Monday, July 4, 2011

Farewell Musical Doldrums


A few years ago, I had come to the belief that great music was a thing of the past. Mired in a world filled with big-label hit-making inane artist, whose face and sexual nature is more important, and as easily interchangeable as their voice. The tonal differences between Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the like, awakened my audiophilic desires the way a bear might be awoken from deep hibernation by the slight buzzing of a fly.

I had given up. The idea of a great artist, one capable of pickling their emotions into music and filling my mind and senses with the soul of their art, had dissipated. It no longer existed.

To be sure, there are blinding examples of quick and fleeting greatness. Eminem, who is in the top-5 on the all-time list of hip-hop artists, was waning and hadn’t begun his rebirth. The Strokes had disappeared into the New York crowd. Coldplay, while perhaps my favorite artist of the time, had seen their promising brilliance turn into an echo of U2’s shining star.

The lone promises of artistry came from the old standbys – the Springsteens and Dylans – artists who found a new home after writing music history decades earlier. That music was brilliant, radiant as any their legends had produced before. Yet the emptiness of an untouched frontier hadn’t shown its face.

Three years ago came the first flicker of a new hope when Bon Iver released the irreplaceable For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s quiet brilliance -- Justin Vernon, his falsetto voice a guitar and a few background tracks added later – may have single-handedly made indie rock what it has become. Never has an album so entranced me, even the most influential albums (Hard Again—Muddy Waters, Blood on the Tracks – Dylan) didn’t grab me and swing me on my axis the way For Emma had. Nearly 100 listens into the album, it’s simple perfection and beauty still challenges what I had thought I had known about music.

Even so, it was just one album by one artist. But it had opened my eyes to a new level of uncovered music. Below the surface of one-off top-40 artists, was an entire community, an Atlantis of undiscovered beauty.

Pull up the lid and Pandora’s Box revealed the incomparable sound of Vampire Weekend, the sweet southern rock sound of My Morning Jacket, the dirty blues rock of The Black Keys, the symphonic harmonies of the Fleet Foxes. Like a newly reborn Christian, my eyes and ears had been reopened. That leads me to 2010.

I wholeheartedly believe last year was one of the best years for music since the 1990s if for no other reason than to see indie rock breaking down a wall. Arcade Fire’s claiming of the Best Album Grammy was as big a moment for indie as the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill did for hip-hop over a decade earlier.

But add in the near-perfect creations of Cee-Lo Green, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West (yes, Kanye), Spoon, The Black Keys, Jamey Johnson, LCD Soundsystem, Mumford and Sons, Springsteen (The Promise), The Roots and Eminem to name just a handful, and there is a breath of hope for music still.

This year, already, had given us some great ones and shown that many of those promising artists haven’t yet had their time expire. Fleet Foxes revived Simon and Garfunkel on Helplessness Blues. The Foo Fighters made the album they’ve been attempting for years. Bon Iver expanded on their simple brilliance with a big, arcing album. And Adele …… well if you haven’t heard Adele, do yourself a favor and find 21.

Hopefully, a voice with that strength and intensity and delivery, is enough to keep the doldrums of music buried.

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