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Blogs & iPods & Jay-Z & (non-ironic) Metal

2005: WHAT IT IS Prez Jay-Z When news hit in January that Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter would become Def Jam Records’ new CEO, it was greeted with skepticism. The world of hip-hop entrepreneurship has always been left to the best self-promoters (P. Diddy, Russell Simmons), and as one of the most talented rappers of all time, Carter was simply overqualified. He’s succeeded as an executive, though, becoming a ubiquitous brand presence à la Oprah or Martha Stewart, rapping on hit singles by every major signing (Rhianna, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, Mariah Carey). The Big Idea is that Carter’s touch imbues normal rap ingredients with both flavor and fame. (“Master chef/lord of the kitchen cupboard,” he spits on one Jeezy track.) Carter also nailed a trifecta for artistry (launching the artist-friendly Def Jam Left imprint), business acumen (a Fortune magazine profile) and peacemaking (during the NYC station Power 105.1’s annual holiday concert, he buried the hatchet live, onstage with both Nas and P. Diddy). Secretly Canadian & Jagjaguwar These closely related indie imprints from Bloomington, Indiana, had a pair of breakout artists in 2005: chooglin’ rockers Black Mountain, who opened for Coldplay; and Antony & the Johnsons, whose ethereal balladry earned them the U.K.’s Mercury Prize. But their rosters go way deep (Oneida, Magnolia Electric Company, Richard Youngs, Okkervil River), and they’ve been picking up strong contenders for Next Big Thing status at a fearful pace (L.A.’s Richard Swift, Kansas City’s Minus Story). Add to that a fully owned distribution company responsible for spreading product by Sufjan Stevens and Explosions in the Sky, and you have an outfit that’s defining the underground Zeitgeist (fractured, eclectic) much as Sub Pop did in the late ’80s and Matador in the mid-’90s. 2005: WHAT IT WAS Apple Music Mania Vinyl junkies and Luddites aside, ’05 was the tipping point for digital music, and the year Apple became unquestionably synonymous with the portable digital “lifestyle.” iPods and iTunes hold an overwhelming market share; they have an unparalleled knack for making new technology usable by normal folks (viz. video, integrated podcasts, digital music in phones); and the buzz on their products is reliably insane. This year every single iPod variant — Mini, Shuffle, Nano, ROKR, video iPod — was greeted by consumers and media with the kind of rapturous acclaim previously reserved for actual superstars. What exposes Apple’s true ubiquity, however, is that their products are influencing other important music happenings. How do you account for the rebirth of the single format? Answer: the iTunes music store. How about the muted reaction to the Supreme Court’s Grokster decision? No one cares about piracy quite so much now that you can buy songs for 99 cents. What’s the answer to terrestrial radio’s ratings woes? A new, genre-agnostic radio format called Jack that — you guessed it — mimics the shuffle setting on an iPod. And what if you’ve given up on radio altogether? Well, underground phenomena like podcasting have arisen to take its place. Upon a Tidal Wave of Young Blogs This year witnessed ongoing reunion efforts by geezers like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Gang of Four and the New York Dolls, bands that took years to amass a following and who were legendarily underappreciated during their natural lifetimes. These bands raise the question: Is it possible to be a long-suffering underdog in the Internet era? This year has been conspicuous for the “Child stars, child stars, child stars” whom Clap Your Hands Say Yeah lead singer Alec Ounsworth might be referring to in “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood,” the final song on his group’s debut CD. These days, edgy young indie acts like the Arcade Fire (Canada), Arctic Monkeys (U.K.) and Clap Your Hands (U.S.) quickly gain career momentum and widespread fan bases. How? Well, print mags like Spin and Rolling Stone no longer set the agenda for rock and pop; instead, hype is driven by free Web outlets like MP3 blogs (Music for Robots, Stereogum), Webcasters (KEXP, WOXY) and Webzines (Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes). Together they make for a brutally efficient career-making, reputation-solidifying machine. 2006: WHAT IT (MAYBE) WILL BE This band is called Mastodon. Trashy Rock for Hipster Heshers Metal, thrash and other “heavy” music never really go out of style. Has-been hair bands signed to the CMC International label do consistent business; black metal is huge. The perception problem stems from the fact that this stuff sells to suburbanites and trailer-park residents, not urbane trendslaves. For them, bands like Overkill and Dokken exist only as fodder for ironic T-shirts. The stage has been set, however, for a hard-driving, low-rent aesthetic to take off amid the style-conscious. The Darkness’ winking posture has made it possible for sardonic hipsters to acknowledge the hair bands of their youth (Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses); journalist Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City is an unrepentant bible for smart metalheads; and technically proficient, loud-as-fuck bands like System of a Down and the Mars Volta have sold a shit-ton of records while avoiding the cheeseball label. You need a vital underground, though, to make a movement, and 2005 was a breakout year for a small army of contenders: Tsar (glammy garage rock), Mastodon (earnest, intellectual metal), the Hold Steady (ironic, intellectual bar rock), the Giraffes (perverted cock rock), Tarantula AD (gothic classical instrumentals), Cheeseburger (party metal), Early Man (power-chord thrash), Pelican (epic post-rock), Dungen (Swedish prog-folk) and Diamond Nights (like Loverboy, but more, erm, hip). Expect a few of these bands to expand and extend their followings, and expect key labels like Kemado, Hydra Head and Relapse to document the action. Gimmie Grime One More Time Stateside, it was a quiet year for grime (a.k.a. rap for and by British people). The Streets’ and Dizzee Rascal’s sophomore releases slumped in late 2004; M.I.A.’s Sri Lankan terrorist shtick was too exotic to cross over from the hipster market; and reception for Vice Records’ altogether excellent, scene-defining Run the Road compilation was understated at best. Expect another round of hype with next year’s release of a follow-up to that collection, and Jay-Z’s stateside signing of Lady Sovereign, who is essentially Eminem in the body of a puckish 5-foot-1-inch woman. She may succeed where others have failed. (No, really!) You see, grime’s most distinguishing characteristic isn’t diaristic raps about working-class British life (council estates, takeaway curry, lager for breakfast, spray-on tans); it’s backing tracks that sound like a malfunctioning Xbox, sampled by a first-gen Casio keyboard and broadcast through a 3-year-old cell-phone headset. Sov’s producers focus on the most ingratiating/annoying qualities of this sound with laserlike intensity, and her singsong dancehall cadences push the ADD pop quality even further. Only one track on her debut EP, Vertically Challenged (Chocolate Industries), has hit potential (the previously released “Cha-Ching”). But who knows? Maybe Jay-Z will do a guest rap, and the rest will be hipster history.


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