I didn't hear everything I wanted to in 2008, but here are some records I really enjoyed: randomly selected, in no particular order, and accompanied by the briefest of commentary. (I love calling them "records," by the way, even though they aren't.)
I probably left many things out; I'm not good at keeping track of this stuff.
Empty Cage Quartet: Stratostrophic (Clean Feed)
More than any other artist I keep close tabs on, these guys inspire to me listen through their music's surface-level qualities (e.g., timbre, aspects of ensemble interaction) in order to try and understand the compositional techniques and philosophies that are, well, "behind the music." In other words: the exact cure-for-a-short-attention-span that I've been looking for.
Lesley Kernochan: The Pickle Jar
"Do it because you love it and for no other reason." That there is some of the best advice I got all year; it's from the album's second track. Imbued with that old-timey jazz vibe that Portland musicians (or, in Kernochan's case, ex-Portland musicians) are so obsessed with, plus a little Laura Nyro-ishness on the side.
PLOTZ!: Live 2008 (PMPCD)
All the subtlety of jazz mashed up with the aggression of metal and the rhythmic prestidigitation of Balkan music. A (live!) CD that was, as you might imagine from a band with a built-in exclamation point, one of the two most intense, driving things I heard all year.
The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath (Universal)
The other of the two most intense, driving things I heard all year. I find myself laughing at various points whenever I listen to this -- probably for the wrong reasons (the same reasons I used to laugh at Yes albums, in fact). But at the same time I find this stuff musically gratifying (though I need a nap afterward).
Deerhoof: Offend Maggie (Kill Rock Stars)
The quirk knob on this group goes to eleven, so of course I am all over it. Thankfully, there is no accompanying "cute knob" to cancel out the quirk. That's a very hard thing to pull off when you have a heavily-accented chick singer.
Erykah Badu: New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (Universal)
Honestly, I think Badu deserves most of the love that Beyonce is currently getting.
Graham Reynolds and the Golden Arm Trio: Cult of Color (Rickety Fence)
My favorite contemporary composer, probably. Everything he does is ambitious.
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (ATO)
Pitchfork called this album "incongruous and awkward." Exactly why I like it, you bastards.
Reptet: Chicken or Beef? (Monktail)
I'll have the chicken, I guess. But look! It's Reptet. We in the IJG like to think of them as our more lithe, slightly jazzier, more extravagantly costumed northern cousins.
Veda Hille: This Riot Life (Ape Hill)
"The killer of god stays up all night long." That was me in college. Anyway, this is some of the most creative music-that-errs-on-the-side-of-pop that I've heard in a long time. The production is a little delicate for my taste, but the great compositions burst through anyway.
Boy, do I hate year-end lists. Bye!