The Best Singles of 2008

PopMatters kicks off our annual two-week-long best music of the year feature with the 50 best singles of 2008, highlighted by an infectious British/American match-up.


Bon Iver

"Skinny Love"

There's the impossibly high falsetto. The plantive yet powerful strumming. The dead-of-night eeriness it evokes, as if soundtracking a thousand broken hearts all at once and somehow getting them all to sing "my my my" in perfect unison. Though recorded while isolated in a cabin, Justin Vernon's screeching howl of "who the hell am I?" is powerful enough to touch the soul of anyone, anywhere, at anytime, regardless of habitat. Congratulations, Justin: your "Skinny Love" is now one big fat piece of pop history. Evan Sawdey




"Wanna Be"

Maiysha was one of the most formidable new artists to emerge this year. "Wanna Be" is her anthem. She lays bare her strengths and her vulnerabilities in the lyrics while producer Scott Jacoby perfectly matches the friction of her existential quagmire with an explosive funk-rock arrangement. Maiysha's voice is the star attraction, though. The more you listen to "Wanna Be", the more you appreciate the nuances of the song's writing, performance, and production. Your playlist is incomplete without it. Christian John Wikane



Young Jeezy & Kanye West

"Put On"

Having the summer’s defining rap single is nothing new to Young Jeezy, yet even still, “Put On” feels different. It trickled out along with word that Jeezy’s third album would be called The Recession and it finds him operating in a zone where he feels our collective pain while still rapping about expensive cars. It’s not condescending because Jeezy, a guy who got rich off hood money, pays his city back by putting out epics like this that bring people together and help them to forget that they are probably fucked. Jordan Sargent



Booka Shade


It’s one of the great phenomena of popular music, that the same chord progressions we’ve heard many times before can continue to excite us in a new single –- as long as it’s done properly. In the world somewhere between techno, house, electro, ambient, and a little bit of pop that German duo Booka Shade inhabits, “Charlotte” is just such a song. Any lyrical material is incidental here -– muted cries of “’eyaa", “oh whoa", and “Charlotte". The real excitement comes from the fact that, while it isn’t hard to anticipate where that massive synth riff is going to go, it doesn’t make it any less invigorating when it gets there. David Abravanel





There's nothing subtle at all about "Geraldine", or Glasvegas for that matter, but damn, if it isn't one of the prettiest singles we've heard all year. By taking the Psychocandy template and blowing up the melodrama to fabulously bombastic proportions, James Allan's simple, seemingly tossed-off song about a social worker friend of the band's metamorphoses into a shamelessly rosy-hued declaration of compassion and love, whether it's fraternal, platonic, or romantic, the song propelled skyward thanks to Rich Costey's stadium rock mix. Adrien Begrand



Kristoffer Ragnstam

"Swing That Tambourine"

Forget everything you thought you knew about young Scandinavian singer-songwriters. Kristoffer Ragnstam is sensitive, sure (“You are probably the best thing that ever happened to me” he sings), and he’s all about the melody -- but he’s got a swagger and a passion that leaves his contemporaries for dead. “Swing That Tambourine” is a rollicking, raucous piece of late '60s rock ‘n’ roll, complete with vintage fuzz and semi-innocent attitude. If this tune isn’t an indie dancefloor staple within a year, it’s a human tragedy. David Pullar



The Walkmen

"In the New Year"

Despite claiming that the songs from You & Me were slowly crafted over the course of two years, "In the New Year" could not be better timed. Hamilton Leithauser's impassioned, howling vocals whip threw an organ drenched landscape that compliments the collective sense of political optimism that has permeated through the indie world leading up to the departure of Bush, and the arrival of Obama. But while Hamilton rejoices, "We won by a landslide/ Our troubles are over", he also cautions, "the snow is still falling". Louis J. Battaglia



Lucinda Williams


Nearly nine minutes, this gorgeous, honest song seems part eulogy to the nurturing music industry artists were fortunate enough to enjoy in the ‘70s and part damning indictment about what that industry has devolved into. Using a very economical amount of words, Williams drives this point home with each line, especially near the homestretch where nowadays money triumphs over any semblance of artistic integrity. While describing another artist in the song, the subject could just as easily be Williams herself. Jason MacNeil




"Black President"

That an African-American had emerged as a viable and tenable candidate for president immediately caused an influx of celebratory and reflective compositions to capture and convey this unique moment in history. But none were as profound as Nas’ -– nor as prescient. Vivid snare-drum rolls evoke past, more militant, black political movements and a 2Pac sample (from “Changes”) functions as a challenge and provocation, “Though it seems heaven sent we ain’t ready to have a black president.” A soothing chorus responds “Yes we can/ Change the world” with an Obama speech sample echoing the second line. The tone is defiant and hopeful. But Nas doesn’t blindly succumb to hype. Balancing the line between ardent supporter (embodied by Johnny Polygon’s chorus) and hostile critic (represented by 2Pac) he addresses the cultural ramifications and questions Obama’s motives and readiness, finally conceding to reality: “America surprised us and let a black man guide us." Thomas Hauner



The Avett Brothers

"Murder in the City"

As the Avetts head off to a big-city major label deal, The Gleam II offers a gentle closing of the books on their indie years. "Murder in the City", the EP's standout, lays out instructions to be followed in the event of the narrator's death, but quickly blossoms into a love song, a self elegy, and a meditation on family. Far more uplifting than its title would indicate, this delicate blend of acoustic guitars, piano, and brotherly harmonies tugs heartstrings on multiple levels. Andrew Gilstrap

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