Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal” (from Fleet Foxes, Sub Pop): This sort of rustic, open-throated harmonizing could only be made by guys with unmanicured beards. I could’ve picked practically anything off the young Seattle group’s self-titled album or Sun Giant EP, both out this year, but this one adds a lovely seasonal angle.
Vampire Weekend, “A-Punk” (from Vampire Weekend, XL): A short, sharp blast of bratty exuberance from the Ivy League upstarts, part Talking Heads, part Ramones, part Paul Simon.
Pictures and Sound, “100 Directions” (from Pictures and Sound, Vanguard): My fave track of 2008—from my fave album of 2008—mounts a wonderfully big-hearted lyric opening into a captivating hook atop a groove that jumps with the visceral momentum of Spoon. A totally inspired take on a perfectly written song.
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (from Only by the Night, RCA): I still don’t understand why 2007’s fully awesome, wildly inventive Because of the Times wasn’t the commercial breakthrough the Followills were destined to pull off as the most exciting young rock & roll band on the planet. Not only that, but it’s ironic that KOL’s first U.S. hit track was the pumping but thematically knuckleheaded “Sex on Fire,” which Caleb had to be talked into finishing by his bandmates. This one, the follow-up single, is far more satisfying, applying the muscular backing vocals of the previous album’s thrilling “Knocked Up” to an Arcade Fire-style anthem. Only by the Night also boasts a ferocious Stones-meet-Zeppelin rocker “Crawl” and the sleeper “I Want You,” a classic summertime lazy groover.
TV on the Radio, “Halfway Home” (from Dear Science, Interscope): With its Beach Boys-derived Bah-bah-bahs and thrilling payoff in which Tunde Adibimpe slides upward into falsetto, the rousing opener from Dear Science, the New York band’s artistic triumph and mega-hookfest, churns through genre distinctions as if they were dead-set on obliterating them. The first time I heard it was on the iPod of Scott Cresto, my friend from Chrysalis, the band’s publisher, just before Radiohead took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, providing me with the perfect lead-in for the show of the year.
Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing” (from Viva La Vida, Capitol): For me, Viva La Vida is missing something. It doesn’t pack the punch of X&Y or roll out the parade of hooks that made A Rushj of Blood to the Head so endlessly playable. But this Beatlesque beauty stands with the band’s grabbiest, most tuneful cuts; the secret weapon is the squad of cellos that thickens the chords in the chorus.
Lindsey Buckingham, “The Right Place to Fade” (From Gift of Screws, Reprise): Think of this cut as “Son of Secondhand News,” topped off with a “Take that, Jack White” rawk solo from the great eccentric. Yup, that’s Mick Fleetwood hammering away on the drums; Mick and John McVie reunite with Lindsey on the shredding title track and the crunchy rocker Wait for You”; neither plays on the sparkly “Love Runs Deeper,” according to the credits, but it sure sounds like they do. Actually, as I listen to these tracks again, I’m leaning toward “Love Runs Deeper” on my year-end compilation.
The Raconteurs, “Old Enough” (from Consolers of the Lonely, Third Man/WB): Jack and Brendan find the perfect balance between Gram Parsons, Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills & Nash on this delightful roots romp.
My Morning Jacket, “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 1” (from Evil Urges, ATO): The Louisville band’s second terrific album in a row, Evil Urges was produced by the veteran Joe Chiccarelli, who did a similarly killer job engineering the Raconteurs’ Consoler of the Lonely. With its elegant groove and dusky atmosphere, this one is as close as MMJ gets to Radiohead.
TV on the Radio, “Golden Age” (from Dear Science, Interscope): Inspirational lines from Kip Malone: “The age of miracles. The age of sound. Well there’s a Golden Age. Comin’ round, comin’ round, comin’ round!” And what a groove they’ve cooked up to go with it.
Beck, “Youthless” (from Modern Guilt, Geffen): Here, Beck and Danger Mouse seem to take TVOTR’s groove and strip it down to the bone, so that it’s as dry as the desert. But there’s real power in the austerity they’ve created, and that goes for the album as a whole.
Elbow, “Grounds for Divorce” (from The Seldom Seen Kid, Fiction/Geffen): Utterly spot-on classic-rock-throwback track reinvents the power ballad for the ’00s.
Aimee Mann, “Freeway” (from @#%&*! Smilers, SuperEgo): I sold this album a bit short in my three-star review, resisting the synth-focused, guitar-less musical premise, but man, this track grooves, setting up a classic Aimee pop hook. The song I singled out in the review, sounds even more epic now than it did at the time.
Matthew Sweet, “Byrdgirl” (from Sunshine Lies, Shout! Factory): Delivers on the promise of the title with maximum jangle and the implied poignancy that’s a Matthew trademark.
Lucinda Williams, “Real Love” (from Little Honey, Lost Highway): I had the honor of hooking up Lucinda Williams with Matthew, who did the vocal arrangement on this track as well as “Little Rock Star,” and sang the harmonies with Susanna Hoffs, the other half of Sid and Susie.
Bob Dylan, “Everything Is Broken” (from The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, Tell Tale Signs, Columbia Legacy): This finger-snapping alternate take from 1989’s Oh Mercy anticipates the more recent chuggers “Things Have Changed” and “Someday Baby” (both of which appear on this collection in radically altered form). It also anticipates the mess the world is in two decades later, but that prescience is what we’ve come to expect from Bob.
John Mellencamp, “Troubled Land” (from Life Death Love and Freedom, Hear Music): T Bone Burnett has yet to produce his old pal Dylan, but on this Mellencamp LP, he hints at what such a collaboration might sound like. In feel as well as theme, this is very much a companion piece to “Everything Is Broken.”
Mudcrutch, “Scare Easy” (from Mudcrutch, Reprise): Here’s one of Tom Petty’s signature credo anthems, right up there with “I Won’t Back Down” and “Refugee.” How interesting that it took the odd notion of cutting the album Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band didn’t last long enough to make to re-inspire him to do his best work since Wildflowers in 1994.
Teddy Thompson, “In My Arms” (from A Piece of What You Need, Verve): In which Richard Thompson’s talented kid locates his inner Roy Orbison. Think of the rollicking electric keyboard solo as a bonus hit.
Explorers Club, “Safe Distance” (from Freedom Wind, Dead Oceans): Lil Wayne and Kanye West weren’t the only artists to mess around with zeroed-out Auto-Tune. You wouldn’t expect to find the tonal trickery in a Beach Boys-style ballad, but Jason Brewer pulls it off, turning incongruity into intrigue. From one of the year’s most fully realized albums—who knew a bunch of obsessed kids from Charleston, South Carolina, would possess the arcane skills to pick up where Holland left off?
Robin Danar w/Jesca Hoop, “Yell” (from Altered States, Shanachie): Here’s my 2008 pick for an absolute smash in a perfect world. Producer Danar mixed and matched familiar songs with a variety of vocalists, who do their thing over beats he’s created. This one departs from the concept in that writer/singer Hoop came up with the lyric and melody on the spot, and the resulting piece is as seductive as anything I heard this year. Also worth checking out from the same album: the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan putting his romantic stamp on Chrissie Hynde’s “Message of Love.”
Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart” (from Narrow Stairs, Atlantic): The five-minute instrumental buildup to the meat of the song is somewhere between dancing about architecture and wordless poetry; it’s the sort of thing the Beatles might’ve done.
Randy Newman, “Losing You” (from Harps and Angels, Nonesuch): A string-drenched ballad from the old master as gorgeous as it is sad, this song is right up there with “Marie” from Good Ol’ Boys—meaning as good as it gets.
Ray LaMontagne, “I Still Care for You” (from Gossip in the Grain, RCA): The bearded one carries along the existential emptiness of “Losing You” as if Newman had handed off to him during a pickup football game. The track’s dark beauty is deepened by the arrangement and drumming of producer/collaborator Ethan Johns that culminates in a synth wash as hopeless as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Radiohead, “House of Cards” (from the live-in-studio DVD From the Basement, TBD/ATO): Practically a singer/songwriter-ish solo perf by Thom Yorke, who coaxes a ton of mood out of his acoustic. The very definition of haunting.
Pictures and Sound, “It’s You” (from Pictures and Sound, Vanguard): I first heard this in the car as I was turning onto my street on the way back from buying my wife’s birthday present, and its clear-eyed tenderness captivated me. When Luke Reynolds sings the hook, “It’s you I love, not just the thought of you,” I can’t help but sing along every time while pondering the implications of the notion at the same time. This is something rare—a truly original love song.