Pop and rock in 2008: Keep it wonky ... it worked for Leonard

By Simon Price
Sunday 28 December 2008 01:00

That, then, was the year pop went wonky. OK, so the soubriquet "Wonky Pop" – coined by Popjustice's Peter Robinson as the banner for a national package tour starring Alphabeat, Frankmusik and Leon Jean Marie back in April – was slightly annoying.

There's no denying, though, that a reversal of pop's division of labour has taken place, moving away from focus-grouped, production-line pop, and towards DIY (a trend which began the previous year with the breakthrough of Robyn and Calvin Harris). Not that there's anything intrinsically ignoble about the conveyor belt stuff – Britney's "Womanizer" and Girls Aloud's "The Promise" were proof of that – but the Wonkies brought fresh flavours, from the Haribo happiness of Alphabeat's "Fascination" to the dark chocolate delights of Sam Sparro's "Black and Gold" and the Marmite love-it-or-hate-it catchiness of the Ting Tings' "That's Not My Name". This year was all about smart, inventive outsiders who, in a different era, might have formed a po-faced indie band deciding that the charts were where they belonged. It happens roughly once a decade (New Pop in the early Eighties, Britpop in the mid-Nineties), and it's happening again right now.

Word-of-mouth buzz of the year

The era of the viral internet craze was temporarily suspended, and a more old-fashioned phenomenon returned: the word-of-mouth buzz. At least, that's how it felt when Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver – both practitioners of minimal, melancholy Americana – crept quietly from obscurity to sell-out tours, with everyone in the auditorium presumably looking at everyone else and asking themselves: "How did they all know?"

Comebacks of the Year

At 74, Leonard Cohen may have been forced into making a comeback after an ex-manager misappropriated most of his money, but it worked out better than anyone could have dreamt. The ultimate bedsit balladeer sold out the 02, and at the end of the year, one of his old songs, "Hallelujah", occupied two of the top three places in the UK iTunes chart, one by X Factor winner Alexandra Burke and one by the late Jeff Buckley, with Cohen's own not far behind. Even Len, with his stylish fedora, couldn't compete with the millinery of Grace Jones. The 60-year-old Jamaican's live shows featured a hat change for every song, each more spectacular than the last, and the robo-funk and digital dancehall of comeback album Hurricane often recalled the chilling hauteur of her 1980 breakthrough hit "Private Life".

Turkey of the year

There were some bad, bad records released in 2008, and not all of them were made by stage-school brats or upper-class twits. A lot of them were, though. Talent-free oxygen thieves Kooks and Razorlight released a pair of absolute stinkers, doing their bit to assist the phrase "landfill indie" in its wildfire proliferation. Not to be outdone, our American cousins came up with two metallic monstrosities. Slipknot's imbecilic All Hope Is Gone suggested that dunce caps might be more appropriate than fright masks, while Guns N' Roses' disasterpiece Chinese Democracy showed what happens when you sack the main songwriter, replace him with a man who wears a KFC bucket over his head, then sack him too.


Three all-time greats of soul music passed away in 2008. Isaac Hayes – the visionary genius who pioneered symphonic soul if you're a music fan, or simply Chef from South Park if you're not – collapsed and died on 10 August. Despite suffering a stroke in 2006, the legend had continued to perform. Prolific songwriter Norman Whitfield – who penned such Motown classics as "I Heard it Through the Grapevine", "Needle in a Haystack" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", and steered the Temptations' psychedelic soul direction – died on 16 September. Lastly, on 17 October, Levi Stubbs, whose emotive, impassioned voice – like that of a wounded giant – roared through the Four Tops' tremendous tally of 45 hit singles, finally fell silent.

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