2008 Records To Die For

The value of music as a commodity, and as one of mankind's wonders, has never been in such flux. Retail record shops are dying, the former major labels are focused on making records for kids (the same kids they're suing), and the business overall remains wedded to an incredibly short view (get a hit or get out), but the music itself continues to trickle through to those who want it—and, yes, on some level would die without it.

If change exhilarates rather than terrifies you, the collapse of the traditional music-business model has made for a very exciting time. Like wine grapes made tenacious by rocky soil, adversity has added new fuel to musical fires. Musicians, liberated from the clutches of record labels, are intoxicated by new freedoms. Fewer rules and fewer expenses mean that imaginations have the freedom to experiment and, hopefully, to grow a career. When artists work for themselves instead of companies that also make perfume, electronics, or whiskey, they're a tad more motivated to embrace possibility. Independent labels, seeing the weakness of the old major-label goliaths, have leapt into the breach, and many of them are now healthier than ever. Consumers who are willing to surf the Web, keep their ears open, and type their credit-card numbers into online stores, can now obtain more music than they can probably afford or ever listen to. And if you're a music collector, this is a golden age: many musicians have begun to build their audiences by releasing limited-edition EPs, live sets, and website-only recordings—in other words, things the major labels should have been doing for decades.

Just a few years ago, the changes that are now occurring would have been dismissed as pure fantasy. The Eagles selling a new two-disc set exclusively at Wal-Mart, in ecologically sound packaging, for $11.99? A portable digital device as the way people store and consume music? It's a new world, and where it will all lead no one knows—yet. But fear not: though the ways we receive, amass and listen to music will never be the same, the music itself shows no signs of going away.

Against this very molten backdrop, we present our annual compilation of essential listening experiences, guilty pleasures, and really scary (or hilarious) glimpses into what makes Stereophile's writing crew tick. Enjoy, keep the faith, and by all means listen!Robert Baird

Note: If a recording listed here has previously been reviewed in Stereophile, whether in "Record Reviews" or in past editions of "Records To Die For," the volume and number of the pertinent issue appear in parentheses at the end of the review. For example, a listing of "(XXX-9)" means that a review of the recording appeared in Vol.30 No.9 (September 2007).