Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rocking My World: The Best Records of 2008

1. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

That’s the problem with a promise, even an American one: change the tone and it turns into a warning. Enter (or rather re-enter) Erykah Badu, with the bastard that finally spru
ng from Funkadelic’s three times knocked up earth. This is New Amerykah: Mama’s hopped up on cocaine, daddy’s on spaceships with no brain, meaning that his ass may be in flight, but negro never emancipated himself from mental slavery. Badu’s new agenda feels like an old one, from praising a male ideal that men can’t or wont match, to breaking down ghetto politics of the present, which only sounds like the past because we still haven’t learned the lesson. Even the mistakes are fascinating: Master Teacher’s two halves never connect, but there’s more going on here than in Neo-Soul’s entire catalog. My People never builds on its initial chant but hypnotizes nonetheless, and Honey is exactly the kind of faux retro that screams bonus track. Far better is Telephone, neo soul to be sure, but at 8 minutes it has the slow burn of a hard fought, well earned climax (and the best use of sirens since Public Enemy). New Amerykah is a call to arms for those who distrust arms callers. The Healer is the hip-hop remedy the music doesn’t deserve, much like Common’s I Used to Love H.E.R. but without that track’s tedious art as Madonna-whore sexism. The Cell is so funky it nearly collapses under its own weight, dissolving into an accapella chorus of post-gospel urban blues. And then there’s Twinkie. A shootout gets cut up in beat so old school it’s retrofuturist while bass and blips duel and duet at once. Badu, disembodied takes us into an urban nightmare that maybe only Obama can rectify. All together now: Started with a rhyme from old ancient times/ Descendents of warlocks/ Witches with ill glitches/ Children of the matrix be hittin' them car switches/ Seen some Virgin Virgos hanging out with Venus Bitches.

2. Deerhunter: Microcastle/ Weird Era Continued

It happened like this in 2008: At a Wolf Parade concert I fell allergic to all things indie. This is why it took me months to listen to Deerhunter, probably the biggest mistake I’ve made all year. Only a truly great band could release their most coherent and mature album yet, then top it with a bonus disc. Microcastle, the first half, can sometimes sound like alternative 101, name checking all the requisite influences; Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, lots and lots of My Bloody Valentine. But Weird Era is something else: a consummate gorging on those same influences to spit out something at once beautiful, monstrous and new—a threat to the very music that helped spawn it. Dare I call it a pop album? But pop in the gloriously wasted way of REM’s Out Of Time; pop of a band trying on ideas for size and seemingly unaware that the toss-offs are the gems. Credit Deerhunter for not being afraid of big sound and for not confusing epic with grandiose (See: Chinese Democracy). Microcastle is the first fully realized indie double album since Husker Du’s Zen Arcade.

3. Earth: The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull

Only 5 seconds into Earth’s latest and I already knew the planet was doomed. It’s the boom of course; equal parts drum kick, bass bludgeon and pure malevolence. A real boom that sounded like the echo of one, like Armageddon had already happened and we’re rocking out to the fallout. Makes sense then that Bees starts at a crawl and stays there. Odds things happen when one of the heaviest ever bands goes slow. For one all that droning turns into a hypnotic kind of beauty, still doom metal’s best-kept secret. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell knows. A surprise guest on several tracks, he functions the way Nico did on the Velvet’s first: as finder of light in the midst of all that gloom. But this is post metal, post doom, post stoner, just heavy. I can’t remember the last time I’ve not missed vocals on a rock record.

4. Portishead: Third

Don’t call it a comeback. After we had consigned Dummy to epitaph status, who’d have guessed that 1. Portishead would return and 2. In a shape that we would have scratched our heads to recognize were it not that Beth Gibbons was as magnificently melancholic as ever? Third wasn’t so much a left turn as a back-the-hell-up-and-dash-down-a–new-road altogether. So instead of Wu-Tang beats and urban gothic, we got a psychedelic rock n’ roll death trip, as if all the bad will lurking in Dummy’s Glory Box suddenly came on full tilt. It says much that all the right people hated it. You know who you are, you cocktail party having, Buddha bar foreplaying, wedding reception planning, hairdo cutting, ‘I listen to all kinds of music’ loser. I saw you, turning down Machine Gun and wondering what the hell is this all about? If it makes you feel any better, Morcheeba haven’t changed a bit.

5. Q-Tip: The Renaissance

Does music make the times, or times make the music? Different question: Did Q-tip know something we didn’t? Released on Election Day, would The Renaissance have packed the same delirious punch had the other guy won? Instead we had the hopeful counterpoint to Badu’s dread with a 40 plus veteran not looking a day over 25 showing idiots half his age how it’s done. There hasn’t been a hip-hop record this inviting since, well, Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. This is adult boom-bap, big people music. So Manwomanboogie samples Can and comes up with a better song, You revisits a fractured relationship with a maturity and wisdom that the music can sometimes seem incapable of. He even made Norah Jones cool, slipping her into the role rappers usually reserved for Badu. That’s only fitting: Badu was busy burning down the old so that Q-tip could ring in the new.

6. Aterciopelados: Rio

There isn’t much that this Argentinean band can’t do, but eclectism is an old trick, a lazy way to make one seem multidimensional without being actually talented. So credit this band then, for mastering everything including making motherhood seem like the sexiest state of existence. Andrea Echeverri’s husband must be the luckiest man in Latin rock.

7. Dungen 4

A dense, ambitious, crazy psych-rock masterpiece that reveals more than anything, that lead singer Gustav Estes probably still thinks he’s making rap music.

8. Robyn

What does it say for the state of pop music that the year’s finest pop album came out four years ago? Listen to Anytime You Like where an already broken Robyn helps her own boyfriend break her heart twice.

9. Hercules and Love Affair: Blind

Arthur Russell’s ghost hasn’t been this happy in years. An honest to goodness DISCO record, unabashedly gay in every sense of the term. Blind is fighting it out with Machine Gun and Single Ladies for single of the year.

10. Grace Jones Hurricane

Not a comeback so much as a reminder, Jones may be the youngest, craziest 60 year old on the planet. Judging by her recent buck nekkid layout for Dazed and Confused, she’s lost none of her ability to shock. But the real shock here is heart, especially for someone usually praised and damned for being robotic.