Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Between Sorrow and Hope: The Year 2009 in Music


Make no mistake. When the ball drops this December 31st, there will be no shortage of music fans who will look back at this past year and say "damn, I'm glad that's over." Frankly put, 2009 was a rough year for music, a year simultaneously characterized by frustration and impatience.

To be sure, the sense of hope and belief that characterized 2009's opening was reflected by a wave of music rooted in the optimism that people felt. It was no coincidence that many of the previous year's most interesting artists were ones that cheered the defeat of Bush-part-two and the ushering in the Obama presidency.

If that's true, though, then it has to be admitted that the new administration has given us more of the same--in everything from the economy to healthcare to the war in Afghanistan. And as people's sense of hope has been eroded, then so has music come to embody a collective sense of limbo... a feeling of being stuck between things ended and things begun.

Plenty of amazing events came to pass in 2009, and none are to be discounted. On the heels of the outpouring of solidarity provoked by Israel's bombardment of Gaza, we saw the Iranian people rise against its own tyrannical government, a popular movement against the illegal coup in Honduras.

There was no shortage of underground artists and musicians inspired by these events. Iranian hip-hop, for example, with its firebrand hatred of Ahmedinajad's regime, became known to a wider swathe of American fans that it might have had the mass protests against his government not have taken place. But while the uprisings in Iran and Honduras continue as this year draws to a close, neither have come to capture the imaginations of folks here in the US on a grand scale, even as "business as usual" becomes more and more a frustrating hindrance on working people.

Trouble in the Industry

There's really no arguing that it's a hindrance either. While the banks and insurance companies are rightfully taking the brunt of our anger, the music industry's own hubris continued to put them in the same league as the banksters at Goldman Sachs. The RIAA seemed to acknowledge this at the beginning of the year when they announced that they would be ceasing their campaign of lawsuits against accused file-sharers.

As always, though, actions spoke louder than words. The RIAA's "new tactic" of requiring internet service providers to monitor their users had meant that the lawsuits have more or less continued (albeit at a slower pace). The icing on this sour cake came in June when a Minnesota court ordered single mom and well-known file-sharer Jammie Thomas-Rasset to pay the hefty sum of $1.9 million to the RIAA for downloading 24 songs.

The only difference between these guys and the banking industry is they don't bother to go through to government when they rob people.

In keeping with this rather embarrassing theme, 2009 also provided a couple figureheads for the crisis in the pop music establishment. In April, Phil Spector, one of the most important record producers of the 20th century, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Spector's previous trial had ended in 2007 in mistrial, but this time he obviously wasn't so lucky.

While Spector's case might have been an especially brutal example (the producer has a long history of violence that until now hasn't been widely acknowledged), the bad fortune suffered by the upper echelons of the music industry didn't end with him. U2 seemed poised to make 2009 a red letter year when they released their new album No Line On the Horizon in February. Despite a relentless publicity campaign and built up hype, sales were disappointing. This by itself would be unremarkable if the group's 360 tour in support of Horizon hadn't been similarly wracked with controversy. The overblown stage set and expensive price-tag--$750,000 per show--meant that though the tour was the largest in history, it didn't even break even until the end of the year.

Indeed, U2's increasing arrogance has in recent years replaced the former admiration they enjoyed with a very real resentment among former fans. Signs carried on anti-austerity marches in the group's native Ireland have been burnished with slogans like "Make Bono Pay Taxes." This kind of anger gained such a pitch this past year that even the band themselves haven't been able to ignore it. Drummer Larry Mullen noted in July that even travel isn't quite as pleasurable for the band as it once was:

"We have experienced [a situation] where coming in and out of the country at certain times is made more difficult than it should be--not only for us, but for a lot of wealthy people ... The better-off (are) being sort of humiliated."

U2's troubles aren't just a vague hatred of the band itself. They are representative of the very real and palpable mood that has developed on this planet against the global elite who are still making out like bandits even as working people scramble to survive under the weight of the recession. True to form, Bono and company have been left scratching their heads under the weight of their own arrogance. This can easily be said about the music industry in general--in fact, it has been for years. The difference now is that it's blatantly obvious to more folks than ever before.

Farewell to the King

And then, of course, there was the death of Michael Jackson. When the King of Pop went in late June, it sent shockwaves around the planet. Never before had a single artist's music affected so many people across the globe. Never before has an artist's classic albums occupied nine of the ten top spots on the Billboard charts in the wake of his death.

Jackson's passing was as shocking as it was tragic. Many expected his big "comeback" from the string of performances that had been slated for him in London in July. The same shows were also supposed to pull Jackson out of the massive debt he and his estate had accrued. We'll never know whether he would have succeeded, but the tragedy of his death was only compounded in the months following. Revelations of major prescription drug abuse and the cadre of yes-man doctors that he had surrounded himself with only further confirmed the fragile isolation he had become known for in the last decades of his life.

As the video clips of his life were played side-by-side, his transformation from a young and charismatic artist into a bizarre, Peter Pan-esque media sideshow became all the more striking.

In many ways, Jackson represented both the best and worst elements of pop music. He was a man whose immense musical talent revolutionized pop, expanding its horizons and legitimizing it as an art-form. None of today's music would exist without the influence of Michael Jackson.

Not only did he revolutionize music and help mold it in the last quarter of the twentieth century, he did so as a black man. MTV was almost lily-white before his videos became a staple on the channel. Even as he was beset by scandal and his behavior took ever more eccentric turns, he remained regarded by most as a trailblazer in making modern pop a more multicultural forum.

And yet, even as he blazed trails--perhaps because he blazed them so successfully--Jackson's notorious eccentricity came to represent the worst excesses of the music industry. True, the unprecedented album sales helped him build a fortune most of us could never achieve in our wildest dreams, but as his life became more and more of a media circus, it was obvious that he was also a profoundly dysfunctional human being. In some ways, he became the poster boy for modern alienation.

In the weeks after his death, Jay Smooth of the Ill Doctrine video blog pointed out that Jackson was himself an embodiment of the contradictions in modern pop culture:

"To me, more than anything, Michael's life is a parable of this right here--this limitless opportunity for liberation and imprisonment that the camera and the microphone provide. The paradox of trying to reconcile this human connection we make between artist and audience and the dehumanizing connection these tools create between consumer and mass media products. It's the struggle that every artist faces nowadays more than ever--figuring out how to balance these two opposing forces and keep yourself whole."

It is not a saccharine overstatement to say that there will never be another Michael Jackson. Twenty years ago the music industry had the overbearing control to take someone of such incredible talent and turn them into a commodity. Now, however, it's doubtful that they have the same hegemony. None of this alleviates the tragedy of his death. On the contrary, it makes it all the more prescient.

Gaga, Lambert and the Double Standard

If there was one area ordinary folks whose confidence was on the ascendancy in '09, then it was most definitely that of the LGBT community. Here is a movement that has defiantly proclaimed that they're just not having it anymore (despite some very real defeats in Maine and New York). The grassroots upsurge demanding not only same-sex marriage but social equality in general has been a keystone of inspiration for hundreds of thousands, if not millions in the midst of a full-on assault on our very lives.

So it's no surprise that countless artists stood shoulder to shoulder with this rising movement in '09. This might be best personified by the high-profile outspokenness of Lady Gaga, who is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and artistically daring stars to capture the pop mainstream in quite some time.

When Gaga spoke at the historic National Equality March this past October, it represented a coming together of popular culture and popular movements the way that hasn't been seen since the outbreak of the Iraq war. It's been a long time since a musician on Gaga's level of fame has sworn to a crowd of 200,000 that she would do everything she can to fight against sexism and homophobia in the music industry.

When Gaga was included on Barbara Walters "Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009" program, producers seemed to have no problem showing the artist kissing another woman. Gaga has been open about her own bisexuality, which is yet another thing that had made her outlandish presence so refreshing this past year. When Adam Lambert was included on the list, though, it was a different story. Citing Lambert's risque performance at the American Music Awards, Walters mentioned footage that "we won't show you here."

She was, of course, referencing the infamous moment when Lambert kissed a male keyboardist. This came right on the heels of ABC pulling the plug on Lambert's "Good Morning America" appearance mere days after the AMAs. The network may have been amazingly short-sighted in its belief that its audience wouldn't catch onto the double standard, but all condescension aside, Lambert's insistence to simply perform as himself is actually more in touch with young America's attitude in the here and now. The kind of blatant censorship he encountered in the last months of 2009 was just another example of how much this struggle still has to take on.

Anything Goes?

This same feeling of "anything goes" was, unsurprisingly, most pronounced in the indie scene, which has come over the past few years to be recognized as more than just a subculture of skinny-jeaned kids listening to lo-fi rock, but a veritable movement encompassing countless musical genres. Pitchfork's Nitsuh Abebe, in his much referenced article on "The Decade In Indie," played at this theme by pointing out how many diverse sounds have been lumped under the "indie umbrella." And as Abebe points out, the past decade has been one where the cool-as-fuck, broadly inclusive and independent spirit of indie has become damn-near hegemonic among young people:

"Just try selling iPods or straight-leg jeans without knowing what fresh-faced guitar band is the hip new thing; just try telegraphing to audiences that a character on your television show is quite special and interesting... And it's not like charts mean what they used to, but still: they're home to the Shins (#2 record), Wilco (three records in the top 10), Arcade Fire (17 weeks), Interpol (24 weeks), and Death Cab for Cutie, who went to #1-- as in, knocking off Neil Diamond and being replaced at the top by 3 Doors Down, that #1-- without even much changing their sound from a decade ago."

In other words, the notion that courses through the veins of indie music--that there's still plenty that needs to be renewed from the bottom-up--is more or less a given for most young folks. And though that spirit has yet to really break through the glass ceiling, it could be found in many of this year's best releases.

Animal Collective's experimental post-pop deconstruction Merriweather Post Pavilion became one of the year's most talked-about albums--to the point where some especially snarky columnists felt they could rip on it as a tangent and expect people to know what their talking about. Other acts like Passion Pit brought a fresh and unique sound that the mainstream has taken to surprisingly well.

The same could be said of indie in relation to hip-hop. What two years ago was being written off as "hipster rap" now appears to be the next big thing. Acts like U-N-I, with their bare-bones beat aesthetic and fun-loving attitude continued to make waves in 2009. Kid Cudi's playful road show found itself opening for Lady Gaga this year.

The affect that indie has had even seems to have cleared the way for some new and dynamic female artists to rise within a male dominated genre. Kid Sister's Ultraviolet, one of the most anticipated albums of '09 showed the space that existed for a confident, down-to-earth femcee in rap's new era.

If all of this seems mind-boggling, then it's simply because there's that much brewing just beneath music's surface. It's an exciting prospect considering the frustration the so many have felt this past year. Even as the bottom has continued to drop out from under our feet, there has been precious little to hold onto. Scary? Absolutely. But no worthwhile change--in music or the world at large--ever took place without staring into the abyss.

Sure, the old way of doing things in music is becoming ever more outmoded. That can be pretty much assumed by now. All the contradictions seemed to be on full display this year--the cracks wide enough to drive a movement through. Just as the discredited "business as usual" has given us a few glances at what might pop up in its place, so has the old and stale sounds of radio and the big labels given a strong subculture the opportunity to jump to the front. So while it was no doubt frustrating to see so much disappear in 2009 with nothing to take its place, it's certainly worth remembering that history abhors a vacuum.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Monday, December 28, 2009

Rodney, Brutus and Chesnutt... Presente!

Tribute I: Lester Rodney

About five years ago I was helping my friend Dave Zirin transcribe an interview he had done with a man named Lester "Red" Rodney for an article Zirin was doing (it would also appear in what was to become What's My Name, Fool?). I had never heard of Rodney, like most people, but thanks to Dave Z's work I was about to be introduced to him.

Rodney had been the first sports correspondent for the Daily Worker, newspaper of the US Communist Party that was widely read in the '30s. He was an athlete himself; tennis was his bag, but he possessed a deep love for the beauty and prowess of any sport. Like many of his generation, he became radicalized in the wake of the Great Depression and joined the CP.

Even though it's no surprise that we didn't hear about Rodney's passing at the age of 98 last week in the sports pages, his contribution to our culture today can't be underestimated. Rodney essentially launched the struggle to integrate professional baseball.

"We talked about circulating the paper [at ballparks]," said Rodney. "It just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL [the Young Communist League] suggested, ‘Why don't we go to the ballparks--to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds--with petitions?’ We wound up with at least a million and a half signatures that we delivered straight to the desk of [baseball commissioner] Judge Landis.”

When Jackie Robinson was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Rodney was in the locker rooms to see and speak out against the harsh treatment meted out to the man who broke baseball's color line. Though Rodney left the party in the 1950s, he never shed his radical views or his belief in socialism. To him, sports weren't just a game. They were a window into what human beings are capable of: teamwork, talent, camaraderie, even grace.

Though the way he helped shift the trajectory of American sports remained largely ignored in the latter decades of Rodney's life, he had become known to a new generation of radicals in recent years. Of course, Zirin's work can't be discounted in this respect. Also, Irwin Silber's biography of Rodney, Press Box Red, had become something of a sleeper underground classic among many far-left sports fans.

Zirin's obituary for Rodney sums up what the man well: "Yes, Lester made you feel like there was unfinished work out there. But he also made you feel like the great fun in life was in trying to get it done. That and seeing a perfectly turned 6-4-3 double play."

Tribute II: Dennis Brutus

Reading Dennis Brutus' poetry tells you just about all you need to know about him. A man of deep compassion, an ironclad sense of solidarity, someone whose formidable way with words never managed to overshadow his love for humanity. Perhaps this is why he was never bowed during his life, even as he was incarcerated in South Africa's Robben Island prison for opposing Apartheid. Indeed, it was while he was at Robben Island that the world first came to know him as a poet.

Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Brutus became a Marxist via the black freedom struggle after emigrating to South Africa as a young adult. This was a country deeply divided by a brutal system of racial segregation, where white elites kept the black majority in abject poverty and denied them even the most basic of rights. So arcane does this system seem that it's easy to forget it's fall only came fifteen years ago.

Brutus first came to the authorities' attention in the early '60s as he campaigned for South Africa's exclusion from the Olympic games (which was successful from 1964 until the end of Apartheid). In '63, he was shot in the back trying to escape from the police and sentenced to 18 months in prison. His cell was right next to Nelson Mandela's.

While in prison he wrote his first collection of poetry. This small selection, perhaps one of his most quoted passages from his collection Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, speaks volumes of how indefatigable a person he was. Few can muster the spirit to write these words from inside concrete walls:

“Most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender
but somehow tenderness survives.”


After being released and exiled to the United States, Brutus became one of the US' most well-known anti-Apartheid campaigners. When Apartheid fell, he remained critical of the African National Congress for embracing the harsh neoliberal measures that have continued to keep the South African people oppressed. His kind of unwavering, humanistic radicalism extended to all corners of the globe. One of his most recent appearances, not long before his death from cancer on December 26th at the age of 85, was when he called for the "Seattle-ing" of the protests at the recent Copenhage climate change conference.

The handful of times I met Brutus were enough to confirm this impression of him. Kind, upbeat and friendly, he was a man whose words and actions were firmly rooted in the belief that ordinary people can change the world. We would do well to learn from that resolve today.

Tribute III: Vic Chesnutt

As if the holiday week wasn't hard enough on the global left, the struggle for musicians' justice in America lost one of its fiercest advocates this past week. The first time I was exposed to Vic Chesnutt's work was when I watched a program of him performing a benefit alongside other musicians like Patt Smith. The benefit was to raise money for musicians without health insurance. Such artists are more numerous that is commonly acknowledged. As has been pointed out before here at RF, the figure of uninsured or under-insured among folks who make money off their music is a staggering 96%!

Chesnutt knew first-hand how it felt to be one of these unlucky many. At the age of 18 he was in a car accident that left him a paraplegic. Despite only having limited use of his arms and hands he continued to write and perform music.

His songs were always noted for their wry wit and honesty. His work was melancholy without being sappy. There's little doubt that this outlook came from the immense obstacles faced in his life. His most recent album At The Cut, released earlier this year, reflected this humorously bleak view on songs like "Flirted With You All My Life," which Chesnutt described as being "a suicide's breakup song with death... I've been a suicidal person all my life, and that song is me finally being, 'Screw you, death.' "

Though the Georgia native had gained a loyal underground following over the past couple decades, Chesnutt had always struggled with his hefty medical bills. A few weeks before his death, he told the Los Angeles Times that "I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford."

On Christmas Day, Chesnutt died a few days after overdosing on muscle relaxants. The overdose is thought to be intentional.

Whether his suicide was intended as a final middle finger to his demise or a simple act of despair under the weight of tremendous hopelessness isn't really known. Either way, it's tragic. It also begs yet another question about the inadequate state of health care in the United States. As the current health care bill works its way through congress--a bill that is widely recognized as little more than a bailout for the insurance industry--it's worth asking how many more there are like Chesnutt out there.

*****

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Tis the season...

If there were ever a Christmas song that deserved a good skewering, this is it! Bob Geldof and Mitch Ure's Band Aid supergroup remains, twenty-five years later, a much referenced moment in music. Much like Bono's current Red Campaign, it's put forth as an unquestioned example of the Western music establishment's magnanimity toward the suffering Third World. Regular readers of Rebel Frequencies, however, know that I think quite differently. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" relied on an unbelievable amount of arrogance and condescension, a Kipling-esque belief that the famine in Ethiopia was due more to the actions of Ethiopians who have yet to be "civilized" (as opposed to the actions of Western governments).

So it's damned refreshing to see a gathering of indie artists not only send this single up, but direct the money they raise towards a cause based on real solidarity. Featuring, Fucked Up, Tegan and Sara, TV On the Radio's Kyp Malone, GZA, Yo La Tengo and more, this version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is consciously ironic. Many of the lyrics have been switched around to parody the original Band Aid's sanctimony--the most obvious example being when comedian David Cross croons "thank god it's them [Africans] instead of Jews." Pretty provocative, yes, but it gets the point across. And let's face it, there are probably more than a few ruling class suits who think along the same lines any time there's a food crisis.

On top of that, the proceeds from the download of this song will go to three organizations that can really use the funds. D.T.E.S. Power of Women is a group in the downtown east side of Vancouver (the poorest section of the city) composed of working poor or unemployed women active around social justice issues. Most recently they've been active in protesting the upcoming Olympic games in Vancouver. Justice of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Sisters in Spirit are both grassroots campaigns to draw more attention to the victimization of Canadian indigenous citizens.

And so, happy holidays!



*****

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 5 - 1


Here they are: the best five releases of 2009! Perhaps it goes without saying that these records have, in one way or another, all the qualities we've seen throughout the list (viewable here and here) that make each entry so urgent and relevant--only these top five have it in spades. The will to test boundaries, to experiment, to take the decay and uncertainty that characterized this past year and turn it into something we can look to for a measure of inspiration.

Keeping that in mind, it's notable that at least three of this year's top five--including number one--weren't even released via the "traditional" music industry. This isn't to fetishize the underground or independent; nor, however, is it a coincidence.

But there's something else that ties all these releases together and makes them stand out: a feeling of strife. Trite as that may sound, it's also something that has characterized this past year. Spurred by the overwhelming relief of having the Bush regime off our backs, most of us seem to now be regarding the new, disappointing reality with a surprising sense of collective yearning. Not for the past, mind you, but for the unknown future, where there has to be something better--though what it is specifically we have no idea. While "hope" and "change" as buzzwords may be giving way to a very real confusion among ordinary folks, there remains underneath it all a real and palpable belief that this isn't as good as it gets. For those of us who steadfastly believe that art and music have the capacity to give us a glimpse of what's to come, these are five releases that have given us a lot to think about.

5. J.Period and K'NAAN - The Messengers

If those who don't remember the past cannot hope to change the future, then we're damn lucky to have The Messengers released this year. Taking the work of one legendary artist and twisting it into a thoroughly modern context is hard enough--K'NAAN and J.Period have done it with not one, not two, but three legendary artists. These three mix tapes (four if you count the last one, which essentially is all the previous three thrown into one) sought to capture the essence of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan and set them to K'NAAN's own unique, chilled rhymes and flow. "In our world today, in the world of sound and music and rhythm... who has a message?" asks K'NAAN. "Who has something to say to us? Who has a way to propel us forward? And I feel like Fela Kuti did. I feel like Bob Marley did. I feel like Bob Dylan did. And I hope I do."

Seeking to examine each of these artistic gianst while still maintaining your own voice is a tall order. Kuti, Marley and Dylan were very different artists, but what they held in common at their height was their refusal to back down creatively and their insistence on speaking truth to power. K'NAAN throws himself into the mix with style, though. He isn't putting his own face on this Mount Rushmore of rebel musicians--J.Period's remix of their music remains pared down, and each song is still recognizable as its original self. Rather, K is simply trying to build on their legacy and pointing out that it there's more work to be done. Given his assured, outsider persona, his assured and plainspoken rhymes blend into all this quite well. Whether he's rapping about growing up in war-ravaged Somalia over "I Shot the Sheriff" or ruminating on personal relationships to a remixed "Lay Lady Lay," K'NAAN has, along with J.Period, paid tribute to these artists in the best possible way: by revealing their relevance to today's time and insisting they not be the last of their kind.

4. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Few will be surprised that Merriweather Post Pavilion is on this list. This has been one of 2009's most critically acclaimed albums--so much so that it's caused a backlash among some reviewers who have grown sick of hearing it praised so much. That doesn't negate how incredibly creative and uniquely engaging it is, however. With the synthesizer becoming the new favorite indie musician instrument-du-jour, with just about everything being sampled and thrown into a song nowadays (with some good results too), few groups can use either to their full advantage to not only test the musical limits, but break them down. Even fewer can be so damned catchy in the process.

Indeed, that's one of the things that has defined Animal Collective from the start: a complete disregard for even their own sense of convention. They've pasted together what initially seem to be elements that simply won't work and, well, make it work! So even though Merriweather may be considered their most "pop" album to date, such labels don't even begin to describe it. "My Girls," which leaked on the web prior to the album's release and has easily become its most recognized song, exemplifies this. A twinkling, dream-woven synth experiment underlaid by buzzed-out electric bass. No two tracks are the same, but this kind of ability to simply say "what if?" is what makes the whole thing such a fascinatingly beautiful listening experience. You can certainly hear the myriad influences that this album has in its repertoire (pop, electro-clash, psychedelia, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, and most likely a few campfire jams), but ultimately this is a collection greater than the sum of its parts. It also proves yet again that truly good music isn't made within any kind of confined space.

3. The Gossip - Music for Men

"Heavy Cross," the lead single off Music For Men, seems to be incredibly well-timed. The song is a wound-up spark-plug that finds lead-singer Beth Ditto declaring that "it's a cruel, cruel world to face on your own." For a historically gay-friendly group to say that in the midst of the current debate on same-sex marriage means that the song, as has happened countless times before, takes on a new context. Ditto, who has always been outspoken about her own lesbianism and left-feminist ideals, has almost without a doubt watched this past year with baited breath as LGBT activists have experienced both victory and setbacks in their rising struggle for equality. Lines like "we can play it safe or play it cool / follow the leader or make up all the rules" really do take on a new meaning in this time.

It would ultimately be insulting, though, to reduce Music For Men down to a single dimension. The Gossip have always been that kind of rebel group whose musical outrageousness comes first and foremost from their own artistic honesty. As most rock-based music within the indie subculture increasingly takes the form of a danceable neo-punk, it might be easy for the righteousness to get swept under the need to really get down to the beat. But acts like the Gossip have no intention of letting that happen--on the contrary, they declare that the two can be one and the same. Through drummer Hannah Blilie's stutter-step beats, Brace Paine's jagged guitar work and Ditto's own soulful voice, this is an album that says--hell, screams--that "I am here, goddammit! And I am not to be ignored!" Hearing these twelve tracks is like hearing a sonic challenge to everything that wants to put its foot on your neck.

2. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present: Dark Night of the Soul

The second best album of 2009 wasn't even officially released! The story of Dark Night of the Soul, a collaboration between two undeniably independent-minded artists, is itself a fascinating tale--one that reveals the record industry's utter incapacity for quality music. Due to a legal dispute with label EMI most likely stemming from using sampled sounds without permission, the label has refused to release the album. It's an idiotic tragedy that happens all-too-often. The artists weren't to be deterred, though. Dark Night is available to purchase on their website, though the disc included is a blank CD-R. The same day as the album's release date, the tracks began streaming on several websites. Incidentally, the tracks have been reverse engineered, making them available for download. Touche, guys. Touche indeed.

This kind of propensity for coloring outside the lines shows up in Dark Night's beautifully crafted content. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse have brought in just about any artist you can think of to help out with this album--from Iggy Pop to Frank Black. Even director David Lynch was brought in to take photographs that provide a "visual narrative" of the music. Sonically, Dark Night is a thing of beauty. "Revenge," featuring the Flaming Lips, is a gently pulsing, slightly electronicized ballad that plays with the stillest corners of melancholia. "Jaykub" sees the duo weaving together tripped-out, reverby guitar and organ with psychedelic choral vocals and rattling percussion. "Insane Lullaby," featuring the Shins' James Mercer, lives up to its name, filtering the loveliest of music through fuzzy, distorted feedback--almost as if a gang of tweaked robots have invaded the recording studio and tried to join in. Below it all, however, there is a simplicity that Sparklehorse (a.k.a. Mark Linkous) has especially loved to play with. Add Danger Mouse's penchant for turning even the most foreign sounds into workable music, and Dark Night of the Soul is definitely a head above most other releases this year. And to think: if the industry had its way, this album would have never seen the light of day.

1. Blitz the Ambassador - Stereotype

This time last year, few knew who Blitz the Ambassador even was. At the end of 2009, however, he is now swiftly gaining recognition as one of the best artists to hit the hip-hop world in quite some time. According to his lead track "Something to Believe," there are too many kids "scared of their own voice, that's why they auto-tune it." Blitz clearly doesn't have that problem.

When this Brooklyn-based emcee originally hailing from Accra, Ghana, took his material to major labels, he was given the run-around. It was a frustrating process. "One day I just said 'fuck it,'" he recalls, "I was tired of record labels telling me I had to be like somebody else." End result: Blitz launched his own label, and with a creative viral marketing campaign and relentless touring, released Stereotype himself. To be sure, the majors are probably kicking themselves for slamming the door on him. The album has gained glowing reviews from just about every reviewer who's listened to it. Even before its release, leaked tracks had magazines like XXL and Vibe salivating to hear the finished product. Beat-wise, that finished product is something of a collision between early Kanye and Quality-era Talib Kweli, with a healthy dose of African highlife thrown in (courtesy of the live horn section).

That being said, Stereotype is far from a throwback album mostly because the passion and urgency with which Blitz delivers his rhymes make him impossible to write off. With the rousing horns often taking center-stage beat-wise, one can almost get the picture of Blitz standing with his fist raised at the front of a crowd. He is conscious without being pretentious, intensely intelligent without sacrificing any listenability. Tracks like "Home" see him weaving together the stories of a Katrina survivor, a soldier in Iraq and an immigrant mother attempting to cross the Mexican-American border with vivid imagery and intense flow. And then there's "Ghetto Plantation," where a gentle Spanish guitar sample balances underneath a brutal lyrical assault comparing cops and jail cells to a modern-day slave system.

There is very little to disagree with on Stereotype--ideologically or musically. Blitz is anything but tentative on his debut. That's rare in and of itself. But what's truly unique is how by the time you're done listening to the album you've gone from wondering who the hell this guy is to having something completely new to wrap your head around. Ideas expressed in a way you haven't heard before, stories told so effectively you can imagine yourself there. When the final track is done, your left with what Blitz has introduced you to at the very beginning: something to believe in.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The People Speak!


Tonight the History Channel will be broadcasting what very well may be a watershed moment for radicalism on television. "The People Speak" is based on Howard Zinn and Anthony Anove's Voices of a People's History of the United States. At a time when more people than ever are looking for alternatives to a rotting system, this program will be a crucial first step in reintroducing them to a radical American history they've had stolen from them.

Actors like Viggo Mortensen, Matt Damon, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Washington, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Benjamin Bratt. Artists and musicians like Bruce Springsteen, DMC, Lupe Fiasco and Bob Dylan. (do you have any idea how hard it is to get Dylan to do anything nowadays?) These folks will be performing selections by Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Eugene Debs, the Wobblies, the Suffragettes, and countless other ordinary people who stood up and fought for justice, equality and a better world.

Naturally there are those on the right who would love this program to go away. Knuckle-draggers like Matt Drudge and John Nolte have been vicious at attempting to tear down Zinn, Damon and anyone else involved in the project, calling it a "cinematic ode to trashing America." And, of course, there are even those calling for a boycott of the program.

But, as Dave Zirin puts it, "beneath the bombast, their hostile aversion to "a people's history" speaks volumes about why we need to support this project. This is a country dedicated to historical amnesia. Our radical past holds dangers for both those in power and those threatened by progressive change. We need to rescue the great battles for social justice from becoming either co-opted or simply erased from the history books. Our children don't learn about the people who made the Civil Rights Movement. Instead we get Dr. Martin Luther King on a McDonald's commemorative cup. Because of our country's organized ignorance, endless hours are wasted in every generation reinventing the wheel and relearning lessons already taught."

Damn right. Tune in. "The People Speak" will be airing tonight at 8/7c.

Update: Just found this article at The Daily Pennsylvanian, featuring both Lupe Fiasco and Daryl "DMC" McDaniels explaining why "The People Speak" is important to them, and the links it can have with today's hip-hop culture.

“I realized it’s just an extension of what I normally do," says Lupe, "upset the system."

My favorite part of the article, however, is this:

"'Power will never give up power without a struggle,' he [McDaniels] quoted from [Don] Cheadle’s reading of Douglass. 'What we’re trying to say is that’s true always.'

McDaniels echoed this later when he addressed the problems of religion and politics in the U.S.

'You guys have the capacity to change the world,' he said. 'It ain’t a politician that’s going to do it for you, it ain’t a preacher that’s going to do it.'

After denying his allegiance to either the Democratic or Republican parties, McDaniels declared himself a member of the 'hip-hop' party, which he proclaimed embodies the idea of social responsibility."


Guaranteed to be some potent stuff!

****

Friday, December 11, 2009

ABC: at odds with the country, at odds with the Boss


Major networks don't learn lessons quickly. Only a couple weeks after Adam Lambert's appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" was cancelled due to his "inappropriate" behavior at the American Music Awards, Barbara Walters featured Lambert on her "10 Most Fascinating People of 2009" show. Walters and ABC may somehow think that they're making up for the controversial decision to cancel his "GMA" performance by having him perform on "The View" and featuring him in this list, but really it just shows that the network doesn't know the first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging.

Introducing her segment on Lambert, Walters said that the "American Idol" runner-up "turned the music industry inside out, doing things we won’t show you here.” Of course she was referencing the infamous man-to-man kiss at the AMAs. But while they "won't show you" a kiss between Lambert and another male keyboardist, they have no problem showing you Lady Gaga kissing another woman in the same exact show!

ABC, and its parent company Disney, has remained unapologetic for the double-standard (women-kissing-women-equals-hot, men-kissing-men-equals-immoral), but in a broad scope, they're guilty of something else aside from homophobia: insulting their audience. Intervening in this manner, not once but twice, reflects a true belief that their viewers are so stupid as to not notice the hypocrisy here.

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One might wonder how the execs at ABC feel about Bruce Springsteen's recent statement. Springsteen, who has never shirked from making his left-leaning views known, came out in support of the equal-marriage bill currently being hashed out in his home state of New Jersey. The statement on his website reads:

"Like many of you who live in New Jersey, I've been following the progress of the marriage-equality legislation currently being considered in Trenton. I've long believed in and have always spoken out for the rights of same sex couples and fully agree with Governor Corzine when he writes that, 'The marriage-equality issue should be recognized for what it truly is--a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law.' I couldn't agree more with that statement and urge those who support equal treatment for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to let their voices be heard now."

Damn straight, Bruce. The Boss is, of course, far from the only musician or artist to come out in support of LGBT equality lately. The massive shift in American opinion is being reflected in pop culture as a whole right now. That doesn't mean, however, that there isn't still a fight ahead. Any activist who has spent the past year building at the grassroots can tell you that. Given this, might it be time for artists who support true equality to boycott ABC and Disney? Lady Gaga herself publicly pledged at the National Equality March this past October that she would fight against homophobia and misogyny in the music industry and media. Perhaps it's time for artists to put their time where their mouth is.

I'm not the only one who thinks so either, as this Facebook page shows.

*****

Thursday, December 10, 2009

To the protesters in Copenhagen: show no "mercy"

There will be surprisingly little to come out of the Copenhagen summit on global warming. That's not radical skepticism talking there--it's pretty much the admission of all those involved. The way in which the richest nations have dragged their feet to commit to any real limit on CO2 emissions is illustrative. Let's face it, this is a government that watches massive banks drag the economy into the worst recession in decades then rewards them with hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars; putting a limit on corporate polluters just doesn't seem to be this administration's thing.

There may be, however, something positive to come out of the conference: the first sparks of a new, grassroots environmental movement. Despite a very real crackdown, thousands of protesters have flocked to Copenhagen and demand something substantive be done about the planet's increasingly dire state. Some articles have even gone so far to look at the protests and others like it (say, against the G20 in Pittsburgh back in September) the first steps in rebuilding the movement against global capitalism ignited ten years ago in Seattle.

Time will only tell whether this comes true or not. But there really isn't any way that we can ignore the link between environmental degradation and the continuing assault on working people's living standards. That link has been obscured in recent years by both a labor bureaucracy and environmental movement more comfortable in the halls of power than on the streets. But I seem to recall a sign carried during those chaotic days in Seattle a decade ago. I read something along the lines of "Teamsters and Turtles: Together at Last!"

Those same dots were connected even in the early days of the modern environmental justice movement. Many tend to forget that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring didn't place the blame on humans in general (a common argument from much of today's mainstream green campaigners) but pointed the finger mostly at big business for ecological devastation. The Teamster-Turtle bond is one that is, well, only natural.

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Evidence of this can be found, of course, throughout the culture. When Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" was released as the second single from his 1971 album What's Going On, "Mercy" would prove almost successful as the album's previous single (it's title track), reaching Number 1 on the US R&B singles chart and Number 4 on the US pop charts. In the song, Gaye spoke of nuclear waste and ecological crisis with the same simple and honest commitment that he brought to everything else he sang about. Today, "Mercy" is rightfully credited as one of the first environmentally conscious songs by a major pop artist to achieve such success.

There are plenty of other songs I could choose to play here at RF while protest take place in Copenhagen--songs that are perhaps sharper politically, more militant, or even a song that more specifically takes up the very modern threat of global warming. "Mercy Mercy Me" is worthy, however, not just for how well the song is done, but for the context in which it was released. It's no coincidence that Gaye released this song on an album that bravely confronted all manner of social justice issues.

In the early '70s, it made sense for this kind of song to be released alongside others that protested the war in Vietnam ("What's Going On") or the conditions in the ghetto ("Inner City Blues"). As was acknowledged then (as it needs to be now), those humans who suffer the most from ecological destruction are those kicked aside into the inner cities and denied a basic right to a job and decent housing; they're also the first to be sent overseas to die in wars of empire. Add global warming to the mix, and replace "Vietnam" with "Afghanistan," and "Mercy Mercy Me", along with the rest of What's Going On, could just as easily be released today.



*****

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 15 - 6


Progressing through the list (the first part of which can be viewed here), the changes taking place in music become more apparent. The best releases of 2009 aren't just those that took the decay of post-recession society and made something interesting and relevant from them, but were those that started to pry away at the considerable limitations placed on music itself.

Some of this is straightforward. This past year saw, for example, female emcees pushing themselves back to the center of hip-hop in a way that hasn't happened for several years (Rita J., Kid Sister, etc). Other of these changes necessarily end up in more nebulous realms. Increasingly, the best music released nowadays is that which doesn't fit neatly into any category--be that by mashing together genres in a way that hasn't been done before or by creating something seemingly out of the ether (how exactly do you describe Black Moth Super Rainbow's sound?).

Still others are those whose relevancy is much more direct: those who struck that chord somewhere between sonic reflection and direct protest. Given our rapidly changing times, finding a concoction of these two ingredients that sticks is a tall order. But these are some releases that got the balance damn near perfect.

15. Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring

The past few years have seen some impressive contributions from the rising sub-genre of "indie-folk." Fleet Foxes come to mind. But with their sophomore The First Days of Spring, Noah and the Whale have certainly raised the bar. The simple story of a man falling out of love suddenly becomes epic throughout this album's tracks. There is a notable difference from this album and their 2008 debut Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, specifically with the absence of former member Laura Marling. Significantly, this is the breakup that lead singer Charlie Fink is referring to throughout. The opening title track starts out with a slow, plodding earthiness before giving way to a mournful, almost transcendent string arrangement. From there, hope and despair play off each other in an evolution that is painful yet relatable--underlined by the lyrics' straightforwardness. The personal intimacy is so prevalent here that it verges on making the listener uncomfortable. But that's the challenge, and it's rare that a group can challenge their audience with such simple artistic tools at their disposal.

14. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II

The original Cuban Linx is considered one of the great rap masterpieces of the '90s (if not in all of hip-hop). So how the hell do you do a sequel? For one, make sure that you have the rest of your Wu-Tang crew at our back. For another, dip into some of J Dilla's many unused beats. And then there's remembering what made part 1 so damn good in the first place: the cinematic and vivid lyricism, the panoply of guest appearances and collabs, the utter refusal to tone it down. OB4CL Pt. II follows a similar theme to the original Cuban Linx, a hardened tale of underground mafiosos, drug trafficking and cold brutality... oh, and don't forget to pepper in the kung fu references. It might be easy to think that all this amounts to a throwback, but you'd be wrong to think so. The unleashed nature of this album, the cutthroat desperation is remarkably well-fitted for these times. Trouble has been brewing in the ranks of the Wu-Tang Clan for some time now, no doubt egged on by the relative disappointment of 8 Diagrams. Some might even have been wondering if they'd lost a few steps. But Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt II shows that when they work together they still have what it takes to create something urgent and ultimately just as relevant as fifteen years ago. It's like they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

13. The Thermals - Now We Can See

Like the best garage-punk groups, the Thermals have a penchant for catchy hooks performed in a charmingly sloppy way. Their three-chord arrangement played in delicious lo-fi has made them one of the more notable of these groups recently. This doesn't mean, however, that singer Hutch Harris expects so little from his lyrics. Their previous album, 2008's The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was a scathing, sarcastic rebuke to fundamentalist Christian conservatism at a time when the philosophy seemed to be running the country. With that side of America being delivered a hard blow over the past year (though I don't mean to exaggerate--the tea-baggers are indeed influential), Now We Can See traded in the political outrage for a broader kind of existentialism. Most songs are written from the point of view of--get this--the recently deceased. Contrast titles like "When I Died" and "When We Were Alive," and you start to get the picture. Some might interpret this as a step back--though Harris still manages to get in a few barbs against environmental destruction and human greed. More broadly, though, in a time between celebration and very real and scary unknowns, this is an album that reminds one of what it is that makes life worthwhile... a prescient message in a time when that can be easily forgotten.

12. Black Moth Super Rainbow - Eating Us

Our favorite neo-dada sonic weirdos are back and ready to profane with their sound-making all that we hold sacred! There might be something futile in trying to read too much meaning into Black Moth Super Rainbow's music--like some of the best art it's best viewed as an amorphous totality--but there's a distinct feeling that anything held dear in yesteryear is little more than kindling for their fire. The images conjured up by their filtered, twisted sounds tap into those primally buried parts of yourself that you're not supposed to really remember... then gleefully violates them. (the first time I hear them, for example, I was somehow vaguely reminded of watching cheap Sesame Street knock-offs on a wood paneled TV while my uncle complained that Reagan was too liberal--don't ask me why!) The problem is that the sounds are too numerous and too manipulated for any real coherence to bubble up. This kind of slipperiness is more full-frontal than ever on Eating Us. The whirring buzz of songs like "Tooth Decay" or "Born On a Day the Sun Didn't Rise" are ethereal and esoteric at the same time. This is an album that loves to confound and remind its listener that nothing is worth so much reverence today as the will to undermine what's "acceptable."

11. Dead Prez and DJ Green Lantern - Pulse of the People

Dead Prez have been working on their forthcoming Information Age for some time now. There's no hurry though; the Pulse of the People mixtape packs a wallop. The biggest reason for this is straightforward: the Evil Genius himself, DJ Green Lantern. Green's intricately crafted, blazing-hot beats mesh incredibly well with DP's firebrand lyrics. M1 and stic.man are almost outshone here. Their straightforward and stark portrayals of racism, poverty and economic collapse--in other words, everyday life--are given a great lift by Green's beats. Veering between flashy club-sounds and organic, street-based grittiness, these sounds serve as a perfect reflection for the group's "Revolutionary But Gangsta" outlook, which is here in spades of course. Tracks like "Don't Hate My Grind," "Gangsta, Gangster," and "$timulus Plan" (by far one of the best anti-banker songs released since the bailouts) are immensely effective in communicating an urgent message that runs counter to much of the bootstraps-based mainstream dialogue on race and poverty that still persists in the Obama era. More than forceful platitudes, though, Dead Prez and Green Lantern have produced a slice of militant hip-hop just as suited for the dance-floor as the demonstrations.

10. Kid Sister - Ultraviolet

"Pro Nails" has had heads salivating for Kid Sister's long-delayed debut for about two years now, and it's worth the wait. The Chicago native's distinct "glam-hop" has carved a niche where the shimmering sounds of pop are rooted by an earthy, everyday sensibility of hip-hop. But while the juked-up beats play with a poptimist glitziness, there is a gravelly brashness couched in them that links into Kid's deliciously everyday subject matter. Singles like "Control" show this off: scraping together all the cash to give yourself the night out you deserve. Other writers have commented on this unique collision--the review in the Chicago Reader put forth that her music is the first hip-hop that can safely be labeled as "post-recession," and this seems about right. It's a blend that mimics the contradictions running through ordinary folks' heads right now: that our own stories are also worthy of validity, and ultimately deserve the same kind of importance that the industry has until recently only seen fit to crown on the unattainable lives of the Justins and Britneys of the world.

9. Royksopp - Junior

Junior will be complimented in 2010 by (of course) Senior. The two albums are somewhat meant to be polar opposites--Senior will be autumn to Junior's spring. We'll have to wait until the former's release for final judgment on how effective the combo is, but standing on its own, Junior is quintessential Royksopp. Everything unique that we've come to love from this Norwegian electronic duo is prevalent here. If the shiny, bouncy twinkle of "Happy Up Here" doesn't cheer you up then, well, you need therapy. But as we know, Royksopp are far from one-note. "The Girl and the Robot" makes the act of introspection seem like you're peering into a never-ending, shiny metal cavern. Even "Royksopp Forever"--a track whose sound is as dripping with bravado as its title denotes--brings their flare for the dramatic alive in a profoundly organic way. While most electronic acts seem satisfied with fading into the realm of movie soundtracks and marquee appearances at second rate night-clubs, Royksopp have never stopped believing in the seemingly never-ending creativity of the sound-clip and the mixer. With over ten years under their belt, they are among a handful managing to hold such broad influence over a new generation of electronic artists--and that's a good thing for music's future.

8. Wale - Attention: Deficit

One of the most anticipated hip-hop debuts over the past couple years has been Wale's Attention: Deficit. After an undeniably impressive handful of mixtapes, the DC emcee has finally dropped it, and it doesn't disappoint. In this robust, go-go infused album, Wale has teamed up with some notable names--from Mark Ronson to TV On the Radio's David Sitek--to bring a batch of tracks that manage to be universal and painstakingly specific at the same time. His own brand of swagger is pulled off deftly on tracks like "Chillin'" (featuring, of all people, Lady Gaga), but that doesn't stop him from tackling some real meat with unbelievable clarity. Most mentioned among these has been the track "90210", which no critic seemed unwilling to bring up in their review. Little wonder why too--few rappers (especially men) have dared to even take on issues like bulimia and women's body image, let alone with such urgency without sounding wack. Mix this kind of thoughtfulness and vulnerability with his iron-hard flow, and you have a debut album that not only finally puts DC on hip-hop's map, but whose style is as unique as its appeal is broad.

7. Death - ...For the Whole World to See

Death's one and only release was dropped over thirty years ago. So why is its reissue worth mentioning right now? For one thing because it is now gaining more attention than it ever got the first time around (the attention it deserves that is), and for another because it has forced many to shift their ideas about the roots of punk. More than five years before Bad Brains, these three black kids from Detroit were playing fast, loud, confrontational rock 'n' roll that almost certainly had hippies scratching their heads. Keep in mind that this was still a few years before "punk" had come to prominence. The manic energy of songs like "Freakin' Out" and "Politicians in My Eyes" were well ahead of their time. Save for a few other groups that had their heyday in the late '60s (the MC5 for example), nobody had really managed to channel their outrage in such a potently heated way. It was a formula that, as urban centers began to crack at the edges in the early '70s, would begin to take root--just as it is today. It's one of the years happiest accidents that this album was rediscovered.

6. Rita J. - Artist Workshop

If Kid Sister is pushing the door open for the new generation of young, independent-minded female rappers, then Rita J. has stepped through with style. One can't doubt her independent spirit. "Body Rock," equally influenced by trance music as by soul, is a cool, confident tribute to her fellow femcees urging them to be strong and not cave to the adverse pressure the world puts on their shoulders. It's hardly a revolutionary standpoint--Lauryn Hill did it damn well. But with Lauryn in self-imposed exile, and with other artists like her increasingly drowned out over the past decade, rap's been long overdue for a comeback of Hill's breed (Jean Grae notwithstanding). Assured, intelligent and keenly aware of the world around her, Rita may be the artist we're looking for--provided the music biz doesn't blackball the independently released Artist Workshop as "unmarketable." The buzz since the album's early November release has been impressive, however. And rightfully so: this is a remarkable debut. With any luck, it's only a sliver of what's to come both for Rita and others like her.

Next week: the top 5 albums of 2009!

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Venceremos


Thirty-six years after being brutally slain by soldiers during the coup carried out by General Augusto Pinochet, revolutionary activist and folk artist Victor Jara was laid to rest in Santiago, Chile yesterday. His widely publicized wake--presided over by his widow Joan Turner--lasted for three days and was attended by thousands of people inspired by Jara's life and work.

Jara remains the best-known of the Nueva Cancion movement, which in the late '60s and early '70s sought to reclaim Latin America's tradition of folk protest from the forces of commercialization and Americanization. A lifelong communist, it wasn't enough for his music to be labeled "protest songs"--he preferred the term "revolutionary song," and this showed in every one of his compositions. When Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government was overthrown by Pinochet's forces in 1973, Jara was among the thousands rounded up and packed into the Chile Stadium. Singled out by the guards, he was beaten, mocked, then shot in the head.

It is only recently that any charges have been leveled against those responsible for Jara's death; therein lies the reason his body was exhumed. A judge ordered it so in June so as to better gather details to charge the army officer who pulled the trigger and gave the orders. It's little consolation, but the three-day festivities honoring Jara may have finally given the man the tribute he has deserved for so long.

The same can be said for all of the thousands who were killed and disappeared by Pinochet's government (whose Washington backers have yet to be accounted for). "This is not a normal funeral," said Joan. "This is an act of love and mourning for all of our dead... It's also a celebration of the life of Victor, and of all the rest."

*****

Friday, December 4, 2009

"You can kill the revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution."


Forty years ago today, in the early morning hours of December 4th, Chicago police, working in collaboration with the FBI and the Illinois State Attorney's Office, broke into Fred Hampton's Monroe Street apartment and opened fire. Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was killed along with fellow Panther Mark Clark.

The Chicago Police Department claimed that two cops had been murdered by the Panthers two weeks prior, and that the raid was carried out to arrest those suspected of the attacks. To this day, there is no evidence supporting this claim. What made the Black Panthers in general and Fred Hampton in particular dangerous was that they had built bridges and given a voice to Chicago's oppressed communities of color. He had helped negotiate a truce between the city's largest gangs, and had brought together groups like SDS, the Young Lords and the Brown Berets together to fight for better housing and against police brutality. In other words, Fred Hampton died because he believed that the system stood in the way of real justice.

The song below is an appropriate tribute. Tupac Shakur was, of course, the son of former Panther Afeni Shakur, and the political education his mother gave him influenced his rhymes and outlook throughout his whole life. It could be seen in songs from "Changes" to "Brenda's Got a Baby" to this song (where it shows up in spades): "Panther Power."

Tupac was hardly the only emcee whose rhymes called on this legacy (though one could plausibly say he was the best of them). Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, Dead Prez and NaS are only a handful who have pumped the Panthers in their music. Just goes to show that almost twenty years after Pac recorded this song, and four decades after Fred Hampton was gunned down, their messages are still urgent. It might be trite to say that, but it's also true.



*****

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 25 - 16


It's that time of year again: when every music rag, website and blog releases "the list." It's no mean task sifting through the countless notable CDs and sound-files that come our way every year and definitively naming "the best." Nonetheless, if music tells us something about the time and place we live in (and it does), then the top 25 releases of 2009 tell us how quickly the tectonic plates are shifting under our feet. Choosing this list wasn't just a mere exercise in taste--which, as the saying tells us, there is no accounting for.

Rather, these were releases (albums, EPs, mixtapes and the like) that, true to the time, have been able to make the gloom exciting. Be that by taking past sounds and making them new again, or creating something completely unique, today's artists have a lot to work with. It's an odd juxtaposition: innovation in a time of dwindling opportunity and few resources. Anyone can sit down at their computer and make something resembling music (whether it will be relevant is another matter), but in the face of a confusing and sometimes hopeless world, who can give us sounds that pull us out of our alienation? In short, the artist that gives meaning to the pieces of detritus left behind by a decaying world is the one who will be the most memorable.

That's what stands out about this first ten, number 25 through 16 in this best of 2009 list. There are a fair share of familiar faces in this first batch (Jack White, the Flaming Lips, et al), as well as some new artists. What ties them all together, however, is that collision of old and new, brash and beautiful--that sense that we are somehow hanging in the balance between things ended and things begun.

25. The Dead Weather - Horehound

The music video for "Treat Me Like Your Mother" pretty much sums up the Dead Weather as an act. Jack White and Alison Mosshart, two heavyweights of modern, down-and-dirty rock 'n' roll, facing off with automatic machine guns, absolutely blowing each other away. Quite unnaturally, both walk away, but naturally, we love it! Horehound is full of this kind of full-on assault that each member's full-time group (the White Stripes and the Kills respectively) have sought to bring back to rock 'n' roll. It's dynamic, extreme, hard-edged, gut-twisting, unrelenting, almost beautifully nihilistic and flat-out fun music that your parents don't get. White already has one side-project with the Raconteurs; this could make the Dead Weather a belabored and uninspired exercise in artistic masturbation--as if we were expecting "White Stripes Mk. 3." Instead, White, Mosshart, Dean Fertita and Jack Lawrence have shown yet again that when it comes to good rock 'n' roll, there's always enough room. For that reason alone, Horehound make the list.

24. Slaughterhouse - Slaughterhouse

"Supergroup" is a word that provokes endless eye-rolls--especially in hip-hop. But when said group is made up of four of today's most prolific and talented masters of the mixtape--Royce Da 5'9", Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz and Crooked I--an exception can be made. These four emcees have found their path into major labels frustrated repeatedly over the past few years despite undeniable skills on the mic. So what do they do? Combine forces. The resultant album is a grimy, intricate and, for once in the supergroup phenomenon, greater than the sum of its parts. All four of these emcees have considerable skills on the mic; it would be wrong to profile just one and space hear won't allow quotes from all of them. So, let's just say that between dank, dark beats that pull on everything from glistening keys to rousing string sections, Slaughterhouse's rhymes take aim at everything from parties to drive-bys to the rap game itself with simultaneous depth and skill. Some reviews have hailed Slaughterhouse's debut as "the return of gangsta rap." Of course, gangsta rap never really left. With any luck, however, this album will mark a return to its past dominant glory.

23. Peter Doherty - Grace/Wastelands

Years of Doherty's countless run-ins with the law and his well-publicized drug habit had many wondering what this solo effort from the Libertine/Babyshambles man would sound like. The answer was his most worldly and mature to date. Much like the Kinks' Ray Davies, Doherty has always given us a picture of modern English life that is at once sad and angry--as can be observed in "Last of the English Roses": a steady thumping ode to long-lost innocence. What makes Grace/Wastelands notable is that the isolation and loneliness no longer sound as if they're coming from that old and withered barfly who won't stop bugging you in the pub. Rather, they're coming from the charismatic hangdog troubadour that we've always known Doherty to be--but because of myriad demons weighing him down we've only caught glimpses of. Mournfully subtle strings, straightforward and understated acoustic guitars, and of course, Doherty's sly, off-kilter delivery. He's not trying to make these songs anything more than what they are, and what they are parts of a deft, simple portrait of persistent hope in the midst of fading dreams. With Doherty at a new, surprising level of razor sharpness, it's a portrait we can all see on our own street with shocking clarity.

22. Meshell Ndegeocello - Devil's Halo

One has to really hand it to Meshell Ndegeocello. After nearly twenty years, she is still going very, very strong. Ndegeocello's trademark mix of hip-hop, soul, R&B and rock have remained potent after ten albums. Nonetheless, some critics cited her 2007 release The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams as a "comeback." This, despite that Meshell had released at least one album every three years since breaking out in '93. Maybe it was just good timing; ...Man of My Dreams dropped right around the time much of the music establishment was starting to take "neo-soul" seriously again. Be that as it may, Devil's Halo is a brilliant follow-up. True to the album's title, Ndegeocello displays her ability with stirring compositions that lyrically dive into the complex and sometimes contradictory "gray area" of love, loneliness and despair. Even seemingly mundane monikers like "Crying in Your Beer" provide titles to vivid portrayals. Bleak though they might be, they are crafted with such intimacy that it's hard to not identify with her subjects. Nobody can seriously doubt Ndegeocello's ability, and this album is more proof why.

21. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

This isn't the Lips' best--but then we're talking about degrees of genius here. It's also probably their least radio-friendly (though that's not the reason for Embryonic being below some of their previous efforts--let's not forget that the Flaming Lips haven't had a certified hit in sixteen years even as their loyal and committed fan-base has continued to grow year after year). Embryonic sees the group's continuing musico-cosmic quest evolving into their most abstract yet. The abstract, computer-analog sounds that have always punctuated their songs have been brought front-and-center here. Opener "Convinced of the Hex" sound like the members have absconded with their kids' Casio keyboards for the nearest abandoned machine factory. And as with most of their albums, the subsequent songs take the listener of something of a journey through the most existential, surreal corners of human existence. To be sure, you aren't likely to find any future official rock songs for the state of Oklahoma here, but the Flaming Lips' insistence on simply saying yes to themselves and fascination with what it is that makes humankind tick still sets them apart to this day.

20. Busdriver - Jhelli Beam

Just in case you didn't know, Regan Farquhar (a.k.a. Busdriver) is certifiably insane! Need proof? Watch the video for "Me-Time." Anyone willing to put a Chuck E. Cheese version of himself in a video only to be ripped apart by a screaming child's upright father is guaranteed to have a few screws loose. It's moments like these that make Busdriver a well-needed addition to hip-hop. Plenty of great emcees have his acerbic wit and biting commentary, but few have his sense of humor, or his skills with rapid-fire flow. There's little doubt that he often comes off as an outsider with more than a bit of disdain for the mainstream (maybe it's not disdain so much as he thinks its weird and absurd). But then, his dad did direct Krush Groove, so maybe he knows a bit more than some nay-sayers might be ready to admit. At a time when no one sound is dominating hip-hop, and followers are wondering what next, his skewering of Hollywood, club-culture, the record industry--not to mention the screwy humor of Jhelli Beam--are more than welcome.

19. The Noisettes - Wild Young Hearts

Do yourself a favor: next time the Noisettes are playing in your town, go see them. It will be the most infectious blend of dance-infused rock you have heard in quite some time. This UK three-piece has been beating around the underground circuit for a few years now. Wild Young Hearts brings all of their best qualities into relief. At the center of it all is Shingai Shoniwa's voice--a cross between Tina Turner and Patti Smith at each of their most swaggeringly cocky. Shoniwa heads up her incredibly adept group (drummer Jamie Morrison and guitarist Dan Smith) like a high rock 'n' roll priestess summoning her congregation into insurgent testimonial. Lead single "Don't Upset the Rhythm" captures the group's essence: they are playfully daring you. It's almost as if they're saying "go ahead, upset the rhythm, see what happens." And though we know the consequences will be dire, the grooves and beats are so catchy that we don't want to anyway. This whole album is proof positive that some walls don't have to be kicked in order to crumble--sometimes the right moves are sufficient.

18. Anti-Pop Consortium - Fluorescent Black

Much like Busdriver, Anti-Pop Consortium reveal just how much room for artistic expansion there is in hip-hop--still derided (albeit less today) as being too one-note. Only they've been at it a good while longer. Plus, their hiatus has definitely left their fan-base wanting, so Fluorescent Black is that much sweeter after the seven-year absence. All of the production curve-balls and seeming non-sequiturs are there--anything really does go for these guys! Sure, it sounds cool, but there's a deeper level here too. Their application of the screw-chop job to just about any sound they can get their hands on gives the impression they're playing hot-potato with a live hand-grenade; you're not sure what's going to happen, but you can't turn away either. On a lyrical level, APC seem more convinced than ever of their own ability and the abilities of folks like them. The title track--a five minute electro-jolted trip into --has them exalting their listeners: "understand the transition right now / we're at a pivotal axis in history right now." Maybe it's this gap between hope and horror that's given them the arm-shot needed to get back together and see what's possible.

17. Passion Pit - Manners

Over the past few years, "indie" has gone from a simple description of a music genre to an ever-expanding subculture where the only musical limit is what you can't make sound authentic. So what exactly does it mean when this movement gets its hands on synth-pop? To listen to Passion Pit, it means that anyone can do it and make it sound good. "Sleepyhead"--from their late 2008 Chunk of Change EP--has easily become one of the year's most recognizable songs. And before anyone could doubt whether they were the real deal, they followed up with Manners. The spit-shined, chirpy electronics that made "Sleepyhead" so damned unforgettable have found greater scope here. Swirling highs have been complimented with swooping lows. While artists like Lady Gaga have no doubt brought a great dose of artistic seriousness back to pop, Passion Pit and others like them have shown that the seeming-glamor of the art-form is prime material for us lowly bottom-dwellers too. Hell, we may even be able to do it better.

16. Blue Scholars - OOF!

Blue Scholars' determined sound and assured radicalism have never really given the impression that they could fit neatly into any one category. And true to form, the group's emcee Geologic sharpens his chilled lyrical chops on just about anything he can think of: the state of hip-hop today ("Coo?"), finding solidarity with everyday strangers ("New People"), even tying Hawai'ian self-determination with the struggle of folks on the mainland ("HI-808"). The island-state hangs heavy as an influence on OOF! thanks largely to the duo's connections to it, and DJ Sabzi's reliance on Hammond organ, surfy guitar and traditional percussion blend the whole thing into a well-honed musical package. In delivering interesting stories in a dope way, they accomplish what a lot of political rap artists can't: an airtight message that goes beyond the realm of rhetoric. With a fast-growing following, a redux of their 2007 album Bayani out alongside the EP, Blue Scholars own persistence and fierce independence indeed bodes well for hip-hop's future.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

Next Week: Numbers 15 - 6 in the best of 2009.

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