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12/25/2008

Music

END OF THE ROAD
The 15 best albums this year (and three of the worst)

 

While pop music languished in a sea of lackluster import stars and an unspoken competition to determine the most indistinctively distinctive robo-singer, and Axl Rose tried to convince the world he had been up to something in the last couple of decades, there was more than enough left-of-mainstream musical bounty to go around.

To prove that good music was still possible in a year teetering on the edge of oblivion, Orlando Weekly music editor Justin Strout and OW contributors Jason Ferguson and Bao Le-Huu have sifted through piles of 2008 albums to come up with the most essential releases of the year, as well as the one they wish hadn’t ever opened.

Surprise, surprise

My favorite album of the year came as a total shock to me. I’ve listened to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah, Part 1: 4th World War (Motown) off and on since its release in February, and it struck me as yet another of her albums that came close to what she’s capable of, but fell short. By circumstance, I popped it into my car’s CD player, and with a minor bass tweak, it became an entirely different experience. New Amerykah is an album that needs to breathe, to fill any available space, unpack its things and get comfortable – I had confined it to headphones, something I now consider a tragic faux pas. It’s the first album in which I’ve heard Badu possess a clear sonic goal and reach for it with unabashed romanticism, roundness and pleasure.

I was surprised by Badu’s last-minute showing because I was certain that For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar) would top my end-of-year list. It’s dominated my mind since its release a week prior to New Amerykah. Justin Vernon’s mumbled falsetto battles an ice storm of Northern melancholy, armed with only sharp alliteration and mountains of repentance. Listened to together, Badu could serve as Bon Iver’s longed-for salvation.

Taking my third-best spot is former Orlando-Jacksonville nightcrawler and now Seattle visionary Astronautalis, whose third album (and first sans local label Fighting Records), Pomegranate (Eyeball), is a miracle record. The piano-based storytelling he employs isn’t hip-hop; it’s Lord Byron, it’s Douglas Sirk. At one point, it’s literally Richard Henry Dana Jr. Astronautalis (aka Andy Bothwell) steers his well-honed freestyle flow into a head-on collision of half-sung, half-growled imagery (“A smile safe-crackers understand/Is rendering his steady hand/Obsolete”) and peerless musicianship. He also utters the lyric of the year: “She swore/I can outrun your guidance and love.”

Admittedly, the difference between the third spot and all the others is sizable; in my eyes, nothing I’ve spent time with matches the accomplishments of Badu, Bon Iver and Astronautalis. Dozens of artists came close, however. Pharrell Williams’ ever-engrossing side project, N.E.R.D., did something with hip-hop on their album Seeing Sounds (Interscope) that I hadn’t heard from anyone else this year: They made it dynamic. From track to track, anything could (and did) greet the listener – Lil’ Jon–style club bangers; lush, Beatles-inspired pop; fuzz-driven industrialism – and most of the time it was welcome.

The film Slumdog Millionaire was a late-year entry into the pop lexicon, but what an impact it’s had. Not only is it a terrific movie that bridges India’s flat-world capitalism and filth-ridden ghetto with Western dramatic sensibilities, the soundtrack (Interscope) matches that attitude at every turn. Guided by Bollywood mega-producer A.R. Rahman – one of the biggest-selling artists in history – the lightning blur that is slumdogs is embodied by Sri Lankan hitmaker M.I.A., while Suzanne D’Mello gently personifies the film’s love interest in song.

Finally, poor Beck gets my worst-album ranking in a year that actually saw Scarlett Johansson plop out a recording, and the reason is simple: I expect something from Beck. Anything. But his Modern Guilt (Interscope) cynically recruited producer Danger Mouse as a gimmick to pump up interest in an album that didn’t even have the decency to fail big. Beck sounds bored, as if he wants nothing more than to fulfill a contract, which is exactly what Modern Guilt, his last in a deal with Interscope, does.

On a technicality

Hands down, the new album that I listened to most intently this year was Live Acoustique 2007 by Algerian singer Souad Massi (Universal). I’ve been casually paying attention to her for the past few years; her voice embodies the soulful resonance commonly associated with Middle Eastern singers, but her studio albums have tended toward anodyne production that sucks the life out of the music. This in-concert recording, however, is little more than that voice and an acoustic guitar, a combination that heightens both the impact of Massi’s emotional singing and the surprising strength of her songs. Technically, this one came out in late 2007, but I don’t care; it’s completely dominated my ears throughout most of 2008, and if I had to unreservedly recommend any new album to someone, regardless of his or her taste, this would be the one.

In contrast, there’s Iron Will by Swedish metallians Grand Magus (Rise Above). Defiantly genre-pure and unabashedly triumphant in stature, the sound of Grand Magus may not fit anyone’s definition of hipster metal – these guys take it far too seriously – but in what turned out to be a banner year for heavy metal, Iron Will was perhaps the best example of just how great this genre can be. All anthemic chants about “silver into steel” and “the shadow knows” and so on, this band’s midtempo rumble never dicks around with psychedelic nonsense or blast-beat stupidity. Just good old-fashioned, pillage-the-village awesomeness.

Showing that psychedelic indie rock need be neither redundant nor derivative, Atlanta’s Deerhunter proved with Microcastle (Kranky) that they (or he; without Bradford Cox there is no Deerhunter) are a band that deserves to defy the “Curse of Pitchfork” (otherwise known as the “they-were-soooo-much- better-before-we-told-you-about-them” curse). Woozy, beautiful and completely transcendent, the compact and fractured pop that Cox and his band craft manages to indulge in shoegazer swoon while reconfiguring the idea of effective melody-writing.

There are two forms of music that I generally consider to have debased themselves into creative bankruptcy: dancehall and gangsta rap. The former for its rampant misogyny, homophobia and stock beats; the latter for … well, the last 10 years of mainstream hip-hop. So my love for Kingstonlogic 2.0 by Terry Lynn (Last Gang) was surprising. Dancehall rapping, gangsta-esque rhymes … it should be garbage. But Lynn’s aggressively mellifluous delivery, smartly crafted street poetry and the boatload of crackling and staccato electro beats she uses on the disc prove completely irresistible.

And last, but certainly not least, the humid, expansive indie rock of Colour Revolt’s Plunder, Beg and Curse (Fat Possum) tickled the Southern-fried part of my brain. Blending bluesy wooze, swampy sloppiness and literate modernity, these Oxford, Miss., boys should be held in the same regard as Band of Horses.

My travesty? This was a tough one, but I’ve gotta anoint Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy (Geffen) as my biggest loser, simply because it tricked me. While I wasn’t foolish enough to expect a garage-band record, the sheer enormity of sound that issued forth from my store-bought vinyl was jarring. I was briefly convinced that within those microscopically arranged behemoths was the future of rock & roll in all its big, disorienting glory, and that my puny 21st-century brain just wasn’t equipped to handle it. Sadly, I’m still waiting for the revelation to come.

Straight up

First, the best:

Bottle Up & Go, These Bones (Kill Normal): This searing cow-brand of a duo hails from New England, of all places, but they lasso the sound of the deep, dirty South on their debut EP, which is a knife-wielding cyclone of blues, punk and garage. Fans of the studly Immortal Lee County Killers and local slashers the Hex Tremors, buckle in. This is one of the fiercest, most hide-shaving releases this year.

Clinic, Do It! (Domino): Even with the release of the Black Angels’ excellent sophomore effort (Directions to See a Ghost), the year’s best psych-rock record has to go to Clinic. Both albums are intoxicatingly tense and dense deals, but the versatile yet cohesive Do It! gets there in ways more inventive, surprising and poignant.

Dead Confederate, Wrecking Ball (Razor & Tie): On this record, the Devil came out of Georgia with a dark, devastating sound that – along with the work of a bright young class of other like-minded bands – is redefining the South’s rock heritage. Not a bad feat for a debut album.

Fuck Buttons, Street Horrrsing (ATP): An electronic duo with a puerile name like theirs conjures all sorts of postmodern dance nightmares. But the compositions of this experimental Bristol outfit are massive, pre-Man forces of nature capable of towering, primal transcendence. Though absolutely true, it would criminally undersell this breathtaking album to call it the coolest planetarium soundtrack ever. It pushes electronic music to earth-moving heights and bellows with a strangely organic essence.

Portishead, Third (Island): Though only the second-most-anticipated never-thought-it-would-ever-happen album of the year, Third arrived under the perfect setup for certain failure. Its lionized authors were one of the definitive acts of the ’90s; they vaporized into hiatus while at their peak only to finally re-emerge with this effort after a decade, an eternity in music. Instead of an age-showing séance of their past glory, however, Third is a bewitching, forward-thinking and fiercely modern record even by today’s standards. And though none of their former – now dated – sonic signatures are there, the new sound renders a stark, otherworldly space that is the quintessence of Portishead.

And then, the worst:

The Streets, Everything Is Borrowed (679): I’m not an ugly American. I try earnestly to understand when speakers of foreign languages try to communicate with me. It’s the same courtesy I’ve repeatedly extended to fans of critically adored English grime star the Streets. But I now realize that it’s not that I don’t comprehend what they’re saying, it’s that what they’re saying when jocking this rap faker is bullshit. All of it. Intriguing lyricism, blah blah blah. I cannot be expected to appreciate anything he says when his vehicle is utterly unlistenable. It’s called music for a reason, stupid. If you’re no good at it, then try the mercifully more silent poetry. His anti-flow is not quirky, it’s oafish. Maybe you’re one of those Yanks easily seduced by a Cockney accent, but I’d rather be raped in the ear than endure another Streets song.

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