That’s right, it’s time for me to express my nerdiness in all its fully-formed glory via a top ten list. This was a down year for me musically in the sense that I did not a get a chance to buy a lot of stuff that I am sure is quite good. However, I did manage to get a goodly amount of brand-spanking-new music this year, and I liked a great deal of it. To that end, I present my ten favorite albums of 2008.
1. Fire Songs – The Watson Twins: It makes me really proud to have a Louisville group on top here. Though, truthfully, I had no idea they were from Louisville until well after Cate bought the album. Yeah, that’s another thing. My number one album this year came via my wife. Times change. Anyway, this album is fantastic. The song writing is varied and interesting, and they have a really wonderful sound that is familiar without being derivative. It’s a wonderful slightly rockin’ singer-songwriter album. And man, they sing some sweet harmonies. I’m a sucker for good harmony. This is a 5 star album to me. Stand out tracks: “How Am I to Be” and “Dig a Little Deeper”
2. A Piece of What You Need – Teddy Thompson: Honestly, I could have put this at number one, and I might have if it wasn’t for the fact that a few years ago he put out Separate Ways, which was also unbelievably fantastic, and shares a lot, sonically, with this album. Also, I love Teddy Thompson, but he has such an unfair advantage. I mean, when Richard and Linda Thompson are your parents, how can you be anything other than brilliant. Anyway, I will say that “What’s This?!!” is probably my favorite song of the year: “What’s this, what’s this?/Oh shit, oh shit/Am I happy or something?” That’s gold. Other standouts: “Things I Do” and “Jonathan’s Book”.
3. One Kind Favor – B.B. King: “There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you/One kind favor I’ll ask of you/There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you/See that my grave is kept clean.” These are lyrics from the Blind Lemon Jefferson song that opens the album and from which the title is taken. King has not put out a good solo album for a long time. Makin’ Love Is Good for You is the last thing that wasn’t entirely throw-away (excluding a collaboration with Clapton). His last few albums have been extremely disappointing, but he seems to have done something different here. Bringing in T-Bone Burnett to produce certainly helped; the sound is much leaner than other recent King albums, but more importantly, he seems to acknowledge, finally, that he is one the downward side of life. This is an album by a man facing and contemplating death. He does it well. He sings and plays with passion. There is no show in this album, and even though it’s all covers, it feels much more genuine than anything he’s put out in years. Standout Tracks: “See that My Grave is Kept Clean”, “Get These Blues Off Me”.
4. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis: I actually got this for Cate for Christmas, but it’s fantastic. Lewis does the horse-trot country-rock thing really well. Excellently arranged and well written songs. I’m still getting to know this album, but I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. Standout Tracks: “Black Sand”, “Bad Man’s World”, “Trying My Best to Love You”.
5. Guitars – McCoy Tyner: This album and the next two are virtually tied in my mind. Tyner wins the tie-breaker because he’s been here then longest and is still trying new things. On this album he collaborates with five guitar players: Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Bill Frisell, and Bela Fleck. Tyner has never recorded with guitarists before, which is remarkable given that his career is more than 50 years old. The whole album is just the best kind of jazz. It’s complex and strange and easily accessible all at the same time. I absolutely love it. Standout Tracks: “Passion Dance” (w/Ribot), “Blues on the Corner” (w/Scofield), and “Greensleeves” (w/Trucks).
6. Volume One – She & Him: Normally, it’s a terrible idea for actors to make albums, but Zooey Deschanel is REALLY good. This is such a fun little album. It has a great sixties lounge kind of feel. All of the songs are singable, and the two covers reinterpret the songs enough that they sound almost new (which is quite remarkable ona song like “You Really Got a Hold on Me”). M. Ward does a great job supplementing her with bakcing vocals, guitar, and production. Standout Tracks: “Sentimental Heart”, “This is Not a Test”, and “Take It Back”
7. Rockferry – Duffy: Man, I wanted to hate this album. I heard a bunch about it, and it seemed like she was getting the standard girl-pop-star promotion bullshit, but this is just a wonderful album. If you ever wondered what it would sound like for a Welsh girl to sing Stax/Motown songs, here’s your chance. I know that sounds likea bad idea, but it really works, and she has a fantastic voice. I hope she keeps this up. Stand out tracks: “Warwick Avenue”, “Stepping Stone”, “Mercy”.
8. Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings – Counting Crows: I am pretty sure Adam Duritz is going slowly insane. It took several years to make this album, and by all accounts it was a struggle pretty much the whole way. However, he is still a hell of a lyricist and the acoustic-electric juxtaposition works very well here when it has failed in many other places. I continue to think that the Counting Crows are an extremely underrated act. Standout Tracks: “Los Angeles”, “Washington Square”, and “When I Dream of Michelangelo”.
9. Seeing Things – Jakob Dylan: I suppose, it is always obvious to try and compare him to his dad, but Jakob really, really reminds me of an acoustic Springsteen on this album. There is the same working-man’s plight vibe to this album and many of the melodic phrasings also feel lifted from Springsteen. He definitely got the song-writing gene from his dad, good lyrics all around. Standout Tracks: “All Day and All Night” and “Everybody Pays as They Go”
10. Where the Light Is – John Mayer: I am a sucker for live guitar albums and this is an excellent one. John Mayer probably should have come of age in the sixties. If he had, he’d probably more fulfilled creatively and more accalimed critically. His throw-away hits keep him underrated as a song writer, but he really is fantastic and has a wonderfully intimate knowledge of his instrument. Standout Tracks: “Daughters”, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”, and “Gravity”.
Honorable Mentions: Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst: Good, but just not as good as the other albums I listed. Plus, he’s so damn pretentious. It bugs me.
Skin Deep – Buddy Guy: Good, solid, enjoyable elctric blues, just not quite up to the considerable standard he has set for himself. The title track is beyond terrible.
Most Disappointing/Worst Album of the Year: Evil Urges – My Morning Jacket: I loved Z. Loved it. But fuck, this is terrible. Jim James needs someone to tell him no. I’ve never had a band go from an automatic buy to “I have to hear a lot of good things before I’ll even think about it” so quickly. Even the songs that actually sound like My Morning Jacket are mediocre. Worst track: “Highly Suspicious”