The Best Music of 2008 

Dave Gil de Rubio's Top 10.

Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin'

Credit Barry Manilow for suggesting that Shelby Lynne dive into the Dusty Springfield oeuvre, but then again, given her ability to weave soul, country, blues, and pop into quite the powerful package, ol' Barry was definitely on to something. As for Lynne, she tapped legendary pop maven Phil Ramone to produce, and to his credit, he kept the arrangements sparse, allowing the dirty-blond chanteuse to croon and emote. And while Springfield pop fare like "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "The Look of Love" resonate with genuine longing, Lynne changes the mood up by adding grit to the swamp-pop of Tony Joe White and transforming the Fritts/Hinton gem "Breakfast in Bed" into an irresistible invitation. Far from being a phoned-in effort, Lynne's latest does Dusty Springfield's legacy proud. (Lost Highway)

R.E.M., Accelerate

It can be argued that on R.E.M.'s last record, 2004's Around the Sun, the Athens, Georgia natives took an over-analytical approach in the studio. Thankfully, spontaneity made a comeback as did Peter Buck's formidable six-string skills. The result was eleven compact songs that hit all the sweet spots fans had come to expect: Mike Mills' trademark vocal accompaniment on "Supernatural Superserious," Buck's guitar squall puncturing "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," and Michael Stipe getting political on "Houston" and "Until the Day is Done." And while R.E.M. isn't quite defining the tenor of contemporary music, the band's fourteenth album does represent a solid return to relevancy. (Warner Bros.)

Estelle, Shine

Give it up to John Legend for being prescient enough to sign this sassy and mucho talented Brit to be the lead artist for his Home School Records imprint. Not unlike American counterpart Mary J. Blige, Estelle is a hip-hop soul hybrid equally at home trading lines with Legend running buddy Kanye West on the disco-ish "American Boy" or getting down with Cee-Lo on the muscular neo-soul of "Pretty Please (Love Me)" as she taps into the same samples as the Notorious B.I.G. or A Tribe Called Quest. Even with a Murderer's Row of collaborators that includes Wyclef, Mark Ronson, and Swizz Beats, Estelle's talents end up being the irresistible main attraction. So put down the Leona Lewis CD and embrace a far worthier British musical import. (Home School Records/Atlantic)

Duffy, Rockferry

Not unlike her hot mess peer Amy Winehouse, this Welsh lass has an ear for warm retro-soul with killer pipes to match. But while Winehouse fused girl-group harmonies with a streetwise and often jaded lyricism, Duffy is a starry-eyed romantic whose British blue-eyed is reminiscent of Petula Clark's brassy phrasing. With Suede guitarist Bernard Butler in the control room, the gal born Amy Ann Duffy wends her way through cascading orchestration and sweeping drama with Orbison-like yearning framed in vintage Motown arrangements. While the preponderance of slow songs is occasionally wearying, this nonetheless ends up being a stellar introduction. (Mercury)

Al Green, Lay It Down

The good reverend started making a most welcome early millennial comeback by reteaming with longtime producer Willie Mitchell and in the process, banged out a pair of fine albums that fit hand-in-glove with the current neo-soul movement. By shifting gears and tapping the Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and frequent Erykah Badu collaborator James Poyser to produce this outing, Green ends up with a warm, analog sound that gives these songs an of-the-moment organic vibe. Throw in the Dap-Kings Horns and the eye-clenching falsetto, come-hither croon and pleading growl, and what you end up with is a memorable slate of songs firmly situated at the crossroads of romance and carnality. (Blue Note)

The Black Crowes, Warpaint

Now that brothers Chris and Rich Robinson are currently in the midst of a truce following a lengthy decommissioning of the Black Crowes, the Georgia natives are back with a collection of songs that find the band sounding rejuvenated and more focused. The addition of new members Adam MacDougall and North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson makes for a solid incorporation of country, blues, and soul that manages to embrace both the greasy boogie-cum-muscular jangle of "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution" with a Reverend Charlie Jackson cover that shows the Crowes are equally at home with stomping gospel. This seventh studio album is a welcome return for one of the last unfiltered and authentic American rock 'n' roll bands. (Silver Arrow)

Grupo Fantasma, Sonidos Gold

Even if Austin-based Grupo Fantasma hails from an area best known for Tejano and Tex-Mex, this horn-driven outfit traffics in the kind of Afro-Caribbean Latin music that's a direct pipeline to the salsa of storied '70s imprint Fania Records. Previously hand-picked by Prince to headline his now-defunct Vegas club 3121, Grupo pumps plenty of funk into its fourth studio outing with various permutations of cumbia, meringue, and cha-cha woven in for good measure. Sonidos Gold translates to "gold sounds" and while most of the lyrics are in Spanish, Grupo Fantasma are well-versed enough in creating compelling grooves that no translation is necessary. (Aire Soul Records)

Metallica, Death Magnetic

In reinstituting guitar solos, cutting ties with Bob Rock, and getting back to basics under producer Rick Rubin's stewardship, Metallica roar back to relevancy with this ten-pack of aggressive and grandiose thrash. Sure, there's some self-plagiarizing via the rat-a-tat phrasing and undistorted riffing of "The Day That Never Comes" that cribs from "One" and "Fade to Black," but the quartet successfully make an ominous and welcome return to form. Whether or not diehard fans forgive them for the car wreck that was St. Anger remains to be seen. (Warner Bros.)

Howlin Rain, Magnificent Fiend

Guitarist/vocalist Ethan Miller of acid rockers Comets on Fire pours his efforts into his side project Howlin Rain, in which his paint-peeling rasp is combined with howling guitar riffs and mercilessly relentless organ runs. The result is a post-hippie groove reflected in jams like "Dancers at the End of Time" and its Chambers Brothers-flavored flourishes and the funky strut of "Goodbye Ruby." Best of all is "Lord Have Mercy," a nugget which starts off with Miller's delicate croon gilded by some gorgeous piano accompaniment that slowly builds into a joyous mix of unbridled choral accompaniment and the kind of potent shredding found on Lou Reed's Rock N Roll Animal. Howlin Rain is jam-band music for enthusiasts who'd rather trade in endless noodling and navel gazing for swagger and soul. (Birdman/American)

Counting Crows, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

The term "concept album" usually brings to mind rock operas and clunky story arcs rooted in sci-fi, fantasy, or a combination of the two. But Counting Crows have instead chosen the path of confession in drawing from life experiences split between a raucous clutch of songs fueled by bacchanalia and the acoustic, next-morning aftermath of contrition. Frontman Adam Duritz has always used his songwriting as a kind of musical therapy session and its no different here, whether he's describing tawdry one-night stands or admitting to his emotional unreliability. Haters may call it narcissism, but the unflinching honesty of these songs make for a bracing bit of musical voyeurism. (Geffen)


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