Twelve months of music to the ears

Across musical genres – from hip-hop to nu-folk, from rock to soul – this year was never short of tuneful delights.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

From the innovative soul of Gnarls Barkley to the mature lyrics of Beck, 2008 was the year that some of today’s greatest musicians reinvented their genres – and themselves.

Befitting the season of new beginnings, this spring saw the welcome release of the duo Gnarls Barkley’s second studio album, The Odd Couple. Whilst the supposedly soulful John Legend racks up Grammys like a good hack should, these true soul innovators remain the only band capable of bringing the genre into the twenty-first century.

Gnarls Barkley’s debut St Elsewhere, with help from its mega hit single ‘Crazy’, was a success the duo certainly wouldn’t have expected. Yet whilst it was indeed a runaway success, tracks entitled ‘Feng Shui’ and ‘Transformer’ (as in robots in disguise), tainted this otherwise brilliant album.

With their follow-up album, it would seem the Gnarls Barkley boys (the duo is made up of DJ Danger Mouse and singer Cee-Lo Green) have their feet set firmly on the ground. Whilst the album’s first single release ‘Run’ admittedly lacked the magic of ‘Crazy’, its power and punch was a perfect reintroduction to the band.

Surprisingly melancholic in places, tracks like ‘Who’s Gonna Save My Soul’ and ‘Open Book’ contain some of the most exquisite vocal performances on the album, whilst lines such as ‘Did you know I could be/A would-be/ Killer!’, provide an equal measure of humour. It is doubtful whether the duo will every recapture St Elsewhere’s success. Still, The Odd Couple represents a creative evolution for Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse, and for soul lovers it was a gem in an otherwise rather barren spring.

Indie fans, too, got their fare share of musical fixes in 2008. Hailing from the home of grunge, Seattle indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie’s rise to fame was the most unlikely success story of the past 12 months. At first, the quartet’s sixth studio album, Narrow Stairs, seemed designed to avoid commercial success. Blatantly darker than previous endeavours, including an eight-minute song told from the perspective of a stalker, Narrow Stairs seemed destined to attract, at most, a narrow cult following.

Yet, lo and behold, Narrow Stairs entered the US charts at number one. Even more bizarre is the fact that this commercial peak represents a creative breakthrough for Death Cab For Cutie as well. With Narrow Stairs being their second album on a major label, it would seem the lads have nothing left to prove, allowing them the scope to explore the possibilities of lead singer Ben Gibbard’s song writing. From the epic opener ‘Bixby Canyon Bridge’ to the beautiful closer ‘The Ice is Getting Thinner’, the band member Chris Walla’s ingenious production exposes the hidden depths of Gibbard’s words, making this May release one of the most deeply fulfilling albums of the year.

On the theme of the artists that ‘returned to form’ in 2008, July saw the release of Beck Hansen’s eighth studio album, Modern Guilt. Enlisting Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse as producer, a retro sensibility provides the perfect accompaniment for some of Beck’s most dynamic song writing in years. Whereas his wide array of influences made previous works Guero and The Information feel crazed and convoluted, here they fuse gloriously, whilst a focus on Sixties pop provides some much needed direction.

With global warming and climate change as the backdrop for much of the album, in Modern Guilt the 38-year-old Beck has finally started acting his age. And whilst for much of the album he sacrifices fun for poignancy, the beauty of ‘Chemtrails’ or ‘Volcano’ are ample compensation.

While Beck has reinvented himself, the nu-folk wunderkind Jim Moray has been accredited with revolutionising the folk genre. With his latest album, Low Culture, Moray has clearly confirmed his own worth.

Moray’s debut Sweet England divided the folk community, but it also caused great sensation and his revolutionary approach to the folk tradition was widely likened to the greats. However, his self-titled follow-up album in in 2006 saw a departure from its electronic predecessor, as Moray dived into intense orchestration and glam rock embellishment – with mixed success. Alas, this risky move caused many a critic and fan to wonder what they had seen in the young chap from Macclesfield in the first place.

Inevitably, Low Culture represents a delightful middle ground, where Moray’s use of grand orchestration and electronic blippery is still present, yet this time limited to only a few songs. Still, though they may not form the majority of the album, Low Culture‘s greatest triumphs lie in the risky experiments.

Whilst the grime-folk mash up ‘Lucy Wan’, featuring emcee Bubbz, leaves you wondering whether it is brilliantly innovative or hilariously misguided, the marimba loops of ‘Leaving Australia’ or the rock symphony that is ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ are triumphs only Moray could have achieved. Easily the best folk album of 2008, Low Culture is reason enough to wonder why Jim Moray isn’t at the forefront of a full-fledged folk revival.

From Maxonians to Mancunians: Oasis, after years of disappointing their fans and delighting their critics with a string of painfully bland albums, returned with a vengeance this year with Dig Out Your Soul. With this album, it seems the boys from Manchester have tamed everything that once dragged them down; intelligent production has even brought the notorious Gallagher vocals into line.

The band seems to have reached new heights of creativity also, as in the rock-and-roll fanfare of ‘Bag it Up’ and the tender eloquence of ‘Falling Down’. In Dig Out Your Soul, Noel Gallagher displays a range he has never revealed before. Whilst this is by no means a seminal Oasis creation, the mere fact that Dig Out Your Soul is a listenable Oasis album this side of the millennium is justification enough for it to be regarded as one of the best albums of 2008.

Noel Gallagher caused a stir last summer when, reacting to the news that Jay-Z would headline the Glastonbury festival, the Oasis man declared that hip-hop was ‘wrong’ for the event. Well, Jay-Z’s gig was a hit and it looks like some his hip-hop colleagues are successfully restoring the genre to its full glory.

Its title reflecting hopes of heralding a hip-hop rebirth, Q-Tip’s The Renaissance reminds us of everything brilliant that the floundering genre has lost. As front man of the now legendary A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip defined rap for a new generation, and in a sea of commercialised rhymes, the Abstract Poet’s latest album feels like a breath of old-school fresh air.

As Q-Tip wanders through genre, topic and style, one can’t help but be amazed by his ability to avoid every pitfall so many of his contemporaries stumble into time and again. Indeed, the album sees Q-Tip cross every line a rapper really shouldn’t; he goes political, sentimental and he even sings. The only difference being he pulls it off.

All in all, 2008 was nothing less than music to the ears.

Tom Slater took part in spiked’s 2008 Journalism Summer School.

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Topics Culture


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