2016 was a terrible, terrible music year. Utterly dreadful beyond any that I can remember, including 1996 when almost literally the only things playing were that one Celine Dion song and that one-off from Tony Rich Project. And I mean that; all pop stations alternated between those two songs and played almost nothing else. Gads I wish that was more of an exaggeration, but I lived through it.
And yet 2016 was worse, and 2017 so far has been every bit as bad. The airwaves are befouled with amelodic muck, half of it in an annoying Caribbean patois and the other half with vocals that are whiny or screechy. I could probably, given a big list of songs from 2016, find enough I could tolerate that I could count them on two hands; but songs I actually liked, maybe two fingers—and then if I’m being generous. Those two can’t include the middle finger, because I’m saving that for all the other music.
I listen to pop stations—which, let’s be honest, stopped being purely pop stations years ago—in the hope of discovering new music to enjoy. Sometimes I do. Sometimes they’ll even play it more than once. But not lately.
So anyway, that brings me to the point of my rant. I recently saw this article that claimed 1977 was the greatest year in music history. I was a toddler at the time, but I remember nothing admirable about the music of that period. Granted, much of what that article lists was not among my parents’ favorites, but even so, I have to be honest: I never connected with David Bowie. Not one bit. I recognize his greatness as an artist, but even so I just can’t stand his work; not because it’s bad, but because it’s such a lousy fit for my sensibilities. And it’s the same for a lot of artists of the time. I grew up in the ’80s, and anyone who tells you any decade other than the ’80s was the best for music is lying, wrong, or both.
Going back to my title, you may have noticed a bit of a discrepancy: I claim that 1992 was the greatest music year ever. And it was; the ’80s were simply better as an overall decade.
Allow me to make my case for 1992. In the early ’90s, music of the ’80s was not only still played, but still having an influence on artists. Synthesizers were still in use, even if hair rock ballads were dead, so that the sound of the ’80s still lived on and was beginning to morph into new forms—not quite ’80s in their entirety, but musically interesting offshoots. And it’s no coincidence that ’92 was littered with one-hit wonders, because there was a lot of experimentation with new sounds. Whatever hip-hop became in the late ’90s and afterward was still listenable in the early ’90s, holding onto the idea that a song can’t live without an actual melody line. Rap died in ’91—what replaced it was unworthy to bear the name—but its extended family intermingled freely with other genres that had wide appeal.
See, whenever anyone talks about ’90s music as if the decade had any kind of thematic sound to it, I shake my head and seriously downgrade my estimate of that person’s intelligence. Because there was no cohesion at all to ’90s music; it was wildly in flux, and in fact pop music remains desperately in flux to this day. 1992 was the very cusp of an evolutionary change, where the stylings of the ’80s were blending with other genres and exploring new ideas. And good gads, nearly all of it worked. That greatness was in the making in ’90 and ’91 of course, both good music years in their own right, and most of ’93 was pretty great too—but by the end of that year, it was clear the wave had crested and music was about to enter a great dark age. In the mid-’90s pop fractured, and the best stuff to come out was often labeled “alternative”. Boy bands and TLC waged war and music lost. And then the music industry, already reeling from an onslaught of mediocrity, threw conniption fits over emerging technology and responded not just with fingers in their ears and lawyers on speed-dial, but by shrinking their rosters and falling into a protracted death spiral.
(The publishing industry today is doing the same thing the music industry did then. They’re killing their midlist and with it their long-term prospects, and ultimately all of their credibility. And gaming has been doing the same for quite a while too. People respond to variety. One of the worst things about music in the past 20 years is the disappearance of top 100 stations in favor of top 40, which really means top 5.)
It hasn’t been all bad since then. Some music years have been terrible and some middling. 2007-10 was a fairly decent stretch, as was 2000-2003. The summer of ’95 was almost a return to ’92’s glory days. You can find spikes of improvement in places here and there. But holy crap have the last 14 months sucked.
Now to compare 1992 and 1977: I submit that 1970s music has a different musical sensibility for later generations. You hear it on ratio stations that try to make it play nice with ’80s and ’90s music; it just doesn’t. For my part I hate most vocals of the ’70s: the men sang too high and the women sang too low, and yes that’s a major reason i can’t stand Adele or Florence Welch or Nate Reuss. But 1992 had all of the greatness of the ’80s feeding into it, the substrate of so much new growth, and on that basis alone 1977 can’t compete. Sure 1977 saw some acclaimed albums by great and enduring artists, but was the overall landscape any good? The landscape of 1992 was frickin’ awesome—the long-term perception of its albums not so much.
One thing I should say: I’m only talking about pop here. I don’t know what country fans would have to say about their genre. For rock music, there was some amazing stuff out of the ’70s but for modern rock I think ’95 was a hard peak. You still hear a lot of ’95 stuff played on modern rock stations, because it was awesome.
Do you have a different opinion about pop music? (And by different I mean wrong.) Sound off and let’s hear it.