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I’m No School Boy But I Know What I Like: The Best Songs of 2008

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I’m No School Boy But I Know What I Like: The Best Songs of 2008

I think it was Lester Bangs who said listening to Pink Floyd is like wrestling with shit. Him or Spiro Agnew. Whoever it was, they were right. It’s a band I tried to like for a long time—“everyone says they’re great, so they must be”—but I have finally come to the dawning realization that theirs is the type of music that should be confined to history—or the dorm rooms of frowzy, flatulent frat boys with too much money, too much time, and too much homegrown. From what I understand, the sempiternal Dark Side of the Moon is supposed to be a musical masterpiece, but I wouldn’t know, because try as I might, I have never been able to listen past “Money” lest I die of ennui. And, fine, I will be the first to admit that “Wish You Were Here” is a pretty good tune. But so was “I’ve got the key—I’ve got the secret.” I don’t see anyone waxing lyrical about the euphonious delights of Urban Cookie Collective.

And I am not ashamed of my disapprobation of Pink Floyd. That seems like a bizarre statement on the surface, but, more than in any other art form, your preferences in pop music have the ability to turn you into a social misfit (Qualifier: anything that’s not classical music is pop music, unless I state so otherwise). A declaration of love for the works of Uwe Boll might be considered ironic, and even subversive, in this fickle age if put forward in circumlocutions usually reserved for scholarly appreciations of Ingmar Bergman. Not in pop music though. Social sub-structures usually dictate the sort of music one is supposed to enjoy.

I have always been a late-comer to musical trends. And my favorite music, originating as it does from the sixties and seventies, keeps me occupied enough that I don’t usually feel the need to go spelunking into the cultural nadir that is the pop music charts. But, you know, these things have a way of sneaking up on you. First, on the radio, and then VH1, which is always on in the background when I am cooking (and I cook a lot). It’s just the sort of music channel that’s made for me—a panoply of songs by Van Morrison, Tom Petty, The Small Faces, punctuated, intermittently, by a random totty with a fake voice, and synthesized breasts. Actually, that might be the other way round.

At least, that was the story until May this year when, for reasons completely unknown to me, I started to take an active interest in new music. I now follow quite a few new releases, take down notes on new songs (for I am a nerd, and therefore I shall list)—I even bought my first CD in over ten years! Fine, the CD was empty, but still. It was like 1992 all over again—and, once again, my obsessive interest could only be matched by my terrible taste.

A few months ago, I had the idea of incorporating into my best films of 2008 piece (it’s coming, it’s coming) a few thoughts on music and literature. Unfortunately, that essay has since turned into an interminable saga, and doing separate pieces on film, music and books felt like a more manageable idea, and the only way I could finish my cultural review of 2008 before Europa turns into a new star, and we inexplicably end up calling it Lucifer.

So here it is: My top ten best songs of last year. You must bear in mind that, as is the case with these things, the list is subject to change over time (this list is most certainly not life), and there is a good possibility that I might even come to hate some, if not most, of the songs on it. I can’t believe, for example, that there was a time I actually thought Maroon 5’s “This Love” was a decent tune (I didn’t say good, I said decent).

After that, I have also highlighted a few honorable mentions from 2008. Contemporary pop music is not my bailiwick but that’s never stopped me before. Enough of my yakkin’; let’s boogie:

10. Katy Perry: “I Kissed A Girl

There is something positively delightful about tales of alcoholic abulia, especially when it involves someone (male or female) who looks like Zooey Deschanel and Lorelai from Gilmore Girls (Lorelai is an awesome name for a cat, by the way). But juvenile fantasies about the daughters of Lesbos aside, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” is a revelatory pop song. The lyrics at first betray confusion and frustration, tinged with the subtle delight of sexual epiphany. But it is in the latter part of the song, especially the ironic last line, when it takes a subversive turn to mock today’s youth, which has come to accept female homosexuality as innocent fooling around, while male homosexuality still remains somewhat of a taboo. Case in point: the very same fanboys who were making terrible, third-rate gay cowboy jokes about Heath Ledger three years ago are now virtually campaigning for his canonisation.

Perry brings daring and spunk to what less ambitious singers would bring lenity, and her undulating tone is perfectly becoming of the melody. This is one of the classic pop songs.

9. Estelle featuring Kanye West: “American Boy

Yeah, I am as surprised as you are.

I don’t have an automatic aversion towards a particular type of music, but I can’t say I have many favorites in R&B or hip-hop (except, of course, for Snow—a licky boom boom down). I doubt “American Boy” will do much to buck that trend, but it’s one of the year’s best, nonetheless. Estelle’s duet with Kanye West, whose “Stronger” was my favorite song of 2007, had the potential of being as icky as a Kenny Rogers/Barbara Streisand collaboration—instead it is sweet and melodic, and Estelle’s throaty vocals create a nice confrontation with them.

But, I think it’s West’s rap interlude that seals the deal: “He crazy, I know what you thinking/Ribena I know what you’re drinking” made me laugh like a drain the first time I heard it, as did “Dressed smart like a London bloke/Before he speak his suit bespoke.” I have visions of infants, dressed to the nines in finest Saville Row suits, speaking like David Niven.

Nothing to do with this song, you understand. I just have those visions. Thought I should mention that.

8. Kings of Leon: “Sex on Fire”

Now, this is an unlikely choice. The lead singer of Kings of Leon, Caleb Followill, sounds like an emo Ed Kowalczyk (wasn’t that the name of a Superman villain?) of Live. That’s not a good thing. I have been inadvertently following the band’s career since their first album—a friend of mine used to ear-rape me with it all the time—and, as is the case with R&B, their music doesn’t particularly appeal to me. They’re like Jamiroquai—so close to being good, but they’re not.

“Sex on Fire,” though, is different. With subtle yet trenchant guitar work from Matthew Followill, the song’s passionate and to the point; and Caleb’s otherwise irritating howls are a perfect fit for a tune that essentially says: “You’re hot; let’s fuck.” This blurb reads like a backhanded compliment, but it shouldn’t. They’re a talented bunch of musicians, who, with time, might well duplicate, and hopefully surpass, the sheer power of “Sex on Fire.”

7. Weezer: “Pork and Beans

I first heard this song on my way to work, liked it instantly, and almost crashed my car when I tried to steer through the infernal Istanbul traffic while attempting to make out the track name on the radio screen. Equally startling was to find out that it was by Weezer, a band that brings fond memories of my teenage years in the nineties.

According to Wikipedia (from which I get all my information on everything), “the song was written by Rivers Cuomo (the lead singer) as a reaction to a meeting with Geffen executives where the band was told they needed to record more commercial material.” Ironically, this is probably their most commercially accessible song since Buddy Holly, but I have no way of verifying that since Weezer were pretty much completely under my radar since that delightful ditty (unless, of course, I check Wikipedia).

“Pork and Beans” is petty, and it is glaringly commercial, coming as it does with a backstory as most pandering songs do (I am sure Offspring had a saga to go with every one of their singles). But it has a mature sound, the band know exactly what they are doing with tempestuous guitars and larger-than-life choruses. And a little navel gazing every now and then never hurt nobody.

6. The Killers: “Human”

You didn’t ask, but my favorite spam message ever was this (a giant [sic] applies to the whole thing):

“Ladies always laughed at me and even gentlemans did in the public comfort station! Well, now I smil at them, because I took Me - ga - Di k for 5 months and now my putz is excessively greater than civil.”

Another thing that’s excessively greater than civil is this outstanding dance track by The Killers. A blend of 80s and 90s British pop (seriously, think of any band, from Erasure, to Duran Duran, to New Order, and The Killers sound like each and every one of them at least a little bit), “Human” has the most memorable hook of any song that came out in 2008. Brandon Flowers, the lead singer, has as distinctive a voice as his hero Neil Tennant (and is equally detached), and the harmony between the lyrics and the music has an almost architectural precision. The pretentious, new-age lyrics are, admittedly, part of the bargain, but no one ever expected Keats from Pet Shop Boys, either.

5. Vampire Weekend: “Mansard Roof”

OK, fine, “Mansard Roof” was released in 2007, but Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut album came out in 2008. You can’t really fault my accuracy.

Vampire Weekend are perkier, more talented, cousins of Arctic Monkeys. And “Mansard Roof” is a better song than anything the latter, incredibly overhyped band, has ever come up with. It’s catchy from the get-go, with wonderful crooning vocals from the lead singer Ezra Koenig, but the unsung hero of the song is the drummer, Chris Tomson, pounding away like a sailor on shore leave. The ska beat is sustained throughout, and it’s never once reminiscent of Madness, another band whose enduring popularity is a mystery.

I haven’t paid that much attention to what the kids call punk-revival, because it lacks the two cornerstones of proper punk: anger and failure. But as long as you’re comfortable with the de-politicization, it’s a nice enough sub-genre of pop. “Mansard Roof” is a compact, playful song with a mid-sixties flavor, and I listened it to it a hell of a lot during the summer.

4. Fleet Foxes: “White Winter Hymnal”

Contrapuntal harmonizing is not one of pop music’s mainstays these days. But this innovative five-piece band from Seattle, like Bolsheviks in hemp cardigans and corduroy pants, prove with the glorious “White Winter Hymnal” that they are more than just a novelty act. It’s hard to describe their music—there’s a baroque element to the canons, with the melodic progression owing a lot to Pachelbel. It’s impossible, too, not to be reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” or Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.” Add to that the vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys, and what you end up with should really be a chimera. Instead, it is a unique sound; rich, meaningful, yet totally accessible. I doubt Seattle will be the birthplace of a neo-baroque revolution in American popular music the way it was of grunge in the mid-eighties, but that really is a shame.

I am not sure what the song is supposed to mean—as far as I understand it’s about a school trip where the singer’s friend, Michael, falls and breaks his nose, and gets a nosebleed, but I don’t really care. The point is the melody; the point is the harmonies. The point is the music.

3. The Ting Tings: “Shut Up and Let Me Go”/“That’s Not My Name”

Another unlikely choice. And, once again, an apparently transmogrified clone of a far more successful band, in this case The White Stripes. Wikipedia informs me that Jules De Martino, ostensibly the drummer, but also doing his fair share of vocal and guitar work, used to play in a Christian rock band. And Katie White (now that’s a coincidence) had her own all-girl band (Wikipedia labels them a “Riot Grrrl” trio, the meaning of which not only alludes me, but is also a piece of information I would be happy to do without until I shuffle off this mortal coil). Naturally, when they got together, they ended up forming a tween-punk/dance act.

White sounds like a baby being hit with a cat when listing all the names that aren’t hers, but her voice is perfectly complementary of the band’s intentionally simple sound. But it is the incipient yet irreducible femininity of “Shut Up and Let Me Go” that is a true tour de force of minimalist pop, with such certain use of synthesisers during the chorus that the song achieves some sort of transcendence. It is the first great neo-feminist anthem.

2. Marianne Faithfull: “Flandyke Shore”

I don’t know when, or why, Marianne Faithfull’s dulcet voice turned into a cross between those of Harvey Fierstein and Pazuzu, but it suits her wistful sound. When she sings now, there is a sense of longing, and it’s more powerful than arbitrary nostalgia; like she’s in mourning, perhaps, for a past that never was. It’s strange to think that Faithfull has almost become a footnote in the discography, and the apocrypha, of The Rolling Stones. A sad moment comes early on in Martin Scorsese’s “Shine A Light,” just before the band is about to sing “As Tears Go By,” when, in his introduction, Jagger goes off on one about how it was one of the first songs that he and Richards wrote, that it was sweet but they sort of didn’t like it at first, but that they gave it away to someone. Not a single mention of Faithfull, who, you know, only made the fucking tune famous in the first place (Stones lore goes that Mick and Keith were all too happy, originally, to kick the tune, which they hated, over to Marianne). It’s sad.

“Flandyke Shore” is a traditional English ballad, famously sung by Nic Jones in the early eighties. It’s like the “Smoke on the Water” of English folks bands—every band does it at least once. But Faithfull’s guttural, pained, grudging version is the ultimate rendition—beautiful, sad, and, most importantly, reflective.

1. Scott Weiland: “Paralysis”

The last song Scott Weiland sang that I liked was “Plush.” That was sixteen years ago.

So imagine, if you please, my surprise when this track grabbed me, and kicked me to the kerb, with its bleak lyrics (“Every piss and a girl is a ghost of you”), cuspate guitars, and Weiland’s majestic vocal work. Everything comes together perfectly to make this one of the great break-up songs. A stellar achievement.

Honorable Mentions:

Kaiser Chiefs: “Half the Truth”: The Jam? Meet The Ramones.
TV On the Radio: “Golden Age”: Funky. With a tight guitar reminiscent of John Squire.
Coldplay: “Violet Hill”: Fuck you. I like it.
My Morning Jacket: “I’m Amazed”: Heavy, but never deep. Just the way I like it.
Elbow: “Grounds For Divorce”: A great sing-a-along. Not one for weddings, though.

Best Video of the Year: Her thighs scare me. But the video for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” is a classic in the vein of “Addicted to Love.”

The Best Song I Heard in 2008 I Forgot Even Existed: Pearl Jam: “Corduroy”

The Second Best Song I Heard in 2008 I Forgot Even Existed: Ocean Colour Scene: “The Day We Caught The Train”

The Third Best Song I Heard in 2008 I Forgot Even Existed: Cat Stevens: “Into White”

The Fourth Best Song I Heard in 2008 I Forgot Even Existed: Fastball: “The Way”

The Fifth Best Song I Heard in 2008 I Forgot Even Existed: Deep Purple: “Highway Star”

Worst Song of the Year: Pink’s enduring popularity is a sure sign that Satan is winning. And “So What?” is like early morning small talk in an elevator: banal, exhausting, and fake.

Worst Song of the Year Runner-Up: Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.” I am not sure if it’s the inane lyrics (I used to roll the dice/See the fear in my enemies’ eyes—oh, brother!), or the third-rate pseudo-symphonic melody, or Chris Martin’s unintentional homage to Baltimora, but this tune bugs the hell out of me. Also, what the fuck are they wearing these days? Who are you, The X-Men? A rock band with costumes is like hunting chinchillas on a rhinoceros. It looks good on paper, but a rhinoceros can’t climb trees.

Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication.