I was sitting in a dark, somewhat seedy bar in Kondapur, Hyderabad when the “DJ” started to play Summer of ’69 and the dark, somewhat seedy crowd went wild. I was amazed that even in 2014 there were people who had failed rather spectacularly to outgrow Bryan Adams’ anthem to nostalgia. When I was 15 and in high school, everyone was learning to play that very song on guitar. The seedy bars I went to aged 18-21 played Summer of ‘69 on the hour every hour. And here I was again, 26 years old and watching people cheer and whoop as soon as Bryan Adams’ annoying voice croaked “I bought my first real six-string!” through the speakers.
That’s when the penny dropped. These were not disparate groups of people; no, they were the same. The same people who cheered Summer of ’69 in seedy bars at the age of 20 in 2008, were cheering Summer of ’69 in seedy bars in 2014, aged 26. Was it because they had stopped caring about music in the same way I had stopped caring about whatever gritty new American TV show was all the rage on social media? Why was that? After giving that question a bit of thought (and gin), I came up with the idea that it’s because we are now rather suddenly gaining an understanding of the value of time and the imminence of death. When you’re 15 or even 21, time is an empty stretch of ocean extending before you until it disappears over the edge of the horizon. All you want to do then is experience as much as you can, drown yourself in new and exciting pleasures. At 26, you start spotting land at the end of the horizon and suddenly, your time is precious and you want your pleasures to be simple, uncomplicated, regular, and something you can share with as many other people as possible. Thus, it’s easier to cheer and whoop to the unimaginative and clichéd strains of Summer of ’69 than it is to go out there and search for good contemporary music. It’s probably why our parents (or at least mine) stubbornly held on to their old tapes of Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar even while AR Rahman was making the best music of his career, before his he turned towards the new musical direction of rampantly stealing from Algerian and Middle Eastern musicians.
Well, I thought some of you might be interested in exploring new music once again, just like you did while in college, though instead of a large folder full of unorganized mp3s that span genres, decades, and quality; all I can offer is a list of some rather interesting musical acts I have come to grow rather fond of since 2010. Unfortunately, it is quite common for people who are knowledgeable about any human endeavour to use that learning as a weapon to protect their own fragile and bloated ego. Thus, people now are rightfully hesitant to heed anyone’s suggestions for trying out new music. Well, luckily for you, I’m not some sort of music connoisseur, and this is not some sort of hipster one-upmanship contest with me saying, “Look at all this music you’ve probably never even heard of”. These aren’t exactly underground acts; some of them have been around for over a decade. I’m just putting this out there in the hope that this list spreads and I will not have to endure any more Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi the next time I’m at a seedy rock-themed bar in Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Delhi. So, without further ado, here is a collection (in no particular order) of what I believe is the best music I have heard in the last 4 years.
1. Das Racist
Some of you might have already come across the comedy styling of Hari Kondabolu. If you haven’t, I recommend you check this and this out. Das Racist is a rap group that consisted of Hari’s younger brother Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dapwell), fellow ABCD Himanshu Suri (aka Heems), and Victor Vazquez (aka Kool A.D.). Their formation story is rather different from most hip-hop bands; they met at the prestigious Wesleyan University, perhaps the United States’ leading liberal arts school, which counts 13 Pulitzer Prize winners, and the likes of Joss Whedon, the creators of How I Met Your Mother, and Michael Bay in its alumni. The band is not some sort of privileged minority satire of hip-hop as much as it is a deconstruction of rap, race, and politics in the US. The name, a phoneticized version of ‘That’s Racist’, was a response to what Himanshu Suri described as a game “(…) to take all the seriousness out of making legitimate commentary on race, because that can get very annoying. So when something veering on racially insensitive would pop off in a commercial on television or something, it would be like, who could yell “That’s Racist” first”. Of course, if you don’t care about the socio-political commentary behind the music and just enjoy some phat beats and sick rhymes, this could work for you on that level too.
In something with no precedent whatsoever in all of human history, some sort of revolution is taking place in Paris. Daft Punk were just the beginning, there is a lot of very interesting musical talent emerging from France, most of whom sing in English. French electronic/indie rock group M83 have been making music since 2001, but I only heard them for the first time in 2011, when their album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, was described by music critics as a summoning of the best of The Cure and New Order. That, the fact that the band are named after the closest and brightest spiral galaxy in the night sky, and that ‘cosmic’ and ‘trip’ were the most commonly used words to describe their sound, made me check them out almost instantly. While they definitely combine elements of 80s synthpop with a very 90s shoegazing, post-grunge feel, I would have to say that their sound can be best described as the auditory equivalent of watching an episode of Doctor Who. Particularly, an episode written by Steven ‘Adds Needlessly Messianic Undertones in Everything’ Moffat.
Somewhere in the 1990s, metal completely lost it. Metallica started making shit like Load and Re-Load before making St. Anger and Death Magnetic, two ginormous pieces of pure, unadulterated excrement that now make Re-Load look like one of their greatest albums ever. Iron Maiden too only came out with their last good albums, Brave New World and Dance Of Death between 1999 and 2003. Throughout the 2000s, instead of rocking out, sticking it to the proverbial Man, and headbanging so hard that it took three cans of Violini spray before you were capable of lifting your head the next morning; metal fans indulged in only two pastimes. The first was arguing about who invented metal (some say it was Black Sabbath, others say Judas Priest, others say Led Zeppelin, and a few even point to The Beatles, with Helter Skelter as the first metal song). The second was arguing about what sub-sub-genre of metal a band or song belonged to. “What? Death Metal? Can’t you see this is clearly Norwegian Industrial Alternative Melodic Sludge Doom Heavy Grindcore?” Well, Deafhaven is a metal band that combines death/doom/whatever metal vocals with a sound that tends more towards Magnesium or Aluminium than heavy metal. Since no metal review is complete without coining a new genre to describe the band, I hereby dub Deafhaven ‘Death Mithril‘. It may come across as slightly disconcerting to the metal regular at first, but it grows on you until you can see the complexity and calmness behind the facade of chaos.
4. Broken Bells
As I said before, this is not supposed to be a list of “underground bands you’ve never heard of”. Broken Bells is a huge, multi-platinum selling supergroup consisting of James Mercer, the lead singer of The Shins (you know, the guys who made this song?) and Danger Mouse aka Brian Burton. Who is Danger Mouse? He is the Illuminati, the Men In Black (well, Man…), the Petyr Baelish of contemporary music. If in the last ten years you’ve heard an album that you think is something really good, possibly even awesome, there is a very good chance that Danger Mouse is lurking in some corner of that CD/record/folder. He’s worked on albums for Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Norah Jones, Beck, Sparklehorse, Electric Guest (a nice indie rock band I’ve just started listening to today, so I can’t feature in this post), and is working on U2’s next album. Danger Mouse, along with Cee Lo Green, also formed the group Gnarls Barkley; you’ve probably heard their Grammy Award winning song Crazy from their Grammy Award winning album St. Elsewhere. So, yeah. Danger Mouse + Shins = Brilliant. Check it out.
5. Kendrick Lamar
See, I told you this isn’t going to be a list populated with obscure artists nobody’s ever heard of! Unless you haven’t heard of Kendrick, in which case, I assume you don’t follow a lot of contemporary hip-hop, because he has been receiving high praise from almost every rapper, producer, and casual rap enthusiast in the world. Case in point, when his album good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t win the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, the winner – Thrift Shop‘s Macklemore – himself stated “You (Kendrick) got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” While that probably doesn’t do much as a recommendation, though it might endear Macklemore to you a bit, it is genuine. Kendrick is probably the best active MC in the world right now, and that’s in a list that includes Eminem.
6. Enter Shikari
Though this band has been around since 2003, and their breakthrough album came in 2009, I only heard them for the first time in late 2010. And no, they aren’t Indian. Enter Shikari’s post-hardcore metal sound, accentuated with dubstep-influenced electronica, is brilliant on its own, but what makes this even better is that they appear to be quite earnest musicians with a message. Their songs talk about the alienation that many young people feel with the establishment, the sense that the best days of your life are behind you and that those days were pretty shit to begin with, as well as climate change, resource inequality, and the urgent need for a social and economic revolution. It’s the kind of “youth empowerment” stuff we hear with nauseating regularity from the kind of people who BJP supporters call NGO-wale; except it’s put to some great music and expressed using words and emotions that reflect my sentiments about the issues more accurately.
7. Dualist Inquiry
If you have a TV in India, you might’ve noticed a new channel some time ago. If you haven’t, turn on channel 667 on Tata Sky (I don’t know the numbers for the other cable service providers and can’t be bothered to look them up). That’s the first good thing MTV have done since Fully Faltoo. Called MTV Indies, it’s a channel that’s dedicated (as of now) to Indian independent music. It’s also the first MTV channel worldwide to show a music video in nearly 8 years. The flagship band for this channel is, in my opinion, one of if not the best indie band from India now. Dualist Inquiry’s Doppelganger was easily the best album to come out of India last year. Their sound is an electronic heavy, synthpop influenced, psychedelic and largely instrumental kind of indie rock. Whilst not especially inventive or original, they are a step in the right direction, and their excellent production and skill could easily lead to the kind of genre-busting, path-forging new sound many of us are waiting for Indian indie bands to create.
8. The Child of Lov
When I first heard the self-titled debut album of The Child of Lov (aka Belgian/Dutch musician Martijn William Zimri Teerlinck), I couldn’t help but compare him to Damon Albarn. The album shared many similarities with Albarn’s early solo work with Gorillaz, viz. the incessant genre-switching, the almost child-like glee of making any sort of musical cacophony, and where Albarn’s Gorillaz fused electronic music with rap and hip-hop, The Child of Lov’s fusion tendencies created a Frankensteinian amalgam of electronic R&B and soul music. I treated this album as the early exploratory forays of a musician whose career I was expecting to follow rather keenly. While looking up his real name for this blog post, I found out that he died on December 10, 2013. May his electronic soul rest in peace.
9. Tame Impala
Did you like The Beatles when they were the Fab Four? Did you like them more before they went Back In The USSR? When Sorry Girls, Lennon Was Married and not The Walrus? When Paul was still alive? But do you also wish they could also win the Ashes 5-0? Well, lucky for you, there’s just such a band! Starting this brief about Tame Impala with a comparison to The Beatles may seem unfair to the Australian band, but what they lack in mop-tops, they make up for with a sound that’s described as neo-psychedelic space pop/rock, but is actually 60s hippie revival. These Bondi Beach Boys have successfully managed to integrate the music and feel of 1960s UK and California into Sydney and thereafter around the world.
10. The Lightyears Explode
If for nothing else, their album’s name: The Revenge of Kalicharan and their album cover. But even then, what I like about The Lightyears Explode is the fact that these guys come closest to achieving that unique, Indian-indie sound that we’re looking for. A piece of musical originality that betrays its roots better than the odd strain of a veena or beat of a tabla ever can and is yet more forward than backwards. I’m not saying this Mumbai-based punk band has it, but they’re heading in the right direction.
And with that, one hopes the tyranny of Bryan Adams will fade into darkness and the Winter of ’69 shall finally be upon us, and it will not be a moment too soon. You know, when I look back now… that summer seemed to last forever.
If you’ve read this far, sneak the words ascii 42 into a comment and the next time we meet in person, I will buy you 2 drinks of your choice.*