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Weiss' 25 Best Non Hip-Hop Songs of 2008 (A-L)

Graffiti originally spotted on Bedford Ave., Williamsburg in 2002--soon followed by copycat crimes on Silverlake Blvd. and San Francisco's Mission District. Now playing at a Hot Topic near you. For spread-the-wealth reasons, this list was restricted to songs from albums that did not make the Top 50 cut. As for Christmas wish lists: let us all pray that "indie" is never again wielded as a malapropism. No arguments when this exists.

Air France-"No Way Down"

The Gothenberg, Sweden duo known as Air France call their balearic-suffused tropical pop, "Socialist roof-top music." Indeed, there's something inescapably high about "No Way Down." Not in a druggy way--though the track references the Happy Mondays--and it, plus a spliff and warm Carribbean waters, could make for an unbeatable combination. Nor does this perceived flight stem from the band's nomenclature. No, gravity is negated by the effervescence of its rhythms--the white sand synths, littoral hand drums and insouciant island whistling. As the track's elysian haze dissipates, a gentle refrain of "Hallulejuah" provides a fitting denoument. Air France make church music for atheists. They understand that when there's no way down, you have to figure out how to levitate. --Jeff Weiss

Beck-"Gamma Ray"

Chugging along with insistent Technicolor guitars, "Gamma Ray" was one of Beck's strongest singles in years. Like much of Modern Guilt--a seemingly tossed off collaboration with the ubiquitous Danger Mouse--this catchy slice of quasi-krautrock is markedly less opaque than much of Beck's prior output; the lyrics, referencing melting icecaps, hurricanes, smokestacks, and heat waves, are nothing less than a twisted pop reflection of 21st century pre-apocalyptic malaise. Danger Mouse's dense production finds room for surf guitars, gurgling synths, and chiming tambourines ornamented with Laurel-Canyon-style harmonies, but despite all the 60s signifiers, "Gamma Ray" sounds thoroughly modern. If Beck started out as a jokey, genre-hopping pop collagist, he's quickly maturing into a classicist songwriter, building one of the most consistently varied and interesting catalogues in pop. Looming apocalypse or no, that's no reason to feel guilty.--Patrick McKay

Black Mountain-"Wucan"

Black Mountain may wear their Quaalude-friendly influences (Floyd,

Zepp, Sabbath) prominently, but there's something inimitably

sinister--and original--to their projection of the dark side of the

hippie dream. Like Crowley-worshipping elder brothers of Brightblack

Morninglight, Black Mountain's "Wucan" might be stoner music, but it's

certainly not the laissez faire Harold and Kumar edition.*

Instead, it summons the malevolent spirits latent in every trip--vivid

hallucinations, tongue limp and listless as a log, pores oozing oil,

and a stomach like a cesspool. The moment when you're struck by the

sickening suspicion that you've ingested too much and need help.

Frontman Steven McBean mutters Mephistolean incantations: "The haunted

ones howlin' in your head/'yeah it's a broken scene'/that won't bring

you home." Amber Webber chimes in with her ectoplasmic coo: "But we

could come together." The video helps to explain: the band shrouded in

shadow, fascinated by the most atavistic elements--sky, mountains,

plants, desert, and ancient Indian drums. It's dualism at its most

stark: the manichean struggle between light and dark, heaven and earth,

life and death.

*That would be Wolf Mother

-Jeff Weiss

Cheveu-"Lola Langosta"

By

midnight on the final evening of SXSW last Spring, I had eaten a

fistful of mushrooms, drank a half dozen shiners and inhaled about

eight thumbnails of dirt weed from

a battie. Somehow, I'm not exactly sure as to the logistics, I found

myself inside Bourbon Rocks, watching a guy in a silk shirt, cowboy

boots and a bald penis-shaped head try to run Pick-Up Artist

game on a pair of blondes in front of me. Meanwhile, onstage, quite

possibly the shittiest band I've ever seen rocked a rapturous audience.

I wish I were exaggerating but I'm not. Here is The Matches' photo.

See what I mean.

For five minutes that felt like five hours, my outlook on humanity sank

to a nadir only matched during those two weeks when it looked like

Sarah Palin was going to become the next vice-president. Distraught and

heavily medicated, I staggered outside onto the patio area where

Parisian noise/electro outfit, Cheveu fortuitously unleashed a show so

powerful that all I can remember about it is that it felt like 50 mile

per hour gusts of wind were bowling me over. I was reasonably certain I

had stumbled onto the next greatest band. The world was temporarily

saved, good had defeated evil, I was free to employ the insanely

dubious logic that downing two Sparks consecutively was the only

logical option to stay drunk and wired.

When I got home and actually played Cheveu's enonymous album, I

realized that they weren't the French Stooges. Like Hansel realizing

that he'd been smoking peyote for six days and had actually never been

to Mt. Vesuvius, I understood that the drugs had helped embellish.

"Lola Langusta" is the exception, a thrashing, horn-filled,

psych-guitar workout that might be best lo-fi noise pop* song in a year

filled with strong competition. Plus, it's proof that I'm not

completely crazy.

* I mean, am I really supposed to use the phrase Shitgaze?

--Jeff Weiss

David Byrne/Brian Eno-"Strange Overtones "

Past rock heroes making Surprisingly Good new records is about as

boring as songs about songs, and this is one, but David Byrne, his

age-flattened voice the peculiar croon of an ex-neurotic (and his

gentle alienation still the mark of the mild autistic he probably is)

narrates the creation of "Strange Overtones" like it's a love note (to

Brian Eno, I guess). More importantly, Eno deserves it - like most of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,

the track he provides is a rich, curious groove, atop which Byrne

floats and coos like the weirdo butterfly he's become. A dangerously

light song, yeah, barely there - but Byrne's always been halfway to

vanishing. The trick (Zeno's, I think) is making it a very long halfway.--Theon Weber

Diplo-"Brew Barrymore"

I suppose it's tantamount to being a lit critic and admitting you like Atlas Shrugged, but

I prefer Diplo when he's less adventurous. I don't need the Baltimore

club stuff, the Brazilian baile funk and [gasp], the early M.I.A.

material. Call me Bill Kristol all you want--I'll take this re-working

of A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation," and/or the Dub mixtape

with Santogold, any day.

Unveiled at the dawn of summer for the Roots BBQ in Philly, the

transplanted Illadelphian lifts Phife Dawg's, "I like 'em brown,

yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian" line and blends it with the graceful

glide of original sample source, Ronnie Forster's "Mystic Brew." Adding

some fierce, clapping drums and out of the crates comes, "Brew

Barrymore," a track that only has one thing in common with its

namesakes: you want them both at your party.--Jeff Weiss

The Decemberists-"Valerie Plame" (Weber)

I've had it with this band. You should know that. I live in their

fucking city and I was at their fucking Obama rally (half a mile back,

delicately euthanizing a margarita) and for several months I dated a

girl whose roommate learned their songs meticulously, one at a time, on

the fucking ukelele. But we're not dating anymore. So loving the hook

of their love-troubled-by-espionage song (which by the way is like

their third one, for goodness' sakes) was a little like admiring our

fading President's shoe-dodging acumen earlier this week: a pithy,

surreal return, now the real danger's past, to a place I'd grown

humorless about. "Oh, Valerie Plame / If that really is your name" is

actually cathartic, eight years' disasters made a jaunty joke. Of

course it's confusing to love a spy - poor Joseph Wilson! Why didn't we

think of this at the time? Someone find a ukelele.--Theon Weber

Department of Eagles-"No One Does It LIke You"

"No One Does It You" is the kind of song that makes you feel stupid

writing about because even stripped down to its most simple parts (see

the video above), it's pretty much perfect. And nothing in life is

perfect, so how can a song be. And really, what a cliche. But it

is--along with Grizzly Bear's "While You Wait For the Others (see blurb

bel0w) and "Two Weeks," Danniel Rossen has been a part of three perfect

songs in one year, more than many songwriters see in a lifetime.

According to my iTunes, this is the 20th time I've listened to, "No One

Does It Like You." I still couldn't tell you what the song is about.

Probably love. It sounds like it. But why am I supposed to analyze

lyrics when you can feast for days on The Beatles-worthy harmonies

(yes), effortlessly breezy bounce and straight-out-of-the oven

keyboards. And the moment just after the 2:00 minute mark where the

song comes to an unnatural end, before exploding into even more

colorful constellations. Really, the only line you need to pay

attention to is the chorus: Nobody Does It Like You. Exactly. --Jeff Weiss

Dr. Dog-"The Ark"

Perhaps its the rabidness of Dr. Dog's fan base that elicits such

fierce jabs from their detractors---like all of their records, Fate received drastically mixed reviews.

Of course, their weaknesses are out in the open: an all-too familiar

aesthetic that overly swipes from The Beatles, The Band and The Dead.

Lyrics occasionally capable of making Jim James' lesser work on Evil Urges look like Blood on the Tracks. But

that's missing the point. Like My Morning Jacket, the band that took

them on their first national tour, Dr. Dog are linchpins of the

Bonnaroo set, with jam band leanings, sometimes inconsistent studio

albums and a salient Muppet Show fascination.

All you hope for is a half-dozen strong songs to work into an already stacked setlist. Fulfilling those modest expectations, Fate delivered

"The Ark,"a tune making up for in atmosphere what it lacks in lyrical

acumen. Toby Leaman belts his great beards and burlap voice, backed by

cozy Fender Rhodes keys, crisp guitars, glowing organ lines and

three-party harmonies--the result is that few songs in 2008 made for

such rich comfort food. --Jeff Weiss

Fleet Foxes-"Mykonos"

Let's just get this out of the way now: There's nothing inherently

original about Fleet Foxes. They aren't prophetic, they aren't

cerebral, and surely aren't the most photogenic bunch. However, you

can't deny that these guys are sharp. Take "Mykonos" for example. It'd

be easy to classify this song as "laid-back," but on closer inspection,

you can hear the force with which the band plays every instrument. The

harmonies are lovely, sure, but what are they trying to convey? This is

a song about brotherhood, about trust; the harmonies are epitomizing

the theme of togetherness that runs through the track's undercurrent

("Brother you don't need to turn me away/I was waiting down at the

ancient gate"). These are not weighty themes, and lyricist Robin

Pecknold doesn't try to make them out to be. In a James Mercer-like

fashion, Pecknold merely abdicates to the tranquility of the music--the

words are merely to advance the story, but aren't the story in

themselves. No, "laid-back" isn't the right word. That would insinuate

that this song, and this band, is lazy. Perhaps a better word would be

"precise," or better yet, "great."--Andrew Casillas

Grizzly Bear-"While You Wait for the Others"

I admit to being unfamiliar with these guys aside from this song, so

maybe I shouldn't be surprised by the Spectorish atmosphere, but

Grizzly Bear use it for entirely different purposes than most of the

Wall of Sound-loving contemporaries - not for nostalgia or even for

emotional impact, but more to create a charged but sparsely populated

space within which the sighing chorus of "While You Wait for the

Others" suddenly smacks you upside the head. It's a protean song - you

could go walking in the rain to it, or indulge in some making out, or

drift off to sleep, and that subtle organ, the twisting guitar, and

whichever one of the Chrises is singing remains just as casually

devastating.--Ian Mathers

Los Campesinos-"We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed"

According to Gareth, this one is basically about the fact that even Los

Campesinos! know they won't be this good forever (you can't be the kind

of passionate fan he is and NOT realize how things burn out, no matter

what). There are so many great, and perfectly performed, half lyrics

here - "but they loathe me and I hate them," "you say he's got his

teeth fixed, I'M GONNA BREAK THEM," "Charlotte says it's more

productive than the one you did in Canada," and of course the already

much remarked upon, mass chanted "Oh, we kid ourselves there's future

in the fucking, but there is no fucking future," which is less

Significant than the more po-faced commenters would tell you, but

luckily is also much funnier too. And it ends perfectly, talking of

your own body breaking down with age and wear and care and then "I hope

my heart goes first, I HOPE MY HEART GOES FIRST!" For as long as they

do remain this good, it's that kind of damn-the-embarrassment

conviction that makes LC! truly great, and the fact that it comes

packaged, as on this song, with at least six separate hooks just seals

the deal.. --Ian Mathers


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