In 2008, the very phrase ‘buying a single’ seemed peculiarly anachronistic. Nobody buys singles anymore; we download tracks. The days of rushing to the local record store and buying a number one single seem lost forever.Yet as a way of promoting a forthcoming album, or to introduce an act to the wider world, the track still rules supreme. Those four minutes or so do a very important job. And this seemed to be the year that the year that tracks were literally being given away.
Both Coldplay and Keane participated in a freebie bonanza in 2008, making Violet Hill and Spiralling available to download for precisely nothing. Both tracks were heralded as a brave new direction for the bands, although experimentation was kept to a minimum on the resulting albums. Spiralling in particular though became many people’s guilty pleasure of the year.
The world of pop music, so often the natural constituency for the single, had the usual wildly varied year. Girls Aloud and Sugababes cemented their places at the top of the tree with reliably excellent offerings (indeed the former’s The Promise could be the best thing they’ve done so far), but we were also subjected to the icky faux-sapphism of Katy Perry‘s I Kissed A Girl. Meanwhile, Britney Spears made a much publicised comeback which seemed to involve strutting around miming Womanizer on The X Factor.
As ever, a whole host of new artists announced their introduction into our hearts with some notable tracks. Florence And The Machine released the impossibly addictive Kiss With A Fist, which went onto provide the soundtrack for a Channel 4 advert, while Brooklyn’s Santogold released a whole host of excellent singles – L.E.S. Artistes being probably the pick of the bunch.
Indeed, it was New York that provided us with most of this year’s stellar tracks. Hercules And Love Affair released an early contender for track of the year in Blind, Andrew Butler’s crisp disco beats melding perfectly with Antony Hegarty’s mournful vocals. In the same week, fellow New Yorkers MGMT released one of the anthems of the year in Time To Pretend, a slightly more proggy take on electro-pop. Follow-up singles Kids and Electric Feel were even better.
Still in the Big Apple, Vampire Weekend offered us a fresh slant on the indie guitar rock theme with the simple but effective addition of Afrobeat. The ‘East Side Soweto’ sound was everywhere over the summer, with A*Punk probably being most people’s festival highlight of the year.
Previously big names made variously underwhelming comebacks. Dirty Pretty Things were Tired Of England, and sounded rather tired of life in general – they split up soon afterwards. The Kooks‘ Always Where I Need To Be was horribly lightweight, while Razorlight‘s Wire To Wire confirmed Johnny Borrell as one of the most ludicrously pompous frontmen in pop. It was left to Mystery Jets to hold up the indie-pop end of the market – the Erol Alkan produced Twenty One was a genuine delight, resulting in excellent singles like Young Love and Two Doors Down.
There was no new – officially released – material from either Lily Allen or Kate Nash this year, but lovers of slightly quirky major label girl pop were well catered for. La Roux announced her arrival at the end of the year with the excellent Quicksand – expect to hear a lot more of her in 2009. Micachu provided a more challenging listen, especially in the bizarre Golden Phone, while Victoria Hesketh left Leeds indie girl group Dead Disco to link up with Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard and form Little Boots producing the wondrous Stuck On Repeat and Meddle.
Hot Chip themselves were also at the top of their game, with the superb Ready For The Floor gliding into many people’s hearts, with the rather sweet refrain of ‘you’re my number one guy’ echoing through the summer and beyond. Neon Neon provided a similarly smooth brand of eccentric electro-pop with the excellent I Lust U – proof positive that Gruff Rhys could do dance music as well as he could do stoner pop.
The year’s big radio hits came from former indie favourites turned stadium rockers. The Killers‘ Human may have had the worst lyrics of the year in “are we human or are we dancer?” but it was impossible to resist its early ’80s charms. Kings Of Leon returned meanwhile with the stirring Sex On Fire – a song that raised the Followill clan to a whole new level and gave them their first number one single.
With record companies finding more inventive ways to market their acts, the impact of Apple’s iPod advertisements were a godsend – Chairlift were big beneficiaries when the swoonsome Bruise was used to soundtrack one such commercial, and bigger names such as Coldplay and The Ting Tings also benefited. The latter of course had one of the biggest hits of the year with That’s Not My Name, a track that seemed to somewhat divide the nation.
We ended the year, almost inevitably, with the influence of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor writ large, only this time there was the surreal element of a Leonard Cohen song being used as the winner’s song. Sadly, it wasn’t Famous Blue Raincoat or Chelsea Hotel, but the more familiar Hallelujah. Alexandra Burke wrapped her impressive pipes around it, but it was impossible not to feel that there was something a bit…well…wrong about reducing such a classic song to karaoke pop status.
So what of next year? The rumoured return of Top Of The Pops could well boost the status of the humble single, but the days of rushing to the local shop (or computer) to buy a track are probably long gone. 2008 proves though that it still plays a vital part in the music world of today.