Songs Of The Year: Best Music Of 2008

Shearwater art 300
from the cover of Shearwater's 'Rook'

This is the 21st year-end Top 10 list to appear here in the last four weeks, so readers can be forgiven if these things have begun to whiz by in an indistinct blur of guys with beards and boundary-crossing jazz. Still, discoveries continue to reveal themselves: Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes turn up again — they'd have sold 20 million albums apiece if everyone in America read this site — but this list also features a bunch of gems that hadn't yet popped up in our Best CDs of 2008 coverage.

Naturally, no year-end music list can be definitive — not even the terrific Top 25 list we based on submissions and votes from NPR listeners — just as it's impossible to rate a year in music using purely objective measures of quality. So here are the 10 CDs this reviewer treasured the most in 2008. Rest assured that, if your favorite isn't on here, it came in at No. 11.

Click here for more entries in the Best CDs of 2008 series.

Songs Of The Year: Best Music Of 2008

Bon Iver art 200

1. Bon Iver

  • Artist: Bon Iver
  • Album: For Emma, Forever Ago
  • Song: Skinny Love

So an obscure singer-songwriter named Justin Vernon goes through a bad breakup, holes himself up in a Wisconsin cabin for an entire winter and writes a collection of cathartically beautiful songs called For Emma, Forever Ago. Bon Iver's story has been told countless times -- click here for umpteen examples on this site alone -- but it really does help Vernon's gorgeous, heartfelt music seem earned. For all the drama inherent in these pained portraits of longing and loss, every moment here feels authentically… felt, if that makes sense. For those not nursing fresh emotional wounds of their own, For Emma will create a tiny and devastating breakup in your soul for you to mourn.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Skinny Love
Album
For Emma, Forever Ago
Artist
Bon Iver
Released
2007

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Mates of State art 200

2. Mates of State

  • Artist: Mates of State
  • Album: Re-Arrange Us
  • Song: Re-Arranger

Arguably the year's most romantic album, Re-Arrange Us wrings delightfully infectious pop songs out of love's thorny complications. Mates of State's Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel are a married couple with kids, so they sing about what they know: overcoming daily squabbles, balancing personal identity with parenthood and managing the struggle to age both gracefully and stylishly. "The Re-Arranger" sums up all of those messes and more with a five-word mantra to live by: "Love loud / Don't lose loud."

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Re-Arranger
Album
Re-Arrange Us
Artist
Mates of State
Label
Barsuk
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Blind Pilot art 200

3. Blind Pilot

  • Artist: Blind Pilot
  • Album: 3 Rounds and a Sound
  • Song: One Red Thread

Right there on the Mount Rushmore of Rustically Bearded Indie-Rock Greats -- alongside Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, The Avett Brothers and Iron & Wine -- you'll soon find the somewhat less frequently bearded Blind Pilot, a roots-pop duo which bathes its terrific songs in ingratiating harmonies and understated instrumentation. The result isn't so much earth-shattering as it is endlessly engaging: There's not a dud on 3 Rounds and a Sound, and a ludicrous abundance of replay-worthy ringers.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
One Red Thread
Album
3 Rounds and a Sound
Artist
Blind Pilot
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Eef Barzelay art 200

4. Eef Barzelay

  • Artist: Eef Barzelay
  • Album: Lose Big
  • Song: Girls Don't Care

Still one of the most underrated and disarmingly intelligent songwriters in music, Eef Barzelay slid Lose Big under the radar in 2008, much to the detriment of those who let it pass by. Every song here has something unexpected to say, whether it's a thought-provoking expression ("I can't find comfort in the fact that it could be worse"), a manifesto about finding love ("The girls don't care that you ache to be free") or a grand story-song ("True Freedom"), which evolves from a celebration of God into a suicide pact. In 2009, Barzelay is re-igniting the band that made him moderately semi-famous, Clem Snide; here's hoping its return reminds fans of this sneaky gem.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Girls Don't Care
Album
Lose Big
Artist
Eef Barzelay
Label
429
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Shearwater art 200

5. Shearwater

  • Artist: Shearwater
  • Album: Rook
  • Song: Century Eyes

Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg can send his voice soaring to majestically dramatic heights, but he's equally adept at uncommon delicacy ("I Was a Cloud") and compact, bracing rock ("Century Eyes"). Meiburg is still known largely for his former role in Okkervil River, but Shearwater bears little resemblance to its estranged cousin: It shares the smarts, but hoards the swoony beauty. If "Rooks" doesn't convince listeners to explore the band further, Shearwater's jaw-dropping Tiny Desk Concert ought to seal the deal, right?

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Century Eyes
Album
Rook
Artist
Shearwater
Label
Matador
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Death Cab for Cutie art 200

6. Death Cab for Cutie

  • Artist: Death Cab for Cutie
  • Album: Narrow Stairs
  • Song: Cath...

At first, Narrow Stairs seemed like a second-tier entry in the Death Cab for Cutie canon: instrumentally loose and a bit more adventurous than expected, but nothing special. Six months later, it's revealed itself as a richly evocative knockout, with each song telling a self-contained, richly detailed story. "Cath..." looks back with ambivalence on a life of fame and disappointment, while "Your New Twin Sized Bed" takes a seemingly minor acquisition and uses it to paint a portrait of the way loneliness can evolve into hopelessness. All the while, Death Cab's sneaky pop hooks burrow in deep for maximum impact.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Cath...
Album
Narrow Stairs
Artist
Death Cab for Cutie
Label
Atlantic/WEA
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Sera Cahoone 200

7. Sera Cahoone

  • Artist: Sera Cahoone
  • Album: Only as the Day Is Long
  • Song: You're Not Broken

Sera Cahoone's woozy, calming country-pop isn't so much about feeling good as feeling better: Her songs' protagonists spend much of their time trying to soothe a loved one's jangled nerves. Placing listeners at ease is an underrated skill, and it's employed with minimal flashiness here, so Cahoone didn't exactly break big in 2008. But, like her wonderful self-titled debut, Only As the Day Is Long radiates winning kindness.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
You're Not Broken
Album
Only as the Day Is Long
Artist
Sera Cahoone
Label
Sub Pop
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Nada Surf art

8. Nada Surf

  • Artist: Nada Surf
  • Album: Lucky [Bonus CD]
  • Song: See These Bones

Nada Surf's Matthew Caws fuses a keen understanding of human nature with a fundamental sense of optimism -- no mean feat, if you think about it. Early in 2008, his band released the tellingly titled Lucky, which executes a deft balance of winsomeness, wonder and grown-up perspective. "See These Bones" views modern life in the context of the world's long history, while "Beautiful Beat" literally revels in the giddy thrill of making music; it's hard not to share Nada Surf's enthusiasm.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
See These Bones
Album
Lucky [Bonus CD]
Artist
Nada Surf
Label
Barsuk
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Fleet Foxes art 200

9. Fleet Foxes

  • Artist: Fleet Foxes
  • Album: Fleet Foxes
  • Song: Tiger Mountain Peasant Song

Fleet Foxes' full-length debut provides a natural companion to Bon Iver's own breakthrough: Both explore the rootsy side of folk, both are performed by previously obscure bearded men, and both showed up at or near the top of NPR Music's 2008 listeners' poll. But whereas Bon Iver turned inward on its debut, Fleet Foxes goes big and rich, crafting songs that are unmistakably dense and drenched in harmony. The latter takes a little while to sink in -- those still on the fence should pop over to La Blogotheque for Fleet Foxes' wonderful Takeaway Show -- but it's deeply rewarding once it does.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
Album
Fleet Foxes
Artist
Fleet Foxes
Label
Sub Pop
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Noah and the Whale 200

10. Noah and the Whale

  • Artist: Noah and the Whale
  • Album: Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down
  • Song: Give a Little Love

Millions have heard Noah and the Whale's music, thanks to commercials utilizing the U.K. band's song "5 Years Time" -- it's the one with the chorus that goes, "Fun, fun, fu-uh-un!" But those are the three most chipper words on an album that uses cheerful harmonies and whiz-bang instrumentation as Trojan horses for bittersweet ruminations on human behavior. The disc is brightly charming throughout, but like a lot of the best fun, it's infused with a healthy bit of darkness.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Give a Little Love
Album
Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down
Artist
Noah and the Whale
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Featured Artist

Purchase Featured Music

Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down
Artist
Noah and the Whale
Released
2008

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.