2013 in music

“Upcoming trends” is such an outdated phrase, isn’t it? But without articles like this Pitchfork would struggle to fill a page and I’m convinced freelancers on the NME mailing list would struggle to afford their vanilla lattes if they didn’t get payment for 2,000 words on a new band whose name has a serious punctuation problem, so here goes.

Songs performed at their normal speed

For most of the year estate agents and cough medicine sellers and God knows who else have made a killing pretending that a 32-year old session singer from Hoxton is an undiscovered teenage talent found waiting tables at a Cambridgeshire gastropub. The annoying thing is that a cursory glance at Twitter would make most PR-types realise that slowing down to funereal pace beloved 80s hits  doesn’t translate the lyrics into anything more or less meaningful than originally intended. Selling a girl with an acoustic guitar used to suggest that the industry had realised the power in treating women with a bit more respect than in any years following the Girl Power incident. Now it just means “We’ve bought an eighties compilation CD from Aldi and we’re going to use it to the max!”

Of course slowing down songs to ‘reinvent’ them was given a kickstart by unexpected Christmas number 1 “Mad World”. Now I would fight anyone to the death if they suggested all this began with my beloved Alex Parks, the most fine reality TV contestant in history, ever, though she wasn’t innocent in all this. Unfortunately the X-Factor took it to the extreme by having every “Lone Bloke With An Indie Haircut (That We Just Gave Him)” slow down Britney Spears to make them look WELL GOFF.  My favourite X-Factor moment was Aiden Grimshaw being forced to look at his most uncomfortable not just once but twice because the producers assumed this was going to be his “thing”.

Then he went and amazeballed the totes out of everyone with my favourite pop song of 2012, hopefully killing off the slow-downed hell behind him (and us) from now on.

I get the impression that the dog is wagging the tail as much as the tail is wagging the dog, so we should see the end of all this before the summer. There’s only so much indie sensibility the industry can squeeze out of the tube. If  nothing else, most of 1/2-speed versions of Human League songs being used to sell Dulux are so insipid that they’re not going to shift units of either product or soundtrack, thus rendering the whole concept impotent.

More novelty records in foreign languages

Let’s get this absolutely straight, sometimes novelty songs in foreign languages are quite good to have in the background. Unfortunately “Gangnan Style” was power-upped by the Internet, meaning nothing can kill it, not the sun exploding, not a unicorn shitting lava, nothing.

The result of PSY will be the iTunes charts being attacked by every K- and J-pop act with a melody, and God  knows there’s enough of those about, and to be honest, there’s not much accessible to a Western audience for these to make any commercial sense. This is the most baffling thing about PSY; every newspaper article about him has had to explain what the song actually means, and whilst I’m happy that the UK embrace the Korean language (because whilst the French, say, are happy to listen to songs in all manner of languages, you’d be more likely to eat well at McDonalds than hear a “Can i Gymru” song on Radio 1), it was all done for the dance [i.e., the image] rather than the lyrics. Which is such bleak and black irony that I feel unwell.

Inevitably, though, the door has now been opened, so I expect a slew of this sort of thing in the coming months. I’ll not count Costa Del hits, by the way, because these have dried up in recent years, although anyone who wishes to rediscover Eurodance would be alright with me.

The [continued] rise of Thom Yorke’s children

You can hear it with The xx and Liars and Alt0-J, and you’ll hear it increasingly in 2013. Those brought up on Radiohead being positively normal all grew up to play guitars in guitar bands with guitars and shit. All those brought up on Radiohead sounding like passive aggressive C+ coders are making records which used to be sold in Piccadilly Records under the label “WARP REC. & Others.”

These are the children of Thom Yorke, and they’ll play around for the short and medium term for as long as bars exist with abstract noun names hand-written onto the letterbox. There’s some excellent examples of this sort of post-dance (?!) out there, which is good for the indie industry which was worryingly close to adapting Britpop again, and that’ll never do. The only problem from all this, of course, is that sooner or later the country will run out of thin blokes singing in their natural accent over the sound of a busy Macbook, which could see the instrumental movement take over where vocal-led bands stood. There’s only so many things you can do sounding like you’d not like to be called “dance version’s of Radiohead” (isn’t there Hot Chip?) so if the flame dies as quickly as it flared, we’ll at least have had a good time of it.

And Latitude has to make at least one more year, don’t forget.

The [continued, inexorably] rise of Florence Welch

At some point over Christmas, Florence Welch turned up on The Culture Show, for no other reason that the presenter fancied her and he needed a reason to accidentally fumble her whilst tiptoeing around the National Portrait Gallery. It turns out that Welch actua….Sorry, she’s never called that, is she?

It turns out that Florence isn’t just good at sounding like this year’s Beth Ditto, oh no. She knows all about proper art and stuff, and giggles like the art school lecturer you’ve always fancied whenever somebody suggests she could write a song about post-impressionism.  This year has been the year of “Florence Guests on Everything”, both largely ”indie” and largely ”mainstream”, which is fair enough given that she can sing and all, though it does leave her now as a kind of Respected Indie Woman For Hire, and that can only lead to the same nightmarish hell suffered by Cerys Matthews, ensnared by “The O Zone” or whatever was on BBC Two back in the day to become a mainstream voice to the masses, when it was clear that she’d rather be treated like all the other bands of the time.

If the future is as predictable as I fear it may well be, next year will see lots of “Featuring Florence Welch” from the kind of bands talked about above, turning out 21st century versions of Enya for wine bars to pipe out whilst literature students are eating deconstructed pork pies from a roofing slate. Talking of which…

All Hipsters Must/Shall Die

I don’t have a problem with the ‘hipster’ crowd, actually. Indeed some of my favourite people to talk to of an evening aren’t exactly mainstream, and never have been. Unfortunately what used to be considered the fashion of the age has been allowed to seep through everything in society (which certainly didn’t happen with lads in the 90s wearing duffle coats and pointy shoes, thanks again INTERNET).

For the most part, I’m not convinced that the ‘hipster’ thing actually exists, as such. Women walking around as 1950s housewives are doing so because, by and large, that look is just damn sexy. Men walking around like Brylcreem testcards are following the same path – again, by and large – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes with the accompanying soundtrack, as in, there doesn’t seem to be one.

In the 90s and 2000s, music and fashion caught up with each other. Then there was a schism and it’s only just getting back together again. If someone up high can please let it be known that it’s just as acceptable not to look like the only colour scheme in your wardrobe is ‘rust’, that’ll be handy. But by the same token, if we could please stop with backstreet bars hosting hour long ‘gigs’ where the organiser’s best friend reads out poetry over Skillrex, that’ll be much appreciated too.

“Folk” will explode

I understand that most ‘new sound’ predictions overdose on “urban” music (or whichever term is used this week). This is a difficult place for me to venture, because I automatically shut down at the very thought of most ‘urban’ music, even when it’s supposedly the most accessible of its form. You see, it’s not that I dislike hearing the ills of the world put across as a rap song, or with rap influences, but at somepoint in the last 10 or so years, the basic functions of ‘rap’ generally have been sucked out and disposed of, replaced by what I like to call “McDonalds music”. I’ve listened to 1Xtra on a number of occasions, and found it to be a muddle of listener’s bedroom recordings and over-produced autotuned Americans. There’s nothing in the middle, it seems; you’re either a lad from Dagenham finding ways to rhyme “NHS” (“unholy mess”, “Tory pets”, “not dench”) or you’re a “record””producer” who, and I’m not making this up, can say the word “Steven Spielnigga” with a straight face.

I love language and word-play, and very good rappers are superb at breaking up words to create new and interesting rhymes and rhythms. Unfortunately, all that seems to be fading from the scene now, so rather than predict the future is safe in the hands of foul-mouthed women barking swear words over squarking samples, I say….

WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST LIKE MUMFORD AND SONS?

I didn’t wet myself when Frank Turner appeared at the Olympics singing “Screw The Tories (La La La)” or “I Have A Militant Tendency”, or whatever it was he did. Good to see him there, though, and grand to see Mumford and Sons gather in the profits from middle-aged types hunting out an alternative to the Beautiful South. Next year has to be one where those people singing their own songs at normal pace (see the first section) can be guaranteed success without pretending to have some other-wordly concept about them, surely? I’ve received far too many promo CDs from singers who would, ordinarily, garner pretty good support from the usual places as a normal singer/songwriter, but instead feel its necessary to sell themselves as mystic/Pagan/Green Party supporters whose songs come to them in a dream/whilst stoned/listening to “Late Junction”.  Everyone needs a gimmick, but you’re into “hipster” territory if you’re telling me that the story  behind your next single is the result of living on Eigg for twelve-months eating tree-bark.

Pop will rise again….

“Call Me Maybe” is, let’s be clear, a good song. Not great. Not brilliant. It’s good. I don’t particularly like it, frankly, and for really geeky reasons. Such as – the structure is all wrong, the hook is a bit laboured, the backing track is blatantly half-inched from the recording studio’s lift music CD in the style of Father Ted’s Eurovision entry, and so on and so on.

HOWEVER, it’s also a promising sign that pop is back. Not quite completely, but it’s green shoots time, and that’s always something I look out for. I’m a man of simple pleasures. I enjoy good pop, and if that means a boyband sausage factory number, so be it. It’s just no boyband has been given anything decent for years and it’s been a long time since Girls Aloud had anything to crow about, so what you going to do?

Part of the problem is the reality show, for whom “a good singer” means, “can turn one note into 5, one verse into half of the Bible, and one song into twelve.”  Give the X-Factor a pop singer and what do you get? Voted off, usually, or treated as a novelty. JLS were handed some fairly decent numbers for their first album, though now I notice they’ve been dumped in favour of One Direction, whose back catalogue consists of bland, boring, identikit dribble for an exclusive audience, rather than the inclusive outlook of their predecessors. Remember when 5ive and the Backstreet Boys had songs written for them which were genuinely good pop songs, not just love letters to 14-year old Twitterers? Well, that, please.

Spotify will open a club, and other potential “End of the World” scenarios

“The CD will kill off the cassette tape” just seems so cute now, doesn’t it? You might as well have worried that “A panino* will kill off the bacon barm”.

What hasn’t killed off the club DJ is the on-demand music website. iTunes and Spotify and lastfm and all the rest of them – how often did we hear;

“WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE POOR INDIE CLUB DJ?!”

Of course now people are falling back in love with the vinyl LP, though not necessarily with the album, which is why the Facebook sidebar telling you “A friend is listening to…” fills up so quickly because they’re unlikely to be sat there without pressing “skip”,. Spotify has worked where, say, Grooveshark hasn’t by seeping into the national consciousness at just the right time. It was able to sell itself as the ‘mixtape solution’ for party hosts who just wanted to sit around getting baked on that week’s version of ‘drone, and nobody considered the consequences for the city centre clubs struggling to find a DJ who wasn’t just going to press ‘random shuffle’ at 9pm.

The natural conclusion I thought would happen from the success of Spotify et. al would be the owners finding a warehouse somewhere in Shoreditch and shacking up with BrewDog for the ultimate experience in TRENDY LOVE(tm). I’m aware that some achingly trendy people already run club nights where customers can play arcade games, watch Dick Dastardly cartoons and listen to 32-year old sessions singers, etc, etc. The next natural step has to be an on-demand bar, powered by hashtags and the like, a sort of turbo-boosted jukebox. It’s one thing to have a touchscreen jukebox for £2 a go, it’s quite another to have a branded jukebox bar, fed by and promoted for the benefit of an on-line company which otherwise gives away services for free.

(I’m prepared for the news that something like this already exists in a former fabric factory in Limehouse)

I can’t predict – but will hope – that there’s an end to the hypermegasuperstars who seem to release a single every week in  between sessions of appearing in tabloid newspapers. Who/what is a Nicki Minaj, for example? I’ve tried listening to her songs to fathom out whether there was a commercial tie-in with a children’s television channel, though all I got was a burbling mess of pre-recorded keyboard samples overdubbed by a robotic moaning. I’ve known porn with more emotional realism. Ditto Lady Gaga, for that matter, in whom I’ve grown bored having mistakenly subscribed to the hype early doors. If 2013 gives us anything, can it please put all the hypersupermegafamous people into a big room, possibly underground with just enough air for a week, to avoid any further overproduced, under whelming nonsense being released?

(*Stuff off with your ‘panini’s’)

Glastonbury will save, and then bury, the “Big Ticket” music festival

Obituary writing is dead easy. DEAD, hah, like DEAD PEOPLE.

*ahem*. No, it really is, as any broadsheet journalist in the last five years has proven having been asked to spew out 2,500 words on “The end of music festivals as we know it.” (Or for the Daily Mail, “Drugs, drink and easy sex: Is this the end of music festivals as we know it?”

With ticket prices soaring, most bands treating the festival circuit as Premier League sides treat the FA Cup, it’s little wonder that the gleam has been reduced somewhat. I’ve seen pensioner’s television screens with more balance than the coverage given to the “Big Ticket” festivals. In fact, let’s get it over with:

*We know that Reading/Leeds is awful
*We know that T In The Park is……well, Scottish
*We know that Glasto has its moments. Usually on BBC Three at 2am with sodding Sara funking bloody Cox

If austerity is a path followed deeper next year, the best thing Glasto could possibly do is become a celebration of everything music in this country has ever been (aka, “The Olympic Opening Ceremony, just with more 6Music radio presenters”) and then pull the plug on the whole festival thing. Shut down all the “big ticket” items. There’s enough left with the niche, the middle-layer and the below-the-radar. We really don’t need the all singing, all money grabbing behemoth music festivals any more, no more than we need party political conferences. Nobody has ever felt better in life through watching Johnny Vaughan mugging to camera about how 90s everything sounds in the “Mojo Tent”

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Lady Ho-Hum

Watching the careers of stella-star super-famous types wander up and down the hills and troughs of fame really could drive a person mad. Maybe it does, given the types who write celeb columns in the tabs and build themselves a ‘job’ from musing on the fickle nature of notoriety.

Two women whose pop careers have contributed a soundtrack to the lives of millions have reached the point where the mojo has clearly been diluted too far. It’s what homeopathy must do to those genuinely sick people. Madonna and Kylie Minogue, from two very different starting points, hit the same successful pattern; reinvent and reimagine the image at every possibility, and keep the music fresh and interesting. For Minogue, this was almost effortlessly easy – from pure pop in the late 80s to the indie-chic and mad-as-a-hatter dj cool.

Kylie has had her noticeable drop in form, with “2 Hearts” (not, sadly, a Doctor Who tribute) and “Wow” sounding slim and unremarkable. The instant ‘hit’ the listener gets from, say, “In Your Eyes”, with its pounding dance beat wrapping around the sweetest of melodies, is utterly absent from later works.

The slow deflating balloon that is Madonna’s output (or if you like, Madonna herself) has been whistling away since “Bedtime Stories”. Whilst “Frozen” hinted at a slight return, most of what has come since is second rate. “Music”, “Hollywood” – is this the same woman? If the artist seems uninterested, so will the fans, and that is a factor clearly happening today.

When Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta barged her way into the club of notable pop starlets reaching a certain age, it was a revelation. Lady Gaga had a sound of her own produced from the mashing together of all her influences – every male and female mainstream chart sensation with underground flavours all swept up into subversive, compelling and darn catchy dance/pop. Music snobs melted at the sound of “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro”, the strongest chart bound pop records in a world dank with the fog of RnB and shouty-voiced harridans. For a woman so clearly intelligent (designing the Lady Gaga character to be as provocative as possible), the media-game she played was complemented by albums stuffed full of decent, good old-fashioned sing-along-able tracks.

So…what’s happened? To much fame and fortune? Too much self promotion? Too little time to decide what actually works in commercial music? Because Gaga has done in a few months what it has taken her most obvious inspiration and model a while career; to flop from innovator to background noise. It has been quite the collapse – two singles into the new album and the muttering whispers from critics grows louder: has Little Miss Promotion gone and parked her songsmiths ability too far for her brain to walk?

The first PR disaster was “Born This Way”. Without any sense of irony, this was a bad-taste facsimile of “Express Yourself”, and one Gaga declared was “the newest gay anthem”. We all know gay people, and they tend not to like being told what is and is not done for their benefit. Rather than celebrate this anthem penned for them from the conscious Queen of fashion, the community she claimed to love turned against her. That aside, “Born This Way” isn’t a particularly strong song – the chorus is a yawning chasm of dreary and the verses far too derivative to pass comment. “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” did not, notably enough, get adopted by anyone any time soon.

The new single, “Judas”, sounds like three different songs hastily stuffed into one. Is it high-NRG pop? Is it dance? Is it a new take on the dubstep scene? To my ears, there are three elements struggling for attention (which could be how Gaga’s head must sound in times of quiet).

There’s the pounding beats, fresh from Britney’s latest remake (and let’s be honest, Britney Spears is looking like a woman who knows she’s lived Madonna’s career in fastfoward. Calling a song “If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me” is one step away from naming a sitcom “Three Irishmen walk into a bar…”

The other two options are recycled Gaga tropes. Spoken-word middle sections and the melody from “Paparazzi” create a song which appears to have been rushed out rather than considered. It’s confused and quite silly (and for a woman so controlling of her provocations, somewhat boring. There are far fewer Christians around to shock, for one thing).

There is nothing wrong with liking decent, honest and interesting commercial pop music, when and where it can be found. What interest Lady Gaga had to offer is currently bubbling at far less a temperature than she has shown able to produce so far. It should not be shrug-shoulders time so early in her career.