By Annie Zaleski

Pop music often gets a bad rap for being disposable or vapid, and in many cases that's true. (Katy Perry, Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls, step right up!) But every year, a few irresistible bits of innovative ear candy rocket up the charts and seep into our subconscious.

The following ten singles saturated the Top 40 — or what passes for hit-oriented radio in this topsy-turvy musical climate — while proving that accessibility doesn't necessarily preclude creativity.




Few adolescent pop stars have aged as gracefully as fleet-footed Chris

Brown. Produced by Polow da Don, “Forever” was first recorded in

shortened form for a Wrigley's Doublemint gum ad; accordingly, the

longer version of “Forever” is a grown-up bit of (no pun intended)

bubblegum hip-pop that's still young at heart. Rounded techno beats and

digitally warmed vocals conjure the giddiness of puppy love, a time of

life when the entire world shines with hope and promise.



“Viva la Vida”


Coldplay gets flak for its perceived pretentiousness, but “Viva la

Vida” tempers that bombast with effortless humility. The song's sturdy,

hearty strings (arranged by Davide Rossi, who's toured with Goldfrapp)

and triumphant, church-bell percussion stand in sharp contrast to the

soft, synthesized ambiance of Viva la Vida or “Death and All His

Friends.” Lyrics about a fallen ruler tortured by regrets — including

dishonest behavior and excessive hubris — portray a fallible figure

that's more relatable than most pop-song heroes.




The U.K. act Lucky Soul and its vintage-girl-group sass might have more

underground cred, but it's Welsh chanteuse Duffy who's earned

widespread kudos for her retro cool. “Mercy” sounds like a relic from

Swinging London's Carnaby Street, with its kicky mod-surf organ,

Watusi-perfect syncopation and Duffy's faraway, AM-radio-icon vocals.

Her soul-drenched rasp at times channels Nancy Sinatra, Lulu, Dusty

Springfield and Motown divas, but the 24-year-old's confidence and

intonation are wholly her own creations.



“American Boy”


Based around chunky disco-funk chords from Boys Noize's “& Down”

and techno-soul beats from “Impatient,” by — who produced

and co-wrote the song — “American Boy” is a butterflies-in-stomach

daydream. Sassy U.K. soulstress Estelle flips the usual longing for the

exotic in favor of visiting U.S. hot spots (Broadway, Brooklyn, L.A.)

with her all-American crush. (Even her distaste for his “baggy jeans”

can't hide her coy liking for “what's underneath them.”) It's not every

day that Kanye West takes a back seat to anybody, but his dull guest

verses add nothing to this whimsical, breezy narrative.



“Got Money”

(Cash Money)

2008 was inarguably the Year of Weezy: Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III was

one of the few bright spots in terms of album sales (it sold a million

copies its first week in stores), and the stuttering single “Lollipop”

dominated all summer (and has already spawned a hard-rock cover by

Framing Hanley). Still, Wayne's appeal is much clearer on “Got Money,”

a song on which orchestral flourishes and gleeful celebrations of

excess (and of Wayne himself) abound. T-Pain's vocoded vocals chime in

from the peanut gallery and move the song along, matching Weezy's

gravelly, animated expressions word for word.



“Paper Planes”


It took the inclusion of “Paper Planes” on a movie trailer (Pineapple

Express) to propel M.I.A. into the mainstream. But it's still an

unexpected hit: Hyphy-like snaps and her laissez-faire jump-rope chants

devolve into a chorus that's full of gunshots and cash register

ka-chings. An omnipresent sample of the Clash's “Straight to Hell”

drones in the background throughout, a melodic trick that seems

brilliantly apt when M.I.A. cheekily slurs, “Yeah, I've got more

records than the KGB,” on the song's bridge.




(Def Jam)

The first single from Year of the Gentleman is a sleek, chrome-plated

R&B jam. A plaintive acoustic guitar melody and magnetic dance

beats — which obliquely resemble Underworld's mid-'90s heyday — match

Ne-Yo's longing for an alluring woman. The attraction between them

grows stronger as “Closer” progresses; Ne-Yo repeats the phrase “I just

can't stop” over and over, and by the song's end, his voice is breaking

with desire and need.




(SRP/Def Jam)

The Barbadian beauty's Good Girl Gone Bad (and the Reloaded reissue)

spawned hit after hit in 2008, but the fever dream “Disturbia” stands

above them all (save for her shoulda-been smash duet with Maroon 5, “If

I Never See Your Face Again.”) A song suitable for a teenage slasher

flick, “Disturbia” matches an indefatigable electro-pop backdrop with

dread-filled lyrics and a bouncy, wordless chorus. This uncertain

atmosphere matches up nicely with Rihanna's delivery, which ranges from

detached cool to mild panic, the discotheque equivalent of

free-floating anxiety.



“Sensual Seduction”


Snoop's said in interviews that his talkbox-aided distorted vocals on

“Sensual Seduction” honor the late funk luminary Roger Troutman. The

super-deep grooves the latter crafted with Zapp — along with the

oeuvre of bawdy genre stalwart Rick James — especially influence

“Seduction” (or “Sexual Eruption,” depending on where you're hearing

the tune). Bird-like chirps and pastoral keyboard surges mingle

suggestively with Snoop's laid-back leers. In other hands, these

come-ons would be sleazy or cheap, but the inimitable Snoop somehow

makes all the caddishness sound charming and irresistible.



“Whatever You Like”

(Grand Hustle/Atlantic)

It's fitting that T.I.'s “Whatever You Like” samples the Rocky II

theme, as the Atlanta rapper's chart-topper is an unqualified artistic

knockout. Produced by Jim Jonsin (of Lil Wayne's “Lollipop” fame), the

song succeeds because of its minimalism. Loping tin-can beats and

micro-beep synths are the only accompaniment, leaving T.I.'s generosity

toward his lady in the forefront. “Stacks on deck, Patrón on ice,” he

speak-sings with sincerity. “And we can pop bottles all night/Baby, you

can have whatever you like.”

Further Reading:

L.A. Weekly's Top Ten Dance Collections of 2008, Both Mixed and Unmixed

Hitsville: The Year in Music, by the Numbers

Busted Rhymes: The Top 10 Most Preposterous Rap Songs of 2008

Top 10 Indie Rock Albums of 2008

Top 10 Metal Albums of 2008

The Worst Lyrics of 2008: NCAA-Style Showdown

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