Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thinking about the best songs of the first decade of the 2000s

Now that we're done with the list of the 100 best songs of the decade, what can we conclude about the past 10 years of music?

Maybe not much -- after all, the list is just my opinion. But for the sake of this post, I'm going to adopt the tried-and-true critics' method of assuming that my taste is synonymous with the objective truth.

Here are the features that jump out at me, the things that made the decade what it was:

1. Conspicuously female. About 40% of the lead vocals in the top 100 songs are sung by women. In contrast, my favorite rock and pop music of the decades from the '50s through the '90s was much more predominantly male when it comes to vocals (to say nothing of instruments and production). This is related to another trend:

2. The decline of straightforward "rock" and the rise of a vague cluster of genres often loosely described as "indie,"
in which rock is just one influence of many. In the '90s, by contrast, ROCK -- screamed vocals, bashed drums, and walls of distorted guitars -- seemed to be de rigueur unless you unambiguously fell into a non-rock genre.

Returning to point #1 by way of point #2: in the '90s, you mainly found female artists in one of two categories: (1) women playing straightforward rock music (often drawing praise for showing that they're capable of being like men), and (2) women playing music clearly not intended to rock. Examples of the first category would be Hole, the Breeders, Veruca Salt, and L7; examples of the second would be Sarah McLachlan, Lisa Loeb, and Jewel. Outstanding exceptions -- that is, women in more innovative grey areas -- were Tori Amos and Bjork (who both did most of their strongest work in the '90s, though they happen to also be in the 2000s list). In this decade, women in the spirit of Bjork and Tori Amos have multiplied: St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, the Dresden Dolls, Hanne Hukkelberg, Imogen Heap (Frou Frou), Rilo Kiley (Jenny Lewis), Feist, Psapp, Decoder Ring, Camera Obscura, Regina Spektor, and many others.

3. Guitars have been demoted from the dominant instrument to just one of many. Bands routinely go beyond the standard rock ensemble of guitar/bass/drums and use the full panoply of instruments. A rock song with piano and strings doesn't stand out as unusual. (For instance, #55.) It's reminiscent of the Beatles' later work except that sophisticated electronics are part of the toolkit now. Of course, there was already an earlier decade where popular music was heavily electronic -- the '80s -- but synthesizers became so dominant then as to be overwhelming, which led to the alt-rock backlash of the '90s. Artists in the '00s have generally struck a more tasteful balance between electronics and traditional instruments -- and the electronics themselves sound better anyway.

4. Male singers often use a style distinctly unconcerned with living up to the old expectations of rock singing (screaming, raspy, macho, aggressive). The new style is exemplified by Rufus Wainwright, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), and Andrew Bird. Other examples are Beirut and Grizzly Bear. It's influenced by a man who tragically can't be on this list: Jeff Buckley. It's more flowing and refined. It's less conventionally rocking, more classically melodious. These singers can and do "rock," but they also freely choose not to.

5. We've established that "rock" is less dominant (#3), but what was the best rock of the 2000s like? If we take the listed songs by the Strokes, the White Stripes, Hot Hot Heat, and Franz Ferdinand, we can hear a decisive shift away from '90s rock. The new rock is simpler and more down-to-earth. These bands aren't like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, or Alice in Chains -- who bared their souls and tried to overwhelm you with their emotion. The new bands just want to write fun rock songs with catchy melodies and a cool guitar lick or two; if they succeed at that, their job is done. The singing and guitar playing are usually less ambitious (Jack White being the exception that proves the general rule when it comes to guitar), and the songwriting tends to be more concise. The drumming often sounds like a human version of a disco beat. For these bands, a song with the earnest drama of Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" or a concept album with the grandeur of the Smashing Pumpkin's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would be unthinkable. (None of this is inherently better or worse than '90s rock -- just different.)

7. Less originality, more synthesis of the past. I don't mean to criticize this music as "unoriginal." It is original, but in subtler ways -- and that subtlety is itself an achievement. It's not usually original in the sense of "Congratulations to these people for creating a brand-new genre!" It's original as in "Hey, this Of Montreal band picked really good music to be influenced by, and they piece together the influences in unusual, refreshing, fantastic ways."

8. Love is in; angst is out. Love is once again the default subject matter even in "indie"/"alternative" genres. Unlike in the '90s, you rarely hear an outpouring of angst unconnected to romance.

9. A certain intangible quality you might call "positivity" or "optimism." The songs have lines like "You are my sweetest downfall / I loved you first" (#56) ... "Maybe I'll never die / I'll just keep growing younger with you" (#8) ... "Say what you want to satisfy yourself" (#34) ... They have titles like "Good Day," "Better," "Marry Me." Even counterexamples like "Bad Day" and "2080" ("I can't sleep when I think about the future I was born into") usually have some kind of uplift. The few that stand out as purely negative -- Radiohead's "Sit Down. Stand Up," Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and Beck's "Lost Cause" -- are by artists who had their breakthroughs in the angst-ridden mid-'90s. While Radiohead has perfected the rock of eerie atmospheres and tormented souls, people like the Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor, Of Montreal, and the Dodos have been no less brilliant at playing music with more major keys, less cynicism, more vivacity, less darkness, more sunshine.

14 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Estimable as these songs are, shall we refrain from pointing out that a list of the 200 best songs of the 1960s would simply blow them away?

Except for "Fidelity," of course. And "Chicago" and "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and some others.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I agree that the best X (100 or 200) songs of the '60s are better than the best X songs of this decade. Even if you limited the '60s to just the Beatles and Beach Boys and compared that with everything from this decade, the '60s would win.

There was no genius or band of geniuses who dominated this decade the way the Beatles did in the '60s or the way Stevie Wonder did in the '70s. But I do think that if we're not taking originality/influence into account, this decade overall has been the second best (next to the '60s) since the birth of rock.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Even if you limited the '60s to just the Beatles and Beach Boys and compared that with everything from this decade, the '60s would win.

Actually, I was thinking this asymmetrical restriction would give an advantage to the '00s, but it would really give an advantage to the '60s. What I was ignoring is that my '00s list has a rule of one-song-per-artist (with a few exceptions). If you edited down my top 100 list so that every artist appeared just once (resulting in about 90 songs), and compared that with the 90 best songs from the '60s also using a one-song-per artist rule, it's less clear to me that the '60s would win. Probably so, but it'd be a lot closer than if you just took the top 70 Beatles songs + the top 20 Beach Boys songs from the '60s.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I'm not sure I agree. While the Beatles were by far the best group, they didn't -- in my opinion as always -- have the best individual songs. It's very hard to say what the best Beatles song is, and if it were a Paul song we'd be short-changing John (and George), and vice versa. But limiting it to approximately one song per group or songwriter, my Top Ten would be something like this:
1. Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone (and dozens of others); 2. Stones, Satisfaction (I actually prefer several other Stones songs, like Jumpin Jack Flash and Get Off My Cloud, but Satisfaction is the most historically important); 3. Rascals, Good Lovin (a personal love); 4. Velvet Underground, Heroin; 5. Smokey Robinson, Tracks of My Tears; 6. J. Airplane, Somebody to Love; 7. Beach Boys, Good Vibrations or California Girls 8. Redding, Midnight Hour; 9. Youngbloods, Get Together; 10. tie: Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water; Who, My Generation; Mitchell, A Free Man in Paris or Big Yellow Taxi; Morrison, Domino or Tupelo Honey; Beatles, Let It Be/A Day in the Life/Something; Cohen, Suzanne or Bird on a Wire; Temptations, My Girl; Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth; Byrds, Eight Miles High; Greenwich, Da Doo Ron Ron or Be My Baby; Nyro, Save the Country or Sweet Blindness; Zombies, She's Not There; Kinks, You Really Got Me; hundreds of others.

But actually, the best decade for songs is the Thirties.

Jason (the commenter) said...

You guys seem to be talking about another trend of music during the 2000's: it's easier than ever to not pay attention to current tunes. You can be listening to albums from the 20's or 70's; CDs and electronic versions don't degrade with each listen. And even if you can't hear the music before you buy it on the radio, you can always hear samples on iTunes or Amazon.

Turtle Noneck said...

Technically: ProTools, vocal pitching, lack of dynamic range.

Thematically: pretentious big words, navel gazing (cf. The National, Andrew Bird)

Ron said...

Tying in to Jason's point, I wonder how many people actively choose to engage in a kind of sonic topiary; picking and choosing from the decades as you see fit. For most of pop music history this is verbotten; what is listened to NOW implied the rejection of what went before. Look how quick musical acts "died"! The British music scene still seems that way.

RLC, are you an Astaire/Rogers fanboy like moi?

hoipolloi said...

You missed the obvious point -- everybody steals their music from the internet now. So the songs that can quickly gain acceptance and are still unique/interesting/offbeat enough to spread virally are the ones that find a big audience. Most of the music you cite could be described as such.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Ron: No, but I love American popular song.

p.t. fogger said...

But actually, the best decade for songs is the Thirties.

Bingo.

Of course, songwriters then were writing songs, often never intending to perform or record them themselves. They were pop/art product the writers hoped somebody, or several somebodies, would record & make successful. Or the songs were for a stage show.

After the 60's, the idea of what a "song" was expanded to such a degree (or deformed, if you prefer), that a group could have a hit that wasn't easily transferable to another performer: idiosyncrasies of instrumentation, timber, rhythm, vocals etc. could be difficult for any performer but the originator to reproduce convincingly. Further, it might be difficult to reduce the song to written music that accurately represented the song. If you've got the words & music to "Stardust", you've got 'em & you can sit down at the piano and play it & sing the melody. That's not always the case with today's songs.

p.t. fogger said...

Estimable as these songs are, shall we refrain from pointing out that a list of the 200 best songs of the 1960s would simply blow them away?

Could it also be true that the 200 worst songs of the 1960's are worse than the 200 worst songs of the 2000's?

There were some real stinkers back then.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

p. t. fogger: I agree with your points but with some qualifications. True, there were a lot of 60s songs that sound embarrassing now -- but just wait 40 years and listen to how the sound of the 00's sound. Aarrgghh!

And I think it's true that the institution of the professional songwriter was wonderful in the old days (although Ellington and other jazz composers were both songwriter and performer). But in the rock era we had Leiber/Stoller, Ellie Greenwich (who has two songs in m Top Ten), and Carole King, among others, some of whom made the transition to performer.

I certainly think that the pressure to write their own songs, for the purpose of increasing royalties, has been harmful for the average performer who just isn't a very good songwriter. So you have album after album with two good songs and twelve mediocre ones. But on the other hand, by definition we don't remember all the forgettable songs that Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, etc. wrote.

I think it would be better if more of the popular rock performers did covers. Too repetitious? Just look at all the pop and jazz singers who cover "I've Got a Crush on You," "Darn that Dream" etc. I think covers would be a stimulus to stylistic creativity in performance: people would have to differentiate themselves by something other than repertoire. Some of the greatest rock songwriters don't really get covered very much, when you think about it. I always think that Springsteen's song title "Cover Me" was in part a wry plea to performers.

Nevertheless, even if there are a thousand would-be Dylans, there's one real one, and many other contemporary songwriter-performers who'e made songs that will last, I believe, as long as Gershwin's and Porter's. (As long as there's electricity, anyway.) As you said, the idea of what is a song is has expanded. Unfortunately, "Yesterday" is inherently botchable by the average pop singer in a way that "I've Got a Crush on You" isn't. I wonder if that says anything about the greatness of "Yesterday" -- I don't know. But it's a different genre.

John said...

uh, I read over the list. Did you intend to leave out hip hop (almost) entirely? Or did that just not make the cut with you?

John Althouse Cohen said...

John: If you look at #36, which is a rap song, you'll see a link to an old post where I explained why I don't generally listen to rap. If you look in the #100-91 post, I give links to several other best-songs-of-the-decade list to mitigate the fact that my list is bound by my tastes. I could have easily thrown in a few more rap songs from other people's lists to make a display of being inclusive, but this would have been disingenuous on my part.