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


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