Top 5… Musical Motifs from 2008

4 Jan

First it was Games, then TV, and now, it’s time to do some top-five-listing about the year in Music.

The farther I go up my own… erm…. path, musically, the farther I get away from listening to anything current or following the news, awards nominations, or exploits of all of our favorite popular musicians.  So, this list isn’t really a recitation of how impressed I was with John Legend’s new CD or, you know, whoever the kids are into these days, it’s more about general musical things that stuck with me throughout 2008.

Ready on the left?  Ready on the right?  Ready on the firing line?

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5. Obama Wins the Presidency Without The Aid of an Embarrassingly Huge All-Star Concert

One of the most mortifying things about the 2004 election, especially in retrospect, was the sheer volume of all-star concerts given for John Kerry. They reeked of desperation, the uncool candidate onstage with whoever the hell, like, Springsteen, looking kind of careworn, holding up his hand with the candidate, and then REM would play, or Mellencamp or whoever, and the whole thing was just balls.  Fast-forward to four years later, and, while I’m sure there were plenty of elite Hollywood celebrity benefit shows for the O Camp, they weren’t anything close to the high-profile gigs of ’04.  Part of the reason, I’m sure, was that the Obama team, well-run and aware as they were, knew that those sorts of events alienated blue-collar workers in the Midwest or wherever (Mellencamp notwithstanding), but another part of the reason, I think, was that Obama actually rocked hard enough on his own.  When Kerry brought up every famous face from the past 25 years of music, it seemed like his campaign was saying, “See?  He’s cool!  Really he is!  I mean, look!  Dave Matthews!”

Obama just didn’t need that – he is actually as cool as Dave Matthews already, if not cooler (ease up, haters; Dave is a pretty damn cool dude). You’ll note that I’m not gonna go crazy and say he’s as cool as, like, Springsteen or something.  The guy is a politician, after all.  So, while he didn’t need to go ahead and explicitly court the musician-endorsement vote (though as I’ve been over before, if he really does set up a cabinet-level position of Secretary of the Arts, I won’t be mad at him), Obama did manage to rock hard enough to win the thing on his own.  And with nary an embarrassing after-concert-full-stage-bow by the hot forty-over-forty set to be found.

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4. Johns Hopkins Makes It Official: Jazz Musicians Are Awesome, Self-Centered

Early in the year, Dr. Charles  Limb, a med school professor at Johns Hopkins, performed this study on the brains of jazz musicians. Basically, he gave a group of musicians an MRI while they performed the various roles of the jazz player (playing a memorized head, playing an improvised solo, playing a memorized scale), and documented the results.  Fascinatingly, Limb found that the part of the brain that one uses to talk about oneself is the same part that is used for improvisation.  That tracks for me – the feeling of playing a solo is quite similar to the feeling of telling a personal story to a group of friends; you maybe have used the words before, but never in the same order, and you’re kind of listening to yourself while simultaneously planning the next sentence you’re going to say.

I’ve recently gotten very interested in the concept of true multi-tasking in musical performance, and I think that, if any musicians are capable of multi-tasking, it’s jazz players.  To be able to listen to and process several different things (the drums, the piano, yourself, the bass, etc), as well as think about what you’re going to play next, seems like true multi-tasking to me.  Sure, at least part of what you’re doing on the instrument is already worked out, but the way that it flows requires some amount of upper-level cognition that is uncommon in everyday life.  I would love to see Hopkins do a study of that!

Limb would be just the guy to do it, too – apparently, he is, in addition to being a head and neck surgeon, a jazz saxophonist.  Man, Dr. House has nothing on this guy.  A hard day at the hospital, operating on heads and necks, and Dr. Limb goes out to the docks, horn in hand, and blows the blues away. Not bad.

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3. Music Games Unearth a Huge New Revenue Stream for Artists

It wasn’t too long ago that, in Guitar Hero 2, Harmonix was unable to get the rights to use the master recordings of many of the artists in the game, and as a result the player spent half of his time playing along with faux-band cover versions of famous songs, replete with half-baked guitar solos faithfully replecating the shredding of the original,  weaker vocalists belting out the same high notes… it just kind of sucked. In 2007, even Rock Band 1 wasn’t immune – there’s nothing lamer than the, like, Brass Maiden version of “Run To The Hills”… not only is it totally wussified, it’s also ball-crushingly difficult, so it’s a real lose/lose.

That all changed in 2008 – not only did Rock Band 2 AND Guitar Hero: World Tour release with a full compliment of studio tracks, as well as, in the case of the former, a huge online library of original masters for download, but, in September, Activision’s CEO (and evil corporate overlord) Bobby Kotick announced that the (reportedly lackluster) Guitar Hero: Aerosmith had actually netted the band more profit than both of their previous albums.  With far fewer middlemen taking a taste of the action, and a much higher asking price per unit ($60, rather than $15 for a CD), Aerosmith was actually raking it in. What’s more, they were getting what was, in effect, a greatest-hits boxed-set into the hands of a young demographic largly unfamiliar with their earlier work.  Not freakin’ bad.  It would seem that interactive musical entertainment is just finding its legs, and, with that kind of financial motivation, it’ll only get bigger and better as time goes on.  Sure, eventually the evil corporate suits (See: Bobby Kotick) will find additional ways to get between us and the rock, but for now, it’s pretty cool that, even as technology closes some methods of distribution (record stores, radio stations), it opens others up.

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2.  The Rise of the TV Musical Number

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like, over the past few years, and in 2008 in particular, we’ve been seeing a marked uptick in musical episodes on TV programs, which: awesome!  Most of the actors working in comedy these days are trained singers and dancers, and plenty of them looooove to take advantage of their training, and there have never been more shows on the air that give regular opportunities for their cast to sing.

We’ve got Jenna (and the rest of the cast) of 30 Rock singing an amazing version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia performing “The Night Man Cometh,” (and singing quite wonderfully), Scrubs giving us a full musical episode, Family Guy doing at least one big musical production per week,  Colbert and Stewart (!!) singing a duet on A Colbert Christmas, Darrel (the amazing Craig Robinson) leading the gang on The Office in a music video advertisement, and Kristin Chenoweth busting OUT as often as possible, from “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to “Eternal Flame,” on Pushing Daisies.

Every week of ’08, it seemed we were treated to a new musical production, and each time it happened, it put a smile on my face.  I haven’t had this much fun watching TV since I saw “Once More With Feeling.”

Well, actually, I have, and here’s where:

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1. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog

Without question, my favorite musical moment from 2008 was that first piano entrance about three minutes into Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog. I knew, right then and there, that this was going to be something special, and, oh, was it ever. From NPH’s pathos (and pipes!) in the lead role to Nathan Fillion’s show-stealingly-assy Captain Hammer; from the rollicking Bad Horse telegrams to the (Spoiler!) genuinely shocking death of Penny (Felecia Day) in the third act, it was a mini-musical brimming with heart and harmony, with some really well-written musical counter-melodies and genuinely hilarious jokes.  We laughed, we cried, we really hope that Dollhouse can come close to this level of awesomeness before it gets canceled (if it ever airs in the first place).  If it doesn’t, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that if Joss and company just decided to crank out a couple of these every year, I’d certainly pay to watch ’em.

For now though, you can watch it for free, and the world is a better place for it.

So, that’s it for music in 2008. Tomorrow, in what will probably be my last list, the top five people of ’08.

Pleasant Sundaying!

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