Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Favorite Songs of 2008

Alright, enough procrastination, its high time I got down to listing my favorite songs from the year that was. Before I get started, I need to say a few things. First of all, I must admit that it was, in my opinion, a very weak year for singles. Top to bottom, and overall, I had a difficult time selecting 10 songs I felt worthy of year-end best list. This process was somewhat complicated by my determination to only place one song from each group/artist represented on the list. I did this because I wanted to ensure as diverse a range of music as possible made it onto my list. Finally, due to the dearth of great singles this year, many of the songs on my list ended up standing for albums that I listened to and really liked. I'm not saying that this was a bad year for music in any capacity, just that for some reason there were not, to my ear, as many individual moments of pure musical bliss as in years past. With that said, may I present my top 10 favorite songs from 2008:

10. Titus Andronicus - Titus Andronicus

I feel like this song fits in with recent indie rock-trend towards trying to sound like Bruce Springsteen. The horns and piano that open the song, the harmonica, the anthemic chorus and harmonies. However, unlike some of the other Boss-imitators, this song takes the framework of the E Street sound and brings out its more ragged, gutter trash elements. The wonderfully catchy punk melody, and also the fact that everybody in the band, particularly the singer, sound stumblingly  drunk helps too. The lyrics, about not giving a fuck, are appropriate.

9. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) - Beyonce

I'm gonna be honest, I was pretty late on board the 'Single Ladies' wagon, but when I fell, I fell hard. I can easily say that this is far and away the best song Beyonce has ever made (with 'Check Up On It' a distant second). I just thank god that Beyonce didn't fuck it up by going on and throwing a Jay-Z verse in. I'm not sure what my favorite part is: the chorus, the "uh-uh-oh" 's, or the handclaps. I'm also still not sure whether Beyonce is scolding men or women for not putting a ring on it. That's not important, what matters is that this song always makes me dance when I hear it. It also excuses Beyonce for making 'If I Was A Boy' one of the year's shittiest songs.

8. Big Bangs, Black Holes, Meteorites - Love Is All

Musically, this was the best straight punk rock song I head last year: fast, pounding drums, hooky and angular guitars, a full band-shouted chorus, and a chirpy, Sue Tompkins-worthy vocal performance from Josephine Olausson. What really gets me about the song though are the lyrics: ostensibly all about grand astral phenonomena, I always take a different interpretation. To me, this song is about the excitement and anxiety of falling for someone, and the sleepless nights that result. I could be totally off base, but something about the urgency in Olausson's voice and the off-the-rails, hormonally driven sound of the band's performance makes me think I've got the proper reading.

7. I Can't Believe It - T-Pain feat. Lil' Wayne

It's easy to single out T-Pain as a symbol of all that's wrong with urban music today: the heavily vocodorized voice, the brainless lyrics about getting drunk and having sex, the consistently toothless nature of his songs. Fuck that shit, the man is a brilliant song writer, as epitomized by this little ditty. Musically, the song is shockingly minimal, just a simple 808 beat and some keyboard noises to backdrop T-Pain's robotic crooning. The lyrics are characteristically ridiculous ("I could put you in a mansion, way up in Wiscanson"), but in a charming, R-Kelly sort of way. Lil' Wayne's guest verse excellently straddles the line between jaw-droppingly terrible and extremely entertaining, his heavily auto-tuned words so garbled as to be completely unintelligible. Somehow all of this comes together to make a perfect pop song, a feat that T-Pain pulls off with surprising frequency. I'll take this guy over Usher any day of the week.

6. Hang On - Dr. Dog

It's hard not to talk about this song without mentioning how much it sounds like a McCartney-Beatles tune. Which of course should be a huge complement, especially considering how well this song would stand up against many of the Beatles' best. What really earns this song its stripes though is the incredible chorus. Admittedly, the lyrics are a complete hack-job: "I don't need no doctor, to tear me all apart/ I just need you to mend my broken heart."  However, singer Toby Leaman's vocals are so thoroughly convincing, that they convert the refrain into a moment of soulful sincerity, not unlike Otis Redding would have done. I guess all of these references to older music makes this my throwback song of the year.

5. Soldier's Grin - Wolf Parade

As much as I love this song, I can't help shitting on it a little for a few things: it would have been maybe the 4th best song on the group's debut, and it's sound is sickeningly sweet pop stuff, even by Wolf Parade standards. The synths thoroughly dominate most of the song, but even if they give me a headache sometimes, they bleat out an incredible melody. Dan Boeckner's ragged guitars are sadly downplayed, but his impassioned wails are left intact, allowing him to turn trite phrases ("What you know could only mean one thing!") into anthems. I suppose the interplay of textures had always been part of what makes Wolf Parade great: guitars vs. keyboards, raspy vocals vs. sugary melodies vs. abstract lyrics, etc. Better for me just to sit-back and enjoy an incredibly-crafted song than quibble over the details.

4. Blue Ridge Mountains - Fleet Foxes

The Fleet Foxes are fantastic at evoking naturalistic imagery with their music and lyrics, and no where did they do it better than here. Like many of the songs on their album, this one is multi-parted and replete with intriguing lyrics. The climatic segment is breath-taking, with Robin Pecknold repeating a verse about a wooden cabin in a "quivering forest" that gets snowed in under the glow of a yellow moon. The song's narrative seems to suggest a forbidden romantic excursion into the secluded wilderness, but the details of the story are not as important as the impressionistic imagery evoked by Pecknold. These images are perfectly accompanied, and embellished by the music: vocal harmonies depict sunshine, repeated piano loops signify snowfall. I can't think of any other pop song that does a better job of representing "winter" than this one.

3. Queens Get the Money - Nas

I am supremely thrilled and grateful to have a Nas song in 2008 that I love as much as this one. Jay Electronica deserves a lot of credit here for crafting a skeletal, but breath-taking piano loop beat reminiscent of the one Nas rode to perfection in 'Doo Rags.' As in that song, Nas is in immaculate form here, producing 2 full minutes of chorus-less rap with one jaw-dropping lyric after another. This is battle rap Nas, and he uses lyrical snippets from his '94 masterpiece Illmatic to underline his undiminished MC prowess. Sure enough, the performance here is on par with any of the handful of Nas's greatest verses, and the starkness of the production only enhances its power. "I'm the shaky hand that touched George Foreman in Zaire," Nas boasts, and when he says "Hip-hop was aborted so Nas breathes life into the embryo," you almost believe he's got the power to save the dying genre. There are too many great lines in this song, and I love it to death, so I'll just stop right here. 

2. A Milli - Lil' Wayne

Truth be told, it took a long time for this one to get under my skin. At first it came off as just a moderately entertaining gimmick, but gradually the song came to serve many important roles in my life: pump up jam, party-starting jam, feeling badass jam, triumph jam. Admittedly, I struggle with Lil' Wayne's freestyle-based lyricism, as it can lead to the occasional moment of cringe-worthy slop. However, when he's on, he's on, and 'A Milli' is over-flowing with the good stuff: "I'd rather be pushing flowers/ Then in the pen sharing showers," or "Like smokin' the thinnest air I open the Lamborghini/ Hopin' them crackers see me, like 'look at that bastard Weezy'." Plus, the beat is so gully that even I feel like a thug when I listen to this track. My only hope is that the success of this track doesn't spawn a whole bunch of shitty 'A Mill'-immitation beats, but I'm less than optimistic in this regard.

1. I Feel Better - Frightened Rabbit

Listing this song as my number one for 2008 seems strange, because, while its charms are numerous, it doesn't really do anything unprecedented, or break-any real musical ground. I guess the same can be said for the entire Frightened Rabbit album, so I guess that the position of this song on my list must be justified purely on the basis of how good it is. It probably qualifies as one of the group's most pop-friendly tunes: it is uptempo, features a wildly catchy guitar riff, and a refrain that's fun to sing along too. Among the other things I love about this song: the gloriously noisy chorus (which includes horns, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, and background harmonies), the relentless build of the song (start with piano, add drums, add electric guitar, etc., up to cacophany by the end), and of course Scott Hutchinson's trademark, torchered lyrics and vocals. His cracking, but melodious scottish wail is a perfect fit for the song's profile of emotional destruction. Following in the footsteps great Smokey Robinson tunes 'Like Tears of A Clown' and 'Tracks of My Tears,' 'I Feel Better' is all about a dude who puts on the front that he's doing fine, while underneath the surface he's a mess of shattered emotions thanks to a recent breakup. What's worse, his ex keeps popping up, sometimes with other men, to remind him of this underlying agony. Of course, this is all conveyed through Hutchinson's trusty metaphors: "Now the sun does shine in this place some days/ And even when it's grey it doesn't always rain/ I'll stow away my greys, in a pad-locked cage and in a pad-locked room/ Only to be released, when I see all the songs I wrote about you/ This is the last one I'll sing about you." It is that final sentiment that is truly heart-breaking: Hutchinson deluding himself into thinking that he's ready to end his own self-flagellation.

So there you have it, Frightened Rabbit demonstrating that you don't need to invent the wheel to create the best song of the year. Maybe my selection of 'I Feel Better' as #1 was influenced by the other fantastic FR songs that I had to cut from the list (honorable mention to "Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms" and "The Twist"). In a similar vein, I had a tough time leaving Lil' Wayne's '3-Peat' out, so I thought I should at least mention it in passing. Lets hope that 2k9 is a little more dynamic for the single than last year was. If not, maybe the whole "death of the album" concept will prove to be a myth. Part of me hopes so.

1 comment:

  1. I gotta tell you, I could not recite the lyrics to any of these songs, save for part of one... "all the single ladies, all the single ladies..." Why is Beyonce on your top 10 list?