When music was great

There were two periods of great musical creativity during the twentieth century: 1930-1945 and 1967-78. Other periods, although not devoid of great music, have tended not to be as rich, producing more “routine” music that is more interesting sociologically than musically. It may be that the best music is produced in more abundance during times of stress and unrest than in times of prosperity. Continue reading →

The rise of compassionate music

For centuries, people have been singing about romantic and erotic love. It is the subject of most popular songs, although there has certainly been enough room left over to sing about God or the seasons. (The world’s oldest song, inscribed on the wall of an Egyptian tomb 4,300 years ago, is a love song that basically says, “I love and admire your beauty, I am under it.”) But starting in the 1960s, a new subject matter began appearing in popular songs that represented a shift in consciousness: brotherhood and how we treat one another. The songs come from divergent sources, everyone from Dionne Warwick (“What the World Needs Now,” by Bacharach and David) to Madonna (“Why’s It So Hard”). MeShell Ndegeocello takes up the topic in a number of songs, as does Angelique Kidjo. Some of the songs have been outright hits (“He Ain’t Heavy” by the Hollies; “This House” by Tracie Spencer; “State of the World” by Janet Jackson). Continue reading →

Concept album masterpieces

Isolated examples of concept albums appear from the 1950s on, including efforts by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, but the idea really took off with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles in 1967 — not surprising given how it was a time of great cultural and creative experimentation. Paralleling the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1960s, the term “concept album” became imbued with the notion of artistic purpose.

Today, that notion of artistic purpose has become so pervasive that, whether consciously or unconsciously, artists routinely infuse concepts into their albums, or feel compelled to come up with a snappy response when a reviewer asks “so what is the CD about?” I want to share four examples of especially interesting, artistically successful concept albums that stand out from the crowd. Continue reading →

Get a bang out of life

This is my third commentary on extremism in Islamic culture, something that threatens the spirit of compassion that is at the foundation of Judaism, Islam and Christianity alike.

One year ago, MeShell Ndegeocello released an EP with five songs representing a stylistic departure from the music for which she was known. She is an artist in the deepest sense and never stands still musically, continually challenging us and our preconceptions. One of those songs, “The Sloganeer: Paradise,” is a high-energy, quasi-punk number with frenetic, restless drumming that opens with these words:

Get a bang out of life
Suicide, straight to paradise Continue reading →