The landscape of popular music is changing so rapidly that no one really has a handle on where it's going. A decade ago, few record-store devotees would have predicted that the mighty Tower Records chain would dissolve completely in a bankruptcy proceeding or that overall sales of the hard-copy CD album would decline to the point that even the notoriously change-averse music industry would question its future. And who could have imagined in the early days of the Web that an assortment of influential music blogs and a social Web site called MySpace would play a greater role in exposing young acts to the public than all the established music rags, radio stations and video channels put together?
That's exactly what transpired in 2006, and those monumental - and at times very painful - changes are just harbingers of things to come.
A complete revision of how music is promoted, sold and consumed is well under way, that much is certain. But will iTunes win out in the digital download sweepstakes? Will the upstart music news and review site Pitchfork Media continue to serve as the arbiter of choice for young, college-educated followers of indie rock? Will any act ever again command the kind of exposure, acclaim and sales bestowed on old pop stars like the Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Nirvana? Does the Universal Music Group's plans to make its entire catalog available for free on Spiralfrog.com - to anyone willing to view a few ads while downloading - represent the future of music distribution on the Web? And will Universal's decision to sue MySpace for users' unauthorized posting of copyrighted material redefine what we mean by "free" music?
I don't have the answer to any of these questions. After reading a few dozen posts by amateur bloggers, professional music scribes and pretty much everyone else with a computer and an opinion about where music's been in 2006, I can say for certain that lots of folks don't have much confidence in their tea-leaf-reading skills.
With 60,000 long-form CDs released in 2006 (that is, officially tracked releases), the cornucopia of new recorded music couldn't have been more bountiful. However, the growing collection of top 10 lists from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Amazon.com and many more music watchers assembled by Metacritic.com suggests that the commenting class dealt with that overwhelming fecundity of organized sound by sacrificing independent thought for the comfort of group think.
Like many of my fellow music-lovers, I recognize that TV on the Radio's shape-shifting Return to Cookie Mountain fused rock, soul, hip-hop and symphonic music so completely it's impossible to straitjacket their achievement in some generic category. And I agree that Bob Dylan proved on disc and in concert this year that his blues are far deeper and more poignant than anything the most unabashed trash-rocking kid can dish up. Of course, Ghostface Killah showed on both Fishscale and its instant followup, More Fish, that there's lots of life left after Wu-Tang. Sure, NPR.org (now the arbiter of a reasonably adventurous, quasi-hip version of white- and pink-collar taste) was correct in its claim that with Savane the recently deceased Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure gave a master class in ongoing musical cross-pollination between Africa and North America.
Though her Lisa Simpson-esque trilling isn't my cup of tea, like Pitchfork, I can't help thinking that singer-harpist Joanna Newsom is opening indie sounds to something far beyond the usual products of college-educated guitar bands. I kind of doubt that her unconventional - and at times terribly precious - album Ys will still be dominating a lot of iPod playlists when December 2007 rolls around. Then again, Pitchfork's writers and the thoroughly smitten pop critic from the New Yorker certainly aren't wrong when they state that this year's indie It girl is making a whole lot of very popular indie acts seem hopelessly out of date.
My Chemical Romance? Well, they certainly leapfrogged emo with The Black Parade, their critically acclaimed exploration of a bleak, comic-book-inspired universe where the omnipresence of death and dying seems to color every thought and action. This isn't arena-rock as mom and dad knew, but there's nothing wrong with that.
I agree that the Decemberists' abandonment of their beloved sea chanteys for art-folk and prog on The Crane Wife produced some strong moments.
Oh, and if anyone came close to providing the perfect pop-soul soundtrack for another hazy, fucked-up summer in George W's America, it was Gnarls Barkley. Their loopy, deliciously tuneful "Crazy" made radio worth listening to.
That's all cool stuff, really. But most of it's directed at a very limited audience. I know that, and so do most list-makers. Maybe we don't care that aside from Justin Timberlake (I guess we all agree he's funky now), the kinds of artists who have a shot at beguiling the mainstream don't rate with us at the end of the year. Older rockers are cool, of course. Dylan is a regular listee. Ditto for Bruce Springsteen and his remarkably sly use of old protest forms on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
But the platinum-seller by "American Idol" winner-turned-country-queen Carrie Underwood or the latest by meat-and-potatoes rockers Nickelback? Forget about it. Few of us even acknowledge that "Idol" has managed to create a successful, more or less democratic model for bringing new music to the people. That's probably a mistake. I mean, generic hard-rock singer Chris Daughtry didn't even win the enduring TV talent show, and yet his self-titled album is currently battling with Gwen Stefani's heavily hyped new CD at the top of the sales chart. Forget about Beyoncé, Snoop Dog and Fergie and their former mastery of the cash register. Their new releases are all sucking wind behind both Daughtry and Underwood's work.
I'm not sure these kinds of acts need to make top 10 lists, but they do need to be acknowledged at the end of the year. I'm all for spinning the zesty electronic dance-pop on Hot Chip's The Warning deep into the night. It's marvelous. So is the more pugnacious DIY roughhousing that is the Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. But I know that it doesn't represent a lot of folks' "year in music." I also know that those actual CD buyers and concertgoers may end up driving change in the music business in ways I can't conceive of at this complicated moment. So I'm keeping an eye on 'em, even if a lot of my peers aren't.