In Which I Struggle With Popular Music

The kids are off at Grandma and Grandpa's, so Kate and I went out for a nice dinner Thursday night, and I found myself with a bit of time to blog... but no particular substantive ideas. The whole "publishers behaving badly" theme of last week seems to have run its course, between Random House re-thinking its awful ebook contracts and the whole wrestling-with-pigs argument over paying people to write stuff for the web has kind of exhausted itself. And I don't have the time or energy to write up serious science in detail (it's the last week of classes, and between grading and end-of-term administrative nonsense, I'm wiped out). so I'll witter about pop music for a while (it's in the tagline for the blog, after all, but I've been short on pop culture content lately).

I usually have music playing in the background while I'm doing whatever I'm doing, particularly if I'm at the computer, and I try to keep up with what's big in music to some degree. I'm not a big dance music guy, so there's a lot of current pop that just doesn't work for me, but I try to give highly critically praised stuff a chance, even when it's outside my usual comfort zone, musically. And I keep running into the same basic problem.

One of the albums topping everybody's "Best of 2012" lists was Frank Ocean's Channel Orange (see, for example, the AV Club review), so I picked that up and listened to it for a while. And it's... fine.

The problem with it, though, is that it just sort of... slides by. He's got a good voice, and when I can force myself to pay attention to the lyrics, he's often talking about some serious stuff. At the same time, though, I find myself thinking "I could probably knock this backing track together on my iPad." It just doesn't end up grabbing me in a way that makes me pay enough attention to even rate it on iTunes.

In a similar vein, there was a period of a couple of weeks where Ta-Nehisi Coates wouldn't stop talking about Kendrick Lamar's oddly punctuated good kid m.A.A.d. city (AV Club review), which is currently in shuffle play with a bunch of other stuff.

And again, I have kind of the same problem-- not quite to the same extent, as there are a few tracks that are sonically a lot more distinctive than on Channel Orange. Unfortunately, those songs are mostly gratingly annoying. The ones that aren't actively irritating, though, have the same problem: when I force myself to pay attention, the lyrics are good, but I have to force myself to pay attention, and I suspect my iPad could provide the backing track.

What really threw this into relief for me was a couple of weeks back when the shuffle play on my iPad at work threw up a Kanye West track:

The video takes a while to get to the song, but when it does, there's no sliding past. It's not like much of anything else, and provokes an immediate "What is that, so I know how to find it again?" reaction when it comes on. Of course, it suffers from an entirely different problem, namely that West is a self-obsessed douchebag of epic proportions, and whenever I catch a bit of the lyrics, it's hard to stop rolling my eyes. (This is actually one of his less narcissistic tracks...)

What I wish I could find, and don't really know enough about current popular music to track down, is somebody who puts together the more serious lyrical content of Ocean and Lamar with West's production talents. I'm sure I'm missing some subgenre distinction between these artists, though, that makes this nonsensical, sort of like saying "Bob Dylan would be awesome if he just had George Clinton's band backing him" or whatever. It's very frustrating, though, that the stuff I find arresting musically is coupled with such douche-tastic lyrics, while the stuff that's got good lyrics is so boring musically to me.

This is, of course, a problem that could be solved with money and time-- I could just start buying a whole bunch of hip-hop albums and going through them to find what works for me-- but my limited experience suggests that the signal-to-noise in the genre, as it were, is not terribly high. And it's not like there's a shortage of good new stuff involving guys with guitars, which is basically my home, genre-wise. Those best-of-2012 lists also included the Japandroids' Celebration Rock, which is awesome:

But, you know, it's kind of frustrating to feel completely out of touch with the dominant musical forms of the moment. Which probably goes in the "what a drag it is getting old" file (to further date myself/ place myself in a particular cultural milieu)... Maybe it's just an inevitable decoupling from younger people's music, but I still feel like this is a problem that ought to be crackable.

Also, to head off the criticism that it's just being loud that grabs my attention, I'll throw in another track that the shuffle-play threw up at work that never fails to catch my ear despite being quiet:

I'm not sure what it is, exactly-- if I could nail that down in a systematic way, I'd get out of physics and make billions as a music impresario-- but something about that sound is just as arresting to me as the Japandroids' buzzing guitars. And it catches my attention well enough to get me to listen to the lyrics, which are dense with references to other songs, which is also right up my alley. And, hey, new Josh Ritter album coming soon, so again, it's not like I'm utterly bereft of stuff to listen to...

Feel free to suggest stuff that I ought to listen to in the comments, though. I'd be thrilled to have a wider variety of good stuff...

More like this

Being a Scot I'm biased towards my countrymen but the new albums by Frightened Rabbit (Pedestrian Verse) and Biffy Clyro (Opposites) both blew me away. Pedestrian Verse in particular has some amazing lyrics, you should check it out.

By Paul Adams (not verified) on 15 Mar 2013 #permalink

The Frightened Rabbit album is in the shuffle-play mix right now, and it is, indeed, very good. Biffy Clyro, I haven't tried, but I'll make a note.

Pop music is very much a young persons' game (both performers and audience), so you did well to remain in such close contact with it into your 40s. As I've mentioned before, popular music and I went our separate ways in 1993, in the days when finding new music involved either hearing it on the radio (which was already starting to suck by then) or shelling out for CDs in a music store (not sustainable on a grad student budget, especially when trying out new artists). I'm sure I've missed some good stuff since then, but I also missed a lot of mediocre stuff like the Britney Aguilera/Christina Spears phenomenon (I still can't distinguish among those two and their many imitators without a program).

SteelyKid is still too young to have developed her own tastes in music, other than music specifically aimed at children (much of which is also quite vapid). She and The Pip will be your main windows into the pop music world starting about a decade from now. In the meantime, you might try other genres, or older music that you might have missed the first time around, and see if you find something you like. The latter is what I have been doing lately.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Mar 2013 #permalink

Since you like Josh Ritter I assume that our musical tastes cross paths at least a few times. So let me suggest some of my favorites in hopes you might like them as well.

Josh Ritter:
I assume you've heard most of his stuff, but in case you haven't, I'd suggest checking out "Orbital" (With Physics!), "Good Man", "Long Shadows", "Golden Age of Radio", and "Thin Blue Flame". Just the tip of the iceberg though.

David Francey:
I literally just discovered him, but I love his folk voice

Josh Garrels:
Christian, if that's okay with you, with unique voice and good lyrics

And some random others
Justin Hines (Poor Audio on this one):

Alex Murdoch:

Michael Franti:



And two others if you're interested: Jennifer Knapp(Martyrs and Thieves), Marc Cohn (Walking in Memphis).

Alright, that's it for now. Hope you run into something that catches your listening ear. There's always Mumford and Sons and Kanye's "Through the Wire" in case you don't. Both are good, but I assume you know about them already.

Since I feel like I have a small chance of convincing you to listen to European metal bands, I'll instead suggest the Swedish hard rock band Graveyard:

There second album (Hisingen Blues) is especially great but their latest album also has a couple of great tracks too.

I actually think some of the current pop music isn't so bad. There are some good voices around, though most of it sounds a little very manufactured. But it's definitely better now than it was the previous decade. Linkin Park eg, I find generally listenable, though I don't put it on my playlists for it lacks some pull. And Pink is interesting, though she tends to sing about topics I fail to relate to. I really like Katy Perry (wide awake) and Christina Perri (Jar of Hearts).

The Swedes have some nice voices on the radio too. This thing eg has been playing on the radio since months

Though it sounds a little white-washed to me. Or this lady

(I can't watch the videos btw, so I just hope the links work. I'm presently in Germany and most music videos are blocked here.) On the zen-side of things, don't miss these guys

Though, from what you write, it seems to me our taste in music doesn't have much overlap, so good luck with your quest :)