Damn you, “Hey Ya!”.
I’ve been perusing lists much like the one i’m about to write, partially to give me ideas (such lists have a handy way of reminding you of early-year stuff you forgot about), partially to see if i could jack someone’s philosophical musings on whatever explosive mega-single has managed to capture the hearts of the critical and the commercial masses alike—see, there’s always one, and has been since “Hey Ya!”. In chronological order, the most prolific ones are: “Since U Been Gone”, “Crazy”, and, yeah, “Umbrella”. And most lists seem to be bemoaning the dearth of such a single this year—unfortunate, since i’d consider a year in which most of the contenders can actually stand up next to each other a check mark firmly in the win column.
So as the critical community at large grasps at straws to crown this year’s “Hey Ya” (spoiler alert: they’ll come up empty), i struggle to find merit in some of pop music’s more ubiquitous hits. Unfortunately, i find myself disappointed: 2008 was the year Beyonce became insufferable (really, B, from “Deja Vu” and “Irreplaceable” to “If I Were a Boy” and “Single Ladies”? you just used to be SO reliable), the year AutoTune officially wore out its welcome, the year Katy Perry kissed a girl (and, for some unspeakable reason, someone gave a sh*t), and the year the best singles truly came out of leftfield.
So come, dear reader, and let’s revisit the best jams (should i have spelt that with a ‘z’?) of 2008.
– “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab For Cutie”—likeable emo-poppers follow-up their 2005 breakthrough, Plans, with a similarly agreeable album of singles; with “Possess”, lead cabber Ben Gibbard finally challenges Sting in the too-infrequently-contested subcategory Most Romantic-Sounding Pop Stalker Anthem, and wins.
– “GfC,” Albert Hammond, Jr.—these days, Albert officially sounds cooler than his parent band, out-Stroking the Strokes with another album of amicable power-pop.
– “Murder in the City,” the Avett Brothers—the Avetts are probably at their best when making raucous punk-laced Americana, but they clean up well, too; “Murder”, despite the scary-sounding title, is one of the most fragile songs of the year, a beautiful wish before dying, a wistful rumination on legacy.
– “Beat It,” Fall Out Boy feat. John Mayer—interesting that FOB sound their grittiest covering Jacko, huh? No matter: this superb cover remains faithful while kicking up the distortion a little bit. John Mayer filling the Eddie Van Halen role was a stroke of genius.
– “I’m Amazed,” My Morning Jacket—a southern-rock monolith. Seriously, did this thing totally Marty Mcfly its way here from an Allman Brothers record?
– “You Can’t Count on Me,” Counting Crows—another slab of jangly misery, squarely in the “Rain King” mold, proves that the Crows still have it.
– “Hiroshima (B-B-Benny Hit His Head),” Ben Folds—an infectious Elton John homage about tumbling off the stage? Ben Folds must be back.
And now, the list.
30. “Dream On (feat. Robyn and Ola Salo),” Christian Falk. Robyn’s great stateside reappearance may be ineligible for this list—her new self-titled album is fantastic, but it’s not really *new*, and I can’t in good conscience pay it lip service that I’ve already waxed about at length years prior—but this fantastic duet programmed by electronica artist Christian Falk should sate all. The production is slight, with minimal looping, but the vocals hammer it home—Robyn’s heartbreaking sermon offers shelter and solidarity to the dregs of society, and Salo (from the Ark, always fantastic) harmonizes beautifully on the chorus. “You won’t be backstabbed, double-crossed, face down, teeth knocked out, lying in a gutter somewhere,” indeed.
29. “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster),” Gnarls Barkley. If Gnarls Barkley in 2008 didn’t quite reach the stratosphere in the way that Gnarls Barkley in 2006 did—there can only be so many “Crazy”s, after all—vocalist/songwriter Cee-Lo still proved that, paired with producer Danger Mouse, they’re pop music’s dream team, a melding of the minds bursting with unparalleled creativity. “Run”s hyperkinetic soul is lent an edge of paranoia from Cee-Lo’s vocal performance, still playing the same crazed narrator from *that song*, caterwauling into the night with a chilling “aaaaooooooooohhhhhh-oooooohhh!”
28. “Gives You Hell,” the All-American Rejects. Meanwhile, AAR isn’t the type of band most associate with creativity—quite the opposite, they’re generally very safe. And, yet, safe doesn’t negate the fact that they consistently wreck their peers in the songwriting department; they’re full of guitar sheen and harmonies, and “Gives You Hell” is one of their most insidiously catchy yet. The kiss-off song is nothing new, but it’s fun to watch someone rub their newfound fame in an ex-lover’s face, instead of feigning manufactured, downbeat heartbreak.
27. “Highly Suspicious,” My Morning Jacket. Okay, so MMJ’s pop-music pastiche Evil Urges didn’t yield the same artistic returns that their last album Z did—nor did it boast a single with the punch of “Off the Record”—but their “Highly Suspicious” sounded like a highly intoxicated Prince duetting with a remarkably sober Led Zeppelin, and you’ve gotta appreciate the sac required for a respected indie band to go so gleefully off the rails. An off-kilter, barn-burning dance tune.
26. “5 Years Time,” Noah and the Whale. “There’ll be love, love, love/ wherever you go.” Noah and the Whale’s debut may have been a bit too precious for my tastes, but this sunny uke-laced duet is the stuff that dreams are made of. Noah and the Whale have crafted the year’s best Magnetic Fields song—even beating out the Magnetic Fields. Somewhere, Stephin Merritt is wishing he’d thought of that.
25. “Carpetbaggers,” Jenny Lewis and Elvis Costello. Quite possibly the year’s best tune for highway travel, Lewis and Costello make for delightful bedfellows on this Fleetwood Mac-by-way-of-Springsteen rocker. Elvis, in particular, sounds more energized than he has in years—his verse is the best part of the song, and listening to the way he sings “I ain’t got no place in this world anymore” will at least echo “Veronica,” if not “Watching the Detectives”.
24. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” Gnarls Barkley. What a spooky song. The track sounds like it could have been sped up just a fraction and used on either of the Roots’ more recent pitch-black albums; the performance sounds like a near-death Marvin Gaye, except a little more disturbed. Cee-Lo stumbled into Damien Rice territory on album two: he’s starting to sound more and more deranged with each album. It’d be disturbing if it didn’t yield such results.
23. “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn),” Weezer. “Pork and Beans” may have been perfectly fun, but the latest incarnation of Weezer really hit their stride on this delightful Queen-esque suite. Kicking off with warbly rap-rock rhymes Fred Durst would be embarrassed to spit (“soon i’ll be playing in ya’ underwear,” anyone?), Weezer hits the heavily-harmonized acoustic section, and doesn’t look back, powering through choral renditions, jaunty Billy Joel “Italian Restaurant”-era piano-rock, and, of course, simple Weezer-esque power-pop. This tune is a six-minute long smile.
22. “Viva La Vida,” Coldplay. Pure majesty from a band only sporadically able to engage the interest, “Viva La Vida” dispenses with a lot of band elements—do you hear any guitars?—in favor of a melody flung to the stratospheres, and a vocal that sounds like it’s orbiting the planet. And it’s gorgeous in a way Coldplay haven’t been since “The Scientist”.
21. “A-Punk,” Vampire Weekend. The year’s best ska song, or perhaps the year’s best forgotten Ramones song (if the Ramones got lost in South Africa with Sting and a Mellotron player, of course); either way, it’s a delicious, punky little vamp, and one of the more infectiously energetic tunes of the year.
20. “No Air,” Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown. No one writes great songs about puppy love anymore—all the young kids are busy womanizing, or kissing girls, or whatever. This dramatic, sweeping, ultra-serious push-and-pull love affair-in-song was one of the best things to saturate the airwaves this year; these kids sound super-serious, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re both very capable vocalists. Plus, “how’m I supposed to breathe with no air?” is one of the best heartsick one-liners to come down the pop music pike in a loooong time.
19. “Sequestered in Memphis,” the Hold Steady. Given a couple years off, the Hold Steady haven’t really seen fit to tamper with the formula too much. “Sequestered in Memphis” is a frazzled, whirlwind narrative, with Black Crowes guitars and E Street keyboards—so it’s essentially “Stuck Between Stations,” two years on. (“In daylight, she looked all right/ in bar light, she looked desperate” = “she was a damn good kisser but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend”? You tell me.) But it’s delivered with twice the energy much of the album is (not a *bad* album, mind, just a bit more downbeat than its predecessor), and it breaks-down with bass drum and handclaps, real “Rosalita”-style, so you gotta love it.
18. “Mercy,” Duffy. I’ll show Duffy a little bit of “Mercy” here and downplay those damn Amy Winehouse comparisons; after all, which one’s more likely to survive 2009? We should be nice to Duffy. Not that we shouldn’t anyway, because “Mercy” crackles; the vocal is tops, the groove infectious, the tune so good a Motown throwback that it should immediately be adopted by Raphael Saadiq. Hopefully, Duffy’s got more retro-soul in her.
17. “Golden Age,” TV on the Radio. I suppose the big question remains: *is* “Golden Age” a political salvo? After all, in an election year like the one we just left behind, all this about a “golden age comin’ round” could be read within such a context—but, then, TV on the Radio are more complex than your average bears, and there are just as many on-record readings of it as pessimistic. But, good news: once you hear that groove (and Kyp Malone singing about ghetto blasters), who the hell cares? A horn-spackled Young Americans-era Bowie nugget rearing its head in 2008? Yes, please.
16. “Acid Tongue,” Jenny Lewis. Can we talk, for a second, about how much better Jenny Lewis sounds these days? Sure, Rabbit Fur Coat was a good album (of course, the less said about the last Rilo Kiley platter, the better), but these days her brand of dust-bowl gospel sounds less like a genre exercise (kind of like the grimy funk tunes on that Rilo Kiley disc, actually) and more like something you can listen to to *feel*. A chorus of background vox, Jenny’s crisp-as-ever leads, and the easiest song to play on the guitar of the year; it all sounds like it’d be more appropriate winding through the highways of New Mexico at twilight, but hey—any song that can transport me to that mindset on the Jersey backroads deserves a prop or two.
More to come soon; go download some stuff!