New Age Retro Hippies

I’ve been contemplating and re-listening to the albums I’ve heard this year in anticipation for writing my Favorite Albums List for 2011 next month. It got me thinking about the state of current musical styles, and I felt compelled to make some comments on it as a whole. Not that I’m the Keeper of the Zeitgeist, but I do pay attention to new artists, their obvious influences, and the direction music seems to be going compared to previous years.


Paid Dues: Rhythm and Blues

It’s not a completely novel concept for 2011, but R&B influence on alternative/underground/indie music has hit what may be its apex. The UK indie and electronic scenes are mostly to thank for this. In 2009, The xx’s impact on both the indie and electronica scenes caused many other artists and fans alike to realize how gripping R&B influences could be. Other R&B-influenced artists that blew up during this period include James Blake, How to Dress Well, The Weeknd, and Active Child.

All of these artists share a similar aesthetic: tightly-woven beats surrounded hazy, sullen synths and soulful vocals. The formula is not that drastically different than traditional R&B. These artists’ main counterpoint is their strong dedication and attention to the mood of the music. The careful use of effects (I mean, “m0ar reverb!!!11”), heart-wrenching timbres, and the overall essence of the sound finally match up with common yet intensely emotional R&B themes such as drug addiction, lustful sex, unrequited love, broken friendships, depression, and so forth. The textures match the words in through a powerful, emotional artistry that alternative music fans appreciate regardless of genre.

Preceding The xx  was the rise of another R&B-inspired movement: dubstep. Dubstep as a genre now faces sort of its own ‘branding’ issues at the moment, as it’s plagued by countless DJs who seek imitate the hard-hitting style (the now incessantly joked-about “wub wub wub”)  heavily popularized by artist like Skrillex. But dubstep’s origins in the UK were far more minimal considering Skream‘s 2006 release that many hail as essential to the genre’s beginnings.  Dubstep regardless of its exact flavor was an organic progression from UK garage, 2-step, and grime, and its  mood was ultimately influenced by R&B (which continues to be extremely popular in the UK as a whole). Burial’s sampling clearly acknowledges this appreciation.

Personally, R&B has always been one of my least favorite genres. I saw it as a genre that lacked much innovation. It felt stagnant and uninteresting. Many other genres are in this state, awaiting invigoration (such as jazz to some degree). It was long due for R&B to have a musical makeover. But dubstep took mainstream dance music by storm in a way vastly different than the R&B admiration found in independent music scenes. There have already been dubstep nods in recent songs by artists like Rihanna and Britney Spears. It’s no surprise that they’ve been influenced by the club sound, and in this sense I’m not sure it’s any different than any other stylistic fad in popular music; it’s only an long delayed echo of what’s hip.

Continued 80s Influence

Through the 00s up to today, the 80s continues to be highly drawn upon for influence. Post-punk has been a strong influence for some time in music. Artists like Joy Division/New Order, The Cure, The Smiths, Public Image Ltd., The Jesus and Mary Chain, Talking Heads, and Television all continue to be not only appreciated by music fans but a clear source of influence for current artists. New artists like Future Islands and Wild Beasts sound like they literally could have existed in the 80s without question. The Horrors’  album “Skying” follows the more dance-oriented style of post-punk with admiration.

Artists like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem take (or took, using the past tense for LCD since it’s disbanded) influence from both post-punk and disco. Speaking of disco–artists like Hercules and Love Affair are all over that currently, as well. However, I’m getting the sense that the somewhat dated disco-punk movement was strongly punctuated by This Is Happening — whether that punctuation is a period or a comma, however, I’m not sure.

80s-90s shoegaze and dream pop including My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Cocteau Twins, and Lush all have clear connections to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (also influenced by post-punk like The Teardrop Explodes), Smith Westerns, Real Estate, as well as M83’s highly acclaimed 2011 album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” Deerhunter and Atlas Sound (solo project from Bradford Cox) also owe much credit to these adored subgenres. Many people are still much in love with dreamy, distorted, entrancing textures; it’s not going anywhere soon.

Chillwave or Whatever the Fuck

Though it’s slightly overshadowed by the popularity of dubstep at the moment, chillwave is a similarly retro-influenced genre with a less-hated style more more-hated name (I mean, literally, people seem to hate the word). Chillwave’s reach is a bit wider than R&B, however, and stretches through 60s pop, 80s synthpop, shoegaze, and early electronic music such as musique concrète. The genre puts all of these influences in a lo-fi blender to create a psychedelic cocktail of drowned-out beats. Chillwave artist Neon Indian, in fact, sounds just like this. There’s also Washed Out, Memory Tapesceo, Air France, and Small Black who all have their own distinct “feel” but all execute similar production techniques and hypnotically repetitive song structures.

Chillwave can be loosely associated with other psychedelic pop acts like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti as well as Panda Bear’s solo works. These acts are direct homages to 60s psychedelic pop and intentionally create a meticulous lo-fi sound in order to match the aesthetic appropriately. Ariel Pink in specific has to be one of the most dedicated artists ever to perfectly resurrect a lost sound.

70s progressive rock hanging on by a thread

One genre that manages to stick around but isn’t quite as widespread as the others is 70s progressive rock. As an unrelated aside: I detest a lot of hardcore 70s prog rock fans because so many of them seem “stuck” in the decade. I have an image in my head of someone who listens to Dark Side of the Moon on repeat all day and thinks, “Wow, music today sucks compared to this!” Really, these people are annoying as hell, but I know it’s not representative of everyone.

King Crimson and Yes are my two favorite 70s artists, but I can’t deny huge the influences on music from others like Queen, ELP, Genesis, and Brian Eno (Eno in addition to his rock influence  had a completely separate influence on electronic music through his ambient works). Artists like MGMT, Wolf Gang, Dirty Projectors, fun. (hear Queen all over that shit), and even (sigh) Foster the People to some extent all owe some debt to this decade–more so in terms of style (especially vocal delivery) rather than song structure.

I have to talk specifically to MGMT, who have collected some bad stigma since their debut. While I’m not the biggest fan of MGMT’s calculated pop hits like Kids or Electric Feel, their 2010 album “Congratulations” is an unabashed dedication to all of their many 70s-80s influences including direct references to Brian Eno and Dan Treacy (Television Personalities). “Congratulations” is a highly underrated album and really does justice to the artists they love.

70s kraut-rock artists like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream,  Neu!, and Can (who might be the most hip artist influence name-drop next to The Velvet Underground) deserve a separate, distinct respect. Their influence has been much more relevant to today’s alternative/underground music. Their innovations in electronic music as well as the entrancing rhythms of Can feel closer to home than the epic, 20-minute jam sessions from artists like Genesis. LCD Soundsystem has specifically recounted Can as a strong influence, as he also name drops them in his tune “Losing My Edge” which lists a myriad of artists from a variety of ‘dated’ genres.

The Original Frontier

Alternative country has been around for a while now (thanks Uncle Tupelo, Will Oldham) and folk has had its own underground surges through both neo-traditional folk and psychedelic folk.  I think these genres have settled into place with fans who simply love these respective genres. The popularity of these genres have plateaued. But particular artists continue to shine with strong followings including Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Tallest Man on Earth. This movement is more so populated by many, many lesser known acts circulating in local scenes. Artists like this aren’t going anywhere soon. There will always be an appreciation for them, even if it spikes up and down in popularity.

By the way, if you haven’t, check out the 2011 Wilco album “The Whole Love.” I’ve never been the biggest Wilco fan; their work become stagnant to me over the years. But with this new album they’ve made a full recovery and written some great songs with new urgency. This is perhaps is the most they’ve ever distanced themselves from country since Uncle Tupelo split (the other half going to Son Volt, which strayed far less from traditional country). The opening track sounds carries a huge amount of Radiohead influence, and elsewhere the album has many interesting nods. It’s a soothing cauldron mixed with many pop influences.

On and On and On

Through production and songwriting, plenty of artists have somewhat “retro” feel to their music. St. Vincent’s disturbingly charming “Strange Mercy” is a bizarre collage of 60s pop and dark post-punk influences. Lykke Li’s “Wounded Rhymes” follows a similar path. Cults, who’ve attracted some attention this year with their self-titled album, are clearly infatuated with 60s pop. Destroyer’s 2011 album “Kaputt” is a masterpiece combination of R&B, smooth jazz, and post-punk influences. And I almost forgot about Baroque pop artists like Belle & Sebastian, Andrew Bird, Owen Pallett, and The Decemberists–which are all revival of a similar movement from the 60s.

The point is: it’s hard to think of artists these days that don’t have some clear anchor to the past. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but the evolution of music stopped being a straight line and is now more like some kind of shifting kaleidoscope mixing new and old textures. It’s sort of a strange paradox that we have come to the point where if any artist sounds old, they also sound new. Disregarding the influence of the 90s in favor of the 80s is more up-to-date. But that fixation is not necessarily here to stay. It’ll always be in flux. A few years from now we could be talking non-stop about another grunge revival or early 90s-style indie returning, or free jazz or blues or bluegrass or Paisley Underground or Gregorian chant. Really.

OK, so what? Retro is everywhere. Big deal.

Actually, I believe “retro music” as a concept is dead because it’s outdated. The term no longer makes any sense for us. Our influences have become so ubiquitous of both time and geography that it’s become the state of things rather than an aberration. The concept is dead not because it died, but because it’s changed into something more incredible.

Thanks to the Internet (for the billionth time), the history of our culture is more easily discoverable than it has ever been. Pre-Internet, imitating a period genre such as 60s-70s bubblegum pop would require a dedicated artist who either grew up around the music or thoroughly researched the content through word of mouth, magazines, and scouring record shops. It also would require an audience aware and receptive to this homage–but fans were divided scarcely across the world. As a result, retro music was once far more distinct, intentional, and isolated from all other “new” music. It was quirky. It was time consuming for artists and fans alike to become educated and keep up. People involved were probably seen as a little crazy for attempting to facilitate this fantasy.

Today, harvesting one or more ‘retro’ influences isn’t crazy at all. It’s even become the norm in some underground circles. There are very few scenes looking to originate completely new, undiscovered musical terrain Even Animal Collective, who are admired as some of our foremost music pioneers, still harken back to the Beach Boys in key elements of their style. So many of us take this capability to have such diverse, extensive knowledge of music history. But compared to the past, the democratization of this ability is still relatively new. It’s no surprise that we’re all still so in awe of these dated genres; it’s no surprise that this fascination is imbued in almost everything we listen to.

Is this indicative of lack of innovation? Is this indicative of an uninspired generation? I don’t think so. In fact, it may be the most inspired generation of music there has ever been. Never before have so many seemingly unrelated genres and styles been splashed together in harmony. Never before have people appreciated such a wide variety of genres instead of being fixated on a single one. Never have so many artists not simply imitated their old favorites, but picked up the torch where it was left off to continue progressing the sound further, even if it was left behind 30 years ago.

I think this is the point many people miss when they complain of the state of music today — that it’s hit a wall. But evolved subgenres a strict linear “progression” isn’t born out of nothing, either. Music inspired by old genres is not imitation–it’s improvement. It’s evolution. “Retro” music can’t be interpreted as some kind of novelty anymore–unless it’s just some Guns and Roses cover band who seeks to imitate their work exactly as it was. We’re a generation of people with an appreciation and love for all music, and I believe the amount music history we’re infatuated with will grow quickly as artists continue to rediscover them and progress their sound. We’re digging up roots all over the place and shining them under new light.

80s post-punk, for example, was an incredible movement in music. While it fell out of style a bit through the 90s, its resurgence through the 00s and today is gratifying. Old fans of the genre are able to watch it continue to develop, and new fans of the genre are able to discover the classics for the first time through new artists that have claimed the proverbial torch.

The Future Sound of Music

I don’t think we’ve seen the end of isolated, distinct movements in music that are free of many influences. However, I do think we will continue to see more and more genre hybrids. And little by little as these hybrids evolve, we’ll see the shape of music change in ways we never would have expected. Artists like Pallers with their new album “Sea of Memories,” for example, have created a fresh sound out with remnants of post-punk, R&B, downtempo, electronica, and ambience. It’s combinations like this in addition to unique, personal innovation that will create music that we swear sounds familiar and new simultaneously.

Not to beat a dead horse, but as people become more and more Internet savvy, they’ll have a wider and more diverse appreciation for not only Western music, but music from all over the globe. Eastern European Folk has had a bit of a spike in popularity with artists like Beirut and A Hawk and a Hacksaw. As we become more and more globally connected, the concept of “world music” will become outdated much in the same way I’ve said “retro music” has become. I’m probably going to sound like the Borg here, but our interconnectedness will eventually permeate everything we touch. Some people are afraid of that concept, but if it’s anything like we’ve already seen, it will be beautiful. Incredibly beautiful.

Posted on November 9, 2011, in Music. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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