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Discs of the year: Playing by ear 

Our music critics achieved the near-impossible: they narrowed hundreds of new albums they heard down to five memorable picks each, plus a few hidden gems. Then we invited local musicians to choose their faves, too.

Why not listen to our playlist while you read?

Mark Black’s high fives

The Dopamines, The Dopamines (It’s Alive)

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From The Copyrights to Chinese Telephones to The Steinways, It’s Alive is putting out the best pop-punk records right now. Shouldn’t have been surprised by how good this record is, but the blend of early Fat Wreck Chords’ Propagandhi with the classic Lookout! style had me feeling like Eddie Murphy in May of 1997.

Fear of Lipstick, EP II (self-released) Fear of Lipstick crank out hit after hit on their second EP: In the vein of The Riverdales featuring one half of the east coast’s other great pop-punk group, The Varsity Weirdos.

First Words, Cheaters (Dead Beats) With production and raps from Jorun, it’s hard to go wrong. Party album from a Fredericton-Halifax collaboration.

Gentleman Jesse and His Men, Introducing Gentleman Jesse and His Men (DoucheMaster) ➤

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My favourite power-pop seven-inch of 2007 was followed up by this, my favourite power-pop record of 2008. A sure-to-be classic from members of The Carbonas.

Statues, Terminal Bedroom (Deranged) If MacLean and MacLean were from northern Ontario and subsisted on a steady diet of Devo and The Jam, it would sound like this.

Hidden tracks
Childish Gambino
, Sick Boi (self-released) Donald Glover (writer, 30 Rock), AKA Childish Gambino, is also known as mc DJ and the funny one in Derrick Comedy. Think MF Doom if he sounded more like MC Lars.

Early to finish and late to start, Mark Black is hoping to avoid an adult crash.

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Sue Carter Flinn’s high fives

Husband & Knife, An End (Divorce)

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If hitting bottom sounded as compelling as this dark folk album, no one would bother crawling back out. KC Spidle’s (Dog Day) solo side project is born out of a love of punk, and his sparse sound harkens back to Lou Reed’s days, when muggers ruled Times Square and Londoners rioted.

Tanya Davis, Gorgeous Morning (Wordy Music) ➤

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The musical equivalent of waking up at dawn on a warm summer’s day: moments of quiet beauty framed by Davis’ heartfelt poetry and unique vocal style.

King Khan & the Shrines, The Supreme Genius of (Vice) If you don’t feel like dancing to psychedelic garage rock royalty, make sure you’re still alive. Sounds like The Stooges teetering in James Brown’s platform shoes.

Sigur Ros, Með suð i eyrum við spilum endalaust (XL)

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Iceland’s economy might be in the toilet, but this celebratory album soars high, the band’s warm harmonies joined by a 90-member boys’ choir.

TV On The Radio, Dear Science (Interscope) Sometimes a hyped band makes a hyped follow-up album that’s actually smart and fun, and bigger and more grandiose than all its art-rock, afrobeat, electro-funky parts combined.

Hidden tracks
Noah23, Rock Paper Scissors
(Legendary) Fans of Cadence Weapon (who makes an appearance, as does Wordburglar, Josh Martinez and Jim Guthrie) will approve of this brilliant hip-hop renegade from Guelph, Ontario.

Sue Carter Flinn is arts editor of The Coast and, in an alternate universe, plays the piano.

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Sean Flinn’s high fives

Ghost Bees, Tasseomancy (Youth Club)

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This is music for deep listening in front of the hearth this coming winter season. Don’t have a hearth? Find some other warm, safe spot in your place to rest and enjoy the evocation of Sari and Romy Lightman’s family’s historic past, their unbelievable harmonies and wonderful imaginations.

Laura Barrett, Victory Garden (Paperbag) Not too carefully cultivated, and not so wild as to be a mess, it’s a perfect garden of songs.

Alejandro Escovedo,Real Animal (Back Porch) ➤

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Here’s an unsung hero singing from the heart about everything from his punk rock past to his own mortality, the end he and all of us face in our futures.

R.E.M., Accelerate (Warner) In 1988, ’92 and ’08, the US elects Bush Sr., Clinton and Obama respectively as presidents in big elections, while R.E.M. releases some of its best work in Green, Automatic for the People and Accelerate.

Chad VanGaalen, Soft Airplane (Flemish Eye) A strange and beautiful album, much like the “prehistoric flower on the windowsill getting hit by the sun” of which the artist sings.

Hidden tracks
The Clash, Live at Shea Stadium (Epic) A mythical moment of The Clash, their Shea Stadium-gig in front of some 80,000 New Yorkers sounds amazing, with the band pulling in punk, political pop, reggae and funked up rock (the latter on the likes of a cool take of “The Magnificent Seven”) into a raging, almost uncontrollable, show.

Sean Flinn listens to and loves music in Halifax.

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pianist Simon Docking recommends

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Homage à Olivier Messiaen (Deutsche Grammophon)

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The great French composer Olivier Messiaen would have been 100 this year, and my pick would have to be the new release of his piano music by the French super-virtuoso Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard was a protege of Messiaen for many years and gives us a definitive performance of this unforgettable music---brutal, mystical, colourful, joyful and astoundingly imaginative.

Dave Hayden’s high fives

Bon Iver, For Emma Forever Ago (Sonic Unyon)

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Not many albums (even great ones) deserve this description, but hearing For Emma for the first time was definitely a coup de foudre. Exquisite, tender and ghost-like---it’s a swirling aura of beautiful sounds and words that invoke the spirits of ee cummings, Nick Drake and Olivier Messiaen. Not only did they make the album of the year, but the band also blissfully stole the evening from under Black Mountain’s feet at their Marquee show, with a stunning display of musicianship that was truly an experience to behold.

The Dodos, Visiter (Outside) Take one part Wings-era Paul McCartney and add a dash of The Books or Tunng, and you get an idea of the hook-laden sound experiments that make up Visiter.

Elbow, Seldom Seen Kid (Universal) Its selection as winner of the 2008 Mercury Prize may have shocked every Radiohead fan out there, but it was not undeserving. There was not another album that combined such sophisticated song-craft with rich arrangements and unparalleled storytelling.

Daniel Ledwell, Two Over Seven (Dead Daisy) Released on a whim with little fanfare, this near-perfect six-song CD-EP is so good audiences keep flocking to see Ledwell play them over and over again. More importantly though, it opened our eyes to a solo talent that has, so far, been kept relatively obscured by his role as In-Flight Safety keyboardist.

Snailhouse, Lies on the Prize (Unfamiliar)

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Mike Feuerstack is such an inventive and beautiful songwriter, it is criminal that this album is not being played everywhere from the desert to the moon. Full of both upbeat and tender moments, it is by far his most accomplished album to date.

Hidden tracks
Buck 65, dirtbike digital downloads
With his new gig as host of CBC Radio 2’s Drive, it’s amazing that Buck 65 has any time to make his own music, let alone three hours of abstract free-form beats and rhymes that mark his most experimental (and exciting) work since Synesthesia. And he just gave it away to boot.

An unrepentant music junky, with a love of punk to jazz and everything in between, Dave Hayden has been writing for The Coast for 14 years, but he dabbles in a little bit of surgery on the side.

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Laura Kenins’ high fives

The Stolen Minks, High Kicks (New Romance For Kids)

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On their third release, Halifax’s Minks come closest to capturing the energy of their live shows. Refining their garage-punk sound into something rawer and less rockabilly, the vocals hit piercing Kathleen Hanna-like heights here and they’ve been holding their own against bigger punk bands across North America on tour all fall.

The Creeps, Lakeside Cabin (Black Pint) Sharp punk songs about killing people from three guys scared of cemeteries and horror movies. Definitely one of the best bands I’ve seen in a basement this year.

Entire Cities, Deep River (indie)

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An amazingly polished, lyrically beautiful debut from a Toronto folk-country ensemble, majestic and dramatic, fun and rowdy.

The Magnetic Fields, Distortion (Nonesuch) A postmodern journey through the territory between Stephin Merritt’s broody vocals and distorted, garagey pop, inhabited by drunks, Santa and beach babes.

Okkervil River, The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar) Less of an epic than its precursor, last year’s The Stage Names, it’s hard to tell if the clever, captivating tales mocking pop music are directed at others or themselves.

Hidden tracks
story, living-room demo tape
Solo guitar and accordion from Sam Wight of various local punk and hardcore bands. I’m continually charmed by the almost Joanna Newsom-like vocals on this haphazardly recorded tape.

The only music Laura Kenins knows anything about is what her composer grandfather used to categorize as “You call that music?!” when she was a teenager.

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hip-hop artist Chad Hatcher Recommends

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Locally, I really like Lost In The Woods from Mic Boyd and not just because we are both on Half Life Records---I think it’s a really different hip-hop album. It’s really dope and it’s cool to see a lot of other people liking it, too. Also, I like Matt Mays’ Terminal Romance (Sonic), it’s just a “sit back and let it go” kinda album. It reminds me of home.

Caley MacLennan’s high fives

Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles (Last Gang)

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Initially, the diversity of Crystal Castles seems to sentence it to playlist dissection. Upon multiple listens though, the fragmentation emerges as an emotional current that maintains the album’s energy. So, while the standout tracks will forever grace my playlists, this album plays brilliantly from start to finish, refusing to be ignored.

The Extremities, The New Tonic (CBC Remix Series) While this album deserves mention based on concept alone, its rap tracks suggest the best CD lists of 2009 will contain upcoming releases from Ghettosocks and Universal Soul.

Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool (Atlantic) As the title suggests, Lupe is straight cool. From smooth to banging, his latest album places him directly in the limelight.

Pennywise, Reason to Believe (MySpace) While Reason to Believe has an energy and heaviness that takes fans back a decade, Pennywise hasn’t dramatically altered its sound for 15 years. Is that really a bad thing?

Tokyo Police Club, Elephant Shell (Saddle Creek)

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While Elephant Shell may lack moments of genius, this album is a beautiful soundtrack for almost every mood or situation.

During Caley’s glory days, Halifax saw him play in punk bands and own a record/skate shop. During this decade, his writing has been featured in The Coast and

Andrew Robinson’s high fives

Flying Lotus, Los Angeles (Warp) A left-field hip-hop masterpiece just waiting to age a bit and become a seminal classic. Head-nodding beats provide the pulse alongside a collection of scratchy sound effects, scattered electronic flourishes and occasional airy vocals supplied by guests. A testament to the possibilities of sound, there’s always something new to discover on Los Angeles.

Cadence Weapon, Afterparty Babies (-Anti) Rollie Pemberton changes things up and brings the dance party on his second full-length album. The stark minimalism of Breaking Kayfabe may be gone, but Pemberton’s dexterous, clever wordplay remains.

Slim Twig, Vernacular Violence EP (Paperbag) ➤

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I find this musician/actor’s unique take on psychobilly oddly alluring---in much the same way Ellen Page found him desirable in The Tracey Fragments. Hot shit with a well-deserved aura of cool.

Stereolab, Chemical Chords (4AD)

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With almost two full decades of joyful weirdness under its belt, Stereolab takes a surprising turn and releases its most poppy effort to date. Laetitia Sadier’s voice melts me.

Women, Women (Flemish Eye) A beautifully varied album where pop is taken into fractured, edgy and thrilling places by Calgary’s soon to be least-kept-secret. Quite possibly the least boring indie-rock album of the year.

Hidden tracks
Danva, UnonoU
(Kemado) A full-on ’70s prog-metal revival that ignores everything musical post-1976. The singer sounds like Ozzy, the playing is hyper-virtuosi and the end result is this year’s best hot knives experience.

Andrew Robinson is a freelance writer, radio DJ and amateur musician who finds it hard deciding between buying food or used jazz LPs.

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Trevor Savory’s high fives

Lil’ Wayne, Tha Carter III (Universal)

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Two-thousand-eight was the year of Weezy. From his highly touted Tha Carter III and the fact that Wayne seems to be on every other disc that dropped this year (he spends more time in the studio than Tupac), it’s no wonder that Lil’ Wayne quickly became a household name.

The Black Crowes, Warpaint (Silver Arrow) After burying the hatchet, the Crowes return to their brand of classically delicious southern blues rock.

The Kooks, Konk (EMI)

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The momentum the Kooks established with their debut Inside In/Inside Out carries over here. Konk harnesses the raw vigour of their debut and channels it into one of the most overlooked albums of 2008.

Gary Louris, Vagabonds (Warner) The former Jayhawk has bestowed upon listeners a folk-rock gem.

Mike Trask & Mudhill, Boots for Flying (indie) The energy and intensity displayed on Boots for Flying showcases a great local band starting to hit its stride. Great progress has been made since their debut album The Show.

Nas, Nas (Universal) Nas’ eponymous release was easily one of the most controversial albums to drop in 2008. A return to form for the talented street poet/emcee from the east coast, this is hip-hop at its finest.

The soundtrack of this caffeinated pop culture aficionado is awash with the constant shuffle of new music.

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Singer-songwriter Amelia Curran Recommends

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The Olympic Symphonium, More in Sorrow than in Anger(Forward Music)

Not sure what to say about it except that it’s completely beautiful. Those guys have enough sweeping swooning moodiness to crack open the Statue of Liberty.

Doug Taylor’s high fives

Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (Universal) The characters in the Truckers’ godly, godforsaken South make up in resilience what luck has denied them. Before you get too far down the contemplation of fates, there are three guitars to snap you out of it. Recent addition Shonna Tucker adds a woman’s angle to the Georgia combo’s sagas of alcohol and hope.

Betty Harris, Intuition (Evidence) ➤

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Harris outranks fellow comeback queens Sharon Jones and Bettye LaVette in age and length of exile. Belting a solid mess of tunes by Jon Tiven with a dynamic band and a hard-won hardass stance, she gives the blues a transfusion of tough love.

James Hunter, The Hard Way (Hear/Go) Nobody nails early ’60s soul like this Englishman. It’s a slight upgrade on 2006’s People Gonna Talk, featuring harmonies, strings and the odd Freddy King moment to keep things from getting too fussy.

Dave Marsh, The True Love Rules (New Scotland)

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Bursting from behind the Emergency skins, Marsh reveals mad guitar chops and a kinship with everyone from Jimmy Webb to Slade. This mature and reflective album morphs into a colossal stomper live, as on Natal Day weekend at Alderney Landing.

Inara George and Van Dyke Parks, An Invitation (Everloving) The daughter of the late Lowell George (Little Feat) is radiant on a record that has dibs on a comfy spot in your unconscious. George’s voice and Parks’ arrangements could inspire human flight, or at least a flying dream.

Hidden tracks
Various artists, Miles From India
(40 Times Square) This collaboration between Miles Davis alumni in America and deft admirers in India vaults all logistic and cultural hurdles. “All Blues” for sitar, “So What” with vocal percussion? The grouch is grooving in his grave.

Doug Taylor is a radio-lover and painter whose fondest memory is humming voice and guitar parts to Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” while hitchhiking.

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Tara Thorne’s high fives

Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line (Barsuk)

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This Syracuse sextet doesn’t have the hype (or pretension) of Arcade Fire, which is probably why it’s been able to tread lighter than its most constant comparison, letting its string-driven lullabies and orch-pop masterpieces speak for themselves. “Can You Tell” is one of the prettiest odes to unrequited love you’ll ever hear.

Hey Rosetta!, Into Your Lungs (Sonic) It takes more than 20 minutes to get through the first four songs, but there is so much glory and beauty in them that you don’t care. Newfoundland has never sounded like this.

Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue (Warner)

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Sacrificing cohesion for balls, Lewis indulges every whim, no matter how unsuccessful (Elvis Costello) or breathtaking (all eight minutes and 45 seconds of “The Next Messiah”). A voice for the ages.

Kathleen Edwards, Asking For Flowers (Universal) Edwards grows up, moves on and casts a wider songwriting net, catching acute social awareness and expressing it beautifully and with her trademark toughness.

Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst (Merge) Bright Eyes doesn’t really go solo---just to Mexico---but no matter what he calls himself, Oberst hasn’t produced a collection of singalong country yarns this strong since Lifted.

Tara Thorne can’t even fill an ipod shuffle, that’s how much she’s listened to these five records this year.

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