There are end of decade lists, really? This decade will not end until the end of next year – January 1, 2000 was a great excuse to party and to feel paranoid about some of the strangest things, but, people, the year 2000 was just that, the final year of the previous millennium. Is counting that hard?

It’s unfortunate to see that NPR has a problem with counting as well, they think 2009 is the end of this decade. Okay, well, their entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But according to their opinion, it’s time to make lists. One of these is The Decade’s 50 Most Important Recordings, which doubles up on the arbitrary, being both a list of fifty items and also denying anyone putting out a record next year, the actual last year of the decade, from being included. “Sigh.”

The criteria are problematic too: “records that signaled some sort of shift in the way music is made or sounds, or ones that were especially influential or historically significant.” Seems good at first, but the first phrase has no particular meaning, unless one is talking about recording and reproduction techniques or new instruments. What kind of shift could there be? What are new ways of making music? Fundamentally, music has been made the same way for tens of thousands of years. And the biggest new sound in music comes from the previous decade, the use of Auto-Tune, but that’s a technical innovation, not an aesthetic one.

Influence and significance are also tricky subjects, though worth exploring. Influence in pop music can be gauged fairly quickly, as big hits breed almost immediate imitators. That’s most a matter of one recycled trend replacing another, however, and only infrequently does an idea appear in pop music that hasn’t been there before (and those ideas come from other musics). Longer-term influence and historical significance are impossible to judge in contemporary contexts. In the 1950s Herbie Nichols was almost invisible, and the influence of Bach and Mozart waxed and waned and waxed.

Of course, it’s hard to make such lists, and possibly pointless. I have a few ideas of what I would put on this one, but I not going to bother with the arbitrary count of fifty recordings; the number of important recordings are whatever that count is. Fifty also seems both inflated and short, as the temporal decade has yet to end and the cultural one, which began on 9/11, has no end in sight. Here are my arguments with their list:

First on the NPR list is John Adams’ “On The Transmigration of Souls,” an obvious choice but a lazy one. Musically, this is not one of Adams better works, and I think the problem is with the cultural context. Commissioning music to commemorate 9/11 is problematic and sentimental. A concert piece ‘about’ 9/11, what could that possible be and do? This is Adams as a pasticheur of his own work, and the use of cell-phone calls is a cheap trick. It’s a bizarre narrative of events that seem to need no musical accompaniment. The other specific musical responses to 9/11 don’t truly respond to it, Laurie Anderson’s concert recording is distant and soporific, Sonny Rollins’ is one where the context exists only in the title. The one true musical response to 9/11 is the recording of the Mahler Sixth Symphony by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, the first in their Mahler cycle and made from concerts that same week. After that morning, 9/11 became a series of images and impressions that end the same way, no matter how many times they are repeated. The Mahler is a known quantity that also comes to the same conclusion every time. But it is a mirror to incomprehensible tragedy, a work that struggles humanely against tragedy before failing. It has no false, sentimental answers, only sincere questions. At a time when people were rushing for comfort (and the Adams piece is comfort of an insidious kind, with the context of making something better which can never be ameliorated), the Symphony stuck to it’s musical and artistic commitment and played with unbelievably controlled anger and passion, every attack and phrase at a knife’s edge of emotion and chaos. The radically slow Adagietto is an existential cry out to the universe. The concert for me restored my equilibrium, and the recording stands as a testament to how art should respond to such waste.

It’s tough to put pop music on the list because it’s tough to find anything that had both pervasive influence and new qualities, but Animal Collective certainly belongs on there. I don’t choose “Merriweather Post Pavillion,” though, it’s too tame, squeezing their sublime chaos into mainstream forms and phrases. The band is important for breaking out of the constraints of song form and standard instrumental pop styles, and at their best they convey a sense of surprise rarely heard in pop. The new record reins that all in, but the balance between play, production and focus is best on “Feels“, from 2003, second on my list.

In Third, I do agree with “These Are The Vistas,” not only a fine record in it’s own right but an important step in jazz. Jazz musicians have been playing pop material since the beginnings of the genre, but this is a first, even after the fusion era: a jazz band filtering improvisation and interplay entirely through the styles of pop and rock music.

Burial’s “Untrue” is an interesting choice, but where NPR hears Dubstep as an important new genre, I hear it as a further subdivision within the already exceedingly, and superfluously, fine divisions between a huge variety of electronic dance styles. It’s important symbolically, in that it represents the bizarre solipsism of much of this music, the style of which is dividing schismatically yet narrowing, not widening. “Untrue” is a good example of that paradox, in that an ear not trained in the specific taxonomy of styles will hear it as well-produced, interesting electronic dance music. Musically, it never fulfills the hype, and as a more musically successful example of Dubstep, I prefer
Aerial” from 2562 as my fourth on the list.

Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album” certainly belongs as the fifth entry. Digital media is the single most important cultural development of this generation, putting the tools of manipulation and recombination into everyone’s hands. Aesthetically and legally, this record is the single biggest challenge to the idea of intellectual property. Danger Mouse is the opposite of Girl Talk; Gillis appropriates other people’s work and thinks that makes it his own, while Danger Mouse uses other people’s work to create something new which is entirely his own. One is a thief and a fraud, the other is an artist who is doing what artists have been doing for hundreds of years, just without the commodified baggage of corporations and laws to hound them.

Put Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” on here, certainly, but combine it with Trent Reznor, dual sixth entries. Musically, the work of each speaks for itself and has produced a limited number of imitators who will not endure. Culturally, they have done what few other commercial artist have yet been willing to do, which is not only abandon the corporate model of music distribution, but put themselves in the position of charging nothing for their recordings. Not everyone is in the position to do this, of course, but that these important artists have has yet to be fully understood.

Illinois” is a great recording, and also an example, for seventh, of pop music really doing something new. The most important trend in pop music this decade has been the transplantation of pop styles and ideas into the work of contemporary classical composers, and this is the most notable work of pop music which takes ideas from contemporary classical and jazz and makes substantial, successful music with them. Stevens’ orchestral piece “The BQE” shows his musical skill in this regard, but “Illinois” is more adventurous and is a great record.

Most of the NPR list is disappointingly middle-brow and mediocre, pop music that may seem profoundly important in a context defined by Clear Channel, but ordinary, if solidly done, in the context of the universe of music (and that’s the only honest context for this kind of list). Arcade Fire, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Death Cab For Cutie, Norah Jones, Eminem, Norah Jones, Yo-Yo Ma, OutKast, Shakira, Sigur Ros, Britney Spears, Wilco and Amy Winehouse? Let’s see how influential and important they are in another ten years. Some of the reasoning is embarrassing in it’s blithe ignorance and limitations; it’s not possible to seriously say that Amy Winehouse “takes vocal cues from Sarah Vaughan or even Billy Holiday” if you’ve actually listened to all three women sing, Norah Jones is sweet and totally bland and that’s the worst kind of influence, Jordi Savall’s “Orient-Occident” does what Ma’s Silk Road Project does and betters it in every way imaginable, and while Kelly Clarkson and American Idol have had a huge influence on the pop music landscape, honest criticism would point out that the emphasis on cheap and showy vocal gymnastics over actually singing and expressing musical and lyrical ideas is not something we should praise.

There are other important records from these last nine years;

Phil Kline’s “Zippo Songs,” a measured, devastating combination of art song, electronics and experimental rock, and a cultural response as important as the SF Symphony Mahler Sixth.

Bernhard Lang, “DW 8, 15, 3.” There are many Lang releases this decade, this one perhaps the easiest to find and the best single representation of his style. Digital technology has produced a new way of making music, based on the method of looping sound files, and it’s hard to believe the NPR list does not represent this at all. Lang not only represents this but has adapted the technique, and the use of turntablists, to Western Classical music, and the effect is disorienting, gripping and stunning.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Infernal Machines.” Making big band music safe for rockers, hipsters, jazz fans and classical composers alike.

Steve Lehman, “Demian As Posthuman.” Another new way to make music is to build complex and uneven rhythms via programming software. A newer way is for musicians, especially drummers, to take that idea and recreate it as live humans. A further new way is for jazz musicians to take that as a new rhythmic basis for making contemporary music. Here it is.

Mikel Rouse, “International Cloud Atlas.” Music composed and arranged for iPods. It doesn’t have to be good to be important, but it’s good. And important.

Something from Tim Hecker. Digital technology has been eliding pop music listening with avant-garde electronic music from the classical tradition. A lot of people are doing it well, Hecker is an ideal primary example.

Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine,” and Bjork, “Medulla,” because they belong on the list in place of Kelly Clarkson, Norah Jones, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. Come on.

Kraftwerk, “Minimum-Maximum,” one of the most important and influential pop groups of the past thirty years, they are responsible for a huge expanse of current records and styles. Their new boxed set (which I will be reviewing) is an interesting contrast and challenge to the commodified revival of Beatlemania.

Nico Muhly, “Mothertongue,” a look into moments of something in process, a conjoining of classical, pop, improvisation and new music that is still too inchoate to have a clear direction, which makes it important and exciting.

Significant listening, all.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.