Today’s Musical Question

When did the hip music of today start sounding like sea shanties and campfire singalongs? I think I missed that turn of events.

It’s something to do with Mumford and Sons, right? I assume those guys are responsible for everything in music these days that involves a guitar and/or a full beard.

97 Comments on “Today’s Musical Question”

  1. Heh. My daughter, who is four, asked Santa for two items this year: Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers. Literally because of THOSE TWO SONGS.

    They are on heavy rotation in my house, and she can tell you the plot points of the Little Talks video in detail.

    So….whatever you may think of the music, I have to say it’s creepy and bizarre that you paired THOSE TWO SONGS together here on your blog today.

    Happy Monday!

  2. Hah. I’ve been singing a few sea chanteys to my 3yo daughter since she was born (and she now sings a couple with me). Sign me “accidental hipster”.

  3. Actually, it’s probably more “The Arcade Fire” than Mumford and Sons. They were doing it before Mumford and Sons were just Mumford.

  4. :thinks about saying some band names, becomes intimidated by not being hip enough, hides in closet for the morning mumbling about magic numbers to the vacuum cleaner::

  5. I think it was a tuesday.

    I can’t help but enjoy the second song. Some grumpy and cynical part of me wants to dislike everything about it, but I won’t.

  6. Oh, man, that came out ruder than intended. Still, the Decemberists were writing “Shanty for the Arethusa” back in 2003 and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” in 2005. I’d trace a direct line from Mumford and Sons back to the Decemberists, one of the twee-est bands out there. NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING BAD ABOUT THAT.

  7. My girlfriend recently turned me on to Mumford and Sons, and by extension all of this new music. We saw Griffin House perform in Spring Lake last weekend, and, well, wow. Just wow.

  8. I suppose people got tired of popular music that was difficult to sing along to? I don’t know, it’s just nice to see music that *is* my cup of tea roll back into popularity again. The last 30 years hadn’t been that great for folk.

  9. You can go further back to the Pogues for the sea shanties. As for the Lumeers, I would look toward Uncle Tupelo and the whole story of the Alt-Country movement. It seems like we are seeing more and more of that become mainstream. If Alt-Country ever fully crosses over then my life will be complete

  10. I had never heard the Lumineers’ Ho Hey until I was visiting my sister and her family last October when I heard it a lot. Every time it came on the radio, my then 16-month-old nephew, who had about 3 words would start singing along. He could definitely say Ho and Hey. It’s now one of my favorites.

  11. Of Monsters and Men makes me really happy. “Dirty Paws” might be my favorite cut on the album. I’ve been digging music that sounds like sea shanties since I became obsessed with Great Big Sea ten years ago.

  12. There were others before the Decemberists but they were the first to make some significant change from this subgenre and that’s when you get the imitators. But I would argue that the Decemberists have a far richer musical pallet than their bastard children (Hazards of Love is pretty much a prog rock concept album with occasional heavy guitar).

  13. I agree with Mr. Caffrey. For example, back in the late 60s, there was the folk music craze, where suddenly acoustic guitar-and-banjo songs that had some sort of pedigree became popular (for example, the Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene” and the Kingston Trio’s “Lonesome Traveler/Shady Grove”). Perhaps a similar desire for a stripped-down sound is driving the current craze for Mumford & Sons etc.

  14. Maybe this will drive Jonathan Coulton’s version of Baby Got Back out of my head. (You are definitely not the only one who has had that ear worm ALL WEEKEND.)

  15. I don’t know if you can really compare the Pogues and Flogging Molly to the Lumineers or Of Monsters and Men. Flogging Molly is more Punk then Folk and Pouges are Irish folk not Hipster folk. With those comparisons we will be saying that it is all because of Lynard Skynard. I heard somewhere all this new music has something to do with Postmodernism.

  16. It’s also a little hard to let your toddlers listen to the Pogues. What happens when they start singing in public? At best, people will think you got the toddler drunk. :)
    Now that I say that, I may have to send my baby nephews some Pogues.

  17. Maybe it’s the pendulum swinging the other direction from technopop, which never sounded like music to me (it sounded like computer generated audio stuff).

  18. I dunno about the pedigree of either song, but that first video is…something. Like a surreal cross between _Yellow Submarine_ (the movie) and the original Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game. Oh wait, I think calling that “surreal” is redundant.

  19. I think some of it can be traced back to The Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’. It has a different sound than this, but they helped make hipster music more mainstream after 500 Days of Summer.

  20. No conversation about pop music and sea shanties is complete without introducing Modest Mouse’s “Dashboard”:

  21. The only new groups I listen to (New = formed after 1977) are Pomplamoose, Professor Elemental, Sex Bobomb, and Dierks Bentley. I don’t think I should be allowed to comment on pop trends.

  22. Thanks goodness, it’s not just me. I have no idea wtf is going on. When did dudes with mandolins and overalls replace dudes with Les Pauls and big hair? I’m scared.

  23. R. Lewiston hit the nail on the head; we are in the midst of the second “great folk music scare”.

    FWIW, I like the Kingston Trio and Mumford and Sons. But then, I also like Ramstein, so what do I know?

  24. Also, I can’t wait to see Jon Bon Jovi’s 2015 album that’s all jug-band music, entitled “Is This Cool? Am I Cool Again?”
    Sorry for double posting.

  25. Once upon a time Bob Dylan was The New Black, rather than a taste or an affectation. I figure that it was a matter of time before things came back around to that.

    On the other hand, I am much more pleased by the higher production values of this year’s model.

    (Bob Dylan? Ugh. Ima go listen to my electronica and New Wave and progrock now.)

  26. I saw Of Monsters and Men when they came through my town, not really knowing much about them, but I had a friend who really wanted to go. Man, they are AWESOME! So glad he dragged me along. :D And their videos are SO WEIRD. I particularly like the King and Lionheart video.

  27. Lumineers are a great live band that will absolutely be ruined by stadium shows. They’re personal, heartfelt performers, and worth a listen.

    Acoustic stuff in pop music has come and gone: the previous run was early 80’s featuring Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982) and John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow (1985). This last year’s explosion of folksy stuff (you forgot Delta Rae, Civil Wars, I could probably keep going) probably owes dues to things such as the recent Robert Plant / Alison Krauss “Raising Sand”, as well as country/folk/pop crossovers such as Lyle Lovett and Nickel Creek.

  28. Don’t forget about “The Decemberists”. They beat both of the band above to the bearded punch.

  29. Hmmmm, more music that this guy (who sings sea shanties around the campfire, of course!) will have to get.

    As for the issue of musical tastes, I simply reference Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

  30. Kids today. *old-person sniff* Did you all miss the singer/songwriter era of 40+ years ago? Led Zeppelin did plenty of acoustic stuff with mandolins fercrissake. Tell me “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” doesn’t sound like a bunch of people around a campfire outside a trailer.

    This is the inevitable result of musical evolution. Take what comes before and do it different and shine it up. The problems can arise in too much polishing. I think some of today’s music is a little too “santized” and thin, but that was true in every era. Lots of it is very good (I have come to appreciate Mumford&Sons more, as the weaker copycats come up). The better stuff will still be listened to in decades to come.

    More to the point, I love that the radio stations I listen to are playing this sort of thing, but also giving heavy rotation to Rise Against and Foo Fighters and Muse. Grandiose power chords and speed guitar are living quite well in the same playlist as acoustic singalongs.

  31. Try Googling “The Denver Sound.” It’s a folksy, sometimes dark, sometimes exotic, sometimes rollicking Americana style that’s been germinating there for about fifteen years. It usually involves acoustic guitars, along with banjos, accordions, strings, and sometimes even didgeridoo. The Lumineers, at least, are a second- or third-generation product of that environment. The newer stuff is lighter and more “poppy” than the older sound from the ’90s, but the roots are still there. Devotchka is another relatively well-known band to emerge from this scene.

  32. Hmm, when Mumford & Sons got big, I just chalked it up to the “every 5 years or so, some folk artist blows up big in North America, then it all dies down again” trend. But this one seems to be lasting.

    Maybe because mainstream pop is so mechanical-sounding these days, anything played even partly on acoustic instruments (and doesn’t have excessive processing on the vocals) is about as far from that as you can get?

  33. To me, Led Zeppelin’s folksy things were leftovers from the UK ’60s folk revival, which came around after the US got the whole hootenanny going. Weirdly enough, that UK folk revival also played a key role in bringing about the “freak folk” movement of the early aughts (see Devandra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, the Espers, etc.), which was yet another revival of acoustic instruments but in a darker and weirder key. I guess “folk music” just keeps on coming back around….

  34. Uh – has nobody here ever heard of Jethro Tull? Or Led Zepplin?

    Both did a lot of Olde English Folk Music updated with rock arrangements and instruments….

  35. When I hear this sort of music I think of two things: Zydeco and the Pogues.

    May the ghosts that howled
    Round the house at night
    Never keep you from your sleep
    May they all sleep tight
    Down in hell tonight
    Or wherever they may be

  36. I’m kind of staked out in what I thought was called alt-country, but which may be something closer to The Denver Sound (first time I’ve seen that phrase) or what I’ve also seen called simply Americana. I may have been primed by bands like Carbon Leaf and Great Big Sea, and then got introduced to Neko Case’s solo stuff, and then I veered into the Krauss/Plant Raising Sand stuff as well as HoneyHoney’s two albums, and am now listening to John Fullbright. I like a handful of songs by the Decemberists and Mumford and Sons, but haven’t felt the urge to buy a whole album by them. This stuff isn’t by any means the only stuff I’m listening to, but at some point I looked at my iTunes playlist and realized I had a lot of stuff that fell into the same ballpark of things.

  37. One might also mention Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, and Fotheringay. There’s also a lot of recent Celtic rock bands besides Flogging Molly: Tempest, Brother, Seven Nations, and Wolfstone, to name a few.

  38. Yeah – the current wave definitely started w/The Decemberists and Neutral Milk Hotel…but I really need it to stop. I kind of want to tell them all, “Stop creating music that sounds like it could’ve been made centuries ago, and start making music that sounds like YOU. NOW. You have never been on a pirate ship! Stop it!” It bothers me that the further along we go, the more we look backward instead of forward.

  39. Perhaps with the re-emergence of folk into popular music, we’ll see a resurgence of the popularity of beards. We will rise again.

  40. I listened to just enough of each song to know that they had a bit of a gimmick to each of them that made them sound entirely too same-y.


    And also just long enough to know it’s also not quite my mug of caffeinated warm drink either.


    And the next person to compare The Pogues to any of the Mumford and Derivatives-like bands, risks having Shane MacGowan being sent to your home with directions to the liquor cabinet.


    I think that’s all I have to say about that.


  41. Nope, Great Big Sea has been mentioned twice! My sister introduced me to them. “Between Boston and St. John” is on my general purposes Spotify playlist.

  42. I don’t think the latest folk music revival has much to do with Of Monsters and Men, personally. And, while I like the Lumineers, Ho Hey is probably the weakest sound on their album.

    I think what you are seeing is the ground floor of the latest American roots music movement, with some outliers – Of Monsters and Men aren’t from the US, if I remember correctly. And neither are Mumford and Sons – but Ingrid Michaelson, Pomplamoose, Lauren O’Connell, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, and a lot of these other quirky, folk sounding groups are. And they’ve been feeding a lot off of each other. Add in groups like Great Big Sea from Nova Scotia, who have a fairly large US following, and you have a lot of bands doing folk based music.

  43. @joelfinkle – I think it is a little dismissive of the quality that some of these bands present to say they owe their success to that Plant/Krauss album – or to Nickel Creek, who has long since disintegrated.
    The Civil Wars, for instance, put out an absolutely fabulous album. It doesn’t hurt that Taylor Swift gave them a plug, but they won the Grammy before that.
    And look at someone like Ingrid Michaelson – yes, she got almost certainly has reach beyond what she might normally because of Grey’s Anatomy, but still, she has produced 5 quality albums now, and her later albums are better than her earlier which is a good sign.
    I think what we are really seeing is groups that were taking advantage of being big in their niche now gaining new followings on a larger stage. They were already successful with particular audiences, be it regional or what have you, and now, some stroke of luck has given them a bump to the prime time.

  44. I’m so out of touch with hipster music that I have yet to hear a Mumford & Son’s song. The Allison Krause/Robert Plant stuff is full of the AWESOME however.

  45. I really dig that first one. The 2nd… I could take or leave. Now I have to find that Of Monsters and Men song, damn you John Scalzi! :-)

  46. Folk will never die…look at how many people perform with the Cheiftains! I agree with the lot of you – and I’m glad Delta Rae got a mention (my Most Recent Obsession). No one has mentioned Dropkick Murphys — though to be fair, they both have a punk backbeat that’ll kick you around the alley a bit.

  47. Go listen to my kid. 24 years old, from a tiny little town about an hour down the road from here. Released his self-produced, Kickstarter-funded CD in May, and it’s nominated for a Grammy in the same category with the Lumineers and M&S. I will be discreet and not express my opinion. ;-)

  48. “When did the hip music of today start sounding like sea shanties and campfire singalongs?”

    WHO CARES, as long as it keeps being awesome like this! Finally, current music I can listen to and enjoy!

  49. A lot of appropriate precursors being mentioned here, especially the Decemberists, but I think you also have to look at the *huge* local/regional success in the early 2000s of The Avett Brothers, a group that unites the passion and energy of rock and punk with more traditional song structures and instrumentation drawn from country, bluegrass, etc. The first Mumford & Sons album sounds, to me, like the twee British version of the Avetts’ early work, and it definitely came along years after the Avetts started their schtick.

  50. Thank you for posting those, John. I heard “Mountain Song” by Of Monsters and Men the other day and had no clue who they were, but after hearing and recognizing the voices I was able to confirm they are the band I heard.

  51. Three’s a trend: Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” features the shouting as well.

    Another trend evident in Mumford & Sons’ big hit, as well as in Macklemore’s “Thrift Store” and Robert Delong’s “Global Concepts” is to strategically deploy one “fucking” at the end of the chorus for dramatic effect.

  52. Vicki! I really wish you’d just linked one song so everyone gets the best first taste. That being said, I picked “Gawd Above” and would much rather listen to more from this kid than many of the aforementioned bands. If that’s really your offspring, I also applaud you for such restraint. Were my own son remotely this talented, I’m certain Scalzi would have malleted me so hard my computer would have exploded.

  53. Several people mentioned the Decemberists already; they’re the first band like that I can think of that I’ve seen fill a stadium in the U.S., for sure. I’d heard other bands do it before, but most of them were from Europe (or the musicians were from there anyway).

  54. I just hope all this means we’re soon to be in for another round of blues revival – cuz that’s what I play the best, and I’ll be able to get work again.

  55. That first video instantly reminded me of the Guild episode with the steampunk balloon
    Later, the video gave me Shadow of the Collosus flashbacks.
    The second video, meh.
    Little Talks is the best.

    The End.

  56. Yay! Folk rock redux. Simon and Garfunkel were better. The Arcade Fire blows ’em out of the water (I was a skeptic when The Suburbs won album of the year, but then I listened to it).

    Wake me up when The Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead and U2 get some disciples worthy of the name. Coldplay doesn’t count. (Okay, to be fair, I listen to and like Coldplay, and that Lumineers song ain’t bad. The sad truth though is that pop [and by pop I mean popular, not necessarily pop] music has hit a long, stale patch. Excepting The Arcade Fire and Alter Bridge, all of my favorite releases of the past few years have been from veteran acts.)

  57. Been around for a few years, at least. Gotta say I quite like the trend. It’s one of the better things to happen in the indie-rock/pop scene. I grew up on folk songs, classical music, rock’n’roll and sea shanties.

    My mainstays for streaming music are KEXP and SomaFM. Keeps me from becoming ossified in my musical tastes (which I most assuredly would, otherwise).

  58. Randall — he’s not my son; he’s just “my kid.” *g* I’m his webmaster, been on the team for a few years now. We’re all real proud of our boy.

  59. @Vicki, his album has been playing steadily on my ipod since I was introduced to him via an NPR “artists to look for in the coming year” article, which came with the download for Jericho. Bought the album a few days later and have been recommending it all over the place.

    Gawd Above, Jericho, Satan and St. Paul, and All the Time in the World are my favorites, but the whole album is solid through and through.

  60. I agree with the Mumford & Sons sentiment. People are trying to out hipster/knowledge each other by listing similar bands that played this type of music before Mumford & Sons were a thing. I love those earlier bands, but I think it’s Mumford’s huge success that has made this music so popular at the moment. Which seemed to be Scalzi’s point: not that other bands had some success or played this type of music before Mumford.

  61. You clearly never listened to The Pogues, whose early albums sound like a punk band that accidentally got booked to play in an Irish Bar.

  62. @teflaime no problem. GBS wears its pride in Newfoundland on its sleeve, so the idea of the group being from Nova Scotia was somewhat disorienting. :)

  63. This is exactly my cup of tea! I love Mumford and Sons and The Decemberists and apparently I love the Lumineers, but didn’t know that was their song till I saw them perform on SNL last week. That’s how it is for me now. I hear a song I like, much later, I see the group perform it, or one of my FB friends mentions it and I check it out, and I think, “OH THAT’s who sings that song.”

    I thought I liked all that stuff because my dad kind would sing sea shanties, Irish drinking songs, and Fraternity drinking songs as my lullabys when I was little. “Oh they had to carry Harry to the ferry….” Mom was not thrilled, which of course made it even more fun for my dad.

  64. It started with the Decemberists, picked up a bit of steam with Arcade Fire winning a Grammy, and has gone full camp fire singalongs now. No one should go full camp fire.

  65. Has anyone mentioned Crowded House?

    I don’t have a point to make; I just thought someone should mention them.

  66. I like the sound of OMAM, but the insanely high rotation that Triple J is giving them dulls my enthusiasms a tad.

    I’m quietly grateful for an amazing revival of Kiwi rock & metal this year with some incredible acts like Devilskin, Villainy, Head Like A Hole, Rival State, and I’m going to include I Am Giant cause they’re part Kiwi, despite being London based.

  67. Dear, sweet John. Please look up Bluegrass. Clearly, you need to spend more time in the south. :-)