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  While I know that the content is already on-line, and by now a little out-of-date, what is dated is still timely at this point in the year.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 WallumrĂžd 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.