As we look fondly in the rearviewmirror, leaving 2008 for the last time as we watch her get smaller, choked by regret as we barrel down that dusty road, gunning for the highway and the taste of sweet freedom, and the sax cuts through the cacophony—
Oh. I’ve just been informed that I confused 2008 with a Springsteen song. My bad.
Here’s the rest of my singles list.
15. “Disturbia,” Rihanna. Is it really possible that Rihanna is going to come to define the pop sound of the ’00s? Time will only tell, i suppose, but she’s improbably lasted through a breakout hit (“Pon de Replay”) that, in the hands of another artist, would have been both the beginning _and_ the end of the road—it was a featherlight concoction, yeah, but enjoyable enough that she would have remained one of the more fondly remembered one-hitters, i think. An “S.O.S.”, an “Umbrella”, and a “Shut Up and Drive” later, Rihanna finally enters the Jacko stage of her career with “Disturbia”, a song catchy and shivery enough to be really the closest thing this generation has to a “Thriller”. It represents a new pinnacle of artistry for her—she’s done catchy all day, really, but this is quite a pop song. “Umbrella” was good, but much better when hundreds of others set to covering a more definitive version; “Disturbia” feels like a Rihanna song that should stay that way. It shows AND tells, like any smash hit worth its salt, lyrics of urban decay pushed briskly along by a sweeping, Cinemascope version of film noir music. Good stuff.
14. “Low,” Flo Rida feat. T-Pain. Remember when “Get Low” came out, and there was a part of you that didn’t want to get behind a tune that features prominently “skeet skeet skeet” as part of it’s hook, but you couldn’t really resist it? “Low” is the “Get Low” of 2008 that way—sure, we’d all like to blather on about MGMT and Bon Iver, but none of them feature an eager, anthemic (and startingly non-Autotuned!) T-Pain chorus saluting your local clubrat and her propensity to drop it as though it were hot. Hey, i like substance as much as the next guy, but i could thrive just as easily on a steady diet of Apple Bottom jeans, and boots with the fur. Also it’s 2008’s greatest karaoke standard.
13. “I’m Yours,” Jason Mraz. “I’m Yours” is interesting for a Jason Mraz single—it appears to be the literal musical equivalent of a big old smile. Not that Mister AZ doesn’t always sound like he’s smiling; it’s just that, usually he sounds like he’s smiling at you and smirking at how thoroughly you must be marvelling at his wordplay and big, crisp high notes. But “I’m Yours” is something a lot purer—a declaration of love, sure, but also a perfect summer single with all its island harmonies and bouncy acoustic guitars, and the sound of Mraz’s defenses, usually constructed by elaborate, self-satisfied verbiage, crumbling. Odds are you’ve heard it too much at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic.
12. “Lost Coastlines,” Okkervil River. What a fantastic tune this is! Sure, it’s nothing to be surprised about—Will Sheff’s much-venerated indie outfit has made a career out of tunes that are across-the-board fantastic, and they’ve generated more great tunes in a few short years than most bands could hope to muster across twenty. But they rarely sound this sunny—parent album the Stand-Ins may be a bit gloomier than its partner album (last year’s Drew Album of the Year the Stage Names), but you’d never know it from its lead single. Part of it is Sheff duetting with recently departed Okkervillian Jonathan Meiburg (who, as leader of Shearwater, managed to tack another very good album onto his resume), which just feels like home, and part of it is that insistent, lumbering Motown bassline that you don’t really see coming until it happens. It steers the song, sails it into the horizon, flag flapping in the breeze.
11. “Blind,” Hercules and Love Affair. I suppose the big revelation about this song is just how good Antony (he of the Johnsons, paragon of delicate, heartbreaking, androgynous piano music) is at really selling this disco behemoth. He’s fantastic, seemingly fragile and brassy all at once—but once the novelty of that wears off, “Blind” remains breathtaking. The spage-age drums, the horn blatts, the minor-key stomp—it’s all just too beautiful for words, and i would say that it’s the best disco song since the disco era, but it’s probably better than most of its inspiration. Phenomenal. (Listen for that moment where Antony belts, “I can LOOK inside my-SELF!!!” Hoo boy.)
10. “Sex on Fire,” Kings of Leon. Right. Say what you will, but i personally think Kings of Leon are their own particular, peculiar brand of awesome—they were Strokes-meet-CCR a few years back, but nowadays they’re proving that they’re a force to be reckoned with on the modern rock charts. Not that the modern rock charts are usually where you wanna do your reckoning, mind you, but with a song as massive as “Sex on Fire”—little more than a bombastic, barn-burning rock anthem, sung with a passionate, smoky set of lungs—there’s little to argue with. It simply obliterates everything in its path; it’s rare indeed that this sort of rock juggernaut comes down the pike these days.
9. “Another Day,” Jamie Lidell. Like a second ideological cousin to “I’m Yours,” “Another Day” makes for tough competition in the most persistently optimistic love song of the year award—Jamie Lidell ultimately wins the points because i haven’t heard a soul singer with this kind of sheer ability pop up in ages, save for perhaps Anthony Hamilton. It’s the catchiest, bubbliest Stevie Wonder song Stevie hasn’t released; it’s the soundtrack to the sunniest day of the year.
8. “Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend. I’m fairly sure Vampire Weekend released a spankin’-new, catchy-as-all-hell single every month this year—their debut is a record full of sparkling singles, just begging to be plucked for radio—but none were as ear-burrowingly catchy as “Oxford Comma”. The metronomic click of the drums, the staccato keyboard bleats, the tossed-off profanity, and a hilarious Lil’ Jon paraphrase: these elements all fuse into the catchiest, nerdiest little number on an album full of catchy, nerdy little numbers. My catchy side likes the melodies, and how quirky and hummable it is; my nerdy side perks up at a song called “Oxford Comma”. Us English majors are strange rangers indeed.
7. “Spiralling,” Keane. Good God! I’ve heard of throwbacks, and I’m quite familiar with retro, but are we so bereft of inspiration these days that we’re going back to late-’80s/early-’90s pop and r&b? Must we really harken back to the days of Rick Astley and late Phil Collins? As it turns out, this is a better idea than it sounds like on paper. “Spiralling” is superb, all keys and pounding drums and processed synths, a track full of grandiose moments—that first “OH!”, the acrobatic vocals on the chorus, even the obligatory spoken-word interlude (“did you want to be in love? did you wanna be an icon?”)—that sounds like it would be just as home on a dancefloor as it would be piped through the Muzak in the supermarket in 1991. The best part? This left-field curveball comes from KEANE. Yup, good old piano-ballad, Coldplay-with-tinier-balls Keane. I know, it shocked me too.
6. “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes. I feel like the Fleet Foxes wear their influences on their collective, bearded sleeve, but I’m not sure if there’s really a musical touchstone for “White Winter Hymnal”. The harmonies are pretty Beach Boys, i guess, and the hippy, country-rock sway of it all is sort of CSNY-y, but more importantly, within two-and-a-half largely a cappella, tightly harmonized minutes, the Foxes managed to come up with something that could play on the radio in 1965 as easily as it could today, and it doesn’t sound completely derivative. Impressive, and hopefully not the last time they pull it off.
5. “Use Somebody,” Kings of Leon. Hey, Kings of Leon fan. Next time someone compares modern-day Kings to U2, and you get offended by the notion that your beloved Followill brothers could even be mentioned in the same breath as those silly big-rock activists, do me a favor: step back, mentally insert “Use Somebody” into the tracklist of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, right before or after “City of Blinding Lights”, and tell me if you think that’s a _truly_ audacious remark. I, for one, think it’s a great artistic move—I like their brand of southern rock, sure, but Caleb Followill’s never sounded nearly as impassioned or soulful, nor has he come up with such universal, heartbreaking sentiments before. “You know that I could use somebody/ somebody like you” simply _must_ connect with the world at large a lot more than “behind the fringe of a whiskey high/ mutilating cat-like eyes”, right?
4. “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. Okay, so this one might be cheating a bit—after all, Kala‘s about a year and a half old, right?—but “Paper Planes” was just far too “of 2008” to leave off the list. Seriously, how much of a behemoth was this song this year? It seemed like mere minutes after it was used to promote “Pineapple Express,” it was on your local “urban” station (up next: an essay on Seth Rogen’s influence on hip-hop culture? maybe not). It’s all good, though—2008 marks the year the pop world took note of M.I.A. (everyone else? probably ’06), and “Paper Planes” is her grandest statement yet. That monolithic, lazy Clash sample, the gunshots, every little musical nuance; they’re all stirred into pop music’s greatest melange in quite some time.
3. “Green Light,” John Legend feat. Andre 3000. Nevermind the fact that I fully intend on getting incredibly famous under the stage name Andrew 3000; the great 3k inevitably spices up any song he’s part of (moment of the year last year? probably that scene-stealing guest verse on “Int’l Players Anthem”). Pairing a great artist with a scene-stealer can yield returns, though, and rarely is this ever as prevalent as on “Green Light”. Legend, in full-on sly loverman mode, turns in a welcome respite from his usual (albeit lovely, of course) midtempos, and Dre is all wink-nudge innuendos as the lovably dashing devil on his shoulder. Musically, it sounds like someone swiped the synths from Paul McCartney’s seasonal chore “Wonderful Christmastime”, and applied them to an appropriate source—like a Stevie Wonder jam. (But, like, “Superstition” Stevie, not “I Just Called to Say I Love You” Stevie.) Results=glorious.
2. “Love Lockdown,” Kanye West. Whatever your stance on the incredibly-polarizing 808s and Heartbreaks may be, there’s no denying “Love Lockdown”. I’m not even sure how to go about describing something like “Love Lockdown”—I mean, I suppose in this age of genre-splicing, hip-hop was bound to get its very own Damien Rice album, but cross-pollinated with Marvin Gaye and the Talking Heads? Couldn’t have predicted that one. The melody, lent a surreal, robotic quality by the AutoTune (interesting to see it applied to a broken-hearted screed as opposed to a stripper anthem), is quite appealing, but more interesting is the near-cinematic dynamics that Kanye builds his tune around. Fuzzy bassline, add piano, add pounding tribal drums? This thing has more tension than a Hitchcock.
1. “American Boy,” Estelle feat. Kanye West. Interesting that, despite ditching rhyming for his latest album, the most likeable Kanye West 2008 gave us was the overseas charmer on British siren Estelle’s “American Boy”. The returns were instantaneous, though—within minutes of seeing the video late one night, this reviewer was convinced that he’d heard the catchiest song of the year, and apparently the American people weren’t too far behind. Deep, pulsating disco, electro flourishes, and a fun verbal romp through a ‘cross-the-Atlantic romance? Count me in. And the last thing i’d wanna do is attract attention away from Estelle’s super-smooth performance, but Kanye is really a scene-stealer in this one. He’s all wordplay and slick charisma, and it shows that he hasn’t ditched it all to turn into Kurt Cobain. It’s the best single of 2008, and likely to hold me over until the first candidate for next year’s list turns up. As always, thanks for reading.