Part beginners guide, part history lesson, here’s a breakdown of the major western music genres you should know, the artists that best represent it, and who’s doing it best today.
Who You Should Know: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Ma Rainey, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan
Modern Day Master: Gary Clark, Jr.
“We all come from the damn blues.” – Chuck D, during Public Enemy’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, 2013
Just as all modern film can be traced back to the works of Melies and the Lumiere Brothers, all American music can be traced back to early Blues, which mainly took the form of spirituals and folk songs proliferated through the outskirts of America by poor black performers. The works of Leadbelly and Blind Willie Johnson still have resonating qualities, but we are talking about modern music, so the first name you absolutely need to know is Robert Johnson. You know, the guy who sold his soul at the crossroads in exchange for unmatchable musical talent and died at the age of 27 with less than five verified photographs of himself. The story of Robert Johnson only serves to illustrate the Blues’ reliance on legend, storytelling, and history.
Who You Should Know: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks
Modern Day Master: Brandi Carlile
“Country music”, or “what happens when white people take blues to the foothills of the Appalachian mountains and start putting banjo on it.”
Country music, as a whole, is second only to Blues in terms of deeply embedded American history, which is strange for a genre that is so polarizing today. If we were talking about Bluegrass, Bill Monroe is the guy you need to know. Rockabilly? Go for Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis (Elvis who?). Bro Country? I don’t know, Florida Georgia Line, maybe? I’m not going to hide my contempt for Bro Country. There are more subgenres for country than there are for rock (which seems almost impossible, but it’s true) and I kind of cheated by putting Brandi Carlile as the modern master because she’s more of a folk artist. Substitute in Kasey Musgraves if you like. Either is fine with me. They’re both amazing. But if you claim not to like country music, there’s a good chance that you just haven’t found the proper avenue to listen to. There’s even country rap (beyond Lil Nas X) that’s trying to be more than just novelty music. Weirdly enough, it’s becoming the type of American music that’s become the most adaptable, constantly mutating through at least a century of changing tastes.
Who You Should Know: Karlheinz Staukhausen, Brian Eno, Wendy Carlos, Kraftwerk, Moby
Modern Day Master: Daft Punk
Before EDM and the rise of festivals like Electric Zoo and Mysteryland, electronic music was almost exclusively for nerds. You needed years of electrical engineering training just to turn the first Moog synthesizer on and even longer to get a sound out of it, but as the technology was embraced by popular musicians of the 60s like The Beatles and The Monkees, there was a sudden rush to embrace the sounds of the future. Staukhausen made the genre experimental by combining tape loops with the newest keyboards, and Wendy Carlos showed how versatile the Moog could be by using it on Switched-On Bach and the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. By the time that electronic music made it to the 70s, Brian Eno was already breaking it down to its most abstract form, creating ambient music in the process. Kraftwerk’s robotic aesthetic was a precursor to new wave, but it wasn’t until 90s rave culture took hold that EDM truly became a worldwide phenomenon. Daft Punk are disco wizards now, but their entire career has been focused on bringing electronic music into places it’s never been before.
Who You Should Know: James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, The Meters
Modern Day Master: Vulfpeck
“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time/For y’all have knocked her up/I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe/I was not offended/For I knew I had to rise above it all/Or drown in my own shit.” – George Clinton, “Maggot Brain”, 1971
More than any other genre, Funk is about groove. It’s about movement, motion, and dancing. Sometimes it might be intimidating to look at James Brown’s legendary status, Parliament/Funkadelic psychedelic alien concepts, or The Meters down-and-dirty embrace of the bare essentials. Being from D.C. I have to have some kind of preference towards go-go, the legendary funk subgenre born out of the District, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you never listened to the rhythms of Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk. Funk is so intrinsically linked to black culture that it almost seems like a joke to say the best modern funk band is composed of a few nerdy white guys from Michigan. But Vulfpeck is now the torchbearer for classic funk, bridging the classic A-B song structures of their forefathers with their own unique aesthetic, creating their own world with distinct catchphrases and terms, much in the way that P-Funk did in the 70s. In that way, they can be both modern and retro, as long as it keeps getting funkier.
Who You Should Know: Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Slayer
Modern Day Master: Ghost
“What is this? It’s music to get a brain seizure by?” – Ozzy Osbourne
The concept was simple: make people feel the same way that horror movies made them feel. That was the impetus of Black Sabbath, the originators of Heavy Metal. While bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were still infusing blues into their sound, Black Sabbath did away with any swagger and went straight for brute force. In their wake, each new act added to the formula: Iron Maiden brought the speed, Judas Priest brought the studs and screaming vocals, Slayer brought the macabre imagery and intensity, and Metallica packaged it all into a sound even your grandma could enjoy. Ghost is just one of many bands that have taken the inspiration of their influences and remade it into their own sound, but Heavy Metal remains the unkillable force of nature that inspires devotion the likes of which no other genre can claim.
Who You Should Know: Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Tupac Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, OutKast
Modern Day Master: Saba
You know who doesn’t know a lot about hip hop? Me. I will fully admit to being, at best, ignorant of the best rap music. But I’m trying to get better, and that’s what this whole column is about, right? Taking baby steps into genres you might not be familiar with. I had to ask one of my friends who he thought was a great modern day rapper, and he told me Saba, so now it’s my mission to listen to his work and see what I’ve been missing. Even though I’m admittedly not an expert, I can give you a cursory history lesson. Here are the clift notes: New York, mid 70s, is the impetus. Public Enemy made it radical and political, Beastie Boys were the first white guys to do it somewhat convincingly, Tupac was the ultimate storyteller, Wu-Tang combined nine distinct points of view into a group-minded aesthetic, Jay-Z was the entrepreneur, and OutKast were the explorers. Now Travis Scott has a McDonalds meal and Ice-T is in insurance car commercials. Hip Hop is truly pervasive.
Who You Should Know: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane
Modern Day Master: Esperanza Spalding
“One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” – Lou Reed
It’s strange to think of jazz music as being a subversive, considering its modern reputation, but that’s exactly what it was back in the 20s and 30s. Whereas popular music of the time was rooted in showtunes and traditional pop, jazz brought in rhythm, dynamics, and participation, and its effects are still being felt in popular culture today. Jazz fans can be a fussy lot, but some names are impeachable: Miles, Duke, Ella, and Coltrane. Stick with those and you’ll be fine. If you want some personal recommendations, Sun Ra, Mulgrew Miller, and Esperanza Spalding are great artists who edge closer to the modern day, but the great thing about jazz is that it’s a whole expressive world just waiting to be discovered.
Who You Should Know: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder
Modern Day Master: Frank Ocean
Funk music took the rave ups of classic R&B and distilled it down to just its rhythms, but a generation of artists saw the potential of keeping those amazing melodies and instrumentation intact. Otis Redding is pure emotion and heart, Aretha is the golden voice, Al Green is sex and devotion, Marvin Gaye is philosophy and spiritualness (and yes, sex), and Stevie Wonder is demi-god of funk and conciousness. It can all get pretty heady, but it’s important to see the through lines: human connection, passion, and excitement. It’s what makes R&B/Soul so enriching and nurturing to, well, the soul. Who better to carry on that connection than Frank Ocean, the modern day poet laureate of heartbreak and desire.
Who You Should Know: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots & the Maytals, The Specials
Modern Day Master: Protoje
Yeah, we all know Bob Marley. He’s pretty great. OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the millions of other reggae artists. Why Jamaica was primed to birth such a singular genre of music is anyone’s guess, but you can’t argue with the results. Peter Tosh was Marley’s musical mentor (he allegedly taught a young Bob how to play guitar) and established some of the best-known tenets of the genre: heavy focus on the drums and bass, songs practically swimming in reverb, and of course the association with Rastafarianism and marijuana (he literally has an album called Legalize It, in case you thought he was subtle about his love for herb). Not all reggae is made the same: Toots & the Maytals brought in R&B elements that were copied by scores of musicians after them, while The Specials took elements of Ska and Rocksteady as well as Reggae to bring the phenomenon to Britain, kicking off the two-tone revival scene. Today Reggae sometimes gets a derisive reputation, but it’s hard to find another genre that can blend politics, anger, devotion, and faith in such a beautiful package.
Who You Should Know: Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Strokes
Modern Day Master: beabadoobee
Rockism: the notion that rock music has an intrinsic artfulness, authenticity, and superiority to other genres that elevate it above other said genres. This is the reputation that rock music has in the modern world. Is it deserved? Eh, probably. In a modern age where hip hop has taken over as the predominant form of popular music, rock fans are usually caricatured as baby boomers who still listen to their original vinyl copies of Led Zeppelin IV. But rock music is still pervasive, so much so that just about every artist, no matter then genre, has their own “rock” song (Rihanna has “Shut Up and Drive”, Lady Gaga has “The Edge of Glory”, and Mariah Carey made a whole rock album in the 90s under the name Chick). There are still artists, like beabadoobee, who are young, talented, and unequivocally rock musicians. Every year the question comes up: is rock dead? But no matter who might seem to think so, there’s always a true believer still out there somewhere.
Artists You Should Know: ABBA, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Shakira
Modern Day Master: BTS/Harry Styles
Pop is a weird genre in that it wasn’t meant to be a genre at all. Any music could be pop music if it was popular enough. That was the point. The Beatles were a pop act, and so was Jimi Hendrix, even though neither really fit the modern definition. It took a band like ABBA, who had gigantic melodies and synthetic sheen, to really make pop music its own thing. Most pop artists take other genres and commercialize them: Michael Jackson with R&B, Madonna with electronic dance music, Mariah Carey with Soul, Shakira with latin and worldbeat. Now it’s BTS with K-pop and Harry Styles with classic rock. Pop is as nebulous and difficult to define as any genre, but you know it when you hear it. You have to make a conscious effort to avoid pop music.
Who You Should Know: The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Husker Du, Green Day, Fugazi, Bikini Kill
Modern Day Master: Iron Chic
When progressive rock (which didn’t get its own spot on the list) was dominating the mid 70s, four degenerates in their early 20s decided to form a band in queens that would be the antithesis of pomp and flash. Two minute songs, no guitars solos, leather jackets and bowl cuts. What the Ramones almost single handedly invented is still creating ripples in popular music to this day. The Sex Pistols made it dangerous, The Clash made it political and musically diverse, Husker Du bridged hardcore speed with poppy melodies to create Alternative Rock, Green Day took those melodies to sugary-sweet apotheosis to bring pop-punk into the mainstream, Fugazi lived and died by their own DIY mentality that influenced a generation, and Bikini Kill proved that the girls could do it even better than the boys. Iron Chic might be a weird combination of punk and metal, but they still retain the same core values that The Ramones made gospel all those years ago: fast, short, and intense.