Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | music
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Although a small label had unsuccessfully released some singles in 1963, most American rock and roll fans were introduced to a new band from England via Capitol Records’ 1964 album, “Meet the Beatles.” That album, and the subsequent visits by the mop-topped Liverpudlians to the U.S., sparked by appearances on TV including historic performances on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” re-set an entire generation’s emotional gyroscope. Beatlemania brought with it a different kind of music, pop that popped with surging harmonies and was driven by hard, clangy rhythms, shot through with the soul and R&B of rock’s roots but also energized with a new kind of electricity. The Beatles were the prototype for power pop, a genre that generations of bands, fans and rock critics have been seduced by ever since “Meet the Beatles.” The list of power-pop artists that have been critically heralded is long even though few have hit the charts and become rich and famous: the Byrds (as much power pop as folk-rock and later, country); Alex Chilton and Big Star, Marshall Crenshaw, Windbreakers, Bram Tchaikovsky, the Records, Flamin’ Groovies, Let’s Active, Bangles, Nick Lowe, Matthew Sweet, Rubinoos, the Shoes… the list goes on and on. One power pop band that actually has hit songs to its credit, the Smithereens, has gone full circle with its latest recording, “Meet the Smithereens.” It’s a song-by-song replica of “Meet the Beatles,” only done as the Smithereens.

... Well, maybe not completely different, but music that you most likely haven't heard. It's been a long time since pop music has been a unifying force for an entire generation (or two, or three). Now there are too many genres, too many listeners with too many tastes, too many subcultures, too many niches (it's like the Web, no?). For myself, I listen to a wide variety of stuff but not nearly as much new music, either pop or alternative, or hip-hop or whatever, than I used to when I was a rockcrit. I do my share of iTunes downloads, and back in the halcyon early Napster days, I did my share of file-sharing (or stealing, I know, I know). Most of the music I seek out these days, however, is music within proscribed genres like jazz, world music, blues, "Americana," singer-songwriters or -- gulp -- crass baby-boomer oldies. I seek out very few new bands unless someone recommends an act to me. I manage to keep somewhat current by listening to some music that's offered online for free (and copyright free). Here are three sources downloadable via RSS feeds.

James Brown died on Christmas day, a typically dramatic move for the 73-year-old, self-described “Godfather of Soul,” who was known for dramatic endings in concert. The news of his death caught me off guard, because I hadn’t heard much about the performer in years. Although Brown’s music career was in its sunset years, he was still touring and singing regularly. He was hospitalized with pneumonia just a couple days before, and died of heart failure not long after telling a friend he would perform in Times Square for New Year’s Eve. The man earned another of his many nicknames, “The hardest working man in show business,” to the very end.

It took the urging of Cirque du Soleil, the acrobatic dance performance group, to bring the music of the Beatles – the most iconic of 1960s baby boomer musical catalogs -- into the 21st century. The bulk of the project is a mashup, the digital-era, technology-enabled ability of taking two different kinds of data and “mashing” them together to make something new. Mashups can be a newsworthy online database of crime statistics overlaid onto a Google map, for instance, or it can be cool cultural commentary, like overdubbing Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” onto the Destiny's Child hit, “Bootylicious” (they fit so perfectly, it's spooky). Or, mashups can be the melding of two generations of music, like producer Danger Mouse's weaving of Jay-Z's “The Black Album” with the Beatles' own “White Album.” This time, though, the work of reconstructing and reassembling the Beatles' recordings was a sanctioned deal.

The title of Amos Lee's second album, "Supply and Demand," might be a jab at the commercial realities of the music biz... or it might be an embrace of them. The Philly-born singer-songwriter found a folk-pop groove on his self-titled debut that hit the sweet spot and reached #2 on the Billboard "Heatseekers" chart and got a track on a couple of TV shows, including the season finale of "Grey's Anatomy." That debut was produced by Norah Jones Band bassist Lee Alexander and featured Jones, who had hired Lee as her opening act on tour, on several tracks. This time out, singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant is at the production helm, but the production is low-key and unobstrusive.

It's a somewhat goulish idea: take a recording of a late, great artist, and shore it up with new backing tracks. It's been done before, with Natalie Cole's "duet" with her father, and the remaining Beatles backing a newly-discovered John Lennon solo track. And if you wanna look at it from a contemporary perspective, digital "mashups" that overlay, for instance, Nirvana with Destiny's Child accomplish the same idea with spooky success. On "Ray Sings, Basie Swings," the legendary vocalist is paired up via technology to the current and living version of the Count Basie Orchestra, and the result is a brassy, sassy and sometimes strange album from the grave.

Jazz as a genre can span the range from big-band swing, melodic pop standards and mainstream funk-rock , to cool, bop, and way the hell out there. Branford Marsalis is one musician who not only understands, but also appreciates, the big ol' umbrella that the word represents. The oldest son in a jazz history-making family, the Brooklyn-born saxophonist has played the pure stuff as well as the pop stuff. He played with Miles, and led the "Tonight Show" band. He performed with his brother, Wynton, and toured with the Grateful Dead. Despite his dabbling with the "dark side" of pop music, though, no one questions his ability, nor his dedication to, the traditions of jazz.

Happy 5th birthday to the iPod. I was kind of slow to get on the bandwagon, mostly because it was (and still is, although not as much) so damned expensive to join the iPod club. But like a lot of people, once I got the thing, I was hooked. It's a cliche to say it but I'll say it anyway: it changed the way I listen to music, both because it allows me to shuffle through thousands of songs of all genres throughout an entire century of recorded music, and because I can carry all that tunage wherever I go and have private access to the sound library, and not have to listen to the traffic/street noise/supermarket Muzak/lawn mower/sounds of nature.