Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Postmusical Age

I'm massively preoccupied this month getting my dissertation in, but I took a few hours this weekend relaxing and updating my music collection. It's something I do every few weeks. I haven't the time to build any heavy blog topics this month, so I thought I'd pass on some of my musings on music instead. If you're keen to know what I listen to, this post's for you. But there's also a tiny bit of music philosophy, too, for those who are curious. Because something strange and wonderful has happened to music in the 21st century. More on that later...
Finding Beauty

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.

Tour Fantastic

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.


Castaa said...

I'm about the same age as you and music to me as just died. I've probably only bought 20 albums in the last 10 years. I guess I'm not willing to do my own homework and find the good sounds out there.

Josh said...

I don't know if you're open to classical, but several I would recommend is Shostakovich's 5th symphony, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, Mahler's 1st.

Richard Carrier said...

Jon: That's what I thought, too, until people started cluing me in over the past five years, and my music library has exploded since.

I don't buy CDs anymore (except when I have no choice, since some stuff still exists in no other format, except by data theft, and I'm not much into that). I generally only buy online now, and iTunes has a lot to do with opening the music world up to the likes of me. And not just in making finding and browsing easier (though it did that in spades). On average, a good group makes three good tracks per album, sometimes as many as five or six, just as often only one or two, all out of maybe ten to fifteen tracks. I can now just buy the ones I want. This has made diversifying my music library a lot easier and cheaper.

I suggest going to iTunes and listening to samples of tracks from every group I listed in bold. Remember not every track will be good, so you have to bear through a lot of listening to find the good stuff. There are so many wildly diverse sounds there I'm sure at least one will catch you, if not several. And that's just the list from my interests--an equally diverse list completely different from mine could come from any other listener.

I'll give you an example: after I wrote this blog entry, within minutes I discovered Laika. I already had a track from Laika, "Black Cat Bone," from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack CD import I bought used last month (yes, I'm that devoted a Whedonite). Another superb track on that CD was "Strong" by Velvet Chain. So I went to iTunes, looked them up, and listened to other tracks.

I found the iTunes versions of the Velvet Chain catalogue to be so badly engineered as to be unlistenable. The sample for "Strong" sucks ass, for example, and I can only assume the Buffy version was a live version or produced in a different studio, because that version is hauntingly brilliant.

Then I checked Laika. I discovered they've been around since the mid-90s but their best work comes from the last ten years. I found their sound as wildly unique as I expected. I found two other tracks I absolutely love and bought them (including "Bedbugs," a track that turned out even better than the sample hinted). The rest was not quite rising to my level of interest, though I might go back for a re-listen. And iTunes also popped up Laika and the Cosmonauts, I presume a team-up, and in this incarnation over the past five years or so they've been producing a hipped-up redux of the 60s sound of the Ventures, proving my blog's thesis yet again--this is a classic example of a Postmusical phenomenon. I bought tons of that.

Try those out. Go to iTunes and listen to some Laika (especially "Bedbugs" and "Black Cat Bone"), and then some Laika and the Cosmonauts. If none of that's your thing, remember the other groups I list in bold are wildly different. I can't imagine you won't find at least one you love.

freethoughtguy said...

Ah, "The Air That I Breathe!" That probably qualifies as a perfect song. It's one of my favorites too. Do you like other tunes by the Hollies? Try "Gasoline Alley Bred" or "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" or "Long Dark Road."

Do you like "Creep" by Radiohead? I bet you do, because it's so similar to "The Air That I Breathe." The two songs have an almost identical bass line, chord structure and melody. (Both great songs, but "The Air That I Breathe" remains superior.)

Richard Carrier said...

Josh: Of those composers you list I prefer Mahler (and of course the ones I named in my blog are just a sample of my other favorites, I could have added Grieg, Vivaldi, etc.).

But Classical is not generally my thing. I actually like "modern opera" (i.e. film scores) more, since they are more creative--and not just because they can be, because of new instruments and technologies. I think they would be more creative even with traditional instrumentation. Classical can be moving and brilliant, but the old composers were all wearing a cultural straightjacket when designing their sounds, which is why people say it all sounds alike.

That's not realy true, but it almost is, and certainly in comparison with modern symphony. Compare Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with Yann Tiersen's Amelie or Burkhard Dallwitz's The Truman Show, or compare Basil Poledouris's Conan the Barbarian with his own Cherry 2000, and now compare that collection with the whole history of pre-1900 orchestral music and you'll see what I mean.

In addition to the scores I mentioned in my blog, the ones I just mentioned above are among the greatest of the 20th century. Apallingly, neither of those Poledouris scores are available on iTunes, even though they are far and away his greatest work. Both are worth a visit to your local used CD store, or even bought new.

Richard Carrier said...

Freethinker: Holy Hercules! Yes, indeed I'm not even into Radiohead, except "Creep" which is brilliant. I actually prefer the version by Abney Park, which is closer to my sound, and that's the one I've had in my library for over a year. I haven't explored the rest of the Hollies' catalogue (I should). The tracks you recommend aren't my thing. But I agree "Air" is probably a perfect song. Its perhaps unbeatable on every scale by which to measure a song aesthetically, from score to instrumentation to lyrics to vocals and whatever else.

Lillian Campbell said...

'The Entrance of the Montagues and Capulets' from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Philip Glass' Akhnauten.

J. S. Bach's Toccata and fugue in D minor.

freethoughtguy said...

I must disagree about the 80s being the best decade for music. In my opinion, it's the worst! In this old blog post of mine, I sorted my iTunes by decade (using a Smart Playlist - I tag the year on all my tracks) and found relatively fewer song from this decade. Of course there were some good bands like R.E.M., but there was too much hair metal and too much synthesizer.

Have you tried eMusic? Great selection, DRM-free downloads (MP3 format) and cheaper than iTunes. I can fix you up with 50 free downloads ... just let me know!

Einzige said...


You almost completely bypassed electronic music. Sure, you mentioned Tangerine Dream, but they haven't done anything good since the mid 80s!

Meanwhile there's been an enormous explosion of creativity in the realm of electronic instrumental (in which Moby, who appeals to the lowest common denominator, barely rates).

If you like Tangerine Dream then you really need to check out Orbital and Aphex Twin. For Starters.

Richard Carrier said...

FreeThinker: I must disagree about the 80s being the best decade for music. In my opinion, it's the worst!

I think we have very different musical tastes. Though as I said originally, the 80s is mainly a nostalgia thing, and the current decade still beats it. It's only against previous decades (and the 90s) that the 80s wins out for me.

But just considering my favorites, and in no particular order: Kim Carnes, Abba, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Eurythmics, Flock of Seagulls, Queen, INXS, Tears for Fears, Oingo Boingo, OMD, Talk Talk, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Soft Cell, Talking Heads, Thompson Twins, U2, Van Halen, Wang Chung, Simple Minds, Billy Idol, Berlin, The Buggles, Depeche Mode, Human League, Duran Duran, The Cars, Echo and the Bunnymen, (not to mention a forest of one-hit-wonders), there is no other decade (except the current one) for which I can name anywhere near as many bands or vocalists who rock. But then, it's that distinctive 80s sound that I like, which, despite the diversity of this list, all of them share in different ways.

FreeThinker: I sorted my iTunes by decade...and found relatively fewer song from this decade. Of course there were some good bands like R.E.M., but there was too much hair metal and too much synthesizer.

I like synth. I wasn't that much into hair (though I can't deny Halen or Journey their props), and I was never an R.E.M. guy.

R.E.M. was too much like what became the 90s sound that I never liked. Similarly, I also can't stand Elvis Costello. I know he was and is a god to many, but the only thing worse than his music in my book is billboard country. Not that those sound anything alike, but they grate my brain in equal measure.

R.E.M. doesn't grate, but it never pleased my ears either. So I think we clearly differ in musical tastes. Nothing wrong with that. As I explain in my book's chapter on beauty, artistic taste is largely, though not entirely, individualized.

But I wouldn't rate a decade by song count. My library is too U2 and Abba heavy, and the Beatles alone would give the 60s a fighting chance in any song count fight. I would rate it by group/performer count, regardless of the number of their good tunes. By that measure the 80s could kill just on my one-hit-wonder list alone.

Except now. I think the last ten years have beat the 80s, which is impressive since it's fighting nostalgia as well as aesthetic creativity.

Richard Carrier said...

Einzige Said: You almost completely bypassed electronic music. Sure, you mentioned Tangerine Dream, but they haven't done anything good since the mid 80s! Meanwhile there's been an enormous explosion of creativity in the realm of electronic instrumental (in which Moby, who appeals to the lowest common denominator, barely rates).

That depends on what you count as "electronic." A lot of instrumental is electronic these days. What sounds like traditional instrumentation is often entirely synth. If by "electronic" you mean music that is explicitly electronic, i.e. using sounds that only exist electronically, then I am not as much into that as I am the instrumentalists I did list, who are much more diverse in their range of sounds (Between Interval, Zachary Mechlem, The Crystal Method, Juno Reactor, and Enigma--only adding Moby as an afterthought, though I do think he rates much better than you do).

Of course I also said TD was in the past. I don't think they've done anything at all the last ten years (and yes their 90s stuff sucked).

More importantly, though, I certainly didn't mean any of my lists to be comprehensive (e.g. I could have listed several other 80s retro groups I love, like Teddybear--and so, too, I could have listed more from the electronica boom, like Solar Fields).

Part of the point of my blog is exactly this problem: the explosion of creativity and sounds, in all genres, is so huge it's almost impossible to find the good stuff without help, even though I now know there is tons of it out there. Electronica for example: I stumbled across Solar Fields by chance, and they are good but not great. From there I followed a trail of a dozen other new electronica groups and was unimpressed. The search became tedious and I gave it up. Just as with the other genres I listed, I have to rely on chance finds and tips.

So I definitely appreciate recommendations. From a quick random sample I made at your advice, Orbital sounds closer to what I like, so I'll explore their catalogue more closely, but a random sample of Aphex Twin sounded too much like noise than music. I don't like industrial or anything in that galaxy of sounds.

I do also have some concern with Orbital. Though speaking only from a brief sampling and not a comprehensive listen, it sometimes sounds too hokey or elevator, using a bit too many cliche sounds--certainly better than TD 90s but not quite up to the standard of TD 70s or 80s. Maybe after a closer look I'll find that not true of their best stuff. So I'm not rushing to judgment.

If you are still keen to offer more recommendations, but want a better idea of my galaxy of tastes in electronica (or at least synth), you should listen to (though the samples on iTunes are inadequate to convey what I like about them): "The Tides of Time" by Between Interval, "In Dark Trees" by Brian Eno, "The Iron Sea" by Keane, "Zwara" by Juno Reactor, "Bladerunner" by Vangelis, "A Warm Place" by (very unexpectedly) the Nine Inch Nails, "Magic Kraut" by (ironically) Teddybears, and the entire Sorcerer soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, and then their album Exit.

Timothy Shawn Wilson said... is a wonderful database for the most interesting music ever created. Paul Scaruffi compiles an entire history of rock music. He breaks things down by genres, years, decades, country--you name it. I'm right there with him on his many best of lists. Plenty of reviews as well. It really is over the top. As a side, I personally recommend the proto-electronic work of the German band Cluster and the current band known as Workshop as well as the minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblat: Animal Magnetism. While I'm at it: Early Brian Eno stuff still holds strong as well as Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom and John Cale's Paris 1919.

Unknown said...

hmmm...; Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Aphex Twins, Explosions in the Sky...Lamb, Fiona Apple, This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, The Sundays, mew Ratatat....i could go on and on, if u have not heard of them before, go check out... :)

Richard Carrier said...

I'll check those out. Thanks.