When I was a child, my Christmas stocking was stuffed with all manner of items, but a few things were consistent. I could count on Santa's bringing something whimsical like a yo-yo or Silly Putty. There was always a book -- I think that's how "Where the Red Fern Grows" came into my life and turned me into the type of kid who is capable of crying while reading a novel. But most reliably, there was candy. Good candy.
My usage of the stocking stuffers went like this: play with the toy, read the book, stow the candy in my desk to save it for a special occasion. (I was an extraordinarily self-disciplined youth.)
As something of a joke, my parents have continued the stocking tradition. This year, the candy of fashion was Nerds, which -- in case you've forgotten -- were delicious. I use the past tense because I've already eaten my Nerds. I've matured, in a Benjamin Button sort of way. At 12, I would have waited for some mysterious perfect day. This year, the Nerds survived about 48 hours. Life is too short to not eat candy.
The list of music below is your box of Nerds. These are five great albums released in 2008. After reading it, you could think, "That Santogold character sounds interesting. But I think I'll wait until it hits the used rack at my local record store." Don't wait. You don't want to be me at 12 -- I wasn't much fun back then. And like candy, good music is about nothing if not about fun. So have some fun. Buy, burn or download this music. Unless you don't like fun. In that case, print out this list, stick it in your drawer and forget about it until October, when you pull its melted shell from between two pencils, wrinkle your nose, and throw it in the trash.
The Kills -- Midnight Boom
My favorite album of the year might not be the one I'm listening to in five years. It is the one that reminds me of 2008. I've been looking forward to the release of "Midnight Boom" since the eighth time I listened to The Kills' previous effort, "No Wow." That listen being the one that made me think, "This is good, but they'll do better."
They did. The Kills consist of a woman who sounds a little like PJ Harvey (only without the tendency to bring to mind a house cat being strangled) and a guy who dates Kate Moss. Which has nothing to do with the music they produce. Well, the cat part does. The Kate Moss reference, however, does not. It's just that I read an article about The Kills in which the interviewer referenced the fact that Moss called the guy twice during their interview. As I read it, I thought, "I'd like for Kate Moss to be stalking me."
The Kills are not nearly as vicious as their name suggests. They're somewhat vicious, but in the right ways. "Midnight Boom" is what rock 'n' roll should sound like. Lots of snarl, lots of hiccupy beats, but with a tender voice -- one that doesn't make me think of dead kittens.
Kings of Leon -- Only by the Night
I could write 8,000 words about the Kings of Leon. I could do so from several angles. There's the siblings angle: KOL are three brothers and a cousin. If my brothers and I were musically gifted; sons of a preacher; and much, much cooler, we could be the Kings of Leon.
There's the Paris angle. My brother Matt and I trekked across that city, emerging from the metro in entirely the wrong place and ran about two kilometers (remember, we were in France) to make it in time to see the last half of the opener, MGMT, before Kings of Leon came on and led to my third and fourth possible angles
Those being, respectively, the favorite-band angle and the closet-homosexual angle.
After "Only by the Night" and "Because of the Times" (released a short 18 months apart), it's official: Kings of Leon is my current favorite band. I'd say I've had only four or five current favorite bands; this is not an honor I bestow lightly. Don't feel too sorry for me, though. I'll survive the change. But when I start discussing Kings of Leon for all-time favorite band, be ready with the paper bag and some Xanax.
The final angle from which I could work is the small matter that I might turn gay for one or all of the members of Kings of Leon. Watch a video and tell me I'm wrong to say that. Unless you're a girl. Then you should watch the video and tell me you haven't reconfirmed your heterosexual status. Or switched, in the case of my robust lesbian audience.
TV on the Radio -- Dear Science
It was a good year for lead singer Tunde Adebimpe. He starred in "Rachel Getting Married," he continued to have the best name in pop music, and he got to sing the songs on "Dear Science" several times. (I'm estimating. It could have been dozens or even scores of times.)
It used to be that a TV on the Radio album needed around 15 listens before I could decipher it. Good news: That number is down to seven. Still, it takes time. TVOTR is something of a critical fave, and that could lead the casual listener to the following sequence of events:
1. Put on headphones.
2. Listen to "Dear Science."
3. Become frustrated after three songs.
4. Say: "Stupid critics. They just like it because they don't understand it."
But I implore you -- give "Dear Science" a chance. You'll be rewarded. It's a wonderful record.
(In further imploring, I would ask you to see the band live at any opportunity. I would describe the experience, but I've already beaten the "Oh I've seen these guys live, aren't I cool?" horse to death.)
Santogold -- Santogold
If I were asked which 2008 album I would most want to listen to at this moment, Santogold would be my pick. In the vein of another recent favorite of mine, 2007's The Go! Team release, this is a feel-cool album. As in, when I listen to it, I feel way cooler than I actually am. Which, come to think of it, probably ought to be the criterion by which all music is judged.
Santogold inevitably draws comparisons to MIA -- she of "Paper Planes" fame. It's a fair comparison, except that it should be the other way around. Santogold is consistently better, in this listener's ears.
Oh, and if the musical references didn't help -- if you've never heard of The Go! Team or MIA -- never fear. Santogold sounds like a combination of double-dutch rhymes, a French whorehouse and a 12-pack of Stella, all filtered through R2D2's motherboard.
Lykke Li -- Youth Novels
Her real name is Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson, she's 22, and she's Swedish. Your interest should be piqued.
Most likely, this will be the only Lykke Li that needs to be in my collection, ever. I'm usually not impressed by singer-songwriters. I need more complexity. It's not that I think the simplicity of the singer-songwriter isn't a beautiful thing. I do. Listen to her song "Little Bit" and get back to me. If it doesn't make you happy, then you have no soul.
But usually, I need something more than this. Nine Inch Nails, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Mogwai that sort of thing. (All of which put out albums in 2008 that nearly made this list.) Which is a credit to how good this album is. It's fragile, it's beautiful, it will probably make you think about love and life and late nights staring into someone's eyes.
Plus, her name is Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson. How could you not give it a try?
That's my list. Loosely, my favorites are in order of descending affection. But it's hardly fair to differentiate because this is all great music. If you've heard of all the bands above, I'm proud of you. If you haven't, don't be intimidated, my tastes are not so complex. In addition to being great music, this is accessible music. You don't have to have a degree in music appreciation to like these bands. Just like you don't have to be a chef to enjoy a boxful of Nerds.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. Paul can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, now in paperback, "Can I Keep My Jersey?" can be found here. With his brother, he also co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."