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Lil Wayne, Estelle, R.E.M. stood tall in 2008

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Newsday (MCT) - Will 2008 go down as the year the major-label system finally broke down for good?


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Highlights

By Glenn Gamboa
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
12/30/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in Music

This year was filled with one unpredictable surprise after another, each pointing out that no bet is safe these days, that music holds no more sure things.

Lil Wayne sold a million copies of "Tha Carter III" in one week without an all-out publicity machine blitz or even a beef to generate extra attention. He accomplished the rare feat _ made all the rarer by a worsening economy _ with a great album that has generated one hit after another.

Yeah, the album leaked to the Internet before its release _ pretty much every album does these days. But music fans liked what they heard and supported Young Weezy until he broke "A Milli," the first time any album has sold that many copies since 50 Cent's "The Massacre" in 2005.

On the opposite end is Guns N' Roses. The band's long-awaited "Chinese Democracy," which has been generating hype since 1994 when the group first started work on it, finally arrived, much to the chagrin of Dr Pepper, which bet free soda for every American that the mythical album would be delayed again. So much ink has been spilled about the lengthy process and the multimillion-dollar costs, about the comings and goings of the band and entire sets of replacements at the whim of singer Axl Rose, that almost everyone _ especially Best Buy, which signed an exclusivity agreement for its initial retail sales _ expected a huge blockbuster.

Then, they heard it.

The better-than-average album delivered OK sales its first week, though it still couldn't get past Kanye West's stunningly noncommercial, leftfield album of hurt feelings and bleak melodies, or even country teen sensation Taylor Swift. Sales dropped precipitously after that.

But Rose wasn't the only one. Mariah Carey put out one of her best albums ever, "E=mc2," only to watch it get a fraction of the attention (and sales) of "The Emancipation of Mimi." Janet Jackson struggled even more.

The music industry's biggest stars were swinging and missing and there weren't enough upstarts _ Coldplay and the gaggle of British female singers Leona Lewis, Duffy, Estelle and Adele excluded _ to take up the slack.

Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe the music industry will finally wean itself off the blockbusters and start treating each album individually, since, despite the industry's doldrums, there are still tons of great music coming out all the time. Maybe this time they'll change, because maybe they won't have another choice.

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LIL WAYNE, "THA CARTER III" (Cash Money). Not only does Lil Wayne offer a little something for everyone _ from the pop-leaning Beyonce answer song "Comfortable" to the minimalist hip-hop thrill of "A Milli" to the political commentary of "Tie My Hands" and "Misunderstood" to the club anthem "Lollipop" _ he does it all while remaining true to his unique, brash style. That kind of individual excellence in the face of adversity is truly stunning, so motivating that even Michael Phelps found it inspirational.

LUCINDA WILLIAMS, "LITTLE HONEY" (Lost Highway). Happiness suits Williams. On "Little Honey," she rolls out non-sappy love songs ("Tears of Joy"), alt-country prayers for serenity ("The Knowing" and "Heaven Blues") and all-out rockers ("Honey Bee" and "Real Love"). But it all pales next to the brilliant "Little Rock Star," an epic tale of pending celebrity disaster told over girl-group harmonies and echoing U2 guitars, that proves happy doesn't have to mean blissfully ignorant.

ESTELLE, "SHINE" (Atlantic). If only pop was always this clever and effortless. Singer-rapper Estelle is as grand as Lauryn Hill in her heyday, comfortable with Motown-tinged R&B, reggae-tinged hip-hop and dance-tinged pop. The stellar "American Boy" is only the tip of the Brit star's silky soul iceberg.

R.E.M., "ACCELERATE" (Warner Bros.). Though the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers' return to form didn't get as much attention as the flashier comebacks of Britney Spears and Axl Rose, R.E.M.'s bold "Accelerate" brings back the rocking swagger of their earlier days with the pointed barbs of "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and "Man-Sized Wreath."

KANYE WEST, "808S & HEARTBREAK" (Roc-a-Fella). Abandoning pretty much everything that brought him to superstardom, West works through the pain of his mother's untimely death and a breakup in his own earnest (and limited) singing voice and a whole lot of AutoTune. The results are often bleak and beautiful ("Street Lights" and "Coldest Winter") or minimalist and maudlin ("Amazing" and "Heartless").

THE PRETENDERS, "BREAK UP THE CONCRETE" (Shangri-La). Chrissie Hynde finds inspiration in rockabilly and her hometown of Akron, Ohio, yielding her most potent record in more than two decades. Discussions of urban planning, international trade and 12-step programs never sounded lovelier.

NAS, "UNTITLED" (Def Jam). For all his publicity-stunting, Nas is still the brainiest rapper around, deconstructing the machinations of Fox News, the origins of racial epithets and the seductive qualities of fried chicken with remarkable skill.


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THE ACADEMY IS ..., "FAST TIMES AT BARRINGTON HIGH" (Fueled by Ramen). More impossibly catchy pop-rock from the Chicago quintet that's seemingly built from refreshingly innocent John Hughes '80s teen dramas and built for repeated listening and boozy sing-alongs.

FALL OUT BOY, "FOLIE A DEUX" (Island). Lyrically and sonically more ambitious than anything Fall Out Boy has ever tried, "Folie a Deux" incorporates a universe of outside interests without losing their undeniable hooks and distinctive sound.

FRIENDLY FIRES, "FRIENDLY FIRES" (XL). Giddy new-new wave that welds Spandau Ballet rhythms and New Order techniques to current Euro-dance pop to make dancing your cares away that much easier.

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Glenn Gamboa: glenn.gamboa@newsday.com

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© 2008, Newsday.

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