Friday, December 18, 2009

Casual Listening - Best of the Decade (2K-D1)

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 18, 2009

Here’s what’s left of the end-of-the-year calendar:

Dec 18: The best of the decade

Dec 25 & Jan 1: No reviews, possibly some special features

Jan 8: Launch of the new

Best of the Decade (2K-D1)

1. Kanye West – Late Registration (rap)

If the story of music in the last 10 years was the switch from the "we culture" of radio and record stores to the iCulture of the digital download, the moral is that we've lost any sort of common musical reference point. Except one: Kanye West. I dare you to find someone other than your grandmother who escaped hearing "Gold Digger" this decade (your grandma may surprise you, too), and I dare you to find any other song this decade that would pass that test.

Beyond this, Kanye's music represents a renaissance in hip hop. Aesthetically, it raised the bar for production, introducing a new "wall of sound" that drew heavily on classic soul as well as electronic music. Lyrically, it broke the stranglehold of gangsta rap, unmasking and embracing the music as the province of nerdy Black kids far more than actual thugs. Kanye is responsible for defining the Chicago School of hip hop, which inspired artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest as well as rejuvenating older heads like Common through brilliant production work. All this in addition to Kanye's production work on several definitive albums by Jay-Z.

Kanye has given us some of the most enduring pop music of the decade, with indelible hooks set against exquisite sonic backdrops. There's a musical complexity to much of his work that will be rewarding listeners for decades more.

Listen to Kanye West “Touch the Sky

Honorable Mention: Common – Be; Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor; Jay-Z – The Black Album; Q-Tip – The Renaissance, Outkast – Stankonia

2. Green Day - American Idiot (rock)

By the middle of the decade, the absurdity of the Bush years was beginning to collapse on itself: two failed wars, torture scandals, and a hurricane made worse by government ineptitude. All this the result of an administration that was democratically elected. Twice.

There was only one possible response, and although the album wasn't explicitly a political rallying cry, young America embraced it as such. American Idiot became a giant upturned middle finger to the Bush administration and all those who blindly supported it. That it came from a punk band was fitting, although in 30 years punk has only turned out a handful of pop anthems of this magnitude.

American Idiot is driving energy, tuneful melodies, and tight vocal harmonies. Green Day manages to create a more penetrating sound than seems possible for a 3-piece guitar band. Slower pieces like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” take the same core thread of alienation and pull it inward. This album will be remembered as the one that captured the zeitgeist of the Bush years, tied it to a tree, and drove a stake through its heart.

Listen to Green Day “American Idiot

Honorable Mention: Radiohead – In Rainbows; Bruce Springsteen – The Rising; The White Stripes – Red Blood Cells; TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain; Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere

3. Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart (world)

Barack Obama won the Nobel peace prize because people around the world heard him – and America by extension – speaking in their own languages, whether quoting from the Qur'an, Chinese proverbs, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bela Fleck is our musical Obama, one of the few musicians with the musicianship and the desire to have a dialogue with nearly anyone on the globe.

Throw Down Your Heart may be the strongest statement of American engagement with the world community since Paul Simon's Graceland. It's a banjo travelogue to the land where the instrument was born, notable because most of the songs here are not a fusion of east and west, but rather Fleck playing fundamentally African music with African musicians. He navigates about a dozen distinct styles in five countries brilliantly and with minimal rehearsal time. Even more than the virtuosity of Fleck's playing, we are witness to the depth of his listening.

As with Obama's Nobel, Fleck represents the possibility of a new relationship with the world, if not yet its full realization. This is still cause for celebration. We have on our hands the kind of global cultural ambassador America hasn’t seen since Dizzy Gillespie, with the talent and grace to take a seat at the global jam session.

Listen to Bela Fleck “Zawose

Honorable Mention: M.I.A. – Kala; Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche e Bamako, Mariza – Fado Curvo; Antibalas – Talkatif; Manu Chao – Proxima Estación: Esperanza

4. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (folk)

The surprise of the decade in folk music was who was playing it – namely young musicians, including a lot of barefoot guys with big beards. The generational shift is as profound as the folk revival of the 1960's, when the Greenwich Village kids reconfigured old American music for an urban scene. The stylistic shift in this decade has been equally profound, with the new music sounding as different from Bob Dylan as Dylan sounded from Blind Willie McTell.

Stevens is of this group, but brings a classical sensibility to his art. He's drawn to paint grand orchestral narratives of The American People, shot through with populist, pastoral aspirations, tempered with the post-modern self-consciousness that such grandiosity is drastically out-of-vogue. He is Aaron Copland for a new Millennium.

"Illinois" is a pastiche of culture and kitsch, a wax museum where Carl Sandburg stands beside the Superman statue from downstate Metropolis. Woven through this landscape are intensely personal narratives. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is representative: known to Illinois schoolchildren less as a Polish heritage celebration than a gift of state-sanctioned hookey, it becomes a song about the day Stevens must come to grips with the death of a lover. With grief and memory tightly spun over a simple melody, the effect is breathtaking.

Listen to Sufjan Stevens “Casimir Pulaski Day

Honorable Mention: Various Artists – O Brother Where Art Thou (soundtrack); Iron & Wine – Around the Well; Nickel Creek – This Time; Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

5. Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around (country)

At a time of growing Balkanization in the world of country music, Johnny Cash was the one figure that inspired everybody. His late recordings are a remarkable document of man dealing with the reality of his own death. Under the guiding hand of producer Rick Rubin, Cash began putting on tape as much music as he could manage. He sang folk standards and church hymns, pop chestnuts, murder ballads, and a handful of songs made popular by much younger musicians.

The Man Comes Around shows both the range and depth of Cash’s late work. From the apocalyptic prophesy of the title track to the unexpected tenderness of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to the devastating honesty of "Hurt," he holds nothing back. The deep tremor of his voice – pained, hopeful, determined – turns every song to gold.

These recordings are a hope chest for the ages. In preparing it, Cash became an American Folk Hero. He played to beat the steam drill, and victorious, he laid down his guitar and he died.

Listen to Johnny Cash “Hurt

Honorable Mention: Chuck Ragan & Austin Lucas – Bristle Ridge; Lucinda Williams – World Without Tears; Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose; Steve Earle – Jerusalem

6. Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble – Black Unstoppable (jazz)

While many jazz veterans are still making innovative music, the untold story of this decade is that many of the most important young lions are women. The best-selling new jazz artist of the decade is Norah Jones, while the most critically acclaimed new voice is Esperanza Spaulding. Both have real talent that has yet to find full expression. Nicole Mitchell is the rising star of this decade that actually produced a masterpiece.

Black Unstoppable acknowledges the broad inheritance that is Black music, with aural nods to blues, gospel, Motown, and classic jazz, as well as the avant-garde with which Mitchell is most closely identified. Her vision is a profoundly feminist one, a rarity in a field where even the most talented female musicians rely on conventional love ballads.

She has the confidence of a lion, with muscular themes that become the basis for free improvisation. Alongside the most challenging pieces are passages haunting in their simplicity – the final riff of “Thanking the Universe” seems to linger in your ears for hours after the final note has gone silent. Mitchell's is a bold and beautiful vision, the new shape of jazz to come.

Listen to Nicole Mitchell “Thanking the Universe

Honorable Mention: Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters , Dave Holland – What Goes Around; Dianne Reeves – Good Night and Good Luck (soundtrack); Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar

7. Mavis Staples – Live: Hope at the Hideout (gospel)

It's a matter of cosmic symbolism that this album was released on election day, 2008. The spirituals that gave courage to the civil rights movement seemed to be finding their fulfillment that day. While Mavis Sings "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and adds "We're going to get that prize!" election returns showed Americans turning over at least a piece of that prize to a Black President. One can't help but feel goosebumps all through this record.

Staples had developed this project a year earlier with guitarist and producer Ry Cooder for the album "We'll Never Turn Back." Although the Cooder arrangements have stayed, the sound is exponentially better without him, trading the pristine studio for a flesh-and-blood audience. The call-and-response, as well as Mavis' storytelling, is as captivating as the songs themselves.

One election can't fix the world. We're going to need the courage of these songs for years to come.

Listen to Mavis Staples “Eyes on the Prize

Honorable Mention: Mike Farris – Salvation in Lights

8. The Silk Road Ensemble – New Impossibilities (classical)

Twentieth-century classical music broke down nearly every remaining aesthetic barrier attached to the art form. What distinguishes the 21st century so far is the breaking of cultural barriers. From the recognition of composers such as Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun to the buzz over Gustavo Dudamel's premiere with the L.A. Symphony, it's clear that the classical idiom is no longer exclusively Western art.

The Silk Road Ensemble exemplifies this trend, breaking cultural barriers through most of the decade. Led by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the ensemble features virtuoso players on a number of Eastern instruments - Sheng, Pi-pa, Koto, Tabla and others. While each of the ensemble's recordings break new ground, the collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra covers the broadest stylistic range, as well as showing the creative possibilities of this music in conventional classical performance.

The Silk Road is itself a powerful symbol of what this music represents, the name referring to the legendary trade route across Asia connecting Europe and the Far East. It speaks of pan-Asian continuity, relations built on exchange rather than colonialism, and a metaphorical crossroads of history, wealth, and culture. The Silk Road journey is the artistic paradigm of the new millennium.

Listen to Silk Road Ensemble “Ambush From Ten Sides

Honorable Mention: John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls; Osvaldo Golijov – La Pasion Segun San Marcos; John Williams – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (soundtrack)

9. Daddy Yankee – Barrio Fino (Latin)

It's a rare treat to watch an entire new style of music emerge. The mix of dancehall reggae and North American rap known as Reggaeton had its passport stamped in Panama, Puerto Rico, and the United States (among other places) on its way to becoming a hemispheric if not global phenomenon. Reggaeton blew up mid-decade to the point where there were entire radio stations playing nothing but. That fever has subsided, but the influence of the music is still strong in rap and rap-en-espanol, while the most prominent Reggaeton artists are still making records and touring.

Daddy Yankee was the first artist to go Big with a capital B, and this was the album that did it. You'll hear the quintessential stutter-step beat, hyper-masculine boasting, and wickedly addictive hooks on “Gasolina.” Yankee's convincing bad-boy personality and biting delivery help distinguish him from the crowd of performers who drove this sound throughout the decade.

Listen to Daddy Yankee “Gasolina

Honorable Mention: Vicente Fernandez – Primera Fila, Chicha Libre – Sonido Amazonico; Paulina Rubio – Pau-Latina; Café Tacuba – Cuatro Caminos

10. Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (kids)

The last ten years saw a proliferation of kids albums, often by alternative rockers who now have young kids of their own. The vast majority of this music will be forgotten. To get a sense of what may endure, strip away all the clever cookies-and-naptime lyrics. If the raw music can hold the kids' (and parents') attention, you've got a keeper. By this test, much of the best music for kids you'll find in other categories in the virtual record store.

Springsteen's Seeger Sessions succeeds for the same reason that Seeger's music has succeeded for going-on-70 years: time-tested songs delivered with a palpable sense of joy. In Springsteen's case, a fifteen-piece band gives this recording the feel of an old-time hootenanny. There's also the satisfaction of exposing kids to several American classics, including "O Mary Don't You Weep'' and "We Shall Overcome." Pete Seeger's music made the generational leap, as I'm now playing my childhood records for my own kids; I'm hoping Springsteen makes the leap for my kids’ kids thirty years from now.

Listen to Bruce Springsteen “Jacob’s Ladder

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Mitchell – You Are My Little Bird; Ellis Paul – The Dragonfly Races; They Might Be Giants – Here Comes Science

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