Jack's on top


POSTED: Friday, January 02, 2009

To say that 2008 was quite a year for Jack Johnson would be an understatement.

His celebrity stock skyrocketed, just as Johnson headlined his “;All at Once”; environmental-themed world summer tour in support of his latest album, “;Sleep Through the Static.”; Some of us local folk got a rude awakening on how popular he had become: When tickets to last year's Kokua Festival in April sold out quickly, unfounded charges were made of mainlanders grabbing them up before Hawaii residents got their fair chance.

Johnson's music has transcended that Hawaii/SoCal surfer vibe enough that it's heard by a wider audience worldwide. While many detractors consider his music too benign—or worse, boring—there is an honesty to his soulful music that has touched many others.

Early last year, Hawaii-born-and-raised music writer Nate Chinen of the New York Times came back to Oahu to do a profile of Johnson for his newspaper. Soon afterward, he wrote via e-mail, “;I think Johnson's interaction with Hawaiian culture is fascinating, in that he is very much a product of the islands, and yet not always explicitly so.

“;Jack is very close to Kawika Kahiapo, and he mentioned that Kaukahi recorded its locally acclaimed (Na Hoku-winning) 2006 album, 'Life in These Islands,' at the Mango Tree. When I later bought the record and heard Johnson's guest track—a new rendition of 'Constellations,' from his album 'In Between Dreams'—something clicked.

“;That song, in that context, is Hawaiian music, plain and simple,”; Chinen wrote. “;If you hear the original version, though, you don't necessarily get that feeling. It's really not that hard to imagine Johnson as a 'local artist.' In a way, he still is, despite the enormous success his music has encountered.”;

While Johnson may never be as beloved by the local community as the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, he does represent Hawaii on the international stage.

His generosity was proven, in particular, during the closing West Coast swing of his tour. When I attended the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in August, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he had invited Paula Fuga to perform with him. We here in Hawaii already know what a great talent Fuga is, and it was good to see her get her due on a bigger stage, thanks to Johnson.

Leading into my lists of best-of music of 2008, I remember writing last year at this time that Radiohead's “;In Rainbows”; would make my '08 list, despite its debut as a download in October of '07.

The album would be released as a physical CD on Jan. 1, and it has since sold close to 2 million copies, not taking into account those who earlier paid for the download on a sliding scale (or, mostly, not at all) or purchased limited-edition disc boxes.

Although the album has been pushed aside to make way for other worthy releases, Radiohead definitely reached band-of-the-year status in 2008 as they toured the world in mid-March. At the aforementioned S.F. festival, I was one of the 60,000 fans crowded in to see the band in concert and, despite occasional sound dropout problems, their presentation still made for a memorable experience. The group is a great guitar-rock band, always intriguing when they venture into more electronica-based territory.

My favorite 10 albums of 2008 include, right off the top, three albums that have already made most critics' lists.

The debut album of Santi White, aka ”;Santogold”; (Downtown), Portishead's ”;Third”; (Go Discs/Mercury) and TV on the Radio's ”;Dear Science”; (Touch and Go/DGC) all have singular sounds that distinguished them from the pack. White takes 1980s New Wave and makes it her own, while the Bristol-based Portishead makes the 11-year wait for their follow-up worthwhile with a haunting and brooding effort. TV on the Radio's offering solidifies its reputation as one of rock's more sonically adventurous bands.

Neo-soulstress Erykah Badu put out a personal statement in ”;New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)”; (Universal Motown), an eccentric yet appealing melange of funk, jazz and psychedelia (with Part Two supposedly out sometime in February). The White Stripes' Jack White sideline band The Raconteurs released the best all-out rock 'n' roll album in '08, with ”;Consolers of the Lonely”; (Third Man Records/Warner Bros.). The rapper Nas had originally intended to call his ”;Untitled”; (Def Jam/Columbia) album “;N——-,”; as he tackled the volatile African-American sociopolitical situation with a ferocious singlemindedness. It's a flawed album, maybe a bit strident at times, but important nevertheless because it's so provocative. (And you got to give the man his props for boldly calling Barack Obama's election on the closer “;Black President,”; back when the album was released in July.)

My dark horse choice is a terrific album by a former singer with the 1970s East Los Angeles R&B band El Chicano. I had read good things about Ersi Arvizu's autobiographical ”;Friend for Life”; (Anti-), but it didn't prepare me for the soulful power of this woman (the back-to-back ballads of “;Mi India”; and “;Sin Tu Querer”; moved me to tears).

The last three albums, ”;Vampire Weekend”; (XL Recordings), “;Keep Your Eyes Ahead”; (Sub Pop) by The Helio Sequence and Atmosphere's ”;When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That S—- Gold”; (Rhymesayers), are choices partly based on concerts these acts played in Honolulu last year. I suspect the best is yet to come for Vampire Weekend, who blew up so big nationally early in '08 that there was already some expected backlash by the time the band played here in July. But their Afropop sound is so infectious, and their performance so appealing, that I don't think these Ivy League lads are a flash in the pan. The live power of Helio Sequence—just two guys—pleasantly surprised me during their Halloween appearance downtown, and the album is filled with confident, strong songs. The duo of Atmosphere reciprocated a lot of love generated by local hip-hop fans during their November concert at Pipeline Cafe, and their album is like a collection of short stories, filled with blue-collar characters just trying to make do.



» ”;Sleep Through the Static”;
Jack Johnson (Brushfire/Universal)

» “;Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide-Guitar Odyssey”;
Debashish Bhattacharya (Riverboat)

» “;Venus on Earth”;
Dengue Fever (M80 Music)

» “;Seeing Sounds”;
N*E*R*D (Star Trak / Interscope)

» “;Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust”;
(With a buzz in our ears, we play endlessly)
Sigur Ros (XL Recordings)

» “;Fleet Foxes”;
Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)

» “;Feed the Animals”;
Girl Talk (Illegal Art)

» “;All or Nothing”;
The Subways (Sire)

» “;The Bootleg Series Vol. 8—Tell Tale Signs:
Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006”;
Bob Dylan (Columbia)

» “;Offend Maggie”;
Deerhoof (Kill Rock Stars)


» ”;Paper Planes (Remix)”;
M.I.A. featuring Bun-B & Rich Boy (Interscope)

» “;Club Action”;
Yo Majesty (Out There Recordings)

» ”;Pro Nails”;
Kid Sister featuring Kanye West (Fool's Gold)

» “;Lollipop”;
Lil' Wayne (Cash Money / Universal Motown)

» “;American Boy”;
Estelle featuring Kanye West (Atlantic)

» “;Need U Bad”;
Jazmine Sullivan (Jive)

» “;Great DJ”;
The Ting Tings (Red Ink / Columbia)

» ”;A Milli”;
Lil' Wayne (Cash Money / Universal Motown)

» “;Time to Pretend”;
MGMT (Red Ink / Columbia)

» ”;Love Lockdown”;
Kanye West (Def Jam)


» ”;To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story”;
(RCA / Legacy)

» All Creedence Clearwater Revival titles (Fantasy / Concord): Originally released in 1968-69, “;Creedence Clearwater Revival,”; “;Bayou Country,”; “;Green River,”; “;Willy & the Poor Boys,”; “;Cosmo's Factory”; and “;Pendulum”; are back, remastered with unreleased bonus tracks and new liner notes.

» ”;Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition”;
Dennis Wilson (Epic / Caribou / Legacy)

» ”;Budokan!: 30th Anniversary Edition”;
Cheap Trick (Epic / Legacy)

» ”;Jesus of Cool”;
Nick Lowe (Yep Roc)

» ”;Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia”;
Various artists (Philadelphia International / Legacy)