An article in The Washington Post titled “The slow, secret death of the electric guitar” ran in late June. I thought the discussion it triggered might die out, but here we are in late August, and the internet is still ablaze with divided opinions on the matter. The electric guitar certainly isn’t dead yet, but for some reason, people are eulogizing it more than Glen Campbell.
I believe there’s a deeper subtext here. When you read between the lines, a more serious question emerges: is rock music experiencing a slow death? I don’t think we can say so categorically, though it’s certainly become more niche. Classic rock, however, is a different story.
A few weeks ago, my friend Doug and I went to Los Angeles to see Deep Purple, Alice Cooper and Edgar Winter play the Greek Theater. As we sat in what looked to be a sold-out venue, our view was an inspiring panorama of nearly 6,000 grinning classic rock fans young and old (OK, mostly old). Everyone’s T-shirt game was on point. From the beer line to our seats, I spotted shirts emblazoned with Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones, UFO, Moby Grape and Who logos. It reminded me that Roger Daltrey and Co. were headlining the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival back home, and this in turn took me all the way back to 1989. There I was, a teenage mod, camped out in front of Tower Records with my friends to score tickets to the Who’s 25th anniversary tour. We were so amped for that show that we stayed up all night, trying to keep warm in our parkas, slugging coffee from a thermos and talking about our favorite Who records.
Between Edgar Winter and Alice Cooper’s sets, I pulled out my phone and scrolled through a seemingly endless loop of photos friends had posted of the Who in San Francisco. It then occurred to me what many have probably foreseen: this will all be over soon. There will come a day within our lifetimes when we won’t be able to see classic rock heroes headlining arenas and festivals.
Sure, the definition of “classic rock” is always changing — that’s why you hear ’90s grunge on stations that used to play ’70s hits. Still, this bittersweet revelation has me feeling like I should be spending this part of my life traveling to stadiums and casinos to see pioneers like Joan Jett, Cheap Trick, ZZ Top, Roger Waters, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Blue Öyster Cult, Heart and maybe even Aerosmith. Because by the time I’m a silver-bearded old wizard, they’ll be calling Father John Misty classic rock. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?
If summer’s end has you feeling somber, let three of our newly revamped blues stations share the load. You’ll hear six-string heroes like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King on Blues Rock and Blues Guitar Legends, while Acoustic Blues brings raw emotion and a variety of regional styles to the fore. Listeners looking for searing riffs, rootsier tunes or something in between can rest easy — these stations have you covered.
My jogging playlist features a heavy dose of New Age music. Like willingly lowering yourself into a pool of cold water, this might not make immediate sense. But the music’s calming atmosphere actually helps me find a natural, relaxed rhythm for my run.
When people think of New Age, negative associations are never far behind: cheesy “spa music,” or tacky mystic imagery and crystals. These listeners aren’t necessarily wrong. Like every other genre, there’s plenty of commercial New Age music that plays into its own stereotypes. However, a widespread hesitancy to explore New Age music often leaves some beautiful, timeless works undiscovered and underappreciated. Here, then, is a condensed history of the genre, along with some great entry points for new listeners.
The beginnings of New Age can be traced to the psychedelic ’60s, as artists became inspired to explore the outer boundaries of mainstream music. Jazz musicians like John Coltrane started experimenting with Eastern modes and striving for greater spirituality in their music. One of the first records deemed “New Age” was recorded by jazz flutist/saxophonist Paul Horn. After gigging with Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, Horn traveled to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1968, he released Inside, a collection of flute solos recorded inside the Taj Mahal. In the background, you can hear water and birds, accentuating a field-recorded element that remains a hallmark of the genre.
The advent of the synthesizer in the mid-1960s also influenced the development of New Age. The versatile, oscillator-based instrument provided endless possibilities for musicians, including drone-like sounds that mimicked traditional Indian instruments and arpeggiated flute-like flourishes. By the early 1970s, synthesizers were a staple in Germany’s experimental rock scene. Termed “Kosmische Musik,” this proto-New Age style blended synthesizers and Eastern sounds with themes of outer space and psychedelia. Thanks to influential musicians like Deuter, New Age and its German counterpart continued to play off one another well into the late 1980s.
Like Pandora, New Age music has strong ties to the Bay Area. In the early 1960s, electronic music experiments at the San Francisco Tape Music Center were key to the development of the Minimalist music scene and, consequently, New Age. One of the first New Age record labels, San Francisco’s Unity Records, released Iasos’s Inter-Dimensional Music, which seamlessly blended synthesizers and spirituality, in 1975. That same year, Steven Halpern recorded his first album Spectrum Suite after an impactful experience in the California redwoods. William Ackerman established Windham Hill Records in Palo Alto, California in 1976. All this led New Age into its most prolific era at the turn of the decade, with Northern California artists leading the charge.
Music is undeniably powerful. It can absorb our attention and shield us from the outside world, allowing us to fully process our emotions. With modern life seemingly moving faster than ever before, now is a great time to explore the serenity afforded by New Age music.
For those looking to dive into New Age, here are a few of my favorite ’80s gems:
Reggaeton has become the de facto Latin pop idiom. Gone are the ballads and corny dance tracks that ruled the Latin charts in the mid- and late 2000s. When Enrique Iglesias and Shakira are making reggaeton tracks, you know the genre has gone mainstream. Today’s Latin urban artists are reaping the benefits of this transformative moment, and perhaps no one is more emblematic of this phenomenon than Ozuna. With an undeniable authenticity afforded those with a legitimate cultural tie to reggaeton, Ozuna has created a persona that has proven irresistible to millions of young fans. Reggaeton bangers and trap anthems make up the bulk of Odisea, with each track punctuated by the singer’s high-pitched nasal delivery and grounded in immaculate production. Ozuna knows what the public expects of him, and he doesn’t tweak the formula too much on this album. It’s unclear how strong his staying power will be in a shifting musical landscape, but Ozuna has all the tools he needs for longevity.
With eighties nostalgia at peak saturation, there’s enough gated reverb cruising the airwaves to give the entire Top 40 a righteous perm. So here’s a neat development: Steven Wilson, the proggy mastermind behind Porcupine Tree and Blackfield, resurrecting the art-pop stylings of Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel. To the Bone, a nod to the music of Wilson’s youth, is the singer-guitarist’s most accessible release to date, packed with songs that succeed as parts rather than a sum of them. Multilayered anthems “Nowhere Now” and “The Same Asylum as Before” reach frenzied peaks as stirring as the contemplative valleys in closer “Song of Unborn.” And on the gorgeous “Pariah,” Wilson unleashes his secret weapon: Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, a vocal hurricane with an Elysian eye.
Who would have thought 2017 Granite City, Illinois could sound so much like 1971 Birmingham, England? Retro-psych rockers the Judge are definitely a band out of time, with fuzzed-out guitar tone and vintage production. But these seventies-worshippers manage to rise above the current crop of dime-a-dozen soundalikes and whip up a wild froth of hooky heaviness. Tell It to the Judge is all groove and swagger, replete with bombastic drumming, wah-wah guitar, Sabbath-y swing and the kind of Plant-meets-Ozzy-meets-Lynott vocals most hard rock bands would kill for.
If you’re old enough to remember the 1970s, it can be pretty annoying to watch era-costumed rockers trying too hard to appropriate a past they never lived. Period-correct bellbottoms, fringed suede jackets and vintage boots can feel like aesthetic overcompensation for mediocre songs. Thankfully, Ruby the Hatchet’s third studio album proves they’re an exception. Sure, Planetary Space Child is rooted in rock’s heyday of proto-prog organ arrangements, psychedelic fuzz guitar entanglements and darkened flirtations with occultism (see “Pagan Ritual”). But the epic bombast and cleverly catchy melodies of the title track make it evident that the Philadelphia quintet are more interested in space travel than time travel. The riff-ripened “Killer” finds frontwoman Jillian Taylor dodging previous comparisons to Stevie Nicks and Jinx Dawson to explore her own sultry style of singing. Standout track “The Fool” is an eerie canticle that lets Taylor exercise her vocal range while building bewitching self-harmonies throughout.
In June, Glen Campbell left us with some of his final memories on Adiós, his 64th studio album. The record is replete with touching versions of songs he loved but never previously recorded. Produced by longtime friend and collaborator Carl Jackson, Adiós features Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and a posthumous appearance by Roger Miller. Campbell’s three children, Ashley, Shannon and Cal, sing on Jimmy Webb‘s “Postcards in Paris.” Jackson told Billboard that he stood with Campbell in the recording booth and helped him with the lyrics “line by line.” Despite his battle with Alzheimer’s, Campbell’s signature vocals and musicianship shine through on this, his musical farewell.
There’s a notable gap in Alice Coltrane’s ’80s catalog when the singer and multi-instrumentalist retreated to an ashram she founded, coming just after her shift toward devotional music. Coltrane composed in this vein at her ashram, but the music was only ever released on cassettes by the ashram itself. Circulation was not widespread, which made these tapes wonderful treasures to stumble upon in years past. Now, Luaka Bop has rescued this music from oblivion with this loving compilation of the best recordings from Coltrane’s cassettes. The collection is full of soaring chants and Coltrane’s inimitably expressive playing on harp and keyboards.
Sagittarius was the brainchild of producer Gary Usher, collaborator and friend to Brian Wilson, and Curt Boettcher, another Beach Boys co-conspirator and the genius behind the Millennium album Begin. Although he worked with legends like Wilson and the Byrds, Usher wanted to record his own music. His label wouldn’t allow him the time or money to pursue the project, so Usher created the faux-band Sagittarius. Featuring Glen Campbell and Bruce Johnston on vocals, plus various members of LA session collective the Wrecking Crew, Sagittarius released Present Tense, which essentially compiled the best Beach Boys tracks in which none of the band members had a hand. With a production touch somewhere between SMiLE and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Present Tense is one of the stronger sunshine pop albums of the ’60s.
Over the last year, a laid-back, innocuous sound has dominated the Afrobeats scene in West Africa. It’s created an unlikely hero out of Nigerian-born singer Mr Eazi, but was crafted in part by UK-Ghanaian producer Juls. Leap of Faith, Juls’s debut LP, features a thoughtful selection of guest vocalists from the UK’s burgeoning Afrobeats scene, among others. Most of these songs are engulfed in swaying melodies and sparse drum drops, with enough room for each vocalist to create their own vibe with little more than a whisper or hum. In essence, Juls has created Afrobeats for a pensive sunday afternoon. As he prepares to release the video for his first single, “Early,” Juls should continue attracting new converts beyond his genre’s fanbase.
“When you really wanted to do something, you had to work really hard for it,” Pavel Růžička, one half of Czech disco-pop duo ORM, said in an interview with Vinyl Factory. “Today, you want a Gibson — you’ll go the first shop you see… and in a few days time you can play. Nothing is a problem, except to create something that is unique.” Together with partner Petr Dvořák, ORM created some of the finest disco ever to hit the Communist Czech dancefloors in the late ’70s. Discofil was the pair’s first album, made using smuggled synthesizers, a handmade drum machine and an abundance of determination. It’s hard to imagine being stripped of your freedoms in 1979, only to make some of the most danceable, sample-able disco in the war-torn world. Superb musicians serve up Rhodes, horns and flutes, muted rhythm guitar, driving funk bass and laid-back vocals on tracks like “Jen Dál a Víc a Líp” (“Just Longer and Better”), proof that constraint can sometimes yield pure magic.
Funky, fast-paced fusion. Stand up and testify, then lay it all out on the dance floor.
Moody, dirgey downer rock. Soaring and epic one minute, churning and blackened the next.
Apocalyptic Americana à la Tom Waits, flecked with “Boogie Chillen” blues.
Gorgeous, haunting experimental percussion and electronics.
Gritty, grimy, trap-y electronic crunch. Dark, dense, fantastic.
David Cuetter (Audio Producer)
Who: I’m a Bilingual Audio Producer at Pandora. I currently play with Paula Frazer and Tarnation, but sit in with other bands throughout the Bay Area (the Low Rollers, Jacob Aranda). I’m also a member of the Pandora group My So-Called Band, which covers ’90s rock songs. I played in short lived post-punk band the Rifleman, shoegaze band Peloton and indie group Longmarch, among others. Every Tuesday, I play lap steel and theremin with an eclectic group called These Are Not My Hands. I engineer and play live in the studio, but TANMH have no written songs since everything is improvised.
What: I sing and play the pedal steel guitar, regular guitar, bass, some keyboards, some drums and the theremin.
Where: I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, lived in Maryland until middle school and finished off in El Paso, Texas. My family is from Colombia in South America. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 20 years.
When: I started playing music when I was old enough to hold my dad’s guitar. My mom also made me take piano lessons (thanks, Mom). I’ve been playing ever since.
Why: I grew up surrounded by music: playing it with my family, dancing and listening to records. I’d sit in my basement listening to my dad’s Beatles, folk and Latin records, and was exposed to rock and alternative by my sisters and friends. I went to music school and studied jazz and theory, then went through a twangy phase. I listen to all sorts of stuff — I’m not too geeky about it. I guess the different influences come out in my playing, since I’m pretty comfortable covering an assortment of styles on several instruments. I’ve been making music with Paula Frazer for about five years and playing the pedal steel guitar for about 10.
Ask a Curator
Q: What does a curator do?
A: A Pandora curator’s job varies day-to-day. We want to make it effortless for listeners to find what their ears crave, so we take a systematic approach to gathering, organizing and presenting the music and comedy they want.
This can involve staying on top of trending songs and artists, exploring newly emerging subgenres, finding hidden gems to surface in our collection, reviewing submissions from self-releasing independent artists and programming genre stations and mixtapes. We also make sure the information that describes songs, albums, and artists meets Pandora’s high standards for categorization and consistency. Plus, we write about our favorite music in Curation Monthly!