2008 was a strange year for music in retrospect. There was no defining aesthetic, no consensus style represented in a majority of what was popular. We were introduced to Adele, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver, but their albums and songs look very different in hindsight. Coldplay and Beyoncé were artists at the height of their popularity to that point, but they were also artists in transition.
Strangely, the only artists who were known quantities that year were Taylor Swift and Lil Wayne. Both put out effortlessly great albums and dominated radioplay with their singles. Both stood atop and apart from their genres, powerful in their popular appeal but imprecise avatars of rap and country. No one else was doing what they were at the time, and no one else has really been able to replicate either one- including themselves.
I loved most of these songs in 2008, so many of them left an impression that lasted. The two songs at the top stand out to me, so I wrote more about them. All of these songs are beloved, but those two were formative.
20. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”: For a band that fancied themselves U2 disciples, they rarely achieved the right amount of bombast or scope to properly sound like them. “Viva la Vida” feels like the ideal achievement of this goal, probably because it’s the only Coldplay song that truly rocks.
19. The Veronicas, “Untouched”: There are about twenty hooks in “Untouched,” and all of them are pop gold. But the first one is the best: a synthesized string riff that casts a spell.
18. Estelle, “American Boy (feat. Kanye West)”: The world was nearing Peak Kanye in 2008, and he’s charming as hell here. But Estelle outshines him with her easy delivery and casual empowerment.
17. My Morning Jacket, “I’m Amazed”: I’ve still never listened to a My Morning Jacket album all the way through. Instead, I play this song over and over again and pretend it’s what all the songs sound like, because that seems ideal.
16. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal”: There’s no telling what meaning this song is supposed to convey, with its surreal images of heads falling in the snow and strawberry-red blood. But sometimes the lyrics aren’t the ultimate message of a song, but, along with the pastoral instrumentation, they act as a vessel to carry you to the message, which in this case is…well, there’s no telling.
15. Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: I do “give a f*ck about an Oxford comma,” so this is a conflicted choice for me. But as the New York-based indie rockers confront academic pretentiousness without mercy, I bop my head right along with them, as if punctuation were meaningless.
14. Frightened Rabbit, “The Modern Leper”: In 2008, I found “The Modern Leper” the perfect anthem for my late-teen angst, even if most my angst was self-made. Ten years later, I don’t relate to it quite as much, but it’s still a lyrical masterpiece that captures self-consciousness.
13. Adele, “Chasing Pavements”: 19 was Adele not fully formed, and producers Jim Abbiss and Eg White filled out the space around Adele’s voice with the tinniest instrumentation. But “Chasing Pavements” is the exception, a mature showcase for the best of what Adele’s voice has to offer.
12. Fleet Foxes, “Mykonos”: Their self-titled debut is a classic, but the best song they released in 2008 is off of the Sun Giant EP. Where the group would come to be known for near-perfect harmonies and a placid playing style (that they’ve subverted in recent years), “Mykonos” features uneven harmonies that somehow hold more of an allure than the perfect ones, and the hooks lean into danger more than on Fleet Foxes, foreshadowing their new jam band tendencies.
11. Taylor Swift, “Love Story”: This is still country Taylor Swift, but she’s leaning more into her pop-rock influences. “Love Story” is emo with a happy ending, and, as always, Swift is fully in control, showing you the archetypes that are important to her while engrossing you in the details.
10. Lil Wayne, “A Milli”: I couldn’t dig this when it came out. I was too hung up on Weezy’s vulgarity, unable to separate my self-righteousness from my discernment. In the decade since, this is the one song from Tha Carter III that seeped into my consciousness, and it became my gateway into Lil Wayne appreciation. The song’s not even about anything. But I guess a song doesn’t need to be about anything when a Phife Dawg sample is the very rhythm of the beat, or when Wayne is featuring his most savage wordplay of his career.
9. Jimmy Needham, “Hurricane”: There were more influential artists within the Christian music industry at the time, and more innovative. But Needham is a special artist, and “Hurricane” provides a great example of why. At other points on Not Without Love and during his career, Needham has leaned into a funk sound. Not so on “Hurricane,” which fits comfortably into both the worship genre, which forms the bulk of the industry, and the singer-songwriter genre, which forms its grassroots foundation. “Hurricane” is straightforward, unambiguous, but rich with purpose. Needham is special, because, like on “Hurricane,” his lyrics find the right images to cut straight to the heart of what we need from God’s grace.
8. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”: If it looks like pop, smells like pop, and feels like pop, then it must not be country anymore. There are still banjos and electric guitars modulated to sound like steel guitars, but if you’re looking for the precursor to the T-Swift we know today, this is it. On “You Belong with Me,” Swift straddles the line between country and pop like no one since Shania Twain. The video is famous for a lot of reasons, of course, not the least of which is that it’s the inspiration for “Imma let you finish,” but the song actually works better without the video. The visual sets the song firmly in high school, while the song itself features Swift sounding more empowered than ever.
7. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”: Speaking of “Imma let you finish…” It’s a damn shame this song will always be associated with Kanye’s pain-in-the-assitude, but it’s found a life of its own regardless. The song reached near ubiquity in the last decade, finding a place at every wedding during the bouquet toss, which doesn’t really do it justice. This should be a song played exclusively on the dance floor, so people can put the iconic video’s moves to good use. We take this song for granted now, but it features some of the weirdest production on any Bey song, and it’s the force of her star power that’s made it into more than just the flavor of that summer.
6. The Hold Steady, “Constructive Summer”: As the opener to the band’s fourth record, “Constructive Summer” wastes no time before being awesome. With a propulsive guitar riff played opposite a killer piano riff, you know you’re in for a rock song with ambition. Then Craig Finn’s voice kicks in and begins what may be the Hold Steady’s best conceit yet: a song about the ennui of childhood summers that turns the ennui on its head. We were always so excited for summer, and then we barely did anything constructive. The Hold Steady bottle that youthful phenomenon and unleash it in a mad dash that demands to be repeated when it’s finished.
5. Blitzen Trapper, “Furr”: If this song came out now, it may not resonate with me with quite the same force. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a great song, or that it’s beholden to the era in which it came out. On the contrary, “Furr” is an impeccable folk ballad, and its lyrics are timeless. No, 2008 was just the perfect time for me to hear this song and allow it to shape my feelings about identity and purpose. Blitzen Trapper have never quite captured the spirit of this hymn since, but it’s not their fault they can’t recreate a perfect song.
4. TV on the Radio, “Golden Age”: Ah, 2008- it was a time of optimism and hope for progressives. No song better encapsulates the very real expectations for the Obama era, no matter how misplaced hope in any politician is. At the time, I just enjoyed the funky beat and that TV on the Radio had released a song that sounded so…happy! There’s always been a dark undertone even in TV on the Radio’s most major-key songs, but there’s no such double entendre here. This is pure joy, through and through.
3. MGMT, “Time to Pretend”: Oracular Spectacular was technically released in 2007, but it didn’t explode until the next year, and especially not this song, which was released as a single in 2008. MGMT’s whole aesthetic has grown a little wearisome in the past decade as they’ve struggled with their identity as a band: are they a psych-pop outfit that pumps out hits like “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel? Or are they a less savvy Animal Collective? As an anthem around which you build your brand, “Time to Pretend” is a tough act to follow. But as a manifesto for an entire generation of white hipster privilege? This is the shit.
2. Drive-By Truckers, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”: Back in 2008 I was dating a woman whose family was…less than fond of me. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it. Anyway, her father was a good man, and he had two daughters and a beautiful wife, so I always associated this song with him. The contentment at the core of the song is rooted in the protagonist’s relationship with his family, and my girlfriend’s father always put his family first. That was admirable to me, and I aspired to that someday.
The song holds a different meaning to me now. That man is someone I still aspire to be someday, but I’m married now. We don’t have kids yet, but we talk about what life will look like with them all the time. Also, while I have yet to experience loss directly, people around me are dealing with death more and more often. This song explores what it means to live and what it means to die, and it implies that life and death all come back to the memories you have of the people you love.
I think there’s more to life than that (and more to death, for that matter), but the sentiment isn’t untrue. Every time I hear this song, I’m reminded of my dreams for my life, and that any wanderlust I feel or regrets I have for things I haven’t accomplished, they fade. Death comes for everyone. I’ve loved well, and that’s what I’ll remember when it comes for me.
1. Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”: I never remember the words to “Skinny Love.” This is ironic, because as Bon Iver’s career has progressed, their lyrics have gotten more and more obtuse. “Skinny Love” arguably has the most direct lyrics of any of his songs, and I still place words in the wrong spot or say “summer love” instead of “I tell my love,” because that’s how I used to mishear it. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times, looked up the words almost as often as I’ve heard it, and still say “kind” when it’s supposed to be “fine.”
Part of that is just on me: I’m not that great with lyrics. But Justin Vernon discovered something early on with Bon Iver that has helped the band’s music to evolve into different forms while still retaining its power. He discovered that he could convey a message of emotion and weight through the timbre of his voice and the production of the song just as effectively as other artists do through words. Few other bands that use words can create worlds in their music with clear rules and values without spelling them out in every bar.
“Skinny Love” uses its lyrics well, and it doesn’t have to. This is Bon Iver’s opening statement, but also their most accessible song. They only got more abstract from here. “Skinny Love” is the song that most draws from traditional folk norms, and it fits into a long tradition of distilling its grief and anger into spare instrumentation. Even if you mess up the words, you’ll still feel the loss.
Another Thirty (alphabetically)
Adele, “Make You Feel My Love”: Better than the Bob Dylan version!
Al Green, “Lay It Down (feat. Anthony Hamilton)”: The title track and best song from an album of smooth, classic soul.
Andrew Peterson, “Don’t Give Up on Me”: This was very close to making the Top Twenty, because Peterson packs so much meaning into every line.
Beyoncé, “Halo”: A subpar song that the sheer force of Beyoncé’s delivery makes into a banger.
Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby [Alternate Version]”: Dylan’s bootleg series has given us a lot of gems, but this may be my favorite.
Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing”: Brian Eno’s best work on Viva la Vida.
Counting Crows, “Le Ballet d’Or”: It doesn’t have a hook to match with their ’90s singles, but it does have a scope and breadth that their hits can’t meet.
Fleet Foxes, “Oliver James”: A beautiful way to close their self-titled debut.
The Gaslight Anthem, “The ’59 Sound”: There are a lot of Springsteen knock-offs out there, but one listen to “The ’59 Sound” and its understanding of nostalgia should convince you The Gaslight Anthem are something more.
Girl Talk, “Play Your Part (Pt. 2)”: Girl Talk’s best work, a masterful mix of OutKast and Journey in the end.
Hercules & Love Affair, “Blind”: A great indie dance break.
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”: Jamey Johnson knows how to tell a story, and here he tells three great ones in one.
Jars of Clay, “Closer”: The EP version of this song isn’t as majestic as the one they released on The Long Fall Back to Earth the next year, but the chorus is just as full of longing.
Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows”: If the world were fair, this song would have made Sullivan a star.
Jimmy Needham, “Unfailing Love (Kelly’s Song)”: I sang this to Vicky at our wedding, so it holds a special place in my heart, but it’s a great singer-songwriter love song regardless.
John Mellencamp, “A Brand New Song”: Some of the best moments on Life Death Love and Freedom are darker and focused on death, but song that’s made the most lasting impression on me is this track, full of hope and light.
John Mellencamp, “If I Die Sudden”: …but the ones focused on death are great too.
Jon Foreman, “Your Love Is Strong”: The best of all the great songs on the Switchfoot front man’s solo collection of season-themed EPs.
Kanye West, “Heartless”: 808s & Heartbreak is my least favorite Kanye album (besides ye, which would force me to crumple up the list and stomp on it if I included it), but the hook on this one is up there with his best.
Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”: Ditto for “Love Lockdown,” which, in a catalog full of confessional songs, still manages to be among his most personal.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”: A ridiculous song from a band that takes ridiculousness very seriously.
Raphael Saadiq, “Never Give You Up (feat. Stevie Wonder & CJ)”: Surprisingly, even though this song doesn’t use Wonder’s best asset (his angelic voice), the result is still reminiscent of his best soul classics.
Rihanna, “Don’t Stop the Music”: Released in 2007 on Good Girl Gone Bad, “Don’t Stop the Music” didn’t shoot up the charts till 2008, which is hard to believe, since it feels like this song could jump start your car.
Robyn, “Cobrastyle”: Robyn has never achieved the crossover success she probably deserves, but this single (along with “With Every Heartbeat”) marked her comeback to the dance charts where she has been a mainstay ever since.
Taylor Swift, “Fifteen”: I get why people don’t like the noise surrounding Taylor Swift, but this song is a perfect example of how well she was able to reach inside teenage minds and place the contents into hit songs.
TV on the Radio, “Red Dress”: Dear Science is TVOTR’s party record, and this is their signature party song, tinged with a little darkness.
Usher, “Love in This Club, Pt. II (feat. Beyoncé)”: The original was great, but Beyoncé’s presence on the sequel lends some gravitas to a wonderfully stupid premise.
The Very Best, “Mfumu”: “Warm Heart of Africa” got all the attention, but I prefer my Very Best at its purest, with Esau Mwamwaya’s Malawian voice soaring above electropop bliss.
The Very Best, “Warm Heart of Africa (feat. Ezra Koenig)”: But Ezra Koenig’s okay too.
The Welcome Wagon, “Jesus”: This pastor-and-wife duo’s entire debut album is great, but who (besides producer Sufjan Stevens) would’ve thought that the best song would be a Velvet Underground cover?
Future Top Tens
Andrew Peterson, “Dancing in the Minefields”
Hot Chip, “Take It In”
Ben Rector, “Dance with Me Baby”
Kanye West, “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)”
Broken Social Scene, “World Sick”
Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Gungor, “The Earth Is Yours”
Kanye West, “Power”
The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Surfer Blood, “Swim”
Adele, “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
Gungor, “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert, “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
Matt Papa, “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine, “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr., “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”
Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”
Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”
FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”