100 Best Songs of 2008
Beyoncé grabbed the ring, My Morning Jacket swung for the bleachers, Lil Wayne cracked up and Coldplay ruled the world
‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’
Love has always been a high-stakes business transaction for Beyoncé, ever since that lousy boyfriend maxed out her credit card in ‘Bills, Bills, Bills.’ ‘Single Ladies’ is her definitive statement on that subject. The beat, courtesy of The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, is irresistible and exuberant, the vocal hook is stormy and virtuosic, and her lesson is blunt: Seal the deal. With a shiny ring. Or else.
The New Wave guitar hook of the year, served with an icy dis of New York hipsters by dance punk’s reigning queen: “Leave me out, you name-dropper!”
‘Time to Pretend’
A magnificent piece of snark about acting like rock stars: The boys are probably joking about shooting heroin, but that fuzzed-out keyboard riff is deadly serious.
Deceptively pretty, deeply weird and nearly perfect: the folk fable of a man who matures into a beast and loses “the taste for judging right from wrong.” Think Bob Dylan on Klonopin.
Wayne’s first Number One hit is a tour de force – about selling out to get a Number One hit. It’s also a tortured oral-sex metaphor. And impossibly catchy.
Go-go dancing at the end of the world: Beck turns the threat of melting ice caps into a giddy, shimmy-shake beach party.
Estelle featuring Kanye West
More proof that great R&B can help America improve its international reputation: Winsome UK singer Estelle crushes on US B-boys and makes Kanye West actually seem charming.
My Morning Jacket
The mammoth Southern-rock anthem on Evil Urges where MMJ let it all hang out: Check the guitar solo that shoots out to the cheap seats and beyond.
‘Viva la Vida’
Thunderclap tympani! Symphonic swells! Calvary choirs! Coldplay return, stirringly, with their secret weapon, Brian Eno. “I used to rule the world,” sings Chris Martin. Used to?
‘No Matter What’
Even with a prison sentence looming, the King remains as cool as this boom-bap groove, re-establishing his reign with three words: “I ain’t dead.”
The ‘Umbrella’ girl channels Michael Jackson on this awesomely creepy synth-pop mindfuck co-written by her beau, Chris Brown.
TV on the Radio
The funkiest groove by these Brooklyn experimentalists is stuffed with awesome details: loverman falsetto, disco strings, and lyrics that are sceptical and utopian at the same time.
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
A hot, grinding rocker that recalls REM’s ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’: Adams envisions a mushroom cloud while hollering “Turn the radio up!” Rock on, dude.
The BPA featuring David Byrne and Dizzee Rascal
Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, marks his comeback with a party-starting throwdown that’s half digital dancehall, half drunken sock hop.
‘Lay It Down’
The master soul singer gets back to his smouldering, bedroom-eyed roots with a band that recaptures the offhandedly passionate sound of his Seventies peak.
In the Dirty South’s greatest campaign stump speech, black or white didn’t matter – Jeezy only cared about green. “My president is black, my Lambo’s blue/And I’ll be goddamned if my rims ain’t too.”
Brandon Flowers rediscovers fun on this Bowie-esque romp, an oddly exuberant ode to alien abduction. The bridge is as funky as it is grandiose.
‘All Summer Long’
The redneck-in-chief gets an assist from the indomitable ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ hook. “It was 1989/My thoughts were short/My hair was long,” he sings. Ain’t much changed.
Guns n’ Roses
Is it a love song? Or a career confessional? No matter: A welter of power chords and Axl Rose’s banshee howl render such questions moot.
‘I Kissed a Girl’
Girls Gone Wild, the song. The sexuality is questionable – lesbianism, guys love it! – but you can’t argue with a chorus so big it reached Number One in more than 20 countries.
‘One (Blake’s Got a New Face)’
Ivy League grads mix precise, Afro-pop-spiked rock with pearls of wisdom: “Oh, your collegiate grief/Has left you dowdy in sweatshirts.”
Jay-Z and TI
‘Swagga Like Us’
The posse track to end all posse tracks, with the prize for best verse going to a slick, sly TI. The real star, though, is the infectious sample from MIA’s ‘Paper Planes.’
The Black Keys
‘I Got Mine’
With Danger Mouse behind the boards, the Akron, Ohio, duo pack an epic blues jam into four hard-rocking minutes of bliss.
‘I’m Good, I’m Gone’
Lee Dorsey’s R&B hit ‘Working in a Coal Mine’ gets a New Wave makeover by a fetching Swedish chanteuse. Hand claps are the new power chords.
With an airy groove that channels the English diva’s gentle desperation, it’s a gooey ballad both you and your mom could love – and that’s a good thing.
‘No Sex for Ben’
This thrilling dance-rock anthem debuted on a virtual radio in Grand Theft Auto IV, then dominated every rave-up on the real-life airwaves. Secret weapon? Cowbell.
The Ting Tings
‘Shut Up and Let Me Go’
The song that reinvented dance punk for fans of iPod ads. Over INXS-style funk, a bird gleefully derides a bloke – or maybe a record label – who’s kissed her lips for the last time.
Kevin Rudolf featuring Lil Wayne
‘Let It Rock’
A former hip-hop studio musician, Rudolf steps forward with a truly uncategorisable single: part emo, part techno, part hip-hop, all insanely unstoppable club banger.
Saucier than ever, Pink picks a fight with her ex and crowns herself Queen Badass in what sounds like a very special episode of VH1’s Charm School.
‘Pork and Beans’
When Geffen execs demanded that Weezer write a single with a singalong chorus, Rivers Cuomo responded with this screed against the label. Ironically, it became the group’s catchiest single since 2001’s ‘Island in the Sun.’
A chiming folk-rock gem about being healed by the highway, whether you’re heading toward Utah, California or oblivion.
The finest ode ever written for hot girls snorting coke in a club bathroom – a subject about which Pharrell Williams might have firsthand knowledge.
‘Aly, Walk With Me’
The words are sweetness and light (“Aly, walk with me in my dreams”), but the sound is brutal. A roiling noir-pop anthem, broken by squalls of noise.
This hot breakbeat soul unspools like a disaster film amid horn stabs and shouts, with Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse directing. Funky and scary.
‘Addicted to Drugs’
A British Invasion stomper about trying to hook up the night before your wedding, and facing the fact that you might not be marriage material.
Usher featuring Beyoncé and Lil Wayne
‘Love in This Club, Pt 2’
The original was so-so, but Part 2 is the hilarious winner, with Usher and Beyoncé debating the merits of getting down in public. Surprise: He’s all for it.
On Modern Times, this was a raw blues number. But on this alternate take, it’s a stately, atmospheric rock tune with Edge-like guitars that add an unexpected, and moving, undercurrent of hope.
‘High Cost of Living’
A pitch-black addiction post-mortem from outlaw country’s rising star: “I had a job and a piece of land/My sweet wife was my best friend/But I traded that for cocaine and a whore.”
The Academy Is…
‘About a Girl’
Emo grows up in real time: The whine about broken hearts smacks of teen angst, but that hook is classic Cheap Trick.
Kings of Leon
‘Sex on Fire’
A raging yeaaaah leads to the Kings’ most gloriously unsubtle chorus ever: “Your sex is on fire,” Caleb Followill yawps. An unusual come-on, maybe, but it’s so passionate, it works.
Punctuated by soaring strings and a vintage-soul beat, this British ballad finds the romance in being a woman scorned. It’s a fatal attraction so simmering, you could boil a bunny in it.
‘Salute Your Solution’
Exploding like the Who, Jack White’s other band brings the fuzz on a sick garage-rock rant about creative problem-solving. Is said solution chemical or sexual? Your call.
Built on a haunting psych-funk sample, Badu declares hip-hop “bigger than religion,” chanting rhymes like a high priestess. Call us converted.
Panic at the Disco
‘Nine in the Afternoon’
Las Vegas emo kids finally discover the Beatles and deliver a postmodern ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for the drama-club set. A song that bridges generation gaps.
Tightly wound Oxford kids unleash a deliciously hyperactive New Wave ode to being second-best. Art-rock guitars + dance beats = geek party tonight!
Take it from Taylor, boys suck: “When you’re 15, somebody tells you they love you/You’re gonna believe them.” Puppy love may be short, but with tunes like these, Swift’s teen-pop reign will be longer.
“Weirdo/Stepchild/Freakshow,” she sings. You said it, sister. A bracing punk-soul debut from Diddy’s new protégée, who has an appealingly oddball sensibility and the best pompadour since Amy Winehouse.
Produced by T Bone Burnett, this stark heartland rocker offers a clear-eyed view of Bush’s America, with a nation left hungry for some kind of peace. But the ending feels like a benediction: “Just know that truth is coming.”
An uncharacteristically nasty – and characteristically catchy – swipe at chicks-on-the-make from the titans of Radio Disney: “They’re all the same, they all want money…/They live for fame, honey.”
‘Time the Conqueror’
A loping meditation on uncertainty and years gone by that recalls Browne’s classic Seventies material. He’s always sounded wise beyond his years; here, he catches up.
Mrs Wentz’s rebellion jam is all bratty ’tude, stabby guitar and 2008’s most entertaining taunt: “You don’t want no beef!”
Lee Ann Womack
An instant classic from one of country’s most soulful singers. “You must be in a bar,” sings a long-suffering lover, “ ’cause I’m always your last call.”
Somebody forgot to tell AC/DC what year it is: With its ricocheting power chords and fists-clenched vocals, this could have been a lost track from Back in Black.
‘I Believe in You’
A Stones-y cover of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming gospel ballad, with Chan Marshall pledging her faith – to a lover, or to God – like she’s opening a vein.
The Icelandic art-rock mystics make magic with little more than hand claps, acoustic guitar and la-la-las that refract like flashlight beams on a glacier. Dazzling, and dizzying.
The Hold Steady
Everybody’s favourite bar band mixes shit-kicking guitars and witty lyrics for an awesomely fist-pumpable jam about getting hammered with your friends.
Just what New York needed: a smart outer-borough answer to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl.’ Hamilton scores with this playful ode to his two great loves: his neighbourhood and the outspoken girls who call it home.
‘Bust Your Windows’
A revenge anthem at its most sultry: “You broke my heart, so I broke your car,” admits the Philly crooner on a Fifties-style ballad swimming in strings and soul.
Low vs Diamond
‘Don’t Forget Sister’
This elegiac tune from these LA newcomers is the year’s best arena-rock anthem never to hit an arena. The chord progression echoes ‘Baba O’Riley’; the vocals are styled after Bono.
Amid thumping disco, the R&B playboy ratchets up his velvety crooning and remakes himself as the kind of old-fashioned gentleman we haven’t seen since Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.
Swedish pop star overhauls a dancehall-style tune from the Teddybears and ends up with a blast of freezy-cool electro that oozes sass.
The Gaslight Anthem
‘The ’59 Sound’
You ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night, as these Jersey punks note on a glorious, crashing anthem. But if you do, at least listen to your favourite song one last time.
Dance-rock kingpin James Murphy hitches a dark, sexy chorus to percussion-laden disco, ending up with what sounds like a killer remix of a lost goth-pop tune.
She and Him
‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here’
Zooey Deschanel and M Ward hook up for a retro-pop duet with sweetly plaintive vocals that make Brill Building pop sound unexpectedly hip.
Ultra-louche New York quartet revive the Studio 54 era with this percolating disco-rock ode to posh party girls. Is that a high-hat cymbal? Or could it be someone snorting a line off a glitter ball?
Over a simple strummed guitar and Fleetwood Mac-ish harmonies, Lewis sings with worldly cool and wistful regret about acid trips and loneliness.
Danceably weird beats, shout-outs to AK-toting young ’uns: It’s the kind of global club jam only the world’s best Sri Lankan pop star could make.
Fall Out Boy
‘I Don’t Care’
Pete Wentz and Co’s hilarious sendup of rock-star ennui: “I don’t care what you think, as long as it’s about me.” With stellar ZZ Top-style riffs, self-loathing narcissism has never been so charming.
Hip-hop’s freakiest talents join forces over change-purse-jingling beats. Missy brings the cheeky rhymes, the Arkiteks and Lamb bring the club-shaking bass, and each out-weirds the other.
The slyest bragging ever devoted to size 10, um, shoes. But the dancehall superstar is not totally self-serving: He also shouts out Sisqó’s ‘Thong Song’ over a snake-charmer beat.
‘Do the Panic’
While we wait for the new Strokes record, this will do just fine: Amid sexy garage-band propulsion, Alex Greenwald delivers the sunniest lines ever written about severed heads.
‘Black and Gold’
The burbling bounce of this Australian soul singer’s breakthrough single showcases his liquid-caramel voice. But it’s also the year’s deepest rave anthem – a tormented meditation on agnosticism.
Ciara featuring Ludacris
A wonderfully outlandish paean to expensive tastes. Like every other R&B diva, Ciara likes her Louis Vuitton togs. But she also likes her copy of Prince’s ‘1999’ – check out those freaky falsetto squawks.
Ra Ra Riot
‘Dying Is Fine’
A miraculous feat: Sad-eyed indie balladeers set an EE Cummings poem to a jaunty violin groove and make it sound like a stadium-rocking anthem.
Flo Rida featuring T-Pain
The hypnotic beat you heard bumping from every car on the road this summer. If scraping the club floor with your ample buttocks is wrong, we don’t want to be right.
Philly’s finest unleash a fiery tirade against greenhouse gases and dirty politics in Alaska, but their biggest selling point is that beat – a sleek funk groove even Sarah Palin couldn’t resist.
Hercules and Love Affair
With a rubber-band bass line and an ecstatic vocal from cross-dressing warbler Antony, this summer jam is as awesomely gay as a glitter-coated rainbow. Disco? Back.
Love as Laughter
The wildest boast from these scandalously underrated Brooklyn rockers – “We can be the best Babylon band” – doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Especially considering those raggedy, Neil Young-like guitars.
‘Day ‘N’ Nite’
He’s Kanye’s new sidekick, and no wonder: This portrait of a “lonely stoner” is emotionally raw, thanks to its minimal, bleeping electro hook.
Lighters up! This jamadelic slow dance by Tom Petty’s reunited pre-Heartbreakers outfit sounds like a lost soundcheck from the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72.
Two coolster rappers combine guitar-soaked beats and brainy, head-spinning lyrics about mocha twists and getting it on. Result? The best party joint A Tribe Called Quest never made.
Santogold and Diplo
The dub diva gets ghostly above Diplo’s glitchy melody, flying her paper plane so close to the flame that her high notes transform into a ritual folk chant.
Get ’Em Mamis
For fans of The Wire: Baltimore ladies rhyme about diamonds over a sample that sounds like a shivering polar bear.
The year’s most jacked beat was It producer Bangladesh’s nagging earworm for Weezy’s delirious spiel about the joys of being, well, Lil Wayne.
‘Kim & Jessie’
Celebrating the glories of Eighties New Wave, this French act’s radiant paean to young love would’ve sounded great on the Top Gun soundtrack.
The Rumble Strips
Is doo-wop the new retro soul? These Mark Ronson protégés make a strong case for that idea with rollicking, horn-powered grooves and spooky harmonies.
‘Jump in the Pool’
This vibrant UK breakthrough proves dance rock still has a pulse. Singer Ed Macfarlane’s existential dread mixes with glitchy synths and a dizzying Afro-funk beat – it’s LCD Soundsystem for emo kids.
Forget ‘Heartless.’ The year’s most wrenching split-up ballad is this acoustic dirge from everyone’s favourite new beard-y troubadour. “I tell my love to wreck it all/Cut out all the ropes and let me fall.” Ouch.
Old Crow Medicine Show
A fast-rhyming banjo blues from old-timey cowpunks high-tailing it down the southbound highway with Smokey on their bumper and drugs in their trunk.
‘Don’t Touch Me (Throw da Water on ’Em)’
Busta breaks out of club-rap purgatory to drop a lightning-tongued salvo about how hot he is. When MCs talk about spitting fire, this is what they mean.
‘Check Your Coat’
The ‘Billie Jean’ bounce of this R&B newcomer’s Michael Jackson-obsessed jam is guaranteed to get the party started – especially if it’s the kind of party where Diddy shows up and dances on a banquette.
‘Shake Shake Shake’
Heads up, Little Steven. No garage-rock jam this year was as messy – or as fun – as this Texas trio’s joint, which mixes skronky Farfisas, clattering drums and thudding bass lines with righteous psychedelia.
If 50 Cent and Lil Wayne can make sugar filthy, the Queen of Pop can, too. Pharrell brings a delicately thunky beat, Madonna brings the sticky sweet.
Aided by a hyperactive string section and an Arcade Fire-style groove, these Welsh kids sing about puking at a Mexican restaurant – and still make it sound like good, clean fun.
An equal-opportunity rave-up from contemporary country rock’s godmother. First it’s “Be my girl,” then it’s “Be my man,” as the guitarists duke it out for Mama.
‘Brand New Start’
A sweet, strummy tribute to fresh love by Strokes drummer Fab Moretti’s new trio. Sounds like the Kinks in Malibu; smells like kind bud and Coppertone.
‘Now That You’re Gone’
All the sassy independence of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone,’ except 20 years wiser. With bluesy swagger, Crow has mastered the art of writing breakup anthems for grown-ups.
Leave it to a Nineties-born Harlem teeny-rapper who grew up Googling to come up with a definitive love note to the search function that rules the world – and validates her famosity.
‘You’re Not Alone’
With the earnestness of U2, the consciousness of the Clash and the melodic grit of the Jam, the young British trio turn a fist-pumper about a factory closing into a defiant pub chant.
‘Yes We Can’
Artistically, it’s not exactly ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ But in 2008, this R&B polemic was the anthem we needed, and in terms of votes swayed and ballots cast, it was the rare song that made a difference.
Contributors: Kyle Anderson, Chuck Eddy, Nicole Frehsée, Caryn Ganz, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Brian Hiatt, Kevin O’Donnell, Melissa Maerz, Jonathan Ringen, Jody Rosen, Douglas Wolk