There was no Spotify or SoundCloud until the last quarter of 2008. Twitter was two years old; YouTube was three. New artists were still more likely to break via MySpace. Napster had been sued into oblivion, yet illegal downloading still reigned, and album sales kept slipping. Prince headlined Coachella, marking one of the first times a non-alt-rock act got the honor. The music industry was in a very different place ten years ago, but early inklings of 2010s change were certainly afoot.
With 2018 nearly here, we decided to get a jump on this year’s inevitable ten-year retrospectives and examine how we got to where we are now. Which 2008 hits sound like they could hang in the present? Which signaled where pop music was headed? Just how absurdly unstoppable was ’08 Lil Wayne? Is it even possible to overstate the influence of 808s and Heartbreak? And why does it feel so bizarre today that hard-rockers like Finger Eleven and Buckcherry appeared on 2008’s year-end Hot 100?
Here are 10 hits that helped predict the future of popular music.
1. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown”
Where else to start than the song that heralded the dawn of Kanye 2.0 and profoundly impacted basically all hip-hop that came after it? Initially mocked by some, this emo, auto-tuned ‘Ye laid the groundwork for a hotly-hyped ’08 up-and-comer we’ll get to soon, Drake’s grand entrance a year later, and much of the “SoundCloud rap” sound that has major labels shoveling out 7-figure contracts in the present day. It’s also the reason many of 2008’s other biggest rap songs sound like absolute dinosaurs today.
2. T.I. with Jay-Z featuring Kanye West and Lil Wayne, “Swagga Like Us”
T.I.’s Paper Trail absolutely dominated 2008, debuting at No. 1 and producing four top-five singles. “Whatever You Like” (a No. 1 song for seven weeks) was a powerhouse, but today it sounds more like early ‘00s bling rap than where the genre was headed. The Paper Trail single that most signaled the Hot 100’s feature-filled future was the lockstep-marching “Swagga Like Us,” one of rap’s first true super-teamed tracks to break big on pop’s biggest chart. DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over” was already a year old, but “Swagga” and its top-five peak foreshadowed similarly star-studded Khaled crew cuts reaching that hallowed ground nearly a decade later.
3. M.I.A., “Paper Planes”
Did you think we forgot to mention that “Swagga Like Us” prominently samples an equally-huge M.I.A. song from the same year? That’s a very important detail, and no, we didn’t forget it, as Maya Arulpragasam’s breakthrough single is deserving of its own entry altogether.
“Paper Planes” sounded like little else on the radio when it went top five in 2008, and thanks to its sample-heavy, cut-and-paste production technique, those gunshots and cash register ch-chings sound every bit as striking in the present. For Diplo, the track’s sole producer, it was something of a mainstream breakthrough, and his continued presence on the charts has helped its dancehall anchoring age particularly well.
In a broader sense, “Paper Planes” also reflects the increasing impact of international pop on today’s industry — be it Latin crossover hits, the K-pop machine, etc. — and American collaborators’ thirst to make it their own. M.I.A. has a somewhat smaller profile ten years later, but “Paper Planes” did make her, for a fleeting moment, an actual U.S. pop star, and a lightning rod for discussion on class, immigration, and globalization — topics that remain crucial talking points today.
4. Kid Cudi, “Day N Nite (Nightmare)”
Before we stray too far, let’s return to that Auto-Tuned Kanye companion piece we alluded to in blurb one. Alongside 808s, Kid Cudi’s early work was a blueprint for the mid-tempo, nocturnal, and surprisingly sing-songy direction hip-hop took in the 2010s. The Cleveland rapper’s debut single checked all these boxes, while espousing the Tumblr-worthy confessionalism that drew Kanye to sign him before he even released 808s (“Day N Nite” was inspired by the death of Cudi’s uncle). And in true 2010s fashion, “Day N Nite” leant itself damn well to an EDM remix.
5. Lil Wayne, “A Milli”
Aside from Paper Trail, the other rap album that dominated 2008 was Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. Its second single — which topped Hot Rap Songs and went to No. 6 on the Hot 100 — sounds timeless in its simplicity, and just as tenacious and uncompromising today as it did in ’08.
Wayne’s stream of consciousness flow between 2005 and 2008 was inner-circle Hall of Fame caliber, and three sprawling, mostly freestyled verses of his own — sans features — were more than enough to hammer home what was, essentially, the same percussion and vocal sample looped for three and a half minutes. With such a minimal beat, it leaves ample space for MC dexterity and crowd participation. As specific trends come and go, this format never really goes away.
6. Kevin Rudolf featuring Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock”
All Rebirth jokes aside, the fact this rap-rock song went top five speaks volumes to the sort of mastery Lil Wayne and Cash Money had over the industry in 2008. And all other jokes aside, yes we are being serious by including “Let it Rock” on this list: a hip-hop song that sounds like P.O.D. covering Jock Jams, Volume may not seem likely to make waves in 2018, but have you heard, say, any of Fall Out Boy’s hits this decade? Are you aware Imagine Dragons were the most commercially successful rock band of 2017? The spirit of Kevin Rudolf rocks on, baby.
7. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”
On rock’s more, shall we say, parent-friendly side, Coldplay’s 2008 No. 1 similarly embodied where the genre was headed commercially. On their fourth LP, Chris Martin and company gave up the rainy day Britpop of “Clocks” and “Speed of Sound” in favor of an all-out orchestral onslaught, with help from new collaborator Brian Eno, a guy who’d worked on a sonically ambitious project or two before. Maybe it was Coldplay’s pure creative ambition, maybe they could sense rock heading in an increasingly guitar-less direction. They certainly prepared themselves for another decade of panoramic, EDM-friendly hits and continued relevance in a Hot 100 era notoriously unforgiving to veteran rock bands.
8. Kid Rock, “All Summer Long”
Even with everyone wanting to be like Sam Hunt one way or another, country music on the eve of 2018 doesn’t sound radically different than it did 10 years ago. Fearless-era Taylor Swift is long gone, but Kelsea Ballerini is busy carrying that torch. Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban remain steady sources of Country Airplay hits.
But there’s something especially modern-sounding about “All Summer Long,” and it has to do with how it relates to outside genres. You wouldn’t bat an eye if Florida Georgia Line sampled classic rock hits like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Werewolves of London” (as Mr. Rock did here), or if they pivoted to another genre entirely (like his rap-rock-to-country move). Back in 2008, Kid Rock was striking it rich with a song that wasn’t afraid to interpolate (or if you insist, sound almost exactly like) someone else’s much older hit; in the years that passed, Flo Rida, Camila Cabello, the Black Eyed Peas, and Rae Sremmurd all took similar paths to crossover paydirt.
9. Empire of the Sun, “Walking on a Dream”
If you’re thinking, “Didn’t this song come out like three years ago?” we can’t really blame you: Thanks to its placement in a prominent Honda ad, “Walking on a Dream” reached the Hot 100 for the first time in Jan. 2016, eight years after it was released on the Australian duo’s debut record. Part Tame Impala groove, part Calvin Harris crowd-pleaser, Empire of the Sun’s signature song slyly predicted EDM-pop’s stranglehold on festival main stages and the way it contextualizes alternative music to this day. “Dream” was marketed to both pop and rock radio for its 2016 resurgence, and an alt-pop newcomer seeking their breakthrough hit in 2018 would be wise to follow its trail.
10. Jesse McCartney, “Leavin’”
If we’re talking pop with a capital “P,” much of 2008’s class of chart-topping divas would find tough sledding on today’s playing field, one that’s especially unfriendly to uptempo bangers. Beyoncé and Rihanna still drive the conversation, but I Am… Sasha Fierce and Good Girl Gone Bad sound far removed from their current selves.
So we dug a little deeper. Turns out, this The-Dream-produced Jesse McCartney single — which broke the top 10 in 2008 — sounds remarkably like something Shawn Mendes or Charlie Puth could take to the masses right now (and Mendes could probably do a mean “Beautiful Soul” cover, but we digress). That McCartney-Dream pairing really endures here; bouncy and flirtatious, the production leans hip-hop but leaves just enough room for pretty boy balladry. It’s just too bad for Jesse that this kid Justin Bieber had to come along.