How Do We Separate an Artist’s Sound from Whence it Came?

Radiohead’s Kid A turned 20 last month, which, at the time of its release, was considered polarizing: was it groundbreaking, or a letdown? It’s been regarded as the former, but upon its anniversary, a common response was: “I remember how game changing it was, but I can’t seem to recall a single song on there.” Kid A was, in fact, deemed a gamechanger – the first album of its kind to not only effectively use the internet, but also sound like it. They were a rock band that was not afraid to take a left turn.

But, today, we remember Kid A not because of the innovative soundscape techniques it invented, but because of the sheer audacity to challenge limitations that it spun onto other artists. We don’t necessarily hear it in albums today, but in artists daring their listeners to challenge themselves. But how do we separate an artists’ innovative sound from whence it arrived? What’s our best approach to justly identify with an album without the context of when it came out? And how does our perspective of it change overtime?

Naturally, the most direct way to experience an album context free is to, that’s right, sit down and listen to the album. The sitting comes first. And depending on the record, the context in which you experience it for the first time will vary. A first listen to Dark Side of the Moon, which very much shows its innovation on its sleeve, will be different than a first listen of Is This It? – two game changing albums that were the result of the period they were produced in. One feels like you have baggage you have to unpack, the other feels natural, un-interfered with deepened analytics.

Take an album like Sgt. Peppers, for example. An objective listener today could listen to it for the first time and not understand its significance nonetheless consider it one of the best albums of all time. But consider what was happening to the band at that time – it was the era when Lennon first started seeing Yoko Ono, becoming less involved in the marketing/planning of the record, allowing for Paul McCartney to take leadership of the album’s visionary direction, thus making it (arguably) the first ever rock ‘n roll concept album – the “Sgt. Pepper” alias was merely a device for the band to release themselves from any pre-existing restraints, allowing them to try different approaches. But by listening to the album objectively, how can we discern any of that?

Return to Kid A, probably the most hyped, anticipated rock album since Nirvana’s In Utero. The band’s fans expected a continuation of their previous effort, Ok Computer. But what came was vastly different: synthesizers instead of guitars, vocoded vocals, ambiguous song structures that didn’t end where they began. It was a move unprecedented, coming at the turn of the century when new technology started becoming available to us, the internet was finally being monetized. Boy bands and Brittney Spears were dominating airwaves. But how can we accurately judge the album’s worth without having to hear the rest of the band’s discography?

Kid A was the first full Radiohead album I ever listened to. I hadn’t heard anything else outside of “Creep” and that one song from the Twilight soundtrack. I had seen numerous publications naming it “album of the decade,” which peaked my curiosity. And even without knowing the context and the baggage of the zeitgeist, I was still hypnotized and blown away. From first listen, I could sense the timelessness of this album.

But some sounds take time to judge how “timeless” they will really be. When Black Sabbath first discovered their signature sound, it was a far cry from the bluesy-jazz clubs they’d been accustomed to. And when they unveiled “Black Sabbath” for the first time, people were appalled – the satanic, heavy sound was never heard before. And when they released their debut album in 1970, it took a while until it started finally climbing the UK charts. It was polarizing – you either loved it or you hated it. But how many heavy metal bands sound like them now? Every single one of them. Wu Tang Clan is another example. When the 36 Chambers was released, the cut and paste, psychedelic sound was so idiosyncratic, that you couldn’t compare it to anything.

The Gorillaz debut self-titled album is another example of an album’s sound being so separate from the time and place it came out. It was drastically different from both Blur, Damon Albarn’s Brit-pop band, and all the other Brit-pop bands dominating UK charts. Yet, it almost instantaneously set the sound for how indie rock and electro dance rhythms would merge and takeover North American airwaves. The album was lauded upon release, and we find it as a very commonplace-type sound now. But was it so timeless that many bands copied the sound and capitalized on it? Do we still acknowledge the album as such even though we find the sound so common now? How do we judge it independently from its impact?

And often times, artists themselves don’t even comprehend the potentiality of how timeless their music can be. Take Daft Punk’s “One More Time” – you hear it everywhere after its release in 2001. However, Daft Punk recorded it three years prior, and shelved it to finish the rest of the Discovery record and see how it would stand with time. And when the album was released three years later, “One More Time” was already the sound of 2000/2001. It sounded like nothing at the time of its release, but was then heard everywhere and mimicked for the entirety of the 2000s.

All of this music seems so relevant now, but at the time of their release it was anything but. It’s interesting how our perception of this game-changing music evolves, and how the sound becomes imbedded in our pop culture eco-system that we eventually become jaded to it. If one looks at it like an upside “U”:

…where the left end contains the most unfamiliar, strange, cacophonous music imaginable, and the other end is “Happy Birthday” – the most familiar, recognizable music imaginable.

The familiarity of the music traverses this upside down “U” from left to right. If a piece of music starts on the left and becomes increasingly popular and familiar, it travels up the “U” to the top to the region where the two ends meet. This is where most of the genre-defying music we’ve talked about resides – unfamiliar music made familiar, or familiar music with a twist. That’s what we as humans latch onto – same, but different. But as time went on, and pop culture adjusted, they drifted to the right, becoming more familiar.

But it’s peculiar how time plays a factor in all of this: some artists will rise in popularity based on their ability to bridge the unfamiliar and the familiar, and others will fade into familiarity. But which artists today who we see as genre-defying will traverse their way across the “U” to make their signature sound a household name? Who out of popular music today will we still be talking about 20+ years from now? And how long will it take to get there?

First, we’ll start at the farthest left on the spectrum as possible. One of the most recent and clearest examples is Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Like Kid A before it (and inspired by it), it was at first divisively received due to the public and his audience not knowing how to process the album. It contained non-traditional song structures, little percussion, and entry points in the album that seemed in-accessible. However, the sentiment and message behind the album shined through all these layers, as listeners began to acknowledge what at first appeared to be the album’s weaknesses, as the album’s strengths. As its cult status rose in popularity, listeners and musicians began to see the album as a cornerstone of influence – pop songs didn’t have to be transparent, verse-chorus-verse formulas. They could be opaque and open-ended. And now, just a few years on, one can see the net of influence it’s casted – Lorde’s Melodrama, King Krule’s The Ooz, and Blood Orange’s Negro Swan.

Probably the strongest example in the last two years though is 100 Gecs. A duo from St. Louis, they strive to make cacophonous, glitchy “art-pop” that sounds like elements from various genres put into a blender. The result is so layered and frenzied, that it requires the listener to actively force themselves to listen to the entire record. Like Blonde, what at first seems inaccessible gradually becomes a peak in curiosity. With repeat listens, the hooks and melodies become apparent. They first made waves when their debut album’s artwork, 1000 Gecs, became a meme, along with the strange reputation the music brought with it. It caused a lot of questions and eyebrow raises upon its release, eventually being written up in Fader and New York Times highlighted by their peculiar sound. But now, their sound is seeping into the mainstream. After a collaboration with Charlie XCX, they’ve inspired another round of artists rising in popularity such as A.G. Cook, GFOTY, and Hannah Diamond, also members of the record label/collective PC Music. Their lush, shiny production pallet and aggressive electronics is a sound that’s often been toyed with, but is now finally gaining popularity amongst “art-pop” artists, partly because it’s a sound that actively destroys, chews up, and spits out any genre that it comes across. Which is probably why it’s been so popular in the past year – it’s not one identical sound. It’s many disparate sounds and genres actively interacting with each other.

But it’s peculiar how 100 Gecs became popular today, as in, today’s music climate. Had we experienced 100 Gecs in 2010, would we still be thinking the same thing? Would they have had a rise in popularity? Probably not just yet, maybe they’d become a cult status over time, but I think the reason they’ve risen in popularity today is because they are a perfect representation of every musical tool set available at once. They came along in the first decade where a generation of musicians did not know a world without the internet. They’re the first representation of a new “beast” of music to arise from the amalgamation of all the resources available to musicians.

Billie Eilish is another name that comes to mind. Her music is very much “on the edge of the box,” as opposed to inside or outside. However, I think it’s a tad too early to judge the sphere of influence her debut album will leave behind. It’s groundbreaking, most definitely. But its legacy has yet to be determined.

Oneohetrix Point Never is another good example. At once also opaque and not mainstream accessible, his sound has been able to seep into the mainstream and drive artists in a new direction, particularly last year with scoring the feature film Uncut Gems and producing the Weeknd’s last album, Blinding Lights. At once “airy,” his sound has come from the depths of strange and un-formulaic, to tool sets and soundscapes for other artists. How long till his sound is the norm, though, has yet to be seen. It’s popular and singular for the moment, but how long will this moment actually last?

When one takes an album out of context of the time it came out, it’s difficult to gauge the impact it has made in the years after. Did we know that Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On?  would be the legacy album it is today upon its release? Did we think Kid A was going to be the time stamp of the internet that encouraged artists today to step out of their comfort zone? The only factor that really determines these outcomes is time. We don’t know as consumers what will stick or land in the coming years. There is no old music and new music, there is only music we have heard, and that we have not. Our only responsibility is to see music on an equal playing field and appreciate the emotions and sounds these albums try to tackle.

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