Sunday, 1 February 2009

THE BLUE IN THE AIR ALBUMS OF 2008: 10-1







=10. ESTELLE: Shine
=10. GOLDFRAPP: Seventh Tree


A daze of sunlight, too harsh to see in, as if you had just emerged from a movie theatre and out of the dark warmth, the cosy unreality, and there sits the world as it is. Disbelief; distaste; distress. What is happiness? she asks, in hospital, recovering. The artificial improvements and enhancements that make a mockery of nature? You cannot escape yourself. Is it in the Village, the equally artificial environment of communcal "happiness" that gives an inner serenity (or so they claim) but no real outer connections? She escapes to the wild, the nameless, the untameable, almost to where there are no people at all, just sensuous nature, HER trip to America, to Hollywood, ending up in a dead end, the movie over and the relief of fresh air and recuperation her only desired destination.

But there are those for whom the escape works in reverse. There is, for example, little doubt that McGoohan saw the Village as Britain at its littlest, and we suspect he was only too glad to hotfoot it back to Hollywood, to the quiet(ish) life, afterwards. And so it was for the American girl by proxy, the London girl deemed not quite fit for her own home, mainly - well, we know the main "mainly," but then she also wanted to live and sing in now rather than forty imaginary years ago. And so she got out, so the Legend went, and she found and breathed her own city notion of freedom, and did what none of these polite, homework-handing-in Brit-ites ever could. She sounds and feels exuberant rolling in this new grass; Cee-Lo drops by, confirming his status as another of the sneaky heroes in this tale; and above all in THAT song there is Kanye, man of the 2008 match, unexpectedly discovering his happy ending, reclaiming his own voice, snug, smooth, sly, saved. How he got to be happiness.

=9. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE PRESENTS BRENDAN CANNING: Something For All Of Us
=9. THE CONSTANTINES: Kensington Heights

The 9th floor of the Toronto Western Hospital: on the east side, beyond the elevators, there is a window. It overlooks Kensington Market, an area full of houses, shops, shops in houses, cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, smells and languages and casualness seeping off the street and into the air. There are no chainstores (it can't be a coincidence that Naomi Klein, whose alma mater is nearby, wrote No Logo). There are no tall buildings. Between College to the north, Dundas on the south, Spadina on the east and Bathurst on the west, this is the heart of what "alternative" means. It is a haven, a place to reflect or to hide, to make a case or just rest from the neon rush of Yonge St or the all-too-studied cool elsewhere. It is cosy; it is a place where the inner voice can be heard and understaood, instincts refined, possibilities open up and grand plans launched and nurtured. In short, it is a nest, a hive, and these two albums represent it, and all areas like it in the world.

It is out of this place - literal and figurative - that the Constantines and BSS/Brendan Canning thrive, both speaking of the endurance and values - community, mutual caring and respect, friendship - that make life anywhere more than just the usual routines. The difference between these two albums is not as great as you might think (if you know them at all) - the Cons are forthright and loud, Bry Webb's near-hoarse yelp one of a man who is determined to be heard across the huge space of Canada itself; Brendan sings softly, subtly, an audible knowing nod (no matter what the situation, you can imagine he would be totally cool about it because it had happened to him, or someone he knew, before). The Constantines deliver the rock like no one else - dense, rhythmic, the weight of those showers of stones can be not just heard but felt. Brendan (and BSS - this is in effect them, with his songs, just as Kevin Drew was the songwriter last time) is the wise man of Kensington Market, staying sober and clean and sane in a collective that knows no boundaries (BSS? Toronto?), where it is all too easy to turn this area into a womb, cut off from the world. Both sing to stay alive and do what they can do with what they have got; both know personal happiness is just the start, that it is the community/collective which is greater, which inspires even when seen from above, tenderly and unobtrusively going about its business.

=8. THE BUG: London Zoo
=8. NITIN SAWHNEY: London Underground




Although it's currently difficult to think of a precise equivalent to Kensington Market in London, living and working in a certain part of this city does underline the absolute importance of true community; by that we mean not simply squeezing together and compressing as many people as possible into as small a space as possible, but an independent and inter-dependent community made up of people and customs from all over the world who have come here, or washed up here, for the same reason that so many people dream of coming to and living in this cracked old gargoyle of a city. That is, because they know it is other, that they can live in ways and achieve things that they would never have been able to do back home. But it has to be a thriving and living community, where everyone's different stories mesh together and make a new sense.

This is why London got defiant and refused not to go on public transport on 8 July 2005. They refused not to go to work or go about their business since they were, and are, adamant that doing so is not a crime. Yet we have to understand the reasoning behind the bombers' unreasonableness, just as we cannot let the ideal slip from our mental view.

Here, then, are two portraits of London, both inspired by what happened, each a negative (or positive?) image of the other. London Zoo garish, violently vivid in its bloody reds and gaudy yellows (not dissimilar to colours we will find on another record higher up this list), London Undersound monochrome, grey, subtle, well-mannered. For both parties it represented a long-sought focus that their work had previously lacked. Kevin Martin - literally living in his studio - recognised the rage and found as many voices as possible, from Tippa Irie via Warrior Queen to Flowdan, to expound and expel their anger, amplify their blood, waving it in complacent faces; an avid warning of what London might yet become if we're not so careful.



Then there is Nitin, soberly presenting the ideal we all want London to be, the subtle shop of multiplicities of cultures which inspired everyone from Paul McCartney to the present writers to come here in the first place; this, he says, is the wonderful, multifaceted world - understandably, there is something of an accent on the Brazilian - which is on offer, which is why we live here rather than merely exist, a compendium of what humanity, as a world, as a culture of all cultures, has on its side. Why are we angry? asks Kevin. Because, replies Nitin, this is what we're all fighting for.

=7. NAS: Untitled
=7. YOUNG JEEZY: The Recession


Fights, of course, can take many forms, but the quiet ballot box variety is still, despite and after everything, the most effective we've come up with yet. Even if Nas hadn't turned up on Jeezy's "My President" to add his blessings, these two records would still be umbilically linked, and indeed they help tell the greatest of all 2008's tales. Jeezy famously nailed The Recession before it was sheepishly identified as such but now there's a real chance that his protests will be responded to, and it's the same story with the man sometimes known as "N" (standing for Reclaim!); both warn of complacency even as they party, but know that their good is the greatest and most common. Both stand tall in the canon of protest/power records, as tall as, or perhaps even taller than, their peers in the sixties because they were listened to by those with the power and capacity to make these changes, these longed-for, pined-for, shouted-for changes. So it is that the "H" in Human League becomes the proud "H" of "Hero"; that "Put On" is a call to knowing arms in all cities for the cause - and that both feature (and correctly predict) the same happy, hoped-for ending. Which is why hip hop in 2008 mattered again; not because of the newness (or absence of same) in the music but because of its PROCESS and the ends which it, in its deceptively modest way, helped meet. A coalitiion of the most vivid rainbows.

=6. PORTISHEAD: Third
=6. RADIOHEAD: In Rainbows




Longings and wishes can be for a personal salvation as well, of course. The longing to esacpe; to escape not just physically but also from emotional and even fiscal or societal webs which are at times visible, at times not. Third is a dream, a lament, a cold-light-of-dawn realisation that the other (her ex? The Government? Her world?) is deceptive, leading her to puzzles, confusions and a longing for "white horses" which will somehow deliver her out of the quicksand in which she is mired. But there is no way out beyond patient motion, inching along to freedom through clarity - even if she has to echo-located like a bat, she WILL do it; there is an ocean behind her, beside her and in her. The music is stark here, gentle there, pulling and pushing like waves (are we the only people to hear "Big Stripey Lie" in "Machine Gun"? No? OK), is not that far from Hounds Of Love's second side of loss and recovery of self, the morning fog in Portishead a little thicker but sill there.

Radiohead are in the same place, later on the same day, softer and more intimate and - we would never have used this word to describe them previously - homely. White soul beyond what most SoulPassion&Honesty R2/R1 bands/singers are capable of - hymns of liberation longed for and achieved, the systems seem through as being fundamentally unstable. What does anyone need? For those horses to be real? There is escape here, but again it is not an abandoning of community but a realisation - before it is too late - that you have to have your own cards in order first to be able to deal in with whatever you might find. The naked self - the person that you are - is essentially a personal matter; but out on the street or in the park you are an enigma once more, strange, vulnerable...

=5. GIGGS: Walk In The Park
=5. NU BRAND FLEXXX: Rangoose Vol 1

...no matter how hard you try to conceal it with an attempted aura of hardness. Grime managed to communicate with the now far more effectively than most other British music in 2008 managed for one very simple reason (amidst a forest of more complex reasons); it avoided sentimentality. The likes of Elbow, Glasvegas, the Script, Adele, sought to trot up to us, lick our faces like obedient puppies, reassure us of things we already knew, cling to the nurse of biased history for fear of futures worse - or, at the very least, incomprehensible.

But grime thrusts you in the now, leaving you with the barest of compasses; is this the wilderness or just Brockwell Park in the dark? Walk In Da Park was its 2008 apex; a brilliantly realised and even more brilliantly breathed third eye movie of London as it actually exists; a world where it is slowly realised that parties, attitudes, guns, drugs are not the solution or the ambition - the wronged (and wronging) man turning against the hand that might otherwise have killed him and seeking the path to real fulfilment and achievement.

To the stunning, pinky blue achievement, perhaps, of Nu Brand Flexxx. Like So Solid flushed with De La Soul's spare luminous pastels and rappers fiery enough to be in the Brotherhood of Breath front line, they exploded in 21 directions at once; hilarious, lucid, ripping off samples, sometimes just chatting, at other times offering the most luscious Britsoul balladry heard this side of Imagination, theirs was the most colourful and extravagantly eclectic record to emerge from Britain in 2008 and it should sell a milli-on.

=4. LI’L WAYNE : Tha Carter III
=4. LUDACRIS: Theater Of The Mind


L is for Li'l Wayne and Ludacris. L is for love and life, loquaciousness and (crazy-like-a-fox) lunacy. La-la-la-la la la-la-la la goes Li'l Wayne at the lady officer, as he loosely and languidly uses language like a plaything (linking him to #68, but even more dextrous than he). Lollipop, Mil-li-a-mil-li Weezy is indeed ill; and what he feels for his city is true love, his skills being just one example of how New Orleans IS music and how it is not languishing in self-pity nor merely lingering but launching itself into a new era. Li'l Wayne leaps and lunges in lingual loveliness, linking our list with lungs of love and the larynx of life.

Ludacris is licentious, (probably) litigious and most lovably LOUD. There is no getting away from his legacy as he is proud (and rightly so) to remind you that he IS the last of his kind and once the lanes and alleys have been reminded of just how long he's been around, the loyal anthem begins - he doesn't do hip hop for any other reason than for itself. In his theatre, the wall between this and that comes down, hip hop is alive and leaping out of your speakers into your lap and kissing your lips. Allons-y, men of L, may you live large and keep prospering in Atlanta and Nola, two sisters, as inextricably linked as Luda links Dusty Springfield and Spike Lee in his living theater of a never more lucid mind. This is his art, this is his music...Luda is happy to proclaim "I AM!" until we listen and learn.

=3. BEYONCE: I Am…Sasha Fierce
=3. SOLANGE: Sol-Angel And The Hadley St Dreams


Then there is the story of the sisters, both of whom have lived through different definitions of trouble. Again, the contrast; a monochrome Bouncy and a multi-primary-coloured Solange, but the lines aren't quite that squarely drawn, not least because there are two different faces of the Bounce. First, the solemn, slightly fearful face who sings eloquent, patient ballads through which seep the tiniest drops of pain; if she were a boy she'd do better and try harder, but what if she were a rich woman? One with an alias, a mask behind which she could slip? In fact "Single Ladies" is the fuck you response to the "Boy"; you're too late for this groovy train, sucker. But how fierce, really, is Sasha? Her joy tilts subtly towards the demonic - she's a little TOO up for it - and sure enough the mask slips slowly away through this particular show until it drops out of her rested hand onto the silent clatter of the stage floor and she realises that all of this is no substitute for...ANYTHING, least of all life.

And love, too. Solange seems to and indeed doesn't recognise any need for limits, divisions. Most 2008 pop sounds pale and timid compared to her. technicolor dreamscape of brave, determined and open-hearted ambition. She wears wings, dances on the beach and lives her life contrary to what so many in the "industry" would rather have her do (trust us, no one who has Boards of Canada as a sample/inspiration is "normal" and God bless her for her refusal to be anyone except herself). Tending to her wounds openly (as opposed to her sister's deflections - Solange is the Sol-angel and the sun shines through her songs), defiant and single mother courageous, spacey and solidly on the ground...she gazes into the future, stops, and then goes there, decisively, trailing brilliance and independence, a harbinger bird of what is to come spotted like a cardinal on a winter's day.

=2. ERYKAH BADU: Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
=2. T.I.: Paper Trail

Before and after. Pain and redemption. Loss and gain. That's what this tale has been all about. The blue in the 2008 air changed, slowly and irrevocably, both for us personally and for the world at large. It changed in the summer, in Glastonbury, when the missing link between all of these records stood up, was dissatisfied at the way things were and elected to alter them. It changed in November, for everyone and everywhere else, when the dream (and we apologise, incidentally, for omitting The Dream from this tale; like many other deserving artists, he will get his dues in 2009, when we've actually managed to sit down and listen to him) was reached and embraced. A world which some now see as collapsing but which wise people view as the opportunity for a newer and better way of living to begin/ one that does not depend on the spent old ways, but reaches forward as solidly as it stretches back to pre-industrial, pre-feudal times. "We cannot begin again" has been the quotidian excuse for too many centuries; now that we might have to begin again, the world becomes a challenge of a different order.

Erykah Badu's album - the most extraordinary statement by a woman in this year which in so many senses was the year of the woman - wills this world into being. The record is one long invocation, the cowbell broadness and audacity of suggesting that hip hop might just be a religion to save the world. She identifies - savagely - the problem and then patiently sets about fixing it and changing the air until it has no choice but to come into being, to exist. Achieved, she pours a threnody to J Dilla - yet another secret link in this tale, as though you had to be told - and its mourning waters nourish the tree which will grow to mark the new trail (and being on Motown, it also unwittingly acts as a process of remembrance for Norman Whitfield, Levi Stubbs and Marvin Gaye, all of whom would have been more than fulfilled by the outcome of its promise).

As the man says, the wait is indeed over. Who had the number one US single when the world changed? As if you have to ask. Could it be anyone else? Paper Trail (because he had to write the lyrics down while in jail; if you want to make comparisons to Dr. King's own letter from prison, we won't stand in your way) came out in that urgent/nervous-making time when Obama had to prove himself on last time: in debate. And he won them all, just as T.I. would - and does - win out with this. But look who he brings on board with him for his victory parade - Swizz Beatz, Lil Wayne, Kanye, Jay-Z, Ludacris and Rihanna, not forgetting Usher, John Legend (yet another prescence guiding and gilding on our list), or Justin Timberlake. It is a joyous party, to be sure (the "Heys" and "Ohs"massed on "Life Your Life" are, in our minds' eyes, all guys in '50s suits and ties marching and moving their arms in unison, rejoicing that what they marched for has come to pass) but the victory is not achieved without a recognition of what has been lost. T.I.'s lost a friend and this has altered his perceptions of everyone and everything. And he tells you, pointedly, that you must have empathy for him, put yourself in his shoes. So he has the moral authority to say (just as the recession was obvious to even the most rosy-glassed people) "(you're) unhappy with your riches 'cause you're piss-poor morally" - clearly one of the lines of the year, if not the line - T.I. knows what is truly worth his time and worth living for, and what could be empty bragging from someone else is moving and damn righteous here (Yep, okay, that's right, as he would say).

The song of the year, too, is on Paper Trail - the infectious, irresistable and massive "Swagga Like Us" a song that has its roots in London (The Clash's 1982 song "Straight To Hell" from Combat Rock, sampled by M.I.A. for her "Paper Planes" where the main sample for "Swagga" is from, processed by Kanye and sped up and repeated) but is an anthem for the US (and then the rest of the world) as US history gloriously unfolds. It appeared in August just as Obama made his speech in Denver and was immediately picked up as a youttube favorite, variations and remixes abounding. If there is any song we wish we could find at, say, Dub Vendor as a massive mixtape - with all UK grime musicians on it, not forgetting Britney, Missy, Eminem, Beyonce, MJ, the Jonas Bros., Mavado, everybody, this would be it.The whole thing is great, of course,but T.I. slams it in like the California vote coming down, on that night, with total confidence and everything he says could be sung by Obama himself; it is as if Obama is reflected in all these monologues, in one way or another. The last time we hard it, this song was coming from the back of the 28 bus, back in the city of its origins.

The wait is over; the old is indeed dead and gone, the compass points finally forwards, the way there is clear, made obvious by events both personal and political.

=1. COLDPLAY: Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (incl. Prospekts March)
=1. KANYE WEST: 808s And Heartbreak


"You wouldn't even let me rest in peace."
"If you win, Number One will be no longer a mystery to you - if you know what I mean."
"Tell me how do I feel?"

How do we feel? With senses? With emotions? In the winter, the colours washed out in pale light, the tints are all that's left, besides the darkness. One colour stands out: red.

The redness goes back to that blue year, 1983. A year when the shiny yellow hopes of New Pop hit the cold grey rationalism and were, temporarily, halted. A dogged year. A year of disappointment, hurt, but also hope. A year when the red flag and the red heart got battered in so many ways, as drained of opportunity as Kanye's deflated balloon of a heart, although neither actually stopped moving.

Loss and redemption - redemption through faith, which means ultimately connecting and understanding your life with those of others, whether they are close to you or one of the ghosts in cemeteries, those stones marking lives that seem so different from ours, but are not. Where did they work? In a bakery, perhaps, creating that daily bread of life? Or maybe in a world of sparkling tricks and wondrous feats, capable of producing hopping life out of nothing. Or maybe they had lives of piety, good works, convivial unity, for a greater purpose than their own individual lives.

Faced with unexpected ghosts, some may be tempted to get themselves to a nunnery, to fumble for uncertain shelter. Behind the screen, a voice can be heard; the man's voice is veiled as he has this screen, as, he feels his only defence, his only protection. He has lost so much - the woman who knew him better than any other, and his own girlfriend, both gone in a matter of months. So he has cloistered himself with the voice-altering equipment his only friend, something which cannot die, cannot be lost. It is a cool, pale world, and icily precise and austere. He is cut off from all others, and especially himself; in losing those closest to him, part of him is dead as well. It is, in his heart, always night, always cold, always winter. He has lost his soul, but is powerless and cannot help himself.

Then, a startling thing, a noise. A knock on the door. Cautiously he answers it - an old friend - Delacroix, Kahlo, Eno? - comes in, looking perhaps a little dirty (the nunnery's a long walk from anywhere) and carrying with him a largish bag, out of which he produces any number of magical instruments - all from a wondrous machine. The grey nunnery gradually becomes warmer and brighter as the old friend tells him, shows him various buttons, noises, surprises. At the same time, he tells him a story - of glowing colours (the colours vividly appear as he describes them), of lovers and soldiers who love and fight, of kings who once ruled the world and now merely sweep streets, glad to be alive and happier knowing that they are who they are and not what they do. The screen is dropped, in curiosity and wonder. The beats and rhythms the machine produces at one moment move him to tears. Then the friend talks of it, death, as he cries. How the dead persist, not as ghosts always - to haunt and torment - but as kindlier presences, that stretch back as guides, protectors. But he says, the past is not to be lived in, like a cave. He says "you must move forward, if only to go up to the rooftop and see things from a wider perspective. Breathe. Be patient and do not worry."

So he breathes - slowly, gradually - learns patience and does his best not to worry, if only in his mind. But then the coup, the trompe d'oeil he wasn't expecting at all; there, riding the go-go ranges of a signpost of a song called "Lost!" appears the man who introduced him to the world in the first place, the man who was once so impressed by the words he used to write that he gave him his big chance, returning to reassure, to share a laugh, to pat him on the back.

So he manages to stand up again; he shakes off the veil, opens the door (which never was locked anyway) and to his astonishment he sees the roof of the world, every mountain, every tune, every thread in this tale. His lungs clear, and he sings, in his own voice, something like a hymn. Renewed - is that girl really interested in me? And what's happened in Washington?- he sets to work, building his church and it is of course the story of us as well, which is why it must represent our summit. Through the air - never bluer, never clearer - he perceives a sound: light tingling noises and bustles through the air. You can hear it before you see it...

2 comments:

david said...

Very enjoyable and interesting, both. Delighted to see Kanye and especially Badu so high up - that's an album that just keeps getting better and better to my ears. Just got 'Something For All Of Us' on your recommendation. Dunno how I missed that.

Perplexed by Coldplay (and by your maths, joint positions count as two places surely, says this pedant). I think most of my top 35 were in your 100, though I've only just heard James McMurtry's 'Just Us Kids' which has to be one of the ten best albums...

mike said...

Now, THAT'S an EoY list. The Coldplay album is the first thing they've done that I can even stand to listen to, and as such it was one of the surprises of 2008... and last.fm tells that the title track was my most played MP3 of last year. Plenty of stuff further down which I don't know and would like to check out... which is partly what these things are all about, of course. Thanks to both of you for spending so much time and trouble on this.