10. The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers have set an incredibly high standard for rock music in this new century. It’s easy to think that the standard has severely dipped since the death of Kurt Cobain, but here is the group that should prove you wrong. It is truly difficult to describe just how well they execute. They are the masters of consistency, with each of their six albums being critically acclaimed and winning numerous awards, yet they also carry an immense amount of versatility that make them appealing to a wide variety of audiences. I feel as though every single person can thoroughly enjoy at least one of their albums. To me, Twin Cinema is their peak in pure musicality, but a case could be made for any of their albums or single songs to be their best. Thanks to an amalgamation of eight incredibly talented musicians, bound together by the enigmatic singer Neko Case, today’s generation is able to show pride in their representation to the rock music world and at least attempt to discover what it was like to live in generations past where strong and emotional music was seemingly endless. The New Pornographers began in the preliminary stage of mainstream indie rock and immediately helped to show the world that musical intelligence and musical simplicity can co-exist, which was a great feature of early indie rock. For years they have developed in maturity and sound while always maintaining their ingenious melodies and unconventional musical forms. I have yet to hear a song written by them that does not have an intriguing melody, which speaks volumes to how their musicality never runs out. They are now a combination of every positive element that all of today’s rock giants bring to the table. Those few that can be considered better than them today simply take one or more of those elements to the extreme. I am not exaggerating when I say that The New Pornographers have everything that one craves when trying to find pleasure in music. That doesn’t mean to say that they make their music to cater specifically to a listener’s presumed needs; in fact, it is quite the contrary with them. While us listeners can get a huge amount of satisfaction from them, it is not because they spoon-feed it to us. They do not hit us over the head with what we need to pay attention to or gain in their music. They are wonderful at hiding their creative elements in the music for us as listeners to discover ourselves. Listen through the entire song “Bleeding Heart Show” to gain some insight as to what I mean. You can only discover true beauty if you are fully engaged with it, and it is precisely the moment where full engagement meets self discovery that the power of music truly reveals itself. I cannot tell you how it feels or exactly what you will gain, because that’s simply the mystery that surrounds music. What I can tell you is that The New Pornographers can give you a sense of fulfillment through music that you never thought you needed.
9. Alabama Shakes
With a classic, soulful, and conventional rustic sound, Alabama Shakes are perhaps the only true rock n’ roll band that is successful today. Unlike their associates in indie rock and pop rock, they have taken no derivations whatsoever away from the tried and true path that past rock n’ roll musicians once laid out. It was once the superior genre that gave rise to amazing musicians that could singlehandedly captivate an entire culture. It grew and developed into many wonderful facets, but it always seemed to stay true to its roots. Now, Alabama Shakes may be the last big group to stick to the roots of blues, societal messages, and the prominence of the electric guitar. For most musicians, adapting to the times is important in order to stay connected with the culture and discover new individualistic sounds. However, when you can write, play, and rock as good as Alabama Shakes do, it really doesn’t matter. Our post-modern dominated culture loves to find ways to combine the old with the new in any setting. These four musicians turn their nose at post-modernism and have instead become something like a gift from the past to give us true, unedited, and powerful rock music. They have little material so far, but it’s all on equal levels of pure excellence. Their music exudes tenacity, groove, coolness, and beauty all at the same time. I am at a loss in explaining just how they managed to reincarnate this forgotten, magnificent sound. Many thought it was dead and that we’d have to put up with whatever the kids think is hip these days. Well, Alabama Shakes are here to save us from all unholy acts of disgust that we find in this generation of music. You need not give up hope for the future, either, because these guys are just getting started. They are very new and only have two albums out, spending most of their time touring around the world being prophets of musical quality. They’ll surely write more soon, and it’ll continue to be excellent. Perhaps they will bring us back to the days where bands could write at least ten albums in a career. Nevertheless, they are not afraid to push the boundaries of what we think of as “modern”, and they’ll fight the awfulness of the big business with more respectable and awesome music.
8. Florence and the Machine
Singer Florence Welch and keyboardist Isabella Summers have created a musical fusion nothing short of revolutionary. The labels we use to make sense of our music world completely evade them, as their incredible musicianship is one big coalescence of influences that span centuries. Their music is full of soul, passion, and brilliance, all the while using a large variety of different sounds and forms to achieve their aspirations. To call them fresh and unique is an understatement; their style has no traceable history and will likely not ever be replicated in the future. Every musical element has a great individual presence in their songs, and above all these two musicians are today’s queens of effective timbres. With all of their versatility, they accomplish just as much with a single keyboard, light percussion and soft vocals as they do with their many layers of electronic textures and heavy orchestral passages. They use the entire spectrum of musical sounds to their full advantage. No matter what genre of music people tend to gravitate towards, whether it’s due to cultural influence or personal gratification, Florence and the Machine creates music that everyone is able to appreciate and enjoy. While their individualistic sound might be their biggest musical achievement, they wouldn’t be considered one of the best of their generation if it wasn’t for their mesmerizing melodic lines that glue their pieces together and give true heightened emotion with every iteration. Some musicians are able to find this amount of intrigue in their one defining song, or even through a whole album. Florence and the Machine, though, simply exist entirely in this level of accomplishment. Even their pieces of music that don’t quite reach the level of melodic greatness that other pieces do still have enormous amounts of beauty and excitement. What we desperately need from them is more material along this projection if they are to progress. They are getting close to having been active for ten years but still only have three major works out. There are absolutely no signs showing they will decline in any way; their musicianship is too strong and well fueled to collapse under any circumstances. Florence and the Machine is one of the most special musical groups ever, and the more they have to show for that the better. They have already written several timeless classics, and I cannot wait to see where their next endeavors take them.
7. Animal Collective
Timbre is everything. I repeat: timbre is everything. Of course, that is an exaggeration, but in the modern world of music timbre has unquestionably risen to a new level of importance, as you may have already heard. Many musicians have caught on to this, but the perfect score in this category was only reached by one group of this generation: Animal Collective. Every sound in every beat of every musical piece by Animal Collective is meticulously formed to build not just a song, but a singular massive timbral structure. They are musical scientists that experiment with every sound they can possibly create through their extensive knowledge about synthetic instruments and tonal relationships. Instead of writing in popular forms that are easy to understand, they stretch out every idea and create a much more organic work that refuses to force any sort of hook at the listener. That is quite a bold move these days, but they are the few that can totally turn away from any semblance of today’s popular music conventions. As usual, while perfect timbres can produce consistent beauty, they cannot create a magnificent song on their own. Animal Collective separates themselves from the rest of the modern electronic/psychedelic music world by their successful and gorgeous vocal lines that add a completely new and relatable dimension. Their vocal harmonies are reminiscent of the Beach Boys, which are paired extremely well with their enthralling background textures. We have not seen a band pair mind-blowing timbres with such intriguing melodic lines since Pink Floyd. If you enjoy the psychedelic rock of the 1970’s, here is today’s best equivalent. It’s difficult to pick out a stand-out song by them, but I believe that is simply because they are meant to be listened to one whole hour at a time, not just five minutes. Some moments are guaranteed to intrigue you more than others, but in that hour there are revelations to be had by every music lover. There are no real dips in quality, either; everything they have created is on a high level that surpasses the vast majority of modern music. One very refreshing aspect of Animal Collective is that they never seem to stop writing and creating. They truly show no end to their musical powers, and they continue to be immensely creative in all of their work. It is anyone’s guess where their development will take them and what they will create next. I can assure you, though, that it will be very worthwhile to listen to. This is one group that will not let you down on your path to finding beauty and significance through art.
6. Vampire Weekend
They are the champions of quirkiness, the masters of fun, and among today’s leaders in musical poise and sophistication. This small group of indie rockers revert back to creating short and succinct musical statements that were made by musicians throughout the 20th century with distinct purpose and musical elegance. It sounds like a much easier task to accomplish than unraveling some kind of huge esoteric sonic masterpiece, which is a theory as to why we have many musicians today focused on writing the perfectly packaged 3-minute song. Many of them fail to realize the amount of exposure that gives to the fundamental elements of music and consequently don’t spend the time it takes to craft an interesting work. Some are lucky to find an interesting spark within a small creation once and a while, and others even go on to add some spice to the basic short form through experimentation. Today, the most successful group in this area is Vampire Weekend, and it’s not even close. So far, they seem to be the only band who have consistently written tiny nuggets of 3-minute musical gold throughout their entire career. Singer Ezra Koenig has an entertaining and developed tone to his voice that serves to drive the unique feeling of their music. There’s nothing fancy about their instrumentation or background textures, which further exposes their sound, but that is not a problem for Vampire Weekend at all. They bring all of their creative essences to the front and constantly display truly intriguing melodies with the help of either the endearing electric guitar or the basic keyboard. The absence of multiple layers and great substance can be seen as a negative, but Vampire Weekend is one of the few that have found a way around that while still demonstrating constant musical quality. In a way, their music is at the highest level one can reach without taking any major risks. Making music without taking risks has been the downfall of countless modern musicians, but it has worked out just fine for Vampire Weekend. Their large appeal and success comes from the coupling of youthful personality and intellectual musicality. They also keep their wits about them and maintain a clean image. Currently, they are due for another major work, and we should hope to see it soon. They will either continue as their wonderful selves or experiment to become more substantial. No matter what they do, they have set themselves up for an incredible music career and should be remembered as a great voice for their generation.
5. Arcade Fire
The music of Arcade Fire is the perfect benchmark for all of today’s musicians in how to get the very best out of every musical element in a way that can fully inspire each listener. Over the past 15 years, this group has consistently been the best at having melody, harmony, and timbre work together without any one being overbearing to produce steady and quality music at a very high level. Their combinations of the essential musical ingredients come out flawless not only once or twice, but in the vast majority of their output. They are also one of the most, if not the most, appealing bands in the modern music world in relation to their musical quality. Their ratio of appeal to quality is exceptional, which gives me delight to know that as long as good music is being created, there will always be people to listen. I am no expert historian when it comes to albums, but their album Funeral may be the best debut album of all time. It has all of the creativity and intrigue you could ask for as a modern rock music piece, and it adds a wonderful storytelling element that leaves the listener shocked and amazed. The unique ways in which they use their music is necessary to understanding their place in the music world. The idea that art can teach us many things about ourselves that we cannot find anywhere else is essential to their music. They are one of five groups in this generation that have truly created music to its full potential in every aspect. This full potential is nothing that can be measured or described because it exists beyond our level of comprehension. It was found more and more often in past years when the nature of the present culture could support it and cultivate it. Our culture may not be in that position today, but we still have remarkable musicians such as Arcade Fire to remind us of what music’s power really is. All four of their albums give off their own individualized sense of creativity and storytelling, and have all been considered some of the greatest musical works of this generation. A fifth album will be coming out next year, which we will allow to strike our spirits with an unmeasurable amount of feelings that we will not be ready for. Everyone should be able to see that they are unique artists with a good sense of story and large-scale projects; what everyone should also see is that hardly any musician today is writing music with as much vigor, majesty, and brilliance as them. I had no idea how well rock music had adapted and lived on in the present. Arcade Fire is more magnificent than you think they could possibly be.
4. Mumford & Sons
What an anomaly of a band. You either love them or hate them. They are the worst nightmare for a music reviewer who needs to stay unbiased and truthful. There are many easy arguments to have against their music, and they are all quite irrefutable. One is their focus on power over delicacy which leads to a complete banging out of their harmonies rather than finding more intricate and creative ways to present them. Another is their overpowering folk rock timbre with the cliche combination of rock instruments and traditional instruments that has been done many times before. The biggest and most easily recognizable argument against them is that once you’ve heard one of their songs, you’ve heard them all. To say that they have one sound, one formula, and one feel for everything would be quite accurate. When finding good music, one would normally hate to find a musician that sounds the same in every song with the same timbres and overall expression. What is so great about Mumford & Sons, then? Well, to be honest, it is difficult to explain. From a critic’s perspective, it is easier to attack them than defend them. I can rationalize my feelings about them best in these terms: while it is true that they have only one sound and one way to get to it, that one sound is utterly immaculate. Their music is basic and monotonous, but it also just so happens to contain the biggest amounts of melodic intrigue, harmonic creativity, and timbral effectiveness in today’s generation of musicians. Their instrumentation itself may be tacky, but the way they employ their moments of banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and vocal harmonies all amount to create airtight and beautiful sonorities that inspire and uplift the listener. They bang out their harmonies to a sort of simplistic perfection that is easily enjoyable and understood. Nothing about that would matter, though, if their sung melodic lines weren’t so pure and compelling. I have a true love/hate relationship for Mumford & Sons, but in the spectrum of modern music, their sound has captivated me into saying that they are one of the best today. Personally, my biggest problem with them is what they did in their latest album, Wilder Mind. They kept their same intentions, interesting melodies, and fun harmonies, but they dropped their timbral effectiveness by forgoing the traditional instruments that did so well with creating their sound in the past. By losing that side of them, their music failed to meet the true feelings that they were after and could not be made up for by what was left. That being said, it was still an album made up of wonderful and singable tunes. With regards to their career as a whole, they have reached a near-exclusive level of musical mastery with their sound that exceeds our capacity to fully understand. We have no true answer as to how something so rudimentary and one-dimensional can ignite such a fire and allow us to experience something larger than humanity itself. They are one of the few since 2000 to tap into music’s full potential, and they did it with next to nothing.
3. The Decemberists
I’ll never forget the day: it was an afternoon in September of 2008, and my friend Drew and I just finished our cross-country workout at an indoor track. While we were waiting for our ride, Drew decided to show me some new music he thought I’d like. He knew I was a musician who enjoyed a good song, so he started talking about this group he liked called The Decemberists. They were rather new to the music scene, and at that moment in my life I had no faith in new music; I considered classic rock to be the only musical genre worthy of my time. Being a good friend, though, I listened to his spiel about what their style was and listened to one of their songs, “16 Military Wives”. Unlike the many new songs shown to me by friends, this one seemed okay at first. I realized I was actually enjoying it, and all of a sudden I felt a spark light up in me that asked “what if this is the real new music?” I didn’t think too much of it, though, because I was most likely afraid of opening an entire new and massive door into more music. Still, I remembered to look up The Decemberists when I got home to see if that feeling of enjoyment could be recreated. Soon, “16 Military Wives” was my favorite song to listen to. I bought an album of theirs at a half-price shop a while later to show to others. The more songs I listened them, the more I realized that this wasn’t just the real new music, but some of the very best new music. In the back of my mind, though, I knew I had only listened to their few popular songs, which meant to me that most of their work wouldn’t be as cool. I held that notion until I went to do research and in-depth listening for an article that ranks the top 50 best musicians since 2000. When it came time to listen to the Decemberists, my expectations were that they’d be top 20, maybe fighting for top 15 depending on how big the drop off was between their hits and the rest of their material. I patiently waited while listening to them for one song that could be considered 2nd tier and not as quality as their best work. I expected fully for there to be at least one melody that would fall flat or one chorus to be dull. It had to come, because I couldn’t believe that they were really as good as their top material. My wait, though, never ended; it didn’t come. They are really that good. Song after song, The Decemberists continued to find the most beautiful of sounds and interesting topics. Colin Meloy, the band’s frontman and main songwriter, is a melodic genius. Many other musicians in this generation have great melodic intuition and ability to write wonderful lines, but none of them come close to what Meloy has done throughout his career. No one writes better choruses than him today, and I would even consider him as one of the best chorus writers of all time. He has the tunefulness of Elton John, the clarity of Paul Simon, and playfulness of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Decemberists as a group are the very best at writing in the verse-chorus from today. They know exactly what instruments should come in, exactly what chord feels right to bring out the best emotion, and what vocal harmonies to use to tie it all together with beauty and excitement. Everything that they have written so far is truly magical and brilliant to a point that surpasses nearly all of their contemporaries. Not only do they write some of the best individual songs heard today, but they craft the most wonderful of musical stories in their albums. From their re-telling of folktales to their accounts of war and modern issues, they launch themselves into musical timelessness. Of course, they also have the simple relationship/love songs, and even those are exceptional works due to the group’s musical mastery. As they continue to write, they continue to pull melodic and harmonic magnificence out of nowhere. Since 2000, no group of musicians have come together to collectively produce better music than The Decemberists.
2. Sufjan Stevens
There’s a new saying going around today among those who are students, teachers, and creators of music that says you haven’t heard what beautiful music is until you’ve heard Sufjan Stevens. With what it is trying to say, I believe that this statement is very accurate. This doesn’t mean that all musical beauty is held by a single person, but instead that it is been found how the music of Sufjan Stevens contains a certain quality of beauty that no other musician has ever produced. When discussing musical quality of this magnitude, it is futile to ramble on about the many exquisite uses of musical elements such as melody, harmony, and timbre, unless one would be writing an entire book. In more general terms, I will say that Sufjan’s ability to play an extensive amount of instruments and his passion for discovering new musical syntheses have launched him into a realm of musical immortality that is unbeaten by any of his contemporaries. On top of that, his knowledge of combining musical events with psychological tendencies through harmonic structures and melodic passages gives his music a heightened level of fascination. If someone is to really be considered this talented, the bigger question should be what these musical elements end up amounting to. It’s a wonderful accomplishment to be able to write interesting music, but it is the work of a true genius that can connect humans to their surroundings, their questions, and their own selves that goes beyond a simple interest. Sufjan Stevens is one of those humans that was simply born with the ability to mesmerize people through music. His entire career has been at this degree of magnificence, starting with his first album, The Sun Came, which we wrote as an undergraduate at Hope College. He continued on this trajectory with an abundance of musical ambition, experimentation, and brilliance in his subsequent albums. After periods of inactivity, his intelligence and fearlessness come out majestically in his 2010 album Age of Adz, which solidified him among the academic world as undoubtedly one of the best of his generation. Another five years passed until he packaged all of his musical findings and experiences together to create a tribute to his parents, the album Carrie & Lowell, that reached an unprecedented height of beauty and emotion. Aside from Green Day’s monumental masterpiece American Idiot, Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell is the best album I have heard that has come out since 2000. What exactly makes this hour long work of sad songs so spectacular? This goes back to the real question of what his musicality is actually signifies. When you are fully engaged in Sufjan’s music, especially Carrie & Lowell, you experience a flood of emotional attachment and meaning that is truly unexplainable. He is one of the only musicians I have ever heard that can epitomize the most important human emotion in their work: love. No one can truly explain what love is or feels like in spoken language, but thanks to wonderful musicians such as Sufjan Stevens, we have discovered that music has the possibility to elucidate love in a big way, and therefore give us a glimpse at a potentially higher power than us. He captured his love for his mother and step-father with 11 beautiful songs written to perfection. We cannot simply call him the Shakespeare of music, though, since music as an art contains so many nuances and effects that differ from any other art form. He has used his musicianship to not simply be different or interesting, but to channel a higher power that can only be reached through music. That it what he stands for, and that is why his music should be kept alive for centuries.
1. Regina Spektor
No musician who has started their career since 2000 has been better at their craft than Regina Spektor. She has an unparalleled ability to write music that can touch the hearts and minds of everyone. Spektor turns listeners into witnesses of majesty and grace that only select saints, poets, and musicians have been able to manifest throughout history. She is without a doubt in my mind the best musician of the past 15 years, which says a lot about what I value in music. Throughout my musical studies and experiences, I have found music to be one of the greatest things worth living for and something that truly defines us as humans. I have found solace in knowing that I will never fully comprehend its power. I have found music to be at its best when I simply let it happen and become fully enclosed in its grasp. In that way, there are no prior thoughts or expectations that get in the way of what the music is trying to do; I let it take me where it goes. In doing so, music has given me a passion and a calling in life. Regina Spektor seems to also share this philosophy of music. Her music is meant for those of give themselves up to its power and treat it as a pietistical force of nature rather than as an industry or as mere entertainment, even if she herself may be unaware of it. If you find yourself not being able to get into Spektor’s music, it could be due to her soft and delicate nature that doesn’t contain the excitement or volume that you’re used to. It could also be her unconventional forms or singing techniques that are different from what you typically hear. If you’re used to a certain type of music that you happen to really enjoy, or if you’re only interested in using music as an entertainment tool, I cannot argue with that. No one should be able to tell someone how to listen to or experience music because, ultimately, music is meant to be enjoyed by everyone in whatever way it can be. However, if you are searching for music to play a bigger part in your life, or if you wish to find what music’s full capacity can be in this world, Regina Spektor is the best modern musician who can give that to you. The best musicians of every generation, dating back to the chant writers of the 800’s, have been able to capture the full power of music, although done in many different ways. Today’s generation, however sparse, is no exception. Spektor continues to help forge the path that connects us with our existence through music. The only thing better than epitomizing love through music is life itself, and that is precisely what Spektor does. Some of her songs are more obvious about this than others, but inside every sound she creates are glimmers of what life is all about. Her music gives us answers as to who we are, how we feel, how we develop relationships, and how to find happiness. Her command of the piano is unlike any songwriter has had since Frederic Chopin, who happens to be one of her main influences. Just like Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, and Shostakovich, she has followed her Russian bloodline of brilliant piano writing. Her voice is like an angel that is watching over the human race. Her vocalized rhythmic patterns are extremely expressive yet also found inside ourselves and in our everyday lives, which make her music almost legitimately tangible. Her sung melodies are crafted to perfection and make us believe what she is saying while feeling emotions we thought we had long forgotten. It is all in the name of the human experience, which Spektor has seemed to fully grasp and understand. One of the most amazing aspects about Spektor is that she can find and deliver the perfect emotions with a variety of different musical tactics. It could be just herself and the piano, or she could add a whole drum set, strings, electronics, guitar, backup vocals, and even spoken word to still create the most beautiful and worthy piece of music. She is truly the best in today’s music world and will keep writing and inspiring for years to come. Regina Spektor is proof that this generation still believes in the true power of music. Good music still exists, and as long as we are always willing to listen, it will never die.