Classic Rock Canon - "The Joshua Tree", Part 2

I feel that I must apologize for my previous post about the U2 album The Joshua Tree. In contrast to my other 'Canon' posts, I apparently fell briefly into my reviewer headspace. Even in my prior rants about my most hated bands/musicians, I at least attempted to place those artists in the continuity of pop music development. Not so with this album. I will attempt to amend that mistake here.

The problem is, I'm not really sure how. In listening to the The Joshua Tree I had hoped to discover why it was not only beloved by people but also widely acclaimed by critics. It was brought up ad nauseum as a landmark record, and I fail to see why.

In terms of sound the record doesn't differ wildly from any other U2 album, and the few significant deviations that exist are rank and file for the album's producer, Brian Eno. When I listen to an album like "Heroes" (another Eno produced work, this time by David Bowie) I can understand why that album was so significant in a historical context. Albums such as those sound like nothing else from their period, and in certain cases they sound like nothing else at all.

The Joshua Tree was released in 1987 and, as far as I can see, fails to differ even from the band's own catalog. The more experimental aspects had been done by them before, specifically on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire. Every feature of the album I can put my eye too seems to be made by routine. It certainly doesn't express the 'Americana' ethos that the band hamhandedly shoved in via harmonicas and... crickets I suppose.

So what makes other albums significant? Sheer quality is rarely sufficient for anything more than good reviews; landmark albums generally blend genres, twisting their definitions. London Calling brought the ska influences of first-wave punk from subtext to text, Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds both broadened the scope of then current pop music to include avant-garde and heavy baroque influences, and Thriller similarly streamlined R&B, pop, and dance. The Joshua Tree does none of these things. It fails to merge blues or folk with the post-punk/arena rock embodied by U2, nor does it contain songs of particularly transcendental beauty/artistry. There's no edge (do ho ho) to it at all, which is probably what undercuts the blues influence. The blues, after all, is all about expressing emotion in the purest manner possible, which is impossible to achieve if you overproduce something (more on this in another post). This doesn't mean that you have to record blues music on old equipment (as Jack White appears to believe) but it does mean that you have to allow the musicians to express whatever it is they want to express. There has to be a sense of humanity to the music, and nowhere on The Joshua Tree do I see this.

Of course, there's another confound to this. Making blues music is impossible if you're not expressing something personal. Folk music can (and often does) express the ethos or zeitgeist of a time period, but blues is all about the story. That story can be allegorical, but it has to stand on its own. I think that's the real problem with The Joshua Tree, as U2 have consistently shied away from purely individual emotion. Their music is always big, not expressing things from the perspective of one person but rather from a universal or collective viewpoint. They don't make music about one person's emotions, but instead about peoples emotions/beliefs/whatever. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that their music simply isn't suited for blues influences. And it also means that when they fail, they fail big. Case in point, The Joshua Tree.


Classic Rock Canon - Guns 'N' Roses

In my opinion, Guns 'N' Roses, along with latter-day U2, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Depeche Mode, represent the changing of the guard from classic to modern rock. U2 helped pave the way for heavily political and emotional music (twee), Madonna codified dance music, Michael Jackson helped popularize and transform R&B into contemporary R&B (a depressing legacy to be sure), and Depeche Mode proved that emotion and rock instrumentation is not necessary for success, giving alternative, trip hop, and (partially) house a pop blueprint.

Guns 'N' Roses is similarly connected to alternative, not necessarily in terms of inspiration, but in terms of popularization. It's a tricky distinction, that I'm going to do my best to justify. Basically, the public was primed for alternative's distorted guitar and huge percussion by Guns 'N' Roses and other bands like them (metal, basically). I've mentioned before the straight line between first-wave metal (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath) and certain alternative bands (namely, Soundgarden) so this shouldn't come as a surprise.

The similarities are clearly apparent in terms of the sound/volume. All the bands I mentioned in the last paragraph are characterized by being fucking loud. Turned up to 11 loud. There was variety in their music (acoustic numbers, power ballads, etc) but the loud bits tended to get noticed more, and became a part of all the groups' popular identity. Remember, the obvious/frequent bits are the ones people remember.

Guns 'N' Roses serve as a good example for a turning point mainly due to their place on the musical history timeline ('87, right before Surfer Rosa and Daydream Nation (both from '88)) and their time capsule-esque status. No one really cares about Guns 'N' Roses outside of their first album, Appetite For Destruction, and even if they do it's mainly for certain singles ("Civil War", from Use Your Illusion for example). This is partially because following up on Appetite in a satisfactory manner was virtually impossible (the thing was positively massive, remember) but also because the band began imploding almost instantly. They were working with Axl Rose, one of the biggest assholes in the history of music, whose pride was based on... his... great voice? His lyrics? No, just his image.

That's another bit that directly inspired alternative music. Like Led Zeppelin before them, the sheer excess and grandiosity of Guns 'N' Roses and other, similar bands helped create the cultural context for the stripped down, bare bones approach of grunge and alternative rock. More specifically, it helped create an appetite for such stripped down music (an appetite for destruction you might say. I apologize, that was terrible).

This is not unusual. One can trace musical history as a repeating process of building up and then stripping down. We went from baroque pop to singer-songwriter and folk music. From early metal to punk. From hair metal and R&B to grunge and alternative. Even hip-hop shows this ebb and flow; compare the relatively early major hip-hop albums like Illmatic, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Reasonable Doubt to recent albums like Speakerboxx/The Love Below, The E.N.D. (FUUUUUUCKING shit), and especially My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. From classy skeleton to dressed up in a puffy coat and venetian shades. Which you prefer is a matter of taste. I personally prefer the stripped down stuff, but I still love some of the more bombastic pop music out there (Motown, for example). Either one can be done brilliantly (Leonard Cohen vs Queen, for example) or terribly (Jason Mraz vs Rihanna, for example). Neither is inherently better than the other, though later examples of bands/albums in either period tend to look a little worse for wear. Pop music can't stay the same forever, and I'd put my money on a retreat from bombast in the next ten years or so. Especially now that Kanye's topped us off.


Critical Hype - Christmas Time Is Here

Well, not really, but the corporate world certainly seems to believe so. We have entered into that disquieting period of late-November where we become inundated with holiday images and fair wishes. I know for a fact (thank you so much office work) that certain radio stations have begun playing Christmas music. In November.

This is not a cynical rant on how the "holidays have become too commercial" because there's no way to do that without sounding like a tremendous prick. I'm more directly concerned with something that I didn't even know was possible until recently; people actually enjoy Christmas music. There are people who choose to listen to the musical equivalent of stuffing Wonder Bread down your ears. There are people (I'm sitting in the same room as them) who whistle along to this beige-colored noise.

It's not that it's offensive to me, it's just completely beyond belief. I do not understand it. I was raised in a family of capitalism rather than Christianity, so maybe I just lack the cultural context for this kind of thing. Not that Christmas music is very religious. Most of it sounds like national anthems or high school pep songs; descriptions of the idea of something instead of the actual subject. I'm willing to bet that'd you find the word 'snow' in Christmas music lyrics more than the actual word 'Christmas'. And I'd put my life savings behind it if you replace 'snow' with 'Santa'.

The imagery of Christmas gets a lot more attention than the holiday itself because there's really nothing there. Holidays aren't real, they're just days. What would a song about Monday sound like? I'm willing to bet it would mostly be about bemoaning a wasted weekend and how horrible office buildings appear when you're walking through their doors. You sing about "Christmas-time", not "Christmas".

I don't know why this is so fascinating to me. Chock it up to my fascination with social psychology and how certain things get stuck in peoples heads, becoming part of their identity. I'm a "bah, humbug"/Scrooge/Grinch type myself (gee, I bet you're shocked) but I don't hate Christmas itself. I fucking love Christmas and most other holidays (except Arbor Day; fuck Arbor Day), but I hate the culture surrounding it. And I hate the fact that people are expected to adore the culture even more. When I tell someone to turn down their favorite music I usually get a brief, albeit slightly hostile conversation out of it, but telling a Christmas lover to turn down "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire" seems akin to digging up their mother's grave and dancing with her skeleton. It seems unthinkable to most people, my bizarre hatred of Christmas artifacts and ideology.

So why do I hate it? Because it never changes. Because there's no variety; it's all the same shit, repeated every fucking year. The same songs, the same colors, the same trees, the same jokes and phrases. The British monarchy has seen more change than the Christmas tradition!  And the fact that people can listen to this year after year puts a serious dent in my love of the human race. It terrifies me. Pep rallies in high school filled me with similar existential dread, but at least I could transpose that pride onto my classmates rather a brick building. What am I supposed to do to mitigate my Christmas dread? Worship Santa?

It's not a capitalist thing either. I know because I understand capitalism and its trappings, I understand how people get whipped up into a frenzy over the Stock Market or taxes; because it's money! Wonderful, precious money. Most of the Christmas culture seems to revolve around nostalgia for your grandmother's house in the woods or something. Like I said, I just don't get it. Holidays are always more of a backdrop for the alcohol and food in my family (thank god) so I never got this whole idolization at our gatherings. When it did come up it was as more of a joke than anything.

I don't know. Maybe I'm just an asshole. Maybe I'm just a city boy working with country bumpkins. Who can say?


Classic Rock Canon - "The Joshua Tree"

This is a bit of a special case; rather than review the entire career of a band I will, in moments of intense laziness, choose to occasionally focus on a single album, one that has become enshrined as a defining moment in rock history. Note that I will only do this for Classic Rock Canon installments, as posting Apocrypha entries for albums would be a bit too subjective, even for me. Canonical albums are much easier to clearly define.

Case in point, The Joshua Tree, a U2 album so embedded in every rock journalists pleasure center (except for Christgau, god bless his black joyless heart) that I've heard it trumpeted from every corner as a landmark/brilliant/effervescent piece of music. You'd think it could cure cancer, this.

Now, I've never actually head this album. I've heard the major singles off of it ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With Or Without You") and enjoyed other U2 albums (Zooropa is a particular favorite of mine) but I've only heard the hype around The Joshua Tree. Until now! I was inspired to write this review mainly by listening to the first track, "Where The Streets Have No Name", and fucking hating it. So let's get into the muck of things.

1. "Where The Streets Have No Name" - Fucking awful. Bland and uninteresting, mistaking "faffing about with a few chords" for "atmospheric". And, surprise surprise, Bono's lyrics are still one step beyond hackneyed.

2. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - It's fine. The title is a bit on the long/pretentious side (like U2's career, BURN) but the song itself is at least inoffensive.

3. "With Or Without You" - This song actually gets worse by the minute; the two minute mark introduces the Edge's trademark guitar tone, which does not fit in with this song at fucking all. The three minute mark sees Bono get all emotional, by which I mean he starts yelling and going "WHOAH-OH-OH" which is just fucking irritating. The four minute mark sees things dissolve into a thin gruel of "atmosphere".

4. "Bullet The Blue Sky" - Bono's growling is irritating, laughable, and slightly offensive. The lyrics are nonsensical garbage. The phrase "rattle and hum" also pops up, which should clue you in to how bad this song is. Great fucking work by the rhythm section though; I wish these guys would get a better band. Oh and look Bono's talking about fucking nothing. "All the colors of a royal flush"? "As a man breathes into a saxophone"? BRILLIANT. Oddly enough it works a lot better on paper. Hearing Bono talk is just irritating.

5. "Running To Stand Still" - U2's love of blues/Americana music crops through with the guitar intro, which is classic slide/vibrato. Bono's voice is less irritating now that he's in his usual range instead of the gutteral nonsense from the last song. The whole "x without x-ing" bit is a bit irritating, as is the "lala deday" chorus but it's nothing that bad. The moaning at ~2:45 grates on my nerves, though. Oh wait, here comes the fucking HARMONICA. Fucking hell Bono, McCartney wouldn't be able to pull this shit off.

6. "Red Hill Mining Town" - Halfway through! I'm already bored, which isn't a good sign. I was going to say something about this but I got distracted by a webcomic, which really says something, doesn't it? About the song, not my attention span. Great drumming though.

7. "In God's Country" - Guitar driven song, which means it's as boring as the Edge's skullcap. It's a shame he discovered that guitar tone, as he used to a lot more interesting and capable. Go listen to War sometime; solid stuff.

8. "Trip Through Your Wires" - A harmonica intro? That doesn't bode well, does it? These harmonies sound exactly like another song but I can't quite place it for some reason. This is another guitar-heavy track, which means my eyes are losing focus and I'm trying to find something to occupy my attention. Again, great drumming when the song features it.

9. "One Tree Hill" - One Tree Hill? I hate that show! I hate this song! I'm getting fucking sick of this album! La la la! The fuck is this outro? Is that a fucking choir!? This doesn't even fit in with the song, WHY IS IT HERE!?!?

10. "Exit" - I think the cricket noises are Brian Eno's way of telling us this album is boring and he doesn't even care. Oddly enough, this song's actually pretty solid once it picks up a bit. Why? Because the rhythm section is getting the focus. Noticing a trend? Actually, never mind. It falls in on itself after the second verse. Also, I think Eno knicked that keyboard bass sound from Low. Can't remember what song right now.

11. "Mothers Of The Disappeared" - Great title, blowhard. I think I'd like Bono a lot now if he wasn't so convinced that he was the modern messiah. This is also just a shitty ballad. And it's over five minutes long? Fuck you.

Right, it's finally over.I officially do not understand the fervent praise this thing gets. I really don't. The peak moments on the record are the ones where the music is mediocre instead of outright turgid. I feel like Jay Sherman; all I can think is IT STINKS, IT STINKS, I STINKS.

Jesus, I need a nap.


Critical Hype - Radio Glee

(I'm back. Did you miss me?)

I am well known amongst my friends for being pretentious. Alright, let's be honest: anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes knows I'm a horribly pretentious snob that hates fun. Passionately. So it probably shouldn't surprise you that I don't have fond feelings for Fox's new foremost show, Glee. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the show consists of the poorly scripted antics of a Glee club, interspersed with autotuned musical numbers that make Rent look exciting. It's not exactly high art, even for television.

So why do I care? After all, I barely watch television as it is, so why can't I leave well enough alone? That link I embedded should make things clear. To summarize, the cast of Glee (who, may I remind you, can't sing a note without the aid of computers) are now the foremost musical group in history, in regards to the Billboard charts. Yes, they are now, at least on one level, more successful than the Beatles.

I'm mad. I'm so mad that I can't even swear properly. Half an hour's gone by without me taking the name in vain; I'm sure my coworkers must believe I've gone catatonic. This is the final sign of how awful pop music has become, the surest signal I've seen yet that the music industry has drowned itself in an ocean they weren't even aware of. Pop is dead.

Which makes it very ironic that the modern era is what has brought us the insulting 'poptimist' movement. They assert that one should not judge empty, vapid pop music harshly, because even it displays a particular brilliance of songwriting. Fuck you, no it doesn't. Let's ignore the Tin Pan Alley written-by-committee aspect of most pop for a moment and address simple content: do you honestly intend to compare "Umbrella" with "Suzanne"? Danceability and hooks-per-minute are not competent measures of musical quality; emotion, lyrical depth, and lyrical/melodic complexity are.

I'm not arguing in favor of complexity for complexity's sake. I hate math rock and progressive metal as much as most other people. What I'm arguing for is a sense of human connection. You know I love blues music? It's not because it was recorded on impossibly shitty equipment (which has no bearing on anything other than when the artists were alive and how poor most of them were), it's because, despite the poor fidelity, you still feel something when you listen to those songs. I do, at least.

The more committee driven music becomes, the more we allow computers to perfect every pitch, and the less people care about where the music is coming from, the less authentic and emotional it becomes. It's not difficult to make people feel cheerful and upbeat, but it is difficult to make them think of something. Good music, really good music, elicits a response either by reminding you of something in your past or making you believe in what the singer says. This isn't easy, which is why artists are a rare breed. Everyone can make dance music (remember disco?). An Avon lady could make a competent pop song, given enough time and a crack team of producers to back her up. But no one remembers her for more than a few minutes.


Critical Hype: Commentary on Poptimist 31: The Heart of the Crowd

Edited 10/7/10

I have a love-hate relationship with Pitchfork. On the one hand, they occasionally give me insight into genres I have little interest in; offer helpful retrospective lists of various decades; and I did, after all, apply for a writers position there. On the other hand, they focus on twee/electronica/drone a little more than I would like; they put "In Da Club" by Fiddy Cent, one of my most hated songs from the past 20 years (trumped only by the Black Eyed Peas entire catalog) in their Top 200 Singles of the 00's (the position is irrelevant). The rest of the list vacillated between understandable (Radiohead, Outcast), insightful/interesting (I think The Knife made it in there, right?), and fucking bullshit (Cry Me A River? Really? REALLY?).

That being said, I enjoyed this column/article. Really. This isn't going to be a backhanded, sarcastic critique of the thing (like that 'Twee as Fuck' bit I did a few months ago), this is a genuine response to a topic you shouldn't be surprised I'm interested in.

The issue of 'generic' music (the central focus of the article) is one that's popped up in music criticism for decades, and has been getting harder to talk about ever since 'pop' become a genre in-and-of-itself during the 80s. When someone says that Michael Jackson is pop music, they aren't using it in the sense of calling him uninteresting or derivative. It's just one of the only labels that fits (R&B, disco, and New Jack Swing also work, albeit for distinct records as opposed to the artist as a whole). Power pop is a similar genre name, and can refer to more obscure artists like Big Star just as easily as big stars (ohohoho) like Weezer.

So 'pop music' isn't necessarily 'generic', unless you're a particularly jaded music critic who only likes stuff released by underground labels with an initial pressing of 500 copies (like Daniel Johnston, John Fahey, etc, etc). The fact that no living popular music critic is like this should tell you that the whole pretentious myth applies only to hipsters. Anyone with an open mind about music embraces a wide swath, obscure and Top 10 hits alike.

So generic doesn't mean bad either. So what does it mean? It's definitely subjective; any kind of critical judgment is. I would hazard to say, however, that almost any music fan has some definition of the word in their head, which makes me think that its a bit more universal than words like 'good' or 'bad'.

The word itself suggests derivative works, songs/artists that deliberately try to evoke some other song/artist. A few quick examples would be "Welcome To The Black Parade" ("Bohemian Rhapsody" by MCR's own admition), Britney Spears (Madonna), Kylie Mingoue (ditto), Christina Aguilera (ditto, again), Oasis (The Beatles), Weezer (KISS, again by their own admission), and many, many others. Any number of musicians admit their influences (Michael Jackson was heavily influenced by James Brown, who was influenced by Ray Charles, who was influenced by gospel music, etc, etc) but the best of them are able to transform themselves into something unique. Oasis aped The Beatles with an uncomfortable devotion, and The Beatles were themselves guilty of aping Motown artists and, of course, Elvis. The key difference is that The Beatles were able to develop past their influences and create music that was, at its best, unique. In contrast, Oasis developed past their influences and released Be Here Now. The difference is clear.

Let's say this definition, that generic refers to music that is derivative and obviously based off some prior musician's work with minimal development/unique qualities, is roughly universal. We've managed to narrow down the scope of the word, but it remains subjective. How? It depends on one's personal experience of music.

There is little doubt in my mind that a number of my generational compatriots heard Oasis songs before they heard Beatles songs. Nothing wrong with that. The issue is the false impression that comes with that little temporal reversal. On some level, I think, those people see The Beatles as the derivative artist. The qualities that make them unique have been heard in another context, and suddenly the people who did it first are judged inferior. In these peoples minds, they did not do it best. Oasis, or some other similar band, did.

This isn't something that can be removed with a simple history lesson. First impressions are, as I'm sure you well know, extremely powerful. I have plenty of friends that prefer modern pop to classic pop, and this (in my mind) is why. I don't think relative quality really enters into it; music preferences are so vague and individual that they're hardly worth talking about.

This explains why pretentious windbags like myself prefer either artists who are doing something relatively new (most electronica, drone, showgaze, etc) or classic artists (the ones who did ___ first). Musical plebeians, on the other hand, listen to new music without much context outside of prior years' Top Ten singles. Poor bastards.


Genre Study - 6.22.2010

Queried Album: Roy Orbison - Greatest Hits
Gracenote Genre: Early Rock & Roll
Wikipedia Genre: Rock, pop, pop-rock
My Genre: Rockabilly, blue-eyed soul

This one isn't actually all that bad, it's just a good illustration of a particular pet-peeve of mine: genres based on time periods. Early rock & roll is about as helpful a label as classic rock in my mind, and completely fails to suggest what the sound of the artist actually is. And if its doesn't do that, then what, pray tell, is the exact point of genres in the first place?

I'm being a bit harsh on the term here, and a lot of that is due to the 'early' bit. The phrase 'rock & roll' has taken on a colloquial meaning of early rock music anyway, so we might as well run with it and use that term alone. If you want to get prissy about it then what we understand as rock & roll today would be better termed as rockabilly, but this is simply splitting hairs. Genres are not an exact science; hell it isn't even a decent taxonomy. It's subjective as hell, based more on impression then actual elements of the songs (with a few exceptions, such as singer-songwriter and folk).

Oddly enough, Wikipedia's take is the one I most disagree with. Rock/pop isn't inaccurate, but it is frustratingly vague. I'm not saying it's inaccurate, I just think it shows laziness on the part of the article editors. Roy Orbison has a reasonably distinct sound that can be more directly addressed than writing it off as 'pop-rock'.

I may have mentioned blue-eyed soul before; the term was coined to describe singers who could be considered as a part of the soul genre were it not for their race. White folks, in other words, hence the 'blue-eyed' disclaimer. If "Yesterday" was the seed for twee/pop-folk, then "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers or Orbison's own "Crying" could be considered the start of blue-eyed soul. Such songs are all about the singer, presaging the singer-songwriter genre and distinguished from it by powerful voices as opposed to the reedy, often close-miced singing of Leonard Cohen, Carole King, and Tim Buckley. Orbison's other, more rhythm based songs are pure rockabilly.


Genre Study - 6.18.2010

Boy, it's been a while, huh?

Queried Album: The National - Alligator
Gracenote Genre: Sadcore
Wikipedia Genre: Indie rock
My Genre: Alternative rock, low rock, post-punk

Fuck. Fuck. Fucking shit.

I actually had to leave this post for about half an hour to calm down. I'm still not entirely clear what 'sadcore' exactly is, but I'm quite sure of two things: (1) it should never be used by anyone in any kind of professional capacity, and (2) it should never be used in reference to good music. 'Sadcore' is the kind of word that, in my ideal world, should only be used as a punchline or to describe incredibly shitty bands who only have a MySpace and a YouTube channel to communicate their ideas. Their terrible ideas.

You can therefore guess at my distress of The National being described with such a term, as The National are one of the more beloved bands of my generation. They've achieved critical success in both the mainstream (New York Times) and vaguely-indie (Pitchfork) review circuits. They have that vaguely post-punk-baritone-monotone sound for the vocals, and they have an absolutely kickass drummer who managed to single-handedly make Boxer one of my favorite albums from the 00's.

I don't even know what sadcore is meant to describe in a serious manner. I always assumed it was a joke term used at the expense of new goth/emo bands who lack talent/ability/pop-sensibilities. Clearly, that's not the case. Regardless, I don't see The National as particularly depressing, nor do I see 'sadcore' as particularly descriptive. Therefore, I dismiss it and go to Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia has resorted to the generic 'indie-rock' label. I've discussed my misgivings with that one before, so I'll cut this short and toss on the arguably-equally dubious title of 'alternative' and be done with it.


Genre Study - 6.5.2010 - Part 2

I should consider making a new blog just for this....

Queried Album: The Postal Service - Give Up
Gracenote Genre: Post-Modern Electronic Pop
Wikipedia Genre: Indie pop, Electropop, Electronica
My Genre: Electropop
HAHA OH WOW Sorry, sorry. It's just... post-modern? Really? REALLY?

If you take that bit out then Gracenote's genre is perfectly fine; electropop is a portmanteau of electronic and pop, after all. It's a little wordier than necessary (when a genre name begins to resemble a Bob Dylan song title you know you have issues), but at least it's accurate. Calling this post-modern though... that's a bit beyond the pale, isn't it?

Post-modern is a term that's gotten tossed around by so many art critics that it's lost a lot of its actual meaning, but generally it refers to a work that elevates or subverts some aspects of a pre-existing genre. Like the famous "Treachery Of Images", or the classic "Duck Amuck" sketch, it's something that causes the viewer to question their perception of the referenced genre/movement.

The Postal Service doesn't do any of that. At all. As far as I know, no band/artist could claim to be post-modern. You could make a case for Frank Zappa I suppose, but his music was more about sheer entertainment than anything else. Music isn't really a proper venue for such things, as making melodic music requires you to employ at least some conventional structure. Lou Reed's notorious Metal Machine Music did that, but it was also tossed into the proverbial dustbin of artistic failure, and has never been reclaimed by society as a whole.

It's an interesting dynamic, and it's one that I'm not really capable of discussing in depth, partly because of a lack of relevant knowledge and partially because of a total lack of interest. I am not a student at an art school, and therefore I don't give a shit about the distinction between modern and post-modern. The point is, The Postal Service didn't push any boundaries with Give Up, they just made an electropop album.

Which is absolutely fine. Give Up is a perfectly good album that made lots and lots of money by selling over 900,000 copies, which is pretty damn good for something that Sub-Pop released.

This brings us to the Wikipedia genres, which are by and large fine, except for that hated word, 'Indie'. People, especially critics, need to figure out that indie is a completely meaningless name for a genre, and has absolutely no distinguishing features. It's basically another word for twee, and the term's massive vagaries leads to it being slapped onto all kinds of unsuitable artists. Any genre that claims to include Arcade Fire (baroque pop), Peter Bjorn And John (electropop), Fountains of Wayne (power pop), and fucking Oasis (brit pop) is full of shit, period. No arguments accepted or warranted.

Genre Study - 6.5.2010

I wasn't going to put two of these so close together but I have been enraged anew by Gracenote's tomfoolery/cockfuckery.

Queried Album: David Bryne And Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Gracenote Genre: General Adult Alternative Rock
Wikipedia Genre: Folktronica, Gospel
My Genre: Electropop, New Wave
Fucking hell, will you just look at this shit? At least with Tom Waits the genre name suggested a general sound, vague and unrevealing as it was. Ignoring the baffling 'General' that got thrown in there we still have the 'Adult', which is meaningless even when used in its usual context of 'Adult Alternative'. The whole thing is some bullshit holdover of the concept that older people only listen to vapid easy listening tunes. We therefore label artists like Sarah McLaughlin or latter-day Alanis Morissette as 'adult alternative', ignoring the perfectly serviceable singer-songwriter label in the process.

It's pathetic! Are we still mired in this idea that our parents are listening to shit like Perry Como when that generation is the same one that saw rock & roll climb the charts? I think half the problem is this generation's collective ego in believing that the new trends of twee and contemporary R&B are somehow original, even though the former got kicked off in the 60s and the latter started in the early-70s. Even the current hipster fad can be traced back to the days when folk rock seemed new and exciting. Think carefully here; hipsters buy their clothes at VINTAGE/SECOND-HAND stores. Man, I wonder what that means!?

Besides, the synth-laden Everything That Happens is as far from 'Rock' as it is from 'Adult Alternative'. It's pretty clearly in the same domain as the electropop of Depeche Mode or the Pet Shop Boys. You could call it New Wave just as easily.

And why Wikipedia has chosen to call this album 'Gospel' is beyond me. Bryne and Eno may have taken gospel music as an inspiration for this album, but they did the same thing back on "Once In A Lifetime" and I don't see anyone calling that gospel music. And 'Folktronica'? The fuck does that even mean?


Genre Study - 6.4.2010

I recently embarked on one of my periodic efforts to give every song in my music library a proper ID3 tag, and in the process I discovered some rather odd data on some of my songs. Winamp's Auto-Tag process, which queries the reputable Gracenote music database, is generally reliable for basic information like year of release, publisher, and other such fields, but their genres are... odd. Bizarrely specific tags like 'Original New Wave Scene' or 'General Alternative Rock' are the norm, despite their bizarre ambiguity. What does 'General Alternative' even mean? Is it somehow different than 'Alternative'? These posts endeavor to further investigate the topic.

Queried Album: The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
Gracenote Genre: Original New Wave
Wikipedia Genre: Rock, proto-punk, garage rock
My Genre: Proto-alternative
First off, I should point out that no one really knows what New Wave means. The term was invented as a marketing gimmick in order to avoid using the word 'punk', and it's generally used as a catch all for bands that would now be called alternative. The term gradually shifted from groups like Television to the burgeoning synth-pop movement, and then died off all together in the mid-80s.

The original, I suspect, is based on how some modern groups, like Franz Ferdinand, are being called 'New Wave revival'. The idea of reviving a New Wave is laughable as is, and demonstrates just how incurably lazy people are getting with genre names. Or maybe it's just the opposite and music is getting incurably lazy. I don't fucking care, the point is that 'Original New Wave' should be truncated to 'New Wave'.

However, note that Wikipedia, the ultimate internet reference in front of which I daily debase myself, seems to disagree with Gracenote's assertion. God knows why Wikipedia is calling this band proto-punk; their album was released in '76, right at the onset of the punk movement. Can't be right all the time, I suppose. 'Garage rock' is a pet peeve of mine, and the only professionally released album I'd put under that label would be the re-release of Raw Power.

From my personal perusal of The Modern Lovers, the group's only album, I'd put them in the same boat as Television in terms of their sound, which would lead me to put them into a new genre I am creating right now: proto-alternative. New Wave, for me, refers to bands with a lighter sound, such as the Talking Heads or Blondie. The Modern Lovers aren't that poppy.

Queried Album: Tom Waits - Blue Valentine
Gracenote Genre: Alternative Pop Singer-Songwriter
Wikipedia Genre: Blues-rock
My Genre: Nicotine blues, nicotine jazz, jazz-blues
Well shit, I don't even know where to begin! The fuck is going on over in Gracenote's offices anyway? Alternative Pop is a misnomer, and Singer-Songwriter tends to describe solo acts like James Taylor and early Leonard Cohen; artists who accompanied their signing with a guitar and very little else. Tom Waits does play the piano, but he doesn't even do that on every track! You could possibly lump his first album under the singer-songwriter label, but even that doesn't work all that well.

A good rule of thumb is that no genre name should ever exceed two words. Three's pushing it, and four is right out. I'll admit that the Gracenote genre is roughly descriptive, and you can get a decent idea of what Waits is up to by looking at it. Still, you could easily truncate it to 'Alternative Singer Songwriter'. Alternative, in it's musical use, suggests anti-pop in-and-of-itself, though that itself is a very vague description. Painfully, Gracenote uses the same genre for Waits' later avant-garde work, where it's even more inappropriate. I can't imagine anyone calling Swordfishtrombones a singer-songwriter album, even with a bunch of extra words thrown in for good measure.

I coined nicotine blues as a vague catch-all, as no one genre really accounts for all of Waits' output. You could call this album, as well as most of his early period, nicotine jazz just as easily, or maybe jazz-blues. Blues-rock, Wikipedia's take on the album, isn't quite there, as the term can be used just as easily for roots rock groups like Creedence. Jazz-blues is probably the best one to use for general reference.


Modern Pop Canon - Madonna

If not for Michael Jackson stealing her thunder a year earlier with Thriller, Madonna would be seen as the divisive artist of the 80s, the point at which pop music irrevocably shifted into something entirely new, with the starting point being her
'83 album, Like A Virgin. If Jackson revived and justified disco, merging it with traditional R&B and jazz via producer Quincy Jones in the process to create the foundation for New Jack Swing and contemporary R&B, Madonna did the same thing for kitchy-synthpop and New Wave bands from the late-70s/early-80s.

Unlike Jackson, whose R&B meets disco sound is still novel to this day, Madonna is much more easily described in terms of modern groups. It's apparent from a quick glance at female pop stars that Madonna's shadow is nigh-inescapable. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga (especially Lady Gaga), and any other sexpot pop star can trace their inspiration and style straight back to Ms. Ciccone.

Madonna's career can be rather neatly split up into three periods, largely defined by the decade in which certain albums were released. Make no mistake; it's all pop music through sheer name-power alone. But each of these periods does have some distinct differences.

The Immaculate-period (early-80s), named after her greatest hits compilation for the 80s, The Immaculate Collection, is comprised of her first three albums, and is defined by singles like "Holiday", "Lucky Star", and "Like A Virgin". Despite the occasionally dark (or at least surprising) lyrical content ("Papa Don't Preach", a positive perspective on abortion) this is her most 'poppy' period, in line with the synthpop that came before and after it. This is the period that Cyndi Lauper and early Britney Spears shamelessly aped.

The Erotica-period (late-80s, early/mid-90s), named after the Erotica album, involved... well erotica. This is the period containing Madonna's raciest videos (such as her virtually-topless appearance in "Vogue" or "Human Nature"'s psuedo-S&M) and the notorious 'Sex' book. Even if her record sales did take a hit during this period, they were so high to begin with that it's hard to really notice. The albums released during this time-frame were generally moodier and closer to trance than the straight synthpop of her earlier albums. This move is best demonstrated by the last album of the period, Ray Of Light, which was musically built entirely within ProTools and effectively marked the end of Madonna's sexpot image. I mean, everyone still wants to sleep with her, but she isn't shoving it in our faces as much anymore.
Most of the time anyway.

Her current period, which has been going on since 2000's creatively titledMusic, is here being termed the Hard Candy-period, after her most recent studio album. As suggested by 05's Confessions On The Dance Floor, the 00s have seen Madonna backpedal from her more atmospheric releases in the late-90s to straight up dance floor hits in the style of "Vogue". I don't have much to say about this period because I have a freakish loathing of modern day dance music, no doubt caused by my intense, pathological hatred of will.i.am and "In Da Club" (which I still contend is the worst best-selling single of all time, tied only with "Boom Boom Pow" and "I'm Yours").

The key thing to note about this current period is that Madonna is still effortlessly keeping pace with the currents of pop music. While many artists lose track of the generational pulse (see: KISS and Oasis, the latter of which did it in record time) or simply decide to chuck all caution to the wind and doing something arty (see: The Beatles), Madonna has stayed comfortably on the groove, so to speak. I'd gripe about it being lazy and uninspired, but I can't exactly claim that making pop music is brainless work.

I'd be more inclined toward bitchiness if Madonna was one of those Tin Pan Alley manufactured cutouts like dear old Britney, but I have to give the woman credit where credit is due; she's written or co-written nearly all of her biggest singles, and is the second best-selling female artist of all time (right beneath Barbara Streisand; go figure). As Michael Jackson is to modern hip-hop and R&B, Madonna is to the modern dance floor.


Modern Rock Canon - Oasis

EDIT: Modern Canon changed to Modern Rock Canon

The easiest people to blame for the wussification of alternative rock are these guys. It's not entirely fair as prissy ballads have cropped up in every mainstream rock genre from the 60s on ("The Long And Winding Road", "Love Hurts", "Every Rose Has Its Thorn", etc). Alt rock wouldn't have been an exception, even if the Gallaghers had killed each other of during one of their drunken fist fights.

Commonly associated with the vague, ill-defined label of Britpop (which was applied just as equally to Blur, who sound nothing alike), Oasis cornered the alt-pop market with "Wonderwall" and, to a lesser extent, "Champagne Supernova" in '95, establishing themselves as the prime British import for the era. Their actual sound varies, but almost always maintains a kind of baroque pop meets Merseybeat vibe, owing much to them constantly ripping off other bands (which the Gallaghers write off as an homage). This is the sound that Britpop is generally used in reference to and can be seen as a direct predecessor to the current twee rock scene we're mired in.

There's really not much to say about Oasis. Most of their big singles (the two already mentioned, "Live Forever", "Supersonic", and "Don't Look Back In Anger") all have the same basic components that I mentioned just before. Their more rock-oriented songs ("Rock 'N' Roll Star" and... uh....) are barebones distorted riffs over barebones drumbeats, topped with Liam's bland vocals. Their music was formulaic and once everyone learned it they had no use for the originators.

I should point out that Oasis (or rather the engineers on Morning Glory) were one of the major instigators of the so-called 'Loudness War' of modern music. In brief, the Loudness War involves upping the peak volume of music tracks by compressing the dynamic range of the songs. This causes audible distortion when the music is played at high volumes, and decreases the contract between loud and soft sections of the music (which, ironically, was one of the major characteristic of alternative rock in the first place). This is all done to demand the attention of the listener; it's the same logic behind making advertisements louder than everything else on the television/radio, high volume commands attention. It works, but at the cost of listener fatigue and general low fidelity.

I'm not as crazed about all this as most people, but certain object lessons have started to bring me around. Consider the difference between the track "Californication" on album (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlUKcNNmywk) and on an un-mastered bootleg (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HZxLwoiGK4). There are even more dramatic examples (Metallica's newest album, Death Magnetic being one of the most notorious) but this is the one I'm most familiar with.


Classic Rock Apocrypha - Scott Walker

In many ways, Scott Walker was the inspiration for this entire blog. I had the pleasure of watching a documentary, 20th Century Man, centered around Walker and his impact on the music world. Watching David Bowie and members of Radiohead discussing the impact this man's music had on them, I was struck with the revelation that bands and artists most people have never heard of helped shape pop music without ever being included within it. The Velvet Underground and The Stooges may be the classic examples, but Scott Walker was the example that really drove the point home.

After all, the true tragedy of the punk genre (and, as previously mentioned, the alternative and grunge movements of the 90s) was that it was a deliberate reaction against what was already popular. Once the genre itself became mainstream, the artists suddenly lost their purpose. The simplest illustration of this is The Clash, who went from who went from their 35 minute, self-titled debut to the three-disc, 144 minute album Sandinista! in three years.

The point is, the proto-punk all-stars were never meant to be mainstream. They deliberately pushed boundaries by reducing their music to a skeletal version of what the public considered rock music. It's considerably different from how David Bowie chose to push boundaries, and how he chose to revive the careers of the two kings of proto-punk, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Bowie, after all, made new music by combining elements of already popular groups into an unfailingly interesting (at least until the early-80s) whole.

Scott Walker falls under the Bowie-camp described above. Formerly a part of the reasonably successful Walker Brothers, Scott broke off on his own after it became clear that his ambition and artistic influences far outstripped those of his 'brothers' (none of the group were actually named Walker; Scott's real name is Noel Scott Engel). While the other Walkers operated in basic, MOR pop, Scott found himself attracted more to the baroque and embellished, symbolized by the work of Jacques Brel.

Already one of the more popular Walker brothers due to his distinctive baritone, Scott was allowed to pursue a solo career by his parent label, releasing the critically and commercially successful album Scott. It's impossible to tell how much of the album's baroque-styled violin and horn embellishments were actually Scott's idea instead of his producer, but the lyrics and melodies were certainly his. Many of the songs were translated versions of Brel's songs (including the classic "My Death" which Bowie himself often performed on tour though never, oddly enough, on record) but Scott's own songs displayed his touch for the dramatic and memorable.

His next two albums, creatively titled Scott 2 and Scott 3, followed a similar pattern, though 3 provided early hints of Walker's later musical style. The records continued to be successful as well, helped along by Scott's own television show.

None of this exactly sounds like an obscure, cult-following musician, does it? Though he has never been successful in the US (which is ironically his home country) Scott's albums consistently hit the top-ten in England, no doubt helped by the fact that his baroque style had at least vague similarities with Sgt. Pepper.

That all ended with Scott 4, the first album to be released under Walker's birth name instead of his alias. The change was prompted by Walker's belief that this album represented his first 'true' artistic statement, growing from the avant-garde subtext of 3 into full blown experimental music. To give an idea of just how experimental it was, the first track is "The Seventh Seal", a five-minute summary of the Ingmar Bergman classic. That's about as far from pop as you can get without going into Metal Machine Music territory. The album was also bereft of most of the baroque-style of his first three albums, further suggesting that those orchestra overdubs were the responsibility of the producer.

Predictability, the album flopped. Whether it was too off-the-wall or simply lacked Walker's name recognition is impossible to answer; it was likely a combination of the two, but the album isn't really that beyond the pale for late-60s pop music.

Though Walker faded into a period of obscurity following Scott 4, he made a psuedo-comeback with '84's Climate Of The Hunter. I say psuedo because it merely marked an artistic comeback; Walker has never captured his early success and, judging from his current style, he doesn't want to.

Hunter kicked off Walker's avant-garde, heavily experimental period. That album, along with everything that followed, fall into the No Wave territory that Sonic Youth briefly strode out of during the late-80s. Those albums, especially The Drift, released in 2006, are the aural equivalent of a slasher movie. I don't like them, but I also hate Sonic Youth so it shouldn't really be much of a surprise.


Classic Rock Apocrypha - ABBA

You think I'm fucking with you don't you? "Ha ha ha," you say, "ABBA is a classic cornerstone of music history. Very funny, now go do a post on the Eagles or something." Well fuck your shit; I'm going to take the time to carefully explain how ABBA is the single most important dance/club group of all time.

Laughing again? Like it or not, dance music has been one of the most important parts of pop music since the classical era. Most of the pieces we regard today as 'art' was deliberately designed to be background music for a shindig. This is why virtually every symphony (including the much venerated "Fifth Symphony") includes a movement based on a common dance rhythm.

Shit, why do you think people liked jazz music? Up until Coltrane got all uppity with his artsy mumbo-jumbo jazz was made for a bunch of people to dance to. Remember when swing came back for ten minutes back in the late-90s and that one guy you knew started going to swing dance classes? Dancing, not the rockin' horn section, gave swing its popularity.

You can nail down rhythm as key through pop music history, from jazz all the way down to contemporary R&B. People don't like Ke$ha, the Black Eyed Peas, or Lady Gaga for their talent (I hope), but because their music's got a good beat and they can dance to it. This is why no one gives a shit about shoegaze, drone, speed/black/scream/anything-after-second-wave metal, or art rock; you can't dance to it.

And of course, when you talk about dance/club music, you absolutely must discuss disco. Why? Because disco was the original contemporary R&B. Both genres require minimal effort (drum machines and synth, later to be joined by the hated Autotune) and often have empty lyrics about sex/drugs. Same shit, different name. So why do I love ABBA?

Let me first address something; certain bands have the special distinction of being household names. They are bands that have transcended mere popularity and have entered into the public consciousness on a very basic level. In many cases, the names of these bands have become adjectives.

ABBA is, quite obviously, part of this list. Everyone knows about ABBA. There's an entire musical devoted to them; not even Sinatra got that kind of attention. It's proof of what I'm talking about with dance music, because ABBA is very definitely a pop group. They weren't particularly experimental or interesting. What they had going for them were hooks. Tons of hooks. Shit-tons of hooks. They were a goddamn tackle box.

First, they are a singles group among singles groups. This is one distinction ABBA shares with pre-Beatles pop music; no one can name a single one of their albums. The only album ABBA put out that the modern music-lover cares about is Gold, one of the unquestionably perfect greatest hits compilations of all time (along with the one for Al Green).

Second, they are absolutely fundamental to modern day pop music. Their work helped make synthesizes ubiquitous to the modern sound, and firmly established the soaring female tenor that gripped contemporary pop since the classic era. More admirably, they helped expand the range of emotions available to pop musicians, from simple ("Dancing Queen") to the historical/political ("Fernando") to the depressed/bitter ("The Winner Takes It All") and finally to the self-assured ("One Of Us", "Thank You For The Music").

So why are they in the Apocrypha, the category I use for the obscure and underrated? It's because popularity is a continuum, and if Scott Walker defines one end of the spectrum, ABBA defines the other. They are so well known, so ingrained in our lives, that we no longer care about the actual music they produced. Not in a historical sense anyway. Maybe it's because so many music critics are incurable snobs, but the more popular a band becomes, the more likely people are to dismiss them. Look at what happened to Elvis; one of the most popular and innovative (remember, John Lennon attributed all of rock music to him) performers of all time became a grotesque joke in the public consciousness. His music faded into the background, and by 1977 we no longer cared about his contributions, only his failures. The same was true about Michael Jackson; it took his unexpected death to cure people of their associations, to remove his music from purgatory and put it back on the towering pedestal where it rightly belongs.

So what about ABBA? Are we supposed to dismiss them just because they have a museum, Broadway musical, and film dedicated to them? Or should we accept that no band could get this popular without having some measure of talent? Just because disco was popular doesn't mean it was all a wash. I'm not saying there wasn't a lot of pointless drivel produced in that genre; there was, just like every other popular genre. From the right angle, every genre known to man is shit. A pointless waste of time. Looking at things that way, music doesn't seem to have much of a point at all. The important thing is to look at what is good, and has persisted among us because of some inherent quality. I may not like Journey, but I don't deny their significance in music history.

Genre Dictionary - AOR

I've referenced this before, and the term is obscure enough that it deserves a decent explanation instead of my usual sarcasm-laden posts from this category.

AOR stands for album-oriented rock, and was, essentially, the first major type of alternative radio. The format got its start when FM stations were prohibited from echoing the playlists of their AM counterparts, who predominately played major singles, in the late-60s. Fortunately, the mid-60s had ushered in an era of album-based experimentation, marking the beginning of the LP as the main form of artist expression. This, in turn, had its origins in the late-50s concept albums put out by Frank Sinatra (which included major critical successes like No One Cares, Come Fly With Me, and Sinatra's personal favorite of his discography, Only The Lonely).

The LP-as-artistic-statement got a further boost from the Beatles' post-Rubber Soul output, especially the landmark Sgt. Pepper album. Suddenly flush with songs, FM DJs began playing songs that hadn't been selected as singles, giving them a much wider range of material to work with.

The end result was that a certain branch of music was suddenly given a great deal of widely played material, especially during the 70s. One key example is the Eagles; many of their best known songs (such as "Desperado") were never issued as singles, meaning the distribution of such tracks was due to the AOR format.

The format is extraordinarily wide-reaching (its influence can be seen in college radio and most alternative stations, who play bands that probably never had singles in the first place) but the stations that fell directly into the form disappeared in the late-80s and early-90s... to be replaced by classic rock stations. Which is why the term AOR tends to crop up so much.


Modern Rock Canon - Smash Mouth

As much as I like to play up the whole 'music snob' angle (both on this blog and in my day-to-day life) certain bands bring me back down to Earth and make me realize that I am also susceptible to canny pop styles and nostalgia. "Drops Of Jupiter" still brings a smile to my face, "One Week" makes me grin like a loon, and "Walkin' On The Sun" is still one of my favorite songs. My hipster cred is officially gone. Thank god for that; I feel lighter already.

Smash Mouth was one of the 'alternative pop-rock' bands that sprouted up in the post-Nirvana mainstream. They were never challenging and their music never breached a comfortable decibel ceiling. The most subversive thing about them was some minor ska influences, much like the similarly successful No Doubt. They also demonstrate one of the more important aspects of pop music, that often gets overlooked; advertisement.

Advertising music is not a concept that comes easily to most bands. The last ad for a CD I saw on TV was for one of those NOW Music compilations; the last one for a band I saw was one for Nickelback during the early-00s. No band that claims to be 'alternative' or 'independent' will buy direct ad space on television (they will on radio though; that's what a single is, after all) but bands that are labeled 'alternative' or 'indie' will often be featured quite prominently in all kinds of mediums. The most significant? Film.

I've mentioned this before in the context of Roy Orbison's woefully brief comeback during the late-80s and it holds just as true for many other groups. Smash Mouth is a wonderfully textbook example; what's the first song by them that pops into your head? Was it "All Star" or "I'm A Believer"? The key feature of both of those isn't hooks or brilliant lyrics, it's the fact that they were both prominently featured in the blockbuster movie Shrek. At least, that's what I believe.

It's a simple numbers game. Most of the best-selling albums worldwide top out at around 40-50 million units sold (with the exception of Thriller, which sold over double that amount). This is all very well and good, but sales like that put those few albums close to dead last when put into movie terms. Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl was a pretty big movie, selling an estimated 50,648,900 tickets (Box Office Mojo). This puts it at 90 out a 100 on a list of top tickets sold. Gone With The Wind sold about four times that many tickets (202,044,600) (Ibid), which is twice as many copies as Thriller did (~110 million). The difference is astronomical and very obvious; more people see movies than buy albums.

Similarly, television can achieve the same effect. You know Moby, right? The only reason you do is his impressive campaign to mass market his breakthrough album, Play. Make no mistake, it's a great album but far less people would have bought it if Moby hadn't put every song into ads, TV shows, and other mediums outside of radio. It was a brilliant marketing strategy that ensured that Moby would never have to try again.

This is how songs/artists persist in the public consciousness; exposure. This is why success is not a viable metric for musical quality; because if it was then Whitney Houston is one of the greatest musicians of all time. Even better than the Black Eyed Peas.

Classic Rock Canon - Journey

Up until now I've stuck to bands that I both enjoy and know about. I'm attempting to keep this blog largely positive because, believe me, I could go on for the next three years about twee, contemporary R&B, and those miserable shit-fuckers the Black Eyed Peas (who, by the way, are still in the fucking top 20 of the Billboard 200, proving that I'm perfectly justified in hating everyone in existence) but it would probably get old after a while. Besides, I don't want to invest that kind of time in a blog of all things.

But when discussing classic rock, even when limiting oneself solely to bands with some historical relevance, there comes a time when you must discuss the dregs of the genre. It's inevitable, like how every David Bowie fan has to admit that he did, in fact, make albums after the mid-80s. You look down on the floor and mumble something about how 1. Outside had some great avant-garde influences and was really cool for pulling in electronica and people let you get away with it out of pity.

The difference is that I fucking love Bowie, despite his flaws, and have some serious issues with classic rock, mainly because of its flaws. And no flaw is bigger or better selling than Journey. God I hate Journey. If you want to save time you should take those words and go find something cheerier.

Let's address the band first; Journey got their start when Santana's backing band got sick of playing second fiddle to ol' Carlos (which they should have seen coming considering what he named the group) and decided to take a stab at a career on their own. This isn't unheard of; The Band (Bob Dylan's backing band) had some decent success on their own. The difference is that the original version of Journey tried to make a stab at financial success with jazz fusion, which had the result you'd pretty much expect.

Their label, Colombia, told the guys to find a frontman and change their style to something closer to Foreigner/Boston. They complied, and after going through a few guys they settled on Steve Perry, otherwise known as "that talentless schmuck who stole Pete Townsend's nose."

As much as I hate Steve Perry, the band themselves hated him more. The group's drummer and keyboardist both left the band, and did it after it became obvious that Perry's Journey (for it very much was under Perry's control) would be monstrously successful. Not even buckets of money, each as large as Perry's schnozz, could convince them to put up with him.

You may think I'm being mean-spirited here, but this is how intense my hate of Perry is. Why do I hate him so much? Because of classic rock stations, who all fucking love Journey. Goddamn do they love Journey; I can guarantee that, on any given classic rock station, no more than two hours pass without a Journey song.

And what songs they are! Thanks to The Sopranos and countless bars around the world, "Don't Stop Believin'" is the best selling iTunes song of all time at three million downloads. That's roughly six million dollars, all spent on Swiss. "Separate Ways" has the cheesiest opening outside of Styx's discography; "Faithfully" is the only love song less convincing than "Hey There Delilah"; and "Wheel In The Sky" is... actually pretty cool. I like that one. Worse, every lyric Perry ever sang/wrote is ever worse than "Welcome To The Jungle".

Wanna know who to blame for synth rock? Journey. Vapid lyrics sung by people who sound they have a cold? Journey. A bizarre love for overly emotional lyrics sung in the least convincing way possible? Journey. Worse, they're one of the core bands of the classic rock canon. They are universal; heard everywhere. Even today, the average person on the street is more likely to know about Journey than any other band from the early-80s, guaranteed. For a lot of people, they are the 80s, representing the entire decade's rock movement.

That's why I'm pissed off. That, and because they suck.


Genre Dictionary - No Alternative

I briefly touched on the alternative genre in my write-up of Nirvana, but some of the terms I called up deserve further exploration, mainly to address how similar it is to classic rock. Again, much of this comes from my own knowledge; I'm not putting a lot of research into this and, as a result, my presented history may differ somewhat from reality. If you care, I suggest looking up some authoritative sources, as opposed to an amateur blog.

The easiest source to cite for alternative music is the post-punk movement of the early 80s. Though difficult to define, post-punk can be understood as any group with similarities to Joy Division (except for modern ripoffs like Interpol and She Wants Revenge; they both fit more comfortably into generic alt. rock) or Public Image Ltd, depending on the band's country of origin. Post-punk is noted as 'difficult' music; it owes a great debt to the Krautrock movement of the mid/late-70s and therefore uses a lot of synthesizers, odd time signatures, and abstract/absent melodic structures. There's a lot of focus placed on rhythm and on the twisting of melodies, making it the direct predecessor to drone, shoegaze, noise rock, and No Wave. Important figures include the aforementioned bands, along with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed's solo career, Kraftwerk, The Stooges, Iggy Pop (especially The Idiot), David Bowie, certain Beatles' songs ("Revolution 9", "Helter Skelter", etc) (proving once again that they had their little hands in nearly everything), Brian Eno, and King Crimson (technically progressive rock).

For the alternative genre, post-punk is best understood through the lens of the seminal New York group, Sonic Youth. More likely to walk on their instruments then play them, Sonic Youth helped bring the genre more into the light of the day via a few surprise successes in the late-80s, particularly Daydream Nation. If you've ever read Pitchfork than you've no doubt heard enough fellatio for Thruston Moore and Kim Gordan, so I'm going to leave things at that. Other majors groups falling under the post-punk umbrella are Dinosaur Jr, Pavement (another favorite of Pitchfork), Nine Inch Nails, The Birthday Party, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

This is all very similar to the rise of punk in the late 70s; the post-punk/proto-alternative bands had some popularity and a lot of notoriety, but they were largely ignored within the pop scene. Sonic Youth were hardly a match for Madonna; after all, you can't really dance to "Teen Age Riot".

Also notable, but not fully under the banner of post-punk due to their more conventional song structures, were the Pixies. I've mentioned them before and I'm bound to mention them again; the Pixies are, in my mind, the modern equivalent of the Velvet Underground. While VU inspired punk and post-punk, the Pixies inspired the modern interpretation of alternative rock by way of Nirvana.

I've covered this before so I'll stick with a summary: Nirvana basically took the basic formula used by the Pixies (soft-loud-soft song structures) and combined it with melody, thus defining alternative rock for the early-90s.

I'm avoiding the use of 'grunge' because it's a terribly misapplied. Grunge only describes one Nirvana album (Bleach) and refers to a lo-fi sound best equatable to garage rock. Dinosaur Jr was grunge; The Meat Puppets were grunge; PJ Harvey's first two albums were grunge; Nirvana was only grunge when Sub-Pop forced them to be.

Which brings me to my next point; alternative rock is horribly bloated. The same genre contains any number of groups that sound nothing like one another; the link between Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins is tenuous, at best. One owes a debt to Led Zeppelin and other first-wave metal groups, while the other pays homage to baroque pop with post-punk sensibilities. Do you realize Bjork is considered alternative? How does she sound anything like VU (aside from the Nico comparison)? It's all nonsense, just like classic rock.

The 'grunge' of the early-90s gradually gave way to the much maligned adult alternative of John Mayer and the Dave Matthews Band, as well as the even more bizarrely named post-grunge genre, which was basically alt. rock with the piss taken out of it (Matchbox 20, Nickelback, Goo Goo Dolls). Post-grunge is best compared to New Wave in terms of genre relations; a follow-up movement specially calculated to be mainstream. I'd call it No Wave, but that one's been coined already. How about fuzz pop? It sure as hell isn't 'alternative', considering it was manufactured for the radio.

That last bit, by the by, is the reason I think alternative rock imploded in on itself; the artists involved didn't want to be popular. They were alternative after all, it was the same pitfall punk hit back in the late 70s, and it was solved by radio in the exact same way.

I should also bring up the fact that alternative rock technically includes nearly every genre that emerged in the 90s, including rap rock and funk rock. This is ridiculous for reasons I shouldn't even have to address.


Alternative Canon - Nirvana

Had things been a little different, I firmly believe that Nirvana could have been yet another divisive artist in pop music history. The 90s were, thanks mainly to the bizarrely large success of "Smells Like Teens Spirit" and Nevermind were the home of the now collapsed alternative rock genre, along with his sibling/child sub-genres of grunge, No Wave, post-grunge, noise rock (to a minimal extent), Brit rock, and post-punk (all those Joy Division rip offs basically; Nick Cave has never been mainstream). This gave way to rap and, later still, hip-hop, club, and contemporary R&B, essentially a backtracking to Michael Jackson. Somehow, the alternative genre experienced a disco-esque lifespan; a monumentally large success matched in degree only by its brevity.

A large part of this was no doubt the apparent instability of the genres major groups. Nirvana dissolved when Kurt Cobain passed away, Alice In Chains went into limbo when Layne Staley overdosed, and none of the other major groups in the grunge wave seemed to have any staying power (Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam only really made two good albums each, Soundgarden fell through when Chris Cornell went crazy, Temple Of The Dog had similar problems with deaths, etc).

The other issue was one of size. Even at its peak, grunge was a very tiny genre compared to other mainstream flavor-of-the-months. Its fellows in the alternative rock umbrella also suffered from the simple fact that they identified themselves as alternative. Melodic hooks served as an exception to oftentimes off-putting cacophonies of sound, especially in the noise rock and No Wave movements captured by groups like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Each of these groups had a few radio-friendly unit shifters peppered in amongst a sea of feedback and distortion, like "Where Is My Mind?" on Surfer Rosa. They didn't want staying power; they wanted obscurity, like punk before them.

Nirvana seemed the major exception to this rule. While Layne Staley seemed to have a similar love for sheer melody, Kurt Cobain embraced it in a way that no other alternative musician ever did. Pearl Jam was the closest band in terms of approach but, lets face it, they never had anything on Nirvana. The best you can say about Eddie Vedder and his merry men is that they had better solos.

I'm sure music fans are getting in a tizzy reading this, but you have to look at the facts. Even on Bleach, probably the least radio-friendly album Nirvana made, you can see Cobain's touches of melody. The only real differences between that album and the landmark Nevermind are production and approach; the group's debut was tailor made to fit into what was then considered grunge at the behest of their label, Sub-Pop, while Nevermind was more unsupervised due to the recent success of Sonic Youth. On that album, and even on the deliberately uneven In Utero, melody was king. It was that contrast, along with the terraced dynamics that Cobain ripped from the Pixies, that made their music interesting.


Pop Music Canon - Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is the second-most recognizable artist/group of all time, standing neck-and-neck with The Beatles. Unfortunately, much of this attention is based more in questioning his personal life than admiring his oftentimes brilliant musical output. Because of this, I again encounter the problem of a topic covered once too many, so I'm not going to waste time with a summary of what everyone knows. Instead, I'm going to focus on Jackson's significance in my overall flowchart of pop music.

I've mentioned earlier that The Beatles represented a divisive moment in pop history. There is pre-Beatles pop (crooners, vocal jazz, rockabilly, and rock and roll) and post-Beatles pop (what we understand as classic rock, blue-eyed soul [also popularized by Roy Orbison], and psychedelic rock). In the same way, there is pre-Jackson pop (disco, New Wave, synthpop) and post-Jackson pop (contemporary R&B, neo-soul, R&B, new jack swing, modern dance music). Both groups were important in how they combined the elements that came before them into what came after them; you could consider the two groups as bottlenecks in simplified schematics of pop music (note that this excludes metal, punk, and goth, which are basically small sub-groups of the mainstream).

In radio terms, Michael Jackson brought about both the end and beginning of classic rock. Before Jackson and the pop music of the late 80s (think Madonna), classic rock existed as AOR stations (previously discussed in the Roy Orbison post), which played the same basic music but with a slightly larger setlist. The name change, I suspect, was due to a shift in perspective; before Michael Jackson, AOR still existed on the fringes of pop music. Artists fitting into the genre were still accumulating (and would continue to do so through the end of the decade, albeit at a slower pace) and were exhibiting influences from the rest of the pop spectrum (AOR + synthpop = Steve Perry's Journey, for example). After Michael Jackson, pop music consolidated/collapsed around him and R&B as a whole, leaving AOR in limbo. AOR was no longer pop, but there was still some demand for it. Therefore, canny corporations created classic rock, and DJs perpetuated it.

This was the last major divisive moment of pop history. Modern pop (contemporary R&B) carries the indelible mark of Michael Jackson, and will continue to do so until the next breath of fresh air comes along. My guess? Synthrock.

Classic Rock Apocrypha - Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison (briefly known as "The Big O" before that one got creepy) is one of the oddest omissions from classic rock that I know of, and was one of my main inspirations for starting this blog in the first place. The one song you're likely to know of is "Oh, Pretty Woman", but even that hardly gets touched by radio stations. My generation, along with the previous, mainly knows that tune from the Julia Roberts movie that shared its name.

Which brings us to the subject of Roy's popularity. Back in the early 60s, Roy was one of the biggest names in rockabilly and blue-eyed soul, maybe THE biggest. When he opened for The Beatles he enjoyed a preposterous fourteen encore show, despite being a solo performer opening for one of the biggest British groups of the time. Did I mention the show was in England? Right after Please Please Me?

Unfortunately, this popularity diminished considerably during the late 60s and 70s, due in no small part to the onset of the British Invasion. For better or worse, Orbison never really changed the style of his music throughout his career, an was thus left behind the rapidly changing pop scene. Never really hurting for money, he retired from touring, aside from a few shows in foreign countries where he maintained his monumental fanbase.

As I alluded to earlier, Orbison's comeback was largely due to the use of his songs in other forms. Linda Ronstadt had a major hit with Orbison's "Blue Bayou" in 1977 and Don McLean covered "Crying" three years later, achieving similar success. What really brought Orbison back into the spotlight was the use of his song, "In Dreams", in David Lynch's 1986 neo-noir film, Blue Velvet. The usage was... memorable to say the least (a demented lip syncing session followed by Dennis Hopper using the lyrics as a threat) and it put The Big O back in the public eye.

1988 saw Orbison capitalize on his new found popularity: he featured on the all-star supergroup The Traveling Wilburys; released a new album, Mystery Girl, featuring a song co-written by Bono himself, "She's A Mystery To Me"; and released a live album/video featuring yet another all-star band playing backup (Black And White Night). His resurgence was tragically cut short by his death the same year.

So why isn't he better known? In all likelihood, it's down to simple timing. Classic rock stations evolved out of a station type known as AOR (album-oriented rock), which developed during the late 70s, continuing on through the 80s as an alternative to the now burgeoning disco/R&B craze. Orbison, omitted from popular music over the course of the 70s, missed his chance for preservation by a few short years. Had his popularity come back during the early 80s, before Michael Jackson split the airwaves, you'd probably be hearing "In Dreams" every three hours instead of "Sunday Bloody Sunday".

Classic Rock Canon - The Beatles

When discussing classic rock, or rock/pop music in general, The Beatles are an unavoidable feature. If popular music is a planet, The Beatles are a moon. There is no group more significant to our modern conception of rock and roll; the very name has become something of a logo for the genre as a whole.

This all makes them an extraordinarily boring subject to discuss, mainly because there is very little left to discuss. I'm willing to bet that every music critic/journalist active in the past thirty years has written at least one article/review/blog post that referenced the Fab Four, and at least half of them have probably reviewed a Beatles album or discussed their history. The well is dry.

There are still a few things I consider worthy of consideration though.

- Unlike every other band I can think of (especially for the era in question) every song The Beatles put to record has a reasonable chance of being played on a radio station (with a few exceptions ["Wild Honey Pie", "Revolution 9", etc, etc]). They are one of the scant few exceptions to the "one/two a day" rule I mentioned in my introduction to this subject.
- The modern conception of twee music can be traced back to a single song, "Yesterday". That song is the blueprint for every Jason Mraz song you will ever hear.
- Similarly, punk music can be traced back to "Revolution", as well as a number of other 60s groups (that I'll cover later in the Apocrypha). The Beatles were one of the first mainstream groups to make significant use of audio distortion.
- Studio experimentation was brought to the forefront. People will argue that Pink Floyd did it better, but The Beatles sold more records with it. Among other things, this means that Autotune can be traced back to John complaining about how terrible his voice was.
- They would have never existed without Jayne Mansfield (more on that later).


Genre Dictionary - Twee As Fuck

EDIT: Changed title from "Fuck Twee" to the above in order to keep up my formatting. My sentiments, however, remain unchanged.

People who love/enjoy/appreciate the current trend of indie/twee music will often cite its ‘happiness’ as a reason for their own adoration. This is happiness in contrast with the ‘anger’ or ‘sorrow’ or ‘threatening atmosphere’ of rock music. Twee music is constructed from the same cookie cutter as dance music, except that dance music occasionally pushed some kind of boundary (see: Michael Jackson, Madonna, or even Lady Gaga) while twee seems content to wallow in its kiddie pool, dressed up in second-hand clothes and making ‘cute’ little remarks. It’s that cuteness that really gets me; that insistence that being random and silly is somehow preferable to acting like you have some semblance of dignity/class. I can see a fat man dancing (poorly) outside a window and it somehow seems like the perfect simile to use. The only people that find these twee-as-fuck nitwits cute or funny are people with similar outlooks on life. Everyone else (myself very obviously included) simply see an insufferable git prancing about as if their Target-bought shirt with a ‘clever’ slogan is somehow original, despite the fact that 10,000 copies of the exact same thing have been sold nation-wide.

More interesting to me is the supposedly negative aspect of rock music. Somehow, the passion embodied by such music is labeled as a bad thing. I’m the first to admit that sometimes things can get out of hand (as in gangster rap) put decided that anger and sorrow are somehow cliché and overplayed is a bit presumptuous. For better or worse, art can contain/represent emotions across the entire spectrum. Rap ranges from the cheerful and silly (“Birthday Party” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five) to the embittered and inward looking (“Message” by… Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five). Neither end of the spectrum is necessarily bad, but only one of the songs above is considered a hip-hop classic (hint: it isn’t the song with kazoo).

“But wait,” you might say, “’not necessarily bad’? Aren’t you contradicting yourself?” Of course not. I hate twee music because of how it deliberately scorns any emotion deeper than insufferable cheerfulness. I’d call it Mary Poppins music, but even that movie had a range of emotion (compare “Spoonful of Sugar” to “Chim Chim Chiree”) while twee music, as I said before, wallows. It’s a matter of execution; the darker emotions are seen equally in punk and emo, but I only like the former because the latter often gets a bit too cliché for my tastes. Same thing with black metal compared to classic metal; it’s a matter of degree. I’m not saying people who prefer the overblown, in your face emotion of, say, Linkin Park have bad taste. I’m implying it.

It’s a matter of degree and also one of ego. The perception that twee music is fundamentally better than darker music is absurd; mainly because (as I addressed above) other genres are far from homogenous. Hell, singular artists/bands aren’t homogenous (“Folsom Prison Blues” vs. “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog”; “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” vs. “I Got You (I Feel Good)”; “Love Me Tender” vs. “Jailhouse Rock”; etc.) so how could their respective genres be that way? There’s no use/point/need for a genre devoted to silly clichés. That’s what the radio is for.

PS: Fuck Jason Mraz