The Music Club
Just to get them out of the way—with no presumption, for the moment, that they reflect anything but personal musical pleasures I experienced in 2008—my lists. Although I'll eventually go to 25 singles on my Web site—constructing weekly playlists for Rhapsody has me focusing in on more songs as songs than at any time since I stopped dancing at clubs—I'll reverse Jody's procedure and limit those to 10. And because I remain an album-rating machine, I'll expand that list to 20 (out of 70 so far). Ann, who saw an earlier version, may notice that both Girl Talk and K'naan (now down around 22) have dipped. As I keep listening, other things will change—including, I hope, more 2008 albums that vault over some of these. There are always so many.
1. Franco: Francophonic
2. Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III (Deluxe Edition)
3. Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark
4. TV on the Radio: Dear Science
5. Coner Oberst: Coner Oberst
6. Randy Newman: Harps and Angels
7. Les Amazones de Guinee: Wamato
8. Hayes Carll: Trouble in Mind
9. The Roots: Rising Down
10. The Magnetic Fields: Distortion
11. Orchestra Baobab: Made in Dakar
12. Girl Talk: Feed the Animals
13. Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It
14. Los Campesinos!: Hold On Now, Youngster …
15. Steinski: What Does It All Mean: 1983-2006 Retrospective
16. Robert Forster: The Evangelist
17. T.I.: Paper Trail
18. Menya: The Ol' Reach-Around
19. Jaguar Love: Jaguar Love
20. The Rough Guide to Colombian Street Party
1. M.I.A.: "Paper Planes"
2. Lee Dorsey: "Yes We Can Can"
3. Conor Oberst: "I Don't Want To Die (In the Hospital)"
4. Los Campesinos!: "Death to Los Campesinos!"
5. Rihanna: "Disturbia"
6. Mike Doughty: "More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle"
7. Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: "Thou Shalt Always Kill"
8. Randy Newman: "Potholes"
9. Drive-By Truckers: "The Righteous Path"
10. Nas: "Black President"
To answer one of Ann's questions, kinda, the Obama song of the year was Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can"—originally a 1970 hit for Lee Dorsey, a much bigger hit for the Pointer Sisters in 1973, smuggled into the Free Sampling Republic by the Treacherous Three in 1982, and in 2008 reprised most prominently by will.i.am on one of those YouTube moments. Old guy that I am, I don't watch music on my computer or anywhere else, but seeing will.i.am's version just once reminded me how much I loved Dorsey's (and the Treacherous Three's, though I'll bet Michelle O. loves the Pointers'), and, therefore, I stuck it atop my singles list out of sheer orneriness. At No. 2, though, because—musically, folks, musically—not even Barack Obama could surpass M.I.A.'s belatedly ubiquitous "Paper Planes." Beyond Lil Wayne, the commercial recognition of her Kala, the greatest album of 2007 and probably of the decade, was the story of the year, and M.I.A. did it the postmodern way: placements in two good, if overrated, movies, Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire, for a song with a cash-register beat underpinning a joyful description of Third World kids stealing tourists' money. Not that many fans of the movies know that, but that's how pop "subversion" works, innit? I was lucky enough to see her "last" concert in Brooklyn in June, an unprecedented spectacle that climaxed with maybe 100 girls and women storming the stage at M.I.A.'s instigation. Pregnant and engaged to some Bronfman, M.I.A. just scored a Spin cover story that didn't exactly drip with pearls of wisdom. But that's how …
What does this story say about continuing possibilities of musical communion as the world monetary system heaves and spews? A little—because "Paper Planes" addresses such issues musically and lyrically; because M.I.A.'s (now provisionally abandoned) live manifestation did deliberately incite symbolic shows of panracial and quasi-feminist pleasure and solidarity; because she made a deep, daring record and put it over, utilizing new and not yet utterly hegemonic business models. But great as she and the song and the show all may be, it doesn't tell us all that much. Those stage-storming women getting a memorable taste of empowerment were part of a relatively small socio-cultural subset—at McCarren Pool (which no longer presents music), larger than it would have been at a club in Williamsburg (though they've gotten bigger) but very sub nevertheless. And if Sugarland were to go all Dixie Chicks on Tim Geithner, I doubt the answer would be much different. I've been around too long to believe that pop music can change all that many people's lives at once. Maybe the economic crisis will in turn change that—people are, indeed, hungry for change. But as Ann's lament for the monoculture makes clear, that's not what the current structural models suggest. Plenty of music will be recorded—the hardware is everywhere. But nothing in the YouTube distribution model Jody finds so inspirational encourages the kind of communality and solidarity Ann craves. Other kinds, yes—including some good ones. But not the kind with laughing and crying and, especially, shoulders.
Without elucidating my life theory of why popular music is the greatest of the arts, however, let me insist that, as usual, nearly all my favorite albums burst with artistic images of human solidarity. Without naming every one, let me offer a few examples. Flowing up from the past with pre-1980 music that, for the most part, has never been heard this side of the Atlantic, the supreme Congolese guitarist-singer-bandleader Franco Luambo is unmistakable proof of such progressive clichés as unlettered genius, African mother lode, and universal language—none of which are why he tops my list, which is the same reason James Brown's Star Time topped my list in 1991. Also on Sterns Africa are the all-woman, all-militia Les Amazones de Guinee, many of whom have been in this 11-piece for 46 years. They sound a lot livelier than dat grump Randy Newman, whose evisceration of the Bush-Cheney regime is no sharper than his eviscerations of his own privilege and who's never better than on a rambling meditation about synapse loss and what a dick his father was. Coner Oberst has never been so lyrical; Stephin Merritt has never been so noisy. Phildelphia's Roots make hip-hop politics beautiful; Atlanta's T.I. makes radio readiness exultant. Los Campesinos! are six wiseass kids from Wales just losing their giddy grip on their band scam; TV on the Radio are five grown-ass men from Brooklyn who lost their purism and found their souls. Scattered through all these records are political meanings implicit and explicit that, in this environment, seem as natural as electric guitars. Even the painstakingly retro Raphael Saadiq, whose miracle isn't replicating the Motown Sound but writing consistently charming and catchy songs in that style, has one about Katrina. But the meanings are built as well into the way each artist's music mines traditions, forges connections, and licks the collective ear hole.
I have plenty to say about Girl Talk, Auto-Tune, Lil Wayne, all that. Please give me the chance to take up those discussions. But I promised myself that in my first post I'd put in a good word for the most underrated album of the year. I've been playing the Drive-By Truckers' Brighter Than Creation's Dark for more than a year—it was one of my last reviews before Rolling Stone offed me. It never quits. Anyone who knows the band knows what songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley can be. Here they're never anything else—they have three songs in the top 25, Lil Wayne only one. Hood's best work is about what Obama calls the middle class—small-time entrepreneurs, the local gay guy, a couple of GIs. Cooley's focus is more countercultural—the rocker's life. The compassion in these songs is never-ending, and the melodies range from better-than-average to unforgettable. Stylistically, however, they're kind of retro boogie, Skynyrd sans soloists, and Hood's rough voice wouldn't pull you in if the words didn't. Maybe that's why they've been shut out in the year-end lists of Blender, Spin, or Stone. It's an outrage nevertheless.
I also really like T-Pain. Jody, where's your sense of humor? Over with porn fan Greg Gillis? (Whom I also like, but with more misgivings.)
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Veteran rock critic Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" column appears monthly on Microsoft Networks. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a contributing critic for "All Things Considered" and is archived at Robertchristgau.com and Rhapsody.com. Ann Powers is the chief pop-music critic of the Los Angeles Times. Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He lives in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com.