December 25, 2008

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Snap, sad and metal
Wherein the rock critic surveys 2008 in music
By Eric W. Saeger letters@hippopress.com

• Un-Solid State: I received an e-mail two weeks ago from a woman in New Jersey who needed to vent about how we “rock critics” are too negative and cynical, even in a year like 2008, when processed cheese and badly conceived home-recipes marched over art like the Germans over the French (funnily, people who have the time to critique critics as being “too negative” are usually in, or groupie-ing thereof, bands that are on the business end of nasty reviews).

Yes, Virginia, there’s a lot wrong with rock critics.  It’s our job to listen to too much horribleness, and our mean and rotten writing is easily explained through the old “garbage in, garbage out” saw.  But lines do need to be drawn, and I have.  The rule of thumb I tried to follow in 2008 and going forward, subject to change, is that if X band sounds way too much like Y band, but Y isn’t very famous, I cut X a few meters of slack, being that who cares.  On the other hand, if X band rips off too many Coldplay songs, they’re lost and in need of help, thus my smiting of them is meant as a learning aid to these mosquitoes trying to imitate blue whales, who usually foist their uselessness upon the public ear for their own spoiled-class amusement and nothing else.

Either way, there was much to grouse about this year. Rock was everywhere, trying everything on for size, but more than ever before it concerned itself with cynical side-work in commercials and ringtones.  The business has come full-circle, with even the most anti-social posturing being used as a tool for getting a contract not with Warner Bros. or EMI but Subaru or Verizon.  I’m not the first to say this, but the only swindle remaining to impress rock fans in the texting age is on-stage suicide, but even that wouldn’t last much past 15 minutes.

Art died a while ago, as everyone knows, and it’s come back as a ghost that isn’t allowed to do guitar solos or enchant the public with any melody more challenging than something memorable enough to alert you instantly that an ex-friend-with-debatable-benefits is calling to make several minutes of your life vanish screaming into a black hole.

Now, all that stuff isn’t your personal fault, but if you’re interested in taking responsibility, you’re a great person.

• The Fake-14k Golden Girls: In 2008, snap-dance/hip-hop/R&B diva-ness was the tackling dummy of basically every critic around.  Just no serious love at all.  Why did I not review any of that stuff?  Because you already either hated it more than your least-favorite politician or you loved how it reminded you of the guy/girl/whatever you met at the club Saturday night.  Snap-hip&B has joined politics and religion as one of the things you don’t talk about in mixed, unpredictable company. 

In real life, though, Keyshia Cole and Rhianna got a little deserved R-E-S-P-E-C-T for touring behind, ah, what do you call those things, good albums, but Britney, whose hair grew six years in eight months, came “back” to bring it down again.  Or, rather, her keepers did.  If the bald-straightjacket thing was all an act, just give her the money.  If not, this whole greedy experiment involving making a sex-crazed Madonna-bot out of a prego-trailer-hick Debbie Gibson isn’t going to end well.

As for Miley Cyrus, whatever she is?  I had no idea they’d invented inflatable androids.  There isn’t enough Schadenfreude in the known universe to give us adequate payback for this monstrosity.  And if the Jonas Brothers are still virgins, I’m Granny Clampett’s hairdresser.

• The Brooklyn Bums: Like the Ebola virus, there’s a bat cave that “underground” indie rock uses as a Petri dish, in which it grows and becomes more and more toxic to the brains of humans.  I speak of the Bowery Ballroom in New York, lorded over by an entire battalion of four-eyed pierced Baboon Dooleys, all blogging away and making or breaking bands.  Everest had a good album this year, though not great, and that brings us to the finish of this topic, to be continued only if the joint starts embracing songs, like, you know, songs.

• Smell the Glove: Heavy metal remained the really loud skeleton in rock n roll’s closet.  Like Mastodon a few years ago, Meshugga had a great album, others copied it, and those who didn’t either broke up or are well on their way to doing so.  The fan base further widened into more distinguishable sub-tribes — emo, goth and death-metal kids hate each other, but as one they’re the same lonely, socially inept breed who blame their mothers for their own mistakes in choosing friends who get them into horrible situations, such as finding themselves wanting to attend Taking Back Sunday concerts.  Ergo, nothing has changed but the labels, although more and more people are making themselves believe they like awful bands, Tool for example.  Can I stop talking about this?

• I Am Legend: So what’s the good news?  A lot, sort of.  Meshuggah.  Dillinger Escape Plan.  The Little Ones.  M83.  But such bullets are for lists, one of which will begin in a second.  First, though, one final defense of snarky rock critics, which I call the “home movie defense.” 

Somewhere in the world is the worst musician alive able to boast a small following.  That person has a 9000% better chance of injecting their baloney into the entertainment stream than does a filmmaker with a home movie camera.  Sure, stupidly embarrassing things have been captured in indie films (take a bow, Chloe Sevigny), and the number of indie films is indeed starting to multiply at a tragic rate.  But that figure is dwarfed by the number of awful bands able to throw together a few hundred local “fans” and get small record contracts.  And all those CDs have to be listened to by someone, namely me, since no one else will.  It’s lonely, being the only guy to experience a surprisingly good or hilariously bad moment of music, but someone has to protect your hearing.


Recommended 2008 albums, in no particular order
• M83, Saturdays=Youth (ambient rock-electro ingeniousness)
• Does It Offend You, Yeah? You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into (big-beat experimental doofus-along)
• Everest, Ghost Notes (borderline-pop indie)
• The Little Ones, Morning Tide (throwback-prog/indie-pop)
• Nas, [Untitled] (cautionary gangsta-rap with politic ideas recently rendered obsolete)
• Greta Gaines, Whiskey Thoughts (chick-flick country-pop)
• Drug Rug, Drug Rug (dustbowl-indie)
• Meshuggah, Obzen (metal)
• Sigur Ros, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (snob-experiment downer-chill-techno)
• Keyshia Cole, A Different Me (snap-dance R&B)
• Bigelf, Cheat the Gallows (leg-pulling prog/stoner metal)
• Oscar G, INNOV8 (tribal house)
• Coldplay, Viva La Vida (downer-bubble-pop/jock-indie)
• Die Form, Bach Project (spook-haunted S&M-industrial)
• Ladytron, Volecifero (DJ-smoothened technopop)
• Emmanuel Jal, Warchild (Janjaweed-horror-rap)
• The Airborne Toxic Event, The Airborne Toxic Event (scatter-fired post-indie)
• Civet, Hell Hath No Fury (all-girl powerpunk)
• Buddy Guy, Skin Deep (oldschool drunk-blues)