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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

All for Naught: Considering the end of the first decade of the new millennium

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Since this month marks not only the end of 2009 but the conclusion of the first decade of the new century, more contemplation from the pop music desk seems in order.

Though any such glancing overview is by necessity full of gaping holes and glossed-over details, in the grand scope of things, the nearly 60-year history of rock 'n' roll breaks down pretty cohesively decade by decade in terms of each 10-year span offering a handful of key movements that dramatically changed the music we love.

The '50s gave us the birth of this new sound from its roots in country, R&B, blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop. The '60s witnessed the reinterpretation of those roots via the British Invasion and the Technicolor expansion of the psychedelic era. The '70s saw the emergence of heavy metal and disco, as well as the punk explosion. In the '80s, we had synth-pop/New Wave and the origins of hip-hop, while the '90s found hip-hop becoming the major force in popular music, even as alternative rock exploded at the beginning of the decade and teen-pop surged up at the end of it.

So, what are the key developments that have shifted the ground in popular music during the 2000's? The changes that spring to mind all have been technological or commercial rather than strictly musical.

The digital revolution has prompted a greater seismic shift in the music world than any development since the onset of recorded music at the turn of the century before last. Though its impact started to be felt in the '90s, this decade is when digital distribution via the Internet overtook the sale of physical product to become the primary way we consume music, confining CDs and vinyl albums (resurgent though the latter may be) to an ever-shrinking fraction of all the music sold worldwide.

Yes, given that many listeners now download their music for free, this technological shift has been a mixed blessing--certainly for the major record companies, which now seem doomed to extinction, but also for some artists, though few indeed have been those who've ever made the majority of their incomes from sales of recorded music via any medium. Still, as we move ever closer to the notion of the digital "cloud" letting us instantly access literally any piece of music ever recorded with the click of a button, it's hard to see how this can possibly be a bad thing for voracious music lovers.

The trade-off for musicians who've seen CD sales decrease has been the technological leaps that now give them the ability to have an idea, record it with a modest investment of computer equipment that offers infinitely greater capabilities than, say, the Beatles had at Abbey Road, and make their music available to potentially millions of listeners around the world all within the space of an hour.

Given that revolution in the ability to create, some argue that it's harder than ever as an emergent artist struggling to be heard amid the flood of new music. The industry to date has done a horrible job in helping the cream rise to the top, as radio and MTV have either mired in ever narrower playlists or stopped playing new music entirely, prompting some artists to turn to selling their souls to advertising or, even worse, pandering to pop phenoms such as "American Idol" because they think those are the only ways to win a mass audience.

The notion of a brave new world where everyone is his or her own gatekeeper is a noble one, but the fact is, not everyone has the time to surf 10,000 MySpace pages to find the one Lily Allen or Kid Sister. Call it self-serving optimism, but I believe we will emerge from this transitional period with a bold new age of criticism--whether in the form of blogs or podcasts, old-school dead-tree media or the next innovation we haven't even imagined yet--where the recommendations of trusted listeners, amateurs or professionals, will be more valuable than ever to help us tune in to the Next Big Thing.

At the same time, I also believe that devoted musical communities also will be more important than ever--in the real world, as well as in the digital realm. Consider our beloved Chicago. Though we've lose some great institutions in the last 10 years--from the rock club Lounge Ax, which closed on January 15, 2000, to the record store the Quaker Goes Deaf, shuttered a few years back, to the radical downsizing of the mighty independent Touch and Go Records last summer--we are incredibly fortunate to still have a wealth of brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood centers of musical community, including dozens of mom-and-pop record stores, a staggering number of consistently brilliant independent labels, and a bounty of rock clubs that stand with some of the finest anywhere in the U.S.

Music lovers can share their enthusiasms on the Net, but ultimately, the most rewarding encounters happen in person, face to face, with the volume turned way up in giant speakers instead of tiny ear buds. A strictly digital musical world is like virtual sex--it's just can't compete with the real thing.

As for the broad picture of the music of the last decade, Next Big Things were few and far between: Rather than the emergence of exciting new movements like punk or hip-hop upending the status quo, it was an era of artistic consolidation and reconsideration, with many of the best artists reworking the past to suit their present--whether we're talking the Strokes updating the Velvet Underground for the post-grunge years, Kanye West merging the dusty soul grooves of his youth with the electronic dance sounds of Daft Punk, or the Flaming Lips remaking the Beatles' "Revolver" for a Christmas party in a space-age disco on Mars.

Sure, there's nothing new under the sun, and punk and disco and hip-hop and electronica and any other sound you care to name that once seemed utterly bold and new in reality built on much of what had come before. But it seemed as if the innovators of the Naughts, as some have called this decade, were so consumed with just keeping up with the technological changes that they had little energy, imagination or audacity left to position what they were doing as a new pop movement.

Either that, or the combination of sound, attitude and style that is about to change everything once again is still incubating in a South Side bedroom or a Schaumburg basement, preparing to turn the world on its ear in 2010. and really giving us something to marvel at in the decade to come.

Meanwhile, as we're waiting, here is a quick look back at the albums that I listed as the Ten Best from 2000 through 2008.


1. D'Angelo, "Voodoo" (Virgin)
2. Common, "Like Water for Chocolate" (MCA)
3. Queens of the Stone Age, "Rated R" (Interscope)
4. The Blue Meanies, "The Post Wave" (MCA)
5. Veruca Salt, "Resolver" (Beyond)
6. Everlast, "Eat At Whitey's" (Tommy Boy)
7. P.J. Olsson, "Words for Living" (C2 Records)
8. Screeching Weasel, "Teen Punks in Heat" (Panic Button/Lookout!)
9. Mary Timony, "Mountains" (Matador)
10. The Smashing Pumpkins, "Machina/The Machines of God" (Virgin)

(N.B.: For the first few years of the decade, I stubbornly held to a personal tradition of listing my Ten Best Albums alphabetically, declining to rank them from 1 to 10 in terms of excellence. Since readers invariably read the album that fell at No. 1 alphabetically as my choice for the No. 1 album qualitatively, however, I have rearranged the lists in those terms, something I finally gave up and started doing around 2004 anyway.)


1. Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (the initial digital release; the official Nonesuch release followed in 2002)
2. The Strokes, "Is This It?" (RCA)
3. Macy Gray, "The Id" (Epic)
4. Monster Magnet, "God Says No" (A&M)
5. Iggy Pop, "Beat 'Em Up" (Virgin)
6. Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft" (Columbia)
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "No More Shall We Part" (Reprise)
8. Mellow, "Another Mellow Spring" (CyberOctave)
9. Kelly Hogan, "Because It Feel Good" (Blood Shot)
10. Prince, "The Rainbow Children" (Redline Entertainment)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2001 can be found here.)


1. The Flaming Lips, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (Warner Bros.)
2. Beck, "Sea Change" (Interscope)
3. Common, "Electric Circus" (MCA)
4. Mary Timony, "Golden Dove" (Matador)
5. Marianne Faithfull, "Kissin' Time" (Virgin)
6. Steve Earle, "Jerusalem" (Artemis)
7. Peter Gabriel, "Up" (Geffen)
8. Moby, "18" (V2)
9. The Roots, "Phrenology" (MCA)
10. The Warlocks, "Phoenix Album" (Birdman)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2002 can be found here.)


1. Outkast, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" (LaFace)
2. Granddaddy, "Sumday" (V2)
3. Thursday, "War All the Time" (Island)
4. Macy Gray, "The Trouble with Being Myself" (Epic)
5. The Strokes, "Room On Fire" (RCA)
6. Cherrywine, "Bright Black" (DCide/Babygrande)
7. Deftones, "Deftones" (Maverick)
8. Longwave, "The Strangest Things" (RCA)
9. Wire, "Send" (Pink Flag)
10. Neil Young, "Greendale" (Reprise)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2003 can be found here.)


1. Kayne West, "College Dropout" (Roc-A-Fella)
2. Green Day, "American Idiot"
3. Wilco, "A Ghost Is Born" (Nonesuch)
4. Steve Earle, "The Revolution Starts Now" (Artemis)
5. Franz Ferdinand, "Franz Ferdinand" (Domino/Epic)
6. Mark Lanegan Band, "Bubblegum" (Beggars Banquet)
7. The Polyphonic Spree, "Together We're Heavy" (Hollywood)
8. The Roots, "The Tipping Point" (Geffen)
9. Jill Scott, "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2" (Hidden Beach)
10. The Secret Machines, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (Reprise)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2004 can be found here.)


1. Common, "Be" (Good Music/Geffen)
2. LCD Soundsystem, "LCD Soundsystem" (DFA/Capitol)
3. Kanye West, "Late Registration" (Roc-A-Fella)
4. The Go! Team, "Thunder Lightning Strike" (Columbia)
5. Moby, "Hotel" (V2)
6. Ladytron, "Witching Hour" (Ryko)
7. Coldplay, "X&Y" (Capitol)
8. The White Stripes, "Get Behind Me Satan" (V2)
9. System of a Down, "Mezmerize" & "Hypnotize" (Sony)
10. The New Pornographers, "Twin Cinema" (Matador)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2005 can be found here.)


1. Art Brut, "Bang Bang Rock & Roll" (Downtown)
2. Lily Allen, "Alright, Still" (EMI International)
3. Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere" (Downtown/Atlantic)
4. The Decemberists, "The Crane Wife" (Capitol)
5. Lupe Fiasco, "Food & Liquor" (Atlantic)
6. Grandaddy, "Just Like the Fambly Cat" (V2)
7. Neil Young, "Living with War" (Reprise)
8. Peaches, "Impeach My Bush" (XL Recordings)
9. The Dresden Dolls, "Yes, Virginia..." (Roadrunner)
10. Rhymefest, "Blue Collar" (Allido/J Records)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2006 can be found here.)


1. Grinderman, "Grinderman" (Anti-)
2. Glenn Mercer, "Wheels in Motion" (Pravda)
3. Tim Fite, "Over the Counter Culture" (
4. Modest Mouse, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" (Epic)
5. Kanye West, "Graduation" (Roc-A-Fella)
6. LCD Soundsystem, "Sound of Silver" (DFA/EMI)
7. Spoon, "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga" (Merge)
8. The Apples in Stereo, "New Magnetic Wonder" (Simian/Yep Roc)
9. Radiohead, "In Rainbows" (
10. Air, "Pocket Symphony" (Astralwerks)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2007 can be found here.)


1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" (Anti-)
2. David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" (
3. Vivian Girls, "The Vivian Girls" (In the Red)
4. The Knux, "Remind Me in 3 Days" (Interscope)
5. Brazilian Girls, "New York City" (Verve)
6. Local H, "12 Angry Months" (Shout Factory)
7. Saul Williams, "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!" (
8. Fleet Foxes, "Fleet Foxes" (Sub Pop)
9. Kanye West, "808s & Heartbreak" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
10. Erykah Badu, "New AmErykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War" (Motown)

(More on my Ten Best Albums of 2008 can be found here.)

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I hate the "digital revolution" in music (admittedly, that is in part because it's made me feel like a grumpy old man at the ripe age of 35). Technology's promises have fallen flat.

Digitization was supposed to open up a wide world of music to those who previously never had access. Technically that did happen, but it went too far. With, as you pointed out, virtually the entire catalog of recorded music a few clicks away, it's become impossible to sift through the music. It's like walking into a 10,000,000 square foot record store. It's impossible to process, so I'll just hit up the old familiar stuff or point-of-purchase items.

Look what's happened. As you pointed out, while there's still good music being made, there's nothing all that new. Nostalgia acts dominate. People robotically go to Pitchfork, and if the album scores a 7+, it's a buyer. Pretty much everything else fails. And even for those acts that are able to eek out some success, it's become even more difficult to generate income from album sales/downloads and selling out to commercials isn't just accepted, it's the norm. I'm sorry, corporate sponsorship of music just sucks, even if it's a necessary evil.

And don't get me started on the vinyl resurgence. I love vinyl, and I'm very happy that there's one segment of the industry whose revenues are increasing, but us fans are getting the big screw. Just a couple years ago, new releases on vinyl averaged anywhere from $8 to $15. $20 to $30 is now the norm. Two Minor Threat test pressings just sold for $5,700.00 each (I know, that has little to do with anything, I just thought I'd throw it in there).

So yes, I'm a little grumpy; and maybe I'm looking through rose colored glasses at the days of zines (on printed paper), show flyers, mix tapes, and walking to record stores (plural)...but I do think that, at least for the time being, the digital revolution has done little to improve the music scene.

Hopefully you're right about those kids on the Southside and/or Schaumberg.

The best of times, the worst of times. I can't think of one truly great moment from this decade and fear the continued onslaught of Pitchfork approved suburban white kid schlock posing as innovation. I don't see bands having the chance to develop in the overnight internet sensation hype machine. Are there new artists around that are worth following for more than a few albums? It's all becoming a blur with Deerhunter, Deer Tick, Deerhoof, Blossom Dearie(RIP), Fiery Arcade Furnaces, and countless other bands that I forgot to remember to forget. Contrary to what creative writing teachers would have you believe, not everyone has something to say! Indie music is safer than milk and not the daring outpost of underground culture I grew up on in the ancient 80's and early 90's. So could somebody please put the swagger back into rock and give these twee mopey boneheads a swift kick in the ass?


You make some compelling points with your feelings about digital music. I myself am 2 years older than you are and can see what your point is. Maybe it is a Gen X thing about getting a CD in our hands and reading the liner notes while we listen to the album or searching in record stores. While the search was always fun, the music however, is much more compelling. And for me at least, I would prefer sitting behind my computer screen even if there is not feeling a bit conflicted doing so.

20+ years ago when I started getting into music that didn't suck I got into those bands from friends and friends of friends and not stuff that I heard on the radio. It was always the excitement that I heard from someone talking about it, or reading about it in a review. It was getting into a band and finding what they listened to. I do think that Pitchfork has it's place although there is that fear that their opinion becomes a little too powerful for it's own good.

But entering the teens I also fear the "Tweet Reviews", the 160 chararacter summations. I am sorry but there is still part of me that woke up the morning after the Feelies played Chicago to read what Jim had to say about it. Has music come to the point where it's so disposable that it does not mean anything?

And ultimately we have that conflict. We have a plethora of music, but how can we listen to it or can we expect the fat man or anyone else to review all these albums. Or better yet, you sign up with Last FM, go to Amazon, Itunes or any other site and they base your future purchases off a purchase you just made. You just bought a Radiohead album . . . . well then you should check these 5 albums out as if these decisions are being made are mathematical and not emotional.

Maybe I am missing it but I guess there was a bit of heart in the old days.

I'm a grumpy old lady at 32, so I hear you Dan. I agree with Tetsu and Eric's posts as well.

Living in one of the biggest cities in Canada (Vancouver), I've still seen way too many music stores close this past decade. I miss the excitement of browsing through real live record/cd stores. Browsing online stores is just...tedious. It should feel easier, right? Sitting here at the computer instead of standing & bending over shelves for hours... But when it was backbreaking, it was still more fun, dammit. Discovering something you've been searching for a long time, or something you didn't even know existed... nothing beats that feeling. Finding music online is too easy. Having so much available at your fingertips is nice sometimes, but ultimately I think it's a bad thing because we don't truly appreciate things that come to us too easily. (Yeah, I'm old.)

The convenience of instant downloads doesn't make up for the tactile experience of picking up an album, and having a physical copy, with real artwork. I like the idea of digital music to sample something you're not sure you want to buy, or for out-of-print albums, or real rarities from the vaults that are too obscure to ever realistically get a wide CD release. But otherwise...

I wouldn't mind a digital *option* if it wasn't making CDs obsolete, but that's not how it works. The labels save so much money on materials & distribution, why wouldn't they phase out CDs? And then charge too much for vinyl, so if you're one of those freaks who cares so much about owning something *real* that you can display on your shelf and enjoy the artwork, etc, you'll be considered a niche market and have to pay through the nose. A way to force those who aren't rich to adopt the new digital format in the end. Along with all those itunes exclusives that you can't get any other way. Arrgh.

So, thanks to this digital revolution, not just physical media, but albums as an artform are dying. People download singles, and fewer artists even try to come up with an album's worth of quality songs. I remember hearing one song on the radio in the '90s, loving it, buying the whole album and NOT being disappointed. I tried doing that in the 2000's (usually not by hearing the song on the *radio* sucks now) and ended up with unsatisfying albums I'd like to get rid of at used CD stores, if they were still around and gave you more than a buck a disc. I learned my lesson and now I preview whole albums online before I buy.

And it *is* exhausting trying to find good new music, but I'm not going to rely on Pitchfork or any other reviewer to make it easier for me. Too many people just follow certain critics or music mags without any critical thought of their own, and it bugs me. We should listen to what grabs us, means something to us, that we connect to emotionally, not what some cooler-than-thou critic decides to hype for whatever reason...'cause they're friends with the band, or the label gives them swag, or they want to be first to "discover" someone, or they're jumping on a bandwagon and recommending the same things the other critics do because they're afraid of being left out and considered un-hip.

If you're lucky enough to find a critic of integrity, whose taste seems similar to your own, that's different, and then maybe their recommendations of unfamiliar bands will be helpful to you. But really, you have to be pro-active in seeking out new music and be your own critic.

But most people won't. I think more music listeners are just turning into brain-dead sheep. Which means more crappy music being touted as great.

I see the same bands posted on everybody's year-end best-of lists. My husband and I read these lists and just shake our heads. We've checked out most of the artists that get hyped, but our own best-of lists are completely different. This past decade, not a single one of our favorites has made it onto any of the major critics lists. Yeah, we're kinda proud of that. :) Although we wish our favorite artists would get more of the support and fans they deserve. It's sad when you hear something you *know* would've been a radio hit... back in the days of decent radio... could've become one of those songs that enter mass pop-culture consciousness/the history books... and now, it never will. My favorite new discoveries of the 2000s, will never make a real impact, or be remembered in the future, except by a tiny group of fans. But I suppose a small loyal following is better than the casual consumption of the masses. So I tell myself.

But man, I miss the '90s.

When you had Trent Reznor on your show he said something valid. People are getting to lazy to digest an entire album, it is now about filling up there ipods with as much stuff as possible. I have an ipod and I like it because everytime I go on a trip I use to bring almost 40 cds with me, but now I have that ipod, but I don't like downloading from itunes, unless it's a band that I only want 2 songs from them. I still believe in buying the total package, especially if it's a band that I love, and that has been proven that people who download for free will buy the physical product, and the industry should have embraced that, like Wilco and Radiohead has done. I can't imagine Dark Side of the Moon, or Pet Sounds being downloaded from itunes for just a couple of songs when both of those albums are ment to be heard from start to finish. I really think it is going to go to a DIY situation for the bands that matter, and the artists that need major label backing, like your Nickleback's, or American Idol's, they will suffer because they don't have the DIY mentality, and that means there will always be physical product.

Wow, I've finally found some folks that really share my own mentality. I hate the ease of Amazon, and I'm ashamed to admit, I've used it to fill a fix.

In 2000, Beck released a B-Sides collection available as a super expensive Japanese import. It was $30, and at the time, I wasn't going to pay for it. I should have. It sold out and I spent years looking through any album/used bin I could get to for that CD.

Finally, in 2006 I bought it on Amazon and had it in my hand within a week. I was happy, but not as happy as I could have been if I discovered it some place.

Fast forward to last Thursday, I'm in a Newbury Comics in NH and I casually look through the Beck section and there, for $19.99 used, is the B-Sides album I had spent a better portion of the decade looking for. I held it in my hand and almost spiked it on the ground and screamed. I felt like such a sell out for buying the album online instead of waiting. Did I buy it anyway? No, but I want to just to say that I did find it and have it for my collection.

Even though I have a Dell DJ, yeah they don't make those anymore, I refuse to get a real another MP3 player. I want my albums, CD's, tapes, I feel like I'm closer to the artist by holding a physical copy of their music. The thrill of leaving a record store and opening something in my car before I drive home, I can never have that with digital media. CD's did make album art smaller, but you still had that copy to hold, MP3's? They are killing me.

Lovin' it!!! Mayhap this will lead a move back toward LIVE music? One could only hope.

I think downloading has been great for music.

I have discovered a lot of music online that I otherwise could never have been exposed to. Most of it comes from the non-English-speaking world. For instance, even a well-stocked store like Reckless or Rough Trade wouldn't carry the awesome Turkish 60's psychedelia that I've been listening to lately. Even if they did carry a compilation of this stuff, its only be because people like me started sharing it online first.

I'm not a cool guy. I don't know how to strike up conversations with hip record store employees, and I usually don't agree with their tastes, anyway. I don't really like going out to shows. Music, for me, is a personal and solitary thing. There is no real scene for me anyway; there are probably less than a dozen people in all of Chicago who share my taste in music.

The internet provides a rallying point for the tiniest subcultures, and I greatly appreciate it.

Okay, all you guys are invited over for dinner at my place. I'm hitting 40 this coming summer, and...honestly, music stopped being the center of my world around 2002. There were a lot of reasons for that--some of them just personal crap--but a big part of it was, there was very little to engage me, and I didn't have the time to hunt for new stuff the way I once did. In the past, I could at least use radio as a starting point; hear one song by one band, buy their CD, read an article about them and find out their influences, and who they liked amongst their musical peers...well, all that's gone now. And I've always been known among my friends for being the one who liked what no one else did, the one for whom recommendations generally fall flat, so there's not much help there, either. For a while, hip-hop was my musical refuge; but there's something so culturally dissonant to me, a fat white middle-aged woman driving an I-go hybrid, bumpin' Lil' Wayne or Young Jeezy. I love the music, don't get me wrong, but there's only so many strange looks you can get before you become aware that you look entirely ridiculous. Rock--by which I mean album rock, the current sort--is moribund; for a good half-decade it's been the province of angry suburban kids who don't really know what they're angry about, only that they're SUPPOSED to be angry, and who express it all the same way--with those Korn-like yells of "BWARRRHHHHH!!!" or whatever the lyrical content is. And "alternative" stopped meaning anything around the time thatQ101 started playing Metallica with a straight face.

I had a very dear friend, back in the early 90's, who wanted to be a rock star. It was the heyday of alternative, when everyone had dreams of grandeur and nearly no chance to be heard; no YouTube, no MySpace, no American Idol. If you wanted to be famous, you took your chances and hoped you could create the next big thing. My friend died at the end of 1995, and I often wonder what he would have made of the current state of music. I wonder if he would have taken all the tools available now and made even more-spectacular music; I wonder what innovations he might have been able to make. Mostly, though, I wonder if he and his music might not have been lost in the shuffle; if his 1970's-1980's full-album ethic and insistence on authenticity might have doomed him artistically, in the face of the Autotuned, Lady Gaga and T-Pain, music-as-spectacle style that's taken over in the last couple of years. I can't imagine him as a bitter old man robbed of his idealistic youthful dreams; or maybe I just don't WANT to. My own curmudgeonliness is quite enough for me. There's a line in a Leonard Cohen song... "Remember me?/I used to live for music..." There's a big hole where music used to fit in my life; I can only hope that when that Next Big Thing emerges from its hiding place on the South Side or in Schaumburg, that it's something loud and real and meaningful, and maybe even (if I'm really lucky) something that won't invite strange stares when a forty-something woman in a Prius plays it loud, drumming on the dashboard while sitting at a red light.

Christine--I miss the '90s too.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on December 14, 2009 1:00 AM.

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