If there is a single word that describes modern music, it’s this: change.
Think of the long history of music. From instruments to genres, things remained largely the same for centuries. Until about a 100 years ago.
As we moved from live to recorded music, we also created new genres, invented new instruments, and found new ways to listen to music. Jazz was the most ground-breaking thing your great-grandfather your probably heard. You can choose from about 100 sub-genres of EDM alone.
One way to track this massive change is through songs. Over the centuries, different songs have earmarked key transition periods in tastes, genres, instruments, etc.
I’ll cover a few of these songs in this article.
“When the Saints go Marching In” – Louis Armstrong (1938)
Jazz was already well-enshrined as an American staple by the time Louis Armstrong sang this version of a traditional spiritual in 1938. But as a genre, jazz was still a little unsure of its stature and history.
This song turned jazz back towards its roots. It was perhaps one of the first mainstream songs sung by a mainstream artist that used traditional black spiritual elements. This paved the way for the future emergence of soul as a genre.
“That’s Alright” – Elvis Presley (1954)
Rock ‘n’ roll owes much of its success to the star power of Elvis Presley. There had been hits in the genre earlier, notably Bill Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, but none had the edginess and sheer cool of Elvis. Although not his finest song, “That’s Alright” was a massive hit nonetheless and brought Elvis, and rock ‘n’ roll, to the mainstream.
“Da Funk” – Daft Punk (1995)
You can’t talk about modern electronic music without talking about the French duo that paved the way for its current success: Daft Punk. And when you talk about Daft Punk, you have to talk about their first commercial hit: “Da Funk”.
“Da Funk” was one of the first major releases that brought Daft Punk’s electronic rhythms and innovative production to the mainstream. Ditching the guitar-based sounds that characterized music of the ‘90s, Daft Punk employed electronic sounds made with a midi keyboard rather than a real instrument.
The result was innovative, iconic, and a landmark in the history of modern electronic music.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” – The Beatles (1963)
What can I say about The Beatles and their impact on music that hasn’t been said already? I could list about half a dozen tracks here, but I chose the song that first made them famous: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.
It doesn’t have any of the innovation that would characterize their later music. But in simply bringing these four artists from Liverpool to the global stage, this simple song changed music forever.
“Good Vibrations” – The Beach Boys (1966)
Ocean waves, bird calls, strange instruments – if sounds such as these are a part of modern music, you can thank the Beach Boys for it. This was a monster hit, both critically and commercially, and changed the tone of pop music forever. Bands followed The Beach Boys’ lead and started incorporating more complex harmonies and non-instrumental sounds in their songs, paving the way for much of the experimental music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Helter Skelter” – The Beatles (1968)
Lots of songs can lay claim to be the “first hard rock” song (notably, “My Generation” by The Who and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by the Stones), but most critics would agree that Helter Skelter is the true inheritor of that title.
Not a great song by any means (especially by The Beatles own standard), but immensely influential, especially given The Beatles’ stature as artists. If there was a sudden inflex of distorted sounds and hard rhythms after 1968, you can ascribe it to this track.
“Walk This Way” – Run DMC (1986)
“Walk This Way” by Run DMC managed three incredible feats: it revived Aerosmith’s career, it made sampling mainstream, and it helped pave the way for hip-hop chart-dominating success over the next decade.
Rappers had been sampling songs for years but few managed to get the original artist involved as Run DMC did with Aerosmith. The track was a massive hit and made sampling a cornerstone of hip-hop music.
There are countless other songs and artists that have a place in the annals of music history – Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, The Clash’s “London Calling”, etc. come to mind. But for starters, this is a good introduction to the development of music over the last century.
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