Brad Auerbach’s Best of 2008
The usual approach is to list the category and provide the candidate(s). We’ll flip it around this year by listing the winners first, and we’ll be more expansive in our coverage to go beyond music.
Led Zeppelin Box Set (Atlantic Records)
In an age where definitive box sets are an increasing rarity (where is that ultimate Van Morrison box set?), the trusty folks at Atlantic and Rhino have assembled the most gorgeous collection possible of a band’s oeuvre.
The Zeppelin limited edition box set is housed in a matte black slipcase, which houses all ten Zep albums in mini-LP sleeves. Which means you get the pinwheel cover on the third album, the five alternate sleeves from In Through The Out Door and the alternate orange ink typeset for the original UK release of their debut. The band (which name apparently comes from Keith Moon describing how he expected the revitalized and renamed Yardbirds to go over) oversaw the box set release, so fans are assured this is not a slapdash affair.
The music clearly has withstood the test of time, and early critical drubbings. The beauty of this box set is that all the music is presented the way most of us found it the first time, as close to the vinyl experience as possible. The slipcase lays out the runes that first appeared on their vaunted fourth album, each symbol alternately representing Page, Jones, Bonham and Plant or fire, water, earth and air depending on your proclivity. The symmetry of the bass and drum representations remains thoughtful.
Much of the fourth album was recorded while Jethro Tull was down the hall producing Aqualung which does not as well withstand repeated listening. Although the fourth Zeppelin album is the third best selling album of all time (shifting 40 million units, over half in the US), it is the pastoral third album to which I return most often.
Indeed, it is that acoustic temperament that is apparently precluding a Zeppelin reunion tour; Plant (now a Commander of the British Empire and a Golden God) intends to continue touring with Allison Krauss through 2009. That apparently hasn’t stopped Page from auditioning replacement singers, but fans will undoubtedly balk at the undoubtedly high ticket prices for a tour that only features two of the original four members.
Until the Beatles and Apple Corps get the message about capitalizing on the obvious demand for what lies fallow in their vaults, the Zeppelin box set is the best in the pile of box sets that line my shelves.
Beach Boys US Singles Collection Box (Capitol)
Honorary mention goes to one of the most influential American bands of all time. Similar to the approach of the Zeppelin box, this deluxe edition likewise features CD-sized recreations, here of the first 16 singles by the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson cranked out a bounty of music in the band’s first three years (1962-65), and this set supplements the original 45s with a variety of gems.
Most of the tracks cover the usual subjects of their early career (girls, cars and the beach), but “In My Room” begins to hint at the underlying darkness that would make Wilson’s work so memorable over the years.
The delicate balance of melancholy lyrics against gorgeous melodies and harmonies is oft-copied but rarely attained by Wilson’s myriad followers. These tracks would fit nicely on a double disc set, but the idea here is to revel in the physicality of the music. If Santa brought you this box, you will have accurate reproductions of the original sleeves and labels, packaged in a board-wrapped, telescoping box with a retro chrome appliance sticker, with a variety of textures including gloss and rubber coatings, inlaid wood veneer and a foil stamp.
The 48 page photo book is wrapped in mock sand. You have heard most of this music before, but never presented visually with such affection.
Best unexpectedly good concert tour. With consistently strong reviews, the remaining pair touched down in several cities and wowed boomers with an eclectic set list and bravado unmatched by their few remaining peers.
Best rumo(u)r for a reunion tour in 2009 is this quintessential British band. The sadly departed Ronnie Lane will be watching from afar, but apparently Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and their mates have been rehearsing. Look for multiple nights in several cities, rather than a barnstorming schedule.
Van Morrison at Hollywood Bowl
He played the storied Astral Weeks album both nights, recording both for a release on his new label. The curmudgeon was unable to fill the compressed venue; my guess is that ticket prices were established before the economic freefall.
Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch)
this double disc captures the single time the vaunted collection of Cuban musicians played on American soil. The sold out gig in NYC was a one-night-only affair, and gathered Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Ruben González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Cachaíto López, and Guajiro Mirabal.
After the roaring success of Ry Cooder’s documentary, each of these musicians enjoyed resurrected and great solo careers (although any future releases from Ferrer, Segundo or González will be posthumous, sadly). The original album is justifiably the biggest selling world music album ever, and this crucial live set is only the second release for the original members.
Telex From Cuba, by Rachel Kushner (Scribner)
For those of us of a certain age, Cuba represents the classic mystery inside an enigma. So close in miles, yet so distant in our understanding. Events like Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club opened the door to the cultural landscape of this tiny devil of an island only 90 miles from Cuba.
Like many folks, the missile crisis was something that put Cuba on my mental map as a kid. But it was in Godfather Part II that the mystery of Cuba first took hold. While the rest of the world can travel freely to Cuba, Americans still must go under the radar, although Michael Corleone went with the support of the US government.
Cooder apparently paid a heavy price for his effort, let’s hope our next administration listens less to the cabal in Miami that has somehow kept a stranglehold on America’s policy towards Cuba. In the wake of Cooder’s exposure of the gorgeous music from Cuba, I have been digging deep across various genres.
This novel is one of those successful pieces of fiction which lays out history in a vivid and memorable way. Americans once owned and controlled Cuba’s most lucrative exports for more than fifty years, sugar and nickel.
Kushner’s debut draws on the experience of her family that lived and worked in Cuba in the midst of a fabulously intriguing dichotomy. Historical figures are woven through the storyline: Batista, Fidel and Raúl Castro. The rich descriptions of the lush seaside towns drop you directly into the action. It is a slow, languid read…befitting of the setting.
There are a handful of legacy artists that released remarkable albums. The David Byrne/Brian Eno collaboration is fabulous. Less compelling is the James Taylor collection of cover songs. Brian Wilson’s latest album has enough sparkle to warrant repeat listening. I really enjoy the latest from Jackson Browne – Time The Conqueror. Browne’s work has moved from the introspective to the more outward-focused over his career. Indeed, if you are reading this far you won’t be surprised that I particularly like his “Going Down to Cuba.” The lyrics include this accurate description:
If I told you once I told you trés
It’ll put a smile on your face to see a Chevrolet with a Soviet transmission
Ah but the country cast a spell
And there are things I think of still
Che, a film by Steven Soderbergh (IFC Films)
My final digression from the music-centric nature of the annual round up is this massive biopic. Seven years of research went into the film about the charismatic compadre of Fidel Castro, and Soderbergh compressed Che’s life into four plus hours. I was enamored of the film, and rarely felt the film was bloated. Producer Benecio Del Toro plays the titular character with finesse. The image of Che is probably only eclipsed by Bob Marley in terms of global merchandising; their images appear on countless T-shirts, berets and blankets (much to the chagrin of whoever is rightfully entitled to royalties).
The first half of the film is more successful. It is shot in lush tones, and covers the fateful meeting of Castro and Che in Mexico leading up to their revolutionary efforts in Cuba. Both halves of the film open with a geography lesson, and the first half opens with somewhat jarring jump cuts. Soon the film settles into its rhythm, cutting back and forth between the colorful jungles of Cuba and the grainy black and white footage of Che addressing the UN in NYC. An interview motif in NYC helps drive the political storyline. Che’s asthma never gets in the way of his enjoyment of a good cigar. He stays in the trenches with his troops, taking over a bazooka to fell a tank at one point. He is shown to be a brilliant tactician.
Soderbegh’s depiction of the groundswell support of the revolution is mesmerizing. A somewhat balanced depiction of the brutality that followed completes the picture. The second half of the film shows Che trying to export the revolution to Bolivia, in hopes of it spreading across South America.
The film’s colors are bleached, partly due to the mountainous setting and partly as an artistic choice. The focus is sharper, and the camerawork is even more daring. A 360 degree sweep toward the end of the film is bravura camerawork. The parallel but unspoken references to the US experience unfolding in Viet Nam are startling.
I was put in mind of two films after seeing Che: the Oscar winning Motorcycle Diaries (romantically describing the road trip Che the physician took which set him on his life’s course) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (another film in which expatriates were successfully chased through the Bolivian mountains).
In addition to all the content I enjoyed in 2008, there were two compelling pieces of hardware that helped me enjoy my music. Slacker is a personal radio that is best described in terms of a mathematical equation:
Slacker = iPod + Rhapsody + Pandora
What you get with the system is the ability to download your own music, discover new music and create your own radio stations. The problem with iPod is that it contains the music you love, which is also its biggest problem. Pandora is one of the several technologies that lets you discover new music, and Slacker capitalizes on that capability. The large screen provides a crisp image of album artwork, as well as access to artist biographies. The Slacker G2 costs $200, and lets you take your free radio stations with you; equivalent to an untethered Pandora. With a monthly subscription, Slacker gives you unlimited skipping so you can fast forward past songs you want to miss.
looks like an old school audiocassette deck, but it hooks up to your computer. Now you have exactly what you need to move those mixtapes from the basement into digitally-accessible files. My wife was happy to see me jettison all the old TDK tapes, and I am pleased to revisit the results of all those hours I meticulously spent assembling my ultimate collections.
Appetite for Self-Destruction, by Steve Knopper (Free Press)
There are a bunch of bands that received critical acclaim in 2008. I have enjoyed recent albums from the likes of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend. Recent releases from veterans like Oasis, Coldplay and Kings of Leon bear repeat listening. Axl Rose’s 13 year gestation was definitely not worth the wait.
But if you want a less-sonic report about how the music business got to where it is today, read this deliciously named book. With sordid tales and business decisions that seem stranger than fiction, Knopper does a credible job detailing how the music business seems to have fallen off a cliff. With more people enjoying more music than ever before, it seems incomprehensible that owning a record company continues to be a diminishing returns business.
Let’s hope 2009 somehow brings a renaissance to the business that supports our love of music.