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Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Knox Harrington Five (KH5): Best Songs of 2008

While maybe a person has to search for it sometimes, most years have an abundant supply of stellar music to appease the ears of music lovers. 2008, however, was a lean year on the music landscape. That said, like some sub-par wine vintages there are still a few superb offerings that warrant repeated visits.

Listed below are what I believe are the best songs of 2008. Sure, I'm clearly not a Top 40 devotee, but I think that the reasons for finding so few nuggets in that realm these days is the current, wretched state of the music industry. True too is my fixation with alt-country/folk music these days. While it indeed dominates my current listening, let me assure you all that my "record collection" has solid depth, and covers all genres with the exception of perhaps classical, jazz and dance music. Hence, while I am open to virtually any other form of music and have digested much of what was released in 2008, my picks were the pick of the proverbial litter.

Here they are (in reverse order to build much-needed suspense):

5) "Cowboys" - Counting Crows

While the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album that featured this song was underwhelming and a disappointing return from this Berkeley band, this song about a man so hellbent on achieving fame that he resorts to serial killing, reminds us of the relevance of this band and why they were a big deal awhile back. Uncharacteristically blazing guitars, clever lyrics and a real surge of listener adrenaline pushed this track into the KH5.

4) "Incurable" - Skydiggers

Despite the fact that most people outside of Toronto seem to believe that this standout Canadian band withered and died in the 90's, the truth is that these guys never went away and have continued to produce fantastic music, all without radio play or major tours. This Josh Finlayson-sung track from the City of Sirens album is simply unreal. Although the song is about the inevitability of death and our ultimate mortality, it presents such morose subject matter in a toe-tapping, reflective style that endures repeated listens. Well done, I say!

3) "Next Time Take The Train" - Murry Hammond

Do yourself a favour: put this album in your CD/MP3 player, find yourself in the Prairies on a fall evening after dark once you've finished hunting and enjoyed a glass of fine wine or a beer, turn up the volume and hit "play" and I think you'll be as close to nirvana as I've been in the last decade (sad for some to read I'm sure). The lyrics of this track which glorify the hobo lifestyle of days gone by and traveling through the "thistle thickets" transports the listener back in time to a time and place that was freedom-laden and full of simple pleasures. You can find it on the solo album of this Old 97's bass player entitled I'm Not Sure Where I'm Going, But I'm On My Way. The entire album is well worth the purchase and I could drone on and on about each track, but check them out for yourself.

2) "The Fool" - Old 97's

OK. I know that having works from both the Old 97's and one of its band members may be a bit much but believe me - both tracks warrant inclusion in the KH5. This opening track from Blame It On Gravity comes out of the gate on a tear and never lets up. It is a well-crafted, melodic song that is driven by Rhett Miller's singing, then builds and builds and sporadically releases through a series of well-placed Phillip Peebles drum explosions and Ken Bethea runaway guitars. While the tale of two star-crossed lovers has been told many, many times, it has rarely been told so well and with so much conviction. 

1) "Singer-Songwriter" - Okkervil River

This is one of the best-written, best-played and best-produced songs I've heard in a long, long time.  Brilliant, witty lyrics and great progressions throughout the song have me listening to this song over and over again and picking up novel nuances each time that I had not noted before. Grab The Stand-Ins album or download this track on its own.

There you have it. Let the flogging begin. I've seen what happens to others on this site when they post a "best of" list these days.

Posted by Knox Harrington on January 10, 2009 | Permalink


A song that has been putting a spring in my step these days is "I'm not like everybody else" by The Kinks.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-01-10 9:32:20 PM

Bet you heard it on The Sopranos. Camper Van Beethoven did a very good cover of that song.

Posted by: dp | 2009-01-10 10:07:30 PM

I did, dp. I bought the version of the song done by Paxton, though. For some reason I couldn't find the orginal by The Kinks on iTunes.

Knox, is "Singer-Songwriter" the name of the song by Okkervil River? Or is this a mistake?

The only complaint I have with your list is that I've seen one of the members from Old '97s wearing an Air America t-shirt. That the station on which Al Franken was a host. (Is that Senator Franken yet?) That might warrant a single lash.

But unless you're picking tracks from Rush, you're bound to pick up a few statist. So all is forgiven. :-)

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-01-11 4:01:15 PM

I commend your Old 97's selections, but two small complaints:
Murry's album is called "I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm On My Way", not "I'm not sure..."; and the drummer of the Olds is Phillip Peeples, not Peebles.

But after those fine displays of taste, how could you possibly put Okkervil River as #1? It's a damn catchy song, that's for sure, and OR are good at that--as Lost Coastlines also proves. But don't you ever get tired of the sneering contempt in which Will Sheff holds most of the rest of the world besides himself and his hipper-than-thou bandmates? Seriously, I don't care how cool he is and I wish he'd stop talking about himself (see also Pop Lie). It's cheap and sour and ruins what he does well, which is write clever (if misdirected) lyrics to catchy pop melodies with enough drums for anyone's satisfaction. Really, they're so good that it's that much worse when their talent is so misdirected.

Posted by: alex | 2009-01-14 7:51:32 PM

Wow. Don't I feel silly Alex. I count myself among the 97's (including Mury Hammond) biggest fans and certainly know of what you speak. Inexcusable errors. Thanks for highlighting my failures as an editor.

However, I defend my taste as a critic. While I agree with most of what you said about Okkervil River ("Lost Coastlines" is a great track, which almost made the KH5, Sheff is indeed often annoying, pompous and self-important and I like about 3 songs per album), "Singer-Songwriter" is simply a great, great song for the reasons I mentioned.

Posted by: Knox Harrington | 2009-01-14 8:05:14 PM

I blame Jaworski.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-01-14 8:15:50 PM

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