Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2008: Staff Writer Jeff Giles’ picks

Hey, you know that death spiral the music industry has been in for the last eight years or so? Yeah, it isn’t going away. (Matter of fact, it turns out that the record biz – ever the trendsetters – started its collapse a few years before the financial sector and the automakers.) But even if album sales aren’t what they used to be, and stars aren’t as super as they once were, more great music than ever is waiting to be heard. Here are 10 top-to-bottom winners from the scores of new albums I listened to this year.

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. Randy Newman: Harps & Angels
He only releases an album of new songs about once every 10 years, so his fans have grown accustomed to pinning a lot of pent-up hope on Randy Newman – and fortunately, his latest is among his best. That isn’t just late-career grade inflation, either; Harps and Angels contains the sharpest, most acerbic pop tunes you’ll hear all year, mocking everyone from Korean stereotypes to Jackson Browne. Nobody bought it, of course, but that’s our problem, not his.

2. Dr. John: City That Care Forgot
Two years after the rest of the world moved on, the Night Tripper is still pissed off about what happened to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and this stank-eyed song suite proves you can be filled with rage and still be funky. If you haven’t kept up with the good Doctor since his “Iko Iko” days, you may be surprised – in a good way, of course.

3. The Felice Brothers: The Felice Brothers
If you’ve spent the last 30 years wishing Robbie Robertson hadn’t left the Band, well, The Felice Brothers won’t really make you stop pining for a bygone era, but it will reinforce your belief in the continued existence of wonderfully authentic (and just plain wonderful) roots rock. None of the Felice Brothers have ever walked within a mile of a vocal coach, and this record is so much the better for it.

4. Matthew Ryan: Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State
After the quieter, machine-assisted Notes from a Late Night High Rise, Ryan was ready to reconnect with a band and dial up the amps – and that’s just what he did on this album. The results are typically searing, but they have an added rawness, a spark that hums between Ryan and his bandmates. It sounds like what it is: A terrific album that was recorded in a garage. Open a cold one and play it loud.

5. Lindsey Buckingham: Gift of Screws
The once-and-again Fleetwood Mac guitarist isn’t known for recording quickly, but after taking 14 years to release the follow-up to Out of the Cradle, he’s been atypically busy, issuing a live album and the long-awaited Gift of Screws in ’08. It isn’t the double album fans were grabbing off the Web ten years ago, but that might be a good thing – it rocks harder and more cohesively than any of his other solo records.

6. Q-Tip: The Renaissance
After a lost decade spent entering and exiting five different label rosters, Q-Tip finally returns with his second solo album – and rather than sounding like something that was labored over for years, The Renaissance succeeds in providing some of the smartest, catchiest, most dance-friendly hip-hop of the year. Hopefully, it’ll be enough to keep him from another extended absence.

7. Steve Poltz: Traveling
In which the erstwhile Rugburn follows up his excellent Chinese Vacation with an even more excellent collection of hook-filled pop songs that gently run the gamut from sweet to funny to sad and back again. Poltz is a songwriter with an uncommonly deft touch, but he’s occasionally had his tongue stuck too deeply in his cheek to speak clearly; here, he plays to nothing but his strengths.

8. The Roots: Rising Down
Not the most user-friendly rap record of the year, Rising Down makes up in uncompromising toughness what it lacks in radio-polished hooks – something you wouldn’t have known if you only listened to “Birthday Girl,” the Fall Out Boy-assisted novelty track that Geffen shipped to radio before the album’s release. Here, “Girl” is relegated to bonus-track status – which is where it belongs on an album as dark and wily as this one. You’ve got to admire their commitment to artistic integrity, but if the Roots are going to keep from going the way of Jurassic 5, their next release needs to be smart and radio-friendly.

9. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
Take the bug-eyed skittishness of mid ‘80s Talking Heads, cross it with the assuredly smooth globetrotting of Paul Simon’s Graceland, and you’ve got yourself Vampire Weekend, and one of the most instantly addictive indie releases of the spring. The post-rock landscape is littered with baby bands who tried too hard to have fun, but any band that can name-check Peter Gabriel and ask “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” on the same album has to have its priorities in order. Can’t wait for the next one.

10. Pete Seeger: At 89
Like the title says, Seeger turned 89 this year – and he’s still doing what he does best: Taking his message to the people, armed with nothing but a banjo and a voice that, while not as strong as it used to be, is still capable of leading a good old-fashioned sing-along. Hands-down the most inspirational record of the year, despite the occasional corny line.