By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Considering 2008's daily fuckery (the election, the economy, the Internet's continued destruction of journalism as a viable career option), I've never felt less inclined to make some head-up-ass editorial case that pop music plays a pivotal role in the development of modern society—it was all just one amuse-bouche after another to download for momentary flavor/distraction/anesthesia while president-to-be Obama figured out how to save us from ourselves. Thanks, MGMT.
New York, NY
This year was a year for political-junkie behavior on my part, thanks to the astonishing combination of factors going on with both the presidential race and the numerous other political campaigns involving people and issues across the country, and then, even more overwhelmingly, the past four months of economic grind-down. There was a lot of waffle and foolishness out there, of course, and there'll be all the more to come, but amid all the chaff of stupidity to be found, there was enough wheat for someone with my interests to have a hell of a feast. Given all that—and given the fact that I know people going through insanely tough, often heartbreakingly sad times due to these last few months in particular, and that the next year may be one of the most unsettled ones I've ever lived through—the ballot I really sweated over, talked a lot about, was the one cast back in November, from national to local issues. There was no way a ballot about music could compete for my attention or interest.
Remember when black rock needed a coalition? Well, there was a time when Jesse Jackson ran for high office, too. In albums, the story of the year was black rock all over the place. (Call it pop experimentalism if you prefer to, but really, who's zooming who?) Not a new story, but one whose breadth and clout revealed how music anticipated the true story of the year: Mr. President.
Los Angeles, CA
Re Ron Clark Academy's "You Can Vote However You Like": Much more than anything McCain himself did during the campaign, it took a bunch of middle-school black kids from Atlanta to bestow upon him some of the dignity and honor that were supposed to be his currency. Simply by allowing that there was a case to be made for the wrinkly old white guy, a generosity they had no earthly reason to summon, they rescued the campaign from the slime pit of Wright, Ayers, Hannity, Limbaugh, Ferraro, Lynn Westmoreland (Mr. Uppity, in case you missed that one), Joe the Populist Prop, and all the other sundry phantasmagoria conspiring to hijack history. Discovering "You Can Vote However You Like" sometime in the waning days of October ranked right alongside Iowa and South Carolina as my purest moment of joy in an election I followed obsessively but ultimately didn't enjoy enough, because I spent too much time waiting for the bottom to fall out. These kids, seemingly oblivious to the slime pit, enjoyed the moment as much as humanly possible.
Chinese Democracy had something in common with the election of an African-American to the presidency: Most people thought they wouldn't live to see either thing happen. America proved that it was more psyched about Obama, though—almost 70 million votes vs. a disappointing quarter-million sales for Axl and friends. (AC/DC did three times that; Britney did double.) But Axl can take some solace from author/blogger Robert Stacy McCain ("The Other McCain") and use his encouraging words for the GOP as a pep-talk for GNR: "We're at rock bottom, with nowhere to go but up."
New York, NY
Anderson Cooper's Election Night interview with will.i.am using CNN's beam-me-up-Scotty holograph technology was everything that is wrong with the American election season and the major-label music industry: useless and strange technology, plus vapid pundits "engaging" each other, reducing politics to an Us Weekly celebrity "Who Wore It Better?" article. Within minutes of a historical paradigm shift, do we really need to hear from the author of the worst campaign song ever written ("Yes We Can"), and of such classics as "My Humps" and "Let's Get Retarded"?
Was there really a better soundtrack to 2008 than Erykah Badu's glorious head-trip of an album? 2008 felt like sitting up late, watching the umpteenth consecutive hour of election coverage, and feeling so hopeful about the future that you could explode, but being unable to ignore that dark corner of your mind that tells you something or someone is going to come along and fuck this all up. Feeling too scared to get excited, for fear of another soul-crushing Wednesday morning in November. Feeling like half the world around you has lost their minds, but seeing a glimmer in the eye of a random passing stranger that tells you everything is going to be all right in the end. 2008 was packed with fear, anxiety, passion, anger, excitement, hesitancy, and, most of all, hope. Badu may have dropped this album way back in February, but the way she tapped into every ounce of that energy made New Amerykah, Pt. 1 essential listening all year long.
New York, NY
As Tom Ewing has pointed out, popism never convinced most writers to accept the aesthetic interests of pop, just the authenticity of producers as artisans. And so that's what we got this year: No Age and Fleet Foxes, all sound and no personality, carefully controlled even when they seemed to be rocking out. The albums that let it hang out this year, like Kanye's and Alphabeat's and Of Montreal's, get mocked instead. But hey, maybe we were in the mood for control this year. Maybe because Democrats couldn't believe that they were actually going to win, and because 2008's crop of amateur pundits didn't actually know enough about politics to know how certain a thing this was as soon as Lehman went under, we wanted music that echoed the kind of steely-eyed resolve we thought was necessary in our political candidates, too. Maybe we thought that this was not a year for the extravagance of passion and fun. But music is not politics. It is always time in music for passion and fun, for playfulness and vulnerability, for sex and love, for wine and women and actual songs, not just pretty harmonies and the catnip of a '90s kinda "scene." This generally gets forgotten, of course, but that's fine, too. Even as we elected a Democrat, we all seemed more conservative in our taste. So it goes.
In 10 years, the practice of putting a performer's country of origin in parentheses after their name will be considered quaint, if not a little racist. This year saw, more than ever, the rise of artists whose music was atypical given the music associated with their residence or birthplace. Is M.I.A. a purveyor of Sri Lankan music? Is Rupa an Indian musician? French? Californian? Is Lila Downs Mexican, American, or neither? In the era of Obama, Americans may have a tough time holding on to their prejudices.
New York, NY
In 2000, we had George W. Bush as a president-elect and Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops)" as a cuckquean's anthem. In 2008, their counterparts were Barack Obama and Riskay's "Smell Yo Dick." You win some, you lose some?
Re: Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)": Last Friday at about 2 a.m., just before last call, I was in a room full of the whole gay rainbow—bears and butches, drag queens and skinny club kids—and we all danced, and not only did we dance, but we knew every move, just like all of those dozens of fan videos on YouTube knew all the moves. Plus my sister and my mother love it, and for the first time in a while, this might be a genuinely universal single. Which is kind of worrisome, because no matter how fun it is to dance to (and it is incredibly, brilliantly entertaining to dance to), it seems to be so retrograde—sort of like Obama winning and Prop. 8 passing on the same night.
Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" is very fine musically—I'm a sucker for the vocal harmonies—but who the fuck wants to dance to a song about one's duty to get married? What is this, ancient Greece? Especially, the passage of California's Proposition 8 (enthusiastically sponsored by Pastor Rick "New Bronze Age" Warren) deprived me of any fun I might have had hearing it in gay clubs.
How do we know that Obama has changed everything? There have been at least three songs by black male performers this year about fucking coked-up white chicks in club bathrooms. So far, there have been NO repercussions . . .
Darrell M. McNeil
How appropriate that the last year of the Bush presidency coincides with the apex of DJ Khaled's career. Both are unlikely, overachieving knuckleheads whose tendency to wave flags ("Mission Accomplished") and proclaim their own questionable supremacy ("We the Best!") repels the casual observer and overshadows all other talent in their entourage. If the start of '09 is the last I hear from both of them, I'll sleep that much more soundly.
New York, NY
"I was born in 1941. That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now." (Rare banter from Bob Dylan at a November 4 concert at the University of Minnesota.)
New York, NY
Nas, "Black President": Although his controversial comeback album was decidedly a mixed bag, Nas did give us a song that caught the national zeitgeist like no other rap single of 2008. Before the election, it haunted our hopes with the "We ain't ready to have a black president" 2Pac sample; afterward, it was "America surprises us and let a black man guide us" that stayed with you.
There were smarter songs about Barack Obama this year, and more nuanced songs, and songs that bore the weight of history more comfortably, but the song I put on at midnight-ish EST that Tuesday night was "My President," by a rapper I sort of hate (and featuring the author of one of the smarter songs). A girl sitting on my windowsill, a little damp-faced, listened for a moment and said quietly, "Good choice." She didn't say why, but here are some guesses: because we were nine the last time a guy we vaguely perceived as Good won the Presidency, because our entire politically conscious life had been lived under George W. Bush, and because the very notion of that emancipating steamroller—WINNIN' IN TENNESSEE, HANDS DOWN ATLANTA, LANDSLIDE ALABAMA, ON MY WAY TO SAVANNAH—was 1) a totally alien one, beyond cinematic, only understood by Young Jeezy's John Williams strings and monotone Superman croak; and 2) one with no room, that night, for nuance or weight. Afterward, we walked to a bar, and strangers put the thing on the jukebox over and over again—just "My President," looped, for half an hour of Buck Hunter. We didn't say a lot. Wednesday morning, I was hung over and worried about corporate compromise. But for a few hours on November 4, 2008, I loved Young Jeezy.