I don’t even know why I’m here, frankly. I think it’s pretty well documented that all I do these days is write about television and interview people ’til the cows come home. Once upon a time, though, I used to be a music critic, dammit…and once you’ve had opinions about music, you’ll always have opinions about music. As such, here are my thoughts on the albums and songs that grabbed me this year. This may be the first time I’ve actually written about most of them, but you can damn well be sure that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to them.
1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
It’s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career I’ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while it’s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, it’s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of “Sexbomb.” Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of people’s perceptions, and for those who’ve been paying attention, that’s what he’s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008’s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, it’s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. There’s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of “200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.” There’s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. There’s just Tom Jones, age 70…and, by God, he’s still got it.
2. Glen Matlock & The Philistines: Born Running
It isn’t as though it’s surprising that John Lydon’s the member of the Sex Pistols who’s gone on to have the most successful solo career – he was, after all, the frontman for the group – but it continues to be equally eyebrow-raising that so few of the band’s fans have kept their ears open for the consistently solid material emerging from Glen Matlock‘s camp. It’s not quite as punk as the Pistols – which makes perfect sense if you believe the story about Matlock supposedly getting the boot from the band for liking the Beatles a bit too much – but the songs on Born Running still pack a fierce wallop.
3. Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin
The older I get, the less I allow myself to feel guilty about enjoying an album that I could easily peddle to people my grandparents’ age. All things considered, I’d much rather have a full collection of new originals from Mr. Wilson, but the way he takes these Gershwin classics and arranges them to match his traditional sound is still music to my ears. Then, of course, there’s the added bonus that he’s taken on the task of completing a couple of previously-unfinished Gershwin songs. Unsurprisingly, they sound just like Brian Wilson compositions…not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all.
4. Farrah: Farrah
There’s Britpop, and then there’s power pop, but you don’t tend to find bands who can manage to comfortably keep a foot in both camp; I’d argue that Farrah succeeds at this task, but given that they don’t have a particularly high profile in either, I suppose it really all depends on how you define success. For my part, though, if an artist releases an album which contains a significant number of catchy-as-hell hooks, it’s top of the pops in my book, which means that this self-titled entry into their discography is yet another winner for Farrah.
She sounded for all the world like a one-hit wonder when she made her debut with the aggressively obnoxious “I Kissed a Girl,” but surprise, surprise — Katy Perry is currently in the middle of setting airplay records with “California Gurls,” the Snoop-enhanced first single from her new album, Teenage Dream. A few more hits like this, and Perry stands a chance at carving out a Black Eyed Peas-style career, embracing cheerful disposability with a string of shiny, deceptively sharp pop songs.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, here’s Teenage Dream. Simply by virtue of the smash hits she’s scored with “Gurls” and the title track, Perry’s already vanquished the sophomore jinx, but does the album deliver on the promises made by those killer leadoff singles? The short answer: Not really. But compared to a lot of mainstream pop records, its wheat-to-chaff ratio is surprisingly high.
Given who she is and the era we’re living in, it’d verge on unreasonable to expect Perry to put together an album of songs as pop-smackingly delectable as “California Gurls,” so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there’s a fair amount of filler on Teenage Dream. What’s unusual — and fairly troublesome for Perry’s long-term prospects — is the fact that her least appealing moments come when she’s trying to get serious, as on tracks like the meant-to-be-showstopping ballads “Pearl” and “Not Like the Movies.” There aren’t many pop singers who embrace brainlessness as warmly as Katy Perry, and as a result, she’s just not believable when she thinks she really has something to say. Like Teenage Dream‘s cover art indicates, she’s trapped herself in a fluffy prison.
Fluffiness has its own rewards, though, and even if Perry will probably never reach the levels of profundity she strains for so unconvincingly during Teenage Dream‘s duds, she at least has a knack for irresistible anthems to shallowness, stupidity, and narcissism. For a good seven songs or so, Dream finds Perry shooting cotton candy sparks on a beach made from rainbow sand while unicorns shit churros and pee ice-cold beer on everyone. You get the title track, “Gurls,” the fabulously dumb “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” the soaring “Firework,” and “Peacock,” which actually beats the Black Eyed Peas at their own stupid game, plus the cutely aggro “Circle the Drain” and future Hot AC hit “The One That Got Away” — basically, a solid EP’s worth of 21st century Top 40 at its most hollowly addictive. If you care about Katy Perry at all, this is probably exactly what you’re hoping for. How long she’ll be able to keep this up is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime, she’s living a rather pleasant Dream. (Capitol 2010)
Damon Albarn is surely still scratching his head over the fact that he had to hide behind a crudely drawn character in order to sell a million records in the US, while the humanoid version of Albarn remains a cult act, be it with Blur or the Good, the Bad & the Queen, his project with the Clash’s Paul Simonon. Give him credit, then, for not capitalizing on this loophole by turning the Gorillaz into a Hannah Montana-style media juggernaut, churning out an album, plush doll, video game and TV show every 18 months. God knows, it must have been tempting. Sell millions of records, or don’t sell millions of records? Credibility is nice, but as David Cross pointed out, those outside the industry are stingy about accepting it as collateral.
Indeed, it’s been five years since Albarn has donned the ink and paper, and if the Gorillaz’ new album Plastic Beach is any indication, the anger that fueled 2005’s Demon Days has subsided. Unfortunately, Albarn’s energy level seems to have subsided as well. The album doesn’t shift gears much, opting for mid-tempo grooves that you’d expect from a Jack Johnson or a G. Love. “On Melancholy Hill” sounds like OMD circa The Pacific Age. This is not your older brother’s Gorillaz, though that’s not entirely a bad thing. The album may be completely lacking in bottom end – you’d have to go back 30 years to find tinnier drum tracks – but Albarn is still good for one unforgettable single, in this case the “Safety Dance”-ish “Stylo,” featuring a passionate vocal from Bobby Womack. De La Soul return to guest on the cutesy “Superfast Jellyfish,” and “To Binge,” a perky duet with Little Dragon, is one of the best pop songs Albarn’s written in years. He gets a bit carried away with the guest performers, though. Did he need Mos Def and Bobby Womack and De La Soul and Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon? (And that’s not even all of the guest performers.) Albarn ultimately minimizes his contributions to his own album.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect about Plastic Beach is its warmth, or lack thereof. This is one cold album, and perhaps that was Albarn’s point. If so, mission accomplished, but it could come at a huge price. His band is already artificial; when the music begins to feel the same way, discontent is sure to follow. There is much to admire about Plastic Beach, but it’s also one of the most emotionless albums you’ll hear this year. (Virgin 2010)
You’ve got your classic-rock powerhouses (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Elvis Costello), your reunited jam-band institution (Phish), your ’90s-survivor cult act (Nine Inch Nails), your rap elders (Snoop Dogg, the Beastie Boys), your old soul legend (Al Green), your new funk goddess (Erykah Badu), your country icons (Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams) — and, of course, dozens of your top-tier indie rockers (Animal Collective, the Decemberists, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear)
The article didn’t even mention Wilco or David Byrne. That’s a nice lineup.
The festival runs from June 11th to the 14th. Tickets go on sale this Saturday.
2008 was a year of many highly anticipated albums, from long-awaited follow-ups from big names to indie debuts. There were the albums I listened to most and felt left a lasting dent on the current musical landscape.
Top 10 Albums of 2008
1. TV on the Radio: Dear Science
Brooklyn’s critical darlings hit it out of the borough again with their third full-length, Dear Science. They continue to defy even the most coherent explanations and descriptions. This is what the future sounds like – and it’s exciting.
2. Fleet Foxes: Ragged Wood
The Pacific Northwest is finally producing, once again, the caliber of music that its isolated atmosphere and gorgeous surrounds should be stimulating. Driven by front-man Robin Pecknold, but by no means a one man band, the Fleet Foxes have the best lockdown on vocal harmonies since a certain supergroup in the ’70s — and the songs do their fair share of standing out, as well.
3. Pattern Is Movement: All Together
Throw all notions of what a two-piece should sound like out of your mind. This Philidelphia duo is nothing like what you’d expect them – or anyone – to be. Avant-pop-rock meets classical form and textures in the most beautiful mess of an album. If, at first, you’re taken aback, don’t worry, just press repeat.
4. Dengue Fever: Venus on Earth
While there were bands that hit it bigtime with their exploration of international sounds (see below), Dengue Fever didn’t come nearly close enough to receiving the kind of attention they deserved. Boasting Chhom Nimol, a singer who actually sings in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, the LA inhabitants’ mixture of Cambodian pop meets surfer pop and psych rock is not only legitimate but bred of some serious talent.
5. Wolf Parade: At Mount Zoomer
It could perhaps be argued that At Mount Zoomer, the follow up to Wolf Parade’s first album Apologies to the Queen Mary, doesn’t pack the same punch in terms of pop hooks. In many ways, this is true. In other ways, it doesn’t matter. The over-10-minute-long album closer “Kissing the Beehive” is just as memorable – if not more so – as any of their shorter tunes.
6. Deerhunter: Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
One of the weirdest yet most beautiful, comforting yet most alienating albums in recent memory – or double-album, if we’re getting technical. Get lost in the repetition, then find yourself in the breakdowns and freakouts.
7. The Notwist: The Devil, You + Me
The highly, highly anticipated follow up to the German group’s earnestly romantic and soothing electro-pop album, Neon Golden. The Devil, You + Me continues in the same vein as the album that they broke out with. What more could anyone ask?
8. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
As pleasing as it might be to be able to deny the righteous climb of the afro-pop appropriating, stereotype-perpetuating ivy leaguers known as Vampire Weekend, the honest truth is, aside from its lack of emotion, their debut is pretty undeniable. And in a musical climate where one too many bands have been overly saturated in their feelings, perhaps a little break from them ain’t so bad.
9. Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs
Every year, there’s a band that gets the sentimental vote. This year, it’s this one. Seattle’s Death Cab for Cutie bounce back from glistening pop to a strangely inconsistent yet cohesive sixth album. Piano ballads, power pop and, of course, the experimental stalker jam first single – it’s all here.
10. Portishead: Third
The last slot is almost always the hardest. What pushed it over to Portishead were two things. Firstly, unsurprisingly, the group’s history. One of the most influential players in trip-hop, Portishead recorded a measly two albums (though there was nothing measly about the content). Secondly, they bounced back some 10 years later to deliver not just another album, but another groundbreakingly, strangely beautiful one. If only every long-term hiatus had such remarkable results.
Top 10 Songs From Albums Not On My Top 10 List
1. “Put On,” Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West
The video alone would have warranted the number one spot on this list, but as it just so happens, “Put On” is a completely unforgettable song, the kind I heard blasted on my Brooklyn block night and day. Also noteworthy: the only time Kanye West used a vocoder this year that didn’t sound stupid.
2. “A Milli,” Lil’ Wayne / “A Billi,” Jay-Z
Weezy arguably had the more successful summer jam over Jeezy, but truth is, his voice is still slightly irritating, no matter how many times I hear this. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that I like Jay-Z’s freestyle cover just as much as Wayne’s original.
3. “U.R.A. Fever,” The Kills
This is the sexiest song released in 2008. Really.
4. “L.E.S. Artistes” / “I’m A Lady,” Santogold
I refuse to choose between the two hottest jams on the debut from Brooklyn’s Santogold. So I’m not going to.
5. “Take My Love With You,” Eli “Paperboy” Reed & The True Loves
Why wasn’t this song blasted from the speakers of every single person who loved retro-revival acts like Amy Winehouse and the Pipettes over the last year? It should have been. Also: people in long-distance relationships, you have a new jam. Trust me.
6. “Mr. Alladatshit,” Kidz in the Hall
Kidz in the Hall made my mid-year list, but the second half was just too strong and knocked them out of contention. That said, this song from the Chicago rap duo is, to quote the song, “flyer than giraffe’s [privates].” Assuming they meant that as a good thing…
7. “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 1,” My Morning Jacket
The My Morning Jacket album was a little too uneven, but its high points were very high, including this lilting, sensual jam that’s exemplary of everything the band does right.
8. “Many Shades of Black,” Raconteurs
Without as much influence from Brendan Benson, the Raconteurs are starting to sound like another White Stripes… which would be ok if there wasn’t already the White Stripes. Having said that, this soul-infused break-up tune is not just more of the same.
9. “Lately,” The Helio Sequence
The duo from Portland continue to evolve their sound with Keep Your Eyes Ahead, their most memorable album to-date, which boasts the repeat-worthy lead off track “Lately.”
10. “Sensual Seduction,” Snoop Dogg (or “Sexual Eruption,” if you have the unrated version)
It’s as if Snoop Dogg heard any of R. Kelly’s recent albums and said, “That man knows what he’s doing.”