I was attracted to the quiet and the subtle in 2008: The harmonies of Fleet Foxes, the fiery gentleness of Bon Iver and the African kora of Toumani Diabate held me together and kept me company. We all need and want different things from music at different times, and gentility won out for me this year.
It's sort of silly for anyone to try to narrow down a definitive list of the year's best music, but it's a lot of fun. Hopefully, reading all these lists provides a chance to find out about something you haven't heard and see if it fills something inside. Give a listen to the music highlighted below, and in the comments section, tell me what you think. In light of my selections, I'd love to hear recommendations for music you think I'd like.
Click here for more entries in the Best CDs of 2008 series.
1. Bon Iver
- Song: Skinny Love
- from For Emma, Forever Ago
- by Bon Iver
Music is a living language: Sometimes, it comes in big, loud waves, followed by quiet and calm. This is the calm after years of distorted, guitar-dominated rock. Bon Iver fills my head with what it needed, and it came just in time. For Emma, Forever Ago wasn't just a damn good record packed with small, delicate sounds and broken hearts; in the living language of music, this was a small period and then a new paragraph.
2. Fleet Foxes
- Song: White Winter Hymnal
- from Fleet Foxes [Bonus Tracks]
- by Fleet Foxes
And so it was with Fleet Foxes: the antidote to days at the computer, marked by simple joy and songs that feel as if they were written in a forest rather than an office. I fell in love with this band's warmth, but I have to say that there are times when I felt that they hadn't fully realized all the wonder in these songs. This is a group with an even better second album in waiting. Here's hoping it comes soon.
3. Neil Young
- Song: Sugar Mountain
- from Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968
- by Neil Young
Not much separates this record from No. 1 and No. 2 on my list, except for 40 years. This one took me by surprise. I knew that Neil Young's concert at this ministry/coffeehouse had been recorded; after all, this version of the song "Sugar Mountain," recorded in Ann Arbor, Mich., has been available for more than 35 years. But as a whole, the show perfectly captures a key point in this timeless artist's career: just after Buffalo Springfield broke up, and just before Young started his life as a solo artist. He was scared and you can hear it, which helps make these performances spellbinding.
4. Sigur Ros
- Song: Gobbledigook
- from Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
- by Sigur Rós
I was bound to love this record, just because I connect so well with Sigur Ros' long-and-slow aesthetic. But on med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust, the group revealed another side: fast and snappy and fun. Fun is what it had been missing. How does Sigur Ros say fun? "Inni mer syngur vitleysingur."
5. Sam Phillips
- Song: Don't Do Anything
- from Don't Do Anything
- by Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips makes the records I'd always hoped Paul McCartney would make, with haunting pop music and the perfect band: drummer Jay Bellerose and Erik Gorfain, who lends guitar and violin and banjo and mandolin and baritone guitar. Phillips is just about the best pop-music songwriter there is: I wish she weren't so sad, but then her songs might lose their longing and their ache.
6. Toumani Diabate
- Song: Cantelowes
- from Mande Variations
- by Toumani Diabate
Some musicians conjure up music that's so beautiful, it transcends comprehension. I have been listening to kora player Toumani Diabate for 20 years, and his playing on this harp from Mali is always otherworldly. There are a few musicians I'd love to interview, but my question for Diabate would be a simple one: Where does your music come from? It simply can't be this planet. The Mandé Variations is his first solo record in 20 years. It is this music -- this kora music, all alone, with no singing -- that I first fell in love with, and it slays me all over again here.
7. Vampire Weekend
- Song: Mansard Roof
- from Vampire Weekend
- by Vampire Weekend
There's nothing deep about Vampire Weekend, but its happiness and exuberance makes it the year's most delightful album. Paul Simon was on to something when he used that mellifluous South African guitar sound on his 1986 classic Graceland; it's all over Vampire Weekend's debut. These guys aren't great musicians (yet), but they're creative musicians, and you can hear them a year later in concerts getting more skilled at the style they're rapidly perfecting. I find this album a joy, and for all those wondering about a follow-up, relax and enjoy the first one.
8. TV on the Radio
- Song: Halfway Home
- from Dear Science
- by TV on the Radio
My music collection is full of bands where chaos rules, but this year was all about harmony and tunefulness -- except in the case of TV on the Radio. Dear Science is sometimes thumping, sometimes dark and sometimes gloomy, and often all those things at the same time. This is one record that demands repeated listens, because it has an awful lot to say. If you dismissed Dear Science as an okay record with a few good songs, I recommend spending more time with it, because it's brilliant.
9. Max Richter
- Song: H in New England
- from 24 Postcards in Full Colour
- by Max Richter
An album of ringtones? That’s what Max Richter thinks he created, but I think he crafted 24 miniature paintings -- a bit dark, even mournful, but so is the setting sun. Richter is a German born composer who's worked with Future Sounds of London and English folksinger Vashti Bunyan. What he does best is make music with strings and electronics; I think of it as classical music, but it clearly comes from the present.
10. Brian Eno/Bloom for iPod
- Song: Bloom (An Improvisation)
- from Bloom
- by Bob Boilen (with Help from Brian Eno's Bloom)
I know this is technically an iPhone/iPod Touch application and not an album, but hear me out. In 1983, I began composing music using sampling. Back then, there were only a few instruments capable of taking recorded sounds and manipulating those sounds on a piano keyboard. We don't think twice about sampling these days -- I'm sure there are samples on five of my Top 10 records -- but when I began working with samples, I was bowled over by this fantastic technology.
I was doing performance art and multimedia theater in those days, in a company called Impossible Theater in Baltimore. We wrote our own work, and I had an idea for one of our pieces -- set in the future and inspired by my thoughts on sampling. The idea was that, instead of people walking around with boom boxes like they were doing in the early '80s, they would walk around with something I called "Scapeboxes." These creations would be music boxes capable of pumping out sound from a personal sound chip, so people might blast the sound of a jackhammer or birds or whatever they felt reflected their personality.
This leads me to Bloom, which blurs the line between artist and listener. When you use Bloom, you make the music within parameters set up by the artist. The style of music you make in Bloom is predetermined, but each time you play with it, your music is unique. I think the line between artist and listener will continue to blur in the coming years. You can hear that in Girl Talk's mashups, and you've heard that for years in hip-hop, where non-musicians manipulate others' music until they've become musicians themselves. The future of music is in your hands. What could be cooler than that?