So, Sam was so passionate about discussing the reasons we like the music we like that we had to split his article up into two parts. If you want to catch the first portion of this article, click here.-Ed.
The best bands of yesterday and today have been defined by their accomplishments off and on stage. When Justin Vernon came down with a stomach illness, after having broken up with his girlfriend and band, both of many years, something about Bon Iver seems more truthful and his songs seem to connect a little more. His choice to sing in falsetto sets him apart from the rest of the predominant indie-folk artists e.g. The Tallest Man on Earth, Iron & Wine or Jose Gonzalez, whose music is good, but at times can be a little stale and rerun. Through the past three years, his album “For Emma, Forever Ago” has been the defining one in my large catalogue of music and music knowledge. Others that have influenced my perception have been strikingly immediate, that include (but are not limited to):
SigurRos’ Takk: An Icelandic post-rock group who write long epochal tunes sung in an unfamiliar language (sometimes even a made-up one). Coming from tiny blip, Iceland, SigurRos has made an impact on the English-speaking world without ever uttering a word in English. That’s because it is not important what front man Jonsi sings (reading and learning an English translation only helps), but rather on the largest scale of themes and metaphor, the voice conveys as an extra instrument first and a story-teller second. Not once has this band ever presented itself as the giant it is; its collective humility enhances the mystique of its work (NB the title means “Thanks” in Iclandic). Not coincidentally, either, the voice is predominantly falsetto.
Panda Bear’s Person Pitch: The third solo effort from Animal Collective leader (and BU alum) Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear is striking because he was able to keep his own work separate from the darling AnCo and create a better work without ever sacrificing his integrity to remain with the group. I really like the personal nature of his lyrics and his strong attachment to family without centrally focusing on a somewhat hackneyed topic. Family is important to everyone on some level; having understood this, he was able to make explicit what is implicit in his lyrics. The production is phenomenal, also, having borrowed instrumentation from 60’s instrumental group “The Tornadoes” and making it his own.
Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People: The third album from an established crew of musicians, You Forgot It In People combines catchy post-rock with introspective lyrics. Across the album, male and female voices overlap one another to create a broad sense of heartache and tribulation. Always a sucker for sad music, this album has given me a warm sense of hope for that intangible reason; probably because I can connect. “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” might be one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s only 1 song on an album of comfort.
The National’s High Violet: The best album this year so far (2010) and The National’s absolute best in their ten-year career, High Violet is a fantastic example of what good music sounds like. Their diligence to the sonic experience is evident (“Lemonworld” took almost 70 takes ‘qt NYT’) and their rise from obscurity to stardom has not been shrouded by egomaniacal acts of weirdness or obnoxiousness. Two separate sets of brothers and a baritone lead singer from Ohio who write lyrics about sadness and hope that can appeal to the masses. They write mainstream for the independent, and that’s what makes them so great.
(It is no coincidence that these albums are also rated high on the leading websites; I agree with these websites on a basic level, but a number and some quotes from the artist is never enough to sell me on an album.)
There’s no stopping the forward progress of music, both mainstream and independent; one day soon, there will be a new standard for ‘pop.’ There’s no slowing down the growth of auto-tune (even if Jay-Z says so). And there’s no moving in either direction the complacency of the mainstream listener’s sensibilities until money runs dry in Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” which she sure isn’t hiding behind all that weirdness. When that weirdness runs dry, the mainstream will fail and collapse onto itself.
Yet music snobbery is as bad, if not worse for the industry, than is the old greenback. There’s no real reason to not listen to a song if you like the way it sounds, regardless of its shortcomings, either musically or authentically. It becomes a question of filtering and awareness. Irony is dying as fast as Pete Doherty; its authenticity (ironically) is becoming as stale as the music the snobs mocking of it. It is becoming tiresome to keep hearing “this is bad” without a ‘because’ or “I won’t listen to this” without a ‘why.’
No blueprint exists that defines what is objectively good or objectively bad (though Radiohead have seemed to decipher one, perhaps out of the remains of “Pablo Honey”). Just like what you like and listen to what you listen to; sometimes, though, think about why.
Stay tuned for Part Two of Sam’s article. coming later this week.