NICEST OF THE NOUGHTIES I
What is it about music that has changed during the first ten years of a new century? Can we make generalisations about what music means now? Can we say how that meaning has been altered by the (political, economic, ideological, technological) events of the decade? Can we say that music is more or less meaningful today than it was in 1999? That it is more or less enjoyable? More or less good?
An obvious first point is that very little from the 2000s would have baffled the late 90s voyager into the future. The sound of music has stayed much the same. Fashions have come and gone, old styles have been knitted into something new, but little revolutionary has happened in the way that people compose or construct music. But the way music is heard has changed radically. The formats of the late 90s - CDs and minidiscs, tapes and records for the terminally old-fashioned - are all obsolete, so that a record-shop already feels like an anachronism. We can download (via Itunes, or Hype Machine if yr cheap) or listen to (via Spotify and others) an almost infinite amount of music, mostly for free. We listen to songs rather than albums (though, at the moment, there is still a consensual respect for the album as the most serious musical statement), and we arrange these songs at random into a crescendous pile. We amass so much of it, we can't possibly listen to it all properly. It's more disposable than ever, because once you've consumed one set of new singles, there's another stack of new albums to hear (not to mention the old stuff you're catching up on).
What I listen to doesn't define that point in time in the way it did in the 90s, and I don't think that's because I'm not a teenager anymore. It's not because the music I listen to doesn't depict a particular time or space either - Burial does both obsessively, and much of the music I've been into during the last 3-4 years could only have come from London in the late 00s. And it's certainly not because music isn't as good anymore - there was much more, much better music this decade compared with the 90s. And contrary to the polls which Simon Reynolds has written about, most of my stand-outs are from 2006 onwards. This roughly marks the time when I started downloading a lot of music, but upping the amount of stuff I listen to has also made listening seem more orderly.
So I don't buy the idea that pop music is dead or pointless, but I do accept that it's somewhat adrift. There seems like less cross-fertilisation between people of different races, genders and classes than ever before, and a bigger gap between one sort of pop and another. Once upon a time, pop music was the antitode to a class society - it was the one place where anybody could make it to number one. That's not the case anymore (although grime revived that sense of possibility, and in a few cases, realised that ambition). Perhaps it's partly down to X Factor, a programme which refutes beyond doubt the very point it tries to prove: that anybody can make it if they've got enough talent. In fact, you can only make it if you keep Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Dannii Minogue and Louis Walsh happy, which means trotting out bland versions of songs people have heard so many times, they've simply become numb to their impact. But more generally, the pop divide is a sign of a widening class divide and a more polarised society. Even in the 80s and 90s (when class divisions were pretty rampant), you could put three or four people from utterly different background together in a room, and at the very least they'd probably have music in common. Now we humans barely even share that.
But although this IS the time for wondering where we're at now, I'm tired and it's much easier to play some tunes. Here's the first 10 of 50 nicest bits of the noughties - not too many surprises, or so I thought, but play any of these and they'll keep offering up surprises long after the next batch of new releases lands on your download pile.
Al Green, "Just for me" (2008)
Guitars burble under a battery of drums, before the horn section ushers in the whole Hi-sound orchestra - and over it all, Al Green waxes hysterically, as only a desiring machine can. "Why can't you tell that I love you by the way than I smile?" he protests, grateful for the pain she brings. The album is every bit as good as most from the 70s, but this track's the killer.
Basement Jaxx + Dizzee Rascal, "Lucky star" (2003)
Mixing two of 03's biggest sounds - Dizzee Rascal and bhangra - this was better than Beyonce, better than Timberlake, better than Outkast ... in fact, it rivalled Dizzee himself for single of the year. A paean to music wrapped up in a song full of the stuff.
Boards of Canada, In a beautiful place out in the country EP; Geogaddi (2000; 2002)
Hauntologising before hauntology became a household name, BoC mourn the passing of unspecified Utopias via the metaphor (sometimes the reality too) of dead children. Layering old samples of educational films and whacked-out Waco communards over analogue synths and beats of found sounds (a slide projector here, a film about volcanoes in the deep-sea there), they arrive at something "simultaneously Arcadian and sinister". Geogaddi challenges the primacy of technology ("Ready let's go" sounds like it was recorded on a cassette player; "Music is math"'s proggish beginnings become suffocated under the weight of its own disorder), but at the same time corrupts the innocence of the pastoral ("Beware the friendly stranger" scuffs the noble savagery of rural life with crackle and dissonance). The beautiful place out in the country, in which people laugh and all the chaos of humanity dissolves into communal worship, is the Mount Carmel ranch at Waco, where 76 members of a Branch Davidian cult were killed by the FBI in 1993, following various accusations of sexual abuse, stockpiling of weapons and production of methamphetamines. On Geogaddi's "1969," a backmasked voice remarks of Amo Bishop Roden, "although not a follower of David Koresh, she's a devoted Branch Davidian". Through their oceanic sounds and wide-eyed innocence, both records turn the menace of Waco into a dreamland, a place where dead children can sleep easily in their beds.
Brian Wilson, SMiLE (2004)
Until 2004, SMiLE! existed only as an idea - a plan for a pocket symphony that would silence the Beatles and Phil Spector forever. Brian Wilson was so grandiosely in love with music that he wanted to destroy it, and the coherence of whatever plans he did come up with quickly went the same way as his dislocated mind. Mired in a confusion of musical fragments and disillusioned Beach Boys, Capitol Records ordered demanded a follow-up to Pet Sounds. What emerged was Smiley Smile, a sad assembly of the remnants of Brian's project and some hastily cobbled-together filler. Traces of SMiLE resurfaced during the 70s whenever the Beach Boys ran out of ideas, but they merely served to remind us of their leader's absence. This record that was supposed to change the world has been consummately constructed by Darian Sahanaja (SMiLE! is as much his creation as Wilson's), and it holds together beautifully. But the final product merely serves to remind us that the world has not changed, and nor can it. It is (in the words of Christgau) "tonic for Americans long since browbeaten into lowering their expectations by the rich men who are stealing their money". A record to be played, appreciated, enjoyed, and then filed away somewhere where its elegant spine can be admired.
The Bug, London Zoo (2008)
Lumped in with the dubstep crowd, this is something quite different: deep, heavy as hell and utterly righteous. His list of singers, toasters and preachers is exemplary: Spaceape tears apart all them fucking likkle yout' bwoy who thinks they known everything about life ("but them know nuttin', trust me"); Warrior Queen (who I can't hear enough of) smacks down boys and girls on buses who carry guns; Tippa Irie sets the world to rights on the darkly carnivalesque "Angry"; and Ricky Ranking (the star of the record) lays down his Judgement on the final track, a Blue Lines-era hymn, sweetly sung over daunting, apocalyptic strings. A dense mixture of furious chanting, cavernous bass and dancehall beats, and the sound of Jamaican irie transposed to the London streets.
Burial, Burial; Untrue (2006; 2007)
Rouge's Foam writes peerlessly on Burial, and he's right that saying Burial is a mourner for the collective spirit of rave is to underestimate him. You can be moved (and haunted) by Burial's music without holding a torch for rave - it's less site-specific than that. I guess you can be moved without living in, or regretting the passing of, London too - but RF's recasting Burial as a creator of urban nocturnes in the tradition of Whistler is persuasive and dazzling. His musicological analysis also reminds you what dynamic records these are - the unseen shock of Untrue's opening fragment, the elegant vocal science of "Night bus" or "In McDonalds," the orchestral samples (taken from Elgar? or Metal Gear Solid 2?) that run through "Archangel" - and coursing through the veins of both records, the flooded, bombed-out, wind-swept decay of London, where rich areas turn poor and poor areas turn rich, but where poor people stay poor forever.
The Caretaker, A Stairway to the Stars (2002)
The Caretaker’s second album is nothing less than a mass, a requiem for something which has deceased but which continues, elusively, to preoccupy us. Its power derives from Kirby’s construction of architectural soundscapes: the slowed-down, reversed, crackly textures create the ballroom or the cathedral in which these found, forgotten songs were once sung. They are no longer sung, and many of the samples were never meant to live on. But we cannot throw them away. For all the high-spirited intentions of the originals, they are tainted by their own inherent deficiencies. They bear upon us, but we cannot quite make out what they are. They cannot, in other words, be ontologised away, and for all the excessive discussion of hauntology, these Utopian pieces haunt our reality as much as our reality stains their romance.
Darkstar, "Aidy's girl's a computer" (2009)
I was tempted to throw caution to the wind and pick the Hyperdub best-of, but I'm either equivocal or ignorant about too much of it. Zomby, Burial, Joker, Bug etc are covered elsewhere, I guess kode9 & Spaceape should be represented by more than one song (Martyn, 2562 etc just leave me cold), so I've picked the newbie that provoked the most immediate reaction. "Aidy's girl's a computer" conveys the inarticulate speech of the internet chat-room, where even the most basic of emotional gestures go unverbalised, where sex becomes an onanistic dialogue between the surfer and the ether, and where the object of desire becomes MSN Messenger itself. As this brilliant 08 round-up notes, Darkstar and others in the dubstep-funky continuum (unlike much of dubstep) efface the throbbing, phallic wobble of bass, transcended the uterine origins of dubstep, and emerge with something altogether less gendered, even hermaphrodite. But still - where are the women on Hyperdub's roster? Are there any?
De La Soul, AOI: Bionix (2001)
Hip-hop for MOJO readers, and if that sounds like a sell-out, well, 3 Ft High was hardly a Nation of Millions, was it? De La were always somewhat sensible - jazzy, but cute with it. This time, they played to the only audience it made sense for them to play to it the early 00s - guys of 30-35, just like them. Not that they find it easy: Posdnuos can't fathom a world where Little Bo Peep and Sesame Street exist alongside parties that ain't parties unless the thugs don't try to shut them down. There's always someone trying to bring out in the devil in you, always someone setting traps, always little compartments of your life that you can't keep to yourself anymore. But what really gets Pos to reconsider himself is not a wife or a girlfriend, but his little girl Ayana: "when I'm watchin the news, and my daughter walks in and choose to ask, 'Why were all those people on the floor sleepin, covered in red?,' I told her that they were lookin for God, but found religion instead".
Dizzee Rascal, Boy in da Corner (2003)
Depression and anxiety marked Dizzee Rascal's debut out from the rest of the (as yet unnamed) grime crowd, and a sense that he alone had broken free of the stifling bullshit-meritocracy of the E3 crowd. The violence of beats and the bass often mask the pure, crystalline beauty of the melodies on "Sittin' here" and "Brand new day" (two of the best songs about featureless, futureless depression); likewise, the acid pow-wow between Dizzee and Shystie on "I Luv U" belies the black, sad humour of the delivery. Even at 18 (sorry, but that bears repeating - this guy was eighteen when he finished this record), he's well aware that reflection and sensitivity and shimmering, ethereal droplets of keyboards don't make him any less strong. It's a fascinating record - a state of the nation statement, but equally a personal tussle between the allure of childhood and lost innocence, and the inevitability of making it as man (and maybe between being Dylan Mills and being Dizzee Rascal too). The rest of the pack (well, the good bits anyway) caught up with him soon afterwards, but this remains the definitive statement from grime, from London - damn, from pop music during this decade.