Nothing makes me feel more out of touch than when someone asks me what bands I’m into. Let me set the stage. Very generally speaking, there are two types of music: listener’s music, and lifestyle music. Listener’s music is simply any kind of music meant primarily to be listened to. Lifestyle music is made for primarily for another purpose — usually dancing. EDM is the largest lifestyle genre, and I would argue that contemporary country is another example. Although I’ve posted about lifestyle music several times in the past, it really isn’t the type of music I enjoy, nor the type of music I frequently listen to.
Today’s post is about listener’s music — specifically the middle ground between true mainstream (top 40) and quote unquote “underground” music. A pretty expansive middle ground, to be sure. There is a sweet spot colloquially referred to as “alternative” that is extremely popular, and yet I am fairly unexposed to it. I’m talking about artists ranging from Mumford & Sons to CHVRCHES to Kanye West. These are artists that people who like listening to music listen to (again, “listener’s music”).
In my opinion, they’re a trap: very easy to get into these bands given the fact that they’re all but top 40, and not so easy to get out them. Depending on the band, there is really nothing to differentiate their music from radio pop/radio rock beyond the fact that top 40 artists make the radio and alternative bands often don’t. This means that the listener can get a bit too comfortable with the familiarity of their sound. Somebody like Theodor Adorno would tell you that in fact, all alternative artists are no better than pop music. I, however, will not speak so broadly, because in my recent experiences listening to these artists, I’ve found several that I think are worth a shot. Even if you only use them as a transition to more “elite” music, I don’t think you’d regret listening to any of the following artists.
This is the most hard-hitting, high-energy pop group I have ever heard. Probably the only one I can think of that you could actually headbang to (although I welcome suggestions). I got recommended their debut album, Treats, and all I can say is “WOOOOAAAAH”! It’s a wild ride, with heavy distortion and sick drum grooves. Great driving music. My favorite songs are Crown on the Ground and Kids. I noticed that Crown on the Ground is on the sound track to The Bling Ring… glad to know that’s what I’ve gotten myself into with this one. I have to say, I felt their second album, Reign of Terror, was a bit of a disappointment (I was expecting more songs like what was on Treats), but they bounced back with Bitter Rivals.
“Bitchin'” is the best word to describe FKA Twigs’ music. An interesting parallel came to me when watching the music video for Two Weeks. It’s not too thematically different from Katy Perry’s Dark Horse, and moreover Dark Horse is kind of like the mass market version of FKA Twigs. That “dark, moody” pop sound that Perry and other have started using is an echo of Twigs and other similar artists, and of course I feel that Twigs is far superior. FKA Twigs has a very slow, rhythmic pace to her songs, and her vocals demand your attention. She does a really good job of keeping the listener on edge throughout the song. Water Me is an even better example of that. And I’ll just throw out Video Girl as another recommendation.
I have mixed feelings about The xx. They’re a “combo” band, pulling elements from a lot of genres together to make music that I like, but I’m not sure I REALLY like. Their strongest influence sounds to me to be trip-hop, but I question whether they’re better than a straight up trip-hop group. Also in the mix is post-rock, with the same quandary. I have listened to xx and Coexist and enjoyed both albums, but I feel The xx really lacks a “killer track,” or even a set of very memorable tracks. That said, my favorite is definitely Angels. The vocalist commands the track very well. I also like Crystalised. It’s a smooth little ditty. Incidentally, despite it being their most popular song, I’m not buying into Intro. This is an area where The xx really does get blown out by the artists they borrow their style from.
Although I’ve already talked about Passion Pit a bit two months ago, now that I’ve gone in and started listening to their albums, I have to say they are quite good at what they do, even outside of the live context in which I first got to listen to them at length. The word I want to use to describe their music is “vivid”. They generate very vivid, colorful tapestries in the mind with all of their floaty, airy, upbeat songs. There was a time in the past when I did not think “happy” music could be good, but Passion Pit definitely proves that theory wrong. Passion Pit is pretty well-known, so I doubt any of these recommendations will be news to anyone, but I really like Little Secrets, Moth’s Wings, and of course, the essential “killer track” that I was just mentioning: Sleepyhead. That is one of those “damn.” moments that really brings an album together, and I question whether anyone can have a truly great album without at least one of those moments.
R&B is not a genre I listen to frequently, but I do actually enjoy it, and I consider Frank Ocean to be the best contemporary R&B artist. He’s got everything I’d want: very chill, at least half-decent vocals, and groovy tracks. Songs like Forrest Gump have such a sick groove they lead me to believe Ocean is uncommonly talented at what he does (or if not him, shoutouts to his producer on channel ORANGE). Lost is another great one.
It is my hope that the next time someone from the “alternative” listener sphere tries to tell me what bands they like, I will actually know what they’re talking about. The discourse might not work out in the other direction, but as Aristotle once said: “having good taste in music is its own reward”.