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Playing favorites: Top CDs of 2008

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesDrive by Truckers have released Brighter Than Creations Dark.

There are so many ways to hear about music these days and thats especially true for a professional music reviewer, who has squads of publicists trying to get his ear: Can I send you a CD? Heres a link to the new EP. Did you hear so-and-sos new single on the latest trendy TV show? Podcasts, radio, Facebook, e-mail blasts, Amazon, digital music channels, advertisements, MySpace, the music freak next door.So I really love the fact that I discovered one of my favorite CDs of 2008 the old-fashioned way: I asked a 19-year-old, music-savvy kid what shed been listening to. And her answer, enthusiastically given, was a new CD by an artist I knew, but an album that I hadnt heard about, that I havent seen a single review of, that hasnt turned up on the other best-of-the-year lists. A genuine discovery, received by simple word-of-mouth, from one music nut to another.Heres hoping that age-old method, the newspaper review, informs you, turns you on, inspires you to find some music you can hold near and dear. Here are a bakers dozen of my favorite albums of 2008.Theresa Andersson, Hummingbird, Go!So toward the end of my interview with the talented, teenage singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell, I thought to ask what shed been liking. Theresa Andersson, she said. The Swedish-born, New Orleans-based violinist, I asked. Yes, her.I first knew Andersson from her playing with Anders Osborne her fellow Swede, with whom she moved to New Orleans. She was talented, but the couple of albums I had heard of hers were disappointingly flat. No way those would have impressed Sonya Kitchell, I figured. This new one must be something different.Different is one way to describe Hummingbird, Go! Andersson, working with another Swede, producer Tobias Froberg, ditched her traditionalist approach for her version of the cutting-edge. Instead of a studio, the album was recorded in Anderssons kitchen; instead of standard instruments played in standard ways, she used pop bottles, wine glasses and a classical guitar, tuned down. She played her violin with a slide. The list of guest musicians was short, but included New Orleans piano icon Allen Toussaint.It sounds like the music will be weird, but it isnt. Hummingbrid, Go! gorgeously mixes the familiar with the unusual. There are strong echoes of Motown in the vocals, but it is an altered-states take on Motown girl groups. The effect in Birds Fly Away is intoxicating and dreamy. Ive listened to the CD at least 10 times, and every time it felt like discovering something strange, fresh and beautiful.

After several critically acclaimed CDs including 2001s epic, two-disc concept album, Southern Rock Opera the Alabama-born, Georgia-based Drive-by Truckers aimed to reinvent and refreshen themselves with an acoustic tour. What emerged is a new album, Brighter Than Creations Dark, which adds new dimensions to their sound. The screaming guitars are still there, but the down-home sense of humor, the acoustic guitars and the melodicism are all turned up. Shonna Tucker, previously just the bassist, joins the team of singer-songwriters, and contributes several beauties, including the ballad Im Sorry, Huston. Overall, the songwriting already literate and distinguished, is raised a notch with songs like the striving The Righteous Path and the laugh-out-loud funny ode to regular guys, Bob.

Assuming that Everything That Happens Will Happen Today would be a continuation of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts Brian Eno and David Byrnes experimental electronic 1981 album that struck me as more groundbreaking and significant than satisfying I didnt bother pursuing the latest effort. But a colleague put it in my hands, and I took the trouble to put it in my CD player and listen. And Im glad I did; Everything That Happens was a revelation: Gone is the soundscape concept, replaced by elegant, gentle songs occasionally embellished by digital noises that are perfectly ordinary today. Byrne has referred to the album as electronic gospel, and while the themes and sound are uplifting and mostly comforting, no one will mistake the chaotic and funky Poor Boy for, say, the familiar gospel style of the Blind Boys of Alabama. A sharp blend of the traditional and experimental, on a foundation of excellent songs.

Put the passion and heart of Bruce Springsteen through a punk filter, and you get the rock n roll songs on Alejandro Escovedos Real Animal. On Always a Friend, the Texas singer-songwriter lays down the challenge of long-lasting love; the scintillating Chelsea Hotel 78 goes nearly full-bore punk in a tale from the wild, old days. But the raw rock isnt even the best part. When Escovedo slows things down on the heart-stopping Swallows of San Juan, or the gorgeous Sensitive Boys the effect is magical, and even more so for the graceful transition between the punch of punk and the lyricism of balladry. Extend a piece of credit to California musician Chuck Prophet, who co-wrote the songs, plays guitar and adds backing vocals here.

Not exactly retro, definitely not on the cutting-edge. Instead Al Green, ably assisted by producer Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of the Roots, makes a timeless soul classic with Lay It Down. The grooves are lean and warm and Greens voice matches the vibe. He lets loose with some of his familiar screams, but in a manner appropriate for a 62-year-old preacher restrained soul-shouting. This is a beautiful example of how not to overdo things. Theres a reason great old soul still sounds great.

New Jersey sextet Railroad Earth finds the sweet spot in between bluegrass and rock; Amen Corner, their fourth studio release, leans a bit more toward the grass than previous efforts. But the real key is frontman Todd Sheaffer, whose singing and writing never seem to hit a wrong note. Amen Corner stays roughly true to its title, with a sunny world-view in Right in Tune and the devotional Lovin You, but Sheaffer has a knack for conveying the shades of emotion, rather than a one-dimensional smiley-face vibe.

The influences pile up high (and apparent) on the debut album from the Seattle quintet, Fleet Foxes. The albums first snippet a harmony vocal kicking off Sun It Rises sounds like a sample of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. Most of the touchstones are from another time: the guitars of Buffalo Springfield, the psychedelia of Donovan, the prettiness and tight structure of Simon & Garfunkel. But probably the strongest influence is a more recent one; lead singer Robin Pecknold has almost certainly been listening to his contemporary Jim James, from My Morning Jacket. Exhibit A: He Doesnt Know Why, which takes its vocal and dynamic cues from that acclaimed band. But Fleet Foxes seem to know the old adage about lifting ideas pick the right ones, and then go for it whole-hog. As important, Fleet Foxes add their own something, a baroque spaciousness that makes the acoustic-based songs seem wide and ambitious.

And while the imitators line up, My Morning Jacket has done the smart thing, and moved on ahead. On Evil Urges, the Kentucky quintet expands its palette in numerous distinct directions, soaking up 70s funk, metal riffs and electronic touches. And Jim James has developed a fondness for singing in falsetto. Its always enjoyable to see a massively talented band stretch like this, and even better when they hit new marks, as on Im Amazed, the sprawling Touch Me Im Going to Scream, and the title track, all of which push the limits of contemporary rock outwards a bit.

On the heels of 2006s excellent Return to Cookie Mountain, Brooklyns TV on the Radio puts itself near the top of the rock heap with an even more impressive follow-up. Dear Science is as jittery and nervous as these times, upset with war, media overload and hopelessness itself. But on Crying, TV on the Radio is willing to absorb all this angst, process it, and spit it back out as a message of something resembling optimism and with a dance beat. Laugh. In the face of death/ Hold your breath through late breaking disasters, they sing. And later: Our cryin/ our cryin/ Our cryin/ Still you try, try, try backed by one of the most ear-turning horn-and-synth jams imaginable. Dear Science ends with Lovers Day, a definitive statement that love especially the physical variety is the ultimate escape, release, cure.

The title refers to how L.A. singer-songwriter Aimee Mann looks at life: sad, depraved, dreary. How can anyone smile in a world filled with greed, abuse and treachery? Mann sets her stories, vividly, in trailer parks and other dark corners of America. But she illuminates the misery with meticulous pop melodies and sounds, and a voice that is resigned to a downbeat world.

On his 23rd album, 62-year-old singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III revisits past glories. Recovery features re-interpretations of his songs, going back 30 years and more. Only now the folkie template is reinvented, with the help of producer Joe Henry and a crew of similarly forward-looking musicians, and Wainwright is reinvigorated by the idea. As is the material: Wainwright stomps through Black Uncle Remus, and drains all the drama out of his tragi-comic story song, The Man Who Couldnt Cry.

MGMT is a duo, and whats impressive on Oracular Spectacular is not how much sound Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden can generate from their two mouths and four hands, but how many different styles. On Electric Feel, its almost like a full-on funk party band; on Weekend Wars, its spare freak-folk; on Of Moons, Birds and Monsters, its a sprawling, ever-changing and unfolding assault of space rock and electronica.

So now we know maybe the full extent of Bob Dylans post-80s renaissance. Tell Tale Signs, the latest installment in the Bootleg Series of unreleased material and limited to the period from 1989 to the present, unearths alternate takes, covers of old blues nuggets, live tracks and a few never-heard Dylan originals, including at least one that counts as essential listening, Red River Shore. Both discs in the two-CD set start with takes on Mississippi, from 2001s Love and Theft. And while the original version was a knockout, a tale of regret and hope, both of these new ones one bluegrassy, the other more Delta bluesy are equally worthy. Tell Tale Signs is not only more great music from Dylan, but also a further clue into his particular brand of genius.

Good reasons 20 of them to have visited a record shop (or burned a friends copy, downloaded from iTunes, ordered from Amazon, etc.):Beck, Modern GuiltMercury Rev, Snowflake MidnightCassandra Wilson, LoverlyJohn Mellencamp, Life, Death, Love and FreedomJohn Oates, 1000 Miles of LifeRandy Newman, Harps and AngelsChatham County Line, IVMaiysha, This Much Is TrueCommon, Mind ControlAni DiFranco, Red Letter YearThe Whispertown 2000, SwimRodney Crowell, Sex and GasolineMichael Franti, All Rebel RockersOld Crow Medicine Show, Tennessee PusherBon Iver, For Emma, Forever AgoRyan Adams and the Cardinals, CardinologyMartin Sexton, SoloLucinda Williams, Little HoneyJackie Greene, Giving Up the GhostMason Jennings, In the Everstewart@aspentimes.com