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A golden year in music for women and old stagers

It has been a year of divas, US indie bands, veterans and some notable – and almost unnoticed – comebacks. Andy Gill looks back on an eventful 12 months in music

For the first few weeks of the year, it seemed as if 2008 was basically just a wish-fulfilment extension of 2007, with the BBC announcing that its pop tipsters' poll had chosen Adele to be the coming year's brightest prospect. A grateful – or simply intrigued – public duly obliged, hoisting Adele's debut album, 19, to the top of the charts.

It turned out to be merely the opening salvo of a barrage of new female singer-songwriter talent emerging in the wake of Amy Winehouse's success. Welsh blonde bombshell Duffy most brazenly rode Amy's retro-soul coat-tails into the chart, too, though for all the comparisons with Dusty Springfield, she more closely recalled Helen Shapiro (ask your dad); Beth Rowley, though less successful, was more deserving of the comparison. Meanwhile, precocious young Laura Marling – 18 going on 36, judging by her lyrics – brought a Joni-esque confessional intensity to the ongoing folk revival. Also riding the folkie wave was Alison Goldfrapp, unexpectedly transformed into a witchy psych-folk damsel for the latest incarnation of her band. Another newcomer, Katy Perry, kissed a girl and caused a minor furore, something which the likes of Dido and Sharleen Spiteri would probably have given their eye teeth to achieve, as their latest albums nosedived to oblivion.

America took both Adele and Duffy to its heart, along with expatriate divas Leona Lewis and Estelle, but seemed less interested in – or perhaps simply unaware of – its own brightest female prospect, Santi White, who, as Santogold, most potently capitalised on the earlier innovations of MIA. Instead, American punters continued feeding their camp, ghoulish fascination with poor, confused Britney, while Beyoncé, playing catch-up in the "I'm bonkers, me" arena, unveiled her schizoid alter ego, Sasha Fierce. Sadly, neither Beyoncé nor Sasha seemed capable of making a decent album: not bonkers, then, just bollocks.

Perhaps through some ghastly astrological coincidence, all the big, bland Brit-bands – Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane, Oasis – released new albums in 2008, none of them meriting more than the most cursory inspection, and all signally failing to stem the continuing decline in CD sales. But then the changing realities of the record industry made it virtually impossible to figure out the best way to proceed. The Charlatans chose to follow Radiohead in offering their latest album as a free download, but nobody seemed to notice; and when Jack White's other band, The Raconteurs, opted to release their second album without any adverts, advance review copies or promotional support, they surely can't have been surprised when that, too, slipped off the radar. At least the Mercury Prize judging panel for once got it just about right by awarding the prize to Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid, thereby triggering the ascent of their "One Day Like This" to the feelgood-anthem status normally reserved for Coldplay.

As the pervasive uncertainty took its grip on the industry, there was a widespread retreat to the comforting arms of the familiar, as dozens of long-lost acts chose 2008 to make their comebacks. David Byrne and Brian Eno reconvened to make another album, 27 years after their first, and there were belated returns from such stalwarts of the more sardonic side of American pop as Randy Newman, The B-52's and Was (Not Was), along with overdue appearances of feisty ladies Grace Jones and Carlene Carter. The British contingent weighed in with a series of comebacks, some (Portishead, Spiritualized, My Bloody Valentine) more welcome – and impassioned – than others (The Verve, The Cure). Even Paul McCartney got in on the act, returning as The Fireman with his most spirited, engaging set in years.

But the comeback trend of 2008 was that most reassuringly unchanging of musical warhorses, heavy metal, with pride of place going to Guns N'Roses, whose Chinese Democracy finally appeared, a mere 15 years after its predecessor, surprising everyone by being nowhere near as bad as rumours had suggested. AC/DC and Metallica also scored substantial successes with new releases; though sadly, the good fortune did not stretch to providing Def Leppard's latest album with any notable sales fillip.

It was a fairly fallow year for hip-hop – something of a foregone conclusion when the biggest-selling rap artist is the mildly talented Lil Wayne. However, Lupe Fiasco, Nas, Common and Ice Cube all released creditable albums, whilst Kanye West went Auto Tune-crazy on his techno-flavoured 808s & Heartbreak. And the UK contingent continued increasing in strength through the likes of Roots Manuva, Bashy, Sway and Wiley, with Dizzee ("Mr") Rascal making an improbable appearance on Newsnight discussing Barack Obama's success, and Mike (The Streets) Skinner taking an equally improbable turn to the philosophical on his latest album. But it says volumes about hip-hop's weakness this year that any more interesting or worthwhile contributions were ultimately overshadowed by Jay-Z's appearance at Glastonbury, a storm in a mudbath that he unsurprisingly turned into a triumph.

American indie music, however, had another vintage year, with the harmony-drenched debut albums of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Port O'Brien, among others, bringing a fresh falsetto chill to contemporary folk-rock, whilst MGMT, The Kills and Vampire Weekend heralded the return of collegiate clever-dick new-wave pop as a serious force in US music. Along with the continuing popularity of The Killers, the chart-topping success of Kings of Leon effectively validated the growing interest in American indie-rock. Now that they have demonstrated the resurgent appeal of rocking boogie-metal, don't be surprised if the likes of White Denim and The Black Keys emulate their success next year, both having produced albums of startling impact in 2008.

By comparison, UK indie suffered one of its weakest years in living memory, save for isolated points of excellence such as Spiritualized's Songs in A&E, while the most promising new bands, The Ting Tings, Metronomy and Glasvegas, brought markedly different types of attitude to bear on an increasingly threadbare scene. In the African music scene, only the thrilling Congolese collective Kasai Allstars threatened Mali's continuing pre-eminence as the most fruitful source of non-Western pop, a position reaffirmed by the diverse offerings of Bassekou Kouyate, Issa Bagayogo, Toumani Diabaté and Amadou & Mariam, the last of whom threaten to cross over into the mainstream pop firmament.

But for some reason the most notable successes of 2008 came from superannuated sources. Seasick Steve confirmed his place in Britons' hearts with a sell-out show at the Royal Albert Hall, a charting album, and affirmation of his position as everyone's festival favourite, while Leonard Cohen went one better with his acclaimed return to touring, which included unexpectedly popular shows at the O2 and Manchester Opera House. Cohen's unforeseen status as pop's Man of the Year was confirmed when his "Hallelujah" was chosen as this season's climactic cover-version on The X Factor. The year will probably conclude with Alexandra Burke's version of his "secular hymn" atop the singles charts, and only the churlish would begrudge the golden-voiced, silver-tongued septuagenarian charmer the replenishment of his stolen pension fund. After all, it's not every year that a bona fide poet enlightens prime-time telly.