You can have your TV on the Radios, your Vampire Weekends and your Girl Talks. The best music in 2008 didn't come from a laptop and didn't involve sampling a bunch of shit. And it didn't come from anthem-oriented blowhards like Nickelback or 3 Doors Down. And it had nothing to do with the Jonas Brothers' blond ambition or Britney's lamebrained attempt at a comeback.
In a year that featured relatively few surprises (Coldplay's Viva La Vida vied with Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III for the top-selling album, and U.K. sensation Leona Lewis had the best-selling single with the saccharine "Bleeding Love," a song that's got nothing on M.I.A.'s superior "Paper Planes"), hard-rock heavy hitters such as Metallica, AC/DC and Guns N' Roses (the real shocker of the bunch) delivered back-to-basics albums that heralded a return to their glory days. OK, so these guys are a bit long in the tooth to really rage. And in many respects, they're first-class sellouts. But their no-frills approaches provided relief from all the Auto-Tune dreck filling up what's left of the airwaves.
Let's take Metallica for starters. These guys fucked up big-time with 2003's St. Anger, an album whose shoddy production (courtesy of long-time collaborator Bob Rock, who completely mishandled the drum mix) castrated the band. For Death Magnetic, they recruited Rick Rubin (Danzig, Slayer, Slipknot), a guy who knows a thing or two about heavy metal, and the decision reaped dividends. Epic in scope, "The Day That Never Comes" is their best song in years.
Then there's AC/DC. While I can't say I agree with the decision to issue the album exclusively to Wal-Mart (which distributed only the CD version - vinyl junkies can find the release at independent shops), AC/DC also returned to form with Black Ice, its first studio effort since 2000's Stiff Upper Lip. The album hits hard from its opening tune, "Rock 'N Roll Train," and never lets up, featuring the same blues/rock combo that made albums such as Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Highway to Hell and Back in Black such classics. Can't wait to hear how "Big Jack" and "Stormy May Day" work out live.
Also partnering with an exclusive distributor (this time, Best Buy, which at least has the good sense to stock the album on vinyl), Guns N' Roses returned after a seemingly interminable lay-off of 15 years with Chinese Democracy. While it's not accurate to say the wait was entirely worth it, the album doesn't disappoint. Axl Rose's vocals on tunes such as "Street of Dreams" and "There Was a Time" is high-caliber stuff. And while the band isn't the same without the charismatic Slash hammering away on guitar, there are plenty of great guitar solos throughout the disc.
You could almost lump Nine Inch Nails with these hard-rocking guys too. Frontman Trent Reznor ditched his usually meticulous recording process and went into the studio to just play. The resulting album, The Slip, had an immediacy that his last couple of albums lacked. In addition, the multimedia-heavy live show, which played to an only half-capacity Quicken Loans Arena, was one of the year's most thrilling tours.
The year wasn't just about these hard rockers' return. Rag-tag indie acts like Kings of Leon, whose Only by the Night is their finest album, showed how much they've evolved, even if the album took hold more in the U.K. than it did here. And MGMT's Oracular Spectacular was so funky, you can understand why it appealed to everyone from hippies to club kids. The Hold Steady faithful didn't really gravitate to Stay Positive, but the album deserves mention if only for its standout single, "Sequestered in Memphis," a terrific tune that's one of the best in the talented band's catalog.
While it's stating the obvious to say the music biz is in deep trouble (and nowadays, what industry isn't?), the return of vinyl (and you know it's making a legitimate comeback when you find new vinyl releases at Best Buy and turntables for sale at Target) suggests that the days of actually going out and buying music and treating it as a precious commodity might not totally be a thing of the past.