Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review--Forging the Musical Cliff

It is now the end of another arbitrary period--a year--just 365 days--passed, and past, ready to be put in the "record books."  And it is time to reflect again on these days past as we head into the uncertainty and the promise of a new year.  Once again, I completed the yearly adventure of finding the year-end issue of Billboard to help record and summarize the year past.  The tradition has been going on almost since the beginning of the rock era, but it is becoming more of a challenge, as other music publications fall away.  This year, I called the ever-smaller number of book stores, and shrinking newsstands, and finally located a hard copy of an even-glossier and more pop-oriented publication that continues to struggle to stave off extinction.  While I know that the content is already on-line, and by now a little out-of-date, what is dated is still timely at this point in the year.

Time is an odd concept that comes into greater focus at the end of the year.  It has set the limit for a start to a so-called "fiscal cliff," while two of our branches of government struggle to find a new or old solution. But in music, time is fuzzier and more continuous; it's a theme that challenged many of our more established  artists and groups--Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen all toured (in the Stones case, a little anyway) and all put out decent new albums or a decent new song (in the case of the Stones again) that were generally traditional, yet seemed to fit today's themes, and were essentially  timeless. 

But time especially challenged the reunited version of another 50th anniversary group, the Beach Boys, as they struggled to rewunite, only to re-split after much of their tour was completed.  Their live performance was finely tuned and well-harmonized and very enjoyable and even energetic with the many songs they performed.  But it seemed especially odd and ironic for this group with youth-themed beach, car, and school song, now in their 60s or 70s were singing "Be True to Your School" or "When I Grow Up to Be a Man."  In their own words, "it won't last forever," but it almost did.  Their new album "That's Why God Made the Radio" had a mixture of timeless and timed-out songs, but the title track had that classic Beach Boy set of ingredients for celebrating the eternal summer of youth, and that's what they did in their 50th Anniversary tour.

The dying ember of print media's time is even more fragile than the music of this time--as newspaper fight on in abbreviated manners, the magazine that once illuminator of news, music, and sports was even more dated and dying as the printed Newsweek faded into it last printed edition as a newsweekly, just as Life and so many others had faded before it.  This was the year, that I found the music publication Word--but just a little late, as it too faded out of print into wordlessness.  And Spin also seems to have come to a stop and left the printed scene.  While others like Filter, and Off the Radar, stay alive, along with the rebirth of the cultural iconic magazine, Arthur.  And still from across the sea, Mojo, Q, and Uncut continue their printed runs, with their interesting take on past, present and future music, while providing free cds. 

And so the musical tale of rock and roll goes on and on, as its business model continues to break apart and evolve and sputter, caught in receding world of bricks and mortar and the printed paged physical world, as parts of what was once the key elements of our real world fade away teetering on the virtual brink of extinction with nary a crutch holding them up and keeping them alive for another year. The music industry still tries to right itself with new models of streaming, You Tube-ary, and some royalties, but it is still in an evolutionary period of spinning into ever-changing new forms. 

Times waits for no one as we put behind us another year, and we file away the sounds and themes to mark it and commemorate it so that it that may reappear in later years unharmed.  It will be rediscovered and sampled and evolved back into new music as the rock process continues through time.  Some 
things continue to get better as making complex music and distributing it gets simpler and more available to all. And as we can stream everyone's top 40 or top 100 songs and albums of the week, month, year endlessly on the Internet. 

Every year and it's music has its own adventure and character.  And this year is no different, as the music industry has also been falling away and declining, and there are new tools for streaming, making new sounds, mashing, and mixing, and new genres magically appear while we rediscover some of the old and weathered sounds too.  So once again this year was a mixture of the past, present, and future, in this remarkable, swirling cauldron of sights and sounds. While this may be another year in which "rock just spun its wheels," it continued its dazzle and reinvention in new and interesting ways.

Last year was the timeless year of a well-voiced
Adele, and this year she continued her popularity, but she left room for many others, some of whom became popular almost exclusively through the web.  The ear worm song of the spring was Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" which spread through the world quickly and painlessly and effortlessly reached and stayed at Number 1 on the charts for many a week.  In the summer "Call Me Maybe" by the Canadian singer-songwriter, Carly Rae Jepsen went viral.  While the song was overplayed everywhere, it had a well-constructed freshness that made it almost tolerable.  Speaking of overplayed and overhyped, we had Lana Del Rey, who hit the charts at the end of last year and spread viral-ly with her "Video Games."  It was catchy and held some promise of legitimate stardom until Lana's fateful "not ready for prime time" turn on Saturday Night Live, when her thin-voiced vocals let the air out and pierced the promise of her star-making machinery balloon.  This was also the year that Jack Rose, finally got part of his due as a talented and lamented guitarist, but that is only some of the history.

My personal top ten or so includes the aforementioned Dylan with his "Tempest," a musical play that is soaked in tradition; Cohen's "Old Ideas," which is just what it is (although well done old ideas); and the Beach Boys, new old album of the summer.  On the newer side is Grimes' "Visons," an electronic cotton candy conconction, Frank Ocean's open and expansive "Channel Orange,"  Tame Impala's Austrodelic "Lonerism," Sharon Van Etten's well-crafted "Tramp," First Aid Kit's sweet and simple, "The Lion's Roar," and the Lumineers' pleasant-minded eponymous album.  With a new lease on life, I also enjoyed David Byrne and St. Vincent's work as a duo on "Love This Giant" and Donald Fagen's jazzy "Sunken Condos."  Close by were albums by Divine Fits, and Django Django's adventorous eponymous album. 

Bubbling up under the Top Ten or so were the talents of Sarah Jaffe, Anna Ternheim, and Hannah Cohen, and Susanna Wallumrød passing herself off as Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.  I also enjoyed Julia Stone's talented "By the Horns,"  the innovative Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, Bat for Lashes' "The Haunted Man, "the Orphan Twins, Air Traffic Controller, the Weepies, Sea of Is, the Tiny Vipers, Jesse Ware,  K'naan, steampunk band, Abney Park, Ellen Berrys' "Look at Me," Ludovico Einaudi, Margot and the nuclear so and sos, Augustina's "Boston, " Passenger's "Let Her Go," Thea Gilmore, Michael Kiwanuka's soulful "I'm Getting Ready," and the ultimate rockabilly of J.D. McPherson in his "North Side Gal."  It was a good year for Taylor Swift, but she was Nashville's loss and pop's gain, but the TV version of Nashville introduced us to Striking Matches' beautiful "When The Right One Comes Along."

The rock music was joined by its companion literature movement which must be mentioned before we bring the year to a close.  After Keith set the stage for biographies, well-received books were prodcued by Peter Townsend, and Neil Young, and they were joined by David Byrnes' exploration of "How Music Works" and Sylvie Simmons' engrossing and well-researched "I'm Your Man," the life and times of Leonard Cohen. 

And so, another crazy mixed up year in rock and roll comes to a close and is now in the record books--just in the nick of yes, time.  Time, that creature of our mind, that is just where we started and end for now.  While I continue to look in the new year for more adventure and more artistic genre bending and time bending music, this is a good place to stop and put a bookmark in the year behind.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Music and Life

When a friend asked on Facebook what music performer, song, or words had the most impact on your life, I jumped into the breach, since it was a great topic, but at the same time, it gave me great pause. The friend's picks were Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who would be near the top of my list too.  But so would the Beatles, as a group and individually, and so would the Stones, Beach Boys, and the Kinks, and many other groups already named in response to his post

In reality, there are literally thousands of artists and groups near the top of my list, because I love to listen to my favorites and to also discover new favorites. I love many kinds (and genres) of music and love to combine them and break through them, as well. Music for me is a world of disc-overies (a small pun intended) built to help with and enhance any mood and any joy, and any problem and any solution. It is never static and always being remade and reinvented in the way that Bob Dylan is always reinventing and remaking each of his songs in concert. Dylan, supposedly, never listens to recorded versions of his songs because they are only a version at one point in time. 

To get back to the question, music as a dynamic and creative form of art is what has had a great impact on my life.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Life As a Government Official

This is a fable that is sometimes (and maybe most times) true; I was a government official who advised some of our political and non-political officials and staffs with a calm that often attacked (and sometimes) tamed the semi-wilderness chaos of overwork, endless issues, sometimes ragged emotions, and frayed nerves.  The official tried to apply his calm and experience of many years, too many to count, in a non-partisan way to help solve the numbers of knotty problems that he faced in multiples of e-mails, calls, and meetings every day and night.

The calm helped (at times) bring order to the chaos of the political and non-political tensions and sensations of an election year, and the before and after.  The calm of friendliness and a sense of humor often kept the atmosphere light, and made it a little easier to solve problems, because they became a little softer and less rigid.  He filled the meetings and calls with smiles and laughter, and helped bring to try to bring peace to all of the floors of his building and outside of the building as he greeted the passersby of history who endlessly toured the city of government and monuments on foot, on buses, bicycles and segways (which is a good transition into the timelessness of a government center that always has a job to do, solving the peoples' problems and issues).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Memories of Times Squared: Dick Clark and Levon Helms

So, we lost two giants of the worlds of music.  One was the eternal teenager who made it acceptable for the music of youth to be heard and danced to in the late fifties and early sixties and beyond.  Unlike Alan Freed, who was more of a pioneer of rock, Dick Clark was a moderator of rock who stood behind the bandstand and took the music and culture to the next level and made adults feel safe and easy with the rock of their otherwise rebellious sons and daughters.  He was the trusted adult for the kids who he looked like and showcased in clean but not pulsating fun. He gave them a sense of power as they rated the records on their beat and whether they could dance to them. 

He made a fortune from the rock of others and rode the purified Billies and Lillies, and Rydells, Avalons and Fabians as the next cleaned up versions of Elvis to the top of a Pat Boonized world.  He skated through the allegations of payola while Freed got tripped and trapped and died from its clutches.  The Times did a piece on this at

Dick Clark rode the wave of eternal youth into the celebration of time passages and new beginnings, hosting the eternal New Year Eves in Times Square.  He did make Times Stand Still and Square, and acceptable.

Levon Helm also battled time as he led the Weight and the Band through time as a throwback to an earlier era of a more innocent, earthy rock than backed Dylan the trusted troubador as he shed his folk-skinned roots to become a folk rocker who was booed at first as a traitor, and then became a rocker who was cheered on his endless tour.  Levon's pure voice seemed eternally young until he was ravaged by cancer, but he fought back and survived and came back to lead celebrations of song at Woodstock, and then on the road, and even to Wolf Trap.  His comeback and curtain calls were a celebration of life and a simpler rock music that was timeless and comfortable and attractive to all ages, until he could run against and throwback time no longer.  

Time comes in all shapes and sizes, and Jennifer Egan examined time in front of a packed auditorium at the Arlington Library, as she talked about and read from her prize-winning Goon Squad episodes.  She went off in each chapter not bound by time to celebrate a new character and a different time.  Her Sasha's stealing epidemic shone a light on the givers and the takers of this life, as she borrowed objects from others' lives and times, and then tabled them in her apartment bathed in a kitchen of borrowed time and possessions that she took and possessed, but did not own except for a time. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rock, Roll, and Remember (Substitute Revolution)

I remember it well, twenty or so years ago, a rock critic/teacher at a Smithsonian course in the history of rock and roll remarked that true rock and roll is a revolution of sound, turmoil, the swirling sounds of the underworld, the music of the underdog. With its roots in the jazz, the blues, and country, it was the sound of the those who hadn't made it to the so-called professions; it was the music of the truck drivers, the factory workers, the lonely, the misplaced, the unemployed, or the underemployed. It was wild and untamed, the music that was not played in polite company, on commercial TV, on commercials. It was the sound of rebellious teens, the rolled in the t-shirted James Dean, the hip, the rebels, the down and outs in the straight and narrow 50s, and into the rebellious sixties and early seventies. Back then, classical music was the sound of the privileged, the well-dressed, the upper class, the professions.

So, where are we now, spin ahead twenty years. Rock is the plaything of the corporate, the conglomerate, it entertains the millionaires, it has the corporate sponsors, there are special concerts for investors, and their friends in chic music halls that used to host classical music. Fans pay thousands for special concert packages, complete with access and swag and all else that glitters and is gold. Rock has its glitzy shows and packaged sounds, struggling for its next successful business model and encompassing all that it was once was not.

It is rare when a reunited Van Halen plays a concert "[r]emoved from their stadium-sized pedestal and placed on the foot-high stage, David Lee Roth, Eddie and Alex Van Halen seemed to be reduced to their key elements as a blues-rock power trio." The Times report is at:

It is a treat when a rock troubador plays a free acoustic concert for a protest group. It still happens and that it is when it seems to be the true rock and roll that it once was, still surviving way under the glitz of the corporate rock that has come to dominate--away from the glitz, just playing the music for what it does to the artist and the listener. It needs no costumes, stadium glitz, or any explosives, or any millionaire greed--it is just rock 'n roll after all.

Rock of old, rock of now gone underground--that is where some of the classical music seems to be headed now, striving for an audience, exploring new sounds, trying new things, doing more free shows, workshops, getting the message out to the people--artist and the listener. That is what Alex Ross wrote about in his review of the year in classical music, in his blog the Rest is Noise, at:

While"[t]here’s no denying that classical music routinely serves as an ornament for extreme wealth," it is also becoming relevant again, taking up "a more enlightened stance," a way for the music and the art to survive.

And so it is, much of the rock world labors on listlessly for its corporate sponsors in a bloated state, while classical music thins out and becomes an exploration of themes of our day including war and civil disobedience and gets out of its genre and explores new areas to play and partner with, even reaching out to its once enemy, rock, to survive. Both search for a successful business model as we are spoiled by the onrush of free information and music and accessibility on the Internet, but one seems to be seeking its meaning in life and music, and the other is over amplified, glitzy and fat with excess and the rest is noise.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 in Review--Stalking the Wild Billboard

It has been every year since '55. Towards the end of the arbitrary period, a year, just 365 days, I try to buy the year end issue of Billboard and whatever other periodical has a good year in review issue. In some years, it was also Cashbox, Record World, and Radio and Records, and the Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" issue, and some British music publication--Uncut, Q, or Mojo. Lately, for the last few years at least, it has been harder and harder to find Billboard, while many of the other American competitors have dropped away altogether.

The adventure of finding Billboard, has been almost as exciting as reading the year end issue; when it is ultimately found, it is almost anti-climatic. This year the adventure included a number of calls to the reduced number of book stores, and newsstands, a few false leads and wasted trips, which were not entirely wasted because of the nice helpful people I met along the way. And ultimately there was success, at an out-of-the-way newsstand that is barely surviving sitting almost undercover in a well-traveled part of town.

And there it was--a big glossy oversized reality in a declining world of print media, when we have many other less physical outlets for satisfying our year end fix. It has become glossier in design and taste and more pop-oriented in an effort to attract more of a crowd in this dying ember of printed time. And so on the tale goes, the adventure of fighting the growing receding distance of the printed page in the physical world as parts of the real world fade away teetering on the virtual brink of extinction with nary a crutch holding it up and alive for another year. On the other hand, some things have gotten better in this era of virtual reality. I used to have to stay up on new year's eve or new year's day to hear the top 40 or top 100 on the radio--now the top songs of the year seem always available as they stream endlessly on Internet.

So, into the abyss of another year past we go, and with it we take the sounds and themes to mark it and commemorate it that may reappear in later years to rediscover. Every year and it's music has its own adventure and character. And this year is no different, even though the music industry has also been falling away and in decline, and the streaming world is bulking up in new sounds, new mashing, new mixes, new genres, and rediscovering some of the old and weathered sounds too. So this year was a mixture of the past, present, and a mashing view of the future, in this remarkable, swirling cauldron of sights and sounds. The NY Times called it a year "when rock just spun its wheels," but it continued to dazzle and reinvent itself in new and interesting ways, even while the business model of music kept out of sight.

Timeless and floating to the top was the delightfully voiced,
Adele, with her prime "21" cuts of a fine British voice reinterpreting American blue-eyed, and soft and velvety sounding soul. Her confections like the never-tiring "Rolling In The Deep" are a very pleasant almagm of new and old sounds that always sound fresh out of the box, standing alone ahead of her imitators. And then there is Birdie, a possible British imitator who covers sounds of newies and oldies, such as the luscious "Skinny Love" in another soft-soaked approach that also engages you in the fresh and deep. Florence and The Machine had a successful follow-up album "Ceremonials," which was a timeless wonder that should expand her audiences.

Almost as long as I have been searching for Billboard, there has been the lost tapes of the
Beach Boys, which finally came together in the release of the legendary "Smile," which is dated in the late 60s but sounds fresh and traditional with the still-experimental mixing of voices and sounds. The past also came up in Paul Simon's "So Beautiful or What" which consisted of finely-crafted, tuneful songs that fell pleasantly on the ears in a worldly wise way. For more timeless classics, we got a new/old entry from Tom Waits, "Bad As Me," celebrating the seamy underside of life in decline, and Steve Cropper, celebrating the music of the 50s Five Royales in "Dedicated." There were also the perennial pop country sounds of Miranda Lambert, and Pistol Annies, her harmonious side project, and Lady Antebellum, which contributed "Need You Now" as one of this year's anthems for capturing the loneliness or desperation of life extremely well as rock once did.

Leaving shades of the past behind, we are well tuned to the year 2011 with the adventurous sound of TUnE-yArDs or Merrill Garbus
with "w h o k i l l." Her war painted-faced music has its unexpected starts and rough spots of sound collages that flow or are shaped in a fluid junkyard-like manner, unleashed in a world of sound of afrobeats and percussion of all kinds, and varied voices, which alternately croon, chirp, and yelp in raw emotion to pointed and often sophisticated lyrics. It's both a strange and warm, alien and native sound. There was also an auspicious debut from budding starlet Lana Del Ray, who had the jewel of sexiness, "Video Games." Another interesting new styled entry is from Mexican singer, Ximena Sariñana, whose first English-language eponymous effort comes less than three years after her Spanish-language debut, and unlike many crossover attempts, little is lost in the translation, and she contributes a quirky and bouncy talent, mixing pop and indie forms seamlessly. There were also impressive outings from PJ Harvey, with "Let England Shake," M83 with the value-packed "Hurry Up we're Dreaming," Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto," James Blake's eponymous album, Foster the People "Pumped Up Kicks," and Girls's ambitious "Listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost."

The sounds of 2011 further soften with Bon Iver whose also eponymous album sounded a lushly sweet note for the year. A group of folk-oriented groups also really impressed this year--led by the breakthrough effort by Laura Marling - "A Creature I Don't Know," the follow up by Fleet Foxes -"Helplessness Blues," The Decemberists – "The King Is Dead," The War on Drugs- "Slave Ambient," Smoke Fairies- "Through Low Light and Trees," Wailin' Jennies- "Bright Morning Stars," and Gillian Welch's- "From the Harrow and the Harvest."

Also deserving of honorable mention are the following: Feist- “Metals,” Shabazz Palaces- “Black Up,” Eleanor Friedberger- “Last Summer,” Real Estate- “Days,” and St. Vincent- "Strange Mercy."

And so another year end in review closes out as we lurch forward into the world of musical discovery already in progress. I continue to look for artistic genre bending and found some in the music of Gabriel Prokofiev, and in the delicious mixture of world and classical sounds in
"Chamber Music," from Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal. I also found the mixing in a top 100 list from jazz writer, Ted Gioia, which bends and brakes and crosses the genres. It is at: He sums up the year as "[e]ven as music becomes more omnipresent and accessible, new barriers prevent listeners from hearing the most talented and creative artists." It is a good place to stop and put a bookmark in the year for future ease of finding.