Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re now two decades deep into this new millennium. 2000s gave us hip-hop’s dominance, punk revival, emo, divas. The teens gave us teen pop, K-pop, EDM, trap. Looking back, which decade gave us the better tunes? — T.J. from Abington, Pennsylvania
I had already been thinking about this question long before you asked, T.J. A few weeks ago I asked my followers on Twitter to name their top five albums of the 21st century. When I started thinking about my own personal favorites, I noticed that the most impactful records that sprang immediately to mind were all from the aughts. In fact, they were all from the early aughts.
Those records include:
Radiohead — Kid A
OutKast — Stankonia
PJ Harvey — Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
The White Stripes — White Blood Cells
Jay-Z — The Blueprint
The Roots — Phrenology
Queens Of The Stone Age — Songs For The Deaf
The Strokes, — Is This It
Cat Power — You Are Free
Kanye West — The College Dropout
Wilco — A Ghost Is Born
Fiona Apple — Extraordinary Machine
My Morning Jacket — Z
The National — Boxer
That’s just off the top of my head. If I thought about it a little harder, I could come up with another 20-30 albums just from the early aughts that would be similarly great/important. The span from 2000 to 2005 is just that rich. And I don’t think I could do that for any other five-year period in the past 20 years.
So, based on that, I’m inclined to go with the aughts over the 2010s. (The back-half of the aughts is pretty great, too.) However, there are two crucial biases influencing my thinking here. No. 1, between the years 2000 and 2005, my ages were 22 to 28. My positive feelings about the music of this era surely are related in some way to being young at the time. A person who was in their mid-20s from, say, 2014 to 2019 probably believes that the last five years is the best stretch from music in the past two decades. So, while I still think that the early aughts is the best period for albums this century, I will serve that opinion with a massive grain of salt.
This brings us to my personal bias no. 2: My preference for albums. While that view might favor the aughts, you could just as easily argue that the story of popular music in the early 21st century is the cultural shift from listening to specific records made by particular artists to more generalized listening on curator-guided streaming platforms. In other words, people no longer listen to albums, they listen to Spotify, which might take them to specific records by particular artists but oftentimes does not.
I favor the music of the aughts because it was a period that still fostered strong connections with solitary albums, which remains my preferred format. But the strength of the 2010s is that people are listening to a greater diversity of music than ever — in large part because they have been freed from the album format. And there’s a lot to be said for that, too.
In conclusion: I pick the aughts. But I’m probably wrong.
You wrote a piece matching rappers with the classic rock artists they most resemble. Where exactly is rap in terms of the classic rock timeline? What is rap’s current classic rock year? — Michael from New York City
Thanks to extensive, indispensable histories like Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, we have a precise view of hip-hop’s start date: Aug. 11, 1973, the day when DJ Kool Herc hosted a teen dance party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. This gig is credited with introducing innovations such as the “break” — a drum-powered instrumental section of a record extended for dancing via two turntables — and Herc’s own rhythmic-styled announcements that came to be known as rapping.
The roots of rock are less agreed-upon, though many historians have credited “Rocket 88” — a hard-driving and distorted R&B number from 1951 by Ike Turner but credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats — as the first rock song. So using 1973 and 1951 respectively as the starting points for hip-hop and rock, that means in 2020 hip-hop will turn 47 and rock will turn 69. Applying this “rock” timeline to hip-hop, we can see that hip-hop in rock years has arrived at … 1998.
What was rock music like in 1998? The year’s biggest rock albums include Korn’s Follow The Leader, Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals, Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, and the Armageddon soundtrack, highlighted by Aerosmith’s only No. 1 single, the power ballad “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.” It was also the year of classic alterna-pop one-hit wonders such as New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give,” Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” and Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight.”
What will 2020’s hip-hop’s equivalent of “Flagpole Sitta” be? I can’t wait to find out!
How important are lyrics in your appreciation of music? Many music critics or fans will say that the actual music is the most important component, not the lyrics. Yet these same people will profess their love for Springsteen, Dylan, Berman, Mitchell — all master lyricists. It seems to me that artists that write exceptional lyrics also have the most devoted fans. — Mitch from Niagara Falls, Canada
As a listener, I subscribe to the rule that lyrics generally are a problem only when they are actively terrible in a way that’s distracting. In the case of the esteemed lyricists you mentioned, great words obviously add a lot to the overall package, and can even be the focal point of your appreciation of a particular song. But 98 percent of the time, I’m satisfied with “easily ignorable” when it comes to lyrics.
I realize how much I ignore lyrics whenever I listen to music in the car with my kids. My 7-year-old son will often ask me to explain the meaning of a lyric, or for a word that he missed.
“It’s just a song,” I usually say. “It doesn’t matter.”
I say this because in most cases I’ll have not thought deeply about the words, even if it’s a song I’ve heard a million times. Recently, I played him Blueberry Boat, the bonkers 2004 prog-indie classic by the Fiery Furnaces, and he wanted me to delve deep into the lyrics of “Chief Inspector Blanchflower.”
“It’s my day off, kid,” I explained.
Now, as a critic, I am required to pay close attention to lyrics. This is, in part, a cheat, because it’s always easier to write about lyrics than it is to write about music. If you think an album is good, you can always quote a pithy lyric as a supporting example. If you think an album is bad, it’s extremely easy to find a lyric that looks dumb when divorced from the music.
All of this is Music Critic 101, though I think it’s a little cheap to rely too much on critiquing the lyrics when talking about a song or album. This is not to say that a critic shouldn’t focus on lyrics in a review, but generally critics (including myself) pay more attention to the words than they need to.
It’s actually pretty hard for a lyric to be distractingly bad. I am a fan of the song “The Less I Know The Better” by Tame Impala, which includes the lyric, “She was holding hands with Trevor / not the greatest feeling ever.” Somehow I have played “The Less I Know The Better” at least 300 times in my life, and this line has never tripped me up. It’s not great, but it doesn’t get in the way. For song lyrics, that’s usually enough.
I heard “Minute By Minute” on the radio yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about the Doobie Brothers in the eras before and after the arrival of Michael McDonald. This is a band that changed their frontman near the height of their popularity and completely altered their sound (in retrospect one can say they changed genre), but retained the majority of existing members and the original name, and continued to be commercially popular. And as different as the music is from each respective era, both eras produced great songs. What, if any, equivalent exists in rock history? — Joe from York, Pennsylvania
First of all, I appreciate you asking such a long and thoughtful question about the Doobie Brothers. It touches me to know that when people have Doobies-related questions, they feel they can come to me for answers. I’m especially moved by the fact that you want to discuss the yacht-rock Doobies of the late ’70s, as opposed to the “seeds and stems dirtbag hippie rock” Doobies of the early ’70s. (For the record, I like both incarnations of the Doobies!)
Now, to answer your question: The most obvious example in rock history of this Doobies-related phenomenon that you speak of — band gets new singer and completely changes sound — has to be Genesis, who started out as pastoral prog-rock in the ’70s when Peter Gabriel was the singer, and then became one of the biggest pop-rock bands in the world in the ’80s and ’90s when Phil Collins was the singer. And, as is the case with the Doobies, that later period tends to overlook the earlier period, at least on the radio.
Weirdly enough, Gabriel gradually moved in a musical direction that was similar to the boomer-friendly ersatz pop-soul that Genesis perfected with 1986’s Invisible Touch, which coincided with Gabriel’s own commercial zenith, So. The members of Genesis drifted apart, but they also managed to hang together in their own way.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.