From time to time I use this site to mourn the death of rock and pop music, claiming that the period of my youth—which I count from roughly 1964 to 1975—happened to coincide with the apogee of rock as a form of musical art. Of course when I say this, I immediately get vigorous pushback along the lines of, “Oh everybody thinks that, because the music they grow up with is the music they think is best.” But that’s wrong for four reasons:
- Some period had to be the apogee of rock, and I can’t be blamed simply because it was the period of my youth. Somebody had to grow up during the flowering of rock.
- I love popular music from much earlier times, including jazz from 1925 through Charlie Parker and Coltrane, as well as the Great American Songbook, and singers like Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan. I also love the songs from the Broadway musicals of yore, though the newer ones haven’t produced many memorable songs. This is not the music I “grew up with.”
- Various measures correlated with rock quality (see below) show that the genre’s gone downhill in recent years, and. . .
- Steve Pinker agrees with me, and he’s always right. (By the way, Steve, it’s OKAY to moan!)
I try not to moan that rock ain't what it used to be, since every generation says music is in decline.But many of my Gen-Z students agree, & rock sales peaked in the 90s. Worse, rock legends are almost all septuagenarian: be prepared for the inevitable. https://t.co/n5XEilA2CG
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) September 4, 2019
I’ll make a short off-the-top-of-my-head list of some of the music I heard in my youth: the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors, the early Gordon Lightfoot, all the great soul music, including that of Motown (e.g., Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, James Brown, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Aretha Franklin ad infinitum), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, the Allman Brothers, Laura Nyro, the Beach Boys.
Who do the kids have these days? Lizzo and Taylor Swift. It makes me ill to even say that. Will their songs be played on the “oldies” stations in 25 years? Nope; they’ll be playing the music of my youth, simply because it’s the best. There is nobody making rock music today as good as any one of the names I’ve listed above.
Now if we want to go to more objective measures of music that, I think, are correlated with its quality, then I’ve done two posts on that:
Here’s a discussion of the death of melody in modern music (not just rock)
And a discussion of many aspects of music, like tempo, complexity, and repetitiveness, which have changed for the worse. A quote (data come from a NYT article):
1. Pop music has become slower — in tempo — in recent years and also “sadder” and less “fun” to listen to.
2. Pop music has become melodically less complex, using fewer chord changes, and pop recordings are mastered to sound consistently louder (and therefore less dynamic) at a rate of around one decibel every eight years.
3. There has been a significant increase in the use of the first-person word “I” in pop song lyrics, and a decline in words that emphasize society or community. Lyrics also contain more words that can be associated with anger or anti-social sentiments.
4. 42% of people polled on which decade has produced the worst pop music since the 1970s voted for the 2010s. These people were not from a particular aging demographic at all — all age groups polled, including 18-29 year olds, appear to feel unanimously that the 2010s are when pop music became worst. This may explain a rising trend of young millennials, for example, digging around for now 15-30 year-old music on YouTube frequently. It’s not just the older people who listen to the 1980s and 1990s on YouTube and other streaming services it seems — much younger people do it too.
5. A researcher put 15,000 Billboard Hot 100 song lyrics through the well-known Lev-Zimpel-Vogt (LZV1) data compression algorithm, which is good at finding repetitions in data. He found that songs have steadily become more repetitive over the years, and that song lyrics from today compress 22% better on average than less repetitive song lyrics from the 1960s. The most repetitive year in song lyrics was 2014 in this study.
If you want to compare hits of different eras, here’s the first post I ever did on the death of rock music, in which I simply listed the top 20 Billboard hits from 50 years before the day of posting (list from the week of August 26, 1967). I won’t reprise it, but here’s the list for the same week of 2022. (God help you if you look at this week’s list, which is topped by, yes, Taylor Swift, but also features recycled Christmas songs—with 4 of the top ten holiday tunes taken from my youth.)
Finally, and the occasion for my fulmination, I want to show a new video by the estimable Rick Beato with statistics on another aspect of good rock music that’s declined: the presence of key changes, or modulation. (It’s based on this article in Tedium magazine.)
Oy, has this measure declined! And it’s science! The author, Chris Dalla Riva, listened to 1100 Billboard #1 songs from 1958 to 2020. He found that a quarter of the songs from the 1960s to the 1990s included a key change, but—get this—only a single #1 song between 2010 and 2020 had a key change. That’s amazing—and heinous! I maintain that modulation in a song is no guarantee of its quality, but is correlated with quality. It shows an inventiveness that increases complexity.
Here’s Rick Beato in a nine-minute video giving examples of key changes in hits. Many of these were recorded after my designed period of musical apogee, but none of them are from recent years. Notice that at 6:41 Beato mentions that “if we go back to the Sixties, there are so many Beatles songs that have modulations. . . . “. Of course the Beatles were the greatest rock group of all time, and on that I brook no dissent. Beato also gives examples from The Jackson Five and Barry Manilow (a much-dismissed but worthy tunesmith).
Here’s a great Beatles song with lots of modulation:
. . and my favorite Manilow song; this one released in 1976. A BIG modulation at 2:46. (The original is here.) Beato discusses “Mandy”, which also has a famous modulation, but I don’t like it as much.
. . . and the Carpenters with a modulation as the chorus enters at 0:41 (2:00 on the original). The song came out in 1972 and was written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis.
163 thoughts on “More evidence for the decline of rock/pop music”
I know your list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, but I would add Neil Diamond.
Yes, but that would be YOUR list, not mine! I’m not a big fan of Diamond.
I realize your list wasn’t exhaustive, Jerry, but I was a bit surprised a Dan fan like you left Messrs. Becker & Fagen off your shortlist.
Totally agree about Neil Diamond. The appeal of his music has always escaped me. It’s almost inert in terms of it’s “what do I do with this?” feeling I get when I hear his stuff. I have a similar reaction to Elvis’s music from the late 60’s in to the 70’s – all sounds like Las Vegas dinner theater music to me. I can’t even get a grasp on it.
Diamond is one of the greats of American songsmithery, at least in his 60s and 70s iteration (and there we go again with that time period. WHAT WAS IN THE WATER?). Literally wore out the grooves on my Tap Root Manuscript platter (true, but do ya get it?). Loved his work in The Jazz Singer too even if the blackface is cringy.
Ok, I just tried diving in to some Niel Diamond hits from the 60s/70s.
It was painful. Not even remotely compelling or surprising chord changes, didn’t find the lyrics drew me in…I was almost physically suffering from the sheer banality. I couldn’t find anything at all of interest.
Clearly not my idiom. Whatever specific idiom he is…
M.O.R. soft rock/ easy listening/ adult contemporary, something anodyne like that (don’t you just love these genre name games?) I’m not crazy about anything he’s done for several decades now, including the obligatory Christmas album *shudder*.
Diamond is hard.
Everything you say about today’s music is about today’s pop music, not about today’s rock. There’s plenty of good rock and metal today, as much as there ever was, it’s just not pop and not “chart” music.
Coel, I don’t disagree with you. I’m curious as to your favorites among the current rock and metal groups.
So you say. Can you name any rock group today as good as the Beatles, or are you going to say that they’re “pop” music. The Band? Hendrix?
Obviously this comes down to personal taste, but my entirely personal choice is that there are many bands that I’d prefer to have a set of CDs of, rather than the Beatles. Of long-running bands still active today, Trivium, Metallica, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Slash, Powerwolf, System of a Down would be examples. (OK, so I like metal 🙂 ) For non-metal, Muse and The Stranglers are another two. I know this is sacrilege but I don’t find the Beatles music that interesting, sorry everyone! And you get more musical complexity in Trivium or Iron Maiden than the Beatles (which is, indeed, a bit pop-ish).
OK, so this is just me. But I do think it comes down to what we listen to in our formative years. I think this really does get hard-wired into the brain. I totally get that others will have very different opinions to me! I’ll readily confess to being just weird. 🙂 But none of the criticisms in the above piece can be levelled at, say, Trivium.
Everyone should give “The Warning” a try. https://youtu.be/3_RB0tRI624
I agree mostly except maybe for the formative years bit. I’m in my 50’s and much of my favorite music I discovered relatively late, including a lot of acid and free jazz, black metal, qawwali, afrobeat, medieval and renaissance, etc. And still regularly find new music that blows my skirt up thanks largely to the miracle of the ‘net, particularly YouTube and comment threads such as this one.
Nothing wrong with being weird and cranking the hard stuff, by the way. I fucking live for that!
The problem is that it doesn’t come down to the formative years for many people. I’ve met a lot of younger people who prefer the music of my era to what they hear now. So I don’t think you can say that everybody is going to like best the music of their “formative years”.
I think it is not just about what was popular when we were in our early teens, but with broader associations with positive memories.
That seems to be the case for me, anyway. A couple of comments here mention Kraftwerk. I like their music as well, and I am sure it is because it was in the background a lot when I was living in Denmark and traveling around Europe. I do generally enjoy that genre, though.
One band that seems to have escaped mention here is Skynyrd. I put “Free Bird” , Tuesday’s Gone”, and “Simple Man” towards the top of my playlists every time.
There are some newer songs that I really enjoy, for whatever reason.
“Good Time Girl” by Sofi Tucker
“Jungle Drum” by Emiliana Torrini
“Ancora Qui” by Elisa
“Laughing With” by Regina Specktor
Frau Dr. med. Blancke wishes that I add
“Nothing Man” by R.L. Burnside
“Snake Farm” by Ray Wylie Hubbard
I am not sure those are in the proper genre, or even great songs, but they are terrific fun.
Some music, like much of the Beatles catalog and Skynyrd, are great for reasons that I cannot define, but know when I hear it. Like a building that is perfectly proportioned. You don’t need to understand exactly why it is just right to recognize that it is so.
I agree with your better half about Ray Wylie Hubbard. I love “Snake Farm.” But even better is his tune “Bad Trick.” Here he is playing it with some folks folks might recognize. For the not fully initiated, that’s Don Was from Was (Was Not) on bass and Chris Robinson lending his voice to the chorus. I assume anybody who’s read this far in this thread will recognize the drummer and guitarist. (Ol’ Ray Wylie said he put the break in the song, and left off on a particular chord, in the hope that Ringo would play the drum fill from “Get Back” — and damned if he didn’t):
Thanks for the link. Good call.
Fun fact: Christopher Knight, the so-called north pond hermit (look up his story, completely Unsane (google that band, would ya?) what he went through by choice, and as a quasi-homeless autistic weirdo who loves to be alone I feel a certain affinity), called LS his favorite band, and said their music would be studied 1000 years from now. As little sense at that makes to me (a halfway decent southern rock band, really?) I gotta respect the choice. I could no more choose a favorite band than a favorite novel or animal or color, but for me the 1000-year-group of pop music is Kraftwerk, one of the rare acts that never compromised, never turkeyed out, never put out an album that was anything less than perfect, and to this day (well 2017 at least), never plays a show that is anything short of brilliant, nothing but uncompromising passion and excellence, which is a terribly rare thing.
I have never seen Kraftwerk perform live. I would have loved to see them when Florian S was still with us.
It is worth looking at a few pre-1977 LS recorded live performances. Few bands that I know of have ever been able to perform live at such a consistent level, especially under unfavorable conditions.
Florian Schneider was a motherfucking mensch. And I agree that LS is good, but there’s levels to this game, know what I mean?
Though people tend to hear the music of previous generations while in their formative years, so it’s not a surprise if they like it.
Anyhow, I do agree with you that modern *pop* is dire. But modern rock (which you won’t find in charts) seems great to me.
My 17 year old son ONLY listens to Rock music and is playing in bands that pay homage to the genre simply because it’s good.
I like some songs by The Jayhawks. Here’s one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLbyNNWzMzI
Great band…”Crowded in the Wings” is probably my favorite.
Arcade Fire, Spoon, Radiohead, TV on the Radio, Animal Collective, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sufjan Stevens, Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, Spiritualized, War on Drugs, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, I can go on
Good list. I dig Jeff Magnum. I learned about Spiritualized here on WEIT on a past post where PCC(E) was lamenting modern rock. Thanks Saul! Alas, he doesn’t post here anymore.
I’d add Porcupine Tree/ Steven Wilson.
Agreed Jeff. I think part of the problem is that there’s so much more good and creative music around today that it dilutes forces that would raise any single band to the top of whatever passes for charts these days. The charts are reserved for corporate Muzak that has company money rather than popular appeal behind it.
Agreed. When the Beatles were at their prime they were a sensation partly because there was little else then to capture the attention of a teenager. Now, with the internet, there is a vast range and the whole music scene is way more fragmented.
When I were a lad (in the UK), 2/3rds of the kids in the class would watch BBC1’s “Top of the Pops” every week. (There were only 3 TV channels then anyhow, and no mobile phones and no internet.) These days there’s nothing comparable to that.
Before the Beatles came around America was enjoying the sounds of Motown, the Beach Boys, soul legends like Sam Cooke & Jackie Wilson & James Brown, Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound artists, etc. Aside from exposing America to a couple of truly revolutionary bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the British Invasion has harmful to American music and put several undeserving British bands (Herman’s Hermits anyone?) on the charts.
O cum now ye faithful. The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Chaos UK, Discharge, on and on and on it goes. What my dear sir or madam are you talking about?
Oh my goodness I went to a Herman’s Hermits concert with a friend maybe age 15. She tried to jump onto the back of their car. lukewarm vaudeville stuff. The Doors and the Who were just around the corner.
This is exactly right. It actually takes some work to discover the good stuff if you only rely on what’s around in pop culture, although I’ve heard Spoon on an episode of the Simpsons and TV on the Radio in an episode of Breaking Bad.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was one of those albums that just clicked “YES, THIS” immediately for me. I still go through a phase at least once a year when I listen to it incessantly.
Sufjan’s “Illinois” is also a favorite of mine.
Thanks for that! Just gave In the Aeroplane Over the Sea a listen and love it. NMH is one of those bands I’ve been aware of for years but somehow never got around to checking out.
The mention of Sufjan always reminds me of the Danielson Family. A Prayer for Every Hour and Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block are especially great. And that for some reason reminds me of the Shaggs, who to quote Frank Zappa are “better than the Beatles”. I’m with Frank.
I’m so happy to hear you love that album! People either seem to have that reaction, or absolutely hate it (usually because of Jeff Mangum’s voice or the repeated lyrics about semen. I’m really selling it here to others, aren’t I?)
Yes indeedy doo. Did you grok the passage quoted in a stuttery sort of way from Tubular Bells? NMH got a callout in the quite decent Beatles hagiography Yesterday, which I hope boosted their profile a bit.
I love weird fucked up lo-fi music of all stripes, and that includes a lot of black metal acts as well — check out Filosofem by Burzum, which Varg deliberately recorded with the shittiest amps and mics (he shrieks the vocals thru a set of aviator headphones for example) to achieve a cold, harrowing sound.
I mentioned Trout Mask Replica somewhere in this thread, another 5-star album of course and surely the godfather of weird fucked-up pop music. Many years ago I was with a juggling troupe called the Soggy Chihuahua Revue and we performed at a fundraiser to the strains of “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish” which contains the immortal lines “squirmin’ serum in semen in syrup in semen in serum, stirrupped in syrup”. I absolutely live for that kinda shit.
For Jerry Coyne, if he’s still paying attention to this thread (I doubt it). That’s Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the aeroplane over the sea”. A masterpiece.
I’m tempted to break it out and listen now, but that album is so loaded with emotion for me (strangely, I tend to listen to it around late winter/early spring.)
Another band that I absolutely love but sadly can’t listen to anymore is Frightened Rabbit. The frontman also loved Neutral Milk Hotel and ITAOTS. But anyone still reading along should definitely check out “The Midnight Organ Fight.” Another rare album that clicked immediately for me.
Wow. A mere dozen or so names spread over three decades and I’ll be honest, only Radiohead can go shoulder to shoulder with the greats of the 1960s and 70s.
No one has matched those artists. When people claim here that this or that artist or song is great, I try to check them out and usually they do nothing for me. But sometimes I score a song I like that way. Anyway, here are some modern songs that I like.
LP “Lost in You”
Andrew Combs “Nothing to Lose”
Temples “Shelter Song”
Caro Emerald “Riviera Life”
The 1975 “Chocolate”
Peace “California Daze”
Train “Bruises” (a lovely and simple country music song)
I can’t name a contemporary scientist who is as good as Einstein, Newton or Darwin. That doesn’t mean that science is in decline.
The problem isn’t that nobody is creating good rock music today, it’s that it doesn’t find its way into the mainstream.
There are plenty of great bands. You just have to go out and find them, unfortunately.
The title indeed says “decline”, but specifically the point is made that the information content – directly measured by the Lempel-Ziv compression algorithm – is low, compared to older music.
Modulation – key changes within one song – is just one way the information can be low.
Those things are not opinion (but admittedly, “decline” is).
Of course, I’d need to review the LZ compression results, which years of production were used – actually, that might be easy to do right on one’s own machine…
“… You just have to go out and find them”
I think this is underneath everything – how do we find music? The local bar? The symphony hall? That’s fine – but largely I’m thinking (see above) the music subscription services are forcing music to conform to the games they play with pushing certain tunes, hos users click to skip, …
So the tunes are forced to be uniform and unsurprising…
And no DJs…
With respect to:
“Some period had to be the apogee of rock, and I can’t be blamed simply because it was the period of my youth. Somebody had to grow up during the flowering of rock.”
I’m sure you realise the same argument might be made by someone who grew up with rap or hip-hop? They would be wrong from my point of view (and yours), but that argument doesn’t do the job for which it was intended. We shall just have to take consolation from Sir Mick: “It’s only rock and roll, but I like it!” and let there be people in the world who are sadly mistaken. More seriously, while I did stop liking new popular music after I was ~27, I did discover that I liked opera and blues after that age. Drives my wife mad.
Same age at which Jimi, Janis, Jim, Brian Jones (and, later, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain) all died.
Also in the “27 club”: Robert Johnson, Grateful Dead’s “Pigpen”…there are a couple more I can’t remember.
And yet the data shows that it has declined in complexity, and increased in repetitiveness. I can listen to the current music on the raydidio and plainly see many (not all) leading artists can’t sing without digital help, and the musicians can’t play without dumbing it down.
I’d add that there’s also nothing like the hordes of garage bands inspired by the Beatles or the Stones. There aren’t any more high school dances or local dance halls where a group of kids can lug amps and drum kits from the back of the parents’ car onto some little makeshift stage and and entertain their peers while earning their chops. Think of 14,15, 16 yr olds like young Lennon, McCartney, and even younger Harrison or “little” Jimmy Page playing skiffle music…now it’s just an iPhone plugged into the sound system.
And it’s not just pop or rock. Musicals and theater release dreadful crap. Hamilton gets people excited but gawd knows why.
You think that’s bad – you ain’t heard nothing until you’ve heard gym music.
Alas, when it comes to modern pop/rock, I can’t get no satisfaction.
The local gym I used to go to every night BC (before covid) had the worst pop crap on the speakers. Lethargic, no melody, insipid lyrics. You’d think the singer was dying of some sort of wasting disease. Hardly the student to get you pumped. I popped in headphones and put on AC/DC, sometimes Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and Led Zeppelin. There is something about metal that just works in the gym. Even my father when he was younger, would do the same and he mostly likes country. Now, however, I just sit at home, getting fat. I haven’t yet figured out how to get back into that mindset, no matter what music I have on.
Back in my ju-jitsu training days my go-to workout music was Discharge, Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Brains, that sort of thing, and cranked LOUD over our dojo (an old barn if I’m honest) sound system. Nothing else gets the blood and adrenaline flowing like the hard heavy shit. Now I live in a van and am getting old and fat, haha. But still listen to the hard heavy shit.
It isnt a coincidence that the height of pop/roc music was in the sixties and seventies simultaneously with the emergencye of the environmental movement. It was a very creative, activist and involved citizenry on all fronts, with new freedoms and cultural possibilities. After the Beatles it was downhill. Today, however, the real music crisis is in classical music, which is being eclipsed by mediocre popular music. Once upon a time it was normal to own a piano and give your kids piano lessons. Once in the 1950s there was a film called “Carnegie Hall”, featuring all the great performers of that day.
Once there were public school classes in music appreciation. Today classical music is on life support and guess who is rescuing it? The Asians, who appreciate western classical music more than Americans. Europeans of course have always loved and supported it. The reason: anti “elitism”; anti intellectualism; short attention span; lack of interest in the history of music and the arts, or anything that happened yesterday or before. The US public exhibits an almost unique cultural barbarism. Only the support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the wealthy was able to launch a remarkable musical culture in this country, one that attracted Europeans and later Asians. Those creative days ended with computers, CDs and just general lack of interest in the arts. Now money and status have replaced classical music and put prices on art. American society is purely materialistic now. It respects those with money and no one else. Except athletes and bizarre fashionistas with pierced noses, anorexic knock-kneed
angry models and teen aged models of no particular sex.
I’m glad I grew up when kids could still be exposed to bits of classical music through cartoons, commercials, and news programs. It also bothers me that the All Things Considered news program seems to have banned any playing of classical music between segments.
Yes, news programs! Huntley and Brinkley signing off to the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth!
The decline of classical music has been going on since at least the mid-20th century (I’d say it died with Rachmaninoff). Notably, film scores make less and less use of it as the decades go by. But I would blame the composers much more than the general public. Everyone wants to expand the standard repertoire, but most popular pieces were written in the late 19th century or early 20th century (for many solo instruments, this is of course a serious issue). When later composers can’t measure up, the best one can hope for is good reinterpretations of works that have already been recorded many times over.
Don’t forget Gorecki, Finzi, Walton, Britten, Korngold, Vaughan Williams, Paart – all active after 1950. I can leave out Simpson, Lloyd, Hovaness, but some like them. Some decent new choral stuff since 1950 too – Tavener and Rutter for example.
I think we have to accept that music changes, whether that is by fashion or rather something else I don’t know. We will always listen to Hildegard, Buxtehude, Bach, Mozart, Mahler and The Beatles, even if no one writes that way any more. Maybe something new will come along one of these days that future listeners will regard as just as important.
Arvo Part is another.
Why does all the modern stuff sound generally weird? I rarely feel a warmth, or expressions of humanness – it’s more edgy, complex, brutal. Stravinsky made weird famous, but then what? I might like it mind you, but also note the video on The Death of Melody shows that orchestral works show similar dearth of melodic content.
A book of interest :
The Rest Is Noise
Forgot the author – it’s interesting.
Minimalism in music has taken over, along with New Age doodling. It suits our time because hardly anyone embraces classical music any more except the Asians. One exception is John Adams, who I consider our best contemporary composer because he has actual musical ideas. Check out his “Alleged Dances”, for starters. Really fine complex well structured piece. It isnt fair to demand that contemporary composers write “romantic” or “classical ” music as written in the past because the field is wide open to new forms. How about Meredith Monk? Forget Reich and Glass; their minimalism is appealing to those who are afraid of complexity. Since Debussy classical contemporary music has been opened up to all kinds of new forms and components, some influenced by classical form or romanticism, but even if they are, they still need to be judged by the same criteria as classical music: thematic interest, coherence, inventiveness, craftsmanship, structure, etc. Why simple minded repetitive music like that of Carl Orff or Aarvo Part is considered great escapes me, but it also escapes me that people think Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff or Gabriel Faure are great composers. OK for background music or films but still second rate. So sue me. Give me the romanticism and complexity of Brahms. Or Schoenberg, who loved and imitated Brahms for lots structural complexity. Or Adams.
See also: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/dec/09/pop-music-is-tiktok-killing-the-bridge
My current alternative to everything pop-tok is “Night Out”, by Slackwax.
A bit hard to classify, basically electronica(ish), but genre bending with some very smoky, late night female vocals and bluesy elements, leavened with a couple dashes of Tom Waits. It has a broad reach of styles that make leaning back and listening to the whole album in one stretch a worthwhile trip. Be sure to stick around long enough for “Dying Day”. Given the electronica/trip-hop roots, getting the most out of it requires some horsepower, or good headphones.
I would argue that the most sophisticated rock band working today is Radiohead (the band’s been on hiatus of late due to side projects from some band members). Here’s a pretty good video that discusses the band’s use of modulation:
If anyone wants to check out the band, start with the album “OK Computer”.
And then there’s my current favorite band, The Pernice Brothers. When’s the last time the word “genus” made it into a pop song? Here you go (“The genus names of all the flowers that were feeding off her amazing glow”):
And here’s my favorite song from the band’s most recent album (from 2019). Go to the third song, “The Devil and the Jinn”:
I always tell people to start with OK Computer too. Though lately I have been revisiting The Bends (just like a lot of 90s stuff lately) and I appreciate it more now. Except I skip over “Fake Plastic Trees” because it’s just one of those songs I heard too often and my brain is done with it, I guess.
I wasn’t aware of the LZ compression – makes a lot of sense.
… yeah. SMH. Personally, with the aid of music subscription with an enormous catalog, I’ve found “new” horizons in “classical” music especially.
How to explain it? I puzzle over _where_ music has ever been played – the symphony hall, the tiny jazz hole, arenas – then, the new venue : tiny Bluetooth speakers for the train, the bus, the bustling sidewalks, or, perhaps the cattle range,… it must matter… it is not usually _live_…
Word. It’s an important and underlooked point which boils down to “context is everything”, or possibly “everyone has an asshole and they all stink”.
Lizzo, Taylor Swift, and similar contemporary pop stars don’t do much for me. What makes a great song for me is one with melodic hooks and tonal surprises that leaves an earworm, and one that I generally appreciate more with repeated listening. Of rock groups today, I would put Foo Fighters into the “great bands” category and I’m sure there are more, but only the Foo Fighters come quickly to mind. For classic bands, I’ve been listening to the extensive catalog from Yes recently, and have really enjoyed rediscovering them, even with their many personnel changes. Check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-BMlq_zyko
I love Yes, and am surprised they don’t get more praise. But count on their lyrics being generally baffling. And yet it works!
That link is amazing, btw. Listening now.
Of course, even the Foo Fighters have been around over 25 years now. I’m now 60 and sometimes I have to catch myself when I think about popular “new” bands or solo performers I’m familiar with and like and then realize they haven’t qualified as “new” for a couple of decades or so. As it is, I’ve mostly only listened to NPR on the radio over the last 22 years and don’t subscribe to any satellite radio service, so my exposure to any new music since about 2000 has been much slighter than in previous decades. I just got fed up with commercial radio stations, especially by those that were Comcasted to drive out the uniqueness of the musical tastes of any DJ working at a commercial music radio station. Prior to moving to Jacksonville, FL, in 1999, I had lived in New London, CT, and regularly listened to the local college radio station there which did play a very diverse mix of music, which I mostly loved. There is no such station in Jax, alas.
I have over 1000 cds – haven’t switched to MP3 or other such devices. Even have a couple of hundred vinyl albums I still listen to occasionally. Definitely not up with the times. I have made a list of my collection, and it does include quite a bit released between 1965 through 1973 (with from 10 to 26 albums from each year), ebbs a bit in the mid ’70s (I was in junior high & high school from 1974 – ’80), picks up again from ’78 – ’81, ebbs again, then a lot more from 1984 through 2004, after which it drops to dribbles for most years and only one or none at all for several years. I just haven’t heard a lot which prompts me to want to get the album. Of course, it also doesn’t help that record stores have mostly died out. Sure, I can order online and have done so, but I used to love browsing through record stores, especially those with listening stations, and sometimes coming across something that intrigued me enough to check it out although I hadn’t even heard of the performer before I walked in. Probably still a lot of great new music I would love but that I just haven’t been exposed to.
Another Beatles’ tune with interesting key changes is “Good Day Sunshine.” I recall as a kid watching The Maestro breakdown the lads’ uses of key changes, tempo changes, and counterpoint:
The top comment on Beato’s video was something like when I heard Penny Lane my first thought was “what IS this?”
I think that crystallizes it – no surprises anymore.
I believe I’m older than PCC, and while I respect his love of the Fab 4 (Fun fact–one of my dorm mates got hold of I Wanna Hold Your Hand in October ’63, and we were all blown away!), I soon, however, gravitated to the Stones & Led Zep, etc. I’m now, at my advanced age, a big fan of AC/DC, and also Portugal the Man for “soft rock.” However, for straight-ahead blues and old-time R & R, nobody beats the Black Keys. Another fun fact–as a former HS English teacher, I affirm that the Black Keys video for “Wild Child” is the best school R & R video EVAH!
I was into Led Zep big-time for years. Went on a lo-o-o-ng hiatus. Recently listened to Black Dog – I realized I never understood :
The riff is fast, but Bonham’s groove is sort of half time of it! The stick clicks are nit noise – he cues the band – his drums are like _breathing_
I grew up on Zeppelin and then went a couple decades without listening. I recently purchased a couple of their CDs and have fallen in love all over again! Incredible band.
You might enjoy this, Thyroid: What Makes John Bonham Such a Good Drummer?
And since it’s mentioned, here’s “Fool in the Rain”: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Zp-LBD_q0sQ
See also Toto – Rosanna … drummer… Jeff Porcaro
Beato examines Bonham’s sound and performance a few times as well –
Oddly, Pete Townshend and Elvis Costello loathed LZ or at least claimed they did. How? Why? An enduring mystery.
I’d also slip those maters of melody and pop song structure, ABBA, in there too (as their first hit came out in 1974). The Bee Gees also have some perennial appeal among the younger generation. Not to mention Queen of course!
I think one of the ways songs from those groups managed to stand the test of time is the deceptive depth – the amount of songcraft, sweating details in the studio, the layers of complexity that reward re-visiting the songs. ABBA were notorious for their perfectionism. They barely toured so they could spend much more time in the studio on albums, getting everything “perfect.” This is why, after they were initially dismissed as “done” in the early eighties, they were re-discovered – musicians of almost any stripe will say how they admire the deceptive simplicity of their songs, which reveal layers of design, incredible vocal/harmonic complexity, and studio mastery.
When asked about how he sees a successful pop song, Benny Anderson, their keyboardist who wrote most of the music, said that a pop song should have at some points some element of surprise, not be too predictable, but once you’ve heard it those changes should sound “inevitable.” I’ve heard similar descriptions before about what makes a great song, and I think that really captures it.
I think ABBA’s skill in putting together hook after hook, transition after transition, is well displayed in their song Name Of The Game. It’s a masterclass of song composition – very complex for a pop song, something like 7 different changes, all great hooks, all seem by the end to fit together so well:
Here’s a short list of artists (in no particular order) I prefer to the Beatles, who may or may not make my top 200; I dig some of the 67-70 era recordings but find most of their catalog annoying and predictable.
Zappa/ Mothers of Invention
Beefheart/ Magic Band
Nick Cave/ Birthday Party/ Bad Seeds
Amon Düül II
Quintet of the Hot Club
Sun Ra Arkestra
Note that most of these bands peaked somewhere between the mid-60’s and early 90’s, and I would agree that rock and pop have been in general decline since the advent of protools, autotune, digital production, corporate focus groups, 9 writers and 5 producers on every goddam track, and other works of the adversary. Many fine exceptions of course, most of which you need to dig for.
Source: I am a writer and musician who spends many hours of most days with a set of quality ear goggles, exploring new music and revisiting old favorites. Today’s menu has already included Burzum, Nick Drake, The Bangles, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As always, à chacun son propre goûts.
I know and respect just about everything there, including the interesting choice of Hawkwind. As I understand it, they were a psychedelic band in England, sort of competing with Pink Floyd in their early years. Hawkwind was possibly better then, IMO. Then PF came out with DSOTM and the rest is history.
Hawkwind had one especially interesting album: Warrior on the Edge of Time, which must be played loudly. Here it is.
So if anyone likes pre-commercial Pink Floyd, you might like this other band.
Fantastic album, one of their best, from the “Lemmy” era. The last song he wrote with them was of course called Motorhead (sans metal umlaut), and they do a killer version of it. Also check out Space Ritual, among the greatest live albums. Hawkwind is considered a pioneer of the spacerock subgenre under the umbrella of psychedelic rock, jam, hard rock, blahblahblah… always preferred them to PF on the whole. The Final Cut, oddly enough, is one of my faves of theirs — actually prefer it to Dark Side.
Love that LP, still gets a regular play on my proper record player. Hawkwind were my first live gig in the 70’s.
That is a killer first show! My first big concerts were 1986, age 14 when I started hitchhiking south to the Bay Area and L.A.: Oingo-Boingo, Metallica, AC/DC, Zappa, SRV and Jeff Beck, Rush, Dire Straits, DK, Flipper, and a bunch of shows at 924 Gilman Street, Berkeley Good ol’ days…
I have something to say – now, “don’t judge”, but I have evidence :
A modern musical child of Zappa is …
Weird Al Yankovic.
Go ahead – ridicule it. Then read the lyrics to Albuquerque – especially the part about weasels and flesh.
I do not think that is a mistake – I think it is one of those “easter eggs”, or something. I bet Zappa is one of Weird Al’s heroes.
I’m lucky enough to have seen both Zappa and Weird Al live, and they both left it all on the stage (as did Zappa Plays Zappa, which I believe is still touring — phenomenal show). I also met Weird at a book signing in 2013 and he was just the nicest guy ever. He puts a lot of easter eggs and inside jokes in his music and videos.
I’ll let Roy and Linda comment ….
first key change is at :39
I don’t hear that as a key change. The bass starts by establishing the tonic note, then when Linda starts singing, emphasizing the major seventh in the melody, the bass moves to outlining the V chord but keeps the tonic note as a type of pedal or added note before finally clearly progressing V-I at 0:39. Listen to subsequent verses where the bass line and chord progressions are more obvious. All this is not to say that this isn’t a great song, it is!
Not that it necessarily matters to the quality of the song, but that’s not a key change, it’s simply returning to the root chord of the progression, V to I, in this case F to B flat (I think, doing this by ear and I don’t have perfect pitch). Sometimes the difference is ambiguous, but not here. The song never modulates and has only 4 or 5 chords, and is in fact extremely straightforward predictable.
I misspoke. Sorry. Moving fast….. I did not mean to say that the song itself changes key. Few pop songs did, do, or should do that. It is a CHORD change at :39
No worries mate except to say that YES many songs did, do, coulda shoulda and woulda do or finna do that. Chord changes are a feature of maybe 98% of songs ever written (see my other comments for music which don’t follow this particular format). Again no blame is on ya, I just have a certain brain disease which forces me to say this if ya know what I mean, which you don’t, which is fine.
I also endorse this video by Rick Beato. Modulation, and the harmonic sense underpinning it, is the signal achievement of European music, really coming into its own in the Renaissance and then continuing to develop through the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, and early twentieth century periods, providing a rich vein to mine for classical, jazz, Broadway, and pop kinds of music. Its absence in contemporary pop music is indeed an unmistakable sign of the poverty of imagination–or lack of compositional skill–in that music. Today’s pop music has been reduced to basic rhythm–and a boring 4/4 meter at that–and is, to me, nothing more than an accompaniment to fashion and dance. The singers and groups dress their well-toned bodies in spectacular, sexy clothing and writhe and gyrate to the beat of their music. It’s all plastic. There is no “soul,” which is the essence of why the music of the ’60s and early ’70s is so appealing and enduring. Colorful chord changes and emotionally stimulating modulations are indispensable tools in the kit of any present-day composer who wants to write music with soul.
One of my favorite modulations in pop music is in Don’t Worry Baby, (but she looks in my eyes, and makes me realize). It is incredibly subtle, and equally impactful. It happens over the course of 2 bars. The first 3 chords are in the original key, the last 3 in the modulated key, the middle 2 chords belong in both keys. And such a pretty melody. Lyrically it’s only slightly past Dick and Jane readers, but damn Brian Wilson has a gift for music.
I agree completely, and that song is way underrated, perhaps because it’s about street racing. But it’s a fantastic song.
Here’s a story about “Don’t Worry Baby” that I hope is not entirely apocryphal: In 1996 The Beach Boys released “Stars and Stripes,” an album of their songs performed by contemporary country singers (with The BB singing backgrounds). When they asked Lorrie Morgan to sing “Don’t Worry Baby,” she was, she said, terrified. “I used to make out with boys in the back seats of cars to that song,” she said. When she got to the studio to do the song, she shared her nervousness with Carl Wilson, who immediately said (of course) … “don’t worry baby, everything will turn out all right.” It did, and the result is (in my view) a transcendent performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPJO_9a01ps
Yes, good example! It smoothly pivots keys as the verse ends and the chorus begins then easily drops back for the repeat of the verse and for the middle right. Sweet!
I meant “middle right,” the right bars of the transition. Again I say, I despise autocorrect.
God, it happened again! I’m on another computer now. I meant “middle eight,” “middle eight!”
C’mon lad getcha middle right sorted already! Middle eight I mean. Last ate, middle strait 8, dear god whatever’s clever.
As someone in my late 20’s I’m inclined to agree that the 60’s and 70’s produced the best rock music (without trying to be objective) despite not growing up in that time (though my parents did so I do have a bias of what they’ve introduced me to).
Regardless here’s a few thoughts in response to PCC’s post and the comments though. PCC is explicitly saying rock and pop have declined and I think these are two distinct points. Rock was far more popular in the 60’s/70’s than it is now so at that time these were partly one and the same. Given that essentially nothing that tops a Billboard chart (or a streaming service for a better modern analogue) is rock anymore, these are definitely not the same now.
I think some of the best rock bands of the 60’s/70’s were King Crimson, The Mothers of Invention, and Can but as far as know they never ranked high in Billboard charts (if they ranked at all) and I think there have been comparably great bands more recently (e.g. Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Swans) but the music all these bands have made are tangential rock genres (e.g. “progressive” and “post” rock) and not as straightforwardly “rock” music as the bands PCC names here. What I’m trying to get at is that not differentiating rock from popular music generally (“pop”) can quickly result in apples to oranges comparisons. Comparing King Crimson to Taylor Swift or the Beatles to King Gizzard and assuming we’re all clear on which of these constitutes “pop” and “rock” can get weird fast.
This all being said I think it’s fair (as in PCC’s first numbered point) to say rock must have SOME apogee. I don’t think there would be nearly as much debate here if PCC said classical music isn’t as good now as it was during the 1700’s (and it of course isn’t as popular now as it was then). If we are in the apogee of any sort of music (in quality or popularity) it’s probably hip-hop.
I understand “Love Me Do” was something of a hit. Not only did it lack a key change, it didn’t even have a third chord. (Those rebels, flouting the normalcies of the apogee of rock.)
Some of the greatest bands, notably Flipper, Suicide, Beefheart, The Shaggs, Throbbing Gristle, Brian Eno, along with a whole lot of other noise, industrial, ambient, free jazz and avant-garde acts, not only largely eschewed modulation, they might easily go an entire song or album or career without even bothering with the traditional verse/bridge/chorus route, or in some cases playing in multiple keys and time signatures at once (Trout Mask Replica is a brilliant example, still mindblowing 53 years later), or foregoing structure altogether.
Lovely examples. Of course, my own parenthetical comment there was sarcastic – that song was overly conformist if it was at either extreme.
I suppose a product eschewing any rules could – decreasingly usefully – seen as complex through the lens of someone still analyzing with them in mind, such as prose regarded as though it were a poem with an extraordinarily complex rhyme and metre scheme.
Ah, I missed the sarcasm again (I’m on the spectrum as they say). Funny thing, I’ve been working on a book for over 33 years now which pretty well fits the “…prose regarded as though it were a poem with an extraordinarily complex rhyme and metre scheme” bill — but it follows a very rigorous and formal set of rules indeed.
My youngest had car issues a few days ago, and I had to go get him with the trailer. On the long drive back to the ranch, we discussed this particular issue. Our conclusion was that earlier generations were less distracted. That meant that some kid with a guitar who might spend all of his free time with nothing better to do than practice.
That contrasts somewhat with film making. Lots of people with potential to make great films grew up without any access to the basic tools of film making. The barrier to entry was fairly high until cheap video cameras became available. A kid with musical aptitude was far more likely to be able to get their hands on a guitar or a piano, and someone was always giving lessons.
So we decided that peak rock happened because of a confluence of low barriers to entry coupled with few distractions, and catalyzed by the growth of mass communications.
As a lagniappe, as our host would say, this coincidentally popped up in my YouTube feed.
Incredible. Terry Kath was one of the greats, and the absolutely moronic and totally avoidable way he left us makes me, as a huge Chicago fan, guitarist, AND firearms instructor, sick and sad. What a waste, but what a legacy.
As added evidence for Jerry’s contention, I am 7 years younger, yet would give exactly those same dates (64-75; Beatles to Queen) for the peak of rock music. In particular, I focus on prog: Sgt. Pepper and Procol Harum to Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes and ELP at its apogee. Two of my three kids, and one of their partners, also listen to lots of music from this era (particularly Beatles and Bowie). That’s akin to me choosing music from the 30-40s. This is not to say that I don’t have the odd bit of early jazz, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby and Inkspots on my playlist, as well as enjoying some Bic Runga and Eminem, but there just isn’t that same depth and quality, plus the sense of musical revolution. Perhaps music evolves in a punctuated way, and we await the next ‘big thing’. Punk and hip-hop just don’t qualify, IMHO.
Would S.J. Gould be on board with your theory?
By the way I LOVE punk/new wave and hip-hop, overlapping genres which hit their apogee(s) around 1977-85 and are now essentially on life support if not dead as far as the popular stuff goes. Underground greatness still exists.
I often wonder what the next decade, century, millennium and beyond will bring, seeing as how we’ve pushed music and other arts so far in so many directions just in the last 100 years or so. Truly, the mind boggles.
I believe our next musical development is hybridizing microtonality with harmony and counterpoint. I think Indian raga music offers us a clue in this direction.
Allow me to introduce you to Jacob Collier : https://youtu.be/HUGoUHKAGAE
… microtonality appears in his music. Two examples (by my ear) might be in Time Alone With You https://youtu.be/2qUCyW7ewPs and All I Need https://youtu.be/ue6g7SPSyAM
… it appears in places like a surprise – but they aren’t like deliberate massive compositions to extrnsively explore that idea.
Also Collier happens to have made a mark as a shining gem in pop music – his popularity gives me hope.
That’s really cool. I’d never heard of him before, so thanks for that.
My love for hindustani and q’walli music is as boundless as my hatred for the human race. So I hope you are correct. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxaGx2t2VBM
Ah, a kindred spirit: misanthrope and rasavant रसवन्त्!
For me , what makes rock great is the closeness of its relationship to the blues. That’s what it’s all about!
Why is that?
My unpopular opionion….. Hendrix isn’t *that* great. I base this on all the previously unreleased tracks that came out after he died. Those tracks were sub-par when he was alive, and his no longer being alive did nothing to improve them. The batting average has continually and consistently dropped.
On the subject of modulation….. I am a bit of a music theory nerd. I love this modulation, and Adam Neely does a *fantastic* job of explaining it. He also has a video breaking down/explaining Lady Gaga’s Star Spangled Banner at Biden’s inauguration.
I was going to mention this video! Amazing stuff. Another favorite of mine is the half-step (minor 2nd) bump halfway through Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”. Slayer plays an absolutely brutal thrash tune, “Black Magic” (the 1991 live version is best), with a really cool jump from minor to major for just 16 bars (goes by quick at 240+ BPM). Joni Mitchell does some beautiful and completely unpredictable modulations too, thinking especially of “Amelia”. Rick Beato has a What Makes This Song Great segment on that one.
“Hendrix isn’t *that* great. ”
Oh my god.
Please, go on.
Right. Hendrix pisses all over Clapton all day long. What a terrible loss. There is clearly no god.
May I recommend Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, Lenny Breau, Jeff Beck as worthy successors.
I was, and am still am I suppose, a prog rock fan. Pretentious? Yes. Overbearing? Maybe, But the musical skills that some of them had (and have) is quite beyond so many of today’s artists. People like Keith Emerson, Jon Lord (to name just two late keyboard players), the great guitarist (among many I hasten to add) Robert Fripp and Mike Oldfield are just brilliant players in their own right.
As an aside, their music started me off on my love of classical which lasts to this day.
I still don’t think Oldfield has topped or even equaled Tubular Bells, one of the great debut albums ever (I recall it launched Branson’s career to some extent as well). And Jon Lord’s overdriven Hammond organ sparring with Blackmore’s next-level shredding, so integral to DP’s awesomeness. Saw them in ’93 (Come Hell or High Water, the tour RB petulantly quit in the midst of) and they kicked so much ass it was scary.
Prog fan, check out the so-called “krautrock” genre, much of which is basically prog but with little commercial potential — Pink Floyd on acid, you might say. Faust, Can, Neu, Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Temple, Magma. The mighty Kraftwerk came out of that scene as well, for my money the 20th century band which will be most widely discussed many years after we are all gone.
If there was ever a life axiom it would be: Your parents will not like your generation’s music.
When I was a teenager, my father cut the power to the whole house one day after I had played “Little Darlin” by the Diamonds for about the 15th time.
I suggest you see Leonard Bernstein above.
“…noisy, unintelligible, and morally corruptive”, and Bernstein says that like it’s a bad thing.
“Your parents will not like your generation’s music.”
While in their adolescence, teens probably, I agree, I’m convinced the producers know this and use it. It is a product _designed_ for that specific audience. “Talkin’ bout my generation”, right?
But despite that, it does not mean that is the only thing in their earbuds, or music is outgrown. I absorbed my parents’ music catalog when I was a kid. It never left. At the same time, I outgrew stuff. At the same time, I found _old_ stuff from any prior generation and it _changed_ me.
It seems like I can put a finger on it but it’s music! I can’t! So I wrote a lo-o-o-ng comment.
So far, so good… so what?
Todd Rundgren’s “The Death of Rock and Roll” seems to be appropriate: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=gtJXTCCzYek
While it seems like a case can be made for the shallowness of much currently popular music (as opposed to all the interesting stuff that doesn’t make the charts), I think trying to narrow down this “apogee” of rock and pop as a form of musical art from “roughly 1964 to 1975” is going to be too subjective.
For instance, just taking rock, for me Rock really starts to take off from it’s baby steps STARTING around 1975. Just as athletes continue to improve their prowess over time, with original athletes in a sport handing them the baton, so musicians became ever more masterful over their instruments and were able to explore and do more.
For instance, Rush had an absolutely massive impact on many musicians and they have a huge devoted following. It was the music of many lives (usually male!) growing up. They hit their stride with 2112 in 1976, and both the musical complexity and exploration had a profound impact on many musicians – Neil Peart has regularly competed with John Bohham in the “Best Rock Drummer” polls (and arguably was even more influential).
Lots of rockers would choose Van Halen, ACDC or any number of other acts over the rock bands pre- 1975.
As for pop, yes the younger crowd are finding the past to be full of jewels. But one of the biggest decades they are mining is the 80’s (which keep coming back in to favor, regularly, as far as a decade of musical influence). So many young people say “they made so many great pop songs in that decade!” My son is 24 and for years his favorite band has been Duran Duran (along with some current Rap artists).
So I think it’s pretty hard to escape a strong subjective bias in all this. It seems that objective analysis is pointing to some real trends in more CURRENT music, which could possibly explain how it lacks depth. But once you get before such trends, there’s just so much beloved and influential pop/rock music and “my era was the best” does seem too subjective.
For crying out loud; this was a tongue-in-cheek post, though my opinions are what I feel. OF COURSE I know it’s subjective: maybe some people like autotuned repetitive music, maybe some people think Taylor Swift is far greater than the Beatles and I can’t say they’re wrong, because it’s taste. All I can say is what kind of music I liked, when it was around, and various trends that might–MIGHT–explain why I and many like music of that era.
My own opinion is enough for me; I don’t need a second, and I’m not going to force others to agree. If you want to disagree, well, take a number and get in line.
Still, Jerry, I believe that your and Beato’s point that there is an evidential means to judge the quality of music holds.
I think that in general, there are features of music that are imperfectly correlated with how much I like it.
…and kiss my ass.
I’ve listened to this Hitch speech to where it’s basically memorized. Just like music!
Rock is nearly dead as an art form. In a few years it will be as ossified as jazz or the Western. Yes, some folks still put jazz or the occasional Western, but most of the time no one cares. Most of rock’s modern day practioners are either senior citizens or middle-aged. Young people are either into hip-hop or anything else (K-Pop seems to have more of a following, even in the west, than rock).
From a strict purist’s point of view, rock began its decline during the 1970s, when it splintered and degenerated into singer-songwriter whining; interminable, pretentious prog rock; hamfisted and mushbrained heavy metal; and so on. I admit to finding 70s soul, funk, and even disco more entertaining than a lot of 70s rock. Rock’n’roll started as the riotous love-child of blues, r&b, gospel, and country. As it moved further away from this magic combination it lost more and more of its soul, and, like all art forms in the last decades of the 20th century, fragmented into product for specialized audiences.
After several posts on this subject I think I’m beginning to understand your argument. I think you’re just talking about averages, and on that score you’ve made a good case. The articles you’ve linked to demonstrate that on the average, pop/rock (I won’t split hairs over genres) music is becoming flatter and blander. It’s easy to read praise of the music of one era over another and then get defensive when you think of personal favorites that are exceptions, but I haven’t seen you say that *everything* was great back then or that *everything* is lousy now, only that things are trending in a dumbed down direction, and that’s hard to argue with. A lot of the pushback you’re getting seems to be from people who want you to recognize the exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions, and as a heavy consumer of music, finding the exceptions is a real pleasure.
For down home rock, the Black Stripes are a good example. In a more prog rock vein there’s St. Vincent, and for jam bands there’s the breathtakingly versatile King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (who, imho, smoke that quintessential 60’s jam band, The Grateful Dead). That said, I think you’re right that the typical hit song of today is less complex and interesting than the typical hit song of the 60’s and 70’s.
I wonder how much this change has to do with business models and how much is consumer driven. Frank Zappa had an interesting theory about the dumbing down of music, and it’s not what you might think:
MTV probably accelerated the dumbing down by making the visual element more important than the musical element in creating hit records, and auto-tuning sure didn’t help.
Music critic Ted Gioia thinks that might be about to change as Substack type business models give fresh voices a chance to be heard that they won’t get from the current giants in the industry (I don’t think this article is paywalled, but it might be):
Regarding complex music from what might be rock’s heyday, I’d return to Zappa; no one that I can think of holds a candle to him when it comes to complexity, diversity, inventiveness and just plain tight musicianship! I can completely understand why some of his lyrics might put people off, but I suspect musicians will be fascinated and intrigued by his music long after The Beatles are forgotten. Here’s one of many instrumental pieces that gives the eggheads plenty to chew on while still having enough “oomph” for someone who listens more from the gut:
…and here’s a funny lyrical sendup of sixties nostalgia that answers (in the affirmative) his own question, “Does humor belong in music?”:
This comment is probably too long already, but I’ll risk one more observation—thank you for your consistent promotion of the virtues of Karen Carpenter. Never in a million years would I have guessed that I’d appreciate her, but I do now, even if I’m not going to run out and buy her music. That’s the great thing about music; there’s always something to discover or rediscover!
The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix were not averages. Nor were Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. If you are going to talk about averages, you have to take into account all the bands of the era you want to say is the peak. The problem there is that nobody remembers any of the considerable quantities of dross that was around at the same time as The Beatles.
I think you are wrong about Frank Zappa by the way. Take a random young person off the street. They probably have, at least, heard of the Beatles but they probably do not have a clue who Frank Zappa was.
I didn’t mind to imply that The Beatles, Stones, etc. were average, only that there were a lot of artists like that who raised the average. For any style and era, the fun lies in finding the ones you really like!
Regarding Zappa, I’m just speculating about the long run, but who knows?
Or to just take a minute to Chill…
(With apologies to Wes Montgomery.)
Modern pop music would make sense if I consider the sheer volume of material each of these sings is competing with.
So none contain anything surprising in themselves, but the surprise comes when the next song comes on – by the user skipping, or the computer doing the playlist.
That is, the tunes are engineered to have the best chance in the systems that serve them up.
I guess I generally agree, but my reaction, is so what?
The music *universe* is better than it’s ever been. We have access to more great music than ever, for free. If you’re not finding great stuff, from any era of your choice, that you have never heard before, you’re either not trying or are stuck in a rut.
I’m 61 and my music experience is better than ever, whether or not there is less great music being made than before.
I love the Beatles et al as much as anyone (and probably know classic rock as about as well as most people here), yet it’s only a fraction of what I listen to these days.
Reading these discussions sort of makes me sad.
I can’t stress enough how much I agree with this comment. I have 12,000+ songs on my phone from every genre, including Prof. Coyne’s favorites and my own (new wave). I saw 68 local bands this year, and 90% of them surprised me with something unique, such as a lyrical or musical twist I had never heard before. I would quibble with one thing in your comment, which is “for free”. Although I certainly appreciate the convenience of being able to look up the song recommendations above instantly, the current system of compensation for musicians is badly broken, and I think music lovers need to look for more ways to financially support music makers. I think Rule 17 prevents me from naming my favorite nonprofit with this mission, but there are charities out there providing health care and patronage to local musicians, who may well be making the “classics” of the future right now!
Queen beats The Beatles to no.1. And if you don’t agree, how about Freddie Mercury as no.1 frontman and singer in rock?
I was in junior high school from 1970-1972 and graduated from high school in 1976. I didn’t really appreciate much of the music available back then but I do now. My iTunes includes Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Grand Funk Railroad, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, The Ohio Players, The Platters, Santana, The Spinners, The Temptations, and others.
Great choices. Black Sabbath in particular has been summarily dismissed on this very blog as an obvious dummkopfk chowderhead band. No, no, nicht einmal falsch. More complexity, innovation, and heaviness than the greatly overrated Beatles, Stones, Band, Peter et Cetera ever dreamed of. Listen to Sabbath’s first 6 albums and get back to me.
If you stand well back and look with squinty eyes you could make the argument that rock/pop music of the later 60s and earlier 70s tried hard to be ‘different’. And perhaps music of the post millennium tries hard to be the same.
In the end commercial music is written for the audiences of the time. In the earlier period ‘the youth’ wanted to rebel and be different (which is why we all wore rebellious jeans, ahem). Nowadays there is greater mimetic desire to be identified by your adherence to socially ‘approved’ music, amplified by social media. None of this is entirely 100% true, there will always be dissenters – but dissent is now a more socially dangerous option.
“Barry Manilow (a much-dismissed but worthy tunesmith).”
Memorably satirised by Rowan Atkinson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTBrY_Uterk
Last night I went to a gig at a nearby pub. I paid £12 for the privilege of seeing a “band” called Samantics (it’s one person and some fairly sophisticated electronics). I suggest that Samantics is just one example that shows the idea that modern popular music is getting worse is false.
As I’ve said before, the real issue is that the good music doesn’t get the exposure it used to in the “mainstream”. You have to go out and find it.
Anyway, as a small piece of irony, one of Samantics’ most popular songs is the one called “Pop Song” which is a satirical take on the very problem of the dumbing down of music.
I think the popular music of the 60’s and 70’s (if you discard the huge amounts of trash produced those days too) was better than what is generally produced more recently.
I’m not 100% sure there is not a ‘puberty bias’ though, a kind of imprinting? I do not think – yes I tried- it can really be made objective.
As far as ‘quality’ of music goes, nothing (or very little) beats the baroque composers, but that is just my taste: complex but clear as a frozen waterfall.
And I know that they’re more considered a folk band but what about the Grateful Dead? Their experimentation with music almost founded a cultural movement or furthered what the Beatles started…
I’ve been to hundreds of shows over the last 36 years, not even including the countless open mic night type of affairs at pubs and small clubs, mostly punk and metal but also krautrock, hindustani, western classical, folk, blues, jazz, reggae, and so forth. I saw the Dead once, I think it was Chinese new year of 1993 at the Oakland Arena. Undoubtedly the worst concert I ever payed for — the band was an hour late coming on (to say nothing of the inexplicable 1/2-hour break they took halfway thru), limp tired arrangements, zero stage presence, long meandering guitar solos, just horrendously, historically lame. My brother and I literally dozed off and woke up with headaches. The hippies and heads in the audience were, bafflingly, in ecstasy. I just do not get it. I do like the Terrapin Station LP pretty well.
The Chinese acrobats who opened were incredible, though.
I was speaking mainly of their presence in the 1960s not what the drug addled humans ended up becoming. American beauty is still probably one of my favorite albums of all time but terrapin station and dancing in the streets is also an excellent both rendition of that song and just the band in general
Deadheads seem to mostly concur that their favorite band peaked in the late 70s — I have no idea, but do realize Jerry died not long after I saw them. Also I just remembered that I saw the JG Band at Eclectic on the Eel in I think 1988, and they weren’t bad. Still not really my thing but I’ll give American Beauty a go.
I spent a good part of the summer of 89 at a circus camp in northern CA and became pretty good friends with his daughter Trixie, and Ken Kesey’s daughter Sunshine (I think Mountain Girl was the mother of both?), and a bunch of other people from the Hog Farm — Wavy Gravy, Baba Ram Dass, etc. Met Jerry and Bob or maybe Phil there once and they were quite nice, so it’s nothing personal.
From all I’ve heard lately, that relationship has become virtually non-existent.
Ariana Grande was on the Tonight Show a few months back, and they announced she had broken a music record that goes back to the Beatles. My immediate thought was that while she may have broken a record, her music will be forgotten long before theirs is. I’d be willing to bet that her music won’t be played on oldies stations in 10+ years, since it isn’t the sort of thing you are inclined to sing along with.
I agree with you. As a genre, Rock has matured and maxed out what you can do with an electric guitar. We’re waiting for the next invention of a musical instrument that expands the soundscape, just like the steel string guitar and the electric guitar did for popular American music. And it has to look sexy.
No one asked, so here are my fave pop/rock bands (I’m 65):
The top four: Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd
The next two: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes
Honorary mentions: Cream, Jethro Tull (mainly because of Aqualung), David Bowie
My one weird opinion: there’s a lot of stuff by the Beatles that does nothing for me. Eg. Blackbird.
I think it’s important to remember that many, probably most, young people get introduced to rock music by listening to pop music. For this reason I refuse to broadly slag pop music. I don’t listen to very much pop, but let’s never forget any of the GREAT pop songs. Here’s what I think is a GREAT pop song: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown”. Listen to ABC’s “When Smokey Sings” and hear the clever similarity in the music.