Let's start with the cover, for a change. Once I'd nailed down the title (supplied by rock music's premier pair of intellectuals), it was a question of finding an image somehow reminiscent of 1988. The warped acid house reference of my old Watchmen t-shirt fitted the bill quite nicely, particularly with the tie-in to the movie coming out in a few months time (or is it?). There wasn't much nostalgia involved in putting it on, just the horrific realisation that there was once a time when medium sized t-shirts actually fitted me.
Anyway, you know the score. Here's a selection of my favourite individual tracks released in 2008, assembled on CD for a select audience of mates and one lucky competition winner. Which could be you, if you answer the question at the end of this piece by 11.59pm GMT on February 28th 2009. Read on to find out more.
(Video links are available for all the songs, as is the usual YouTube playlist: though be warned that both of the Japanese clips have already been deleted at least once by over-eager intellectual property lawyers, so there's no telling how long those two will remain available. Fans of The Felix Project are directed towards track 18.)
1. THE LAST SHADOW PUPPETS - The Age Of The Understatement (from The Age Of The Understatement, Domino) (video)
Drifting And Tilting was all well and good as far as it went, but it would have been nice (as well as cruelly entertaining) if they'd filled the bill with all those people in British pop who've spent their lives trying desperately to be Scott Walker. No, I don't know what Neil Hannon's up to at the moment, since you ask. But in the meantime, we have Arctic Monkeys Bloke And The Other One, ripping off the arrangement from Jackie for all it's worth, and making a pretty good job of it. The rest of the album manages some neat contemporary updates of the tropes of self-consciously 'classic' pop, but none of it gets the blood pumping quite like this opener.
2. MONKEY: JOURNEY TO THE WEST - Monkey Bee (from Monkey: Journey To The West, XL) (video)
I've seen Monkey twice now: once in 2007 during its premiere run in Manchester, and once in the summer of 2008 during its small but perfectly formed residency at the Royal Opera House in London. Since then, we've had an extended slot at the O2 (reportedly its last appearance in the capital), and the release of a quasi-soundtrack album that weirds up the lush orchestration of the stage show to pleasing effect. Not to mention Hewlett and Albarn's canny bit of recycling at the time of the album's release, when they used a variation on this track for the BBC's Olympics opening credit sequence. In both cases - but more so in the case of Monkey Bee - it's the shift into double time that makes them so thrilling. Now, how about those Chinese performances? This summer, if you can manage it.
3. 7 SECONDS OF LOVE - Soupy George (from Danger Is Dangerous, Porkdance) (video)
Woo! Yay! After three and a half years of traipsing around London's scuzzier venues, 7SOL have finally released a proper album. Sure, they've put out digital download EPs both before and since: though at the time of writing, their MP3 distributor has gone bust, forcing them to revert to their old business model of giving stuff away for nowt. Regardless, I'm an old man, and don't really consider a band to be a proper recording outfit until I have a CD in my sweaty paws. And even though virtually every track on Danger Is Dangerous is familiar from those 40 months of gigging, that means the band have honed them to perfection: helped, no doubt, by the presence of ska veteran Gaz Mayall at the controls. Soupy George has always been the cue for manic leaping about at 7SOL gigs (especially during the shoutiest middle eight of the year), and it's a delight to finally have it pinned down on plastic.
4. CAMILLE - Gospel With No Lord (from Music Hole, EMI Music France) (video)
As we go through the traditional January grind of being told who it'll be cool to like for the rest of the year, it's easy to forget that just twelve months ago, Britain was in a musical crisis. The problem: Amy Winehouse was permanently off her tits, and we didn't have a sub ready. So early 2008 was spent pitting Adele and Duffy against each other. And even though the popular vote appears to have gone in Duffy's favour, the question has to be asked: does our Winehouse Sub have to be British? Because there's a French candidate that's been knocking around for ages. Last heard on these compilations in 2004 crooning Too Drunk To Fuck with Nouvelle Vague, Camille has subsequently filled a series of splendidly bizarre solo records with quirky vocal sounds. Le Fil - a concept album of sorts featuring a one-note drone that plays through every single track, and for a quarter of an hour after the record's finished - may have been her most out-there work, but even the more commercial fare on Music Hole has a sense of wit that's missing from her Brit counterparts.
5. COLDPLAY - Viva La Vida (from Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, Parlophone) (video)
The Belated Birthday Girl has taken to impersonating Nelson Muntz at me lately. "Ha ha," she says. "You like Coldplay." Regular readers, though, won't be surprised at that: I was showing a more than grudging admiration for them as long ago as the V2000 festival, when it was already apparent that the second stage was too small for them. This was just before Chris Martin started developing his enormous delusions of grandeur: I remember being baffled during that transitional period, when he had some of the world's hottest women throwing themselves at him like he was the heir to the Rohypnol family fortune. Anyway, I moved on, basically because Coldplay didn't, and there wasn't really a place in my life for their sort of melancholy any more. But I have a horrible feeling that with the world situation being the way it is, I'm now back at the levels of gloom I was at in 2000 which made them a viable proposition back then. Anyway, thanks to the process we used to call 'Enossification' back in the day, at least they've stopped sounding like a less good version of the bloody Chameleons now.
6. SUPERFLY - Ai Wo Komete Hanataba Wo (from Superfly, Warner Music Japan) (video)
The not-quite-discovery of this year's Japan trip. I saw Superfly's record on sale in shops while I was over there, and was vaguely intrigued by her hippy chick image (hey, it worked for Love Psychedelico) without actually hearing any of her music. Until the flight back, when her whole album was playing on JAL's inflight entertainment system. I listened to it twice on the flight, and realised it's exactly the sort of hook-encrusted fluff that I enjoy in J-Pop. (And also realised that I'd have to buy the damn thing by mail order when I got home.) In fact, this song (the title translates as Love Bouquet or thereabouts) shares a lot of DNA with a track I rediscovered in 2008 while compiling the J-Pod for The BBG - Yuki's Yorokobi no Tane. Both have a similar pace and structure to them, even down to the shameless rearrangement of their final chorus into an ascending chord sequence. Being able to see the strings doesn't stop you enjoying the puppets, though.
7. PORTISHEAD - Machine Gun (from Third, Island) (video)
I admit it amuses me to follow up the gleeful melodic Japanese pop with the hideous atonal Bristol noise. And though I appreciate Portishead's desire to completely reinvent their sound more than I enjoy it, this track makes for one hell of a comeback after over a decade away. If nothing else, this one won't be soundtracking the gloomier dinner parties in London like their earlier work did, despite the final 30 seconds or so taking an entertaining left turn into Tacky 80s Action Movie Soundtrack territory.
8. THE RACONTEURS - Carolina Drama (from Consolers Of The Lonely, XL) (video)
A bit of a no-brainer, this one: I love Jack White, and I love songs with a narrative that only resolves itself in the final line. The first Raconteurs album didn't quite do it for me: at least one person I discussed it with (hi, Luce) preferred it to the White Stripes because it had recognisible tunes, which is kind of the exact opposite of my position. But the songs on this second album seem more solid to me, and this heady cocktail of sex, death and lactose intolerance is the best of the lot.
9. DAN LE SAC VS SCROOBIUS PIP - Reading My Dreams (from Angles, Sunday Best) (video)
Le Sac and Pip had pride of place on 2007's compilation, even going so far as to contribute the title. But Thou Shalt Always Kill didn't really give any proper indication as to the sort of range they'd cover on their album: and certainly there was no warning that after all the listed tracks were over, we'd get an unannounced bonus as lovely as this. I'm prepared to put my hand on my heart and suggest that spending 71 days away from the person you love can give you an entirely different perspective on a song where Pip merely celebrates getting together at the end of a working day. Whatever: his curiously arousing lyrics are beautifully offset by Le Sac's carefully constructed soundscape.
10. KIYOSHI HIKAWA - Genkai Funauta (from Enka Meikyoku Collection 8 - Genkai Funauta, Columbia Japan) (video)
The actual discovery of this year's Japan trip. The exact circumstances were these: we emerged from a tasty sushi dinner in Otaru to discover that the whole town was more or less shut down by 9pm in the evening, leaving us no alternative but to head back to our hotel room. On our fabulously high definition telly, we watched one of the endless set of variety programmes you get on NHK, this one featuring a young host called Kiyoshi Hikawa. At the end of his show, in what I still think of as his Mike Yarwood 'and this is me' moment, he took to the stage alone and ripped the place apart with a stirring Japanese ballad about his love of seamen. Two days later, flicking through JAL's inflight entertainment mag on the plane home, we found Kiyoshi's rampantly airbrushed face staring out of the pages, and that same song playing on the enka channel. The BBG has subsequently bought the album, and is feverishly practising her yells of uh-shoi! in preparation for her next Japanese karaoke night. (Although apparently all the cool kids in Japan prefer Jero these days.)
11. FIGHT LIKE APES - Jake Summers (from single Jake Summers, Model Citizen) (video)
We're a bit short on young shouty sweary people so far this year, so here are Dublin's own Fight Like Apes - the third of this year's acts to feature as a Simian Substitute Site, after 7SOL and M:JTTW. The delights of this song are fairly self-evident: so I'll use this space to bitch about Rough Trade, whose mail order department has taken over two months so far to send me an Irish import copy of the Flapes' debut album, Fight Like Apes And The Mystery Of The Golden Medallion. It finally gets a UK release in January 2009, but I want it now, dammit!
12. LYKKE LI - I'm Good, I'm Gone (from Youth Novels, Warner) (video)
Yeah, Lykke Li's definitely interesting. Her debut album, for the most part, is a collection of carefully airbrushed pop tunes with a subtle smattering of weird shit throughout. The video linked to above shows that she's an inventive live performer. And the gig I saw her give at Koko in November 2008 presented her as a full-on rock chick, leaping around and throwing shapes like Juliette Lewis in Hamburg. Which one's the real Lykke Li? I dunno. But I'm prepared to hang around and find out.
13. DAVID BYRNE & BRIAN ENO - Strange Overtones (from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Everything That Happens) (video)
27 years after Byrne and Eno's electrifying collaboration on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, it's curious to see the anger that this delayed follow-up has inspired in some quarters. "How dare they not have completely reinvented music from the ground up again," seems to be the overall feeling. Which is daft, really: with its radical use of sampled and found sounds, Ghosts was such a gigantic influence on virtually all subsequent art pop that it's impossible to imagine that Byrne and Eno could do it all over again. Instead, this is the rather lovely sound of two men, deeply comfortable in each other's presence and judgment, trying a few things out to see what happens. And what happens turns out to be the closest thing to a new Talking Heads album we've had in, well, twenty years. That can't be a bad thing, can it?
14. GLASVEGAS - Go Square Go (from Glasvegas, Columbia) (video)
Of course I like the idea of Glasvegas: I have an entire collection of Jesus And Mary Chain albums to prove it. The combination of loud guitars, Scottish melancholy and Spectoresque chord changes is a winning one, and it's fun to hear it again. However, on the evidence of the album and subsequent Christmas EP, it's the only trick they have up their sleeve, without any real variation or experimentation to rival the sort of things the Reid brothers did with their sound. So enjoyable as the album is, it's all much the same for me, making it hard to pick a single representative track without latching onto the one extra thing that Go Square Go adds to the mix: fuckloads of swearing.
15. SONNY J - Handsfree (If You Hold My Hand) (from Disastro, Stateside) (video)
One of the entrants to the 2005 CD competition - don't worry, this year's is just a few paragraphs away - sent me a full, somewhat grumpy track-by-track analysis along with his entry. When it got to Lemon Jelly's song '75 AKA Stay With You, he took particular exception to the way they took an existing classic record, made a few tweaks to it and passed it off as their own work. And the same accusation could be hurled at Sonny J here: nearly everything that's great about this song comes from the original Donna Hightower tune that he's just reworked with a more aggressive backing. All I can tell you is, when played loud enough, it takes the top of my head off. So ner, JD.
16. ELBOW - One Day Like This (from The Seldom Seen Kid, Fiction) (video)
It's always interesting to watch a new musical cliche evolve over a short period of time. However, it's not the sort of thing you can force, it's usually more an accident of timing than anything else. Take Elbow's justly revered song of joy in the face of reduced expectations - you'd think it was almost made to accompany British athletes winning Olympic medals unexpectedly. Within weeks, it had become one of those standard bits of inspirational music that lazy TV directors used to give a lift to any footage they felt needed it. So huzzah for Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, which managed to destroy the cliche by using One Day Like This to soundtrack one of the most astonishing televisual images of 2008: a group of men, standing on a hill, pissing towards Konnie Huq.
17. DIZZEE RASCAL - That's Not My Name (from Radio 1's Live Lounge Volume 3, Sony BMG) (video)
This is, I admit, a bit of a compromise. I liked That's Not My Name when the Ting Tings did it: I liked Dizzee Rascal's brazen bid for chart success when he released Dance Wiv Me. But if I included both of them on this CD, it'd mean I'd have two UK number ones there, which would lead to accusations of me selling out or worse. Luckily, the two are combined in a single cred-salvaging unit thanks to this live session for Radio 1 (subsequently released on one of their compilation albums), in which Dizzee brilliantly reworks the Tings' lyrics for a Black British audience and gives the arrangement an element of Chas 'n' Dave that surprisingly suits it rather well.
18. SPIRITUALIZED - Goodnight Goodnight (from Songs In A&E, Sanctuary) (video)
Given that Jason Spaceman (a name that sounds very different in my head post 30 Rock) spent some time over the last couple of years in hospital with double pneumonia, Songs In A&E has to be my favourite album title of 2008. (Enka Meikyoku Collection 8 - Genkai Funauta runs it a close second.) As for the music, it's mostly the usual Spiritualized bombast, almost to the point of self-parody: there are three songs in a row with the word 'fire' in the title, for God's sake. Nevertheless, the bombast's what I like about Spiritualized, so I don't have a problem with it: but the air of sadness that his ill-health has given to the music is a welcome addition, if that isn't too harsh a thing to say. Goodnight Goodnight is particularly dark, particularly if you catch the mumbled lines in the final seconds: but it's also heartbreakingly pretty, and that works for me.
So as we wrap up this musical analysis of 2008, and wait patiently for Joe Gideon And The Shark to deliver the first great album of 2009, there's one last item on the agenda: competition time. A copy of These Beats Are 20 Years Old will go to the first person to answer this question correctly - and this year, I'm going to make it piss easy to see if that gets me any more replies than the usual handful. The question is this: the cover of this year's CD is based around Watchmen, written by the legendary Alan Moore. Three of his other comics works have been reviewed on this site over the last ten and a half years. Name them. Send your answer by email to firstname.lastname@example.org before 11.59pm GMT on February 28th 2009, and the first correct one I receive will win the CD. If no correct answer is received by that date, the first entry to have arrived will be considered the winner, no matter how stupid it is. I leave it entirely in your hands. Being a monkey, and all.