PHOTOS (unless stated otherwise): Unsplash
Is Modern Music Lacking Gamble and Evolution?
I might squeeze another article out before the day is done…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
but that phrase – with the last three words – makes me think of an artist who, in a fairly simple manner, took big strides and risks with his music (Day Is Done is from Nick Drake's album, Five Leaves Left). I have put quite a shift in this year - but I am not willing to put the laptop to bed and end things here! Maybe my productivity signals a lack of social and sexual options but it is actually a matter of curiosity and intrigue. I am always looking to examine crannies and avenues of music few others explore. The album above, from Captain Beefheart, is hardly a record you can accuse of being predictable, formulaic and average. It is a rather pioneering, exciting and unusual album that, even by his standards, explores new ground. I have been looking at the records critics deem the very finest of 2017. Aside from masterworks by Thundercat (Drunk) and Kamasi Washington (Harmony of Difference) – the best of the rest are exceptional but albums you could probably expect in any other year. I am casting my mind back to a time when a record arrived that really changed the world. It may be a lot to ask of any artist – making something that differs from anything around – but I feel the times are changing. The political situation, here and around the world, is tense and there are more changes and shifts than we have seen in a long time.
My favourite albums of the year have been defined by their solidity and consistent – rather than any true originality and evolution. The music, in all cases, is incredible but I could not put my hand on heart and say these are any better/different to previous years. Modern music is fantastic and always inspiring but I wonder whether we need a boost or injection that compels other artists to follow suit. I listen to an album like Harmony of Difference and love the way it changes perceptions of Jazz and brings other genres into the mix. It is an expansive and experimental album that engages the senses and activates every part of the self. The same can be said of other L.P.s but this year has not seen too many breakaway recordings. Maybe that is fine, I guess – if there is a batch of world-class albums that what does it matter if they are not especially mind-blowing?! I feel the issue still lies with the mainstream and how labels/radio stations want their music. The finest stations out there prefer a sea with different-coloured fish and interesting coral: the most-popular options, mind, prefer their fish limpid, grey and easy to catch. I have been looking back at my vinyl collection and what constitutes a genuinely pioneering record. The albums I clasped for were Paul’s Boutique (Beastie Boys), Revolver (The Beatles) and Blue (Joni Mitchell).
IN THIS PHOTO: The cover to Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The latter is renowned for its exceptional songwriting and incredible vocals. It is a personal and immersive collection of songs that gets into the mind and remains with you. Perhaps it is the Beastie Boys’ landmark record that stands out. Perhaps it is harder to replicate the sample-heavy album in today’s climate. Back then (in the mid-1980s), few artists were trying anything as daring and challenging as that. Hip-Hop contemporaries like De La Soul and Public Enemy were equally ambitions when it came to samples and the way they delivered their messages. Despite the fact every act was trying to convey something that balanced original and commercial; they brought in a range of sounds and shook up the music scene. Say what you want about the 1980s but artists from that time – the best of them, anyway – pushed the envelope and did not follow arbitrary rules. The sounds that came out of the time are responsible for what we hear now. The same can be said of the 1990s. Then, in that wonderful decade; we witnessed incredible revelations and music-changing albums. I feel the issue around royalties and expense are putting artists off chasing borrowed sounds – there have been artists that have taken the chance and gone for it. I wonder, then, if limitations and rigid statuses are putting off musicians from going after samples?!
That is not the only way musicians can genuinely shock the music world. The finest albums of 2017 have seen expectations subverted and genres spliced; so many unexpected moments burst from the speakers. I loved the latest releases from Lorde, Thundercat and Laura Marling. I listen to the albums that released and never feel like I’ll play them decades from now. I guess time is the only way I can be sure but there is something about classic albums that hits you upon the first listen. Aside from the Jazz endeavours of Washington and some incredible Hip-Hop records this year – I have not been moved or had my thoughts altered in any way. In order to subvert expectation and remain in the mindset decades down the line, I feel something monumental needs to happen. That would involve risks and, if you have an established career; is that a chance too big to take?! Modern music is a busy and bustling environment so it is hard for artists to really make a statement and alter the senses. Back in the 1980s, when albums like Paul’s Boutique came out; critics were not expecting anything quite like that – it struggled to gain positive reviews and only got recognised as a work of genius years down the line. Can any modern artist afford to take a leap like that and risk losing critical appeal? That would be a huge blow to the career and could ostracise them from their fans.
I am not suggesting anything as paradigm shifting as a sample-fused exploration that ranks among the greatest albums of all time. The truth is that, when you look at the list of best albums ever – as deemed by a critical wisdom of crowds – and the most-recent entry might be in the early-2000s. There are few albums (on the list) that come after the end of the 1990s. One cannot say it is a matter of tastes changing and the industry expecting certain sounds from artists. There is that issue of rebelling against expectations and doing something nobody else is. Is it easy, when we have covered so much musical ground, to craft an album that does not sound like something else?! Perhaps we have come too far and created too much music; there are so many new artists it can be difficult distinguishing the promising from the plain. I am seeing sparks and potential in every genre and it might be easy for me to sit here and judge others – without contributing anything to recorded music myself! I feel there are musicians that produce engrossing, year-defining music but there are few following suit. The biggest takeaway from each year is a sense of hit-and-miss. It has been a good decade or so since a record has come along and really blown the socks off.
In a couple of days; I will write a piece that pitches a yet-to-be-recorded record – a sort of fantasy line-up in terms of sounds and songs. There is a collective yearning for something out-of-the-blue and mesmeric to shake things up. I cannot quibble with the quality and variation in music – especially when it comes to new artists – but there are few pioneers that are changing the structure of music and making bids for the history books. The most impressive band I have heard in recent years is Melbourne’s King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard. I have mentioned the guys a lot this year and featured them in various articles. A new song, The Last Oasis, has just been released and it follows hotly from a couple of other new songs. The band is promising a new album before the end of the year – having released four others so far in 2017! I do not know what form the album will take but the fact they are so prolific is a fountain of refresh in an industry where it can take artists years between releases. That is not to say the Australian band lack focus and quality. They have full control over the substance and consistency. From an infinite loop of a record to one with four songs of equal length; experimenting with micro-tunings and created new Progressive-Rock genius – each record sees the guys change and do something completely different.
IN THIS PHOTO: The cover to King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard's album, Polygondwanaland/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Polygondwanaland, the band’s current album (and fourth of the year), was released free-of-charge. The band said fans can sell the record and bootleg it – they even made the master-tapes available to the public. Not only are King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard switching genres and styles: they are reinventing marketing, release and promotion. This is the kind of risk and reaction I am looking for! There are few other artists doing things like them so I hope, next year, more artists will look at the way they record and release music. It is not gimmicky or novel: bands who challenge the way we perceive and share music should be applauded. Maybe it is an end-of-year fatigue but I have that desire for explosion and glory. There are artists out there who are capable of creating decade-defining albums but I wonder whether commercial pressure and fear of isolation are limiting their horizons. Maybe it is cost and logistics holding back some of their ambition and vision. Whatever it is; there are a lot of people yearning for a change. Maybe something monumental will not arrive in 2018 but there is nothing to suggest a once-in-a-lifetime album could not come our way. I have faith there is potential out there but it is the case those artists (who can unleash something majestic) need to…
TAKE that leap forward.