BEST OF 08: “Life Is A Movie” by GZA

December 29, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008.]

gzarza

Back around 1993 this big, jewel-encrusted, irresistibly awesome boat came rolling through youth culture — and, fool that I am, I watched it sail right by. That boat was the Wu-Tang Clan, and I still vividly recall how so many of my suburban white friends insisted it was the most incredible thing to happen to hip-hop music since Run-DMC or the Beastie Boys.  But at the time I was too steeped in either jangly alternative rock music or the hazy feedback of music to take drugs to to be bothered. Of course, if listening to music to take drugs to was really what I was into (and it was — even though I never took drugs back then), I should have run, not walked, to my local record store to buy Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But I didn’t; my head was far too engulfed in the asses of Johnny Marr, Lou Reed, Dave Fridmann, etc.

My loss. And even though I later figured out that I’d made a big mistake by ignoring Wu-Tang, I never went back and bought that first classic album, or any other Wu albums. The moment had passed. Once I started seeing Target commercials advertising the album, I knew I’d never buy it. Instead, I only ever enjoyed the music of GZA, RZA, Ol’ Dirty, Inspectah Deck et. al. when in the company of friends who either caught the train when it first came around or weren’t too proud to jump on after big box retail stores had hijacked it.

So like I said, I missed that boat 100 percent. And now, even though it’s not against any personal policy of mine, obtaining those old records just isn’t a priority. Anyway, I suspect my ability to properly enjoy them has diminished now that I’m in what (no matter how much I would prefer to euphemize it otherwise) can only accurately be referred to as my mid-30s.

Still, I’ll pick up the solo work of Wu members if it’s easy enough to do. Like, for example, if it’s available at the local library. Such was the case with Pro Tools, the 2008 release by GZA. I know a lot of people count Liquid Swords among their very favorite hip-hop albums of the ’90s, but I’ve never heard it. Here it is, 2008, and Pro Tools is actually the first GZA album I’ve ever listened to. And I would be lying if I said I’ve given it anything more than a cursory listen. But one track, “Life Is A Movie,” somehow ended up on an oft-played playlist a month or two ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite songs of this year.

GZA is joined by RZA on this shamelessly simplistic song, the music for which is cribbed almost totally from “Films” by Gary Numan. The only original contribution other than RZA and GZA’s rhymes and the liberties RZA, who produced the track, took with the sample, are the vocals of the Irfane Khan-Acito, who sings “And sometimes I feel like my life is a movie” on the chorus, followed immediately by Numan’s opening line from “Films”: “I don’t like the film. I don’t like the film.”

The narrative of the song is sketchy; RZA’s verses are all typically bizarre takes on traditional hip-hop boasts, while GZA’s first two verses are one long lament about his woeful lot and luck in life, e.g.:

I got a smile that’ll make the mirror crack

And I seem to stay under clouds that stay pitch black

So when it rains, it pours, and when it pours, I’m soaked

I contracted lung cancer from third hand smoke

I’m like the frog that’s dying to be a prince

The boy who cried wolf and no one was convinced

The man who hit lotto and lost his ticket

In a rainstorm and stuck by lightning trying to get it

All of this is complemented by Numan’s relentlessly menacing soundtrack, which sounds even more darkly cinematic thanks to RZA’s gritty sound tricks. The final result is a brooding hip-hop classic with unlikely pathos — an existential dirge in rap form; a French new wave downer with a Wu score. Listen:

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BEST OF ’08: “Bye Bye Bye” by Plants and Animals

December 22, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008.]

plants-and-animals

The other day, a friend emailed asking for my top 10 albums of the year. I dutifully put the list together, but I felt like a fraud doing it. I rarely listen to entire albums any more. There are a number of reasons for my estrangement from the album: “Shuffle” on my iTunes and iPod; the growing popularity of online music sources like Pandora and Last.fm; my growing tendency to buy music from Emusic, where I can buy individual songs, rather than at the record store, where I have to buy CDs.

But another factor unrelated to technology has  limited my consumption of albums in their entirety this past year: My mix CD club. Every month, the club, which is comprised of a few good friends, gets together to exchange CDs based on a topic selected by one of our members. A month later, we reconvene to  exchange thoughts on each others’ mixes. It’s a fun exercise — and a time-consuming one. With eight mix CDs to get through each month, about 75% percent of my driving time is now spent listening to mix CDs rather than proper albums. Since the car is by far the place I’m most likely to play a whole CD, this has severely cut into the number of proper albums I’ve heard this year. The upshot is, I feel woefully ill-equipped to judge the year’s best albums. On the other hand,  I’m especially well-prepared to opine on the best songs of the year.

The mix club exposed me to a number of great songs by artists I otherwise never would have discovered. And even though many of our mix club members are more likely to use songs from 1988 than 2008, those select members who DO keep up with the current wave of pop music have introduced me to some great new stuff. Among the very best of them is “Bye Bye Bye” by Plants And Animals. I still haven’t heard anything else by these guys, but this particular song is among the freshest blasts of air that blew into my earphones all year. If the Polyphonic Spree and The Band ever recorded a song together, this is what it might sound like.


BEST OF ’08: “Scratch The Surface” by The Week That Was

December 19, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008.]

theweekphoto

None of the year-end best-of lists I’ve encountered have recognized The Week That Was‘s terrific eponymous debut — a reminder that, like the All-Star game and the Pro Bowl, those lists are largely vapid popularity contests.

Few songs gave me more pounding-the-steering-wheel pleasure this year than “Scratch The Surface,” the album’s closing track. It’s a hammering prog-pop anthem executed with German-like precision. I have no idea what the song is about (band leader and former Field Music fella Peter Brewis says the whole album was inspired by the fiction of Paul Auster), but different bits from the song grab you by the lapels and shake: “It’s only a scratch, but you’re crying like a girl,” “I’m not responsible for how I react,” “It’s strange that we compete in this way” and, especially, the refrain: “Give to me some purpose, you’ve only scratched the surface.” And if you’re unemployed like me, the video (below) is a sobering reminder of what awaits you when you return to the Force.


BEST OF ’08: “Dickshakers Union” by Surf City

December 18, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008.]

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Surf City (formerly Kill Surf City) is an indie band from New Zealand, so it’s no surprise they sound a bit like the great Flying Nun bands of the ’80s and ’90s, particularly the Tall Dwarfs and the Chills. But even more than those bands, Surf City sounds like American pop innovators like Animal Collective and The Shins. But Surf City — and I mean this in a flattering way — isn’t nearly as brainy as either of those bands.

Tangentially: As interesting and occasionally mesmerizing Animal Collective is, I think their widespread success is largely creditable to a bandwagon effect. Because a good portion of their music is insufferably boring. The only thing worse than sitting through an entire Animal Collective record is sitting through an entire Animal Collective concert. I applaud the band for so succesfully bringing experimental music to such a large audience, and for working outside the confines of generic conventions. They’re terrific at what they do. But what they definitely don’t do is make music that I want to listen to over and over again. MGMT and the Bee Gees do that.

And so does this young Auckland band. “Dickshakers Union” is a so-simple-it’s-silly garage pop song propelled by a metronomic guitar, crashing drums, liquid-like vocals (very Animal Collective-esque, actually) and a mindless “wa-wa-wa” chorus. It’s practically rock-by-numbers. And it rocks.


BEST OF 08: “Sax Rohmer #1” by The Mountain Goats

December 17, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008.]

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

My fondness for The Mountain Goats borders on the irritatingly geeky. Yet my ardor pales in comparison to that of a number of the people at the Mountain Goats concert I attended in Chicago last October. Like They Might Be Giants in their heyday, The Mountain Goats has a certain cachet with well-educated white introverts with busy minds who, I assume, identify with the the unabashedly bookish and feverishly adenoidal John Darnielle.

Darnielle — the band’s founder and driving force — is nothing if not feverish. His songs — which are almost always first-person narratives and which, except for those on 2005’s The Sunset Tree, are almost always fictional — are singularly powerful. Words that come to mind when I think of them: Desperation. Intensity. Mania.

Many MG songs are vaguely apocalyptic, referring obliquely to the rapturous dawning of a new day or the destructive ending of an old one. Whatever is happening to Darnielle’s characters — however base or insignificant their lives are in The Grand Scheme — is blown up to big screen proportions. Although they’re often miserable people, they speak and act with the decisive fire of characters in epic films or the Bible.

Darnielle is a wickedly astute lyricist. He has a skill for descriptive writing rarely found in singer-songwriters, and he inhabits his carefully crafted characters with the conviction of a method actor. It’s easy for a singer to express scream-at-God, scream-at-yourself or scream-at-your-lover fury, but it’s much harder to write a song where that fury has a narrative context that gives it real, lasting resonance. Darnielle does that — and does it better than any working singer-singwriter, in my opinion.

Darnielle also has a knack for the cathartic anthem. A perfect example is “Sax Rohmer #1” from this year’s Heretic Pride, one of my favorite songs — and videos — of the year. Check it out, and then check out Darnielle’ excellent blog (it’s certainly the best blog by a popular musician I’ve ever encountered), Last Plane To Jakarta.


BEST OF ’08: “Recent Bedroom” by Atlas Sound

December 16, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008]

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter.

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound.

It can’t be denied that the indie rock webzine Pitchfork has a brilliant editorial model: Its newsfeed is THE go-to place for the latest updates on the goins-on of bands who for whatever arbitrary reason fall under the “indie” rubric. And its daily reviews, which always include something for everyone (and by everyone, I mean those who are ravenous about expanding their knowledge of music enjoyed by college-educated, middle-to-upper class 20- and 30-something music geeks), appear with militaristic regularity. Best of all, Pitchfork has remained steadfast in keeping its offerings simple.  While competitors like Popmatters (who occasionally publishes your author’s work) continue to beef up their editorial offerings to include everything under the pop culture sun, Pitchfork has stubbornly restricted its purview to indie rock CD reviews and news, with a few columns and some multimedia thrown in for good measure. It is better off for the simplicity.

However, Pitchfork’s approval of certain bands reaches such a pitch that one has to wonder what motivates it. For example: I wouldn’t be surprised if the more casual readers were under the impression that Pitchfork puts out Deerhunter’s records, so enthusiastic has been its promotion of the band. This is not to speak ill of Deerhunter, who, in fact, is a great band. Rather it is to speak of Pitchfork with a measure of suspicion. Why give certain bands such a disproportionate amount of positive coverage? Judging from the editorial voice of Pitchfork, I suspect it’s an effort to bask in the reflective glory of a band that currently ranks high with the young indie rock intelligentsia. Still, to a not-so-young reader like your author, it smacks of shameless promotion masquerading as journalism.

To their credit, they’re promoting a good band. Deerhunter’s Microcastle is one of the best pure pop albums of the year — if not the best. But none of its singles appealed to me as much as “Recent Bedroom” from lead singer Bradford Cox’s side project, Atlas Sound, which also released an album (with an annoyingly long name) this year. Atlas Sound isn’t as good as Deerhunter, but this song is haunting, sorrowful, beautiful.


BEST OF ’08: “Lights Out” by Santogold

December 15, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008]

santogold-cover

Pitchfork really phoneed in their annual “Worst Album Covers” feature this year. The “winners” skewed even more indie than usual, and were obviously chosen not so much for their objectionable art but because they lend themselves to lame punchlines. Example: They called out Santogold’s 2008 debut album cover (seen above) for a Goldschalger groaner.

It’s actually a pretty interesting cover in a bedroom, D.I.Y. sort of way. It certainly piques one’s curiosity about what kind of music it might contain.

As for the answer to that question, it’s hard to say. I hear similarities to everyone from Tegan & Sara and Nelly Furtado and The Breeders. Santogold (nee Santi White) has been influenced by the Pixies according to her Wikipedia page. And contrary to what a lot of journalists have suggested, Santogold is not influenced by R&B, and she has been angered by online websites classifying her music as “hip-hop,” calling it a “racist” assumption.

I dunno. But I do know the 32-year-old singer’s 2008 album is among the most interesting of the year, and contains one of the year’s best songs, “Lights Out.”