Compiling this list the top 40 songs of the year was an energizing experience - there was a lot of great music released this year. I'm not sure it was a great year for albums, but who listens to those anymore, anyway? Technology has, for all practical purposes, turned everyone into their own DJ and jukebox, and it's all about find the great songs amidst the torrents of music waiting to get into our hard drives, iPods and broadband connections. Attaching "good" or "bad" to such developments is pointless. It just is, and is getting more so.
With that being said, I am noticing a few things about this list:
1. Music is simultaneously more private and more shared than ever. I can find a group of rapid fans to discuss any artist I want - but the hope that that artist is going to broaden the culture at large, well, not so much. My little group has our music, your little group has yours, and maybe we'll read about each other on someone's blog. Fragmentation wins.
2. There's no hip-hop on it, which I ascribe far more to my own current lack of interest in the genre than anything I would be foolish enough to say about the music itself. Common thinks that Obama is going to change the music. I think he's kidding himself.
3. We're all indie, and if we're not, we will be soon. Once upon a time, this list would have been 95% major label artists. Ten years ago, it would have been 70% major label. In two years, it will most likely be 15% major label. There's no middle ground anymore in major label land. You're either pop, crossover...or you're a vanity project. That's not necessarily a permanent development, but it sure feels like it.
And with that, here we go...
1. Jackie Greene - “Animal”
Brilliantly arranged, written and sung, Jackie Greene's "Animal" has it all - smarts, soul and sex. Like a lot of artists post-industry collapse, he's going his own way, but where most give lip service to being empowered by the new paradigms, he truly is. Giving Up The Ghost, one of the best albums of the year, showed Greene hitting his stride, and beginning to deliver on his promise.
2. Adele - “Chasing Pavements”
A big sounding ballad that Diane Warren could have written (but thankfully didn’t), that hit me right where I lived. Estelle should keep her mouth shut about Adele until she can match her emotion. Of course, if she could match Adele's soul, she wouldn't need to pop off so much.
3. The Hold Steady - “Sequestered In Memphis”
I still don’t think the album is all that, although I liked it. But this song, passionate, incisive and swaggering, delivered on everything that’s been claimed for them.
4. Southside Johnny and La Bamba’s Big Band (w/Tom Waits) – “Walk Away”
The most playful track I heard all year. Two cult artists – one a tiny one, the other a big one, remind the few who are listening how much they have in common, and that life is a hell of a lot easier with a sense of humor.
5. Little Jackie - “The World Should Revolve Around Me”
Imani Coppola has found her stride - in admitting what a selfish pain in the ass she can be. She gets what it costs her, but she sure has a lot of fun with it.
6. Yeasayer – “Sunrise”
"Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel" they dub themselves. I immediately heard the gospel, and if I wasn't completely converted, it had me in the pew, listening hard. (2007)
7. Lykke Li – “Let It Fall”
A couple of wrong turns and this could have been headed towards kitschy insufferablility, but she navigated the dangers well, and in risking looking foolish, she made some of the most powerful music made by anyone this year.
8. The Kills – “Black Balloon”
A song about reckoning and growing up. They got past their studied shallowness on this one.
9. Thao – “Bag of Hammers”
Like Mo Tucker fronting the house band a for children’s TV show. Delightful and irrepressible.
10. Santogold – “Say Aha”
Top 40 pop - for everyone below 14th Street.
11. Raphael Saadiq – “Sure Hope You Mean It”
Old school sounding, old school feeling - and old school pleasure.
12. Benjy Ferree – “Fear”
Post-modern soul that's part Dischord and part Dion, from my (so far) most anticipated album of 2009 (sorry Bruce).
13. The Rolling Stones (w/Buddy Guy) – “Champagne & Reefer”
Jagger gets taken to school by a ferocious Buddy Guy. Once again, the Stones show they are at their (passionate) best when they drop the hits and go home to the blues. Somewhere, Ian Stewart is listening to this and smiling.
14. Chris Pierce – “Beautiful Frustration”
Unsigned, he lit up a show at SXSW, which introduced me to him and this (should be) hit song.
15. Jamie Lidell – “Another Day”
The wanna-be soul man hits his mark on this churchy and joyous number.
Another Day - Jamie Lidell
16. Blue Giant – “Blue Sunshine”
17. Alejandro Escovedo – “Always A Friend”
The former punk comes back from a string of near misses and Hepatitis C, and lets it be known that great rock isn't dead yet. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
18. Duffy – “Warwick Avenue”
I’m not yet a believer that Miss Duffy is the real deal. But with a song as soaring as this one, she rendered the question moot, at least for a little while.
19. Ariel Abshire – “Exclamation Love”
You'll be hearing a lot more from her in 2009.
20. Eli “Paperboy” Reed & the True Loves – “(Am I Just) Fooling Myself”
A song and performance worthy of his studies. Late night desperation, grand passion and the all-too familiar knowledge of his own foolishness.
21. Bob Dylan – “Someday Baby”
I could have picked about ten songs from The Bootleg Series, Volume 8. I just happened to pick this one.
22. Sarabeth Tucek – “Nobody Cares”
Power-pop done 2008 style, with a healthy dollop of wisdom on the side.
Sarabeth Tucek's MySpace Page
23. Butch Walker – “Ponce De Lone Ave.”
For over a decade, since the first time their A&R person at Elektra played me the Marvelous Three, I’ve been somewhat immune to Walker’s charms. And as he’s grown from the record industry’s “Most Likely To Succeed” into a successful producer and songwriter, I still didn’t get it. This song may be changing that.
Ponce De Leon Ave - Butch Walker
24. The Killers – “Losing Touch”
The Duran Duran of our era made their second somewhat silly and overblown album in a row. (“Are we human/or are we dancer” is not this year’s “I’ve got soul/but I’m not a soldier.”) But “Losing Touch” shows they’ve got enough (accidental?) smarts and talent to keep a lot of people on the hook for at least one album more.
The Killers - Losing Touch - The Killers
25. The Kooks – “Sway”
For one song, at least, they had soul.
26. James Hunter – “Carina”
Could’ve been a Drifters song.
27. Drive-By Truckers – “The Righteous Path”
The sound of a fuck-up on his knees, praying for mercy from himself.
28. Leon Ware – “Blue Dress”
A piece of slinky early-80’s R&B that made me want to put a suit on, get in a convertible and take my girl for a ride.
29. MGMT – “Time To Pretend”
What it feels like after about two and a half drinks, beautiful women everywhere, and having just emerged from the bathroom after the first bump of what will be a long night-with no anticipated consequences.
It’s good to be young.
30. Late of the Pier – “Broken”
An almost straight up Gang Of Four rip that’s done so well, I fell in love with its shamelessness. I doubt we’ll ever hear from these guys again, but this was a great moment.
31. Al Green (w/Anthony Hamilton) – “You’ve Got The Love I Need”
Al, who told you that you needed anyone on your albums other than you? Don’t you know we just want to hear that voice? Regardless, this was one of the few songs on his new album that was worthy of your legacy.
32. Erykah Badu – “My People”
If you wanted to know where the spirit of Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On was in 2008, you had to hear this. She’s as pretentious as ever, and sometimes, equally powerful.
Erykah Badu - My People - Erykah Badu
33. My Morning Jacket – “I’m Amazed”
Note to My Morning Jacket fans: Instead of saying the next album they release is going to be the one that blows them up, say instead that the next one is going to be a stiff. The reverse psychology may work. Good little song, though.
34. Little Jackie – “The Stoop”
“I Wish,” 2008.
The Stoop (Explicit) - Little Jackie
35. Calexico – “The News About William”
Lushly and beautifully orchestrated, I could barely keep up with everything going on here. Indie-orchestral-pop. It’s beyond me, but damn if it didn’t remind me of The Basement Tapes.
The News About William - Calexico
36. Deastro – “The Shaded Forests”
I discovered this track on shuffle, while driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike. I turned up the volume. I sped up. It felt good.
37. Marching Band – “Makeup Artist”
A friend sent these guys to me, and when I saw that they’re a “Swedish Indie-Pop” act, I almost deleted the tracks out of pure exhaustion with “Swedish Indie-Pop.” But I’m glad I didn’t.
38. Death Cab For Cutie – “Cath…”
I’ve never really gotten these guys. But for one song, at least, they finally popped for me. Where they’ve always sounded foppish and fey to me, here they transformed into something gritty and substantive.
39. TV on the Radio – “Golden Age”
I respected Dear Science more than I enjoyed it. Except for this. The rhythm section says everything that I couldn’t understand in the lyrics.
40. The Gaslight Anthem – “Miles Davis & The Cool”
The ’59 Sound is getting some incredibly laudatory reviews. It’s a good record, not a great one, but this song is a bit more. Smarts meet soul and sparks fly.