Every December or January, in a yearly ritual that somehow became more and more of a chore, I do a roundup of my favorite albums I heard throughout the year. Last year’s sorry excuse for a list was the result of writing exhaustion: what else could I really write about Boxer or Sound of Silver that hadn’t already been written?
Unlike the real critics, though, I included everything, old and new, in my year-end list — for the simple reason that musical excavation was a lot easier (and many times a lot more rewarding) than trying to keep up with new releases. I don’t get free advance CDs, after all. 2008 was the year I plunged deeply into irrationally different discographies: Led Zeppelin, Wilco, Ricardo Villalobos, Broken Social Scene, Arab Strap, and almost every compilation of ’70s African music (especially the wonderful Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6) I could get my hands on.
This year it seemed even harder to write up a list because my musical consumption, and perhaps my attention span as well, had been downsized. I had caught up, finally, with the iPod Generation, and succumbed to the sonic implications of the shuffle function, my beloved MusicIP Mixer, the Genius Playlist, Last.fm, and downloadable tracks from iTunes and Amazon — all features designed, it seems, to be at cross-purposes with the overarching framework of an album.
Such features make it easier to subvert and/or disrespect the artist’s intentions somehow. Surely Radiohead, for instance, wanted you to hear “All I Need”, a total stunner of a track, between “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” and “Faust Arp”. But random playlists and shuffles also work in the service of a song. One might say that the shuffle liberates a song from the confines of the album, recontextualizes it, and makes it new. Stateless’ “Bloodstream” popped up that way (on a Last.fm Radio station based on Clara Hill), and Captain Audio’s “Lemon” came bubbling out of the speakers on an Austin radio station like some long-lost Liz Phair track.
Hearing songs in different contexts played a huge part of my musical listening in 2008. My iTunes statistics tell a different story from the list later below: my most-played songs were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”, OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” (really — with 42 and a half million views on YouTube, you don’t even have to click the link), and Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” — and you players of Rock Band know why. Jill Scott’s “Golden”, a total declaration of independence, was one of my favorite songs this year since I saw strippers ironically dancing to it… in Grand Theft Auto IV.
So was Antony and the Johnsons’ “Hope There’s Someone”, from an album that didn’t make much of an impression on me until I heard the song at the conclusion of Wayne Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska. (Here’s my review, by the way.) Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s “New Year’s Kiss” plays during the opening credits of Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (another quick review here). And yes, also Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend”, from “Harvest Moon” — an album I always thought of as being all about the gorgeous title track — because Tunde Adebimpe sings it a cappella in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.
Which is not to say that there weren’t any albums I played all the way through until I wore out the grooves — oh wait, I haven’t done that since “Dark Side of the Moon”. Little Dragon‘s 2007 debut album was, hands down, my favorite album of the year (you all need to watch the video for “Test”), as were a couple albums noted below, and two older albums — Houses of the Holy and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — which I had listened to back in the day, but only really clicked this year.
But here, nonetheless, is a sweet surrender to the joys of song, all released in 2008 for real (with the exception of the Vampire Weekend track, which Pitchfork cognoscenti probably found out about in 2007). They’re actually ranked in order, too, which is something I’ve never attempted before. As it is, the order will probably change (as I type this, Point Juncture WA‘s “Melon Bird” is threatening to crack the top 15).
15. The Weepies, “Antarctica”
The Weepies are the songwriting duo of Deb Talan and Steve Tannen — and, incidentally, the cowriters of my favorite songs on Mandy Moore’s 2007 album Wild Hope. “Antarctica”, a frozen enigma of a folk-pop song, features summery, warm harmonies in stark contrast to the wintry imagery: “Under ice there’s a world moving slow”, a howling desolation of nothing but “bone-white and sky-blue”, and a crucial, if initially clumsy, pun in the chorus. “Antarctica”, they sing in crystal-clear tones, is “my only living relative.” I don’t know what it all means, and I couldn’t get it out of my head this year.
14. Manhattan Love Suicides, “Things You’ve Never Done (WOXY Radio Live Session)”
Because, god knows, every generation needs its own Transvision Vamp. Or The Primitives. Or Voice of the Beehive. But this year’s version features overdriven Jesus and Mary Chain-styled fuzz with, say, the Pastels surfing on top. It almost sounds as if singer Caroline McChrystal is trying to catch up with the band, and it’s what gives the song its breathless, infectious energy.
13. Rachael Yamagata, “Sunday Afternoon”
A slow-burning mini-epic of a blues song, “Sunday Afternoon” is the emotional centerpiece of Yamagata’s brooding second album. Just listen to her voice: seductive and pleading and furious and tender all at the same time.
12. Journey, “Lights”
Great Moments in Rock And Roll History #249: The lighters and cell phones all dutifully came up — and surely “Lights” is a push-up-your-lighters song par excellence — when Arnel Pineda, the new lead singer of Journey, started singing the opening lines.
Everyone knows it’s about San Francisco, of course. But we Filipinos in the audience knew at that moment — we all knew — that, deep in his heart — hell, deep in all our hearts — he was really singing about Manila. My city by the bay indeed.
11. Ane Brun, “Big in Japan”
What makes or breaks a good cover is not just a different arrangement, as all those cruddy bossanova renditions of Top 40 hits show. It’s what the new singer brings by way of tone, or inflection, that forces the listener to listen differently. Alphaville’s 1984 original was a chilly German synth-pop composition, more interesting to me back then for its keyboards rather than its lyrics. In this version, the Icelandic singer Ane Brun strips the song bare with her ancient-sounding voice; why it now seems evocative of weary sexual transactions under bare winter branches, I have no idea.
10. Johnny Foreigner, “Eyes Wide Terrified”
From one of my favorite albums of the year, a track with all the crucial elements of a killer indie-pop-rock song circa 4AD / Matador’s heyday: boy-girl vocals like Mr. Francis and Ms. Deal, guitar crunch, and — break it down — a refrain you could get the whole club to sing, vocal resemblances to Stephen Malkmus optional. “Your life is a song, but not this one.”
9. Sandwich, “Betamax”
On the surface, “Betamax” is a lazy song. It borrows its theme and structure from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”: the half-sung laundry list, the sense of time marching by. But as a paean to Filipino pop music history, “Betamax” is a particularly poignant statement from the supergroup Sandwich, itself born from the ashes of bands that came before. Most important is how Sandwich allies itself, as it were, with the loser in the VHS or Beta format war; Betamax, after all, had the superior technology. You can have your iPods and cellphones and the internet, but all you need is three chords and Jingle Magazine, and the ocean waves float on.
8. Ladyhawke, “Another Runaway”
The New Zealand singer-songwriter Pip Brown was born in 1981, but if I put this song on a mixtape next to Kim Carnes’ “Crazy in the Night” and Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and Sheena Easton’s “Telefone”, you wouldn’t know it was from 2008. Sure, it’s mimicry, but of the highest order. If she sings a “We Belong”-style ballad on her next album, her poster definitely goes up on my bedroom wall.
7. Taken By Cars, “Logistical Nightmare”
6. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”
What a great and ornery first single from Kanye West: no busy arrangement, no Chipmunked soul samples, no rapping. Instead: a minimal electronic heartbeat and Auto-Tuned vocals, all sitting on my third-favorite piano riff of my year, sounding much like a Nina Simone sample. (Sorry: first on my list was the keyboard refrain from M-Flo’s 2000 song “Hands”, followed by those ten notes from MGMT’s “Kids”.) And as a kicker, West tosses in (literally as an afterthought!) an absolutely thrilling taiko drum barrage in the chorus.
The more you listen, the more the fascinating details appear: the guitar wail off in the distance in the outro; the slight reverb when his vocals first enter; the broken fuzz of “system overload”; or the fact that he sounds like he’s literally shouting on the chorus, the drums stoking his anger. When he sings “If I be with you, baby I’m confused”, here’s a strategic warble in the last syllable, and it makes all the difference. It’s his coldest, most distanced album to date, but it’s paradoxically his most emotionally naked as well.
5. Vampire Weekend, “A-Punk”
A warm Halloween night in Los Angeles, 2:30 in the morning. Had any of the 14,000 attendees at the music fest read the internet buzz beforehand, they would have read that a surprise guest was about to play right after Justice. The rumors flew: Madonna? Tiesto? Thomas Bangalter? Who knew?
Justice was wrapping up their somewhat lackluster DJ set with “We Are Your Friends”. But before they left, before the huge white fluorescent cross behind them was turned off, they left the music on, as it were: a slow, stretched-out, piercing guitar line, looping over and over. At the five-minute mark, the sample started decelerating in millimeters, finally resolving itself into the greatest guitar riff of 2008.
The crowd goes nuts. People are jumping up and down, singing along to the chorus, yelling “A, A, A, A!” Alas, the special guest turned out to be Busy P instead. But for two minutes and seventeen seconds, you had an audience of a few thousand people in thrall to one of the best pop songs of the year.
4. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, “Bag of Hammers”
The song is ostensibly about a communication breakdown, but Thao Nguyen describes it in such intelligent, double-edged wordplay, wrapped in a jaunty calypso melody, that it’s easy to mistake her for someone bringing good tidings. Indeed, her love for contradiction seems embodied in the band’s name itself.) When she pairs the image of her “bag of hammers” with “the hole in your head / Spill your thoughts on the floor”, one better be careful. And one almost wants to dance when she gets to the chorus — she’s singing “Shake shake shake” after all — but then she follows it with “Shake the frame of this house / Distress the wood, make it shout”, and one gets a good sense of the deliberate craft that went into the song, and into her fantastic album. One of my favorites of the year.
3. The Dears, “Money Babies”
One song perfectly distilled the financial anxieties of 2008. With that insistent, vexing guitar riff, and the numbed repetition of “Our money is elastic” — as broken promise, as a mantra, as a chant to ward off evil — “Money Babies” drew the connection from one cataclysm (9/11, the War on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina) to our apocalypse now.
2. Jamie Lidell, “Another Day”
Ignore the lame video, and ignore the fact that he’s a skinny white guy who kind of sounds like a deeper-voiced Stevie Wonder. (Maybe not the voice, but the phrasing, yes.) It’s a perfect slice of musical sunshine, bird chirps and all, made to be included on every summer mix CD you make from now on.
1. London Elektricity, “Just One Second”
Funny thing about drum-and-bass: it’s a nocturnal and aggressive beast by nature, evocative of darkness and sweat. But London Elektricity’s ecstatic “Just One Second” is quite literally about daybreak and summertime and childhood and the fleetingness of memory and is just about the most exuberantly joyful song I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a love song, really — to a lover, a spouse, a friend, or a daughter. “If this second was your life / what would you do?” Yes, perhaps the stuff of high school philosophical musings on one’s existence, but employed here on breakneck beats that aren’t reminiscent of hurtling through urban nightscapes; instead, it’s the sound of the heart leaping. “If this second was my life / I would love you.”