Now, THAT’S What I Call Music! Part 2: A Reassessment of Contemporary Alternative Music

I suggested in my previous music-related article that the essential component of pop music is catchiness. All other attributes, like lyrical nous and having a fantastic voice, are surplus to requirements if the song doesn’t have a good tune – not necessarily an upbeat one, but one that will slither its way into your head and stubbornly refuse to leave. This means that, all things considered, it’s not that difficult to craft a good pop song. Making alternative music, on the other hand, is like trying to get full marks on Come Dine With Me. You’re trying to cater to every taste other than the taste of mass-production. Ever seen someone serve turkey twizzlers and chips on CDWM? Exactly.

In essence, you’re trying to please people who want something more than that one base factor of catchiness. Making the majority of pop music rigidly generic through over-production may boost sales and chart positions, but it strips it of creativity through trying to cater to every taste. Alternative music has so many branches because, by definition, it constitutes all of the genres that the mainstream rejects or has relegated to the conveyor belt of fashion, recycling it for use at later date. Of course, creative music can invade the charts from time to time – it’s not a rigidly defined binary, and there are overlaps – but they do see long dry spells of banality. Not necessarily unpleasant banality, but songs devoid of real skill (aside from perhaps vocal skill) and inventiveness. In any case, there are so many options on the theoretical menu that there will always be some artists squirreled away in obscurity who you’d enjoy, if you don’t already enjoy the auto-tuned joys on the radio.

The reason I explain this is because, when I ranted last year about the demise of good music, I was ignorant of the existence of a load of brilliant up-and-coming artists on account of the fact they weren’t being played on mainstream radio – hence my using Mumford & Sons as an example of the demise of indie music, despite the fact that they were radioplay stalwarts. I partially blame this ignorance on my lack of having Spotify until last September, but also due to my own laziness in seeking out bands who did fit my criteria for aural enjoyment. If you’re going to moan about the lack of inventiveness in the charts, you have to be prepared to seek out excellent new music. Obscurity may be every hipster’s favourite attribute, which often leads to eye-rolling moments of ‘I liked them before they got popular!’ pique, but these bands’ music is obscure because it isn’t deemed one-size-fits-all and, as a result, doesn’t pick up airplay and notoriety. Artists aiming at a more niche market have time to perfect their trade, and perhaps churn out a classic album or two in the end if they’re lucky. Meanwhile, they can pick up a cult audience who will buy all their records, and attend all their gigs. They bypass the ephemeral rush of the big time that pop stars endure, and along with it the third album failure and being ditched by the record company, and two months later finding themselves cleaning vomit off the floor of a kebab shop on a Saturday morning. Look at Pulp; they may have made it big in 1995, but they’d been 17 years in the making since Jarvis Cocker and a friend formed ‘Arabacus Pulp’ in an Economics lesson. [Ed: Don’t pretend you weren’t expecting me to make a Britpop reference. You knew it was coming.]

The fact is that excellent albums are coming out all the time. Whether it’s innovation, charm, lyrical gravitas, or just something you can get stoned to that you’re seeking, there’s always going to be something that appeals to you – even if you don’t know what it is yet. Even artists you may not have previously liked can show up with a blinder of an album that converts you. I had never particularly liked Gorillaz, but when I listened to 2010’s ‘Plastic Beach’, I immediately retracted that opinion; ‘The Fall’, from the same year, just served to reinforce my new-found love of them. Band members’ musical side projects can also alter your perspective – I’ve been a vociferous doubter of the Arctic Monkeys’ so-called ‘genius’ over the years, but Alex Turner’s soundtrack for indie film ‘Submarine’ is delightful, particularly closing song ‘Piledriver Waltz’. His lyrics are still dubious, mind, but you can’t have everything. Then there are new bands, like Summer Camp, who may not have released a full-length album yet, but have already released some gems – my personal highlights are ‘Jake Ryan’ from their ‘Young‘ EP and stand-alone single ‘I Want You’. And as with so many other alternative bands, they have other talents that bring a little bit of personality to the proceedings; lead singer Elizabeth Sankey writes amusing articles for her blog and for other websites (I particularly enjoyed this one about 80s guilty pleasure film, Mannequin).

So there we have it. Pop and alternative music are neither ill nor dying. My anguished 18-year-old’s hyperbole was clearly, quite frankly, a load of bollocks. If you thought that at the time, you have been avenged. If you didn’t, then go band-finding on Spotify or YouTube and find a future stadium-filler. Your ears will be richer from the experience.


4 responses

  1. Actually catchiness is the hardest thing to accomplish in music. There are very few good pop songs being released right now. Some of the one’s you mentioned in your previous article are only adequate at best.

    1. starkravinglefty | Reply

      I guess catchiness is a totally subjective thing, and doesn’t necessarily save a song from being downright annoying (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen is catchy, but I still hate it). But I don’t think it’s as difficult to create a catchy beat as it is to learn to play guitar with the dexterity that someone like Bernard Butler can, or create something as emotive as Sigur Ros’s ‘Untitled 3’ from their ( ) album.
      I don’t think that now is the most fertile period for pop music – I think there are very few VERY good pop songs being released at the moment, but just enough good ones around. The difference between ‘very good’ and ‘good’, to me, is that a ‘very good’ pop song won’t grate after it’s been overplayed (which is why The Beatles are so good, and I think ‘I Need A Dollar’ and Cee-Lo Green’s ‘F*** You’ fits into this category), and a ‘good’ one probably will – but most pop is ephemeral, so it’s to be expected. If you see what I mean.

      1. Dexterous guitar players are ten a penny (I like Bernard Butler but I wouldn’t count him as an especially dexterous guitar player) but if they can’t write a hook they’ve got nothing. It’s what every musician tries to do and is the hardest part of song writing. Any songwriter will confirm this. As a side issue though, when did pop become a genre in itself anyway?

  2. starkravinglefty | Reply

    I can’t think of many other guitarists who’d be able to play the showboating guitar part from the full version of Stay Together (Slash, Matt Bellamy perhaps… I’m all out now), but you make a good point. Status Quo managed to make a career out of three-chord songs though, so I don’t know if it’s as difficult as orchestration etc.
    And I’d consider pop to be a term referring to music that is wilfully commercial and chart-oriented – perhaps ‘mainstream’ would have been a better term to use, but I’m wary of its connotations with hipster superiority.

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