The Music Club

The Best Recording of 2008 Was the Oldest

Ann, Bob,

Thanks for such stimulating thoughts. Special thanks, Bob, for your too-kind words about my work—softened the blow a bit when you went and dissed my favorite recovering addict/troubadour.

I won’t bother mounting a defense of Jamey Johnson. I said my piece a few months back in Slate, and I stand by his strong, grim songs about drugs, divorce, and sprinkling his ex’s potpourri “on a burn pile in the back.” Johnson aside, country music in 2008 was dependable: my go-to for stories well-told and sung. I love Alan Jackson’s understated swing—he’s one of the subtlest vocalists out there—and on  his first of all self-penned originals, he proved he could write honky-tonk almost as well as he sings it. Greatest living ballad singer Willie Nelson had his usual prolific year, hovering between genres while collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Chesney, Snoop Dogg, and Steven Colbert. There was also a very good, little-heard CD by Nashville also-ran Ray Scott, which I urge you to track down. And let’s not forget Hootie. I found Darius Rucker’s country debut, Learn To Live, a bit workmanlike, but “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” was the first country No. 1 hit by an African-American in a quarter-century—a milestone worth noting in this year of “post-racial” breakthroughs.

It was the country women who really shone, though. Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles brings charisma and swagger to everything she sings, and I love the variety of flavors on Love on the Inside: the country bubblegum, the funny song about Steve Earle, even the cover of “Life in a Northern Town.” Ashton Shepherd has an even bigger, harder voice than Nettles, and she sounds like she’s packed a lot of living into her brief life; at 22, she is the anti-Taylor Swift, singing wised-up songs about beer guzzling and bad marriages. She’s already an assured country classicist, and I expect she’ll only get better when she swaps some of the easy genre moves for something more peculiar and personal.

Running out of time and space, so, speed-round-style, I want to: a) register my love for reggaeton powerhouse Calle 13, one of the sharpest hip-hop acts in any language, with a rapper, Residente, whose wit and style are audible even if you don’t know any Spanish; b) praise Ne-Yo’s songcraft (and wardrobe!) while noting that he still hasn’t come within a mile of equaling his debut single and while wondering whether he’s not more valuable behind the scenes; and c) tip a cap to Dave Sitek, not just for his buffing and streamlining of TV on the Radio’s sound but also for his production work on Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head—the most beautiful bad record of 2008. And now … back to the Auto-Tune Question.

My “popism” notwithstanding, I am as old-fartish as anyone when it comes to the issues Bob raises of ear weariness and the homogenizing of music through Auto-Tune abuse. I’m fuzzy on the technical details, but I know that ear fatigue is a product of digital recording generally—of the capturing of signal information at rates that tax the normal human hearing range. And I know this fatigue is exacerbated by the rampant use of compression in the mastering process, with audio engineers jacking up the overall volume level of songs to make them leap from car speakers, thereby draining music of its natural dynamic range. We are all civilian casualties in the record industry’s “loudness war“—the Top 40 is bludgeoning the pop audience. T-Pain, indeed.

In fact, I sometimes find myself recoiling from music that I really like. For instance, I’m a Young Jeezy fan and am quite fond of The Recession, a more compelling political rap album, in its way, than Nas’ ballyhooed Untitled. But the roar of Jeezy’s synth-swathed beats is physically excruciating to listen to—my ears hurt as I strain to hear the rapper through the digital din. And I can only imagine how I’m damaging my ears by doing 95 percent of my listening on my laptop and iPod while a fancy 20th century hi-fi gathers dust in my home office.

As for Bob’s theory that Auto-Tune is eliminating “the tiny increments of error that help make music interesting, subconsciously”: There’s nothing subconscious about it for yours truly. One of the keenest pleasures in pop music is listening to vocalists—the ol’ grain of the voice, you know? Many of my all-time favorite singers are the eccentric ones: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and my latest flame, the way-underrated torch singer Lee Morse. (I suspect Dean Christgau doesn’t care for Jamey Johnson’s mush-mouth style, but it’s one of the reasons I love the dude.) The logical extension of over-Auto-Tuning is dystopian: the erasure of eccentricity, of human frailty, from pop singing. Which, it occurs to me, is what makes T-Pain’s Auto-Tune Roger Troutman shtick kinda conceptually deep. He’s created an idiosyncratic vocal personality by co-opting a technology designed to purge voices of their idiosyncrasies.

And yet the high-tech present continues to offer new wonders, including unprecedented access to the lower-tech musical past. I spent many happy hours this year listening to the History of Hip-Hop megamixes by the DJ crew the Rub—a downloadable encyclopedia of practically every great song from the genre’s first two decades. And even before current events made the 1930s suddenly relevant, I went on a ‘30s music bender this year, thanks to sites like the stupendous Jazz-On-Line, where you will find dozens of digitized Fats Waller 78s, not to mention the greatest recordings of the aforementioned Lee Morse, among thousands of other goodies. Based on this research, I have a provisional answer to Ann’s question about what the present economic crisis will bring us musically: Everything. For every Dust Bowl folkie, a dopey hillbilly novelty tune. For every “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” a decadent escapist anthem, such as Fred Astaire boasting “I’m fancy free, and free for anything fancy” while gliding around a penthouse with a cocktail shaker. Bling—it’s so Great Depression!

This talk of yesteryear reminds me that the most moving record I heard in 2008 was also the oldest. Literally: the oldest. I’ve had an interest in phonograph history for a number of years and in my travels have gotten to know a remarkable group of historians and enthusiasts dedicated to recovering the world’s earliest recordings, the First Sounds group. In March, I had the privilege of breaking the story of First Sounds’ biggest triumph: the discovery of a recording that predated Thomas Edison’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” tinfoil by nearly two decades. The record was actually was a visual representation of an anonymous female singer’s rendition of the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune,” made by the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on a contraption called the phonautograph, in 1860—well before the idea of audio playback was even conceived. Scott’s sound-wave images were converted to playable sound by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—the ultimate analog record, brought to life with a dash of digital fairy dust.

I was one of the first people in the world to hear Scott’s “phonautogram.” For 48 hours prior to the publication of the story, I sat at home listening again and again to that woman’s muffled voice, calling out from a fog bank, warbling across the centuries. As music, it ain’t much. But “Au Clair de la Lune” reminded me that all records are time machines, preserving for posterity fleeting moments, moods, indrawn breaths—and that music’s unequaled emotional impact derives in no small part from this miracle that we take for granted. It’s corny, I know, but it was nice to be snapped back from worrying about Katy Perry’s Girls Gone Wild routine or how the hell I was going to persuade the Atlantic publicity department to send me a Flo Rida advance. It made my year.

Ann, Bob—it’s been a pleasure, and an education. Thanks so much for doing this.