People love labels that break from the past: the New Deal, the New South, the next big thing, post-rock, post-modernism, post-everything.

And music critics — myself included — are maybe the worst when it comes to the compulsive need to categorize the new and minute variations in their subjects, like the barely discernable difference between 2009’s “chillwave,” “shoegaze” and “glo-fi” genres.

Many artists, too, like to think they are on the very threshold of modern music, going where no rock band has gone before, making sonic, earth-shaking booms that will be so fresh, so out there, as to reinvent the hypothetical wheel.

The problem is that anything totally new probably isn’t any good. Pablo Picasso said it best: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Even the most innovative writers have read the classics and owe quite a bit of their groundbreaking style to the foundation laid by those who came first. The same goes for music —- but as of late there’s been a growing trend towards the vague and the odd, the glitchy and jumpy — the opposite of your basic pleasant folk or rock music. Or so I thought.

It turns out the best way to be on the cutting edge is to be deeply invested in the sounds of the past. The three buzz bands below have gained attention not only for pioneering a new, ethereal sound, but for their inventive arrangements of old R&B and soul samples. These bands use old-school classic hooks in brand-new ways, and the result is fully compelling.

There’s no doubt that upon first listen this music seems inaccessible. I thought James Blake was a hoax, that my fellow music fiends were too enthralled by his weirdness to notice how bad he sounded. The key to interpretation is knowing what to look for. It’s like trying a new cuisine — food always tastes better if you know what flavor you’re supposed to taste. That same “Oh, it’s artichoke!” feeling that takes a dish from questionable to delicious is the same one that elevates unlistenable GarageBand junk to a satisfying pastiche of synchronized synths, familiar riffs and fuzzy-but-present melody lines.

Whether it’s the use of a stolen TLC bassline or a borrowed De La Soul hook, whether we call this emergent genre “new soul” or “patchwork fuzz” or “rhythm-and-reverb,” one thing is clear: These songs are just as old as they are new, and the reinterpretation of our old favorites makes nostalgia sound better than ever before.

 

How to Dress Well

His real name is Tom Krell and he’s from Brooklyn. His album, Love Remains, made many best-of lists at the end of the year for its muddied vocals under a heavy lo-fi glaze, its romantic falsetto moments and above all, its distortion of R&B slow jams that leave you wondering what long-forgotten song of which it reminds you. It’s telling that HTDW’s best-known song last year was actually an R. Kelly cover.

 

James Blake

Blake’s sonic arrangements are so sparsely littered with traditional “music” that his songs bear more resemblance to an esoteric modern art installation than anything else. It takes a few listens to find the Renaissance painting underneath, but it’s definitely there: You might notice some distorted Aaliyah samples throughout his self-titled album, buried beneath his delicate Bon Iver-esque vocals and electronic beeps and blips. This is momentary music — all is obscured until the very split second when the smoke clears and the song resolves itself in full resplendent glory.

 

The Avalanches

This band hasn’t released an album since 2000, but it recently updated all of its social networking sites with new website designs and promises of exciting things to come in 2011. To say you knew them before they were cool, listen to “Since I Left You,” a catchy melange of ’70s soul and funk breaks, and vocals under a sexy, sparkly haze.

 

Caroline Klibanoff is a Junior in the College. City Maps and Handclaps appears every other week inthe guide.

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