Year in Review: John Metzger's Top Studio Albums of 2008

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2009, Volume 16, #1

Written by John Metzger

Mon January 26, 2009, 06:30 AM CST

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Another year has come and gone, and sadly, the landscape of the music industry has changed very little. In fact, now that the economy has taken a nosedive, things are bound to get worse before they get much better. When people canít afford to feed their families, pay their rent or their mortgages, or buy clothes, their budget for entertainment typically becomes nonexistent. Of course, with no money to spend on concert tickets or new albums, sales ó which already are plummeting ó begin to decline, leaving labels with no choice but to reduce staff and terminate their contracts with artists in order to consolidate their product lines and boost their net revenue, which is exactly the last thing that the crippled music business needs.

One of the biggest problems that the industry continues to face is the overall quality of the albums it is offering to the public. Each year, it seems as if there are fewer and fewer outings that truly generate excitement aside from within select groups of fans. Part of the reason for this, of course, is how old rock ínĎ roll has become. This, in turn, has made it difficult for artists to discover bold, new ways of expressing themselves. There are, after all, only so many tools in the toolbox.

Another factor that has weighed far more heavily on the music industry, however, is the utter lack of artistic development that has occurred over the past quarter century. Not only are artists expected to produce hits immediately, but they also are supposed to continue to churn them out at alarming rates at the least possible cost. Those who fail rarely are given a second chance, and more effort is made to push them into a mold than to move them forward. This has meant that many acts have never received any sort of guidance or encouragement to think and act on their own. Even within the indie scene, bands create music that is either intentionally difficult or slowly but surely makes concessions toward mainstream acceptance.

Considering that few outfits survive more than 10 years, this may be a product of the business worldís creeping cynicism, as labels cut their losses by refusing to invest in bands that might not stay together long enough to produce huge dividends. The flip side of this, though, is that there arenít very many groups producing cohesive albums that have the staying power of those that were crafted in the late 1960s and early 1970s ó Exile on Main Street, Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, and Highway 61 Revisited, among them.

This doesnít mean that 2008 was devoid of meritorious efforts. Itís telling, however, that the best albums this year were the products of industry veterans. Indeed, the pickings have become few and far between, and increasingly, the archival releases are outshining the newly recorded endeavors. This certainly isnít a cycle in which the music industry wants to become caught for any sort of duration because, quite frankly, it is one that is not terribly sustainable over the long haul.

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Radiohead - In Rainbows

1) Radiohead - In Rainbows

Since its release on January 1, Radioheadís In Rainbows has remained firmly planted at the top of the heap. As unfair as this may seem, it also has been quite helpful in that the outing has provided a solid, early-round point of comparison for everything that was issued in the subsequent 12 months. In terms of sheer creativity, nothing really has come close to touching it, either. To craft In Rainbows, Radiohead picked carefully from the scattered bits and pieces of its prior endeavors. It then reassembled them in ways that not only squeezed new life from its old experiments but also paved a path out of the atmospheric whirlpools of sound in which it seemed to have become caught. Instead of the end of a journey, it is the bold beginning of a fresh adventure. One can only hope Radiohead wonít take quite so long to bring its next album to fruition.

Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8

2) Bob Dylan - Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8

It would be understandable to assume that the story that Tell Tale Signs has to tell is one that traces Bob Dylanís re-emergence as he rediscovered his vision and his focus. As both his arrangements and performances indicate, however, this isnít really the case at all. Dylanís knack for writing songs and delivering them is fully intact throughout the endeavor, and although he was suffering from an identity crisis of sorts in the years prior to the first session featured on Tell Tale Signs, he clearly was back in business well before most people realized it. As it crisscrosses the years that separated Oh, Mercy from Modern Times, it becomes immediately apparent that Dylan is always at his best whenever he can just be himself. There arenít many artists who can pull off a collection like this; then again, there is only one Bob Dylan.

B.B. King - One Kind Favor

3) B.B. King - One Kind Favor

Thereís nothing new whatsoever about B.B. Kingís latest set One Kind Favor. Instead, with the help of producer T Bone Burnett, the octogenarian artist has rediscovered the fountain of his youth. A few tracks boast the murky, atmospheric production style for which Burnett is known. Overall, however, the collection provides a magic carpet ride that winds its way through every blues club and juke joint from Chicago to New Orleans. For all of its simplicity, the blues is not an easy genre to perform. With One Kind Favor, King provides a masterís course in how to get it right.

Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers

4) Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers

These days, more than ever, undue pressure is placed upon new artists to prove their worth immediately, especially if they garner even a glimmer of attention from the mainstream press. Itís no wonder, then, that so few of them survive. After the release of Failer, Kathleen Edwards received so much praise from the alt-country crowd that one had to wonder if sheíd make it to the other side. Although she struggled to find direction on her sophomore set Back to Me, she ultimately took its title to heart. On her latest outing Asking for Flowers, Edwards seems to have realized that the only voice to which she needs to listen is her own. Many fans and critics have compared her work to Lucinda Williams. With Asking for Flowers, she surely has crafted an album that lives up to those high standards.

Alejandro Escovedo - Real Animal

5) Alejandro Escovedo - Real Animal

When he returned from his health crisis with The Boxing Mirror, Alejandro Escovedo understandably was a little rusty. For all of the ambition he and producer John Cale poured into its tracks, the overall effort lacked the confident, emotional punch for which Escovedo was known. On his latest set Real Animal, he is equally introspective. This time, however, his vision is more focused. As he sketches portraits from his life, itís impossible for the listener not to feel as if he is right there with him/her, especially since Escovedo also sets the mood with the kinds of tender ballads and blazing, guitar-driven rock that span both his career and his influences.

Lucinda Williams - Little Honey6) Lucinda Williams - Little Honey

Up until the final moments of West, Lucinda Williams was plunging into the heart of darkness. If there was any doubt about whether or not she would survive her fall into the vortex of her shattered world, the answer can be found in the joyous refrains that fill her latest outing Little Honey. Her innuendo-laden lyrics may be tough for some fans to swallow. To keep everything in perspective, however, Williams merely is paraphrasing the male-dominated world that produced the likes of Willie Dixon, Jim Morrison, and Robert Plant. Over the course of the endeavor, Williams naturally questions the durability of her relationship with her new beau as well as her art, but ultimately, it is the intoxicating way in which she shares her happiness that makes Little Honey so satisfying.

John Mellencamp - Life, Death, Love and Freedom

7) John Mellencamp - Life, Death, Love and Freedom

Life, Death, Love and Freedom is, perhaps, John Mellencampís way of making amends for turning Our Country into an advertisement for Chevy trucks. Or, maybe he has simply realized that while fame and fortune are fleeting, artistic credibility can last for all of eternity. Either way, Life, Death, Love and Freedom is the best album that he has ever made. With the help of T Bone Burnett ó who, incidently ought to have received a Grammy nomination for "Producer of the Year" ó Mellencamp peers into the dark corners of American society and ponders the reasons why those who reside in the countryís small towns have seen their lives fall apart. His goal, however, isnít to place blame, but rather it is to find a way back to the light.

Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis - Two Men with the Blues

8) Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis - Two Men with the Blues

On paper, the idea of the free spirit of Willie Nelson uniting with the discipline of Wynton Marsalis might seem like a recipe for contention and disaster. Over the course of Two Men with the Blues, however, their seemingly opposing personalities actually are proven to be quite complementary. Much as its title suggests, the blues serves as the common denominator for their explorations. Throughout the endeavor, which was culled from a pair of shows at Lincoln Center, Nelson and Marsalis take turns as they bend the material to their whims, essentially tracing the back roads that connect Louisiana to Texas.

Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers

9) Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers

Throughout her solo career, Aimee Mann has examined the dark side of life as well as anyone. Her albums have been filled with character studies that reflect the wreckage left in the wake of poor communication and misguided priorities. Unfortunately, they also have had a tendency to be so gloomily atmospheric that theyíve been difficult for the masses to embrace. With her keen eye, she continues to mine material from the vacuous, superficial environment of southern California on her latest set @#%&*! Smilers. This time, however, she has surrounded her words with music that is unforced and inviting.

Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet

10) Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet - Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet

Aside from Bela Fleck, the members of the Sparrow Quartet arenít exactly household names. Nevertheless, the outfit ó which also features Abigail Washburn, Casey Driessen, and Ben Sollee ó is something of a supergroup. The project was initiated by Washburn who, for some time now, had been attempting to build a sustainable solo career that could hold its own outside the confines of her main gig with Uncle Earl. Constructed initially to support her on a tour of China in 2005, the Sparrow Quartet has since taken on a life of its own. Its self-titled debut is nothing short of astounding as Washburn and her accompanists parlay a mishmash of styles that manages to sound regal without feeling stuffy. One can only hope that a sequel will come sooner rather than later.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Momofuku

11) Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Momofuku

Elvis Costello sometimes has a tendency to think too much about the music he is creating. On his latest set Momofuku, he asked several of his pals to join him and his backing band The Imposters in the studio, where he whipped together an album in a mere nine days. The rapid pace at which he recorded the set worked to his advantage, too. The music on Momofuku is raw and edgy, and it contains a visceral energy that suitably supports his biting lyrics. Not only is the collection more eclectic than his early endeavors, but it also loosens his grip on the overly refined approach he has taken to his latter day efforts.

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For additional information, please also see our other Best of 2008 Lists.

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Of Further Interest...

John Metzger's Top Studio Albums of 2007

Douglas Heselgrave's Top Studio Albums of 2007

Douglas Heselgrave's Top Studio Albums of 2008

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