The academics have got pop wrong - here are the years when music really changed things

Forget 1986 and 1991 - our critic Andy Gill reveals the years when music really hit its highs and lows

Andy Gill
Saturday 09 May 2015 20:24
Radiohead perform in 2012
Radiohead perform in 2012

A study which has claimed to scientifically identify which were pop’s most innovative and repetitive years has caused controversy through the researchers’ claim that The Beatles were not, as previously believed, all that innovative.

But, as with notions of Artificial Intelligence, it all depends how you define the terms of your study – and in this case, the simplistic definition deliberately excludes many of the characteristics that should be taken into account when judging innovation, in favour of those aspects which can be easily totted-up by a machine. Judging aesthetic worth in terms of chord-sequences, tones and “text-mining” is as pointless as judging visual artistry by the frequency of colour usage or the number of apples in a still-life: it’s just not asking the right questions.

Which is why the study, published this week by academics at London universities, completely ignores truly innovative breakthroughs such as the developments in signal-processing that enabled Jimi Hendrix to transform the sound of the guitar, or the way that Bob Dylan revolutionised not just the vocabulary of song lyrics but their delivery too, introducing inflections that embodied contempt, disdain, sarcasm and downright vituperation. But then how could those things be measured?

Then there are the cultural influences to be considered – things like Elvis being drafted into the army; the increase in spending power of black and working-class youth in the 1960s; and the effect of different drugs on the popular musical aesthetics of different eras. And rather than the broad-stroke approach of statistical analysis, it’s far more interesting to consider isolated moments of fundamental change: such as the fact that two of the greatest albums ever created, Blonde On Blonde and Pet Sounds, were released on the very same day (16 May, 1966).

But perhaps the study’s greatest failing is its chart-oriented purview, when it is clear that most innovation takes place at the margins. This is why punk is overlooked, and why hip-hop is deemed a feature of 1991, when the true innovations of such as Public Enemy and De La Soul occurred several years before that. If you’re only searching the (hardly incorruptible) charts, you’re only really exploring repetition anyway. And if it comes to that, what kind of scientific study treats repetition as something bad when considering an artform built on rhythmic repetition?

The years that made pop music great... and the ones that didn’t


Pat Boone (Hulton Archive/Getty)

It might not have been as bad were it not for what happened in 1958, when Elvis Presley was drafted into the US Army, an event many still regard as a deliberate attempt by the establishment to kill off that dangerous rock’n’roll music. And it worked: Elvis was replaced by prefabricated teen icons like Fabian, Pat Boone (pictured) and Frankie Avalon, and pop again became the province of Middle of the Road novelty pap like “Volare” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”.

So when Elvis reappeared as the neutered balladeer of “It’s Now Or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, the impact was crushing. Meanwhile, over in Hamburg, four young Brits make their first appearance as The Beatles.


The Beach Boys (Hulton Archive/Getty)

The breakthrough year for pop. The Beatles and The Beach Boys released their debut albums three days and 5,000 miles apart, while Bob Dylan kick-started the folk boom with the single “Blowin’ In The Wind” and the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Motown’s first successes with Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, Martha & The Vandellas and the “12-year-old genius” Stevie Wonder laid the foundations for Berry Gordy’s “Sound Of Young America”.

Later in the year, Phil Spector unleashed his nonpareil A Christmas Gift To You, still the backbone of seasonal scheduling.


Kraftwerk (AFP/Getty Images)

The high watermark of pop’s diversity, with so many landmark albums pointing in different directions: stadium rock (Born To Run); stadium prog (Wish You Were Here); dub reggae toasting (Big Youth’s Dread Locks Dread); Krautrock (Neu!’s 75 and Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity, pictured); confessional songwriting (Blood On The Tracks and Tonight’s The Night); psychedelic funk (Mothership Connection and Chocolate City); ambient music (Eno’s Discreet Music and Another Green World); proto-punk poetry (Patti Smith’s Horses); art-rock sophistication (Steely Dan’s Katy Lied and Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns); and in Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert, jazz that sold in pop quantities.


Phil Collins (AFP/Getty Images)

Some measure of how bad the year was can be gleaned from knowing that of the year’s top 10 best-selling albums four were Now That’s What I Call Music and Hits compilations. The notion of sustained artistry was virtually redundant, as the industry grew more expert at securing a rapid turnover of chart product, rather than developing talent. Anthems abounded: “We Are The World”, “Shout” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” were the biggest singles, while album were dominated by Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms and Phil Collins’ (pictured) No Jacket Required, rather than Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs and The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. How did we get through such terrible times?


Thom Yorke performs for Radiohead (Hulton Archive/Getty)

The last great heave of BritPop saw the mandatory No 1 albums for Blur and Oasis bolstered by The Verve’s maturity from wallowy psych-rockers into genuine anthemic popsters.

But the genre was bursting at the seams, struggling to accommodate the huge success of Radiohead’s (pictured) neo-prog milestone OK Computer and the soundscaping innovations of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, both of whom managed to achieve massive commercial impact with music which, in its incorporation of musique concrete techniques and sounds, brought the Avant-garde squarely into the pop mainstream. And who expected the Wu-Tang Clan to score a UK No 1 album?


Olly Murs (Getty Images)

If you didn’t like Adele’s 21, you could effectively give 2011 a miss, particularly since sales-wise it was supported, like scrummaging locks pushing front-row buttocks forward, by the bland power of Michael Buble and Bruno Mars, while the diva triumvirate of Beyoncé, Rihanna and Jessie J cheered them on from the sidelines.

But 2011 really stands out for the cumulative impact of Cowellism, as the album charts were littered with the output of his telly talent shows, such deathless innovators as One Direction, Susan Boyle, JLS, Alfie Boe, Olly Murs (pictured), Joe McElderry, Matt Cardle, Rebecca Ferguson and Will Young.

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