A New Class of Classic Rock

Music Features

It was my first real job, and every day on our lunch hour, Jeff Elwell and I walked up Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to the Del Taco, where we ate cheap and got free Dr. Pepper refills in our 32 oz. plastic cups. The lids worked great as Frisbees, and we’d sail them back and forth across the huge warehouse before getting back to work, splicing giant reels of tape. One day, though, I sailed a cup lid over Jeff’s head and onto the roof of the office structure in the back. Looking back, I can’t imagine why, but he was determined to retrieve it. He climbed up, crawled across and disappeared from my sight with a crash. A minute later, Jeff reappeared from inside the office covered in debris. It was one of the funniest things I’d witnessed in all my 14 years, but a good portion of my wages that summer went to helping repair the office’s drop-tile ceiling.

The rest went to music. I grew up listening to my brother’s records. Rich was eight years older and played a lot of Eagles, ELO and Steve Miller Band. I had been more into Prince, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran, but now I was going to be a high-school freshman. It was time to graduate to classic rock, albums that had stood the test of time (you know, like Bad Company, .38 Special, Boston and Foreigner).

It was a short-lived love affair, as my next summer job was at a one-hour photo store with a couple of college-radio devotees who challenged me on why I didn’t listen to any new music. They turned me on to bands like P.I.L. and Joy Division, and I started trading in my brothers’ classic rock for the more modern fare my sister taped from her boyfriends-R.E.M., The Cure, The Smiths, U2, Depeche Mode and The Mighty Lemon Drops. Thus began my own rewarding hunt for new music to fall in love with, and the many, many other jobs I had during high school each had a slightly different soundtrack.

At one point during my junior year, Paste co-founder Nick Purdy asked me what music from the ’80s would be considered classic rock 20 years out. At the time, I assumed none of it would last. The pop music on the radio already felt disposable to my young ears, and I certainly couldn’t envision bands I loved becoming the decade’s most durable, that some of the biggest bands of ’06 would sound a lot like the smallest bands of ’86.

These days, I’m more optimistic. There are only a handful of recent pop songs that have entered our culture’s shared musical canon-“Hey Ya!,” “Crazy,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Gold Digger,” “Clocks,” “Feel Good, Inc.” and a few others. But when I try to imagine what music of the new millennium will have lasting impact, I’d go ahead and put my money on some bands that got their start on the same college radio stations as their now-iconic ’80s brethren: Wilco, Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists (whose album was our favorite of 2006, p. 48) and The Shins-this issue’s cover subjects, whose third album, Wincing the Night Away, has kept me from listening to much else these past few weeks.

You can call it indie rock, but most of the bands listed above have graduated to major labels after paying their dues for years in the indie minors. And, unlike the grunge that dominated the early ’90s, there’s not a common sound or region tying these groups together. What’s lifted each of them above their peers is songcraft and originality. I just like to think of it as the classic rock of 2027.

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