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 stic.man, 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.

*****

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Black President" does not equal "Hip-Hop President"


Hip-hop activist and Green Party vice presidential candidate Rosa Clemente wrote an article--the first in a four-part series commissioned by the Green Institute--that makes a strong argument against the line coming from P. Diddy, Russell Simmons, Jay-Z and the like: that Obama is the "first hip-hop president."

"I believe that like many before him, President-Elect Barack Obama's campaign used Hip Hop to create excitement amongst young people in this country, but we must clearly see through the $750 million bling-bling marketing haze of his campaign. The few times he was pressed on his association to Hip Hop, he spoke about offensive rap lyrics and Black men having respect for themselves by pulling up their pants. I do not recall one specific mention of the political victories and social consciousness brought out by millions in the culture."

When one thinks about it enough, the idea of a "hip-hop president" is a contradiction given that the two concepts are diametrically opposed. Hip-hop is grassroots youth culture. The president of the US is the most top-down position one can hold while still being elected in this country.

The amount of bottom-up energy that came from the Obama victory cannot be denied. Nor can the historic role that hip-hop played in his election. That Simmons, Diddy and Jay (today's modern hip-hop aristocracy) are attempting to claim the president elect as one of their own is a testament to how potent this hope is. But the interests he represents as part of the second most enthusiastic capitalist party in the US are in stark opposition to the interests of hip-hop itself. This is why Clemente's article is fundamentally correct:

"I want to fight for a Hip Hop political movement not dominated by white liberal politics or white foundation money. I want to fight for a Hip Hop political movement that is African-centered, respects women as leaders and believes in Universal Health Care. A Hip Hop movement that fights for amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an end to the prison industrial complex. We must all fight for a Hip Hop political movement that wants to be at peace with our global brothers and sisters, that will build a truly independent media apparatus and will stand up and mobilize against the increasing racial violence against Latino/a immigrants and demands a live-able wage. We need a Hip Hop movement that is not afraid to say that the Palestinian people should have the full right of return and that the Israeli Occupation of their homeland is illegal. I need Hip Hop to affirm the right of the Puerto Rican people and our island to be an independent nation and I need Hip Hop to help free all of our political prisoners and prisoners of war. We need Hip Hop to end the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to end the death penalty and we must create a Hip Hop political movement that empowers working class communities, fights for Green Jobs and will never deny L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters their God-given human rights. Finally I want Hip Hop to uplift and support its women, to accept women of color as capable much needed leaders, and to understand that as long as it continues to deny women their much fought place in the culture, Hip Hop will die."

Right on, sister.

*****

Monday, December 29, 2008

Since I've been gone...

Obviously a lot has happened since the beginning of the holiday hiatus, both in music and the world in general:

Starvation or Occupation?

Israel has launched its deadliest attack against Gaza since the 1967 conflict. This past Saturday the IAF began bombarding the area with bombs and mortars. Three hundred have already died, and despite Israel's claims that the vast majority are Hamas militants, the reality is that the IAF is showing a characteristic lack of concern for the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Already, several reports of civilian casualties have found their way out of Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stressed on "Meet the Press" that "our goal is not to reoccupy," referring to Israel's withdrawal from the strip in 2005. But who needs to occupy when you can merely strangle? Israel's blockade on Gaza has meant disaster for the area. Almost no trucks have been allowed in for months. There is a shortage in food, dry goods, medical supplies and other basic resources. Businesses have buckled under the pressure, and the unemployment rate stands at near 50 percent. Earlier this year when thousands of Gazans broke through the wall and flooded into Egypt, Al-Jazeera rightfully called it "the world's largest prison break." These conditions will only further deteriorate as the global recession continues. Nobody should mistake Israel's refusal to "reoccupy" for any kind of charity

Already there have been several demonstrations here in the US against the bombardment, and a national day of action on Tuesday.

In Memoriam

Harold Pinter and Adrian Mitchell died over the holiday. It is beyond strange that two artist who helped shape British literature so profoundly should pass away a mere four days apart. Mitchell, the firebrand socialist who penned everything from poetry to song lyrics, died of a heart attack on December 20th. Pinter, the formidable leftist poet-playwright who taught us the depth of silence succumbed to cancer four days later on Christmas Eve.

Pinter's plays were, on their surface, deceptively kitchen sink. His settings were the all-too-familiar domestic domiciles of English life. Yet his dialogue was tense, fraught, and always carried with it a concealed meaning and hidden agenda. It was these plays that showed us the seething menace that lie beneath the surface of everyday life. If his plays scratched the surface, then his poetry and speeches delved into his deep hatred for any kind of oppression. A vociferous opponent of US imperialism, his blunt prose was the kind that could leave a frown on many a bureaucrats' face (and according to many accounts actually did).

Mitchell was a staple in British artistic and political life for over 50 years. He translated jazz and blues lyrics. He penned children's plays and edited lengthy anthologies. But it was his poems that made him a fixture and displayed is uncompromising radicalism. Socialist author Michael Rosen recalls seeing Mitchell read aloud at a rally in Trafalgar Square when Rosen was still a child. Upon hearing about the death of Chilean folk-singer and revolutionary Victor Jara at the hands of Pinochet's coup, Mitchell wrote a poetic homage that would eventually become the lyrics to Arlo Guthrie's powerful tribute to the man.

When I was living in London during the fall of '04, I saw Pinter read Mitchell's poem "Tell Me Lies..." at a European Social Forum event in Tottenham. Though originally written during the Vietnam era, it had been updated to include references to Iraq. The sound of Pinter's stoic, unapologetic boom reading such a scathing indictment of US imperialism is impossible to wipe from my mind. Such it is with great artists.

A "New" Approach

The RIAA announced on December 19th that it would cease its infamous lawsuits against those accused of "music piracy." Though all pending suits will go forward as planned, the industry trade group has recognized that its scorched earth legal policy has completely failed. One anonymous major-label source told Rolling Stone that "this was making us the most hated industry since the tobacco industry."

Don't uncork the champagne yet, though. The new anti-piracy strategy is really not that different from the present one. Instead of going directly to accused pirates, the RIAA will work with internet service providers to "identify and contact — and sometimes penalize — users who continue to trade copyrighted music." Under the new plan, the RIAA will send infringement notices to the ISPs, who will in turn get in touch with users to let them know they are "infringing copyright." If they don't respond to said notices, then they will be subject to prosecution.

Note the vague language there: "sometimes penalize." While this may decrease the number of insane lawsuits brought against single moms and 13-year-old girls, one wonders how infrequent this "sometimes" will be. Beyond this though, the music industry is unsurprisingly failing to realize the most fundamental truth at the heart of this issue: that music does not belong to them and them alone.

Music is Not a Weapon

A new advocacy group was set up recently. The British lawyers' group Reprieve, in conjunction with the Musicians' Union, has founded Zero db. Zero db's mission is straightforward: to stop US and British forces' use of music in torturing prisoners. By now it is well-known that those held in Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers are subject to all manner of torture. This includes tying prisoners up, blindfolding them, and playing the same song repeatedly into head-phones.

US and British forces have been known to use music by Metallica, David Gray, the theme songs for "Barney" and "Sesame Street," Dr. Dre, Deicide, and Eminem.

At first, the use of music as torture might seem an odd choice. According the US Sgt. Mark Hadsell, though, it's effective in getting "enemy combatants" be come more compliant with interrogation: "If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down, and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."

The inhumanity of this is obvious. Those subjected to it have recounted stories of having their hands bound for days while head-phones are strapped on their heads and they are forced to listen to the same song over and over. It's little wonder that these same former inmates recall many prisoners losing their mind.

This is why the foundation of Zero db is encouraging. Zdb seeks to organize musicians to speak out against the use of their music in torture. Many musicians have naturally been disgusted by the practice, including David Gray, who insists "That is torture. That is nothing but torture. It doesn't matter what the music is -- it could be Tchaikovsky's finest or it could be 'Barney the Dinosaur.' It really doesn't matter, it's going to drive you completely nuts."

That the US is willing to torture prisoners is certainly a testament to the military's complete lack of respect for human life. That music can be used in the practice is merely a confirmation. Musicians have the right to speak out against it, especially if it's their own music. Zero db's foundation can hopefully facilitate this.

Which Way the Wind Blows

In Greece, December 2008 will be forever remembered as a month when ordinary people started to fight back. What started out as days of rioting after 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by police on December 6th has now codified into a general rebellion against the conservative government's social and economic policies.

Massive demonstrations have been held including both workers and students. Teachers have struck to protest the killing. Trade unions and the far left have connected Grigoropoulos' death to the slashing of social services as the economic crisis deepens. Students have occupied their campuses. Two weeks ago, a general strike shook the city.

Though it may seem that things have died down with the holidays, another demonstration has already been planned for the 12th of January. It appears that the unorganized riots have begun to take the shape of an organized protest movement against racism, inequality and injustice.

Greece has not seen a movement this strong since the fall of the dictatorship in the 80s. Doesn't it seem interesting that this is not the only "first" we have seen lately? We had the first factory occupation in the US in several decades recently. The largest meat packing plant in the world was recently unionized in Smithfield, North Carolina. A gay rights movement is quickly gaining steam and is causing the attorney general of California to toy with overturning Proposition 8. South Korean trade unionists are engaged in a heated battle against their own government. As this economic crisis develops, increasing numbers of people will be looking to fight back. Not only that, but we'll be looking to win.

It's something of a cliche to quote Bob Dylan right now--"you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"--but that doesn't make it any less true.

*****

Friday, December 19, 2008

Rebel Frequencies will return on December 29th

As readers can perhaps tell, the start of the holiday has already cause most of this week's posts to go up late. They have gone up nonetheless, and folks should please feel free to read and comment as usual. The blog will return in full force on December 29th, two days before New Year's.

Stay Free!

*****

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Live and Let Lie!

Paul McCartney recently insisted--in public no less--that it was he, not John Lennon who originally "politicized" the Beatles.

McCartney evidently met with philosopher Bertrand Russell, who first informed him about the Vietnam War. And it was McCartney who first told the rest of the group, including Lennon, about what was going on there: "I remember going back to the studio either that evening or the next day and telling the guys, particularly John [Lennon], about this meeting and saying what a bad war this was."

It seems pretty clear this is a bit more than a small exagerration. It's pretty much common knowledge that it was John Lennon who first spoke out on Vietnam. It was also Lennon who openly allied himself with the revolutionary left in the late 60s and early 70s. It's also well-known that the main radicalizing influence on him was Yoko Ono--not Paul.

None of this is to say that McCartney was never political. It's just a bit hard to believe that the Beatle who perfected the art of the overblown love song was the "politicizing force" behind the group. Tariq Ali, a major figure on the radical left in the 60s and a friend of Lennon's, told the UK's Sunday Times, "This is news to me. We never heard of Paul's views at the time. It was John Lennon who was concerned about the war. He never mentioned McCartney, and I never thought of asking him to join us."

*****

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Whole New Energy

It's not often that a live show can so effectively encapsulate that nexus between the entertaining and the agitational. This Saturday, however, at Chicago's Viaduct Theatre, I attended a show that was worth a mention for this exact reason. In all truth, I helped build and promote this show, so I can't claim complete shock at its success.

It was a fundraser for Haymarket Books featuring Son of Nun, and with supporting acts Phillip Morris and Kevin Coval. As always, all the acts were impressive. Yet it was the context that really made a great deal of difference at this show.

As folks may know, Haymarket is a far-left publisher, dedicated to building the anti-war movement, the movements against racism, for economic justice, and promoting ideas about a radically different alternative. True to form, the night's lineup was peppered with those politics. The night was kicked off by Darby Tillis, a former death row inmate and current blues artist who did one tune dedicated to the third anniversary of the death of Stan 'Tookie' Williams. Throughout the night, different activists came to the front to make announcments regarding the new movement for gay marriage, or in support of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Two workers from the recently victorious workers at Republic Window and Doors spoke in between acts about their struggle.

But of course, people came for the music. Kevin Coval's poetry was the kind of unabashedly populist ode to Chicago's streets. Phillip Morris (who I had never seen before) was funny and irreverent. And Son of Nun's tracks were top-notch agitational hip-hop. The beats provided by Selector Vanessa Beck kept people moving all night. It was the music that kept the energy up, no doubt. But it was the underlying current of purpose--that this was music here with the intent of changing the world--that helped the music's energy reach a whole new level.

Keep this in mind.

*****

Friday, December 12, 2008

Looking Back to Find the Future

The (International) Noise Conspiracy's moment in the sun should have come a long time ago.

One would think that a group who sought to be "a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevara" would have rule of the roost in the garage rock revival circa 2001, but as (bad) luck would have it, the unabashedly communist hip-shakers were routinely overlooked in favor of everyone from The Strokes to The Detroit Cobras.

Now, with that revival past its peak, the Swedish rockers might be missing the boat entirely were their new album not such a departure from their previous efforts. Listeners familiar with the (I)NC's rock-as-hard-as-you-can sound might be taken aback to hear The Cross of My Calling's intro: a spacey organ riff that's almost reminiscent of a record from (dare I say it?) 1968!

For a band to embrace the sounds of the 1960s in the 21st century is to wade into undoubtedly treacherous waters. Forty years after the explosions that re-mapped the face of music, it is marketability--not reverence--that ultimately motivates today's record industry to continue selling us the now-iconic Beatles records.

The (I)NC have a different take from the industry, though. To them, young people wouldn't be buying the Doors CDs and Che t-shirts if there weren't something intensely relevant about them.

Old school soul, Stones-style R&B, even tinges of tripped-out psychedelia run through this album with a surprising amount of youth and vigor. Thickly layered on top of their gutsy lo-fi guitar rock and lyrics that question just about everything, the (I)NC's latest proves that the spirit of '68 isn't just a stale piece of nostalgia, but alive, well, and urgently needed today.

To be sure, the Conspirators have always taken a cue from that red-letter year. Lead singer Dennis Lyxzen has been open about the heavy influence of Situationism, the radical philosophical and artistic movement that had its heyday during the '68 uprisings in France:

"[T]he way they [the Situationist movement] wrote their manifestos and the way they lived their lives were like rock stars," says Lyxzen. "They used a language that was so well equipped to talk politics with, to write songs with. I was inspired and amazed by the lives they lived and some of the political ideas they had. The Situationist movement is like the rock stars of the French philosophers.”

Such heady ideas might be a tall order for a lesser rock band--or a lesser producer. The (I)NC have been fortunate enough to work with legendary studio-man Rick Rubin for the second time in a row on this album. "Rick likes the fact that we're very political, especially in times like these," explains Lyxzen. "Labels want you to tone down the politics, but Rick recognizes that it's what makes us stand out."

And yet, the politics and music aren't separate entities on The Cross of My Calling. Rubin and the Noise Conspiracy have crafted an album where the righteous sounds of rock 'n' roll are just as important as the group's firebrand radicalism.

True to the Situationist mantra "revolutionize everyday life," this is music that finds the kernel of rebellion every aspect of modern existence--from the war in Iraq to the most mundane, alienating experiences. Lyxzen's lyrics steer clear of the vague, hackneyed sloganeering one might expect from such a political group. Instead, the lyrics aim straight for the heart--and seek to win it too.

The opener "Assassination of Myself" is a passionate, leg-jerking rocker that can connect with anyone who has felt powerless in a world spinning out of control. While the track is directly a rejection of traditional male identity, more broadly it's a reclamation of humanity in the face of repressive cookie-cutter society, a theme that features prominently on the album:

"I felt so undecided
I felt so stuck in my role
I felt like I was undecided
Right now
I know
This is the way to get back in control!"

Religion in particular plays a large role in several of Cross's best songs. Lyxzen has inverted the battle between good and evil the same way that we hear in the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"--as a way of directly questioning and challenging authority. He's incredibly good at it too. Whether it's his refrain that "my sins will carry me home" on the explosive "Child of God," or his plea to shed his "cross" on the sprawling, 8-minute title track, the metaphor is never unclear.

But Lyxzen also isn't afraid to go for the jugular, and he frequently displays his ability to straight-up agitate. One wouldn't think that phrases like "take control of our industry" would work in such a bouncy, upbeat song, but on "Washington Bullets," the singer somehow pulls it off.

As poetic and analytical as Lyxzen's lyrics can be, none of them would work if the whole group weren't rocking so damned hard! Ludwig Dahlberg doesn't so much play his drums as assault them. Bassist Inge Johanson supplies an ever-solid bottom groove. And Lars Stromberg's guitar riffs are as infectious as ever, veering between brash garage punk and searing blues solos that defy you to change the track. And there are enough curve-balls thrown in here, from soaring organ to the occasional harmonica solo to the relentless bang of the bongo, that it never gets predictable, let alone boring.

One of the best additions is the presence of Lisa Kekaula, singer of the California group the Bellrays. Kekaula's gritty, almost Tina Turner-like wail brings an extra depth of soul to two of the album's highlights--the shuffling and jiving "Boredom of Safety," and the no-gods-no-masters themed "I Am the Dynamite."

The ever present Stones influence is brought to the forefront on "Satan Made the Deal," a slow-but-steady, smoldering track that sounds straight out of Exile on Mainstreet. "We wanted the Stones groove on there," says Lyxzen. While it's plain to hear, the group still make it all their own as they reflect on how an inhumane system drives people to degrading and terrible states.

All of this sets The Cross of My Calling apart from most of the hollow 60s throwbacks. The (International) Noise Conspiracy aren't invoking this stylistic shift simply because it sounds good (though it definitely does that). They have deliberately reached back to the era when rock 'n' roll artists sought to deepen the genre's inherent rebellion and directly ally themselves with the forces of revolution.

There indeed was a time when Mick Jagger paid homage to the "Street Fighting Man," and when a rag-tag band of hell-raising radicals called the MC5 exhorted their fans to "Kick Out the Jams (motherfucker!)." It was a time when the global uprisings had become too big for even the music industry to ignore, and when everyone from Marvin Gaye to John Lennon had to ask themselves "which side am I on?"

Such a question may very soon be on the minds of today's artists too. Luckily, groups like The (International) Noise Conspiracy have already decided. Like all great rock 'n' roll albums, The Cross of My Calling, reminds us that our humanity isn't a commodity to be bought or sold, and that rebellion isn't just necessary--it's perfectly natural.

It's ironic that such a thoroughly modern group can find their high-point by harkening back to the struggles of forty years ago. If it's any sign though, then maybe our own moment in the sun isn't too far off.

Originally appeared at Socialist Worker

*****

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Scarface on Class and the Economy


From Rock 'n' Rap Confidential. Scarface is definitely giving a voice to what so many in this country are thinking. Whoever says hip-hop has lost its edge clearly isn't paying attention to what cats like this are saying:

"When Merril Lynch merged with Bank of America, it was just the beginning of some frightening shit. I remember when Bank of America was Nation's Bank and Merrill Lynch had all the money. Now it's definitely real in the field. Dope money is even funny right now. Niggas better hold on for dear life, man. Really.

"It boils down to class. It's the rich, and then there's the poor. If someone gets rich, just know that somewhere, somehow, somebody is suffering from [that person] getting rich. Y'all can sit in your big houses on however many acres you got and however many billions are in the bank, but looking down at the have-nots--no bank account, no meal, living government check to check--is an insult and needs to be corrected.

"Everybody's suffering. Some mu'fuckas got money, but they got cats standing next to 'em that ain't got no money at all. [But] if America got enough money to go to war, then America should have enough to keep the economy going."


*****

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sit-in Songs


Laid-off workers at Republic Door and Window in Chicago have occupied their factory, demanding that they be paid the 60 days' wages and for the unused paid vacation that they are entitled under federal law. The factory occupation is a tactic not seen since the auto plant sit-ins lead by the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in 1970s Detroit. On a mass scale, it hasn't been used since the upsurges in the 1930s that built the CIO.

Though it's too early to say whether this signals a complete revitalization of the labor movement, what the Republic workers have done is historic. They have shown that in a time when the worst elements of the crumbling economy are bound to fall on the heads of ordinary people, some folks are mad as hell, and aren't going to take it lying down anymore.

It's been more than a generation since the US could be said to have a vibrant workers movement. The tradition is far from dead, though. Likewise, that lineage of music relating to our daily struggles at work hasn't died, either, and in fact one could say that it's more alive than it has been in a while. These songs aren't Woody Guthrie or Joe Hill. They're songs from our time, our place, and our generation's fight to get what we deserve.

But of course, the list is far from complete. I'm sure we can think of more than a mere five. Send your suggestions! What songs from over the past few years really encapsulate our generation's struggle for dignity and justice? I'll be posting suggestions next week!

1. The Nightwatchman - "Night Falls"
This slow ballad off of Tom Morello's new album The Fabled City tells the story of one man who has thrown himself into a heated battle to unionize in the Western US. It's a tale of bravery, sacrifice and the fight for basic dignity at the workplace.

2. Mr. Lif - "Live From the Plantation"
Lif has raw anger on this track--anger against the boss, the monotony, boredom and soul-sucking labor at a modern day cubicle farm. In today's world, we're told that office workers have it made, yet how many of us have wanted to "punch the clock right off the fuckin' wall?"

3. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists - "Biomusicology"
Not a song directly about labor, but about something broader: breaking through our alienation and making our life's work worthwhile. Best line: "...come out from the tunnels we dig in / To see that tunneling's not living."

4. Street Dogs - "There is Power in a Union"
Originally written by Billy Bragg, Street Dogs' version is driving, determined punk rock gutsiness. Combined with Bragg's timeless lyrics, their take really captures the anger and frustration that young workers have at the workplace today, but translate it into hope, pride and power.

5. Rage Against the Machine - "Maria"
The tale of a worker in the maquiladora on the Mexican/American border. Zack De la Rocha's powerful poetry and Morello's maniacal, screaming guitar work bring to life the brutality felt by workers in the global south in the age of corporate globalization--and also give voice to the power we all have to fight back!

*****

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What I've been listening to this week

1. Lupe Fiasco - Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor
The announcement that Lupe's next will be his last has me scouring his material and looking to squeeze every last drop of interpretation out of it. It's easy to see why this album provoked some to call him "the savior of hip-hop" (though it didn't really need saving). Past all the cynical rhetoric of the haters, Lupe really was a breath of fresh air, and he hasn't really lost much of that freshness since. It may have seemed a bit of a surprise that "Kick, Push" was the first single, but that's precisely what made him fresh, his ability to relate everyday struggles in original and believable ways. This album does that incredibly well.

2. Odetta - Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues
See my obituary from earlier in the week. The loss of Odetta is the loss of one of the true originators. This was her first solo album, and blends a string of traditional songs with a couple by Leadbelly, one by Jimmie Rodgers. There's a light sprinkling of spirituals here, but for the most part these are prison songs, work songs, chain gang songs, and all of them are songs that really embody a long-time struggle for justice and equality. Even when she sings "God's Gonna Cut You Down," it's pretty clear who she's talking to, and it's not for nothing that her "Spiritual Trilogy" became anthems of the civil rights movement.

3. Blue Scholars - Butter & Gun$ EP
Blue Scholars have a definitively Northwest sound. Being from Seattle, they have translated a sound and feel that translates from the city's unique struggles, from the Battle in Seattle to hip-hop being all-but illegal during the Teen Dance Ordinance, which singled out rap shows and dance clubs. Whether their jazzy-eclectic sound is an open question, but the highly class conscious lyrics are pretty universal. Featuring three instrumentals out of six total tracks, the EP is as much of a highlight of Sabzi's skills as Geologic's lyrics, and for that reason is a good introduction to a group starting to make some national waves right now.

4. Gang of Four - Entertainment!
From the era when "pop" was truly popular. Angular, jagged guitar and bass that attempts to "revolutionize everyday life," pulling us out of the doldrums of alienation and frustration and into a radical perspective on life itself. John King is a master at delivering lyrics in a deadpan way while still getting the listener amped. Simon Reynolds made the observation that for as deconstructionist as they were, they could still rock! Highlights include the opener "Ether," their send-up of traditional history in "Not Great Men," "Damaged Goods," "Guns Before Butter," and their classic "I Found that Essence Rare."

5. MC5 - The Big Bang!: Best of the MC5
I spent all day Saturday in front of the Republic Door and Window factory, where laid-off workers have occupied the factory. It's a tactic that hasn't been used in 30 years of the labor movement taking it on the chin. So it got me in the mood to take in some of the sounds from the last time wild-cat occupations took a city by storm--Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s. The blazing hot, down home, revolutionary rock 'n' roll has been the perfect compliment to the possible rebirth of a fighting labor movement. Here's to the return of that movement, and all the beautifully insurgent sounds that can come with it!

*****

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Voice of a Movement: Odetta, Activist and Singer, Dies at 77


Odetta, the woman Martin Luther King dubbed "the Queen of American folk music," died on December 2nd at the age of 77. Whether it was folk, jazz, blues or soul--and she sang them all--her unmistakeable voice never failed to cut to the quick. Normally, it's a stretch to say that "music can change the world," but in Odetta's case, an exception can be made. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she said "all the songs Odetta sings." Inspiration like that is truly rare.

Her songs were crucial in forging the alliance between the 1960s folk revival and the civil rights movement. She was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, on the cusp of the Great Depression. In 1937, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where she was noticed by classical music teachers for her unique voice and talent.

During high school she studied theatrical singing, and at 19 she landed a part in the musical Fianian's Rainbow. While on tour in San Francisco she discovered her life's calling in the city's vibrant juke-joints and bohemian coffeehouses. "We would finish our play, we'd go to the joint, and people would sit around playing guitars and singing songs. And it felt like home."

Though the path to a career in Hollywood and Broadway was open to her--or as open as it could be in segregated America--she felt her place was singing the songs of work and struggle that she had been exposed to as a child:

"In the classical music I was singing things like 'oh, swallow, swallow, flying, flying south'... it was a nice excercize but it had nothing to do with my life. The folk songs were the anger, the venom and the hatred of myself and everybody else and everything else... They were liberation songs! You're walking down life's road, society's foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can't get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life."

By the early 1950s, she had become a prominent figure in the folk revival. In 1956 she released her first solo album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, a collection of her version of acoustic folk and blues. The influence this album would have in the next wave of folk was immense. Bob Dylan had listened to the album before coming to Greenwich Village in the late-50s, and later claimed it was Odetta's music that made him trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Phil Ochs would claim similar influences.

In 1963, at the apex of the folk revival, she sang at the front of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for a crowd of 250,000. It was here that she performed now-legendary versions of "Oh Freedom," "On My Way" and "We Shall Overcome." All of them, especially "Overcome," became anthems of the civil rights movement.

Though few of the songs she recorded in her almost 60-year career were originals, Odetta never failed to make them her own. Her powerful voice and heart-rending arrangements brought the songs to life. She sang with an operatic range that still never lost the gritty intensity of each songs' reality. The stilted and academic way that music is taught today turns "folk songs" into relics, bereft of all their social context and emotional impact. Odetta's versions leave no question, however, that these are songs borne in the collision of anger and hope, sadness and joy, an oppressive world and the desire for justice and equality.

As the 60s progressed, so did Odetta's range and influence. As the civil rights marches spurred the movement against the Vietnam War, the singer strongly spoke out against US involvement. Likewise, her selection of songs became more eclectic, strident and overt. In 1965, she covered "Masters of War" as well as several other songs by the young Dylan she had helped shape.

Odetta even performed a version of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" that brought her one-of-a-kind sensibility to it. Her experiments with jazz would provoke artists of that genre like Charlie Haden and Archie Shepp to push their own boundaries, and continue exploring the nexus between the musical and political.

As the decades progressed, Odetta's work regrettably faded from public view. But that didn't mean that her soulful songs lost any relevance. Case in point would be her post-Katrina version of "House of the Rising Sun." Hearing her slow, deep, smoky voice sing of "a house in New Orleans" is almost impossible to do without being brought to tears.

She continued to perform and record in later life despite her age and declining health. After Barack Obama's victory in the November elections, she was the first artist selected to perform at his inauguration. That Odetta will not get to that performance is truly tragic.

And yet, the affect she had on popular music is something we can't lose. Odetta's songs gave a voice to a movement whose moment had been a long time coming, and remind us that there are more of those moments on the horizon. She showed us that music does not come from the desire for profit or fame, and that it belongs to no single person. It belongs to anyone who believes that human beings deserve all the great and beautiful things in life.

This article originally appeared at SleptOn.com

*****

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

SON in Chi-Town


As folks may know, Son of Nun has been barnstorming the country this past fall, and will be wrapping it right here in Chicago on December 13th.

Word of the tour has been of good-sized crowds and positive responses. It's hardly surprising that events of the past few months have turned out an increase in young heads looking for ideas to move them.

SON will be appearing with local Chicago MC Phillip Morris and Kevin Coval, who has appeared on HBO's Def Poets. Spinning the beats that night will be Selector Vanessa Beck.

Significantly, the show will also be on the third anniversary of the execution of Stan "Tookie" Williams, founder of the Crips turned anti-gang activist put to death by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on December 13th, 2005. A special tribute will be held for him that night.

Doors will open at the Viaduct Theatre at 7pm. Tickets are $10, but solidarity donations are also encouraged, as this will be a fundraiser for Haymarket Books, an independent publisher dedicated to social and economic justice.

*****

Monday, December 1, 2008

(RED) Handed


Today, on World AIDS Day, MSN has launched (RED)WIRE, an online music service affliated with Bono's Product Red campaign. According to the site, a new song from a popular artist is delivered to subscribers' computers every week. Half of the $5 monthly subscription fee will go to the Global Fund to help provide treatment and medication for those living with AIDS and HIV in Africa.

The horrors of the AIDS crisis globally knows no bounds, especially in Africa, where a third of all infections take place. The scale of this crisis is not to be taken lightly. There's no doubt that the artists participating in (RED)WIRE are eager to give their time and work to the possibility of ending the pandemic. And it's also true that most of those who buy Red Products are doing so with the assumption that they're doing their part too.

In this writer's opinion, however, the Red Product campaign is doing nothing to stop AIDS in Africa, and is probably making it worse. It is a campaign based on the Kipling-esque idea that the only entities able to "save" Africa are the same Western corporations that have been raping and pillaging the continent for centuries.

Several companies and manufacturers affiliated with the campaign--Gap, Starbucks, Converse, Apple--have all been implicated in using sweatshop labor. In each case, the story is the same. Horrifyingly unsafe conditions, verbal and physical abuse on the job, and wages that can barely keep food in workers' mouths and a roof over their head. It's no coincidence that many of these sweatshops are in areas hit hardest by AIDS.

Money made on the backs of the poor given back to them in the form of paltry "charity." It's the kind of perverse irony that only globalization is capable of.

Nobody tell Bono that. He has spent the past twenty-five years living the delusion; ever since he and Bob Geldoff put together Band Aid in 1984 to release the charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to bring awareness to the Ethiopian famine. Most people in Ethiopia aren't even Christian.

MSN's (RED)WIRE does little more than provide a fig leaf for this kind of condescending logic and brutal exploitation. If these companies actually wanted to help the crisis, they would cease their pillage of the richest continent on Earth. They would recognize workers' rights and pay them a living wage. They would stop doing business through the IMF and World Bank who have slashed public healthcare for the past thirty years.

Obviously, these companies won't do this of their own volition, which is precisely why the solution has to come from the bottom up. The people of Africa don't deserve charity. They deserve solidarity.

"That's bullshit, get off it!
The enemy is profit!
Disease and starvation
Will not be solved by corporations!"

-Global Justice chant


*****