah, Axl didn’t craft an all time epic, and no, it doesn’t quite seem like it should have taken close to two decades to compile this work. But he did finally release it, he made no concessions, and he did it his own way no matter what people said along the way. That’s fairly admirable. It’s a bit odd that the Chinese government publicly condemned this album. It’s certainly not a deep and literate indictment of China, its government, or anything else. Axl lyrically sticks to discussing his personal paranoiacs, his inability to trust others in light of perceived double crossings, bad breakups and peer letdowns. He doesn’t trust the critics, the press, the wishy-washy fans, but he feels none of them can take him down. It’s rarely corny or schmaltzy yet its rarely worthy of study. What’s the best on display here is the towering rock paste of sound and the full throttle application of one of metal’s best and most missed instruments–Rose’s voice. The full tilt shriek, the never-ending wail and the bass rumble never misses. The only time it fails are the few verses in which Rose attempts to sound like he’s crying while he sings, which would have been better left out. Other than that, his voice is still quite capable. The NIN touring guitarist Robin Finck layers an industrial metal sound to many of the songs and the ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson handles other guitar riffs, as well as the previously mentioned Buckethead. “Better” is a highlight, best showcasing that multiple hook meld, the mixture of wailing highs and guttural lows in Axl’s voice, and pure pop-metal magic. “Madagascar” is a strange highlight, melding sound bites from MLK’s “I have a dream” speech with quotes from Cool Hand Luke.
In short, there’s plenty of reason to dislike Axl and to wish him failure, I suppose. I can’t help but look past his previous faults and respect him for devoting this much of himself into his work and releasing it on his own terms, damn the torpedoes. It’s a chance to wish him success and peace, hoping he’s happy with how it turned out. “They’re just songs,” he sheepishly admitted when he backed out of concerts aimed at promoting the album on one of its previous cancelled release times. And it is, but as AMG noted as well, they’re actually good songs. They’re original, entertaining, and they grow on you a bit more each time you hear them, so I couldn’t really ask for more.

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8)Lil Wayne: The Carter III

For his 26th birthday, Lil Wayne received a briefcase containing $ 1 million in cash from his friend and the man who first gave him his record deal over a decade ago, Baby. Wayne is far from a social commentator, revolutionary or a progressive rapper, at least in the substance and content sense. In fact, much of his music and personality is like that Birthday anecdote that makes you not want to like him. It often contains over-the-top, glaring, “iced-out,” caricatures that even lifelong hip hop fans are beginning to criticize. Over the course of “The Carter III” he threatens to “run up in your house and shoot your grandmother up,” (in “3peat”), he’s ‘hanging over the wall of the VIP” smugly grinning at you to make you jealous (in “Got Money”). In “A Milli” he’s dancing on top of his Lamborghini taunting police. Like I said, not a lot of social substance…but there is a little. There’s the Nina Simone sampling ode to Wayne’s feelings of being misunderstood, “Don’tGetIt,” and at the end of that track Wayne spends a few minutes simply speaking while the beat softens; over the course of those few minutes he addresses hypocrisy in our national drug policies, police profiling, inner city school problems and verbally reprimands Al Sharpton for not being a MLK or a Jessie Jackson and accuses him of self-promotion and tearing down others instead of really helping to build up the community. The other socially relevant moment on the album is also its most heartfelt moment, and that’s “Tie My Hands Down,” which enlists Robin Thicke to croon the chorus while Wayne laments the damage done to his hometown of New Orleans and the way Katrina made him feel powerless.
Aside from that, it’s more hyperactive antics. So why such acclaim? Why did Time magazine praise him, his yearlong avalanche of mix tapes which led up to the hype for the release of this album, and this album specifically? It’s his rhyme talent, it’s the way he utilizes his voice like an instrument. It’s his drive to be the best in his field that leads him to constantly record. It’s the risks he takes that other mainstream rappers would never attempt: trying to sound like E.T. as he raps on “Phone Home,” using a mental ward inflection in his voice on “Playing With Fire,” or going head to head with Jay Z on “Mr. Carter” and holding his own. There’s the indie-art rap type experiment on “Dr. Carter” where Wayne portrays himself as a hip hop surgeon detailing the factors that are important in good rhymes and proceeding to ‘fix” what’s wrong in others. There’s the lead off single which is such stupid big fun that Wayne seems to be daring radio not to play, “Lollipop.” His overall mic progress is astounding considering how basic and unremarkable it was over the course of his entire first decade of recording. Listen to him back on “The Block is Hot,” when he was 16 or so and compare it to something from Carter III, say “Let the Beat Build.” He now uses internal and end sentence rhyme schemes, as Rakim and Eminem have done; in such a technique mid-sentence words and multiple syllables from one sentence are rhymed and echoed in the next sentence, then sometimes it will switch to the traditional end-sentence rhyming, then alternate back and forth at Wayne’s leisure. Metaphors and left-of-center references pop in from nowhere. Accents and voices emerge at any unannounced moment, the speed of rapping is likely to slow or speed up at any time and the words chase themselves around each bass hit. Profanity and slang hide for the general public the actual literary talent something like this showcases, so it’s great a publication like Time can recognize it, even if their comparisons to classic Blues, Jazz and Soul musicians is a stretch considering Wayne’s limited substance at this point in his career. He’s expanding himself musically at least, even learning to play guitar and using that on “Lollipop,” and we’ve now seen him tackle socially conscious issues at least twice on this album, so let’s hope the unchecked and manic id that circulates as his record persona can evolve a bit more professorially next time around.

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7)The Counting Crows: Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

Adam Duritz, the lead singer and songwriter of the Counting Crows told A&E’s “Inside Track” that “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” was the bands shot at a last, big “Album.” If mp3s, digital singles and video game tracks were the future, Duritz wanted the Crows to craft their biggest and most cohesive ode to album rock. Regardless of what the future of popular music holds and what form the next Crows album will take, this is by far the strongest work the Crows have done since their debut “August and Everything After.” The Crows have something in common with the artist who released the album I placed at number four on this list in that both this band and that artist, although working in completely different genres, have both spent a decade trying to live up to their initial critical success. “August” was a beautiful, modern folk-rock masterpiece containing perhaps the absolute best lyrics to grace mainstream in the nineties. Since then, the bands released many records, each containing at least a couple of notable songs, but a full length album has never come close to matching “August’s” overall quality- – until now. “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” doesn’t quite match up but it’s as close as they’ve come. It’s first half, the Saturday Night half, is the heaviest and loudest they’ve ever been and the second half harks back to much of their earliest work. Lyrically, nothing is as beautiful as “Anna Begins” or “’Round Here” from that first album, but the stark, cinematic and mentally stimulating “Cowboys” and “1492” are top-notch and can be mentioned in the same sentence as those early songs. “Cowboys” lyrics of “Mr. Lincolns head is bleeding while she’s weeping,” and satellite surveillance has an existentialist novelists ear for detail.
Conceptually, the album is split in half, the first 6 songs are Saturday Night and the last 8 are Sunday morning. Very basically and on the surface the Saturday tracks are the hard rock songs and the Sunday morning songs are the quieter acoustic ones. More deeply than that, Saturday is the desperate, scared escapism and Sunday is the hangover, recovery and ultimate inspiration. Saturday’s not a party on this record. A couple of the songs on that side have an upbeat melody, but even the lead off poppy single “Los Angeles,” is filled with lyrics about the singer’s efforts “trying to make some sense out of me.” Faithlessness builds as Saturday progresses. “I don’t believe in anything at all,” is sung on “Sundays” (not to confuse, but that’s the title of the song that comes near the end of the Saturday half–perhaps another title would’ve helped keep this thing straight in print, but alas). The last portion of “Cowboy” at the end of Saturday builds and builds to desperation- – “this is a list of what I should’ve been but I’m not”- – but ultimately becomes a cry for something more. “I am not anything” segues into “I dream of a place where Saturday is a memory and Sunday comes to gather me into the arms of God who welcomes me because I believe, oh I believe.”
The loud crashing end of Saturday makes the following track even more subtle and calm in comparison. “Washington Square” is a sweet reflective stumble into grace. Anyone who feels they’ve survived a Saturday night where everything seemed to take one step to many and wakes to the somewhat lonely but beautiful Sunday morning after can recognize the feeling this song provides. It’s like a more subtle version of Cash and Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” at least in the context of this album. “When I Dream of Michelangelo,” does the somewhat modernly fashionable trick of a band referencing one of their earlier songs (“Angels of the Silences” from “Recovering the Satellites”), and it’s a nice, pretty song, sort of an acoustic playful version of that referenced song.
There’s not a bad song on the album. For any slight misstep there’s always a great makeup note to cancel it out. There are snatches of great lyrics, melodies that stick, and a nice, cohesive feel that most modern rock records miss. Here’s hoping the band has another true capital A- Album in them.

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6)Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs

Death Cab For Cutie just might be responsible for making some of the best pop rock albums of the past decade. Lead singer Ben Gibbard has the sort of heart-on-sleeve lyrics and earnest voice that turns some away in fear that they might be sucked into listening to emo, but DCFC are closer to being a post-millennial Beatles than any type of typical emo rock band (say, Senses Fail?). Gibbard has a novelists ear for dialogue and narrative. It’s short like poetry, often cracking like it as well. “Transatlanticism” was the one of the first truly classic albums of the 2000s, followed a few years later by “Plans.” “Plans” opened things up with the addition of keyboards and sonically free landscapes, stretching out in the opening track (Manhattan) to spread its arms around an entire city. In it’s successor, this years “Narrow Stairs,” Gibbard and the guys tighten things up, occasionally in a claustrophobic sense (that’s not a negative, either). “Stairs” works as the flip side of the coin or the dark underbelly of “Plans.” The lead off track, “Bixby Canyon” could’ve been on Plans, but it’s quickly followed by “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the first single from this album. That song is long, clocking in at 8 and a half minutes. The first four minutes are all build up, without a word spoken. It’s like a spookier “I’ll Be Watching You,” in which the narrator of the song swears he’ll be keeping an eye on his love until she loves him, he will “possess” her heart. Musically its stark and tight, the antithesis of “Manhattan.” Gibbard writes primarily about disaffected twenty-something’s, whether it’s the unhappily yet newly married girl in “Cath,” who “holds a smile like someone would hold a crying child,“ or the woman who junks her double sized bed in favor of a twin knowing she’ll never need the extra space in “Your New Twin Sized Bed.” The highlight of the album, at least for me, is “Grapevine Fires” which has an even more current feel in the wake of the rampant California fires that have gone on this year. In the song the narrator watches wildfire burn from a cemetery on the hill with a date; while the woman’s daughter dances amongst the tombstones, the man and his date drink wine from paper cups. The song’s music and lyrical inflections seem to mirror the man’s nervous and scared life apprehensions that he ponders from his rented room and seemingly hoping that Armageddon is on its way. As the song ends the firefighters are working in double shifts and “it’s only a matter of time,” but we as listeners don’t know that means until the fires are out or they consume everything in their path. “The Ice is Getting Thinner” is the album closer, a poignant and uncertain tale of un-fulfillment, a sort of goodbye to a romance and to the narrator’s youth. It’s the turning 30 of a dreamer who’s currently given up. So all in all, this album is nowhere near as hopeful and optimistic as much of “Plans.” Even when the music is upbeat the lyrics aren’t (“Long Division,” “No Sunlight”). But its equally beautiful and it’s art points to growth and hope simply on its own terms. During an uncertain day in the present world and economy, the simple future uncertainty and doubt can be uplifting when shared, in an odd way.
leon
5)Kings of Leon: By the Night

“By the Night” is Kings of Leon doing it big. Big guitars, big drums, big vocals and a big sound. For that reason, some of the fans that were on board in Leon’s indie days and some of the small press critics that pushed early Leon albums like “Youth and Young Manhood” felt that this is “too commercial.” Hopefully those folks gave “By the Night” a second spin, although it’s the sort of album that should grab you upon first listen. It’s the bands best sounding and most fulfilling work yet. It’s a big, professional hard rock sound, but not in a big, dumb middle-of-the-road way (like, say, Nickleback), more like some sort of ‘70s rock archetype mixing Zepplin, The Allman Brothers, AC/DC and The Band.
The opening song, “Closer” is slow-burning, infectious, and introspectively beautiful. At the very end of the album closing it out is “Cold Desert,” a song that is sad, frail and ethereal. “Jesus don’t love me, no one’s ever carried my load” lead singer Caleb Followill moans in such a way that it makes it the saddest album closer of the year yet still remains pretty and oddly inspiring. A little history of the guys in the band makes such a line a bit deeper. Caleb and his band mates are preachers sons and the like, from very strict Pentecostal homes and they grew up playing the church music for their fathers. They left out on their own and settled in Nashville to be rock stars. Their early albums were southern fried garage rock, made when the guys were 16-22 years old and lyrically focused on showing everyone just how horny they were (not really in an explicit way though). So a song like “Cold Desert” may be as much as Caleb as lyrically touched on spirituality in years, so hopefully he’ll be able to approach such areas in the future, though not necessarily in such a sad and hopeless way.
Between these two fantastic bookends the album “Whoa-ohs” and rocks along. Speaking of their early lyrical focus, the single “Sex on Fire” is a bit of a return to form. A very silly name for a song but it couldn’t be better and a catchier hard rock pop song from this year would be hard to point to. “Use Somebody” is making the rounds in the backgrounds of teen soaps and television drama, a la bands like The Fray, and its far superior to most of what plays those circuits these days. “Manhattan” has Caleb singing about dancing all night and day with a beat to support him.
“By the Night” is an excellent big rock record with amphitheater filling vocals and chords, and if it’s the direction the Kings are moving in I’m along for the ride.

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4)Nas: Nas (untitled)

If you read much music journalism, you know what Nas originally wanted to title this album. He ended up releasing it untitled but kept a cover photo (a close up of a back with whip scars that form the letter N) and a title song (N.I.***R.) that remind you. The controversy aside, this is definitely his strongest album since his debut “Illmatic.” Critics and fans have praised that debut for around fifteen years now and it’s important to remember that at the time it was released not much weight was placed as the importance of wordplay, vocabulary and “mic skill.” Nas was one of the few responsible for helping shift focus from west coast, beat and attitude heavy gangsta rap back to the east coast and re-focus the importance on lyrical skills and album cohesiveness. Nas had released many albums since Illmatic, many filled with quite a few great songs but no full albums have come close to reaching “Illmatic”s level of importance. Last years “Hip Hop is Dead” seemed to be that album at first with its perfect lead-off single and many other important tracks, but much of the latter half of that album unravels and shows itself to be a bit tired, recycled and not quite important upon full and further listening.
But now we have this new, “untitled” record and Nas has achieved album perfection in the vein of “Illmatic.” A full decade and a half older, in some ways it’s a better album for displaying a more mature and well read Nasir Jones. This is a quietly angry and “street” political album. It’s thematically bound together, musically excellent and his lyrics are honed to perfection. It explores the history of, the use of, and the relevance of the N word. If the NAACP held a funeral for the word, then Nas is following in what comedian Chris Rock claimed himself to be doing in a recent stand up, and that is “giving it a resurrection.” Nas and Rock both feel that ignoring the word simply sweeps it under the rug and aids in ignoring much of what goes on in the world today and what has gone on in the past. Nas uses the album to evaluate and report issues that no other mainstream rappers ever bother to look at, at least not since the days of Public Enemy. “Fried Chicken” showcases Nas and Bustah Rhymes trading off, using the history of the dish to explore poor cultural dietary decisions and sexism alike. “Sly Fox” sonically echoes the classic PE track “She Watch Channel Zero?!” and lyrically attacks Rupert Murdoch, Bill O’Reilly, Fox News and media distortion and dishonesty as well as the hypocrisy of cherry-picking which violent entertainment is socially acceptable. The track “Untitled” is a subversive sounding revolutionary track which praises Louis Farrakhan. “America” questions the access of the American Dream by those born into ghettoes in the country; the same song also attacks the use of Christian scriptures to justify mistreatment of women in family hierarchy and condemns the use of the death penalty in America as well.
Nas has always tried to do lyrical exercises in his songs whether it was recounting his narrative in reverse on the classic track “Rewind” or attempting to sound like a Bogie inspired 50s gumshoe on “Who Killed It?”, and on this album he continues that with “Project Roach” which narrates from the perspective of the insect and then shifts to use the roach as a metaphor for how much of America views its minorities. “Testify” even attacks some of his own fans, those that “buy my songs, download my albums, understand my struggle, you claim?” and only come to his concerts to sing along with the curses and are in no way ready to support his political agenda.
It’s not all dark. “Hero” should’ve been the radio hip hop hit of the year. It’s a sonically perfect track, the way the beat builds and shifts, all the while Nas forms his verses around each turn in the beat. It’s got a quiet/loud /revert shift that most modern hip hop eschews and it sounds great from any car stereo system. “Make the World Go Round” features Chris Brown singing the hook and Nas labeling Brown the new “Mike Jackson.” “Black President” is Nas’s endorsement of Obama and it ends the album.
All in all, this is the best mainstream hip hop album an icon in the genre has released in quite some time. It’s weighty enough to debate, discuss and think about. It’s musically appealing enough to keep in steady rotation. It’s lyrically superb and controversial, what more could you want from a great rap CD?
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3) The Hold Steady: Stay Positive

If you hear Hold Steady’s early albums, like Separation Sunday, the band isn’t overly interested on traditional song structure or an overabundance of melody. Craig Finn, lead singer and principal song writer, seemed most interested in getting these really excellent lyrics out and telling a cohesive story about the kinds of people he knew, the kind of places he was familiar with and the kind of partying and praying he did. And it was excellent, the type of music punk purists and music journalists salivated over. It wasn’t un-musical either, powerful riffs and music formed around the stories to turn it into song. But with Boys and Girls in America, the band managed to add a new layer to the formula by upping the sing-along choruses, throwing in dozens more background “whoahs” and mixing in a bit of early E street band influence. Sources claimed Finn was taking vocal coaching and singing lessons prior to recording the follow up album, Stay Positive. There is noticeably more effort to hit different notes and sing a bit more this time around, and some fans and critics have complained that the overall album is a bit too polished for the Hold Steady. I have to say it’s a great album though. Not quite as excellent as Boys and Girls but equally as effective as Separation Sunday albeit in a different way. The opening track, “Constructive Summer” may be the bands best fist in the air rock anthem. “Sequestered in Memphis” is the best sounding classic rock type single the bands released yet. “Lord I’m Discouraged’ is almost as good of a ballad as “First Night.” “Both Crosses” brings back the heavy religious imagery that was so effective in “How a Resurrection Really Feels.
The title song is the feel good song of the year that mainstream never heard. Every song is good, it fits together perfectly and although it’s a half star shy of a five star album; I think the band has one of those up their sleeves in the future.
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2) The Gaslight Anthem: The ‘59 Sound

Well, this band and this album snuck up out of nowhere for me to edge out albums that otherwise would have made it to this spot. In fact, it came very close to landing right at number 1 for me, but after my initial month long burst of excitement died down I realized that the album that ended up out-ranking this one was simply better in that it evolved with each listen and fully captured a band comfortable in their growth and maturity. But ‘59 Sound was the absolute most exciting record I heard all year in that it grabbed me upon first listen and it has remained just as exciting as the months have gone by. I’m not really a dancer, but this album makes me want to dance. I wanted so bad to go to a small club and hear this band perform so I could unconsciously give dancing a go for; small rock clubs are forgiving for mid-twenty-something’s who have never been able to quite dance, and as luck would have it they were in a small club for ten dollars at about a four hour drive away from where I live, but things just didn’t work out. But at least I have this album.
And what an album it is. If you search back a few months you’ll see my article “Listen to the Gaslight Anthem ASAP,” in which I rave about this band upon first hearing them. I’ve since gotten their other full length album that was released a few years ago and their 4 song EP that followed and both are also excellent. In my initial review of the band I said that I hadn’t heard a bad song by them yet. Well, if they do have a “bad” song, it’s probably the last track on this album, “Once Upon a Time,” the only moment when cheese edges out nostalgia in the lyrical efforts.
From the record scratch effects which open the lead off track, “Great Expectations” and that songs first verse containing the lyric, “Mary, this station is playing every sad song, I remember like we were alive” through the following track (the title song), which is the best rock song I heard all year which managed to detail a teenage car wreck in a nod to many ‘50s hits without falling flat, on through the backyard romanticism of “Miles Davis and the Cool” to the Springsteen overboard influenced “Meet Me By the River’s Edge,” up to the song Meatloaf wished he could have made (and I mean that in a good way) “The Backseat,” this album is practically flawless. It’s like a successful meld of ‘50s, ‘70s and ‘90s rock filtered through 2008. Nodding to its influences without copying them, borrowing lyrical phrases from greats like Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Counting Crows without pandering, its bar none a sign of the most promising new, young rock band.
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1) The Drive By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

When all was said and done I couldn’t help but keep Brighter Than Creation’s Dark in the top slot. There have been a few close contenders, but overall this album showcases an ever-evolving mature band who are completely in control of their craft. It’s a long album, but it’s void of any filler whatsoever. At 19 tracks it’s one of those few albums that fully utilizes the extra space the CD and MP3 age have added to the possible album length for a band.
You might think it says something of modern music that an album released way back in January maintains it’s validity as “album of the year” into December, but I think it speaks more to the talent and musicianship of the Drive By Truckers. Here’s a band with three different singer-songwriters who all have their moments to shine on the album, and each manages to sound strongly and independently, yet taken all together the various approaches still sound unified. Some may have feared that after Jason Isbell’s departure the band would sag a bit. Isbell was an excellent guitar player and a great singer songwriter. In fact, many of the bands greatest songs came from Isbell– “Outfit” and “Decoration Day,” “Never Gonna Change.” But, DBT were a band long before Isbell and will be long after. Here’s wishing him solo success (and his “Sirens of the Dirt” solo album was good), but DBT have simply moved on and honed what made their earlier and more narrative (less chorus verse chorus Isbell traditional structures) albums work. Ex wife and remaining band member Shonna Tucker steps up to fill Isbell’s vocal and songwriting absence with three tracks of her own o this album: “I’m Sorry Huston,” “Purgatory Line,” and “Homefield Advantage” which are all terrific. Shonna’s tremendous on guitar in her own right as well. Band former and principal songwriter Patterson Hood is at the top of his game with “Righteous Path,” “Two Daughters and a Beautiful wife,” and “That Man I shot.” Mike Cooley is equally strong with “Three Dimes Down,” “Ghost to Most”
Thematically, this DBT album has been called the “soundtrack to the recession,” by a few music critics. There’s a “whole lot of debt and a whole lot of fear,” in contrast to “the need to blow it out on a Saturday night,” in Hood’s “Righteous Path.” There are the wives lonely and missing their husbands who are fighting in the desert. Those husbands are having nightmares of people they shot. “Did he have little ones that he was so proud of, that he won’t see no more? …I was trying to help him, he didn’t want me there.” in “That man I shot,” There are also the characters that DBT are always good at portraying, those small town folks that are everywhere. The aging party girl who “keeps on turnin’ 21,” in “Lisa’s birthday.” The middle-aged single man who lives his own way and seems peculiar to his neighbors in “Bob.’ There’s a moody song about a touring band “who used to be big” but are now just “the opening act,” in “Opening Act.”

Overall, it’s simply one of the strongest albums ever released by one of the absolute best American bands of the past few years. Well written and literate lyrics and excellently played music. DBT toured constantly during 2008, both for promotion of this album with their “The Home Front Tour 2008” and with the Hold Steady in “Rock and Roll Means Well,” and not surprisingly DBT’s live show ranks with the best of 2008 as well. Now is a perfect time to hear what you’ve been missing so pick up the best album released in 2008.

Next up, a much shorter article: The best singles of 2008. Single songs, great ones from albums that didn’t make it onto this list. All forthcoming “Best of 08” lists will be much, much shorter.

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