Sunday, 28 December 2008


Well folks, it seems that everything might just turn out alright after all.

This time last year, shit was looking pretty grim. All manner of stuff - jewellery, hair, clothes, shoes, faces - had turned a rather odious shade of gold, reflecting some pretty damn insidious, all-pervasive, corporate-minded cultural behaviour of the very worst kind. It seemed as though a fucked-up new apathetic-hedonistic Gilded Age was upon us, in which the alternative sphere had been wholly co-opted by the mainstream, in which even the shallowest dregs of 1980s culture enjoyed widespread revivalist homage, and in which Alan Fucking Sugar was treated as a kind of bizarre postmodern folk hero.

But by the end of 2008, thankfully, the situation had improved greatly (with the prospect of more unequivocally ameliorative good craic to come in 2009).

In the name of Jesus Keegan, by December it was even possible to hear people talking favourably about socialism, in a tone other than the now more typical one of total nouveau-ironic disapprobation!

Obviously, we have America in large part to thank for this rather wonderfully seismic epoch shift (although the credit crunch must also get a special mention here - people being less willing to spend their time indulging in bland frivolity of the Kate Nashean/Russell Brandean/Jo Whileyan variety when faced with a burgeoning twat of a recession).

Check out ‘In the New Year’ by the Walkmen: ‘I know that it’s true, it’s gonna be a good year CROWNNN-CRANDLEY-CRANDLEY-ANDLEYY-WOWWW’ and try not to weep shit as you listen to the articulated sound of an entire nation, nay, an entire geo-political hemisphere, nay, an entire cranking planet breathing a great oceanic sigh of relief as all the pessimism, fear and apparent hopelessness of the Bush Era finally began to dissipate.

Indeed, 2008 was nothing short of an anus mirabilis for American music of all kinds, a great, once-in-a-lifetime cultural flowering preceding, and ultimately, thank-fuck-fully, actually commemorating a truly incredible and historic victory for the Senator for Illinois in the US presidential election to end ‘em all.

The marvellous melodic Stateside efflorescence was in evidence right across the board .

Vampire Weekend fell into the collective consciousness like a perfectly-formed chicken nugget of pop brilliance; smooth and jagged in exactly the right places, literate, witty, funky, vocally gorgeous: pure, unabashed, sun-sodden Yankee optimism like we haven’t heard in a geet long while.

No Age and Deerhunter served up two very different, but similarly impeccably-wrought lo-fi shoe-gaze masterworks: woozy esotericism had never sounded so lovely.

Q-Tip came back with an irresistibly sweet offering (I really had forgotten hip-hop could be this immediate and enjoyable). Lil’ Wayne’s record was adventurous in an extremely welcome way, mainstream rap bolstered by a very un-Fiddy-like willingness to inject a light smattering of what might be termed soul into proceedings (sampling David Axlerod always a good starting point in this case).

Hercules and Love Affair produced a dance record which melded plangency and poignancy onto an unremitting, sonically inventive, sometimes even slightly folktronic, disco underbelly, while Flying Lotus came through with a smoky, layered, futuristic dance production job of the kind Britain used to churn out with unfailing consistency until relatively recently (Children of Albion - what has happened to our experimentalist tradition?).

Speaking of which, TV on the Radio surpassed themselves with an album that was just comprehensively beltaz in every conceivable way, summing up the mixture of confusion, melancholy and, ultimately, overriding undaunted empowerment that characterised the historical moment. It’s been a good while since the alternative fraternity had such a cogent leftfield bulwark as TVOTR on which to pin its hopes, in equal parts danceable, eclectic, innovative, melodic, cerebral, and zeitgeist-defining. In so many ways this was the record of the year, if nothing else, an album whose potential for widespread intercontinental influence on a massive scale is undoubtedly something to get excited about.

But really, 2008 was all about the New Primitivism. If one of the most pernicious manifestations of evil in the last decade was a terrifying, insidious fundamentalism, then this year witnessed a neat dialectical twist, as the radical margins put out its own powerful and affirmative proclamation of fundamentals. If the bad guys were going to be bloody, bold and resolute in stating their essentialist, reductive creed, then the good guys would have to respond in kind, with a selective, positive idealism that posited a core essence of stripped-down, inclusive, progressive Americanism.

Musically, this impulse was quite brilliantly embodied in the work of Dodos, Department of Eagles, Bon Iver, and above all, Fleet Foxes, records which collectively dug deep into American history to recover all the humane communalism, visionary magic and boundless optimism of the place, in a way that seemed to provide an emphatic reaffirmation of Lincoln’s description of his country as the ‘last, best hope’ of mankind.

Bon Iver lacerated the heart, Department of Eagles pointed to the future with their psychedelic/experimentalist take on things, and Dodos provided a bit of requisite hi-octane exhilaration, but Fleet Foxes produced a record that was so consistently, astonishingly excellent as to be fully deserving of a much-overused epithet: instant classic. When I saw them at Manchester Academy 2 in November the harmonies were so perfectly concordant as to send wonderful rainbow-coloured natural harmonics bouncing all over the box-like venue. Talk about e pluribus Unum! Really, you would have to be a McCain voter and/or an NME journalist to overlook the fact that something unusual and special was going on here.

(It was almost enough to make up for the loss of DFW, but not quite. I’m sure he would’ve approved).

Amidst all of this it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify being British, on a musical level.

Elder statesmen/women Portishead and Spiritualized were reliably interesting, and Field Music staple finally lived up to its promise with the awesome The Week That Was record (predictably ignored by the Topshop indie contingent - not Kate Moss’s cup of tea I should imagine).

But ultimately we’ll have to do better than the Mystery Jets if we as a musical nation are to have any relevance at all in the ensuing era (and glittery trendy MGMT are some way from being the best people to look to for American inspiration, although it’s not a terrible start).

At the end of it all the Award for Resonant Spirit-of-the-Age Lyric Writing goes to Dodos for ‘I’ve been, I’ve been silent’ (on runaway album highlight ‘Fools’ - all about the past tense here), combined with ‘we can do this on our own’. This summed it all up as astutely as did Thom Yorke a couple of years ago at the height of Bush/Blair with ‘we think the same things at the same time / we just can’t do anything about it‘.

It felt as though we found our voice again in 2008.

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