Saturday, December 27, 2008

Delicious Intensity

Sounds of 2008
16. TV On the Radio: Family Tree

A long, long time ago I was smitten by a red-haired beauty. We were as happy as any lovers could be. Until I met her family.

They were a dysfunctional coven of religious maniacs who despised our contentment, and endeavoured to undermine it at every turn.

As perverse a lovers' ballad as you could imagine, the disturbing imagery of Family Tree - "Brought down by an old idea / The shadow of the gallows of your family tree" - brings back those dark days with delicious intensity.

Does blood run thicker than water? Since those days I've never been sure.

Video: Family Tree

Friday, December 26, 2008

Neo-Soul Gem

Sounds of 2008
15. Erykah Badu: Telephone

I've had a major bee in my bonnet for some time now about the bandying about of the term "r 'n' b."

Far divorced from traditional rhythm and blues music, r 'n' b has become a catch-all term for black - or black-influenced - music as a whole, anything from hip-hop to neo-gospel and 2-step.

Thus, anyone from Anthony Hamilton to Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey or ('scuse me while I barf) Craig David - are likely to be described as r'n'b, even where there's precious little rhythm or blues to be found in the grooves.

There's no doubt, though, that Erykah Badu's New Amerikah Part One LP deserves the moniker of r ' n ' b as it goes some way toward arresting the depressing decline of soul music over the last two decades.

Though it's defiantly hip-hop in tone, New Amerikah hearkens back to the heyday of avant-garde soul and invokes the spirits of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic.

At a time when hip-hop has lost its way, ricocheting between self-parody and implosion, that can only be a good thing, and Badu surrounds herself here with fearless hip-hop/neo-soul avatars like Madlib and 9th Wonder.

Whether this record heralds a resurgence of black power I don't know. With a black president about to take office, it's not unimaginable. If D'Angelo ever gets around to releasing a follow-up to his definitive neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo - and if the recent re-emergence of classic soul in hip-hop becomes something more substantial - we might see the emergence of a new power in black music.

At any rate, this is an awesomely expansive, ambitious, politically charged record. Songs range from oblique inner explorations to biting social commentary.

Though it's occasionally frustrating in its high-art indulgence it's always a challenging and thought-provoking listen. One of my favorite tracks of the year was Telephone - an elegiac neo-soul gem.

Erykah Badu MySpace

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Open Range

Sounds of 2008
14. Drive-by Truckers: The Monument Valley

During my time in The United States I took two fabulous road trips through the glorious scenery of Arizona.

From the spectacle of Canyon De Chelly to the overwhelming Grand Canyon, Arizona offers one stunning experience after another.

But my favorite place in Arizona is Monument Valley. It has a calmness and spiritual atmosphere unequalled in the west.

The trip I took there with my dad was special. He's a big fan of western movies, particularly the John Ford classics which were shot in Monument Valley.

It was a dream come true for my dad as he gawped at the astonishing western scenery. He could hardly believe he was standing in the very place where his childhood movie fantasies were created.

Another time I visited Monument Valley with my friend Ian. I'll never forget the profound feelings I experienced while gazing through the 'North Window' across the magnificent plains.

As my mind reflected on the Navajos' unique bond with their land, I had what I think was the single most religious experience of my life. It became manifested in a sense of deep connection with the earth and a joyous awareness of my own insignificance.

Later that day, while dusk was falling, Ian and I sat on a butte overlooking the canyon as the local indians chanted ancient songs and beat their drums. The sky ran blood red, and as the echoes of indian lamentations filled the valley we were moved to tears.

On this year's fantastic Brighter than Creation's Dark LP, Drive By Truckers sing about "a time to turn your back on the comforts of home/ and wander round the Monument Valley alone." It's then you'll feel the pain and glory of history and the profound beauty of the open range.

Listen: Drive-by Truckers MySpace

Friday, December 12, 2008


Sounds of 2008
11. The Ting Tings: That's Not My Name

Popular culture seems to confirm the fact that, in terms of sexual politics, we've come a long way since I was a teenager.

TV Shows like Britain's Life on Mars ironically mock the boozy sexism - up with which women had to put - of the seventies. In the USA, Sex and the City humorously explores the modern woman's uneasy rapprochement between independence, body clock and libido.

On the music scene, powerful women are everywhere. The stance of Third Wave 'Riot Grrl' bands like Bikini Kill has influenced mainstream rock. On the contemporary scene Li'l Kim, Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, Beth Ditto, and many more are highly visible, in-your-face performers.

Despite that, many of my generation - those who came of age during an era of issues-driven punk defined by Rock Against Racism and the raucous feminism of The Slits - have been dismayed by the lack of awareness displayed by many young British females.

Confusing yobbish dissolution with emancipation, they indulge in gross behavior such as binge drinking and sexual self-abasement, the latter shamelessly exploited by internet porn barons.

It's the noughties female equivalent of New Laddism - shallow, reactionary, and most unhelpful to the cause of women.

Matters aren't improved by the appallingly crass level of public discourse - chiefly male-driven - recently seen rearing its head on mainstream British TV.

Lewd and inappropriate comments chat host Jonathan Ross made to his 'guest' Gwyneth Paltrow were offensive and beyond the pale. Is this how women are to be addressed - in 2008 - in a public entertainment forum? Shameful.

Consciousness-raising is perhaps not what British indie popsters The Ting Tings are about - the title of their album is We Started Nothing.

The duo are far removed from grrl power - they're half male for a start - nevertheless I think I detect the hint of a feminist message in their catchy single That's Not My Name: "Are you calling me darling? Are you calling me bird?"

I'd like to see The Ting Tings become a tad more upfront about their sexual politics, since their schtick is neither subversive nor original enough - it rips off Toni Basil's Micky something rotten.

But I have to admit That's Not My Name has a contagious chorus which I wish I'd thought of first, and it's a track I've greatly enjoyed all year.

Video: That's Not My Name

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Sounds of 2008
10. Wiley: Wearing My Rolex

If u had no clue what electro-grime was at the beginning of this year, u sure did by the end of the summer when 'Roll Deep' Wiley had a major hit on his hands.

It was hardly deep and meaningful, but it was irresistible from start to finish. And made even better by the brilliant fan video which reimagines the song as a Macca nightmare. Check it out!

Video: Wearing My Rolex (fan video)


Sounds of 2008
9. Randy Newman: A Few Words in Defense of Our Country

I say with no sense of satisfaction that when Dubya first got elected president I predicted the consequences would be woeful for America and the world.

Not exactly a hard call for anyone with half a brain, but in the end things turned out worse than even I expected.

It's a far from impressive record. Thousands dead in Iraq. Human rights abuses in Abu Graib, Guantanamo and elsewhere. An ineffectual response to Hurricane Katrina. Hubris and deceit on a grand scale from a closed-minded administration which refused to listen to reason.

Bush's legacy: terror unabated, America's economy in tatters, its reputation abroad in shreds.

Randy Newman nails Bush and his cronies - but real good - in A Few Words in Defense of Our Country, one of the highlights of this year's excellent Harps and Angels album. His chief weapon, as usual, is an hilarious sense of irony.

Americans aren't bad or mean, he reasons. Nor are her leaders - noxious as they are - the worst the world has ever seen. Not, that is, when compared to The Spanish Inquisition, Caligula and Hitler.

Newman also takes vicious - and completely justified - swings at the Supreme Court and Bush's misguided policy of color-coded terror.

They're obvious barbs at easy targets. But set against arrangements which echo Newman's superb movie soundtracks they work splendidly.

Although he ends with the words, "The end of an empire's messy at best / This empire's ending like all the rest," you can tell that amid the disappointment Randy still believes in the American Dream and the healing power of a good belly laugh.

And since a Norwegian university study recently concluded that people who easily find humor in real life situations outlive those who don't, I've no doubt Mr. Newman will continue as one of our sharpest social commentators for years to come.

Listen: A Few Words in Defense of Our Country:


Sounds of 2008
8. Burial: Etched Headplate

As if Burial's amazing 2007 debut wasn't enough, with 2008's Untrue he refines his sound, finding dignity, serenity even, amid the urban grime.

It's difficult to make out the words, which is intentional. What emerges through the haze is a portrait of a soul grappling with survival.

Deep, soulful, and miles ahead of the competition, it's a stark yet tender portrait.

LISTEN: Etched Headplate:

How did we get here?

Sounds of 2008
7. Flobots: Handlebars

Last Saturday I recovered from a hangover after drinking too much sake, felt a pain in my left eye, had a lunch date in Japanese, cooked coq au vin, went drinking with a Scottish software consultant and enjoyed sexual congress, though not with the Scotsman.

Sometimes I wonder how we manage to hold it all together, this fantastic,unlikely existence lived in bars, offices, trains, restaurants, cyberspace and bedrooms.

New to me, if not to the hipsters, Flobots' Handlebars starts out as yer common rock-rap bragfest before mutating into something more substantial - a celebratory lament for the dizzying range of possibilities facing a human life.

Asking "How did we get here?" it's also an investigation into the uneasy co-existence of creativity and oppression, and the fact that as a species we humans are simultaneously innocent and terrifying.


Sounds of 2008
6. Qu'ran Recital, Kuwaiti Mosque

I discovered some stunning Qu'ran recitations on You Tube one balmy summer evening this year.

Ironically, I came across them while I was browsing some of my favorite atheist clips including many featuring the estimable Sam Harris.

Whatever your religious beliefs, this is a profound, affecting devotional, a reminder there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Sounds of 2008
5. Radiohead: Bodysnatchers

Even though it came out in 2007, this thrill-a-second joyride from In Rainbows refused to budge from my playlist for most of this year.

From one moment to the next Bodysnatchers is absolute perfection. The opening riff echoes The Beatles' Within You Without You (sez I, no one else seems to agree with me) then the band switches to full attack mode in their own inimitable style.

Thom Yorke expounds on familiar Radiohead themes of sensory overload and post-millenium angst (“I’ve no idea what I’m talking about / I’m trapped in this body and I can’t get out”) and the crushing pressures of fame (“You can fight it like a dog / It brought me to my knees / They got scared and they put me in.”)

And it just keeps getting better: the growling bass, the snarling guitars, the ranting vocals, the glorious moment at 2:08 where the guitars slip into one of those sublime Radiohead ultraglides. Bea…uuutiful.

Listen: Bodysnatchers

Unknown Treasures

Sounds of 2008
4. Fleet Foxes: Mykonos

One glorious afternoon last August I was swinging on a beach hammock in Koh Phangan, Thailand. Feeling reflective I gazed across the shimmering waters at the island of Koh Tao.

I had recently come out of a relationship and I suppose in that kind of setting any great pastoral pop could send shivers down the spine. But Mykonos is truly special and its lyrics got right under my skin: “With a vision of a gentle coast / And a sun to maybe dissipate / Shadows of the mess you made.”

The chorus of “Wherever you go" made me feel I could never be alone again, while the Neil Young vocal cadences, insistent thrust of the guitars and gorgeous accapella section created a feeling of pushing away from disaster toward the bounty of as yet unknown treasures.

Listen: Mykonos

Pop Heaven

Sounds of 2008
3. Plants and Animals: Lola Who?

Montreal seems like a bottomless pit of musical talent these days, the ambitious pop of Plants and Animals being a case in point. Their expansive, symphonic sound is recognizably pop but still like nothing you’ve heard.

I’ve been in thrall to this one since I first heard it. The song – a tribute to feminine perfection methinks – builds and builds until the ardor is too much to contain. Then Kinks-style guitar jabs and Revolveresque riffs propel the tune into pop heaven. And these guys are only a trio? Jeez.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Orange County

Sounds of 2008
2. Bon Iver: Flume

Last March this song washed over me in a torrent of sadness while I was staying at my friend’s house in Orange County, California.

Talk about bad timing. I’d just heard about the death of a close friend and Justin Vernon’s lyric, “I am my mother's only one / It's enough / I wear my garment so it shows / Now you know” caught me at a delicate juncture.

It wasn't so much the words as the way they were sung - heavy-hearted but wise - which affected me so deeply. Pop music has worked its spell on me a million times, yet I am constantly amazed by its bittersweet epiphanies.

Thus may it ever be.

Star Fantasy

Sounds of 2008

2008 has been a spectacularly good year for music and for me few moments were not illuminated by one killer tune or another. In no particular order here are my top musical highlights of the last twelve months.

1. MGMT: Weekend Wars

MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular album struck me as minor masterpiece when its delights first tickled my earlobes, and I must say time has not diminished its allure.

Owing not a little to Ziggy-era Bowie and the psych-pop of Flaming Lips (Lips’ Dave Fridmann being their producer), MGMT's star fantasy has postmodernistically come true as they stand on the threshold of major pop stardom.

Packed with ideas and energy, the hallucinatory genius of Weekend Wars would be a classic track in any year. It’s a gorgeous, dizzy cocktail of acid-tinged irony.

Much has been made of the song’’s neo-psychedelic lyrics: “Once I was too lazy to bathe / Or paint or write or try to make a change / Now I can shoot a gun to kill my lunch /And I don’t have to love or think too much.”

Whether they refer to a damaged relationship, ecological woes, or even the end of the world, who cares? It’s great pop, and that’s all that matters.