Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Music 2008, Part 1: The Early Bird Special

It has been a remarkable year for new music. Not just because there has been some good new music released this year, but because of who has been releasing it. A lot of old dudes have rolled out of their pillow top beds and put down some good to great music this year: R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, The Cure, AC/DC, Q-Tip, and Guns n’ Roses. All of these guys released some of their best work more than 20 years ago, and they were all back this year releasing good music once again. You could argue that if any of these guys were new bands then what they released this year would have created huge hype. To some degree they are victims of their own success. None of these guys can ever release music that would be judged as being as good as what they did at their peaks.
R.E.M., AC/DC, and Metallica took a similar approach. They all tried to go back to their roots and resurrect the sound of their glory days. They all succeeded in my opinion. Each group released albums that were very enjoyable for long time fans. Neither really tried to reach new fans, but why bother? It was an election year, and playing to the base is a tried and true strategy.
NIN and The Cure both took their music in the direction they wanted. In both cases this was not a huge departure from where they had been in the past, but it was definitely distinct. The 21st century version of NIN has proven to have its own distinct sound from the 20th century NIN. Since 2005, NIN has released four albums: With Teeth, Ghosts, Year Zero, and 2008’s The Slip, plus the remix album Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D. That’s a lot of music, especially compared to ye olde NIN that tended to take many years between releases. With more product, it has been a little more hit and miss for NIN. That is fine by me. The Slip contained several awesome tracks, and several so-so ones.
It is not uncommon to see rockers past the age of 30 continue to release music, even if it is usually not very good. It is more rare to see a hip-hop artist do this. This year saw an excellent album released by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Tribe and De La Soul once provided an excellent alternative to the misogynistic lyrics of “gangsta” rap. Of course today we have dropped the term gangsta, as it is the norm. Nearly every hip-hop artist is bound to make reference to dealing drugs, brandishing firearms, treating women as property, etc. Q-Tip still does things his own way and The Renaissance sounds as fresh in 2008 as Tribe did back in the late 80’s and 90’s. It was easily the best hip-hop album of 2008, far ahead of good but predictable albums by Kanye West, Lil Wayne, or T.I.
And then there was Guns n’ Roses... The long winding road of Chinese Democracy has been well chronicled. When you listen to Chinese Democracy, it is amusing to speculate about the evolution of the songs. However, I think you are best off to consider Chinese Democracy without its history and build-up. If you do that, it is an average album. It has some good moments, but nothing spectacular. It sounds modern, and that is noteworthy given the age of its creator (even more so if you speculate that many of the songs are 10+ years old, but I said I wouldn’t indulge in such speculation...)
The members of Coldplay are not quite the oldtimers as the above artists. They have been around for a while, and like the other artists, they are always compared to what they have done in the past. Maybe some fans may also think that Coldplay can never do anything that is as good as what they have done in the past. I definitely belonged to that camp -- I thought that Coldplay would never come up with anything as good as “Yellow”. I was wrong, because Viva la Vida is Coldplay’s best album of their career. It was one of my two favorites albums of the year, and I would give it the very subjective nod as the “best”.

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