FEATURE: Sweet Harmony: Was There a Moment When Music ‘Peaked’?




Sweet Harmony


IN THIS IMAGE: A rendition of the cover of Oasis’ 1994 album, Definitely Maybe/IMAGE CREDIT: Danu Labda

Was There a Moment When Music ‘Peaked’?


THIS is something I always talk about...


PHOTO CREDIT: @_rxshxxd/Unsplash 

but it is one of the most relevant and interesting aspects of music. It would seem strange to urge people to abandon the music they grew up around and the stuff that resonates purely. Those tested and familiar songs are ones we hold dear and they provide comfort and memory. This is not a matter of nostalgia and harking back to the past. What I am suggesting is that most of us tend to get into a groove and we sort of get comfortable with our tastes. If you were given the choice of never hearing any new music and only listening to what has come or doing the reverse; which option would be the most appealing? Shockingly, a lot of us would rather stick with the older stuff and sacrifice what is coming up. I have explored years like 1991 and 1967 as titanic and historic times for music. These years created movements and incredible albums; peerless quality and recordings that we hold dear to this very day. I wonder whether music has yet to reach its absolute peak or whether it is an always-evolving process. Can we objectively look at music and say that there is still a long way to go? Do we all have our favourite times and eras and feel nothing can come close? It is an interesting argument and it is not as easy as saying older music is best or the new era is where it’s at.


PHOTO CREDIT: @adigold1/Unsplash

Music is a complex and ever-changing industry and we have definitely seen some big changes. Technology is always growing and allowing us to experience music in different ways; access anything we want and communicate with people around the world. There is a school of thought that suggests things can only get better and, given the technology and access we have, artists can produce better material and albums that will be preserved forever. Given the rate of growth and all of the sounds that have come before; we are in a great position where there is limitless choice and a chance to break new ground. People claim the best albums ever are still to come and we will see something revolutionary happen. In recent weeks, I have talked about the fun coming from music and I have focused on certain years when music was absolutely golden. Maybe we are all too subjective and there is no definitive answer. I respect those who say music is growing and we could see the very best it has to offer in the future but I wonder, given what has come before; can we ever equal the absolute best years?! I have mentioned years like 1967 and 1991 because, as I said, there seemed to be this movement and cohesion. Now, in 2018, I do not feel like there is the same sort of excitement and evolution as there was years ago.


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles in 1967/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When we look at those who say music has not yet experienced its best days, I wonder how far we can go and what can arrive. I do not feel like we will see entirely new genres form because it is so hard to find that new mobility. Artists are creating sub-genres and ideas but can you start from scratch and find a completely new sound? I do not feel this is possible so, when it comes to something to rival a Summer of Love or Grunge explosion; where is that explosion going to come from? In terms of technology; there is the capacity to take music to new heights and splice anything together but is that going to take away the naturalness and realness of music? I have also mentioned how sampling is harder and it is a lot more tricky getting clearance to fuse older songs into new work. It is ironic that, in a modern and developed age, we are stepping back in many ways. A further obstacle arises when considering the established albums and these years we all hold in such regard. The climate is different now and the music landscape is very different. Whilst it is possible we have seen a peak, there is that optimism that suggests a revolution can take place. We have all this material out there and there is an endless reservoir to choose from.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @dchuck/Unsplash

I think the biggest hindrance regarding musical development is the division, size of the market and the emotions being put into songs. Given the choice and mass of artists out there, it is getting harder and harder to focus and zone in on bubbling movements and the best artists. Big and influential genres have run their course and the mainstream is not quite as legendary and respected as it was in years past. Fewer of us are relying on charts and magazines when it comes to music and self-discovery means we all are pulling in different directions. This may sound gloomy and lost but I still think there is a chance for brilliance. Maybe it will not be a profound shift and anything to rival the past but music is always changing and who knows what will come along. I asked whether music has peaked and, as a result, we are sloping downhill and everyone will have their say. Many say that peak has yet to come whilst others feel it is impossible to make that call given the fact music is a subjective medium. Who is to say the sounds of 1967 are better than today? Does generational bias cloud things or is there some definite truth? Whilst it might not be possible to identify a distinct year/time when things were best; I do feel like there was a golden moment that many artists are still taking from.


 IN THIS PHOTO: David Bowie in the 1970s/PHOTO CREDIT: Masayoshi Sukita

I have mentioned the 1960s and, in every decade, there has been true genius put forward. When one speaks of peaks and a definite high; you have to consider a time when things crystallised and there was this strong and enduring whole. 1967 is a fantastic year and I feel the 1970s cannot be overlooked. I have also talked about icons and how we do not see them anymore. Consider the greats like David Bowie and legends like Aretha Franklin and I wonder whether it is possible to have these sort of figures today. There are Pop leaders and big figures but it would be impossible to create someone like Bowie who evolves and goes through these creative shifts. The market and landscape is not the same as it was and the days of the icon are definitely in the past. Modern artists are fascinated by all periods but, more than anything, there is a period of five or six years where I can see are more popular than anything. Maybe it is my bias but was there a stronger and more staggering time than 1989-1995? Those slightly older say that their days were best whereas plenty argue music is at its strongest right now. I have talked about icons and their decline – many might note that all the legends of music, largely, peaked before this time period. I think this was the last time we had Pop icons truly reigning and inspiring the masses.

Kate Bush created The Sensual World in 1989 and it was a definite golden period in her career. She put out Hounds of Love four years before and many assumed she would not be able to equal that record. Rather than feel the pressure and suffer a decline, she created a brilliant album that many say is her finest. Michael Jackson left Bad and Thriller behind (by this time) but Dangerous (1991), to me, is his best record. It is his most daring and eclectic and demonstrated a tougher and angrier artist. Whereas legendary artists like Kate Bush and David Bowie were putting out exceptional work during 1989-1995; I feel Jacko really hit his peak during this time. Some of Prince’s best albums came out at this time – Diamonds and Pearls (1991), Love Symbol Album (1992) and The Black Album (1994) – and one Pop megastar, Madonna, was reaching her peak. Think about her career-defining album, Like a Prayer (1989) and how that changed music. It would be quite a few years before we saw the end of chart-busting, MTV-owning icons but Madonna was unstoppable by 1989. She produced Erotica in 1992 and Bedtime Stories two years later and some consider these records to be among the best ever. Between 1989 and 1995, we saw some of the very best Pop and the music landscape was a lot more powerful and popular. We had great music T.V. stations like MTV and magazines like NME were guiding our tastes.

Pop would continue to produce huge artists and albums for years to come but I feel there was a definite drop/slowing by around about 2004. Artists who peaked during my favoured period were inspired by the previous generation and, as we can hear now, have impacted modern artists. I interview a load of artists, ranging in age, and it is the music of the late-1980s and early/mid-1990s that compels them hardest. I think popular culture as a whole was creating an optimism and wonderful spirit. We had great comedy shows and T.V. series; there were political shifts and all of this helped contribute to the music. Not only was the Pop mainstream strong and varied but other genres, from Britpop, Grunge and Dance were majestic. Dance was huge in the 1980s but it strengthened and changed by the next decade. The influence of European acts on the Dance scene gave us this brilliant variety and, whether you like the mainstream tracks that had a giddiness and fluffiness or preferred the darker tones of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers; there was variety for all. The start of the period (1989-1991) saw a giddiness and delight that married the accessibility of Pop with something a little bit more physical and club-based. The middle of the 1990s would see harder-hitting acts like The Chemical Brothers and Orbital transform the genre by adding more chemicals and pummel to the agenda.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Nirvana/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I feel Dance music and Electronic sounds had their last real rise by the end of the 1990s – we have never seen music the scene as strong since. I love the memorable and big Dance songs throughout the 1990s and, even though there was plenty of cheese, it has remained to this day and many of us still gravitate in that direction. If that wasn’t enough, we had the peak and death of Grunge (1991-1994/1995) and Britpop. The optimism of Dance was infusing British artists who made Britpop a success and, whilst Grunge was a darker alternative; it has impacted and inspired so many Rock/Alternative artists we hear now. Alongside Grunge titans like Nirvana and Soundgarden, there was fantastic Rock from the U.S. Even the ‘outsiders’ of Britpop were making waves – such as Radiohead and Supergrass (I feel they were on the fringes) – and there was so much going on. Maybe Pop music was not producing the same sort of icons like The Beatles; Rock’s Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones had already peaked long before this period but I feel the scene was a lot more challenging and eclectic between 1989 and 1995. Many might argue there is a greater spread of genres now – and music is a lot broader – but was there a better time in living memory where we saw such quality and influence? The reason I have selected this period for special attention is the way the artists/albums have inspired the modern generation.

Many are taking from the 1960s and 1970s greats; the 1980s has always stirred and compelled by there is something about the spirit and grandeur of the late-1980s to the mid-1990s that is hard to shake off. I have talked about nostalgia and bias but one cannot ignore the sheer quality and importance of this period. I feel the 1960s is a bit overrated – take away a few huge acts and it is weaker than you’d think – and the 1970s, to be fair, gave us a hell of a lot of genius. When I consider quality and peaking; I am not only considering the slew of wonderful albums and how new genres/movements came together. I feel an emotional shift occurred in the late-1990s and first part of the last decade that has negatively impacted today’s music. The European Dance masters and the Britpop greats provided an intense fizz and smile that continued for a while. I feel the most optimistic and spirited music of today owes more to this time period than anywhere else. Have we seen a more joyous and time for music as we did back then? Maybe the 1960s can rival it but think of all the ‘classic anthems’ of the 1980s and 1990s (the years I am interested in) and it is hard to argue. From Pop queens and kings kicking ass to the Dance purveyors striking gold; I feel it was a wonderful time when music was at its strongest.


 IN THIS PHOTO: De La Soul (pictured in 1990)/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Articles like this show when certain genres hit their peak but think about a time when so many genres hit a rare vein and I am drawn back to that period. Maybe I should stretch back to 1988 because, thinking about the Rap and Hip-Hop classics from that time (when De La Soul, N.W.A. and Beastie Boys ruled) and can you think of a time when so many different and disparate styles of music coalesced and peaked?! Even if you consider that seven/eight-year period (1988-1995); so much happened that moved music forward and inspired music today. Many argue that Rock reached its peak long before the late-1980s seeing as giants like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones were long past their best. I do not agree it is impossible to hone down to a narrow period when music was at its peak. It is obvious that certain periods are finer – because of critical acclaim and huge movements – and I can agree with other viewpoints. I do feel that the optimism and bombast that ruled the British charts by the mid-1990s was an absolute peak. Artists like Oasis were taking from acts like Led Zeppelin, T. Rex and The Beatles and updating them for a new audience. Legendary Pop from The Beach Boys were being utilised by new artists and it seemed modern greats were bridging the golden days of the past with what was happening at the time.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Look at music now and, when we think of artists bridging the old and new; it seems most are still looking pre-2000 for their guidance. It is impossible to say what music will do in years to come: we might have an explosion of innovation and something that rivals the glory years. I think things will get better but I feel safe in saying nothing will rival the sheer variation and inventiveness that we saw back then. There was a delight in the mainstream and, even when music got moody and dark; it had a spark and something exceptional. I am not suggesting we have peaked and everything is downhill from here but I do think there are certain periods of music that are great and need to be examined. To me, that insatiable and heady time from 1989 (let’s say 1988 instead) to the mid-1990s is impossible to top. Rather than wallow in nostalgia; I am accepting of music’s changes but I can see how many artists are taking from that time and find something in there that appeals. It is interesting looking at certain times and what was happening in music then. There must have been something in the air or a particular catalyst but, to me, the scene was at its strongest...

IN that busy and electric time.