My Top 10 Songs of 2008
Singles – to the extent that they still exist – offer a lot more leeway for one’s end-of-year round-up than do albums. You can pick a passing fancy with less need for apology. You can choose an act you may not love, or may not even know, or may never expect to hear from again. You can enjoy the moment. And there were plenty moments to enjoy in 2008. My iTunes must have downloaded some 850 “Songs of the Day” between KEXP and IndieFeed; I surely have heard several hundred more through my favorite Podcast magazine shows. Then there’s the music I heard on the radio, the tracks that came my way by e-mail, the ones I heard through friends, the individual songs off of various albums. All told, there was so much great music I truly struggled to keep track of it. The record industry may be in crisis, but the business of making music is flourishing.
In my case, for variety’s sake, I always like to ensure that I don’t include the same artists in both my top 10 singles and albums: that’s why, for example, there’s no Vampire Weekend or Ting Tings here, even though they released singles that were among my favorites of 2008, for they showed up in my Top 10 Albums of 2008 instead. Nor did I include M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” unquestionably one of the most innovative and benchmark recordings of the last ten years; I just took the attitude that it had been released on a 2007 album, Kala, which I included in my top 10 for 2007, and left it at that. I see now that it topped the Village Voice poll for ’08, and having also witnessed the reaction to “Paper Planes’ when I DJ’d a wedding in the Catskills last year (don’t worry, it’s not what you think it was!), I wouldn’t dispute that it was the best and biggest song of 2008.
Nor would I argue that this list might change. Thanks to a friend’s burned DVD with some 80+ selections from 2008, and my interest by the various end-of-year lists, I’m having a good time playing catch-up with yet more of the great music that was released last year. Had I compiled this list now rather than a month ago, I might have included Estelle/Kanye West’s “American Boy,” Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” Grace Jones’ “Williams Blood” and more. But I didn’t, so I didn’t. Here, then, are my top 10 songs of last year as registered at the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll.
MGMT, “Time to Pretend”
The Brooklyn duo had two other major “hits” in 08 – “Kids” and “Electric Feel” – but it was debut album Oracular Spectacular’s opening cut that truly won me over. The widely-discussed lyrics were surely the wittiest and most acerbic of the year, but they tell only part of the story: there’s also the song’s structure, its beat, that opening riff, the continued melody, the relentless groove, the exuberance, the arrogance, the irony… everything about it spelled out epic anthem. To truly understand MGMT’s impact this past year, you might want to note the fact that the official YouTube video has been viewed over 8,000,000 times – inspiring over 14,000 text comments! Then again, parent company Sony Music has disabled blog embedding, forcing very potential viewer over to YouTube to further bump up those numbers. In a waning record industry, that’s how the major companies fight to stay on top. Whatever: it doesn’t take away from the most essential song of the year. Yes it’s overwhelming but what else can we do? Get jobs in offices and wake up to the morning commute?
CITY REVERB, “City of Lights”
Lost City Folk, the debut album from this mellifluous new London group, has been a long time coming; it’s finally set for release in Feb ’09. While I kept my advance copy on regular rotation, the gorgeously delicate, mid-tempo, lightly-structured dance song “City of Lights” served to set the scene for the wider public with its ultimately uplifting melancholia, a striking example of how so much modern music defies easy categorization. Looking for new life, changing my ways, whatever does it mean?
LYKKE LI, “Little Bit”
Since long before anyone ever coined the term trip-hop, I’ve been a sucker for female-sung, electronic-based, moody ballads, so Swedish singer Lykke Li’s “Little Bit” had my name written all over it. Dark, mysterious and slightly intimidating for what’s essentially a love song, the original recording (and yes, I do know it dates back to ’07) was so perfect that the CSS remix sent my way last spring could not improve upon it. For you I’ll spread my legs apart.
TRICKY, “Council Estate”
Talking of trip-hop, the man who was there at the start of the Bristol sound came back with his strongest single in years – and, notably, the first one to feature his voice and his voice only. As much a rock record as a rap tune, as grittily grimy as anything from the generation that followed in his footsteps, it showed the Knowles West Boy still unwilling to be pinned down even after all these years. Remember boy, you’re a superstar.
PARTS & LABOR, “Nowhere’s Nigh”
Of the 200 or more KEXP Songs of the Day I heard via Podcast in 2008, this is the one that just resonated with me. Equal parts indie, punk, electronic, and pure noise, with a piercingly simplistic guitar solo and a great key change, it got under my skin and stayed there. Turns out the Brooklyn quartet have been putting out albums since I lived in the borough; the fact that I’ve only now come across them speaks to the enormous amount of music out there as much as to my own ignorance. Wish I could hear the lyrics well enough to quote them, but it’s not essential with every single.
AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT, “Sometime Around Midnight”
I can thank KEXP for this one too, though it soon became omnipresent. The tale of a recently jilted lover encountering his ex in a bar, reminiscing at the thought of being in bed with her and getting drunk beyond belief when she leaves without him, it was wrapped in an accordingly brooding, slowly building and ultimately exorcising emo arrangement. The song sparked unusually intense debate in the blogosphere, and the album did not seem to come close to matching this one classic. The word “single” is therefore doubly applicable in this case.You feel hopeless and homeless and lost in the haze of the wine.
MOBY, “I Love to Move in Here”
Thanks to Grandmaster Caz’s rollicking rap and Moby’s return to his early 90s happy house beats, “I Love To Move In Here” delivered to those parts his last few years’ releases have missed: the heart, the head, and the feet. For the record – boom! – it’s the Seamus Haji mix that got me moving in here, rather than the original, somewhat muted (double boom) album version. Old school’s taking you back.
THE JUAN MACLEAN, “Happy House”
The Juan MacLean also know how to get a dancefloor going; outside of LCD Soundsystem, on whose DFA label they reside, they’re probably America’s strongest contemporary indie dance act. The title to “Happy House” puns on that musical sub-genre, but it’s in fact a verbal reference to the glory days of a love affair. Available in all manner of mixes and length, “Happy House” is exuberant, cheeky, loud, repetitive, innovative and cool as fuck. You are so excellent.
LILY ALLEN, “Fuck You”
As we know, swearing isn’t clever. Which is why I wound up my last summary with the f-word, why MGMT use it in “Time To Pretend” and why Lily Allen cheerfully recorded a single with this title. While admirable as a flip-off to racists and homophobes everywhere, one might yet question how Allen proposes to fight “hatred” of her subjects with the “hate” she espouses for them in her chorus, but she’s still young and relatively innocent and will presumably discover the answer for herself along the way. In the meantime, she delivers “Fuck You Very Much” with the same, disarming singalong ease as she did her break-out single “Smile” a couple of years back. (Her new single “The Fear” is stellar, too.) Pop music at its most wittily revolting. Please don’t stay in touch.
FLEET FOXES, “White Winter Hymnal”
The Seattle band’s eponymous debut album topped many a year-end list and based on “White Winter Hymnal,” it’s easy to understand why. (I’ve subsequently picked up the album, and am finding it hard to put it back down lonbg enogh to listen to anything else.) A throwback to Beach Boys in the manner of Panda Bear, an embrace of the high-pitched urgent wail per Band of Horses, nostalgic and yet futuristic at the same time, “White Winter Hymnal” exudes the Christmas-y jingle jangle of its title, but its somewhat broader subject matter is ensuring extended play in our own snow-covered climate. In fact, the more I listen to the words the more I want to grab my kids and go out roll around in the white stuff. I turned round and there you go.