The farther you are from past events, the more they blend together. Time periods – years, decades, centuries – make for easy, automatic categorization of those events. “Take on Me”, “Just Like Heaven”, and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” are distinctively “eighties” music in the public consciousness; today anything that sounds like synth-pop, from 1989 to “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, is an ‘80s throwback. Decades are efficient, well-defined genre descriptors, to the point where decades like the ’80s and ’90s feel so musically distinct that phrases like “1985-1994 in music” sound meaningless to someone who wasn’t around back then.
To someone that lived through Reagan and Back to the Future Part II the gap between 1989 and 1990 might not be so visible, but with time these numerical gaps solidify. Today “1899” feels like antique history while “1900” is the 20th century and the cusp of modern technology and values. Fifty years from now the gap between 1999 and 2000 will feel huge. For now though, the ‘00s and the ‘10s have feebler identities than other decades, mostly because terms like “the aughties” or “the two thousand tens” aren’t usable in out-loud conversation. I’m excited for the next ‘20s since it’s been so long since we lived in a decade with a catchy name.
In the present, a single year can be as vivid a music category as a classic decade. This is why the Grammys’ timeline is so botched: an award for best album released between mid-2013 and mid-2014 just isn’t sexy like “Best of ‘14”. This year 2015 becomes a meaningful number for those who were there for it. By now music technology has effectively peaked: a simple iPhone + decent headphone combo provides sound at the top end of discernible quality, and production capability has been more or less there for years. “2013 music” isn’t quantifiably different from “2014 music” – but they’re different for people who spent those years aggregating information. Modern Vampires of the City and Random Access Memories aren’t linked by genre, theme, aesthetic, or much of anything else, but they’re both 2013.
One advantage “new music” followers have over classic rock fans is the consensus hasn’t formed yet. Barring the occasional revisionist, we already know The Beatles are great: in 2015 no one hears Revolver for the first time skeptically. Discovery is murkier on the new music side. As much as leaks, streaming, and Best New Music lowered the gateway to modern music pretension, the week-to-week hype cycle is cluttered with considerably more throwaway music than Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Knowing a sports event’s final score ruins its appeal, and a similar uncertainty makes new albums more exciting than old ones. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may or may not be this generation’s Thriller, but by god we were there for it. We obsess ourselves with year-end pop culture best-of lists, and when we hear something particularly good this year we’ll wonder, “Is this the best of 2015?”
What does 2015 sound like? There’s likely not a great answer, but we can find music that sounds like 2015. “Only One”, “Begin Again”, “Lampshades on Fire”, and “Strange Hellos” are early examples, and there’s a lot of 2015 ahead. It’s worth paying attention, if only so you can say you were there for it.