It turns out that I’ve been writing this blog for five years as of this December. I’ve rarely taken the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts on music since I started really dedicating my time to it — the majority of my early posts were just naive venting, and later posts have been less naive, but not particularly introspective. If I’m glad for one thing, it is that I’ve managed to cut down on the sweeping criticisms of genres and fanbases I am unfamiliar with. This blog has taken at least one step up the maturity ladder.
That said, between the amount of time spent focusing primarily on music and the sheer volume of music I’ve been exposed to during that time, I’ve come up with some targeted criticisms I believe will survive at least another five years without me cringing about it in retrospect.
Scroll to the bottom if you’re only interested in music recommendations.
Late-70’s and 80’s Hard Rock Aged Badly
Foreigner, Journey, Bon Jovi, and everybody like ’em… yes, even Queen. I’ll give a temporary pass to bands like Van Halen and Guns ‘n Roses. Those hard rock bands that just barely cross into metal territory have a slightly different sound than the nonsense pedaled by the former group. I shouldn’t have to say this, but more “alternative” rock like David Bowie, and post-punk like The Cure are also not under fire here. I’m speaking specifically to what I believe is accurately defined as “hard rock” of the 80’s and late 70’s.
Allow me to ground this thought further. Every decade of hard rock has aged somewhat. For instance, I would argue there’s an acquired taste to bands like The Doors or Led Zeppelin — especially to people like myself who grew up listening to grunge and post-grunge. It took me many years and a lot of intermediate genre hops to really start to enjoy the hard rock of the 60’s and 70’s. While the argument could be made that perhaps I’m just several more hops away from acquiring a taste for 80’s hard rock, at this point I do not feel that is the case.
For all eras of hard rock, we’re ultimately dealing with pop music in rock trappings. It is true today, it was true then. The problem with the 80’s is that its trappings feel particularly affected. Every song tries to be an anthem. I’m sure it makes for great live shows, but from an album-listener perspective, I am overwhelmed by how grandiose every track is. Even hearing it on the radio makes me want to change the channel more than almost any other type of music.
We’ll take Juke Box Hero by Foreigner as a representative example of the aesthetic choices made by this set of hard rock bands. The vocalist has a lot of gusto, and I’m not going to take that away from him. The band does as well. However, rather than making use of the loud-quiet dichotomy that other genres do so well, this song starts “loud” and only gets louder. My question is “why?” Other genres, such as certain types of metal and punk, are on full blast the whole time, but this is really just a pop song. What does it gain by being so emphatic?
The answer to that question lies in the fact that this period in hard rock that I’m targeting also goes by the name “arena rock”: the reason Juke Box Hero and more or less all other songs by Foreigner and similar bands in the genre are so “loud” is because, as I said before, it makes for great live shows. But when you take away stage presence, special effects, and the crowd, all of these songs are more than a little awkward. It’s a bit difficult to get as pumped up as the music wants you to be when you’re just sitting in your room giving it a critical listen. Unfortunately, this is a segment of “essential white people music” that I’m just going to miss out on.
Contemporary Hard Rock Hasn’t Aged Yet — It’s Just Bad
Actually, I’ll cool it down; I don’t want to get into the mess that would come about from trying to suggest that ALL of this decade’s hard rock is bad. I’m just annoyed, really, at certain trends in radio rock that have overstayed their welcome.
First of all, it’s 2015 going on 2016, and the majority of the most popular bands in rock are somehow the same ones that were popular in the 00’s. Let’s look at Nikki Sixx’s Top 20 Countdown: Disturbed, Breaking Benjamin, Seether, Shinedown, Sevendust. Really? This is something that basically never happens in the rest of pop music (notwithstanding new Bieber releases). It’s like this fanbase doesn’t want to forget the 00’s under any circumstances — and that’s a theme you’ll see in the rest of my complaints about the genre today. Before I do, I just want to briefly ask if anyone else hears Breaking Benjamin’s new song Failure as anything more than a remix of Diary of Jane. I swear you could play them right on top of each other and it would work.
Second, you’d assume we’re past the arena rock days, but the way these songs are going lately, maybe not. There’s just no off switch on songs like Cut the Cord or I Am Machine, and this is the most common style of song the contemporary hard rock band pursues. If it’s not that, it’s the sing-songy but nonetheless edgy stylings of bands like Theory of a Deadman. Even the quasi-acoustic attempts made by Avenged Sevenfold and Seether can’t keep it toned down for very long. If I had to pick a current popular hard rock song that’s going out of the box with regards to not being “always on”, it would be Ways To Get High by Pop Evil, who I still wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them.
Lastly, I regret that the often-mocked post-grunge vocals of singers like Scott Stapp have never really gone away. It seems to be an unspoken requirement now that all hard rock bands must have deep, dirty, raspy, guttural vocals. Only bands that more-or-less predate the 00’s have avoided it. Five Finger Death Punch is probably the worst offender, but even female-fronted groups like Halestorm cannot resist the temptation to go that route. What can I say, the kids like it.
Vocals Matter; Lyrics Don’t
The vocalist provides the most unique instrument to any ensemble. The human voice has no “default” sound, which sets it apart from any other (standard tuned) acoustic instrument. It can take on so many different characters, as humans themselves are unique. Indeed, once computers come into play, the possibilities for vocals are endless. I’m sure an ontological argument could be made about whether it is not in fact the computer that is the most important instrument, and maybe it is, but even electronic artists seem unable to resist giving a prominent role back to vocals in their greatest works.
Of all the properties of a vocal performance, such as timbre, cadence, and range, I rank lyrics at the absolute bottom in terms of relevance. I think there are many people who would find that claim startling; there are many people for whom the lyrics of a song are inextricably tied to their enjoyment of that song. I don’t intend to prove that those people are wrong or incorrect in how they listen to music, but rather I will simply explain my side of the issue.
The crux of my position is that bad lyrics can AT WORST turn a great song into a good song (and rarely, at that), but no amount of lyrical genius can take a bad song and make it good. Delving into the former case, between foreign-language songs and the large umbrellas of rock and electronic music, I’d say well over 75% of song lyrics are unintelligible on a first listen. Judging by the popularity of Misheard Lyrics videos on Youtube, it would seem that many songs remain unintelligible well past that point. That being the case, the singer could damn well be saying whatever they want and it simply wouldn’t matter for the song one bit.
What are the cases where it might matter? Primarily folk music and hip-hop: two genres that, on average, sacrifice compositional virtuosity in favor of a vocal performance. I say “vocal performance” instead of “lyrics” because even in these cases, I think the majority of what makes a song enjoyable is the vocals-as-instrument, not literally what is being said.
Here’s an example: what is it that makes Silver Dive by Ed Tullett so striking, or even chilling? It’s not what he’s saying, it’s the qualities of his voice. It’s that opening falsetto over the acoustic guitar that, although so subdued, feels as though it’s crashing down over the listener (it’s amazing the emotion one can evoke without being over-the-top and loud like arena rock). I’ve listened to this song many times and I still have no clue what he’s saying, because it isn’t what makes the song beautiful.
And what of hip-hop? As it happens, I’ve made several posts in the past where I’ve stated that hip-hop in my mind is composed of three pillars: rhythm, flow, and lyrics. To expand upon that: the backing track, the cadence of the rapper, and the actual rap lyrics. Because we’re talking about vocals, that narrows my pillars down to just flow and lyrics. Is it a 50/50 split, though? Obviously not, if you ask me. A mastery of flow makes for a much better hip-hop song than a mastery of lyrics — which really amounts to nothing more than spoken word, lacking the former. In fact, there does not exist a case where a great rapper has bad flow but compensates with stunning lyrics. You’re infinitely more likely to get a great rapper with the opposite qualities.
So again, it is the vocals themselves that matter, not the lyrics. Getting the vocals right is what distinguishes a strange voice that is intriguing, even fascinating, a la Danny Brown, from a strange voice that is grating, a la this garbage. It’s the difference between someone who knows what he’s doing (Nas – Hip Hop is Dead), and someone who just thinks he does (boyinaband – Spectrum)¹.
So What Have I Been Listening To Lately?
- Active Child – 1999. A wonderful RnB number that rides ever-so-gently on the road to the soul. It’s light, peaceful, and smooth.
- Doe Paoro – Growth/Decay. Sparse bassline, beautiful harmonized vocals, ethereal cotton candy. Maybe it’s all a gimmick, but it certainly checks all my boxes.
- Petite Noir – Chess. I love the way this song develops. It’s a fun, upbeat electronic/RnB mix that’s got some crescendo action going on. It just builds and builds into a great collection of sound at the end. I particularly like the drums.
- Bon Iver – Perth. I don’t know why I don’t listen to Bon Iver more often. The opening riff (and repetition thereof) really “makes” this song. It’s simply relaxing and pleasant. I’m pretty sure most people have heard of the illustrious Bonny Bear, so that’s enough said.
- Volcano Choir – Island, IS. This is one of the math-ier sounds I’ve ever heard out of an otherwise normal indie folk band (to preempt responses from math fans, it’s not REAL math rock, so go away). It’s a cool listen.
- White Sea – Gangster No. 1. This is a sultry little pop song with astonishing gravitas. The vocals are soaring, and it’s a shame that the rest of the album wasn’t as enchanting as this one song.
- The Smiths – Asleep. This may seem a bit random and out of place with the contemporary songs listed above, but I actually started listening to The Smiths recently and I’ve really been liking it. The 80’s weren’t all bad, I guess, because new wave/post-punk has been growing on me this year. Asleep is a bit different than usual for The Smiths and even for the genre, but it’s a haunting song that really caught my attention. I’d actually heard a cover of it by Emily Browning in the movie SuckerPunch long before I heard the original (now), and I am still captivated by Morrissey’s performance.
It has been a down year for me in terms of listening to new artists, but like the US economy, the downturn has only been relative to the massive upsurge that has taken place over the years since I started this blog. I’ve also spent a lot of time going back and listening to artists I’d only skimmed in the past, including most importantly many classical musicians that I’m beginning to finally have a genuine appreciation for.
Perhaps 2016 will be the year that I dedicate some posts to classical music, but there’s still a lot of learning to be done.
¹On the off chance someone is interested, here’s where I think boyinaband went wrong (and this is common to all of his songs, which are often not too bad from a production standpoint). Because he makes the decision to more-or-less form complete sentences in his lyrics, his cadence suffers a stutter-stop, staccato effect that nearly immediately rubs the listener the wrong way. There is a place for artistic pauses in rap (Nas does it when he says “I think they like me, in my white tee, you can’t ice me [etc.]”), but the word of the day is “flow,” and you’ve got to actually flow at some point so that having a pause actually adds something to the cadence.
The other thing that’s killing him is the over-use of complex multi-syllabic words. With a flow that’s already staggered, having to float it through long words only makes things worse. Again, it’s something that can be done right, and I’d suggest there are two ways to do it: either by going quickly, or by using it rarely enough that it augments rather than takes away from the flow (like occasional pauses or staccato). Aesop Rock is a master of cerebral hip-hop, and he does both.
Note that at no point in this analysis did I bother with what the lyrics actually are — it doesn’t matter. What makes the song seem amateurish is poor flow from the rapper, and this supersedes the meaning of the song. It’s something that a listener instinctively picks up on, because it has toxic effects on musicality; it makes it sound less-than-professional, because even “crappy” big name rappers usually have at least decent flow, and it’s what listeners are used to whether they realize it or not.