CD review for Dec. 26, 2008

Top 10 CDs of 2008

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10. "Volume One," She & Him: A collection of folksy little songs that don't have much to them - aside from an amazing pop sensibility and ability to keep renewing their welcome - "Volume One" isn't anywhere close to the best-written record of the year. But it is one of the most fun.

9. "Death Magnetic," Metallica: Finally, Metallica sheds its whiny exterior of the past decade and decides to rock again. Well worth the wait, though maybe not worth "Some Kind of Monster," the band's painstaking 2004 documentary.

8. "Attack & Release," The Black Keys: With "Attack & Release," The Black Keys have revised their raw-as-they-please blues duo getup with smoother vocals and a dose of Danger Mouse production. The base level of grit stays, with just enough innovation to keep things interesting.

7. "Rising Down," The Roots: As fans of the ever-innovative Philly rappers have come to expect and appreciate, "Rising Down" boils over with frustration and retaliation at societal struggles. Like "Game Theory" before it, the tone of this Roots album is at once angry and bemused, combative and escapist, rising and down. It gives you tracks to blast at a barbecue and thoughts to stick in your head, while showing yet again that The Roots are without question one of the most entertaining hip-hop acts of their time. (review contributed by Mike Lawrence)

6. "The Stand Ins," Okkervil River: Okkervil River makes music that is joyous and reflective, crafting albums that are easy, worthy listens. The group keeps its solid track record with "The Stand Ins," a carefully orchestrated but rocking follow to 2007's acclaimed "The Stage Names." One of those bands that has a way of distilling years of rock 'n' roll institutional knowledge into pristine records, Okkervil River succeeds in writing pretty little melodies with ugly little themes.

5. "Fleet Foxes," Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes is what would have happened if The Beach Boys had abandoned surf music after their first album, bought a shack in the Appalachian Mountains and lived and recorded there for the rest of their days. The Seattle band's self-titled debut is a carefully arranged, beautifully cohesive study in folk, pop and lonely songwriting, spanning jangly drums on "Ragged Wood" to drifty odes on "Oliver James." It's complex without being difficult, and that's harder to do than it sounds.

4. "Dear Science," TV on the Radio: I like to think of TV on the Radio as the updated, band-sized version of David Bowie. That comparison might not make immediate sense (aside from that whole Bowie loving TV on the Radio thing), but think about: complex but near-perfect arrangements, lyrics that don't necessarily hook you or make sense, and albums that are either universally loved or generally regarded as not worth listening to. TV on the Radio hit the "Hunky Dory" jackpot with "Dear Science," the Brooklyn-based group's third full-length record.

3. "Tha Carter III," Lil Wayne: Lil Wayne is a constant source of rhymes that are smarter, more self-aware, more playful and more complex than anything else coming off the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart. Definitely, "Tha Carter III" is about party rap and cars and sex and being the next big thing. But it's also about Lil Wayne's inability to maintain relationships and his despair about Hurricane Katrina. It's all over the place and it doesn't always make sense from track to track. And that's what makes Lil Wayne so interesting: He doesn't care if his records make sense to you.

2. "For Emma, Forever Ago," Bon Iver: Justin Vernon's debut as Bon Iver sounds like it was recorded in a remote hunting cabin - because it was. Sometimes closer to Gregorian chant than they are to coffeehouse folk, the songs on "For Emma, Forever Ago" capture a range of emotion without ever really changing their tone. Vernon never asks questions and doesn't have to give answers, which means his raspy romances can move through the album's 37 minutes unharmed. It also means "For Emma" can become one of the year's best records, without necessarily wanting to.

1. "Feed the Animals," Girl Talk: You could argue that because Gregg Gillis didn't actually write any of the material on "Feed the Animals," his record doesn't deserve consideration for the best album of the year. And if that is your argument, this is why I don't want to talk to you: "Feed the Animals" stayed in my car CD player for the entire summer. It played almost nonstop for three months. Maybe that's possible because Gillis jacked other peoples' pop songs. But what makes "Feed the Animals" great is its ability to re-imagine those pop songs, to mash them together and make them what that form of music is supposed to be: a dance-your-clothes-off wash of superficial fun.

Honorable mentions: "IV," Chatham County Line; "All Rebel Rockers," Michael Franti and Spearhead; "Mr. Love & Justice," Billy Bragg; "April," Sun Kil Moon; "Hometowns," Rural Alberta Advantage; "Hymns for a Dark Horse," Bowerbirds; "Nouns," No Age

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