Back to Top

Category Archives: Blog


Off the charts on the Beatles Scale

Off the charts on the Beatles Scale

Taylor Swift, the Curtis Mayflower, D'Angelo and the state of the album at the end of 2014

  1. As is traditional, Craig Semon and myself ended the year with our "favorite album" lists for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Craig did his favorite national releases. I did my favorite regional releases, along with five national albums I felt were worth paying attention to.
  2. In addition, I published a list of my favorite music videos from 2014, mixing both regional and national artists:
  3. I think what frustrated both Craig and I was a national music culture that puts singles before albums. Is this is a symptom of online streaming? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure I remember people saying the same thing about MTV in the '80s. The album, as a concept, waxes and wanes. I've always suspected -- and I have no proof to back this up -- that the album may be a signifier of a more mature dominant music culture. Take the difference from the Beatles' "Meet the Beatles" to "Revolver." Not that there wasn't care in the Beatles' early production, but it was clearly designed to be a series of hits, not a cohesive whole.
  4. 1.) The Beatles-I Want To Hold Your Hand (Meet The Beatles!, 1964) STEREO
  5. Comparing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to, say, "Tomorrow Never Knows," reveals what must have been at the time a fairly startling transition. Indeed, an entire episode of "Mad Men" was built around the idea that the ad execs thought they knew what the Beatles sounded like, until the very end when Don Draper listens to "Tomorrow Never Knows" alone, and realizes that the world has indeed changed on him.
  6. The Beatles - Tomorrow Never Knows
  7. That one song was clearly the product of young men and the other one of older, more jaded artists is self-evident. But the latter is also indicative of artists at the top of their power and experience, willing to push at the boundaries of their art form. Moreover, the target audience for the music had grown up with the artists, and was prepared to give more of its attention span to the music.
  8. The attention to the craft that's required of crafting a cohesive album is fundamentally different than what's required to create a "pop hit," and indeed, record labels have balked at more than one brilliant album by saying, "I don't hear a single." And on a very real level, the record label execs have a point: The downside of the care and technical skill that goes into making a cohesive album is the risk of baroqueing the music, of losing the youthfulness and vitality that made it exciting in the first place. The art may be brilliant, but how successful is it if it loses touch with its audience? For some artists, that's a worthwhile trade-off.
  9. Let us consider, for a moment, the year's most successful recording artist, Taylor Swift:
  10. Taylor Swift - Shake It Off
  11. With her recent albums "1989" and "Red," Swift has heavily signified her transition from country to pop, a move which both allows her to purse her already-established crossover appeal and to broaden her own sound. Still -- while being listenable as a whole and each having a conscious ebb and flow to them -- these albums are largely a collection of singles -- each comprising a string of radio hits aimed largely at 'tween- and teenage girls. And that's fine: Having started her career so early, it's easy to forget that Swift is only 25. Right now, she's making music that appeals to the dominant group of music consumers -- young females -- and playing to the strengths her own youthfulness brings, never mind that she actually writes and co-writes her own material, which is relatively rare in a pop star. On the Beatles Scale, she's may be up to her "Hard Days Night," but certainly not her "Rubber Soul." If that's to come, she's still got some mileage to go. She's capable of it, certainly, but seems very conscious of where she is at the moment, vis a vis her audience. And indeed, not every leap forward for an artist is successful: Lady Gaga, who had always been clever about contextualizing and album, went from extremely successful "The Fame" to the interesting mixed bag of "Born This Way" to the ambitious-but-dull "Artpop."
  12. The latter album put her miles away from her fun singles such as "Bad Romance," but ultimately needs to be seen as a misstep: While Gaga's talent is without question, the modern art theme didn't resonate with her core audience, and it seems she didn't have the experience to reach further to find a new audience for her work: While little on the album is bad, it resonated with neither young or older audiences, save perhaps for the album's big single,. "Applause." Ultimately, Gaga's reach had exceeded her grasp.
  13. Perhaps it's best she's been spending the year singing standards with Tony Bennett: It gives her a chance to expose herself to older audiences while demonstrating her vocal skills, which are often underrated when contrasted against and electronic dance beat. Perhaps this work, this time spent steeping her creativity and building a foundation for an expanded audience, will allow Gaga to make the move forward she intended. And still, a failure that comes from reaching too far is better than one that comes from not hard trying enough: I've yet to listen to the new tracks released online by Madonna, but her last effort, "MDNA," was embarrassingly bad, and smacked of trying to claim a youthfulness that no longer suited her.
  14. Still, the album is the vehicle for an artist to move forward, but clearly not every step forward is successful. The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith have been putting out albums for years, but when was the last time they put out anything memorable? Mostly, they just seem like cash grabs and thin excuses to go back on the road. We're off the Beatles Scale here, and have to measure in terms of Paul McCartney: Artists which are still great live but who don't seem to produce any worthwhile music anymore.
  15. It's not impossible though: David Bowie, Prince and Bob Dylan all put out excellent, memorable albums in the past few years: Albums that seemed to capture where they are now as artists, and which didn't seem at all really catered toward the market. They were intended as statements, and that they were largely commercially successful is beside the point. But it also seems these albums came after a period of seclusion, and were the product of careful thought and recharged creativity.
  16. Those factors seem to have weighed heavily on the year's most interesting release, R&B star D'Angelo's "Black Messiah."
  17. After a 14-year absence, D'Angelo's "comeback" album is something of a masterpiece: Sharp, smart, sexy, and all of it enveloping a sober meditation on race and rage. It's brilliant, thoughtful work, and not the sort of thing that can just be casually whipped together in a studio overnight. It's clear that this had been percolating in the songwriter's brain for some time, and that thoughtfulness shows.
  18. What's clear is that this is the work of a more mature artist, not one chasing the Billboard 100. The work is meant to stand together as a whole, and it's clearly aimed at the audience that loved his work more than a decade ago: A largely African-American audience which is now in its, at the youngest, late 20s to early 30s and which is more politically nuanced than it might have been in its youth. While just a surface reading plays well, there are depths to it that you need some experience to read. It's an album to chew over and discuss.
  19. Time, independence, experience and talent: These are the factors that go into making a truly great album. And some artists probably only need three of them: The Roots' "... And Then You Shoot Your Cousin" is a rich and well-thought out album, easily one of the strongest of the year, but where they found the time to put it together is beyond me, they seem so active. Still, their talent and experience are unimpugnable, and they probably have enough independence from their record label to do as they please, at least within reasonable parameters.
  20. Of course, independence isn't always a good thing. Lady Gaga probably sold so many albums that no one had the guts to tell her that "Artpop" was going to flop. Everyone needs an editor: Someone to tell them when they're way off base. Likewise, while independent music is largely venerated, let's face it: The ability for anyone to instantly record and distribute music has meant that ... well ... anyone can record and distribute music. And they do. And much of it is atrocious. Independence itself is not a guarantee of quality.
  21. But sometimes, when that independence is meshed with talent and experience, the result can be amazing and unexpected. That was the case with the Curtis Mayflower and its debut, "Everything Beautiful is Under Attack."
  22. Everything about this album radiates mastery. On the Beatles Scale, we're probably talking at least "Revolver" -- it's the band's debut, but the musicians are all veterans of the New England music scene. And yet, it has an energy to it, a vigor that balances the maturity of the subject matter: The agonizing disintegration of an adult relationship (as opposed to the operatic "You and me are never, ever, ever getting back together" melodrama of Swift-ian young romance.) I'd hesitate to call that energy the album captures "youthfulness," but it has that sort of electric charge, and indeed, it's what puts the album over-the-top from being good to being great. Moreover, it displays the band's technical skills without tipping over into the Baroque: That place where the music is overcomplicated to the point of pretension. (Would that be "Srgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on the Beatles Scale?)
  23. But what's probably most important -- at least for this discussion -- is that it's an album that knows what its audience is, and doesn't expect a flood of 13-year-old girls to rush to grab it. Don't take that as being dismissive of that demographic: They are totally entitled to their music, and right now they're the group that's dominating the record industry marketplace. Do you need more evidence than Taylor Swift? How about this:
  24. It's OK. You don't have to listen to it. I'm just making a point: If young women are the ones buying albums, then they're the ones the record companies will cater to. And again, that's fine: they've been largely undervalued in that marketplace for decades. Moreover, the "feminization" of the record industry seems likely to expand as its target audience ages, and recording artists begin aiming their work at the young women who grew up with them. It makes one wonder what music Swift will be making at 35 or 45. She seems to keenly know her audience, and she's already transitioned with one shift. Will she be able to do so again? Maybe the future 35-year-old Swift will have an album that's truly great after all.

Posted in Blog|