The Year in Albums

Don't believe the hype. The album is alive and well and procreating furiously. Too furiously.

Printed out, the Wikipedia entry for albums released in 2008 — itself far from a complete list — spans 29 pages. Noise got maybe a fifth of those in the mail, and in turn listened to maybe a fifth of those. If a band has a new album, he generally waits to see them live to decide whether to bother with the record — and if they're not headed this way anytime soon, he may not even unwrap it at all.

Listening to new music is only part of this job, which is basically to listen to as much music as possible. That includes a lot of MySpace pages, live music several nights a week, way too many YouTube videos and a shit-ton of satellite radio. Not to mention the two foot-high stacks of all-time faves on Noise's desk at home, and the 500-strong CD booklet on his kitchen table.

It was kind of a rough year personally — but on the flip side, a fuckin' blast most of the time — and Noise won't bore you with the details any more than any other week. But the end result, musically, was that in his down time, not a whole lot of new stuff made it onto the turntable, and even fewer new artists did. Noise went to SXSW, he saw the class of 2008 and, with a couple of exceptions (MGMT, Monotonix), wasn't that impressed. As Nick Cave said on Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, "More News from Nowhere."

In some approximate order, the non-2008 albums Noise listened to most in 2008 were as follows: Pretenders, Learning to Crawl; Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers; The Band, The Last Waltz; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes; Bob Dylan, Love & Theft; The Byrds, Sweethearts of the Rodeo; Wilco, A.M.; Guns N' Roses, Appetite for Destruction; Wilco, A Ghost Is Born; and the White Stripes, Elephant/Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna (tie).

It was a good year for the blues and ballsy rock chicks. But ain't they all?

Similarly, the new albums Noise enjoyed most were, for the most part, by people he was well familiar with who did some of their best work in years. Or, in some cases, a year. For whatever reasons, as many albums as there are, these are the ones Noise figured were worth hanging onto from ye olde '08. Even after only hearing some for the first or second time, he's pretty sure he's right.

The music that lasts is the music that counts. For all but a couple 2008 albums, their true merit and impact remains to be seen. Which is just fine — it's not like people are going to stop making them anytime soon. More, in fact, are already on the way.

Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch (Reprise): A wise man once said the past isn't prologue; it's not even past. Tom Petty and fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench got the old band back together — the one that lasted exactly one single after moving from Florida to L.A. — and, live in the studio, cut an album that immediately takes its place alongside Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers in the country-rock pantheon.

Dabbling in everything from languid psychedelia ("Crystal River") to deadpan boogie ("Bootleg Flyer"), Mudcrutch is the best Petty-spawned album since its natural analogue Wildflowers, and a fascinating study in what might have been. The gorgeous ballad "Orphan from the Storm," about an ex-junkie displaced to Houston after Katrina, is the best song about Southeast Texas since Jimmy Webb's "Galveston," and took on even more poignancy after Ike.

See also: Dr. Dog, Fate; Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Momofuku; Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs

Metallica, Death Magnetic (Warner Bros.): Make all the Guitar Hero jokes you want — and Metallica's savvily releasing Magnetic as a ready-to-play iTunes download brought on plenty — this album rips and snorts like a soon-to-be castrated bull. Producer Rick Rubin proved a much better therapist than that dude from Some Kind of Monster, returning Metallica to the take-no-prisoners aesthetic of Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning. More a retrenchment than a retreat, Magnetic will indeed hunt you down "All Nightmare Long." That was just your life, after all.

See also: AC/DC, Black Ice; Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV; Ministry, Cover Up

Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City): Effectively, former Pavement satellite member David Berman is Silver Jews, and that he's also a published poet should be manifest to anyone who hears this wonderfully melancholy album. Berman turns his bone-shaving pen on characters ("Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer"), scenes ("San Francisco B.C.") and the bedroom ("My Pillow Is the Threshold") with a clarity and sometimes-uncomfortable honesty that suggests nothing less than an indie-rock Johnny Cash. (Really.)

The country-tinged arrangements sparkle with the wistfulness of too many regrets, and considering Berman's wife Cassie is also a Silver Jew, it shouldn't be terribly surprising that "We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing" is the almost-love song of the year.

See also: R.E.M., Accelerate; Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue; The Hold Steady, Stay Positive

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Mute): Even after last year's guttural Grinderman, jolly old St. Nick hasn't sounded this Iggyish in years. (Start with "Today's Lesson.") Springsteen-goth "Night of the Lotus Eaters" cautions, "grab your heater and your sap," while the sneering "Albert Goes West" advises, "I won't be held responsible for my actions." The industro-punk blues of "We Call Upon the Author" are flat-out prophetic — "Things are messed up around here," observes Cave, on a record that came out in March.

Lazarus points out the same thing Iggy Pop always did — at their raunchiest, sweatiest and angriest, punk rock and R&B are about a hairsbreadth apart. Soulful, scathing and dead sexy.

See also: The Kills, Midnight Boom; Kings of Leon, Only by the Night; Eagles of Death Metal, Heart On

Blue Mountain, Midnight in Mississippi (Broadmoor): Noise got back into roots-rock in a big way this year — like he said, it was a little rough in spots — and still hasn't left. This Oxford-based trio's springtime visit to the Continental Club lit that slow-burning fuse, and the songs from Midnight — written since re-forming after a six-year hiatus — supplied the matches.

Recorded in Dallas by producer/engineer Stuart Sikes (White Stripes, Cat Power), Midnight is high Dixie boy-girl drama with true Cajun spirit, set to a rollicking Bottle Rockets beat and California dreaming from the breezy Eagles vibe of "By Your Side" to the title track's X-like howl at the moon. And Rodney Crowell is no doubt kicking himself for not writing "Gentle Soul."

See also: Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark; Johnny Flynn, Alarum; Kasey Chambers, Rattlin' Bones

B.B. King, One Kind Favor (Geffen): Haunting, autumnal blues from a man all too aware his time ain't long; One Kind Favor came out shortly before King turned 83. Covering plenty of Texas territory (Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean," T-Bone Walker's "Waiting for Your Call"), the King of the blues surveys his realm, wonders when his woman might be coming back and realizes those blues before sunrise last all day long.

Producer T-Bone Burnett keeps things Sun Studios-simple — judicious horns, twinkling piano, easygoing rhythms — as King and piercing sidekick Lucille delve deep into the pathology of a world gone wrong. In their able hands, "Sitting on Top of the World" isn't a celebration, it's an elegy.

See also: Al Green, Lay It Down; Taj Mahal, Maestro; the Roots, Rising Down

Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely (Interscope): Start to finish, the new album Noise most enjoyed hearing for the first time this year. (So what if he only got around to it last week?) Jack White continues his annual game of one-upmanship with...himself, unleashing torrential 500-mph outpour blues on "Consoler of the Lonely" and "Five on the Five," and flashing a rare sense of humor on "Rich Kid Blues." Judging by the sprawling, "Sister Morphine"-referencing closer "Carolina Drama," he's also gaining on Bob Dylan at a rate that ought to make the old man nervous. Can't wait to listen again.

See also: Black Keys, Attack and Release; Black Crowes, Warpaint; Parts & Labor, Receivers

TV on the Radio, Dear Science (Interscope): The most "important" record of 2008, or so the glossies would have you believe. More "importantly," Dear Science rocks like a sonofabitch, from opening U2/Peter Gabriel apocalypse "Halfway Home" through frenetic James Brown/Franz Ferdinand rip "Red Dress" to closing Peter Gabriel/U2 apocalypse "Lover's Day." Along the way, the Brooklyn biracialists brush everyone from Prince and Michael Jackson ("Crying," "Golden Age") to Coldplay and Arcade Fire ("Stork & Owl"), but what they leave behind is a singularly challenging, charging, sometimes confusing and conflicting tableau of postmodern rock and all-too-current soul.

Special shout-out to the autonomic, Kraftwerkian newspaperman homage "Dancing Choose" ("He turns the page and flips the scene"). Nice to know some bands appreciate us.

See also: My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges; Ne-Yo, Year of the Gentleman; Beck, Modern Guilt

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray