Sigur Rós “Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust” (XL Recordings) – Roughly translated as “With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly,” Iceland-based Sigur Rós’ fifth full-length album continues to showcase a troupe eager to explore the vast reaches of its own sonic universe. This is music that is simultaneously otherworldly, beautiful and joyous. Recommended tracks: “Gobbledigook,” “Vid spilum endalaust.”
Coldplay “Viva La Vida” (Capitol) – Commercial success should not necessarily be equated with lackluster artistry. Case in point, the latest full-length gem from Coldplay. Recommended tracks: “Life In Technicolor,” “Viva La Vida.”
Al Green “Lay It Down” (Blue Note Records) – When I reviewed the Reverend Al Green a few years ago, I thought my ears were playing a trick on me because the sixtysomething performer sounded so flawless and inspired. His most recent album, the wonderful “Lay It Down,” reinforces my belief that my hearing was just fine that night. Recommended tracks: “Just For Me,” “No One Like You.”
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson “Rattlin’ Bones” (Sugarhill) – A wonderful and heartfelt collection between Australian songstress Kasey Chambers and her husband Shane Nicholson, this 14-song alternative country-minded effort is magical from start to finish. Recommended tracks: “Rattlin’ Bones,” “Monkey on a Wire.”
R.E.M. “Accelerate” (Warner Bros.) – “Accelerate” is the first album by R.E.M. since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry a decade ago that works from start to finish and captures the magic of the Athen, Georgia-spawned outfit’s early work. Recommended tracks: “Supernatural Superserious,” “Until the Day is Done.”
Snow Patrol “A Hundred Million Suns” (Geffen Records) – Singer-guitarist Gary Lightbody continues to craft songs that offer something for both casual and discerning listeners, but with the depth of the material on “A Hundred Million Suns,” this is clearly the troupe’s best effort since 2003’s “Final Straw.” Recommended tracks: “Take Back the City,” “Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands.”
Aimee Mann “@#%&! Smilers” (Superego) – There have been few singer-songwriters who have delivered the kind of lyrically introspective and melodically pleasing songcraft on such a consistent basis over the past decade as Aimee Mann. Recommended tracks: “Freeway,” “Thirty One Today.”
Sonny Landreth “From the Reach” (Landfall) – Although Louisiana-based singer-songwriter and slide guitar master Sonny Landreth is joined by luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson and Mark Knopfler on his latest disc, it is his own unique blend of talents that shines so brightly on this remarkable collection. Recommended tracks: “Blue Tarp Blues,” “The Milky Way Home.”
Jack’s Mannequin “The Glass Passenger” (Sire / Wea) – Confessional and honest, singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon delivers another winning round of Brian Wilson-tinged pop and piano-anchored modern rock on his group’s sophomore release. Whether it was his successful battle to overcome leukemia in the wake of Jack’s Mannequin’s debut “Everything in Transit” or the full spectrum of life itself, the songs on his 2008 release explore love, loss and the world around him with an ever-growing depth. Recommended tracks: “Annie Use Your Telescope,” “Swim.”
She & Him “Volume One” (Merge Records) – The full-length debut from M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel drips with the retro sound and style of a range of ‘60s and ‘70s icons such as the Zombies, Linda Ronstadt and Dusty Springfield. But there is an intoxicating innocence about Deschanel’s vocals and Ward’s tasteful arrangements that adds up to something special. Recommended tracks: “Sweet Darlin’,” “Sentimental Heart,” “This is Not a Test.”
HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical order):
Asia “Phoenix” (EMI America Records) – Call it a guilty pleasure, call it a nod to virtuoso musicianship; call it what you will, but Asia’s first new studio album in more than 25 years boasting the super group’s original lineup is solid musically and boasts heartfelt lyrics from singer-songwriter-bassist John Wetton focusing on his near-death related to open heart surgery. Recommended tracks: “Heroine,” “An Extraordinary Life.”
Glen Campbell "Meet Glen Campbell" (CAPITOL) – One of the more unusual surprises of 2008, "Meet Glen Campbell" may feature covers of other artists, but Campbell brings unexpected depth to selections such as Travis' "Sing" and Tom Petty's "Walls." Recommended tracks: "Sing," "Walls," "Times Like These."
Parkaimoon "The Sum of Our Experience" (Platonic Music) – Thankfully, there remains modern music that can't easily be categorized, defying well-established labels. The modern rock of Parkaimoon combines the vast soundscapes of U2 and Pink Floyd, but also boasts the modern rock of Garbage and Evanescence. Recommended tracks: "Bury Me Deep," "Tunnel Vision."
Matthew Sweet "Sunshine Lies" (Shout! Factory) - Matthew Sweet returned in 2008 with a wonderful and infectious collection of songs courtesy of "Sunshine Lies." Recommended tracks: "Time Machine," "Byrdgirl."
Michael Ubaldini "Street Singin' Troubadour" (Blackwater Records) – Not a year seemingly goes by without Fountain Valley-based Michael Ubaldini issuing another solid collection. His latest, "Street Singin' Troubadour," is a 13-song collection that examines a wide range of subjects in a thoughtful and artful approach. Recommended tracks: "Sound of the Age," "Sad Empty Streets of Sunday."