Best Songs of 2008
Like last year, I decided to come up with a list of my favorite songs of 2008. I didn’t include songs from any of my top ten albums because: 1. that would be overkill and 2. a truly great album must be heard from start to finish. I’ve always been a purist, an album guy, feeling the necessity to listen to an entire album rather than repeat the same hit over and over again. But with the I-POD, I’ve grown to appreciate the ability to throw on a quick Deerhoof song, and then move to a little Bonnie “Prince” Billy. What makes a great song, in my opinion, is a tune that keeps bringing you back for more, whether it makes you laugh, makes you think, or makes your heart pound a little bit faster. The genres of music covered in this list are wide ranging: from folk to punk to rap to country. So grab that I-Tunes gift card and start downloading some amazing songs. You may not like all of my favorites from the year, but I promise if you give some of my suggestions a chance, you’ll discover a gem that will hopefully become a favorite of yours in 2009.
“Na Na Na” Theresa Anderrson
“Water Curses” Animal Collective
“Bright Light” Black Mountain
“Hummingbird” Born Ruffians
“Antillas” El Guincho
“I Feel Evil Creeping In” ..Islands
“Wishing Well” Love is All
“Western World” Pennywise
“San Andreas” Portastatic
“Tane Muhata” Ruby Suns
“Right Hand On My Heart” The Whigs
25. “Libby’s First Sunrise” Destroyer
During my road trip this summer with my friend Paul, I kept copious notes, knowing I would write a running blog about our experiences on the road. These notes helped me remember little events from our days, how each beer tasted from brewery to brewery, and some of the strange conversations had between us as we drove. It also helped me remember songs that were in conjunction with the experience such as Eddie Vedder’s “No Ceiling” at the top of the Sphinx Mountain or Cirith Ungol’s “I’m Alive” as we sped through ..Yellowstone… But one song I forgot to take note of has me still kicking myself to this day. On our final day of driving we listened to Destroyer’s latest album “Troubles in Dreams”. As we neared Lincoln, the final song “Libby’s First Sunrise” came on, and the lyrics had me recollecting my experience.
You’ve been wasted from the day
of wandering, boozing and sleeping outside
Playing the idiot all of your life
and this is what you get
Master of all you survey, but today
You’ve been wandering around
You’ve been fucking around
How perfect, eh? Unfortunately, while writing about the final leg of our trip, I failed to use the song and its lyrics to summarize the summer experience and capture the fact that we are still two kids out “fucking around”.
24. “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back” Deerhoof
There aren’t many good songs about the game of basketball, and those that have been done are usually hip-hop, and are always horrific. Lil Bow Wow’s “Basketball” is atrocious, and Shaquille O’Neal’s library of basketball puns are just plain laughable (although his 2008 summer hit “Kobe, Tell Me How My Ass Tastes” is certainly an attention getter). And then there’s Deerhoof and their 2008 ode to b-ball “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back”. With Deerhoof you never know if they are trying to make an artistic statement or just having some fun, and this song is no exception. Whatever their purpose, you can’t help but smile listening to this song, ironically lacking in groove with its seemingly off-beats and squawky guitar lines. Satomi Matsuzaki adds to the joyously outlandish tune with her innocent voice, singing lines like “Rebound, rebound, rebound, ready okay!” or “Bunny jump, bunny jump, bunny, bunny!” I’m anxiously awaiting the NBA’s new commercial coupling this fun little song with clips of Dwight Howard dunking in a bunny suit.
23. “Inner City Pressure” Flight of the Conchords
In 2008 we saw our economy reach all-time lows and unemployment reach new heights. In this age of uncertainty, Flight of the Conchords new wave parody “Inner City Pressure” provides us with a chance to laugh at our own plight. Humor is the best medicine for dealing with economic strain. As we watch the government bailout company after company like a soup kitchen, it’s comforting to know your life isn’t all bad. At least you haven’t been “considering second hand under pants” (yet).
22. “By Cover of Night (Fire Fight)””Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains
When I found out a few years ago that Death From Above 1979 broke up, I went through a period of denial. “It couldn’t be true!” Once it set it, I became angry at the band’s selfishness. “How could they take such an amazing sound away from us so quickly?” This past October, when drummer/singer Sebastien Grainger came out with his solo album, I began to make bargains within my head. “Well, at least we have Grainger’s music to fill the DFA void.” But upon first listen, I moved quickly into the stage of depression. Just like how Mars Volta can’t live up to At the Drive-In, Grainger’s solo album lacked the masculinity of DFA. Eventually, after spending weeks locked in my room pissing in mason jars, I moved to the final stage of the grieving process, accepting Grainger and his poppier sound. It’s actually a pretty incredible album once you get past expectations. And if you listen to “By Cover of Night (Fire Fight)” close enough, you just might hear the ghost of Jesse Keeler within the distorted bass-line, giving you hope that the distinct DFA sound may still live again.
21. “Junkie…Julieee…” Blood On the Wall
Blood On the Wall make punk rock sound easy. Take “Junkie…Julieee…” for example with its simple guitar riff and bassline, a sporadically messy guitar solo, and high-pitched howling of Brad Shanks, reminiscent of Frank Black. There in lies the genius. Blood On the Wall have found the complexity of punk music through a simplistic approach.
20. “No Redemption” Jason Collett
When I first played Jason Collett’s solo album the music threw me for a loop, sounding more like Bob Dylan than his band Broken Social Scene. The Dylan imitation is over the top and deliberate: who did he think he was fooling? Originally, “No Redemption” annoyed me the most. Not only did he sing in Dylan’s nasally drawl and feature the signature harmonica introduction, but the lyrics sounded deftly familiar to Dylan’s “Higway 61 Revisited”: “Staying stoned on highway 401. Heading toward the sun your bastard son.” But the more I listened to the soothing song, the more I found it to be an homage to the master. You can’t help but root for the aloof narrator of the song, clumsily moving through life, searching for the same redemption Dylan preached about decades ago.
19. “Gonna DJ” R.E.M
If R.E.M’s latest album “Accelerate” is a conscious effort toward returning to their former sound, then “Gonna DJ” is the sequel to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”. While the classic song met the demise of the planet earth with a smile, “Gonna DJ” kicks it up a notch, celebrating the end of the world with a dance party. Although a superficial concept on the surface, Michael Stipe conveys a deeper message. While the original apocalyptic song rambled on about the problems of modern society, “Gonna DJ” provides us with the solution: music. As Stipe beautifully states “Music could provide the light that you cannot resist”. Listen to his credo and start “collecting vinyl … for the end of the world!”
18. “PWND” Mae Shi
The Mae Shi’s interpretation of the Good Word is anything but good. While most Christian bands present God as a forgiving father, Mae Shi present a darker, more vengeful Lord. “PWND” explores the Bible’s elephant in the room (Revelations) and shows God kicking ass and taking names. In the song God proclaims:
Open up their eyes and let them know that I’m very close to them now and that I’ve always known it would come to this and that they finally have something very real to fear because I’m very, very, close.
Despite the vehement lyrics, you can’t help but pump your fist and yell along with the closing chant of “Get ‘em out of those bodies! Get ‘em out of those bodies! Get ‘em out of those bodies!” I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the Lord who has a chip on his shoulder.
17. “Transliterator” Devotchka
When I purchased “A Mad & Faithful Telling” I expected the same dramatic build-up heard in “Little Miss Sunshine”. I had no idea I was getting into a big-band brouhaha, a cross-section of Beirut and Man Man. I love the album and the band’s rambunctious approach, yet I yearn for the emotional touch heard on their movie score. “Transliterator” is the one song on the album reminiscent of “How It Ends” from “Little Miss Sunshine” with its sweeping string section and morose lyrics of a man and his suicidal maiden.
16. “So Everyone” Bonnie “Prince” Billy
“So Everyone” conjures up memories of old school country duets like Willie Nelson and Emmy Lou Harris with its classic country sound and the dueling voices of Will Oldham and Ashley Webber. But I don’t remember Kenny Rogers serenading Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers with lines like “O kneel down and please me.” Bonnie “Prince” Billy never ceases to amaze me with his ability to take his beautiful music in the most unexpected places.
15. “You Appearing” M83
When I first downloaded M83’s 2008 offering of “Saturday’s = Youth” I was beyond ecstatic. Their first album “Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts” is a far reaching exploration of the musical galaxies. The first song on M83’s latest installment, “You Appearing” didn’t disappoint. Starting with a dramatic piano chord progression, the song builds with the band’s signature synths swelling up to a climatic halt. Unfortunately, the band’s genius ends there as the song morphs into the disappointingly dated sounding second track, “Kim & Jessie”. The absence of former band member Nicolas Fromageau is quite apparent, with the remainder of “Saturday’s = Youth” sounding more like the soundtrack to a John Hughe’s film than the epic grandeur of the past. Based off the cover art, it is obvious the band aimed for a nostalgic tribute to 80s synth, which is all fine and dandy. I just wish these 80s revisionists wouldn’t have taunted us with “You Appearing”, a reminder of better days.
14. “All Day” Human Highway
Nick Thorburn, formerly of The Unicorns, had a busy year with the release of albums via two separate projects: The Island’s “The Arm” and Human Highway’s “Moody Motorcycle”. While The Islands “The Arm” was a dark journey into the human psyche, Human Highway provides an avenue for Thorburn and Jim Guthrie to explore the happier side of music. “All Day” is the best example of Human Highway not taking themselves too seriously. The guitar riff is a combination of reggae and Hawaiian ukelele (think Jack Johnson with integrety), and the sweet vocals fit perfectly alongside the feel good lyrics of letting “the day waste away”. Although The Island’s “The Arm” is a masterful mind-fuck with songs like “I Feel Evil Creeping In”, it’s good to see Thornburn can still “let the sun shine through”.
13. The Healer” Erykah Badu
I don’t know what it is that makes “The Healer” so contagious. The beat seems awkward and jangly, the hand claps are a half a beat off, the twitches and swirls of synth come off annoying, and Erykah sounds out of place singing lines like “It’s bigger than religion, hip-hop, it’s bigger than my niggas, hip-hop”. But somehow, this mish-mash, bi-polar soundscape is an irresistibly delightful ear infection.
12. Go First” Damien Jurado
Eons ago Paul burnt me a book of CDs, and one of the biggest highlights within the pages of discs was Damien Jurado’s “Ghost of David”. That book of CDs turned me on to some of my all-time favorite bands (Animal Collective, Neutral Milk Hotel), but for some reason I never followed up on my love of “Ghost of David” until this past fall when I purchased his latest “Caught in the Trees”. While the album is more polished and professional, Jurado’s somber style and sound remain prevalent. “Go First” is the biggest highlight of the album, a plea to a loved one to stay by your side, whether it be in a relationship or even in a hospital bed. After one listen of “Go First” you’ll never want the song to leave your side either.
11. “Big Trouble” Man Man
Three things to consider:
Man Man rule
Songs by Man Man about Zombies rule
10. “Modern Leper” Frightened Rabbit
Everything has its purpose in this song: acoustic guitar backbone, a cheery mandolin riff, the thick Scottish accent of Scott Hutchison, and a rumbling drumline pushing it all along. “Modern Leper” on face value is an upbeat pop ditty, but like most of the songs on Frightened Rabbit’s masterful album “The Midnight Organ Fight”, the cheerful toe-tapping melodies are deceiving. The lyrics are abstract and mysterious, throwing imagery of “masicists” and legless “cripples” haphazardly. Is “Modern Leper” about a broken relationship, a self defeating loser, or drug addiction? There could be a hundred interpretations, and that is what makes for the best songs: the ones you can take and mold into your own meaning. While most music on the radio force feeds you contrite fairy tales, Frightened Rabbit create an auditory choose your own adventure.
9. “Sly Fox” Nas
At this point, attacking Fox news seems a little passé, but somehow Nas manages to make it fresh and relevant with “Sly Fox”, his burning rant on the incompetence of the media. It helps to know that Nas isn’t just being a liberal douche attacking an easy target; he actually has a reason to attack Fox News and the rest of the lemmings. A year ago O’Reilly blasted Nas for doing a memorial concert at Virginia Tech, calling his lyrics “violent and insulting”. Instead of hiding in his mansion sipping crystal, Nas retaliates with his biting words. It’s nice to see a rapper attacking a nightmare like O’Reilly instead of the run-of-a-mill rap war we’ve grown accustomed to.
8. “Cape Cod.. Kwassa” The Very Best (Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit)
This cover of Vampire Weekends “Cape Cod Kwassa” takes the core guitar lick from the original and takes it completely into the realm of African music. The addition of steel drums, an African choir, and a djembe drumline creates a sound that conjures up scenes from “The Last King of Scotland” (I’m thinking one of the happy scenes with naked booty dancers, not the ones with sliced limbs and what not). While the original is a happy little ditty, Esau Mwamwaya gives the Ivy League boys a lesson in African music done right.
7. “Time To Pretend” MGMT
I saw MGMT open for Of Montreal four years ago and thoroughly enjoyed their minimalist performance. They came across like two teenagers just having a good time. They performed their entire set over an audio track like glorified karaoke, and they had a make-shift backdrop comprised of bed sheets and shoe polish. They opened with “Time To Pretend”, a song about becoming huge rock stars, which at the time seemed funny in an tongue in cheek kind of way. These two kids would never be big stars: how wrong was I? Fast forward three years and me pulling a copy of SPIN out of my mailbox, only to find the same crazy kids on the cover. Somehow, in the span of four years, the boys landed a deal with Columbia records. Their first album is a bit of a disappointment, but “Time To Pretend” is still a catchy ode to being rich and famous musicians: who knew, in an ironic twist of fate, that the satirical song would eventually come true?
6. “On Whose Authority” Nadasurf
Looking at the lyrics of “On Whose Authority”, one might be confused as to what Matthew Caws is singing about. A question to members of the military about following orders? A plea for self control? But the longer you listen to the contagious melody, the sooner you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter what the lyrics mean. Soon you’ll have the song running on an endless loop in your brain, and for once, having a song stuck in your head won’t be a bad thing.
5. “Little Tornados” Aimee Mann
“Little Tornados” begins with a verse that sounds like a twisted nursery rhyme: “Little tornado, bane of the trailer park, lifting houses to leave your mark”. The backing sound of a plucking guitar line adds an even more somber meaning to Aimee’s brilliant lyrics. Aimee is at her best when she is able to catch the listener off guard, matching conflicting lyrics and melody in a way that is difficult to do. “Little Tornados” is more proof that Mann is truly one of the best songwriters of our time.
4. “Always Wanting More” Jay Reatard
The intro guitar lick sounds like something straight off a Superchunk album, the verses recall The Wipers, and the chorus is vintage Cheap Trick: “Always Wanting More” shows Jay Reatard at his finest, meshing various sounds to create catchy pop punk that will run through your head endlessly.
3. “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” Fuck Buttons
The beauty of “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” is how gradually it builds. There isn’t a sudden takeover of noise, it just somehow happens to appear before you realize it. The opening sound of wind chimes seems to be repetitive, but the repetition is gone without even knowing it has disappeared. At some point you unknowingly begin nodding your head, and just like that, six minutes into the Zen fest, satanic garble emerges, fitting perfectly alongside the serenity. The song can only be described as inconspicuous, yet incredible.
2. “California Dreamer” Wolf Parade
From the opening Comanche organ riff to the constant references to winter, “California Dreamer” is an obvious ode to the Mamas and the Papas classic “California Dreaming”. While the original tells of a yearning to return to the warmer weather of California, Wolf Parade uses the seasonal metaphor to convey a bigger message that would make Robert Frost proud. The California that Mama Cass sang so fondly about has drastically changed over the past 40 years. The state once glorified in the classic song is no longer dreamlike, with Spencer Krug singing “I might have heard you on the radio but the radio waves were like snow.” The one time warmth of California has turned cold and self serving, yet the people still “dream of seasons that never die” through botox, tummy tucks, and any other means of helping “the young stay pretty” by getting “younger and younger”. In the end, Krug warns the Mamas and the Papas and all other dreamers that “the city doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
1. “Silver Stallion” Cat Power
Channing Marshall sounds out of place in the majority of the songs on her 2008 covers album “Jukebox” (covering Sinatra’s “New York, New York” is a stretch, and her version of “Rambling (Wo)-Man” is just plain silly). But on “Silver Stallion” she sounds perfectly at home on the range, singing about a stallion she wants to tame and ride off into the wild. The fact that the song was originally sung by male country super group The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson) is kind of gay in a “Brokeback Mountain” kind of way. The song was bread for a female vocalist. The guitars are a haunting, yet romantic backdrop to her tale of outlaw runaways. I’m not usually a big fan of covers, but Marshall took this wild stallion of a song and tamed it with her soft, soothing voice.