Quick, what music do you remember from 2001?
This song broke records that year, and until I started doing research for this article, I had forgotten about it. I find music is harder to forget than it is to remember, but honestly I Janet’s uncanny smile from the video stuck in my mind more than the song. It’s not a bad song, outside my genre alignment, sure, but a passable pop single that totally ruled 2001. At least, according to its wikipedia page. I would never have guessed.
In 2001 the wheels hadn’t yet fallen off of boy bands, post grunge or nu-metal yet. Creed begat Staind and Nickelback, Nickelback begat Theory of a Deadman and Default and… actually, just go dig up your copy of Big Shiny Tunes Five and Six. Now! 6 can fill in the rest. Obviously, to discuss to pop charts of any era filters out a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of important music, but to discuss cultural relevance, it is important to know what people were listening to in bulk. What interests me most is not particularly the quality of any of this music, but the utter disposability of entire genres. That’s a big part of the pop music market, where thirst for novelty and fear of obsolescence and irrelevance drive consumer desire. In an environment like this, what could strive for timeless relevance or musical integrity? For difficult-to-commodify emotions beyond lust or anger? The answer is, of course, The Greatest Accordion Album of The Century.
In a deeply strange event, one of the most enduring and influential releases of 2001 is a sentimental, almost entirely instrumental (except, of course, for two old jazz obscurities, which of course the kids in 2001 just went bananas for), modernist-classical-folk masterpiece that featured no guitars or electronic production, but lots and lots of accordions. Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amélie was so anachronistic it shows up on websites with black backgrounds and green text, alongside the antikythera mechanism and the baigong pipes, as evidence of the New Chronology.
I don’t claim to know exactly what Yann Tiersen’s influences are, but they’re extremely varied. Erik Satie’s thorough exploration of a simple IV-I chord change, gymnopedie 1, forms the backbone of Valse d’Amélie, the album’s main theme, but pieces like Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes are also key to tunes like La dispute or Comptine d’un autre été: l’après midi. Although it doesn’t really contain much in the way of a direct tango influence, the album would probably be impossible without previous Greatest Accordion Album of the Century winner Libertango by Astor Piazzolla. (I know, I know, this is a controversial statement. Bandoneón is not exactly an accordion, but who else am I going to give the title to? Frankie Yankovic? Please.)(Well, okay, there’s Clifton Chenier, but I’m planning an article about him later) There’s a touch of Bach-like baroque complexity filtered through the mathematical modernist flurries of Lubomyr Melnyk. There’s Parisienne musettes, Viennese waltzes, Roma scales (although, strangely, there’s really no swing, gypsy or otherwise, on any of Tiersen’s tracks, which suggests a connection to European folk music from more than a full century ago) and experimental percussion running all around this album . The weirdest part, though, is how it’s arranged.
Structurally, Tiersen’s arrangements do not share a deep similarity to Classical music’s insistence on steadily developing themes and changing forms, nor to European folk music’s relatively static get-up-and-dance straightforwardness. Instead, Tiersen uses layered ostinatos, meaning repeating phrases played on different instruments, usually introduced staggered, like a round.
Layered ostinatos are infrequently used in classical composition, but they’re absolutely foundational in African music traditions. I take it as a given that African musical ideas underlay R&B, soul, rock, blues, country, jazz and basically anything else we consider part of Anglo-American pop music, and as a consequence you can find layered ostinatos as structure all across that spectrum. We absolutely do not have time to run a comprehensive list (start with the “songs that have notes” list and pare it down by less than half), but check out the build of Tito Puente’s Oye como va, which makes complex parts from cascading ostinatos right at the opening until they climax and restructure between 1:04 to 1:50. Ostinatos open Miles Davis’ So What (after the piano and bass preamble). Any music that uses loops is structured at least partially like this (perfect example: The System is Down). Every top 10 song from 2001 is better described in these terms than, say, harmony and counterpoint. All For You starts layering at the 23 second mark. Drums, guitar, add bass, add keys, add vocals. Add terrifying smile
I did not make this gif. Someone just left it out on the Internet.
Now take Les jours tristes. The accordion and oboe start us off, and every eight bars a banjo or a string section or something else new joins the party in a carefully layered and syncopated way. Each instrument is really only playing the same 8 bars over and over again. The song even starts to cross-rhythm once it’s going full tilt; with every accent pulling in a different direction it’s actually not definitively in 3/4 or 4/4. Crazy, right? Most of the tunes on Amélie are put together the same way. I don’t mean to suggest that Amélie is deeply influenced by Tito Puente (although, maybe?), but Tiersen has said that he always thought of himself as a rock musician, not a composer (an accordion player proclaiming himself a rock musician is the most deliriously French thing I can think of). His arrangements are absolutely in line with rock, and, more pointedly, pop.
Tiersen’s chord arrangements are also way more in line with Western hemisphere pop, folk, and rock music than European classical. The tunes might mess around modally a little bit, but they never change key, and they pretty much only consist of A sections and B sections (only La valse des vieux os has any kind of bridge). Although more melodically complex than the other tunes, Comptine d’un autre été: l’après midi chases the same four-chord structure from beginning to end, a harmonic schedule also used by Journey on Don’t Stop Beleivin’ (I’m not linking this one) and used by Bach exactly never.
This isn’t to criticize Amélie for some perceived simplicity or populism or other critical nonsense. If anything, it speaks to the strength of the compositions and an intuitive accessibility the Tiersen works into his tunes. For all the archaic, continental influences, Tiersen’s mapped his melodies onto decidedly new-world arrangements. Every song has a recognizable, hummable melody, no song is more than 5 minutes long. This is, on a structural level, a pop album.
That’s relevant because it helps explain why a bunch of accordion waltzes, whose primary publicity was being the background in a subtitled romantic comedy, managed to persevere through an indifferent and disposable pop landscape and attain status as a classic. If you go into a a coffee shop or farmer’s market almost anywhere in the world you have a very good chance of hearing one of these songs. Tiersen broke new ground between pop music and his continental influences, without which Beirut probably wouldn’t have a career, and Gogol Bordello, Devotchka and even Calexico would have spent a lot longer just trying to gain traction (and hey, check out all those layered ostinatos). Tiersen’s work informs songs by Patrick Watson and Basia Bulat (la Dispute underlies both these songs, which I always found kind of funny). Both Buck 65 and Calle 13, who make very dissimilar hip-hop, wrote songs that sample the album. Local symphonies play selections from this album on valentines day, and couples sit starry-eyed in the gallery and imagine themselves waltzing in a moonlit Parisian street. Young awkward people torture the songs out of their first accordions, they arrange them for ukulele and erhu and electric bass, they replay the entire album on their youtube channels. I, uh, I don’t think that All for you has had quite the same impact.
For all my talk about the formalities and technicalities of the work, Amélie remains a classic primarily because of how it feels. It is utterly confident in its obscure moorings, reaching out and consuming the listener with poignancy, urgency, melodrama, pleasure, lust, anger, frustration, solitude and love. The album’s intense communicative ability is the true heart of its classic status, and the reason it’s still beloved around the world.
I don’t give out the title of Greatest Accordion Album of the Century lightly, but I just can’t imagine what could supplant Amélie in the next 85 years. The idea of a pop album based around the accordion is pretty unthinkable in 2016, if just because albums are becoming more even unfashionable than accordions. More than that, though, you’d have to break out pretty far to get away from Tiersen’s shadow.
On the other hand, you never know.