Sunday, December 14, 2008

2008: The Year’s Best Music: ALBUMS

It is testament to the diverse year popular music has enjoyed that even up to the time of writing this I wasn’t exactly sure who would land the top spot. I know that sounds weird but I had to use a near-mathematical structure just to show the degrees between the picks. Thematically, there was no one artist trending who overshadowed everyone else. Twelve months ago M.I.A’s landmark Kala topped my album list and threatened to let loose a funky, global infection of beats and matching attitude. Note that word—attitude—because maybe, just maybe, that was the signpost of the year. By the way, if you’re still fooling yourself that she isn’t the biggest music star globally then check her out on SPIN’s December cover and even the ultra-boring Grammy’s couldn’t ignore her anymore (her Paper Planes snagged a Record of the Year nomination). It is interesting though that the state of popular music has repositioned itself to a more critical bent, one I think that even conservative record labels are being forced to accept. I caught an interview on YouTube recently with the year’s best ‘find’, Janelle Monae, where she talked about her creative process and how artists now are more concerned with quality, not sales. This is a stunning about face from the music industry. Need proof: Monae is signed to Bad Boy records, a label notorious for milking every dime it can.

It is all dicey for now but this is, to borrow from a political slogan, ‘change we can believe in’. This is especially heartening because hip/hop soul is the genre headlining this change. No one played a bigger part than Erykah Badu, who returned with an album that put her contemporaries to shame. Badu is her generation’s conscience, an artist whose entire personality embodies the cyclical nature of a movement. If she resurrected soul eleven years ago with Baduism, then she filters it in stages with part one of her New Amerykah series. The aforementioned Monae—who is, in truth, part Badu, part Joi, part Lauryn Hill—is the result of such an evolutionary process. She is an assortment of influences flooding creativity. Ruling music is what Santi White is all about too. Billed as heir-apparent to M.I.A, White—who is the main entity in Santogold—spun newness over the 80’s vibe that she’s comfortable pandering to. Some were divided but that’s only because such mastery over an era we’d all like to forget is a stunning thing. So, thanks to those women American hip/hop is finding itself again. After years of obvious degradation, things are changing. Other genres are playing catch up but rock looked inward and found much tenderness. Dance music dominated early on but acts like Hot Chip still flounder for full length album consistency.

My list features, for the first time, no one album that is an immediate masterpiece. The top pick received 8.75 out of ten on my scale. There is a reason for this but for all the consistency this supports my view that it is a care-taker year. I hope next year will see an all out attack on our pop sensibilities.

Here are the 20 best albums of 2008:

1 Metropolis Suite I: The Chase EP (Janelle Monae):I’m an alien from out of space/ sent to destroy you’, croons Monae on her lead single Violet Stars Happy Hunting and given her penchant for all things robotic, pardon me if I believe her. Monae is the mixed propulsion of many innovators like Outkast, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and even the cool weirdness of Bjork. She’s grown up listening to them and filtered them through her own dedicated lens. The aforementioned Violet Stars... is gloriously carefree with its energy. But funk aside, soul music is given the freshest spin since Aaliyah on Many Moons and Sincerely Jane. Along with the title track, the EP is stunning it the scope it explores. She’s got people believing in soul music again. Look out for her debut proper because that’s domination time. 8.75

2. New Amerykah, Pt. One: 4th World War (Erykah Badu): Badu, at thirty-seven, has come full circle with New Amerykah, a disc that gleefully erases the frustration one feels hearing lesser artists attempt such depth. What separates her from peers is her ability to take chances while taking stock. All this while showing humour and resilience: her focus on The Healer stunningly puts hip/hop in check with the stark reality that the genre is currently, ‘bigger than religion’. No matter her politics—whether personal or controversial—Badu has finally complimented her 90’s masterpiece Baduism with an equal worthy of all the admiration my mere pen can ink on it. 8.68

3. For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver): the story of Justin Vernon going off to mourn the end of his band is famous now but the question that will continue to taunt him is why hadn’t he done so earlier? If this becomes the normal result of embattled musicians then I’m all for it. For Emma, Forever Ago is a gorgeous album, best listened to early in the morning or during rainfall. There’s peacefulness, a type of resolve to tracks like Flume and Lump Sum. He could have padded the album with safe, structured songs but credit him for clenched-teeth grit of The Wolves (Act I & II), the brilliant endgame of Creature Fear and the title track swirls endlessly into the stuff of greatness. 8.66

4. Santogold (Santogold): Philly native Santi White is the residual force of this entity (John Hill runs the tweaks in the background). The album effortlessly mirrors the 80’s pop vibe she clearly fell in love with growing up, without overdoing it. Subtle tracks like Lights Out and Anne reveal a Pixies fixation that is mingled with a contemporary funk intuition. Even better, the punk-tinged You’ll Find a Way runs its heavenly chorus with remarkable skill. Not content there, she rolls out ska by numbers on Say Aha and infuses it with dub and new wave. If that hasn’t hooked you then L.E.S Artistes tags along merely for bragging rights and, as brawta, Shove It downright kicks ass. She could have comfortably fit right into ‘American M.I.A’ space critics were desperately trying to pin her down in but White’s brilliance is as stubborn as it is unique. One hell of an authoritative body of work too. 8.59

5. Dear Emily, Best Wishes, Molly (Prussia): for the most part, punk was pretty low-laying this year but no one told Prussia. These kids actually impress upon the genre their own intent: Oil wreaks itself with a type of narcissism, slick its space with lyrics that actually fits its title. Supreme Being glides over its start-stop-start terrain. There’s a wide-eyed pragmatism that Prussia blends on the album that keeps the focus steady. Even more stunning is the funkiness of their beats (Lady, Lady). It’s not all sledge here; there’s some real heart and realism in it too. Besides how does one not love a Rolling Stones-esque track like Closed Lips? 8.44

6. All Hour Cymbals (Yeasayer): released in the USA around the same time Radiohead dropped In Rainbows, Yeasayer’s debut got almost no attention. Indeed, I hadn’t even heard of them until its release in the UK this year. Good thing too because it is one hell of a debut: Sunrise opens things up with a lovely vibe but even it pales to the next track, Wait for the Summer, arguably the year’s best track. It’s a revival and big Western tent concept that swells with each couplet and it never let’s up. 2080, another epic track, features some children voices towards the end in a classy touch. These are, incidentally, the first three tracks. The rest of the album is just as fascinating with its variations of tension of emotion that the band can muster. 8.40

7. Music Hole (Camille): it’d be a pity if Music Hole is allowed to fall through the cracks this year because though it has received scant blog attention, its best tricks rivals that of any other disc released. Katie’s Tea is one of many stunning numbers that feature the chanteuse outmanoeuvring her American counterparts. These divine moments (Home is Where it Hurts/ Waves/ Kfir) uncover the true indicator of her growth: a broadened palate of influences. If that isn’t enough then check out the seven minute wonder that is Money Note, one of the great tracks this year. 8.40

8. In Ear Park (Department of Eagles): part Grizzly Bear (Daniel Rossen) and part New York air, this band builds their tracks from within a smouldering motion and recycles them through winsome experimentation. No One Does it Like You is atypical of their sound but even within such set standards they find ways to eke out brilliance: Teenagers is a daring riff and the masterpiece Waves of Rye rotates itself blissfully. Not often can folk and electronic acts find the nexus between both genres and manage such gorgeous results but DOE get away because their aspirations are always to take and never to seek permission. 8.30

9. Exit (Shugo Tokumaru): Not because every year-end list must have some vaguely-known foreign act is Tokumaru here but this is just some damn fine music by way of Japan. Parachute is a gorgeous pop number, replete with a sing-song chorus. Green Rain twitches with a fiddle a-la’ Animal Collective while Button may be the cross-over hit that could make him known in America’s pop market. The track features actual singing juxtaposed with steep instrumentals. While blogs praise American experimentalists like Deerhunter and Gang Gang Dance, they bore me because I know they can push beyond the confines they work with. Tokumaru is the best line of reasoning this year to support my view. 8.29

10. Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend): there will be endless comparisons to Paul Simon but unlike him VW are unrelenting in their ability to just have fun. The one-two punch of Mansard Roof to Oxford Comma is among the strongest this year. Several critics have tried to negate the feel-good aspect of the band, as if their Ivy League achievements exclude them from musical greatness. What they fail to mention is beyond the surface of all this hippy vibe, there is complexity in volumes. A-Punk throws riffs around like prized boxer. The Peter Gabriel name-check in Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa is more than a ploy, it’s an allegiance call. Lyrically, there’s some breathy stuff too: M79 and Campus are both backed up by furious twiddling and backing choruses. Conventional wisdom would have us expecting a letdown at some point but VW clearly do not pander to the idea of their music have greater significance than to themselves and, quite frankly, that will do for now. 8.27

The best of the rest:

11. Dig, Lazarus, Dig! (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds): this year’s Nick Cave apotheosis has the towering title track setting the mood for wiseacres that carry right through this blistering opus. 8.25

12 At Mount Zoomer (Wolf Parade): it’s not easy trying to follow up an immaculate debut but somehow I never doubted Wolf Parade would do it. At Mount Zoomer is a complex sophomore effort, replete with great craftsmanship. 8.24

13. Sun Giant EP (Fleet Foxes): if the ultimate aim of an EP is to whet one’s appetite for a new band then consider Sun Giant an overachiever. 8.22

14. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson): depressing as hell, especially the masterpiece Buriedfed, but seldom has a musician been able to sum up the hopeless state people can get in at times. 8.20

15. Chunk of Change EP (Passion Pit): like Of Montreal, this band has a whale of a time grinding emotional love axes. 8.13

16. Furr (Blitzen Trapper): quietly moving across its intent, Furr proves how skilful Blitzen Trapper peddles their brand of blues/pop-rock and taking risks while doing so. 8.00

17. Skeletal Lamping (Of Montreal): a thinking man’s idea, Barnes presents a portfolio that incorporates his usual eccentricities and queer vagueness. Prince is the role model here so this embodiment is sexier than before, edgier and pushing more buttons. 8.00

18. Red Letter Year (Ani DiFranco): DiFranco, an iconoclast in the middle of a career arc, proves that there’s still much left in the tank despite her hectic pace. 8.00

19. That Lucky Old Sun (Brian Wilson): or, Smile part two, Wilson continues to document his love affair with Southern California via a musical travelogue. 8.00

20. Please Mr. Boombox (The Lady Tigra): think of a sound that is reminiscent of M.I.A but without the divisive politics but with just as strong a personality. 8.00

Thursday, December 11, 2008


While we wait for the publication of my top 10 songs of the year (in the Bookends section of this coming Sunday Observer) here is the listing from 11-50. Last year I did a top 100 and that was the intention this time around but due to an unexpected change of my computer set up, I lost all those songs I had amassed. I'm bummed by the loss but my PC has never moved quicker so...

Many of these songs will appear on other lists and I'm not surprised because the quality of them all is unimpeachable. Quite frankly, the order at times could have been switched up and i would not have minded. Ok, here we go:

Run (Gnarls Barkley): the one really great rump-shaker from the sophomore album that wasn't quite a slump but not exactly mind-blowing either. This is the type of jittery blast of cool magic that Cee-Lo can accomplish in his sleep and here he does it like the ringmaster we've come to love and accept.

49. Kids (MGMT): fun stuff yes but as much as a call to arms as a return to innocence dance retreat. MGMT prove here that they are not just about airy, flimsy pretensions but skimming that surface to give a glimmer of a, growing up.

48. Beat (Health, Life and Fire) (Thao and The Get Down Stay Down): a breathy, manipulative feat under the three minute mark. Thao frames her feminism mystique slowly, sweetly but ultimately to the detriment of her doomed lover.

47. What New York Used to Be (The Kills): no matter that the 'used' could drop its last letter to describe that lovely modern continuum, lead singer Alison Mosshart nails the decadence we're all hustling towards.

46. Sax Rohmer #1 (Mountain Goats): I tried hard not to like this track, I tried to classify it as too earnest, too insistent but for all its flawless traits the song hints at a type of moralistic right of way that is oddly affecting.

45. Galaxy of the Lost (Lightspeed Champion): an interesting pop/rock/country mix from this dude who most critics would have forgotten already but Lightspeed deftly proves that mashing genre boundaries can be fun yet vital.
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44. Apocalyptic Friend (Eef Barzelay): a fuzzy, one-tone social commentary aimed at getting you ready for the afterlife? Hmm...maybe Barzelay is the pop soothsayer we've been dreading all this time but it's hard to hate this pretty awesome message.

43. Skeleton Man (The Evangelicals): wispy, fragile like breath blowing in the wind, Skeleton Man treads nicely but the scary bit towards the end fantastically puts it over the top.

42. Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Helio Sequence): somehow I just knew this would end up close to the previous pick and why they remind me of each other is unclear but this yin yang effect remains vivid. It's the best track from their solid latest album because it best resonates their simplicity bordering on greatness.

41. Many Shades of Black (The Raconteurs): while I was not a fan of the last White Stripes project it wasn't because Jack White was slacking off but rather because he wasn't peeling away layers fast enough. This slow burner stops you dead in your tracks every time you think a rocker can't be tender or find tender things to say.

40. Keys to the House (Mono in VCF): a real tear-jerker of love lost, labored over and finally put away with cool professionalism.

39. Mummy Beach (Hot Lava): a luscious throw-away to a lusty past, full of recollections that seem more than just a passing fixation of the older woman.

38. Royal Flush (Big Boi featuring Andre3000 & Raekwon): hopefully this is just a tasty treat to sate us from the impatient wait for the next album from Outkast---hell who am I fooling, from either of the principals. It's another major sample project but really no one does this pastiche better.

37. Poison Dart (The Bug featuring Warrior Queen): though only non-Jamaicans will fall ape shit over the entire album, this track stands out because it doesn't try too hard to be just is. Warrior Queen nails the bad chick prototype and could actually teach her local counterparts a thing or too.
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36. Transitional Joint (Elzhi): hip/hop at its old school finest.

35. Santa Claus (Lee 'Scratch' Perry'): though Repentance is largely laughable fun (I mean that in a good way of course) it's good to know that the original stepper can unsheathe himself into a powder keg of power from time to time, just so you know who the boss is.

34. Snake in the Grass (Thomas Function): a joyous throw-down of punk attitude encrouching upon guitars.

33. Mercy (Duffy): if Amy Winehouse was the drunk, beaten-down Brit hope last year then here comes Duffy, shining white Chanel suit-light upon a pop landscape that was/is willing to accept her gorgeous 60s-loving ditty.

32. Down the Line (Jose Gonzales): a perfect, seamless ode to those hoping against despair and somehow managing against the odds.

31. Flowers Forever (Black Rosary): psychedelic, lush wonder.

30. I've Got Your Number (Passion Pit): a Valentine gift for a girlfriend, Michael Angelakos lays a wickedly insistent falsetto down to prove how the retro feel of electronic music can have heart and a good head for what just sounds right. You can dance to this mutha too.

29. Paper Planes (M.I.A): it had seemed too unreal for Miss Arulpragasam to land a Grammy nomination for this her American hit but lo and behold even stuffy suits are taking note. By now you've all heard about the Clash sample hijacked with cash registers and her whiny vocals so no need to beat it to death here but note the perfection of the pastiche method and creed: steal, beg, borrow, use. That is the trademark being celebrated here.
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28. Creature Fear (Bon Iver): even though the rainy season is behind us, this song--hell, the entire brilliant album--still makes me feel like a downpour of raw emotion. The breathy, desperate end is rushed but you sense of longing has never ever been better etched within a pop song.

27. He's My Man (Jean Grae): 'each morning/my man/goes downtown' croons Grae bordering on a double meaning that is as stunning as it is subversive but if Grae excels in positing a feminine level of intelligence on other songs, here she incorporates another element, something shouldering relationships and it is poignant, desperately self-involving.

26. My Manic & I (Laura Marling): the Grammy website claims that it recognizes excellence in music irrespective of album sales but if that's the case then why did Duffy and Adele land nominations and the amazing Marling did not? That's a side issue but as proved by this track, Marling's depth as a singer-songwriter runs circles around the other two.

25. Highly Suspicious (My Morning Jacket): yes, it's an excuse to imitate Prince but I'm not complaining.

24. Knots (Pete and the Pirates): not bad for a rock song trying to plug into emo a bit too much.

23. Crimewave (Crystal Castles): electro-clash see, this is possible with vocals.

22. Wicked Wisdom (Of Montreal): Kevin Barnes aka Georgie Fruit aka black she-male unleashes his,, manifesto?

21. I'm Good, I'm Gone (Lykke Li): toe-tapping pop nugget.

20. You Cheated Me (Martha Wainwright): sister of Rufus but with this track she has supplanted him as head diva of that family. The track is the ultimate trap of male-female relationships...evolving to a type of Fatal Attraction level of letting go and all the difficulties that get entangled along the way.

19. Blind (Hercules & Love Affair): their debut is a tad overrated but with Antony Hegarty old-mail vocals soaring, this track literally sizzles, whether in the gay clubs or at your week-end treadmill work-out.

18. Gamma Ray (Beck): still locked out of his funk mansion but Beck is at least on the road searching hard and this pop jam is the perfect clue.

17. Cold Shoulder (Adele): I'm not sure what spell Chasing Pavements has worked on you but this soaring, jazzy number made me believe that this brash Scot could have something going for her after all.

16. Williams Blood (Grace Jones): sixty you say, sixty...for real?!
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15. Mr. Carter (Lil Wayne featuring Jay-Z): ho-hum, the two male power-houses of rap not named Outkast team up to assess each other as well as to flow their crank. Weezy twists his lines crisply---note the subversive use of 'parapalegic' twice---and that pussy rant will crack you up. Brilliant.

14. Divine (Sebastien Tellier): the other French pop act on the list, Tellier's Sexuality opus didn't contain enough frothy tracks like this one but who knew you could dive head first into pop and find super pop?

13. Block of Ice (The Oh Sees): screaming 'leave me alone yet play with me' at the same time, just add a touch of weirdness and, presto, here's the end result. I'm surprised I love it this much too.

12. Waves of Rye (Department of Eagles): spins so gorgeously that its beauty makes me giddy.

11. Mykonos (Fleet Foxes): if I read one more year-end list praising their debut--easily the most over-hyped album of '08---I'll literally puke but their EP contains sunny moments of raw joy and this was the most haunting track on it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I do not normally weigh in on the Grammys but seeing that I mentioned it yesterday then I might as well put in my two cents worth for the nominations (to be announced tomorrow). Now, going through the prevoius years in this decade, one realises that the nomination process is one of circuitry but every now and then a surprise sneaks in. my main grouse with the Grammys is the process. It allows music execs to push rather forcibly the mainstream acts they want to be highlighted in major categories while shutting out/restricting everyone else in minor categories (if they land a nomination). It is not for anything that some of the great innovators of modern music have not won in deserved categories.

That said, once you have been annointed with Grammy gold --think U2, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones---it is equally difficult for you not to be nominated. This is called playing it safe and all award shows are notorious for it but it just seems like the Grammys, per capita, suffer from this nepotism to its own detriment.

This year marks a low in terms of album sales in North America and it's very ironic that in a year when the collective creativity bug hit, the financial rewards have been thinly rewarded. What accounts for this? Beats me but I think a new, dynamic way to market all viable artists could help. Music can encompass us all, not segregate into skewered categories aimed merely to forever divide.

I won't wade too deep here...just the four main categories and a smattering of others.

Record of the Year

This is the popularity contest that best shows Grammy voters trying to be hip with what sold well as well as to compromise with sentimentality. With music lovers choosing to buy/download singles instead of albums, this is tricky. Nonetheless, Coldplay's Viva la Vida has been enormously popular (not on my year-end song list, so I'm not heavily for it) and Grammy loves them to an extent so don't be surprised to hear it announced. Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl had shock value and in this post-Prop 8 vote could be seen as a controversial choice, one that would play out nicely for the cameras. Rihanna will be hard to ignore as her chart domination continued with Disturbia or even Take a Bow. Then there is Duffy's infectious Mercy, a sunny throw away to a Motown past that seems destined for a nomination. Leona Lewis has a lot behind her too so Bleeding Heart could force someone else out. I wouldn't be surprised if the sentiment is will a B.B King track ends up here or sap like I Apologize by OneRepublic.

Song of the Year

Snag one and you're almost guaranteed to land the other so all the above information applies but as that would be too predictable, the Grammys also tends to give singer-songwriters great consideration here. So, Jack Johnson could get a track here. Jon Mayer, your nomination is here. Maybe Adele, Snow Patrol, Alicia Keys and all the usual suspects.

Album of the Year

The biggest question here is if the nominating body (NARAS) feels it can avoid Tha Carter III. It's among the best selling albums of the year, as ambitious as albums come and critically loved. If Weezie doesn't get nominated then a lot of potential viewers will not tune in so I think his may be a lock. There may be room, gulp, for clunkers like E=Mc2 or Hard Candy because they sold fairly well but it seems unlikely this time around. I'm not sure if Key's As I Am is eligible or if U2 put out anything but Grammy loves them so expect anything. B.B. King could be in the runnings as well as Jack Johnson. There is Kanye West on a album-nomination roll...there is Ne-Yo consistently improving and looking to get nominated. Coldplay surely will land a nomination but which of the women will?

Best New Artist

Fairly straight-forward: Duffy seems the favourite but while Estelle, Adele and Leona Lewis could complete a quadruple sweep for British talend, word is rife whether former AR rep Santi White will have enough clout to land a nod for her outfit, Santogold. If she gets it then surely we can have hope for the year's most blogged band Vampire Weekend. Or it could be Katy Perry edging out some country act like Taylor Swift.

Now, you may read this and say gee, Neil isn't being very specific and I'm not. I have my reasons but chief among them is that I don't really care for the nomins. Now, a big 'x' factor is Radiohead's brilliant In Rainbows album as, technically, it was released this year. Given the overwhelming praise the album garnered (no.8 on my year end list for '07) it will be the perfect weather vane for Grammy change this year. Here is the biggest rock band in the world releasing arguably the best album of the year and freely distributing it online. This challenges the comfy pace NARAS treads on but here here comes a stubborn test. Last year great albums by M.I.A and Animal Collective among others were ignored for comfy artists but I suspect the time is ripe for a change. We will see in less than 24 hours.

Monday, December 1, 2008


"...and the winner is?"

Last year was a pickle for my choice of 'artist of the year'; sure, M.I.A had redefined world music/ hip-hop with Kala but there was Panda Bear, who was a part of two innovative records, two feats of electronic ingenuity that I couldn't ignore. That said, M.I.A won because her ideas were bound to wreak more havoc on the music scene as well as the fact that she stands alone now--by way of usurping Bjork--as the artist critics, fans and fellow musicians now think leads the way to which we all respond. That's a heavy-enough mantle for any one person and rightfully so, no one could carry the wave around without broadside help this year.

Still, it was curious who was the defining artist of the year...many names came up, names that blogs have been clamouring to put on their year-end lists. But even if you go by that count, no one person stood out definitively. But something did.....just not any one person.

Perhaps Janelle Monae said it best in a youtube interview I watched a few days, it's ok if you are asking yourself Janelle who (her music was recycled by Bad Boy records from last year) but the point is her words. Monae reiterates that the concept album is not only en vogue but here and now. And we've seen this especially in the last couple of months...Beyonce, Kanye West and Coldplay---three of music biggest names---all tried their hands at concepts that they could have eschewed in order to cash in even bigger than they are currently. This idea of a return to art is not exactly novel but it is refreshing especially for commrecial acts as those I mentioned. It is so easy for commercial success to be met only by commercial success and not exploration of art. It's not easy: too often we as listeners and critics think artists are solely in charge of their careers but there is a direct link between commercialism and the musical effort. That is a fact and it's the rare artist that can escape that with each recorded album.

Which lead us back inexorably to the outcome of this blog entry...but by now you know where I'm going with all this. This year, I choose a concept and not an artist per se as my 'artist of the year'. The concept is, simply put, the return to art. This I feel was carried over from last year and will be brought forward to the new year. Hopefully award shows like the hopeless Grammys will FINALLY recognize the trend and go with that in mind when the nominations are announced in a few days time. I'm not terribly optimistic but we will see, won't we?

Hurricane (Grace Jones) (2008)

“Yes, I Am a Witch”

I’ll admit first up that my caption for this review is lifted from a Yoko Ono remix collection released last year but given the eccentricity involved I think it fits most appropriately. If Ono is singularly the most enigmatic woman ever in pop music then Jones is the woman mostly pigeon-holed right behind her (Bjork fans don’t despair: your favorite Icelander is no doubt third).

Hurricane, her first album of new material in nineteen years, continues the interesting juxtaposition Jones presents to pop music and art. Of course, Jones hasn’t been totally gone the past two decades: twice her return was stalled for reasons unknown but also she has done odds and ends contributions. This has only whet my appetite for her however because as interestingly poised she is globally as a pop star, not many kids are growing up knowing of her actual music even in this youtube era. Let’s face it, if Patra (remember her?) hadn’t remade Pull Up to The Bumper eons ago then Jones would be only a talking point. Hurricane is only nine tracks but these are well mapped-out funk concepts. Williams’ Blood, the stand out, breaks out in hives with each couplet. All the well-tested stylistic tricks are presented by Jones in it, like a ringmaster carefully controlling our rapt attention. One could get lost in the artistry of it but it is the seemingly biographical lyrics that are stunning. Jones isn’t the first artist to hail from our shores to have revealed so much personally on record but given her oddity status it is intriguing. I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears) pays homage to maternity but it is suffused with enough multiple vocal work to pull itself off without sounding too contrite. Sunset Sunrise follows in this vein but its effect is dependent on the strength of her pastiche and its usage.

This brings me to the main kink in the album: its production, or more precisely, its deluxe production. Lead single, Corporate Cannibal is more art than song. In fact, its deftness is in its spoken word matching pace with the minimalistic beats. The video is visually arresting and it will enhance her reputation for always being ahead of the curve but her producers are treating her with the same type of gloves that she was sparring with two decades ago. At the height of her prowess, Jones’ visual oddity was backed up with aggressive vocal work and songs like My Jamaican Guy that totally simmered within its own conviction. As good as Corporate Cannibal is, it lacks the guttural juice needed to wow listeners like her earlier stuff did. Nineteen years ago, perhaps it’d be held as exotic but times have changed. The definition of cutting-edge music is perpetually changing and it’s always a bit odd to see an artist like Jones not in total command of modernistic gimmicks. Ivor Guest and Sly & Robbie are among the main handlers of her sound here so that means a technical excellence that is as consistent as it is unimpeachable. This doesn’t take into account, however, the current state of pop music. Britney Spears’ robotic utterances on Womanizer are horrific punishment on my ears, for example, but the beat is modern and oddly challenging. My point: the beat shouldn’t just thud, it should ‘sell off’, as we say locally. Hurricane is an elegant thing but it could have thawed out more or subvert itself to a more threatening existence. The last three songs are the weakest because the fit with her vocals and the beats are not as tight. They feel slightly like filler.

Artists are expected to evolve always…their sound should be tinkered with until the right combination is found. When they pause too long then that leads to trouble or, ultimately, stagnation. This is partly why Bjork has been usurped by M.I.A in the eyes of music critics as the leading exponent of pop music. Circuitry and insulation have led Tori Amos and, of all persons, PJ Harvey away from the brilliant originality that attracted audiences to them in the first place. This is why Buju just doesn’t seem quite as vital now in spite of the occasional hit. The very reason why I no longer care what Pink has to say.

When Jones’ producers throw caution away then the result is the gorgeous This Is Life, a hybrid of different Jamaican rhythms and syntax that mutates midway into shards of feedback. When Jones yells, ‘this is me/ flying the gate…’ the entire thing collapses lusciously upon itself. I don’t need a lyric sheet to tell me that the production contribution of Tricky (himself enjoying a great comeback year) manifests itself on the title track--which has been mixed around for quite some time now and is an utter delight to hear. It builds slowly and takes off when he trickles in, giving it a nice trippy vibe.
2008 has been big on legends returning with music but in almost all those cases they’ve brought nothing new to their repertoire: Madonna’s Hard Candy sticks in one’s throat rather uneasily. Q-Tip has put out something decent but it’s a sideway thrust not a forward one and even the greatest of them all, our own Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry leaves the listener baffled more than once with his art-meet-pap/pop Repentance. Grace Jones has already earned the right to be considered one of the greatest exponents of popular music and Hurricane is a reminder of that. She succeeds where those aforementioned artists fail because the control panel of her style has never been too residual within her. That’s why team Jones rises to challenges and smoothes over the blimps that limit Hurricane but simultaneously such a PR effort reveals little if anything at all of what is to come. They have however-- to use a weird culinary term—managed to take her out of the freezer but not totally sizzling in the frying pan just yet.