A strange effect of being in Cuba for the first third of the year was that a lot of popular culture simply passed me by. I didn’t realize the extent to which this had happened until I was reading a number of best-of-2008 lists and was shocked by the number of albums/songs/shows/films/books I had simply never heard of. For example, I recently downloaded Bon Iver’s absolutely ethereal For Emma, Forever Ago, which landed with quite a splash last February. Guys: I really can’t emphasize enough how amazing this album is. A guy named Justin Vernon recorded the whole thing when he was holed up in a cabin in Wisconsin, and the atmosphere almost acts as an instrument in its own right. The music is intricate. The lyrics are dense, but still emotionally affecting. Vernon’s voice is a high, keening thing, delicate and sad. The album is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting. I can’t stop listening to it.
Anyway, I got to thinking what I actually was listening to last February, and that led me to think about what I listened to throughout 2008. So I thought I would write up the best music I heard this year. This is by no means a comprehensive list – a great number of genres are unrepresented. There’s no chronological sense to it – while some of these songs did come out in 2008, many came out earlier, and some came out a lot earlier. It is simply the best of what I found in 2008, sorted into a number of highly-arbitrary categories.
(By the way – if you’ve also enjoyed these songs, at any point, I’d love to hear what you have to say about them. And if you think that there’s something else I should have been listening to instead, I’d love to hear that, too.)
Hands-Down Best Song of 2008: “Oliver James” – Fleet Foxes, from Fleet Foxes (2008). When I first heard the Fleet Foxes first EP, Sun Giant, I much preferred the full-band tracks (see: the truly awesome “Mykonos”) to the sparser ones. It’s ironic, then, that my favorite song from an album full of lush songs is the quiet “Oliver James”, but the song is really almost indescribably beautiful. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, the Foxes’s vocalist Robin Pecknold sounds much older than his twenty-two years as he weaves the story of a child’s untimely drowning. The result is heartrending, and mesmerizing. Hear it here.
Best Song by a Formerly-Washed-Up Soul Singer: “I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am)” – Bettye LaVette, from The Scene of the Crime (2007). LaVette had a huge hit in 1961, then vanished for over forty years – only to return in fine form with this album, recorded with the Drive-By Truckers, a Southern rock band. The result is a weird amalgam of styles that somehow manage to meld perfectly, and this song is the best on the album. Hear it here.
Best Eight-Minute Song Built on a Single Piano Chord: “All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem, from Sound of Silver (2007). I don’t know how it works, but it does. Hear it here.
Album with the Best Staying Power: Boxer (2007), by The National. I was listening to this album constantly at the beginning of the year, and somehow I just didn’t tire of it – I was listening to it constantly at the end of the year, too. It’s strong all the way through, and I kept falling in love with different songs from the album throughout the year. It was also an album that led to a lot of shared experiences: on a car trip to the airport, I listened to the album front-to-back twice, consecutively, with my mom; a couple months later, I went to see The National play with my friends Madelyn and Erin. Of particular note are the opener, “Fake Empire”; “Brainy”; “Slow Show”; “Guest Room”; and “Ada”. Hear “Fake Empire” here.
Best Song About Writer’s Block: “There She Goes (My Beautiful World)” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from Abattoir Blues (1996). Gospel choir? Check. Lyrics referencing Karl Marx, Paul Gauguin, and others? Check. Personification of The Muse? Check. Exhilarating climax? You get the point. Hear it here.
Most Epic Song, Period: “La Poderosa Muerte” – Los Jaivas, from Alturas de Macchu Picchu. From it’s piano-and-flute intro to it’s stomping mid-section to it’s guitar-solo-and-trumpet ending, this song will blow your mind. Plus, for the Spanish speakers out there, the lyrics are by Pablo Neruda. Hear the first half here, and the second here.
Best Bluegrass Cover of a Rock Song: “Heart in a Cage” (Originally by The Strokes) – Chris Thile, from How To Grow a Woman From the Ground (2006). This song works so well as a mandolin-and-fiddle lament that you forget it was originally an angry, thumping rock song. Hear the cover here (after a minute-and-a-half long drunken rant), and the original here.
Best Bossa-Nova Cover of an Eighties Song: “Heart of Glass” (Originally by Blondie) – Nouvelle Vague, from Bande á Part (2006). Blondie’s version remains superior, but this cover, slowed down and (unlike the original) somewhat intelligible, is maybe more affecting. Hear it here, and the original here.
Best Call-to-Arms: “Wild Mountain Nation” – Blitzen Trapper, from Wild Mountain Nation (2007). I can’t listen to this song without getting goosebumps. It’s thrilling and inspiring and rocking, all at the same time. Plus, it’s got a damn groovy baseline. Hear it here.
Best Song I (Shamefully) Only Listened to Because of Freaks and Geeks: “Friend of the Devil” – The Grateful Dead, from American Beauty (1970). There’s been a lot said about this song, so all I’m going to add is: The Dead are so freakin’ lucky that they found Robert Hunter. Hear it here.
Best Classical Piano Song I’d Love to Learn: “Malaguena” – Ernesto Lecuona. I’d heard the melody of this song before – it’s been arranged for guitar many, many times, by people like Dick Dale, Roy Clark, and Buckethead – but I first heard the piano version of it on Elena Casanova’s album Recordando, which consists of solo-piano recordings of Cuban classical piano songs. It’s a tremendous piece, with runs up and down the keyboard that usually end in a thunderous crash somewhere near the bottom keys. You can hear some guy with a funny mustache play it here – it’s the best version I could find on Youtube. And you can see Casanova play another Cuban piece, “Zapateo Cubano”, here.
Best Classic Cuban Song: “Veinte Anos” – Maria Teresa Vera. In late-2007, someone found a thirty-year-old cassette tape in my grandfather’s basement, and on the very end of that tape was a distorted-but-recognizable recording of my great-grandfather, who died before I was born. He was singing this song, which was written in the forties by Maria Teresa Vera, one of the most important songwriters in Cuban history. The song was made widely-known by its inclusion on The Buena Vista Social Club’s eponymous CD, but after I heard my great-grandfather’s recording, I went and tracked down as many versions of it as I could find. My favorite is a jazzier arrangement by the legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdez, which you can hear here.
Best (And Only) Song I Actually Listen To From That Massive Doo-Wop Collection I Downloaded: “Morse Code of Love” – The Capris, originally from There’s a Moon Out Again (1982). An aging one-hit wonder doo-wop band reformed in the eighties to record this, perhaps the most perfect doo-wop song ever recorded. It’s impossible to listen to this song and not feel happy. Hear it here.
Best Song Ostensibly About English Grammar: “Oxford Comma” – Vampire Weekend, from Vampire Weekend (2008). When the original VW craze hit, I was, as I said, in Cuba, so I didn’t hear this album until late in the year. It’s easy to see what all the fuss was about, but this was really the only song I kept coming back to. Hear it here.
Angriest Kick-to-the-Face Song: “Runs in the Family” – Amanda Palmer, from Who Killed Amanda Palmer (2008). This whole album is arresting, the sort of music that you can’t listen to while you do anything else, but the second track in particular is a screaming, breathless accusation, a little scary and a little awesome. Hear it here.
Best Song with a Mariachi Trumpet Section: “Alone Again Or” – Love, from Forever Changes (1967). This song is so simple but so fantastic, and listening to it, it’s hard to believe that it was recorded over forty years ago. Hear it here.
Most Perfectly Constructed Pop Song (Perhaps of All Time): “Your Love Is The Place I Come From” – Teenage Fanclub, from Songs From Northern Britain (1997). It’s not original. The lyrics, while not bad, are average. But everything about it is perfectly made, and listening to it brings memories to mind, unbidden. Hear it here.
Best Ten-Minute-Long Electronica Song Involving a Chorus About An Animal Band: “Wham City” – Dan Deacon, from Spiderman of the Rings (2007). Like candy, this song will certainly produce nausea if consumed in excess. But also like candy, it can be delightful on occasion. Hear the first part here, and the second here.
Best Song with an Incredibly Pretentious Name: “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” – Sufjan Stevens, from Illinois (2005). For most of college I avoided Stevens almost on principle, but now, after everyone else, I’m finally coming around. This song is just lovely. Hear it here.
Best Song Based Around a Fragment of a Never-Finished Bob Dylan Song: “Wagon Wheel” – Old Crow Medicine Show, from O.C.M.S. (2004). These guys are consumnate, unapologetic old-time musicians. They were discovered busking outside a Denny’s in North Carolina by Doc Watson himself, and he got them their first record deal. They’ve got three excellent albums under their belt now, but this is still my favorite song of theirs. Hear it here.
And Finally, The Hands-Down, Best Album I heard in 2008: Furr (2008), by Blitzen Trapper. This is an unabashedly American album. Listening to it, it’s easy to hear BT’s influences, but they’re incorporated in such a way that the result feels unique in its own right, and not just the sum of its parts. It has a dark, folksy murder ballad (“Black River Killer”); a bouncing, piano-based disco ripoff (“Saturday Night”); a distorted, Prince-esque yowler (“Love U”); a genuine country song, complete with pedal-steel (“Stolen Shoes and a Rifle”); and it ends the absolutely beautiful “Lady on the Water”, which Dylan himself would have been proud to write. It has thirteen songs and absolutely no filler. It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Listen to “Black River Killer” here, and the title track here.
Whew! Thanks for reading this far. 2008 was an interesting year for me, but a pretty great one at that, and I’d like to thank everyone who made my life better by being in it. You know who you are.