There's hardly an institution more hoary and suspect than the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. A barely-veiled excuse to further lionize and celebrate the past, the Hall of Fame to this point has mostly existed to further cement prevailing notions about What's Important in Popular Music. To attach any measure of importance to it feels ridiculous -- induction or exclusion indicates neither artistic merit nor lack thereof. It's a diverting yearly sideshow, but has the actual cultural weight of, say, a Video Music Award.
Nevertheless, it's been interesting to watch what's happened as the Rock Hall's standards for admission -- artists become eligible for inclusion 25 years after their record -- has forced voters to eventually move past the same predictable parade of classic rockers and into somewhat more interesting, less-familiar territory. Last year, Public Enemy rightly got the nod, as Laura Nyro did the year before that. And this year's crop of inductees is led by Peter Gabriel and Nirvana, artists who are in some ways defined by their sonic curiosity and the way in which they bent the rules of pop music to fit their own designs. Occasionally, the results were hostile to their audience -- Nirvana's third studio album, In Utero, was essentially designed to do just that -- but both acts approached music with a sense of curiosity and only a passing interest in convention and expectation.
This notion occurred to me again and again when it came time to compile eMusic"s 100 Best Albums of 2013. Appraising the musical landscape over the course of the last year, the albums that seemed most interesting were the ones that strayed furthest from familiar paths. A number of these were commercial successes: Justin Timberlake managed to sell two million copies of a record filled with languid, open-ended seven-and-a-half-minute R&B mini-suites and Daft Punk, one of the early pioneers of electronic music, returned in a year when that genre was at its peak with a record full of pastel-colored '70s AM radio songs, very few of which employed synthesizers. Sometimes the subversion was slyer: country Kacey Musgraves loaded the warm, sunny country songs on her third album Same Trailer, Different Park with lyrics that cast a jaundiced eye on the genre's time-tested tropes. "Mary, Mary quite contrary/ we get bored, so we get married," she sings on "Merry-Go-Round," concluding, "and just like dust, we settle in this town." "Follow Your Arrow" is a plainspoken endorsement of gay relationships and marriage -- a monumental leap forward in a genre that is often considered proudly politically retrograde. The result is one of the year's best songs.
But there were even braver experiments were visionary artistically, even if they were met with either rejection or indifference commercially. Kanye West's divisive Yeezus, as of this writing, remains his lowest-selling release to date, but it is arguably one of the most audacious mainstream releases in recent memory. Essentially an album-length meditation on the state of racial politics in America, West pairs the album's grim sentiment with appropriately ugly music -- scraping synthesizers, wailing, siren-like electronics, unsettling vocal samples that float in and out of frame like weird spirits. It was bracing in the best possible way, and the album's first half contains some of West's sharpest, angriest lyrics to date.
Unfortunately, it also contains some of his most despicably misogynistic lyrics, too; it's fitting, then, that the album that most felt like the other half of Yeezus was the Knife's Shaking the Habitual, which could serve as a corrective to West's acrid sexism in addition to being a stunning work on its own (at eMusic, we named it the Best Album of 2013, one spot ahead of Yeezus). Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, the personalities behind The Knife, essentially seek to reinvent music whole cloth. They spent the years preceding the album's release immersed in the essential texts of economic theory and queer theory and feminist theory, and then thought about what it might mean to make a record based on those principles -- to "play" the theories as if they were musical notes. They took familiar sounds and "queered" them, distorting them or dirtying them and generally making them unrecognizable. They took elements of popular music that typically telegraphed as aggressively male and undid them, exploring different ways of accomplishing that in each song. They dropped a 20-minute drone piece in the center of the record called "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized," a meditation, according to its makers, on all of the old political theories - true democracy, classless society, economic equality -- that have yet to come about. In the song, they wail in the distance like old, tortured ghosts. The album is an astonishing listen because it never stops asking questions and never stops pushing the boundaries; it constantly rethinks the way music is supposed to sound.
The future, it could be argued, belongs to artists who take these kinds of risks. As time-tested strategies around both album content and release method continue to fail in the face of a fickle consumer base drowning in too many choices, 25 years from now, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee list will be stocked with artists who ignored the demands of commerce and instead focused on creating lasting, iconoclastic music that was true to no one's vision other than their own. No one genre has the market cornered on that approach -- in 2013, it happened in pop and country and hip-hop as much as it did in rock. But artistically speaking, the only answer is to question everything.