NPR Listeners Pick The Best Music Of 2008
When the votes started pouring in from NPR listeners for the year's best albums, two things became clear immediately: It was going to be tight, and many of the top spots would go to new, smaller bands and their debut albums. Bigger, more established acts (Coldplay, My Morning Jacket) were well represented, but listeners seemed more inspired by the year's quieter, more intimate albums.
NPR listeners cast tens of thousands of ballots, but in the end, only a handful of votes separated some of the bands. Fleet Foxes edged out Vampire Weekend for the year's No. 1 album, while Coldplay beat out Sigur Ros by just one vote. Meanwhile, some bands you'd expect to see on the list never made it.
Below you can see and hear songs from the Top 25 albums NPR listeners loved most this year. You can read and share the complete poll results on our blog.
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01. Fleet Foxes
It was a year of stunning debuts from incredibly talented new bands, and Fleet Foxes topped them all. The Seattle group earned universal acclaim for its timeless, harmony-drenched mix of folk and rock. It's both a revival and a reinvention of roots music, with inspired attention given to melody and harmony.
02. Vampire Weekend
Is Vampire Weekend this year's Strokes? Or this year's Tapes 'n Tapes? The blog hype surrounding the recent Columbia University grads has been enough to start a backlash against the backlash against the backlash. However listeners perceive it, Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut is a charming piece of Afropop-flecked indie-pop. Its tones are as starch-clean as Vampire Weekend's Oxford shirts, and its melodies as perky as popped collars.
03. Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago sounds ghostly and ethereal, radiating otherworldly beauty, but it's also strangely gritty in a way that gives it heft. For Emma's best song, "Skinny Love," finds singer-guitarist Justin Vernon alternating a ghostly falsetto with bracing, full-throated choruses that hint at looming doom: "In the morning, I'll be with you / but it will be a different kind."
04. TV on the Radio
Dear Science was hit-and-miss for some listeners. But a three-star TV on the Radio album is still better than five-star albums from lesser bands. The Brooklyn-based group makes artfully atmospheric songs with off-kilter, wildly imaginative polyrhythms and vocal stylings. They don't fit comfortably in typical genres or categories, but stake out their own territory, in many ways redefining what it means to make music.
05. Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs isn't Death Cab for Cutie's easiest album to get to know. Often mysterious and occasionally meandering, it politely requests time to sink in, especially compared to the more overtly crowd-pleasing likes of Transatlanticism and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. Instead, Narrow Stairs requires and rewards a bit more dissection: "Cath...," in particular, contains enough fodder for a feature-length think piece on the state of frontman Ben Gibbard's mind.
When Wesleyan University students Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser founded MGMT in 2002, they never intended to record. Instead, the duo wanted to explore new methods of musical composition, writing new songs for each of their 15-minute-long live performances. Most of the band's unconventional pop music was based on computers, turntables, guitar pedals and other electronic devices. But the duo signed to Columbia Records and released this fan favorite. It opens with one of the year's most heartrending songs, "Time to Pretend" -- a wistful but oddly up-tempo electro-pop gem mourning the loss of youth and all its shattered dreams.
07. Flight of the Conchords
Sure, they're hilarious. But Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, who bill themselves as "New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo," are also incredibly talented songwriters and musicians. Listen to the tightly knit harmonies on "Tape of Love," or the guitar work and stellar production on "Ladies of the World" for examples. Flight of the Conchords' song "Business Time" was a phenomenal hit as a video on YouTube long before it was released on this album.
08. My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket's roots lie in distinctly American music forms (country, folk, classic rock), all wrapped in reverb and Jim James' soaring voice. Evil Urges, the band's fifth studio album since it formed in Kentucky in 1998, is all over the sonic map for some listeners. But it's also My Morning Jacket's most ambitious and epic album.
One of the few big-name bands to make it onto the Top 25, Coldplay returned in 2008 with its best new material since 2002's A Rush of Blood to the Head. The group's music is always reflective and bittersweet, but compared to the other albums on this list, Viva La Vida was one of the year's grandest and most anthemic releases.
10. Sigur Rós
No one could have predicted this quintet from Iceland, with its spacey, progressive music and indecipherable lyrics, would ever have much of an audience. But Sigur Ros has gone from playing small clubs to headlining international music festivals. This year, the group returned with the spectacularly gorgeous, if unpronounceable, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, which means "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly."
11. She & Him
Even before art-folk singer M. Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel released Volume One, the duo's project was destined for intense scrutiny. Hollywood vanity albums miss more often than they hit; fortunately for Deschanel, she had Ward's production wit behind her. But it turns out that she also has a gift for songwriting, and a voice which seems equally influenced by Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield. Some listeners found She & Him's debut a bit too sticky-sweet, but for fans, Volume One is beguiling and irresistibly adorable.
12. Okkervil River
Propelled by the cryptic songwriting of frontman Will Sheff, the Austin band Okkervil River makes dark, literate rock that's as explosive as it is thoughtful and intimate. Last year, the group released the hugely popular album The Stage Names (which some critics picked as the best album of 2007), and this year Okkervil River dropped a worthy follow-up, The Stand Ins. Both are richly textured and multilayered, as Sheff intermittently warbles and howls on songs with head-spinning wordplay.
Will this guy ever run out of catchy guitar riffs and funk-powered grooves? Modern Guilt comes nearly 15 years after Beck released Mellow Gold, and it easily stands up against his finest work. Produced by Danger Mouse, Modern Guilt is fresh, soulful and fun.
14. Kimya Dawson and Antsy Pants
Juno director Jason Reitman asked star Ellen Page what she thought her character would listen to, and she said, "The Moldy Peaches." So Reitman got in touch with Kimya Dawson and Adam Green and asked them if he could use their song "Anyone Else but You" in the film. Later, after Dawson thought the movie was wrapped, Reitman asked if he could hear some of her more recent work. She obliged with some songs she'd been writing for her toddler, and, much to her surprise, those songs also ended up in the film. Dawson's quirky, childlike songwriting turned out to be the perfect complement for the film's playful tone.
15. The Raconteurs
When The Raconteurs formed in 2005, the group initially drew a lot of attention because one of its members was guitarist Jack White of the wildly popular duo The White Stripes. But White did his best to deflect attention and insisted that The Raconteurs wasn't a vanity project. Consolers of the Lonely, the group's second release, proves that White was right: It's loud and brash, with an arsenal of infectious riffs and swagger and a wry sense of humor.
16. Girl Talk
Girl Talk mastermind Greg Gillis mashed together more than 300 samples for his latest album, Feed the Animals. Some called it brilliant. Others argued that it was an empty-headed rip-off. Regardless, it's an undeniable thrill to hear it all unfold, and an impressive undertaking for the former biomedical engineer.
17. The Black Keys
Attack and Release is a fitting title for The Black Keys' fifth full-length CD, with its arresting mix of crunchy guitars and thundering rhythms. But the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney also backs away from its usual riff-rock punch to show a more thoughtful side. Songs like "All You Ever Wanted" and "Things Aren't Like They Used to Be" amble along at a quieter pace, with plaintive meditations on lost love and failed dreams, making it the band's richest and most diverse recording to date.
18. Kings of Leon
It was easy to dismiss Kings of Leon when the band released its 2003 debut, Youth and Young Manhood. More was often said about the group's offstage antics, and the fact that its members were raised as fundamental Christians, than the music they were making. Five years later, the band is hugely popular in Europe, with a growing fan base in the U.S., for what many fans consider its finest album to date.
19. Conor Oberst
Although Bright Eyes has essentially been a solo project for Conor Oberst in all but name, the Omaha, Neb., native decided to abandon the moniker he'd performed under since his teens for his latest CD, an eponymous sketchbook of introspective folk and rock, steeped in Americana. He also chose to work with a different producer and backing band. Conor Oberst is the first album in several years that Oberst has recorded without longtime producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis.
20. Jenny Lewis
Known first as the leader of Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis has a hauntingly soulful voice and a lifelong love of folk, country, Southern gospel and twisted lyrics. She's also been busy: Lewis has put out six new albums, either with Rilo Kiley or as a solo artist, in the past seven years. For her latest solo release, Lewis mixes it up, giving the songs a harder rock edge, with trippy jams and guest appearances by M. Ward and Elvis Costello.
21. The Hold Steady
With its riff-heavy mixture of classic rock and lyrically dense storytelling, the increasingly iconic Brooklyn rock band The Hold Steady crafts detailed musical universes that have already made it a critical darling and fan favorite. With Stay Positive, the band's fourth acclaimed album in a row, The Hold Steady offers its most sophisticated and fully formed collection of songs to date.
22. Bob Dylan
Tell Tale Signs offers a peek behind the curtain. We hear the enigmatic Bob Dylan using a couplet in one song that he'll ultimately drop into another. We hear him trying out radically different musical backdrops for his lyrics. It's Dylan in the workshop, experimenting with songs that stand as the most recent additions to his legacy. What you discover is that these tales of fate and pent-up desire and redemption didn't emerge fully formed or realized; there was real work involved.
23. Blitzen Trapper
Blitzen Trapper is known for a dizzyingly rapid-fire approach to its musical influences, channeling both the ramshackle slacker assault of Pavement and the roots-rock swagger of Creedence Clearwater Revival, all while throwing in psychedelic prog-rock riffs and ferocious punk energy. Furr, the third full-length album from this Portland, Ore. band, is the group's richest and most mature collection of songs to date. The title track alone is one of the year's most memorable songs.
After releasing two mysteriously gloomy (and truly mind-blowing) trip-hop albums in the '90s, it seemed this duo from Bristol, England, was gone for good. No one had heard a peep from Portishead for more than a decade when the band finally resurfaced for this year's stunning return, simply titled Third. Portishead has lost nothing in its time away: Third simmers and drifts with all the reflective heartache and spooky unease of the group's earlier recordings.
25. Brian Eno / David Byrne
Brian Eno and David Byrne last collaborated on a collection of new songs nearly 30 years ago. At the time, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was unlike anything anyone had heard before: a lush, head-spinning collage of ambient sounds, samples, and rhythms. Eno and Byrne returned with a worthy, if unexpected follow-up this year. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is much less experimental than the duo's earlier work, but sonically rich, emotional and life-affirming.