Sequestered in Boulder: The Best Music of 2008 Pt. 1
Beginning in 1980 and continuing into 2006, I participated in the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. It began, I think, as a way for a small but growing number of newspaper and magazine critics to sound off about their favorite albums of the year, in the late 1970s, and by the time of its demise when Robert Christgau was fired a couple of years ago, it attracted nearly one thousand people who wrote about popular music to declare their top ten albums and singles of the year and choose a winner under a numerical rating system.
I was a great believer in albums, and rating my favorites against my peers was really fun at the time, but I don’t miss it, for various reasons, but mostly because I don’t really listen to albums as albums anymore. Who does, I wonder? I still review five or six a year and will readily admit that I can be rewarded by listening to an entire compact disc several times. I might play one all the way through because it is actually created that way, (Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine comes to mind) or if it is an artist I really like (Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs, although that one sounds just as well in shuffle as in sequence). Otherwise, the whole idea of listening to albums seems rather quaint.
This might sound strange coming from someone whose enthusiasm for the recorded album as an art form helped lead me into a career as a writer. Today I don’t necessarily rely upon albums to find music. One of the top songs of the year for me is Jace Everett’s “Bad Things” (see below), but the only times I hear it is while watching the HBO series True Blood, for which it is the title song. I was led to Sarah Bareilles “Love Song” by a Rhapsody commercial. I find all kinds of good stuff on YouTube and in the blogs of music fans.
I continue to hear out friends who tell me that music isn’t as good as it used to be or are disillusioned with it. And I just don’t get it. The good stuff is perhaps not as centrally located as it used to be, and you certainly can’t keep up with everything even in a small genre, but I continue to be challenged by more great music out there than any time in my memory. That includes music that was made seventy years ago and music that was recorded last Tuesday, as Bob Dylan said this year on this radio show. We have reverted back to the days of the jukebox, ie. you’re only as good as your last single.
Having my music in a database that I can access instantly, of course, is a big part of the richness and variety that I need. If I don’t have anything in mind to listen to, I turn on shuffle until I find something I do want to explore. If I don’t like something, I just cue up the next song.
The way I see it, as music labels continue their inexorable decline (and don’t miss Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age for that particular story), musicians will take more control over their work. And, since there are more musicians and bands out there and the marketplace less organized and controlled by labels, learn to take less for their art than perhaps they have been accustomed and find ways to make it work.
‘Nuff said. But here’s part one of the bounty I have found this year, those songs that keep me hitting the repeat button, that force the Jukebox in My Head to pick up the needle and start it over. Whenever possible, I’m providing links to YouTube videos or some site so you can hear the music, too.
Billie and I are huge fans of True Blood, HBO’s tawdry, witty, bloody vampire soap, and part of the charm is the use of Jace Everett’s rockabilly rave, “Bad Things,” as the title song. Judge for yourself, but I find the video, like the series, particularly unsettling yet wonderfully strange. I can’t think of a southern cliché that isn’t found somewhere in this minute and a half slice of Louisiana religion, voodoo, sex, violence and racism. Bad pickup line of the year: “I want to do real bad things with you.”
Jakob Dylan’s first solo record, Seeing Things, produced by Rick Rubin, is a quiet acoustic affair that, like Chavez Ravine, actually works as an album for me. Rubin’s tasty arrangements never work against Dylan’s guitar scratching or his vocal delivery. Best song is the first one, “Evil is Alive and Well,” a commentary on the strange year of 2008 like no other.
His songs (“See You Later Alligator,” “Walkin’ to New Orleans”) are universally known, but Bobby Charles has worked in complete obscurity almost his whole life. This year he released Homemade Songs, a terrific set of his own tunes, including this funky version of “But I Do”, a song I learned decades ago from Clarence “Frogman” Henry.
OK. What would a year be without a good old rowdy rock band tune? The Hold Steady’s “Sequestered In Memphis” has the kind of bozy, guitar-band energy that I cut my musical teeth on, and though I’ve heard a variation of this song a thousand times before, I still love it when I hear it.
I don’t know where I found “Soul Of A Man,” since I don’t have the Modern Guilt disc, but this quick little song kept my attention whenever it came on. This video from an outdoor concert doesn’t hold up as well as the single.
I was only vaguely familiar with the Zutons’ “Valerie,” but I really like the way Mark Ronson, with vocal assistance from Amy Winehouse, turns a punky pop/rock song into a soul rave. Looking for the video where I found this song, I ran across this quiet, stripped-down Winehouse rendition, accompanied by only an off-camera guitar.
Winehouse also adds her vocals to Mutya Buena’s “B Boy Baby,” which moves my aging loins much as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” did in 1963, when those loins were more supple.
Coming: Theme Time Radio Hour, Bobby Womack, why YouTube beats concerts and more.