Ben Shapiro says Rap isn’t music. I firmly disagree.
Twitter exploded yesterday as clip made the rounds which featured conservative commentator Ben Shapiro taking aim at one of his favorite punching bags, rap music. During an episode of his new “Sunday Special,” Shapiro said the following: “In my view, and in the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm. Rap only fulfills one of these, the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking. Thus, beyond the objectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is that rap is not music.” Twitter did what Twitter does, memeing the statement to death and launching Ben to the top of the trending page, but was he right? No. No he wasn’t.
First of all, the claim that rap lacks melody and harmony is plainly false. Rapping is not purely speaking, as every single artist in the history of the genre has added some form of melody, though often rudimentary, to their vocal. But far more importantly, Shapiro is making the false implication that “melody,” and “harmony,” must come from the lead vocal, which is plainly false. Rap music often features some of the most intricate and creative instrumentals in the entire music industry, from the magnificent jazz influence on a record like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to the luscious beats of the 90’s West Coast scene.
That being said, if this was simply a story about Ben Shapiro’s failure to appreciate hip-hop instrumentals, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. I’m far more irritated by his rather dry definition of music itself. In fairness, what he’s referring to is an over simplified form of what many hardline music theorists and philosophers of music may claim as a definition of music itself, but one must distinguish between a purely intellectual definition of music and the colloquial form which Ben is attempting to appeal to. The intellectualized definition is essentially useful in narrowing one’s scope to that of Western classical music in order to study its form and style. On the other hand, the colloquial definition of what is and isn’t “music,” has far more to do with cultural influence and a seat at the table in the ongoing conversation that is modern music.
In this more useful definition, rap music is not only “music,” but perhaps the most lively and important genre in all of modern music. In contrast to a genre like country music, which has its own form of royalty in the form of long running musical families and grandiose events, rap is far more anarchic.
Rap has, from its earliest days, been an outlet for social and political statements, and because of its relatively small production cost compared to genres with full bands, nearly anyone could be a part of this conversation. Because of this, icons of the genre like Tupac Shakur and N.W.A. were able to rise to prominence with bold and often offensive statements from the very beginning of their careers. Thanks to this lower cost and the open minds of rap fans, artists like these and newer artists like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike are able to boldly speak their minds without censorship from their label or fear of losing their income.
Most importantly, rap music has long been the most culturally recognized outlet for the conversations and opinions of an oppressed minority in America. Unlike the more personal focus of rock or pop music, rap has always been largely political and socially conscious, and it has provided a massively lucrative outlet for African Americans to assert their place in society and shine a light on their struggles. To hear this incredibly important social conversation play out over the airwaves is not only fascinating, but one of the brilliant examples imaginable of music’s power and prescience in modern society.
Still don’t believe me? I’d suggest anyone who is still skeptical about rap music and it’s magnificent cultural impact simple take a listen to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a daring commentary on race in America with instrumentals which runs the gamut of traditionally black genres like jazz and soul, and lyrics that provide an unflinching picture of fame, discrimination, class, and family. It’s a brilliant work of art and it’s exactly the kind of album which could only be accomplished within the rap genre.
Wish You Were Here is a bitter and abrasive piece that may not fit squarely into Pink Floyd’s discography, but must still be recognized as an incredible project from one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Pink Floyd is one of my favorite groups of all-time. Their evolution from underground, prog-rock four piece to worldwide rock phenomena is nothing short of incredible, and their prolific writing over a nearly 50 year career means that their is no shortage of great music for fans of all eras.
Perhaps most importantly, Floyd has at least three albums, namely The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and Animals, which are on the short list for greatest rock album of all time. The band’s run in the 1970’s, when each of these three where released, is simply breathtaking and it’s a run that will likely never be matched.
All that being said, there is one Pink Floyd album which, though often considered a part of their top tier and despite falling squarely in the center of their 70’s run, has never seemed to impress me as much as other works.
1975’s Wish You Were Here is a follow up to the break out success of Dark Side just two years prior. The ninth studio album from Floyd, it was the first time the band had taken much more than a year between releases, thanks to a much busier touring schedule. The record is entirely different from the rest of their catalog and was an especially radical departure from the fuller, more psychedelic sound on which they’d cut their teeth. It had always struck me as an enjoyable, albeit lacking, album from a band with much better works to offer, and as such, it was one of the last LP’s to be added to my now completed Pink Floyd vinyl collection.
Finally having the physical copy in my hand, however, I began to gain a new appreciation for the record. The artwork, while every bit as iconic as any other Pink Floyd album, is also entirely different. While other Floyd covers are psychedelic and thematic, Wish You Were Here is, first of all, encased in a large, whit box, which means that the cover photo doesn’t even take up the full space of the record. It’s also a real photo, not a drawing or other design, which also leaves the album feeling distinctly less magical than other releases. On each surface is a simple image, encased in a white box, and depicting only one point of focus.
This grounded simplicity is apparent in the music as well. Where the majority of the group’s catalog utilizes massive instrument pallets and explosive swells of sound, Wish You Were Here’s instrumentation is far more simple. Most tracks, especially the bookending epic, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” feature a looping melody with a single featuring instrument or vocal on lead.
It was this change that first lead to my distaste for the project. I’d fallen in love with the warmth and lusciousness of the band’s sound. Albums like Dark Side and even later releases like The Division Bell felt like I was swimming in a gorgeous, psychedelic soundscape, each wave of sound more powerful than the last and each low point only a pitstop before another build. Wish You Were Here simply doesn’t give you that. Instead, the album is cold. It’s distant. It has a much stronger jazz influence and it’s smoothness often feels alienating. But it’s this simplicity and focus that makes it such an important album.
Wish You Were Here is a contemplation, as with any Floyd album. But where Dark Side contemplates life and The Wall contemplates relationships, topics at least some room for warmth, Wish You Were Here sets its sights on fame, particularly through the lens of of their previous front man, Syd Barrett, a man who’d been all but destroyed by fame.
It’s within this context that we understand the choice of cold focus over indulgent fullness, of abrasive synths over expansive organs, and of clean acoustic guitars over Gilmour’s iconic, sprawling electric. The album is distant and uncaring because fame is too. Of course, it remains enjoyable, as is fame, but Floyd has perfectly captured the sense of biting callousness that so often accompanies success.
In the end, the album should be viewed not as the second release during Floyd’s 1970’s run at the very top, nor as a follow up to one of the greatest albums of all time in The Dark Side of the Moon, but as both a representation of the bleak realities of success and a skewering of the very idea of fame. Wish You Were Here is a bitter and abrasive piece that may not fit squarely into Pink Floyd’s discography, but must still be recognized as an incredible project from one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Let’s take a look at the 61st annual Grammy Awards! Who will win? Who should win? Will Taylor Swift sweep it all? All the big questions answered!
Best Comedy Album
Who Should Win:Dave Chapelle – Equanimity & The Bird Revelation
After a very long hiatus, Dave Chapelle is finally back with one of the most thoughtful and hilarious comedy specials in the last decade. He touches on politics, marriage, race, and even O.J. Simpson, all with the trademark Chapelle wit and wisdom.
Who Will Win: Dave Chapelle – Equanimity & The Bird Revelation
After the long break and thanks to the massive amount of content he put out this year, Chapelle provides Grammy voters with something they love even more than a quality album, and that’s a great story.
Best Americana Album
Who Should Win:John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
I’ve said on multiple occasions that this category shouldn’t exist, and should simply be folded into the country category. This is especially apparent this year with the rather weak field in both sets of nominees. The Tree of Forgiveness, however, would stand out in any crowd as one of the best entries in a legendary discography.
Who Will Win: John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
The Grammys value popularity quite a bit, and Prine’s is the only name on the record with any mainstream recognition. In addition, the album contemplates quite a bit on the career of the infamous Singing Mailman, a quality the committee rarely fails to reward.
Best Country Album
Who Should Win:Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hours
Here, there are two strong contenders, but I think Golden Hours edges out Stapleton’s record by an inch. It’s by far Kacey Musgraves’ best album to date, and the unique marriage of an orchestral pallet, classic pop-country songwriting, and progressive production makes for an ambitious album that deserves to be rewarded.
Who Will Win: Chris Stapleton – From A Room Vol. 2
This isn’t a win that would disappoint me, but it’s certainly Stapleton’s least impressive LP and much weaker than its predecessor. However, Chris is a darling of the Grammy committee, having won last year with Vol. 1, and boasting a few other nominations this year.
Best Rock Album
Who Should Win:Alice in Chains – Rainier Fog
2018 has been one of rock music’s best years in recent memory, this category stands as a shining example of how little the Grammys know about the current music scene. Of the rather weak selection, though, Alice in Chains’ most recent effort is easily the best. The heavy guitars and powerful vocals are a more mature form of grunge revolution the band pioneered in the 90’s.
Who Will Win: Fall Out Boy – M A N I A
This is something of a worst case scenario. Only a decade after their seminole pop-punk debut, Fall Out Boy abandoned all semblance of rock influences and recorded one of the most grating, unlistenable LP’s of the century. Wouldn’t it be just like the Grammys to reward that?
Best New Artist
Who Should Win:Greta Van Fleet
One of the more controversial bands nominated, I’m a fan of Greta Van Fleet, and I won’t apologize for it. No matter where you stand on the their originality, they’ve put out two very successful LP’s and played multiple festivals just this year. They’re the most accomplished nominee in this category, and they’ve got a lot of promise.
Who Will Win: Greta Van Fleet
Regardless of the controversy, GVF seems to have accrued enough of a following and generated enough buzz that the Grammys would be out of their minds to pass them up.
Record of the Year
Who Should Win:Kendrick Lamar feat. SZA – All the Stars
Record of the year is meant to reward the finished product of a track, as apposed to Song of the Year which rewards only the songwriter. With that in mind, “All the Stars” seems the obvious choice. The production is tight, Kendrick’s flow is as slick as ever, and SZA gives a powerful performance on the choruses.
Who Will Win: Post Malone feat. 21 Savage – Rockstar
I can’t say I mind this song, and in fact, I love the album, but the production is slightly lacking and 21 Savage’s feature is one of the worst of the year. Regardless, this feels like a big year for Post Malone, and I doubt that will stop when it comes to the big four.
Song of the Year
Who Should Win:Childish Gambino – This is America
It’s been a few months now and it’s easy to forget, but the entire country seemed to stop on a dime for a couple days when Childish Gambino released “This is America.” While the music video is the most important element to the song’s success, the lyricism and the brilliance of using trap influences as commentary in of themselves is more than deserving of this award.
Who Will Win: Drake – God’s Plan
Perhaps I’m being a bit cynical here, but I can’t see Drake losing in a big four category, especially to such a creative and politically charged song. “God’s Plan,” was another massive summer hit, and it seems likely to me that it will bring home this award.
Album of the Year
Who Should Win:Post Malone – Beerbongs & Bentleys
The Album of the Year field was particularly weak this year, but this Post Malone album is one of a few projects I could actually stomach giving this award to. Is it ambitious? No. Inventive? No. But it aims to be a collection of well made pop/hip-hop songs that everyone can enjoy, and it does that very well.
Who Will Win: Drake – Scorpion
Again, perhaps I’m cynical, but when the field is weak, we tend to see the award go to a big name in pop music and there is no bigger name on this year’s list.
This one took me quite awhile, but here it is! Every Maynard James Keenan album (post Opiate) ranked!!
12. Emotive (2004)- A Perfect Circle
The most critically maligned effort in Maynard’s post-Tool career, and admittedly the most underwhelming, I will still be the first and loudest defender of this album. All too often, Emotive is subject to overly brutal criticism because it is viewed through the same lens as the band’s previous work. Instead, the album toes the line between full blown third release and something of a side project. I think, had this been followed quickly by a true end to the band’s trilogy with Virgin Records, much of the distaste would’ve subsided. However, Emotive is what it is, that being, by all accounts, a mixed bag.
Maynard’s lyricism can hardly be discussed here, as the album is made up of political covers, but the song selection does provide an interesting peak into his inspirations. Track’s like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” come off admittedly awkward, but “Passive,” is one of the band’s best efforts, and incidentally the only original on the album, enlisting the help of fellow industrial rock legend, Trent Reznor in the writing process. Additionally, Maynard’s choral rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum,” is one of my favorite songs of all time. In short, while the album does land at the bottom of the list, it is by no means a bad album.
11. Money Shot (2015) – Puscifer
While this is, admittedly, the weakest of the three Puscifer LP’s, that certainly doesn’t make it unenjoyable by any means. Money Shot’s biggest sin is its inability to differentiate from the band’s previous two entries. While this is decidedly not a meaningful failure in the eyes of many fans, it does seem to run counter to Puscifers appealing quality. While Tool and APC have solidified styles, Puscifer is meant to be an outlet for Maynard to use his complete control to radically experiment with a multitude of new ideas. In this vein, I’m much quicker to forgive the outfit’s few misses on earlier projects than to excuse the safe tracklist of Money Shot.
That being said, there’s plenty to enjoy here. “The Arsonist,” may be Puscifer’s best song, and “The Remedy,” brings back a bit of the cynicism and comedy of the band’s debut, a quality which is completely absent on the rest of this album. The instrumentation is more organic on this album, and performed quite well by all involved. All in all, Money Shot is an enjoyable effort, but Maynard seems to be in a bit of a creative rut throughout, unsurprising as this would be his 11th LP in just over 20 years. Fitting then, that this would be the last puscifer LP for awhile as MJK began to undertake the writing process of APC’s return in 2018.
10. Opiate (1992) – Tool
There are very few bands with a stronger debut than Tool. The majority of the record is recorded live, but it still lands on this list because the tracks don’t appear anywhere else in the group’s discography. The live raw energy of a Tool show really comes through on this album as well, and it’s hard not to laugh when Maynard says “get that Bob Marley wannabe motherf***ker out of here.”
There is plenty not to love here, on the other hand. The recordings, being live and probably cheap, lack the excellent production we would hear on later Tool releases. The tracklist itself is a bit of a weakness as well, mostly coming in around four to five minutes and missing much of the lyrical thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from MJK. The closer and title track, however, remains one of my favorite Tool songs of all time and stands as the first chapter in the very long, open dialogue between Maynard and organized Christianity. This kind of bold, angry writing from such a young band, coupled with the jarring and mildly offensive cover, set a tone for a band and an artist that would speak their minds loudly in the years to come.
9. Conditions of My Parole (2011) – Puscifer
The second Puscifer release certainly doesn’t exceed its predecessor the way Thirteenth Step did, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable entry on this list. The tone is much closer to the larger body of MJK’s work, sacrificing some of the debut’s uniqueness for a more palatable, anthemic style. It did, however, retain much of what makes Puscifer such a unique side project.
The changes are most notable on tracks like “Tiny Monsters,” and “Green Valley,” where the industrial instrumentation and drum heavy mix is still very present, but the lyricism and, even more so the vocal melodies, are much more in line with what longtime fans have come to expect. “Telling Ghosts,” could very easily have landed on an APC album. A few of the tracks can come off as somewhat forgettable, but the bulk of Conditions of My Parole is an absolute blast.
8. “V” Is For Vagina (2007) – Puscifer
With APC on hiatus and Tool stuck in a perpetual creative vortex, Maynard found himself sat idle for this first time in many years. This seemed to last all of a few days as V Is For Vagina was released just a year after the Tool record and Puscifer was born. While the band wouldn’t receive a lot of mainstream attention until their ’09 single, “Cuntry Boner,” longtime Maynard fans were greeted in ’07 by a total 180 degree turn with surprisingly enjoyable results.
Puscifer’s sound embraces a form of industrial rock which was only slightly present in MJK’s previous work, and combines it with the kind of sardonic humor which Maynard is known for. Tracks like “Queen B,” and “Vagina Mine” may be somewhat jarring for Tool and APC fans, but they are very well crafted and infinitely listenable pieces of industrial rock, some of the best of the era. V Is For Vagina is a must listen for any and all MJK fans, especially considering his near total creative control over the project.
7. Eat the Elephant (2018) – A Perfect Circle
Perhaps the most divisive of Maynard’s albums among fans, Eat the Elephant marked the return of A Perfect Circle to prominence after a nearly 15 year hiatus which had been filled with three MJK releases under the Puscifer moniker. As a result, this album does often seem to capture more of Puscifer’s experimental nature than APC’s anthemic tendencies. It’s one of stranger albums on this list, but it’s one that I enjoyed quite a bit.
Tracks like “Disillusioned” and the title track featured surprisingly soft piano passages while “The Doomed,” and my personal favorite, “TalkTalk,” fall much more in the vein of APC’s arena rock style. The latter half loses quite a bit of steam, but overall, Eat the Elephant is a respectable return to form for a group which seems to have matured quite a bit during its hiatus.
6. Meir De Noms (2000) – A Perfect Circle
Following the massive success of Tool, and during a very odd time for rock music in general, A Perfect Circle was formed by MJK and Billy Howerdel and released their debut album, Meir De Noms to massive critical and commercial success. The group’s sound was much more oriented toward arena and alternative rock, as apposed to the progressive and industrial styles that filled Tool projects.
Meir De Noms contains the band’s best and most popular song by a mile in “Judith,” but also features classics like “The Hollow,” and “3 Libras.” Throughout, Howerdel’s guitar is anthemic and Josh Freese’s drumming is explosive. Maynard’s vocals are, in many ways, given more focus here than on previous Tool projects and his lyrics take a turn for the platitudinous in the best possible way. If the album has one strike against it, it’s a general lack of cohesion and clear vision. However, Meir De Noms is an excellent debut LP and did a great job of setting APC apart from Maynard’s other projects.
5. Undertow (1993) – Tool
Oh, how we all miss the days of two Tool releases in back to back years! Following the breakout success of the Opiate EP, Tool followed up with their first full length project, which improved on their previous work in virtually every way. This album features classics like “Prison Sex,” and “Swamp Song,” as well as Tool’s first major hit, “Sober.”
Undertow is also where we hear Maynard beginning to come into his own as a writer and performer. His screams are powerful and his running vocal lines are nearly ethereal. The record is far better mixed and recorded, though still not as tight as later projects, and there’s a certain air of professionalism about Undertow that begins to make Tool feel like as special a band as they are. Overall, it’s an excellent studio debut and features some of the band’s best instrumentation and MJK’s best lyrics.
4. Thirteenth Step (2003) – A Perfect Circle
The highlight of APC’s catalog, Thirteenth Step is the Terminator 2 of alt-rock albums. Everything we loved from the debut is back, but better focused and turned up to 11. The non-cohesive but impressive tracklist of the debut is replaced with a moody, melodic piece of alt/arena rock with a clear and decisive aesthetic.
Nearly every song on this album is fantastic, but a few of my favorites include, “Blue,” “The Outsider,” and “Pet, although my personal favorite from the album has to be the orchestral reimagining of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me.” The entire album is a testament to what can be accomplished by two especially creative artists when they mesh well and benefit from excellent work ethics. Thirteenth Step was APC’s second consecutive platinum album and it left the band with hits that are still popular today, 15 years later.
3. 10,000 Days (2006) – Tool
For many Tool fans, this is the end all be all of Tool albums. In fact, I’d even call it my personal favorite, if I wasn’t speaking critically. Released in 2006 after a five year hiatus, 10,000 Days is the most recent Tool album to date, and it is, in some ways, the completion of an arc which began with ’96’s Aenima, that being the gradually increasing psychedelic and progressive influences into the band’s alt-metal roots. This album gives itself fully over to the prog side and it is from this that both its strengths and weaknesses are born.
There isn’t a single track that clocks in under six minutes, save the “Blame Hoffman,” interlude which is nearly four minutes of purely atmospheric build up. “Rosetta Stoned,” is nearly 11 minutes of blistering rock music with some of the best drum work of Danny Carey’s career. The highlight of not only the album, but possibly Tool’s entire catalog, is the two part epic of “Wings for Marie,” and “10,000 Days,” which chronicles the passing of Maynard’s mother, and her ascension to heaven. It’s a piece of pure art which will leave goosebumps on the arms of anyone with a pulse. My only hangup with this album, however, comes in the long and sometimes aimless interludes. Where earlier intros like “Parabol,” felt like a lingering shot of runners on their blocks before a race, a track like “Lipan Conjuring,” seems to spin its wheels and never get anywhere. Regardless, 10,000 Days is Tool’s most personal effort, and one of my all time favorite albums.
2. Ǽnima (1996) – Tool
When it came to deciding my top two for this list, I found the decision virtually impossible, and my opinion may even change day to day, but in the end, and through no fault of its own, Aenima lands at number two. Following the breakout success of Undertow, Aenima takes Tool’s hard rock sound and adds a multitude of brand new layers.
“46 & 2,” and “Pushit,” deal in complex issues with a kind of reverence which was somewhat new to the band at this time. On the other hand, “Stinkfist,” “H.” and “Eulogy,” touch on serious moral issues with a cynical humor that only Maynard can execute this well. Beyond that, even, tracks like “Hooker With a Penis,” and the title track feature the kind of dark humor which would be largely absent from either of Tool’s post Aenima efforts. But it’s the closer, “Third Eye,” that sets a precedent for what we could expect in the future. Clocking in over 13 minutes and making the most of a couple hilarious Bill Hicks samples, the track is a sprawling, expansive end to an incredible album. Aenima is so very close to being perfect, but for me, it’s beat out ever so slightly by our number one.
1. Lateralus (2001) – Tool
It’s virtually impossible to name the best Tool album, let alone the best album from all of MJK’s catalog, but if it must be done, I simply can’t place anything above Lateralus. I tend to view Tool’s last three albums as a trilogy, following an especially gifted alt-metal four piece as they grow to an infamous, prog-metal juggernaut, and in that sense, the fast majority of the leg-work is done by Lateralus. With a tracklist featuring much longer tracks, including “Reflection,” which clears 11 minutes, lofty concepts, and a heavy influence on math and sequences, Tool challenged themselves in nearly ever conceivable way and they succeeded.
Tracks like “Schism,” and “Ticks and Leaches,” showcase Tool’s remarkable ability to bend time signatures and tempos, “The Grudge,” and the title track feature Adam Jones’ gritty, powerful guitar work, and “Parabol,” and “Parabola,” is one of the best two part tracks of all time, slowly developing into explosive payoffs. Throughout Maynard’s voice is dynamic, ranging from guttural screams to droning, contained melodies with equal intensity and brilliance. His melodies are every single bit as well written as any riff or beat on the project, and his lyrics are meticulous, yet thematic. All of this is tied together by the legendary David Bottrill, who’s work in the producer’s chair elevates this record to all new heights. Put simply, Lateralus is a remarkable accomplishment for one the greatest bands of all time, and the crown jewel in MJK’s legendary catalog.
This was written as a class assignment, but I thought it would make an interesting discussion piece!
Today, he’s likely the only name on this list that isn’t a household name, but with hits that include “Oh! Susanna,” “Camp Town Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” his music is surely known by the vast majority of music lovers, even as we near the 200th anniversary of his death. While the influence of his songs alone can’t be ignored, Foster is best remembered for what he means to the industry as he is, according to most, the father of American songwriting itself.
Much of Stephen’s life could only be described as nearly unbearable. He suffered from alcoholism for the majority of his rather short life, dying after in a hotel at age 37 with only 28 cents in his pocket. In addition, much of his success came on the massive popularity of minstrel theatre, a fact which seemed to trouble Foster as much during his life as it would his fans a decade or so later. Because of this, he constantly struggled with the fear that he was creating low art. In many ways, Stephen Foster was also the father of the troubled young artist archetype which would come to be exemplified by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morison.
His feelings aside, however, his work will forever be held in the highest esteem as the work of the man who single-handedly forged the American popular music industry into existence. His memory has faced some racial controversy in the past few years, but may historians have pointed out that, relative to the culture of his time, Foster was quite generous and supportive of people of color. Though he lived a hard and depressing life, history will forever remember him as a legend and that, better than any single song or work, sums up the true power of a wonderful songwriter.
The Beegee’s are often called “The Beatles of Disco,” The Ramones have been called “The Beatles of Punk,” and a few different groups, Wu Tang Clan and NWA most notably, have vied for the title of “The Beatles of Rap.” The truth is, however, that all of these titles are foolish because there never was and never will be a group like The Beatles.
No one will ever captivate an entire nation the way The Beatles did upon arriving in the United States. There were massive advancements made to live sound technology solely so that The Beatles could be heard over the deafening screams of their fans. According to most people lucky enough to have attended these early shows, the advancements were not successful. One massive change that the band made to the songwriting world was writing their own music. The writing team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is one of the most prolific of all time.
An even more direct line can be drawn, however, to the explosion of album-centric writing which took over the 1970’s and lead to the most lucrative decade in the history of the music industry. Following the near constant frustration of loud fans drowning out all of their live performance, The Beatles chose to distance themselves from the touring world and become a studio band, spending all of their time crafting massive albums. Their seminole 1966 effort, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is widely considered the first concept album and would inspire the likes of Pink Floyd, The Doors, and many more. Until The Beatles came on the scene, a “good” rock song came in around three minutes, featured a good hook, and got a lot of radio play. The Beatles encompassed what should’ve been three decades worth of genre evolution within a vigorous ten year span and likely changed the face of rock and roll more than any artists before or since. There will never be another Beatles.
Possibly the most overlooked artist on my list, James Brown’s impact on the industry just doesn’t receive nearly the respect it deserves. He’s often referred to as the King of Funk and the Godfather of Soul, titles which he certainly earned, but which seems to sell Brown extremely short.
James himself began as a particularly energetic R&B vocalist, gaining notoriety for fiery performances and a passionate vocal. He would go on to reach massive success and acclaim as his sound began to morph into something all his own. Upon the release of his hit single, “Cold Sweat,” he had become the King of Funk and forever changed the musical land scape forever. His sound was beat driven. It was something you could only feel, not count. He was, in many ways, the first artist who’s music focused heavily on the beat itself, laying the ground work for rap music, which would soon dethrone rock music as the dominant stream of the American popular music. This is why James Brown, and specifically his drummer, is the most sampled artist of all time.
What makes Brown especially important in this sense is his involvement in this musical development. Where most band music, say that of The Beatles, must be attributed to the collective, James was also renown for his constant creative control when it came to his band’s performances. When James Brown stepped on a stage or into a studio, it was truly his creation which was on display, and it was his creations which forever altered the course of music history. It seems to me more than likely that, without Brown’s influence, rap music and the rise of African American music in the mainstream could never have happened.
The only member on this list who is still actively working, Bob Dylan will make the shortlist of nearly any well versed music listener’s Mount Rushmore. His catalog includes records like The Times They Are A-Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, and Love and Theft. This very long list of albums, only a highlight selection from his nearly 40 studio releases, is one of the most accomplished in all of music history.
He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received the presidential medal of freedom in 2012, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the only musician to ever do so. Beyond this, he has 11 Grammys and, perhaps most importantly, it would be virtually impossible to assemble even a small group of famous musicians who weren’t heavily inspired by Dylan in some way or another. Even many infamous artists from the 90’s, during the rock renaissance, site Bob Dylan as a massive inspiration.
Unlike the other artists on this list, Dylan was not able to hide behind long instrumental passages. Instead, he utilized a simple strophic scheme and basic instrumentation so that his lyrics were easily heard. What makes Dylan special is that he never failed to show up. He was a young, small man with a powerful creative voice, and just like his hero Woodie Guthrie, he never shied away from speaking his mind. When the time came, during the American Civil Rights Movement, Bob Dylan was there. And when the time kept coming, the Vietnam War in the 70’s, AIDS and income inequality in the 80’s, drug epidemics and disillusionment in the 1990’s, economic collapse and the rise of far right identity politics in the 20th century, Bob Dylan was always there to show us the undeniable power of three chords and the truth. He is, more so than anyone else in history, a testament to the art of songwriting.
Virtually every genre of music is thriving in an exciting way today, and sitting out on this exciting era is simply not an option for true lovers of music.
5. Learn an Instrument
To start off, learning an instrument has numerous benefits. It’s shown to help younger children in school, it can serve as a creative outlet and relieve stress, and let’s not forget, ladies love a guitarist! In addition to this, learning to play an instrument for yourself can infinitely increase your enjoyment of music that you’ve always loved.
This can be done relatively cheap, and I would recommend guitar as a cheap guitar can run under $100. Understanding chord structures, basic music theory, and the skill that goes into playing an instrument opens a new window through which to view some of your favorite tunes.
4. Listen with Intention
This is one of the most important and most ignored pieces when it comes to enjoying music thoroughly. If you start a movie and let it play in the background as you clean the house, do homework, etc., you couldn’t truly say that you’ve “seen” the movie. In the same way, music, at least good music, isn’t made to be wallpaper, but to be the focus of your time with it.
If I could set up the perfect listening environment, I’d start with a comfortable room and a closed door. Add a nice pair of headphones or speakers, and even a paper to take notes, and you’ve got yourself a perfect environment to experience a great album. Of course, driving, jogging, cleaning, and other activities provide excellent time to revisit old favorites, but to intently listen, especially to a new record, the music needs to be the primary focus of your time.
3. Listen to Full Albums/Discographies
This may seem obvious to a lot of people, but many music fans, particularly younger, still view an album as nothing more than a collection of songs independent of one another. This couldn’t be a worse understanding of an album’s purpose. A great record functions much like a great film, with each song acting as a scene. Each informs the next, either through direct storyline in the case of a concept album, or through tone and pacing in the case of a traditional album. Experiencing the piece as a whole allows you to place each song in context of the album and gives a fuller understanding of how each track is meant to function.
Beyond this, albums are far better appreciated when viewed in the larger scope of a band’s entire discography. To take a group like The Beatles for example, their discography tells the story of a young boy band developing into an experimental, psychedelic powerhouse, and similar growth can be seen in several bands of the same era. Placing the album you’re hearing into the larger context of the group’s full catalog makes the listening experience vastly better.
2. Read the Lyrics
It’s shocking how few avid music listeners actually do this, especially considering what an important factor it is, but to truly appreciate a great album, you simply have to read and know the lyrics. Lyricism is especially important in folk and rap music, but across all genre’s, it’s one of the most important aspects of a track. Every word is placed in a song for a reason, and a good listener understands the purpose of each line.
Finding lyrics is very easy. Nearly every song ever recorded can be found on genius.com, often with accompanying discussion on the meanings of each line. In addition, physical copies of music generally come with liner notes or a book which will contain the album’s full lyrics and maybe even a few illustrations. Developing the skills to pick apart lyrics and understand their meaning is a remarkably important skill to a music listener, and it will radically change your experience of some of your favorite records.
1. Listen to New Music!!
This is, without a doubt, the most important part of being a good listener. The most uninformed statement I hear and read on a daily basis is some form of “there’s no good music these days.” The modern music industry faces several issues, mainly dealing with artist pay and copyright questions, but the one problem it absolutely does not have is scarcity! It’s impossible to adequately enjoy the work of someone like Tupac without hearing his heavy influence on an artist like Kendrick Lamar, you can’t fully appreciate the violent intensity of Pantera without hearing the way modern hardcore groups like Code Orange have brought their sound roaring into the 21st century, and ignoring changes in current music leaves you alienated as a listener and removed from the world of music as a whole.
Finding new music is a question I get often, and so let me list a few suggestions. The most obvious and affordable may be Spotify, which takes your weekly listening habits into account to create a 30-song playlist for you every Monday, made up of songs you haven’t heard. Spotify also has playlists like “new releases,” which can give you a taste of what’s coming out now. On top of this, websites like nme.com or billboard.com have yearly lists of upcoming albums. If you have certain bands you enjoy, follow their social media accounts to keep updated on upcoming work and the work of their label-mates. As a reviewer, I also sign up for mailing lists for several labels I enjoy, which means I get weekly emails with updates about upcoming music from their rosters. Virtually every genre of music is thriving in an exciting way today, and sitting out on this exciting era is simply not an option for true lovers of music.