Best Music 2008: Songs

Wow, 2008. What a year for music. Where do I start? Lil Wayne, Guns n' Roses, No Age and a bunch of bands with variations of the f-bomb in their names released albums that I largely ignored. Kanye sang like a robot. Britney tried to trick us into thinking she was making a comeback. And before you knew it, it was all over.

Plucking highlights from this year's music releases was tough. There were a lot of decent moments, but not many great moments. Maybe I was going to the wrong places. However if the lists I've seen are any indication, even editors' lists have a very individual vibe with no real consensus of what topped the year (and some went waaay off base, but more on that later).

So what can I say? I tried to piece things together. I attempted to rule with a mix of critical eye and blatantly obvious personal bias. And this is what came out. First up, Songs of the Year.

As usual, some technical annoying rules apply (if your album technically came out in 2007, you are ineligible for this year's list (sorry, Bon). Also, if I haven't gotten around to buying or hearing an album, it also won't qualify for my lists (sorry, Lykke). All right, enough of that. Here we go:

25 Kanye West Robocop
Is it weird that after my inital rejection, I found myself starting to like Kanye's drum machine and auto-tune masterpiece 808s and Heartbreak? Maybe a little. Not all of it mind you, but how about this song, which compares an ex to Peter Weller's 80's action robot (complete with sound effect). Harsh.

24 MGMT Weekend Wars
Somebody's been listening to their Bowie. I didn't jump on the MGMT train this year (though DO seem to be part of the reason Brooklyn seems to be at the heart of music world these days), but I'm into this song, which recalls Hunky Dory but places it in an epic post-OK Computer world.

23 Beck Chemtrails
Most of the Beck/Dangermouse collaboration sounds like Beck fronting Gnarls Barkley. Not that it's bad, but hardly a leap for either artist, which IS bad for two artists who thrive when taken out of their comfort zone. My nod will go to this track, mainly because it most successfully combines their skills, Beck singing in a serious, airy falsetto while Dangermouse attacks you with drums.

22 Nas Breathe
Since I'm neither a Jeezy or Weezy fan, hip-hop didn't do much for me this year. Even Nas, who I've come to count on went into "Nas Will Save The World" mode after surrounding himself with the most controversy (and hype) in his career. Maybe the mixtape was better, but the official release wobbles after the first few promising tracks. Nas' ode to de-stressing against a minimal production (well, minimal compared to the rest of the album). holds up pretty well.

21 Deerhunter Cover Me (Slowly)/Agoraphobia
I'm such a sucker for woozy guitars. The first two songs of Deerhunter's Microcastle establish the mood for the album. Cover Me (Slowly) is a short instrumental that introduces a different mood from the previous (and equally good) Cryptograms. That message is less drone, more pop. It carries into a second song called Agoraphobia, the type of theme that seems to suit frontman Bradford Cox's fragile voice very well. Here's the second song from this duo:

20 Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks Out of Reaches
OK, the more I hear this song the more I think I tend to favor it is because of it's similarity to the more sensitive numbers of Pavement. That's terrible. Malkmus has definitely taken risks in his solo career, almost to the point that it's easier to distinguish his work from his previous band's important run in the 90s. He's even added Janet Weiss' muscular drumming and created a more flexible sound that resembles a successful transition into - dare I say - indie jam band territory. But I think I mainly like this song sort of reminds me of "Type Slowly" or "Shady Lane." What's wrong with me?

19 Flight of the Conchords For All The Ladies
Flight of the Conchords works because not only are the songs funny, but they're also well-played and catchy as hell. They're the kind of songs you laugh at, but then find yourself singing days later. This ditty, a 70s-themed funk groove with a nice vocal harmony coda, contains my favorite musical question of the year: "When will the government realize it's got to be funky, sexy ladies?"

18 The Long Blondes Guilt
The Long Blondes' "Couples" was kind of a disappointment this year, but this song shouldn't be overlooked. It has all the best elements of the highlights from Someone To Drive You Home, great lyrics, Kate Jackson's saucy voice and the overall vibe of the best 80s angst-y new wave 80s songs (for proof, just check out that intro/outro).

17 Q-Tip Gettin' Up
Q-Tip's The Renaissance may be seen to some as a shell of his former Tribe Called Quest days, but that's a pretty short-sighted view. Tribe had been waning in their last years and Q-Tip's first solo album (a whopping 9 years ago) never got the respect it deserved (J-Dilla produced most of the tracks now and in 2008 is considered a late-great production god). The music for this song in particular is a throwback to a lost 70s soul song, Q-Tip's raps lock well into the groove and is met with Tip singing in the chorus. If hip-hop ever belonged in a coffee shop, this would be the way to go.

16 REM Living Well Is The Best Revenge
R.E.M. was the best surprise about 2008. After three, maybe four albums of pensive adult contemporary blipping around, they finally allowed Peter Buck to plug in his guitar and the results are excellent. Taking tips from the "What Made R.E.M. Good" rulebook, the album brings in Mike Mills harmonies and keeps the songs (mostly) at a tidy three minutes. This lead track was key in setting things off, ripping through loud and clear, Stipe sounding more energized than ever, unapologetically setting fire to albums like "Up" and "Around The Sun" in its wake.

15 She & Him Why Do You Let Me Stay Here
Technically, there's still nothing more frightening that the phrase "celebrity musical side project," but Zooey Deschanel was able to sidestep the horror in 2008 (others - ahemScarJo - were not so lucky). How? By hiring the right sideman for the project for one - M Ward's contributions can't be overlooked in the success of this project. And of course, Zooey's charisma which translates well into song, like this happy little number that eclipses with a squadron of Zooeys (which is never a bad thing). Even more entertaining is the beautifully twisted video that accompanies the song (which you can watch by clicking the YouTube icon). Overall, however, it should be noted that this is my only mention of She & Him. I was able to keep my Zooey crush in check, unlike some people (hello, Paste? Album of the Year? I mean that's just an invitation to backlash).

14 TV on the Radio Dancing Choose
TV on the Radio still manage to top themselves with every recording. Each song on Dear Science builds onto the next one, and Dancing Choose is one of its bigger triumphs. No description really does it justice, just check it out:

13 Department of Eagles No One Does It Like You
I have an well-known aversion to bands with animal names. I avoided Grizzly Bear and the side project Department of Eagles for that reason. But I've decided to make an exception, particularly in the case of the Eagles, whose In Ear Park is absolutely brilliant. I'm not really sure where this song gets me, but I think it's around the line "I laughed so hard, I fell down." I could only find the live version on YouTube, but do yourself a favor and track down the original song. The character of the production measures up to Pet Sounds-y type heights.

12 N*E*R*D* Sooner or Later
This is N*E*R*D*'s "Hey Jude." I imagine Pharrell sitting behind a giant piano while plainly singing the opening lines of this tune with just a hint of emotion and the "It's Over/Leave It" section acting as the song's "Na Na Na" part. Pharrell's not really a McCartney level lyricist, but the real surprise (and why it ends up ranking so high on this list) comes at about 4:30 with a guitar solo that absolutely blows my mind every time. So, yeah - check it out. Whatever - this is my list and it stays.

11 Albert Hammond Jr. GFC
Why more attention hasn't been brought to Albert Hammond Jr's brief side solo career, I do not understand. Not only does Hammond write tunes and hooks at a level as his main band (I think they were called The Strokes), he's just as powerful a vocalist with lyrics that are much less painful to listen to (sorry Jules). "GFC" is a great pop song that will probably be forgotten in the mix of 2008. So, please, let's help that poor model-datin' Stroke.

10 Love Is All New Beginnings
All the really great punk songs not only move with reckless abandon, but have lyrics to match. The idea of "needing a new Bob Dylan" hooked me in so much that I took a chance on Love Is All's second album (A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night) and, as a result, it became my number one album on constant replay late this year. This band also uses a saxophone player to great effect (think The Stooge's Fun House). The style might be classic, but the Swedes seem to have a real knack for turning the classic on its ear. Unfortunately, this is the only song not to have a sample, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Though I suppose you could go to their myspace page and hear other decent songs.

9 Death Cab For Cutie I Will Possess Your Heart
This song was ubiquitous in the summer of 2008 and with good reason. Ben Gibbard and Co. also sped up to mid-tempo and haven't stopped singing about sadness, but at least stopped using arrangements that bum us out. Anyway, this is the template for a well-written single (that is unless you wanna get crazy and go with the full 8-minute version). Haunting piano, a soaring middle section, lyrics about obsession (or possibly vampires).

8 Kidz In the Hall The Pledge (featuring Sean Price & Buckshot)
Kidz in the Hall might also get overlooked this year, but The In Crowd was the most consistent, back to basics and fun hip-hop album released in 2008. In fact, this might not be the best (or best-known) song on the album, but it's one of the more enjoyable moments. It's a quick. simple song (y'know, about getting signed and what The Kidz in the Hall will do for you, their fans) and has a great verse by Sean Price (involving rhyming the phrase "nickel back" with itself three times). I love it when that happens.

7 The Raconteurs Salute Your Solution
The latest in a long line of excellent Jack White-penned tunes (though the breakneck output might affect the quality of the albums after awhile). This is one of the best moments on Consolers of the Lonely, Brendan Benson modifies his vocals this time around so that they don't sound quite so out of place next to loose cannon Jack. Overall, the album is sort of a lateral move, satisfying Jack's need to play in a classic rock band. This song fares better though. It has grit. Adding a little grit helps every once in awhile.

6 Vampire Weekend Oxford Comma
And so 2008 will be known (in the indie world at least) as the year of Vampire Weekend. An small, unassuming band with unusual reference points (read: not garage rock) and an ability to get everyone (Spin, Saturday Night Live, blogs) to get all codependent creepy about them. At their heart, the guys are actually a decent band with good songs, this being the highlight.

5 Coldplay Viva La Vida
Joining R.E.M. and Death Cab in the Old Bands That Need To Stop Being So Depressing Support Group (they must've all gotten the same memo), Coldplay also rose to the occasion this year by releasing music that sounded like a good mix of their first two albums Parachutes (with catchy songs) and A Rush of Blood to the Head (that whole grandeur thing). This song also happened to be ridiculously popular (thanks to a little iTunes commercial) so, I'm giving it the nod, though I technically prefer the soul-searching "Lost!" What can I say? I'm a sucker for popular opinion. I provided a link to the song below, but seriously, how could you not have heard this thing?

4 Gnarls Barkley Run (I'm A Natural Disaster)
It's a fact. While "Crazy" was a great song, Gnarls Barkley's second album was better. St. Elsewhere comes off as what it was - a side project, while The Odd Couple sounds more like a collection of songs by a legitimate group. This song didn't really strike me at first, but I got more sucked into it as the year wore on. They're certainly good at musically creating the many moods of insanity.

3 The Raveonettes Aly, Walk With Me
Some songs hook you the minute you hear them. I was watching MTV2 one night when I saw this video for this song by the Raveonettes (a band I like but had kind of given up on). The drone-loving geek in me suddenly became very excited about the new Raveonettes album. And while I wasn't disappointed, I still credit this song with being the strongest of the set, with the relentless guitar attack carrying on for five minutes. Sure, I'll walk with you - sounds like we're walking a lot, but I'm in.

2 Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds Albert Goes West
The whole album is amazing, but when "Albert Goes West" kicks in on Dig Lazarus Dig!!! you know you've hit a high point. This is Nick Cave filtered through the happier moments of The Velvet Underground (Rock and Roll) and creates something I never thought possible: A joyful Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song. Who knew, at 50, Nick would finally get happy?

1 M83 Kim & Jessie
Really, all other songs aside, how can this not be the best song of 2008? It absolutely demands attention. It's epic and calming at the same time, picks up the best qualities from every electronic band from Air to the Alan freaking Parsons Project but still functions as a decent pop song. It sounds classic and modern at the same time. And even though it's five minutes long it has nearly limitless replay value. C'mon folks, admit it and welcome to your best song of 2008.


Mike_R said...

Totally agree with your pick for #1. Great song...really good album. I've been obsessed with Graveyard Girl recently. that is all

Ronson said...

Yes - agreed. Saturdays = Youth is awesome. I think you'd like Love Is All and Department of Eagles too...