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The 1520 Sedgwick Avenue Essentials of ’08 Playlist Monday, March 2, 2009

Posted by Andy Hutchins in 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Rockabye, The Quarter Pole.
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I knew it was coming up. I just didn’t know how soon. I went browsing in the 1520 tag archives last Friday. And I found the first post.

I posted that on January 28th, 2008.

I missed my blog birthday.

That was not a good feeling. (I did, however, manage to text my brother, whose January 28th birthday in no way influenced my first post here, but who I feel like I barely gave a “Happy Birthday” to. So, Kevin, read this, and know that you were on my mind then.)

In any case, between a packed beginning to this year and a December spent largely away from a keyboard, I hadn’t gotten around to recapping 2008 fully.

So, in honor of a year of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, I present 20 great songs from 2008. I’m calling the first 15 “essential”; the last five are personal favorites.

It’s a bit labor-intensive for me to put together YouTube embeds of all of these songs, and that would make this post quite long (not that the writing wasn’t labor-intensive or post-lengthing), so, instead, I’ve created a YouTube playlist. I’m not embedding it because it’s got a few songs that won’t embed, but I’d love for you to listen along.

These are my choices and mine alone, but I’d love to hear yours, and opinions on the songs featured here. Thanks for reading.

The Essentials

“American Boy,” Estelle feat. Kanye West

People will recall that will.i.am spent much of ’08 shilling for Obama and showing up as a hologram on CNN’s Election Night coverage. I’ll remember that he produced this blissful breeze, as idyllic as a summer song could be, and just let two great pop artists do their thing.

Estelle’s a perky sprite, and Kanye’s all spite and pomposity (“Look at this pea coat/Tell me he’s broke”); it works because everyone involved plays to their strengths and takes pains to avoid anything weighty. It’s like “Just Dance” in that way, but clever and original rather than derivative and cunningly constructed.

“Royal Flush,” Big Boi ft. Raekwon and Andre 3000

For my money, this is the best song of 2008. The beat is a perfect slice of hip-hop, humming bass line with a funky break or two, sleigh bell-like filler, that “Break!” between verses, the vocal samples, and a couple of great MCs, Big Boi and Raekwon, doing good, abbreviated work.

Oh, and Andre 3000 spitting the best verse of the year.

I would praise it more, but you should really just listen to it if you’re not listening to the playlist.

“Onslaught,” Slaughterhouse

The beat is unobtrusive and nod-inducing, but nothing special, which makes it a perfect composition for these four horsemen to trample. That there is no hook is no problem; this would never get radio play, and it’s not supposed to. It’s sheer spit for about seven minutes, and though there were better verses here and there, this is unquestionably the solid, song-length chunk of flow I will associate with ’08.

Try picking one favorite line. I think it’s impossible.

“Bleeding Love,” Leona Lewis

And we go from the best full-song performance by rappers to the best full song performance by a singer. Leona has Mariah covered with the voice, and goes from mellow to “Hello!” in the bridge, but the organs and the drums make this song. With a clean base to launch from, Lewis can soar, and soar she does.

It’s overplayed now, but this is one heck of a ballad. It’s too bad, in some ways, that the trends in music are away from this sort of melodrama, because in Leona Lewis, music had the sort of classically beautiful diva’s voice that has been missing for years.

And, no, Beyonce doesn’t count.

“Miss Independent,” Ne-Yo

I know that “Closer” would be the popular pick from Mr. Smith, but I like the fizziness of “Miss” and appreciate the lyrics, which glorify, get this, women who can earn for themselves and are in relationships for something other than financial security. It’s the sort of feminist statement Beyonce and the two other progeny of destiny wish they could’ve made. Theirs was a world of bling; Ne-Yo’s singing about law firms and middle management.

This guy is currently music’s best songwriter. Props for that.

“I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab for Cutie

It’s a strange standout on this list, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean the long instrumental intro and the astute Ben Gibbard writing (“It’s like a book elegantly bound/But in a language that you can’t read” is achingly erudite and lovely) aren’t of similar quality to the hip-hop that populates this list.

(I’m sorry I couldn’t find the crisp, non-live studio version, but it was either this lower-quality eight-minute clip or one of a bunch of the four-minute versions, and in a song where the build-up is a musical element, I have a hard time discarding the strain of those strains.)

“Addiction,” Clipse

Smartly, the Brothers Thornton liberated this song, all whirs, light drums, scaling synths, and gorgeous piano, from Ryan Leslie’s album, where it was festooned with falsetto, and turned it into a dark anthem. “‘Til death do us/Or ’til the judge screw us,” Pusha declares at the beginning of his sneering verse, and his transition to Malice’s bruising bit (“Malice, crush ’em”) makes sure the listener knows the Clipse still swing sledgehammers.

“Just Dance,” Lady Gaga

This song is as far from highbrow as the tip of Lady Gaga’s nose is from her face. That doesn’t mean I can’t respect the slithering RedOne beat and woozy carelessness of this particular piece of cotton candy for the calculated excellence of it all.

In a time of otherwise frightening reality, this is escapism at its finest: not only are you not supposed to remember the night in the morning, you shouldn’t know more than two words to this song. 2008 was a weighty year; this is one of the balloons that floated blithely through it.

“Lollipop (Remix),” Lil Wayne ft. Kanye West; “Lollirock,” Lil Wayne ft. Kanye West (Produced by The Kickdrums)

The original “Lollipop” is a poppy little trifle, cotton candy that doesn’t have much staying power. But the remix ups the ante lyrically, and “Lollirock” turns it from synthy confection to thumping, rocking stomper.

And the verses on the remix are both far better than anything on the original and revelatory in their own right. Kanye comes out and says he’s not getting bested by Wayne on wax: “This a song with Wayne/So you know it’s gon’ melt/But you ain’t finna murder me/Like everybody else/I’ma rap like I got some type respect for myself/I don’t do it for my health, man/I do it for the belt, man.” Wayne, meanwhile, spins one of the best-ever pitches for contraceptives in his: “Safe sex is great sex/Better wear a latex/’Cause you don’t want that late text/That “I think I’m late” text.” (If Planned Parenthood is reading this, sign the man up, please.)

I had to include both versions because that second Wayne verse isn’t on “Lollirock,” and because when the guitar riffs kick in around a minute into the song and carry it away, you’ll know exactly why it’s on this list; it’s not “Lollipop” anymore, and it’s infectious in its own right. (Technically, for the accounting, it counts as one song, a Side A and Side B. But that’s only so we could stay at 20 songs total.)

“M79,” Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend were my favorite new band of the year, and it’s for songs just like this, a well-wrought and cryptic bit of longing and loneliness backed by violins. Ezra Koenig’s got a sweetly fragile voice, too, and though the low drums propel this song, he and the string section carry it.

Sure, it doesn’t exactly mean anything, but it’s even further to the catchy side of pleasant than most of the band’s other material and that got it its berth on this list.

“Viva la Vida,” Coldplay

Considering the years Coldplay were knocked for making “music for bedwetters” and other sodden songs, it’s almost laughable to see that this, an overblown radio-ready anthem for the bourgeoisie who could sing of “Jerusalem bells a-ringin’,” is what took Coldplay from the most popular niche band in the world to the most niche popular band in the world.

It’s a Grammy-winner and a chart-topper, and it’s really a bunch of the things Coldplay’s always done well (searching guitar and dreamy lyrics) given a more epic scale with minor chords, church bells and regal imagery. “Viva la Vida” isn’t the best song on the album, and might not even be the best single, but it’s a damn good song, certainly Coldplay’s biggest, and an icon of 2008. It belongs here.

“Swagger Like Us,” T.I. feat. Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne

Yeah, it’s overrated because of who these guys are. Yeah, none of the verses on this song even approach each artist’s respective top tens, save maybe T.I.’s brilliant capstone. Yeah, it piggy-backed on the popularity of “Paper Planes.”

But this is Kanye doing what he’s currently tinkering with in the production realm (militant drums and smoldering synths) at the height of his abilities, with the best possible vocal sample from last year and a nice airplane-takeoff flourish that makes each verse sound like an event.

The difference between this and its underground version, “Onslaught,” is that each of the verses in that song blend into each other so it becomes a full block of flow. In this one, Kanye makes each verse an event. It’s his legerdemain that makes this the better track, inadvertently confirming what’s been true about hip-hop for years: the best stagecraft wins.

“Day ‘n’ Nite,” KiD CuDi

I wish I hadn’t slept on this for most of last year. It’s one of the best beats of the year, as atmospheric as anything in hip-hop, with a jogging synth line throughout, some infectious hand-claps, and the perfect volume to back up the vocals; rarely is a song mixed this well. CuDi’s a Clevelander, which, by itself, makes his an offbeat hip-hop character, and he comes with a sort of laconic grace that lets you know this is a stoner’s theme even before “the lonely stoner” shows up in the hook.

Sure, stylistically, I don’t think this song can be extended to an album of similar tone and caliber. But the song, by itself? It’s a wonderful puff of a track. (Also, that’s a sweet video.)

“Time to Pretend,” MGMT

From the files of the Rockabye Is Dumb Dept.: I wrote in April, “This song is the least likely of the five featured here to be on a year-end list, because I’ll bet I’m sick of it by at least July, but for now, it’s a fantastic, exuberant explosion that the Brooklyn rockers should milk the hell out of in the hipster set.”

So I slept on the song for most of the summer. And then I listened to it again as fall wore on and I read every one of the four trillion year-end lists on the Internet. I’ll be damned if it isn’t even better now, and it’s still the sort of gorgeous, gauzy, electric and grandiose thing that most bands try to do when they want to capture the feeling that all the work they do might someday turn into something and then they’ll have to defend their artistry.

For now, MGMT don’t have to. This song stands as testament to how good they are.

“Live Your Life,” T.I. ft. Rihanna

There were better, sweeter, smarter, crisper, funnier, and catchier songs in 2008.

But none was bigger than “Live Your Life.”

T.I. was arguably bigger than Lil Wayne towards the end of 2008, as Weezy’s spring and “A Milli” momentum stalled, and his penchant for the anthemic (“Rubber Band Man,” “What You Know”) helped “Live Your Life” become the behemoth it was towards the end of the year. When Clifford raps about being “immaculately polished with the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid,” he hits about every possible male demographic for the song; when Rihanna sings her massive hook, she’s got the rest of ’em.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s based around “Dragostea Din Te,” which, no doubt, YouTube enthusiasts enjoyed, or that everything in the Just Blaze production sounds like it’s a fanfare up in the clouds except the skittering drum loop, or that, by today’s radio standards, it’s a long song, almost endless.

This, though, is a great song because it’s a mammoth anthem with a universal message. While Kanye’s off trying to emulate Dontella Versace and Wayne’s aping Billie Joe Armstrong, it figures that the guy heading to the pen in ’09 penned a song that captures the spirit of hope in ’08.

My Fave Five

“Untouched,” The Veronicas

Sometimes, I submit to my pop sensibilities and coo over cool. This song oozes that, much like “Just Dance,” and yet it has musical elements I find irresistible: those opening, room-filling violins; the fast, kinetic beat; the fast-slow-fast-slow construction of the song itself; the rapid-fire, almost rapped verses snaking along just above the beat; the glorious fuzz of those guitars that kick in just before the verses start.

Add to all of that the song’s topic, love, and a long-distance love at that, and I was a ripe target for this one. Though I fell to its charms first by hearing the first bits of the instrumental in FIFA 09, all of the above have been growing on me since.

I know it’s manufactured pablum. But I’m okay with acknowledging that I’m in the range for this one, and I enjoy it like any self-respecting 14-year-old girl should. (Wait. Crap.)

“Superstar (Remix),” Lupe Fiasco ft. Young Jeezy and T.I.

Simple as it is, this is a nice, chill beat and three good MCs just rip it. Jeezy talks about Honda Accords and Lupe meditates on fame, but Clifford Harris murders the beat with a tricky “pop Rose/Cirque du Soleil/Keyser Soze” rhyme scheme in his verse that probably eclipses anything from his own album.

And it’s not that Paper Trail was bad; far from it. It’s just that this verse is that good.

No one else really heard or cared about this remix, though, which is why it’s down here and not up there.

“Disturbia,” Rihanna

This one’s got special meaning to me, as a memento of my first summer driving. This was the song I would sit in the car while parked and listen to, the one I would crank if I was alone, and it’s memorable to me as much for time and place as anything.

But it’s also a brittle piece of electrostomp, backed by glittering bits whooshing by here and there, with an arena-sized chorus and the single most fun scat line in music in 2008. Just try not to sing “bum bum BEE dum, bum bum bee DUM bum” when it comes up in the song.

“Green Light,” John Legend feat. Andre 3000

John Legend’s made his name on restraint and carefully arranged sentiment; for him to let go with one of hip-hop’s loosest characters was an unexpected joy of my musical experience in ’08. He croons about being “ready to go right now,” wanting the girl to “shake just a little bit faster,” and generally sounds sexy instead of coolly debonair.

It’s a stretch for him, but he’s got a professional jester riding shotgun in 3K, whose possibly freestyled verse is all fun playboy bravado (“I’m a comet,” he boasts, before tossing in “giggling like a piglet”) and whose voice, tone, and effortless contribution to the hook fit the effervescent electronica here.

“Hero (Mixtape Version),” Nas feat. Keri Hilson

I promise I’ll stop yapping about this song after this, but Nas wrote three verses to a great pop song, Polow da Don produced the beat of the year, and, on the mixtape version, DJ Green Lantern’s spliced-in choice cuts make it the standout track on the best tape of the year.

It’s also my favorite song of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.: It flared up and fell off in the late summer, plus it’s a 2007 song. Consider the presence of “Swagger Like Us” partial proof of its legs.

“Womanizer,” Britney Spears: It’s a hook of monstrous proportions, but it and the rest of Circus suffer in comparison to the superior Blackout. “Piece of Me” isn’t really a 2008 song, but, if it were, it would be on this list.

“Sex on Fire,” Kings of Leon: Good rock riffs in this dirty little ditty by a band that should be shedding that “Southern Strokes” label soon, but, for me, it was competing with the sentimental Death Cab song for one of the few non-hip-hop spots on the list. And 2008 was a year of love, not sex, in music.

Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver: Time will tell us whether your critically-celebrated albums will lead to careers as more than the flavor-of-the-year wintry acts that have been common this decade. But you deserve mention in any list of 2008’s best.

Dishonorable Mention:

Katy Perry: I first knew you as the “Ur So Gay” singer, and I thought that was a clever take on effete, Pete Wentzish metrosexuals the first time I heard it. It and the rest of your oeuvre get tired after ten listens, “I Kissed a Girl” too schlocky, “Hot N Cold” too faintly sung, and the wretched “Thinking of You” a disgrace to the form of ballad. Your live performances are a cross between putting a baby face on sexuality and caterwauling that would make babies’ cries sound appealing.

You’re a capitalist and an opportunist, and, to your credit, you found a vein of teenage stupidity to mine in 2008. Take the earnings from your year of inspired lunacy, sock them away in Bernie Madoff’s latest endeavor, and come back in the year never. Okay?

Agree? Disagree? Like it? Don’t? Drop a comment and let me know.

Again, thanks for reading.

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Comments»

1. NotAlanYanuck - Monday, March 2, 2009

I hate you for hating Katy Perry. Hot N Cold was supposed to be that way. I’d have made room for Disturbia in the top 15–i think you liking it so much led you to think it was only you–i liked it far more than Swagga Like Us, to be honest.

2. JWPP (John G) - Monday, March 2, 2009

Oh boy …

Rock, you gotta get away from the radio … you have potential with some of these tunes. Take your interests further … and for God’s sakes turn off the Vampire Weekend!

3. Rockabye - Monday, March 2, 2009

Nah, sorry, Katy Perry’s awful.

And, yeah, the radio influences a lot of this, but the radio is still what drives what we consider the more successful songs of the year.

4. CoolHwhip - Monday, March 2, 2009

You had me at American Boy….


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