22 January 2009

Top Picks of 2008

I wasn’t impressed with much in 2008 – between veterans releasing lackluster efforts to the American and British pop and rock scenes being depleted of excitement, most of the music released lacked originality, vitality, or the promise of longevity. For example, "Red Carpet Massacre" (Duran Duran, released 13 Nov. 2007) failed to make significant waves at the end of last year and all but disappeared in the first weeks of 2008. Madonna’s "Hard Candy" (29 April 2008) has sold less than half the units than "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (2005) (and the tour concept was infantile and trite compared to Confessions). Even the god-fathers of gloomy-pop, The Cure, have suffered from floundering record sales with "4:13 Dream" (28 Oct. 2008). It is easy to blame the veterans’ (and all other musicians’) floundering figures on downloading music illegally, but there is much more to it than that.

When musicians become established and household names, the misconception that their name alone will carry them becomes prevalent. Musicians have no choice but to be whores if they want to sustain a career of descent record sales and relevance to the music scene. This includes playing festivals, doing appearances on talk shows, and radio interviews. This includes humility and remembering that the music scene is fickle (at best) and constantly changing. Last years hot track is a fading memory, and depending on past monuments as a model for future albums is a mistake. Music needs to continue to be new and fresh. And what happens when you do not do the circuit, you do not act with humility, when you think your name will carry you, and forget the hard work that you went through to become established? People tend to not even realize that you have a new album, are on tour, or just don’t care anymore. It is not that younger audiences are not into the music of the veterans (every time someone young I know listens to such icons and institutions as Depeche Mode, they like it), it is that artist must continue to make the effort to tour extensively, reach their old and new audiences, and continue to work diligently as they did in their earlier days. (Robert Smith, of the Cure, said that the band did not make “real” videos for their last four singles because they would not be played anyway. But I ask, when was the last great Cure video made? Perhaps the problem is that their videos have just not been competitive in this market.)

When established artists do as Duran Duran did with Red Carpet Massacre – turn to a currently hot producer in order to inject a new sound and feel to their music – it often turns out to be a disaster. Perhaps the problem with more recent efforts was not with production, but rather its substandard song writing and holding tight to an old 80’s mentality of arranging music. Many younger artists may be obsessed with the 80s (the Bravery, Interpol, Boy Kill Boy), but no one wants a carbon copy of what was already done. When musicians, like Madonna, return to an old format – like the R&B sound of Bedtime Stories – the album does not sound fresh or genuine. It is an obvious attempt to recapture past record sales and glories. (Did she not realize that Duran Duran failed with the same producer?) What established her career was always pushing the envelope, always doing something new and unexpected; when artists forget this, they are punished with poor reception and less than glorious reviews. And when your music had a sense of urgency, like the first fifteen years of The Cure, deciding to take months, years to record an album, instead of creating the pressures of deadlines that help to create urgency and experimentation, albums are recorded that are belabored and almost paper cutter in structure. "4:13 Dream" lacks the passion of "Disintegration," the urgency of "Pornography," or the experimental arrangements of "Head on the Door." At its height, there are great individual songs, but as an album it was flat compared to what the Cure is capable of. (What really happened to the double album? What really happened to the urgency that Porl Thompson was suppose to bring back to the studio? What happened with not having any keyboards on the album?)

Perhaps all of the veterans that have survived the music industry should start to remember why they did: creativity, unique sounds, and a sense of urgency, as well as no misguided notion that their name/logo would continue to carry them into the future. Perhaps it is time for them to get back into the circuit of television talk shows (the Cure are doing it now) and radio interviews and playing more festivals, even if they are not the headliners of the show. Perhaps it is time to show these youngsters who the real musical institutions are and why it is that these youngsters have been influences by them, some way or other.

The silver lining to this cloud was that many indie, continental, and Aussie bands hit the scene – some having the promise of longevity. My top songs of 2008 are not the eclectic collection of songs that I would like them to be, and though I said there was not much to be excited about in 2008, these songs do not shy away from greatness. At the end of it all, what I did a lot of were incredible debuts, excellent sophomore efforts, Swedes proving that they are amazing song writers, and a small Hungarian band that has wrapped me around its fingers.

The B-52’s “Funplex”

Not a big sound changer for the B-52’s, but definitely a great single (and fun video). This is one catchy number, but yet if you dare to scratch the surface it is disturbing. This is one of the few bands that can make a serious social statement and yet sound silly and frivolous. (This is also one of the few bands that their sexuality is never an issue.) Summing up American pop culture in one simple phrase, “I’m at the mall on a diet pill,” they point out the American obsession with shopping and body image. Unfortunately, young, supposedly beautiful artists dominate MTV (and the radio waves), and yet this jewel is as close to a perfect pop song as it can get. This was a single that the record company failed to support to the fullest.

The Cure’s “This. Here and Now. With You”

I was driving a friend to the train station one day, when we got into a conversation about the concept of a vocalist selling lyrics. It got me thinking and really listening to a lot of songs again in a new light, including “This. Here and Now. With You.” I do wish it were a single, though it is not the most pop-standard sounding song (but neither was “Fascination Street”). Where most of the songs on the "4:13 Dream" album lack the urgency of the Cure at their height, this song has it all. Robert Smith sells these poetic lyrics like he has not sold lyrics in years. Even though he has been married for years (to his high school sweetheart), I believe the pain and anxiety in his singing of these lyrics: “Every time I ever thought regret is here, too caught before I never let tonight be all I dream. There isn’t any yesterday; tomorrow is a day away. This. Here and now. With you is how always should always be.” A typical Cure song musically (moody, melodic, synthesizers for ambience, and swirling guitars), it works and shows that the Cure can still write the expected jewel thirty-years into their career.

Cut Copy’s “Out There on the Ice”

Viva Australia! And before anyone becomes confused, Dan Withford (vocalist) is singing, “There’s a guy you know, who will be there for you.” These Melbourne boys are often labeled as electropop, though I heard dance punk a few times; however, like Depeche Mode (an obvious influence), I think they are hard to pin down. "In Ghost Colours" (22 March 2008) was definitely no sophomore slump, and though “Out There on the Ice” was not a single, it really displays the talent and depth of this band as crafters of solid music. Cut Copy pave the way for any critic of “electronic” music to be converted into fans – they are anything but formulaic or unoriginal. And though you may not be encouraged to tap your feet (though driving faster is an option), listening to this song (and the album) will definitely transport you into a soundscape that is hard to resist.

Esser’s “I Love You”

An unexpected treat out of Essex, Ben Esser (front man and brainchild) combines enticing electronics, a funky trip-hop style beat, indie rock, and spechgesang (vocals that fall neither as singing or speaking), Esser may very well be the next musical genius. From a family of musicians, Esser demonstrates the sophistication of a veteran in his arrangements. The song is layered in a plethora of sounds and vocals, creating a soundscape that is lush, but never overbearing. A study in contradiction, “I Love You” is sonically a foot-tapping pop song accompanied by lyrics that give you cause to pause (“Love can be draining, like internal bleeding”). Definitely a musician to keep your eyes open for in 2009.

Estelle’s “American Boy” (featuring Kanye West)

My friends were surprised that I loved this song. But what is there not to love about Estelle? She is not the typical R&B singer – first off, she is British; second, she has no hesitation of playing European rock festivals, like V-Festival and Glastonbury in the UK. This is the perfect summer song (reaching top five in eleven countries). What makes this a great song? Perfect bass line, great percussion – can you really listen to this song and not want to dance? As a vocalist, she can sell her lyrics without over emotionalizing her voice. And Kanye West is on the money. When both are singing together (even if it is just her emphatic “woo”), their voices meld well with the soundscape that the keyboards and rhythm sections are creating. If you haven’t danced to this song yet, download it from I-Tunes, dim the lights in your house, and boogie in your chair in the least. (Anything more may require you to shut your windows first.)

Gonzo’s “Peeping Tom”

I know very little about Gonzo. This band, obscure and unavailable to an American audience (other than streamlining music on their website), captured best Hungarian Act at the European MTV Awards ceremony in 2008. As they pointed out in an interview, their lead single is based on a folktale, mixed with tinges of modern cybersex. But, as they also point out, coming from a small European country, they have less possibility to break into the music scene compared to bands from England, Germany, or France. That is why I encourage everyone to hit them up on YouTube, MySpace, and their own website (www.gonzomusic.hu) – the more hits, the more possibilities, and trust me, you will not be disappointed.

Heloise and the Savoir Faire’s “Memorial Day”

Sex, booze, references to 80’s song titles, partying, a Muslim roommate, a Chevy Celebrity, and a flirtatious lesbian – this song has it all. This Brooklyn outfit is all about having fun; this is the best party music in years. And yet, all of the songs on the debut album ("Trash, Rats, and Microphones," 11 April 2008) are similar to “Memorial Day” in the sense that they are complete narratives. The lyrics are fluid; there is no bad attempt at poetry. The music is pumping, you want to dance, bob your head, and put your hands up in the air. Unfortunately, like many other New York City bands (Scissor Sisters, Interpol, etc…), it seems that the mainstream American music scene has relegated them to obscurity. Yet one listen to this song, I am sure that most people would be hooked. (By the way, I caught them live at the Bowery Ballroom – simply amazing live band, and this was the encore song.)

Kamera’s “Fragile”

If you are obsessed with 80’s synthpop and the early days of MTV Postmodern Videos, then Kamera is for you. A sophomore effort for the band out of Stockholm, "Resurrection" was released on the 2nd of February (though available digitally in 2007). Following the lead of great pop music from Sweden (ABBA, the Cardigans, Moonbabies, Robyn, Roxette, etc…), Kamera is a pop hodgepodge that works. Driving bass and drums, ambient keyboards and sequencing, simple lyrics that are easy to remember, and urgency, I am baffled that promoters and record labels did not support this song straight to number one. But the record industry will get another chance soon, as Kamera is in the studio finishing up a third album. Hopefully an American tour will follow.

Keane’s “Perfect Symmetry”

I have to admit that I like Keane’s latest album, "Perfect Symmetry" (10 October 2008), a little more every time I listen to it. Though the titular single is by far the best song on the album, it an interesting album that displays the range of this trios talent. I think that Tom Chaplin (lead vocalist) is what is sorely lacking in rock music – male vocalists. Though we could probably name a few singers with greater range, the control and passion in his voice when he sings really makes a Keane song a Keane song. This is not to discount what the other members of Keane bring to the table. Albeit, I am not amazed by any of the new production gimmicks or the 80-esque moments – I thought that Keane would avoid the 80’s fad. Nevertheless, Keane proves that music is not just about technical talent (which they have) and being great performers (which they are), but rather about being great songwriters. “Perfect Symmetry” is a great representation of the album – solid piano / indie rock (typically Keane forsakes guitars), which is well arranged, textured and layered, captivating, warm, and another great effort at expanding their repertoire of music.

The Kooks’ “Do You Wanna”

Now this should have been a single! I got to see the Kooks at the Stone Pony (Asbury Park, NJ), with a minimal light show, up-close, and personal. They were amazing. It was no surprise to find out that they had opened for the Rolling Stones; the Kooks are obviously influenced heavily by them, along with the Beatles and Thin Lizzy. What I love about this song is that it taps into something universal: every guy – and gal – just wants to go up to someone and say, “I know you want to make love to me.” (I thought I would get smacked, but we caught a taxicab to the Upper West Side instead.) The song is catchy, bubbly, and primal, avoiding the trappings of headiness or worn out clichés. I am listening along and I start missing the days of keg parties – and yes, it would have been a hit single.

Neimo’s “Hot Girl”

Parlez vous francais? No worry, these French boys are singing in English; and if you thought that the only band to listen to from France was Air, you are way out of touch with the French indie rock scene. This song is sexy, in a foreplay sort of way. Very little build up till the beat drops, you are almost instantly transported to catchy, hooky guitars and a Billy Idol-esque voice (in a thick French accent): “You touch me…” Again, it’s all foreplay. As you keep listening to the song, you can just imagine yourself strutting to this song, showing off the goods – it should definitely be used on a runway. And though you can accuse it of sounding a bit derivative, what makes the song is the attitude that is all theirs.

Nine Inch Nails’ “1,000,000”

Trent Reznor has been busy these past few years. Unlike in the earlier days of his career, he is constantly putting new music out there. I got to see NIN at the IZOD Arena and was blown away with the sophistication and dramatics of the show (especially during “Only You”). “1,000,000” is from "The Slip" (5 May 2008), and like its predecessor "Ghosts I-IV" (2 March 2008), Reznor attracted some interesting critical responses. After severing ties with Interscope Records, Reznor has experimented with different formats of releasing music. "The Slip" was made available to fans free of cost on the NIN website. Just imagine the reaction from royalties-mongers all over the world when a major band does this; it is just another reason to like this guy. As for “1,000,000,” it really shows that Trent Reznor is still able to run circles around younger industrial and nu-metal bands.

Robyn’s “Crash and Burn Girl”

Robyn came back strong in 2008. She has come a long way since her days of churning out songs such as “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love.” In all honestly, I was not completely fond of her first two full-length efforts, the third peaked my curiosity, but her fourth self-titled album (released in 2005 in Sweden, later internationally – 29 April 2008 in the US) is her strongest effort yet. 2008 saw Robyn making headway internationally. This song is a perfect example of the album: lyrically direct, with ingenious arrangements and beats that keep you dancing. This song, “Crash and Burn Girl” should have been a 2008 release, though I am sure she is more intent in getting new material out there.

Scouting for Girls’ “Heartbeat”

From their self-titled 2007 album, this single (7 April 2008) showed that the music scene in London continues to thrive underneath all the pop glitz. Combining the best elements of indie and acoustic rock, Scouting for Girls is a breath of fresh air in a scene drowned with guitar feedback. The name of the band is a play on words on the book "Scouting for Boys," a manifesto for good manners and citizenship. However, they failed miserably in the good manners department when Roy Strides sings, “Always up for a laugh, she’s a pain in the ass…” This is a great song, from a great album, sung with a sexy accent that comes through the vocals. This is the kind of band that you sort of know will not have a sophomore slump.

Scott Simon’s “Start of Something”

Catchy rock pop, the song opens with “I let myself get sentimental again…” Almost a tinge of regret in doing so, something that most of us can relate to. Simon sells his lyrics with emotional vocals, and the song is as good as “piano pop” gets. Previously the primary songwriter of the Argument, Simon’s ability to write catchy hooks and infectious melodies has surpassed anything he has done in the past. Word has it that he is currently recording his first solo album – something I am definitely looking forward to. (By the way, yes he covered “Umbrella” by Rihanna.)

Temposhark’s “Blame”

My favorite video of the year! Robert Diament has the pop sensibilities to rival anyone’s on the market. Combining a unique ear for melody and savvy electronics, Temposhark expands the tradition of electronic pop. After many collaborations, the debut album, "The Invisible Line," was released on the 25th of March. “Blame” is a perfect exemplar of the album – catchy and poppy, almost bubbly, and yet introspective and deeply personal. The video, an animation with “Satan” as the main character, really depicts the depth of anxiety that we all long to feel – to know that love is all we got.

The Ting Tings’ “Great DJ”

I fell in love with this frivolity the first time I heard it. Things are happening for the Ting Tings. And though I hated myself for sitting through an episode of "90210" when I heard this song would be on it, I understand that in today’s market artists have to do anything to get their music out there when radio programmers are not playing their singles. What really surprised me was that they kicked ass live! I got to see them at Webster Hall, and I was grooving the entire night. “Great DJ” is simple, even its sequencing; it is the kind of simple that established bands such as Erasure. Depending on simplicity and melody, rather than complex musical movements, the Ting Tings’ are a pleasant antithesis to Guitar Hero: nothing bombast, no one instrument blaring out over the others, and no tricky, intricate arrangements. Just solid pop that makes you want to strut your stuff on a catwalk.

The Veronicas’ “Untouched”

The Veronicas, an Aussie-Italian twin-sister duo, really captured my attention. Living and recording their sophomore effort in Los Angeles, "Hook Me Up" was released in late November 2007. That being said, “Untouched” was released in 2007 (December 8th) but caught momentum in 2008. Even though lyrically the song is the stereotypical pop jingle of whining unrequited love, the music is infectious. With techno elements in the strings, a driving beat the drops and fades continuously, great harmonies, and repetitions (always fun for memorizing and sing-along’s), the song keeps you on your toes waiting for the beat to drop over and over again. Most Americans do not realize that Australia has a lush musical scene of its own (Wolfmother, the Butterfly Effect, and Jet to name a few). But the advantage that Australians have over Americans and Brits is that aside from their own musical scene, they have gotten full exposure to both the American and British scenes. This is evident in the Veronicas (in an interview with Teenspot, they said that in their iPods you would find the Wahas, Muse, and Shiny Toy Guns.) I think it is all this exposure, all this diversity that really infused “Untouched” with this ecstatic energy that is, well, infectious.