The 'experts' at All Songs Considered have been compiling their own highlights of the year in music, while their listeners' poll has both confirmed many of their opinions in addition to adding a few other recommendations of their own.
In general, while I enjoy the opinions at All Songs Considered, I find a lot of the bands they love to be all rather samey. I haven't been a real alternative music addict since graduate school -- and regard one of my luckier moments of my previous life to book the Arcade Fire to play shortly before they went really huge and started touring with U2. And while I don't know that I necessarily adore their music, I do think that they had an original, interesting sound that it sounds to me like so many of the newer All Songs favorite bands aspire to. My biggest divergence of opinion with the folks at All Songs is that I really don't care for much of what Carrie Brownstein (formerly of the awesome Sleater-Kinney and now of the Monitor Mix blog) has nicely categorized as 'beard rock' -- music by sensitive, hirsute men featuring lavish mixes of ocarinas/acoustic guitars/concertina that they found in their grandparents' attic/a forest cabin/therapy (pick whichever combination works).
Nevertheless, inspired by listening to my All Songs Considered podcasts on my commute to work, I decided to make a shortlist of my own top-4.
Hail of Bullets, Of Frost and War. I think this is a great death metal album. It has a classic feel to it -- nice and chunky and doesn't rely on too many odd time-signature changes to keep it from feeling repetitious. I happen to think that Martin Van Drunen's vocals are perfect -- and it sounds as great as it does because it's produced by Dan Swanö (of Edge of Sanity and Bloodbath fame). Sort of Bolt Thrower meets Medal of Honor.
Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider, Silent City. This one starts a little slow, but just picks up and picks up. Kayhan Kalhor is a virtuoso kemençe fiddle player who has already played with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, helping audiences around the world unpack the threads of musical translation along the great trade route that united east and west. Brooklyn Rider is a string-quartet based in, surprisingly, Brooklyn dedicated to using "the rich medium of the string quartet as a vehicle for borderless communication." Unlike some fusion albums, this seems to let both parties actually remain distinct.
School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms. I believe this album may actually have been released in 2007, but I didn't find it till this fall. And it's my poll. You can check out several songs from the album at their MySpace page -- although I would say that neither of my favorite songs is here. I won't tell you what they are because the album is that complete -- it's not an album you rush to fiddle with your iPod scroll wheel to get to the tracks you prefer. And each tune has its own character without sounding like a pale imitation of its neighbors.
Portishead, Third. I'm surprised I like this as much as I do. Some of my other favorite albums -- like those from Scott Tuma or Amiina -- are great to listen to because they are a wonderful briccolage of sounds, some prominent, some submerged. While Portishead is often credited as one of the originators of trip-hop (and this album has the trademark qualities of electronically-induced ethereality), Third seems stripped down to the most basic elements with little clutter.
One of the All Songs critics (and I apologize for not remembering who) on one of my podcasts made the interesting observation that perhaps we were entering a different aural epoch, insofar as the boombox has been displaced by the iPod, speakers displaced by headphones, and the elaborate studio replaced by the digital home recorder. In that regard, the music too has become perhaps more intimate, more layered, and arguably cleaner.
If I'm feeling more Grinch-like, maybe I'll share my biggest music disappointments of 2008. In the meantime, have fun, stay warm, and love the ones you're with. Especially if they're red-dogs.