The Year in Music 2008:We Gotta Stay Positive


“We could flood the streets with love or light or heat whatever”

–  MGMT, The Youth

“Fuck talkin’ bout the recession,

That shit’s depressing.”

–  Jay-Z, Jocking Jay-Z

“Cause it’s one thing to start it with a positive jam

And it’s another thing to see it on through”

– Hold Steady, Stay Positive

Let’s face it.  Lists and rankings of art are silly, arbitrary and meaningless.  As an aesthetic guide, they’re about as useful as giving a letter grade to colors of the spectrum or making a top ten list of fruit.

So, how can I possibly justify making a top 40 songs of the year list?

I can’t, really.  But if I had to speculate, I’d say I love doing these for the same reason wildlife scientists shoot bears with tranquilizers and staple ID tags in their ear.   It’s an easy, if inelegant, way of keeping track of a moving object – the objects in this instance being culture and society.  We can look back at the 70’s and read about Watergate and the hostage crisis and deflation and get some idea what was going on.  But we’d probably glean just as much information about who we were back then – and have a lot more fun – watching the Godfather, listening to the BeeGees or reading Breakfast of Champions.

So what does music tell us about ourselves in 2008?  The overwhelming sentiment seems to be one of extremely cautious optimism.  There’s a schizophrenic mood out there : we don’t know whether we’re walking on a bright new path of possibility and renewal or teetering on the edge of an ever-widening abyss.  So many songs this year deal with youth and hope – an obsession that seems all the more remarkable considering many of them were recorded before the primaries were even through.  But it’s a hard-earned hope, tinged with the pain of the past and a gathering fear of the problems our greed and ignorance may cause for us in the not-too-distant future.  Maybe you can hear all of this angst and struggle in the music, the plaintive wail of history-happening-now fighting to make itself heard through the din of drums and voices. 

Or maybe they’re just some random tunes I like?



In which I try my damndest to write about music on the internet without using the words overrated, hype, buzz, backlash or bandwagon.

*Your mileage may vary*

(Zip files of all 40 tracks Pt. 1 and Pt. 2)

1)   Let The Beat Build | Lil’ Wayne

from “Carter III”

Perhaps preemptively atoning for his own Auto-Tune abortion of an album, Kanye creates what may be the beat of his career here.   He deftly slices up a five second vocal section of Eddie Kendricks “Day by Day” and loops it into a swirling gospel maelstrom that doesn’t even bother with drums until after the first verse, and in the process redefines exactly what a hip-hop beat can be.

And I’m a take it one two way back

Like a silk wife beater and a wave cap

or the wave pool at Blue Bayou

and I waved, fool, as I blew by you.”

As for Wayne, it’s obvious Carter III isn’t his lyrical high point.  Hell, Wayne’s mixtape classic Sportscenter alone has more quotables than the entirety of Carter III.  The pressures and formality of the studio don’t play to his improvisational strengths, and so he ends up with an unholy hybrid of genius and garbage.  I shudder thinking that most people now know him mainly from “Lollipop”.  But having said that, there are at least four or five classics on the album, and this is the one I keep coming back to.  Wayne is maddeningly inconsistent, but he’s still the most interesting thing in music right now to me (and others).  When it comes to rap, I’d have to agree with his sentiment on another track on this list: 

“Like, was you saying something, Miss?

You ain’t talking bout nothing you ain’t talking bout this”

2) Stay Positive | The Hold Steady

from “Stay Positive”

Initial reaction to this group is usually “Who’s that doing a bad Rock Band version of a lost Springsteen track?”  But getting past Craig Finn’s, err, “unique” voice and their hard-on for musty radio forms, it becomes clear that that The Hold Steady spins musical gold from leaden classic rock clichés.  In this exuberant anthem, Finn takes a break from his favorite fixation (a genre we could call “My Junkie Girlfriend”), and waxes nostalgic about fans and the road.  But not without noting some ill omens up the road:

“There’s gonna come a time when the scene will seem less sunny.

It’ll probably get druggy and the kids’ll seem too skinny.

There’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go

with whoevers gonna get her the highest.

There’s gonna come a time when the true scene leaders

forget where they differ and get Big Picture.

Cause the kids at their shows, they’ll have kids of their own

the sing-a-long songs’ll be our scriptures…”

3)   Teenagers | Department of Eagles

from “In Ear Park”

This persistent earworm has utterly prevented me from listening to the entirety of In Ear Park like I should.  I can’t figure the damn thing out, and that’s half the fun.  Is it a drowzy drinking song on a ghost ship or the house music to the bar in Jack Nicholson’s head in The Shining?  Dave Eggers has a theory that we listen to songs over and over to try to “solve them” somehow.  If that’s true, I’ll be on this case for a while.


4)   Shove It  | Santogold

From “Santogold”

Santi White shakes off obvious comparisons to M.I.A. with a confident set of songs that cannibalizes every style under the sun and still retains her stamp.  This track is indicative of her default pose: self-consciously reflective of her artistic process and defiant towards those who would deny her ambitions and talent.  It’s the latter group that the title command is aimed at:


”I hear them all say

that I got heart
but not everything that it takes.

Taint my mind, but not my soul

Tell you I got fire
I won’t sell it for no payroll.

Let ’em hold me down.

I know if I know another way,

I can look the other way”


5)   No Pause | Girl Talk

From “Feed The Animals”

With Feed the Animals, Greg Gillis moves from House Party Novelty Act to genuine top-shelf producer.  The dance-floor deconstructionist fine-tunes his act here, and this is the apex of his efforts.  Actually, it’s the end of a three “song” cycle that serves as the tent pole of Girl Talk’s raucous circus.  Jay-Z glides through Radiohead, Missy bounces over Nu Shooz, Public Enemy attacks Heart: all of it happens so effortlessly you forget it wasn’t made that way.

And that, really, is his trophy at the end of the day.  He takes songs you love and songs you hate, severs them from any connective emotional tissue and sense memory, and fuses them in bizarre new ways you can’t help but giddily accept.  In a time of scarcity and want, we could do worse than to have such an adept recycler as a leading artistic light.


6)   The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance  | Vampire Weekend

From “Vampire Weekend”

Blogs: Listen to these guys RIGHTNOWRIGHTNOWTHEBESTEVA!!!1111

Me: OK, calm down, Hoss.  Wait, you’re right – this isn’t that ba….


Me: ???

Anyway, it’s a great album to jog to.  This is the slow song at the end for when you’re done and you need to cool down.  People need to find more important stuff to get worked up about, methinks.


7)   The Youth | MGMT

From “Oracular Spectacular”

The Bowie album Bowie should be making right now.  I could have easily picked three or four others off the, for lack of a better word, spectacular Oracular for this spot, but this generation’s version of “Oh, You Pretty Things!” felt most in the spirit of the times:


“The youth are starting to change

Are you starting to change?

Are you?

To gather together to gather together…”


 8)   Paint Silver Gold | White Denim

From “Workout Holiday”

It’s kind of an unfair advantage for an indie-rock band to be from Austin, but I’ll cut them some slack.  White Denim throw garage rock and blues tropes into a blender and yank out an amazing set of jittery insanity.  They’re the dusty old hot rod in the back of the garage held together with chicken wire and spit that might just surprise you when it starts off the line on race day…

9)   Street Trash | Tobacco

From “Fucked Up Friends”

Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. This is that grimy futuristic shit, that Blade Runner scored by El-P shit, that what Wall-E would sound like if he got tired of taking everybody’s crap and started wailing on motherfuckers with a chainsaw shit.

Best electronic album of the year, hands down. 

10) Honey | Erykah Badu

From “New Amerykah Pt. 1:4th World War

A beat for a song called “Honey” had better be sticky-sweet and tasty, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Neither does Badu, on this lead single from her excellent (if regrettably titled) collection.  While Lauren Hill is off mumbling to herself in a padded room, Erykah is laying claim to her throne, and seducing all the spare boys in the meantime.  I love the use of street vernacular in her come-hither siren song:

“So tell me Slim, what’s it gonna be?

It don’t be like this usually.

When it come to that “What It Do?”

I don’t fall for that “woop-tee-woo”


11) Inni mer syngur vitleysingur | Sigor Ros

From “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust”

Dear Sig (can I call you Sig?),

Thanks so much for singing in your made-up language.  The lyrics in my head about gorillas and spaceships and Spiro Agnew are way more fun than anything y’all could’ve come up with.  Also, props for finally making a song that I don’t have to be on Ambien to appreciate.



12) Sentimental Heart | She and Him

From “Volume One”

This irresistible collection of country-coated pop confections and inspired covers with M.Ward makes it nearly possible to forgive Zooey Deschanel for appearing in The Happening and Yes Man.  Almost.

Maybe by Volume Two?

13) “With a Heavy Heart (I Regret to Inform You)” | Does it Offend You, Yeah?

From “You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into

A warning: this song triggers involuntary head-bang, mosh-kick crazyman dancing (it’s a thing now) at about the one-minute mark. The people at Crate and Barrel do not appreciate this – take it from me.

Sidenote:  This takes the place of Hot Chip, who had the Angry Dancing spot locked until recently with “Shake a Fist”.  Whoops.  Better luck next year, guys.

Sidenote to the sidenote: They would’ve been much higher except for their stupid, stupid, stupid name which I can’t help but pronounce in an Austin Powers accent.  Ugh.

14) Took My Lady Out to Dinner | King Khan and the Shrines

From “The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines”

Q: Isn’t it cheating to put a reissue on a best of 2008 list?

A: Shaddup, is good, just listen.

It’s like a song that would be in a Guy Ritchie trailer, but without having to watch one and think about how god-awful his movies are. 

15) Where and When | Hayden

From “In Field and Town”

The printed page is rarely kind to rock lyrics.  The thrill comes not in the words, but their delivery, e.g. the less I know of Interpol or Rilo Kiley’s lyrics, the more I can like them.  But every so often, lukewarm appreciation of an artist heats up when I read their lyrics.  Back in the day, I hated Radiohead’s moan-and-drone act until I realized what a phenomenal songwriter Thom Yorke is (well, pre In-Rainbows).  I had thought that this track by Hayden wasn’t much more than slightly-better-than-average sad bastardry, the kind of music squarely in the middle of Not My Thing.  But as I read the lyrics to this song on a whim, I realized what a sharp little piece of pop poetry Hayden had put together…

“The snow was falling down like pieces of the sky last Friday night

I was outside on the street, and she was inside to a beat

Next thing I know, she’s watching me writing to her in the snow

“Let’s go”

She got up so close, the condensation changed her to a ghost

But she appeared again, as she wrote on the glass “Well, it depends…”

“Where and when?”


16) “Just Fine” | Mary J. Blige

From “Growing Pains”

The acclaim and accolades rarely go to the optimist.  It’s the bleak, the morose, the haters of life that get all the awards.  It’s all done in the name of “realism”, but it’s kind of funny how it’s usually those who have it the best that see it the worst.  Well, nuts to that.  After listening to all that mopey indie stuff, it’s great to have a song as unapologetically life-loving as this one:

“Having a really good time, I’m not complaining

And I’m a still wear a smile if it raining

I got to enjoy myself regardless

I appreciate life, I’m so glad I got mine”

See?  Smile a little.  It ain’t that hard, kids.


17) “H in New England” | Max Richter

From “24 Postcards in Full Colour”

When it’s announced that an album is designed to be used for ringtones, the assumption is T-Pain type disposable bullshit, not timeless instrumental loveliness in the style of Phillip Glass’s Metamorphosis.  Tip to tail, this collection is incredible, and if someone wants to use it as a ringtone, more power to ‘em.  Better than hearing “Chopped and Skrewed” for the trillionth time…

18)  “Won’t Trade” | Q-Tip

From “The Renaissance”

Q-Tip stubbornly refuses to go along with the script for solo-artists leaving behind their much beloved bands. He should be churning out perfunctory, contractual-obligation-fulfillers that make us turn our heads to avoid seeing our idols embarrass themselves.  Instead, he’s putting out albums like “The Renaissance” that force us to pay attention to the old guys instead of just the next hot new thing.  Damn you, Q-Tip. I don’t have that kind of time.

19) “Murder in the City” | The Avett Brothers

From “The Second Gleam

We never find out why the singer is making contingency plans in case of death by unnatural causes.  But by the end of his “letter”, we know a whole lot about love, sibling rivalry, and the inexorable pull of family ties. 

“Make sure my sister knows I loved her

Make sure my mother knows the same

Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing

Like the love that let us share our name”


20) “Skinny Love” | Bon Iver

From “For Emma, Forever Ago”



Uh, I mean, Bon Iver boldly launches into unknown territory here, with his unique, one-of-a kind, never-been-done-before style of heartfelt lo-fi indie-folk recorded in an abandoned shack after a crushing breakup with blahblahblah….

OK, jokes aside, we’ve been here before.  Strum, Strum, Cry.  Then what makes this guy worth your time?  Other than impeccable songcraft and a voice that sends shivers up your spinal column when he gets going?  Nothing much, I guess.   But I love how he can sound alternately angrily scolding and desperately pleading depending on what time of day I listen to this song:

“And I told you to be patient

and I told you to be fine

and I told you to be better

and I told you to be kind

and in the morning I’ll be with you

But it will be a different kind.

I’ll be holding all the tickets

And you’ll be owning all the fines”


21) “Dr. Carter” | Lil’ Wayne

From “The Carter III”

Actual set of steps Swizz Beats took in creating “Dr. Carter”:

1)    Purchase David Axelrod’s “Holy Thursday” to sample.

2)    Instruct Lil’ Wayne to rap over it.

3)    Collect fee for services.

Nevertheless, it’s still the perfect vehicle for Weez’s bottomless well of charisma as he conducts emergency surgery on weak MCs.  Well, that’s the conceit.  He sticks with that for about 3 seconds, here and there.

“Like hey, brighter then the sun ray

got a pistol on the playground, watch the gunplay.

Nope, kidding! No kids in the way,

But the kids do watch, gotta watch what we say.

Gotta work everyday.

Gotta not be cliché.

Gotta stand out like Andre 3K.

Gotta kick it kick it like a sensei.

You gotta have faith..” 

22) “Disengaged” | Grouper

From “Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill”

Not really an album of singles so much as a symphony of fractured lullabies routed through a rusty tin cup caked with bong-resin and regret.  But this will give you an idea. 

23) “Parisian Goldfish” | Flying Lotus

From “Los Angeles

Even if this spunky electro-instrumental weren’t out-of-control catchy (it is), I’d include it just for the hilariously NSFW video, directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric fame.  SERIOUSLY, NSFW.


24) “Machine Gun” | Portishead

From “Third

This is on that same playlist of the dystopian disco that Tobacco plays every week.  I’ve seen the future, and it hurts.  Bad.


25) “Crimewave (LAZRtag Remix)” | Crystal Castles vs. Health

Even in this chopped-to-death remix, I can still make out their weird lyrics and it’s fucking up my dance stylez.  Well, if I danced, it would.  Seriously, what is going on here?

“Eyes lit

I pawn short breaths

A fawn’s dark eyelids

But life’s breath like a sun against my head

Eyes lit

Nice breasts

I need the sun in to repent”

I’m worried about you guys.  Seriously. 


26) “Old New Bicycle” | Helvetia

From “The Acrobats”

First, the drums.  Then, that sick guitar tone.  Finally, that part where the singer softly repeats “shit ass broke”.

These are the parts that make it good.  They’re enough.


27)  “9 to 5” | Lay Low

From “Ökutímar”

Nordic chanteuse Lay Low takes on Dolly Parton’s oeuvre in this soundtrack to the Icelandic staging of the Pulitizer Prize winning play, “How I Learned to Drive”.   Bringing the minor key piano rhythm to center stage highlights the bitterness of the class struggle at the heart of Ms. Parton’s lyrics:


“They let you dream

just to watch them shatter.

You’re just a step

on the boss man’s ladder.

But you’ve got dreams they’ll never take away”

Permit me a fantasy.  Young Dolly, stewing in rage over her menial work for shit wages, and continual harassment from oafish corporate overlords, takes an unauthorized break in the bathroom to re-visit her dog-eared copy of Das Kapital.  As she rests the book on her ample endowment, a tune comes in her head. That’s it!  This put-upon country bumpkin will smash the capitalist system from within, using her impeccable country-pop songsmith skills…. 

“They just use your mind

And you never get the credit.

It’s enough to drive you

Crazy if you let it”

28) “Mirando” | Ratatat

From “LP3”

Daft Punk afterbirth Ratatat are required by law to have one good song per album  – no more, no less.  This is that song.

29) “Kim and Jessie” | M83

From “Saturdays = Youth”

M83 are the Mannheim Steamroller of our generation, minus a holiday to justify their plastic-wrapped cheese.  But this burst of synthetic jubilation melted my shriveled black heart to gummy mush, so I hope they’re happy. 

30) “Good Friday” | Why?

From “Alopecia”

You had me at hello.  No, wait, you had me at:

“If you grew up with white boys

who only look at black and Puerto Rican porno

cause they want something that their dad don’t got

then you know where you’re at”

Or maybe it was:

“sucking dick for drink tickets

at the free bar at my cousin’s bat mitzvah

cutting the punch line and it ain’t no joke

devoid of all hope, circus mirrors and pot smoke

picking fights on dyke night

with shirlies and lokes and snatching purses”



31)  “Dancing Choose” | TV On The Radio

From “Dear Science”

How do you make the blunt sloganeering of Rage Against The Machine and the agitated rhythms of Bloc Party hip again to a new generation of rock critics?

Take it away, boys.

32) “Black Mags” | The Cool Kids

From “The Bake Sale”

If the swing craze of the 90’s taught us anything (it didn’t), it’s that revivalism is a dead end street.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but too much of it makes for boring music, and The Cool Kids prove this more than I’d like.  But their enthusiasm occasionally overcomes their necrophilia for dead styles, no more so than on this lead off single.  It pulses with ominous energy and machismo, quite a feat considering most of the lyrics concern the care and maintenance of BMX bikes.

33) “Tuosku Tarttuu Meihin” | Paavoharju

From “Laulu Laakson Kukista”

Finnish artists Paavoharju make bizarre sound collages  that apparently emanate from a distant satellite that picks up static, opera, classical and the occasional Finnish current affairs TV program. Like Grouper, this isn’t something that can really be approached in single form.   It’s best appreciated by buying the album and a large quantity of powerful psychotropics* and holing up in a dark room with a copy of Planet Earth on Blu-Ray.

* Don’t do drugs.

34)  “Universal Mind Control” | Common

From “Invincible Summer”

I like Party Common better than Preacher Common. More like this, please.


35) “Rawnald Gregory Erickson The Second” | Starfucker

From “Starfucker”

Since Of Montreal is on artistic hiatus while Kevin Barnes deals with his tri-sexuality and rampant drug use (and more importantly, his need to blab non-stop about it in song form), Starfucker will have to pinch-hit.  A very workable substitute.


36)  “Ribs Out” | Fuck Buttons

From “Street Horrrsing”

Unnerving.  This little diddy sounds like music to get murdered in the jungle by.  No seriously, close your eyes and listen!  Ungodly sounds of a hostile habitat surround you on all sides.  Giant bugs that look like little aliens and rabid, starving monkeys approach and block off any hope of escape.  Their sheer numbers rule out any hope of fighting them off and the paranoia of your last remaining moments on earth leave you drenched in your own sticky fear.

I’m not sure why you would want music for that, come to think of it.  Nevermind.


37)  “Girls Don’t Care ” | Eef Barzelay

From “Lose Big”

A hilarious To-Don’ts list for indie rockers:

“Don’t extend the solo,

Lay the groove too deep

Try not to sing the words

as if you’re mumbling in your sleep 

Don’t quote Five Easy Pieces

TiVo Cool Hand Luke

Don’t talk about how

God is dead

And love is just a fluke 

The girls don’t care

That you ache to be free

You see, the girls just want

A sweet melody”

38)  “4 Minutes” | Boyce Avenue

I’m not sure if I’ve even heard the original by Justin Timberlake and Madonna.  It’s got something to do with screwing to save the world, I gather?  Anyway, I like this acoustic cover so much I don’t really want to risk ruining it.   

39) “Palimitos Park” | El Guincho

From “Alegranza”

Almost too jumpy and joyous.  May result in excess joie de vivre and sustained pep after consumption.  Consult your physician before ingesting.


40) “Damn I’m Cold” | Bun B featuring Lil’Wayne

From “II Trill”

“I’m so far ahead of you suckers

I’ma have to start rapping in numbers”

–        Lil Wayne, Brand New

You can’t say he didn’t warn you.  Though it’s nominally a Bun B track, Weezy nonetheless joyously hogs the spotlight, showing a spunk he rarely showed on Carter III.  As promised, he digresses into numerological gobbledygook:

“1 2 3 way,

.44 makes 8,

9 times outta 10, it’s a 11 or a 12 gauge.

Friday the 13th? That’s the day that Hell raise.

But y’all boys 2 week (too weak) like 14 days”

But wait – it gets better weirder.  Mere numbers aren’t enough.  Wayne ends      the track by rhyming onomatopoeia:

“Cold  like brrrrrrrr

Machine gun brrrrrrrrrrr

I am a beast, grrrrrrrrrrrr

Money Machine brrrrrrrrrrrr”

Do I care that he’s rhyming the same onomatopoeia over and over?

No.  No, I do not.

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1 Response to The Year in Music 2008:We Gotta Stay Positive

  1. Dugan says:

    love that Avett Bros

Comments are closed.