RECORDS OF THE YEAR
The Official List of the Top 40 Best Songs of 2008
1 - "The Bitch Went Nuts (fake)" Ben Folds Fortunately, first I heard this song and fell in love with it, then I found out about the curious backstory - which only makes me love it that much more. But I'm pleased to say that I just loved every note of this pounding rock song before I got to the little intrigue. The basic compulsive pounding drumbeat, the infectious melody, the delicious keyboards and high humor just bowled me over. This is as good a song and as strong a statement as Ben Folds ever thought about coming up with. It's got a real and strong and very funny statement musically and lyrically.
But I feel almost a bit suspicious of my love for this in the first place because it comes from a disdainful rightwing perspective to which I'm highly sympathetic. I fear I'm giving it extra points for Correct Ideology, but it really is a well drawn lyric. The lyrics describe the anguish of an aspiring young lawyer who made the mistake of taking his girlfriend to the office Christmas party, where she did a a line of blow and "started spouting all her liberal garbage" from the internet, between bouts of puking and self-righteous vandalism. "I'll never get to be a partner at this rate/ Not with Jane Fucking Fonda Jr as my date." Beyond the politics specifically, this gal beautifully encapsulates pretty much of my frustration with trying to talk to the other side in recent years, Daily Kos types.
But then it got even more interesting when I discovered that I had been "hoaxed," by Ben Folds himself no less. As he described it, last summer he was speculating with the band about the inevitable pre-release internet leak of the album they were recording. So for funzies, Ben scheduled one night of studio time with the intention of quickly writing and recording a whole "fake" Ben Folds album of completely different songs with the same names as the "real" songs they were meticulously working on for the album. These recordings were not for commercial release, but specifically designed to be "leaked" onto the internet as a little joke to screw with us downloaders.
Doggone it, but wily ol' Ben got me. But this "fake" song that he apparently spent no more than a couple of hours writing and recording is better than anything on the Way to Normal album. It's ten times more interesting musically and lyrically than the "real" song "The Bitch Went Nuts." Even Ben himself says to Rolling Stone at one point, "That's one of my favorite songs I've written, lyrically and everything."
That leads to what's most fascinating about the whole thing to me, which is the curious ways this song refracts weird issues about the afflictions of a certain kind of artistic self-consciousness. "The word 'fake' came up when we started doing it and it takes all the responsibility out. You can just be free to write and let it go." It's sort of a blessed release from naval gazing.
Not feeling "responsible" here seems to result in him saying what's really on his mind, going around his self-consciousness of what he's supposed to be thinking. I was really struck by his comment that "It's about a girl who's my hero." Really? I mean, in the song there's nothing that could possibly be seen as a redeeming value to this ignorant, self-righteous bitch. But since it's not a "real" Ben Folds song, he can just let that out without feeling responsible.
"She thinks because she reads books she must be smarter/ But now when I close my eyes, I'll be fucking Jimmy Carter."
DOWNLOAD BEN FOLDS FAKE "BITCH WENT NUTS"
2 - "If You Want Me to Stay" Born Again Floozies Sometimes rock-era people are disdainful about cover versions of songs, as if that were not really quite legitimate artistic expression. Maybe that's because so many of them are just carbon copy re-makes that add nothing substantial. But Frank Sinatra was an interpreter of popular song, for example, and in this case so are the Born Again Floozies - making a unique arrangement of "If You Want Me To Stay" far richer and more intricately detailed than Sly Stone's classic original.
This live arrangement runs fully nine minutes, and none of it is wasted. There's that much song there, and since Sly only wrote about three minutes worth, I'd figure this to be two thirds Floozie. For starters, there's a full three minute guitar solo that opens the arrangement seemingly backwards engineered to resolve as part of the original song. That's really an original three minute Joey Welch instrumental composition in itself.
Then also, it's a perfect showcase for Charlie Krone on the slide trombone. Plus, this is their main set piece featuring the vocals of Nancy Moore, the worst floozie of them all when she's singing this.
This live recording is not on their excellent Street Music album, but available for free right here.
DOWNLOAD BORN AGAIN FLOOZIES "IF YOU WANT ME TO STAY"
3 - "Neighbors" Gnarls Barkley This is just an excellent dramatic pop song, and Danger Mouse for his part knows how to make a song into a real RECORD, a compulsive midtempo dance track. But most of all, Cee Lo here in particular is proving himself capable of being the heavy soul Levi Stubbs of a new generation of singers. He's pretty good.
The exquisite, beautiful manly agony of this song just kills me. The narrator's neighbor likes his stuff, but doesn't know what he's gone through to get it. "Well my neighbor likes my clothes, but hasn't seen me with my scars exposed." He moans his blues, his suffering and regret so deliciously.
What's funny though is that after a hundred compulsive listens it bubbles up from below that really this song is ultimately a boast of machismo. "My neighbor wants to be me, but he'll never be."
4 - "Cold Shoulder" Adele This record just rocks my little world with every note. Young Miss Adele is expressing rather emphatically her frustration with an uncommited lover. The basic beat of this hooks me, and it has a robust and memorable tune underlying it. This is also amply endowed with a serious conflicted passion that gives it a strong emotional dynamic.
Plus, she really made a great record out of the song. This comes somewhere near passing the Walt Rimler "chamber music" test, where every instrument speaks in its own unique voice worth considering separately. The song would really lose something if any of these parts were missing. I particularly dig the three little triplet guitar chords, used only thrice in the record (right after the enunciation of the title). There's a little breakdown where she sings the chorus without some of the backing, and I particularly miss those three chords - which just sets them up to be better appreciated when she brings them back in the end.
5 - "Love Lockdown" Kanye West I don't necessarily really want to like Kanye West cause he's been known to be fairly schmuckish, but "Love Lockdown" is just a great song. This is about as good as he's ever done, and his songcraft actually seems to still be improving. This has a fine melody, those beautiful pounding tom drums and a great since of conflicted drama. This is a fine pop song with a thoughtful lyric about a conflicted lover and his secret shame. Plus, dig his performance of the song on SNL. Quite a striking presentation.
6 - "Fickle Ghost" Psapp When first I heard this album The Camel's Back, it sounded pretty listenable, but I wasn't particularly bowled over. But there are a lot of strong hooks, strong tunes and interesting little unique sounds in the arrangement - as you might expect from this duo. I take it that here she's a fickle ghost of a past relationship.
7 - "Viva la Vida" Coldplay Look, I could get in bad trouble for this pick. Among the revolutionary elements of the coming regime change, Coldplay are known as being among the top Enemies of The People - second only maybe to Mariah Carey. I mean, jumpin' Jebus what a bunch of whining pussies Coldplay are. I just pray that the Generalissimo and the Legendary Monkey don't find out about this, or I may be risking a trip to Camp Mimi.
But I got to give the devil his due, cause this is an outstanding song - and strikes me very different from the usual melancholy whining I associate with Coldplay. This is perhaps the catchiest pop song they've ever come up with, and has none of that tiresome angst. This just throbs with life and exhiliration, a proud memory of the days "when I ruled the world." It ends up expressing a beautiful Porter Wagoner "Satisfied Mind" sentiment. It's driven. It's got that swing without which it don't mean a thing - and which word I would never previously have imagined using to describe this group. May Queen Meg have mercy on my counterrevolutionary soul.
8 - "Tough Guy" Born Again Floozies You can always count on the Floozies for a strong tune and a strong, uniquely personal kind of funk sound. Can't ever get enough of Joey Welch's guitar or Charlie Krone's trombone.
"Tough Guy" moreover has one of the couple of best lyrics Joey ever wrote. It's a character sketch of an obnoxious neighbor, a conflicted tough guy Christian who "bullies all the meek with his Jesus talk" and uses "guilt like a bullet in his barrel." He's got a tough guy walk and a trophy wife.
But then buried in that second verse is the gently invoked conflict expressed by "playing Judy Garland in dark of night. But next day it's back to the Jesus talk." It comes out making Joey almost a little sympathetic to this conflicted soul, distinctly against his will.
9 - "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" Sam Phillips This song was first recorded last year by Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, and made my top 10 then. This year we get the author's version, and it's even better, for my money. Essentially the narrator is summoning up the holy ghost through the gospel music of Rosetta Tharpe to sustain her through the aftermath of a broken romance. Note that Sam Phillips started out her career as a gospel singer.
Alison Kraus made a really pretty record of the song, beautiful and ethereal. But that wasn't Rosetta Tharpe. She was a perfectly Earthly black guitar player and gospel singer with a big voice. Rosetta was a strong willed and feet planted Godly woman, not a misty mystic on the mountaintop.
This Sam Phillips arrangement sounds much more like Sister Rosetta, and is the better for it. For one thing, the whole lyrical sentiment makes more sense this way. You can better tell what the sense of strength is about Rosetta that the narrator's calling up, like a strong shoulder to lean on.
10 -"Hiroshima (B-b-b-bennie hits his head)" Ben Folds This song from the actual Way to Normal album is just excellent on every level, as good a basic pop song as he ever wrote, based on a real Japanese mishap. For one thing, this is far and away the greatest Elton John tribute ever. It's specifically an answer to "Bennie and the Jets" and it's at least a good a song as the Elton classic. It's got a similar but totally different mid-tempo piano beat. Indeed, I might suggest that I maybe slightly prefer this even to the Elton classic.
But he's answering with something nearly the opposite of Elton's song in the lyric. Bernie Taupin wrote a purposely glib lyric about the shallow glamour and cheap adulation and pretensions of pop stars. He goes from carrying on about how cool this Bennie is with the electric boots and mohair suit that he's read about in a magazine to how the group's going to lead them to "fight our parents out in the street to find who's right and who's wrong."
Whereas Ben Folds is writing autobiographically about being an overly adulated and less than glamorous guy mocking himself with the dramatization of a silly accident where he came out on stage and managed to fall off onto the concrete and got a concussion. He then makes this heroic effort to climb up on the stage and start pounding out the first song, but "there was blood on the keyboard. Oh my God!" There's a perfect mockery of the self-importance of pop stars even in the title, invoking the site of the first atomic bomb attack as a metaphor or such for his silly accident and minor concussion. After carrying on a bit about his x-rays, he nicely concludes the song with a perfect and succinct expression of self-consciousness of carrying on about himself like this, "Does this song end?"
11 - "Baptist Fashion Show" Stew Stew won a couple of Tony awards for his first and broadly autobiographical Broadway musical, Passing Strange. This is an early part of the story, setting up the doubts and conflicts that sent him out on a youthful boho quest across Europe.
Despite the point about losing faith ("His conviction turned to ice in that chilly church pew"), this is a pretty good gospel song, at least of a Broadway variety. Partly that's because Stew's got the voice for gospel, and partly it's because he's singing with a soul of conviction. Anyway you look at it, it's a helluva good song.
12 - "Don't Believe in Love" Dido I was a little less than totally impressed when first I heard the Dido album, but it had enough going for it to bring me back again. The whole album is pretty good, but especially this gentle song of inner conflict. "I want to go to bed with arms around me, wake up on my own" It's not in any way stylistically or structurally innovative, but it's a memorable tune with really a powerful understated rhythmic drive.
13 - "A Piece of the Pie" Randy Newman This comes from the first official pop album Newman's made in most of a decade. Often times, and seemingly increasingly with time, Newman seems set on contradictory emotions. I get the idea that Newman himself isn't entirely sure what he thinks of the poor, humble narrator who just wants a piece of the American pie. Yet the guy could just as well be seen as a self-centered nationalistic jerk who cares not about the rest of the world that surely has it far worse than an American who has to work two jobs and thinks that people ought to be doing things for him. "Bono's off in Africa, he's never around." The sad fact is that "No one gives a shit but Jackson Browne."
This has the abstraction and structural oddity of his most artsy songs - but it works very well as a highly memorable, catchy pop song.
14 - "IRS" Guns 'n Roses One may understandably tire of Axl Rose's petulant white trash adolescent shtick, which is WAY past the sell by date. Moreover, the Chinese Democracy album was diddled around with for something like 17 years. Brian Wilson's Smile might have been worth waiting a few decades for, but Axl ain't Brian. Plus of course, it's not really Guns 'n Roses, but an Axl solo album. Most missed from the mix is Izzy's songwriting.
But ignoring the baggage, Chinese Democracy really did finally turn out to be a pretty fine record. It's not going to make you forget Appetite for Destruction, but you can be a notch or two beneath that and still have an outstanding record. Axl does have talent, and apparently hasn't managed to completely negate that with his proud years of alcohol and drug abuse.
"IRS" finds Axl working up a really good, melodic and hard charging classic fit of righteous anger and resentment, ready to call in the lawyers, the FBI and the IRS to push the grudge. And he's still got the voice to sell it.
15 - "Chasing Pavements" Adele This lead single from then 19 year old Adele's debut album is easily the best big dramatic ballad of the year. Grammy folks actually accidentally got one right naming her Best New Artist. Like many of the best songs, she's after not a straightforward expression of a single emotion, but an expression of internal conflict as to whether this lover is worth bothering with as he's running away and she's feeling perhaps foolish and humiliated chasing after him down the street.
16 - "We Got the Power" Born Again Floozies This mid-tempo off-center rock song is among their more simple, straightforward songs. It's also one of Joey Welch's catchiest compositions. This is a hell of a good little pop song, with good secondary vocal parts and a strong little guitar riff and a good tap danced beat.
I will take a moment though to bitch about the cheesy lefty lyric. Now, it's a decent lyric in that it has a pretty clear and somewhat poetic expression. But the whole sentiment is Daily Kos level BS about the US being a big bully. "We've got the guns to manufacture truth." Really?
17 - "Carolina Drama" The Raconteurs I take The Raconteurs basically as Jack White's blow-off band, some quick fun with the fellows when he's not ready yet for a real White Stripes album. Neither of their albums are in a league with your better White Stripes. But still, this is Jack White, perhaps the greatest songwriter of the last decade. So even a somewhat lesser side project definitely has it's moments.
"Carolina Drama" tells a fascinating little backwoods white trash story of a conflicted young man dealing with a hangover, a violent redneck stepfather, and an old priest. He lays out a very specific storyline, with sharp characterization and physical details - leading up to a purposely open, unexplained ending, the better to give it a little backwoods mystery.
I would call this an art song. It's got repeated melodic motifs, but not a regular chorus. Also, dig all the subtleties of the arrangement, the piano, choir and fiddle break. This is probably the best thing Jack's done not on a White Stripes record. Well, give or take his work on Loretta Lynn's classic Van Lear Rose.
18 - "Low" Flo Rida This big hit didn't impress me much when it came out. For starters, it's a boring lyric. One more hip-hop song about rich rappers dropping money on some ho in a club. Yeah, yeah. But damn if this ain't as catchy a song as came out all year. There's some actual melody and variation in the tune. Plus, it's got all kinds of good detail in the arrangement. You got me.
19 - "Four Minutes" Madonna Not being caught up in the overwrought sociology surrounding her career or particularly identifying with her on a personal level, I'm generally only a middling Madonna fan. On any basis of actual music, it's been 20 years since any of her albums has much impressed me. But this song is the best thing she's done in a couple of decades. There's a memorable tune under this thing, and it's just a damned catchy pop song. Beyond that, this actually makes me want to get up and dance, which none of these club oriented records she's been making has. It's actually fairly joyous and uplifting. To me, it sounds really more like the work of her cohort here, Justin Timberlake. However you want to spread the credit though, this rocks.
20 - "Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight " The Fireman This is Sir Paul McCartney and a producer recording under a group name. This is his third album under this name, and the first one officially acknowledged to be him. This seems to be a ploy to more casually put something out that's maybe a little experimental in sound without the hoopla of being an album by a BEATLE. This raw midtempo rock song has some of the best hooks, and the most emotional tow of anything he's come up with in years.
Without getting real specific, it is his post-divorce answer to the stupid unappreciative bitch Heather Mills. The excellent "Vanity Fair" was his sad lament as the marriage was breaking up. This one is his post-trauma answer. Besides being an excellent jam to listen to driving the highway with the windows open, it is gratifying to hear him obviously in much better spirits. Paul gets up just about his best Elvis swagger. He gets a more than credible Elvis sneer, snarling with a unique gentle contempt as he intones repeatedly, "I thought you knew that the last thing to do was to try to betray me." After the author of "When I'm 64" found out that the answer was no to "will you still need me" and found him spending his 64th birthday in the middle of an ugly divorce, I for one am glad to hear that he's good and over her.
21 - "Melt My Heart To Stone" Adele This girl can really sell this kind of building ballad. She's got good songwriting chops, but also an excellent vocal skill at little bits of emphasis and tonal differentiation that makes a good song into a great record. There's a little carefully controlled fray that she repeatedly puts into "You SAY..."
22 - "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)" Gnarls Barkley Cee Lo really enjoys his angst. This tasty little angst burger comes as a fast techno rock song, reflecting more the background of DJ Dangermouse. This is just insanely catchy. Not sure why this wasn't a huge hit on radio and in the clubs.
23 - "Up the River, Fucker" Born Again Floozies This tasty little artsy rock song finds Joey Welch examining the illogic of drug laws and the rough nature of a poor man's justice. But mostly it gives him a good excuse to gently croon the title over and over while Charlie Krone makes that slide trombone sing.
24 - "Everything I Own (Has Got a Dent)" Randy Travis Randy Travis has a long reputation as a gentle, thoughtful human being. But even a nice guy has those animalistic urges. In this basic country song, the narrator is not particularly proud of this. Still, give him credit that he's taking his frustrations with the lost love out on stuff rather than people - and his own stuff at that.
25 - "I Want That" PSAPP PSAPP's musical style has sometimes been described as "toytronica" for their extensive novelty of sound, sometimes achieved by the use of nominally toy type instruments. This slamming little come on has a tough beat and a strong tune, and some groovy burbling and novelty in the arrangement. Also, the half minute guitar solo at the start of the record is sweet. By the way, this song was apparently featured in an episode called "Rise Up" of that Grey's Anatomy show, if that gets them any extra cool points.
26 - "A Little Better" Gnarls Barkley Danger Mouse sets Cee Lo up with a fine low groove to testify against. Can't pop songcraft, techno beat and old fashioned soul.
27 - "Dumb It Down Now" Born Again Floozies Without a doubt, the Born Again Floozies Street Music is the best album of 2008. Besides his Joey's typically sharp melodies, this features several little extra points as he explains his non-conformist philosophy ("make sure you zig when they zag"). For one thing, I appreciate his recognition that we should be joyous because indeed "the world is our strip mall."
Besides that, Joey's got a particularly sharp little guitar solo for an introduction, the infamous Charlie Krone gets some good non-chalant whistling behavior. Plus, the so-far criminally underused vocal talents of Nancy Moore pack a lot of punch into just a couple of repeated phrases.
28 - "M79" Vampire Weekend The words don't particularly make much sense, though there are several individual lines that seem cool. But this is one of the catchiest pop songs of the year. I particularly appreciate the general musical texture with the beats, violins and harpsichord sounds slamming right along.
29 - "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" Gnarls Barkley This lament for a lost soul has a great slow melody. It finds Cee Lo in something like Levi Stubbs territory, which is definitely his sweet spot. This also resonated beautifully over the last scene of the first season of Breaking Bad.
30 - "The Gardener" The Tallest Man on Earth This is a basic acoustic singer-songwriter deal. The song is sprightly and catchy and fairly joyful, but the lyrics wouldn't suggest that. The narrator has apparently killed a rival for the affections of the girl he's singing to, and he's using him to fertilize his lillies. But he's imagining various plants in the garden telling on him to the girl, so in this song he's come to tell her before the runner or the leek on the phone can rat him out.
I was also about equally impressed with "I Won't Be Found," which is not quite as intriguing a lyric, but probably a little catchier tune.
31 - "Down From Dover" Marianne Faithfull This comes from a double album Easy Come, Easy Go. Broadly, this finds her in jazzy arrangements as a legitimate interpreter of song. Plus, a good number of them are tunes I'm not previously familiar with - so she's not mostly picking obvious overworked standards. Some of them work better than others. I appreciate the intended idea, but I particularly don't really buy her version of "Sing Me Back Home" in particular. The whole album is worth hearing, though.
But her weary aged voice and melancholy jazz really take the story of abandonment and loss of the classic "Down from Dover" to someplace all her own. I'd take this even head to head with the excellent 2001 recording by Dolly Parton. Coming from these quarters, that's pretty high praise.
32 - "Right Now (Na, Na, Na)" Akon Akon has not previously made any impression on me, but this is an undeniable r&b pop song. The basic lyrical premise is an old standby, a plea for reconciliation with ex-girlfriend. Besides hooks, and dynamics and a strong dance beat, it also has some some real underlying emotion. Can't say that it's stylistically innovative or anything, but it sure is catchy.
33 - "Dig Two Graves" Randy Travis By now, Randy Travis is old school, and not much of a factor on modern commercial country radio. Plus, having recorded actual old-fashioned gospel albums probably further discredits him. But this simple, old fashioned country song of devotion is a beautiful little throwback to real country music. It's got quite a memorable melody, and Travis' voice is at least as strong and convincing as ever.
34 - "Consoler of the Lonely" The Raconteurs This slamming little guitar rocker gots a great little backbeat, and a slightly weary lament of a star needing a break.
35 - "Heartless" Kanye West Kanye was never much of a rapper per se. He was more of a producer, and now he's developed as an outstanding songwriter. The basic pop music chorus sells this breakup song, and the verses are more a quasi-spoken patois rather than another generic rap. This is a beautiful little piece of drama.
36 - "Korean Parents" Randy Newman In theory, this song is just racist - like Randy Newman gives a damn about such labels. The racism is, however, a positive racism - a tribute to the special outstanding qualities of Korean parenting. Then again, they're "for sale." But they're a product guaranteed to satisfy. "Look at the numbers, that's all I ask. Who's at the head of every class? Do you really think they're smarter than you? They just work their asses off, their parents make them do it." The ethereal voice of the Korean mom badgering the child over their homework is just precious, as is the whole fake Asian texture.
37 - "Cologne" Ben Folds This is a melancholy singer-songwriter piano ballad in which the humble narrator has gone to Germany to take one more crack at reconciling with his lover, and he's failed before the song begins. He's back in his hotel room musing about the crazy astronaut chick that put on a diaper so she could drive straight for 18 hours to try to kill her boyfriend. After which consideration, our narrator is thinking that maybe it's time to just let go of this. It's a beautiful big, sad ballad. The album version from Way to Normal is excellent, but even a little better with richer orchestration is the version he made for a video.
38 - "The Camel's Back" PSAPP This slow and contemplative little song shows how much sadness and quiet drama you can get out of their beloved little toy instruments. This would be a prime example of their so-called "toytronica" sound.
39 - "We Just Had Sex" Stew This short track from Stew's Passing Strange musical comes as a Broadway mambo or rhumba or some such Latin-y thing. It describes the contradictory highly self-conscious nonchalance of liberal European sexual moores. The female narrator explains how the three way sex she was just involved with is no big deal. Afterwards, they sat around smoking cigarettes and talked about probably 10 or 15 other things before anyone mentions the minor point of just having had a menage a trois.
40 - "Surfbeat, Backbeat, Frontbeat, Backseat" Born Again Floozies Again this year, we finish with an instrumental guitar composition from Joey Welch and his Born Again Floozies. Sit back and dig as Joey Welch does his patented plinky-plinky-plinky thing on the guitar.
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