... in which Your Critic realizes to his horror how little new music he listened to this year. This is perhaps a double-edged sword; on the one hand, I'm sure I've missed some great stuff, and some mediocre stuff (Actually, I know I have missed some of both: I have shamefully not yet all of the assuredly mediocre 808s, undoubtedly brilliant Tha Carter III, allegedly interesting Bon Iver, great for sure TVOTR, etc. etc.). On the other hand, it means some respite from the standard hipster-trash picks of the rest of my staff (he says pompously). For those of you not swilling PBR, or even for those who are, here we go:
10. Ratatat. "Shempi." LP3 is a tad bit weaker for my money than Ratatat or Classics, but there's still some great toe-tapping (or raving) stuff. This is probably the hookiest track on the record, and since I just listened to it, it will be in my head for the next three weeks now.
9. Whiskeytown, "The Rain Won't Help You (When It's Over). The first of three cheats on this list; this track is old, but it was just released on the must-have expanded edition of Strangers Almanac--one of the best records of the '90s. Despite Ryan Adams' prolificacy, this one's a cover of an Alejandro Escovedo tune. No worries; it's got all the hallmarks of classic Whiskeytown: Great Ryan vocals, depressing lyrics and tasty Phil Wandscher licks.
8. Nas. "Black President." "They said this day would never come, They said our sights were set too high, They said this country was too divided." My roommate declared this track the official Song of November in our apartment, and rightly so. Right on, Nas. Also, I'd much rather hear about a Black President than Black Republicans.
7. Bill Frisell. "A Change Is Gonna Come." If Bill Frisell releases something, it will be on my year-end list. Like Nas, he's in on the political act. When I got this record, I was a bit worried that he'd suck all the life out of this Sam Cooke tune, one that had special resonance in this election year. Just like his versions of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "What's Going On," he manages to balance a little soul, a little reflection and a little spookiness. It ain't Sam, but it's sublime anyway.
6. Ryan Adams. "Born Into A Light." A beautiful song. Typically strong lyrics from Ryan, great vocals and tight-playing from the Cardinals (dig Jon Graboff's molten steel guitar licks, dripping all over the track). Cardinology is a great record, and this is a great track to open it.
5. House Popes. "The Way You Looked At Me." I have mixed feelings about putting this on my list. On the one hand, it's my father's band. On the other hand, it's a fantastic pop song. The lyrics tell a good story, but what makes it work is the way everything seems to build back up to the harmonic guitar riff. Impressive work for a bunch of old men.
4. Vampire Weekend. "Oxford Comma." A concession to the hipsters. I actually heard about this band just before they got big (or rather, before they got big in the remote, barren lands of North Carolina) from a New York Times article; I thought the name of the band was dumb, but this song's title caught my eye and I listened to it. Really refreshingly peppy music; many of the songs on their eponymous debut are very much alike, but this one has the perfect mix of African riffs, overeducated references, melody and snark. Nate Freeman is right that it still sounds fresh, but I worry about how it will age. I suspect I will look back on it as a bit of a guilty at about the time my children discover it--the same way my mother felt when I dug out her Weather Report LP--but for now, I'm digging it.
3. Black Keys. "Same Old Thing." The Keys' latest, Attack & Release, hasn't gotten nearly the praise it deserves. There's a handful of standout tracks--"Oceans and Streams," "Strange Times," "Things Ain't Like They Used to Be"--but this one is probably my favorite. Brawny guitar riff + dirty, Tull-like flute + Pat Carney beating the s-- out of the drums = the third best song of the year. Akron represent!
2. Bob Dylan. "Red River Shore." A truly beautiful song; why it wasn't released on a regular record, instead of Tell Tale Signs, I can't imagine (this is my second cheat; the track was recorded in 2006). In classic form, Bob borrows a story from the folk music tradition (and a title from the Kingston Trio), then spins it into a heartbreaking, profound work of art. Plus no voice could sell this song better than Bob's late career growl. The best song of the year in almost any year but this one, which brings us to...
1. The Soul Drifters. "Funky Soul Brother." This track was recorded in the '60s or '70s but re-released on the compilation Carolina Funk: First in Funk, 1968-1977 this year (this disc is curated by Chapel Hill resident Jason Perlmutter). The story behind it is almost too weird to believe: It's the only extant track by the Soul Drifters, a band from a town of 700 in South Carolina, and floated around in an edited version with just the instrumental breaks as a collector's holy grail for years. Carolina Funk restores the original in unabridged form, and what an original it is. Deep, deep bass right in the pocket, equally deep and funky drumming, a screeching horn section, choppy funk guitar and a primal undertow that in my experience makes the squarest of squares move. This song makes James Brown sound like James Taylor and George Clinton sound like George Michael. It's almost too funky for words--but don't say they didn't warn you: "Fee, fie, foe, fum/Look out sister, 'cause here we come/Everybody is/A funky soul brother." You'll be one, too, when you finish listening to it.
For more of the Top 10 Tracks of 2008, click here. The next installment is on Tuesday.
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