Music Has A Pulse
In terms of rock and roll, at the very least, the drums are often the instrument that most often get the shaft. Don’t have money for a full kit? Just use the bass and the snare. Can’t afford any drums? There are computer programs you can use for that. Want your sound to be quiet and introspective? Eliminate the drums entirely.
Then, when music critics get a bug up their ass to write a list of some sort, they inevitably focus on those instruments everyone seems to care about: Guitar and Vocals. And why not? The immediate satisfaction of a guitar solo is evident to anyone, even if they’ve never touched a guitar. Vocals, meanwhile, are the part people can sing along with, so they’re made in the shade. Everyone loves a good singer. And unlike guitar, vocals can be pleasing without any backing band at all.
Worse yet, even drummers are guilty of selling themselves short. You ask a lot of drummers who their favorites are, you get old, mostly dead, white men: Neil Peart, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Buddy Rich. People think that the drums are a dead instrument, that all the good beats have been laid down and there’s nothing more to it. Hell, I’ve been playing the drums for several years now, and I used to think the same thing.
Then one day I was looking in the liner notes for The Beatles’ “LOVE” release from a couple years back, and something producer George Martin said struck me. He was describing Ringo’s drum style, and he called it “creative.” For some reason, this word struck me dumb. Such a concept had never occurred to me before; the drums can be creative. Each drummer is unique. The beats transform the song. And from that moment on, I’ve never thought about drumming the same way. I now realize that different drum beats can change a song. Imagine a song like Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir” without any cymbals. The stirring power would be gone, the hair wouldn’t stand up on your neck. Now imagine “What’s Going On?” without any bongos. It wouldn’t have the same pop, the same flavor. Now imagine the beats for those two songs flipped. Would it be terrible? Maybe, maybe not. But the songs wouldn’t be the classics that they are without the drums that carry them.
It’s been said that you can always tell a Keith Moon drum fill when you hear it. Usually, it’s said so specifically about this one individual that it’s as if no other drummer ever stood out, ever had that unique feel or sound that set them apart from the rest of the pack.
BALDERDASH I SAY!
I’m here to prove that good, creative drumming is alive and well today, though not always in the mainstream. In the group of drummers that I will list, we can find tomorrow’s inspirations. You may find some choices surprising. You may not have heard of most (or even any) of them before. But trust me, today’s music scene would not be the same without them.
The following are the best young drummers in today’s music scene:
As technical skills go, Followill’s sticks cut like knives. But in terms of sheer creative impact, Followill is the secret driving force behind his band, back-pinning brother Caleb’s straining vocals, punching through cousin Matthew’s squealing guitar, and pummeling other-brother Jared’s bass into submission. His drums on 2007’s “McFearless” are among the best you’ll ever hear on a rock track, and that creativity and power has carried him through this band’s entire career.
It’s a testament to the skills of Fabrizio Moretti that people often think The Strokes are using a drum machine rather than a live performer. And considering how tight his beats are, it’s an understandable mistake. But when Moretti comes alive, he comes alive in a big way, as on the brilliantly sloppy intro to “Razorblade” off of The Strokes’ third album First Impressions of Earth. Yes, he dated Drew Barrymore for almost five years, and no one is more disgusted by that fact than I. But such a raw talent is undeniable. Bonus, his side project Little Joy is amazing.
Say what you will about prog experimentalists The Mars Volta, and I’m sure many of you will, but they have showcased two of the finest young drummers ever to grace rock and roll. Jon Theodore, drummer for the band’s first three albums, is fantastically talented, studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and is an incomparable force in the world of drumming.
Unless of course, you count his recent replacement, Thomas Pridgen, a former child prodigy described by founding band member Omar Rodriguez-Lopez as “Jon Theodore on coke.” His beats are hard and fast, yet fluid and creative. Watching these two drum is a fascinating sonic experience. They simply blow you away from the first beat to the last and never let up. It should also be noted that they sustain some of the most complicated and unusual drum beats in rock for upwards of an hour and a half at Mars Volta concerts, where the band is notorious for not breaking between their songs.
Phil Selway (Radiohead)
Why, you may be wondering, would I include someone so old on a list of the best drummers of this generation? Simply put, Phil Selway has evolved as a drummer in direct correlation with the evolution of today’s indie scene. From the fluid yet jarring 5/4 of “Morning Bell” on Kid A to the bell-laden brilliance of “Reckoner” from In Rainbows, his beats have grown and transformed, and the complexities mirror those of today’s progress-focused bands.
Greg Alsop (Tokyo Police Club)
Another technically creative indie rock wizard, Alsop, along with the rest of Tokyo Police Club, is notable partially because there is a very audible evolution in ability and style across their very short discography, and such positive progress can only mean bright things for the future of his musical career. Plus, he’s responsible for the following video:
What sets many of these drummers apart from the pack, like guitar gods, is technical proficiency. Listening to the verse section of “Cowbell” off of Tapes n Tapes’ debut The Loon, you wouldn’t think it particularly technical at all. It’s rockin’, sure, fast, definitely, but it’s very simple. But it’s the chorus of that song that best exemplifies the beauty of Jeremy Hanson’s drum style. You wouldn’t even think about it if you weren’t paying attention. You’d probably just think it a jarring contrast from the beginning of the song. But pay attention, and the beat is vibrant, bouncing, and constantly shifting, as if at random. It’s a nightmare to recreate, too (trust me, I’ve tried).
Another legend in the world of indie drumming, Green is the man responsible for, among other things, the beat on Modest Mouse’s “Trucker’s Atlas”, one of the most complicated and unusual rock beats of the last two decades, and, thanks to his recent solo work under the guise of World Gang, his influence on the world of drums continues, albeit in a more underground fashion. Also check out the speed-up ending to MM’s “It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright/Styrofoam Boots”.
Arguably the musical driving force for one of the most popular indie bands in the world, Matt Helders is a beast behind the kit, a fantastically hard-hitting drummer who infuses his speedy punk beats with breathtaking fills and cymbal-heavy blasts of energy. Providing backup vocals while drumming is extremely difficult, and when the beats are as fast and as tight as those Helders provides, the effect is startlingly impressive. Matt Helders is living proof that the drums are not dead.
One of the most visible faces of drumming and hip-hop today, ?uestlove, unlike many of the people on this list, isn’t notable as much for his technical proficiency, though he is very good, as for the way he stylizes and personifies the spirit of creative drumming, and creativity in music in general. He brings a flair and a poise to his playing, turning otherwise very straight hip-hop beats into nuggets of unique swagger and punch. Of course, he’s also made a name for himself by challenging notable drummers like Travis Barker and the legendary Max Roach to drum-offs on a fairly regular basis. Videos of his drums solos dot YouTube alongside interviews where he waxes eloquently on the state of music and politics. He is, in many ways, the drumming world’s intellectual statesman, simultaneously its most visible member and its most subversive. Simply by being who he is, ?uestlove is one of the most important drummers in the world today. But the audacity of his performance skills cannot be denied, and it’s for that reason that he belongs on any shortlist of today’s best drummers.
What I hope you take away from this, above all else, is that the drums can be just as creative and unique as any guitar solo if helmed by the right drummer. I’m sure you’ll have something to say about this list, people I left out or disagreements over who was included. But at least I got you thinking about the drums more than you usually would. Right? Right.
Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way for Spring), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.
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