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Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 2008

To be honest, 2008 was just another year for me. One of many from later life that now kind of blend together into one bulging, sprawling mess of 21st century days. While 2008 was an epic year for political reasons, the songs aren't time-stamped by correlating events for the most part. Some carry extra weight because they were augmented by live performances, but isolating these songs now, not really that far after the fact—fifteen years seemed like a lot when I was younger, but now it's not even noticeable—I find myself examining the evolution of my musical taste, or lack thereof, more than anything else.


26 "Longest Days" | John Mellencamp

For a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, John Mellencamp has a lot of albums to his name that the public has almost completely ignored. He started his career awkwardly (four albums letting others try to find himself) until he hit radio's sweet spot in 1982. He then held on to the public's affection for a little over a decade before slowly receding back into the woodwork with a carton of cigarettes, comfortable enough with his legacy to do whatever he wanted from that point forward. He's done exactly that, to his credit, for his last dozen albums or so. If you stayed around after the masses moved on, you've been privy to some of the best songs of his career lurking in those later albums, which were all made knowing retail affirmation was a thing of the past. Yes, he has a better than average fan base still, but nothing compared to his peak period. "Longest Days" and its chorus, "Life is short, even in its longest days" is typical of John's later works, a stripped down life lesson learned by riding those peaks and valleys. To me, the song sounds like his entire career distilled into three-minutes and change. It hits home, too, especially if you've remained human throughout your life, and it'll also remind you why his songs resonated with so many people in the first place.

25 "U.R.A. Fever" | The Kills

Midnight Boom was one of the best rock & roll records of 2008. Each song had an über-cool late-night swagger that countless bands dream of capturing, but rarely do. There's no instruction manual for this kind of intangible moxie and this song perfectly sums up what set them apart from countless wannabe posers: they weren't born typical. Simple as that.

24 "Across the Shields" | Torche

Torche was a fitting name for this now defunct Miami metal band. They could light any place up with their fiery passion, anthemic choruses, and warrior vocals. "Across the Shields" is a song you'd want playing if you happen to find yourself storming a medieval castle surrounded by a moat of boiling lead. Ready the catapults and longbows, or at the very least a bag of cool ranch Doritos, because this rousing battle cry will make you feel like you're approaching the point of no return.

23 "The World Should Revolve Around Me" | Little Jackie

This song was clearly ahead of its time back in 2008. If released in 2023, it could be the official theme song for social media as a whole. Which would certainly make the stream of bullshit scrolling past my eyes on the daily more tolerable, albeit still not worth it in the end.

22 "Un Día" | Juana Molina

The strange combo of real instruments, electronic grooves, and otherworldly vocalizations of Argentine sound sculptor Juana Molina have been one of Pickled Priest's greatest discoveries this century. We are in thrall to her exotic rhythms, ready and willing to be swept up into her mystical little dream world at a moment's notice.

21 "In Style and Rhythm" | Tom Jones

As a young kid, I did not understand Tom Jones at all. The idea of sexual swagger and testosterone-fueled charisma were lost on me then. He just seemed to be a guy who belted out every song with full-throated gusto and I didn't like it very much. That said, I couldn't turn away either and not just because there were so few options on TV back then (my exposure was exclusively from his short-lived variety show). His appeal fascinated me for some reason. Over time, I came to appreciate his powerful voice, his genuine passion, and especially his reputation for being the ultimate ladies man, complete with a stage full of women's underwear tossed at him by adoring female fans while he let his songs rip from his leather-clad vocal chords. What was it about him that caused such a reaction? The answer eventually became clear as I got older, but in 2008 "In Style and Rhythm" kind of summed up the whole Tom Jones experience in one song. "Don't concentrate on the lips, just keep your eyes on the hips." That's when you know you're doing it right.

20 "Hey Mann" | Lizz Wright

Lizz Wright unsurprisingly started her singing career in a Georgia church. She was the daughter of a preacher man, after all. The only one who could ever reach me, I may add. If you didn't know her bio, a minute with her 2008 album, The Orchard, would make that likelihood very clear. She's got a strong, rich, and soulful voice that was made to beckon favor from a higher power. "Hey Mann" (a Sweet Honey in the Rock cover) finds Lizz in protection mode—nobody is being let into her heart at the moment: exhibit closed, no exceptions. As any number of bank heist movies will affirm, however, there's always the risk some ingenious thief could penetrate even the most foolproof defense systems by repelling from a skylight or drilling through an adjacent wall. Here, such a burglar sneaks into Lizz's heart "without consent" and she's unable to resist. Serves her right for trusting Xfinity with her personal security.

19 "Lay It Down" | Al Green

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: When the Rev. Al Green releases a secular album, one of its songs is going to be on my year-end favorites mixtape. There's really no debating it: his slot is saved for him just as some families save a place at the dinner table for Jesus Christ himself (a mashed potato hog by reputation). In 2008, although we didn't know it at the time, Al released his last straight-up soul record, the Questlove/James Poyser-produced Lay it Down (on Blue Note, notably). He was in good hands as the album was basically one long, smooth, simmering, love-making groove—just the way we like our Al Green served. There was no way Quest was going to fuck up his one chance to work with a master like Al Green. The title track is a lady killer, with Al's sweet voice front and center where it belongs. And if you think you ain't gonna be layin' it down with Al by the end of the song, you ain't been payin' attention all these years. It makes no difference that you just met a few minutes ago. Al works fast.

18 "I Adore You" | Esperanza Spalding

Considering she was 23 when it was recorded, Esperanza Spalding's second album is beyond impressive. It officially announced the emergence of a legacy artist with a sophisticated musical vision. (At 23, the Pickled Priest was living in his parent's basement.) While the whole album is amazing, the Brazilian influence in "I Adore You" absolutely makes me samba and mamba across my hardwood floors (an approximation of each, surely). I know if I had a feather duster my place would be spotless by the end of the song. With crack band in support of Espy's upright bass virtuosity and scatty vocals, this is a performance demanding of your full attention—heart, body, and soul.

17 "A Sobering Thought (Just When One Was Needed)" | The Lucksmiths

Maestros of melancholy, the Lucksmiths, are my go-to band for wallowing in anything I want to wallow in. Sometimes sadness, sometimes plight, sometimes regret. Here, it's conflict. Ideally, into every argument should fall a moment all parties can agree upon, a timely statement so imbued with intelligent perspective and insight that it cannot be refuted—also known as the sobering thought. Deployed at just the right time, it's capable of defusing even the most volatile conversational timebomb. It's like cutting the right wire before the whole place explodes. Yes, the bomb might still go off later, but for now, peace.

16 "Chicago" | The Uglysuit

My eyes just won't stay open

And I dream a dream of home

-Lyle Lovett, "The Road to Ensenada"

The Uglysuit's "Chicago" once again proves the old axiom, "Home is where the heart is." Never underestimate the power of a sentimental song about your hometown. Even if that song is performed, as is the case here, by a band from Oklahoma City, it counts. I consider myself lucky to be from a place that's inspired more than its fair share of classic songs. Great songs about Chicago could be a mixtape all by itself (good idea; coming soon!). Who would've expected this little band, another one for our large pile of "promising" indie-rock bands that never amounted to much (they broke up shortly after their debut album), would write this soaring little daydream of a pop song that has never not made me feel a little homesick for my birthplace? A birthplace, I may add, I've never left. Can you be sentimental for a place you've never left? Discuss.

15 "I'm Amazed" | My Morning Jacket

Basically, the whole song is a laundry list of prescient observations from a wide-eyed road warrior, some conveying awe or offering hope (I'm amazed at the quiet ocean / I'm amazed at your warm devotion), some horrified at what our world has devolved into and/or where its going (I'm amazed at what the people sayin' / I'm amazed by a divided nation). This is a wake-up call that rocks, but the message is what keeps me coming back for more, a reminder that trading something real for a cheap substitute is never a sustainable plan (I'm amazed at the love we're rejecting / I'm amazed, what we accept in its place).

14 "M79" | Vampire Weekend

A preppy, chorus-free pop song perfect for a boarding school cotillion ball, complete with strings and harpsichord from one of the most critiqued and hyped bands of the early 21st century. At the time, suspicion and hyperbole surfaced in equal measures, but time has proven these guys were the real deal and if you can get over a little preciousness along the way, which I most certainly have, you too might realize how good this band was right out the gate. Still don't believe they've ever ridden the bus, though.


13 "Sequestered in Memphis" | The Hold Steady

A classic Hold Steady tale that leaks you enough information to be intrigued, but not enough to know exactly what's going on. It appears to be a case of wrong place, wrong time, with Craig Finn seemingly being interviewed by detectives conducting a criminal investigation into a girl he hooked up with at some bar along the road somewhere. Feel free to create your own story at your peril because nobody tells them quite like Finn, a guy able to fashion a chorus out of "Subpoenaed in Texas / Sequestered in Memphis" and tosses off brilliantly casual lyrics like, "In barlight, she looked alright / In daylight, she looked desperate." It's like Law & Order as a rock and roll song.

12 "L.E.S. Artistes" | Santogold

French inferred, but the song is about Lower East Side Artists, those posers and pretenders who populate Manhattan's artistic landscape hoping to fool people into thinking they're the next David Bowie or Andy Warhol or something. Good concept for a song, but the execution is even better. Santi White, aka Santogold, dices up the rhythms and alters the cadence just enough to keep you off balance, a cool feeling of not knowing what you'll discover around the next corner.

11 "Vagabonds" | Gary Louris

This solo outing from the Jayhawks co-founder isn't that much different from an actual Jayhawks album, especially those made after the departure of Mark Olson, but under any name that same classic American country-folk sound feels like a thick slice of the heartland served up in a roadside diner. The characters in "Vagabonds" all seem like old souls on the road looking for the America dream, but not quite finding it. This song somehow manages to celebrate that experience; its soaring chorus providing all the hope someone down on their luck might need to carry on with their journey for one more day, one more week, one more year... however long it takes.

10 "In Color" | Jamey Johnson

They're hard to find, but there is great pleasure to be had in the perfect country song. This one, built on the premise of a grandfather showing his grandson pictures from his life in an old photo album, is capable of choking up even the most stoic he-man. As grandpa pages through the black and white photographs a common theme of dealing with and overcoming fear unfolds, highlighted by three different turning points—the great depression, WW II, and his wedding to grandma—each scary in their own unique way (the wedding being the most harrowing of all!). But we all know pictures don't tell the whole story and the magnitude of these events can almost get lost in "shades of grey" if there's not someone to provide additional commentary.

09 "Beautiful Beat" | Nada Surf

Wherein Nada Surf singer Matthew Caws claims that, at one point in his life, he "could fix anything with sound." Of course, that's not entirely true, but you get his point. Without a doubt, music has magic powers and, when properly deployed, can make almost any situation more tolerable. I wouldn't be writing a blog about music if I didn't agree. No, a beautiful beat can't get you out of most messes as the song claims, but one can surely lift you up from distress (the next line in the song). I've been using songs for that purpose since I was a kid. A very meta song in that it understands the healing power of music and also delivers some of that same healing power in the process.

08 "Grapevine Fires" | Death Cab for Cutie

Ben Gibbard paints quite a picture with "Grapevine Fires" (which does sound like the title of painting now that I think of it) and he uses a minimal amount of brushstrokes to do it. What we know: A wildfire consumes a California vineyard as a modern family watches from a cemetery at the top of a hill. A child dances without a care in the world as the "adults" ironically drink wine out of paper cups while contemplating the fragility of life. The moral of the story is make the most of your time here, with loved ones at your side if possible, because you don't know when everything is going to burn to the ground.

07 "This Lonely Love" | Juliana Hatfield ft. Richard Butler

When Juliana Hatfield checked in with her ninth (!) studio LP in 2008, only true die-hard fans remained, but they were rewarded for hanging around. How to Walk Away may be my all-time favorite album in her discography. "This Lonely Love," featuring a not-at-all timely cameo by Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, is one of her catchiest melodies ever and should be remembered as an indie-pop classic.

06 "Always a Friend" | Alejandro Escovedo

How many artists with long careers can claim to have never released a bad album? Here's one of them. Real Animal, Alejandro's 2008 installment of great songs, was yet another in a long line of gems from his now 30-year-old solo career. "Always a Friend" ranks as one of his most recognizable songs because its message is universal and its hook undeniable.

05 "Everything That Happens" | David Byrne and Brian Eno

If, as this song points out, everything that happens will happen today, what are you to do with that kind of information? Most of us are aware, I hope, that when someone is experiencing their highest high, somebody somewhere is simultaneously experiencing their lowest low. That's surely why Eno and Byrne called their 2008 collaboration "electronic gospel." Because we all have to figure out how to reconcile this truth and there's many ways to do it, be it religion, philosophy, delusion, denial, reality TV, or a fabulously curated record collection. I'll stick with music, especially when it's as eerily calming as this song.

04 "Supernatural Superserious" | R.E.M.

While even the least of R.E.M.'s albums have moments of greatness, 2004's Around the Sun was the band's all-time low. Let's face facts—it was boring, forgettable, and nothing really rocked either. The band rectified that with emphasis four years later with the decidedly more aggressive Accelerate and "Supernatural Superserious" announced a course correct, with Buck's opening riff acting as a wake-up call for band and fans both. Stipe delivers one of his greatest latter-period vocals here, the sandy grit now a feature of his vocals the perfect complement for the more rocking sound of the album. The band hadn't sounded this vital in years.

03 "Acid Tongue" | Jenny Lewis

Although influenced by a teenage experience with LSD, "Acid Tongue" doesn't follow a linear path or tell the complete story as it happened. That's not how Jenny Lewis, or LSD for that matter, operates. Many have tried to interpret the lyrics of this song, and some are on the right track surely, but I'm pretty sure understanding Jenny's full experience isn't the whole point. After all, early on she undermines her credibility by telling us that she's a liar, an unreliable narrator. Jenny's fully aware she's lying, mostly to herself, which calls into question the reliability of the information supplied. What the song offers to me is the vague sensation of not feeling whole for some reason, an introspective longing to find the missing puzzle piece that will fix an equilibrium imbalance deep in the soul. I think we're all looking for a long-term solution, but we usually end up settling for a quick mitigating fix, be it drugs, alcohol, a new relationship, a well-curated record collection, or what have you. But let's face it, such solutions rarely work for long. Do you relate?

02 "DLZ" | TV on the Radio

In 2008, I was already calling TV on the Radio the best band of the new century based on their five-year run since forming. I don't reject that statement today although I lament that they couldn't hang on for more than a decade before splitting up. After making the best EP of 2003,Young Liars, the excellent Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes in 2004, and Return to Cookie Mountain in 2006 (our #1 record of that year), they hit us with their finest record ever in 2008, Dear Science (our #1 record of the year once again). The record featured the epic "DLZ," now best known for soundtracking a riveting scene in a Breaking Bad episode (where Walt helps some young kids in a Home Depot-esque store get the proper supplies to make their own crystal meth and then threatens their boss calmly but intensely in the parking lot). It didn't need the visual to succeed of course; on its own it was a thrilling composition that builds from a slow ominous simmer to a sinister uncontrolled boil by its devastating realization at the end.

This is beginning to feel like the dawn of a loser forever.

01 "We Call Upon the Author" | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Nothing gets Pickled Priest all lathered up like a song that straddles the fine line between sanity and lunacy. Such songs tend to satisfy our craving for the absurd, the demented, and the nonsensical. If we can get all of those qualities in one song, we're driving that car off the fucking lot today, high interest rate be damned. Bring in a lead singer with the swagger of a 1970's pimp, the unhinged passion of a soapbox conspiracy theorist, and the greasiness of a used car salesman, and the trap is set and ready to snap. The ridiculously quotable "We Call Upon the Author" is all of these things and more, dressed up in an unbuttoned silk shirt and Haggar slacks. Could anybody but Nick Cave deliver a song like this? Who else could so convincingly demand the authors of our most controversial and/or sacred texts and books explain themselves? From the Bible to a political platform to a "book of Holocaust poetry" everybody must answer for their ulterior motives. Ironically, we don't require the same of Nick Cave. He defies all explanation, and we like him that way.


Back to the time machine. I'm thinking the 1970s this time. Let's see where we turn up.


The Priest


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