As I’ve gone further into the non-classical world, my taste for listening to it has soured a bit. The grass is always greener and all that...
I don’t regret the decision for a moment, I’ve met many many great musicians, some of whom I’m privileged enough to work with all the time. I have more fun playing music than I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve also sat through enough shit concerts to know that the great musicians I’ve met are the exceptions, not the rule. Watching some of this stuff was enough to blow apart some of my more flattering ideas about the non-classical world and its vitality. Yes, the vitality is still there, but that vitality is undeserved. Sometimes I think rock music is simply a racket for nerdy guys to get women to pay attention to them. They have my sympathy, but not when their results are at the music’s expense. I’ve heard a number of great bands, I’ve also heard bands to which I had to lie through my teeth if I met the musicians. We all make mistakes of judgement, and one of my less serious ones was that I attributed too much intelligence to the non-classical world’s innovations. Listen to Ligeti or Schnittke. The results may be too emotionally arid, but the intelligence required by a composer to assemble such music is still a google-plex more than that required by any other genre.
Don’t get me wrong, there is intelligence aplenty in the non-classical world, and occasionally more of it than we ever see on the side of the fence to which I hung for thirty years. When so many musicians gravitate to the ‘larger’ music world, their results will necessarily be better. Every musician, every artist, needs a community of peers with which they can discuss, experiment, support, compete, spar, and improve. But because there are so few classical composers in comparison to singer/songwriters and bands, will even the best classical composers of today have anywhere near the same chance for posterity as Bob Dylan and John Lennon (or even Kanye?).
There will always be shitty music of every stripe. I often wonder if there isn’t the exact same proportion of quality to shit in every artistic community, no matter how big or how small. The more terrible musicians there are, the more great musicians there will be to rise above them. I feel extremely lucky that I’ve met as many great musicians as I have in the last eighteen months. The results could have been so much worse...
The truth is that the classical world is a fairly good insurance policy against bad music - no one would want to listen to bad music a hundred years after it’s written (though some do). Unfortunately, being in the classical world requires sitting through many a terrible performance of great music - sometimes merely insipid, sometimes fully incompetent. Mother Nature always finds a way...
But after a year of going to a variety of shows in the Baltimore music scene, a few of which were truly great, a few more of which were truly awful, I find myself returning ever more to the music on which I grew up: the Brahmses, the Verdis, the Beethovens. There’s simply too much music I hear for which people clearly don’t give a shit about the quality, and when I get home, I need the musical equivalent of a cold shower. And that cold shower is the quality-controlled music of the ‘masters’, most of whose greatest music I have favorite recordings to listen on demand. The more shows I go to, the less I listen to what more is out there on today’s national and international music scenes, and the less sense I have of what music truly is today.
So in an attempt to get myself out of the ‘posterity box’, I’m listening to what Rolling Stone Magazine claimed were the 50 best songs of last year. Maybe I should have taken a different magazine, but it came up before Paste on the google search. Perhaps last year’s achievements are already passe and forgotten. But it’s the best I’m gonna do for now.
1. Alabama Shakes - Hold On: It might be a great song, it might not. But I can honestly say that I think I could listen to this song quite a few times without ever getting tired of it. It’s optimistic, it’s hopeful, it’s the spiritual uplift what we all need more often. It’s the very best quality of soul with a country twist. I’m honestly moved by it. Brittany Howard’s voice is like a perfect melding of Otis Redding and Amy Winehouse. I’m not truly bowled over, but I’m definitely listening to more Alabama Shakes.
2. Taylor Swift - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together:So THIS is the song with the oooooooohhhh’s that I keep hearing! Anyway, now that I’ve seen the music video, and really listened to the lyrics and the music, I can honestly see how this could be a fun song for when you want to turn your brain off. But the fact that this is one of the most successful singles of 2012 makes me fear for all humanity.
3. Passion Pit - Take a Walk: Well... it’s timely, it’s catchy, and it’s all too relatable for anybody in today’s America. With regard to craft, this is no work of genius, but it’s about as awesome as a truly mediocre pop song gets.
4. Frank Ocean - Thinkin’ ‘Bout You: Professional sports and professional rap, perhaps the two most homophobic communities in celebrity culture, and both of which broke their most significant barriers in the last year. I’ve never listened to much else by Frank Ocean, though I’m assured he was of the gangsta variety until now. I can’t deny that it’s a moving, universal song. But I wonder if the milestone didn’t obscure its banality - the lyrics really are a little incoherent, and once you finally understand what he means, they’re kind of pedestrian. If we didn’t know Frank Ocean was coming out with this song, would this song be nearly as moving?
5. Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Ramada Inn: A two minute song squeezed into seventeen minutes. These guitar solos are just a fucking ego trip, as dumb as Wesley Willis (he of schizophrenic homeless fame) giving his instrumental demos a solo in the middle of his song. They don’t add anything to a song that is as far from Neil Young’s best as any song I’ve written myself. Who could even focus on the lyrics when there are so few of them between those agonizingly mellow guitar solos?
6. Kanye West (and guests) - Mercy: Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. I don’t dislike Kanye, anybody who doesn’t find either his music or his intense stupidity in all other areas entertaining is dumb, but anybody who takes him seriously is also dumb. But no matter what your feelings on Kanye, what the fuck is this song supposed to be except a mess? This is not a real song, it’s just the hip-hop equivalent of a composer’s note-noodling.
7. Bruce Springsteen - Rocky Ground: I can’t wait to listen to the rest of the album, which seems to have gotten as many raves as any other Springsteen album in the last twenty years. But this is standard Springsteen in redemption mode fair, and the hip-hop elements are the most interesting part of the song, but only because it doesn’t sound cliche by this point. Springsteen’s done the Redemption thing better in at least a dozen songs.
8. Jack White - Sixteen Saltines: Everything I’ve ever heard or seen about Jack White makes me want to punch him in the face. This is no exception.
9. Bob Dylan - Pay in Blood: A more charitable person than I would call this a flat-out masterpiece. But even I, a Dylan-skeptic, have to admit that this is kind of stunning. I find it difficult to proclaim someone who can only write two or three modes of song as the greatest songwriter of this or any other time. But when Dylan summons up the oracular pronouncements, he really does sound like an Old Testament Prophet. Musically, it’s just your token Dylan simplicity with a standard blues backup band. But this is one of the greatest songs Dylan has ever written, a full narrative about the people who make war, after which Dick Cheney might re-appear in your dreams as Hades Himself.
10. First Aid Kit - Emmylou: This is a thoroughly bland tribute to old school country music. That’s all I have to say.
11. Fun - Some Nights: Musically, this is the most ambitious of the first twelve, and it’s astonishing how much of their ambition they achieve. Like ‘Hold On’, this is another imperfect song that may be a great song even so. The lyrics are hardly memorable, in fact at points they're embarrassingly mawkish. But in the face of this kind of melancholy exuberance, does that matter?... probably a little...
12. Fiona Apple - Hot Knife: Musically this is almost perfect - though why does she allow those “wrong” piano notes in the middle of those incredible rounds? It senselessly breaks the momentum. The sentiment of the lyrics is not particularly deep, though I like the line ‘like the creation of rhythm.’ This is a song about getting it on, and when you look like Fiona Apple, everybody wants to hear you sing about it.