Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 3, 2011
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part I of IV - Overview)
Much as I love music, I basically went into hibernation on the current-music scene beginning in the years between 1995 and 1997, when - in the span of little more than two years - I got married, finished law school, started a full-time-and-then-some job and became a father. Oh, I kept up with new Springsteen and U2 releases and occasionally noticed things going on here and there, and I got majorly into the Irish pop/rock band the Saw Doctors, but for the most part I didn't listen to the radio, didn't get into new artists, didn't buy new releases by even some of my favorite veteran artists, and generally got left behind by the march of new music. For a long time, I assumed I hadn't really missed anything, but of course somebody's always making good music somewhere, and as fractured and degraded as the current music scene is, there is still good stuff out there if you look hard and have some help and advice.
I finally got an iPod for Christmas in 2007, and after spending a year loading CDs and buying up a lot of the stuff on iTunes that I'd been living without for years, I started exploring the music world again in earnest in the first half of 2009. Since then, I've dug hither and yon for "new" music, i.e., things released in the past decade or so. I've scoured iTunes, plowed through YouTube videos, music blogs, Twitter and message boards, hit up my wife's CD collection, begged help from siblings, friends and this blog's readers, scanned the pop charts, looked at everything - new releases by veteran rockers, the alt rock scene, the adult contemporary pop market, the American Idol and Disney pop factories, you name it. Ben Domenech was particularly helpful, and Keith Law's alt-influenced list of the top 40 songs of the decade of the 2000s was a valuable resource - I listened to all of them. And I should acknowledge as well that following Kelly Clarkson on Twitter and elsewhere was also very useful - other than Steve Van Zandt, there's probably not another major recording artist who spends as much time and enthusiasm promoting the work of such a varied collection of other musicians.
On to the results, broken broadly in two groups: rock and alternative, on the one hand, and pop and other radio formats on the other. Come with me as I emerge, squinting, into the light of today's rock and pop scenes.
Rock and Alternative: Overview
We live in an age without new rock giants, and there is a reason for this. Rock had its heyday, its period of riotous creative ferment, in the mid/late 60s and into the 1970s, and the format in a sense grew up and came of age in the 80s, with the maturation of the first generation of musicians weaned on rock and with perhaps the period of rock's greatest commercial success. But the pipeline of new artists and new, great music has been running ever drier since about 1990. There's still good stuff out there, but there's nothing and nobody as great as the best of classic rock.
This is the way of music. We won't have another Springsteen or another Beatles or Rolling Stones for the same reason we won't have another Mozart or Beethoven, another Gershwin, another Sinatra - when a genre of music starts being mined, a whole scene of talented people develops that's dedicated to tapping every available vein. But after a generation or so, they've run through most of the best ideas, and the really pathbreaking types of people are looking somewhere else. Look at the kinds of people who were session players, sidemen, studio whizzes and the like in the late 60s and early 70s, both the ones who went on to major stardom in their own right and the ones who stayed in supporting roles - Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Leon Russell, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Steve Winwood, Al Kooper, Phil Spector, Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell, etc. (one of my favorite factoids of that era: The Eagles were originally hired as Linda Ronstadt's backup band). But that time is over. Rock is not dead, but it is past its prime, and we shouldn't cling to the illusion that it's ever going to be 1969 or even 1987 again. Think: how many songs recorded since 2000 would earn a place in the canon of great rock songs that includes so many songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s? I can only think of three that would draw broad support - 'Beautiful Day' (U2), 'The Rising' (Springsteen) and 'Seven Nation Army' (the White Stripes). Probably a few others would make the list, but it's a short list, and you'd get very little consensus on its contents.
Is there an alternative source of great new rock? The "alt-rock" genre is something of a hybrid these days. On the one hand, I generally don't buy the argument that being an alternative or indie artist makes you somehow better or more noble (everybody's trying to make a living in the business) or musically superior, and specifically I very much doubt that the very best musicians ever go undiscovered or unsigned by major labels, at least not in the US or the UK. You were never going to find a guy singing clubs in Jersey who was better than Sinatra, or a garage band better than the Stones. Good acts can miss their chance at the margins, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that the very best music of the past century wasn't almost entirely made by artists signed to major labels.
And alternative music is usually alternative for a reason. Alt-rock bands often eschew the very things that make music musical - melodies, choruses, bridges, the basic building blocks of song structure. And in particular, alt rock is plagued with terrible vocals, either due to bad singers or what I think of as the alt-rock disease: mixing/mastering the recordings to submerge the vocals to the point of being barely audible over the music. This isn't a rock thing - guys like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler were always front and center and crisply audible on most of their records - it's a deliberate decision to make the listener choose between working to hear the singer and the lyrics and just giving up on them. There's rarely a justification for that unless you're just going to go all-instrumental. And indeed, a clearly-mixed and produced record should also have crisply audible instruments that you can pick out each on their own.
As for the vocalists themselves, listen to enough alt-rock and indie bands, and you gain a new appreciation for Sammy Hagar, Replacement Level Rock Singer. Hagar's uncool and unglamorous and he'll never win you over on a song all by himself, but every time out, he gives you eight strong innings and gives the band a chance to win. So many bands out there fail for the lack of a replacement-level vocalist. A band with Sammy Hagar will never have that problem. (I put Ringo Starr in the same general class with Hagar as a singer, but Ringo was the fourth-best singer in the Beatles).
Tied to the alt-rock disease is the alt-rock worldview, the cloying attitude of fans who don't want their favorite artists to be commercially successful (see this handy chart from Cracked). I don't get this at all - I'll listen to music from people who are famous and obscure, cool and uncool, but all things being equal, I like seeing my favorite artists succeed and be recognized, have their music heard by other people and influence other artists. It heartens my faith in the music business, and it encourages imitation; if the Saw Doctors had the kind of success in the US as Nickelback or the Black Eyed Peas, we'd have a much better chance of seeing more bands with a similar sound.
For all of alt-rock's problems, there are nonetheless a lot of good bands working in the alt-rock or indie scene that really are just quality mainstream rock acts left orphaned by the contraction of the mainstream rock universe. There's no musical sense in which The Killers or Muse or the White Stripes or - of all people - Coldplay are alternative bands, any more than Pink Floyd or Rush or U2 or Led Zeppelin were alternative just because they were doing something musically a little different than the bands that immediately preceded them.
Pop and Other Current Radio Formats: Overview
What about pop, and the other styles of music that compete for airplay on today's current radio formats? Pop music is in a bad way these days, overrun by soulless machines, assembly-line corporate hip-hop and "singers" better suited for careers in silent films, but for all the failings of current pop, I still believe in pop music. Specifically, I believe in the idea, the goal of pop music as it's been since the dawn of the mass record-selling market in the 1940s: music that's fun, catchy, immediately accessible, and enduringly memorable. Whether it's traditional Big Band/pop, Beatles-style pop/rock, Motown-style R&B, 80s pop, or even styles like disco that I personally have little use for, a good pop song jumps off the radio and sticks in your head, to the point where you can sing along to it even if you haven't heard it in years. Good pop can be smart or emotionally powerful, can be uplifting or profound, can be danceable, but it doesn't have to be any of those things; it just has to be catchy and tuneful. But what's missing from so much of modern pop is the human element: real human voices, human beings playing real instruments, lyrics that speak to us on a human level. Instead we get machine-processed "voices" backed by machine-made "music" mass-produced by the same handful of paid corporate professionals, none of whom will ever have to present their creations to a live audience.
But all is not lost. The few remaining practitioners of quality pop music aren't all played on pop radio, but some of them are still soldiering on in those trenches. If you look hard enough, you can find them.
Part II of this essay is my look at the people still trying to make relevant rock in today's market, whether they're aging rock legends or young bands on the make, and whether or not they are considered "alternative" or "indie"; rock is rock. I also take a whack at a few of the acts that disappointed me, as well as some who are unique and off the beaten path. I'll pass over, however, artists like the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, the Who, Bob Seger and others who - however much I like them - simply aren't producing new music of note anymore. Part III is my overview of pop and other current radio formats: the good, the bad, the interesting and the disposable, the mass-marketed and the relative unknowns. Part IV wraps up with a look at the best albums of the past three years, a quick run through the artists I haven't covered here, and a few other odds and ends.
Pull up a chair.