It’s one more critically significant than 10!
Best-of lists are officially supposed to praise the best artistic achievements of the year. In reality, they are designed to cause validation and irritation. The validation comes from being able to positively answer questions such as: Did I buy the “coolest” or “bestest” records? Am I “in the know” culturally? Do I have the same opinions as people who get paid to do provide their opinions?
On the flip side—and where the real entertainment value lies—is the irritation these lists bring: Why did they include The Bestest, when I heard it and thought it sucked The Mostest? How could those eyeglass-wearing hipster doofus elitist cobags not recognize the brilliance of The Overlooked and their tour de force, Too Cool for the Critics to Recognize Because They’re too Busy Sucking off The Bestest? And, perhaps the greatest hit of best-of irritation: I’ve never heard of these groups.
However, I think the Internets have made the best-of list a more useful feature, especially for music, because now you can hear the songs or albums that get selected. I was trolling the Bestest List Evah, as I do every year, and I found some new songs that I had overlooked that I really liked. Even better, I got to hear some other songs that gave the irritation quotient the hat trick: I don’t know who the hell this is, and now that I’ve heard it, I don’t know why the hell they picked them over The Overlooked.
So, with that in mind, what I’m presenting here are my favorite tracks of 2008, in something resembling my favoritest order. I like them, and I like turning people on to music they might like, too.
At the same time, there’s a lot of music I missed this year, and I like when people turn me on to music I might like. Because, at the end of the year, I don’t listen to music to find validation or irritation, but to find more favorites. So lay it on me in the comments: Who were your The Bestest?
11) “Inní Mér Syngur Vitelysingur,” Sigur Rós. The irony with doing a favorite eleven is that I had no problem at all coming up with my ten favorites. Then I got stuck at eleven. I went back and forth between “Lost Verses,” by Sun Kil Moon, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” by Death Cab for Cutie, and this track by Sigur Rós.
I finally decided on Sigur Rós because they are from Iceland. Now, I realize that Iceland is actually quite green, and that Greenland is quite icy, and that this explains why the Vikings died out, because they inadvertently kept travelling to their icy deaths when they thought they were going someplace lush and green for vacation. However, there still is a lot of ice and snow in Iceland...much like there is where I live. And while the winter-inspired song I would write would be called, “Punch Me in the Nuts (So I Can Feel Something Other Than How Cold I Am),” Sigur Rós write beautiful, uplifting songs that feel like snow on Christmas...after you’ve already done all of your travelling.
10) “Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend. This one came up in the Random 11 just a short while ago. It’s one of those songs that instantly rooted itself into my brain, being both catchy and memorable. The whole album conveys the feeling of a summer full of longing, love, and loss, interspersed with parties on someone’s deck while grooving to the surprisingly good house band and drinking ice-cold Red Stripe (hoooray, beer!).
9) “Whose Authority,” Nada Surf. There is nothing quite like a great sandwich. I enjoy a night at a fancy restaurant with creative cuisine that paints a Jackson Pollack on my taste buds. But, as enjoyable as that is, there’s something uplifting about a great sandwich, when you have oven-fresh bread, crisp lettuce (that’s real lettuce, not that iceberg shit), cheese that’s just started to melt, mustard that spars with you a little, and meat that’s been cooked just enough to make sure the animal is dead but not enough to make it seem like something other than meat (vegetarians, feel free to substitute the best eggplant ever planted). Nada Surf makes those sandwiches all the time. They won’t surprise you, but then again, you’re not listening to them to be surprised. You’re listening because it’s lunchtime and you want a goddamn awesome sandwich.
8) “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” Drive-By Truckers. The Lovely Becky really, really hates the book The Lovely Bones, to the point where it became a joke among our friends to ask her if she liked the book. Part of the problem with that book is that the afterlife, and the reaction to being in it, seems completely fake. That’s not surprising, considering that no one knows what an afterlife—if there is one—will feel like.
That’s what makes the Drive-By Truckers so special. They write hi-definition lyrics that paint the most evocative pictures, to the point where you can see the blood-stained tub full of meth, smell the burning of a moonshine still deep in the woods, and even feel the sadness, shock, anger, and eventual hope of a man who just died, looking down from heaven at his two daughters and a beautiful wife.
7) “Hollow Man,” R.E.M. Accelerate was their All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and I love it for the same reason I loved U2’s album: because they managed to summon what made them awesome in the first place without sounding like an R.E.M. cover band. There’s nothing terribly original about this song, but it’s delivered with such energy and conviction that it doesn’t matter. Watching them play on The Colbert Report emphasized the point even more: they looked like they were having fun. Michael Stipe and fun—who would have thunk it?
6) “Death to Los Campesinos!” Los Campesinos. I am not a fan of bands who include their names in songs, but they managed to avoid the triple-Lindy sin of naming a song and an album after themselves (which I believe was pioneered by the thankfully-forgotten Living in a Box, who had a song and album named Living in a Box).
I am, however, a fan of Los Campesinos, because Los Campesinos are fans of fun. Every review I’ve read of them says that they are “fun,” which makes me feel unoriginal for using the same description, but it’s just too apt not to repeat. Much like Vampire Weekend, they had me from the minute I put the CD on for the first time. Even better, they manage to sound young without making me feel old, like they would invite an old guy like me to dance with them out of the goodness of their young hearts and not so they could make fun of me afterward.
5) “Kim and Jessie,” M83. Of course, I am getting older, old enough to not only know that many of the kids today are ripping off the 80s, but also to own the cassettes they’re stealing from. I can name that original chirping Casio riff in three notes.
However, I like a lot of that 80s music. Beneath the slickness and greed, there was a great deal of originality and heart if you knew where to look. “Kim and Jessie” has that heart. It’s a song that doesn’t just sound like the 80s—it is the 80s, from the synths to the drum machine to the breathy lyrics to the outro guitar solo to rock things up just a tad. It’s clearly written by someone who understands what made the great music of that decade great, making it a blast from the past that doesn’t feel retro or kitschy, just really awesome.
4) “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes. As much as I make fun of the harsh winters here, I doubt I will ever live in a place more beautiful than the Upper Peninsula. It’s one of the unfortunate rules of life that natural beauty tends to keep to itself in the middle of nowhere. If you want natural splendor, get ready to have no culture. If you want fine dining and theater, get ready to smell urine in the gutters during the summer.
Fleet Foxes could be the soundtrack for the UP and any other place that has fresh air and a million trees and people who can talk about “beaver dams” without snickering. This song in particular is a morning sunrise coming out of your speakers, and the whole album keeps that fresh air blowing into your ears.
3) “Ion Square,” Bloc Party. I love the slow build to the loud climax, where a song starts out quiet and ends sounding like it can fill an arena. That structure can always get to at least second base with me. No song followed this structure better this year—in my humble, contacts-wearing hipster doofus elitist cobag opinion—than “Ion Square.” Like the name if the album it comes from, Intimacy, it begins with a quiet, pillow-confessional quality. As the song continues, it builds, yet it never loses that intimacy, even as singer Kele Okereke belts out lines that reach not only the nosebleeds of the arena, but the guys in the parking lot who couldn’t get tickets. The kicker for me, though, is when the song grows on the low end, the bass building from a whispered conversation to a throaty rumble that counters the high vocals. This will never outgrow my car speakers.
2) “Sequestered in Memphis,” The Hold Steady. I played this song more than any other song this year. It’s got a great hook, tells a seedy story, and rocks in the way only The Hold Steady can rock. There’s a line here, She said I know I look tired/but everything’s fried/here in Memphis, that I wish I had thought of. But what really cemented it for me was that it showed some growth from one of my favorite bands.
It’s a difficult thing to figure out how to grow as a band. Too much change confuses the fans. Witness U2, R.E.M., and this year’s WTF band of the year, My Morning Jacket, who made some music that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Cameo record. Staying the same, though, leads to getting stuck in a rut (Weezer is a good recent example.) As much as I love The Hold Steady, they play the kind of music that’s high-risk rut material: guitar-driven, classic rock-influenced tales of beer-soaked woe and high school angst, with the added geographic limitation of songs locked in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
“Sequestered in Memphis” managed to avoid the rut while staying on The Hold Steady highway. It smells of the same stale smoke and desperation, but tells a new story, in a new locale, with a soundtrack that sounds just a bit more grown up. And that’s why I played this one over and over again, belting out Subpoenaed in Texas/Sequestered in Memphis all summer long...when TLB wasn’t around to make fun of my singing.
1) “Skinny Love,” Bon Iver. The first time I listened to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, I was floored. I had never heard a record that sounded so naked and bare, yet fully formed and realized. It was also haunting and yet uplifting, like a ghost who scares the shit out of you before telling you he’s just letting you know grandma is okay in heaven and, no, she can’t see what you’re doing in the bathroom.
I had that kind of moment a few years ago when I heard “Naked as We Came” by Iron and Wine, and I had it again this year when I heard “Skinny Love.” The first time I played it, I wound up playing it over and over for probably an hour. The lonely guitar, the plaintive vocals, the chorus that still crushes me, even after all those listens. The whole album is amazing, and this is its most amazing track. It’s not surprising that it was recorded in a cabin in northern Wisconsin during the winter—you can practically feel the wind blowing in and see the snow through the icy windows. If I could only play one song from 2008, it would be this.
So there we go. The Random 11 will be back January 2. I am hoping to use my time off work to finish some posts that I have been dying to write. Have a good weekend, and find some music that warms your soul during this Arctic blast.