Did you know that Alison Krauss has won more Grammy Awards than any living artist not named Quincy Jones (they’re tied)? So it might not have been completely unusual for her when this album won the Grammy as 2008’s Album of the Year, but I guarantee Robert Plant was surprised. (To be fair, Plant did win a best hard rock performance Grammy in 1998 for How High, a song he wrote with some guy named Jimmy Page).
I think that a lot of people not named Robert Plant were also shocked when this album won the Grammy, because it just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of popular music at the time. (But when has that ever stopped the Grammy Awards?) What did popular music look like way back in 2008? Let’s take a look at the ten best selling albums in the U.S. for 2008 (Raising Sand was actually released in the fall of 2007, but its sales from that year aren’t going to effect this argument):
- Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III ; 2.87 million
- Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends; 2.14 million
- Taylor Swift, Fearless; 2.11 million
- Kid Rock, Rock N Roll Jesus; 2.02 million
- AC/DC, Black Ice; 1.92 million
- Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift; 1.6 million
- Metallica, Death Magnetic; 1.57 million
- T. I., Paper Trail; 1.52 million
- Jack Johnson, Sleep Through the Static; 1.49 million
- Beyoncé, I Am … Sasha Fierce; 1.46 million
This is a very . . . interesting . . . list. (I actually don’t mind Coldplay, but dear Lord, the title of that album . . . ) When I look at this selection of masterpieces, I can almost make the case that, in 2008, there may have been a hole in the market that needed to be filled by an album of sparsely arranged covers sung by an arguably past his prime rocker and a wildly talented but commercially unappreciated bluegrass artist and arranged by a guy named T-Bone. Almost.
Like a lot of T-Bone Burnett’s more recent productions, Raising Sand is a slow-paced affair with a certain type of atmosphere. The instruments are too clearly differentiated to call this album’s sound “grimy” – it’s more like a bunch of studio pros are trying to replicate the feel of a Tom Waits album from the early 80’s, which probably isn’t too far off since Trampled Rose is, in fact, a Tom Waits song (but not from the 80’s). This “distressed” vibe runs through the whole affair, making the album memorable as a whole, but the impact of the individual songs seems to have been sacrificed for the greater good of the project. Which is a long winded way of saying that a lot of the songs sound alike.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a great album. In fact, I think that’s a perfect description – it’s a great “album” if you look at Raising Sand as a collection of songs played in a very specific way in order to produce a very particular effect. Plant and Krauss’ voices are part of the arrangements here and it’s a wonder to hear Plant deliberately dial things back (for the most part) in order to harmonize with Krauss. I don’t think it’s important to highlight individual songs from Raising Sand – that’s not the point of this album. Instead, you should play it from start to finish and not worry so much about the mileposts in the middle.
This brings us back to those other albums from 2008, which are mostly built around a couple of hit singles with a bunch of filler. (Metallica is a glaring exception). There are no hit singles on Raising Sand and no songs I would skip ahead to hear. (Conversely, there aren’t any songs I would skip over). Which is why, for a lot of people at the time, Raising Sand probably was the album of the year and one that will probably still sound great twenty years from now, especially when the weather starts to cool off and you want something soothing on the stereo while you’re sipping a beer by the fire. It fills that hole.