A. K. M. Adam offers some reflections on what is it that makes good music, well good:
I’ll being by stating the obvious: Good music can be identified, most of the time, by good musicianship. Skill, technique, precision, virtuosity, all contribute to a performance I might admire.
OK, counterexamples first: Much punk rock, and a lot of old-timey music (to name just two genres) place little emphasis on technical musicianship. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ as performed by John McLaughlin and Buddy Rich would… lack something. They might bring something else to it, but I’m not saving my farthings for their cover version.
I think one reason why I never gravitated to punk as a teenager (despite liking a great deal of it now), was that sense that there wasn't much going on there musically. At the time, I was heavy into progressive rock and jazz, so heavy riffing on a few simple chords didn't do it for me. Over time, a lot of what I didn't like back then began to grow on me, and I think that my teenage musical tastes have diversified retrospectively as I've gotten older.
But that said, I agree that musicianship is an important indicator of what makes good music good. And I also agree with Akma's follow-up point:
One of the besetting problems of musicianship in popular music is the sense of formality, sterility, that sometimes attend it. One of the afflictions of popular music in the 70’s came from the sense that rock musicians were trying so hard to prove their worthiness that many of them adopted painfully over-serious, over-technical styles that just didn’t rock (and often didn’t satisfy the serious audiences they were trying to impress). Musicianship blends over to ‘professionalism’ (in the pejorative sense) and commercialism, too. When Rich caught me out for disliking music for being ‘popular’, much of what he was right about involved my lack of interest in bands that struck me as so professional that I didn’t feel especially drawn to them. ‘Commercial’ generally tastes bad to me.
On the one hand, I think the criticism of prog as "sterile" is overblown, and usually lodged by people who never took the time to really pay attention to what was going on in progressive rock. They got lost in the strange modes and time signatures, and failed to realize that a lot of progressive rock is actually very witty. Sometime the jokes are musical, and if you don't know what's going on musically you'll miss it. But a lot of the time the joke is in the lyrics or the general attitude.
As someone who is on the congenitally over serious side myself, I have to admit that I missed it a lot myself. Aside from Frank Zappa, who Akma mentions, most prog didn't strike me as being obviously funny. And of course, for Zappa, most of the time the joke was wrapped up in a lot of offensive material. But of course, often Zappa's whole point was that he was trying to offend you. So actually getting offended made you the punch line. In that way I often see South Park as an extension of Zappa's attitude in a different genre.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of wit lying beneath the surface of allegedly sterile progressive rock, if one takes the time to look.
But on Akma's concluding point I couldn't agree more. The problem with much of what passes for popular music today isn't that it isn't technically proficient. It is! But it's been test marketed and genericized to such an extent that any human emotion or artistic worth has been sapped out of it entirely. It may be on many levels perfectly acceptable music to listen to, but it has no great impact on the listener. While not every occasion calls for dissonance and sharp edged lyrics, the degree of homogenoization that has taken place in pop music today makes it very difficult for me to listen to. Which is why I seldom tune in to the radio anymore.
That and morning DJs. I hate morning DJs!