NPR Music 10: 2008

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 8:09 am

February 19, 2008

Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago is released — again

Justin Vernon initially self-distributed his dreamy, career-making debut as Bon Iver. After seven months of buzz, it was rereleased by the indie label Jagjaguwar.


February 26, 2008

The New York Philharmonic tours North Korea

On a controversial trip led by music director Lorin Maazel and chaperoned by the U.S. Department of State, one of the oldest and most renowned orchestras in the United States flew to Pyongyang to give a concert — selections from the program included works by Wagner, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein — that was broadcast on the DPRK's state television system.


February 27, 2008

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova win an Academy Award for "Falling Slowly"

The film Once told a complicated story of love between a busker and an immigrant, wreathed with aching songs written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Their success at the Oscars was a significant win for both independent music and film, punctuated by Hansard's earnest exclamation, "Make art! Make art!"


April 22, 2008

NPR Music publishes the first Tiny Desk Concert

You know the story: Laura Gibson played South By Southwest in 2008 at a loud bar that drowned out her quiet songs, so Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson approached the singer-songwriter about performing in the NPR Music office. She showed up a couple of weeks later and played in front of then-nearly bare shelves behind Bob's desk; "Maybe it's the start of something or maybe it's not," went the shrugged introduction. There are now nearly 700 videos and a yearly contest to determine who will be the next artist to play the Tiny Desk.


May 11, 2008

Leonard Cohen returns to touring after 15 years

Rob Hallett, Former President of International Touring at AEG Live, spent three years trying to convince Leonard Cohen to hit the road again before the poet laureate acquiesced and ended a 15 year touring hiatus in May of 2008. According to Hallett, "[Cohen] didn't think anyone cared." As many a Cohen fan would attest, any missed opportunity to see him perform live likely didn't stem from the unfathomable idea that he was irrelevant, but from the undeniable perception that he was immortal. This has been true of our collective perceptions of many beloved creatives who we never considered would one day meet their creators. Ask anyone who passed on tickets to Tom Petty's 40th anniversary tour. Or who looked at the schedule for St Louis' Blueberry Hill in October of 2014 and said: "Chuck Berry has played here every month for the past 21 years, there's always next month." Or who booed Amy Winehouse offstage in Belgrade on June 18, 2011, expecting a better vocal performance by the 27-year-old at another concert on some future date. Ask anyone who was at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on April 14, 2016 and joined Prince in the rapturous rendition of "Purple Rain" whether they would have chosen to be anywhere else, at the time or more importantly in retrospect. If there's one thing the past decade of music fandom has taught us, it's to see and to celebrate our heroes while they're here. Or as one of the world's greatest living songwriters Joni Mitchell has put it, "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." --Talia Schlanger, World Cafe


June 18, 2008

Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III sells a million copies in one week

Propelled by the massive singles "Lollipop" and "A Milli," Tha Carter III broke a million and notched the largest first-week sales for any album released the United States in 2008.


August 18, 2008

Muxtape.com gets shut down

If the Internet is now in a quarter-life crisis, 2008 was its early adolescence: a moment when the fun and exploratory bumps up against the ill-advised. The no-questions-asked song-sharing web utility Muxtape was likely never going to survive, given how freely it allowed users to upload copyrighted material. But some would argue the elbow grease it took to use this little site made the end result a little sweeter than sharing a Spotify playlist.


September 16, 2008

Bandcamp launches its online music store

"What I'm seeing is a bunch of artists who want to own their web presence ... But then they end up putting together something half-baked, or nothing at all, and just pointing to their MySpace page instead. And it's not because they love their MySpace page (the opposite is true). It's because a decent alternative just doesn't exist." That's Ethan Diamond speaking to Waxy.org in 2008, a time of digital chaos for bands lacking significant funds or organizational support, and the year he and co-founder Shawn Grunberger launched their attempt at a decent alternative.

Bandcamp was born into a musical web dominated by MySpace, whose glitchy, aesthetically challenged ecosystem was already starting to feel outdated — but for new artists and the listeners seeking them out, options were limited. Spotify wouldn't launch in the U.S. for another three years. Sites like Daytrotter and NPR Music (and YouTube, which still remains the most-used music listening platform on the web) were helping to normalize the habit of streaming — but slowly. When it came to presenting and selling music in a coherent space online, independent and emerging bands were basically left to fend for themselves. (Pity anyone who possessed web development or design experience and was related to or friends with a musician.)

Nearly 10 years later, the site Diamond and Grunberger created to address that problem is thriving: galvanizing philanthropy for progressive causes, producing robust editorial around the boundless collection of fascinating sounds on the platform and, by its own estimation, generating a quarter-billion dollars for the artists and labels who use it. Oh — and it is one of the only music tech companies to ever generate a profit, which it's been doing since 2012. More elementally and philosophically, Bandcamp serves as an honest-to-goodness, proof-in-the-pudding bulwark against the creep of artistic monoculture fueled by the consolidation of digital life into the hands of a few companies. Maybe the future isn't a dumpster fire after all. --Andrew Flanagan


October 2008

Soundcloud launches

Like Picasa, or Flickr, but for your own audio recordings instead of photos. Soundcloud survived (barely) by being a little bit of everything: A marketplace for bootlegs, a promotional tool for major labels and indies alike and an honest-to-goodness generator of future stars in at least one genre, hip-hop.


October 13, 2008

Beyoncé releases the video for "Single Ladies"

Kanye West said it best: "One of the best videos of all time."


October 21, 2008

Bomba Estereo's album, Blow Up, helps initiate a renaissance in Afro-Latino music

It is impossible to pin an exact date on the moment when musicians across Latin America began to explore the African influences of their respective musical identities. But if one record was to illustrate the artistic and commercial potential of reintroducing that music, I would pick Bomba Estereo's first stateside album, Blow Up.

The African influence in both Brazilian and Cuban music had been widely documented, explored and celebrated since the turn of the last century. But the songs of Afro-Colombian, Afro-Venzuelan and Afro-Peruvian citizens, to give just three examples, had been considered by many in those countries to be primitive — the music of the lower classes, lacking sophistication, not cosmopolitan. Blow Up was part of a wave of younger musicians reclaiming those rhythms and instruments to create mind-blowing mashups with electronic music, funk and rock. Musical mastermind Simon Mejia combined the urban music he grew up with in the capital city of Bogota with the African-influenced music of vocalist Li Saumet's hometown of Santa Marta on the country's Caribbean coast. Throw in the guitar wizardry of Julian Salazar and we heard a powerful reimagining of the legacy of the slave trade in Colombia.

Once the group Novalima mixed Afro Peruvian lando with electronic music a year later on its first album, Coba Coba, the floodgates seemed to open up anywhere there was a history of slavery. And the movement appears in full swing with the emergence of bands like Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo, who recently performed at world music festivals in Europe and the U.S.

Bomba Estereo was hardly the first to mine that rich vein of rhythm and melody. But its album came right at the moment when audiences and musicians alike were ignoring the stigmas of their parents' and grandparents' generations to openly embrace the traditions and spirits of their West African ancestors. --Felix Contreras


October 28, 2008

Mary Halvorson releases Dragon's Head

Among other things, the improvised music tradition is predicated on an expression of personality. As a listener, you're looking for fluency within a language; you're looking for a spark of spontaneity and maybe truth. But what seals the deal is an instrumental voice, one that speaks with an unmistakable syntax, cadence and grain. For all the profusion of bright new talent in our time, these artists don't come along quite as often as you'd think.

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson announced her mature arrival in 2008 with the release of her debut as a leader, the trio album Dragon's Head. Close observers of the experimental improv scene already had some familiarity with her, as one of the younger protégés of Anthony Braxton and a DIY collaborator of smart iconoclasts like drummer Weasel Walter and bassist Trevor Dunn. But Dragon's Head represented something more intentional and focused: It was a true band album, featuring the accomplished jazz bassist John Hébert and the more noise- and punk-affiliated drummer Ches Smith. There were 10 original compositions, each obviously created with this personnel in mind, and spanning a range of structural oddities and formal techniques.

The lasting takeaway, though, was Halvorson's playing — and especially the confluence of her swarming sense of phrase and the percussive prickliness of her sound. She was instantly, emphatically recognizable as an original in all respects. The album made my Top 10 list that year, but more importantly, it brought Halvorson to the center of my radar. She hasn't strayed far from those coordinates since, releasing a succession of brilliant albums, including an octet opus, Away With You, that was my all-around favorite last year. She appears on several top contenders this year, including BANGS by Jason Moran and Paimon: Book of Angels 32, an album of John Zorn's Masada music as interpreted by her quartet. Even when she's playing someone else's music, Halvorson affixes her indelible stamp. --Nate Chinen, WBGO


November 15, 2008

Young Jeezy drops "My President"

Included on Jeezy's September 2008 album The Recession and released as a single eleven days after Barack Obama's election, this gleeful celebration of black pride and a blue Lamborghini captured the excitement that overtook the hip-hop world (and many Americans) at what felt like the dawn of a new era.


November 23, 2008

After a 17-year wait, Guns N' Roses finally releases Chinese Democracy

Viewed through the prism of 2017, Guns N' Roses' 2008 opus Chinese Democracy hardly merits a mention: Maybe it pops up as shorthand for way-over-budget rock and roll hubris, or as cautionary example about the weight of high expectations, but it's no career milestone. Still, there was a time when Chinese Democracy — long promised, endlessly delayed, frequently aborted and restarted with a revolving cast — was a kind of hard-rock Holy Grail. The music magazine Spin once hired Chuck Klosterman to write a lengthy review of Chinese Democracy as an April Fool's joke two and a half years before its release, detailing the album he'd imagined it might one day become.

What makes Chinese Democracy stand out in hindsight is the flood of similarly long-awaited (if not necessarily as expensive or high-profile) studio albums that followed. A follow-up to My Bloody Valentine's 1991 classic Loveless had been promised for decades, and one day in 2013, one just kinda showed up. Pixies had last released a new album, Trompe Le Monde, in 1991 — what is it about 1991, anyway? — but returned with Indie Cindy in 2014. Portishead and The Verve popped up after 11 years, Blur and Kate Bush each took 12, and Devo resurfaced after a whopping 20. In 2015, Dr. Dre released Compton after a 16-year gap, though fans still wondered what became of his elusive Detox. There's something bittersweet about all these comebacks; after all, a band's window for coming back can't stay open forever, and the downside of a long absence is that anticipation has a way of leveling off over time. (There's a big difference between "When will Chinese Democracy get here?!" and "Oh, yeah, Chinese Democracy — I guess it's okay.") Something for Dr. Dre to chew on, should he ever finally decide to bring Detox into the world. --Stephen Thompson

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