Friday, December 12, 2008

Top 20 Singles of 2008

Note: This is normally the type of thing that I would attach mp3s to, but the whole column took about twice as long as I expected it to. I frankly don't want to look at it anymore, and just linked to YouTube videos for the songs instead. I'm sure you can find the songs if you want them. One thing I've learned as a blogger is that year-end lists always leave you exhausted and defeated.

20. Jenny Lewis- "Acid Tongue"
19. The Hold Steady- "Sequestered in Memphis"
18. (tie)
Maino feat. Swizz Beatz, T.I., Plies, Bette Midler, Jadakiss, Fabolous- "Hi Hater (Remix)"
Shawty Lo feat. Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Plies, Lil' Wayne- "Dey Know (Remix)"
17. No Age- "Eraser"
16. Chromeo- "Momma's Boy"
15. Kanye West- "Love Lockdown"
14. Passion Pit- "Sleepyhead"
13. MGMT- "Electric Feel"
12. Big Boi feat. Andre 3000 and Raekwon- "Royal Flush"
11. Chairlift- "Bruises"

10. Estelle feat. Kanye West- "American Boy"
Estelle released a criminally underrated album of R&B, hip-hop, reggae, pop, and everything else in the first half of the year, and "American Boy" is definitely its standout. Over a backing track that would be jazzy if not for the intermitent fuzz slaps, she sings about all the fun stuff she wants to do with this American guy she's met, and it's not one bit as pandering as that sounds. (Okay, maybe one bit, but the upbeat swing and exuberance of it is more than enough to make up for it.)

Kanye West comes through with one of those globe-trotting, slippery verses with lines like, "before he speak his suit bespoke," and you can actually hear how much fun he's having. This was supposed to be a quiet year from him, but he's still all over this list.

9. Hot Chip- "Shake a Fist"
Hot Chip's Made in the Dark LP was uneven, the ballads often being more interesting and better crafted than the bangers in which they specialize. But it's unevenness that makes "Shake a Fist" such a towering achievement. It begins with synth-squiggles and a bass roll that sounds like a shark underwater, but there's a seismic shift halfway through the track, a key/tempo/rhythm/everything change that takes the song off the rails into a more exciting, danceable direction that ups the ante and cements Hot Chip as some of the foremost risk-takers in whatever genre of music you think they belong to.

8. Usher feat. Young Jeezy- "Love in This Club"
It didn't stand up to repeated listens--few songs would stand up to the millions of listens radio gave us here--but "Love in This Club" was a summer jam that pretty much killed R&B's burgeoning dance influence by making it impossible for anyone else to do it better. Polow da Don's beat--controversially appropriated from GarageBand--is both claustrophobic and airy at the same time, and Usher proves that he still knows how to navigate something this seductive by letting the spaces in between his lines sink in and breathe. It didn't create the craze of dance floor intercourse I had hoped for, but "Love in This Club" was as majestic as any song about such unsanitary acts can be.

7. Animal Collective- "Water Curses"
In their bid for the best band of the decade title, Animal Collective made sure to release something for '08, the Water Curses EP. Yet I'm not allowed to play it in my apartment because Wifey hates them--"so much cacophony," she says. I struggled when she asked me to explain why they mean so much to me, and it has something to do with the intersection of theory and execution.

This is a band with a child-like sound: loops of sounds and instruments, some of them de-tuned; propulsive, rollicking, reckless melodies; pure, high-pitched harmonies from a forgotten age. A large part of their output has been music about the pain of growing up, and the group could not be more cohesive in their stance of how to depict that struggle. Even though they're now scattered across the globe, the members come together with their boisterous, singular style to communicate what is one of the most universal human problems around. (There's a reason the A.C. fan base is in their twenties.) So the music is specifically built to mirror what it feels like to engage with the subject they play about. That doesn't sound like cacophony to me.

6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!"
As far as White guys in their fifties you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley go, renaissance man Nick Cave is pretty much the poet laureate. The brand of winking, water-logged songwriting he has perfected--and flexed on last year's fantastic Grinderman project--is on full display here. Over a groove that wavers with Warren Ellis' noisy noodling but never quite breaks its stride, Cave tells the story of biblical character Lazarus--"Larry" to Cave--who has been ressurrected into complete confusion in the 21st century. He narrates the tale with a sweaty, displaced authority that doesn't break for the song's four minutes, going off on tangents and eventually wandering back to a rhyme. This is end of the world music.

5. Lykke Li- "Little Bit"
"Little Bit" is that rare song that weaves its way into your ear and becomes better with every listen. The sinuous, hypnotizing guitar line draws you in, but the cold percussion keeps you at arm's length: the perfect backdrop for a song about being afraid of just how into someone you might be. Li's vocals are really high in the mix, accentuating each breathy, anti-come-on she has to offer, making the song that much sexier. The rest at 3:10 is what takes me over the top.

4. Fleet Foxes- "White Winter Hymnal"
There's something timeless about the rich harmonies stacked on top of each other on "White Winter Hymnal" and the rest of Fleet Foxes' debut. You get the sense that this is, in fact, not a new band, but more of a compilation from some older group that you and only you have discovered. Across the length of this baroque gem, the band winds up with some full guitar tones and pensive drums, but there's real separation in between them. You can actually hear their delicacy. When the song ends with the elegant diminuendo of the lone fallen angel croon with which we began, we're reminded of how simple and uncluttered beauty can be.

3. Vampire Weekend- "Oxford Comma"
Time to get a little personal: I teach English to a population experiencing a much different childhood from my own--poor, angry, misunderstood, confused. I spend most of my time diluting material that inspires me until it doesn't inspire me anymore, and I struggle to communicate concepts I think are important across all the defenses walled up. At least a few times a day, I'll say to myself, "How can you not know what that word means?"

Bottom line is that I try to jam this stuff down their throats no homo, and I return to my own world at the end of the day to music like "Oxford Comma," with lines like, "All your diction dripping with despair." It's not a coincidence that the song is named after an obscure rule of grammar. Vampire Weekend knows this and doesn't care. I guesss what I'm trying to say is that it's easy to forget how different you are from people even in your own city, and it's only when something this perfect for you comes along that you're reminded of the little spot in the world that you've carved out. Unfortunately, celebrating your own little spot in the world is often labeled pretentious, and so is this band, but that's just as vital a statement as anything else communicated in music.

2. Lil' Wayne- "A Milli"
What can be said about "A Milli" that hasn't been said already? It leaked six months ago, and I'm still hearing its unrepentant bass line from cars a mile away. It has been re-appropriated by every rapper this side of MC Skat Cat and still has not been improved upon. It's nothing like a single, with no hook or melody to speak of, but it was one of the biggest of the year.

About a year ago, before Tha Carter III was released, 50 Cent was on BET doing his ginny-woman sewing-circle gossip thing with his boyfriends, and in response to the question of whether or not Lil' Wayne was the hottest MC in the game, he asked, "What was Lil' Wayne's first single on his last album? Do you remember? What was it?" The host had trouble recalling "Fireman," validating 50's point that Wayne had not crossed over to superstar status. Weezy had not made the commercial impact of someone like himself. Something tells me 50 Cent's going to remember "A Milli" next year.

1. Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West- "Put On"
"Put On" is kind of like the fold-in back page of a Mad magazine. It begins as something topical and interesting, if not a little boilerplate. The epic nature of Shawty Redd's industrial drones lays the backdrop for Jeezy's hoarse grunt, and, finishing the first verse with "super-straight, super 8, super plate, super cake, super bait," he rhymes a little better than he has to. Say what you want about Jeezy, but his catalog stands up. For a guy who is only on album three, he's already crafted quite a greatest hits record that this and "Circulate" would fit into easily.

But then the song folds in with the Kanye West verse, and the meaning of the title becomes something much more twisted and compelling than we had anticipated. The synth tinkles that sounded bombastic at first have become plaintive, and West does more for auto-tune-as-metaphor in two minutes here than he does on his whole album, taking two lines out of the radio-ready lead single of the biggest album of the quarter to wail, "I'm so lonely." We believe him completely, and the song serves as a reminder that, art project or commerical product, things are not always what they seem.

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