From TV on the Radio to Lil’ Wayne, from Deerhunter to Portishead, 2008 saw a wide range of artists score big with some of their best-ever efforts. At the dawn of 2009, the Daily Music Staff takes a look back with its picks for the best albums of the year.

Clif Reeder/Daily

#1: TV on the Radio – Dear Science

TV on the Radio, buzz band no more. With the release of Dear Science, TVOTR has entered into a rare and hard to define realm within the music world – part of a breed of bands that are respected by all, challenged by few and envied by their less-talented peers. Radiohead is in this category; so was Pavement.

Dear Science is an album with no unnecessary flourishes, no out-of-place instrumentation and no moments that sound even remotely close to contrived. Every single note on the album is essential, like each individual brushstroke in a masterpiece painting. From the claps on “Dancing Choose” to the breezy synth swells on “DLZ” to Tunde Adebimpe’s sweet falsetto “cry-i-i-i-ing,” TVOTR has crafted 2008’s best album, a brilliant work coming from a band in the infancy of its career. It’s staggering to even think what’s to come. – Jeff Sanford

#2: Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

The Fleet Foxes things-to-do list for 2008 might look something like this: release Sun Giant EP in January; tour relentlessly in a run-down van through the spring, garnering much hype for the June release of the self-titled debut album along the way; win over audiences and critics nationwide with pastoral harmonies and deceptively simple folk-pop arrangements; get tapped by Wilco to open for a leg of the summer tour, circulating a spirited live collaboration of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” around the Web to show for it; appear on every late night program on network television; wind up near the top of nearly every year-end list known to humanity; and somehow manage to do all this in less than 12 months.

Fleet Foxes’ quick rise to fame outside of the Pitchfork inner circle is as much a rags-to-riches story as any, but the cult of the Foxes stems largely from the group’s ability to turn any passerby into a believer. Needless to say, the Foxes can now afford to fix up their van. – Mike Kuntz

#3: MGMT-Oracular Spectacular

From the haunting bubbles on the intro of “Time to Pretend” to the creepy children counting down on “Kids,” MGMT’s debut was not to be overlooked. It combines just the right amounts of creepy and cool to make for great electropop. Equally suited to the club and to the car, Oracular Spectacular is full of anthems you can sing and dance to — so pick your poison. Maybe that’s why the band broke its way into so many hearts (and parties) this year. Then again, maybe it’s just the energy-intensive retro sound and incomprehensible lyrics that make MGMT so awkwardly lovable. – Sarah Chavey

#4: Portishead – Third

After an 11-year hibernation, former trip-hop trailblazer Portishead has delivered something much greater than a serviceable “comeback album.” Third is a rare instance of a band truly redefining itself. Portishead scraps its creepy/sexy formula of yore for something closer to creepy/ugly. As Beth Gibbons moans her trademark confessional lyrics over jarringly glitchy dreamscapes, the band achieves such hauntingly voyeuristic pathos that, at times, the album is almost uncomfortable to listen to. For a hint at the album’s gutting abrasiveness, the lead single is aptly titled “Machine Gun.” With Third, Portishead has birthed what could easily be the most innovative album of the year. And while it may not be pretty, it’s anything but a misfire. – Josh Bayer

#5. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

2008’s dubious “buzz-band” award goes to none other than (drum roll please) New York prep-rockers Vampire Weekend. These Columbia University grads have been condemned for their cleanliness in music and dress (which apparently makes them sonically and visually boring) and have been accused of having an obsession with Paul Simon’s Graceland, which apparently influenced their record a little too much. Ralph Lauren sweaters and classic rock idolatry aside, Vampire Weekend is a breathtaking synthesis of Afro-pop and indie-rock that will make the most uptight hipster loosen up from the arms-folded, at-attention position. When it comes to Vampire Weekend, ignorance is bliss. So, tune out the critics, put on your dancing shoes and bask in the simple elegance provided by a truly stunning debut album. – David Riva

#6: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Real Emotional Trash

In a year packed with complex and multi-layered albums, Stephen Malkmus and his backing Jicks seemingly decided to just sit down and record some really great jam-sessiony tracks. Songs like “Real Emotional Trash” ramble on forever, but they never feel too long. And Malkmus still has a talent for enveloping listeners in quirky, meandering tales (“Hopscotch Willie”) and commanding roars like Pavement on steroids (“Baltimore”). It’s nothing too complex and nothing too astounding, but Real Emotional Trash is clearly one of 2008’s most pleasing, seemingly simple albums, and it stands above a whole lot of others. – Matt Emery

#7: Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Given three months alone in a Wisconsin cabin, most would whittle the hours away by reading, drinking or maybe just banging their heads against the wall. But songwriter Justin Vernon had loftier goals: He spent his time creating one of the best albums of the year and one of the best musical debuts in recent memory. For Emma, Forever Ago is a spare and ethereal alt-folk affair guided by Vernon’s anemic falsetto. Its deliberate pacing and dynamic control make the journey from the plaintive chill of “Flume” to the triumphant thaw of “For Emma” a memorable one. – Jack Porter

#8: Deerhunter – Microcastle

Whatever the “X Factor” is, Deerhunter’s got it. On paper, Microcastle isn’t going anywhere indie music hasn’t been a billion times before. Dreamy, delay pedal-smitten opener? Check. Swirly My Bloody Valentine tribute? Check. Lazy-river guitar balladry that explodes two-thirds of the way through into a surging coda of crystalline noise? Check. But something about Microcastle is supremely refreshing in a year suffering from a drought of good, old-fashioned indie rawk (in other words, it’s good). There’s always going to be a demand for well-crafted songs with sticky melodies, and Deerhunter fills it here with confectionary aplomb. Oh, and Bradford Cox’s wistfully milky tenor is cause enough for a love letter. – Josh Bayer

#9: Times New Viking – Rip It Off

With their densest serving of lo-fi squalor yet, Times New Viking proved just how listenable pure cacophony can be. On the trio’s third album, melodies, guitar riffs and synth licks bleed together into a swollen mass of tape-bursting sound. Still, the barely-distinguishable, co-ed vocal attack of Beth Murphy and Adam Elliott is so fun that the entire affair is almost childish, but the feedback burst it pierces through is so abrasive it should be x-rated. Completely disrespecting basic audio conventions, the distorted bubblegum of Rip It Off relies entirely on energy for its thrills. And that energy is undepletable. – David Watnick

#10: Okkervil River – The Stand Ins

On 2007’s brilliant The Stage Names, Will Sheff and Co. seemingly found true comfort and dexterity as a band. With this year’s quasi-sequel The Stand Ins, the band relies on its effortless musical swagger while inscrutable frontman Sheff turns an intently focused eye on lyrical themes. The result is one of the great bi-polar records of the rock era. While the country-inflected instrumentation is downright giddy at times, Sheff relentlessly sermonizes, with varying degrees of transparency, about the pitfalls of being an artist. If he truly suffers from any of the disillusionment of which he sings, he masks it well, because the album is his most inspired effort yet. – David Watnick

#11: Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III

2008 was Weezy’s year. The New Orleans-raised rapper’s Tha Carter III was not only the best-selling album of the year, but it was also the artist’s most ambitious (and best) production to date. The record treads the fine line between hip hop and pop, producing a collection that cannot be confined to one definitive label. It gravitates among repetitive party beats (“A Milli”), soleful guitar-strung odes (“Shoot Me Down”) and utterly ridiculous sci-fi inspired concoctions (“Phone Home”). Whether he’s comparing his haters to different seasons of the year or simply making vulgar comparisons to lollipops, Lil’ Wayne’s syrup-soaked anthems have defined the year and it’s doubtful that he’s stopping anytime soon. – Sasha Resende

#12: Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

While listening to Crystal Castles’s debut album, you might get the sudden urge to start shooting 8-bit fireballs and break blocks with your head. With Atari synths and gritty digital beats, the duo conjures up heaps of video game nostalgia while still managing to sound completely futuristic. But what makes this album one of the year’s best is not the experimentation with classic Nintendo sound bytes. Beneath all the blips and studio manipulation are innovative and masterfully written pop songs. “Untrust Us” is a sing-a-long that’s impossible to sing along to — yet Alice Glass’s seductive, morphing vocals challenge listeners to keep trying. Songs like “Courtship Date” and “Good Time” are sonically complex but maintain the warm invitation of a solid groove. Crystal Castles doesn’t just sound like music from the future — it could actually be the future of music. – Jeff Sanford

#13: Department of Eagles – In Ear Park

Brooklyn has seen its share of talent lately, and duo Department of Eagles is no exception. Grizzly Bear co-lead songwriter Dan Rossen takes his sophisticated Tin Pan Alley pop in a slightly different direction with the help of his college roommate, Fred Nicolaus, creating a sunnier and less dreary collection of songs with arguably more variety than his primary act. The arrangements of In Ear Park are vast, almost to a fault, though the simpler pop moments on songs like “Waves of Rye” and “No One Does it Like You” give it a charm all its own. While Department of Eagles is more a project between friends than a full-blown band, In Ear Park deserves an attention all its own, which serves to further highlight Dan Rossen’s increasingly adventurous songwriting. – Mike Kuntz

#14: Atlas Sound – Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel

Bradford Cox might have been the man of 2008. Releasing an all-out blast of fervor in Microcastle with his main group Deerhunter, Atlas Sound let Cox explore his deeper, darker and more electronic and computery side. With the electronic flourishes of Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel found on “Recent Bedroom” and ’80s-like tracks like “Ativan,” Cox went all-out on the emotionally strong and complex spectrum. Some of the tracks are rather complicated (“Cold as Ice” and “Small Horror”), but fit right at home away from Deerhunter material. Partly scary, but always compelling, Cox knows what he’s doing. – Matt Emery

#15. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

Consistency in music is a lost art. Releasing four albums in five years is practically unheard of in modern day rock‘n’roll. The Hold Steady has accomplished this feat with great songwriting, solid musicianship and a unique sense of style. Stay Positive continues to satisfy with tales of love and faith mixed in with the required dose of “sing-along songs,” as lead-singer Craig Finn readily admits to be his band’s forte in standout opener “Constructive Summer.” Finn’s vocal vitality throughout the album solidifies an underlying theme of growing older while holding onto the best parts of youth, which resonates with both the young and old alike. – David Riva

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