What were the 80 most important musical recordings, artists, trends, events, and performances of 2008? What were the eight things this year that broke our hearts—or, at least, our ears? We’re happy to announce 80 ’08 (and Heartbreak), Idolator’s year-end overview. The list is below the jump.
The title piqued my interest. Well, I figured, he’s going ahead and making it explicit: “grown and sexy,” that restrained-allure masterwork of recent phrasemaking, and the title of the 2005 album by Babyface (to whom we’ll return), would be the outright theme of Ne-Yo’s third album. I figured I’d like it. He’d been a great singles guy but I never got all the way into the first two albums, but maybe I would with this one. I hadn’t thought much about “Closer” either way, but my hunch demanded I buy the album day of release. I played it five times and wrote an enthusiastic review while still not convinced I’d heard all there was to hear. Then I really started listening.
I’d put my love for Year of the Gentleman down to craft if that didn’t sound so mere, so bloodless. Ne-Yo is a classic backroom guy—he wrote “Irreplaceable” for Beyoncé, for starters—but his best work still pulses with more thought and melodic lushness than anyone else’s, and on this album he really bears down. The sequencing is immaculate: first five songs all hits or will be, the rest going deeper and more specifically into his subject, relationships, and ending with a goopy little happy ending that still gets to me, though not as much as the stuff before it. It’s grown and sexy because Ne-Yo sounds like an actual grown-up—someone who’s thought about what relationships mean, how they work, what goes wrong with them, and just which angle he might take on it for his next song.
It’s the angles that kept me hooked. “So You Can Cry” is as much about being infuriated by your best friend as you are empathetic to her plight; “Fade into the Background” about watching the one who got away getting hitched, and getting drunk and slinking away in response. He plays the nice guy to the hilt, which means he sings about frustration a lot, as with “Mad,” which is as much about just wanting to get a good night’s sleep as it is about wanting to put things right with your s.o.
As someone who’s spent most of 2008 in a long-distance relationship, those kinds of frustrations are on my mind a lot, and Ne-Yo spoke to them with more grace and empathy than anybody else. Alfred Soto puts it better than I can: “His wordplay isn’t particularly clever, but he’s mastered a way of adapting a shopworn phrase so that it illuminates an unpredictable situation—the situations in which all lovers convince themselves that no one else has been in them . . . He avoids bathos by virtue of the unstinting precision of his singing and writing.”
As long as I’m quoting people, let me point to something Tom Ewing recently wrote: “[T]he state of pop criticism in the mainstream doesn’t generally go further than ‘Are there kewl sounds on this record Y/N’—which is why stuff like pop-country and non-futuristic R&B (Ne-Yo, Jazmine Sullivan) gets a rough deal.” As much as anything beyond the idea that Ne-Yo’s melisma gets in his songs’ way (he uses it less, and more effectively, than many of his peers), Year of the Gentleman’s production is often cited as a reason for dismissing it, as if its lack of groundbreaking qualities thereby disqualifies it for greatness or even goodness. I’ll be sure to remember that the next time I’m recommended a shitty indie rock (or rap) album that breaks no ground by definition.
Anyway, the real rub tends to be that Ne-Yo’s persona isn’t sufficient. Basically, he’s Babyface with a far heavier jones for early-’70s singer-songwriter tricks. (“So You Can Cry” is clearly the product of someone who listens to plenty of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and especially Carly Simon—surely “pity party” rhymed with “calamari” is his version of “yacht”/“apricot”/“gavotte.”) If you’re allergic to either tendency, it’s probably useless to convince you otherwise. But really, you’re missing out. Of course Ne-Yo is a showbiz kid—he’s from Vegas, for Christ’s sake. But he’s not just hitting his marks. He’s a craftsman because he gets such an obvious buzz from turning the lyric and the tune just right. He’s a hit machine who feels every note, and can make you feel them. That’s what all that craft is for. No one in 2008 utilized it better.
Remixes have been a constant since the late ’70s. Artists have been holding remix contests since at least 1983, when Tommy Boy advertised for a prize to the chancer(s) who best recast G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid’s “Play That Beat, Mr. DJ” and inadvertently birthed unto the world Double Dee & Steinski, the latter of whose What Does It All Mean? overview was released this year to great (and deserved) acclaim. R&B and hip-hop and disco and indie rock and house and techno and dub and mainstream pop with its different mixes for different formats and even country (what’s Up!, Shania Twain): all not only utilize the remix, each genre has its own set of rules for it. And between NIN and Radiohead’s fan-made deconstructions grabbing headlines and cut-up disco ruling clubland, not to mention the usual fusillade of hip-hop mixtape posse cuts, dance producers trading tweaks as normal, and—fuck it—Girl Talk, 2008 is a Year of the Remix if any has been.
The remixes I liked most tended to be the ones that did the most overhauling of their sources. (I discussed DJ Koze’s mix of Matias Aguayo’s “Minimal” earlier in the countdown.) Supermayer’s remix of Hot Chip’s “One Pure Thought” is one that’s stayed with me harder than I expected it to: it’s stripped to the knuckle, as taut as the snare that continually snaps you to attention, and utilizes only one vocal line (“There is nothing greater”) on its way to making a groove that stands on its own—and as one of the best DFA records not made by the DFA.
I’m sure I’ll get called a pseud and worse, especially by Brits, for saying I like Mark Ronson’s remix work, but I’m fine with that. His live-band funk turnovers of Robin Thicke’s “Magic” and Maroon 5′s “Wake Up Call” are the usual: crisp mod-soul with punchy horns, the whole thing a shameless appeal to nostalgia, and so well done it hardly matters.
Rock bands beyond NIN and Radiohead got in on the act, too. My favorite was Spoon, whose “Don’t You Evah” underwent a handful of overhauls, the most wickedly effective being that by Ted Leo. The Pharmacist prescribed herb: Leo’s “I Want It Hotter Remix” makes the song into a slithering, Pablo-meets-Tubby-indebted dub, an approach that worked perfectly. Similarly, Sharon Jones’ “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You” was given a re-rub by Ticklah, on 7-inch by Daptone.
The Brits are starting to refer to “bass music,” not as a general construct but to describe the bastard children of hip-hop, IDM, rave, and dancehall. Flying Lotus is the bellwether here, and his colorfully abstracted fuel the excellent Los Angeles as well as an imaginatively hollowed-out reworking of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” and a sweet little pairing of “A Milli” with Lotus’s own “Robo Tussin.” Grime is a big part of bass music, but I never loved Burial until I came across “Boy 8-Bit’s Simple Remix” of “Archangel,” which turns it into a straighter house track that retains its rhythm tricks, a basic tweaking that breathes new life into the song. And funky/bassline house’s richest moment came via Crazy Cousinz retooling Paleface & Kyla’s “Do You Mind” into a devastatingly sexy skipping groove.
Finally, three remixes I particularly like fall under the general umbrella of recent nostalgia. Frankie Knuckles’ remix of Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind” smooths out the original’s bumpier elements. In a way, it’s stunt casting—get the old-school house guy to bring his old-school house flavor—but given the material, it’s one of the canniest moves yet from an act for which canniness is all. (And Antony sounds even more like a disco diva over a backdrop that has far more of the luster of the vintage stuff than H&LA’s original “Blind” has.) Similarly, Alphabeat turning over “Boyfriend” to Stock-Aitken-Waterman mainstay Pete Hammond to turn into the plastic ’80s the band craves has the effect of making the whole thing sound weirdly soulful.
The most ’80s remixer of them all, of course, is Fred Falke. They all sound essentially alike: idealized Jan Hammer keyboards from Miami Vice, played for sunshine rather than pastel shading, and they’re as shiny-sleazy a signature as you could hope for. When he applies them to the Whitest Boy Alive’s “Golden Cage,” though, they take the song’s soft-sung lament and amplify them the way Zeppelin did the blues. It’s one of the records that helped me get through the year: I turned to it when I wanted to wallow in missing my girlfriend a country or world away, the echoed “Over and over” and the layers of Greatest American Hero incidental-music keyboard lines buoying it to the heavens all cushioning me back into reality. I hope to hear similarly transformative work in the year to come.
The never-ending slough both the people who deal with music directly (making it, releasing it, booking it) and those of us who cover it for a living have been dealing with is made even worse by the simple fact no one likes admitting: we’ve seen this coming. For years. And those of us who are starting to feel the pinch—not to mention my many peers and colleagues who’ve lost their jobs outright in recent months—are to some degree kicking ourselves for not, you know, getting out of the business earlier. I can speak only for myself when I say that I haven’t because I still like doing it better than anything else in the world, and that I’ve been lucky enough to keep going with it for a while, but I have no idea what’s around the corner, and neither does almost everyone else I know.
It’s hard to write about this kind of thing because you don’t want to sound like you’re complaining. As noted, I’ve been anticipating the situation to reach its current, bleak state eventually, and I count my fortunes every day. That’s not even counting the financial crisis, which even though I wouldn’t have been able to predict the particulars of, I wasn’t a bit surprised by. (Too many new or unfinished condos in my neighborhood for the bottom not to drop at some point, I figured.) The sense that a writer is on an adventure with readers has been diminishing for a long time. The work that is there, among people who review regularly, is either bite-sized or, when meat is required, pays lousy. The alt-weeklies contract, the dailies no longer replace the departed, magazines fold like envelopes, start-ups shed staff shortly before materializing. If this piece were in any other publication I’d expand on these, get specific, but chances are if you’re reading now—and if you’ve been reading this site regularly—you know exactly what I’m talking about, and chances are just as good you know because it directly impacted someone you know.
Music people are not special, and many of the cannier ones have been dealing with this kind of shit, and occasionally thriving, for years. One thing that makes music so much fun to keep your eye as well as your ear on is that you never know who will be the exception. It will never be an exact science, and while that makes it a bit unstable, that instability added to the excitement of being a fan. When everything’s unstable, though, keeping up can feel like a chore. The many layers of ears an act needs to get through—to get gigs, to get signed, to get reviewed, to get shelf space—isn’t perfect, but it’s been reliable. The fewer ears, the more morass-like it is likely to seem. It’s like the way newspapers that have lost staff accidentally print typos and TKs, and we lose out on the pleasures of seeing writing presented as a finished product rather than a work in progress.
I wonder what the loss of criticism as a lofty-ish perch will mean—I can’t imagine much good. I became a critic because I was inspired by other critics, the way a musician is inspired by what she hears. I’m not dystopian enough to fear that there will never be music criticism that is paid for and disseminated to an audience beyond a message board or a mailing list. We can’t all be aggregators all the time, you know? People are still drawn to those doing the legwork. And the cult of personality in blogging and journalism alike has been spiking for a while—particularly in music writing, with the use of youngish novelists to write music-magazine profiles, or occasionally, reviews.
But I worry about those of us in the middle: not just writers but record store clerks and label folks. I live in Seattle across the street from an excellent indie store, Sonic Boom; last year its presence shrank from three stores to two. The store has been having a harder time getting certain items, something I’ve noticed a few places; over Christmas in Minneapolis, I paid a visit to the Electric Fetus (one of my favorite stores anywhere) and the shelves were stocked but more thinly than usual, and a lot of stuff looked like it had been there a while. I asked about a title; they hadn’t ordered it because it was an import. I felt for the guy telling me; once upon a time, the CD I’d been looking for (the new double-disc Franco anthology on Stern’s) is precisely the kind the store would have had in stock from day one.
I don’t have much more of an overview to offer. I just hope the damage isn’t too great.
In the final weeks of one of the most high-intensity elections in the history of American democracy, both left and right were able to put their differences aside for three minutes and 56 seconds, thanks to a group of students at the Ron Clark Academy taking over YouTube, Good Morning America, and even the most hardened political observers’ hearts with their election-themed version of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.”
It turns out that celebrities doing voter-registration PSAs weren’t nearly as effective as a group of kids, too young to vote however they’d like, communicating the message in the simplest terms while having the time of their lives. At a time when the agenda of every story, poll result, and endorsement was up for grabs, these bipartisan cuties might have just given some undecided people the push they needed to “talk politics all night” before heading to the booth on Nov. 4.
I left Slumdog Millionaire during the mansion scene—I couldn’t watch someone be that stupid anymore, sorry. Flimsy framing device, too. But even I had to admit that when “Paper Planes” came on it matched the images perfectly—even if I also think playing the entire song in the middle of the movie was, well, kind of unnecessary.
Nevertheless: great song, and there was little as heartwarming in Big Pop this year as watching it hit the Top 5. Of course, it did so on the back of megabucks films I have no real interest in, but I’d rather listen to groups of schoolkids sing along to this one than most of the competition. The danger here is that it can wear out its welcome a bit too easily if M.I.A. is serious about staying away from the spotlight—the song could take the place of the performer. Surely “Swagga Like Us” has already helped this begin to happen.
Since I take most young musicians’ professions to retire with basically no seriousness, I’m sure she’ll do something again soon; or maybe Buraka Som Sistema’s “Sound of Kuduro,” which features her, will catch on like “Paper Planes” has. A year ago the idea that there might be a first M.I.A. hit was basically a pipe dream. The idea that there might now be a second is one of the year’s best surprises.
Originally I was going to put “African,” not “Global,” in the title of this post. (I haven’t thought of anything better than MABEL or ANABEL yet either.) You could well imagine that between three Nigeria Specials from Soundway, one Nigeria 70 from Strut, not to mention two double-CD Franco overviews—one messy and fun, one chronological and really fun—plus Sir Victor Uwaifo (also Soundway’s) and the African Analog series, and the blurbs write themselves, right?
But I realized that not only had I outlined much of what I’d planned to say here already for eMusic, I was giving short shrift to a couple recent favorites on Honest Jon’s. One is Nigerian: Delta Dandies: Dance Bands In Nigeria 1936-1941, highlighted by the pennywhistle fantasia “Rocking in Rhythm” by Gold Coast Police Band. The other is Sprigs of Time: 78s From the EMI Archive (Honest Jon’s), a nearly 80-minute portrait of the conglomerate’s beginnings as a global enterprise.
Like Victrola Favorites earlier in the year and the Joe Bussard CD from 2003, Springs of Time is part of the trend toward the making of compilations of rare old stuff as grab-bag entertainment packages more than academically prepared case studies. All props to the case studies, make no mistake, but there’s something very appealing about this approach; it’s not all that different from Yazoo’s Secret Museum of Mankind comps, and in these cases the packaging helps put across that they’re different and singular a lot better. (I know, packaging is obsolete in 2008—sue me.)
I hope I’m wrong to think the Rough Guide CD series isn’t getting much notice, either. They’re easy to take for granted—they’ve been around over a dozen years, and they’re consistent. But The Rough Guide to Congo Gold is a big favorite of mine. Some of it was familiar, but all of it hit me as one thing. And I’d be crazy to neglect to mention Grand Kalle & L’African Jazz’s “Parafifi.” The traded vocals at the top are nice enough, though when the lead sonero steps out it’s ravishing, and then the high-pitched part of the guitar solo tops even that. It didn’t get the ink of the Nigerian comps, but it may well be my most-played song of the year.
You want a Great Pop Moment? James Brown playing Boston Garden right after MLK’s assassination, having it broadcast live on TV, and having the city respond by largely staying home and not destroying the city—that’s one for the ages. Which makes it kind of odd that no one thought to write a book about it until now.
Not just any book, either. The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America may have been saddled with an ungainly, not-exactly-appropriate subtitle (he did no such thing, not provably at least, though “How James Brown Saved Boston From Getting Torn the Fuck Up” would probably not have worked so well for the book’s more loftily aimed marketing purposes), but it might very well be the best James Brown book ever written—including JB’s own crackling autobio, The Godfather of Soul, and Douglas Wolk’s cinematic Live at the Apollo.
James Sullivan is a Boston reporter who knows the city and its history well—or, at least, he learned so much while working on this book that he could pass himself off as an expert. Aces either way: this is a committed local story as much as a world-historical one, and Sullivan’s sharp eye and terrific feel for the city as a backdrop enhances the larger picture immensely. He also writes pungent analysis of Brown’s music (the horns of 1964′s “Out of Sight” are “like the multiple exclamation points of an action comic book”), chooses his quotes with exacting care, and made slow-reader me race through his book in two nights. Don’t just saw “ow,” say OWWWW!
Portishead, GNR, MBV, yadda yadda—the comeback no one much talks about from this year was actually one of the better ones: The B-52′s Funplex, which adapted the group’s classic sound to modern ends with very little strain. My favorite track, “Eyes Wide Open,” even resembled high-end DFA, no small thing. But the album’s relatively quiet aftermath might be due to Fred Schneider completely upstaging it with a short appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Scott McClellan, a former White House aide, wrote a tell-all about his time in the Bush administration; unfortunately, he also read the audiobook in a flat, affectless monotone. So Jon Stewart took it upon himself to “zazz it up” by bringing Schneider out to sing portions of it to the tune of “Love Shack.” It was a match made in heaven, or at least close enough for me to IM everyone I knew the next day the following message: “SCOOOOO! TERRRR! LIBBYYYYYYYYY!”