On the plane on the way to Goldmine's National Record Show at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame a few weeks back, I struck up a conversation about music with an interesting woman who was on her way to Cleveland to go to some sort of Yiddish Festival (I'm not making that up).
I told her about the magazine, and we talked about all the great rock and folk acts of the '60s. She was really into Carole King and the Mamas and the Papas and other artists of that era. And then, our talk turned to the music of today, which she basically dismissed as crap.
Though I'm the editor of a magazine that is classified as a "classic rock" publication, I enjoy modern stuff just as much, and so, I disagreed, as I always do in such matters, because I don't buy that line of thinking (Every era has its great music; this one's will be recognized someday). And yet, when put on the spot, I couldn't really come up with a really convincing rebuttal.
Now, I'm not here to tell you that the music industry is in great shape, because it's not. But, I'm not ready to give it last rites either.
Having had time to think since that day, I've come up with five groups who continue to push the envelope with challenging, original music that has all it takes to stand the test of time and still has something new to offer. Here goes nothing:
Not a whole lot of alt.-country acts have really done anything incredibly original with their careers. That's not to say they haven't produced memorable music, it's just that experimentation is something the genre avoids like the plague. Wilco is the exception.
With each release, Jeff Tweedy and company take alt.-country to places nobody ever thought it would ever dare to go. The double album Being There, released in 1996, hinted at genius. The '60s pop infused Summerteeth confirmed it, and then came 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Undoubtedly the decade's finest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot runs the gamut of sunny pop-rock ("Heavy Metal Drummer" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You"), moody meditations ("Ashes of American Flags" and "Poor Places") and exquisite songcraft ("Jesus, Etc.," "War on War" and "Kamera"). It's strange and unique, yet for all of its experimental tendencies, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is also timeless, heartbreaking and a real, honest-to-gooddness work of art.
Radio, as it's done for years, ignored it, but Internet buzz created a groundswell of support just as Wilco's record label was dropping the band. Big mistake. Subsequent releases A Ghost Is Born, which features some stellar guitar soloing from Tweedy, and the band's latest, Sky Blue Sky, have garnered critical acclaim from all points and strong sales in time when nobody's buying records.
The Flaming Lips
Hands down, the Flaming Lips have the best live show on earth. I went to see them at a festival last summer and the experience was incredibly surreal, life-affirming and fun. On one side of the stage were girls, plucked from the festival grounds during the day evidently, dressed up as martians; on the other were guys in Santa Claus outfits. And that's not all.
Under a torrential downpour of colorful streamers and balloons, frontman Wayne Coyne walked out into the crowd in a bubble as what seemed like hundreds of exercise balls were bouncing through the air.
Lest you think that the Lips are all showmanship and no substance, put on their headphone masterpieces Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and The Soft Bulletin. Mind-blowing psychedelia, electronica and lush pop pour out in a flood of colors. Coyne's lyrics are a celebration of life, but he's no Pollyanna. He's somehow able to straddle the line between the dark and the light and go off to examine deeply either territory without completely succumbing to whatever dangers are hidden in the blackness. Meaningful and intelligent, this is party music for aliens, and human beings who haven't been cowed into accepting the futility of modern living. There's never been another band like this, and in all likelihood, there never will be.
Impossible to place in any sort of genre ghetto, Iceland's Sigur Ros combines the soaring complexity of classical music, the devastating weight of heavy metal, the noisy crescendos of shoegazer rock and ethereal soundscapes — not to mention the aural Northern Lights emitted by lead singer Jonsi's gorgeous falsetto — to create the most emotionally powerful music of our age.
Cinematic in its scope, with a built-in sense of mystery — due to the band members' publicity-shy stance and an album simply titled ( ) — Sigur Ros is not just a musical entity; it's an audio-visual experience. With little if no dialog, a Sigur Ros video is able to convey stories of lost youth, child-like innocence, undefinable menace and unabashed joy with beautiful, breathtaking imagery, the unscripted actions of its actors — usually Icelandic children or the elderly — and artful camera work.
It's been said of a lot of bands that they will change your life. With most, it's pure hyperbole, but Sigur Ros is that band.
Forget the confusion over Jack and Meg's actual relationship (most of us already have). Forget their crazy color schemes. Jack White is an insanely talented guitar player and the way they mesh vintage, hellhound blues, garage-rock and punk into a sweaty, minimalist fury of rock that erupts in tracks like "Seven Nation Army," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and "Ball and Biscuit." And then there's the Stripes' softer, child-like side that emerges in "We're Going to be Friends."
There's raunchiness and unspoiled innocence rubbing up against each other in every White Stripes album, and there's pure violence in White's playing, mixed with gentle finger-picking where appropriate. Able to swing from hot-wired rock to traditional song forms in the blink of an eye, Jack and Meg are a dynamic duo that seem to have preternatural musical instincts. Or at least Jack does. It's hard to tell what's going on with Meg, besides providing a solid beat for Jack's guitar tantrums.
And the White Stripes don't just suck up to their heroes; they set fire to their effigies. As respectful as they are to what's come before them, and they are, the White Stripes certainly aren't content to simply mimic them like some bar band playing covers for beer-addled apes.
Not only that but Jack White did the world a huge favor and helped revive the career of one Loretta Lynn. Their collaboration resulted in one of the best albums of the decade. And that ought to count for something.
"Prolific" is one word used to describe Ryan Adams. "Petulant" is another. But, there is no denying the man's ability to craft a song.
Whether he's immersing himself in sepia-toned country with Whiskeytown (his former alt.-country project) or honky-tonking with his latest backing band, the Cardinals, or selling you slick pop-rock candy from that five-and-dime store head of his, Adams' tremendous knack for penning angst-ridden, heartbreaking, memorable songs that stick in your mind forever.
Weaned on the country of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, Adams has shuffled off the alt-.country tag a time or two, just to prove he's more than just some yokel from the sticks. But he always returns to his roots, and when the prodigal son does, he seems to come back more determined than ever to make something lasting and eternal.
He released three albums in 2005 alone, and all of them were stellar. How many
songwriters are able to do that? Plus, he has the blessing of Elton John. Enough said.