I hate to be the voice of dissent—especially when it comes to one of my personal heroes—but this year’s Wrecking Ball is far from Bruce Springsteen’s best album. The excitement built around his stark, Occupy-driven album was lost upon listening through Bruce’s repetitive lyrics and reissued compilations (Hello! We’ve already heard “Wrecking Ball”, “Land of Hope and Dreams”, and the bonus track “American Land”). Yes, it’s musically diverse and should produce some arena-rocking power when heard live, but these lyrics can’t be written by the same man whose first few albums were as poetically beautiful as anything ever put to music.
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When Earl Scruggs died a couple weeks ago, the music world lost one of its most innovative and indispensable figures. Rarely has any one individual influenced the way musicians play a particular instrument as Scruggs has with the banjo. His three-finger picking style has become so ubiquitous that it’s what most people automatically hear in their heads when the instrument’s name is uttered. In the shadow of Scruggs’ death, it’s worth taking a look at the role the banjo has played in American popular culture. While some only associate the instrument with backwoods hillbillies and bluegrass music, its history and usage is far more diverse.
Following are ten culturally significant banjo moments. This list is not intended to include the best banjo songs or encompass all the important masters of every genre, but rather to present ten instances in which the banjo, an often misunderstood and unjustly maligned instrument, came to the fore of popular culture, for better or worse. Enjoy!
At the end of January this year, Catskills Records (in conjunction with Asthmatic Kitty) released Queen of the Wave, the fourth album from Finnish-Swedish anomaly Pepe Deluxé, a group centered around sonic scientists Paul Malmström and James Spectrum. Without much of a promotion budget or plans for a North American tour, the album did not storm the Billboard charts. Yet, the idiosyncratic LP, with its grandiose themes and occult-ish, scientific obsessions, is beginning to resonate with a diverse global audience. Indie bigwigs Pitchfork called it “a visionary work”, while one of the world’s most respected music recording technology magazines Sound on Sound called it an “immaculately produced and a really compelling listen!” By design, it’s a contemporary and exciting album, but here are five reasons why Queen of the Wave is destined to become a cult classic whose fame will no doubt grow and influence generations to come.
Madonna is known for her singles. Throughout the duration of the 1980s and into the early ‘90s, it was these releases that defined her career. Her albums were weighed based solely on the success of the singles that came from them, and who could blame her for doing this? Madonna, in the 80s, was on FIRE! Have a look at Sound Affects’ “Top 15 Madonna Singles of All Time” list and you’ll see that eight of the entries are from the ‘80s. Ironically, album-cuts from this era in the pop star’s illustrious career were very clearly never released for a reason. Just have a listen to “Think of Me” from her debut album, “Jimmy Jimmy” from True Blue, or “Pray for Spanish Eyes” from Like a Prayer, and you’ll know what I mean. Madonna placed all her effort on hit songs, which by coincidence produced some bad LP-only material.
However, in the turn of the century, this pattern of throwaway tracks from a jam-packed singles album became less and less true. Madonna’s albums from 1994’s Bedtime Stories to 2008’s Hard Candy have been more consistent in quality. Subsequently, her singles have had less of an impact on popular music, with the odd exception. One could argue that 2005’s “Hung Up” from Confessions on a Dancefloor was Madonna’s last great single. You could blame the change of the musical landscape for Madonna’s fizzled impact, or her inability to truly distinguish which tracks on her LPs pack the biggest punch. Either way, some have gladly accepted that Madonna’s strength no longer lies in massive hit singles, but rather in consistently good full-lengths.
This week, industry professionals, artists, and the media gather in Austin, Texas for the 26th annual South by Southwest Music Conference. What started out as a meeting of the minds and a dog-and-pony-show for new and emerging artists has grown to become a popular destination for music fans. Consequently, SXSW increasingly attracts a broad range of entities with ties to the music industry, including participants, partners, platforms, and consumers of music. The convergence of entertainment media has brought the three SXSW conferences—music, film, and interactive technology—closer together. What was once considered anathema to artists (using rock and pop music to sell products, convey an image, or establish a brand) has become so common that the notion of “selling out”, once a label that could imperil an artist’s ability to maintain their integrity, has become quaint. In what has become a virtuous feedback loop, music helps sell movies and products, while movies and products help merchandise music. Music appears anywhere and everywhere, embedded in devices, advertisements, and film and television scores, no longer just existing as standalone works of art. Consequently, SXSW has grown from a glorified trade conference into a pop culture juggernaut.
To fully appreciate the ubiquity of music in our lives, and SXSW’s emergence as a major commercial force beyond its importance as a taste-maker and trendsetter, we take a look at a list of ten memorable performances from last year’s conference. If these moments trigger a sense of familiarity in the embedded SXSW experience, you’re probably the industry insider, hipster, local, or combined hip-local-industry-insider who refers to the conference as “South By”. If you are new to the SXSW experience, view this list as a crash course in what to expect from the conference.