2008 — The Year in MusicPosted: January 2, 2009
Maybe this isn’t terribly forward-thinking of me, but I’m going to start off the new year by talking about last year.
Musically, 2008 was all in all a disappointing year. That’s not necessarily saying there wasn’t plenty of good music this year. There was. But they rarely came from the albums I was anticipating. I got hit with a lot of let downs this year. Not bad albums, per se, but ones that almost without fail fell short of my expectations. As such, I’ve decided a list of top albums would be fairly pointless, especially considering that my pick for the #1 spot stands head and shoulders over the competition. So for the albums I’m going to hand out a series of awards, based on various superlatives of my invention:
Biggest Disappointment (Should’ve Been Good, Was Shit)
No, “Chinese Democracy” is not getting the award here. Nor is Ben Folds’ “Way to Normal,” even though I agree for the most part with the review here. This year’s biggest downer was the third self-titled Weezer album, though I suppose making yet another self-titled album should’ve been a red flag for me. I’ve always been a bit of an apologist for their more recent efforts, particularly the underrated “Maladroit,” even if it sounds only half-finished, and the musically polished but lyrically miserable “Make Believe.” There was still a charm underneath the shortcomings. But there’s simply nothing to defend in this year’s “Red” album. The lead single “Pork ‘N Beans” is a complete incongruous mess, giving a message about “doing the things I want to do” over music that sounds like it was written by a producer, not a musician. And it’s one of the best songs on the album.
Biggest Surprise (Should’ve Been Shit, Was Good)
No, “Chinese Democracy” is not getting the award here either. Instead the award goes to “Death Magnetic” by Metallica. After about a decade and half of terrible to middling releases from Metallica, “Death Magnetic” actually managed to be the kick to the balls the band so desperately needed. It’s far from perfect. The album doesn’t have much a natural flow to it. The songs are often too long and overwritten. But there are moments of brilliances in various power riffs, flashy solos, and some of the best drumming of Lars Ulrich’s career. Most importantly though, “Death Magnetic” has the energy that the band’s been missing for years.
The “On Second Thought” Award (Initially Disappointing, More Enjoyable Over Time)
Sometimes it’s best to wait until all expectations and initial impressions have passed before giving an album the review it deserves. That’s the case with “Modern Guilt” by Beck. The idea of a Danger Mouse/Beck collaboration had me absolutely giddy up until it’s release. The last thing I was expecting was an album so somber and so short (under 34 minutes). It wasn’t the funky and upbeat “Guero,” not was it the wildly experimental “The Information.” It was a quiet, minimalist work with highly refined songs, but a little short on hooks. As such, I had to revisit the album after some time to fully appreciate the smart songwriting.
The “Better Late Than Never” Award (2007 Album I Didn’t Discover Until This Year)
I’m not the Grammys. Therefore, I don’t pretend that an artist is “new” just because I’ve never heard of them before and I don’t pretend an album came out the year I first listened to it. (See the recent nomination of last year’s “In Rainbows” by Radiohead as the best album of 2008.) With that in mind, I’d like to honor “Leaves in the River” by Sea Wolf. The indie folk/rock group managed to put together an album that, as it’s title implies, simply sounds like autumn. “You’re a Wolf” is the single, but I highly recommend “Black Dirt” and “Winter Windows,” which includes easily one of the best non-TMBG uses of the accordion ever.
The Year’s Best Album
In my mind there is really no competition here. “Dear Science” by TV on the Radio is an absolutely brilliant union of ambitious ideas and successful songwriting. Listening to “Dear Science” is almost like listening to a Best of David Bowie compilation, in that each song sounds completely different, yet distinctly and unmistakably that artist’s. I racked my brain for an apt and concise description of their music, but the best I could come up with was “funky Radiohead” (and that really doesn’t do them justice). The songs vary from danceable (“Crying,” “Red Dress”) to romantic (“Love Dog,” “Lover’s Day”) to rocking (“Halfway Home,” “DLZ”), and amazingly, you could make an argument for almost every track as being the best the album has to offer. I really can’t recommend this album enough.
10 Best Songs of the Year
10. The Roots (feat. Truck North & Saigon) — Criminal. It might be weird to highlight guitar work in hip-hop, but what really makes “Criminal” shine is the haunting, vaguely Eastern guitar riff that runs through the whole song. I couldn’t stop listening to this track.
9. Metallica — The Judas Kiss. “Death Magnetic” had a couple good choices on it, but “The Judas Kiss” is a nice step back to good, old, tremolo-picking, thrashy Metallica.
8. Murs — The Science. Everything about this song seems designed to be a throwback to old school hip-hop: the flute over the back-beat, the scratching on the chorus, and the meandering verses covering conspiracy theories and the history of hip-hop. It all works, and I’m just glad someone’s still writing songs that sound like they could’ve been written by Grandmaster Flash.
7. Beck — Volcano. This was in close competition with two other Beck tracks, “Modern Guilt” and “Soul of a Man.” But “Volcano” is a good enough song that it gets me to overlook the use of Scientology imagery. Beck manages to make them compelling, particularly in the verse about the girl who jumps into a volcano “to get back to the womb of the world.”
6. My Morning Jacket — I’m Amazed. “I’m Amazed” is a tailor-made radio hit, but I mean that in the best way possible. It’s an upbeat, guitar-heavy song with a simple and addictive main riff, simple repeatitive lyrics, and great solo.
5. The Dodos — Fools. Even on a song-by-song basis, the Dodos are very hard to define. “Fools” is no exception. There’s a folksy undertone, but the drumming is too fast, and there are too many strange instruments coming into play to really define it as such. It’s one of the most original songs I heard all year, and one of the catchiest.
4. Do I have to pick just one song from Dear Science? Sigh… fine. I guess I’ll go with Golden Age. This is probably the TVOTR song I find myself listening to the most often. It’s the first single and somewhat Prince-like in its falsetto and irrepressable beat. There certainly were other more ambitious songs from the album, but I find myself going back to “Golden Age” every time I put the album on.
3. Cold War Kids — Every Valley is Not a Lake. Not as accessible as the Cold War Kids’ breakout song “Hang Me Up to Dry,” but it has a similarly gleeful stomping beat and lyrics in the first-person view of a invented character. This time, the character takes the form of a nagging parent:
Now you graduate and you think
You’re gonna move out now
I’ll congratulate you as soon
As you pay your own way
2. Atmosphere (feat. Tom Waits) — The Waitress. Speaking of first-person characters, “The Waitress” is the story of a homeless man who sleeps in the alleyway behind a diner, irritating the diner’s waitress daily just to get a reaction out of her. The song sounds disarmingly positive, until the heartwretching lines:
Ignoring the insults and evil eyes
I feed off of ’em
I wonder when she’ll realize
That she’s the only reason I visit
The only woman in my world that acknowledges my existence.
1. The Raconteurs — Carolina Drama. Dirt simple major chord progression over a violent little story about jealousy, mistaken identity, and murder. It’s Cormac McCarthy meets Jerry Springer. And like McCarthy, it’s greatest assets are its simplicity and its stark imagery. It’s a song that never explains itself, but sticks with you long after you’ve heard it.
A Few More Thoughts on the Year
- Most abused technology. You could easily make a case against the Auto-Tune fad running through mainstream hip-hop (Kanye, Lil’ Wayne, T-Pain), but I’m going to go with an older hip-hop staple that hit a nadir this year. Sampling. The two most egregious offenders are Guns n’ Roses’ “Madagascar” and Rhianna and T.I.’s “Live Your Life.” The former samples Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, overlaying it artlessly with the music in a way reminiscent of those painful 9/11 tribute remixes that combined news clips from the day with songs like U2’s “Walk On.” The latter tried to build a song around the “Numa Numa” song, proving the ever-increasing dominance of internet memes over other cultural areas. The end result was an atonal, unlistenable, inexplicable hit single.
- On “Chinese Democracy.” If you never listened to it, let me assure you that it was neither as bad, nor as good, as anyone might have told you. I almost wrote a review about it, but “excessively average” isn’t all that interesting to read about. But hey, nothing that features ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson on bass can be all that bad.
- On music videos. At this point, music videos exist pretty much only online. There were two particularly original ones that stood out for me. Gnarls Barkley’s “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?” features a very gory singing heart and something that’s oddly a rare sight on television: an interracial couple. Metallica’s “All Nightmare Long” is a bizarre mixture of Soviet propaganda, alien spores, and zombies. Seems like it would make a good video game.