It’s proven fashionable in recent years to declare the death of the guitar in commercial music. I wish I could debunk this sad tale, but the numbers back it up. Even worse, the data tells us that the guitar experienced a long, slow death.
At the end of the ’80s, rock accounted for more than 40 percent of U.S. music sales, and guitarists still strutted the stage like kings. Yet by the year 2000, rock had fallen below 25 percent of the market, and rap artists were proving, week after week, that hit songs didn’t need any guitar. The subsequent rise of electronic dance music (EDM)—which is now a $7 billion business—further marginalized that once-dominant instrument.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the rise of guitar-free pop music. Not long ago, pop artists had relied on guitar almost as much as rockers. But pop stars of the new millennium are tuning into EDM and hip-hop stylings, and avoiding the passé sounds of the past, especially guitar.
So what a surprise to hear so many outstanding guitar albums in recent months! This is turning into an exceptional year for guitar music—the best so far this decade, in my opinion. But it isn’t played by strutting rockers with big egos and bigger amps. In fact, most of these stellar releases come from the outskirts of the music industry, from labels and musicians you don’t read about in Rolling Stone or see on TV. But make no mistake, they are producing fresh new music of the highest caliber.
We have grown so familiar with angry guitars, churning and thrusting like musical phalluses, that many have forgotten that this instrument wasn’t always so extroverted. I give credit to Muddy Waters for changing the course of guitar history at the session that produced his 1948 hit “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Against the advice of his producer, Waters insisted on playing electric guitar with just bass accompaniment—a radical departure from the standard practice of building rhythm and harmony for commercial records around the texture of a piano. Waters’s record was a surprise hit, with all copies of the first pressing selling out within a day. Chicago blues would never be the same, and electric guitar emerged as the emotional center of the music.
Rock and roll learned from the example of the Chicago blues, and ushered in a half-century period during which popular music was guitar-driven. You could listen to top 40 radio for hours on end without hearing a single song that didn’t feature a guitar—or, more likely, several guitars.
Rock fans thought this golden age would last forever, but by the late ’90s the dominance of guitar-driven rock was already questioned and found wanting by many younger fans. Perhaps the guitar wouldn’t quite follow the path of the accordion into pop music limbo, but its glory days were clearly behind it. On those rare instances when guitarists show up for pop music video gigs nowadays, the first thing they’re told is that they are accompanists, not stars—and if they don’t like it, there’s a DJ or programmer out there just waiting to take the gig.
In a strange way, guitarists have been liberated by this exile from the Billboard 100. Many of the best albums of 2016 are by reformed rock guitarists who are now changing the tone of their music, aiming to please themselves, not a football stadium full of screaming teens. Their music may indicate the beginning of a guitar rebirth, but these songs won’t sound anything like the angry guitar tracks of a previous era. The guitar has turned back into what it was ages ago: a personal instrument for intimate expression.
Below are eight examples of the new sound of the guitar in 2016. There’s not much aggression or superstar posturing on these albums. Instead you will find the music capturing a much wider range of emotional stances. These songs can be folksy, cerebral, meditative, hypnotic, ethereal, or sometimes just plain strange. But each of these recordings deserves your attention.
Steve KimockLast Danger of Frost
You may know Kimock as a purveyor of psychedelic rock, but Last Danger of Frost reminds me more of the kind of rock that is carved out of large stone blocks—hard, timeless, unforgiving. Modern electronic effects are mixed artfully with a mostly acoustic sound, and the tempos sometimes loosen up to the point where the beat disappears completely. Kimock recorded this album in a century-old Pennsylvania barn in the midst of winter, and you can almost hear the snow, cold, and wind in these tracks. This is like taking a meditative retreat for the price of an album.
Luther DickinsonBlues and Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook)
Luther Dickinson has also tasted rock stardom during his stint with the Black Crowes, and has also proven his mastery of the blues as a founding member of the North Mississippi Allstars. Given his formidable skills, Dickinson could follow in the footsteps of Hendrix and Clapton, and captivate stadium-sized audiences. But he impresses me even more by the minimalist soulfulness of his new release, Blues and Ballads. You can hear the whole history of American guitar music in his stylings, but this is no dry lesson in old-timey music. He is reinventing the tradition for the modern day, and deserves to find a large audience for his captivating work.
William TylerModern Country
Country fans have never had much patience for instrumental music. They may have an insatiable appetite for songs about broken hearts and pickup trucks, but guitar solos are strictly limited to 30 seconds or fewer. So this extraordinary album by Nashville guitarist William Tyler could easily get missed even by devotees of the genre. But this is my favorite country album of the year, and I suspect it will appeal to many fans who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Carrie Underwood concert.
Ferenc SnétbergerIn ConcertImprovised Solo Guitar
You can hear the whole world of guitar music in these improvised performances by Hungarian guitar master Ferenc Snétberger. Everything from the Balkans to bossa nova shows up on his musical kaleidoscope, each ingredient infused with the freedom of jazz and the clarity of expression of the greatest classical guitarists. This artist is still little-known on the global music scene, but his star is in the ascendancy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he attracts a devoted cult following in the coming months.
Žak OzmoVincenzo Galilei: The Well-Tempered Lute
Okay, it’s lute, not a modern guitar. But you still ought to listen to the first recording of this important 1584 work by Galileo’s father—yes, that Galileo. The famous astronomer’s dad ranks among the great innovators in the mathematics of tuning, and this piece served as a scientific treatise, in addition to its pristine aesthetic qualities. In a year in which guitarists have rediscovered the cerebral, intellectual qualities of the instrument, it is all too fitting that this music, neglected for almost half a millennium, finally gets featured on an album.
Devendra BanhartApe in Pink Marble
This album won’t be issued by Nonesuch until next month, but put it in on your back-to-school shopping list right now. These songs are hauntingly beautiful, yet with a quirky personal quality that resists definition. A kind of spiritual intensity infuses a lullaby soundscape in these medium-slow tracks. I’d be tempted to call it folk music, except folk songs don’t have titles like “Fig in Leather” or “Theme for a Taiwanese Woman in Lime Green.” With the right kind of exposure, this album might even find a sizable crossover audience.
Glenn Jones can play electric guitar with the best of them. Check out his work with the underrated band Cul de Sac for examples. But he doesn’t need electronics and a supporting cast to work his magic. His latest album Fleeting is one of my favorite releases of 2016, highlighting Jones’s solo acoustic guitar work. In track after track, he shows off his deft fingerpicking technique in songs that resist genre classification. If you are seeking distinctive guitar music in the current day, this release is a good place to start.
Rolf LislevandLa Mascarade
Rolf Lislevand first gained a following for his performances of 17th century lute music, but now he is recording for the ECM label, best known for its advocacy of jazz. The end result is an extraordinary hybrid of Baroque compositions from the court of Louis XIV with several improvised sections. Lislevand works with period instruments, theorbo and Baroque guitar, but this isn’t your morning drive-time Vivaldi on the classical music station. Rather, it’s a deeply moving reinvention of early music for the new millennium.
And here are six more honorable mention albums. I’ve been enjoying each of these, and expect them to stay on my playlist for many months to come.
Ross Hammond & Sameer GuptaUpwardDuets for 12-String Guitar & Tabla
Rokia TraoréNé SoMalian Singer-Songwriter
Dylan LeBlancCautionary TaleNeil Young-ish Singer Songwriter
David Leisner & Zuill BaileyArpeggioneClassical Music for Guitar and Cello
Tashi Dorji & Shane ParishExpectingBhutanese/Appalachian Guitar Duets