It’s the sunny first morning of a brand spankin’ new year. I lie in bed listening to A breathe in perfect peace beside me, and it’s quite clear that 2009 could not have possibly granted us a more terrific start. I wrote what follows — a rapid fire discussion of the most brilliant musical offerings from the year just ended — while sitting on Sherry Ann’s couch the night before last, and was trying my damnedest to get it posted before the clock struck twelve, but circumstances beyond my control (damn that champagne!) prevented me from doing so. So just deal. It’s still riveting stuff, no matter the publication date.


P.S. Happy new year, all. As no fewer than two of my Russian elders proclaimed to me just twelve hours ago (in the cutest broken English ever, no less), may it be filled with health, wealth, happiness, and love.



1. KINGS OF LEON  Only By the Night


Don’t you wish this band’s critics — the ones who’ve bitched and moaned for months now about this album’s tight, uber-polished groove — would get over themselves already?  Don’t they understand that these boys were never gonna be able to sustain that nauseatingly one-note ZZ-Top-but-hornier vibe which was their signature sound heretofore?  Trust me when I tell you:  grafting Caleb Followill’s achingly gorgeous pained yowl onto Night‘s eleven stunning slices of U2-style anthemic rock is gonna turn out to be the best decision these young men ever made.


KEY TRACKS: “Notion” — “Use Somebody” — “Sex On Fire”



2. CYNDI LAUPER  Bring Ya to the Brink


Twenty-five full years after a triumphant thunderbolt called She’s So Unusual made her an instant superstar, one of popular music’s most ferociously talented artists blew back onto the scene with what was nothing short of 2008’s most joyful (and most singularly enjoyable) album.  Despite the fact that Lauper has been a dancefloor heroine since the days of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Brink was her first full-length foray into the electronica realm.  She couldn’t have made a stronger first impression.


KEY TRACKS: “High and Mighty” — “Into the Nightlife” —
the masterfully melancholy “Rain On Me”



3. MILEY CYRUS  Breakout


And with (among many others) a fun, frothy cover of that very same “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Cyrus brilliantly chucked the Hannah Montana label with a superbly executed bid for mainstream megastardom.  Radio largely refused to play along (even though the breathtakingly bold “Fly on the Wall” was one of the year’s best, if strangest, singles), but no matter:  this girl’s still crawlin’ to get walkin’ and she already has a firmer grasp of true showmanship than performers three times her age.  Remember who told ya.


KEY TRACKS: “Breakout” — “Fly on the Wall” — “Full Circle”



4. ONEREPUBLIC  Dreaming Out Loud


How do you follow up an unforgettable multiplatinum megasmash?  If you’re forcefully brilliant songwriter Ryan Tedder  — who got the launching pad of a lifetime courtesy of his pal Timbaland, who remixed his monumentally affecting “Apologize” and gave it primo placement on his terrific album Shock Value — you and your band craft a record chock full of tight, flawless melodies, in which everything is built to complement the piano and the cello (instead of vice versa, which is too often the case), and pray your newfound fans will accept it.  Which they did.  In spades.


KEY TRACKS: “Stop and Stare” — “Mercy” — “All We Are”



5. QUEEN + PAUL RODGERS  The Cosmos Rocks


Lay aside your prejudices and your predispositions to hate this album — yes, Queen minus Freddie Mercury is an unfathomable heresy on the face of it; and yes, former Bad Company vocalist Rodgers wholly lacks Mercury’s gracefully uncanny knack for sliding his astoundingly acrobatic voice through the tiniest of needle eyes — and accept it for what it is:  a really good (if slightly conventional) rock record.  Even though Cosmos ultimately bears scant resemblance to any of Queen’s previous output — though, to be fair, the ghost of “We Will Rock You” can clearly be heard wandering through the bars of “Still Burnin'” — and Rodgers can easily slip into prosaic clichés when no one’s looking, this was one of a select few of the year’s albums whose charms rewarded repeat listens and whose songs demanded them.


KEY TRACKS: “Call Me” — “Cosmos Rockin'” — “We Believe”




Little Jackie‘s impossible-to-categorize The StoopColdplay‘s riveting stab at reinventing themselves, Viva La Vida, or Death and All His FriendsAugustana‘s blistering sophomore triumph Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt — a pair of country-inflected smashes from late 2007: Carrie Underwood‘s amazing Carnival Ride, and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss‘ brilliant collaboration Raising Sand.


STILL TO COME: a playlist of 2008’s key tracks.


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