The 39 most memorable pop music moments of 2008
From electronically enhanced vocals to a "peanut butter pudding surprise," the Pop & Hiss staff reflects on the 39 most memorable moments in pop music in 2008. Why 39? We're saving a spot in case something crazy happens in the next week.
The year Auto-Tune blankets the world
If there was any one definitive tone of pop music in 2008, it was not a genre, instrument or voice. It was a $400 pitch-correction plug-in from the software company Antares. You know it when your hear it -- that little flutter between vocal phrases that lends a certain robotic tang to vocalists. Auto-Tune burst into mainstream pop consciousness courtesy of T-Pain, who made it an instantly identifiable timbre on the radio. Now, it's practically impossible to get through two songs on Power 106 without one featuring a warbly and suspiciously in-key T-Pain, Akon, Kanye or Lil Wayne. It makes anyone's voice sound expensive, uncanny and a bit lonely. Quite metaphor as the record business burns, no? (AB) Photo: T-Pain. Credit: Getty Images
Best excuse for investing in some fancy stereo equipment: Fall Out Boy's "Folie à Deux."
Fall Out Boy's latest is completely over-the-top. "Nobody wants to hear you sing about tragedy," the band announces in the album's opening moments, and things take off from there. With left-turn melodies, multipart harmonies and a Cheap Trick-like knack for a hook, Fall Out Boy crafted one of the more exuberant, zany rock 'n' roll records of the year. By the time the thing comes to a close, the listener has been subject to a dizzying rush of adrenaline, one that isn't afraid to slam together punk rock anthems, glam-rock falsettos and some '70s-inspired light rock. (TM) Photo: Island Records
Best teasing out of a metaphor: Robin Thicke's "You're My Baby"
How many times has a lover tenderized his pitch by using the word "baby?" In this funky seduction, Thicke goes all the way with it, using the language of early parenthood to celebrate an utterly absorbing bond. It's weird, but it works, even when he croons, "I'm you're blanket." Soft! (AP) Photo: Lori Shepler /Los Angeles Times
The king of the rock 'n' roll single: Jay Reatard
There hasn't been as much talk this year about the death of the album as in years past, mainly because musicians just keep putting out, lo and behold, albums, but if the album is indeed slowly asphyxiating, Jay Reatard's here to tie a plastic bag around its neck. Matador Records released some of the garage-punk's singles in a batch unceremoniously titled "Matador Singles '08," and it's all racing guitar fever and bloody-nosed beauty. (MW) Photo: Alex Gallardo /Los Angeles Times
Best good news on TV: "Spectacle" (Sundance Channel)
If you haven't tuned into this new series, find it; if you don't have cable, subscribe. Elvis Costello is the ultra-informed, congenial, sometimes provocative host, giving each week's guest the time, respect and knowledge to explore music -- not gossip -- in a way that hasn't been seen on the small screen for what feels like eons. So far, he's conducted wide-ranging talks and musical demonstrations with Elton John, Lou Reed with Julian Schnabel and former President Clinton (talking about how playing sax and understanding music informed his duties as chief executive). Among those still to come this season: the Police (at the tail end of their reunion tour), Rufus Wainwright, Tony Bennett, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, She & Him (pictured) with Jenny Lewis and Jakob Dylan. For real music lovers, this is must-see TV. (RL) Photo: Merge Records
Best come-on: "Green Light," John Legend featuring André 3000
"Do I have a girlfriend? Technically, no." Somehow, Legend makes that the smoothest line of the year. (AP) Photo: Associated Press
Most unlikely display of a rock 'n' roll heart: Jolie Holland
For the most part, Holland's albums have felt a lot like holiday china. You're really glad it's there, but it's so tasteful and lovely it's difficult to pull it out more than a few times a year. That all changed with "The Living and the Dead," an album where Holland scuffed up her uniformly beautiful blend of smoky jazz and folk with some flinty rock guitar and moody atmosphere that only amplified her best traits. Proof positive, even the most beautiful things become even more so when opening themselves up to a little weathering. (CB) Photo: Los Angeles Times
Best Coachella performance hardly anybody saw: Black Mountain
The Canadian neo-psychedelic band had the unenviable slot playing in the Mojave tent while Roger Waters performed "Dark Side of the Moon" on the main stage. There were probably more flies in their audience than people. But their set was totally immersive, gorgeously spooky and glorious. And they didn't need a giant pig. (AP) Photo: Los Angeles Times
Best rebound: Miley Cyrus with "Breakout"
Britney Spears would seem to be the comeback pop female of choice in 2008, but let's face it, Britney had MTV championing her every move, what with all the VMA awards and a documentary. Also, when Britney appears half-naked in a magazine, it's marketing. When Miley does so, it's a S-C-A-N-D-A-L. But she recovered quite nicely, thank you very much, with the largely fast and spry "Breakout." It's a showcase for her beyond-her-years rasp, as well as her devilishly fun snyth-rock takes on teen life (see "Fly on the Wall"). (TM) Photo: Associated Press
Best near-death concert experience: My Bloody Valentine @ Santa Monica Civic Auditorium
The concert was outstanding, but specifically the 15-odd minutes of single-toned afterburner thrust that was "You Made Me Realise" brought things home with an astonishingly physical touch. See you guys in another 15 years or so. (CB) Photo: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times
Best song featuring a crazy recorder solo: Dido, "Grafton Street"
Dido's first instrument was the recorder, and on this song -- a chronicle of her beloved father's last days -- she plays it with the ferocity that Ian Anderson applied to his flute in Jethro Tull. Brian Eno cowrote and co-produced the track, which you can tell by the way the recorders become a wiggling wall of sound at the song's climax. (AP) Photo: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times
The year's most equal-parts annoying and interesting record, sometimes in the same song: Why?, "Alopecia"
Just the fact that one of the band's vocalists goes by the name Yoni Wolf is reason enough to approach Why? with care, yet there was something compelling about this record, even with the often grating, too-much-information half-raps. (CB) Photo: Anticon
Best U.K. No. 1 that failed to duplicate its success in the U.S.: The Ting Tings' "That's Not My Name"
The Tings seemed poised to break in the U.S., coming out of SXSW with a bevy of buzz and an iTunes commercial. They're not exactly an unknown entity, but spunky single "That's Not My Name" hasn't become the inescapable hit on these shores as it has overseas. That's a shame, as it's got a hip-hop brashness, a slinky beat and it builds to a grand, shout-along finale -- all of it craftily delivered with a sly sense of rage by the dashing Katie White. (TM) Photo: Getty Images
Album most likely to get critics arguing: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
The twee-est phenomenon since Sufjan Stevens entranced many music lovers, but others find the band's medievalist take on Laurel Canyon hippie pop unbearably cloying. Me, I was convinced when I saw the band play at Marymoor Park near their hometown of Seattle last summer. Three thousand utterly hushed and reverent listeners can't be wrong. (AP) Photo: Getty Images
Best tearjerker about scrapbooking: Sugarland, "Very Last Country Song"
"Today is my birthday, and all that I want is to dig through this big box of pictures in my kitchen 'til the daylight's gone," sings Jennifer Nettles in this gently heartbreaking ballad. She's giving voice to a middle-aged woman reflecting on her life, something that happens all to rarely in pop. You can almost smell the tacky adhesive on her hands as she reflects on loved ones lost and lessons learned. (AP) Photo: Associated Press
Best video that needs to be turned into a movie by Wes Anderson -- or at least a TV show by Josh Schwartz: Vampire Weekend's "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"
No matter what your feelings are about Vampire Weekend and their Upper West Side Soweto, the video for "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" has got all the makings of Anderson's fantasy movie. The plot is something like "goth girl goes to preppy party; catches Vampire Weekend guy singing to prom queen," which he'll surely find a way to over-direct. Choice lines can be taken straight from the song: "Can you stay up to see the dawn in the colors of Benetton?" And hey, just use the band's name for the movie title -- vampires are all the rage. (MW) Photo: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Most jaw-dropping country show of the year: Jypsi (at Stagecoach)
This family band built around sisters Lillie Mae, Scarlett and Amber-Dawn Rische and their brother Frank put out a debut album produced by Dixie Chicks' producer Blake Chancey. It was one that created the image of a decent new sibling act with strong bluegrass-inspired harmonies and strong instrumental skills from each. It didn't remotely prepare audiences for the band's electrifying stage act, goose bump-inducing vocalizing and mesmerizing performance chemistry. A major talent waiting to find its way into the right hands in -- or out of -- Nashville. (RL) Photo: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times
Most politicians only warrant songs when they've done something irascible, like start a war or clamp down on pot dispensaries. But this year had quite a few bangers about the president-elect. Nas' "Black President" probably tops the list, followed by Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, Common, Don Omar, Cocoa Tea, Mavado and scads more. But our personal favorite is the Lady Tigra's "First Black First Lady," a deeply funky and quite funny R&B retelling of the Obamas' courtship. (AB) Photo: Associated Press
Best line from a rap record: E-40
Bay area hip-hop icon E-40 always comes correct with nice rhymes, but on the track "Hustle," from his just-released disc "The Ball Street Journal," he drops a doozy: "I'm rare like white running backs." (CA) Photo: Reprise Records
Best album to score either an afterlife ascension or a staggering industrial failure: Johann Johannsson, "Fordlandia"
Inspired by Henry Ford's failed attempt to harvest rubber in the Brazilian Amazon in the 1920s, this Icelandic composer's album was a beautifully elegiac slice of symphonic electronica that resembled a higher-minded Sigur Rós. (CB) Photo: 4AD
Best song from a mediocre film: LCD Soundsystem's "Big Ideas"
It won't get any love from the Oscars, but "Big Ideas" gave the blackjack romp "21" something to be proud of. A heavily instrumental cut -- lyrics don't arrive until around the two-minute mark -- "Big Ideas" is a cavalcade of rhythms. They buzz, they clank, they screech, and they occasionally give way to gloriously brief bursts of guitars. (TM) Photo: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times
Best major label: Interscope and Capitol/Emi (tie)
In a year that saw album sales drop precipitously, it's nice to see at least two major labels get their old-school hustle on (for certain artists, anyway). EMI/Capitol gets the nod for breaking Katy Perry internationally against all odds, while Interscope should be given credit for not giving up on Lady Gaga. The up-and-coming artist's single, "Just Dance," has been out since early summer, and is just now finally starting to break on radio (and sell ... her recently released debut record, "The Fame," has sold more than 99,500 copies as of Wednesday, according to SoundScan). (CA) Photo: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times
Gorgeous album somewhat spoiled by Prince that wasn't made by Prince: Marcin Wasilewski Trio, "January"
Hardly a note is out of place on this meditative gem from Tomasz Stanko's backing band, but a reach into pop for a delicate yet faithful cover of Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls" just felt out of place. It wasn't right when Miles Davis covered Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," and it's not necessarily right for this gifted piano trio. (CB) Photo: EMI
Best continued source of inspiration: video games
Nerds who played way too much Legend of Zelda in the '80s are making music deliberately cribbed from the compressed ditties that soundtracked too many lonely afternoons. There's Laromlab, who released music using the same chiptune technology, but he plagiarized it from some German artists. Not cool, but others have wrenched more honest beauty. Flying Lotus, on "Los Angeles," takes those videogame noises and makes them glittery texture on his cracked-out opus. Dam-Funk, on Stone's Throw Records, sounds like a roller rink's laser show playing inside the castle at the end of a Super Mario Brothers game. And you can find an a cappella version of Nintendo tunes on YouTube. (MW) Photo: Nintendo *Item has been updated to include information about the Laromlab scandalette.
Best use of a back catalog John Zorn's "Book of Angels" series
Started in 2005, Zorn's Jewish music-exploring Masada songbook underwent further interpretations in 2008. Among this year's highlights were takes from improv-minded lunatics Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot and Bar Kokhba Quartet. Brain-cleansing. (CB) Photo: Tzadik
Best mention of a ringtone in a lyric: "It's Never That Easy Though, Is It? (Song for the Other Kurt)" from Los Campesinos!
The Replacements' "Answering Machine" is in need of an update. There's no denying that the Mats' mix of bitterness and loneliness is still powerful, but the choice of technology is a bit dated. Los Campesinos! try to modernize things. And while lacking the acidic tone of the Replacements, this caffeine-loaded U.K. act makes up for it with bratty anger, stomping into the chorus with this refrain: "I'm calling you again on your telephone, and all I ever get is another stupid ringtone." (TM) Photo: Arts & Crafts
Song from 2008 that utterly encapsulated my reaction to a band's album: "Highly Suspicious," My Morning Jacket
The band seriously overreached with the disappointing "Evil Urges," but never more so on this falsetto-funk goof. At least I hope it was a goof -- there's never a good reason to write a song whose recurring lyrical theme is "peanut butter pudding surprise." (CB) Photo: Associated Press
Best award show performance: Kanye West and Daft Punk at the Grammys
So the man may not have won album of the year, but don't ever say Kanye West doesn't know how to entertain. His neon-lighted take on "Stronger" at the Grammy Awards pumped some life into a program that had superstars singing with dead musicians. And only the most hardened cynics couldn't be moved by his tribute to his recently passed mother with "Hey Mama," in which the artist dropped his fancy stage set up for a single spotlight. (TM) Photo: Associated Press
Best animated music video: Tim Fite's "Big Mistake"
For those who have recently thought about getting a tattoo, Tim Fite is here to save you. His video for "Big Mistake" is delightfully cute, yet slightly melancholic, as it presents the imagined history of someone's grandpa -- an elderly gentleman who just happens to be peg legged. And who may or may not have once been attacked by chomping bumblebees and prehistoric-looking sharks. Oh, and he may have also survived a bombardment from an army of feral cats. Or just skip the video and enjoy the playfully folksy melody and sing-along chorus. (TM) Photo: Anti
Best country career resurrection: Jamey Johnson
The singer-songwriter got off to promising, if inconsistent, start in 2005 with his heart-tugging single "The Dollar," a hit that sent everything in his professional and personal life spinning out of control. He lived the party-hearty life to the max, boozing and abusing friends and loved ones until his wife divorced him and he hit bottom. Out of that he created "That Lonesome Song," one of the year's most critically acclaimed albums, one tracing without apology or compromise the downward spiral he followed, and he did it in a concept album format that harks back to such genre greats as Willie Nelson's 1974 masterpiece "Phases and Stages." (RL) Photo: Fox
Best new concert experience: tribal euphoria
Forget shows, think seance. Boredoms, Gang Gang Dance and Dan Deacon all tapped into tribal euphoria this year. And there was My Bloody Valentine's reunion show as well, though that soundquake blitzed right past euphoria to near-death. At the El Rey, Deacon pummeled the senses with serotonin-flooding synths, manic beats from two drummers, psychedelic video and group activities for the audience. Gang Gang Dance and Boredoms led "88 BoaDrum," a symphony performed live by 88 drummers, in New York and L.A., respectively. Our version, helmed by Boredom founder-visionary Yamatsuka Eye at the La Brea Tar Pits, was transformative and bewitching. One problem though -- not enough people danced like the fanny-pack-wearing old man in the audience who jerked with each primal rhythm like it was an electrical current sent only to him. (MW) Photo: Zac Hawthorne
Best song about being a hermit: Love is All's "Nine Floors"
Through the 11 songs on "A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night," Sweden's Love Is All explore the full spectrum of anxiety, with the band's raucous mini-orchestras keeping vocalist Josephine Olausson in check. On "19 Floors," one's own apartment complex becomes a source of unrest, where even the elevators are avoided for fear of small talk. Drums are coated in a layer of fuzz, background vocals buzz like a kazoo and a saxophone streaks down the fire escape. Agoraphobia rarely sounds this much fun. (TM) Photo: What's Your Rupture?
The rise of the musician-turned blogger
The biggest testament to Kanye West's star power in 2008 wasn't an album or a concert, but the fact that he made avant-garde architecture buffs out Top-40 hip-hop kids with his always entertaining product porn blog at www.kanyeuniversecity.com. The same goes for Courtney Love, whose war on Ryan Adams, Lily Allen, shopping carts and punctuation littered the fields of MySpace with defeated foes, and for John Mayer, who singlehandedly redeemed "Your Body Is A Wonderland" by live-blogging himself baking a cake. Yet the musician bloggerati's BMOC had to be Mobb Deep's Prodigy, who's documenting his three-year jail term (where they apparently confiscated his caps-lock key) for Vibe Magazine. It's easily the most entertaining writing to emerge from the clink since Solzhenitsyn. (AB) Screenshot: ww.kanyeuniversecity.com
Best documentary that captured the mood of the artist: "Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell"
Cellist and producer Arthur Russell was an Iowa-raised, New York club-hopping perfectionist who bent disco beats into glass-smooth compositions stroked by his moody cello and fragile voice. Matt Wolf's documentary, "Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell," utilizes heartbreaking interviews with Russell's parents, longtime lover Tom Lee, and evocative stagings of pivotal scenes from the artist's life to capture the spirit of this musical seeker who died of AIDS complications in 1992. (MW) Photo: Matt Wolf
Best song channeling the spirit of Nina Simone: "Shake That Devil," Antony and the Johnsons
Who can't wait for the full-length from the sublime gender-bending chanteur and his group, coming late this winter? An EP, "Another World," had to satisfy fans this year. The best track was this haunting blues, based in a drumbeat that, for Antony, was positively intense, and connecting him to the late goddess of radical soul. (AP) Photo: Chico De Luigi / Bloomberg
Most brilliant live music move: the Tiger Lillies at Safari Sam's
Compelling live shows aren't all that rare, but something truly extraordinary can develop when an act makes its way to an ideal venue. That's what happened when London's deliciously experimental cabaret-pop trio the Tiger Lillies were booked in November into Safari Sam's new home at the Regent Theatre, a nearly century-old former vaudeville and movie palace in downtown L.A. Club owner Sam Lanni lost the lease on his Sunset Boulevard space between Silver Lake and Hollywood, but struck gold in securing the Regent at Main and 5th streets. Putting the Tiger Lillies in for one of the first shows was a stroke of genius. Its haunted and haunting music of prostitutes and other characters from life's fringe rising up to the sky-high ceilings and echoing around its historic walls. Everyone who's been raving in the last few years about Antony & the Johnsons' otherworldly music owes it to themselves to get familiar with the Tiger Lillies, especially if they make a return trip to Sam's. (RL) Photo: Andrew Attkinson
Best video -- at least half of it: Björk's "Dull Flame of Desire"
The first third of this video is fascinating and for some reason resonates more than anything else I've seen this year. The starry images perfectly match the majesty of the track; it's a shame the rest of the video doesn't follow suit (the video is split into three parts, with different directors, all runners-up from a competition for a previous Björk video). (CA) Photo: Getty Images
Best 2008 trend we are hoping continues in 2009: big bands in small clubs
Jane's Addiction at El Cid, the Cure at the Troubadour, Black Rebel Motorcycle at Safari Sam's, Beck at the Echo and on and on. More of this, please, in 2009 -- and less expensive gigs at the Gibson. (CA) Photo: Perry Farrell / Credit: Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times
Best reissue to soundtrack the world's most ominous walk down a dark hallway: Gas, "Nah und Fern"
It's just a matter of time until David Fincher finds Wolfgang Voigt's work, and the results will be somewhere between stylish and horrifying. This four-disc boxed set sounded like "Seven" gone to an unlit disco. (CB) Photo: Kompakt
Contributors: Charlie Amter (CA), Chris Barton (CB), August Brown (AB), Randy Lewis (RL), Todd Martens (TM), Ann Powers (AP) and Margaret Wappler (MW)
Related: Ann Powers on pop music in 2008