Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pop is Dead! Long Live Pop! The Top 20 Albums of 2008

In many ways, 2008 was a predictable year in music. In the constantly shifting and swaying world of music, one of the only constants is change itself. Such was the case this past year. Plenty of established artists released albums that fell far short of expectations (i.e. Kanye West). At the same time, a notable amount of dark horses and new-comers captured the moment of 2008 in impressively timely ways. On the surface, there wasn't much that set 2008 apart from any other year in music.

And yet, the music of 2008 was hardly run-of-the-mill. This year, the artists who stole the spotlight were the thinkers--the musicians consciously bucking the norms and exploring territory often forgotten. That hasn't necessarily been the case in recent years. That it's happening now isn't just a relief, it's a sign that "shut up and sing" has become dated and passe.

Indie rock evolved to the point where inclusion of the world "rock" in the genre's title seems superfluous--from Black Kids' heady and heartfelt synth-pop to the austere Kraftwerk-ism of Man Man. It's hard to believe that we may be entering an era of "post-indie," but the paucity of unmistakably rock-oriented acts on this year's list seems to indicate that the leading edge of music has changed places drastically. These aren't just artists who happen to be different, but are actively seeking to break the industry-imposed mold.

At the same time, hip-hop's ever-changing landscape saw the music taken from being public enemy number one to the top of its game. The Obama phenomenon--with the prospect of electing the first African-American president in US in history--provoked a whole host of MCs and artists to speak up on issues that have affected working people for way too long. When Young Jeezy is releasing an album called The Recession and talking about universal healthcare, you know times are indeed a-changin'.

In short, the big step that music took in 2008 is toward greater urgency, creativity, and relevance. It's becoming more organic, more real, and it's taking another step toward reflecting our lives and struggles. It's not a leap, but a big step nonetheless.


20. Immortal Technique – The 3rd World

No doubt Immortal can spit rhymes better than most "political MCs" who rely on vague sloganeering. He instead lets his own anger carry and characterize his rhymes. Rather than make it all about his own rage, though, he makes it about our rage. Ultimately, that's what makes him a good revolutionary MC (despite a few weaknesses). The title track is a highlight, warning that when it comes to the daily degradations of poverty and imperialism the powers that be reap what they sow: "I'm from where the cut your hands off if you make a fist / And niggas grow coca 'cuz the job market doesn't exist / Except slave labor, modern day company store / And peacekeepers don't ever, ever, ever come here no more." The industry clearly has no idea how to handle these ideas, but hearing this album you can hear why Tech has become such a force in the hip-hop underground.

19. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III

This is guaranteed to be a controversial choice. There are no doubt a lot of hip-hop elitists and purists who have attempted to write Lil Wayne off. Even 50 Cent admitted he was "confused" Carter's runaway success. Love him or hate him, though, there's no denying that Wayne communicates some basic truths about Black America in stunningly creative ways. This album is sheer chaos, employing scattergun beats that pull in everything from rapid-fire boom-bap to down and dirty blues. And his croaky, against-all-odds voice delivers rhymes that are out of this world. Past all the media hype about "the year's best album," and despite the wish from many that he simply go away, it's undeniable that Tha Carter III is a well-crafted album with a lot more heart and soul than many at the top of hip-hop are able to muster.

18. Thievery Corporation - Radio Retaliation

As always, DC's Thievery Corporation deliver an enjoyable electronicized blend of global beats and rhythms carrying unmistakably political overtones. They have sought to be a soundtrack to the globalization of resistance, and done so with a great degree of success. Though it's far from their strongest effort (that would be their previous, The Cosmic Game), Thievery's unique place in the normally mind-numbing "chill-out" genre remains solid here. Brazillian jazz, Middle-Eastern rhythms, indigenous beats from all over the world are woven together seamlessly by dubbed-out effects and delayed keys. Add in guest appearances by DC go-go legend Chuck Brown, Afrobeat composer Femi Kuti (son of genre pioneer Fela) and samba songster Seu Jorge, and you have an album that is much more eclectic and globally solidaric than most condescending concepts of "world music."

17. The Roots - Rising Down

The Roots just keep evolving. They are the hip-hop equivalent of Radiohead--refusing to be pigeonholed, experimenting as much as they want while speaking their mind far more eloquently than most can even handle. It's hard to believe this is the same group that released Things Fall Apart a decade ago. The dark, dense, often buzzing-and-twisting beats on Rising Down are a far cry from the group's once soul-based sound. And yet, it's still, without a doubt, the Roots. If it's a more troubled album, that's only because the group rightfully recognizes the times we live in are more troubled. Tracks like "Criminal," are undoubtedly hard to listen to, but so is the subject matter. The tough-as-nails "I Will Not Apologize" represents a defiant flip-side to the all-too-horrifying reality. It's what makes the Roots the Roots, and what makes Rising Down noteworthy.

16. Ani DiFranco - Red Letter Year

Red Letter Year went almost completely under the radar--not just of the mainstream press, but for the majority of the progressive rags too. To be sure, the past several years have left their scars on Ani, and that's evident on this album. The opening title-track yearns for the pre-Bush years; almost seeming to be a song that hunkers down to wait for the end of the storm. And yet, her musical palette has also expanded. Piano and keyboards play a more prominent role on Red Letter Year, and there are entire songs where the signature wind-up-toy twang of her acoustic guitar aren't heard at all. This album would be higher on the list except for that its somber melancholy seems a bit dated--granted only by a few months, but in 2008 those few months made a lot of difference! It will be interesting to see what form this new Ani takes in an era where outspoken artists feel like they can accomplish so much more.

15. Bloc Party - Intimacy

Bloc Party have out-lived many of their direct indie contemporaries like because they give a shit--both about their music and the world in which they craft their sound. Intimacy blended the best elements of Bloc Party's first two releases: the jagged freneticism of Silent Alarm and the Cure-esque soundscapes of A Weekend in the City. The latter of the two branched into questioning the war on terror and turning the usual hetero-dominated love song on its head. Apart from the opener "Ares," an overt anti-war/anti-racist song, the social commentary is more subdued on Intimacy. Lead singer Kele Okereke simply cares too much to go for quick cliché lyrically or musically. Though it's still recognizable Bloc Party, the group has also expanded to bring in trumpets and choirs. Like other groups this year, Bloc Party have made a great pop album that isn't restricted by modern pop conventions.

14. Michael Franti & Spearhead - All Rebel Rockers

When Franti announced he and Spearhead would be making an album heavily influenced by reggae and dancehall, and that it was being recorded in Jamaica no less, it became obvious that it would either be a disaster or a piece of brilliance. Luckily, it was the second one. This album is soaked with the sounds of Jamaica's rich and troubled history. This isn't a nostalgia or tribute album, though. The sounds of "heavy manners" translate incredibly well in a time of war and joblessness. When Franti repeats "I'm a Human Being, Y'all" (backed up by dancehall staple Cherine Anderson), it hits home. Even when he tells a simple story about friendship and camaraderie ("Rude Boys Back in Town"), you get the message that we deserve better than the recycled crap of ages. Franti has consciously made a record that reclaims humanity in intensely inhumane times.

13. Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing

Most people wouldn't think of the words "mixtape" and "Seinfeld" in the same short story. DC rapper Wale shows that it can indeed be done! Much like Dangerdoom being unleashed on Adult Swim cartoons, Wale weaves stories based on the iconic sitcom with creativity, humor, and without one ounce of gimmick or schtick. His versatility and depth are put on display when he takes his subject--the show about nothing--and makes it about something! He even takes the opportunity to tackle Michael Richards' bigoted comedy club rant in an comedy club earlier this year. The Mixtape About Nothing even included a cameo from Julia Louis Dreyfus (aka Elaine), merely underscoring the amount of creativity and ingenuity that Wale brings to the table.

12. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation's Dark

"Country-rock" can be amorphous. After all, most of what passes for country nowadays has more in common with the over-the-top stadium rock that dominated in the 70s and 80s. But it can also be applied to those unique artists who recognize the forgotten rebel link between the two different genres. Johnny Cash understood that. So do Son Volt and Wilco. The Drive-By Truckers understand it too. Brighter Than Creation's Dark, their eighth album, latches onto the grit, the down-and-out, the outlaw elements that are so often forgotten. These whiskey soaked southern anthems that remind us that country is at its core a kind of rebel music. The anti-war stomper "The Man I Shot" goes another length to reclaiming country from Toby Keith. To hell with the glitzy light shows and clichés about long-necks and pickups. This is an album that gets to the heart of what it is to be an outcast in America.

11. The Cool Kids – The Bake Sale EP

The Cool Kids are fun. First and foremost, they are fun. As. Hell. This EP launched them in 2008. When "Black Mags" hit, critics rightfully said that it would do for BMX what Lupe Fiasco's "Kick Push" did for skateboarding. Like "Kick Push," it expressed a simple joy with the kind of verve and dynamism that few acts in any genre can pull off. A minimal, lo-fi beat reminiscent of the 80s underscores their unique sense of play. They've said outright that politics simply isn't where there at. And yet, songs like this bring something just as important to good music in tough times: a simple sense of independence and belonging. One can only guess what their debut full-length will look like in the coming year, but if it's anything like The Bake Sale, it will establish the Cool Kids as a significant force.

10. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

This Seattle based group displays that the rich diversity of the city's music scene hasn't gone anywhere, and in fact has evolved by leaps and bounds while the critics weren't paying attention. Coming from the same vein as the Decembrists, Fleet Foxes play that kind of semi-baroque folk-pop that wears its heart on its sleeve and is comfortable with it. Though you can hear their musical ancestors' influence loud and clear, the group have crafted a sound all their own. Lead single "White Winter Hymnal" characterizes the album's best qualities: sharp musicianship, soaring vocal harmonies, guitar parts that play with sparseness as much as they do the wall of sound.

9. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Blending African pop with western classical into a peppy, playful indie mish-mash sounds like it would be hard, but Vampire Weekend showed everyone how easy it can be (or at least made it sound that way). The NYC quartet describe their sound as "Upper West Side Soweto," a label with its own kind of global implications. Their songs "Oxford Comma," "A-Punk," and "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance" are soaked with a bouncy, eclectic nonchalance that still possesses a level of gravitas. When it comes down to it, people care less about the influences than they do their ability to dance to the music. Vampire Weekend delivers on that craving, which is ultimately why it consistently is named one of the best albums of the year.

8. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman - The Fabled City

The Fabled City was the perfect follow-up to Morello's solo debut One Man Revolution. Adding a full-band to his acoustic guitar and deep baritone voice, the legendary Rage ax-man shows off his penchant for culling up folk songs that sound just as radical as any of the work he's done with an amp and row of effects pedals. On top of having proven himself a (even more) versatile guitarist, he also displays a shocking ability for weaving stories that are fully formed narratives. He skewers Guantanamo in "The King of Hell," throws shout-outs to the immigrant rights struggle on the opening title track, and pays homage to the sacrifice of struggle on "Night Falls." This is 100 per cent rebel music that shows off Morello's depth and unshakeable belief in a better world.

7. The (International) Noise Conspiracy - The Cross of My Calling

Mad props to the (I)NC for this album. It's hard to imagine a sound more befitting their poetic revolutionary Marxism than the hard-driving garage rock they've become known for. That is, until they throw the heady sounds of the 60s into the mix. The soulful "Boredom of Safety," the Stones-esque swamp boogie of "Satan Made the Deal" and the crunchy thump of "Washington Bullets" all reach back to the days when music sought to emulate the radical culture rising up from the streets of every city on the planet. When all is said and done, though, it's an album that is very relevant to our own time. In a year where "post-rock" dominated, The (International) Noise Conspiracy were the exception to the rule. It's risky for a band to shift gears at their musical high point, but the (I)NC do so with consummate rabble-rousing style.

6. Jean Grae and Blue Sky Black Death - The Evil Jeanius

Not only is Jean Grae hard-working, she's also one of the flat-out best artists in rap right now. Blue Sky Black Death are one of the most underrated production teams out there. For the two to collaborate is to bring out the best elements of both. Blue Sky Black Death create often menacing, abstract atmospherics that collide with Jean's sharp, witty, unrelenting skills. It's a great blend. Jean is concrete and vivid (she has never shied from speaking her mind). The highlight would be "Strikes," where BSBD weave a deep, dark background while Jean tells the story of hiding from the cops after killing an abusive lover. It's a track that lesser artists simply can't pull off: horrifying, brutal, yet impossible to not hear.

5. Santogold - Santogold

Santi White is on the cover of her debut full-length vomiting gold dust. That just about sums it up. Her own mutant disco method of mashing new wave, funk and electro with a dash of punk sensibility shines with all the dangerous glitter of broken glass. Each song maintains a brash attitude that makes it all stand out; there's little doubt that Santo is speaking from her gut. She's been compared to the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and M.I.A., but other than her willingness to disassemble and reassemble her different influences into her own unique sound, she doesn't have that much in common with them. Santogold is clearly her own person and her own artist. Her self-titled debut put her on the map. May she keep her place for a long time, and may there be many more artists and albums with this kind of singular confidence.

4. One Day As A Lion - One Day As A Lion EP

Zack De La Rocha's return to the public eye came with a roar. Not only is the radical MC back in the spotlight with the reemergence of Rage Against the Machine, but his collaboration with former Mars Volta drummer John Theodore displays just how deep the lyricist's talent runs. One Day As A Lion's debut EP is minimal--featuring little more than Thedore's drums, a cheap, buzzy keyboard part and De la Rocha's lyrics—but they are all delivered with such ferocity that you forget the Rage front-man has been absent for almost a decade. Forceful and militant, De la Rocha hasn't lost his knack for putting ideas like solidarity and resistance into the simplest of statements: "If LA were Baghdad, we'd be Iraqi." In a mere five songs, one gets a clear idea of what the future of radical music might be: brash, bare-bones and un-bloody-compromising.

3. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Pt. 1: Fourth World War

Much of the time, he best kind of musical rebellion is the kind that find insurgency in simple existence. Five years after her Worldwide Underground EP, Erykah Badu re-entered the music world with a well-crafted, groove based neo-soul album that revels in its own (for lack of a better term) "Badu-ness." Her lead single "Honey" had all the righteous swagger of her pre-"hiatus" material that put her pride and talent on bold display. It's the kind of song that keeps its head up while remaining thoroughly danceable. And then there is the other side of the album: songs like "Soldier;" poignant, truthful, patient: "To my folks on the picket line / Don't stop til you change they mind / I got love for my folks / Baptized when the levy broke / We gonna keep marching on / Til we hear that freedom song."

2. Black Kids - Partie Traumatic

The return of dance pop has been a long time coming. Between groups like !!! and Bloc Party, it's been clear that a notable mass of musicians have been striving to reclaim "pop" from the boy-bands and teen idols. It wasn't until Partie Traumatic that this trend began to congeal. Shimmering, gliding synth keys underlaid by staccato guitar and bass that harken back to the days when pop had a soul. Listening to the lyrics of "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You," it seems to have a brain too! There aren't many groups with male singers willing to overtly gender-bend their lyrics. Black Kids have little regard for such conventions, though. In many ways their very name speaks to the irreverence and spine they want to bring back to pop.

1. NaS - Untitled

How gutsy is it to declare a genre dead, and two years later prove yourself wrong? NaS debunks the American dream on "America," expresses his enthusiasm (and doubt) of having a "Black President," and reaches back to the height of Black Power on "You Can't Stop Us Now." For this kind of unapologetic message, the album makes the list. That NaS drops it with such varied producers as DJ Green Lantern and dead prez's, it makes the top ten. But because it does both of these with the kind of lyrical versatility and out loud passion that we know NaS for, it gets number one without question (he gets extra credit for embarrassing Bill O'Reilly too)! After fighting with his label over naming the album "Nigger," he relented, left the album untitled, and went ahead with the record he wanted to make. It doesn't lose any power for the name change, and goes to show that when the ideas of freedom and equality's time have come, there is little that can stop them.

This article originally appeared at ZNet.



Bizzy The Kid said...

Hell yeah!
The artists and albums, that I recognize, on here I totally agree with.

The reason your blog is so ill is that the depth of your music knowledge and tastes have introduced me to some cool shit. Had to hit google and youtube after reading this, I'm now a fan of some new music.

jesseray said...

I really agree with the stuff I've heard on the list. My girlfriend is going to have to plug me into the indie stuff which apparently she's been playing at home and I didn't notice all these months. My only two additions would be Springsteen's Magic and Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It. Both are stellar for different reasons. With Magic, Springsteen vocalizes the bitterness of millions feel after 8 years of Bush, particularly regarding the issue of veterans and the Iraq war. Gypsy Biker makes me tear up every time I hear it. Also, I believe Dave Marsh or someone from Rap/Rock argued that it's an album where Bruce tries to come to terms with the fact that he stands in the Black music tradition yet has failed to attract a Black audience, or at least a fan base that recognizes his roots and explores them. This is evidenced in "Own Worst Enemy" and his reference to his friends being Rank Strangers. Oh, and at nearly 60, his live show is still incredible. The E Street Band is tight and the charisma and connection between him and Stevie and the audience is amazing to see.

Saadiq's album is excellent for other reasons. Being the huge soul fan I am, I can't help but love the refreshing Temptations-esque songs he's made. The production is smoother than Motown's, which makes it somewhat less exciting than the Funk Brothers and less raw that anything coming out of Stax, but he's got a great voice and a good sound. Also, he does his own take on the post-Katrina What's Going On theme.

Great list!

Binh said...

I hope more people check out Jean Grae, one of those artists who is so good but is totally unheard of even in the underground. Her debut album, Jeanius, is phenomenal.