A friend of mine said to me today:
“Music isn’t as good as it used to be.”
I immediately went into the first stages of grief; shock and denial. How could this person be so stupid? That quickly led to anger, which did not dissipate as I entered the third stage – bargaining (or just good old argument).
It is a claim that I have heard many times. Dad was probably the first person to say it to me, as I insisted we listen to my new Scooter single on a family trip in 2001. A cover of the Supertramp classic “The Logical Song”, my father doubtlessly cried the words as frontman H.P. Baxxter’s incongruous cocaine-fuelled ad-libs punctuated the incessant techno beat.
It was songs such as Scooter’s Supertramp cover – which I would, many years later, recognise is laughably awful and obviously not a patch on the 1979 original – which led my father to believe that most modern music sounded as such.
But that point of view, it hardly needs to be said, is woefully, wilfully ignorant.
Music is just as good now, on the 10th of November in 2014, as it was on the 17th of August 1959, or the 1st of June 1967, or the 1st of March 1973, or the 16th of June 1986, or the 23rd of September 1991. Or whatever day your favourite album was released on.
At this juncture I must make it clear that the purpose of this article is not to shit on the music of years gone by; anything but. If I were to try and attempt the painstaking process of naming my top 10 all-time favourite albums, it’s likely that the vast majority – perhaps 90 per cent – would be from the 1990s or earlier. Indeed, my all-time favourite album remains Dark Side of the Moon. A clichéd choice, to be sure, but to judge a person’s music tastes on such fine margins is to do that person a great disservice.
Truth be told, I probably listen to Dark Side of the Moon about once a year. This will sound strange but even though it is my favourite, I rarely feel the desire to listen to it, usually eschewing it in favour of yet another listen to my current favourite album. I’ll outline a few examples.
I recall 2011 being a very strong year for music. On January 25 of that year, Canadian indie darlings Destroyer released Kaputt. I still, to this day, remember the exact circumstances of falling in love with it: I was driving home from university on an autumn day beset by grey clouds and light rain. As the subtle horns of opening track “Chinatown” unfolded through the speakers of my VS Commodore, I knew that I had discovered a new favourite. I own two copies of that album, on CD and vinyl. I know every vocal lilt, every horn break, every inspired turn of phrase, every wash of synth. It means every bit as much to me as Dark Side of the Moon.
Last year, on May 17, I organised my work schedule to ensure that I had the day off. Waking up excitedly that morning I walked down to JB HiFi and purchased both Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, both released that day. I do not lie when I say I spent the entire day listening to both albums over and over. Trouble Will Find Me ended up being my favourite album of 2014. An album I adore from start to finish, it too means every bit as much to me as Dark Side of the Moon.
Even today, I discovered vibrant new music which I quickly took a shine to. A friend made me a playlist, and included “Riff Glitchard” by an English group called Johnny Foreigner. I’d not heard of them, but enjoyed the song so much I checked them out further, and after playing two songs from their 2014 album You Can Do Better on Spotify, I stopped, and bought the album directly from their website as a digital download.
When people used to tell me “music isn’t as good as it used to be”, I used to argue in the negative, while admitting that you do have to look harder for it, as you may not find great music in the top 40 as readily as you may have in the past.
But even that is crap. First of all, because crap songs eschew time; as much as music history revisionists would like to have you believe, there was plenty of crap around in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s as well. But mostly it’s crap because it isn’t hard at all to find good new music. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of music blogs which review new music pretty much every day. I remember a day in 2012, while perusing Pitchfork, I was playing a track that had garnered a lot of praise. I don’t recall the song, but queued up after it was Chad Valley’s “Fall 4 U”. I fell immediately in love with the song, a glorious piece of emotionally earnest synth pop, and it remains a favourite. That came about from simply killing time on the internet; I wasn’t sitting through an hour of “new music” on a commercial radio station nor watching the Rage top 50.
There’s also an element of snobbery from people who will tell you that “music isn’t as good as it used to be”. They believe, for no good reason, that the music they listen to, whether it be the music they grew up with or the music they’ve discovered as some sort of holier-than-thou reaction to the pervasiveness of hip-hop and modern dance music, to be superior to current music.
Except that really, it isn’t. The argument I had with my friend came about after I said that “Call Me Maybe” was a good pop song. He was aghast at such a notion, and when I asked him to criticise the song, his first target was the lyrics. “The lyrics are so dumb, they don’t mean anything, it’s complete rubbish,” he said.
So I asked him, “so every song released prior to the year 2000 contains is brilliant poetry?”
“…well… no… but…”
“What about a song like “Twist and Shout”? That’s a time-honoured classic, and with good reason, no one’s debating that. But how is “comeoncomeoncomeoncomeon baby now / twist and shout / comeoncomeoncomeoncomeon baby now / work it on out” an untouchable lyric but “I just met you / and this is crazy / but here’s my number / so call me, maybe?” so terrible? I would argue they are both about as dumb as each other.”
He fell a bit quiet after that. I love older music as much as any music fan, but there is absolutely no good reason why one cannot appreciate a song released last week as much as a song released in 1961. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum; and that’s the great thing about it. On my way to work I can listen to the latest Sun Kil Moon album, Benji, and marvel at its brilliantly specific lyricism and simple yet affecting music. And then on the way home I can put on Nick Drake’s 1972 classic Pink Moon, and marvel at how a 28-minute folk rock record with sparse instrumentation still manages to be an intensely satisfying listening experience.
As I type this essay, I am listening to Flaming Lips’ 2012 collaborative album Heady Fwends. On it there is a track called “Do It”, which features Yoko Ono yelling the same phrase atonally over and over on top of Flaming Lips’ distorted instrumentation. Ono was married to one of the biggest pop stars the world has ever known. And yet in the 44 years since the Beatles’ career ended, and the 34 years since John Lennon’s death, Ono is still pushing the boundaries, making challenging, vivacious music.
So my question is – if Yoko Ono can embrace the music of now, why can’t everyone else?