10 best records of '08
Lucinda Williams — Little Honey (Lost Highway)
I’ve been a fan of Lucinda Williams since my college days, and never was there a purer exponent of American blues, honky-tonk, folk and poetry. She’s let me down before with her ruminations on pain and addiction, but with Little Honey she throws everything in her stylistic repertoire onto the canvas, and loosens up, besides. “Jailhouse Tears, ” Exhibit A in Williams’ honky-tonk songbag, is as hard bitten as anything George Jones or Dimebag Darrell Abbott ever conceived. “Little Rock Star,” another stellar track, begins with a spare, acoustic meditation on tortured artistry, and then explodes in a shimmering radial of indie splendor.
Drive-By Truckers — Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West Records)
The Drive-By Truckers, like my favorite band of all time the Grateful Dead, has created an expansive vision of American music that thrives on multiple voices, joyous riffs ripped from the past and recharged with the band’s own ornery brilliance, loud rock and roll and generous spirits. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark recalls some of the thematic cohesion and sprawling glory of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, but the songs are all new. “You and Your Crystal Meth” is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell,” but more barren and frank. “Self Destructive Zones” is punk rock and redneck, full of both camaraderie and jaded disappointment, rocking like Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and proof that the best music still comes from the hinterland — in this case, northern Alabama.
Saul Williams — The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (selfreleased)
With the help of industrial pioneer Trent Reznor and a host of other producer-performers, New York City slam poet Saul Williams achieves a feat of fusion on the order of Prince while dropping a concept album every bit complete as the album its title spoofs created by David Bowie. Though I’m loathe to applaud covers, in Williams’ hands U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is transformed from a Celtic-rock anthem into a piece of terse funk. And alterego Niggy Tardust is cool, ineffable and ironic: “Sing along when Niggy sings. Without you he’d be worthless, homeless, earthless… freak show hear him speak so, because every word is mentioned against meaning, probably scheming to unlearn us. Don’t you call him by his name, white people — call him Curtis
The Nondenoms — Persistent (Devil’s Lake Recordings)
At first blush, the Nondenoms might seem like an improbability, an afterthought, but in hindsight they come out on the top of the heap of the minor Greensboro punk-rock insurrection. Start with short, well-crafted and hooky songs, then add a badass female bass player who puts musicianship before sex appeal, a buzz-saw guitar and a relentless drumming styled ripped from the annals of Rush. The record’s pacing and attitude is nasty, vindictive, always spirited. Starting with “Deadly at Any Speed,” a song about getting the hell out of this dead-end town, Persistent grabs your throat and doesn’t let go.
Ty Bru — On the Brink
A young rhymer from Asheboro, proudly wearing his Ap State colors, Ty Bru serves a reminder that the original brilliance of hip hop was its ability to speak truth to power from the trenches of individual struggle.
I do wish the mercenary crunk of “ASHEBORO” wasn’t included, but otherwise this album largely triumphs, with inventive production values that don’t crowd the lyric. The a capella intro says everything On the Brink needs to convey: “Wonderin’ why we got monsters shootin’ up the Amish, a constant battle of the conscious, reality skewed, one-hundred percent of the population feelin’ used, resort to drugs, alcohol, prostitute, Wal-Mart for the heart, more and more fast food. We goin’ down fast, dude. ADD, bipolar, can’t be based on they last mood. It does sound convincing: Cars drive by with the booming system. Still no positive lines to listen. We don’t have to claim religions: Muslim, Catholic or Christian. Just share your vision, use your heart for your wisdom…. So, I do different, make sure I write songs when my night’s long, always have my mic on, but y’all just fight wrong. Use Scarface to base your life on?”
Cavalera Conspiracy — Inflikted (Roadrunner Records)
The brothers Cavalera and their fellow travelers in thrash, Mark Rizzo and Joe Duplantier, throw down an unremitting regime of brutality on this disk. The titles betray little subtlety: “Terrorize,” “Ultra-Violent, “Bloodbrawl,” “Hearts of Darkness” and “Must Kill.” So why do I like this? Simple, at least as much as any exemplar of metal who trod the path of war, Cavalera Conspiracy makes music that is visceral, physical, cathartic and brimming with instrumental virtuosity.
Old Stone Revue — Heirloom (selfreleased)
Ragged and worn, ripped from the pulsing heart of bruised life, Old Stone Revue has been working out its idiom for some time now. Part of what they do is jazz-touched, Sam Bush-style finger picking, part is ensemble rock and roll in the spirit of the Band, part is pure gospel feeling, and part is songwriter’s songwriting.
Produced by Bill Stevens of the Solos Unit, the elements come together in bracing clarity. The musicianship is fine, the songs are strong, and otherwise generalities fail to describe what’s going on with this band. “Man In Black,” “Smaller Every Day” and “Long Ago” are standouts.
Bruce Piephoff — The Chestnut Tree (Flyin’ Coud Records)
A humane misfit of high order, Bruce Piephoff chronicles the marginal and beat characters of his native Greensboro with near religiosity. As usual, the troubadour teases out the native talent, from David “Driveway” Moore blowing harp on “Count No Count’s Nightmare #36” to Sam Frazier picking a delicate and moving lead guitar on “Orbit Bath,” but perhaps none merges more seamlessly than Filthybird’s Renee Mendoza, harmonizing with Piephoff on the opening track, “Notes From Knoxville,” which takes stock from lives lived at the precipice: “Another year lived in exile/ God bless our loved ones, each and every one/ Sooner or later, they’ll give up on us/ Walk where we walk, or take the bus.”
David Byrne and Brian Eno — Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (selfreleased)
David Byrne and Brian Eno’s first collaboration since the release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981, Everything showcases the adventurous spirit of two great artists working the obscure and delightful corners of voice and sound. The music is relaxed and comforting, which is somewhat counterintuitive for an album that is essentially traditional sounding vocals wedded to electronica instrumentals. Eno calls it “something like electronic gospel,” which sounds fair enough.
Horse Feathers — House With No Name (Kill Rock Stars)
Melancholy, indie-folk chamber music, Portland, Ore.’s Horse Feathers takes me to another place. The three band members play trumpet, piano, cello, celeste, zither, violin, viola, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, saw, lap steel and electric guitar between. House With No Name invokes dead leaves and autumnal solitude for me.