Putting together my list of 2008’s best in music, I pinged friends to ask what albums I absolutely should not have missed.
Sixty replies quickly poured in. Only one release – “Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – was mentioned twice.
Some picks were already in my best-of pile; many haunted my get-to-it list. Others I hadn’t heard, or even realized existed.
The fragmentation of pop is getting to be an old story. As both personal and music-industry budgets shrink, it’s less likely than ever that we’ll all end up purchasing the same music and sharing a conversation about it.
For variety addicts, that’s great; for believers in the dream of a common language, it’s depressing. For a critic, it seems like a mandate to rethink one’s entire enterprise.
In the meantime, here are a few trends and individual efforts that made me happy this past year:
Black bohemians: President-elect Barack Obama has radically challenged America’s attitudes about race. The shift is happening in music, too – on albums including “Dear Science” by art rockers TV on the Radio, the debut from the undefinable Santogold, the newly minted pop stardom of M.I.A. via the single “Paper Planes,” and through the unwavering success of Lil Wayne, whose tricksterism breaks down some heavy doors.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!” (Anti): Like a big, bloody steak, the 50-year-old poet-rocker has only improved with age.
“Hercules and Love Affair” (DFA Records): New York disc jockey Andy Butler’s project captures all that’s beautiful about disco: lush dreaminess, sexual daring and underlying heartbreak.
Grown-people R&B: Leave the strippers and the carnival outfits to T-Pain. Eric Benet, Raphael Saadiq, Ne-Yo and Robin Thicke demonstrated how real men rock the ladies. Kanye West’s “808’s and Heartbreak” proved that Auto-Tune can express adult emotions. And the return of the great trio Labelle showed all those pop princesses what it means to be a queen.
Martha Wainwright, “I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings Too” (Rounder): The singer-songwriter who’s too often been stuck in the back row of her famously musical family (dad Loudon Wainright III, mom Kate McGarrigle, brother Rufus Wainwright) made a gorgeous, hungry, sad, sweet album anyone who’s ever been recklessly in love should hear.
The Sub Pop Festival: This two-day celebration of Seattle’s premier music label, held in bucolic Marymoor Park, had memorable sets from Fleet Foxes, a reunited Green River, the still-powerful Mudhoney and many others. But the love circulating among artists, fans and the earthiest “music industry types” on the planet made it truly special.
Lavinia Greenlaw, “The Importance of Music to Girls,” and Carl Wilson, “Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste”: The year’s two outstanding music books.
Hard country: As mainstream country grows further away from its “rustic” roots (nothing wrong with that; I love Sugarland), the traditional approach is being rethought by younger practitioners. The best include the whiskey-voiced Alabama gal Ashton Shepherd, the self-styled drunken poet Hayes Carll and Steve Earle’s crafty son, Justin Townes Earle.
Carrie Underwood singing “Just a Dream,” and various artists, “Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran”: It’s hard to deny the hope that greets the upcoming Obama presidency – or the economic fears of year’s end. But both distract from the long sorrow of America’s ongoing military struggles.
Underwood’s single and the accompanying video, in which she transforms from bride to war widow, is top-notch tear-jerking melodrama. The album compiled by “Body of War” subject Tomas Young, a paralyzed veteran turned peace activist, is gritty protest. Both vividly remind us that war is hell.
Africa resurgent: Like Vampire Weekend? Try music from the continent itself and its diaspora. A few top picks: the desert blues of the French-produced duo Toumast; the cross-cultural “Soul Science” of British guitarist Justin Adams and Gambian riti player Juldeh Camara; the dazzling urbanity of veteran Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab, and the wackadoodle beauty of mixes by Malawian emigrant DJ Esau Mwamwaya.
Dishonorable mention: Katy Perry, “One of the Boys” (Capitol): Knock-off New Wave from a former Christian music artist trying to fashion herself into a hot sinner, this album is retrograde in every way: musically, politically and especially in its attempts to titillate. Perry makes Gwen Stefani seem like Gloria Steinem and defiles the memory of Bettie Page.
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