What’s Left in Music ’08

By Rob Patterson

It was a good year for leftist politics, unless perhaps you subscribe to the notion that President-elect Obama’s hewing to the center in his appointments represents a sell-out of progressive politics. I don’t, and if one considers what we’ve contended with for the past eight years and the Republican McCain/Palin ticket, all of us on the left should be feeling blessed relief.

As for political music in 2008, well, there was much music was inspired by Barack Obama—check out this YouTube list of more than 1,000: www.youtube.com/obamasongs—but what has yet to emerge, as I have decried for some time now, are enough substantial hits and notable songs of both artistry and appeal that address politics from a leftist perspective. I’m of the mind that, as in the 1960s or late 1970s punk, there needs to be a substantial political movement and progressive political culture to foster and support such music. The election this year indicates that we’re getting there, and there are indications that the music might well follow. And the year did offer some find political music to back that contention.

Kudos go to conscious hip-hop star will.i.am whose songs in support of Obama—the star-studded “Yes We Can” and “We Are The Ones” before the election and “It’s a New Day” in the aftermath—are the year’s standout musical statements in support of the Democratic candidate and new president. A grateful nod must also go to Bruce Springsteen (who has a new album coming in early 2009) for his active support of Obama as well as the hip-hop/rap music community for coalescing behind the Democratic campaign with political activity and such songs as Nas’s “Black President,” Young Jezzy’s “My President” and Big Boi’s “Something’s Gotta Give.” Appreciation must also go to Heart (disclosure: for whom I do PR writing), Jackson Browne, Foo Fighters and John Mellencamp (whose 2008 Life, Death, Love and Freedom album was a fine politically-oriented CD) for objecting to the use of the songs at Republican campaign events.

I continue to believe that the best political song of recent years is James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here,” which he wrote and released prior to the 2004 election and became almost prescient with the recent financial downturn. To address 2008’s election, McMurtry offered a live version as a free download from his record label’s website.

Artistically notable albums with political content this last year include Rodney Crowell’s Sex & Gasoline, Todd Snider’s wickedly cool Peace Queer, Billy Bragg’s Mr. Love & Justice, Michael Franti & Spearhead’s All Rebel Rockers, Chip Taylor’s New Sings of Freedom, Thievery Corporation’s Radio Retaliation and Susan Tedeschi’s Back To The River. Nigerian Afrobeat star Femi Kuti’s Day By Day and Puerto Rican duo Calle 13’s Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo stood up well for the oppressed, and Crescent City native Dr. John’s City That Time Forgot reminded that New Orleans, the cradle of indigenous American music, is still neglected in the wake of Katrina. And Canadian songsmith Fred Eaglesmith (another PR writing client of mine) delivered a masterful disc of “alternative gospel” music exploring religiosity and the common man with Tinderbox.

Folk music has always been at the center of political and topical music. And veterans of that genre delivered some worthy albums this year such as Pete Seeger with At 89, Joan Baez’s Steve Earle-produced set Day After Tomorrow and Richie Havens’ Nobody Left to Crown. Loudon Wainwright III revisits his older songs on the delightful Recovery, Neil Young at the dawn of his solo career can be heard on Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968, and though it’s not music, Janis Ian’s autobiography Society’s Child is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates her music as well as her intelligence and honesty about who she is and the life she has led. Contemporary folk label Red House records issued a silver anniversary collection Red House 25 that’s a fine introduction to their superb catalog, and the eighth volume of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series: Tell Tale Signs—Rare & Unreleased 1989-2006 reiterates the continuing vitality in recent years of the man who is not only the best political songwriter ever but the greatest songwriter of our age.

In closing, let me hip you to a few albums I enjoyed over the last year. I’ve been in a British rock mood, and Paul Weller’s 22 Dreams is a masterwork by the onetime leader of late-’70s new wavers The Jam, and even if they aren’t the best albums by these bands, Dig Out Your Soul from Oasis and Beautiful Future got a lot of play in my home and car (and in the latter, I still am tuned in to Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius satellite radio. Some say that satellite radio is a failing medium, but I still recommend that it’s worth the small investment in a receiver and low monthly fee to find most anything you like in music). I’m still wishing for a genuine soul music revival, and in the genre newcomer James Hunter’s The Hard Way and veterans Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere’s Nudge It Up A Notch are winners. Two discs that are at the very top of my year’s best are ones that (disclosure again) I wrote the PR bios for: Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal and Hal Ketchum’s Father Time (the best country album in ages). If you’re into roots music, check out Olabelle’s mix of country, blues and gospel on Before This Time and noted jazz bassist Charlie Haden’s return to his rural roots on Ramblin’ Boy, or discover some of my favorites in the Americana field (all also friends) with the compilations The Best Of The Hightone Years from both Dave Alvin and Buddy Miller and Veteran’s Day: The Tom Russell Anthology.

The struggle for a better nation and world and progressive political values enjoyed an encouraging year when it came to the ballot box this year, but the real victory is still to be won. And hopefully 2009 will continue this uptick in the amount and quality of political music to the benefit of our ears and souls.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

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