It’s commonplace for music lovers who have reached a certain age to begin tossing around adages like “There’s no great music anymore, the best stuff is all in the past,” and so forth. I’m not buying it. There’s perhaps more great music being made now than ever before.
All that has really changed is the mode of dissemination. You have to dig through an awful lot of overgrown branches and brambles to get to the clearing.
Navigating the digital terrain can be tricky, though. There is no one connective zeitgeist any more, a la popular music’s close ties to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Things won’t necessarily jump right out at you. You’ve gotta dig. If you only scratch the surface, and your standards are high and your tastes well-developed, you might not get the whole picture. Case in point: Donald Fagen of Steely Dan – a brilliant songwriter schooled in jazz harmony – posted a free-form diary via RollingStone.com during last week’s Coachella Festival, at which Steely Dan performed. Fagen was less than impressed by most of what he saw and heard.
“Like the previous Friday, most of the music I heard was in the c. 1965 Dylanesque mode, minus genius or anything like that,” Fagen wrote. “I’ve been hearing this stuff for more than a half-century and it’s getting pretty dreary. Jeez, that’s how I started out, more or less. I’m sure some of these guys don’t even know they’re doing early Bob. At least hip-hop, which is tough for me to listen to, has got a few genuine eccentrics with street energy and something to say. But wouldn’t it be great to hear something as lively as, like, George Clinton, or Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’?”
Fagen is not entirely wrong, of course. But Fagen sounds a bit like an out-of-touch crank, too. Flying Lotus, Tame Impala, Ryan Adams and St. Vincent all played Coachella, and all of them have released superlative work. Fagen might not be able to relate to hip-hop, but if he heard Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” album, he’d certainly recognize much of the burning jazz that underpins the album.
I’ve compiled a list of new releases that, I suspect, would pass Fagen’s test as energetic, eccentric, and in some cases, downright visionary music. Taken together, these albums belie the suggestion that “There’s no good music anymore.”
Mew, “+-” (April 27). Denmark’s Mew has perfected the art of alt/indie rock that is capable of being at once spacious and ethereal and rooted in rock-solid reality. I clocked the advance stream of “+-,” and it is both grandiose and immaculately structured.
My Morning Jacket, “The Waterfall” (May 4). This band is hitting a major peak, and the advance buzz on “The Waterfall” suggests that this will be an epic affair. Just in time for this summer’s Artpark appearance.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, “Live in Paris” (May 5). One of the coolest indie bands of the past 15 years, for my money. And as anyone who caught the band at the Tralf several years back will attest, one of the most powerful live bands going. A live album from BRMC is most welcome.
Todd Rundgren, Lindstrom & Emil Nikolaison, “Rundans” (May 5). This collaboration consists of one multi-art composition spread across two sides of vinyl – or one long digital file, one supposes. I’ve heard most of it, and it is bloody brilliant, and quite likely an album that will appeal to fans of Rundgren’s most progressive and psychedelic music.
Snarky Puppy, “Sylva” (May 26). A six-movement piece composed by Snarky Puppy leader Michael League, and arranged among with Metropole Orkest conductor Jules Buckley, “Sylva” is an absolute masterpiece that defies easy categorization. Elements of jazz, funk, classic, neo-soul rock, and something that blends all of them into a vibrant hybrid – these are League’s raw materials, and even though he’s a year shy of 30, he seems to be hitting a peak of maturity.
Jaga Jazzist, “Starfire” (June 2). A new effort from one of the most ambitious and genre-smashing young bands going. Jaga Jazzist hails from Norway and has spent 20 years – the band formed when principal composer Lars Horntveth was all of 14 years old – marrying new music, modern classical, jazz, EDM and symphonic rock. The results are simply stunning – an expansive, dense and hauntingly beautiful sound.
Florence & the Machine, “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” (June 2). Album No. 3 from the Florence Welch-led English band is rumored to be much less ethereal than its predecessors. Based on the advance songs I’ve heard, it sounds as if the band has made a real commitment to live instrumentation and a certain organicism.
Muse, “Drones” (June 9). Muse can be way over the top, uber-dramatic, and yes, sometimes utterly pretentious. But boring? Never.
High On Fire, “Luminiferous” (June 23). One of the most consistently exciting bands in modern heavy music, High On Fire’s seventh release is said to be its most sonically explosive yet. It also has a little attitude in the lyric department. “We’re doing our part to expose ‘The Elite’ and the fingers they have in religion, media, governments and financial world downfall and their relationship to all of our extraterrestrial connections in the race to control this world,” vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike recently told Blabbermouth.net.
Matt Pond PA, “The State of Gold” (June 30). Advance tracks streaming on Soundcloud suggest that Pond and Co. have found a way to retain their eclecticism while continuing to experiment with new sounds and textures.