Dear Ann and Bob,
I ended our conversation last year by wondering aloud about the contents of Barack Obama's iPod. We now know that our first black president is also our first rock critic president, with a canonical playlist—Innervisions, Blood on the Tracks, "Dirt off Your Shoulder"—that places him squarely in the mainstream of the Pazz & Jop poll votership. Obama himself inspired unnumbered songs this year from across the musical spectrum: bluegrass bands, conjuntos, reggaeton MCs, Irish pub rockers, reggae singers, and Ludacris, whose "Politics (Obama Is Here)" included a pre-emptive request for a presidential pardon in case of future incarceration. (Obama also unwittingly wrote a song.) Some of my warmest and fuzziest musical moments of 2008 came from this YouTube and MP3 outpouring, and not just because I've got a crush on Obama. Twenty-first-century technology may have doomed the record business, but it is reviving an old-fashioned kind of musical populism—teleporting us back to the 19th century, when amateur and professional balladeers greeted the news of the day with quick-and-dirty tailor-written songs.
If the Obama ditties left me feeling all gushy about the Folk, my best-of list as usual leans hard toward pop-industrial complex product, with strong showings by the Nashville hit factory, pop divas, overpaid hip-hop producers, and Lil Wayne, who almost single-handedly propped up what was left of the biz in 2008. Here are my favorites:
1. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
2. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
3. Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
4. Calle 13, Los De Atrás Vienen Conmigo
5. Portishead, Third
6. Sugarland, Love on the Inside
7. Benji Hughes, A Love Extreme
8. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
9. The Cool Kids, The Bake Sale
10. Ashton Shepherd, Sounds So Good
1. Brad Paisley, "Waitin' on a Woman"
2. Lil Wayne, "Lollipop"
3. The Raveonettes, "Aly, Walk With Me"
4. Lee Ann Womack, "Last Call"
5. Usher, "Moving Mountains"
6. Tricky, "Council Estate"
7. T-Pain featuring Lil Wayne, "Can't Believe It"
8. Beyoncé, "If I Were a Boy"
9. The Ting Tings, "That's Not My Name"
10. Busy Signal, "Tic Toc"
11. Ciara featuring Ludacris, "High Price"
12. Beyoncé, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"
13. Lil Wayne, "A Milli"
14. Estelle featuring Kanye West, "American Boy"
15. Keak Da Sneak featuring Prodigy & Alchemist, "That Go" (Remix)
16. Lykke Li, "Little Bit"
17. Maino featuring T.I., Swizz Beatz, Plies, Jadakiss, and Fabolous, "Hi Hater" (Remix)
18. Gnarls Barkley, "Run"
19. Alan Jackson, "Small-Town Southern Man"
20. Little Big Town, "Fine Line"
21. Kylie Minogue, "2 Hearts"
22. Jonas Brothers, "Lovebug"
23. Jay-Z, "Jockin' Jay-Z"
24. James Otto, "Just Got Started Lovin' You"
25. Fall Out Boy featuring Elvis Costello, Brendon Urie, Travis McCoy, Alex DeLeon, and William Beckett, "What a Catch, Donnie"
I found it harder than usual to compile these lists, probably because, for me, 2008 was a so-so musical year. Just look at my No. 1's. Brad Paisley's magnificent ballad "Waitin' on a Woman" is actually three years old—it first appeared on Time Well Wasted (2005) but was finally released as a single this year, in a rerecorded version, with added spoken-word hokum by Andy Griffith. Meanwhile, my top album pick, Girl Talk's mashup opus Feed the Animals, features snatches of hundreds of songs, few of which were released in 2008.
I decided in the end to choose the records that I enjoyed the most, period—pleasure principle over agonizingly weighted critical judgment. Which is how I arrived at Girl Talk, aka Pittsburgh DJ Gregg Gillis, and his exuberant collages of classic rock, raunchy hip-hop, power ballads, and '80s bubblegum. (Typical segue: Unk into Twisted Sister into Huey Lewis and the News.) Some would have you believe that Gillis' songs say something serious about musical genre or the carnal and the spiritual. And they do say something—just not something serious. Girl Talk is a comedian, really. Beat-matching and pitch-shifting software has taken the technical wizardry out of mashup art, and what's left to Gillis are in-jokes, funny contrasts, a cheeky higher form of fanboyism. In "Let Me See You," he sets up a battle of the sexes showdown between 2 Live Crew's "I Wanna Rock" and MIA's "Boyz": The Miami rappers command "Pop that pussy!"; M.I.A. answers with a schoolyard taunt: "Na na na na na na na na!"
Gillis' signature trick is juxtaposing melodramatic rock instrumentals with filthy hip-hop to underscore the pathos and the silliness and the plain fun that lurks in both gangsta rap and bombastic rock—an equal-opportunity celebration of pop's depths and pop's shallows. The irony is that while Girl Talk's mashups epitomize musical ADD in the iPod era, Feed the Animals is an expertly paced and sequenced song suite. Many tracks begin with snippets of the song that ended the previous one, and the whole megillah is framed by the UGK/Outkast song "International Player's Anthem," with the album coming full circle, Finnegans Wake style, to end where it began. In other words, Feed the Animals hangs together like a traditional album better than most anything else I heard this year. Which may be Gillis' best joke of all.
In my next entry I want to dig deeper into my lists—to talk about TV on the Radio; and the terrific albums by Bristol stalwarts Portishead and Tricky; and my country picks (including Sugarland, whose delicious '70s AOR stylings would sound right at home on a Girl Talk mashup). But for now, a quick word about the Artist of the Year—technically speaking not an artist or even an animate human being, but a computer plug-in.
Historians will look back on 2008 as the year that Antares Auto-Tune pitch correction software achieved pop-music ubiquity. (This fact was underscored recently by the release of Bon Iver's "Woods," which brings cyborg vocal effects into the heretofore T-Painless realm of beardy-indie folk.) The signal auto-tune record of 2008 was Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak,a fascinating failure, half-redeemed by some lovely beats but doomed by West's bad singing and banal lyrics. Let's give credit where credit is due, though. It was T-Pain, the perpetually lovelorn strip-club habitué, who led the way, showing that auto-tune could be deployed not merely as a sonic novelty but to enhance vocal expressiveness and increase pathos.
Of course, the biggest robo-pop hit of 2008 was Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," a piece of pop doggerel right up there with "Tutti Frutti" and a brilliant conceptual art stunt, in which Weezy proved he could suppress all the qualities that make him the best rapper alive, ladle auto-tune over a half-hearted blow job conceit, and skyrocket to the top of the charts. Tha Carter III is a great record for all the reasons that Lil Wayne's mixtapes have been great: the constant surprise, the outsize wit, the aversion to cliché. But it is Wayne's flow, the virtuoso shadings and variations in mood and tone and timbre, that carried the day for me. He is, hands down, the best vocal stylist in pop: a rapping Sinatra. And while I worry that T-Wayne, the Lil Wayne-T-Pain album slated for 2009, may push things a bit too far, for now I get immense pleasure hearing the guy spout gibberish slathered in auto-tune. My favorite Wayne moment of '08 is his verse in T-Pain's "Can't Believe It," 16 bars of unintelligible auto-tuned mumble-rap. I don't know what the hell he's saying, and I don't care.
But enough of my imperfect pitch. Ann, Bob—your turn. What music turned you on, bummed you out, and made you audaciously hopeful in 2008?
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