POP MUSIC’S SAVIOUR

By Gabriel Assouline

 

“Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.” – Joni Mitchell

In today’s world, pop star status equates “crossing over” and selling out. What “sells” and what is played on the radio, in commercials and in movies today is what follows a specific formula for success. While the taste and smell and sound of the ingredients change with time, the formula, or recipe, stays the same. It usually falls within 4 different categories: The female pop star – Taylor swift, Beyonce, Lady gaga, Britney, Christina, Rihanna, Katy Perry, the Queen Madonna and on and on; The Male R&B star – Justin, Usher, Bruno Mars, Chris Brown, Drake…The Rock band – Coldplay, U2, Bon Jovi, Nickelback, Imagine Dragons etc… The Dance anthem – I’m too sexy, I’m sexy and I know it, Avicii (any track), David Guetta (any track).

There are those that say pop music today sucks & for good reason, but we must all acknowledge the benefits of a catchy, glossy radio tune. Everyone needs a happy song to sing in the shower or on their way home from work. These pop songs may disappear soon after they made their way into our psyche, but they do provide us with true moments of joy. And so right before they expire and become so uncool and objects of collective hatred, they deserve a heartfelt thank you.

“Your sons and daughters are beyond your command…The times they are a-changin” -Bob Dylan

Before Americans (and the rest of the West) became shallow & stupid as Joni Mitchell declared, pop music was something quite different. The 1950s saw the birth of pop music, coinciding with the advent of youth culture post WW2, where young people became the focus of what was cool rather than being told to behave. And so with young people leading the way, we saw the rise of Doo wop, Rockabilly, Rock & Roll, the British invasion, Classic Rock, Disco, Hip-Hop  & Electronic music . A byproduct of youth pop culture, the musician as a star and icon, came to be starting with Elvis & Jerry Lee Lewis and culminating with the Beatles.

The music that resonated with kids at that time had a rebelliousness and an edge to it rarely seen by white audiences (but on full display by black artists since the advent of Jazz). And while many clones and record company puppets tried to create a formula, the real stars of the 60s and 70s were true artists with a distinct sound, identity and mission. They perfectly fused the universes of cool and artistry. In other words pop music then was solid, groundbreaking music that constantly evolved and reinvented itself while remaining accessible and radio friendly. Cool was a byproduct of the music and not vice versa.

It all changed in the 80s of course (Michael Jackson being in my opinion that last true pop star) and today as mentioned in the opening paragraph, pop music has become formulaic (the good ones tragically die young: Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and yes Tupac) and generic to the point where most people resort to “crate digging” and listening to oldies.

The modern pop “star” formula today, the mix of social media savvy, riding the coattails of other stars, a lot of selfies, cars, sex and provocation and some talent has rendered pop MUSIC dead.

A saviour may however be upon us & his name is Paolo Nutini.

 

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You haven’t heard of him? Good, that means he hasn’t sold out. yet.

Paolo Nutini is a 27 year old Scottish singer/songwriter of Italian descent. He released his first album, These Streets, in 2006 – at the age of 18 – and his second album, Sunny Side Up, in 2009. Now after selling more than 3,000,000 albums, Paolo Nutini is getting ready to release his third album entitled Caustic Love.

Paolo Nutini not only follows the tradition of 50s and 60s pop stars by creating catchy music of high quality, he also sometimes sounds like he time travelled from the 60s. His music is heavily influenced by the jazz, big band and Scat he listened to growing up and his voice gives the impression that one is listening to an old soul that’s smoked for 30 years and endured 5 lifetimes of love and pain. His lyrics are wise and clever and betray a subtle edginess and grit.

Paolo Nutini is the type of artist that would have found success in any decade. His talents, soul and brand of music are timeless. That’s saying a lot in a generation of one hit auto-tune wonders. Where others fit in, he stands out. Where others try hard to be different to stand out, he stands out while with his natural abilities. His music is both familiar and new, his lyrics at once common and unique. Paolo Nutini proves that there is always room for good pop music and innovation within pop music without trying too hard. Indeed he makes it look so easy.

An avid fan of his music since his first album came out, I’ve made Paolo Nutini fans of many people I’ve come across. With every album he’s released, he’s made me look like a visionary, his music displaying growth and diversity incorporating swing, jazz, bluegrass, reggae and R&B influences.

Now on the eve of the release of his third album on April 18, he has released a new single: Scream (funk my life up). True to form, it’s different from his earlier material, but better. It’s been 5 years since he last released an album and the second that song comes on you know he hasn’t lost a step.

Paolo Nutini keeps his music fun but serious while not taking himself seriously. A star for his music not his larger than life ego or looks or who he’s dating, Paolo Nutini holds the torch passed on by greats like Buddy Holly, Cab Calloway & Van Morrison to name a few. He is on the cusp of breaking out in America and he will do so on his own terms.

While I patiently wait for the new album to come out, I have taken the liberty to remix an acoustic cover Paolo Nutini recorded of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up.Enjoy:

Good Songs Under 2:00 AKA What Could Have Been

Songs don’t need to be long to be good. The average pop song usually lasts no more than 3:30 seconds, while early rock n roll songs used to average around 2:20 minutes but left the listener feeling satisfied.

Every once in a while though you fall on a piece of music that you wished had been developed further. A brilliant but condensed melody and structure that is so good, you wish it had been stretched out and expanded instead of leaving you wanting more and having to play it on repeat.

Such are the following songs. Some are intros other are outros and some are just short songs – all 2 minutes long or less. While we wonder what could have been, they are all still excellent as is and contain little nuggets of genius.

I could have added a few others to this list, but the common thread in these next 4 songs is the strong melodic component that grabs you that I have not found in others(or have forgotten).

John Frusciante: Untitled #10

Album: Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt

John Frusciante is the genius former lead guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They made their best music with him and his playing can be recognized on songs like Under the Bridge, and Road Trippin. Some great guitar videos of him are floating around the net. You can check out his new stuff on his website.

Lenine: Samba Do Quilombo

Lenine is a brasilian singer/songwriter that I discovered a few years back, at the height of my obsession with everything Brazil, a phase that lasted a good 3 years. He’s not the best nor my favorite but this is a great song and I must’ve played it on repeat a hundred times. As with most Bossa Nova, neither the chord progression nor the song structure is conventional voice yet there is something catchy and exhilarating going on imo. I’m not quite sure what album it is from. Educate me if you know.

The Beatles: Her Majesty

Album: Abbey Road

This song written by Paul was featured at the end of the Medley on the B side of the Abbey Road album. I had read something about the song being placed somewhere else on early releases of the album and I have also seen longer versions of it on youtube. This however is the official version that everyone knows. It’s obviously a classic and a great song as is. However this could have been a hit had it been made into a full song. A typical catchy smooth Paul McCartney acoustic number that you can hear over and over again. However at 30 seconds long it becomes frustrating…

DJ Quik – Outro

Album: Balance & Options

Switching gears to rap music. More specifically, West Coast P/G funk . DJ QUIK is one of the best if not The best rap producer out of California, all time. In 1995, after having been listening to NWA, Eazy-E, Notorious BIG and Wu-Tang, I saw a picture of a dude in a Red flannel shirt and red Phillies Baseball Cap in The Source and he just looked badass, a less flashy, more mysterious Snoop. One listen to his album “Safe & Sound” had me hooked.  This is the outro to his Balance & Options album (my 3rd favorite after Rhythmalism). This song has been my ringtone for 2 years and I’ve never had 1 complaint and i’m still not tired of it. Great beat – could have been a hit, can still be a hit!

 

Hidden musical gems in films – Part 1

Music almost always plays a central role in any good movie. Sometimes the music is discreet and subtle in order to trigger a certain feeling – fear, suspense,excitement. In other instances, the music is more central to the story, with a happy songs (for example) punctuating scenes and helping set the tone while getting the viewer emotionally invested in the film.

Movie soundtracks in the 90’s were used as a platform by big mainstream rap artists to “break out”, such as Warren G with the song “Regulate” on the “Above the Rim” soundtrack or Aaliyah with “Are you that Somebody” on the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack.

Composers (think Hans Zimmer) became world reknown for creating soundscapes that were so iconic that they led to multimilliion dollar sales of movie soundtracks.

But this post is about something different. The song within a movie that is not composed by Hans Zimmer and that does not appear on the soundtrack.

The song you remember after you see the movie but can’t really find it anywhere.

I’m on a quest to find the best ones. Here are 3 that have stayed with me and that I listen to again and again

It seems like these songs have a common theme..

1- From the movie Glory featuring Denzel Washington & Morgan Freeman

2 – From the movie Imitation of LIfe –Trouble of the World -_Mahalia Jackson

3- From “Rio Bravo” – My Rifle, pony & me – Dean Martin & Ricky Nelson