The Year in Music: 2008

I think it’s safe to say 2008 is the year Rock came back.

On November 23, Axl Rose finally put a period at the end of what was arguably the biggest story in music. Guns N’ Roses “new” album (does it qualify as a “new release” if it takes the better part of two decades to produce?) hit the streets.

Chinese Democracy was so anticipated that Dr. Pepper gave everyone in America (except Slash) a free drink to celebrate the album’s release. Of course, because Dr. Pepper chose to get involved with Axl Rose, they’re now on the receiving end of the opening salvo of a legal battle.

It doesn’t get much more Rock and Roll than that.

But what’s more interesting to me is the incredible string of albums that led up to the release of Democracy. It seems as if the entire pantheon of rock legends decided to drop a record in ’08. And every one of those albums amounted to little more than an opening act for Rose’s record.

We had new albums from White Lion, Whitesnake, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper (ALICE COOPER!) and Motley Crue. Rush put out a live record and Faith No More gave us a greatest hits compilation. AC/DC got in bed with Wal-Mart and released Black Ice in an exclusive arrangement with the worlds largest retailer – save yourself twelve bucks and dig through your closet for your original vinyl copy of Back in Black.

And non-rock acts got in on the action too. New Kids on the Block got back together for The Block. I wonder how many 35 year old women ran out to buy this the day it was released. They were probably all screaming “Donnie!” too. An even more surprising re-appearance was Vanilla Ice, turning in the aptly titled “Vanilla Ice is Back,” which I didn’t bother to listen to.

A quartet of albums brought us all back to the Reagan years. The Cure, The Breeders and Bauhaus all put out new collections, while Morrisey dropped a greatest hits retrospective. Not a bad year for ’80s Death Rock fans.

This year gave us more than just new releases by old faces though. A lot of albums by younger artists were released in 2008 as well.

It seems Panic At the Disco spent every waking moment since the release of their first album listening to Sgt. Peppers Lonley Hearts Club Band and renaissance music. Then they somehow digested that into the really-quite-wonderful Pretty. Odd. which was released early in 2008. Fall Out Boy bracketed the year with its own new release: Folie à Deux. These records are a little softer edged than either band’s earlier releases; but both are infinitely listenable – and some tracks are, honestly, just about perfect (like this one).

On the Pop/Rock front, December was very good to us. In addition to the Fall Out Boy release, we got a new album from the All-American Rejects. And nobody does this genre like the Rejects. Nobody. When the World Comes Down is a solid record from start to finish.

Actress Scarlett Johansson released a truly weird record. Anywhere I Lay My Head is an album of (mostly) Tom Waits cover songs sung by Johansson as a sub-alto, bizarro-universe Annie Lennox. Her voice is actually more grating than Waits’, if you can imagine that. But fans of Waits may enjoy these interpretations. And there’s a chance that Johansson’s stylings may be an acquired taste, though I very much doubt this is true.

Both Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw put out new pop music buffets. You can say what you want about the ability or sentiment of artists like Mraz and Degraw, but you can’t deny that, sometimes, a little sugar coated pop nugget is just what the doctor ordered. I defy you to listen to I Have You to Thank(from DeGraw’s self-titled sophomore outing) and not bop your head and smile for a minute or two.

Britney Spears put out a record. It was called Circus. You make your own joke here.

In the world of Rap, there were several new releases that I paid absolutely no attention to. Snoop Dogg dropped Ego Trippin’ (ya think?) and was completely upstaged by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. Lil Wayne is currently the best rapper out there, period.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. “What about Kanye West? He put out a new record this year too.”

I know. And I listened to it. And it’s a wonderful record. 808s & Heartbreak is one of the best records of the year. But it’s not a Rap album. 808s is a gorgeous piece of Pop Art that refutes genre definitions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an artist do as a good a job of setting a mood from track one and keeping it consistent for every track on the disc. By the end of the record, you kinda feel like you got punched in the gut.

And, while we’re on the subject of Rap albums that defy genre, I have to mention M.I.A. Kala was re-released this year. And this record is the finest blend of Hip Hop, Techno and World Music that I’ve heard.

Girl Talk put out Feed The Animals as a follow-up to The Night Ripper and It Feels Like This. It’s worth a listen for the novelty if nothing else. The record features songs you know and love cut up and mashed up with original music and Hip Hop cuts from various artists.  The New York Times Magazine got it right when they called Girl Talk’s music “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Red of Tooth and Claw was released this year by Bloomington, Indiana Indie/Post-punk quartet Murder By Death. This collection of songs is spookier than a zombie movie. Lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla sounds like the ghost of Johnny Cash in a street fight with Roy Orbison.

Ryan Adams and his new band The Cardinals gave us Cardinology in 2008. This record is every bit as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from Adams and company. Cardinology seems to be a delivery on Adam’s claim that he is primarily influenced by classic rock. This disc shows that influence and is an instant classic in it’s own right.

If quirky pop is your thing, a trio of releases this year should make you pretty happy. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled outing and Skeletal Lamping by of Montreal are both excellent releases with interesting melodic twists and subject matter that hops between the ethereal and mundane. There are moments when both bands seem to be weird for its own sake, but these moments are well-balanced with great tunes that give the listener a quick pop pick-me-up while retaining a quirky and charming self-consciousness.

Rounding out our quirk-pop trio is the latest offering from Death Cab for Cutie. Narrow Stairs is a wonderful collection of easy-to-listen-to tracks that offer new bits of ear candy on repeated listens. There’s no shortage of gems, but Your New Twin Sized Bed is one of the best songs of this year, bar none.

Finally, here are my top five album picks for 2008.

5.) A Tie! Panic at the Disco – Pretty. Odd. AND Fall Out Boy – Folie à Deux
4.) Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
3.) Murder by Death – Red of Tooth and Claw
2.) Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
1.) Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – Cardinology

As Real As He Can Get

“Clip-on Nose Ring,” the new album from former Judybats frontman Jeff Heiskell, may not be for everyone. If you’re uncomfortable spying on your neighbors or reading over the shoulder of that creepy guy sipping coffee at the table next to yours at the McDonalds, you might not like this record.

But whether you’ll admit it or not, it’s kinda fun to peek in on people from time to time. And, luckily for the nosiest among us, Jeff Heiskell has flung open the door to his personal life and invited all his listeners in to sit for a spell. Heiskell’s latest offering risks oversharing, but never actually crosses that line.

The songs on this collection reveal a man who has come to terms with his sexuality, his choices and his place in the world, both professional and personally. And the record is done artfully enough that, even though the songs are intensely personal, there is something there for the listener to grab onto.

“The Chubby Guy Song” finds Heiskell reveling in his love for a man who is, to put it gently, a bit out of shape. “You have a six pack, but it’s hiding underneath a case of Budweiser and cheeseburgers,” Heiskell sings. The song frolics through several similar, humorous descriptions before settling into the closing chorus that sums up Heiskell’s feelings in a way that anyone who loves someone for who they are can relate to. “I do chubby, that’s my hubby … he’s just that much more beautiful to me.”

This record is very personal, like a diary entry or a letter to a friend. We’re invited to steam that letter open — Heiskell will even pretend not to notice we snooped.

Pop Joyride

So, I guess the cliche is that reviewers pigeonhole artists — slicing and dicing music into genres, taxonomically separating organic parts into the flora and fauna of an aural biosphere. If that’s true, and I imagine there is some truth to it after all, bands like the Tenderhooks exist to make a reviewer’s job as difficult as possible.

“New Ways to Butcher English” is more than just a genre-bending exploration of various musical styles by a band that can seemingly do it all. The record is actually an emotional journey through a world where feelings can’t be expressed one way or the other. There’s a mish-mash of expression that winds its way through the tunes and transforms bits and pieces of each track into something that is more than the sum of its parts.

The vocals and arrangements are reminiscent of Blind Melon’s slacker blues sound that emerged from the grunge-crusted ’90’s.  Shannon Hoon’s sickly sweet vocal style and haunting sense of melody are channeled into this record with an eerie accuracy. There’s also a certain wholesome, rootsy quality to these songs that brings to mind hometown rock from the likes of Melloncamp, or even Springsteen.

This album is hard to classify, but, at it’s heart, it’s pure pop. It’s intelligent — maybe even smart-britches — and just a little jaded. But the attitude always feels a little tongue and cheek. There’s a deep breath of optimism that floats through this collection of songs. It’s this breath that rescues the record from bitterness; it exchanges bitterness for bittersweet.

And I’m left with just the slightest whisper of melancholy; the faintest hint of hope.

My favorite track on this disc is “Heaven and Hell.” Conveniently, this song also proves my point; this song really sums up the character of the entire album.

It opens with raucous guitars and gritty, growling vocals. The lyrics smell of despair: “There is no umbilical cord to pull you through all the sadness and the pain. I think I see heaven and hell.” And the band seems to protest this state of affairs — frenetic rhythms, whiny guitars and a dirty bass line complain loudly between vocal lines. Until the last line: “Just close my eyes as I kiss you on the roof.”

Then the song opens up, like pulling the curtains on a dark room. As light pours in, everything changes. Guitars trade grit for tinkle; kick drum gives way to high-hat and splash; the bass lightens its step. And then the keyboard takes up its song, standing in for the vocals. A beautiful, light melody fills the newly-brightened space. For a moment, I’m the one kissing on a moonlit rooftop.

That’s how this album works. By setting and undercutting a mood over and over again, by refusing to let the listener settle into a genre and get comfortable in a category, this record at first jars you, then entrances you. From gritty to atmospheric and back again, these songs ultimately wrap you up and tell you a story. And, like any good story, this one hangs out on the back porch of your memory and hums you to sleep.

50 Acres of Pain

“Sometimes I need a woman, right now I’ll settle for a drink.” The chorus from track five (“Sometimes I Need a Woman”) of Christopher Scum’s new solo acoustic project sums up the overall sentiment of the record. Not quite halfway into the album, Scum lets loose the secret that informs the album as a whole: He could use a lot of things, but he’s ultimately going to settle.

The next song in the track listing drives the point home. “This is not the first time that I’ve let you down” is Scum’s unrepentant admission that he just can’t keep it together. The song isn’t an apology, it’s an explanation. In some ways it’s a manifesto for despair.

This album has the flair, sensibility and style of a gospel record. Of course, the ironic twist is that the “gospel” of these songs is turned on its head. It could be a cry for help, but it’s mostly a sob of surrender. Even the rollicking blaspheme of “Drinkin’ Beer with Jesus” has an undertone of self-loathing that betrays the swaggering rhythm and lyrics. “Jesus is my kind of guy,” Scum sings; and I think he really wishes that were true.

“Hate Me Kill You” is absolutely beautiful from a musical perspective. The lyrics undercut the music with Scum’s bitterly ironic cynicism. “I hate myself, I wanna kill you,” he sings. I wonder if this song is written to a lover or friend, or if the case shifts with the comma and Scum is actually talking to himself. These kind of questions pervade the record, and one listen won’t be enough to get any answers.

The whole recording feels about a sixteenth of a beat of kilter, and I imagine that is a creative choice. Listening to this disc leaves you feeling out of balance. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m making a trip through Christopher Scum’s psyche as I listen to these songs.

This album proves that an acoustic record can leave you reeling just as much as any full-on rock and roll onslaught.