Predicting the course of the music industry is like trying to beat back the rising tide with a stick. You might have good intentions, you might be well-informed, you might have truth and justice on your side. But the tide will rise, and all your grand ideas are going to get good and wet.
Asserting laws as constants to something so often fleeting and ephemeral is fruitless. It is, however, natural to hope that popular music will become deeper and more meaningful, even as we acknowledge the fact that not all of it needs to be so. There will always be room for the innocuous and lovable pop hit. Still, there is an identifiable trend toward diversity and substance in music today, even as the upper echelons of the pop charts remain packed with pabulum.
Following is a compendium of artists and bands likely to turn heads in the coming months. This doesn't necessarily mean any of these folks are going to strike commercial gold. Some of them, to varying degrees, already have. All of them deserve attention, and all are indicative of the closest thing to a trend in popular music today.
Looking back, 2005 wasn't a bad year. The music fan needn't have looked too far to find something worth the investment of their time and money. But, in the words of Franz Ferdinand, one of the more interesting bands to break over the past two years, "You could have it so much better."
Here are a few artists to keep your eye on in '06.
The band, formed and led by former Mercury Rev drummer Jimy Chambers, released the brilliant "Heavy Wish" this past year, toured a substantial amount and began making a name for itself outside of Buffalo, where it's widely regarded as near brilliant. It would be a crime if Odiorne didn't break through to greener pastures in 2006. There is clearly a market for the band's left-leaning, esoteric and dynamic sound, which might appeal to folks who are well convinced that "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," not "Dark Side of the Moon," is the quintessential Pink Floyd album.
How about a tour opening for the Arcade Fire, or a spot on some hipster-packed European festival, say "All Tomorrow's Parties"? Yes, we've kept Odiorne to ourselves for far too long.
>Antony & the Johnsons
The British rock press needs bibs to handle the prodigious amounts of drool inspired by this New York City band, led by one Antony Hegarty, born -- naturally enough -- in England, but raised in California and Manhattan. The Brits immediately glommed onto Antony's theatrical delivery -- torch song drama, akin to Bryan Ferry channeling Nina Simone, with a touch of Soft Cell and various other '80s synth-pop drama kings.
The album "I Am a Bird Now" topped many year-end "best of" lists in 2005, and for a sophomore effort, it is indeed impressive. Though Antony -- counting as an early supporter Lou Reed, who enrolled the singer to perform his "Perfect Day" on the "Raven" album -- might be a bit too camp to be embraced by the mainstream public, there is something extremely compelling about his late-night, twilit, ethereal delivery. The group might not crack the Billboard Top 10, but it is sure to be talked about at length in the new year.
McKay broke in 2004, based on the strength of her incredibly ambitious debut, "Get Away From Me." But this year she deserves to proceed a few paces further on the game board. "Pretty Little Head," out this month, finds McKay deepening the hues of her broadly stroked art, which encompasses everything from piano ballad pop to Kurt Weill strangeness to hip-hop. Fiercely independent, politically outspoken and already a thorn in the side of her major-label bosses, whom McKay has slogged in print repeatedly, McKay seems earmarked for the "difficult independent-minded artist" bin.
But if enough people hear her music while in the proper frame of mind, she could deservedly be as big as Fiona Apple or Tori Amos.
>Mark Norris and the Backpeddlers
After Girlpope disbanded last year, Norris began writing and demoing new tunes in a more subdued, folk- and alt-country-based mode. But he's a Kinks lover at heart, and the marriage of garage-rock and the above influences came to full fruition when Norris began working with members of the Old Sweethearts under the Backpeddlers umbrella.
Expect a debut record by summer. The material is quite strong and suggests that there's a sizable audience out there for Norris' smart, literate, tuneful song craft.
Benson has been around for a decade, but he has remained buried in the underground. That can't last; 2005's "The Alternative to Love" suggested an alternative to boring corporate radio rock with its estimable power-pop charms and Sloan/Todd Rundgren/Big Star-like rough-hewn beauty. If Benson lands an opening spot on the right tour, this could be his year.
Brothers Lillian, Eve and Bosh Berlin, and pal Cory Becker, erupted from St. Louis a few years back, but hit their stride in '05 with "Ahead of the Lions," a record Spin magazine called "One of the most ferocious straight-ahead rock albums since (Nirvana's) 'Nevermind.' " An interesting suggestion, but Living Things doesn't sound Seattle at all. Rather, the group revels in a Stooges/Dead Boys stew that suggests a Detroit/Cleveland/New York locale.
Interestingly, vocalist Lillian brings political criticism to bear on these taut, greasy rock celebrations. Riffs galore and plenty of swagger, plus an album cover packed with inside-jokey Rolling Stones references, combine to great effect on "Lions." And, not surprisingly, the British are already all over these guys.
This trio should be Buffalo's entry in this year's jam-band sweepstakes, which is even more exciting since they aren't technically a jam band at all. I hear as much Can and Neu! influence in their spacious instrumentals as anything else, but the deep, indelible grooves and ability to improvise should endear these guys to the Bonaroo set. Another Buffalo band that deserves much more than local adulation.
>The Magic Numbers
Already critical darlings, the Numbers stand poised to claim a broad following this year. The band's sound is idiosyncratic but friendly, blending pop smarts and diversity, sounding at one moment like a great '70s power-pop band, at the next like a skittish New Wave ensemble, and still later like some intoxicating blend of both. At once heartwarmingly familiar and bravely contemporary.
A San Francisco art-rock band that has about as much chance of landing a mainstream commercial hit as John Cage, Deerhoof is making some of the most interesting music that might broadly be conceived of as "pop" out there. The recent "Milk Man" came down heavier on the melody side of the "noise-melody" quotient and was all the more powerful for it. In a perfect world, this brave music wouldn't freak people out, but would instead reward their investment. Pop this one in your iPod, pal; ecstasy awaits.
Leslie Feist's "Let it Die" was one of the finest records of 2005. Her opening slot on the recent Bright Eyes tour exposed her to a new audience. Another tour slot like that one, and Feist could be on her way to international success, at least of the sizable cult variety. A fantastic singer and unique songwriter.
>The Arcade Fire
Yes, this band already broke in a fairly major way in 2005. But 2006 should find the easily digestible art-rock sound of the band reaching more and more people. Anthemic enough to cross over, the Arcade Fire's songs deserve a mainstream audience and, this year, will likely earn the band one.