Earlier this year, I introduced a new column for disenfranchised FM: top five songs, with the theme changing monthly. This issue, I'm making a few twists.

At the suggestion of some readers, I'm taking a look back at the most important musicians of the last decade. Instead of writing about specific songs, I'm looking a collective works during the Aughts - who I consider to be the decade's most important musicians.

Another twist that I'm adding this month is introducing a guest writer to the column. My thought is this is a good idea for two reasons: first, when covering a best-of-the-decade topic, you expect to argue over a few selections. Debate is encouraged. Otherwise, it's not nearly as fun. Second, I know that my guest writer is going to make me laugh.

When I came up with the idea of a guest writer, it didn't take me long to figure out who it should be. Bryan Rakowski is a buddy of mine from grad school. Like me, my friend Bryan loves music. I when I say he loves music, I mean he loves music. If five years from now Bryan has launched his own start-up label, I would not be surprised in the least. But for now, he is a Kraft Brand Director on a long-term assignment in Puerto Rico, selling cheese in La Isla del Incanto.

Interestingly enough, our paths almost crossed in the Nineties, when I almost attended his high school. The fact that I could have been discussing music with Bryan for an extra 10 years of my life (and the fact that I would have won more than five football games in high school) still bothers me. He and I have gone point/counterpoint on my last four Cuckoo's Eleven lists. When it comes to musical tastes, we have not only enough in common to tolerate each other's diatribes, but also enough difference in opinion to make things interesting. And no matter how much we differ in opinion, our exchanges always make me laugh.

ANYWAY ... Bryan and I decided to write the blog point/counterpoint, in the style of Bill Simmons/Malcolm Gladwell. Beginning with who we believe to be our fifth most important musicians, we'll alternate our selections and share thoughts on each other's picks. We also agreed to guidelines on what "Most Imporant Musicians of the Aughts" should mean, and came up with the following qualifying reasons:

  1. Whenever possible, musician should be an individual, not a band.
  2. Producers are fair game, but should have a dominant body of work.
  3. Must have demonstrated commercial success (e.g., album and/or concert sales, etc.).
  4. Musicians who launched their careers mid-decade or were quiet the last few years are still eligible, but should have held a dominant position in music to be considered. No flashes in the pan allowed.
  5. Influence - on the music industry, within the genre, on other musicians, etc.
  6. "It" Factor - did something groundbreaking that changed how people appreciate music.

Or put more simply: "out of all the musicians from the Aughts, who do we think we will listen to/talk about in 10 years?" Will some musicians be left off the list? Of course. But then again, we're not making an exhaustive list. Think of this as our starting five roster.

Okay, enough rules. Let's get this started already. A toss of our coveted "High Fidelity" coin will determine who goes first. On the heads side of the coin, we have Rob Gordon (John Cusack). On the tails side, Barry (Jack Black). The coin is in the air, and it’s ........................ Barry! That means our guest writer goes first. Mr. Rakowski, the floor is yours.


RAKOWSKI:

First of all, let me take a quick sentence or two to thank Mr. Corona for the invitation to do this guest stint on his show.

Moving on...

When one looks back on the Aughts, it is easy to forget that this is 10 YEARS we’re talking about. (In all seriousness, I appreciate the kind words and high expectations laid upon me by Matt. I look forward to the discussions, debates, and diatribes ahead). While Lady Gaga may be all the rage, she’s barely been around for TWO years, let alone a whopping 10. On the other side of the coin, groups like Aerosmith may still be around, but just because they’ve got 37 years on the odometer doesn’t mean they are at all relevant in the last decade (spoiler alert: they’re not).

I must admit, this top five did not come easily to me. I gathered feedback on my initial ideas from “the people”; translated ... various acquaintances across a smattering of industries that included a pizza peddler, a ski bum, an advertising exec, a cog in the consulting wheel, and a real-life, honest-to-goodness musician (see the Honorable Mention in the Cuckoo’s Eleven post on Top Five Songs Played on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien). But I maintain that these will indeed by MY choices for the top five Most Important Artists of the Aughts.

At some point I will look to work in the artists that came into consideration but ultimately didn’t make the cut, however, without further fuss and ado, let’s get to #5 and get this train moving. I actually predict my #5 to cause the most consternation because it stretches the guidelines we’ve set further than Octomom’s vah-jay-jay. (Too much too soon? Sorry.)



#5: SIMON FULLER
He’s never pretended to be a musician, and indeed he is not. But he has mastered the art of the “/” forward slash by wearing multiple hats for creating/producing/managing. Let’s play a game to see how well you know Mr. Fuller. Please circle any of the artists below that you recognize ... whether be by name, music, or popular culture status:
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Amy Winehouse
  • Chris Daughtry
  • The Spice Girls
  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Annie Lennox
  • Katy Perry
  • Pink

    Most folks in the audience should have circled seven or eight of the above, I would imagine. Here’s one more for you that should bring this home: He created and currently produces American Idol.


  • Simon Fuller

    Seriously, when you look back on the last 10 years, I find it difficult to come up with any rationale how American Idol hasn’t affected how we consume music, view the industry as a whole, and elevate everyday Joe’s to star-status almost overnight. The public gets to decide who will become the next star! (Kinda like Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger, only instead of dying they become famous instead!).

    The show’s success is indisputable. The finales routinely garner audiences that are surpassed only by the Oscars and The Super Bowl. Over 50 million copies of American Idol music has been sold since its beginning in 2002. It is claimed to be a franchise worth over $2.5 billion...which would make it the most valuable of its kind in the world. It has spawned concert tours, individual stars, and an entire sub-genre of D-level celebrities for those contestants who were just “too good” to make the cut (read: William Hung and Pants on the Ground).

    Therefore, I present to you Mr. Simon Fuller, my #5 pick that meets four out of the five criteria without question. Unfortunately, the one that it does call into question is the first one. I can assure you from this point forward I will have no additional producers/creators on my top five list.

    PS: No, I do NOT mean Simon Cowell. This is a common misconception. While they do share the same first name and nationality, Fuller is the mastermind, Cowell is simply the overly opinionated tag-a-long who takes advantage of Fuller’s fear of celebrity status (kind of like the David Gahan to Martin Gore...Depeche Mode would have been nothing with Martin.)

    PPS: Note that nothing in the list of criteria pertains to Matt or I actually liking or listening to the artists we’ve selected. So however embarrassing, I’m still going to refrain from discussing my like or dislike for a particular selection unless it is relevant to the argument.

    PPPS: I only watched season 1 of American Idol. I swear.


    CORONA:

    Well, you've definitely gotten things off to an interesting start. And by interesting, I mean that I could not disagree with you more.

    Is Simon Fuller influential? Clearly. Time Magazine named him one of the most 100 influential people in 2007, and Jeffrey Zucker called American Idol "the most impactful show in the history of television". I'll be honest: drawing 90 million viewers is astonishing. In the words of Winston Zeddmore, "That is one big twinkie." And the commercial success doesn't stop there: the top 15 American Idol contestants have sold more than 45 million copies in the U.S., combined. To put that into perspective, that's 50% more than Pearl Jam has sold in nearly half the time.

    Has he been commercially successful? Of course. But let's dig a little deeper on commercial success. The $2.5 billion value of the American Idol franchise is not only misleading, it's troubling. After all, it includes revenue from sponsors, merchandising, telephone, broadcast and advertising sources.

    (That's right, audience, you can text in your vote thanks to our wireless phone provider. And who knows - if the contestant you vote for makes it to the next round, you may see them coincidentally wearing outfits from a certain San Francisco-based clothing company. But don't worry! We'll show you how *real* our contestants are when we cut to live footage of them in our green room, which we've conveniently sold the rights to a certain red company from Atlanta. More music coming up ... right after these commercials!).
    Don’t get me wrong: the concept is brilliant; the execution flawless. And he’s been exponentially more successful at this business model than Lou Perlman, Clive Davis, and Sean Combs combined. But ultimately Fuller isn't selling music; he's drawing a massive audience, and then serving up a two-hour merchandising campaign disguised as a concert.

    And finally, there is the minor detail (as you pointed out) that Simon Fuller has never been created with writing, recording, or producing a song. Ever. Not even one. For me, that’s reason enough why he shouldn’t appear on the list.



    Alright, it's time to move on to my first pick. But before I do, I thought it would be interesting to add another wrinkle to our point/counterpoint. Previously, I likened our lists as our "starting five". Since then, I've realized that my starting five each have unique reasons for appearing on my list. Not only are their musical styles and genres different, but so too are the paths traveled over the past 10 years for me to consider them important. Independent of one another, each nominee's track record is impressive in its own right. But collectively, I believe that they possess the greatest influence on this decade's music.

    And so, in honor of our beloved National Champion Blue Devils (GTHCGTH), my starting five will mirror traditional basketball positions. Feel free to adopt moving forward, BRak. I figured that this new twist may be intriguing to a certain point guard from the 1994-1995 Catholic League Championship Basketball Team.


    #5 (at Center): BEN GIBBARD
    Let's begin with what Gibbard is most popularly known for: the primary songwriter and frontman for Death Cab for Cutie. In terms of both critical acclaim and commercial success, Death Cab for Cutie is considered one of the most successful bands of the 21st Century. Those who follow the annual Cuckoo's Eleven blogs know that I hold DCFC in high regard: both their 2005 release Plans (RIAA-certified Platinum and stayed in the Billboard 200 for 50 weeks) as well as their follow-up Narrow Stairs (RIAA-certified Gold, their first number one, 32 weeks on the Billboard 200) landed in the top eleven albums of the year. And in what could be the most glaring omission in the history of Cuckoo's Eleven, their 2003 release Transatlanticism (RIAA-certified Gold) is considered one of the decade's best albums.

    What makes DCFC's story even more compelling is their ability to transition from indie to major label, while continuing to evolve their sound and style. No band since R.E.M. has made a more successful leap, and depending on how successful their next album is, they could very well surpass Stipe and company. While Transatlanticism and Plans are both solid albums, Narrow Stairs is a remarkable leap forward melodically. Gibbard's insistence to abandon the high-budget recording process (in which band members record separately) in favor of live group sessions led to a tighter, more cohesive rhythm section. Opting further to record on two-inch tape also reeled the band in from lures of excessive overdubbing. In other words, he isn't afraid to grind it out down low.


    Ben Gibbard

    But Big Ben's artistic efforts don't end at DCFC. Gibbard also teamed up with producer Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel to form The Postal Service, and in 2003 released the critically acclaimed Give Up. Two big reasons why this was important to music. First of all, official collaborations within rock at that time were extremely limited. Try naming five rock collaborations that have been well received between the years 1980 and 1999. No, really, I'll wait ...

    [waiting]

    [waiting]

    [waiting]

    More difficult than you thought, isn't it? Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" is a legitimate masterpiece. You can make an argument for Temple of the Dog and Mad Season (which is ironic, because an overdose created the former and destroyed the latter). You can stretch "rock" collaboration to include Aerosmith/Run DMC, but beyond that there weren't many collaborations. Argue that McCartney and Jackson's "Say Say Say" qualifies and I will kick you in the teeth.

    Until the Aughts, there weren't nearly as many collaborations/side projects in rock as there were in Hip Hop. I'm not saying that The Postal Service was the first of its kind, but I do believe that this was the first commercially successful collaboration between rock and electronica. Sure, Brian Eno's catalogue existed before 2003, but this was the first album in which I can remember live drum fills being paired with laptop-driven melodies. Second, the means by which this collaboration took place is fantastic. In an era where music literally became digitized, Gibbard and Taborello opted to send DATs to one another by ... you guessed it ... the postal service. In other words, Gibbard developed a jump shot to balance out his back-to-the-basket game.

    If imitation is the highest form of flattery in everyday world, then the highest form of flattery in the music world is using a song to set the mood, context, or environment in a film or show. In terms of influence, one has to look no further than the silver and small screens to see how frequently Gibbard's work has been used in other media. For example:

  • "Transatlanticism" - Six Feet Under, CSI Miami, and Disturbia
  • "A Lack of Color" - The O.C.
  • "Title and Registration" - Breaking Bonaduce

    In the interest of full disclosure, I feel obligated to acknowledge Death Cab for Cutie also wrote a song for the second Twilight movie. Now, there's only one movie I've considered unworthy of watching until the end, and that was the first Twilight movie (I have wondered what it would take for me to feel old ... turns out that it's a movie about vampires who glitter like diamonds when they stand in the sun. There. I just save you a Netflix rental). So needless to say, I was highly concerned when I heard that DCFC was on the soundtrack. However, "Meet Me at the Equinox" is not written specifically for the movie, but instead was chosen as the melody would mesh well with the cinematography. Therefore, I do not consider this detrimental. More so, I think it indicates a broader accepted audience than most bands appreciate. Grunge bands were regarded as highly by our generation as they were by Generation X. The same goes for Death Cab for Cutie.

    Finally, Gibbard has taken an adamant stand against Auto-Tune usage. And by usage, I don't mean the likes of T Pain and Kanye. I'm referring to the hundreds of pop acts over the past 10-plus years who have somehow recorded pitch-perfect vocals yet can't maintain proper pitch live. Or worse yet, those who use Auto-Tune live. This is as great a travesty as the steroid-era of baseball, except that this isn't going to end. Labels will continue to be pressured on scaling back underwriting on studio sessions, and most will opt for more "economic" recording options (read: instead of investing in vocal training, they'll instead capture the emotion of vocals and then weld it into the right notes later). Alternatively, when describing the 2010 release One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music from Kerouac's Big Sur (yet another collaboration, this time with Jay Farrar), Gibbard openly admits that his voice is delicate and his range narrow. But rather than rely on Auto-Tune, he uses his unique voice to create a signature sound.

    Over the past 10 years, Ben Gibbard has quietly built a repertoire worth admiring. And in 10 year's time, I predict that many of this decade's best will give a nod to Gibbard for influence and inspiration, part of the reason why they too became successful. Strong post play, balanced with a mid-range shot, underrated defense ... Yes, friends, Ben Gibbard is Brian Zoubek ... minus eleven inches.


    RAKOWSKI:

    To immediately embrace your basketball analogy, about which, I might add, I am as excited as I was when I stole the ball from the hands of Jalen Rose’s little brother, drove the length of the court, missed the layup, got fouled and hit one of two free throws to put us ahead for good against Bishop Borgess in a crucial game during that Catholic League Championship season, but I digress...

    I was expecting a thunderous ‘Nique tomahawk jam to start things off. Instead, we got a Joe Barry Carroll finger roll that whispered through the hoop about as loud as Ben Gibbard sings. Better put, Ben Gibbard may be a 12th man on our list, but I do not think he deserves consideration for a starting five spot.

    At risk of losing our audience by over-analyzing and droning on regarding each others’ picks, I’m going to do it anyway. But to create the illusion of succinct, well-crafted arguments, I’ll use the “bullet list rebuttal” format before moving on to my #4 pick!

  • Commercially successful – borderline. I accept the two Gold and one Platinum album from DCFC, but there are MANY, MANY more artists with FAR greater commercial success than this in the Aughts. Therefore, I label this ‘suspect’ at best. Was George Muresan or Manute Bol successful in the NBA? Yeah, I guess so, but I can name a smorgasbord of more successful and more important centers.
  • Consistency – I’ll give you this one. Everything he puts his hands on enjoys some measure of success, acclaim, whatever. (Plus, I wouldn’t mind putting my hands on his wife, Zooey Deschanel). Anyone that gets their actual song in a movie and a cover of said song on the soundtrack for the same movie...kudos. However, let’s be careful here. You made mention of a couple points in your opener regarding “best”, “critical acclaim”, and conjecture regarding future success. All points with heavy doses of the opinion of Mr. Corona and the reviewing bodies handing out such acclaim. If we’re going to start delving into NPR music snob territory, I may have to adjust my starting five. As long as we recognize the circles/genres/etc of where this acclaim is coming from and take that with a grain of salt, I can move on.
  • Influential – here is where I think this one falls apart. Gibbard’s “insistence to abandon the high-budget recording process” may be interesting, but he’s one of a long list of artists who share this same philosophy. Recording on two-inch tape is ‘pure’ and all, but I think it’s safe to say the industry isn’t seeing a resurgence in recording to 2-inch, kind of like the NBA isn’t seeing a resurgence of players reverting back to layups instead of dunks. I don’t think he has started a revolution here and even if there was one, he’s merely a participant.


    Successful rock collaborations and/or supergroups between 1980 – 1999:

  • Asia (1982) – contained members of King Crimson & Yes and had the chart-topping hit, “Heat of the Moment” which I believe you and I have sung, out-loud, to whoever would listen, during one drunken night at “He’s Not Here” in Chapel Hill.
  • “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” – Elton John & Stevie Wonder (1983), hit #7 in the US
  • We Are the World – USA for Africa (1985)
  • “That’s What Friends are For” – Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Dionne Warwick (1985), hit #1 in US (credited as “Dionne and Friends”)
  • Would “The Girl is Mine” (1982) by Jackson and McCartney count in lieu of “Say Say Say”? It peaked at #2 and was certified platinum.
  • The Traveling Wilburys (1988) – Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison
  • The Highwaymen (mid-80’s) – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson
  • “Somebody to Love” – George Michael and Queen (1992) on the “Five Live” EP
  • A Perfect Circle (1992) – with members of Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson

    Now, in terms of the Postal Service being the first successful collaboration between rock and electronica specifically...I have to give you that one, especially since the term “electronica” didn’t even get coined until the 1990’s. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s like saying the Flint Tropics invented the left-handed alley-oop when so many before them were trailblazers like the list above.

    Two final points regarding Mr. Gibbard (with credit for these nuggets to good friend TM):

  • 100% agree with “Over the past 10 years, Ben Gibbard has quietly built a repertoire worth admiring”. Quietly. I bet you didn’t know that Wes Unseld finished his career with 10,000+ points and rebounds, almost 4,000 assists, 1 NBA Championship, and 1 MVP trophy. But you bet your ass you’re not picking him as your starting center on an All-Star team. Kinda like Ben.
  • When trying to argue that someone was one of the 5 most important in a decade, you should never list an appearance on Breaking Bonaduce.

    So much for a brief rebuttal on Mr. Ben Gibbard. On to my #4 pick ...


    Stay tuned for the next installment of Starting Five debate, slated for Monday, June 21.

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