Ten to The Top
2003 was hard for music, but there were some winners.


It has been said, quite correctly, that whereas the objective of an industry is to generate a product, the object of a business is to produce money. That has certainly proven true in the arts. In music, commercial concerns have been important since the rise of a middle class created an increasing market for songcraft in the 19th century, displacing to the margins the most important former patrons, most notably the wealthy and the churches. Commercial concerns have risen to a peak since the 1970s and ’80s, when the world’s most important music companies were acquired by large conglomerates, which cemented their transition into being strictly businesses.

This has been quite harmful to the art of music, though it has been a boon for the production of entertainment, as the industry hares after every social trend in the quest to find new ways to pry money out of people’s pockets. It is why visual styles are so important in this TV age, and why MTV was inevitable. And it is why music follows and fosters social trends both good and bad, without any evident concern for aesthetics, ethics, taste, or sobriety, and indeed often seems actively hostile toward such things.

As the social wheel spins, so goes music. Trends come and go. Today, emotional intensity appears to be the most important thing, but even so, some waves are receding as audiences show a preference for more positive emotions. Rap, once all but ubiquitous, seems to be waning, slowly but surely; the broader category of hip-hop, though, with its rather more positive social aura, is still going strong.

Also in apparent decline are Goth and some of the more extravagant heavy-metal categories (of which there are a truly bewildering variety, I can assure you). On the other hand, frat rock, which is punk music’s more sanguine and engaging stepchild, is as strong as ever. It’s punk rock by and for people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Mainstream pop is still somewhat in the doldrums but is significantly stronger than it was a decade ago, when grunge, rap, and industrial were dominant. Young ladies such as Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, Avril Lavigne, and Hilary Duff make up a solid trend in this area. It is hardly a coincidence, one suspects, that they all look mighty good on TV.

Country music has continued its recent proclivity toward having precious little to do with either the country or music. The Dixie Chicks parlayed this strategy to its extreme, managing to offend their core audience with witless comments about a sitting wartime president, uttered in a foreign country no less, and then, after being roundly criticized by their fans, ostentatiously declaring that they no longer wished to be considered country musicians. As if there had remained any doubt of their apostasy after their most recent albums, videos, and public-relations activities. Like the Dixie Chicks, country music today is mostly warmed-over pop.

Although creativity is definitely lacking in most of the commercial music being produced today, stylistically everything seems to be seeking the extremes. Hence, while aggressiveness and bombast remain popular, especially among younger audiences, sentimentality is also a potent factor in the market. Sentiment, of course, appeals more strongly (but by no means exclusively) to those with a little less spring in their step, with American Idol contestants Ruben Stoddard and Clay Aikens emerging as two of the most prominent proselytes of the craft of Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, and the like. Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and other Harry Connick Jr. followers produce wholesome but rather mundane jazz-influenced pop for the nostalgia crowd.

Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) seems to fill a similar niche among today’s more religious music consumers. As the joke goes, you just take a standard pop song, replace all instances of “baby” with “Jesus,” and you’ll have yourself a perfectly marketable CCM song. But nothing that will make anybody sit up and take notice, of course.

All of this sentiment-oriented music seems calculated to comfort and reassure a bourgeoisie devoted simultaneously to sensual pleasures, material comforts, and a romantic view of life. It is entertainment for a world of Madame Bovaries. Unlike most rap and hard metal, this music does not actively corrode bourgeois values, which is commendable as far as it goes, but its creators’ vision of the good life appears rather limited and stale. So please pardon me if I cannot muster up a full three cheers for this trend.

Nonetheless, on the fringes of this area and elsewhere in popular music, there is still some interesting work being done. Noteworthy releases of the past year include Van Morrison’s What’s Wrong with This Picture?; Elvis Costello’s North; The Power to Believe, by King Crimson; The Ragged Curtain, by the English group Manning; Some Devil, by the Dave Matthews Band; Sonic Boulevard, by Tomas Bodin; and One Bedroom, by the Sea and Cake.

The best (and most promising) debut album of the year was An Other Life, by the American band Akacia. Packed with interesting and appealing melodies, this album of four long songs, billed as “progressive rock with spirit,” is exactly that. The virtuosic guitar work of principal songwriter Mike Tenenbaum stands out, but also notable are his tasteful keyboards and a solid rhythm section. The vocals, by Eric Naylor, are very strong and expressive, and the lyrics center on religious themes presented with evident devoutness and sincerity. The music is very catchy, ranging from exhilarating highs to wistful pensiveness, and overall the album is quite a pleasurable and stimulating listening experience–and an impressive achievement for a debut work.

And now, in ascending order of quality, my choices for the top ten records of the year.

The slyly satirical Barenaked Ladies spoof commercialism and celebrity on Everything to Everyone, and the result is another intelligent, musically inventive album by this always entertaining pop band. It’s not as strong as the band’s best releases, but the Ladies’ gift for agreeable melodies has yet to desert them.

The Waterboys’ brilliant Universal Hall is another vivid and expressive collection of songs by the gifted English songwriter Mike Scott. Scott and his band (of which he is the only permanent member) have been making mature, classy, sometimes folky, sometimes harder-rock music for two decades, always highlighted by his intelligent, philosophical, passionately Christian lyrics. “Always Dancing, Never Getting Tired” and “Universal Hall” stand with the best songs Scott and the band have ever made, and Universal Hall is one of the finest albums by this severely underappreciated group.

A rather startling departure from a group’s previous efforts is the enchanting Damnation, by the Swedish death-metal (!) band Opeth. Produced by progressive rock stalwart Steve Wilson, Damnation is a surprisingly melodic and exquisitely beautiful album from a band previously known for bleak and furious heavy metal. Featuring exotic, euphonious melodies, brilliantly controlled instrumental accompaniment and solos, and sober, often moving vocals by Mikael Akerfeldt, Damnation is one of the most sophisticated popular-music albums of the year.

Progressive rockers Spock’s Beard weathered well the loss of primary singer and songwriter Neal Morse (more about him later), releasing the excellent Feel Euphoria. The new album has a harder edge than most of the Beard’s previous repertoire, but the 20-minute-plus song “A Guy Named Sid,” composed by drummer and new lead singer Nick D’Virgilio, is classic Spock’s and classic prog. This is an album that becomes more appealing with repeated listening.

Blink-182, the sixth studio album by the popular punk-pop band of the same name, is as energetic as the group’s previous outings but more adventurous lyrically–in a newly mature way–and more creative musically. The result is Blink-182’s most satisfying record yet.

Zwan, the new band fronted by Billy Corgan, former leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, sounds a lot like his old band, but that is by no means a bad thing. In fact, Corgan seems to have been re-energized by the new crew, and appears to be having fun now. Corgan has always been an excellent singer, guitarist, songwriter, and arranger, but his gloominess and sneery vocals made most of the Pumpkins’ output something of an endurance test for any listeners not already in great need of Prozac. Both the music and lyrics of Zwan’s Mary, Star of the Sea, released in January, strongly suggest that Corgan has undergone a conversion to Christianity, and the album is an intelligent, often intricate congregation of powerful but controlled guitars and Corgan’s passionate vocals. (Corgan recently announced Zwan’s breakup, saying that his heart was still with the Smashing Pumpkins. It will be interesting to see how his new attitude works in the old band.)

David Bowie’s Reality easily ranks among his best albums of the past two decades. Covering nearly all of the many musical styles Bowie has worked in during his career, while applying lots of new wrinkles and his knack for odd, unexpected, but enjoyable musical quirks, Reality is quite impressive in its musical creativity. A high point is “Days,” a lovely song both musically and lyrically, which should become a classic.

Welcome Interstate Managers, by Fountains of Wayne, reminds us of just how varied and inventive pop music can be–remember that this is a style largely set by the Beatles, and they were, besides being marvelous tunesmiths, highly creative and innovative arrangers. Like the Barenaked Ladies, Fountains of Wayne represent the eclectic, inventive side of pop music, and they can go from punky to sweet to country in the blink of an eye. The hilarious, ultra-catchy “Stacy’s Mom” is a highlight of the album and a well-deserved commercial hit.

After leaving Spock’s Beard, the multitalented Neal Morse released, under his own name, the impressive two-disk set Testimony. Telling the story of Morse’s conversion to Christianity, Testimony presents the classic Spock’s Beard sound–astonishingly appealing pop-music hooks, sophisticated lyrical themes, a strong command of numerous styles of music (notably folk, jazz, classical, prog, and church traditions), virtuosic instrumental work, and Morse’s passionate, forceful vocals. The album is divided into five suites of interconnected and continuous songs that dramatize steps that happened in the composer’s own life, in which he learns about his own shortcomings and then finds the answer in Christianity (hence the album’s title). The sense of triumph at the end is powerful and well earned. The music of Testimony is brilliant, the lyrics are intelligent and uncompromising (and unflinchingly honest), the story is a classic one, the singing is powerful, and the overall result is something very like a masterpiece.

Great as Testimony may be, there was an even better album released at almost the same time: Be, by the unjustly obscure, Tennessee-based band Salem Hill. This brilliantly inventive group of musicians is usually categorized as producing progressive rock, but their music really defies classification. Formed in 1991 and creator of seven albums since then, the band expertly masters sounds ranging from heavy-guitar hard rock to Beatlesque pop to whispery acoustic enchantment, while their lyric content is consistently earnest and intelligent and often savagely satirical. Their 1998 release, The Robbery of Murder, was one of the very best albums of the 1990s.

The songwriters’ strong Christian faith tends to be at the forefront of their compositions, and lyrically it often takes the form of seeing all the sin in the world and wanting to tell about it, in all its ugliness and brutality. The band’s musical agility and songwriters’ skill in composing artful lyrics, however, prevent things from becoming lugubrious.

Be, my choice for Album of the Year, is “a 71 minute rock symphony,” as singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboarder Carl Groves describes it. The album possesses all the trademark characteristics of the Salem Hill sound but with a somewhat harder musical edge. Musically, Be is thoroughly coherent even though its sounds range widely. Crunchy guitar chords segue smoothly into exquisite vocal harmonies. Bright pop melodies sung by sweet voices express dark, foreboding lyrics. Grand, symphonic passages and fierce electric guitar solos contrast aptly with quiet excursions into folk-inspired acoustic guitar or tinkling bells. This is as mature and sophisticated as popular music gets.

Composed of 15 interrelated songs, the album appears to tell a story involving some rather dire events, but it also includes occasional instances of humor to help the medicine go down. Choosing highlights from so consistently excellent a recording is hazardous, but “Nowhere Is Home,” “The Great Stereopticon,” “So Human,” “The Red Pool,” “Apollyon,” “The Perfect Light,” and “Regard Me” are particular standout tracks for me.

The one real, though minor, flaw of the album is the printed inserts: The artwork is evocative and mysterious, but the song titles and lyrics as printed do not match the sequence of songs on the disc. (In addition, the band thanks this author for “writing nice things,” but I can assure you that this bout with fame has not colored my opinion in the slightest. This is simply a great record.) Listeners will have to skip around a bit to follow the story line, but even then, much of the narrative will probably resist any literal interpretation, remaining somewhat enigmatic and sinister. Only the broad outlines of the pervasiveness of sin and the need for redemption are really clear, but those are, after all, the truly important things.

The fact that our society can still foster music evoking such sophisticated thoughts is a ray of hope in the corrupt world Salem Hill describes, and works like Be can go a long way toward improving our souls, the first and necessary step in calming this troubled domain. It is up to audiences and consumers to make the industry take notice.

S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.