I'd also like to know if any of you fans out there can tip me off to great music that fits my style, based on the catalogue I survey here. Since that's one of the few ways I discover new music these days. My sisters usually clue me in, occasionally my friends, and even fans nationwide. That's almost the only way to discover really good music now, something that's changed recently because of what's happened to music of late.
Yes, yes, I know all about Pandora. But that's way overrated. From a single datum it can't possibly zone in on what I like, and it doesn't. At best it can throw me into a sea of maybes where something I stumble across after a few hours of listening might actually be what I'm keen to hear. People can handle more than one datum. People are more useful that way. Apart from noodling around on iTunes, my only other reliable source for discovering new music are the music reviews in The Week, and that pales next to what the people I meet all over the country come up with. So tell me what you think I'll like. I probably won't, but it's only by digging around that gems are found these days.
Because my interest in music keys on a number of subtle traits. No single datum can capture that. That's why Pandora fails. If I were to design my own Pandora, I would ask it to find, say, the top five common "traits" represented across my entire iTunes library, and then find other music that matches any three of those five. That's more like how I think when finding music I love. That's why my library is so oddly diverse. You'll find strange bedfellows in there. You know, like good old cheesy Judas Priest and Journey sitting right next to U2 and Tom Waits. Cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria.
Welcome to the Postmusical Age
This year I've been telling people about a realization I've had: we now live in a Postmusical Age. I don't mean music is dead. Quite the contrary. It has finally arrived. Every decade of the 20th century has had its distinctive "sound." The teens and twenties had their jives and folk ditties, and the 30s and 40s evolved into big band (I still love Glenn Miller) and pre-rock pop like The Ink Spots (which I love even more). And then the 50s spawned rock and roll, Elvis became the King, and there was definitely some good stuff going around then (though I have a hard time finding the grittier roadhouse stuff I like rather than the radio bopper crap, but that's another story--any help with great 50s music would be appreciated!).
Still, the first half of the 20th century generally isn't my area of expertise. Stock sounds become much clearer to me after that. The 60s had such a distinctive sound you need merely name the decade and everyone can hear its music. The 70s, again, with its Disco and protean metal and punk--though diversity was rising, you can still peg almost any song to that decade when you hear it. The 80s, once again, with its New Wave, and though a diversity of alternative sounds was rising even more, you can still peg almost any tune to that decade. But in the 90s, things started falling apart. You had Grunge, and so-called "Alternative Rock" (which I still call "Alternative to Talent"...sorry, but the 90s was the worst decade ever for music). Along with this came a general confusion and creative malaise. No one was really sure what the 90s should sound like. But they cobbled together a kind of banal sound, which you can still peg to that decade, as bland and pretentious as it was.
And then the 21st century began. And sound was no more. There is no distinctive sound now. None. Zero. There is no identifiably 00's music. Why? Because every sound is now explored, and often brilliantly. People are doing what they want rather than what the decade expects. Real creativity, true freedom from the constraints of cultural and corporate expectation, truly rules the music scene now. And I don't mean the pop crap that radios play and corporations still peddle. I'm not talking about bulk sales. By "rule" I don't mean "at the bank." I mean the good stuff that's being made and sold, often under the boring crowd's radar, stuff that's being heard the world round, regardless of whether it makes millions or is even noticed by the bland masses. New technology has made this possible, at every stage of the game, from composition, recording, and mixing, to distribution and consumption. Now anyone with talent can join the fray--and not only make great music, but sell it, and actually expect people, anywhere, to buy it and listen to it. All on the relative cheap.
Still don't get me? Okay. Here's a tour of my favorites of the last ten years. Okay, a tad bit into the end of the 90s but mostly the 00's. Stuff I really love and keep in my library. Every group below has done at least one great tune, and probably several, and all are among my faves. Not everything they do is great, a lot of it sucks or just doesn't rate. But enough of what they do is awesome to win them an honored notice. Unfortunately there's no easy way to implant audio samples in blogger, so you'll just have to cruise iTunes to hear this stuff. But the important thing is this: notice how completely diverse and unrelated these sounds are, and yet they are all being created and consumed here and now. It's a wild musical collage that's crazier than any other decade has ever been. And that's a stone cold groove!
Right. Here we go...
There's mod oldies retro, from The Ditty Bops to M. Ward. There's 50s pop smokehouse retro, like Amy Winehouse, or mod 50s groove tunes from Nicola Conte. There's innovative 60s retro, all over the place: Belle & Sebastian, The Clientele, Forever Thursday, The Bird and the Bee. There's hipped-up 70s retro, like the Scissor Sisters. There's 80s retro, from Fancy and Franz Ferdinand to Mika, Submarine, Ringside, and Camouflage--and of course kick ass revivals by New Order, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and the Human League (if you haven't heard their latest, you really should). Even Bon Jovi is making better music now than in the day.
There's also quasi-heavy metal that's actually subtle and sophisticated, like Queens of the Stone Age. There's rap/hip hop that actually rises to the level of talented and innovative musical genius, like Lily Allen, Gorillaz, and the revival of Stereo MC's. There's stuff that doesn't fit any category, like Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Echobelly, Shivaree, or Goldfrapp, which are already wildly different from each other, and from anything else out there (and though starting a little early on in the game, I'd have to put Garbage in here as well). And what's with Mark Ronson's "God Put a Smile on Your Face"? It's like someone put the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s in a blender and churned out a groovy instrumental that fits in none but sounds like all. Yet at the same time we have someone like Muse putting out brilliant piano rock concertos like "Butterflies and Hurricanes."
Even the Beastie Boys (!) are turning out instrumental 50s retro grooves like "Suco de Tangerina." You know that's a sign of the apocalypse. Or is that to be signaled by Corporate Avenger? Never heard of them? They're a new Native American "Rage" Rap powergroup, rockin' out catchy blasphemies like "The Bible is Bullshit," "Christians Murdered Indians," and "Jesus Christ Homosexual." Try to imagine any of those tunes coming out in any other decade but this. Try to imagine Native American Rap simply as a genre! This is truly the Postmusical Age. Not convinced yet? Listen to Nouvelle Vague, a group that covers old 80s New Wave and Punk tunes but in retro French-Brazilian bossa-nova style. Dude, that's out there. Yet it rocks. Or take a moment to hear out Moulin Rouge, a brilliant "Postmusical" musical if ever there was one.
What's remarkable is that all this is entirely different, every one from the other, yet it's all being recorded and distributed at the same time. And it doesn't end there. The Kinks have been resurrected (and groovily futurized) by The Bravery. Even country music has gone wonderfully strange, as anyone who loves the more haunting tunes of Neko Case can attest. And at the the same time The White Stripes are playing the Blues like no one else ever. Yes, too many people peg them as alt rock. But Jack White says it himself: pay attention--he and Meg are playing the blues. And it's damn talented and creative blues at that. And once again it doesn't sound like anything else I've mentioned so far. See what I mean? There is no sound anymore. There is every sound. There is any sound. The Postmusical Age. Glory be.
And we shouldn't forget the masters of instrumentals, too. Between Interval is reviving the haunting and beautifully unique sounds of Tangerine Dream, still to this day my favorite instrumental group of all time, even beating out good old Vangelis (and that was a hard fight--Dead Can Dance won a close third). But now there's an explosion of diverse composers taking the idea of Tangerine Dream to entirely new realms of sound. First we got Moby, of course, but now Zachary Mechlem, The Crystal Method, and Juno Reactor. Oh yeah, and in case you hadn't noticed, Enigma is still joining in here. And yet notice again how different even these are from each other.
New or Old
That's just the chunk of my library coming from the last ten years, and only the best. I could also go on and on about the great oldies I still love, especially my 80s collection. The 80s was my decade and still my favorite for music. That's mostly a matter of nostalgia, but not entirely. A lot of it is genuinely good. And I could also go on and on about the other realm of music: the often overlooked fact that the cinema is the new opera. Many a contemporary Mozart, Wagner, Holst, or Mussorgsky can be found among the film composers of our day. You just have to notice.
There have been brilliant composers and symphonies coming out of the movie scene since the 40s, and consistently every decade after that--right up to this very day: Greg Edmonson's Firefly could well be the most brilliant film score ever written, though Joseph LoDuca's Brotherhood of the Wolf comes a close second (if you can excuse the mediocre film it came from). But how many will even think to listen to the score of the new silent film Call of Cthulhu, by Holbrook, Nies, and Pavkovic? Apart from being an excellent movie (as much as any retro modern low-budget silent film can be), the score is a masterpiece, and no inflated ego or salary had anything to do with that. Though all the sounds in cinema are modern, in genius and beauty there are scores that rival anything by Beethoven, and it's a shame so few realize that.
But those are notions that could generate whole blog entries of their own. Yes, I could tell you about the genius of Abba or David Bowie, or how, with her creative side project The Creatures, Siouxsie Sioux (of Banshees fame) truly became Cthulhu's Muse. But I've droned on enough for today.
One last thing. Since the first question everyone asks me whenever I bring up music is "What's Your Favorite Song of All Time?" I'll answer at least that before I go. It's "The Air That I Breathe" by The Hollies. It surpasses on every measure. Still no equal.