Sure, 2008 was just 10 years ago, but it feels like another era entirely. Millennials were just emerging as a soon-to-be-maligned cohort. The Obama campaign — and eventual election — had a large chunk of the country hopeful of the future. The subprime crisis and recession had yet to hit in full force. Oh yeah, and “blog rock” was a thing. Boy, was it a thing! All you have to do is look at Pitchfork’s top 10 from that year, which was littered with buzz bands surfaced by snarky wannabe tastemakers. Vampire Weekend, TV On The Radio, Deerhunter, Cut Copy, No Age, and Fleet Foxes were all present. Some of those albums hold up. Some don’t. But regardless of how you feel about vintage Hype Machine charts, there were plenty of worthwhile releases from this year. So following our 1968, 1978, 1988, and 1998 lists, here are the best records of 2008 according to the following record nerds:
Lady Gaga’s debut The Fame is a timeless celebration of hedonism and escapism that altered my understanding of pop music. Cutting underneath the crust of jaggedly intoxicating synths and pulsing dance tempos, The Fame was when consumerist greed was rampant.
From strobe-lit opener Just Dance and the licentious I Like It Rough, to the ultimate summer romance anthem Summerboy, this album was a groovy reminder to embrace a dionysian lifestyle. “I’m addicted to a life of material/It’s some kind of joke/I’m obsessively opposed to the typical,” she sings on the title track. The Fame was a grandiose consumerist retreat, later transforming into a satirical dissertation for American pop culture of the time.
Lady Gaga wasn’t the first to sell electronic dance music as pop to the masses and dominate Top 40 radio, but she did so in a landscape that had ditched that sound for more organic tunes and hip-hop. The singer-songwriter exploded onto the scene in 2008 with her debut single Just Dance, which at the time was a risky decision. But by the end of that year, the world belonged to the woman formerly known as Stefani Germanotta.
The Fame produced four top 10 hits in the US, but more importantly, it changed the direction of pop for years to come. All of a sudden, every star needed an electro banger, and if they wanted to compete, the women in the field had to become more than people — they had to become icons. It became all about looks, drama, theater, and, of course, the fame.
— Hugh McIntyre, Forbes
The finest album of 2008 was helmed by a bunch of teenagers who had no desire to write pop-punk love/hate dichotomies or cherry-pick dusty silverfish-laden Led Zeppelin signifiers. In 2006, These New Puritans, a quartet headed up by brothers George and Jack Barnett, came out of Southend-On-Sea, UK, with nothing more than a seven-inch EP (Now Pluvial) and an endorsement from British darlings The Horrors. They recorded their debut album Beat Pyramid with Gareth Jones (Einstürzende Neubauten, Depeche Mode, Interpol) at the controls, and the result was all of the sonic freedom and possibilities that redefined and rejuvenated post-punk.
You can hear plenty of post-punk milemarkers on TNP’s debut. George Barnett plays drums in slavish dedication to the way Hugo Burnham steered those early Gang Of Four albums (MKK3). Thomas Hein’s low-end frequencies (bass, synth) bring some menace to the proceedings, while Sophie Sleigh-Johnson’s jurisprudence of all things synth and sampling keeps things cliché-free (Costume). Jack Barnett knows how to create a non sequitur as good as prime Mark E. Smith (“We’re being watched by experts” from Elvis) while delivering guitar parts that are jittery (Numbers), cascading (En Papier) and surreptitiously gothic (L.40). There’s even a slight glimpse of pop sensibility (Navigate-Colours) that soon gives way to obtuse vocal layers and jarring rhythms.
On later releases, TNP matured quite quickly, embracing everything from taiko drummers to chamber music scores to foley recording. (Seriously: Let’s see Radiohead bring a falcon into a studio to record its wings in full flight.) But Beat Pyramid’s DNA of inspired electronics, jagged guitars, driving bass lines, military-precision drumming, and Barnett’s lyrical fortitude sharpened the post-punk blade that was rendered dull by uninspired opportunists and assorted music industry marketing agencies. Life is short, and infinity isn’t as fast as you are. Fortunately, there’s still time for you to listen to the best record of 2008.
— Jason Pettigrew, Alternative Press
Metallica has spent much of the last two decades making career misstep after misstep. No band has made more bad decisions and yet still retained the respect and adoration of their fans. Death Magnetic was a glorious exception to this trend, pairing Metallica with career-resurrecting producer Rick Rubin to create a consistent and enjoyable experience, reminiscent of 1986’s Master Of Puppets.
Fans of the band rejoiced their heroes return to form, albeit with slight controversy due to the over-compression of the final product. Find Death Magnetic on vinyl record or the mix used for the Guitar Hero video game, which is far more pleasing than the CD version.
— Nate Goyer, The Vinyl Guide
While mass influence may be its footprint — after all, it did push autotune from party trick to authentic artistic expression — it’d be a mistake to brush past the towering individual achievement that is Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak. A simultaneously gripping and punishing experience, the album is one of this century’s most legitimate representations of internalized trauma.
Most eloquently, he wrestles with fame across the 11 tracks, from Welcome To Heartbreak and its musings on the effects of that pursuit (“Chased the good life my whole life long/Look back on my life and my life gone/Where did I go wrong?”) to Street Lights and its exploration of self-growth in the midst of an existential cab ride (“Seems like street lights, glowing, happen to be/Just like moments, passing, in front of me…See I know my destination, but I’m just not there”).
Its reputation was further enhanced by its golden-era placing within the West discography (the album run of 808s, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus might be the century’s best), but we must be careful to not simply award it with the “influential” moniker. Separate of those conversations, it’s a landmark release from an in-his-prime artistic force.
— Chris Lantinen, Modern Vinyl
If I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face or What It’s Like were released as singles, either song would qualify as the best record of 2008. The fact that both are on one record — alongside a handful of other serious folk pop bangers and nary a filler track — means this collection of previously-unreleased material from Arthur Russell is head and shoulders above anything else that saw the light of day that year.
The Audika label deserves unceasing praise for methodically releasing otherwise-unheard material from the classically-trained cellist turned underground dance paragon. I’m just waiting for them to properly issue Russell’s collaboration with Vin Diesel. Yes, it is a real thing…
— Sean Cannon, Discogs
Having released 10 full-length studio albums in eight years, the LA troubadour was as prolific as he was seemingly unlucky in love. Cardinology continued on a running theme of broken hearts.
Only someone with Ryan Adams’ impressive celebrity dating record could lament on his failed relationships with the New York glitterati: ‘I always pause if I can on Fifth Avenue/Look uptown with my head in the stars.’ He has since commented that although this was a difficult period of disappointment, he tried to inject a glimmer of hope to give people strength in similar situations, ‘And I always win in the end.’
Although his work in the latter Lost Highway years divided his fans in equal measure, for me, it marked a return to the quality of his Love Is Hell country rock years with strong songwriting, hooky melody and a sense of reflection.
Within the wider body of work, the record seems to capture a feeling of transition with the sound still hinting at his past glories, but also foreshadowing the quality of material to come on future albums like Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams, and Prisoner where he solidified his matured sound on his own label, PAX AM.
— Alison Zak-Collins, The Vinyl District
Brightblack Morning Light essentially have one song—but lord have mercy, what a wondrous song it is. Their third album, Motion To Rejoin, finds singers/multi-instrumentalists Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes continuing to hone their slow-music formula to a sublime burnish. Generally speaking, the nine songs here creep in on worn-out moccasins, emit a holy glow, and slouch into a groove akin to Dr. John’s Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya on Quaaludes. Nay and Ray croon as if trying not to wake a baby in the next room — a vocal style that perfectly melts into the molasses-y ASMR-rock they summon.
As with Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, faint glimmers of cool jazz seep into BML’s hazy, nocturnal soundworld; the bass part in Oppressions Each even recalls Cecil McBee’s resonant, majestic motif on Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda. Yeah, that’s the kind of hallowed ground upon which BML tread.
Ultimately, Motion To Rejoin ranks as one of the greatest records to play first thing in the morning or last thing at night. It’s at once one of the most calming LPs in rock — and one of its most sensual.
— Dave Segal, The Stranger
Early in their career, Coldplay dabbled in hip electronic influences: The 2005 single Talk interpolated Kraftwerk’s Computer Love, while Röyksopp added digital sparkle to a remix of Clocks. However, teaming up with Brian Eno for Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends was even more inspired.
The electro-ambient wizard added his usual atmospheric shimmers and pushed Coldplay to explore new sonic vistas, which leads to the band’s most satisfying music to date. Yes morphs from sinewy, electric violin-swirled rock into a foggy shoegaze gem called Chinese Sleep Chant; Strawberry Swing is dewy soul-pop; and Viva La Vida is a pulsating march soaring with pizzicato strings.
Before Kirin J Callinan embarked on his career as a partially-nude solo artist, he stood alongside Thom Moore, Ash Moss and Julian Sudek in one of Sydney’s most-hyped indie rock bands of the mid-’00s, Mercy Arms. Having only ever released one full-length album, the project was a short-lived one. However, I consistently find myself returning to that one album, even a decade removed from its release.
From the dreamy croon and flailing guitar tones on Down Here So Long to the frantic, psychobilly-tinged madness of Shine A Light, Mercy Arms’ self-titled debut is a bombardment of atmospheric noise from start to finish. It’s rare to see a band settle on such a terrific sound so early in their career, but Mercy Arms did exactly that. The year 2008 was crowded with average Australian indie releases, so perhaps it’s only retrospectively that we can sift through the mediocrity and properly appreciate an album like Mercy Arms.
— Bill Robinson, Happy Mag
I spent most of 2008 in the back of vans, crossing three different continents, and on every one of them, being absolutely wide-eyed at how damn impressive Modey Lemon was on my iPod. With Phil Boyd’s Townsend-worthy power chords from on high, Paul Quattrone’s relentless attack on drums and Jason Kirker’s mastery of everything in between, I still cannot understand why this band was not the biggest thing in the world.
Season Of Sweets and The Birth Of Jazz are separate, but are both mind-melters and were released the same year, so they stick together in my mind. Rainbow Beard alone is worth the price of admission. Proof positive that guitar-based rock and roll can still push boundaries and uniquely forge new ground. I miss this band terribly.
— Ben Blackwell, Third Man Records