Sunday, September 16, 2012

This Just In: Top 28 Songs of 2008 Elected


2008 was a big year: I shared The Box with three men who would become some of my best friends. Obama was elected. I got my first Chacos. I started liking eggs. Big year.

It was also a pretty big year for music. Bon Iver emerged from a cabin in the woods and soothed our broken hearts (despite their poor French vocabulary). Coldplay finally released their much anticipated fourth studio album (and of course had their chops thoroughly, yet unfairly, busted). A crop of newcomers gave us hope that Indie wasn't dead (Fleet Foxes, Gabe Dixon, MGMT), and some old reliables thinned our wallets with breakout mainstream releases (My Morning Jacket, The Killers, Ray LaMontagne). Of course, as any election year reminds us, there are always a few household names who end up with underwhelming efforts; and in 2008, some incumbents really did disappoint their most loyal supporters (Weezer, Ben Folds, Death Cab for Cutie).

So after an obsessive-compulsive number of re-counts, The Supreme Court of Music Greatness* has finally handed down its decision on the winners for songs of the year, with a majority opinion from its Chief Justice**. Congratulations, Top 28 Songs of 2008. Too bad your term was up almost four years ago...

28. "New Shoes" by Paolo Nutini (These Streets)
A fun one to kick off the list. This was a personal favorite for bike rides home to The Box. Nutini (despite being Scottish) brings us a fun and whimsical song about the confidence and worry-free mentality that come with having on a pair of new kicks. While I enjoy the tune, I can't say that I completely agree with its message: nothing makes me more paranoid than a spotless new pair of shoes and the inevitable puddle/mud/dog-crap.

27. "Dying Is Fine" by Ra Ra Riot (The Rhumb Line)
As foreshadowers to 2009's breakout stars, Phoenix, Ra Ra Riot bring an up-tempo, tech-savvy, Indie vibe to the mainstream. Despite an apparent lyrical nihilism, this song and its infectious melody has a profound ability to get stuck in my head AND not bum me out.

26. "You Really Got a Hold on Me" by She & Him (Volume One)
Originally composed and performed by Motown legend Smokey Robinson, and further made famous by a one-hit-wonder 60s band, this song is easily one of the all-time great pieces of popular music. So of course even Zooey Deschanel and her (in my opinion) spotlight-stealing collaboration with (the amazing) M. Ward can't screw it up too badly. This is easily the highlight of the album, respecting the original while performing a simple and poignant reinterpretation. Plus, it's the most you'll hear Ward's vocals in any other track. Go figure.

25. "Baptize My Mind" by Jon Foreman (Spring)
Foreman's Seasons solo projects have already been drooled over enough on this blog. So, suffice it to say that this is an incredibly solid and interestingly novel foray into pretty heavily layered instrumentation for the songwriter. Is that a xylophone/trumpet/accordion/cello/tenor-flute I hear? It's the quintessential song for an album about the season after winter, and it's also an opportunity for Foreman to rely on something other than his lyrics alone.

24. "Dreamin'" by Weezer (Weezer or The Red Album)
I hate everything that Weezer has done since 2005, except for this song. I will avoid the temptation to use this as a platform to talk about the astoundingly rapid decay of one of my favorite bands of the 90s and instead say that I love listening to this song with my brother. The bridge reminds us of the kind of melodic greatness that Rivers Cuomo is capable of. Too bad he's decided that writing absolute garbage is a more financially feasible approach to his calling. Too bad.

23. "But For You Who Fear My Name" by The Welcome Wagon (Welcome to The Welcome Wagon)
Do you feel welcome yet? A wonderful take on some biblical poetry from Malachi chapter 4, this song has been a favorite for mix CDs for the last few years. The inevitable question: "Oh, is this Sufjan?" No, it is not. Unless of course you mean that he produced the record, played banjo and sang on it, and released in on his Asthmatic Kitty label. If that's what you meant, then yes. But Welcome Wagon really is a Presbyterian minister and his wife and some of their musician friends. I'm excited for their upcoming 2012 release.

22. "The Gardener" by The Tallest Man on Earth (Shallow Grave)
He's the closest thing - besides Josh Ritter - we have to a modern Bob Dylan. And it's not just his nasally vocals and lo-fi acoustic guitar. Those lyrics! "I sense a spy up in the chimney / From all the evidence I've burned / I guess he'll read it in the smoke now / And soon to ashes I'll return." I can't help reflecting on the general revelation in this song: something is broken, and we are betrayed by our own attempts to compensate for and hide it. "So I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe..."

21. "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon (Only by the Night)
I wish I could say that I had been a Kings fan long before the breakout smash success of Only by the Night. But I can't. Lucky for me, I still get to be a fan of this song. So full of emotion, darkness, and jealous energy, it's everything a self-pitying rock song should be. "I hope it's gonna make you notice, someone like me..." Well, it certainly did. The song won Record of the Year at the 52nd Grammy Awards, and along with the ubiquitous "Sex on Fire," catapulted the album to multi-platinum status all around the world. And after one of the greatest SNL musical performances of all time, I truly don't mind hopping on the bandwagon.

20. "Love Lockdown" by Kanye West (808s & Heartbreak)
Speaking of SNL performances, Kanye's from the 808s tour was one of the more ridiculous/atrocious ones I've ever seen. Nevertheless, this was my second favorite hip-hop release of the year. Less rap and more electronic dance track, it couples Kanye's propensity for vain self-loathing and his incredible abilities in beat-making. When the final chorus kicks into gear, with its stellar marching snares, you can almost hear high school band directors everywhere tripping over themselves to find an arrangement for the upcoming season.

19. "Cath..." by Death Cab for Cutie (Narrow Stairs)
It's really not fair to expect a band to appropriately follow up the 1-2 punch of Transatlanticism and Plans, and so when many Death Cab devotees cried foul over this particular release, I was willing to be a bit more gracious. Ask anyone who's spent any time with Narrow Stairs and they will inevitably tell you this is the standout track. With one of my favorite music videos of recent memory, "Cath..." nails the tragic-wedding-scene motif with bitingly vivid clarity. Plus, that guitar hook.

18. "Cologne" by Ben Folds (Way To Normal)
This album was definitely a disappointment. Though a single featuring a guest appearance from Regina Spektor ought to be a harbinger of an exciting new release, it was almost as disappointing itself as the whole disc. Clearly, "Cologne" stands out in its loyalty to the classic Folds formula: tragic characters, gorgeous piano, moving strings, cathartic lyrical honesty. "4, 3, 2, 1 / I'm letting you go..."

17. "A-Punk" by Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend)
And a warm welcome to the Cape-Cod-Ivy-League-Hipster-Chic-World-Music-Flavored newcomers Vampire Weekend. "A-Punk" is the quintessential track for their self-titled debut. The "first-world-problems" vibe painted on the canvas of a spicy rhythm section is as utterly addicting as it is clever; and frontman Ezra Koenig finds success channeling his inner Paul Simon - Julian Casablancas love-child. Have I evoked enough music review cliches yet? Laying it on thick, though, seems the only appropriate critical response to one of my favorite new bands in years.

16. "Kids" by MGMT (Oracular Spectacular)
The opening hook is one of the simplest and catchiest of all time. The lyrics are mysterious and vivid. The vibe is young, immature, and aloof. Yet, there is something earnest in MGMT's yearning, perhaps for a lost childhood, that resonates with my generation. Their big hit, "Time To Pretend" hits some of their main themes more squarely on the head, but "Kids" is the better overall song. I almost imagine these two tracks as necessary partners in that first, post-adolescent de-bunking of the American Dream. And I'm a sucker for that kind of questioning.

15. "Lovers In Japan / Reign Of Love" by Coldplay (Viva La Vida)
Yay for British arena pop-rock! I am shameless in my support for this album, as previously noted. Though there may be better stand-alone tracks on the album (i.e. "Cemeteries of London" or "Death and All His Friends"), I chose this track for the Top 28 because of how it embodies the feel of the album as a whole, and for its accessibility. Plus, they really nail it live - complete with a rainbow's array of paper butterflies. Possibly best of all is the echoey piano interlude "Reign of Love" as a lovely soft landing pad for the song.

14. "What's Been Going On" by Amos Lee (Last Days at the Lodge)
Amos Lee just kills it. If you're not sold in the first minute, you will be as he bursts out the line "While I'm out here on this raging sea / About to capsize." It is a textbook piece of pop nostalgia, as Lee asks the question in the song's title. Old flames, haunts, and hometowns: the sort of Springsteenian subject matter of American folk-pop music that you can come home to.

13. "Mykonos" by Fleet Foxes (Sun Giant EP)
You can almost picture the bold blue skies above the too-white Mediterranean architecture, the stuff of kitschy-yet-gorgeous calendar shopping mall pagodas. Perhaps an unfair association for a band so original and talented as Fleet Foxes. This track, an EP follow-up to their self-titled debut (stay tuned...), adds instruments in all the right places, filling in the (small) gaps between the Foxes' richly textured harmonies. My abandonment of rock in favor of folk is almost complete, and I blame these guys.

12. "Human" by The Killers (Day & Age)
The subject of great controversy in our household and beyond, Kerrie and I decided last night that the line really is "Are we human? / Or are we dancer?" Other suggestions include "are we denser" and "are we Dancer" (as in one of Santa's reindeer). All lyrical debates aside, the song beautifully marries ridiculously danceable sound with surprisingly poignant subject matter. Brandon Flowers has indicated the chorus-in-question as based on a Hunter S. Thompson quote, and he does seem to have done some deep contemplation in its composition. Still, lyrics aren't what keep me coming back to this particular one. Put in your earbuds, crank it up, and NOT dance. I defy you. There's your answer...

11. "Paper Planes" by M. I. A.
"Some - some - some I - some I murder / Some I - some I let go..." The line, like the singer, is alarming, violent, and brilliantly catchy. And though all she may want to do is "(gunshot, gunshot, gunshot) and a (cash register chime) and take your money," M. I. A. is better off sticking to crafting juicy hip-hop beats with machine-gun-blast rhymes. For that I will gladly hand my money over peacefully... no funny business.***

10. "Rainy Day" by Coldplay
Just when you thought Chris Martin wasn't going to crack the top ten, you remembered the one-song-per-album rule can easily be sidestepped by EPs! This song seems to have spent a little more time in the oven than many of its cousins from Viva La Vida, and for that I'm thankful. Between the soaring strings and meandering guitar licks, you can kind of tell that Jonny Buckland and company spent extra time in the production booth piecing this one together, along with the rest of Prospekt's March. I almost get creeped out by the usually-mellow Martin when he grunts out "So the deeper that the knife goes in / The more you win / You end up with less than when you begin." But the true draw to this track is the way that it nails the feel of raindrops hitting the roof, deep cellos cascading down as Chris croons on: "I love it when you come over to my house / I love it when you come to my house."

9. "Furr" by Blitzen Trapper (Furr)
The title track for Trapper's sophomore album, "Furr" is a beautifully composed coming-of-age ballad. With poetic poise, we are taken on an exploration of the wildness of a young man's soul, as he abandons himself to being (literally) raised by wolves, "howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn." Yet, it's not long before the "girl dressed in the color of a pearl" tames the wild beast and settles down with him to start a family. The final verse leaves us pondering the age-old paradox of the domesticated-yet-wild human nature:
Now my fur has turned to skin
And I've been quickly ushered in
To a world that I confess I do not know
But I still dream of running careless through the snow
... ultimately warning us, "You can wear your fur like a river on fire / But you better be sure when you're making God a liar."

8. "White As Snow" by Jon Foreman (Winter) and "The House of God Forever" by Jon Foreman (Summer)
You can't go wrong lyrically when you use the most tragically beautiful song in the entirety of Scripture. But where Foreman really excels, of course, is in his ability to perfectly pair lyrics so deeply full of truth with equally honest musical composition. Thus, the result here is concurrently haunting and hopeful; in short, an almost perfect adaptation of the Psalm of King David's mournful repentance.

And because near-flawless adaptation apparently comes in pairs, the other 8th best song of the year is the same artist's take on Psalm 23. The same rule applies to the most hopeful and comforting song in the entirety of Scripture. There's not much to add about this track other than to say that it is absolutely brilliant, and that Sarah Masen's vocals on the second verse are too.

7. "Hymn #101" by Joe Pug (Nation of Heat EP)
A friend of mine gave his English students an assignment: to listen to this song, ponder what it meant to them, and to write a letter to the songwriter about their interpretation. After a rousing discussion and a series of excellent student compositions, my friend decided he should contact Pug's agent and try to send the letters his way. Long story short, Pug read them and wrote a response. Disappointingly, he dismissed the young interpreters' readings, saying that he really meant very little in his lyrics, only using words that appeared to have depth. In short, the songwriter confessed that the song was a facade for little more than emotional manipulation of the listener.
At first I was devastated at hearing this story. So deeply had I connected with this dark song, laden with religious imagery, that I assumed young Pug had that rare insight into life, and truth, and the world that so few poets do. It really is disappointing to hear otherwise.
But then, the more I thought, it occurred to me that this is exactly the sort of artist-as-medium-for-inspired-revelation stuff that I really believe in. In spite of our dullness, we point toward the fascinating. In spite of our pettiness, we stumble upon the profound. In spite of our ugliness, we reflect the sublime. And in spite of our dishonesty, we convey truth. Maybe because of our fallen-ness, we hint at the Divine.
Now I like this song even more, in spite of Joe Pug being kind of an ass.

6. "All Will Be Well" by The Gabe Dixon Band (The Gabe Dixon Band)
Man, what a consistently good album. This is the most accessible and best all-around track from it, though I could have selected at least four other songs. Dixon is a singularly talented individual who has clearly spent the last few years with some incredible tunes bouncing around in his head. In this piece, we get one of his best traits as a songwriter: the ability to craft an excellent basic melody, and to keep it meandering beyond where you expect it to go, keeping your ears fully engaged and interested. Its slightly cheesy lyrical theme, encouraging the listener that "all will be well," doesn't overly detract from the way the song resonates with the deep human need to find reassurance and persevere through hardship. Gabe Dixon is an good songwriter, and an even better piano player; which really, in my book, is enough to cover a multitude of sins.

5. "I'm Amazed" by My Morning Jacket (Evil Urges)
Prediction: We will look back on the first part of the 21st century and struggle to find a better straight-up rock song than this, the single from MMJ's most accessible release to date. Between politically-charged cultural critique, anthemic choruses, and a piping hot guitar solo, everything is there for the makings of a fist-pumping crowd favorite. I certainly have done my fair share of air-guitaring in the privacy of my own home; that's for sure. While tried and true fans may have been slightly put off by the direction that Kentucky's most famous band took here, they should be thankful that James and posse of rock evangelists are reaching the masses with work like this.

4. "Skinny Love" by Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Call me predictable, but how can I not include this song in my top five? I'll spare myself the re-telling of what should by now be common knowledge and simply assume that everyone already knows the story behind this album. Though the original self-released version came out in 2007, I'm including it in 2008's list for two reasons: 1) This was the year that Bon Iver achieved Indie-god status, and 2) This was the year that I got to see them open for Wilco. Also, it's technically when the final studio version was released. Anyway, "Skinny Love" gets on the list because it is a quintessential For Emma track: haunting, rustic, and emotionally devastating. For me, this particular recording hits with a pathos that goes far beyond its basic instrumentation; how can one man with a guitar in a cabin generate enough sound to punch you in the gut the way that Justin Vernon does? It's this characteristic ability to draw the listener in, evoking so much with so little, that has so universally hooked Indie music fans everywhere.

3. "You Are the Best Thing" by Ray LaMontagne (Gossip in the Grain)
Besides being the song that my wife and I danced our first dance on our wedding day, this song has the unique distinction of being one of my favorite recordings to heavily employ the use of horns. It's a straightforward, romantic, blue-collar sort of song. And that is Ray LaMontagne to a T. Unassuming, richly textured, strikingly unforgettable. I can still remember the first time I heard his voice live. Kerrie and I turned to look at each other, the unspoken words of our eyes saying it all, "Wow. Just, wow." Ray will always have a way with words, less because of his lyrical agility, and almost completely due to his delivery. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. And so when he sings, "You are the best thing / Ever happened to me," it's easy for me to believe him, to take the words even more seriously than their face value. I hope that in the same way, my wife and I will find our love at its most honest expression not in the content of its words, but in its sincere, concrete delivery.

2. "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" by Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes)
We'll have to go with this track, from Fleet Foxes self-titled debut, because we have to pick one. Really the whole album ought to be included. But "Tiger Mountain" gives us a sampling of all the things that bring me back to this recording again and again: haunting reverb-y vocals, renaissance-era melodies, earthy, rustic lyrics. One often gets the bleak feeling they are alone in the woods in the winter at dusk, Robin Pecknold's chant reverberating through the bare trees.
And the subject matter tends to match the medium: our faire plebeian troubadour sings of cold, graves, and premonitions of death. A bubonic dirge, perhaps, but a gripping and enchanting piece of music to be sure. The thing that Fleet Foxes execute so well is setting a scene that is mystical and ethereal, and at the same time vivid and realistic. They embody the sort of dialectic through which humanity copes with its mortality: welcoming death, and fighting it; mystifying death, and experiencing its raw simplicity.
Fleet Foxes take us to these places that we want not go, yet must, ultimately and unavoidably. And it is a beautiful, terrible trip.

1. "You Got Growing Up to Do" by Joshua Radin & Patty Griffin (Simple Times)
My top selection for the year is marked with a very real cognitive dissonance.

On one hand, Joshua Radin and Patty Griffin just sound lovely. Their voices blend well, and are featured above a simple strumming guitar. They have chosen unique harmonies that engage the ear, surprising it and pleasing it with each chord. It really is just a pleasant, lovely song...

... That is, except that it is a sad, love-cynical tragedy about the disappointment and catharsis of the moment where lovers realize that the timing simply isn't right, and that:
The best thing I can give to you
Is for me to go, leave you alone
You got growing up to do
These are the awful moments of life that so many of us can recall in far more vivid detail than most of our fond memories. When we recognize that a love characterized by immaturity, pride, and selfishness is one better cast aside, and that there comes a time where we can't "think of what else to try." A corduroy coat isn't really good for the rain, and so it goes.

When I listen to Josh and Patty sing this song, it makes my heart soar and ache all at once, and these are the two principal reasons I love music. It is both comedy and tragedy; the hero riding off into the sunset and the star-crossed lovers needlessly killing themselves; a wedding and a funeral. And this song executes that perfectly for me.

And so, that's all for 2008. It's not quite four years late, and at least in time for the 2012 election. I hope to swear in some more soon. But no promises...

* a.k.a. iTunes play counts
** Me, and my arbitrary authority on popular music
*** This one's for you Travis. You know why.