Each new year brings thousands of fresh albums for consumption and analysis, approval and dismissal. Consider that, come every winter, publications rank the top 50 or 100 records released during that calendar year. Even hearing the cream of the crop means a lot of listening.
In the rush to get through as much music as possible, intimate connections with new records don't always happen for critics. Too much to think about, too little time. So, this year, we asked our critics to stop and think about the sounds they've heard this year and offer a reflection on which album meant the most—not necessarily as a critic who's listening and responding, but as a person who's hearing and living. This is the new music for which we're most thankful.
THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM, THE '59 SOUND
When fall hit, with it came music burnout or some such ailment. Mercifully soon after, The Gaslight Anthem (based a half hour from Springsteen's Freehold, N.J.) faith-healed me in a burst of guitars and hooks and street-level stories. It's not that the quartet's The '59 Sound is cutting-edge. Rather, it's triumphantly derivative. In comfort-food parlance, it's a slab of meat loaf surrounded by mashed potatoes, macaroni & cheese and Apple Jacks. Or: It's Springsteen meets Charles Dickens meets The Clash meets a '69 Mustang meets Tom Petty meets my high-school yearbook meets Springsteen meets fellow influences-on-sleeves acts Counting Crows and Goo Goo Dolls meets Wilson Pickett meets beautiful, restless girls all seemingly named Maria, all meeting Springsteen out back. In short: equal parts Boss and everything else in my record collection and memory bank. In shorter: resuscitation. Thanks, (recycled) soul of New Jersey, right from the (renewed) heart of N.C. —Rick Cornell
R.E.M., MURMUR: DELUXE 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Murmur was omnipresent in my Southern town: In the years after its initial release, it was on the tiny college radio station that dryly referred to itself as the "10-Watt Matchstick" to the nearby commercial station's 100-Watt blowtorch. Murmur crept out of the back rooms of house parties, scored car rides with friends, and eventually found its way into my own tape deck. This newly remastered version—replete with a 1983 Toronto concert in which the band showcases how elastic these songs could be—just darkens the huge smudge it has become in my subconscious.
For one thing, Murmur was a jigsaw puzzle. Surrounded by shimmering rock, Stipe's lyrics weren't at first recognizable, even though by a few listens, I was ready to sing along to most anything. I felt moved by music with words that took some figuring out. Their emotional weight caked up inside me like mud. And I felt as though I'd lived many of the moments described—loneliness, social awkwardness, defiant excitability. Hearing the repetition of "conversation fear" in "9-9," for example, sounded strangely natural. Remastered and reissued, it still does. —Chris Toenes
Thanks to its esoteric iconography and general air of misanthropy, heavy metal's often chastised as gnarly validation for the isolated and angry. You know, like, "Hey, Mom, if Varg Vikernes can burn down a church, do I have to go to church?" But pop music, says common knowledge, makes young folks want to hold hands or give peace a chance or be brothers and sisters or stuff. It unites across the aisles. But this year, Meanderthal—a triumphantly poppy, deceptively heavy metal record by four sweaty Florida scene veterans called Torche—unified my circle of friends like no indie rock or roots amble could. From the metal dude with the Viking warship tattooed across his chest to the sans-ink friend who's barely listened to much that's heavier than Dave Matthews Band's fourth record, everyone I know loved how Meanderthal could pummel as it charmed, ground as it grinned. Meanderthal is soft-hearted hegemony from a band that's survived too much to be too bitter or too pure. Hey, haven't we all? —Grayson Currin
WEEZER, RED ALBUM
Where have you gone, Matt Sharp? Weezer's overly self-indulgent 2008 release Red Album is full of quarter-baked ideas, including at least a dozen in one tune, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived." So what's to be thankful for in the Weez's latest mess, a waste from the band that used to be my absolute favorite? For me, its near-complete absence of luster inspired a year of musical rediscovery, heavy on Pinkerton, Pixies and post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys. And while revisiting those gems of the past, I vowed to live in the now, especially musically. I once skipped class to see Weezer but missed other opportunities to catch the band before its setlists became too bad to tolerate. I've promised not to let this happen with The Avett Brothers, my new No. 1. In the past few years, I've seen them 30-plus times. Appreciate what you've got, right? Especially when they're in the studio with Red Album producer Rick Rubin. Oh noes! —Spencer Griffith
ERYKAH BADU, NEW AMERYKAH (PART ONE: 4TH WORLD WAR)
Erykah Badu is about to have her third baby with her third rapper. Being the overdosed rap culture devotee that I am, I'm thrilled that these fledglings are all fathered by rappers I have liked or still do and mothered by one of the most creative women in music. I'm looking forward to a more Badutopian future, if you will. With each album, Badu exposes and reveals more, bringing herself and her audience—yours truly included—closer together. Her latest, New Amerykah, has taught me the most about myself through her own revelations. My experience with Badu's music is a surrogate love affair, as she replaces the void left by my own failed relationships. Those old glories sang sweet songs, but their personae never left me spellbound, enraptured, pleasingly displaced. Badu does. —Eric Tullis
TV ON THE RADIO, DEAR SCIENCE
As I walk to class, a seething evangelist tells me I'm going to hell. I'm a woman. I wear pants. I go to college. Hell was meant for me, of course. Like many bands, TV on the Radio expresses its anguish with the world's problems through music, but its political statements on its latest, Dear Science, are danceable, with disco beats, hand claps and bom-bom-boms working to make everything OK, even as the big hooks above document bigger woes. In headphones, the dark-dance combination silences the evangelist, giving me a pass out of his and the world's hell, at least for a moment. You're right, John: That's what the volume knob's for. —Elizabeth Lilly
THE HILLIARD ENSEMBLE, AUDIVI VOCEM
One of my favorite albums of the year is absent from all of my professional, music critic best-of lists. This elision and my fondness for the album are directly related. I love the Hilliard Ensemble's Audivi Vocem primarily because it's gorgeous. After all, it's an a cappella quartet singing English Renaissance music by Thomas Tallis, Christopher Tye and John Sheppard. Warm, fluid voices surge into infinite braids, projecting into the metaphysical rafters. The other reason for my love is a bit more complicated: As much as I adore various pop idioms, I hear them differently since they became my livelihood. Their immediacy is tempered by my professional imperative to instantly assess them. But I don't write for any publication where I can pitch a review of English Renaissance vocal music. So when I listen to Hilliard Ensemble, I experience it viscerally, not academically. That's what I'm musically thankful for in 2008—that spaces still exist where I can hear music with pure, innocent ears. Hey, am I getting paid for this? —Brian Howe