June 22, 2006

Kids These Days...

Am I turning into a curmudgeon? Obviously not, but today I was worrying that I might be showing early signs of curmudgeon-hood. Here's why: Since I'm going to see Built to Spill play tonight, I thought I'd give their new album another listen while walking to work. And it's good. Enjoyable. Catchy in places, even. But it's hard to deny that it's quite obviously inferior to their stuff from the '90s. So inferior, in fact, that I don't think one could really chalk it up to an "off" album.

So then I got to wondering: Maybe rock—"indie" rock in particular—just isn't as good as it used to be. I mean, sure, I was a teenager in the '90s, so naturally there's some bias-inducing nostalgia at work here, but a lot of favorite bands from that era seem to be a bit boring nowadays. Sleater-Kinney and Wilco keep getting better, but they seem to be the exceptions. There's Built to Spill, but the Flaming Lips are also becoming increasingly annoying, and Modest Mouse recently released an unspeakably loathsome album two years ago. Maybe that's no coincidence. Maybe indie rock has played itself out and there's nothing new or interesting to do.

Well, suggestions that "things were better in the old days" usually don't stand up under scrutiny, so I thought I'd do some quick scrutiny. With the recognition that this is all extraordinarily wanktastic, that top-10 lists are the last refuge of the scoundrel, that taste is highly personal, etc., etc., I thought I'd do a very, very rough "top ten albums of the '90s" list. Not necessarily "favorites," but ten albums I would consider "the best". It would go something like this:
Pavement, Slanted & Enchanted
Slint, Spiderland
Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes
Sonic Youth, Goo
Lullaby for the Working Class, Blanket Warm
Bjork, Post
The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin
Brainiac, Bonsai Superstar
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Palace Music, Viva Last Blues
Whatever. We could quibble over this all day, but I think that's decently representative, allowing for idiosyncrasies. (e.g.: I left My Bloody Valentine's Loveless off this list mostly for personal reasons: their 1989 debut, Isn't Anything, purchased when I was about 13 or so, was the album that made me realize I had to stop listening to Nirvana, it's one of my all-time favorites, and Loveless was a massive disappointment—boring, even—by comparison. Blah blah.) Anyway, by way of comparison, here's a tentative top ten of the '00s thus far:
Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun
Sleater-Kinney, One Beat
The Books, Thought for Food
Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Pinetop Seven, The Night's Bloom
The Microphones, The Glow, Part 2
Animal Collective, Sung Tongs
Modest Mouse, Moon and Antarctica
Deerhoof, Reveille
I'm much less sure of this list, but again, it'll do. The point here is that what surprised me is that the difference in quality between the two lists seems negligible. As much as I'd like to say, for nostalgia's sake, that Slint and Brainiac are somehow more "inventive" than The Books or Animal Collective or Deerhoof, that's not really true. Nor could I honestly say that The Soft Bulletin is somehow more "epic" than the unpronounceable Sigur Ros album or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Right, then: This is all quite subjective, but my quick impression is that indie rock is, in fact, just as good in this decade as it was in the last. And the decade's not even over yet. And I don't even listen to hip-hop (which, I've heard, is where all the innovation in music is taking place these days). So I guess I'm not quite ready to walk around muttering, "Kids these days..." Yet.
-- Brad Plumer 4:17 PM || ||