Axl Rose came back to life, and Lil Wayne gave the music business reason to hope that it's not dead yet.
In 2008, it seemed as though everybody on R&B radio wanted to sound like a robot, from rappers like Kanye West to singers such as T. Pain. Even some rockers, like My Morning Jacket, got in on the act.
In Year One A.A. - After Amy (Winehouse) - music fans were hit up with a steady stream of soul-pop acts, from the one-named troika of Adele, Duffy and Estelle to American Motown revivalist Raphael Saadiq.
Hard-rock dinosaurs roared again, with Metallica's Death Magnetic, AC/DC's Black Ice, and Guns N' Roses' 17-years-awaited Chinese Democracy leading the charge.
It was an excellent year for music from Philadelphia. Indie bands such as Dr. Dog and Man Man raised their national profiles. R&B newcomer Jazmine Sullivan secured five Grammy nominations. And hip-hop greats the Roots delivered the hard-hitting Rising Down, hosted the only-in-Philadelphia Roots Picnic, and landed on late-night TV as the house band on Jimmy Fallon's talk show.
Music was more omnipresent than ever. You could hear M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" on your iPod, or cell phone, or computer, or satellite radio, or in the Pineapple Express commercials on TV.
The music business wasn't doing quite so well, though there were glimmers of hope. Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III sold more than a million copies its first week, and Coldplay's Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends nearly matched it the very next week.
Music sales continued to plummet, however. Just as a new economic model was being tested - making up for lagging sales by selling more concert tickets - the industry was hit by skyrocketing gas prices, and then the recession. At one label, digital sales exceeded CD sales, though business overall continued to slide.
But enough with the bad news. On to the best-of list:
1. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (Cash Money). In so many ways, 2008 belonged to Dwayne Carter Jr. The dreadlocked and demented New Orleans rapper's third CD outsold and out-reached the competition, from the hypnotically dissonant "A Milli" to the Babyface-kissed bedroom move "Comfortable" to the medical-metaphor goof "Dr. Carter." Sure, it's a sprawling mess, and it would have nice if the froggy-voiced freestyler had deleted the 10-minute Nina Simone-sampling "Don't Get It." Think of Tha Carter III as less a traditional album and more a marketing event celebrating the tossed-off genius of all of Wayne's multifarious activities, from inspired EPs like The Leak to innumerable guest raps to showing up with a guitar with Kid Rock on the Country Music Association awards. Look out, Nashville: Weezy's coming for you. Download: "A Milli."
2. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (Interscope). The Brooklyn quintet maintains the experimental spirit of 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain while upping the accessibility factor. Snaking guitar riffs and cacophonous horns funkify angular dance moves like "Crying," while the band makes its politicized rage felt and melds 21st-century doo-wop and noise-rock in ways you wouldn't imagine you'd need to hear - until you do. Download: "Golden Age."
3. Santogold, Santogold (Downtown). The Mount Airy-reared and Brooklyn-based Santi White couldn't get arrested when she was with the excellent Philadelphia ska band Stiffed. But as Santogold, she's been transformed into a future-pop Woman of the Year, alongside M.I.A. (whose ex-boyfriend, Philadelphia DJ Diplo, is one of Santogold's key contributors). It's White's same New Wave-inspired strengths as a writer that will give life to Santogold songs like "Creator" and "Lights Out" long after she's done appearing as a Bud Light Lime saleswoman. Download: "L.E.S. Artistes."
4. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (Illegal Art). Nobody delivered on the pleasure principle this year like Pittsburgh DJ Gregg Gillis, who flouts copyright law while concocting hook-happy laptop mash-ups for the no-attention-span generation. In a super-fragmented pop universe, Gillis commands an indie audience that goes ga-ga at his ecstatic live shows. But the sweaty celebrations pursue a higher calling: bringing together the Wu Tang Clan, Argent, 50 Cent, Procol Harum, Sinead O'Connor, Afrika Bambaataa, and ? and the Mysterians in one breathless communal mix. Download: "Still Here."
5. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO). Their fellow bearded woodsmen the Fleet Foxes are the more fashionable choice. But I'll give my nod to MMJ, the fivesome fronted by Jim James, who excel at the same no-vibrato soulfulness, and also stretched themselves into almost unrecognizable shapes on Evil Urges, their fourth studio album. Mind-blower No. 1: "Highly Suspicious," a slice of Prince-ly funk that proved that Auto-Tuned rappers and R&B singers weren't the only ones who longed to sound like robots. As jarring as the album's stylistic shifts are, the truly mind-blowing development is the quality of the tunes, from the hair-wagging raveups to the country crooners. Download: "I'm Amazed."
6. Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway). On his first major-label album, Hayes Carll steps up his scruffy, Texas-troubadour game into Guy Clark-Steve Earle-Townes Van Zandt territory, with a dash of John Prine for good measure. By turns luckless in love ("Beaumont") and proud as a peacock ("I Got a Gig"), Carll's got a keen eye for detail and good taste in covers (Tom Waits' "I Don't Want to Grow Up"). "She Left Me for Me Jesus" ("Why, last time we made love she even called out his name"), is the most amusing, mildly blasphemous country song in memory. Download: "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart."
7. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War (Motown). "Welcome to Amerykah," a demonic voice intones at the start of Erykah Badu's first album in five years. "All the freaks are here." Indeed they are, residing beneath Badu's bountiful Afro wig. New Amerykah is an idea-packed, free-flowing, Nation-of-Islam-praising, often kooky stream-of-consciousness funk-soul album that goes looking for "the beautiful world" with Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone as tour guides. Along with the Roots' Rising Down, Nas' self-titled release, and Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, it's a standout among albums that confronted broken promises in America in a historic election year. Download: "The Healer."
8. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL). If these peppy preppies enamored of Afro-pop and angular New Wave seem like last year's story, that's because they are. The quartet of collar-popping Columbia grads had their every cultural appropriation dissected long before their debut album came out in January. While they suffer from indie overexposure, the sharp, springy tunes sung by Ezra Koenig hold up quite nicely to more than a year under the microscope. Download: "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance."
9. She & Him, Volume One (Merge). Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward's ungrammatical retro-pop and folk collaboration gets major points for surprise. Can Deschanel, whose musical talents were previously displayed singing in the shower in Elf, succeed where so many other moonlighting actors, from Don Johnson to Scarlett Johansson, failed? Yes, She can. Her clear-voiced, open-hearted tunes evoke the halcyon days of hummable AM radio, and the esteemed indie guitarist Ward dresses them up smartly for a stroll in the sunshine. Not perfect, but perfectly charming. Download: "Change Is Hard."
10. Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With the Blues (Blue Note). The history of American popular music is about the blending of black and white cultures, and these two Southern gentlemen come together in a delightful collaboration that works wonders for both. The preternaturally mellow country singer benefits from the disciplined jazz man's musical rigor; the buttoned-down cultural commissar loosens up while riding with Shotgun Willie. "That's where the light and dark folks meet, a heaven on earth, they call it Basin Street," sings Nelson, shadowed by Marsalis' trumpet, as the two walk together in Louis Armstrong's footsteps, in a state of grace. Download: "Bright Lights, Big City."
Honorable mention: Blitzen Trapper, Furr; Deerhunter, Microcastle; Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark; Duffy, Rockferry; El Guincho, Alegranza; Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal; Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes; The Hold Steady, Stay Positive; The Knux, Remind Me in Three Days . . . ; Laura Marling, Alas, I Cannot Swim; Randy Newman, Harps and Angels; and the Roots, Rising Down.