Want to test how good an album really is? Try to pick a song from it that you'd like to share with your friends, to summarize why you think the album is awesome. Imagine their reactions—from the friend who's deeply into Lithuanian death-metal to the friend who unashamedly loves High School Musical. Does the song make a strong case for itself? Is it instantly catchy, yet distinctive enough in style and sound that a first-time listener would understand why you think it's special? Is it representative of the album it comes from, such that your friends won't feel ripped off if they buy the whole record based on one great song? I'm not saying that the mark of good music is that it be broadly accessible, but if you've gone through an entire album and can't find a single track that's share-worthy, you should at least ask yourself why you like the album so much.
I can't promise that the 30 songs below all meet the criteria I just established. Some of these songs are abstract, some noisy, some openly yearning, and some doggedly retro—all in ways that I can imagine might be off-putting to people with different tastes than mine. But taken together, they provide a fairly accurate sketch of what I've found exciting and promising in the crop of 2008 albums I've been listening to since October 1—as well as a fair summary of where my head is at when it comes to contemporary music.
Exclusion from this list is not necessarily an indicator of disapproval. There are some '08 albums I like a lot that just don't pass the test I laid out in my opening paragraph, and some good albums by old favorites who don't resonate as much for me in the context of what's happening now, on the cusp of a new year. For that matter, there are songs on this list from albums about which I have significant qualms, yet I included them anyway because they're terrific songs, and they represent some of what I'm looking for in music going forward. Mostly, I tried to come up with a list that contains a decent mix of genres and moods, though I inevitably fell back on what I enjoy the most: hooky, guitar-based rock music that respects the past, reaches for the future, and expresses something personal.
So, in alphabetical order, and with a reminder that I've only been listening to this year's music for a couple of months, here are my 30 favorite songs of 2008:
British Sea Power, "Trip Out"
After all my jabbering about the importance of strong songwriting, here's a track that would sound pretty pointless if someone just stood in front of a crowd with an acoustic guitar and plucked it out. Like most of the songs on Do You Like Rock Music?, "Trip Out" is all about the happening. It's a moment in time—an experience—recreated in a studio. "Trip Out" probably wasn't recorded live, but it has that feeling of personal interaction between musicians and a crowd, as they goose each other and build anticipation. Also of particular appeal to me, the drums in this song are practically a lead instrument, shifting from sudden fills to eruptive rat-a-tat.
Cheap Time, "Glitter And Gold"
Like Reigning Sound's Too Much Guitar, Cheap Time's self-titled debut LP cranks up garage-rock and power-pop until the needles threaten to hit 190 degrees. Not all the songs on Cheap Time merit the push-'til-it-hurts treatment, but the album as a whole is undeniably exciting—all fuzzed-out, yet easy to howl along with. And when the band stomps and taunts through "Glitter And Gold," the style fuses triumphantly with the substance.
Conor Oberst, "Moab"
I'm still not sure why Oberst decided not to drop the Bright Eyes name this year, given that his first "solo album" sounds not terribly different from everything else he's recorded over the past half-decade. I still like Oberst, but he needs to push himself more, and risk overreaching—otherwise, he's just a talented troubadour unworthy of fierce devotion. That said, though Conor Oberst is a spotty record, this song is one of Oberst's best, a full-bodied West Coast country-rock number with a catchy chorus that doubles as a plea: "There's nothing that the road cannot heal."
Constantines, "Brother Run Them Down"
I've read some grumbling that Constantines' latest LP, Kensington Heights, is more contemplative and plodding than their previous two ragers, but while I don't love it as much as I do Tournament Of Hearts or Shine A Light, I can't find much fault with it, either. And I do appreciate the sound of the record, which echoes and chimes like a windy alley at midnight. "Brother Run Them Down" is one of the rare punchy, hooky tracks on Kensington Heights, but it speaks to the same exhaustion that pervades the rest of the record, and offers its own skewed kind of sympathy and reassurance.
I'm catching a vibe halfway between My Bloody Valentine and Pavement emitting from Deerhunter's Microcastle, and while there are countless ways that combination could go wrong—too pointlessly noisy, say, or too willfully slack—Deerhunter pulls it together by shooting for something like beauty. Microcastle gets a little dreary in the middle, but at the finish and the start—especially at the start, with songs like the winsome "Agoraphobia," with its mumbly call for salvation—the album hums along winningly.
Drive-By Truckers, "Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife"
After Brighter Than Creation's Dark, I'm ready to call Drive-By Truckers more or less infallible. They've made albums I've liked more than others, but they've yet to make a completely bum LP, and while Patterson Hood in particular can get too comfortable with his twangy rural tragedies, the band's overall poise makes the hicksploitation completely credible, and even stirring. This song—a compact sketch of the aftermath of violence—putters along, haunting listeners with Hood's heartrending vision of heaven: "Maybe every day is Saturday morning… two daughters and a beautiful wife."
Eric Matthews, "Radio Boy"
After disappearing for a decade, Matthews now seems determined never to go away again, and to be honest, though The Imagination Stage may be the best record Matthews has released since the comeback, there's an element of diminishing returns to his very samey-sounding songs. Still, it's great that The Imagination Stage finds Matthews returning to the fuller sound of his '90s records, and great that he's still capable of a song as stunningly beautiful (and, I admit, painfully earnest) as this rumination on what happens when a musician gets too popular.
Fleet Foxes, "White Winter Hymnal"
As I wrote last week, I'm mildly dismayed by how much Fleet Foxes sounds like My Morning Jacket and Band Of Horses, minus the rock punch that makes those bands so impressive. But again, that dismay is only mild. Fleet Foxes' songs are just so doggone pretty—perfect for an afternoon nap or driving slowly toward the horizon at sunrise.
The Gaslight Anthem, "Miles Davis & The Cool"
It took me a spin or two to get used to the pop-punk polish and relentlessly anthemic nature of The '59 Sound, but I kept returning because the songs are so catchy—like Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A. as recorded by The Bouncing Souls. The Gaslight Anthem are actively trying to move their listeners, and while I can imagine that some might find their bold-faced sincerity overwrought, it's exactly what I'm looking for these days: well-written songs played simply and energetically, with a strong element of uplift. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth time through The '59 Sound, I felt the biggest pang of regret I've yet had during this project. If I hadn't been working on Popless, I could've been listening to The Gaslight Anthem all year. What a pity.
Gentleman Jesse, "Black Hole"
I have the same problem with Gentleman Jesse's Introducing that I have with a lot of retro-styled power-pop: I find that that most of the songs on the record sound good superficially, but are too one-note and sugary to reward close listening. Nevertheless, "Black Hole" is a blast no matter how many times I hear it. From the chunky guitars to the sly backbeat, "Black Hole" advances the cause of power-pop as the only appropriate soundtrack for adolescent abandon.
Gnarls Barkley, "Who's Gonna Save My Soul"
The Odd Couple is a decidedly moodier record than St. Elsewhere, but it's also more cohesive and better-realized. "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" is indicative of what the album does so well, combining familiar genre elements—gospel shouting, Brazilian lounge music, trip-hop—into something delicately textured and absolutely riveting.
The Hold Steady, "Constructive Summer"
Stay Positive doesn't represent much of an advance over the previous three Hold Steady albums, but it's definitely not a step down either, and if the band wants to settle into a groove of releasing "annual reminder(s) that we can all be something bigger," you're not going to catch me complaining. By an accident of the alphabet, "Constructive Summer" offers a nice rejoinder to Gnarls Barkley just above. Who's going to save our souls? "Raise a toast to saint Joe Strummer."
Jay Reatard, "Let It All Go"
There was way too much Reatard in '08 for me to make sense of it all, and since I wasn't previously aware of Jay Lindsey's half-dozen other bands and solo projects, it's going to take a while for me to get up to speed and figure out where I stand. In a nutshell, I'd say that I'm not entirely convinced that Lindsey's prolific nature serves his music all that well, though the preponderance of memorable melodies and exuberant sound on Jay Reatard's two '08 singles collections is clearly indicative of an artist working at such a peak that he's unwilling to stem the tide, even when leaves behind a lot of flotsam. Can't say I blame him, actually.
Langhorne Slim, "Rebel Side Of Heaven"
Reading up on '08 music, I've learned that even the few critics who wrote about Langhorne Slim's eponymous LP tended to complain that it's less raucous than his earlier records, which is arguably true. But oh man, those songs! "Rebel Side Of Heaven" has a corny chorus, but it's fun to hum with and it sticks in the head, which is not something I'd say about the majority of songs I've heard this year.
Los Campesinos!, "My Year In Lists"
Not to toot my own horn, but when I heard the Los Campesinos! debut EP back in July of '07, I recognized the greatness immediately, writing, "The much-blogged-about Welsh indie-pop band Los Campesinos gets a proper introduction to North America with the EP Sticking Fingers Into Sockets, which compiles both sides of the band's first two singles and adds a kicky, statement-of-purpose cover of Pavement's 'Frontwards.' Given Los Campesinos' skewed sense of humor, as well as their preference for glockenspiels and fiddles, the band appears to have more in common with Brakes and I'm From Barcelona than with Steven Malkmus. But they clearly know a grand melody when they hear it, and for all the twee trappings, Los Campesinos is surprisingly aggressive. Somewhere, in some college dorm, someone just discovered a new favorite band." I haven't heard the latest album—I'm waiting until my eMusic subscription kicks in for December—but Hold On Now, Youngster… offers plenty to unpack, from the half-dozen hooks the band introduces and dispatches in each song to the lyrics that read like notes to ex-lovers, scrawled in haste. What more apt song could I choose from Youngster than this two-minute indie-pop version of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity?
M83, "Kim & Jessie"
As a fan of M83's earlier song-suites, I probably had too-high expectations for Saturdays=Youth, which has been described as the band's homage to '80s pop, and specifically to the wall-of-sound aesthetic that enveloped the British scene in the post-U2 era. I appreciate that Saturdays=Youth stays in the familiar M83 suite mode, but I can't help noting that most of the album's songs can't stand up to the music they're meant to honor. Saturdays=Youth's exercises in lush technopop are, by and large, too conventional, and not as deliriously poppy. But there are wonderful exceptions, like "Kim & Jessie," which sounds like Simple Minds filtered through My Bloody Valentine.
Mudcrutch, "Crystal River"
I can dig the impulse that led Tom Petty to revive one of his old bands and pick right up as though the last 35 years hadn't happened, as though there was still a place in this world for proficiently played Southern rock, outside of dank clubs in mid-sized cities. But I wish the songs on Mudcrutch were better. Or maybe I just wish they were all as good as "Crystal River," a stone beauty that establishes a mystical mood and then extends it, as though understanding that there's no need to hurry off this winding, wonder-filled path.
My Morning Jacket, "Two Halves"
I was disappointed to find out firsthand that Evil Urges is nowhere near as compact or focused as Z, but the extra space does give My Morning Jacket more room to experiment: sometimes disastrously, as on the aptly named "Highly Suspicious," and sometimes gloriously, as on the rumbly retro-rocker "Two Halves."
I wrote last week that I'm not as keen on abrasion as I was when I was younger, but when smartly executed, songs that sound like waking nightmares can be highly effective. The alarming pastiche of sounds in "Plastic"—which sounds like a recurring dream of wartime—is so arresting and unnerving that it always makes me double-check my browser to make sure I didn't leave a YouTube video running.
R.E.M., "Mr. Richards"
At the risk of sounding like a hopeless fogey, I have to say that I love the new R.E.M. album. I wasn't entirely convinced by the rave reviews Accelerate received earlier this year, because to me the problem with the last couple of R.E.M. records wasn't that they were dabbling in different sounds, but that their songwriting just wasn't up to snuff. I don't know what snapped these dudes back to attention, but Accelerate is genuinely enjoyable from start to finish, with songs that are nimble and invigorating. And while listening to it over the past couple of months, I've developed a renewed appreciation for Michael Stipe, who provides the bulk of the texture and shape of free-flowing rock songs like "Mr. Richards." Take away Stipe's voice—or replace him with any other vocalist—and the song would be merely serviceable. Add Stipe to the mix, and it becomes classic R.E.M.
The Rosebuds, "Bow To The Middle"
It's probably not fair to call The Rosebuds' Like Life a comeback, because they've really only made one iffy album (following two very good ones). But given how fleeting inspiration can be in alt-rock, I'd pretty much steeled myself to the idea that the band I once saw such promise in had moved into the affectation-and-doodling phase of their career. But Like Life restored my confidence. It's as tight and tuneful as Make Out, as evidenced by "Bow To The Middle," a bright, jaunty sing-along flavored with just the right accent of bitterness.
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, "Like Yesterday"
As with just about every other Ryan Adams album of the last five years, my initial reaction to Cardinology was somewhat deflated. I felt like it was a disappointing return to superficiality for a singer-songwriter whose gifts come so easy to him that he often doesn't pay them the proper respect. Three or four spins later, I'm ready to say that Cardinology is as good as Easy Tiger, Love Is Hell, Cold Roses—all the greats. Just listen to "Like Yesterday," a song that introduces a new melodic idea every half-minute, all in service of a wistful, gracious meditation on how painful change can be.
Starling Electric, "The St. Valentines Day Massacre"
"The St. Valentines Day Massacre" is the opening song of Starling Electric's two-year-old self-released LP Clouded Staircase (reissued by Bar-None in '08), and thus the first song I'd ever heard by this band, whom I came to for reasons I can't recall. (Did one of you readers recommend them, or was I just swayed by the review on eMusic?) After I got over the initial shock of how much "The St. Valentines Day Massacre" sounds like Guided By Voices, I began to hear how much better-crafted this is than the typical Robert Pollard tune. The playing is more proficient, the arrangement more purposeful. That isn't a knock on GBV; just a note on how Starling Electric set themselves apart. They're all about cohesion, not entropy.
Subtle, "The No"
I'm running hot and cold on TV On The Radio's Dear Science, which I'll think is brilliant one moment and clamorous the next. On the whole, I'm sure Dear Science is probably a superior record to Subtle's science-fiction alt-rap record Exiting Arm, with which it has some sonic similarities. But on the simplest level, I think songs like "The No" are more immediately effective than TV On The Radio's keep-piling-on-the-sound approach to Dear Science. Though Exiting Arm is plenty ambitious too, it's playing to a select audience, unlike TVOTR's mainstream push. Subtle has less to lose. But that doesn't make "The No" any less magnificent.
Sun Kil Moon, "Tonight In Bilbao"
The first two Sun Kil Moon albums seemed to signal a maturing Mark Kozelek, now recording songs that were fuller and more purposeful than the oft-rambling Red House Painters. April, though, is clearly a stylistic retreat for Kozelek, sounding a lot like an album's worth of outtakes from RHP's Old Ramon, right down to the little martial drum fills running under the intricately woven guitars. So in terms of advancing the art, April is a disappointment. But in terms of being a well-modulated, often gorgeous album, April works just fine. And "Tonight In Bilbao" in particular gives me what I expect from Kozelek: a lengthy, mesmerizing song designed to establish a mood and then pull the listener in, one twangy pluck at a time.
Throw Me The Statue, "About To Walk"
I stumbled across Throw Me The Statue while perusing Amazon's best-of-'08 list a few weeks ago, and saw them again while scanning down eMusic's list of recommended-for-you New Releases, which convinced me to take a chance on them. To a significant extent, bands like this—from their stupid name to their twee, lo-fi sound—are exactly what I'm trying to move away from with my future music-listening. But bandleader Scott Reitherman has an unusual approach to melody, and he writes lyrics that stick. "About To Walk" is the good kind of indie: casual yet tuneful, with a modicum of quirk, but not so much that the oddball-itude becomes the whole point.
The Ting Tings, "That's Not My Name"
I'll admit that about two-thirds of We Started Nothing is annoying in the extreme, but as with Santogold, M.I.A., and other acts that straddle the line between hip-hop, indie-pop, and cheerleader-rock, The Ting Tings have a sound that can be ridiculously exciting when the song's just right. The combination of jump-rope chanting, clap-along beats, cooing background vocals, and gradual build really pushes "That's Not My Name" past the level of superficially kicky and into the realm of genuinely alive. This is the kind of song that makes me wish I belonged to a gym.
Vampire Weekend, "Campus"
Too much has been written both in favor of and against Vampire Weekend, given how fundamentally slight—yet genuinely entertaining—the songs on their debut album are. When I finally heard Vampire Weekend, I was surprised it had drawn so much ire. The record is so lively, unassuming, and easy to enjoy, even if at times it sounds like the blueprint for the better album that the band might make someday. Vampire Weekend reminds me a lot of Spoon's Telefono: It's a good album, with a few standout songs and a lot of promise. But it's Telefono, you know? It ain't yet Girls Can Tell.
The Walkmen, "Postcards From Tiny Islands"
You & Me takes The Walkmen's "Clinic plays Bob Dylan" sound even further into spookville, maintaining basically one tone from start to finish, with occasional bursts of excitement like this livewire mood piece—a song that manages to be simultaneously tuneless and yet far, far from forgettable. I'm not sure where The Walkmen can go with this approach next, but they haven't made any major mistakes so far. If anything, their albums get more impressive each time out, as they become the sole masters of being The Walkmen.
The Week That Was, "The Good Life"
I will miss Field Music if they have indeed dissolved, but so long as FM's members continue on in different configurations, I have little reason to gripe. I wasn't that wild about the Field Music offshoot School Of Language, but The Week That Was' debut album upholds the best Field Music tradition, with all the chimes, harmonies, disjointed rhythms, and fascination with the everyday that made FM one of my favorite new bands of the past five years.
Also listened to: Abe Vigoda, American Music Club, American Princes, Beck, The Black Keys, Bon Iver, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Chris Walla, The Clientele, Coldplay, David Byrne & Brian Eno, Death Cab For Cutie, Deerhoof, Destroyer, The Dirtbombs, The Duke Spirit, Elkhart, Evangelicals, Frightened Rabbit, Future Of The Left, Girl Talk, Headlights, Human Bell, Jack Peñate, Kaki King, Kings Of Leon, The Kooks, Lambchop, Lil' Wayne, The Little Ones, The Low Anthem, The Magnetic Fields, Marah, Mates Of State, MGMT, The Mountain Goats, Nada Surf, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Parenthetical Girls, Ra Ra Riot, Retribution Gospel Choir, Santogold, School Of Language, She & Him, Sigur Ros, Sloan, Snow Patrol, Spiritualized, Stephen Malkmus, Stereolab, Times New Viking, Titus Andronicus, Tokyo Police Club, TV On The Radio, Vivian Girls, Wale, Washington Social Club, The Wedding Present and Wolf Parade
And that's all, folks. See you back in the regular review section in '09.