PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2008

Edited and Produced by Sarah Zupko and Zeth Lundy / Introduction by Patrick Schabe

It’s not entirely coincidental that in 2008 PopMatters has devoted time to discussing the 40-year anniversary of an album that is arguably the biggest cultural product of 1968 in terms of music, and certainly in the top 10 all-time for albums with widespread and long-term influence. No less important, the acknowledgement that 1968 was a fertile year for music in the fullest flush of the rock and soul era, and a great many other touchstones hit the streets that year. Nor, even, a celebrated 40th anniversary of the horror film that “made” zombies — music and movies don’t exist in separate vacuums, after all. We care about the whole cultural milieu.

Because 1968 was an election year in the US — the election year of “the ’60s”, or at least that late ’60s period that came to leave a greasy thumbprint on the cultural imagination for decades to come. It was a highly politicized time, full of idealism entwined with open hostility throughout the cultural strata. And in a highly-charged year such as 2008, full of socio-cultural symbolism and ideology throughout global politics, it feels almost familiar. We have a tug of nostalgia, a hint of reflection, and it’s tempting to look back at the past to make sense of the present.

And when it comes to music, at least, it’s easy to slip into comparison-contrast mode. If 2008 was like 1968 in any way, did we see another “White Album”? Was there a new Aretha? A Hendrix? A Van Morrison? And if there wasn’t, does that mean we’re lacking in creativity and self-expression now, or is it even possible to have these lightning rods anymore?

The problem is, of course, that 2008 isn’t 1968. Generation-splitting cultural upheavals haven’t defined the ‘Aughties (we don’t even have a comfortable phrase like “the ’60s”), and global communications have meant that diversity is now simply inherent to everyday life around the world. In many ways, the doors opened in the ’60s have remained open ever since, kept alive in various guises and under various banners by changing styles and shifting genres, a constant reinterpretation of the past, and even some honest protest. The sheer volume and accessibility of music from around the world makes it paradoxically hard for any one artist to truly matter that much anymore. We are a people with an embarrassment of options.

Not that that’s a bad thing, either. What we lose in the potential global impact of never seeing another release like The Beatles (though leaving open the possibility that there could always be something out there to prove this wrong), we more than make up for in choice selections to fit our many moods and interests.

Yet it’s hard to say that “pop” hasn’t been in a slump this year. Perhaps it’s still the shrinking-pains of a dying central music industry, but it seemed like no one artist managed to successfully work their way to the top of the heap and capture all the attention. The image of pop music as plastic production wasn’t helped by the surge of popularity in vocoder and AutoTuned vocals (see: T-Pain and Kanye West) literally phasing out the question of whether musicians are talented. And in a year where Katy Perry’s softcore romp got as close to ruling the charts as anyone, it’s hard to say that quality music managed to win out, much less a work of genius. If the closest we got was Viva la Vida, we’re certainly not seeing another 1968.

Within the other music industry of the indie-centric world, there seemed to be a steady stream of consistently solid acts making consistently solid albums: the Mountain Goats, Drive-By Truckers, Calexico, and the Hold Steady released records that, while not revolutionary, at least lived up to established standards. TV on the Radio continued their track record of defying their major label’s hopes of commercial accessibility while producing yet another excellently idiosyncratic release. The return of Portishead might have been hotly anticipated, but predictably it was hotly debated as well. Gnarls Barkley proved not to be a fluke, but understandably couldn’t best the moment of their ubiquitous first single.

And though 2008 may go down as the year that finally saw the red herring of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy set free from one of the most ridiculously prolonged gestation periods in rock history — not to mention the year that accelerated the death of the record store by making big-box retailer exclusives an ordinary practice — it was a year where the payoff never quite equaled the set-up. Perhaps new albums by artists like Santogold, My Morning Jacket, and Erykah Badu are indicative of this muddled sense of purpose and direction; they are unclassifiable, drunk with possibility, and burdened by the far reach of our collective now. A fertile time, indeed, but what these new ideas will grow into is anyone’s guess.

Patrick Schabe (Music Reviews Editor)