The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
Lorenzo, The Merchant of Venice.
I am no musician, but I am an avid listener and I know what I like. If you couldn't care less, please feel free to stop reading now. What follows is outrageously opinionated, and for all I know could potentially offend many.
Overall I didn't find 2008 to be as remarkable a musical year as 2007, but maybe that was just me. Listed below are some records that I found to be notable, for better or worse; it is by no means comprehensive, as between work, family, blogging, and reading, I have time to sample only a fraction of even well-known releases. I may have overlooked some great ones and would like to hear about them if so.
To get relative disappointments (for me) out of the way, I found several of the year's heralded albums to fall a bit flat. R.E.M.'s Accelerate was competent and featured their signature sound in an ununusually focused and lively package, but overall they seem like a band that, ever since the prodigious Automatic for the People, just hasn't had that much more to say.
Two new and ballyhooed acts, Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend, seemed striking at first, but after a couple of listens they started to sound a bit twee and contrived. This was particularly the case with Vampire Weekend's quasi-African rhythms--this sort of thing was done a long time ago, and much better, by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.
Two interesting middling successes (I can't bring myself to call them failures) were My Morning Jacket's Evil Urges and The Raconteurs' Consolers of the Lonely. Evil Urges is one of those works that is highly proficient and eclectic but ultimately leaves me indifferent, and without a clear understanding of what the band is about. Perhaps it is possible to be too proficient and eclectic, when one goes out of one's way to leave one's showily ingenious mark on as many musical styles as possible within one album (is it really a good idea to try to impersonate both Prince and Wilco on the same record?). As for The Raconteurs, their album was vigorous and contains some tremendous riffs (with Jack White it could hardly be otherwise), but I found it to lack the endearing whimsicality of the White Stripes.
For me the most overlooked record of the year was Kathleen Edwards's Asking for Flowers. She combines a hauntingly wistful voice and a softer, more feminine Neil Young sound. Musically the record is a huge advance over her more work(wo)manlike first two efforts. There isn't a weak song on it, and she is one to watch.
January saw Cat Power's second album of covers, Jukebox. What is it with her and covers? Maybe she just prefers performing to songwriting. Well, with her voice it doesn't matter--she can sing nursery rhymes if she wants to. It is one of the great natural voices for both indie and blues, and owing to her well-documented history of emotional vicissitudes, I'd like to think that my profession may have played at least a miniscule part in keeping the voice singing. The one new tune, the Dylan homage "Song to Bobby," is spectacular, as is her remake of her own prior song "Metal Heart."
Portishead's Third was another tour de force for the somewhat lugubrious group. Plenty of bands are dark--last year's Boxer by The National, which everyone seemed to find stupendous, was dark, but in a droning sort of way that I found, even after multiple listenings, to be about as interesting as a cold drizzle. But Third is dark in a way that sounds variously magisterial and slightly deranged, if that possible; it is at once anxiogenic and uplifting. For me "The Rip" was one of the sublime songs of the year.
I can't make up my mind about Jenny Lewis's Acid Tongue. Like Evil Urges, it seems to suffer from a scattered eclecticism, but since it is her voice, it doesn't seem to bother me as much. The title song is Lewis at her absolute best, while "The Next Messiah" is ambitious if nothing else. Some of her songs are so sweet and direct (like some on Rilo Kiley's first record) that it can be hard to decide whether they are merely saccharine schlock, or whether they are so much so as to be actually subversive (in which case one can relish the beauty without guilt; as I think Nietzsche wrote somewhere, it is possible to be superficial out of profundity). She does make one think (among other things), and that is more than many pop musicians manage.
I'm not sure if I can get used to the "new" Lucinda Williams on Little Honey, which virtually all reviewers saw as a much sunnier work, for better or worse, than her usual. The voice and spunk are still there, but some of the pathos is missing ("My Little Honeybee," for all its energy, seems finally crass, although perhaps that is ageism on my part since I might give the ditty a pass in a performer two or three decades younger). Of course, there's no matching the successive heights of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Essence, where she had a kind of anguished gravitas.
Well, I could go on, but I am opined out. Please let me know what I overlooked, or which of my judgments is most egregiously mistaken.