Thursday, January 31, 2008

Another reason to listen to Pandora.com

Big ups to the folks at the music genome project for making me ask the following question of myself:

"Why the hell did I ever stop listening to Arrested Development?"

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Not such a fucking waster anymore...

The cover story of the latest Spin, "Pete Doherty: Man Out of Time" gets at a topic that's really the big ugly elephant perched on the coffee table for the music press; vis a vis his treatment as a junky piece of tabloid fodder over his artistic abilities.

For the record, I have long been a loyal fan of Doherty, in both the Libertines and Babyshambles. I think he is one of the most talented and poignant musicians in rock music, and that has nothing to do with his addictions or troubles with the law. I can guarantee there are shit-tons of people out there who would agree.

But his personal struggles witha addiction (which is rarely regarded as a DISEASE in the press) ahs made him the butt of mean-spirited tabloid talk, rather than allowed us to view his work for what it is. Doherty's experience is simply an extreme case of what every musician has to deal with in the biz: their status as commodity before artist.

Bottom line, though, it's good to see him back on the straight and narrow.

Don't Sleep On it

I just agreed to be a regular contributor to the website for SleptOn Magazine.

At a time when more and more need alternative media to give them a different view, a people's view, this site is a great addition to the milieux of left-wing media websites. And best of all, they're located right in DC! Hometown represent!

Folks should definitely check them out!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Picket The Grammys! An Open Letter to the Writers Guild of America

By Alexander Billet

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Please allow me to start out by expressing my full and enthusiastic support for your cause. At a time when employers are permitted to run rough-shod over what little working people have left, and so many unions crack under the pressure, your strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has given us a small glimpse of what a real labor movement might look like. Almost three months in, your pickets have remained strong, few members have crossed, and you have gained the vocal support of other artists and unions. I have rarely been more proud to call myself a writer.

The strike has also given lie to the stereotype that all those who work in the entertainment industry live a life of luxury and glamour. At any given time 48 percent of your membership, almost half, are unemployed. As a freelancer, I know the feeling. Studios make billions off the their shows and movies, but without the hard work of the actors, musicians, designers, technical workers and writers, not a single reel would turn.

You showed that brilliantly two weeks ago during the Golden Globes. You picketed, the nominees would not cross, and as result one of film and television’s biggest nights was reduced to a half-hour news conference! No doubt the studios were more than a little irked, but the message came across loud and clear.

Which brings me to the point of this letter. Last week you announced that you would not be picketing the 50th annual Grammy Awards on February 10th. Brothers and sisters; I tell you out of utmost respect and support that I think this is a mistake and a missed opportunity.

The Grammys are the biggest televised night in the music industry. More than 20 million people tuned in last year. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) relies on the program as a boon for its funding, and major TV studios are all too happy to add it to its award season lineup. If NBC took a hit as the Golden Globes withered, you can bet CBS will feel the heat from losing the Grammys.

It is true that the strike has suffered setbacks in recent weeks. Chief among them would be the deal struck by the Directors Guild, which compromised on royalties for programs viewed online, the central issue of your own strike. Then there is the fact that despite relying on WGA members’ script contributions, the Grammys do indeed represent a different industry, and the leadership of both the musicians and TV performers union have urged you not to picket. Perhaps with all of this combined, the decision to not picket seems a reasonable move; an olive branch for the studios as you head back into negotiations.

It is my fear that the studios will see this move not as a sign of good faith, but as a sign of weakness. Over the years we have seen countless strikes and other struggles go down to defeat trying to “make allowances,” or find “common ground” with employers. The most immediate example would have to be the disastrous agreements reached this fall between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three auto-makers. If the studios haven’t shown any flexibility, then it seems there is no reason for your union to do so.

Neither can Neil Portnow, the President/CEO of NARAS, have his words taken at face value. Portnow may talk a big game about the Grammys “always being a union show,” but this comes from the same man who mere days before had the gall to approach your union with a strike waiver for the program. I suppose it comes as no surprise that he has no idea that solidarity just doesn’t work that way.

Despite NARAS’s claim to be an organization made up of both artists and executives, it has repeatedly shown its sympathies to lie with the latter of the two. This past October, Portnow wrote an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News calling on tech companies and record labels to unite in ending “illegal” downloading in the music world.

Portnow of course insisted that he was thinking of both musicians and record companies. But nowhere in his article did he bring up the more fundamental issue of how artists are actually treated by their label. Nowhere did he mention how little has been paid to artists from “legal” downloading so far. Nowhere did he bring up that artists are paid a mere ten to fifteen percent of each album sale. And nowhere did he mention that most artists are lucky if they aren’t in debt to their label after their second album!

Musicians are taken for granted by major labels, much the same way that writers are by the studios. As the more people are choosing the internet as the place to go for their entertainment, both studios and labels are searching for ways not to pay their artists more, but to grab an even bigger piece of the pie for themselves. For this reason, it is my genuine belief that, despite being in a different industry, you may find a large amount of solidarity among the musician community.

Even among this year’s Grammy nominees, most of whom could hardly be called starving artists, you may find a great amount of support. You already know that several of this year’s nominees are members of your sister union, the Screen Actors Guild, and would be prevented from attending if you chose to picket. Jack White, Beyonce, 50 Cent, even Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake have publicly grappled with the choice of staying home on February 10th, and there is little to indicate that they would hold any anger toward the WGA if they had to do so.

Furthermore, there are several nominees this year who have a long history of supporting progressive causes. There is, of course, the obvious example of Bruce Springsteen (who had already said he will not be attending this year’s awards). But there also are artists like Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Joni Mitchell, the Beastie Boys, all of whom have refused to cross picket lines in the past.

I bring up these examples not to give the impression that strikes are won on star-power, but to highlight the very real solidarity that exists for your struggle. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that two out of three Americans support your strike for the very simple reason that they are sick of seeing their own living standards chipped away. As we head into what looks to be a nasty recession, there is no telling how much more we have to lose if we don’t fight back. A victory for you, the old adage goes, would be a victory for us all. Your strategy and tactics are of course the choice of your own union. However, it is my belief that by not making your presence felt at this year’s Grammys, you are passing up an opportunity to further galvanize not only your cause, but the cause of other artists, and the labor movement in general.

In solidarity,

Alexander Billet

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dammit!!!

Just hit Rolling Stone a couple of hours ago. Looks like I spoke too soon... Very disappointing... -AB

****
Grammys: Big Show a Go After Writers Say They Won't Picket

The music industry has avoided a Golden Globes-like fate after the Writer’s Guild of America announced yesterday that the striking union would not picket the event, clearing the way for brother union the Screen Actor’s Guild (whose roster includes many musicians) to attend and participate in the event. The announcement comes one week after the WGA said it would not issue a waiver allowing SAG actors to cross the picket line, putting actor/musicians like the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and BeyoncĂ© in the uncomfortable position of guaranteeing their presence at the Grammy broadcast. Now, SAG members like Justin Timberlake, Queen Latifah and the White Stripes’ Jack White can show up, as well as the usual ten to twenty actors who typically attend to promote their current films. (Variety adds T.I. to that list of actor/musicians who can now attend, but we all know that is definitely not the case.) With their big night now strike-free, the Recording Academy promised that the lineup of performers would be announced soon.

Even though no official performances have been announced outside of the Foo Fighters playing “The Pretender” with the My Grammy Moment winner, that hasn’t stopped various sources from predicting who will appear on stage. Today’s rumor says the big surprise performance is a duet between BeyoncĂ© and Tina Turner. Mark Ronson told us last week that he and Amy Winehouse planned to hit the Grammy stage, but that was before the whole video incident. A Kanye West/Amy Winehouse duet was also supposedly planned. There are also whispers about Britney Spears somehow getting in shape in time to appear at the Grammys and make amends for her horrific VMA performance, though a “highly placed insider” tells Gatecrasher that “Britney is banned from the building.”

How do you spell "scab?" G-R-A-M-M-Y...

With any luck, it'll will look like the Golden Globes did this year... a news conference! -AB

*****

Recording Academy Circulates Petition
By NEKESA MUMBI MOODY (AP Music Writer)
From Associated Press
January 18, 2008 5:41 PM EST
NEW YORK - The Recording Academy has asked its members to sign a petition urging the Writers Guild of America to accept an agreement that would grant a waiver for writers to work on the upcoming Grammys, The Associated Press has learned.
The fate of the Feb. 10 telecast is in doubt after the WGA announced that it was unlikely to grant a waiver for music's biggest night. If a waiver is not granted, its members could picket the event, set to be broadcast live by CBS.
The online petition reads in part: "As a member of The Recording Academy, I would like to express my strong support for the Grammy Awards, and to encourage the WGA to accept the interim agreement offered by the producers of the Grammys. ... During this important 50th anniversary year, I support the Grammys and strongly urge the guild to do the same."
The message also refers to the academy's charitable and educational events and the fact that it employs hundreds of union members in the annual telecast.
The link to the online petition was sent in an e-mail message Thursday from Recording Academy President Neil Portnow and producer Jimmy Jam, who's the chairman of its board of trustees.
A WGA representative reiterated the group's earlier decision, that no final decision had been made. A Recording Academy representative did not have an immediate comment on the petition.
The Golden Globe awards, normally a glitzy, three-hour star-studded extravaganza, was reduced to a starless news conference Sunday when the Screen Actors Guild urged their members to boycott the event. The Academy Awards may face the same predicament Feb. 24.
The Recording Academy has said it hopes an agreement can be reached, though the WGA has said that is unlikely.
On Thursday, the manager for Beyonce said the star, also a member of the actor's guild, plans to perform at the Grammys, as do the Foo Fighters. However, neither act said whether they would cross a picket line if it came to that.
In a statement this week, Portnow said Grammy preparations remain "in full swing."
"We will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that a program so vital to our industry, artists, charitable beneficiaries and the great city of Los Angeles is held as planned," he said.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Liberation From the Music Business as Usual

By Alexander Billet

Upon going to the website niggytardust.com, you’ll see two options. One says “I want to directly support the artists involved in the creation of this music ($5).” The other reads “I’m not concerned about that. I just want the music (Free).” Clicking on either will get you an electronic version of Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!

The announcement that NiggyTardust would be released in direct-to-download format came right on the heels of the release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. That album went platinum within three days of hitting the web in a similar format. Williams, though well respected in the slam poetry and alternative hip-hop scenes, is hardly the household name of Radiohead. This makes Niggy all the more brave. It is a test on whether musicians can do without the ever-parasitic record industry.

It was a test fervently taken up by Nine Inch Nails brain Trent Reznor, who was on board as Williams’ producer for this project. The teaming up of these two is a meeting of minds from two different ends of the spectrum. Williams is the consummate hip-hop poet who has never shied away from articulating both the pain and promise of rap. Reznor is the intense studio virtuoso whose albums gave industrial music a new lease on life in the 1990s.

When he hasn’t been chastising Bush and Fox News, Reznor’s been trashing his label. This past summer he became so fed up with Universal Music Group that he started telling fans to steal his albums, either online or straight from the store.

So it comes as little surprise that the direct-to-download release of NiggyTardust would come at Reznor’s urging. “From the start, I remember Trent saying ‘let’s give it away for free,’” Williams recalled in a recent interview. “At first I was like ‘this dude is out of his mind.’ But then it really started making sense, and, of course, with Radiohead doing it, we were like ‘what the fuck? The idea we had was great, and we should really follow it through.’”

The idea would undoubtedly be a gamble. Radiohead, having already sold millions of albums, had little trouble bringing the mountain to Moses. Would Williams and Reznor be as successful?

This was, in essence, the question asked in an early January Salon.com article, written two months after NiggyTardust’s release. The article cited a post on Reznor’s website stating that while over 150,000 people have downloaded the album, less than 29,000 opted to pay the five dollars. As the post points out, that’s about 4,000 less than went out and bought Williams’ previous album three years ago.

It’s hard to say that the percentage of people who paid isn’t low. Reznor himself admits that the numbers are “troubling.” There are things to keep in mind, though. Firstly, not a dime of those 150,000 people’s money for this is in the hands of Sony, EMI and the like. All went to Williams and Reznor to recoup recording and online costs.

Secondly, it would be somewhat crass to view an experiment like this solely in terms of money and raw numbers. Williams and Reznor are both unique voices who could never fit into the cookie cutters on which the music industry makes its bank. This album is an attempt to show what is possible artistically outside those shallow interests. At that, it succeeds brilliantly.

For one thing, NiggyTardust blatantly defies any easy label. Williams himself is hesitant to fit it into any genre: “Gosh, I don’t know, ghetto gothic? I guess I’d characterize it as hard-core dance. I don’t know if I’d include spoken word in it actually. It’s so danceable. I have a lot to say, but I wanted to find a way to say it that didn’t get in the way of me dancing my ass off.”

Williams understands how this album breaks the mold. His confrontational-yet-playful brand of slam poetry could easily land the record in the rap section of any record store (albeit among the best in any record store), were it not for Reznor’s own contribution. Overdriven guitars, keys, temple-pounding drumbeats and abstract samples all blend into a mesmerizing sound-scape that is more trademark NIN than anything else. It’s most definitely a weird mix with Williams’ firebrand rants against everything from racism to the modern hip-hop nation, but the end result is something unique.

Song’s like “Black History Month,” “Convict Colony” and “Break” invoke a kind of controlled chaos that mimics both monotony and repressed rage at the same time. The distorted backgrounds make Williams out to be the lone voice of sanity in a world quickly careening toward the edge of oblivion. Williams has always played this role with fearless ease and good humor. His politics have always been stylishly worn on his sleeve, and this album is no exception.

Pulling heavily from Public Enemy, “Tr(n)igger” would inevitably provoke a tsk-tsk from the censors. There’s no mistake that it’s Chuck D’s powerful vocals declaring “from the hand of a nigger, pull the trigger,” while Williams’ forceful voice bounces overhead about ghettoes and bombs and falling on Lebanon. What Williams has done is put the post-Imus backlash on its head. He puts it in the context of war, racism and poverty, a world that can only provoke outrage and frustration.

Yet both artists take time on this album to show off some surprising versatility. “Scared Money” incorporates an Afrobeat sound, complete with sampled horns and congas. The intimate “No One Ever Does” is little else besides quiet keyboards and Williams’ singing.

Perhaps the most intriguing song would be the one the album is named after. Of all the tracks that might make the major labels balk, “NiggyTardust” is first and foremost. Throughout the song Williams constructs the title character as a mockery of the modern circus of big-business hip-hop. There’s even a thinly veiled jab at 50 Cent (“you can call him Curtis”). Williams’ parody is topped off by the acerbically witty chorus: “When I say Niggy, you say nothin’. Niggy… Niggy…” It’s a funny song that, in its own twisted way, speaks some truth that the BET’s and P. Diddies would rather ignore.

Perhaps it goes without saying that you won’t normally hear all this on MTV. That’s ultimately what makes NiggyTardust an important album; the example it sets for musicians and fans sick of the music-business-as-usual. As long as music is reduced to mere commodity in this system, then the creativity of artists and musicians can only be limited. But outside the realms of profit-shares and marketability, there’s an alternative where that same creativity can find a voice. NiggyTardust is an early example of what that alternative might look like.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tune of the Week: Bruce Springsteen's "The River"

All this talk about economy. The imminent recession. People losing their homes. How do we bail out the boat before it sinks? Call me cynical but the only thing I see coming is some big golden parachutes for the richest of the rich and maybe a measly $300 for the rest of us.

This is an early performance of Springsteen's "The River". He's always had a talent for getting across what working people actually go through, something given mere lip-service in the present rhetoric. It's significant that the performance was in 1980, when the US was headed into a similar recession. Isn't it interesting how history goes in circles?

*****

I come from down in the valley
where mister when you're young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
when she was just seventeen
We'd ride out of that valley down to where the fields were green

We'd go down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we'd ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care

But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Life goes on, brah...

From Defective Yeti. Funny take on a solid book on the Beatles.

One thing the writer mentions hits on is that with all the books out there on the Beatle's as celebrities, there aren't really as many on them as musicians and artists.

I could also recommend Dave Marsh's recently released book The Beatles' Second Album.

Writers of the World Unite!

It's things like this that make me proud to be a writer. I'm in a different writers union than the WGA (mine's for freelancers), but it's these picketers are showing us what militancy can look like.

This has big repercussions for the music industry too. Like the TV studios, musicians are paid little if anything for streaming programming while record companies make millions

Here are some highlights from the latest edition of Socialist Worker

“Four or five days a week, up to 2,000 writers brandish placards outside the studios, earning supportive honks from passing traffic and nervous glances from executives driving into work. Recently one had a physical altercation with an employee at Fox, where writers of The Simpsons were making a stand. Some writers have picketed production of their own shows.”

***

The WGA's struggle has also highlighted the importance of union solidarity, with the Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) refusing to cross picket lines.

***

In short, the WGA strike faces many of the challenges that labor must overcome in order to reverse its decline: huge corporations out to crush unions, sabotage by conservative union bureaucrats and countless legal obstacles. But where bigger unions have retreated, the writers have stepped up to the fight

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Calling all Buzzcocks fans!

The Busy Signals are some great stuff. For those craving a pop-punk sensibility that doesn't smack of the Good Charlottes of the world, then this Chicago outfit will suit you just fine. They are old-school without being nostalgic, melodic without being slick. Relevant and fun at the same time. I just discovered them and recommend you do too!

Listen up!

Monday, January 14, 2008

They Are Human and they Need to be Loved...

It's been over a month and I still can't bring myself to listen to the Smiths. The controversy over Morrissey's recent comments regarding immigration in the Britain's NME is well worth examining on this side of the pond. It should be said straight away how disappointing and unacceptable they are. They also, unfortunately, shed light on an element completely absent from the narrow debate on immigration taking place this election season.

In late november, the former Smiths singer blurted in an interview with the NME that "the gates of England are being flooded. The country's been thrown away."

Moz didn't stop there. In the interview he seemed troubled by what immigration meant for British culture. "Other countries have held onto their basic identity," he said, "yet it seems to me that England was thrown away... If you walk through Knightsbridge [in London] on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent."

It's the kind of remark that smacks of Eric Clapton's 1976 comment that England was becoming a "black colony," where he urged fans to vote for anti-immigrant Member of Parliament Enoch Powell. Those comments would be one of the reasons for the foundation of Rock Against Racism, the forerunner to today's Love Music Hate Racism campaigns against the fascist British National Party.

Ironically, Morrissey himself had only days prior agreed to endorse LMHR, and have its logo present at all UK shows in 2008. Yet he sees no conflict between formally being against racism, and letting slip remarks that make out immigrants to be a threat of some kind.

It brings up a fundamental question: who does Morrissey exactly think the BNP are whipping up their racist drivel for in the first place? Racism isn't an abstract concept in the UK. Like the US, it has a large immigrant population that hails from places as diverse as Jamaica and India, and a large number of hate crimes are directed against these communities. "Paki-bashing" isn't infrequent. Since the London bombings of 2005 the profiling of immigrants (mostly folks of color) has been quite common.

This is not the first time Morrissey's racial politics have been questioned. In 1992 he draped himself in the Union Jack at a carnival in Finsbury where a sizeable neo-Nazi turnout was expected. The NME also took him to task for that move. His 1988 song "Bengali in Platforms" was immensely condescending toward its South Asian immigrant protagonist. Moz ends the song by saying it may be best for the young man to "shelve his western plans." And his "National Front Disco" hardly seemed to take any kind of clear stance on the National Front.

His politics haven't always been in question, though. Songs like "Margaret on the Guillotine" and "The Queen is Dead" were rather open protests against Thatcherism. More recent songs like "America is Not the World" have taken Bush to task. He has even been investigated by the FBI and British intelligence, so vocal is his opposition to Bush and Blair.

His alliance with LMHR was rightly welcomed. But these comments throw his actual commitment to the cause into question. While Moz hardly identifies himself as a racist, the fact is that putting British culture on a pedestal and trying to hermetically seal it off from "outsiders" creates an us-versus-them dynamic that Bush and Gordon Brown are all too happy to take advantage us.

Moz has given little sign of backing down from his comments. In fact, the ever-litigious rock star is now suing the NME for speaking ill of him. His behavior is that much more regrettable when one considers the fact that Stephen Patrick Morrissey was himself born to Irish Catholic immigrants. The culture he comes from seems to pose no threat to Britishness, but evidently those from non-English-speaking, brown-skinned countries do. No doubt, Morrissey hardly recognizes this as racist.

That recognition is also completely absent from the immigration debate in the US. Presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee can take advantage of the Pakistan crisis by exaggerating the number of Pakistanis here "illegally." Lou Dobbs makes outrageous claims that Mexicans bring leprosy across the border. Though both may be called out for being incorrect, the media rarely has the guts to peg them as bigoted.

Morrissey is hardly as bad as these buffoons. Nonetheless, when an artist who enjoys sticking it to the worst politicians in society starts to sound like those very same politicians, it is, to say the least, disappointing.

The line needs to be drawn as boldly as possible: if you are an anti-racist, then you stand up for the rights of immigrants. As for Moz, one can hope he'll apologize for what he said, but I'm not holding my breath. It's going to be a while until I can listen to his stuff again.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I'm gonna go make a sandwich...

Panic! at the Disco are breaking up. If you listen closely you can hear millions of people shrugging their shoulders.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hi! We're Fake Rock Stars for Death and Destruction

Apart from the recent 3 Doors Down video "Citizen Soldier" being a blatant shill for the National Guard (it's being shown in movie theaters before the previews as a recruitment 3 minute recruiting commercial), there's a few inaccuracies that need to be commented on.

First, the video makes a link between today's Guard and a colonial-era musket-bearing farmer. The two are different. The last was an irregular militia member, a guerilla soldier kicking an occupier out.

Second, it paints a picture of the Guard being deployed for Katrina relief. Sure there were Guardsmen there, but not really that many as most were deployed overseas.

Which brings me to my third point: it makes little allusion to going to Iraq to shoot other people and get shot at.

And finally, the biggest inaccuracy in the video is that it works from the assumption that 3 Doors Down are a band worth putting on the big screen. Is this the best recruiters can do? It seems to me they would think the troops deserve better than a third rate frat-rock band who hit their pinnacle five years ago.

No wonder recruitment levels are so low.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Courtrooms and Meltdowns and Bling... Oh My! The Controversial World of Music in 2007

By Alexander Billet

The streamers have been pulled down, the champagne hangovers finally dissipated, and 2007 has come to a close. For many music fans, it was a year we were very glad to see over. The music world was a hotbed of controversy, a place you couldn’t venture unless you wanted to be bombarded with a barrage of spin and wolf-cries. The industry and its mouthpieces were undoubtedly in high gear in 2007, enough so that it made anyone who cares about music want to scream “Alright! Enough already!”

We watched the murder trial of the most influential producer in modern music unfold. Phil Spector, creator of the “wall of sound,” has long been infamous for his control-freakery and abusive behavior, going so far as to point guns at artists in the studio; from Dee Dee Ramone to John Lennon to his own ex-wife Ronnie Ronette. This courtroom drama could have been an opportunity for the music press to ask tough questions about the industry. If big record companies truly cared about their artists, then why subject them to such obviously dangerous people? Instead, the biggest mags ducked the question, devoting more ink to Spector’s eccentric wardrobe than the actual trial. That it ended in a hung jury means we may not have heard the last of it.

We saw pop stars melt down in front of our very eyes. The tabloids were clearly out for blood this past year, gawking with mean-spirited fascination at Britney Spears’ shattered sanity, Pete Doherty’s legal troubles, and Amy Winehouse’s battles with addiction. Though it would be wrong to pin it all on the red-tops, one wonders if these artists might have more success tackling their troubles if they were, in the words of Chris Crocker, simply left alone.

The Imus debacle was cynically twisted into an opportunity to go after hip-hop. While the sacking of a well-known radio bigot was a victory against sexism and racism, his “nappy-headed hos” comment ended up being an examination of rap culture’s trumped up depravity. All of a sudden, pundits began acting like the first sexist words ever uttered came from Grand Master Flash in 1979.

This pseudo-debate was even brought into the halls of congress. Representative Bobby Rush accepted Imus’ logic hook line and sinker when he held his “From Imus to Industry” hearings in September. Not only did these hearings completely miss the root of sexism, but further targeted rap through myths and half-truths. As a former Black Panther, Rush should have known better.

Last year saw the music industry set out to criminalize ordinary music fans. The Recording Industry Association of America began penetrating college campuses, demanding that administrators hand over lists of students who had downloaded “illegally.” The RIAA brought outrageous lawsuits against peer-to-peer file sharers, on average demanding $7000 a song! Jammie Thomas, a single mother in Minnesota was ruled against and ordered to pay $220,000 to the same record companies who keep artists in debt until their third release. If anyone needed further proof that the courts aren’t on our side, this was it.

At the same time, the strangle-hold of big business over our airwaves wasn’t loosened one bit. Terrestrial radio carriers (Clear Channel chief among them) found yet more ways to make a buck off of independent artists struggling to get airplay: take away their digital royalties. They also didn’t get any more comfortable with anything smacking of dissent, as evidenced by AT&T’s censoring of Pearl Jam’s Lollapalooza rant against George Bush this summer.

And yet, 2007 also saw some very measurable cracks in the industry’s well-polished veneer. They might have come from artists or fans. Either way, they showed that there is a lot more to music than the business side of it.

One of the biggest bands in the world released their album via direct download, with the option of paying absolutely nothing. Not only was Radiohead’s In Rainbows a masterpiece in its own right, it proved that artists may actually stand to make more money by giving the finger to the major labels and going straight to the fans. In short, it was yet more proof that the industry is talking out its ass, and is ultimately and archaically outdated.

Despite the fire that hip-hop was under this past year, we saw MCs and artists take a stand in the case of the Jena Six. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and many more of today’s most eloquent rappers took a vocal stand in what may prove to be one of the most important civil rights cases since the Scotsboro Boys, and in doing so showed what the real face of hip-hop is.

Furthermore, 2007 was the year we saw the first rap group allowed into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five were inducted despite great controversy, showing that hip-hop has indeed had a great effect on our culture. And as much as some may abhor it, rap isn’t going anywhere.

And, of course, Pearl Jam weren’t the only artists railing against Bush and his policies this past year. Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos, the White Stripes, even Linkin Park threw in their two cents of dissatisfaction with Dubya and his ilk. It certainly didn’t come out of thin air. Musicians write about the world around them, and if a significant number of them are willing to vocally take issue with the war, poverty and racism, then it shines light on many others who feel the same.

This is why, despite the roller coaster ride that was music in 2007, there is reason to be hopeful this year. The RIAA, Clear Channel, the pundits who smugly write our side off; none will be going away anytime soon. But we do know that you can’t keep a lid on resistance forever. The more you try, the more heated it gets… and it also gets a lot more fun. This seems the best reason to keep the faith in 2008.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Okay! Fine! Here's your damned 'Best Of' list!

I normally try to resist doing "best album of the year" lists for two reasons: The territory seems to be pretty well covered, and it invariably provokes at least a few strongly-worded communiques from folks who are less-than-pleased that their favorite artist (who I have sometimes never heard of) isn't on my list.

But I've actually gotten a lot of requests asking what my top albums of 2007 are. While I'm hardly the final word on the matter, I do find the interest flattering. And so, because you asked for it, here are my top ten albums of 2007.

1. Radiohead's In Rainbows

2. MIA's Kala

3. Amy Winehouse's Back to Black (yes, a 2006 release, but this was defnitely Winehouse's year)

4. Arcade Fire's Neon Bible

5. Talib Kweli's EarDrum

6. Bruce Springsteen's Magic

7. Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust

8. Bloc Party's A Weekend in the City

9. LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver

10. Ozomatli's Don't Mess With the Dragon