12/29/2008 at 01:00 AM EST
COLDPLAY, VIVA LA VIDA
It really did feel as if Coldplay, making like French revolutionaries, ruled the world in 2008. Chris Martin's blokes expanded their Brit-pop domain by conquering Latin, African and Middle Eastern sounds. Not only was this the album of the year, but its majestic title track was the song of the year.
ROBIN THICKE, SOMETHING ELSE
There is nothing blue-eyed about the soul of Thicke, who proves that last year's hit "Lost Without U" was no white-boy fluke by releasing the best R&B CD of 2008, a vintage-'70s set.
, HARD CANDY
In the year that she turned 50, Madge turned the clock back to her early days as an urban club kid. With help from Justin Timberlake
, Timbaland and Pharrell, she rocks the party like she hasn't since her 1983 debut.
The title was supposed to be the N-word. But the rapper doesn't pull any other punches, seizing the Obama moment in this look at the state of black America and race relations.
T.I., PAPER TRAIL
Lil Wayne may have sold more albums, but for our money this was the hip-hop crowd-pleaser of the year, scoring back-to-back No. 1 hits: "Whatever You Like" and "Live Your Life," the pop-rap anthem of 2008.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND, VAMPIRE WEEKEND
On their eclectic debut, these Columbia University grads make college rock that gets high marks for both catchiness and quirkiness.
THE CURE, 4:13 DREAM
You have to go all the way back to the first Bush administration for the last time the Cure made an album this good. They show all those skinny-jeans bands who've ripped them off how it's done.
The Cure weren't the only '80s alt-rock heroes to make a killer comeback. Michael Stipe's crew put a middle-aged malaise behind them, flooring it on Accelerate
, their rockingest effort since 1994's Monster
EMMYLOU HARRIS, ALL I INTENDED TO BE
Having graced many other people's albums, Harris can be excused for taking her time between solo discs. Her first since 2003, a country-folk gem, reminds us why she has long been a national treasure.
In the wake of Amy Winehouse, there was an invasion of soulful chanteuses from the U.K., including Leona Lewis, Duffy and Estelle. But with that knockout of a voice, this 20-year-old was the best of 'em.