There’s a lot to be said about why certain trends appear simultaneously across the board in both mainstream and independent scenes of pop music. One trend we’ve observed this year is the return of interest in the saxophone. For so long, it seemed that the instrument would be forever left to collect dust in irrelevancy among the genres of ‘80s smooth jazz, elevator music and high school marching bands. You’ll see some Paste favorites in the list below, which is telling of how prominent the instrument has become. Some key events and figures have set up 2011 to be the year of the return of the saxophone, and here are nine of them:
9. Katy Perry – “This Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”
The fifth single off Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album, “This Friday Night” came with an obnoxious story-video that featured none other than the king of cheese himself, Kenny G. The best part is there’s no shame in his face at all, just pure indulgence. Perry’s hit confirmed that using a saxophone in a dance-pop single wasn’t just another isolated antic of the Gaga: the saxophone is back in the mainstream and might even be here to stay.
8. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
This singer/songwriter is actually a saxophonist herself. PJ Harvey has a long career, but her record that came out this year, Let England Shake, has shown up on quite a lot of “best of 2011 so far” lists so far. Unlike songs by Bon Iver or Destroyer, PJ Harvey’s use of the saxophone usually results in a much darker feel. Hearing the saxophone side-by-side with her chirping vocal deliveries is akin to watching a black-and-white film noir.
7. tUnE-yArDs – “Bizness”
If there is one unanimously-voted “best new artist” of this year, it has to be the quirky project of Merrill Garbus, tUnE-yArDs. In her big hit, “Bizness,” the presence of the saxophone sounds just seem like such a perfect fit. With all the instrumentation standing squarely behind Garbus’ massive voice, the sax seems like the instrument with enough character to play a lead line in a song like “Bizness.”
6. Fleet Foxes’s “The Shrine / An Argument”
Fleet Foxes’ newest album doesn’t make many huge diversions from their debut. Instead, the artistic vision, sounds, and songwriting were all tightened and sharpened. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album, though, comes toward the end of the track “The Shrine / An Argument.” The song serves as something of a dark climax of the album, wandering between a few different sections and finally getting to a place where the dust clears and a bizarre, free jazz sax solo appears. It’s unnerving and unexpected, but also so haunting that I couldn’t imagine what this song would be like without it.
5. Bon Iver’s “Beth / Rest”
The last track on Bon Iver’s critically-acclaimed album has often been seen as the most controversial thing on the album. One reviewer called it a “corny instrument parade,” with autotuned vocals, ‘80s synth, Casio drum hits and saxophones all going at it. In all honesty, only the presence of Justin Vernon’s voice could make something like this still sound completely sincere.
4. Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean
I remember listening to Iron & Wine’s original live stream of the album on NPR before this album released in January and thinking to myself, “This is Iron & Wine?” Here Sam Beam has let the reigns off his songs and let just about any instrument, genre, or performer tag along. Kiss Each Other Clean fits in nicely with Destroyer’s Kaputt, somehow managing to make the saxophone seem like something more than a tool for nostalgia.
3. Destroyer’s Kaputt
Kaputt came out in January and was, for many, the first well-received album of the year and set the tone for the albums to come. Kaputt is unabashedly ‘80s-influenced, but also distinctly 2011 as well. Behind the hazy colors and clouds of smoke, you’ll find saxophone solos and textures all over this one, giving the album its unique sound that is both nostalgic and totally forward-looking.
2. “The Edge of Glory” and Clarence Clemons
According to an interview with Fernando Gibray, the song’s co-producer, Gaga was influenced by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (no doubt inspired by Springsteen’s The Promise from last year) and took a “bold move” by adding in a saxophone solo. I found myself asking the same question as Gibray: “When was the last time you heard a musical solo sax break in the middle of a song on the radio?” Clemons, the legendary saxophonist from the E Street Band, passed away just around a month after the song was released. Lady Gaga has said that the song was about the passing of her grandfather, but it seems like it was also an appropriate farewell to Clarence Clemons. Clemons’ involvement in the song cements it in the forefront of popular culture, right where it belongs.
1. Colin Stetson
After touring, performing, and recording with artists ranging from Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio to Tom Waits and LCD Soundsystem, Stetson had established himself as the “go-to” saxophone player in the industry. But when his sophomore album, New History Warfare, Vol 2: Judges, dropped earlier this year, Stetson proved himself as a force of musical artistry to be reckoned with all on his own. He records these songs with just one take; that’s right, no overdubbing, just a lot of creatively-placed microphones. Stetson’s unique recording techniques, technical mastery and creative compositions give artistic credibility back to an instrument that seemed doomed to have lost it.