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You Gotta Stay Positive: The Music of 2008 The soundtrack of this landmark year is filled with the personal, the diffident, and the hopeful.

You Gotta Stay Positive: The Music of 2008

The soundtrack of this landmark year is filled with the personal, the diffident, and the hopeful.

by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor
first published: January, 2009

approximate reading time: minutes

It is good to live in philosophical times, it blows clear the smoke and shatters the mirrors, and calls us to create the future of our desiring rather than that of our patterns

The underlying theme of 2008 was we must do it ourselves - in politics, in art, in literature the people that mattered in 2008 all exhibited greatness in the most personal ways, which is a relief as we see the dying embers of the Bush administration fizzle out. It was like the Reagan Eighties without the prosperity, our stabs at integrity for so long have been made with knives dulled and tarnished by The Team, or as Lou Reed so sadly and pathetically put it in "Coney Island Baby" - we just wanted to play football for the coach.  And there were plenty of team players still in the music of 2008: MGMT captured the imaginations of those who have no imagination left, and publicists pitched every bad haircut and a key-taur with unprecedented ardor. I saw a voicemail from one pop up on my phone on Christmas morning. 

The plan started to crumble in 2008, so much so in music that when we talk about albums and records and critics and bands, we have to carefully define our terms, like we are writing a Philosophy 101 paper. This is a beautiful thing, perhaps not so much for the folks that extract their financial well-being from them, but maybe this mess we are in came from too many people extracting their financial wells-being, and each pulling meat and crumbs from the sandwich until there is nothing left but an empty plate.  It is good to live in philosophical times, it blows clear the smoke and shatters the mirrors, and calls us to create the future out of our dreams than from our patterns.  It gave us a president that at least doesn't seem to be a categorical embarrassment from the outset. It gave us a realization that our economic game was much faultier than we thought. It gave us a kick in the ass that we really do need to do something about this climate business. It supplanted hoping that everything doesn't fall apart with straight-up hope. And the music of 2008 reflected the times. In no precise order...

Lil Wayne
Tha Carter III
After the Sousa march of the above paragraph, I realize the absurdity of starting out this list with a record this admittedly laughable. But I contend that Lil Wayne is not unlike the pirates praised in master architect Buckminster Fuller's utopia practicum Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in that Lil Wayne can apparently do everything. He is the self-claiming "world's greatest rapper" and at a quick glance at the numbers, our most effective pop star. He out clowns Flavor Flav, has 100 ways for describing blowjobs, and yet, up there behind the bong hits and ill-advised tattoos, he raged and cried and growled a formless genius that no one could predict. He also made the one album I came across this year that I couldn't stop listening to - I'd put something else on as if to just have an intelligent adult conversation after dealing with this child-man, but I'd quickly come right back to it.

Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago
Unlike Weezy, Bon Iver's origin could not be more predictable - a breakup album recorded on a laptop in a shack by a guy with a pronounced beard, yet the results are undeniably powerful.  It says something that despite knowing the back-story and having listened to this album countless times, so many that we can pinpoint the blips in his sub-sub-R&B mélange and will brace myself when his cracked voice emerged from the choir, and yet, I haven't the foggiest clue of his actual name. The Bon Iver guy embodied this most personal album so perfectly that the details are unimportant. Part of me hopes that the breakup shtick is all a giant Duchampian lie, and that Bon Iver scored the greatest marketing coup of the year. The beauty of this record cuts through the dull arguments about the veracity of memoirs, reminding us that in the telling of the story is where the real truth lies.

No band told their peculiar story with greater acuity than did Shearwater.  The combination of that condor voice, delicate percussion, tough meaty guitar hanging close on the bone of this skeleton bellowing the last cry of love in the wasteland; Rook is a killer record.  If I could sound like Jonathon Meiburg when I sing in the shower, I would stay in there until I eroded away and disappeared down the drain. I don't know why I feel silly saying I love this record because it is so beautiful, but it is, and I do.

Drive-By Truckers
Brighter than Creation's Dark
DBT is my favorite band, period. I say that partially because they continue to make great music, greater music even, as they progress and evolve, but also because they lay just under the radar of greater consciousness. I feel evangelical about the Truckers; when I encounter someone who weirdly betrays ambivalence about them, I want to pull them aside and share the good news with them.  It feels good to have a favorite band at this age, and that feeling is helped by the fact that they continue to write smart songs. Mike Cooley moved to the forefront on Brighter, twisting and compressing the English language into redneck koans of hilarious love and loss. Patterson Hood did his part forming the panting soul of the band, and bassist Shonna Tucker managed to shake out two of the finest country songs of the year.

The Hold Steady
Stay Positive
There was talk that the convulsive Hold Steady had blown its wad with Boys and Girls in America, and well, with all that shaking, some release is going to happen. But like the South and the boners of teenage boys, the Hold Steady rises again on Stay Positive:  denser, more mature, a little preachy, yet still fleet footed in their Converse All-Stars. The Hold Steady confront religion, sex, youth, triumph and failure just as the giants Springsteen and Dylan do, but unlike their rawk moralist forefathers, you actually want to listen to it when The Hold Steady sings it. If there is a song of the year, it is "Lord, I'm Discouraged" - a stadium-cum-cathedral ballad that bears witness to the transmigration of frustration into hope.

The Mountain Goats
Heretic Pride
If there is a major theme to the epic narrative of the Mountain Goats, it is bearing witness to the struggle of being alive.  The lovers and mad poets and wretched teenagers that populate Heretic Pride all spin and convulse like the autoclave in the central track, making the unclean glisten with a deeper purity than can be attained with any amount of scrubbing.  Like the Hold Steady, the Mountain Goats hold onto the essence of youth but they rein it in just enough, focusing it into something more universal.  Stalwarts might claim John Darnielle lost the thread when he utilized more than a jambox and a battered acoustic for his art, I say those types fail to understand the nature of heresy - you must continually work toward what you must become regardless of what you or anyone else left in the past want you to be.

From a Nietzschean perspective, hip-hop has largely reached the end of its ubermench run, becoming a tireless parade of dull thugs playing the part of dull thugs over dull thug music. Nas revels in hip-hop's history to craft this brilliant record.  It was originally supposed to be called Nigger, but the labels balked. On the resulting untitled record, Nas carries no illusions that the original title is that bestowed upon him by society at large no matter what he does, and the revelry that ensues is not endless yap about the game and how it's played, but about the struggle, how the chain works.   In the chorus of "Make the World Go Round"  we hear now let's toast to the hustlers/ tell the hustlers toast to the gangsters/ tell the gangstas toast to the ballers/tell the ballers pour a glass for all of us.  It's easy to read this as the usual Mafioso rapper pecking order breakdown, but it's also just as easy to read this as an indictment of CEOs bleeding consumers dry and then begging for a handout, for investment schemes built on trust and faith suddenly being revealed as extortion of the most heinous kind. It is a plea that the chain be used to pull us all along before we are all eventually bound by it.

Nico Muhly
If there is a thread binding most of the above records, it is a density of language, but even the thorniest couplets Mike Cooley and Nas have to offer can compete with the density of Nico Muhly's Mothertongue.  Muhly finds those things one loves about Radiohead, Sigur Ros, hell even Coldplay, and distills them into a clear liquid in which he suspends the chatter of the Internet, the buzz of a million ringtones, the babel of opinion so that it forms a darting plankton cloud of information, indecipherable yet holistic in meaning.  The strings and horns and twinkling pianos and synth blaaaats form the ever-rising foundation for this hornet's nest rising high above a plain where nothing much is being said.  Muhly operates in a Rauschenbergian gap between the institutional world of modern composition and the glossier cloudland of pop. he instead is a jooyous magpie who has worked with Bjork, Will Oldham and Philip Glass among others. Mothertongue, in its four movements, is alien and homey, chilled and undeniably warm, sounding like everything at once and through that, something greater.

The Raconteurs
Consolers of the Lonely
Much of my listening this year was consumed with thick heady stuff like Muhly and his thornier predecessors, and I could at a moment of self-composition fill this list with icy artifacts of Appolonia but after that is done, I want what everyone wants: a beer and a convivial relationship to the gods of Saturday night, and the Raconteurs deliver that very thing on their second disc. Consolers of the Lonely pushed the Raconteurs into something more than that other Jack White band.  I heard both the new Guns 'N' Roses and the new AC/DC, records I'd hoped would be bottled messages from mighty ships long sunk by their own icebergs, but neither group have the rock star chops now that the Raconteurs possess. It is friends drunk in the backseat of your brother's Camaro. It is the spark from a bar stool scooted back on the tiles right before a fight. It is the regional high school football champs partying in a graveyard with the eyeliner misfits under a pregnant moon. It is a great rock 'n' roll record.

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
The album opens with "Amerykahn Promise" sample of more action, more excitement, more everything from some 70's movie trailer before launching into a glorious Funkadelic vamp about a train. It's easy to see the freedom train pulling into the station with the election of Barack Obama, the white house being painted black as jokingly urged by George Clinton in 19993. But Erykah Badu has always been a difficult artist, lifting up blues, R&B, and hip-hop, even the neo-soul she supposedly invented in her arms and uses it as a weapon.  On New Amerykah, Badu openly feels love for herself and the world (even herself in the world) but is quick to hold the world responsible for the promises it has made.  The album cycles through the silkiest and most inventive soul music to crop up this year, twisted sonic essays on race, and comes full circle with "Honey" a reiteration of the album as a whole.  It is a rare political soul record that keeps both flames lit throughout.

(photo: shadow of the author and his daughter looking upon the Mississippi River as it threatened to overflow its banks back in April 2008.)

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v
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