Despite a few great albums that dropped this past year, I feel adrift whenever I consider 2005’s musical developments. Great works are popping up in the most disparate places, but no movement has coalesced around the best and brightest. It’s as though listeners and artists are stuck in some kind of holding pattern, waiting for the next life-changing explosion of musical vision that’ll unite “TRL” viewers, Clear Channel listeners and underground snobs alike. Part of the reason for this is that I’ve let my expectations creep a little too high.
Those of us who youthfully received our musical education by emulating our parents or older siblings know the obsessive joy of plumbing a back catalogue. There are few moments during which one’s faith in the world seems so endless as when you learn that there are more Beatles songs than the one your dad says he named you after, or when you figure out that “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” isn’t just an unattributed folk standard – it was written by a prolific master musician with 40 years’ worth of albums for you to discover.
This stuff isn’t current, but that makes it history. You’ve got to inform yourself. This background of obsessively observing, devouring and idolizing music whose creators and original audience aren’t exactly your contemporaries – yet whose art you feel so intensely that it’s as if it’s directed solely at you – creates in listeners a ravenous appetite for more.
Fans like these – like me – aren’t just “listening” to another Velvet Underground album. We’re unraveling a mystery whose solution seems to become a little more tangible with each ever-more-lengthy version of “Sister Ray” we study through headphones. And after consuming official releases, we need more to burn through: More content, more clues to understanding what’s grounded us, inspired us, saved us.
Like any enduring religion, there’s a little guilt under all that exultation. This music wasn’t made for us, and we know it. What right do we have to feel as though we’re more devoted fans than the giddy, brash teenagers who visit Bob Dylan’s hotel room in the documentary “Dont Look Back” (sic)? They’re just doing what was cool back then, we grumble. They can’t understand Dylan’s music because they don’t have the perspective we do.
The girls in the documentary visibly irk a world-weary Dylan as he signs autographs. But underneath the guilt-induced sour grapes young fans today feel for missing the party by more than a few decades, we idolize fans like those girls, who are now at least as old as our parents. When we see moments like this – fans reduced to fumbling through awkward questions intended as compliments in the presence of their idols – we can relate to fans a generation ago even more. They’re us. We’d do it if we had the chance.
Inevitably, we move on. My awareness of bands like Radiohead and Nirvana was eclipsed with a two-year-long obsessive preoccupation with The Beatles. But by high school, I warmed up to the notion of becoming a connoisseur, not just a teeny-bopper whose passion could have focused on Hanson or horseback riding.
But the transition from pledging allegiance to the musical gods to test-listening artists who haven’t made it in the industry isn’t easy. Fans at that stage have learned that their expectations will be shattered in terms of the sheer volume of work these artists produced as well as the sky-high stacks of books there are to read about them.
We’ve become used to expecting more than is reasonable. We get pissy when the Fiery Furnaces bait us with the one-two punch of Blueberry Boat’s Wagnerian length and complexity and EP’s danceable hooks. We just think – arms crossed, eyes rolling – that we shouldn’t have to wait three goddamn years for a new Shins album.
And that’s one reason it was difficult to warm up to a tepid year like 2005. We all have our pet projects, and some of my favorite albums have practically been one-offs. Of course, the irony is that the bands hacking away in garages and the underground rappers of today are tomorrow’s Zeppelins and Tupacs, and that decades from now, kids will be salivating over the 7″s and all-ages shows we had as the contemporaries of the artists from back in the 2000s whom they consider legends.
Still, though, we don’t give up on young artists – and artists like Sufjan Stevens, Dave Berman and the Friedbergers certainly haven’t stopped trying to wow us. We keep scanning the horizon for artists who’ll replicate the giddy awe we feel whenever we dust off that well-worn copy of Rubber Soul. If you’re tired of the ephemeral trend-shifting of contemporary music, remember that a debut album today can become tomorrow’s super-solid back catalogue.
– Jones hasn’t got over her schoolgirl Dylan crush. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.