2008 in music: A critical dialogue between Spencer Patterson and Annie Zaleski
Wed, Dec 24, 2008 (midnight)
SP: What struck me most about 2008 was the way relatively simple music really seemed to resonate, both critically and across a wider spectrum of music listeners. Fleet Foxes’ unpretentious classic-rock redux. Deerhunter’s de-experimental album, Microcastle. M83’s poppiest disc to date. Even Vampire Weekend—sure, it borrowed some African rhythms, but on the whole it’s pretty unadventurous stuff. All of those are popping up on a lot of year-end lists, which feels like a noticeable change from the preferred epic songwriting of the Arcade Fire and The Decemberists in recent years. I suppose it’s to be expected: In complicated times, the last thing most people need is complicated music. And of course, as with any perceived “trend,” it’s hardly across the board—TV on the Radio sounded pretty darn apocalyptic this year, and that’s coming up No. 1 on a lot of lists—but overall, it just seemed like less was more for a lot of people in 2008.
AZ: I’ll agree with you about 2008’s musical simplicity, but what struck me more is how people gravitated toward the familiar—comfort-food music that sounded like things from the past. Ladyhawke channeled Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar on her debut. Much of Neon Neon’s debut sounded like a hipster Men at Work. The Broken West ditched Cali-pop for the shadows of The Church. And The Jesus and Mary Chain really didn’t need to reunite, because Crystal Stilts, Vivian Girls and countless others aped their reverb-and-distortion tricks. Even veterans—The Hold Steady, Cat Power and R.E.M., for example—seemed to repeat their pasts on new albums. These imitations didn’t feel self-conscious, or like direct rip-offs, but it’s still troubling that there was so much recycling of the past. Very few acts seemed to push themselves to take what happened in the past and move it forward into something new. Even Top 40 tunes copied the same beats, tics and Auto-Tuned vocals from their peers. Finding things I enjoyed listening to was easy; finding things with staying power was a challenge.
SP: For me, Erykah Badu pushed the past forward, re-molding the urban distress of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Public Enemy into something wholly of-this-moment. But I’d argue that, in an even more general sense, 2008 wasn’t a year for great musical strides. Most of my favorite discs—The Walkmen, TV on the Radio, Wolf Parade, The Black Keys, Silver Jews—were simply further examples of good work from good bands, not envelope-pushing, except for maybe a handful of tracks. And that seems like a significant difference from the past several years, when artists like Animal Collective, Beirut, Liars, Grizzly Bear and The Knife were breaking legitimate new sonic ground. I think when I look back at 2008, I’ll remember it most for its veteran acts—okay, so they didn’t reinvent themselves, but they re-established that they still have something worthwhile to say. Portishead’s modernized approach on Third. Spiritualized’s powerful songwriting on A&E. Antietam’s indie walkabout, Opus Mixtum. Emmylou Harris, The Dead C, Q-Tip, Wire, Billy Bragg. Hell, even Jeff Mangum played a few shows, and if that doesn’t make a year memorable, nothing will.
AZ: I think that’s a very good point—2008 was a year in which artists I liked built on their past catalog with solid, if not adventurous, releases. (Save for Kanye West, whose Auto-Tune-heavy, mournful 808s and Heartbreak was oddly alluring despite its unorthodoxy.) While maybe not incredibly exciting or flashy, 2008’s releases were certainly comforting: The Whigs, Damien Jurado, Jack’s Mannequin, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Elbow, CSS and Parts & Labor crafted good albums that resonated beyond the first few spins. This isn’t to say that these solid releases didn’t have moments of absurdity: Death Cab for Cutie’s nine-minute single “I Will Possess Your Heart” and Fall Out Boy’s aping of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” on “I Don’t Care” stand out. I’ll remember this year for the amount of reunion shows and albums, some of which added to bands’ already rich legacies: Swervedriver annihilated what you thought you knew about guitar on their reunion tour, James’ Hey Ma stood next to any of their politically and emotionally charged discs—and even My Bloody Valentine emerged from hibernation to destroy eardrums once again.