[Note: This is the first in a series of articles that constitute Village Voice Media's year-end music package. The others - pop, indie-rock, dance mixes, Latin, country, alt-country/Americana, metal, rap/hip-hop and special graphics breaking down the year in charts and 2008's worst lyrics - will be posted on Rocks Off throughout the rest of the holiday season.]
It's time to rank the best of what went around and came around again.
BILLY JOEL The Stranger (Columbia/Legacy) As punk and disco exploded, the Piano Man's deeply unhip 1978 breakthrough proved that top-shelf Broadway/Brill Building songwriting could still sell - and, occasionally, rock. "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and "Anthony's Song (Movin' Out)" remain priceless snapshots of Annie Hall-era NYC, the title track bares real teeth, and the Kenny Chesney fave "Only the Good Die Young" - banned from several college-radio stations for its unseemly insinuations about Catholic schoolgirls - is still a corker.
Extras: Complete June 1977 Carnegie Hall concert; DVD of Joel's March 1978 appearance on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test; thirty-minute making-of doc and facsimile of his lyric sketchbook, scratch-outs and all.
WILLIE NELSON Stardust (Columbia/Legacy) Nelson's 1978 dunking of the Great American Songbook into his whiskey river, with producer Booker T. Jones riding soulful shotgun, shattered all sorts of precedents. It gave Irving Berlin ("Blue Skies") and Hoagy Carmichael ("Georgia on My Mind") their first number-one country hits, proved record-buyers wouldn't blanch at long-haired rednecks covering Duke Ellington and Kurt Weill (more than five million copies sold) and set the tone for this year's stellar Wynton Marsalis Quartet collaboration, Two Men With the Blues.
Extras: A complete second disc of Stardust outtakes, wherein Nelson unleashes trusty acoustic guitar Trigger on "What a Wonderful World," "Stormy Weather," "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and more.
NEW ORDER Movement; Power, Corruption & Lies; Low-Life; Brotherhood; Technique (London/Warner Bros./Rhino) No one could have imagined that the surviving members of goth progenitors Joy Division would soon become the finest fusers of post-punk and dance music to date -- probably least of all Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris themselves. Enlisting Morris's keyboardist girlfriend (and later wife) Gillian Gilbert, New Order moved steadily toward peppy pop on its first five LPs but, as later tracks like "Vanishing Point" lay plain, never quite shed the darkness of its tragic beginnings.
Extras: Since so many of New Order's best songs -- "Temptation," "Blue Monday," "True Faith" -- were released as singles only, few bands are better suited to Rhino's two-disc "deluxe edition" treatment. Remixes galore, too.
ROY ORBISON The Soul of Rock and Roll (Columbia/Legacy) Three separate versions of "Oh, Pretty Woman" appear on this four-disc salute to one of pop's most otherworldly voices. That 1964 smash may have overshadowed Orbison's impressive oeuvre ("Mean Woman Blues"), but mostly The Soul sets things to rights, spanning the West Texas rockabilly balladeer's early demos with the Teen Kings and Wink Westerners through the Traveling Wilburys and near-death triumphs "You Got It" and the k.d. lang duet "Crying."
Extras: Testimonials by Sun Records' Sam Phillips, Tom Petty, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Tom Waits, Dolly Parton, Lemmy and Bono, who says, "Roy Orbison is now coming back into focus as an innovator of pop music." Did he ever leave?
R.E.M. Murmur (Universal) Few albums have ever triggered a sea change in rock and roll with more authority and fewer decipherable lyrics than R.E.M.'s 1983 debut. Reaching back to the Byrds, Peter Buck's paisley guitar parts provide the pop counterbalance to Michael Stipe's kudzu poetry - even today, only he probably knows what he was singing about. One-in-a-million opener "Radio Free Europe" remains the pick of the litter, but "Moral Kiosk" and "Catapult" aren't far behind, and the dusky "Perfect Circle" presages Automatic for the People by a decade.
Extras: 1983 live disc from Toronto fleshes out Murmur with Chronic Town strays ("Gardening at Night") and soon-to-be Reckoning standouts ("Harborcoat").
THE SMITHS The Sound of the Smiths (Sire/Rhino) Considering the vast influence the Smiths continue to exert, Morrissey probably had no idea how prescient he was being when he wrote 1987's "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish." Or maybe he did; he notes elsewhere on this comprehensive singles comp that "These Things Take Time." Regardless, nobody ever mined the depths of misery with more acerbic wit than le Moz, and few (if any) have ever redefined the limits of rock guitar more thoroughly than his nemesis/muse Johnny Marr. Hand in glove, indeed.
Extras: Live, demo and alternate versions of all manner of raincoat classics: "How Soon Is Now?" "This Charming Man," "Pretty Girls Make Graves," etc.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Never Ever Land (Charly) Thanks to International Artists Records, Houston was psych-rock's humid petri dish when the Grateful Dead was still picking out bluegrass covers. Released on Dutch label Charly, Never Ever Land bolsters IA's LSD-laced hits (13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me"; Bubble Puppy's "Hot Smoke & Sassafras") with pre-punk blasts from long-gone Thursday's Children, bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins and the Coastliners, also known as the "Gulf Coast Beach Boys."
Extras: England's Dreaming author Jon Savage's 1980 interview with late IA boss and self-admitted square peg Lelan Rogers, also Kenny's older brother.
HANK WILLIAMS SR. The Unreleased Recordings (Time Life) Fifty-five years after his famous prediction that he'd never get out of this world alive came true, and a decade after Mercury's mislabeled ten-disc boxed set The Complete Hank Williams, somehow the Lonesome Drifter keeps moanin' the blues. Equally split between sin and salvation, Unreleased reveals, among other things, that Willie Nelson was hardly the first to record "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Conclusive evidence that Hank Sr. is the Tupac of country music.
Extras: Not much, save an explanatory essay by Williams's daughter Jett on how these songs sat in the vault for so long. Unsurprisingly, lawyers were involved.
ZZ TOP Eliminator (Warner Bros.) Old fogies might insist that 1973's Tres Hombres is the Little Ol' Band from Texas's finest hour, but for my $24.98, it's Eliminator. Determined to force its ribald roadhouse blues into the arena of Blondie and Duran Duran, ZZ Top delivered a tour de force that swirls deep-fried Tex-Mex boogie ("Gimme All Your Lovin'"), swampy Southern strangeness ("TV Dinners") and devil-may-care double entendres ("Got Me Under Pressure") into one of the defining albums of the 1980s - one that's still got plenty of, well, "Legs."
Extras: Five live cuts, the rubbery "Legs" remix and DVD with those iconic hot-rod videos and a sharp-dressed four-song set from the BBC's The Tube.
DELICIOUS VINYL ALL-STARS Rmxxology Deluxe Edition (Delicious Vinyl) Founded in 1987, L.A. label Delicious Vinyl was first among equals when it came to radio-friendly rap: Tone Loc, Young MC, Masta Ace. Rmxxology gives the greatest-hits concept a novel spin, enlisting some of today's leading decknicians to feast on the DV buffet: Pink Enemy turns Brand New Heavies' positivity anthem "Never Stop" into glitzy electro; Hot Chip applies pastoral synth to the Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By"; and Peaches inserts her potty mouth into Tone Loc's "Wild Thing," making an ideal bathroom-quickie backing track.
Extras: Bonus disc of mostly instrumental remixes and a few undoctored originals: "Wild Thing," Young MC's "Know How," etc.
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AC/DC Black Ice (Columbia) Yeah, yeah, Black Ice is technically a new album, and it even shows up on our Top 10 Metal list. But come on, people: The Aussies' last truly new album was their 1976 debut High Voltage. Although Angus finally discovers the slide guitar, the Young brothers see no reason to reinvent their heavy-blues riff-wheel; no sixty-year-old's throat could withstand this level of punishment, so Brian Johnson's vocals must have been spliced together from previous albums. The result? Black Ice is a knockout, the best thing to hit Walmart since that class-action lawsuit a few years ago.
Extras: AC/DC's first U.S. tour in eight years, which sold out within minutes in most cities.
-- Chris Gray