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Beck's Back: Everybody's favorite Loser is back in form with 'Modern Guilt.'

Trash Talk and Mashups

Paul Davis runs down the best albums of 2008

By Paul Davis

Two thousand eight was a year of many underwhelming releases--Chinese Democracy, anyone?--and few certifiable classics. There were some notable debuts (Fleet Foxes' self-titled full-length; Vampire Weekend's inescapable release) and respectable showings (TV on the Radio's Dear Science; Saul Williams' The Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust), but few that stood out as undeniably great. To compound it all, 2008 may stand as the record industry's most ignominious year to date, making the question of whether there will be a record industry come next election cycle a plausible concern. Yet with all this in mind, a handful of releases emerged from the bleakness as undeniably great--not merely passable, workmanlike efforts, but the sort of releases that make you excited for the future of music.†

Lil' Wayne: 'Tha Carter III'
Through a surrealistic haze of cough syrup and Vicodin, NOLA's finest MC delivered an unstoppable album full of bangers and summer anthems. Often incomprehensible, rarely socially responsible, Lil' Wayne has filled the void of the greatest rock star in the world in a year where the only other contender, Axl Rose, limped out of retirement lamely. Wayne's irrepressible personality and the sheer audacity of his musical choices--the summer single "A Milli" rose to the top of the charts with nothing but a snare drum and Wayne's batshit crazy delivery, while "Mr. Postman" desecrates both doo-wop and the Clash with style--make this the clear choice for album of the year.

Deer Tick: 'War Elephant'
† Resurgent old-time folk has entered its lean years, if the abomination that is the Avett Brothers is any indication. Shitheel romantics Deer Tick offered some hope for the genre, however, with woozy, drunken folk-punk laments that seem written expressly for closing-time romancing at the Rush Inn.

The Knux: 'Remind Me in 3 Days'
One of the major press obsessions of the year was the embarrassingly named "hipster hip-hop" movement. The Cool Kids were its posterboys, though their warmed-over, minimal retro beats and ironic, self-referential lyrics are frustratingly precious. Far better was the shamefully under-recognized Remind Me in 3 Days by New Orleans MCs the Knux. Over dizzyingly diverse musical backdrops--bump 'n' grind lowrider beats, acid-rock bangers and sly tropicalia, Krispy Kream and Rah Ah Millo produced the most infectiously wigged-out, genre-agnostic hip-hop record since Outkast's masterpiece, Aquemini.

Fucked Up: 'The Chemistry of Modern Life'
Every time some asshole declares punk rock to be dead, some smart-ass kid wearing spikes downs an oil can of Fosters. And every few years, one band will emerge from the lurching, undead cadaver that is the genre and prove those assholes wrong. Fucked Up is that band for 2008, a crew of proto-anarchists raging against the system who are so fearlessly punk-rock that they're willing to bellow over some unlikely musical backdrops, including Teutonic Krautrock riffs that sound like vintage Joy Division outtakes, and even flutes and bongos (!). There was no better adrenaline rush in 2008.

Beck: 'Modern Guilt'
† After nearly a decade of creative sloth, in which Beck seemed to be desperately chasing the ghost of his previous work, he unexpectedly turned out this fantastic set of psychedelic electrofolk. With luminary producer Danger Mouse on board, Beck puts the Scientology self-help lingo and instantly-dated pop culture references aside in favor of an affecting album that still swings.†

Girl Talk and the Hood Internet
† As long as three years back, critics were declaring the mashup passť. Then again, people were saying the same of hip-hop in '82. This year, Girl Talk and Internet phenomenon the Hood Internet raised the form from mere novelty to art, confirming it as perhaps the defining musical innovation of the Dubya era. Mashups have their share of detractors who dismiss the form as a witless amalgamation of others' intellectual property, but then again, the same criticisms have been made about hip-hop and traditional folk music, and we know who won history's favor in those debates.

Honorable Mentions

Parts and Labor:†'Receivers'
This band comes off like Fugazi, if they'd swapped the guitars for synths. Their latest,†Receivers, sounds as if that reformulated Fugazi kicked Ian MacKaye out in favor of Bauhaus' Peter Murphy.

Crystal Castles: 'S/T'
In which two Williamsburg-rocking brats born after the release of the first Super Mario Bros. discover punk rock buried in the heart of the eight-bit Nintendo sound chip.†

Justin Townes Earle, 'The Good Life'
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that I was employed by the younger Earle's record label for the first half of this year. In the spirit of personal testimony, I declare that†The Good Life redeemed the Earle family name in my mind (never been a fan of the father's work). It's an album of effortless Western swing that shuffles with the assurance of prime Ray Price. That's not a conflict of interest--that's just pure, unvarnished fact.

Ladytron, 'Velocifero'
If you're old enough to remember dancing to Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Edge, you would love this album. If you're young enough to not know what the Edge was, then you probably danced to this album in a sweaty club at some point this year.

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