Top Classic Albums of 2008

Ranking the best of what went around and came around again.

Billy Joel

The Stranger

(Columbia/Legacy)

As punk and disco exploded, the Piano Man's deeply unhip 1978 breakthrough proved top-shelf Broadway/Brill Building songwriting could still sell — and, occasionally, rock. "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and "Anthony's Song (Movin' Out)" remain priceless snapshots of Annie Hall-era NYC, the title track bares real teeth, and the Kenny Chesney fave "Only the Good Die Young" — banned from several college radio stations for its unseemly insinuations about Catholic schoolgirls — is still a corker.

Extras: Complete June 1977 Carnegie Hall concert, DVD of Joel's March 1978 appearance on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, 30-minute making-of doc, and facsimile of his lyric sketchbook, scratch-outs and all.

Willie Nelson

Stardust

(Columbia/Legacy)

Nelson's 1978 dunking of the Great American Songbook into his whiskey river, with producer Booker T. Jones riding soulful shotgun, shattered all sorts of precedents. It gave Irving Berlin ("Blue Skies") and Hoagy Carmichael ("Georgia on My Mind") their first number one country hits, proved record buyers wouldn't blanch at long-haired rednecks covering Duke Ellington and Kurt Weill (more than five million copies sold), and set the tone for this year's stellar Wynton Marsalis Quartet collaboration, Two Men with the Blues.

Extras: A complete second disc of Stardust outtakes, wherein Nelson unleashes trusty acoustic guitar Trigger on "What a Wonderful World," "Stormy Weather," "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," and others.

New Order

Movement; Power, Corruption & Lies; Low-Life; Brotherhood; and Technique

(London/Warner Bros./Rhino)

No one could have imagined the surviving members of goth progenitors Joy Division would soon become the finest fusers of postpunk and dance music to date — probably least of all Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris. Enlisting Morris's keyboardist girlfriend (and later wife) Gillian Gilbert, New Order moved steadily toward peppy pop on its first five LPs but, as later tracks such as "Vanishing Point" lay plain, never quite shed the darkness of its tragic beginnings.

Extras: Since so many of New Order's best songs — "Temptation," "Blue Monday," "True Faith" — were released as only singles, few bands are better suited to Rhino's two-disc "deluxe edition" treatment. Remixes galore too.

Roy Orbison

The Soul of Rock and Roll

(Columbia/Legacy)

Three versions of "Oh, Pretty Woman" appear on this four-disc salute to one of pop's most otherworldly voices. That 1964 smash might have overshadowed Orbison's impressive oeuvre ("Mean Woman Blues" ), but mostly The Soul sets things right, spanning the West Texas rockabilly balladeer's early demos with the Teen Kings and Wink Westerners through the Traveling Wilburys and near-death triumphs such as "You Got It" and the k.d. lang duet "Crying."

Extras: Testimonials by Sun Records' Sam Phillips, Tom Petty, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Tom Waits, Dolly Parton, Lemmy, and Bono, who says, "Roy Orbison is now coming back into focus as an innovator of pop music." Did he ever leave?

R.E.M.

Murmur

(Universal)

Few albums have triggered a sea change in rock and roll with more authority and fewer decipherable lyrics than R.E.M.'s 1983 debut. Reaching back to the Byrds, Peter Buck's paisley guitar parts provide the pop counterbalance to Michael Stipe's kudzu poetry — even today, only he probably knows what he was singing about. One-in-a-million opener "Radio Free Europe" remains the pick of the litter, but "Moral Kiosk" and "Catapult" aren't far behind, and the dusky "Perfect Circle" presages Automatic for the People by a decade.

Extras: 1983 live disc from Toronto fleshes out Murmur with Chronic Town strays ("Gardening at Night") and soon-to-be Reckoning standouts ("Harborcoat").

The Smiths

The Sound of the Smiths

(Sire/Rhino)

Considering the vast influence the Smiths continue to exert, Morrissey probably had no idea how prescient he was being when he wrote 1987's "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish." Or maybe he did; he notes elsewhere on this comprehensive singles comp that "These Things Take Time." Regardless, nobody ever mined the depths of misery with more acerbic wit than Le Moz, and few (if any) have redefined the limits of rock guitar more thoroughly than his nemesis/muse Johnny Marr. Hand in glove indeed.

Extras: Live, demo, and alternate versions of all manner of raincoat classics: "How Soon Is Now?" "This Charming Man," "Pretty Girls Make Graves," etc.

Various Artists

Never Ever Land

(Charly)

Thanks to International Artists Records, Houston, Texas, was psych-rock's humid petri dish when The Grateful Dead was still picking out bluegrass covers. Released on Dutch label Charly, Never Ever Land bolsters IA's LSD-laced hits (13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me"; Bubble Puppy's "Hot Smoke & Sassafras") with prepunk blasts from long-gone Thursday's Children, bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Coastliners, also known as the Gulf Coast Beach Boys.

Extras: England's Dreaming author Jon Savage's 1980 interview with late IA boss and self-admitted square peg Lelan Rogers, also Kenny's older brother.

Hank Williams Sr.

The Unreleased Recordings

(Time Life)

Fifty-five years after his famous prediction that he'd never get out of this world alive came true, and a decade after Mercury released the mislabeled 10-disc box set The Complete Hank Williams, somehow the Lonesome Drifter keeps moanin' the blues. Equally split between sin and salvation, Unreleased reveals, among other things, that Willie Nelson was hardly the first to record "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Conclusive evidence that Hank Sr. is the Tupac of country music.

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