Top 10 Albums of 2008

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When I was interviewing Pitchfork Media critic Marc Hogan for the arts blog, I asked him if this year had been any different from (read: weaker than) other years. After some hesitation, he replied, "It's been a weird year." Truer words have never been spoken.

2008 was a rough year for music critics in general. In comparison to last year, we had few releases to obsess over and we ended up sounding like bitter, friendless music elitists a lot of the time. But 2008 did have a silver lining: It allowed us the opportunity to find and highlight the 10 truly most astonishing, innovative or unique albums of the year.

From the dynamic DJ and singer who round out our list to the Japanese genius who sits at number one, this top 10 reflects the diverse tastes of The Daily Californian's arts staff and represents 2008 as we saw it.

Of course, we weren't able to listen to every album or watch every film this year. So tell us what you think we should have included in today's Top 10 Albums of 2008 and Monday's Top 10 Films of 2008 at [email protected], and we'll print the results on Monday, Dec. 8.

-Rajesh Srinivasan

1. Shugo Tokumaru: Exit

Everybody has that one douchey friend who insists that some obscure Icelandic indie-electroclash-shoegaze band is so much better than that mainstream crap everyone enjoys. It might seem like we're being that douchey friend by naming Shugo Tokumaru's way-out-of-left-field Exit the best album of 2008.

But we didn't pick Exit for hipster brownie points. The truth is that Shugo's music was by far the most original, whimsically mesmerizing and downright endearing music of the year. Shugo deftly takes traditional pop structures and melodies and subverts them. His unparalleled musical landscape is populated with dissonances that shouldn't work, arrangements so dense they should fall apart and instrumentation so odd that it should stumble over itself; yet everything works with seeming effortlessness. His Japanese-language, bedroom-recorded tunes are the perfect blend of catchiness and complexity. This is one time when you should heed your douchey friend's advice.

-David Wagner

2. Portishead: Third

After a decade-long hiatus, Portishead emerged with an expansive and confined sound. Beth Gibbons' voice, combined with industrial instrumentation, makes for an album swathed in urgency, beauty and claustrophobia. Her vocals buckle and strain under the staccato of "Machine Gun" and create a slow menace in "Hunter." Her helplessness and the abject uncertainty when she sings, "My thoughts are taken over" feel a little familiar. It embodies loneliness, a dread that settles in and refuses to lift. But rather than repel listeners with distilled emotion, Third is mesmerizing.

-Alina Xu

3. TV on the Radio: Dear Science

You could have expected a bit of a slump after 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain, but TV on the Radio's latest doesn't come close to disappointment.

The songs are epic and majestic, but there's something else in Dear Science. It could be Tunde Adebimpe's perfectly orchestrated voice or even his lyrical star quality or the cosmic reaches that the band's guitars find on the album. But it's the percussion that ultimately sparks the album and drives the group to new heights.

TV on the Radio wrote a masterpiece with Dear Science that doesn't need much of a postscript except this: Expect even better stuff from Brooklyn soon.

-Derek Sagehorn

4. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes

While other indie bands salute music's rebellious and grungy past, Fleet Foxes remember its virtue in their self-titled debut album. Reminiscent of Appalachian folklore, the Foxes romanticize the organic old world. Driven by acoustic guitars, the pulsing and breathtaking core is the a cappella work. The melodic bursts of sweet harmonies and wide-open crescendos conjure images of the picturesque country-rising suns, wood clearings and quiet clapboard barns. "White Winter Hymnal," with its lush melodies, is a rustic American gem that pays tribute to the rich and wistful days of yore. The Foxes' brand of rustic folk rock of razor sharp harmonies is here to stay.

-Amanda Bao

5. Deerhunter: Microcastle

With an Atlas Sound release already under his belt in 2008, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox decided to really outdo himself and release Microcastle, a phenomenal work that's gripping, majestic and immediately addictive. Everything is on the mark on this album, from the breathy, soft vocals to the edgy guitars and background ambience. There is no true centerpiece either, making Microcastle one of those rare democratic listens in which each song holds its own weight. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album is in the band's philosophy: In a year when few artists found themselves taking steps forward, Deerhunter was leaping ahead. -Rajesh Srinivasan

6. The Cool Kids: The Bake Sale

The most fun juxtaposition of the year, the Cool Kids catapulted from obscurity to indie-stardom with the help of 2008's blogs and 1988's beats. In an age full of auto-tune and synths, The Bake Sale proves simple works wonders. Between minimal drum loops and straightforward bass lines, the Kids rap about Sega, "Star Wars" and their kicks without taking anything too seriously. Avoiding rap cliches, the EP brings to mind hip-hop's early days without entirely copping anything. When they drop, "Just a F.Y.I / I'm F-L-Y / and for those who can't spell / I'm a pretty swell guy" at the album's two-minute mark, it's hard to disagree.

-Bryan Gerhart

7. Hercules and Love Affair: Hercules and Love Affair

More of a musical side project than a proper band, Hercules and Love Affair's freshman album combines drony electronic beats with disco symphonies and some live instrumentation. The album oscillates between playful ruminations about Greek folklore ("Athene") and piercing love songs ("Time Will").

The standout track is "You Belong," a weighty lament about romantic unavailability. Not the type of sentiment that you'd expect from a dance track, but the beat is as effective as the lyrics are affecting. Antony Hegarty in particular lends the band vocal depth as well as lyrical complexity. A welcome relief from the idle chorus of dance pop lyrics.

-Ariel Raz

8. Coldplay: Viva La Vida

Coldplay's follow-up to their disappointing 2005 release, X&Y, explores some uncharted sonic territory. From the garage rock of "Violet Hill" to the upbeat folk of "Strawberry Swing," Coldplay displays impressive versatility. Chris Martin no longer dominates-but it's a welcome change. His breathy voice blends well with outstanding efforts from guitarist Jonny Buckland and drummer Will Champion, both more prominent here than on past Coldplay outputs. The drumming transforms the best songs into surprisingly danceable boogies. It's an album full of unforeseen delights, offering something new with each successive listen.

-Nick Moore

9. Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III

While not the rap album to end all rap albums, Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III is still a carnival of a listen. The album is a stylistic kaleidoscope, with Wayne's gritty voice accompanying catchy, diverse samples. Look past the hits like "Lollipop" and "A Milli" and delight in the real treasures: the Jay-Z-blessed "Mr. Carter," easy-going "Comfortable" and out-of-character, sincere "Shoot Me Down." It's such an engrossing experience that only when you finish the album do you realize that Lil Wayne might just be the greatest thing to happen to mainstream hip-hop in a long while.

-Rajesh Srinivasan

10. Santogold & Diplo: Top Ranking

If Santogold's hyped release was an effort at breaking down boundaries, the Santogold vs. Diplo mixtape is a musical blender that pushes genre-bending a step further in a year where chimerical mash-up acts broke names like Girl Talk and Mark Ronson to the public. Formally titled Top Ranking, the dual effort-consisting of 35 jams-boasts previously unreleased material from Santogold, along with old-school punk goodies, gutter grime and hip-hop throwdown. The effort is a hot mess, innovative for its genre crossovers and spectrum-spanning variance that Diplo pulls together with pizzazz.

-Danica Li


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