Thursday, April 26, 2012

WANTED: The Next Rock Band To Change My Life (and Perhaps Even the World)

A few years ago when I was setting up a Google Profile page--I'm still not sure why--I was posed a question that now seems to have disappeared:

What are you searching for?

My answer was: The next Nirvana

To quote another great rock band, and one still in existence at that, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." 

Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough--some people knew about Nirvana, and U2, at least 2 years before I did--although what I've found fills me with anything but great expectations.

For instance, I recently caught wind of a band called fun.--yes, the lowercase "f" and end period are part of their name--whose song "We Are Young" spent six weeks at #1 on the main Billboard singles chart, making it the biggest hit of 2012 and the biggest in quite some time by a "rock band."

But I don't care if the video has over 38 million hits--and fun. has been hailed in Rolling Stone as one of the "25 Best Things in Rock Right Now" and Entertainment Weekly as one of the "30 Greatest Artists Right Now"--the song is mediocre at best. I just picked a random, middle-of-the-pack Cheap Trick song, "I'll Be With You Tonight," and enjoyed it eons more than "We Are Young."

And if, unlike me, you are young and need to hear an anthemic song about it, check out "When You're Young" by the Jam or, for something more recent, "When You Were Young," by the Killers.

Not that the Billboard singles chart has ever really been a source for learning about rock songs I might like, but taking over for "We Are Young" at #1 was "Somebody That I Used To Know" by Gotye, an Australian who is also hailed the aforementioned Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly spotlights. To each their own I guess, but pop songs about our hidden selves used to be at least this good. Or, if your tastes run even a bit poppier, this good.

Now, believe it or not, I don't like sounding like a whiny old fossil. 

Thus, as I do fairly often, I've been actively seeking out new music, including some that friends and the music press recommend (since the radio is relatively useless these days), as well as stuff I just kind of stumble across.

I subscribe to Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and TIME, get Facebook feeds (and often read/listen to additional content) from Paste Magazine, Rock It Out! blog, NME magazine, and WXRT radio, among others, and frequently talk to music-loving friends about what they're listening to of late.

Though I don't listen to all that much music on the radio, I have myriad options on SiriusXM, will occasionally see who WXRT (among other Chicago stations) is playing & hyping and I sometimes check out online feeds from NME Radio, KROQ (from L.A.) and various stations through iTunes. I also sometimes use Pandora in hopes it will introduce me to something new (or even old, good and unknown).

I visit the great site virtually every day, check out charts and samples on Amazon (including for England), utilize Wikipedia for music research along with much else and have taken to utilizing Spotify for quite a bit of free sampling.
So it's not like I'm just sitting around waiting for the second coming of Led Zeppelin to rise up and smack me upside my headphones.
And while part of the dearth that I rue is the lack of "rock stars" and mega-bands that become part of the zeitgeist, I am not suggesting that a great band must reach the stature of Zeppelin, the Who, Nirvana, etc., to be considered as such.

J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. / Photo Credit: Francis Chung,
Due to the internet and perhaps cable TV, many art forms including music reach a much more segmented public nowadays. But less-than-household-name artists such as Dinosaur Jr., Jason & the Scorchers, Alejandro Escovedo and many others have long been among my favorites.

And one of my foremost passions has been seeking out and sharing bands who are/were big in England but not so much in America, from the Move to the Jam to Stereophonics, to the Automatic,  the Fratellis and the View (I still love this song from the latter).

So if I am ignorant about great rock artists--especially those achieving some degree of mass appeal--that have come to prominence (e.g. released an album) in 2005 or later, I am ignorant in the "I don't know" sense, not "I don't care."

Who have I been checking out lately?

Click image to hear "Jealous Girl" on YouTube
Recently, I have listened to new albums by: 

Alabama Shakes
Neon Trees
White Rabbits
Deer Tick
Ben Kweller   
The Menzingers
Cloud Nothings

All of them have some merit, with Kweller's "Jealous Girl" probably my favorite song so far in 2012. His album, Go Fly A Kite seemed quite promising for the first three songs, but I was fairly well bored by song #6.

Thus, when I refer to a great band (or solo rock artist), I don't mean one that has a catchy song or two, gets a bit of fleeting buzz and can play a decent 45 minute festival set.

There are several "good" bands out there, but there's a considerable distance between "good" and "great" that few are crossing.  

My criteria to consider a rock band "great" requires at least 3 of the following to be true:
1. I have bought an album of theirs
2. I expect to buy the next album they release and at least one other, past or future
3. I have seen them in concert as a headliner or would want to
4. I would want to see them in concert as a headliner at least three times (in different years)
5. I believe they can sell out a 15,000-seat arena or will one day
Click image to hear title track on YouTube
Although I've enjoyed music I've heard from dozens of artists, I consider only three post-2005 bands to be "great" per the above criteria. And given that two of them are largely unknown in America and the third is defunct and largely just a studio concoction of one guy, I realize I may be reaching a bit. But they are:

- Maximo Park - A British band whose 2005 album A Certain Trigger was my favorite of the '00s. Their fourth album, The National Health, comes out in June and the lead single/title track sounds good.
- The Len Price 3 - Another British band who had my favorite album of 2010, Pictures. For skeptics, here's a song called "I Don't Believe You."
- LCD Soundsystem - A "band"--primarily just James Murphy--that had three stellar albums and was great live, but have seemingly ceased to exist.

If I were to extend my time frame to bands that arose since 2000 (roughly), I could add:

Arcade Fire
- Arcade Fire
- The Killers 
- The White Stripes
- Coldplay
- Muse

Although, in truth, while they meet my criteria above, I consider Coldplay, Muse and The White Stripes to be good bands, not truly great ones. And while I very much like Maximo Park, Len Price 3 and LCD, I can't really cite any of them as life changing. So that leaves Arcade Fire and The Killers as the only new bands that have really mattered to me in the past dozen years.

Though I'm not fully a disciple of the Black Keys or My Morning Jacket, they have achieved impressive levels of popularity, and I think they're pretty good. But not great.

Fleet Foxes has had some pretty good songs, and I saw them in concert last year. But though the show was great at times, it also somewhat bored me. So while they meet criteria #1 & 3 above, I'm not even sure I'd care about their next album, let alone want to see them again.

In putting together my Best of 2011 CD compilation, I spent a good amount of time listening to albums by the Smith Westerns and Wild Flag, which I think were pretty strong. Other acts of recent vintage that I'd cite as a cut above the rest include the Decemberists, Florence & the Machine and Band of Horses. I only came to pay attention to the New Pornographers in the last year, though they've been putting out albums since 2000, but I now like much of what I've heard.

The Smith Westerns are a pretty good young band from Chicago,
but don't exactly exude the iconography of Led Zeppelin or Queen
So it's not like I'm saying there's no music of merit being put out. And though guitar-driven rock has always been my favorite musical genre, I have found a fair amount of enjoyment from Adele, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, recently minted artists who have reached the superstar level well beyond any recent rock bands.

It's also no coincidence that since 2000, I have developed a far greater appreciation for other musical genres, including Broadway, jazz and classical.

I further realize that hip hop artists like Kanye West and DJ/producers such as Deadmau5 have risen to the levels of fame, acclaim and success that many rock bands used to. And perhaps this isn't merely a coincidence. Guitar driven rock might not ever again be in vogue like it was in the '60s and '70s.

And though I've had hopes that the popularity of Guitar Hero games would breed a new generation of kids with an appreciation of classic rock, who then learn how to play real instruments, write killer riffs & hooks and form great bands, I've yet to see any evidence of a rock 'n' roll renaissance.

Still, I'm not saying that rock is dead; 
it just seems to have stopped giving birth.

Beyond my own vast music collection and what I can find at stores (including Amazon, iTunes, etc.) and libraries, Spotify--even if I don't quite understand the legality--has made it easy to check out almost any artist and album, from any time period. So despite all my kvetching, the truth is that there's more than enough enjoyment--and even discovery-- to be had in the rock music that already exists.

Photo Credit: A.M. Saddler,
And over just the course of 2011 and 2012, I have seen (or will/might see) many longtime favorite acts live in concert, including Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, U2, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Van Halen, Rush, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Seger, Ray Davies (of the Kinks), Peter Gabriel, Foo Fighters, Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd), Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Wilco, Garbage, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Dinosaur Jr., The Beach Boys, Smoking Popes, Alejandro Escovedo and Willie Nile. (Willie put on one of the best shows of 2011 and is again playing at Fitzerald's in Berwyn this Saturday.)

So there are many reasons why I still believe in rock 'n' roll...and should always be able to derive much enjoyment and nourishment, even if simply from old CDs or their digital substitutes. And discovering a stellar-yet-unknown veteran band--like I did with The Wildhearts around 2004; this song could be the Cliff Notes version of this article--or even a long extinct group I never heard of can be nearly as invigorating as having a great new one come on the scene.

But when Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, U2, Metallica, Guns 'n' Roses, Nirvana and several others rose to prominence, they had a pronounced societal impact.

I don't notice that happening anymore and two great rock bands arising since the turn of the century just doesn't cut it (and even if you put the number at four, six or ten, the sentence still holds).

Here we are now, entertain us. Please.
So all this blathering can really be summed up by saying:

I miss the excitement of experiencing the next great rock band that can change the world. 

Or at least mine. 

If there are any great rock artists of relatively recent vintage you think I should know about but don't, please tell me. 

(I'm also happy to hear about anyone you suspect I'm obvious to from way back when. Here's a still rather accurate list of my 100 Favorite Artists of Popular Music.)

And here's what Rock 'n' Roll used to sound like:  

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