I'm writing this partly in response to this well-written post. I couldn't agree more. There is a serious dearth of good mainstream music today. Granted, my tastes are geared more towards various forms of Rock and Metal and so I'll be referring to bands that mainly play that kind of music.
I rarely listen to mainstream music anymore. I find it to be completely boring. Of course, there are a few catchy tunes now and then that are good for a listen or two, but there is nothing that captures and captivates the mind - nothing that you can listen to over and over again and hear something new each time. Gone are the complex chord and rhythm changes and meaningful lyrics. Instead, mainstream music has devolved into predictable chord-progressions, simple rhythm structures, and inane, uninspired lyrics. In fact, it's almost embarrassing when you realize that songs from some bands sound almost exactly the same. Try listening to the choruses from Dirty Little Secret and Swing Swing by The All-American Rejects, or for that matter, any song by Nickelback. I won't say that these bands lack talent, but the fact remains that their music isn't exactly stellar.
If you really want to compare, take a look at these lyrics from Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. These lyrics come from the second chorus:
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse,
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.
Haunting. Nostalgic. Beautiful. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything this profound from music these days. The entire song is a conversation (of sorts) between a doctor and Roger Waters. The non-chorus parts of the song are sung from the point of view of the doctor, and the chorus is from Waters' point of view. The song and the entire album is built upon a set of themes. It's a little too long to go into now, but if you'd like, take a look at this analysis of the song, and this analysis of the movie and the album. It's very hard to find a complex, self-referential, and thematic work like that in mainstream music today.
The bands that I listen to now include Coldplay, Muse, The Shins, The Strokes, Modest Mouse, Pinback, and Sigur Rós (just to name a few). A quick tangent on Coldplay. Many accuse them of sounding too much like U2. I'll admit, I did that too initially, because Chris Martin did sound like Bono. But this is only true of their early works. Bono's voice evokes in you a sense of pain, longing, aching, and hope. Chris Martin's voice is much mellower. Furthermore, their later works may sound superficially like U2's, and this happens only if you concentrate on Chris Martin's voice. But the music is very much different. Anyway, you may not have heard of some of the bands above. If you have, kudos to you! If you haven't, I urge you to listen to them. I try to listen to music from independent labels because I do think that they sound better, are more innovative and have their own sound and character. Major labels mainly support bands that will get more air play, that will top the charts and that can get the most number of 12-14 year-old girl fans (I'm sure an accountant at one of the big labels has come up with a formula that translates this number into a dollar amount). The latter seems the be the major metric these days for the success of a band, and the first two seem to have an inverse relation to the quality of music these days.
Now that this decade is almost over, I'm left wondering what exactly would define this decade in terms of music. The 60's and 70's both had amazing rock bands in addition to disco (which defined the 70's in some sense). The 80's of course, has 80's music, replete with synthesizers and synth-drums. The 90's is definitely grunge and alternative. What about the 2000's (or 00's)? I can't find any particular genre that defines it. If you go by mainstream, the only thing that defines music for me in the 2000's is terrible, music-as-a-commodity stuff. But if you go by independent music, you'll find a bunch of rich, innovative (and definitely fringe and avant-garde) music. Their success definitely has to do with the growth of the internet. Bands no longer need labels and radio to promote them, and this only highlights the fact that good music these days doesn't come from big labels (corporations that just want to make money), but they come from small, independent labels that just want to make good music. But that's another topic to explore.