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Dave Barry could convince anyone that any year was dominated by nonsensical happenings and twisty-turny, stranger-than-fiction events… but isn’t 2008 really the world’s best example yet of the Barry Paradigm (I am not making this up!)?

I was reading through the master humorist’s 2008 Year In Review while listening to tunes to refine the all-important best-of list, and there’s no doubt that this has been one hell of a strange 365.

I still have my newspaper clipping of Barry’s 1992 Year In Review, certainly the last time that shit in the world got quite so strange – and it’s a column I seek out every year, so trust me when I say that.

This year threw ol’ Catfish Vegas quite a few curves… but that’s enough about that.

As far as 2008 music goes, this year I heard far more new albums than any other, and with an embrace-anything-that-comes attitude, I dove in. And while my tastes aren’t drastically changed (there’s no doubt I lean toward the country/folk end of the rock spectrum), this list certainly reflects the broader listening.

There’s no shortage of Best-of-2008 lists, and I don’t proclaim anything particularly special about this one, but I’ve put in plenty of time and thought and whole-heartedly stand behind all of these picks. So, here goes, the Catfish Vegas Presents… Best Albums of 2008:

1. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
I’ve never heard anything that sounds so lonely and yet drew me in so completely. Sometimes I think the secret is in the steel guitar, but For Emma isn’t near that easy – this is clearly one of the most carefully and deliberately recorded acoustic records in quite some time. This is a startling record, from start to finish, and one that’s a clear reminder that the basics of rock and popular music aren’t remotely exhausted yet – all you need is a guitar, some time and some of the most compelling and heartbreaking songs ever written, all performed with a forlorn wail that stops people dead in their tracks.
Bon Iver – Skinny Love

2. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant
I’m putting these two together, as if the EP and the full-length debut were one long record, because I can think of no other way to say how phenomenally this band impacted me this year. It’s so often that you wish a band would’ve cut a song or two, but these Northwesterners have plenty more to say. More to come on the Fleet Foxes in tomorrow’s Best Shows of 2008, but I just have to say that the battle between No. 1 and No. 2 on this list was razor thin. I can’t say enough great things about the stunning harmonies that make the core of this record.
Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal

3. Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
It’s hard to find a top-10 or -20 list of 2008 albums that doesn’t inclue Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes, but the Helio Sequence are nowhere near as well represented. And I can’t fathom why – they’ve recorded a mesmerizing and thoroughly rewarding album that’s far ahead of anything the band has yet achieved. Keep Your Eyes Ahead is gripping a sonic drug as anything that I’ve tried all year. It’s a dense and barbed sound that you’ll have a hard time walking back out of. I’m severely bummed to have missed seeing the Helio Sequence in Tucson this year…
Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead

4. The Tallest Man On Earth – Shallow Grave
My “Where the Hell did this guy come from?” album of the year. This Swedish dude has nailed down an early Dylan sound that’s more woodsy (and more musically accomplished) than anything Dylan himself laid down in those days. Precise guitar finger-picking and even better banjo plucking are the hallmarks of this record, along with the tremendous vocals of Kristian Matsson, who seriously needs to make a trip to Tucson as soon as he can… this is not a dude I want to hear just on record for any longer than I have to.

5. James McMurtry – Just Us Kids
Listening to Just Us Kids this year, and seeing McMurtry play live at Club Congress, it’s clear that nobody alive today can stuff a novel into a five-minute song the way James McMurtry can. About four or five of the tracks from Just Us Kids are ready this minute to be optioned into Oscar-class films, complete with characters just dripping with the heartache of too many mistakes, plot lines as subtle and drawn out as any Richard Russo novel, and the sinking twists that’ll break the backs of both the winners and the losers. And he’s one hell of a lead guitar player, too.
James McMurtry – Ruby & Carlos (WKNU in-studio clip)

6. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers
It’s a rare and uplifting thing to see a musician in the early days of what you’re sure will be a long and renowned career, and this summer Kathleen Edwards took my breath away, both on stage and on record. She has a rootsy sound that blends country, soul, folk and rock in a way that recalls Lucinda Williams, and Edwards seems to be just now coming into her own as a songwriter, and it’s a blessing to have caught her in this early phase of her rising career. Asking For Flowers has this assuredness that gives Edwards all the license in the world to sing songs that stretch from politics to intense, character-driven sketches that reach way beyond the typical female singer-songwriter fare.

7. Calexico – Carried To Dust
A local favorite that in my mind can really do no wrong, Calexico is one of the bands that I find most difficult to judge in any objective way. That said, Carried to Dust is right up there with Feast of Wire as the band’s absolute best work, which means that it surely rates among the best albums recorded in the last five years. Joey Burns and John Convertino have proven time and time again to be the best collaborative duo working today: they’ve backed everyone from Willie Nelson to Neko Case to Richard Buckner to Howe Gelb. And what’s most remarkable about their session work is how they emerge after each wave with a stronger Calexico record.

8. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Real Emotional Trash
An early-2008 album that seems to have been mostly forgotten by now, Real Emotional Trash is the best Malkmus solo album, and I’ll tell you why: Janet Weiss. The ex-Sleater Kinney drummer is the perfect fit for Malkmus’ looser set of rockin’ tunes, with a powerful crashing style on the drums and just the right backing vocals. This is a jam of an album, and I don’t doubt it caught flatfoot the folks unfortunate enough to have missed seeing the band live. And even though it’s a record that thrives best on stage, Real Emotional Trash is the best kind of rock ‘n’ roll: pure and vital, at just the right time.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Baltimore

9. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
I’m going to stand against what seems to be the consensus and say that Wolf Parade’s second record is defintely better than the band’s first. It’s a less jagged, if less focused, record, and the standout songs are catchier and poppier than those on Apologies to the Queen Mary. The dual songwriting core of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner seem far more comfortable operating in eachother’s spheres, and the somewhat tell-tale production fingerprints of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock are nowhere to be found.
Wolf Parade – Language City

10. Crooked Fingers – Forfeit/Fortune
The latest Eric Bachman project does nothing to dispel my notion that he’s the one of the most creative and vital songwriters alive today. Ever since I heard his To The Races solo record called “the Nebraska of our generation” and been unable to find a fault in that description, I’ve been thirsting for more Bachmann. What some are calling a slightly more polished record sounds to me like Backmann just bridging over to a new form, as he as from Archers of Loaf to his quiet solo recordings. The closing song, “Your Control” is one of the year’s best, featuring the amazing Neko Case.

11. Giant Sand – proVISIONS
12. TV on the Radio – Dear Science
13. The Walkmen – You & Me
14. Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
15. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins
16. Hold Steady – Stay Positive
17. Portishead – Third
18. James – Hey Ma
19. Old 97s – Blame It On Gravity
20. Shearwater – Rook

Apologies to: Alejandro Escovedo, Beach House, Blitzen Trapper, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Constantines, Dr. Dog, Drive-by Truckers, Frightened Rabbit, Gaslight Anthem, Lambchop, My Morning Jacket, Nada Surf, Port O’Brien and Sun Kil Moon… I heard fantastic things and still intend to burrow deep into your 2008 records, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.

And I don’t know where the hell to place Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell-Tale Signs, but damn if the master isn’t releasing some of the best music out there. It doesn’t seem right to put an outtakes collection that spans back to 1989 on the 2008 list, so I won’t, but don’t doubt that this is a top-5 release of this year. Go Bob, and I’ll keep goin’ along…
Since Dylan’s people won’t put embeddable clips up on youtube, you’ll have to click through to check this one out (I promose it’s worth it…)

So that’s it for 2008… No doubt some of these opinions will change after just a bit, but I reckon some of these 2008 top records will last with me for a long while.

Originally published Jan. 2, 2009 at Catfish Vegas presents…

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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