My (sort of) data-driven Top Ten songs of 2008

Posted by Rob Walker on January 5, 2009
Posted Under: Music

Later this week I’ll come back to the survey I posted the other day (so you still have time to weigh in if you want), but today I am going to reprise something I did last year: my quasi-data-driven list of the 10 best songs of the year just ended.

First the list; then, after the jump, for those curious, an absurdly long breakdown of related personal-listening data that (partly) shaped the list, and some mild observations about the problem with “best of the year” lists.

  1. “Poison Dart,” The Bug featuring Warrior Queen
  2. “Count It Off,”  Saturday Knights
  3. “Albert Goes West,” Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  4. “Da Feelin’,” Nightmares On Wax
  5. “Get It Up (Radioclit mix),” Esau Mwamwaya, Santogold, M.I.A
  6. “Bag of Hammers,” Thao
  7. “Ooh Yeah,” Moby
  8. “Thinking About You,” Irma Thomas
  9. “You Want the Candy,” The Raveonettes
  10. “Play Your Part (Pt. 1),” Girl Talk

Okay. So I’ll quickly acknowledge that Cousin Lymon is going to give me shit about the Raveonettes and Moby, but the explanation that follows should not be taken as defensive! As last year, I partly let my own iTunes data tell me what my favorite songs were. I looked at two things: Songs I gave five-star ratings to, and playcount stats.

Playcount stats first. Here’s the Top Ten (actually Eleven, due to ties) per plays:

19 plays: “You Want the Candy,” The Raveonettes; “L.E.S. Artistes,” Santogold

18 plays (three-way tie for second, or third, depending on how you look at it): “Mercy,” Duffy;  “The Stars,” Moby; “Albert Goes West,” Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

17 plays (six-way tie for third (or sixth)): “Like It or Not (El Guincho Remix),” Architecture In Helsinki; “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” Gnarls Barkley; “Dragonslayer,” James Pants; “Ooh Yeah,” Moby; “Everyday It’s 1989,” Moby; “Chain,” School of Seven Bells

The thing that’s surprising to me — and this gets at the entire point of this exercise — is to see which songs I played a lot even though I didn’t give them five-star (top) ratings: “L.E.S. Artistes,” Santogold; “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” Gnarls Barkley; “Dragonslayer,” James Pants; Moby; “Everyday It’s 1989,” Moby; “Chain,” School of Seven Bells. All good tunes, but clearly I wouldn’t put them in my subjective Top Ten, even if they’re near the top of the listening-data list.

As for five-star songs: The total number of songs that I own and that were released in 2008 is 377. Out of those, I gave five-star ratings to 26. I won’t list them all. I will say that the top nine entries in my Top Ten above got five stars.

I’ll also mention a couple of other five-stars: “Boom” by Anjulie, “Beg Waves” by Ponytail, “Nowhere’s Nigh,” by Parts and Labor, and “Time To Pretend” by MGMT are all examples of five-star songs that I may ultimately end up liking better than some of what I put in my Top Ten — but I acquired them relatively recently and the playcounts are low. This is a problem with the data-driven Top Songs list: It overweights things I have owned longer.

Then again, “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” by She and Him, is a five-star song that got 16 plays — but I kind of got sick of it. Especially when the band became a darling of the sort of NPR crowd, and I read or heard one too many glowing interviews with them.

Now, you may notice that several of the songs in my Top Ten are not in the tops of the playcount list at all — most notably the top two songs. That’s because, ultimately, I apply subjectivity. When I looked over the list of five-star songs, I thought about which ones I really loved the most, wanted to hear again right that second, and guessed I would continue to love. That’s how “Poison Dart” and “Count It Off” took the top spots, despite just 14 and 10 plays, respectively: Those are my faves, so I’m overruling my own data.

Much the same applies with that Girl Talk song: I actually only gave it four stars. But, I feel pretty strongly that Feed The Animals is easily the best full-length album I acquired this year, and it needs to be represented. Plus I think the first minute of “Play Your Part (pt. 1)” is, in particular, one of the most exciting album-openers I’ve heard in about a decade.

I could go into more detail about some of the other picks, but you’ve suffered enough. Hey, at least I spared you any actual music-critic lingo — no “sounds like X crossed with Y,” no quoting of supposedly profound or witty lyrics, etc.

Finally, as last year, I’d like to just reiterate that the entire “best songs of the year” enterprise is fundamentally out of sync with the way that those of us who are not music critics actually listen to and acquire music. The vast majority of the music that I acquired and listened to in 2008 was not released in 2008. One of my very favorite “new to me” songs of the year was “Finesse (Night Wind),” by Johnny Hodges — from 1939. Another song I love (and have listened to more than anything released in 2008) was “Selective Periphera,” by Ben Benjamin. It’s from 2007, but I didn’t get hold of until 2008 — so it ends up not being on either year’s list.

(On a related note — I had “Paper Planes” on my list for 2007, but for a lot of listeners it’s a song they first encountered this year, when it became it a belated hit.)

Perhaps next year I’ll do a Top Ten of songs I got and loved in 2009 — but all released in earlier years. I’m sure I’m not the only music consumer whose listening habits diverge sharply from the release-date calendar that the music press (traditional and blog versions) follow so slavishly.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far: I believe my pick for the fifth-best song of the year, [“Get It Up (Radioclit mix),” Esau Mwamwaya, Santogold, M.I.A], is still available freely and legally, here. Maybe you’ll like it.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Rather than give you shit, I’ll just say that “Poison Dart” is decidedly uncut dope. The Bug is the bomb. And I really love that Warrior Queen song “Bad Boyz,” but I don’t expect you will. Anyway, I haven’t heard the N.O.W. track, but I think they deserve more credit than they actually get. But who cares what I think? My quick unsolicited top 3:

1. Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture
2. Petar Dundov, “Escapements”
3. Zombie, “Where Were U in ’92?”
4. Pom Pom, 12″ compilation

You’re always cool in my book, Walker. A lot cooler than you probably realize, or acknowledge, for that matter (Moby and Ravonettes notwithstanding).

Written By cousin lymon on January 5th, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

thx c-ly. just for that i’ll make the effort to check out all four of your top three! And Warrior Queen as well. And I think you might actually like that Get It Up mix, the free one linked at the end. Maybe not. But maybe.

Written By Rob Walker on January 6th, 2009 @ 9:14 am

I performed the same experiment and it pointed out to me something that I knew already, but which I think is increasingly out-of-step with how most people listen to music: I still listen to albums. So If I were to actually list the top 10 by plays, it would be the top four listed here and then all other tracks from Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals (about which I agree with you completely, Rob) and Beck’s Modern Guilt. So this is the one-single-per-album top 10:

What It’s All About – Girl Talk – 29 plays
Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love – Coldplay – 26 plays
A&E – Goldfrapp – 25 plays
Walls – Beck – 22 plays
Inní mér syngur vitleysingur – Sigur Rós – 16 plays
Family Tree – TV on the Radio – 13 plays
Houston – R.E.M. – 10 plays
Going, Going, Gone – Stars – 10 plays
Lost Verses – Sun Kil Moon – 8 plays
The Trees Were Mistaken – Andrew Bird – 7 plays

And yeah, almost all of the music I acquired in 2008 was not actually produced this year

Written By jkd on January 6th, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

it’s actually zomby- old habits die hard. and then come back to life and attack people. or something to that effect.

Written By cousin lymon on January 6th, 2009 @ 9:59 pm
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