The Best Singles of 2008

| Tue Dec. 16, 2008 9:42 AM PST

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What a bonkers year for singles. The undisputed heavyweight champion song of the year, with the magical combo of hipster cred and unexpected popular appeal, is, inarguably, copyright 2007, so any replacement #1 will necessarily feel kind of anticlimactic. I suppose it's stretching it to include MGMT as well, but everybody else is, so I'm going to look the other way. It's a mess. To be honest, I finally settled on 20 great songs and then scrambled the order until it looked right. What emerged on top was at first a surprise, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense: it's a convention-smashing ode to staking a claim on your future, no matter what the haters say.

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1. Santogold - "LES Artistes"

There's a new genre in town: the song about becoming famous that helps make you famous. I suppose the White Stripes "Little Room" got it started, but Santi White's clear-eyed look into her own future covers the joy, the nerves, the trepidation, and the regret involved in creativity and fame, with a dis to the wannabes who try and take you down. "I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up," she sings, over a soaring guitar riff that out-rocks anything Metallica or G N' R spit up this year, a moment where greatness and ambivalence are inextricably linked.

2. Lil Wayne - "A Milli"

The most sonically menacing three and a half minutes in pop music this year. Consisting entirely of a collosal bass drum, a slowed-down sample of A Tribe Called Quest, and Wayne's growling vocals, the track maintains an almost unbearable level of tension. In terms of, well, notes, here's what I think is happening: the bass drum is one step up from the sample, and Wayne's rap holds a monotone two steps down, creating an uncomfortable harmony that never resolves. It's a perfect backdrop for lyrics whose braggadocio is so surreal as to be both hilarious and kind of terrifying.

3. MGMT - "Time To Pretend"

The second of two "get ready to be famous" songs this year, Brooklyn's MGMT take the opposite road from Santogold, choosing to see pop music and fame as a game, sarcastically imagining their rock star futures: "Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives." However, it's paired with a tune that couldn't be more sincere: a massive keyboard riff and the loping dance-rock rhythm that's anchored great singles from "Float On" to "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

4. Glasvegas - "Geraldine"

This Scottish quartet found the sonic link between U2 and the Jesus and Mary Chain, adding the kind of charming, heart-tugging lyrics you could sing, teary-eyed, in your local pub. The simple two-chord backing track shudders with a gargantuan reverb, providing a perfect background for singer James Allan's precision vocal melodies, which add syllables to the words in a thick brogue: "My name is Geraldine, ay-yeem yee-er soh-cial worr-er-kerrr!"

5. Fake Blood - "Mars"

There was a moment in the early '90s when great rave singles seemed to discover an awesome, effective trick: access the driving intensity of techno and the uplifting drama of house by alternating the two! Genius! Bizarre Inc. did it most memorably in "Playing with Knives," but the mysterious UK producer known as Fake Blood has updated the formula for the oughts with cutting-edge production tricks and a silly sense of humor. A bass line careens like an out-of-control spaceship, giving way to a strangely filtered set of exultant chords, and then a quick vocal sample chimes in as an afterthought: "Mars!"

6. Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"

Even on this list of crazy tunes, this may be the strangest song of them all. A minimalistic combo of a tuned bass and cheesy electronic piano chords gives way to massive, pounding tribal drums in the chorus, all underneath a mechanized, muffled Robo-Kanye. It's categorized as "hip-hop" on iTunes, but it's most akin to mechanical electro like Royksopp's "Remind Me" or even The Human League's "Don't You Want Me," using machines to form a perfect expression of the frozen emotional landscape of heartbreak.

7. Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk"

An irresistible slice of chiming ska-inflected Afropop, made all the more charming by the fact that it turned out to be made by four white dudes from New York singing about Washington Heights and, er, Sloan-Kettering. The jangling guitar gives way to a keyboard line of simple major chords, and even the line "Look outside at the raincoats coming" can't dampen the song's sunny spirit. It's over in two minutes, and you want to start it right back up again.

8. DJ Mujava - "Township Funk"

Leave it to the UK's Warp Records to discover that the South African dance music style kwaito is sounding a lot like the early experiments in proto-techno that came out of Detroit and Chicago. This track has a three-chord pattern and an immediately catchy, blippy keyboard line, but it still sounds exotic and mildly unhinged. It could be the syncopated, marching drum pattern, or maybe the rumors are true and Mujava's got some issues. Either way, he created one of the strangest dancefloor killers this year.

9. Portishead - "Machine Gun"

Whether this is the finest moment on Third is debatable, and it isn't even the point. But as the first "teaser" single released before the highly-anticipated album, "Machine Gun" was the shot heard round the world. The distorted, staccato samples that comprise the backing track are even more disturbing than the song's namesake, mechanized but utterly alien noises, like alarms or warring space robots. The message couldn't have been more clear: this ain't your mama's Portishead.

10. Cut Copy - "Hearts on Fire"

The lyrics describe a moment "that could change your life," and the ecstatic, propulsive music rises to meet the promise, blasting great big chords and even a quick female "ah-ah" vocal sample, then breaking down to delicate arpeggios for the moment of truth: "I reach out to you tonight." Capturing the stirring drama of New Order and the blissful heights of house music, it feels like the first time your high school crush looked back at you.

11. Kid Cudi - "Day 'n' Nite" (Crookers remix)
An unassuming new singer from Cleveland gets a storming, stuttering remix from the Italian techno duo of the moment.

12. Pitbull - "Krazy"
Another inspired combination of American hip-hop and Italian techno. Who knew?

13. Deerhunter - "Nothing Ever Happened"
Punk rock energy meets drone-rock expansiveness; the chorus contains the only half-step vocal harmony I think I've ever heard.

14. Hercules & Love Affair - "Blind"
A funky dance tune that understands the melancholy at disco's heart.

15. T.I. & Rihanna - "Live Your Life"
A cavalcade of cheesy references creating a moment of pure pop joy.

16. TV on the Radio - "Golden Age"
Who else could rhyme "natural disaster" with "ghetto blaster" and get away with it?

17. Friendly Fires - "Jump in the Pool"
An thrilling moment of dance-rock glory.

18. T.I. & Jay-Z - "Swagga Like Us"
The weirdest "Paper Planes" remix ever.

19. Busta Rhymes - "Don't Touch Me"
A weirdly organic, jazzy turn from the fastest rapper in town.

20. Tie: Gnarls Barkley - "Going On" / Beck - "Gamma Ray"
Danger Mouse explores two sides of the same double-time beat.

So close, Ladyhawke, Surkin, Raveonettes! Alright, Riffers, there you have it. Great music I missed or overhyped tunes I've drunk the Kool-aid on? Comment away.

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