It's easy to write off Crystal Castles and their self-titled debut as another attempt to capitalize off of the idiosyncratic tendencies of a group of youngsters who look and dress a certain way. But any casual examination of their record yields something more complicated than that. Crystal Castles is an unsparingly dark, honest record thematically preoccupied with screwing, violence, death, masochism, desensitization and, of course, love. This is all accomplished by the stark, retro-futuristic production of Ethan Kath and the distorted, death rattles of Alice Glass. That kind of combination makes you wonder if the duo knows something that we don't. ~Matthew Richardson
If any album makes the case that artists can still move albums in the era of Web 2.0, it’s Lil Wayne’s eccentric Tha Carter III. Despite early leaks, a gluttony of non-Carter III songs bouncing around (whether it be from mixtapes or guest spots), and an ever-shifting release date, Tha Carter III became 2008’s best selling album, with nearly three million copies sold.
It certainly helps that Tha Carter III had some monstrous hits (the spacey “Lollipop,” the rhyming heroics of “A Milli,” and the T-Pain-featuring “Got Money”), but it’s rare that an album so devoted to the artist’s random whims would break through to the Top 100 -- none of the songs actually sound like they’re from the same album (except maybe “Dr. Carter” and “Mr. Carter”). Lil Wayne may not be the best rapper alive, but he's certainly cemented himself as the most daring. ~Andrew Winistorfer
A more quietly mature work by the band, You & Me channels the Walkmen’s frenetic take on dirty, grime-chunked rock ‘n' roll into a darkly sublime stretch of songs that meditate on the passage of time, friends and self. It’s also the record that marks the moment in which the Walkmen have asserted themselves as a true band and not just the generators of the aughties’ greatest hits. The group has taken a series of tired pop themes (lost loves, lost innocence) and imbued them with a sense of graceful, autumnal acceptance, even as the music rages to save the broken memories of a past that's never quiet as good as it’s remembered. Songs like the lightly clattering ache and roller-coaster swoon of “In the New Year” or the brass-bled “Red Moon” may not be as lacerating or immediate as “The Rat,” but that’s the point: You & Me aims to reveal itself in layers, over the same time that it laments. This isn’t music you must brace yourself for; it’s music that braces you. ~Travis Woods
Australian natives Cut Copy beat the sophomore jinx with their second proper album, In Ghost Colours. Led by former DJ and graphic designer Dan Whitford, the multitasking trio effortlessly blurs the lines between new-wave and post-punk. With more nods to the '80s than Boy George can handcuff and beat with a chain, Cut Copy nearly transcends its predecessors -- think New Order and Erasure -- by constructing a retro-new-wave pop album so refreshingly modernized it wouldn’t feel out of place at a Bushwick loft party or at a London disco circa 1985. The electro-pop configurations of kick-off single “Hearts on Fire” channel both the unadulterated joy and stark intensity of the best modern pop has to offer. While “Strangers in the Wind” boasts enough chops to seamlessly morph from Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac dream-pop to a full-on disco assault without ever losing steam. ~Bruce Scott
For a band that works so brilliantly with inverting rock conventions, Deerhunter's touching, delightfully small Microcastle was a surprisingly traditional "mature" album. On Microcastle, the sneaky, disturbing structural innovations of Cryptograms were supplemented with deeply personal, touching lyrics. Songs like "Agoraphobia and "Nothing Ever Happened" made you weep as much as they made your blood boil. Deerhunter has been the problem child of the new generation of noise punks, spiritually connected to the Black Lips, the Ponys, and the Pissed Jeans despite sounding nothing like them (or anyone else). Microcastle is the album that converted Deerhunter from a band's band to one of the leading bands of a profoundly confused musical generation. In 2007, Bradford Cox responded to his outsider status and limited life span by building to a rock 'n' roll death. This year, Cox devoted his attention to his music, and the resulting body of work will forever endear him to those who think differently. ~Ethan Stanislawski
Cobwebbed acoustic melancholy punctured by falsetto howls, a heartbroken songwriter (Justin Vernon) isolated in a cabin for four months, chilly production ice-flows slicked over roiling emotional turbulence: This would be the clichéd marquee LP for college-breakup angst if it wasn’t such a depth-charge blast of startling maturity and quiet, haunted beauty. From the skipping wails of “Skinny Love” to the shattered farewell of “Re: Stacks” (“Your love will be safe with me”), the one-man-band Vernon masterfully, empathetically weaves together a song cycle of loss and permafrost despair whose emotional torment never overwhelms the inherent -- and breathtaking -- intimate majesty of the music.
Not since Jeff Buckley covered Van Morrison has an artist’s voice been able to convey such a complex and soul-wrenched sadness with a simple wounded sigh. When Vernon whispers, “I toured the light/ so many foreign roads for Emma, forever ago” at the close of the slowly unfurling title track, he feels it. The miracle of For Emma, Forever Ago is that you will, too. ~Travis Woods
Actually being a success was apparently the worst thing that happened to the quartet this year -- everyone roots for the underdog until the underdog actually wins. Overzealous press response or not, the Cape-Cod-meets-Cape-Town project from Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig and the Chrises Tomson & Baio is easily one of the best albums of the year. Sure, their lyrics sound like they were written by that English Lit professor who always showed up late (and possibly stoned), but he was always your favorite teacher anyway. It’s no wonder that they draw so much inspiration from equally divisive director Wes Anderson -- some people will never get The Life Aquatic and some people will never give a fuck about what an Oxford comma even is. The rest of us love Vampire Weekend. ~Alex Thornton
It took a beardy young bunch from Seattle to finally take the building blocks of freak folk and marshal them into a brilliantly crafted masterpiece that trades affected eccentricity for true aesthetic ambition. CSNY-style organic folk-rock meets Beach Boys-esque art-pop while maintaining a currency that will reassure those whose record collection goes no further back than the Foxes' Sub Pop labelmates Iron & Wine and the Shins. Welcome to the new sound of Seattle, where you can trade three old Mudhoney albums for a deluxe Judee Sill reissue, no questions asked. ~Jim Allen
It's possible that 2008 will be retrospectively viewed as the year of the comeback, with heavy-hitters My Bloody Valentine and Guns N' Roses making surprise reappearances. Portishead managed to trump both these artists with their wintry third album, the aptly titled Third. An appearance at ATP in December 2007 hinted at a broader spectrum of influences this time around. Silver Apples, krautrock and Sunn O)))) clearly held considerable sway over the band, and although their music is still indelibly colored with an ashen hue, Third couldn't be more different from their prior recordings. The band quickly withdrew from the live arena a few months after the album's release, retreating from the spotlight just as it shone so brightly upon them. It's a shame, as Third is one of the most inventive and deeply rewarding listens of the year, and opens up vast realms of possibility for the band's future direction. ~Nick Neyland
After the art-rock pretenses of their stellar sophomore album Return to Cookie Mountain, TV on the Radio delivered Dear Science, an album that toed a line between apocalyptic dread and ecstatic hope that things will change. From the Motown harmonies of opener “Halfway Home” to the simmering boy-girl verses of “Lover’s Day,” it’s TV on the Radio’s most cohesive album-length statement to date. Songs like “Crying,” “Red Dress,” and “Golden Age” proved TV on the Radio were capable of moving asses, and “Stork and Owl,” “DLZ” and “Family Tree” proved that there were still revelations to be gleaned from Dave Sitek’s layered production.
Dear Science was released in the midst of a tumultuous election season and the rumbling genesis of an economic recession, and it proved to be the perfect album for the times. It suggested that the world might be going down, but you still have to remember what’s important: family, love and getting busy. ~Andrew Winistorfer