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
1. Bon Iver
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.
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."
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.