Musical Categories - A Brief Explanation

Music is a real bitch when it comes to categorizing and classifying, but, on the other hand, becomes a chaotic jungle, easy to get lost in, when you deny the very possibility of such a classification. Sure enough, there are artists that are completely immune to pigeonholing - David Bowie, for instance, or Frank Zappa - but then there are also those that almost seem proud to be stuck into one simple category and get away with it (such as, well, every second heavy metal band on the planet, if not every first one).

Most artists, however, fall somewhere in between. Music is, after all, more a matter of the spirit than of the mind, and the human spirit is, unsurprisingly, a rather monotonous and monolithic gadget. So in most cases, even if you can't express the complete essence of artist so-and-so in one turn of phrase, you can at least give some sort of brief indication. In that case, categorization has its obvious uses - helping people find stuff that would probably be more to their liking by having similarly-sounding artists grouped together.

The scheme used here differs from an earlier one, used by me previously, in that it is strictly based on musical (or, to be more exact, "aural") parameters, and, therefore, does not take into account neither of the following parameters:

NB: For convenience reason, each artist is tied to one and only one specific category on the index page, normally the one that I consider the most typically representative for said artist. The full definition, however, consists of the main category plus all the additional ones, which you can find by visiting said artist's page and checking out the "also applicable" box. For instance, while both 10CC and T. Rex are placed in the "Smart Pop" category, it is obvious that the two are, in fact, widely different from each other. For 10CC, therefore, secondary categories like "Lush Pop" and "Avantgarde" are applicable, indicating their tendency towards creating gorgeous sonic landscapes and experimentation with structure; for T. Rex, such categories are "Rhythm & Blues" and "Hard Rock", indicating Marc Bolan's leanings towards the harsher, more rock'n'roll kind of things. This should necessarily be kept in mind by everybody who's already getting the shotgun ready because I dared to put the Beach Boys and the Carpenters into the same category.

Much of the categorization is self-evident and does not need additional explanation. Many of the terms, however, have been used by me in somewhat untraditional meanings, and some are relatively rare met and might probably not be understood at all without additional comments. Here, then, is a brief set of such comments for every category.

I. "POP". The first big subcategory; artists that, naturally, lean towards the "lighter" side of things, although "lighter" does not always mean "easily accessible", of course.

a) Pop Rock. Catchy (at least, supposedly catchy) pop songs, for the most part, guitar-based. This includes most of what is traditionally called "power pop", although that definition is, of course, quite vague, both stylistically and chronologically. The lyrical content is normally secondary to the music, which pretty much makes this the most stubbornly alive genre of all, represented by as many artists today as it was in its early years, from The Beatles up to The Flaming Lips.

b) Smart Pop. Where basic "pop rock" aims more for a direct hit at one's basic emotions, "smart pop" is more of an 'intellectual' branch of it. The lyrics are normally far more prominent, begging to be taken into consideration, and there is usually much more experimentation with song structures, chord sequences, arrangements, and such. As a result, "smart pop" generally breaks far more ground than basic "pop rock", but carries a serious risk of becoming somewhat too elitist for its own good at times (occasionally bordering on avantgarde or even meta-rock). Smart Pop is particularly typical of the post-1975 era, beginning with the New Wave movement (e.g. Police, Talking Heads), when traditional pop rock often became perceived as far too cliched and trite; however, some of the best representatives of the category can actually be met in the early 70s (notably Sparks and 10cc).

c) Lush Pop. Where pop music does not "rock", i. e. is not guitar based, it usually relies on keyboards and strings, rendering it more classical-like in form and aspiring to Higher Art in substance. This is, of course, the original form of pop, performed by Bing Crosby and the rest long before "pop rock" came into existence. "Pop rock" itself began to occasionally merge with keyboard- and strings-based pop sometime in the mid-60s, starting with the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Zombies, etc., and arguably reached its apex in the late Sixties/early Seventies. Ever since prog rock replaced it with something bigger and more bloated, and then punk and New Wave washed away both, Lush Pop has been in decline, though. Lush Pop is sometimes very hard to tell from simpler forms of art rock.

d) Dance Pop. A lot of pop music is danceable, but when the primary function of a tune is to get your ass moving, this constitutes "dance pop" as such. This does not mean that the function of such music is purely applied - if Strauss could express his vast artistic ambition with a form as "primitive" (from the early XIXth century view) as waltz, there's no reason why ABBA or Prince cannot achieve bigger goals with their funk and disco approaches. Dance Pop often borders on the "groove" group categories, but is distinguished from them by placing a generally bigger emphasis on the pop catchiness of the tunes.

e) Synth Pop. Placed in a separate category for one reason only: experience tells me that when synthesizers become the leading (if not the only) instruments used in a pop song, this is usually the first thing about the song that people actually react to. Regardless of the fact that synth pop can actually be quite different: bordering on progressive rock (Asia), mope rock (Depeche Mode), lush pop (some of the Pet Shop Boys), even singer-songwriters (Tears For Fears). Still, a lump is a lump. One of the few categories represented exclusively in the post-1975 section - for obvious reasons.

II. "ROCK". The second big subcategory; leans towards the "harsher", "darker" side of things, obviously. My personal favourite, minus the "Arena Rock" subcategory.

a) Rhythm & Blues. Not to be confused with what is below called R'n'B - yes, I understand the possible confusion, but I needed some way to distinguish between the blues-based "primitive" (or, rather, "primal") form of rock'n'roll as propagated by early British Invasion bands and their successors, on one hand, and the later fusion of this style with pop, folk, country, and technical progress influences that resulted in hard rock. This style, best represented by such bands as The Rolling Stones and The Who, has pretty much become obsolete with the advent of hard rock, heavy metal, and then, somewhat later, punk rock, but, in my humble opinion, embodies the one true "rock'n'roll spirit" like nothing else does.

b) Hard Rock. Grew out of the original rhythm & blues and is technically more diverse than its immediate ancestor due to being somewhat more open to outside influences (everything from funk to folk), but, on the other hand, often either takes itself way too seriously (Grand Funk Railroad), bordering on the worst excesses of arena rock, or gruesomely overdoes the offensive, "cocky" side of rock'n'roll (KISS). The best kind of hard rock, I think, is one which is able to preserve the tongue-in-cheek spirit of rock'n'roll (AC/DC, Alice Cooper).

c) Heavy Metal. It may be argued that there are no two persons that would fully agree upon the exact line at which hard rock crosses onto heavy metal territory. The most ridiculous, "linguistically racist" position is one according to which "good heavy music = hard rock, bad heavy music = heavy metal", e. g. "How dare you call Led Zeppelin heavy metal?". Well, I do, actually. According to the standard criteria of this site, Led Zeppelin are among the primary creators of heavy metal, which sets them apart from immediate predecessors like the Who or Blue Cheer. Heavy metal is not just "heavier" than hard rock; it is generally more ambitious, yearns for more complex song structures, "deeper" lyrics (often resulting in trite D&D imagery, of course), and, I would say, a more profound emotional response from the listener. Of course, the difference between a "hard rock" band and a "heavy metal" band is more statistical than anything else.

d) Arena Rock. Loud, pompous music that seems specially designed to be blasted full force at jam-packed stadiums - lighters out at the ready and "Cleveland, are you ready to rock?". Many hard rock and heavy metal acts fall under this definition, but there also seems to exist an arena-rock category par excellence, represented by bands such as Boston and Foreigner, not particularly hard or heavy but churning out bombastic anthems at hamburger speed all the same. The peak activity for this category falls on the late Seventies, when their sound was heavily embraced by the radio; since then, arena rock has more or less died out, for the most part merging with the hair metal thing. Occasional attempts to radically redefine the format by bands like U2 are successful, but... occasional.

e) Punk/Grunge. This category is pretty much obvious for everybody who's ever heard both words, with but two important details to add. First: I am putting both "punk" and "grunge" in the same category because, for all I know, they are pretty much in complementary chronological distribution - before 1991, it's "punk", after, with the coming of Nirvana, it's "grunge". (At the very least, it's really problematic to distinguish between the two today, unless we're talking consciously retro acts). Second, although "punk rock" as such did not exist before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols invented it, some of the hard-to-categorize bands of the late Sixties, often united under the vague moniker of "proto-punk", are quite close to the proverbial punks in terms of artistic spirit, which is why I am placing the Stooges, the MC5, and even the Velvet Underground in the same category.

III. "ART". The third big category deals with rock and pop's transformations into Something Higher, music for the Brain and the Soul rather than the Body.

a) Psychedelia. All good things start with a nameless hero smoking pot, I guess; before pop music merged with jazz, classical, and neo-classical, it had to merge with a lot of chemical substances and a few Indian instruments. The idea of being taken by music to "other places" finds its most literal application in psychedelia, and that, basically, is the main criterion for placing artists within that subcategory. Within the genre, all kinds of primary influences are allowed - blues (Cream), folk (Incredible String Band), garage rock (13th Floor Elevators), electronica (United States Of America), etc. However, it all comes down to the blunt idea of "opening your mind" in the end. So blunt, in fact, and so idealistic, that true psychedelic music never really managed to outlive the hippie Sixties; rock critics like Jim DeRogatis might, of course, be finding "psychedelia" everywhere, from the Cocteau Twins to Radiohead, but the way I see it, true psychedelia was only possible when rock was in its infancy period.

b) Art Rock. Out of psychedelia and lush pop we have art rock, an extremely vague term that more or less means "pop rock that refuses to follow old formulas". The most important thing about it, I guess, is that it is essentially still "pop", music that is not meant to be consciously elitist or revolutionary, but one that broadens its palette significantly by willing to try anything as long as it is melodic enough and more or less fits in the format. Lyrics usually matter a lot, and the music is meant to be taken seriously, even if many of the artists in question have their sarcastic side as well. Unlike its snubby younger brother, prog rock, art rock is very much alive today (carried on by such commercially and critically successful artists as Bjork and Radiohead, among others) and will probably remain that way.

c) Prog Rock. Art rock taken to extremes. Prog[ressive] rock is distinguished by such well-known features as active, at times seemingly superfluous, incorporation of classical and jazz influences, jaw-dropping song lengths, trickiest of the tricky song structures, and immaculate professionalism on the part of players. The peak of prog rock falls on the early 70s, when, for a brief spell, bands like Yes and Jethro Tull even managed to achieve significant commercial success. Since then, prog rock seems to have crashed down under its own topographic ocean weight, and it doesn't help matters much that up to this day every aspiring rock critic considers himself obliged to give the dead dog another kick in order to be initiated into the brotherhood. Despite that, prog traditions are, even today, kept on life support by "neo-prog" volunteers (Marillion), and, in my humble opinion, the best chunks of prog's legacy haven't really "dated" one day. Note that very often, "art rock" and "prog rock" are considered to be complete synonyms, whereas the stuff that I am putting in the "prog" category is dubbed "symph rock".

d) Avantgarde. For those who aren't satisfied with "progressive" handling of music, there's always the radical avantgarde stuff to turn to. These guys, with rare exceptions, had very little commercial success (although quite often, a good deal of critical acclaim), which is understandable, as their music is defiantly anti-commercial. Avantgarde challenges the very traditional notions of melody and harmony, essaying to prove that true sonic art can be created by going beyond these tired old horses - and it's up to you to decide just how successfully. A lot of this stuff many people (sometimes including me) even find hard to call "music" in the first place. That said, there is a clear distinction between those avantgarde artists who do actually rely on some kind of musical structure to get their point across (Can, Faust, Henry Cow), whereas others are essentially "noise-makers", expanding the idea of "music" to the unexpandable (Coil; "industrial" pioneers like Einsturzende Neubauten, etc.).

e) Mood Music. Sometimes the idea of an artist is to create a state rather than a dynamic process; paint an immobilised musical paysage rather than make a musical action movie. This idea reaches its apex in the "ambient" genre, pioneered, among others, by Brian Eno; since, however, I do not have a lot of ambient artists reviewed on the site, nor do I intend to have them in the nearest future, I thought it best to join people like Eno with other "mood painters", such as the ones on the famous 4AD label (Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance). In a way, this category is the closest to psychedelia, since both styles involve taking the listener to a "different world". However, Mood Music is not necessarily drug-fuelled, and is generally far less spontaneous and improvisation-based as psychedelia.

IV. "ROOTS". The fourth big subcategory unites forms of pop/rock that owe their existence to traditional "low" genres - folk, country, blues, jazz.

a) Folk Rock. The earliest form of "rootsy" music, pioneered by Bob Dylan and bands that accrued to his style, such as the Byrds and others. The original idea essentially consisted of writing original material based on traditional folk tunes and giving it electric arrangements. Since then, the conception of "folk rock" has become far more vague, criss-crossed with psychedelia, and, at times, hardly separable from basic pop rock (Tom Petty). This explains why the category is not too big and, for the most part, is restricted to the pre-1975 period - although "folk rock" is quite often met as an "also applicable" category for quite a few artists.

b) Roots Rock. A form of pop music that is, at the same time, busy appraising the traditional Americana values of country and blues (occasionally also jazz), and trying to establish its authors' own identity as well. Unlike Rhythm&Blues, it does not place rebellion and ass-kicking at the top of the priority list; unlike Folk Rock, it is usually grander in scope and, in some ways, more pretentious. The most classic example of an ideal "roots rock" ensemble is The Band, of course, but there are also less eclectic roots-rockers, some of which realise their individuality through pop hooks (CCR), others stick mostly to the blues (early Hot Tuna; Rory Gallagher), and still others eventually drift off in "artsy" directions (Spooky Tooth). Oh, and you don't need to be American to be a roots-rocker.

c) Celtic/Medieval. This one is pretty obvious. Bands/artists who find their primary inspiration in old British and/or Celtic folklore, usually enhancing it with modern-day electric arrangements. Essentially, this is the British answer to the more American folk rock thing, although it is also a usual thing to use "folk rock" as a common term denoting both groups.

d) Jazz Rock. Nothing unusual here, either. Jazz influences are common in art rock and prog rock, of course, but once they take over fully, especially if there is an entire regular brass section in the band, it's a whole new genre. At one time, it was commercially valid, yielding hit after hit by bands such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears; the Eighties, however, more or less destroyed any of its mainstream potential. The difference between the terms "jazz rock" and "fusion" is often hard to understand; my guess is that "fusion" is, basically, just a more 'respectable' name for that part of "jazz-rock" which is not overtly commercial, potentially including more guitar than brass and also incorporating the legacy of funk and R'n'B (Jeff Beck, Brand X).

V. "GROOVE". This section is dedicated to those genres where the melody of the piece is not as important as is its rhythmics, drive, vibrancy, and general spirit. Most of it is straightforwardly African-American, although occasional whiteys are known to compete.

a) Funk/R'n'B. These aren't exactly the same things, but in the late Sixties/early Seventies it was often tough to tell one from the other, especially since the former essentially evolved out of the latter. Key artists like James Brown and Sly can't really be pigeonholed into a single category here, and passionate funkers like Funkadelic have their "R'n'B-ish" moments as well. Disco artists, however, belong rather to the "dance pop" category.

b) Soul Music. Exactly as billed. Also a predominantly black genre, although here the situation is slightly more favourable towards Caucasians than in the funk/R'n'B department, because this time around, you only have to sing like a black man - you don't necessarily have to play like one. Hence, "blue-eyed soul", Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker., etc.

c) Reggae. The only reggae artist my mainstream ass is more or less acquainted with today is Bob Marley, but hopefully this will change in the future.

d) Electronica. Also included in the "groove" section because the main parameters for electronic music are essentially the same - the rhythms, the drive, and the spirit matter much more than 'melodicity' and 'catchiness'. However, electronic music is really quite distinct from the three preceding musical forms and did not have much to do with the African-American tradition until its first contacts with the world of hip-hop sometime in the Eighties. In the beginning primarily the polygon for wacky Germans like Tangerine Dream or Greeks like Vangelis, Electronica went on to become The Music of Today, a vast and widely diverse musical world of its own which I am, frankly, not that interested in - although I'm willing to investigate.

VI. "VARIA". Everything that does not fit, or does not quite fit, into the above categories, is lumped here. In a way, this is the most individualistic part of the site - populated by artists who care more about finding a musical expression for their inner world than about trying to extract something from their inner world to substantialise an already prepared musical form.

a) Singer-songwriters. Mostly solo artists, placing very heavy emphasis on the lyrics and rarely limiting themselves to some single, set musical form. It should be noted, though, that not all solo artists are placed in that category, but only those who have a certain confessional or, at least, superficially sincere, "autobiographical" flavour in their compositions. Thus, John Lennon, with his constant neuroses, complaints, and honest love declarations, is definitely a singer-songwriter, whereas Paul McCartney is more of a professional popmeister and therefore belongs to the pop rock category. Likewise, some bands, especially those dominated by one single presence, can also be counted as "singer-songwriters" (Dire Straits), at least in the "also applicable" section.

b) Mope Rock. Rock music is not generally known as happy music for happy people, but occasionally depression and gloom get piled up so high that their presence tends to overshadow all the other aspects of a certain band. The first "professionally depressed" band were The Doors, and to define their music as "mope rock" works much better than trying to establish what were they in the first place - a pop rock band (which they certainly were) or a roots rock band (which they inarguably were). "Mope rock" became especially popular in the post-75 era, with the advent of depressed New Wavers like Joy Division and the massive "Goth rock" scene. Note that "mope rock" primarily means melancholy and depression, and not so much anger and frustration - otherwise, I'd have to merge this category with "punk/grunge" and that wouldn't be cool.

c) Guitar Heroes. These guys have been lumped together because otherwise it would have been a pain in the ass to assign them their categories. For instance, who is Jeff Beck if not a guitar hero? Hard rocker, heavy metallist, jazz rocker, avantgardist, funker - all in equal measure, more or less. Guitar heroes do belong in a class all their own, and, by the way, all of them share one interesting feature - the better they are at their instruments, the worse they usually are at catchy songwriting. However, they do not seem to mind, going for the groove rather than the melody.

d) Meta-Rock. The weirdest of them all. The term is not mine - I've seen it used several times, each time to denote a different thing - but my usage of it is to denote a kind of music or, rather, a kind of personality behind the music that seems to be working at it from the other side of the looking glass. People like Frank Zappa aren't so much contributing to the general pool of musical ideas as they're making sweeping generalisations about them, committing one hundred percent of their analytical, high-IQ-powered brains but very little in the way of souls. To use a different metaphor, "Meta-Rock" is like writing a PhD about music in purely musical terms. Most of the "meta-rockers", consequently, introduce a lot of good-natured - or, sometimes, quite mean - humour in their work, but sometimes, like Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu, they can pull the straightest face ever. This pattern ties fairly well onto the general "postmodern" look on things, although the birth of meta-rock predates the concept by a long shot (Zappa's first album came out in 1966). Meta-Rock is often hard to tell from avantgarde (in fact, sometimes just plain impossible), but the basic difference, I'd say, is that the avantgardists are modernists - they are sincerely believing in doing something radically new, artistic and spiritual with their efforts - whereas the meta-rockers view even that stage as something long past.

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