1. DJ Rekha - Basement Banghra
Anyone who hasn't seen Rekha needs to go to one of her shows! Her unique blend of Panjabi rhythms and hip-hop beats produce an end result that is thoroughly danceable. She throws in elements of garage, grime, banghra and reggae too, creating her own genre that is the album's namesake: "Basement Banghra." I've seen Rekha spin several times at political conferences and club gigs. Within ten minutes she can get massive crowds moving and bouncing. It's proof--yet again--that hip-hop has a truly global reach and that music itself--or at least good music--is universal.
2. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
This group and their breakthrough album have managed references to Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. With this in mind, the waves that Fleet Foxes made this year, combined with a litany of other acts whose rock-ism was negligible, makes one wonder if "post-rock" has become the next big step in rock music. For as old-world as some as this album sounds, it's hard to argue that songs like "White Winter Hymnal," "Oliver James," "Blue Ridge Mountains" and, well, the rest of the album, don't somehow reflect the blend of isolation and earnest hope that many young folks have today.
3. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
Some readers have been asking why Dear, Science didn't make it to the "Best of 2008" list. The simplest answer is that it wasn't as good at Cookie Mountain. TVOTR's indie-rock base serves for a great amount of musical versatility on this album that still keeps it simple and bare-bones. This is an album that simply is what it is. Tinged with gospel, bits of funk and jazz, sparse folk-like arrangements. In many ways, TV on the Radio proved themselves to be a living cross-section of relevant American music with Cookie Mountain. Despite their sophomore effort falling short, there is no reason anyone should write off this Brooklyn group.
4. Steve Earle - The Revolution Starts... Now
Recorded right before the 2004 elections, this is an interesting moment in time for the hardcore troubadour. Earle's hope was that the election of Kerry and the sweeping out of the Bush regime would be just the beginning of something. Songs like the title track explicitly stated it, and songs like "Rich Man's War" and "Condi, Condi" only added to the whole feel. Of course, Kerry lost, and the Bush administration continued for another four years. Earle's 2007 follow-up, Washington Square Serenade wasn't as outwardly political as this album, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with in an era marked by a considerable amount of hope and optimism.
5. The Roots - The Tipping Point
The Tipping Point is an interesting time in the Roots' evolution. It's sandwiched in between two eras: after the breakout of "The Seed"--the high point of their mostly organic, instrumental period--and the dark electronica of Game Theory and Rising Down. The album manages to walk that fine line. It's more political and DJ-based than Phrenology, but still maintains an energy that is rootsier than the subsequent albums. It's fascinating to listen to this album--or any of their work--and realize that this is the same group that would one day be the house band on the "Late Show," but at the same time, such phenomena are signs that hip-hop has reached a high point.