Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008: A Year in Music [Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year]

We'll continue the 2008 countdown with a list of my top 10 songs of 2008. As with my lists from previous years, songs can only appear in this list if I own them legitimately on CD, and they were from an album that was released this year. Considering that I haven't purchased a huge amount of CDs from this year, some artists are included more than once.

10. You Am I - Beau geste [Link removed]

This was one of the few tracks from Dilettantes which lived up to the great reviews that were being bandied around various music publications. It starts with a few repeated guitar strums interspersed with what sounds like Tim Rogers sighing in relief, possibly after farting. That last bit was speculative, but I like my interpretation.

All said and done, this is one of the most melodic You Am I songs since the Deliverance album. And melody is something which has been sorely lacking in their recent output. Musically, the song has a nice groove to it; punctuated with moments of silence and reprises of the opening riff, it surprises with an atmospheric mid-section which adds a significant amount of interest to the body of the song. I haven't really interpreted (or even read) the lyrics, and the only bits I remember are repeats of the phrase You're the best.

It's a bit of a pity that the rest of the album, bar a few exceptions, didn't live up to the promise of this song.

9. Elbow - Starlings [Link removed]

Some piano tinkling for a few seconds, followed by the low frequency of a bass drum, and then the always pleasant sound of Guy Garvey's crooning. Just before we reach the minute mark, a blast of brass almost literally scares the shit out of the listener. A mere twenty seconds later, the listener is blasted again. Shortly after, we get the opening lyric of the album:

How dare the Premier ignore my invitations?

It's pretty clear at this point that Elbow are a little bit different from your average 2008 British indie band, and I mean that in the best possible way. There's obviously the quirky lyrical element, as illustrated above. But more importantly, there's the musical element.

I'm probably sounding a bit like a broken record with my discussions of loudness and dynamics, but this song is a perfect example of how a wide dynamic range can make music so much more exciting. This song builds up from minimalistic beginnings, building up over the course of its 5 minutes to an amazing climax that blows the listener away.

Elbow have always had a fairly quirky opening song on their albums, but none has lured me into the album as much as this eccentric little number.

8. Augie March - The slant [Link removed]

Their last album Moo, you bloody choir had a great song on it called Bottle baby. It was one of my favourite songs of 2006.

The slant is the Bottle baby of their new album. I'm not sure why it reminds me of that song, but I think it's in Glenn Richard's amazing vocals and how they stand out from the rest of the album by completely inhabiting the character of the song. The lyrics tell a story from the perspective of a petty thief who (accidentally?) murdered a 16-year-old boy and was sent to jail.

Musically, it's a fairly simple folk song in the tradition of Sunstroke house from Strange bird. It's one of the few songs from the new album that sounds like it could have been included on one of their first two albums, and this gives me hope that they haven't completely abandoned their more experimental sound in favourite of slick and sometimes powerful (see #3) indie pop numbers.

7. Brian Wilson - Southern California
[Link removed]

The closing track from the superb album That lucky old sun is quite similar to the rest of the album - it has the trademark Brian Wilson melody, and is very much seeped in nostalgia. What elevates it above many of the other songs on the album is the poignancy of the lyrics:

I had this dream
Singing with my brothers
In harmony
Supporting each other
Tailwinds, rear spin,
Down the Pacific coast
Surfing on the end
Heard those voices again

This is Brian Wilson looking back at his days in the early 60s, performing in the Beach Boys with his brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, now both sadly deceased. Lyrically, it's simultaneously sad, touching and idealistic. And Brian shows why he is one of the greatest composers of the past 50 years by marrying the lyrics to a beautiful piano-based melody.

Just when you think you know where the song is heading, the whoa whoa whoa it's magical bit that kicks in just after the two minute mark adds a beautiful counter-point which is reprised later in the song. The last thirty seconds is made up of (yet another) reprise of the title track, bringing the album to a close. A gorgeous song.

6. Elvis Costello - American gangster time [Link removed]

It's interesting to note that for an artist who has reinvented himself successfully so many times over the course of his career, my favourite songs on his latest album Momofuku were those in which he emulated the raw rock 'n' roll sound of his classic early years.

Vocals notwithstanding (his voice has definitely changed over the past 30 years), this track could quite easily be mistaken for a This year's model outtake. The Imposters emulate the Attractions sound to perfection, which isn't particularly surprising considering that 3/4 of the Attractions are also Imposters.

Steve Nieve's stabbing organ chords, Elvis' lyrics, the rawness of the production (the album was recorded in only a couple of weeks), the fun it sounds like they're all having - it's all here on what is sure to be remembered as a classic Elvis tune from this era.

5. R.E.M. - Supernatural superserious [Link removed]

"Everybody here, comes from somewhere" sings Michael Stipe on the opening of this song, the first single released from Accelerate, and a classic R.E.M. song. This is a return to the sound of some of their anthems on the I.R.S. label in the early 80s, before they went major label on Green.

It's simply a fantastic pop song, nothing more and nothing less. There's some great trademark backing vocals from Mike Mills on the refrain "And you cried and you cried" which is about as close as this song gets to a chorus.

Unfortunately the compressed mix lets the song down a bit, but that's only a small gripe. R.E.M. haven't rocked this hard since New adventures in hi-fi.

4. Oasis - The shock of the lightning [Link removed]

Ever since Be here now, Oasis have followed a fairly standard pattern when it comes to releasing the debut single from their new album. They have released a song which is pretty much Oasis-by-numbers, ignoring some of the subtle new directions they have explored on each new album, giving the impression to the casual radio listener that they have remained pretty stagnant over the past decade. See Do you know what I mean?, Go let it out, The hindu times and Lyla for some textbook examples of this. This song, the debut single from Dig out your soul, follows this tradition.

The truth of the matter is that Oasis have only released 2 classic albums (Definitely maybe and Morning glory) and 1 classic compilation (The masterplan). With each album it's become pretty clear that while they still have some amazing moments on their post-MG albums, they also have a helluva lotta filler as well.

All said and done, this is a great song which ticks all the boxes about what a great Oasis song should be. Beatles-esque fade-in? Check. Easy to remember singalong chorus? Check ("Come in, come out tonight"). Obvious Beatles lyrical reference? Check ("A magical mystery").

It's a bleeding obvious Oasis song, but it happens to be one of the best ones they have released in many years. And it's one of their few songs from this decade which manages to capture the youthful exhuberance of Definitely maybe.

3. Augie March - Lupus [Link removed]

Watch be disappear is easily the most accessible Augie March album to date, their stab at commercial success if you will. While initial reviews made me a little concerned that they had sold out, after purchasing the album I soon found out that it wasn't so much a sellout as a refinement of their sound. While previous albums did little to hide its experimental sound, the new album was built around some amazing pop songs like this one.

It takes about 17 seconds for the guitar riff to make its first appearance in the song, and it soon becomes the foundation of one of the catchiest songs of their career. The structure of the song is fairly simple: 3 line verse, 2 line chorus, repetition of the introductory guitar figure. Throw in a few amazing chord changes in key parts of the song, and it quickly ascends into the heavens.

I'm not sure if this song will help them achieve the commercial success they deserve, but every time I listen to it, it makes me happy. What more can you ask of a song?

It was all I ever do...

2. Al Green - Lay it down
[Link removed]

I started getting into old-skool R&B and soul music in a big way in 2008. It's interesting to note than one of my favourite R&B albums was released this year by an old performer showing that he still had lots of new tricks up his sleeve.

This song, the opening and title track of the Reverend's new album, is an amazing slow burner of a song. At the age of 62, Al Green still shows that he has "it" - the verses are all his, simultaneously smooth and showing the grittiness of his age, while Anthony Hamilton backs him up on the gorgeous refrain.

This is a sensational track that would be considered a classic even if it had been released in the 60s or 70s, during the golden age of soul and R&B.

1. Brian Wilson - Midnight's another day [Link removed]

The first 20 seconds is made up of some beautiful piano playing which would be the highlight of a song by a lesser artist. In the case of this masterful song, it doesn't even hint at what's about to come next.

This is one of the finest songs that Brian Wilson has written; from a purely emotional perspective, it's up there with some of the finer moments on Pet sounds. My interpretation of the lyrics are Brian Wilson dealing with his well-publicised bout with mental illness, shrouding the song in sadness.

While his vocals have nowhere near the range they did in the late 60s, they suit the lyrical theme perfectly - here is a man who is one of the greatest songwriters and performers of the 20th century looking back at his struggles and finally coming to terms with his life.

Musically, the song builds and builds, and then builds further. It's an epic song, one which is simultaneously longing for the past and hopeful for the future.

With the unfortunate number of bands and artists who are over-hyped by money-hungry record companies, it's so refreshing to see one of the elder statesmen of pop music show that he still has what it takes to write a song as gorgeous as this, my favourite song of 2008.

Update: Song links removed.


  1. I love your end-of-year posts; keep 'em coming!!

    And thanks for the reminder - I have to check out Brian Wilson and Al Green's albums...

  2. The Slant - convict in tasmania, cutting down pine trees, kills other convict so that he will be sent to the gallows.

    Catholics have this thing that if you commit suicide you will never be accepted into heaven, so you murder somebody instead so that they are executed.

    The drones mention it in one of their songs - Sixteen Straws - I think that's what it's called :)

  3. @Sam - thanks for the clarification. Quite often I interpret lyrics wrong, and in this case I probably didn't listen to or read them properly.

    I have the Drones' album Gala Mill, and Sixteen Straws is a fantastic song, probably the best on the album.


Sing some harmonies here: