Sunday, May 24, 2015

Art Rock?

Earlier today my very tall friend Charles raised the old "last great art rock album" question. Since there's too many children over here to watch TV in peace, it only makes sense to write a lengthy, hopefully only slightly boring, essay on this topic. The conclusion I came to, after a second of thinking about it, is that I don't really know what art rock is. Well, Roxy Music is art rock and so are the Talking Heads and everything else involving Brian Eno. Other than that I don't know what to do with the question. I may not know what it is, but I know enough to know that Wikipedia's description is open ended enough that you could make a reasonable argument for Weird Al to be classified in the genre. Though someone's always willing to fuzzy the edges to admit entrance to a band that doesn't really belong, most genres are fairly easy to define. Since this one is harder to nail down, I'll clear it up. Art rock is non-mainstream (in the US at least) but still accessible, lyrically intelligent, possibly fashion conscious (but not trashy glam), not bordering on adult contempo, possibly worth the attention/temporary friendship of David Bowie, music that was made between roughly 1972 and 1981.

Now that the issue of genre definition has been so succinctly cleared up, let's run through some candidates.

1. Roxy Music : Country Life (1974)
2. Talking Heads : Remain In Light (1980)
3. David Bowie : Heroes (1977)
4. Ultravox : Systems Of Romance (1978)
5. Brian Eno : Before And After Science (1977)
6. Japan : Tin Drum (1981)

I'm not convinced the Japan record is all that great.  I thought it was and then listened to it and still can't deal with David Sylvian's voice all that well.  The Roxy Music records after Country Life are either not great or not art rock.  The same goes for Bowie and Eno.  The Ultravox record is possibly just straight up new wave.  The Talking Heads record is undeniably great and fits the category well enough.  So that's it.  Remain In Light, which Charles suggested when he brought up the question in the first place, is the last great art rock record.

The Kate Bush single at the top of the page?  Well it's because the answer is actually The Hounds Of Love from 1985.  Really, everything she did is art rock (Babooshka is a single from 1980).  I'm baffled how she had the success she did in England.  The video for Wuthering Heights looks like a prancercise commercial.  Hounds Of Love is a genuinely great album.  Running Up The Hill is a perfect song, and is pretty much as straight as the record gets.  Cloudbursting ("I still dream of Orgonon, I wake up crying...") was also a hit in the UK.  Listen to the whole thing and tell me there's a better answer.

Paul's pushing that Sonic Youth record with the washing machine on the cover from around 1994 that may actually be called Washing Machine.  I think he's tainted by that hour we spent sitting in a field outside Pittsburgh in 1995 watching Sonic Youth take an audience of Hole and Cypress Hill fans to school.  I just don't think they're art rock.  Noise rock maybe.  Now go define that.