Top 25 Albums of 2008

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Jan 2 2009, 16h56

25. Coldplay - Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
Coldplay are, possibly, the biggest musical act in the world at the moment, but luckily for them, their biggest album to date is also easily their best. The influences- from The Beatles to whatever modern electronica Chris Martin listens to- are painted as obviously over this record as the Delacroix painting is on the coverart, but it still makes for a thrilling meld of sounds that continue the catchy, effervescent feel of their best singles.
Essential track: Strawberry Swing

24. Jesse McCartney - Departure
Believe me when I say I'm as surprised as you that McCartney has ended up on this list- before 2008 I'd never even heard of the guy. You could call him a Justin Timberlake wannabe, but McCartney blends JT's slick electric rhythms with pounding R'n'B sounds and some of the catchiest pop imaginable. All this comes to a climax in Relapse, which has a double chorus Girls Aloud would be proud of and so memorable a beat you'll be humming it in your sleep.
Essential track: Relapse

23. Joan as Police Woman - To Survive
Joan Wasser's music is by turns delicate and fierce, her piano wrapping the listener in dark, unfamiliar worlds, her breathy, hard-edged vocals swooping over the melodies to occasionally entice cheerfulness, but largely adding to the unnerving quality of it all. Her sophomore effort is not always effective- usually when she turns upbeat- but in its bedraggled, bittersweet moments its highly affecting.
Essential track: To Survive

22. Bloc Party - Intimacy
Bloc Party's third album is by most accounts their worst, but this is by no means to damn it. Perhaps both the guitar and Kele Okereke's vocals tend too much towards the screechy, but Bloc Party have become expert at finding beauty in their eclectic instrumentality- see the xylophone-dominated Signs
- as well as mining their brains for electric rock dance hooks.
Essential track: Signs

21. Estelle - Shine
Estelle's re-emergence via producer John Legend seems retrospectively to only really have produced success through massive, Kanye West-featuring single American Boy, but artistically, it also gave the world a really rather good album. Shine is very American in its polished mixture of r'n'b and reggae grooves, but Estelle is one artist who doesn't let the producer steal her album: her very British lyrics and vocals make this album a funky TransAtlantic success, a joyous anthem to summer.
Essential track: Magnificent

20. Britney Spears - Circus (Deluxe Edition)
Circus is not the cohesive, floorfiller album that Blackout was, but, in a way, that's what makes it better than that predecessor (and the best album of her career to date). You can still dance - or, in the case of lead single Womanizer, strut - for a while, but you can also ponder over the low-key beauty of Unusual You or jingle along to Amnesia or be baffled by the riotous 'Mannequin' or chill out to the aptly-titled Blur. In short, this album has something for everyone.
Essential track: Unusual You

19. Van She - V
This year, Australia proved themselves to be the Kings of Electronica, and Van She are but the first example of this. Tending more to guitar-based rhythms than some of their contemporaries, the band nevertheless provide some emphatic, electrifying melodies, and, in Strangers and Kelly, two of the year's most thrilling choruses.
Essential track: Strangers

18. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes' smooth, folksy melodies make for a very distinctive album, and it's easy to see why they've been one of the year's most trumpeted newcomers. Just by their very titles they conjure up images of rolling green hills and swooping birds over blue chalk cliffs- that is, a complete contrast to the microchip metropolises of my favoured electronica. Gentle, moving and relaxing, it demands not backgrounding but rapt attention.
Essential track: Your Protector

17. Grace Jones - Hurricane
Grace's long-awaited return to music is the culmination of nineteen years worth of work, and it's practically engraved with her history and personality. The history of music, too- the robotic androgyny of her peak period in the '80s, reggae from her Jamaican roots, modern electronica, and even gospel chorusing. It's all tied together by the sheer force of Grace herself, and her powerful, emotional, utterly unique vocalizations.
Essential track: Devil in My Life

16. The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of the Understatement
Did anyone expect Alex Turner's side-project to be so massively successful? But this throwback to bombastic, orchestral epicity of the 1960s is as vital and exciting as any release this year. Turner and Miles Kane throw shades of unnerving psychadelica alongside their percussive melodies and colour in all in striking black-and-white- well, it would be if it were a film. Bond, anyone?
Essential track: Standing Next to Me

15. Friendly Fires - Friendly Fires
Their videos show them to be a bit too self-consciously hipsterish and wacky in their mix of electronica and rock, but for the most part this works very well for their stridently confident music, kicking off with ghostly chants and xylophonic madness in Jump in the Pool (with a beautiful electric guitar solo) and threading all the way through to cowbells in White Diamonds and Goldfrappian synths on Strobe.
Essential track: White Diamonds

14. Ladytron - Velocifero
A mesmirising, mystical approximation of 60s psychadelica through modern synths and computerized beats, Ladytron's fourth album easily emerges as their best yet, the silky, ethereal vocals of Helen Marnie (as well as the occasional appearance of the Bulgarian voice of Mira Aroyo) sliding against the sometimes beautiful, sometimes violent beats, creating a nighttime experience you can both dance and cry to. At once.
Essential track: Tomorrow

13. Lykke Li - Youth Novels
I'll admit it. When I first came across Lykke Li, I merely thought of her as a Bjork-imitator. But something - even if just the beauty of opening track Melodies & Desires - made me stick with her, and I quickly discovered that she's really nothing like Bjork at all. Vocally they may bear similarity, but Li is much softer, much gentler, and if that makes her sound weaker it's not meant to. Bjork goes for the jugular, wowing you with her inventiveness- Li winds her way in through your body, her measured, steady stylizations seeping in under your skin.
Essential track: Melodies & Desires

12. Scarlett Johansson - Anywhere I Lay My Head
Johansson's musical debut- a collection of Tom Waits covers- has the production laid on in generous spoonfuls, and her Nico-esque vocals crawling underneath it like someone yelling from a distant mountain-top. And yet, it works. The production cracks in its smooth, sticky overbearingness and threads the songs together to create an immersive experience, while the instrumentality makes it sound like Scarlett's hosting a jamboree. Perhaps the weirdest, yet most effective, album of 2008.
Essential track: I Don't Wanna Grow Up

11. The Presets - Apocalypso
More Australian electronica, this time heavy on the electric. But The Presets sophomore effort doesn't feel like its all come from a microchip, because the vocals are laden with emotion (mostly sadness, I must say), the rushing rhythms pulse through the body so that dancing feels like it's a compulsion, a necessity. This is music from a DJ who's just had his heart shattered into twenty million pieces.
Essential track: This Boy's In Love

10. Brandy - Human
Brandy's had a tough few years, so it's wonderful to see her return with a record that's not only so strong- her most consistent to date, perhaps?- but so heartfelt and hopeful. Human might seem a trite title, but it's perhaps the only one that would make sense- Brandy's experiences are those of a woman whose entire worldview has been questioned, and the music bespeaks this reevaluation in all her relationships- even with her producer, Rodney Jerkins, who is name-checked on the marvellous Piano Man. A triumphant return.
Essential track: 1st and Love

09. Girls Aloud - Out of Control
I won't deny that Out of Control is a bit of letdown, but considering it comes after the already-classic Tangled Up it could hardly have been anything else. This is the Aloud still with their trademark eccentricity of lyric, soup of styles and catchiness of hooks, only with a few lapses in quality and a slightly lessened injection of personality. But that doesn't stop things like six-minute epic Untouchable and the farm animal noises of Live in the Country from quickening your pulse.
Essential track: Untouchable

08. Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim
Singer-songwriter acousticity isn't something that usually captures my attention, but the young (only 19!) Laura Marling can't help but catch the ear. The voice is a thing of delicate, wise beauty, the lyrics witty, sharp and clever, and the production soft and charming without tending towards the preciousness it could easily have strayed into. What's more, the album feels like a cohesive effort without ever repeating itself. Superb.
Essential track: Night Terror

07. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
There's something so soulful in these synth-laden rhythms, the looping beats, that yet again demonstrates that electronica is not hollow microchip music but thrilling, beautiful, heartfelt, truly human music, connecting at once to the mind and the body. When Cut Copy get it right- as they do all over their second terrific album- they create songs that stream so quickly through the brain that your foot is tapping before you realise it.
Essential track: Far Away

06. Solange - Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams
Solange showed up her more famous sister this year by producing a record not only laden with lashes of personality, but an inventiveness and forward-thinking attitude her sibling could only dream of. Her second album may join the trend of mining the 1960s, but Solange is mining her past- her own family's heritage, her own memories of music. The tambourine rhythms, the brassy trumpeting, the Supremes-esque vocalizations- all feel so much more vital and pleasing because you know they come from Solange herself.
Essential track: Cosmic Journey

05. Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke
In terms of '80s throwbacks, you're not going to find much better than New Zealand's Pip Brown. Her debut album is an exhilirating mix of her Antipodeon fellows' electronic synths and the best of British pop music, all lorded over by her Stevie Nicks-like vocals and her intricate, emotional lyrics.
Essential track: My Delirium

04. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Hyped and then hated, Vampire Weekend remained for me an utter delight- their debut is a concise, thrilling concuction, the rare addition of violin shooting their music with an excited, youthful spirit that makes for a jolting, pulsing listen. Ezra Koenig's vocals lord over it all, crowing his marvellous hipster lyrics with a sizzling joie-de-vivre.
Essential track: M79

03. Santogold - Santogold
Vomiting gold glitter- as Santi White does on her coverart- is probably the best description for her music you're going to find. How else to explain the frankly bizarre cocophany of sounds, the mesmirising poppiness of what Santi comes up with? Her vocals- throaty, vibrant and adaptable- are just as odd ball as all her instruments and sound effects. Utterly unique.
Essential track: Anne

02. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular
Screeching synths, falsetto vocals, crashing drums- MGMT could have gone so terribly wrong. And yet everything coheres so perfectly on this, their major label debut, from the psychadelic pop of their beloved singles to the other, more loopy tracks found within. The album opens with a joyous warmth, an excited squeal of electronica, and delves into darkness and the creeping depths of the flipside of those zooming colours.
Essential track: Of Moons, Birds & Monsters

01. Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel
This utterly bonkers debut- using everything from tribal drums to a sound effect of Sooty's friend Sweep (and that's just on one song!)- was unrivalled for its inventiveness, its eclecticity and its youthful eccentricity. This is music unfettered by requirements or traditions- just fresh lunacy, strange sounds and delightful, uncompromising suprises. A towering achievement all the more towering because that's never what it was intended to be- and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.
Essential track: Focker

Postscript:

Almost a full year later and, while I'm happy with the list generally, it would be shuffled a little, and there are two albums that inexplicably missed the list altogether. Point 1: Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreaks would easily break the top ten. An indulgent, self-pitying album for sure, but one I can identify with and one that is frequently extremely moving. (Your essential track: the creepy, majestic 'See You In My Nightmares'.) Point 2: M83's Saturdays=Youth is another egregious omission, which would also probably make the top ten. The last track - the insanely overlong and dull 'Midnight Souls Still Remain' - sullies the supreme beauty and ethereal texture of what came before but if we ignore it, it's a superb achievement. (Essential track: 'You, Appearing'.)

Look out for this year's lists, which are proving a hard task - 2008 was a superb year and 2009 outstrips it by an enormous margin. Pray for me as I pour over iTunes playlists.

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