Retromania: Throwback Bands That Don't Suck

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A little earlier this year, we ran an article about the things we felt were wrong with indie music in 2011. One of the points we mentioned was that a lot of music (indie or otherwise) has become a sort of endless spin cycle of recurring trends that come around in metronomic 20-year phases. We stand behind this observation, but in retrospect, we feel we could have argued the point a wee bit better (as Simon Reynolds does in his must-read book, Retromania ) — we don’t mean to imply that all bands who take their cues from the past are terrible, because there’s clearly a fine line between inspiration and pastiche, and there are many excellent bands who fall on the right side of that line. With the release of Amy Winehouse’s posthumous compilation this week, we thought we’d look back at her career, and also some other fine throwback artists who’ve adorned the last decade.

Amy Winehouse

It still seems awfully sad and mildly surreal to be writing of Amy Winehouse in the past tense. But even though her career was far, far too short, it was still important. She wasn’t the first neo-soul artist, of course, nor even perhaps the most influential. But she was by far the most charismatic and publicly recognizable. Back to Black might have been played to death, but it remains a startling piece of work — Mark Ronson’s Motown-influenced tracks were certainly slick and well-executed, but would ultimately have been lightweight were it not for Winehouse’s ultra-modern lyrics, which were alternately bleak, brutally honest, and hilarious (and occasionally all three at once). And, of course, her remarkable voice. RIP.

Why she mattered: She didn’t invent neo-soul, but she came to epitomize it — and quite possibly also introduced a whole new generation to the sounds of Motown.

Martial Canterel

Synthpop is another genre that’s seen a pretty impressive revival over the last few years, catalyzed largely by devoted fans/archivists digging up overlooked gems from the past (like Pieter Schoolsworth’s Wierd night and Veronica Hasicka’s Minimal Wave radio show/record label). It’s an interesting business, because even the idea of minimal wave is a modern invention, a retroactive genre term applied to a variety of sounds that probably share more in retrospect than they did at the time. Similarly, some of today’s minimal wave artists are almost more “authentic” than their antecedents, polishing and perfecting a sound that first emerged 25 years ago. Like Sean McBride, aka Martial Canterel, for instance — for all that his music is dedicated to sounding as authentically retro as possible (it’s made using only analogue synths and old hardware sequencers), it’s also evidence that retro can involve re-imagining the past, not just recreating it.

Why he matters: As proof that retro artists can take an “old” sound and continue its development, rather than just replicating what’s gone before.

Sharon Jones

You could argue that Sharon Jones isn’t so much a throwback as an original who just had to wait a while for her music to come back into fashion — she sang throughout the ’80s and ’90s while working as a prison guard at Rikers Island, before finally becoming a kind of spiritual godmother to the neo-soul/funk bands who started to emerge in the 1990s and found popularity in the 2000s. She’s a testament to the idea that if you stick at something for long enough, success will find you.

Why she matters: For proving (belatedly) that good tunes never go out of fashion.

Alabama Shakes

Regular readers will have noticed that we’ve been writing about this band an awful lot of late. There’s a pretty simple reason for this: they embody the best sort of retromania, the type that takes its cues from thoroughly worthy figures of yesteryear (in this case Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and old school bluesmen, basically), suffuses it with youthful energy, and invests the result with enough personality, dynamism, and songwriting chops to steer clear of the danger of just repeating the past.

Why they matter: They’re clearly the brightest new stars on the neo-soul horizon, and you’re going to be hearing a whole lot more about them very soon.

John Maus

Yes, we love John Maus. And for all the fascinating concepts at play in his music, the songs themselves are pretty simple — decidedly homemade backing tracks that sound like they were made some time during the 1980s on whatever synths he could lay his hands on. (And “Cop Killer” totally sounds like it could have come from the Blade Runner soundtrack.) Unlike Martial Canterel, Maus doesn’t have a great deal of use for authenticity in terms of instrumentation, etc. — his beats are apparently all made with VSTs — but then, he doesn’t think he’s got a whole lot to do with the 1980s anyway. As he told the Guardian last month, “If my music sounds ’80s, you’re hearing its medieval backbone.” So there.

Why he matters: For being generally awesome, and for making music with, um, a medieval backbone.

Thee Oh Sees

As we discussed last week, garage rock is a genre that’s undergone several renaissances over the years. The most recent of these was catalyzed by the White Stripes (of whom more shortly), The Dirtbombs, et al, but in 2011 it’s Thee Oh Sees who are its de facto standard bearers. They’ve got the ’60s proto-punk sound down to a tee, but as with the other bands on this list, they also remain interesting and innovative enough to avoid just being a Monks tribute band. And they rock live.

Why they matter: For being prolific, dedicated, unpretentious, and writing killer garage-pop song after killer garage-pop song.

Ghost

Metal has always been a curious case when it comes to revivalism. On the one hand, it’s a decidedly conservative art form, full of argument about what is and isn’t “real” metal. On the other hand, it’s a remarkably progressive one, spawning a bewildering array of subgenres, and also showing a general disinclination to return to its own leavings — you could argue that the major trends in metal (thrash, black metal, and death metal in the ’80s, nu-metal in the ’90s, metalcore and beyond in the 2000s) have been essentially new sounds, with little revivalism to be found. This makes a band like Ghost an interesting proposition. Their sound harks back to metal’s earliest days — it’s particularly reminiscent of Black Sabbath — and singer Papa Emeritus’s unaffected vocal style stands out in a genre dominated by barking and growling. All in all, their throwback sound is a rarity in today’s metal landscape, which by perverse definition makes them new and exciting.

Why they matter: They bring righteous death to false metal. Also, they have a sense of humor, as one of the band’s Nameless Ghouls demonstrated when he was interviewed recently (by the Guardian, no less): “Do we believe in the devil? The most important thing is that the devil believes in us.” Quite.

The White Stripes

It’s easy to forget, but before Jack White started wearing capes and working with Insane Clown Posse, The White Stripes were pretty great — De Stijl, in particular, was a killer record, taking its musical cues from ’60s garage rock and the Delta blues, and proving a huge influence on the way that rock ‘n’ roll would develop in the 2000s. Of course, they soon got lumped in with The Strokes and a bunch of others with whom they had little in common as some sort of ill-defined New Rock Revolution, but don’t hold this against them — it wasn’t their fault…

Why they mattered: For all that the New Rock Revolution became the excuse for a multitude of musical sins, the fact that bands like The White Stripes brought guitar music back into public consciousness remains a Good Thing.

Big K.R.I.T

Antoni Gaudí once wrote that “Originality consists in returning to the origin,” and considering how god-awful mainstream hip-hop can be these days, it’s no surprise that more broad-minded beatmakers are looking elsewhere for inspiration. Some of them, like Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces, are looking to the future — but others are following Gaudí’s advice and returning to first principles. The Cool Kids are probably the foremost example — they even have a song proclaiming that they’re “bringin’ ’88 back” — but the most interesting piece of hip-hop revivalism from 2011 was Big K.R.I.T’s mixtape The Last King II, which could have walked straight out of the early ’90s if not for lines like “I ain’t trippin’ on no critics or no blogs.”

Why he matters: Because mainstream hip-hop is so fucking awful that any alternative vision of the genre has to be good news, eh?

Hunx and his Punx

Punk’s sonic debt to ’50s girl groups has been well-documented — The Ramones were basically the Ronettes with faster tempos, distortion, risqué lyrics, and, um, penises — and plenty of other punk bands adopted the sort of bubblegum melodies and poptastic song structures that characterized Phil Spector’s pre-murderous lunacy protegées. (Indeed, the Ramones are a fine example of a retro band who nonetheless created something new.) So maybe it’s a surprise that it’s taken this long for a straight-up ’50s girl group revival band to happen. A YouTube comment on this video describe Hunx as being “like Joey Ramone and John Waters had a love child,” which is basically spot on. Even the YouTube comments section gets it right sometimes!

Why they matter: Honestly, they probably don’t. But they’re great fun anyway. Sometimes, maybe it’s best not to overthink things, eh?