How Michael McDonald Has Influenced Practically All Of 2011's Music, From Bon Iver to Lady Gaga

Musical TheaterArts and CultureArtMusic IndustryBon Iver (music group)Doobie Brothers (music group)Foster the People (music group)

When Michael McDonald plays the Ridgefield Playhouse on June 22 (as part of a summer fundraising gala), there should be some youthful faces in the crowd, sprinkled among the elder McDonald fans. While this may be more symbolic than anything else, given the exorbitant prices for tickets ($125!), there still might be a few youngsters there, in large part because McDonald has had a strange effect in shaping 2011’s musical landscape. Seriously.

McDonald has always maintained an odd pop-cultural omnipresence, from his potent appearance as part of the Doobie Brothers in the late 1970s (particularly on the great Minute by Minute album) to more recently having his 1982 single "I Keep Forgettin'" sampled by the late Warren G for his smash "Regulators," being singled out in Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin by an irate Paul Rudd (“If I hear 'Yah Mo B There' one more time, I’m going to yah mo burn this place to the ground”) and popping up on "Jimmy Fallon" to do an impromptu rendition of "Ride Like the Wind" with Christopher Cross, backed by hip-hop juggernauts the Roots.

But in a more general way, the genial, laid back, AM-radio-friendly pop that McDonald helped pioneer and refine, characterized by twinkly synth flourishes, blue-eyed soulful vocals, brassy instrumentation and a mid-tempo groove, has, for whatever reason (maybe simply because it's fertile musical ground that hasn’t been mined hollow), been outrageously influential on musicians in 2011. Basically, every important band with a big album this year, if you close your eyes and listen to the music, could easily have doubled for music that played in a parallel-universe 1984 junior prom.

The trend started early this year, when Destroyer (nee Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Bejar) released his ninth album Kaputt. The lead single (also the title track) features lyrics about "chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world," backed by a jittery synth line and a saxophone embellishment that brings to mind silk sheets, smoky, neon-lined clubs, and the score to Lethal Weapon, all in one gulp. Call it the Yacht Rock ‘11 (to borrow a term coined by an Internet mockumentary series in 2005) opening salvo. It served as a musical call-to-arms, with much of the music since incorporating similarly gauzy, ethereal, sway-along elements.

Everyone from new bands like Smith Westerns, whose single "All Die Young" would have been an ideal slow jam for the aforementioned junior prom, and L.A.’s Foster the People, have been carrying forth the Day-Glo legacy, while other, more established acts, like Britain’s flat-out brilliant Wild Beasts made a U-turn toward velvety seductiveness on their new masterpiece Smother. Even Kanye West-approved weirdo Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), previously content to brood in his Wisconsin cabin, has let some sunnier (not to mention brassier) musical tics permeate his wonderful new self-titled album.

It’s not just the blog-approved acts that have been getting in on the McDonald-initiated momentum. Lady Gaga, on her new album Born This Way, has several cuts that are heavily assisted by Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. (Katy Perry has a saxophone-embroidered single from her last album set to debut this summer, too. Can iTunes handle all that brass?) And listening to Beyonce’s unimpeachable new record is sort of a shock. Instead of bangers like lead single “Run the World (Girls),” the album is mostly filled with smoothly laid-back electro-soul jams (including a Kanye-produced joint featuring Andre 3000).

The biggest musical coup, though, comes from New York pop-rockers Holy Ghost!, who close their electrifying self-titled debut album with a guest spot from none-other than … Michael McDonald! The track, which starts out with a celestial children’s choir before descending into a slinky synth bounce, flows along until — BAM! — the snowy vocals from a yacht rock legend appear, like a white walker attack on "Game of Thrones," and the whole song zooms to another level. It’s a symbolic passing of the torch, of course, but also a subtle reminder: nobody does it quite like McDonald.

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