By Alexander Billet
Also published at Dissident Voice and Znet
"When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." -Plato
A friend of mine told me recently how intensely unexcited he was by the bands out there. When I asked why, he said “they’re not doing anything different. It’s like they’re being given this blueprint by MTV or the record labels and being told what to do. Yeah, some of it’s good, but there’s no emotion, no honesty.”
He may be right. There are plenty of artists on the radio who can make you tap your foot and sing along. But when was the last time you really felt empowered by a song? When was the last time that a singer or musician or lyricist really truly related to you; cut through all the alienation and dissatisfaction and made you feel, well… human? A song doesn’t need to be a manifesto to make you think you can change the world. But it does need to have more than just a good beat and okay hooks.
Maybe it’s just endemic at a time when people are getting scammed all around. After all, when thieves in high places can slash wages but give away billions to an unpopular war, people simply feel in their bones that they’re getting a raw deal. And if politicians don’t listen to us unless we force them, why should record executives?
After talking to my friend, I was determined to find some sign of life in music. If Rock, Motown and Punk could all encapsulate the rebellious spirit of the sixties and seventies, then surely there has to be something for us today. 2006 was the year when voters showed their anger against the war in Iraq, when Israel was exposed as a crude colonial state by Lebanese resistance, and when millions took to the streets in solidarity with immigrant workers. Hardly Paris ’68, but the anger is palpable, and who knows when it will blow?
Likewise, the floodgates of music itself have been opened just wide enough for some really amazing changes. Say what you will about the artists, but the raw back-to-basics sound of “indie-rock” and the consciousness of “alternative hip-hop” have both been on the rise recently. What does this mean? That music, like everything else, is on the verge of change.
So, dear readers, if you are straight-up sick of what is being delivered to us by both the politicians and the smug jockeys on MTV, then these are the ten albums you should watch for in 2007. Some of these artists are big names, some are barely known at all, but what unites them is that all of them have something to say and say it damn well.
1. Ozomatli—Don’t Mess With the Dragon
LA’s harbingers of the best mix of rock, worldbeat and hip-hop since the word “fusion” was uttered, will be releasing Don’t Mess With the Dragon in March. Throughout the years, Ozo has taken their infectiously groovy live shows to strike pickets and anti-war benefits, and toured the world with the diverse group of acts. They have also made a name for themselves without compromising their sound or their politics. This album promises to be a portrait of the diversity of their hometown. “Los Angeles is a microcosm of the world,” says percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi. “You can drive through this city and hear music and experience cultures from all over the world. That’s who we are.”
2. Steve Earle—Untitled
The “hardcore troubadour,” will also be returning this year with a follow-up to 2004’s The Revolution Starts Now. Though little is known about the album, we do know that Earle has gained our admiration (as well as the hatred of the right wing of the country music establishment) for his unapologetic opposition to war in Iraq, the death penalty and anyone and anything that puts profit over people. For my money, it doesn’t get much better than “Copperhead Road,” his send-up of the war on drugs. But let’s see if he can top it!
3. Sage Francis—Human the Death Dance
The best politically minded MC to come out of Providence, Rhode Island since—well… ever!—is working on this album for a May release. “Makeshift Patriot,” was the most intelligent musical opposition to war in the aftermath of 9/11. Most radio stations refused to play the single, but it gained massive underground popularity, signifying how desperate people were for an alternative to jingoism and war. And he hasn’t backed down since. 2005’s A Healthy Distrust saw his smart and passionate lyrical style climbing to even greater heights. He’s on a roll. Human the Death Dance will be an important album.
4. Son Volt—The Search
2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot saw these trailblazers holding up country’s rebellious and radical side like few others can. “The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head” seemed to sum up that album quite well. This release will see the band with an unusually diverse sound, bringing in guitar pedal loops and horn sections. Front man Jay Farrar has always worn his heart on his sleeve in his lyrics, as could be seen in songs like “Endless War” and “Bandages & Scars.” And though Son Volt’s sound may be changing, Farrar’s sense of justice and hope hasn’t. This album promises to deliver big-time!
5. The (International) Noise Conspiracy—Untitled
Hard rocking garage punk with open communist politics—need I say more? T(I)NC is Sweden’s best musical export since lead-singer Dennis Lyxzen’s last band, Refused, called it quits in the late nineties. Armed Love from 2004 was the group’s best so far, especially on the tracks “A Small Demand” and “Let’s Make History.” Not much info is available yet, but the new release is planned for early spring; and if it is even half of Armed Love, then we’re in for a Stones-meets-Clash blast of radical rock n’ roll that’s just perfect for storming the barricades!
6. The Good The Band and The Queen—S/T
The term “supergroup” leaves a bad taste in a lot of mouths, but this is a band worthy of the term. Members include former Blur frontman and Gorillaz guru Damon Albarn, guitarist for The Verve Simon Tong, drummer Tony Allen (best known for his work with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s band) and Clash bassist Paul Simonon. The two singles released from the album promise great things. Downbeat Brit-rock with extra soul and a twist of psychedelia, with achingly personal lyrics about living in a mad, mad world. This debut might prove to be just as great as this band’s line-up suggests.
7. Talib Kweli—Ear Drum
Though the lines between “underground” and “mainstream” hip-hop have been blurred over the past couple years, there are still those who successfully strive to maintain the underground values of creativity and consciousness. At the forefront of these artists is Talib Kweli, whose new album is scheduled to hit stores sometime this month. While his outspoken views remain untempered (check out the first single “Listen” on his website) this album will see Kweli enriching his already unique sound with influential MCs like KRS-One, reggae artist Sizzla and R&B talent Musiq. Kweli has turned many heads with his albums in the past, and this one will keep ‘em turning.
8. Wynton Marsalis—From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
This jazz legend (and there are so few left) has a lot to say on his March 2007 release. “It’s been in my mind for a while,” he says regarding the album. “Every decade I like to do one piece that has that kind of social involvement with American culture.” The title, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, says it all. The songs will take on consumer culture, 60s radicals who have sold out, and America’s handling of Katrina. That such an established voice in jazz can dare to speak out says volumes about the time we live in.
Indie-purists may scoff at their success, but a group that can be so massively popular and yet so openly experimental with their music is truly rare, and a thing to behold. The five boys from Oxfordshire, England have eschewed expectation and challenged musical boundaries on almost every album in the past fifteen years, and with little regard for MTV or mainstream radio. Both their sound and their lyrics have captured perfectly the feeling of severe alienation and soullessness in alienating and soulless times (a feeling we are all familiar with). And though they deny that 2003’s Hail to the Thief was a reference to Bush, their actions over the past few years (from lending their voices to debt relief, to touring without corporate advertising) may signify a deepening radicalization. A few songs off the album have been played in front of audiences, but the only thing we know to expect off this next album will be the refreshingly unexpected.
10. Johnny Cash—American VI
The Man in Black hasn’t faded one bit since his death three years ago. And rightfully so. It goes without saying that Johnny was one of the original rebels in modern music. The above artists and any other musician with half a soul owes him a great deal. His past releases for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings saw him bring his own unique and haunting voice to songs by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Bob Marley, Moby and Tom Waits, as well as including a few originals. Despite the albums being mostly cover songs, nobody who has listened to them can deny that they are signature Cash. Though his once strong voice is wispy and cracked on these albums, his talent for making us feel what he sings remains unmatched. All the hype makes it easy to forget that his rebellion wasn’t just for show. Cash always stood on the side of “the poor and the beaten down.” Whether it was in “Folsom Prison Blues,” or even his version of “Desperado,” his sense of compassion and solidarity is something that can never be erased, and is guaranteed to be heard in every note on this album, which will be one of the highlights of 2007.