The Best Songs Of 2008, In Bigger Than The Sound

The year's best party starters, pop hits, somber ballads and a few that defy definition.

Music-wise, perhaps the best thing about 2008 was that it wasn’t 2007. Unlike last year — which could generously be described as “catastrophic” — there were decidedly fewer “Oh my God, the industry is f—ing collapsing” moments in ’08 … instead, we had artists selling 1 million albums in a week (Lil Wayne ), intelligent pop stars with establishment-tweaking radio hits (Katy Perry ) and long-in-the-tooth vets striking back with industry-defying successes (Kid Rock ). If there was one theme, perhaps it was that, for the first time in a long time, things didn’t look so terrible.

Of course, that’s overly optimistic. Things are still plenty bad. And they might get worse. But 2008 definitely had its moments — moments of hope and genuinely excellent music — and I’ve collected the 33 best below. Because rather than focus on the rather terrifying future, let’s celebrate the year that was — a year that generally wasn’t all that bad. And to help us do that, here’s my list of the Best Songs of 2008 … a collection of party starters, pop hits and somber ballads, plus a few that defy any and all definition. Oh, and no [artist id="501686"]Britney[/artist]. Sorry.

It’s a long list, but if you make it all the way through, I’d love to hear some of your picks, too. Feel free to send them to me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com, or sound off below.

33. [artist id="1962774"]Katy Perry[/artist], “Hot N Cold”
This is the Katy Perry song that wasn’t offensive to GLAAD.

32. The Silver Jews, “Party Barge”
A honky-tonk song about a wayward party pontoon, as sung by a nasally poet/cartoonist from Virginia and his wife who used to work in an office park. It opens with a bit of bathroom-wall philosophy (“Father drove a steamroller/ Mama was a crossing guard/ She got rolled when he got steamed/ And I got left in charge”), goes on to mention “Satan’s jeweled lobster” and “chicken-fried pigeon,” and features more nautical sound effects than any other tune released this decade. There is nothing not to love.

31. [artist id="1269"]Jay-Z[/artist], “Jockin’ Jay-Z”
The Run-DMC sample. The hellishly gnarled guitar line (which might not actually be a guitar at all). The snarling, simplistic backbeat. The shout-out to Barack Obama. The dis of Noel Gallagher. The hunger, the humor, the anger, the swagger. Basically everything you’d expect from a Jay/[artist id="1230523"]Kanye[/artist] collabo, only so much more. And less. At the same time.

30. Atlas Sound, “Quick Canal”
A stunning, skittering and slightly water-logged 13-minute soundscape that probably wouldn’t have been heard this year, if not for the MediaFire mishaps of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox. In August, he accidentally posted an entire DH album and an unmastered Atlas Sound record (his side project, FYI) on his blog, and within hours, both spread like wildfire throughout the Internets. Cox got pissed, then apologized, then said that “Canal” was supposed to feature vocals, only he hadn’t gotten around to recording them yet. And while the backstory is pretty great, the song itself is even better. Full of gently undulating electronic pulses, snapping drums and a barely there guitar, it eventually erupts like a bottle rocket, sending sparks flying through my headphones and reminding me of Stereolab, Tortoise and Mogwai and anything else I was getting baked and listening to in 2001. The best mistake of ’08.

29. The Airborne Toxic Event, “Sometime Around Midnight”
I have had several nights exactly like the one detailed in this song, except most of them ended with me throwing up in a cab/vestibule/New Jersey.

28. Tom Gabel, “Random Hearts”
On his own, Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel has always followed the acoustic, “This-Machine-Kills-Fascists” ethos of Woody Guthrie, so it’s surprising that the first things you hear on “Random Hearts” — the lead track from his solo album Heart Burns — is a series of staccato handclaps, muscle-y chords and Gabel’s husky growl. Then the whole thing builds to a chorus so mean it’ll steal your lunch money, and you get the feeling that Fascists aren’t the only people Gabel wants to kill. He’d do anything for love, but he won’t do that. Actually, he probably would.

27. [artist id="2008947"]Panic at the Disco[/artist], “Northern Downpour”
If a tree-shaped bong falls in the woods surrounding a Nevada cabin, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If it does, I bet it sounds like this song — somber and stony and genuinely pretty, not to mention probably the best thing Panic will ever do. The harmonizing between Ryan Ross and Brendon Urie is worth the price of admission alone; the fact that Ross spends the majority of the “Downpour” video dressed like an attendee at the Memphis Insurance Adjusters’ 1973 Winter Conference is just icing on the cake.

26. [artist id="970"]Beck[/artist], “Modern Guilt”
A shambling, rambling take on 21st-century alienation, courtesy of a guy who’s been alienated since the late 20th century. “Guilt” wouldn’t seem out of place on any of Beck’s earlier, uh, “quieter” albums (One Foot in the Grave, Sea Change, etc.), except that here — for perhaps the first time in his 15-year career — he’s playing it straightforward, looking (and sounding) very much like a guy edging gracefully into his 40s. It’s a logical step … obsolescence has never sounded so good.

25. Wye Oak, “Please Concrete”
Textbook dreamy indie-folk from a Baltimore duo, “Concrete” sounds like 6 p.m. on a Sunday, until the two-minute mark, when the whole thing arches its back and positively hisses. Guaranteed to terrify your stoned roommate when he dozes on the futon.

24. The Plastic Constellations, “Phantom Canyon”
Big, dumb hooks and even bigger, dumber lyrics (about, apparently, “one of Northern Colorado’s last roadless canyons”), from the broadswords and brains of TPC, the greatest rock band no one ever gave a sh– about. After battling industry indifference for more than 13 years, they called it quits in April, which is a shame, because considering the wallop “Canyon” packs, there were only bigger things on the horizon. Even the bravest (or drunkest) of warriors can’t fight forever, but it would’ve been awesome if the guys in TPC gave it a shot.

23. Hercules and Love Affair, “Hercules Theme”
Sumptuous — and strangely dirty — post-house (or, if you prefer, neo-disco) that’s full of slutty horns, sleazy bass and horny background vocals. If this doesn’t make you wanna grab that special lady (or fella) in your life, chances are you’re dead. Or a member of Focus on the Family.

22. Ida Maria, “Oh My God”
Norwegian-born Ida Maria Børli Sivertsen (just call her Ida Maria for short) possesses a voice that can shift tectonic plates, and here — backed by a spazzy three-piece — she sounds as if she’s teetering on the brink of doing just that. At song’s end, when she finally lets loose, the results can be measured on the Richter scale.

21. Crystal Castles vs. Health, “Crimewave”
Over a beat that sounds like Tetris blocks falling (or an NES melting), Alice Glass mumbles about “dark eyelids” and “nice breasts” and I have no idea what else. Not that it really matters.

20. [artist id="1236818"]TV on the Radio[/artist], “Golden Age”
A disco shuffle. A supple falsetto. Charging horns. Electronic frippery. Backward-looking. Forward-thinking. At the same time. Rock. R&B. Soul. And a little PM Dawn, too. A Golden Age indeed.

19. [artist id="2490602"]Leona Lewis[/artist], “Bleeding Love”
It’s certainly debatable whether Lewis will be the Mariah Carey for the new millennium, but the fact is, you could swap her for Mimi on this song, and it would remain exactly the same … which is as big a testament to the British “X-Factor” champ as you can possible get. Where she goes from here is anybody’s guess, though it will be hard for her to match the swooning mastery she pulled off on “Love.” That the song was co-written by a dude who used to be on “Summerland” only makes Lewis’ accomplishments on it all the more amazing.

18. [artist id="3000112"]She & Him[/artist], “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?”
Speaking of amazing, who knew albums involving actors could be any good? Dishy [movieperson id="236669"]Zooey Deschanel[/movieperson] pulls it off, thanks in no small part to her partner in crime, indie master [artist id="1224909"]M. Ward[/artist]M. Ward. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” is full of his trademark retro crackle and shine — not to mention twangy guitar and twinkly piano — but it’s Deschanel’s big, bell-clear vocals (and that “uh-huh!”) that make this one truly special.

17. [artist id="2973634"]Lykke Li[/artist], “I’m Good, I’m Gone”
A slinky, sexy model of 21st-century pop (and don’t dare overanalyze it as anything but, or the notoriously prickly Li might kill you) that could double as a Lego sculpture, if only because it’s built up of so many individual parts — handclaps, foot stomps, piano, vibraphone, bells, treated vocals, wood blocks — that work so much better as a whole. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to duck the chair Lykke just chucked at my head.

16. [artist id="1652126"]Tyga[/artist], “Coconut Juice”
I am a 13-year-old girl … one who loves tropical drinks, apparently. Perhaps the year’s dumbest, most unabashed bit of hyper-color hip-hop (which is saying something), I drank deeply from Tyga’s cup and have been riding the sugar rush every since. Ay-ay-ay, indeed.

15. [artist id="710356"]Death Cab for Cutie[/artist], “Grapevine Fires”
“I Will Possess Your Heart” might have gotten all the shine — and with its eight-minute running time, why wouldn’t it? — but the best song on Death Cab’s really great Narrow Stairs was unquestionably “Fires,” a four-minute rumination on life and death that shines a candle on Ben Gibbard’s achingly pretty vocals and narrative skill. On the surface, it’s about watching the California hills burn in the distance, but there’s really so much more going on here … and that the song ends on an incomplete thought (“The firemen worked in double shifts/ With prayers for rain on their lips/ And they knew it was only a matter of time”) only makes the sentiments contained within all the more jarring.

14. [artist id="2552793"]MGMT[/artist], “Kids”
Blissed-out electro-pop from a couple of buzzed-in Brooklyn neo-hippies. There is much to snicker at here (chiefly Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser’s outfits), but listen to the gnarled synths and baroque breakdown, and tell me if there’s any way you can deny this song.

13. [artist id="3117938"]Sigur Rós[/artist], “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur”
Joyous noise from an Icelandic quartet never known for being especially, well, joyous. On this year’s Med sud í eyrum vid spilum endalaust (try saying that five times fast), Sigur Rós shifted away from making glacial-paced soundscapes and just got happy, and “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” (which, translated from Icelandic, means “within me a lunatic sings”) is them at their most happy. Just because you don’t know what they’re saying doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still listen.

12. [artist id="2990655"]Santogold[/artist], “L.E.S. Artistes”
The year’s best Tegan and Sara song not performed by Tegan and/or Sara.

11. [artist id="1244759"]The Hold Steady[/artist], “Stay Positive”
If you were to take everything people love (or, alternately, hate) about the Hold Steady and condense it into three minutes, “Stay Positive” would be the end result. Lead singer Craig Finn’s insular, nostalgic lyrics (and his, uh, “singing voice”), the blaring organ, the guitar solo, the fact that this song is best listening to at top volume, with your arm around your best friend and a beer thrust skyward — this truly is maximum Hold Steady. Which is to say that it’s incredible and awesome and uplifting and, most importantly, unashamed to be any of those things. For better or worse. Mostly the former though.

10. [artist id="10551"]Kid Rock[/artist], “All Summer Long”
When you take two songs that are already awesome (Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”), mash ‘em together, and throw in lyrics about even more awesome things like babes and booze and a lake in Northern Michigan, what do you get? The unquestionable champion of this year’s Summer Jam sweepstakes, and perhaps the most undeniable song released in 2008. “All Summer Long” wasn’t so much of a tune as it was a gigantic middle finger from Rock himself, extended directly at the music-industry suits and radio programmers who gave him a million reasons why the song wouldn’t be a hit. There is nothing that’s not beyond dumb about the song — from its content to its (anti) marketing campaign — all which probably explains its massive success and its unfettered charm. Actually, that definitely explains it. And Kid Rock too.

9. [artist id="1119"]Portishead[/artist], “Machine Gun”
Deceptively — and destructively — simple, “Machine Gun” is little more than Beth Gibbons’ aching voice, some hammering drums and a spooky synthesizer. And sometimes, that’s all you need. There wasn’t a more haunting song released this year, and it makes me anxious to hear just what Portishead do next … even if it takes a decade for them to make that decision.

8. [artist id="1255390"]The Teenagers[/artist], “Homecoming”
A cheeky bit of French synth-pop about every European male’s favorite summer activity: seducing gullible American girls backpacking their way across the continent. Sure, this song is a lot of bad things — cruel, dirty, probably misogynistic — but it’s also razor-sharp, downright hilarious and incredibly catchy. Plus, if you’ve ever wondered what Pulp would sound like if Jarvis Cocker were an effeminate, foul-mouthed slip of a Frenchman, well … here you go.

7. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”
The bravest move made by a mega-star in years (seriously, would Britney, Madonna or even 50 ever try anything like this?), “Love Lockdown” is a testament to both Kanye’s artistry and his ego. That he ditched the rapping is either a blessing or a curse, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, as is his obsession with ’80s synthesizer sheen, but there’s no denying the fact that West is taking a risk here, and regardless of the end result, he should be commended for that. He may lose tons of “street” cred, but he’s gained new legions of fans, and — to me and plenty of others — he suddenly got a whole lot more intriguing. And, oh, those drums.

6. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl”
If you are a music nerd, you no doubt pick up on the Gary Glitter stomp, the new-wave-y beat, the not-so-subtle vocal flourishes employed by producer Dr. Luke and the fact that there’s already a Jill Sobule song with the same name. If you are a drunken frat dude, you no doubt pick up on the fact that — holy sh–, dude, she kissed a girl! And she liked it! WOOOOOO! If you are a girl in a bar in Long Island, perhaps you even kiss a girl standing next to you while hundreds of those drunken frat dudes cheered you on. The greatest of songs bring us all together.

5. [artist id="2542022"]No Age[/artist], “Eraser”
By the time most of the mainstream media (ahem, me) pick up on a trend/scene, chances are that trend/scene is already dead and buried. I am not sure if that’s the case with the lo-fi movement surrounding Los Angeles’ anti-club the Smell and its most prominent progeny, No Age … nor am I sure whether that particularly even matters in this instance. “Eraser” is great on so many levels — the strummy psych guitars, the wall of white noise, the hiss, the explosions — that whether you consider it a clarion call or a funeral dirge, it’s somehow fitting either way.

4. [artist id="1916698"]Estelle[/artist] (featuring Kanye West), “American Boy”
The most effortlessly effervescent song of 2008, a bit of sunny R&B so good it makes me reconsider my ill will toward Will.I.Am, who produced it (and that’s saying something). Estelle’s vocals pop and bubble, and Kanye contributes a clever verse of his own, and the end result is pop perfection. Though, a word to English girls: Most American boys are jerks.

3. [artist id="2511320"]Deerhunter[/artist], “Nothing Ever Happened”
Bradford Cox and company released a pair of gauzy, atmospheric long-players in 2008, both of which seemed to positively hum with potential … but at no point did they come close to matching the knee-buckling beauty and driving urgency of “Nothing Ever Happened,” which might just be the best thing they’ve ever done (you know, until they do something better in 2009). The final two minutes — a locomotive drive of bass, drums and guitars that steams headlong into the ether — raise goose bumps on my arm, and the winging guitar solo that finally unspools the song is undoubtedly my favorite musical moment of the year.

2. [artist id="1236911"]Beyoncé[/artist], “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”
My favorite thing about Beyoncé has always been that despite the fact that she is well-manicured and coached to within an inch of her life, there is roughly a 50 percent chance that she is also a complete and total lunatic. I cannot explain why this is … though, as Exhibit A, please allow me to present this song, which sounds like what would happen if the Supremes cut a track while someone was playing “Frogger” in the background (and I mean this in the best possible way). “Single Ladies” is hyperactive and supercharged in ways I never thought possible. It’s epic and sexy and even a bit sad (because, you know, he didn’t put a ring on it), and it manages to out-crazy even “Ring the Alarm” (thanks mostly to B’s shout-out to Buzz Lightyear three-quarters of the way through). I love this song unapologetically, in reasons I am probably not doing a very good job of conveying. All I know is that there is absolutely zero chance Beyoncé ever releases a single like this ever again, so, you know, enjoy it while you can.

1. [artist id="510062"]Lil Wayne[/artist], “A Milli”
I give.