Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 1. The White Stripes

In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”.  But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes.  The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell  live in Jack White’s basement.  Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades.  Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city.  It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5.  The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.

Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have.  It’s a world that isn’t defined by time.  While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily  exist in the 50s just as they do in our age.  Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.

Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making.  It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point.  But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene.  In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order.  It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs.  By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.

But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility.  It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people.  Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records.  There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment.  It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound.  Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.

That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others.  In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air.  Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh.  “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.

With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years.  The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song.  White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.

The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound.  Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent.  Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well.  But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.

As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have.  The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once.  Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.

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The Ten Most Important Artists Of The Last Decade – 2. Kanye West

Kanye West begins his 2010 song Power with line: “I’m living in the 21st century, doing something mean to it, doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it,”   It’s the public personality of Kanye West put to music – a song full of boasts, and shots at his critics.  Yet, at the end of the song as the chanting and electro-rock beat that drives the song dies down, West pulls back from the egomaniac we know – and admits that death seems comforting –  “it would be a beautiful death, dropping out the window”.  It’s no surprise that West would use a choir chant as the background like he did with “Jesus Walks”.  It’s a sonic link between the struggles of earth, and ultimately salvation.

The struggle between his ego and his insecurities is at the heart of some of West’s best music – “Through the Wire”, “Jesus Walks”, “Stronger”, “Runaway” etc. Bragging has always been a favorite past-time of many rappers, and while Kanye does plenty of that – he’s not afraid to shed his skin.  There’s a reason why Kanye never took a stage name – he’s never had to create a persona.  From the outbursts to his music, Kanye is telling his audience and his critics exactly who he is.  Even the detour into his tortured psyche – 808s & Heartbreak was interesting and bold (even if it didn’t reach the heights of his previous albums.)  Even through the auto-tuned vocals, West revealed a side of himself that few rappers (and even other musicians) have dared. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band – the soundtrack to a man who’s witnessing himself spinning out of control.  Time has been kinder to this album – it’s become the blueprint for what can now considered to be “emo-rap” influencing other artists, particularly West’s protege Kid Cudi.

But what really sets West apart from other artists, is his ear for music and sound.  Sampling has always been a tool for hip-hop, but West is one of the few producers to actually master it.  Instead of just sticking a sample in the song – West uses samples from all over the music world, particularly soul that become the driving force behind his beats.  Who else would think of using “Diamonds Are Forever” as a hook?  “We Major” contains of West’s best lyrics, but it’s really constant horns that make the song truly memorable.  “All Of The Lights” is a collage of sounds (horns, weird beats, over 40 vocalists) that on paper shouldn’t work, but has already become something of a classic.   The piano of  “Runaway” (perhaps West’s best song) pulls you into his dark twisted fantasy where the douche-bags and assholes deserve toasts. This is even before the song take a left turn into 3-minutes into a mix auto-tuned vocals, distorted guitars, and violin turning the song into a perfect mix of traditional instruments, and post-modern synthetic sounds.

Throughout the past decade, West has constantly defined what records can sound like.  His latest offering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been called “the Pet Sounds of hip-hop” for its scope, vision, and sound.  His personality, he can sometimes be insufferable.  But West not only pushes himself, but all of music.  He’s a true visionary, whose influence will continue for years to come.  As West himself says, “no one man should have all that power”.

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The Ten Most Important Artists Of The Last Decade – 3. Jay-Z

Last year, Jay-Z appeared on The Daily Show to promote his book Decoded.  Jay-Z has always come off as an intelligent dude, and the excerpts I’ve read from Decoded solidified this.  What really stood out from Jay-Z’s appearance on The Daily Show, was his humbleness.  As Jon Stewart asked the questions, Jay-Z seemed shy, awkward, and out of his element.  I’ve been a fan of Jay-Z for a while, but his demeanor made me like him even more.  It was direct contrast to his rap persona – bigger than life, and untouchable.  Jay-Z has always been larger than life.   And for those brief moments on The Daily Show, he seemed human.

Many rappers tend to boast – it’s part of hip-hop culture.  When Jay-Z declared himself the “8th Wonder of the World” in “Izzo”, it seemed ridiculous.  And it is.  But the crux of the line lies in the fact that Jay-Z views himself as simply great – not just the “greatest rapper alive” (which he is.)  It’s hard to accuse him of being arrogant, when it’s true.  It reminds me of Brian Wilson listing 8 Beach Boys songs as his Top 10 Songs of all time.  Are you really going to argue?

As a rapper, Jay-Z is instantly recognizable with that deep voice.  His flow is impeccable, and legend has it that he never writes down his lyrics, and if that is the case, it’s all the more impressive.  “Moment of Clarity” remains of one of his best songs – where he takes down his critics for going mainstream – “I dumb down for my audience/And double my dollars/They criticize me for it/Yet they all yell “Holla“.

Jay-Z has always been ahead of the game, and a trend-setter.   But with his 2001 release The Blueprint, he truly became a hip-hop titan.  His rhymes were tighter, and he tore down his rivals with such ease that almost every other rapper seemed small in comparison.  The Blueprint was also significant for bringing back sampling as a hip-hop tool, eschewing the keyboard heavy sound that was prominent at the time.   It was also one of the first albums to incorporate soul samples,which has now become something of a common practice in hip-hop.   His next release, The Black Album was a slight dip in quality (though not by much).  “99 Problems” is a fusion of rock and hip-hop where Jay-Z recalls his early days, as if it remind his audience that’s still the same guy he used to be.

To some, Jay-Z tirade against auto-tune  – “D.O.A.” – may have made him seem like a cranky old man who doesn’t understand the new trends.  But rather, it cemented the fact that he still be the greatest by existing in his own world.  And when he played Glastonbury a couple years back – to Noel Gallagher’s chagrin – Jay-Z proved that he wasn’t bound by the hip-hop world.  He could draw a crowd, and put on a show that everybody loved.

Over the past decade, Jay-Z has proved time and again that as a hip-hop artist you can be huge, and still create music that is intelligent, while still maintaining street-cred.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 4. Britney Spears

Whatever you think of her, it’s hard to deny Britney Spears’ impact in the past decade.  As an artist, she has numerous hit singles that have seeped into our consciousness whether we like it or not.  As a tabloid celebrity, it’s been impossible to look away from her downward spiral.  Her antics in the mid 2000s, are the stuff of legend.  She’s a 21st century Marilyn Monroe – a hyper-sexualized mild talent, who is naive enough to generate sympathy from her critics.

It was hard to escape songs by The Backstreet Boys, and N’sync in the early 2000s even if you wanted to.  Even before she became a house-hold name, Spears rose above the rest.  Most of this had to do with the infamous “Baby One More Time” video.  With a walk down a school hall-way and a Catholic School Uniform, Britney declared herself queen of the pop-world before she was 18.  It’s one of the last videos to be a significant event.  And even for pop the song itself was actually quite good – as proved by the numerous covers by artists outside of the pop world.

Even if she had never put out another single, Spears would still be remembered.  But she kept going, establishing herself as a pop juggernaut, not seen since Madonna.  At Britney’s height there were numerous women pop stars – Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera – but none of them were even in competition with Spears.  Not even close.  And while her peers attempted to label themselves – Aguilera the one who could sing, Simpson the virgin – Britney Spears was simply Britney Spears.  Eventually, if you said the name Britney – you meant Britney Spears.

Like many of her songs,  “Oops I Did It Again” the sexual undertones were at the forefront.  But the title also seemed to suggest she seemed perplexed that she was still there, even bigger than before.  When she kissed Madonna on the lips at the Video Music Awards – which sent many men and women too in a frenzy for various reasons – it was more than sexual.  Madonna officially handed her over her crown to Spears through the kiss.  For years even the most cynical music fans tried to ignore Spears.  Then there was “Toxic” – the song that even music snobs had to admit was really, really good.  It was catchy and weird, and you couldn’t get those synthesized violins out of your head.  The little girl who danced around a high school, had truly grown up in front of our eyes.

Spears seemed to go out of fashion musically in the latter part of the decade.  Her troubles got the best of her.  She was crazy, and seemed destined to self-destruct.  There were still album and singles from her, but none of them seemed to have the same impact.  In the meantime, other female pop-artists took up her mantle and captured audiences imagination.  And once again, her peers tended to label themselves.  Katy Perry – the cute tease, Lady Gaga – the weird art pop-artist, and Kesha – the trashy party girl.

When Spears announced that she would be releasing a new album earlier this year, critics and fans wondered if she would be able to compete with Lady Gaga, pop’s latest reigning queen.  No need to worry though. Unlike Christina Aguilera who desperately tried to reinvent herself with last year’s Bionic, Spear came back with Femme Fatale and boldly declared: “I am Britney Spears, and I am pop.”

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The 10 Most Important Artists of the Last Decade – 5. Danger Mouse

Like Phil Spector, George Martin, and Brian Eno, Danger Mouse has elevated into a realm that few producers have.  He’s created a unique sound for different artists and bands, while managing to become a star in his own right.  Dabbling in indie rock, hip-hop, and soul-pop, Danger Mouse has constantly pushed the boundaries of what modern can sound like.

In the past decade, he’s produced and worked with such artists as the Black Keys, Beck, Gorillaz, James Mercer of the Shins, and of course Gnarls Barkley, his own band with Cee Lo Green.  And none of these projects have sounded alike, partly because Danger Mouse doesn’t force his own philosophy and ideals onto his collaborators.  Rather he finds a particular sound that suits the artist while still blending his own dark soul-pop.  Unlike other super producers, Danger Mouse creates a sound that is dense and atmospheric, while still being sparse.  Even without Cee Lo’s paranoid lyrics, “Crazy” manages to be dark and foreboding with little instrumentation.

Danger Mouse first gained attention with the The Grey Album (the mash-up between Jay-Z’s Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album).  It should have been a novelty item – let’s face it most of these projects are.  Yet, there is a respect and knowledge for both artists that very of these project have.  “99 Problems” is given more bite when the screaming guitars and bounding drums of “Helter Sketler” teeter out of control underneath the lyrical rage of Jay-Z.  “Moment of Clarity” is even more poignant when it is driven by the opening riff of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”.

While Gnarls Barkley is mostly known for their monster hit “Crazy” (which Rolling Stone named the best song of the decade) the rest of St. Elsewhere is a minor masterpiece of funk, soul-pop, indie rock, and general weirdness. On the surface, Cee Lo’s soulful voice is the driving force behind the album , particularly on “Crazy” where comes off as both sympathetic and slightly insane. But the combination is deceiving it’s not really a dance-album – the production is too sparse for that.  And it’s not exactly indie-rock either.  Rather Gnarls Barkley is the sound of two men who are not bound by any particular genre – and simply creating music they like.

And that seems to be Danger Mouse’s credo.

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The 10 Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 6. The Strokes

(I apologize for the lack of updates, especially in the middle of a list, but I was sick for over a week.  So I promise, I’ll finish the remaining artists in a much quicker pace.)

I can’t remember when I first heard of The Strokes.  It was probably sometime in the summer of 2001 when they just starting to explode, and their debut Is This It was creating a firestorm in the rock world.  Although I like Is This Is It? now, I decided before I even heard The Strokes, I decided that they would be a band that would annoy me.  The hype surrounding them just seemed too much.  I had already experienced that with Nirvana, only to find out once you actually listen to the records and take away the the hype – the band was really just mediocre at best.

It wasn’t until 2003 when I actually first heard a Strokes song.  A friend of mine made me a Mix CD and it contained both “Last Night” and “Someday”.   While I found “Last Night” to be a pretty good song, it was really “Someday” that caught my attention.  Julian Casablancas sang in a way that felt disconnected and insincere, yet somehow still managed to connect with the listener even if his voice was buried in the mix.  Musically, I thought the song was really interesting.  It seemed like a ballad, but the beat was extremely fast and propelling.  One guitar played a single note repeatedly throughout the verses, and while the other almost veered out of control.  Not too long after, I went out and got Is This It? and quickly became hooked.  Two years later, I had discovered what everybody else already knew: The Strokes were the coolest and best rock and roll band in over a decade.

Looking back, it seems odd that this little album could have such a profound effect on the music world.  There are no grand gestures on the album.  Each song is a perfectly little garage-rock gem.  If anything the only criticism you could make about the album is that The Strokes tried a little too hard to be cool and sound like The Velvet Underground.

But The Strokes aren’t important because Is This It? blew up, or because they both looked and acted cool.  With Is This It? The Strokes proved in an era of boy-bands and stream-lined pop, that rock and roll could still exist – and that it was still vital.  There was still some life left it in it.  And ten years later, it still sounds as fresh and vital upon its initial release (even if I didn’t listen to it until years later.)  Modern rock had become stale, and with grunge artists seemed to take their work and themselves too seriously.  The Strokes bought back some of the fun back in rock and roll, by not caring.  Even if the Strokes were known for their partying image, they didn’t seem to care about that either.  “Fuck going to that party,” Casablancas would later declare, in “12:51” the first single off their sophomore effort, Room on Fire.

Though garage-rock had been around for decades, The Strokes were the ones that blew the door open for it to become mainstream just as Nirvana “broke punk” some ten years before.  Lo-fi suddenly became the new standard for young bands starting out.  Bands such as The Hives and Jet would never have gotten the attention that they did without The Strokes.  Even Kings of Leon, who came out a year or two after The Strokes were unofficially billed as “the southern Strokes”.

While Is This It? remains essential, The Strokes have yet to live up to its (and the audiences) expectations since.  I’ve yet to figure out whether they’ve tried too hard or too little since their debut.

On another note, I also think that any self-respecting hipster owes The Strokes a huge debt.  They made skinny jeans, ray-bands and a smug attitude popular outside of New York.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade – 7. Radiohead

I’ve gone on record as stating that I don’t really like Radiohead, and I still stand by that statement.  With the exception of a few songs here and there, I find the band to be pretentious and boring.  I’m sure that I’m going to get flamed by Radiohead fans for suggesting this.  However, for as much disdain I have for the band, it’s hard to rule out their significance in the past decade.

Kid A is regarded as a classic now, so it’s kind of hard to look back in retrospect and see how wild and what a risk it was.  True, OK Computer was a left-turn from the guitar rock of The Bends and Pablo Honey. But it was nothing compared to the cold electronic atmosphere that permeated the surface of Kid A.  Somehow an album without a single track that closely resembled any real songs, managed to not only become a critical favorite, but also a hit.  Radiohead managed to do the unthinkable: make avant-garde and experimental music popular.   Bowie, Lou Reed, and Kraftwerk had been put out similar sounding albums throughout their career, but none of those albums managed to sink in through the public consciousness.  From Kid A on, it became clear that Radiohead were blowing out the normal rules out what a popular rock band could do and sound like.  So it’s no surprise that their fans are some of the most militant in existence – take a shot at Radiohead and you clearly don’t understand music.

Of course, Radiohead’s biggest influence over the past decade might not even be musical.  By deciding to release their 2007 album, In Rainbows over the internet letting fans decide how much an album was worth, the band sent a ripple effect through the industry whose waves are still being felt almost four years later.  Many bands have written songs about how terrible their contracts are, and some artists have even sued their record companies.  But Radiohead’s move was the ultimate “fuck you”.   They basically told the companies that they are no longer in charge, and that they have no say in how much music is worth, and how it should be distributed.

Since then, many big artists have tried similar moves – Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins in particular.  While those albums haven’t quite had the same impact as In Rainbows, it’s clear that artists have been inspired by Radiohead’s bold move.  The old model is gone, and Radiohead are the ones leading the charge.  It still doesn’t mean I have to like them, though.

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