Sunday, December 21, 2008

Black Sheep's Best Albums of 2008

What? Huh? Black Sheep does music? What is that about? I thought this sheep was all about the movies. 'Fraid not. If there is one thing Black Sheep is passionate about outside the wide world of film, it is most definitely music. In fact, you would often be hard pressed not to see me walking around with my iPod buds firmly planted into my ears ... y'know if you actually knew me and knew what I looked like, which would be kinda necessary for you to point me out on the street. Rambling? Yes. With a point? Not really. So, let's get to it then. The following is an alphabetical list of the 10 albums that moved me either to tears or to full on belting in my kitchen whilst I did the dishes.

Adele, 19

The album is called "19" because she was 19 when she wrote and recorded it. Her unique voice is haunting and her maturity is shocking. All too often, young artists put out work that sounds beyond their emotional capacity or placates to their own age group, feeling flat and uninspired. The moment you hear the first few chords of the album's first track, "Daydreamer", you know that a particularly adult mood is being set. And then you hear her. Her voice is deep and her British accent is heavy but all of this adds an unexpected weight that anchors the album in an intensely emotional grip. She is playful and cheeky but, unlike most girls her age, she is always aware of her own self. She is both haunting and enchanting and clearly a talent that has enormous growth waiting for her in her inevitably lengthy career ahead.


When Coldplay's last album before this one was released, I found it to be solid but somewhat tired. They had a formula and they worked it. Only their first two efforts were such strong individual and unique pieces that formula was not what I wanted from this band. Then they announced "Viva la Vida or Death and All his Friends". When you're a super group, you run the risk of coming across as terribly overwrought and self-important (cough, U2) and this title gave me pause. I needn't have worried. Coldplay had found their new sound. It was a perfect blend of the unmistakable Chris Martin vocals and piano driven melodies and a new infusion of ambient electronic noise and modern rock. And as for that title, well I like to see it as Coldplay giving us all a choice. We can either choose to celebrate our lives or give in to defeat. It is clear to me which of those options Coldplay has chosen for themselves. Viva la vida, indeed.


This is one of those rare and unexpected finds for me. I happened upon this album because I kept hearing it in the background of my apartment, coming from my roommate's bedroom. After asking him on more than one occasion what he was listening to, I eventually borrowed it from him and uploaded it to my collection. I knew that if this music was strong enough to come out of the background and grab my attention time and time again that it needed a closer listen. Dosh is a one-man show. The man plays nearly all the instruments in this eclectic combination of rock, electronic and experimental jazz. And he does it all in his basement! You can't help but respect that. And while I initially wanted to add this album to my repertoire to keep me company in a non-invasive way, it manages to grab my full focus every time. "Wolves and Wolverines" is a near indescribable work of genius.

Jay Brannan, GODDAMNED

There is a special place in my heart for this album. Jay Brannan is New York based singer/songwriter who gained some fame when he starred in John Cameron Mitchell's SHORTBUS. He sang in the movie and I soon found out that he had a few songs available to purchse on iTunes. Then this year, he released his first full-length album, "goddamned". I downloaded it, expecting very little, even though I did enjoy his previous EP. Within no time, I was hooked. The man has managed to sneak his way into my Top 10 artists list on with only one album because I simply cannot stop listening to his morose music. It is simple in style, often only consisting of an acoustic guitar and strings but that is part of its charm. It's the passion that keeps me coming back for more though. Every lyric is so personal that you feel as though you know the man behind the music after hearing his songs. Of course, this isn't true. Even Brannan himself knows this as he sings in "At First Sight", "You like the guy on your iPod, not the guy in your bed." Brannan is brave and honest, an all too rare combination these days. I also had the distinct pleasure of meeting and interviewing him this fall. Check it out here.

John Legend, EVOLVER

I cannot think of a more appropriate name for this album. I have to admit that I was terribly disappointed with smooth, sexy soul singer's third album when I first heard it. I couldn't connect with the direction he was headed until I read an interview with Legend about his intentions for the direction. He knew that some might struggle with this contemporary sound but had hoped that people would give it enough time to see the depth lying beneath it. So I gave it another listen and there it was. Yes, it is a decidedly more contemporary feel but it never goes so far as to cross over into modern, mundane R&B garbage. Legend elevates every song to gut wrenching emotional levels with the strength of his scintillating voice. One of my very good friends nailed it on the head when she described him as consistently being able to reach inside of you with his voice and pull directly at your heart. Still, Legend always makes you feel safe, like nothing could go wrong as long as he's singing his song.

Kanye West, 808'S & HEARTBREAK

Intimate and forthcoming are not words that are often used to describe Kanye West. Humble and singer, even less so. Yet, here we are. This album was not expected this year but West just couldn't wait to let his new sound get out there. I could not be happier with this decision. I have never been fully satisfied with any of West's previous efforts. There are always standout tracks here and there but I've never enjoyed the albums as whole, cohesive efforts. This trend has now come to an end. Now, if you're not a big fan of a vocoder effect on voice, this album may grate on your nerves but I find it entirely addictive. It is both dark and deep. Dark, lyrically. Deep, musically. West waxes on about his breakup with his fiancee and the death of his mother, both of which took place in the last year. The one-two punch of these experiences has apparently left West feeling pensive, questioning the choices he made for his life and his priorities. These questions are laid on deep, base and percussion heavy tracks that drill into your head and stay there. West has finally made me a believer. All he had to do was drop the ego.


It is a rare feat these days to create albums that are consistently engaging from start to finish. MGMT has done that without question with their first album under new management. Sorry, that was misleading. They used to be called Management and released one album under that name but have since changed it after realizing that there were already plenty of bands out there under that name. I love when rock and electronica blend so seamlessly. Rockers can enjoy this just as much as all the folks looking to dance out there. Even your dad might like this one seeing as how lead singer, Andrew Van Wyngarden's voice bears an uncanny resemblance to rock icon, Mick Jagger. Despite all their obvious influences, MGMT has crafted an original work that will certainly be remembered as one of the best finds of 2008.

Portishead, THIRD

I can remember it as though it were yesterday. I walked into my apartment and had one of many lengthy conversations with my roommate about everything and nothing at all. Not that my roommate isn't interesting but suddenly I found it impossible to concentrate. What was that sound coming from his room? It was hard and heavy but that voice; I knew that voice. "Is that the new Portishead?" I asked. And yes, it most certainly was. People had waited eleven years to hear new material from the band that was at the forefront of the electronic music surge of the 1990's and suddenly, here it was. I was immediately blown away. Their hiatus, which they were certainly entitled to but which led to mass disappointment amongst their fans, was instantly forgotten. THIRD, appropriately titled as it is their third studio album, was unlike anything they had ever produced before but yet still had that signature Portishead sound, something between melancholy and appreciative. Portishead is still miles ahead of all the imitators that tried to fill the void in their absence. They may have disappeared for a while but this return makes it seem as if they never left.

Sheryl Crow, DETOURS

Sheryl Crow also recently took a break. Who wouldn't though after breaking up with your fiance and being diagnosed with breast cancer. Crow had just released an album when her personal life fell apart and retreated from music to go to survive her battle with cancer and adopt a baby boy named Wyatt. With her health back on track and a new love in her life, Crow went back to the studio. She also rekindled an old relationship with producer, Bill Bottrell, the man responsible for Crow's debut, TUESDAY NIGHT MUSIC CLUB. What they crafted together is nothing short of stunning. The album is called DETOURS and has two distinct paths. Ever the activist at heart, the first half of the album is a reflection on the state of the world. Somehow, Bottrell steers Crow's words and music clear of preachy pop star crap and makes it reflective and hopeful. The title track follows and, after Crow asks her mother to "teach her to love with a paper thin heart", the album takes its own detour. The remaining songs all look back on the loss of her love and the gain of her health. It is heartbreaking and starkly personal. I would expect nothing less from Crow.

Vampire Weekend, VAMPIRE WEEKEND

I have to admit, I don't know very much about this album. All I do know is that it makes me very happy and keeps me up and bouncing. I suppose one could describe it as college-rock meets modern pop ska. The lyrics are dippy and influences like The Police and Peter Gabriel are too obvious to ignore but none of it matters. Maybe I like it because it isn't like anything else I listen to but I don't see how this would matter either. The fact is that this album makes me joyful and anything that can do that has to get its day.

That's it! 10 albums that filled the space between my ears to and from work, on lengthy train rides and on leisurely walks through my neighborhood late at night. One last mention though. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a pop music fan at heart and I could not release this list without giving props to my favorite guilty pleasure of 2008 ...

Mariah Carey, E=MC2

Fine, that is by far the cheesiest title of the year. And fine, she is essentially naked on the cover. I'm telling you though, radio passed on this one way too early. Mariah's follow up to her comeback album, THE EMANCIPATION OF MIMI (by far, the best album of her career), is packed with so much single potential, its impossible to listen to this album without getting any number of hooks locked in your head. If there is anyone out there who knows how to work a formula, it's Mariah. She saw what worked last time out and tried to recreate that here. Arguably, this is why it didn't do as well - personally, I blame the poor choice of lead single, "Touch my Body" - but this is also why it is such a joy to listen to. Mariah found a new groove and she is entitled to ride it for a while. Whether she is professing that she is "That Chick" you like over a sampled hook from Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall", asserting that her "Love Story" won't end up like that Casablanca movie or realizing the "Side Effects" of her past abusive relationship, Mariah is doing it all her way and I love that she finally figured out what that is.

Alright, I feel that after that last bit, I may have lost enough of your confidence in my taste so I will move on. How about I give something away to keep you coming back. The first five people to post their own favorite albums of 2008 in the comments section for this post will receive a copy of a mix I made entitled, "Goodnight, 2008. Sleep Well." It contains selections from each album mentioned here and a handful of other memorable songs from the last year.

From everyone here at Black Sheep Reviews ... well, that is essentially just me really ... Have a safe and happy holiday! I will leave you with a rather sad Christmas song by Jay Brannan ...


Anonymous said...

1. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
2. The Dears - Missiles
3. Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends
4. Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer
5. David Martel - I Hardly Knew Me

Anonymous said...

1. When I'm With You - Faber Drive
2. All Shook Up - All Shook Up Cast Recording
3. Happy Days - Happy Days Cast Recording
4. Leona Lewis - Bleeding Love
5. I Can Do Better Than That - Last 5 Years
6. Pocket Full of Sunshine - Natasha Bedigfield
7. Womanizer - Britney
8. Love Lock Down - Kanye West
9. Wig in A Box - Hedwig
10. So What - Pink

Anonymous said...

ok, so i am in the country and only have dial up, which is SO slow.
therefore, i can't check the actual dates of the following records, but if they aren't 2008, they should simply for the mark they left on my life during the past year.

here we go:

1. The Rural Alberta Advantage "Hometowns"

2. The Walkmen "You & me"

3. Cut Copy "In ghost colours"

4. Jens Lekman "Night falls over Kortedala"

5. Coeur de Pirate "Coeur de pirate"

6. Sol Seppy "The bells of 1 2"

7. Deerhunter "Microcastle" & "Weird era cont."

8. Frightened Rabbit "Midnight organ fight"

9. Bon Iver "For Emma, forever ago" (I have a feeling this is 2007)

10. Flight of the conchords "Flight of the conchords"

Herman Dune "Next year in Zion"

msryan said...

In no particular order.....

1. She & Him - Volume One
2. Frightened Rabbit - Midnight Organ Fight
3. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Hometowns
4. The Walkmen - You & Me
5. Hercules and Love Affair - self-titled
6. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
7. Manhattan Love Suicides - Burnt Out Landscapes
8. Herman Dune - Next year in Zion
9. Shocking Pinks - self-titled (not 2008 but i listened to it a lot)
10. Madonna - Hard Candy (just kidding, but not really Joe)