Catching Up

“A few years ago, it occurred to me that
the music industry had little regard for grownups…”

With that sentence, Jim Fusilli, who is best known as the long-time rock and pop critic of the Wall Street Journal, begins his latest book, “Catching Up: Connecting With Great 21st Century Music,” a warm-hearted, thoughtful invitation to music-loving grownups to dive in and savor the contemporary music scene, which he deems comparable in quality to any period in rock and pop history.

The book gathers a series of practical essays entitled “How To Enjoy New Music” illustrates how grownup music fans ignored by the industry can seize control of, with disarming ease, their own listening experiences. There is no barrier to enjoying new music, insists Fusilli, who is 62 years old and a grandfather. Though music is recorded, promoted and disseminated very differently than it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, grownups will find it’s a snap to adapt to the new ways.

In addition, Fusilli provides 50 new essays on great rock, country, hip hop, soul, funk, electronic and avant-garde albums released since 2000 by artists familiar and all-but-unknown.

Free of flash and foolish celebrity gossip, Fusilli’s “Catching Up” essays show in universal terms how today’s music communicates to grownups every bit as effectively as it does with other listeners. Drawing on his 30+ years of experience as a music critic, he connects the dots between contemporary music and the great rock and pop music of the past.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that the music industry had little regard for grownups. It chose to ignore us when marketing new music and emerging musicians. Instead, for the most part they fed us reissues of long-ago albums with one, two or more tracks previously considered unworthy of public display. It was as if industry executives believed we were incapable of appreciating any music that was created after, or wasn’t associated with, our high school or college years.

In some cases, they were correct. There were grownups who weren’t worth marketing to. These people were dismissive of music they hadn’t heard or spent time with, and aggressive in their endorsement of rock and pop from decades ago. They were a minority, to be sure, among music fans of a certain age, but in numbers enough to suggest a trend.

It wasn’t much fun to engage in conversation with them. Obtuse and offensive, they were easy to dismantle because they were so obviously wrong. But I began to realize there were ramifications to their positions: it was possible that some reasonable people might believe they knew what they were talking about — because the industry hadn’t made the effort to prove them wrong. The idea that good people were being dissuaded from trying new music troubled me.

My January 5, 2012, column for The Wall Street Journal, the publication for which I have been writing about rock and pop since 1983, was entitled “Meet the Gee Bees” — my code for the generationally biased. The article caused quite a stir and some of the reader comments suggested that I had cut too close to the bone. Their anger, disproportionate for anyone but the guilty, told me I might be onto something.

I decided to respond by putting my trust in people who are the opposite of Gee Bees—that is, secure in their status and welcoming of new ideas. Because the industry was ignoring them, what they needed was information. They needed to know that they would find delight in much of the new music that was passing them by. If they were invited to participate, they could root around and make up their own minds.

I deduced that the easiest thing to do was to create a website that introduced a steady diet of new music to grownups. I called it ReNewMusic.net, as in Re. New Music and ReNew Music. The tagline: Music for Grownups. ReNewMusic.net extended an open invitation to anyone who was willing to accept it. Soon enough, visitors would know whether they belonged.

One ReNewMusic.net feature that proved popular was “Catching Up,” a weekly series that examined great 21st-century albums and what makes them special. The capsule reviews endeavor to introduce artists and their albums to music fans who may know little or nothing about them. In some cases, the artists are household names (though perhaps not for their music) and others are fairly obscure. In each case, I felt they had made albums worthy of grownup music fans’ time and attention.

As the “Catching Up” reviews began to mount, I noticed that they seemed to take on a different meaning when read in a flurry, rather than once per week. They provided a kind of a report on the state of popular music. I thought it might be a good idea to provide people curious about new music and today’s music scene with a portable, easy-to-access guide.

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So now we have “Catching Up,” which collects 50 reviews of albums released in the past 15 years that I think you might find somewhere between interesting and fantastic. The verdict on each, and the music scene as a whole, is entirely up to you.

In reading the reviews — and, far more importantly — listening to the recordings, I believe you will hear what has been evident to me for a while now: Great songs are still being written; great singers are still moving us with their voices and expressiveness; great musicians are still playing with innovation and feeling; and great arrangers are still finding the best ways to shape music so it can touch us at the core. In this new music, some based on long-standing traditions, others with sounds that come at us as if born before our ears and eyes, we hear the musicians’ supreme desire to communicate to us, regardless of our age and station in life. Through their music, they welcome us to a world we may have forgotten we share.

Sometimes that world is a bit hard to fathom. Much has changed. The old radio stations are gone. So is the local record shop. Rock magazines morphed a while ago into lifestyle publications, and new music blogs sprout like weeds. For many among us, it’s challenge to figure out where to turn and how to re-engage. My series of essays entitled “How To Enjoy New Music” tries to smooth the re-entry. In some cases, all that’s required to step back in is a sense of adventure and a tweak to attitude. There are new radio stations, new places to acquire music; good music journalism can be found. It’s easy to adapt — if you want to adapt. I suspect that, if you’re interested in catching up, the new world won’t provide much of an obstacle. If you’re a grownup, you’ve beaten back bigger challenges. There’s no reason to think you won’t succeed once again.

New music needs us, and I believe we need new music too.