Rock music has taken a beating from critics over the past few years yet in the past six months music fans have seen youth and creativity injected into the genre. Rock is alive and well, it’s just on the fringes.
Today the most prominently featured artists on the rock section of the iTunes music store are The Beach Boys, Neil Young, and The Beatles. From a business standpoint it’s certainly hard to argue that iTunes is wrong by putting three of the biggest names in rock history such a heavily trafficked spot but it wouldn’t be a reach so guess that by now any music fan hoping for a new album to listen to has probably had their fill of Lennon and McCartney. Forty-three years after its initial release does Yellow Submarine deserve a better spot on iTunes than anything released in 2012? Some people would say yes, but those people would be wrong and probably not much fun to hang out with.
About six months ago, The Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney had this to say about the state of America’s once favorite genre:
“Rock & Roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world … So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit — therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that!”
Now, the fact that Nickelback is one of the most often ridiculed bands in the world makes it clear that no one outside of their own fans is okay with them being so popular. When Carney is right, though, is where he points out that rock and roll is dying because of our perception of it. Would-be fans just shrugging off the genre because of lack of exposure really is killing off the bands that shred guitar solos and trash hotel rooms. Contrary to popular belief, rock music still exists…and kicks ass.
So far, 2012 has been incredible for rock music. Still, there are two main reasons fans that want to raise the devil horns have been disappointed and they’re closely related. The first is that new, original rock music is classified under the gigantic indie rock umbrella. The second is a direct result of the first. Despite garnering bits of attention from Rolling Stone and other first tier music publications, groups like The Alabama Shakes and Lucero don’t have the financial backing that’d allow them to have wider exposure, radio and otherwise. Even in the age of the Internet, most music consumption is still about convenience.
Popular belief would have you believe that iTunes doesn’t have any other choice than to put artists like Neil Young on the front section of their rock music section. That there simply isn’t any quality new rock music that’s worth buying anymore. Untrue, which also exposes how badly music fans need to broaden the parameters of what artist plays what type of music. Except for maybe Coldplay who’d classify themselves under “boring,” artists don’t define themselves by genre. Why should we?
If Neil Young started releasing music now he’d be considered an indie singer/songwriter closer to the Avett Brothers than Joe Walsh. The same goes for the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds falls closer to Dr. Dog’s excellent 2012 release Be The Void than anything on classic rock radio. Would The Black Keys sound out of place in a playlist after Led Zeppelin? Of course not, the same goes for Jack White. Gentleman Jesse is sticky power pop band in the vein of Cheap Trick at its grimiest yet is totally of the map for most Cheap Trick fans. Cheap Girls and Archie Powell and the Exports would’ve fit in at 1979 CBGBs opening up for the Ramones. There isn’t a lack of quality rock music, there’s just a lack of attention being paid to it. Diamond Rugs (made up by members of the Black Lips, Deer Tick, and others) just released a beer soaked album about chasing girls. They could’ve opened up for AC/DC in 1980.
From Nirvana to The Black Keys, some of the biggest rock bands in the past few decades have cut their teeth in sweaty clubs only to find stardom years after their inception. Since The Strokes faded away there’s been a whole new wave of bands that have slowly developed and now seem poised to break. My Morning Jacket built up their reputation by touring around the country cranking out 70s riffs for a decade. Finally, they quietly sold out Madison Square Garden in December.
Back in January the New York Times published a scathing review of the state of mainstream rock. Times critic Jon Caramanica declared the headbanger dead because of boring releases from Nickelback and Chevelle. The problem is that in the eyes of too many people, he’s right. Nickelback and Creed are what music fans think of when they picture rock musicians. The Foo Fighters are the closest thing we have to a big time, quality rock band and Dave Grohl is known first for being a really nice guy and secondly as their lead singer.
There are only so many sounds that a guitar, bass, and drums can make, right? Kind of. The most buzzed about band so far of 2012 has been the Japandroids, a group who titled their second album Celebration Rock. There has never been a more fittingly titled record. The Vancouver-based band is made up of only a guitarist and drummer but on every one of Celebration Rock’s eight songs sounds like they could’ve come out of a monster truck muffler. The same Jon Caramanica even reviewed the Japandroids when they first broke in 2009. Hopefully at the end of 2012, he reconsiders limiting the scope of his year in review to corporate rock.
For both fans and critics, it’s lazy to judge an entire musical category by what’s on the radio. The scariest part, however, is the inability of major-labels to recognize the potential that young bands have. In an increasingly niche driven world, artists like Wilco and the Flaming Lips have been able to carve out their own audiences all while remaining on the fringes of the music industry. Today, they’re two of the most respected groups in all of music. In twenty years, they might make it to iTunes’ home page.