Clapton in North Korea would be good for who?

Not necessarily following the lead of the New York Philharmonic, EC's management said that he has no plans to play in North Korea. And so the isolation debate continues, just as it does with Cuba and Iran. But is music really the answer to softening relations and bringing 'rogue' nations in line with American foreign policy (which itself is many times suspect)?

Jazz and classical musicians toured the former Soviet block countries during the Cold War- Dizzy Gillespie joked in an interview that he was totting the 'cool weapon,' referring to his trumpet. Did it really do any good and bring down the 'Red Menace'? It certainly help to spread the word about the music though obviously the Soviets had a long history of classical music already and would soon develop an ardent core of its own jazz (and later rock) musicians. You could also point to Czechoslovakia's 'Velvet Revolution' as being music inspired though even Vaclav Havel would tell you that it wasn't Lou Reed and friends who helped to bring down the Soviets. As best, bands like the Velvet Underground, the Fugs and Mothers of Invention inspired the people who would help to bring about change.

So is the hope that the same would happen in North Korea? If so, why would the dictatorship allow Western musicians to do shows there? Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm about the Philharmonic playing in North Korea, saying that this was just a way for the government there to put on a good face and appear tolerant. The Washington Post's Anne Midgette (a quality writer for sure) took a saner, more reasoned approach to the story, explaining not only how this was a small scale diplomatic maneuver for both countries but also that North Korea already has a classical base that's noted in other countries.

At one time, it was unimaginable that rock bands would play in China but Wham! led the way and many others, including the Rolling Stones, followed. China itself still censors news and access to the outside world (i.e. they would bloke Net access to an article like this) but there's hope upon hope that small cracks appear and more freedoms might follow. Resistance to this kind of logic has also kept the U.S. embargo going on Cuba though it's persuasively argued otherwise that increased exchange would help usher out Castro's ongoing regime (which will likely survive him, at least for now).

In the end, music isn't going to bring down Kim Jong-il anymore than a campaign song would get Barrack elected or stop Bush's war plans. But it can influence hearts and minds much as the Peace Corps' done (speaking as a former volunteer) and that's a good first step. It sure beats gunboat diplomacy.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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