Tracks of 2013 — #2 Savages

Click here for track 1

Wise men who knew punk was designed to self destruct have been merrily collecting the various pieces of shrapnel littered through the years ever since. Savages are one of the better female-fronted of the post-punk re-(re?)-revival of the recent past, from whom “Silence Yourself” is a great debut album indeed. Its titles sound as punk should, all sharp and short worlds slapping against the skin, “She Will”, “Shut Up”, “Hit Me”, “No Face”, “No Daddy Stop, I Love It, Don’t Stop, OH GOD YES.”

(Check that last one, Ed.)

“Shut Up” opens with the kind of rambling speech which sounds transposed from a late 90s Britflick about clubbing in inner city sprawl. It sets up an explosive track, flippantly disposed what’s-the-point grabs for the air spliced through with guitars so dirty they just have to be good for you. If the track sounds familiar, then yes, of course it does, but that’s perhaps missing the point. Dismissive, disinterested and with a hint of danger, “Shut Up” reminds us that there’s only the means by which we communicate that has improved over the past thirty years, there’s a lot of society that has been trapped and left behind.

Advertisements

Tracks of 2013 — #1 Lady Gaga

Thought pieces about la Gaga run into the tens of thousands so let’s keep this light and short.

Having spent the year pushing ARTPOP as the embodiment of reinvention/regeneration/revolution, it’s not surprising that the whole thing ended up being somewhat underwhelming. Far removed from the top-of-the-mountain flag planter it was said to be, ARTPOP is an album of one or two success stories being gabbled about in the foothills among the cafe and car-park. As much as you think that “Do What U Want” or even “Sexx Dreams” are good songs, they’re fairly middling in reality, particularly the former despite its radio airplay saturation. I don’t want to know how R Kelly would react to such a request as ‘do what you want to my body,” thanks all the same, no matter how shocking (or ARTy or POPy) the song is supposed to be.

HOWEVER, and it’s a big however because my English teacher always told me to avoid starting sentences with ‘but’, the lead single “Applause” promised so much and delivered in spades. Slightly darker than previous singles and sung with a more mature, deeper register than previous singles, “Applause” packs a truly tough pop smack around the senses, its melody and message doing everything “Born This Way” did without having to wrap itself in rainbow flags and poppers screaming “I LIKE GAY MEN YOU KNOW”

Waving her Kunst around the place (oh, sorry, her Koons, it’s all those short dresses you know), Gaga delivered in “Applause” a track that was both riposte to, and celebration of, her maligned reputation, keeping the obvious nods to the pop influences from the past (cough, Bedroom Stories, aitchoo) with the shock-tactic heart of America’s take on 21st century electronic dance. Influencing at least one funny parody (and a fair amount of not so, but that’s YouTube for you), the song retains a freshness that hasn’t been true of Gaga’s up and down output since “Telephone”. For much of the year, pure pop has struggled against the tide of continued love affairs with turning songs into flat, robotic drawls, so for proving that it can be done without five different melodies being crunched together by an Excel spreadsheet and a Speak-n-Spell, let’s….applaud.  The rest of ARTPOP may be utter bobbins (seriously, check out the pro-cannabis Mary Jane something-or-other, there’s more chance of catching a trout in a rock pool than finding a melody in there), “Applause” is one of the definite hits of the year.

Click here for track 2

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”

Hit parade

Arbitrary lists are the mainstay of the Internet, let’s be honest. And there’s nothing more arbitrary than a list of favourite songs.  Now, I remember even as someone on the wrong side of 30 when the NME used to leave newspaper ink on your fingers whilst today it just gives a bad taste in the throat. It can’t just be me looking at a chart rundown of greatest tracks of its 60 year lifetime with an incredulous glare. Dizzy Rascal, eh? Of all time, you say? Top twenty, for Dizzy Rascal?

Now I will admit that I’m a man who enjoys nothing more than rattling up the debt on my local’s jukebox, and depending on mood, memory and the amount of ale consumed, that can be an experience akin to twiddling the dial on an AM radio. What I suspect has happened with the NME list is a brief talk with the guys in marketing and the one bloke who deals with SEO, from which came the considered opinion that to remain looking somehow ‘cool’ whilst still attracting casual readers/browsers meant choosing very obvious bands and very obvious songs. “Wonderwall”, for one clear example, would struggle to hit the top 20 of Oasis fans list of songs, and I include both Gallagher brothers in that. If the NME wanted to include Oasis whilst not looking too much like a magazine whose only reference material was a compilation album sold exclusively in a garage forecourt, then why not “Masterplan” or “Acquiesce”? Not exactly the very best work but at least a nod to something other than The Most Obvious Nomination…Ever!

And then we have the Madonna problem. Now, bless the NME, they needed a woman and what better choice than a woman whose back catalogue has shifted more units than IKEA. Problem – they’ve gone for the wrong song again (the best Madonna track is, by and large, “The Power of Goodbye” or “Frozen”, at a pinch “Nothing Really Matters). Problem number two – they could have chosen Kate Bush or Janis Joplin or any other number of female singers to provide a) the single female nomination they were clearly struggling to find, and b) one whose body of work fits with the NME’s former characteristic of ‘Magazine which doesn’t go for the obvious/mainstream.

Whilst I understand that they tried to go ‘off piste’ with Dizzy Rascal – “OFFICIALLY THE NINTH BEST SONG IN THE NME’S LIFETIME” – I would have stuffed the track about 100 places further down and to considered putting 99 places further down the Silver Sun cover version of “Too Much Too Little Too Late” just to prove a point. I know the NME wanted to add a rap track to cover all basis so why ignore “White Lines” as a cultural milestone rather than an arbitrarily chosen blip in contemporary urban music? Was this a panicked moment of ‘tokenism’ ?

My greatest concern is for the long term survival of the NME. It’s seen off almost all its rivals – from Record Mirror in the 70s through to Melody Maker and Select in the 90s and now stands fairly forlorn in the weekly magazine section of railway stations and corner shop newsagents. The relevance may have faded though the stature somehow remains, its reputation a shadow and showpiece. Why, then, have we got to the point where a magazine which commands respect can get away with picking the running order of Humdrum FM or a provincial town’s only indie club night (Once a week at Neon Jessie’s behind the Iceland, £1 entry before 11)?  I may live in Preston, not always known for having fingers on pulses but I can at least guarantee that the most prominent alternative club here would choose many hundred songs before considering the NME 20.  What exactly has gone wrong? Pressure? Ignorance?

All this said, of course, and without the realisation that all generations criticise the last for their taste in music. I’m just a little bitter at the lack of Abba and Fleetwood Mac. If anybody wants me, I’ll be at the jukebox. Oooh, “Pure Shores” by All Saints, could that sneak in somewere?

Björk

Released this Monday, Björk’s new album Biophilia is possibly her most ambitious, complex and bemusing to date. Each track is an iPad app, one which opens up into games, National Geographic videos and opportunities to remix songs. One particular game will stop a track from playing if the user ‘wins’; how many artists would invent such curveball wizardry?

A clue, to open: I am somewhat a fan of Björk, having fallen under the spell not long after Cable TV was installed at the family home. Whoever was choosing MTV’s rota back then needs a handshake – “Venus as a Boy” and selected Sugercubes tracks scattered throughout the day. That voice, its unusual phrasing somewhere between Norwegian and Cockney, her presence: yep, this is the favourite singer for me. At a time when my High School friends were pairing off into indie or dance, there I was trying to balance waiting for the next Oasis or Ocean Colour Scene single with putting Debut on repeat.

(And for that matter, I was eagerly grossing out on Eurovision but that’s possibly for another thread…)

The journey from that first solo album to next week’s multimedia extravaganza has been long and exhausting and occasionally too bewildering for words. There was Dancer in the Dark, the bleak Lars von Trier film encompassing musical numbers and suicide, from which came the bewitching duet with Thom Yorke. (From which, additionally, came the half-truth rumour from the recording of the single, that Björk admonished Yorke for trying to take over ‘her’ song).

Lest we forget Drawing Restraint 9, the utterly confusing and often unlistenable soundtrack to the  arthouse film of the same name made with her partner Matthew Barney. To say the album needs a running jump is something of an understatement; I find you need the clearance comparable to that of a 747.

From the post-90s club comedown album Debut to the literal Post album, the direction taken from radio turnaround to underground was abrupt and artistically liberating. Listening again to the earliest albums retains satisfaction, the first has a great charm and cuteness about it, with Crying, Human Behaviour, and Play Dead as stand out tracks still today. The inventiveness and quirk breaks through with the follow up Post, which brings the industrial crunch of Enjoy and the twisted romanticism of Isobel.

That album also provided, of course, the one albatross It’s Oh So Quiet, a re-imagining of the 1951 hit by Betty Hutton. Fans are divided on whether the song retains any artistic merit at all; when Björk polled website visitors to decide the tracklisting of the Greatest Hits, the song didn’t feature anywhere near the top 20. Snobbery? Or realising that some choices early in a career don’t always need revisiting? For what it’s worth, I am fairly neutral on the matter – it is not much of a song anyway, and the Björk reinvention has a certain eccentricity I like.

Many singers and groups claim their albums are all different with characters of their own (cf. David Bowie and indeed The White Stripes, who would challenge themselves to record each album in different ways to guarantee different results each time). Björk certainly does give each of her albums characteristically different attitudes and accents – you need only to look at the cover art for that. The young and wide eyed singer on Debut grows into the digital Geisha on Homogenic, who turns into a monochrome swan for Vespertine. Heaven only knows what character lay behind Volta, with its flames and fur and oversized neon boot. At the time of its release, I was amongst many reviewers who noted just how much fun Björk was having if the megapop madness of Volta was any guide. It’s certainly true that it’s the only time you’ll ever hear something approaching the Pussycat Dolls on one of her albums…

We approach the new release this Monday unlike most others, not least because all her tracks are available on YouTube and versions aplenty were showcased at the Manchester International Festival. Fittingly for such a ‘digital’ album in an app-age, remixes and re-worked versions already slosh around the Internet, and the iPad version of Biophilia will allow users to take and make their own interpretations as standard. It’s a concept album like no other, and this is why her output is so vibrant and consistently interesting.

Now aged 46, she shows no signs of wanting to make easy or predictable choices. It is for these reasons why I have always liked her – for the invention, the other-worldliness, and the interpretation of reality that is unlike most other contemporary singers. Yes, the output retains an eye on the commercial, but ultimately the results are personal. From the radio hits in the 90s to breakbeats and laptronica in the 21st century, these results also happen to be almost entirely without fault.

I leave you with some of my personal highlights.

Mercury’s gold (doesn’t always shimmer)

Award ceremonies present quite the uncertain prospect for most observers; the general population either adore or ignore, tabloids subject the most meaningless to disproportionate hyperbole, broadsheets offer disproportionate analysis. It’s not just the self-promoting ridiculousness of them all (although, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, there is not yet a trinket out there for attempted physics).

If ever there’s a gong show with contentious decisions written all the way across its history like a hipster’s arm, it’s the Mercury Prize for….well….best album? Greatest? Most beloved Alexis Petridis?

This year’s shortlist is the usual eclectic, eccentric muddle of commercial and deliberately obtuse leftfield choices (oooh, jazz, mmmm), makes the already difficult task of comparing different artists collections of work almost laughably impossible. There’s a reason why “What kind of music you into, then?” stops attracting meaningful responses after the age of 15. Unless you’re talking to your gran (Choice quote from my gran, now sadly deceased. “I like that ‘soul music’, but not his face”, she said of the Prodigy album “The Jilted Generation” upon seeing the album art and the words “sole CD” on the price sticker).

Mercury Prizes are subject to more chin-stroking than most because they have always posited the reputation as being above, higher, and somehow plainly more than commercially minded rivals. They are not the brash Brits, they are not the sell-out NME awards. In truth, natch, their position accurately moves around with the whim of the audience they court, one eye on a mature, world-wise audience (Jesus and Mary Chain nominated in 1992, Radiohead in 1997, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996), and another on promotion and advertising kudos (Spice Girls in 1997, Mark Morrison in 1996, Sting in 1993, arguably every time post-1997 that Radiohead have ever been nominated.)

Famously, now, the judges considered M People’s “Elegant Slumming” over Blur (“Parklife”), the aforementioned Prodigy, and Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood”. Plainly bonkers – it’s not worth saying, really, that track-for-track, Blur kinda just sorta do beat Heather Small into a mush of smug self-help sludge, even accounting for “Trouble in the Message Centre”, which is awful.

Nobody explicitly awarded the Mercury’s with a high pedestal from which to sprinkle “indie” stardust on the chart albums below. Partly the responsibility of the panel itself, mostly due to the journalists it feeds so well, the value of its currency is somewhat euro like in its widely unsustainable level. It has blatantly turned to an unwritten rota from which awards are seen to be fairly handed out, such as occurred in right-on trendy comprehensives at sports days. One year, it’s an obscure winner (Talvin Singh’s “OK” in 1999, which I bought, incidentally), and then follow that up with something a bit more mainstream (2000 was Badly Drawn Boy, beating Leftfield themselves, ironically enough).

“Obscure, mainstream, obscure, mainstream” has turned out to be more of an obvious seating pattern than Tony Blair’s “gay, straight, gay, straight” Cabinet seating arrangements. Bloc Party or KT Tunstall count not win in 2005, for that was an obscure year. The xx triumphed last year, the year of the mainstream, which may seem like a rule proving exception were it not for Speech Debelle triumphing 12 months previously.

Assumption and half-remembered memory has not helped the Mercury’s laudable attempt to move away from being an unofficial badge of approval from ‘proper’ critics. It’s “indie” credentials only grew on the back of its inaugural winners and subsequent follow-up – had Primal Scream (worthy) and Suede (worthy) not succeeded, its value today would be less than a Greek stocktrader.

This year – the year of the Obscure Winner, betting folks – the commentariat have clucked their collective tongues at a somewhat uneven shortlist, from Adele and Elbow to Anna Calvi (and no, I was unable to whistle anything by Gwilym Simcock until I hit YouTube ). Betting money might be going on Adele (she’s no chance). I would suggest Katy B is where the money should be going (she’s the Speech Debelle voting option without the chance of a post-award strop two months later).

To leave, not a Mercury performance but from a nominee which still gets me giddy. Who needs a band? And, yes, Antony and the Johnsons beat her in 2005.

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.

Pablo Honey

It’s February 1993. The indie chart holds itself in an awkward position, between new takes on punk by American start-ups and characteristically wry British bands without a single umbrella term to hang over them. The top ten indie chart for February 1993 runs from Sugar and Tad and Huggy Bear – all unknowns even outside the few remaining true “record shops” by the winter of that year, never mind today – to Suede and Cornershop and Belly. Also in that month, Oxford’s Radiohead released their début “Pablo Honey”. For British music, for them, for the charts, corners were turned. Things never quite sounded the same again.

What is “Pablo Honey” today? For whom was Thom Yorke positing “What the hell m’a doin’ here?” Foreshadowing Beck and Weezer, both of whom could have passed ‘Creep’ off as their own, the first album from Radiohead could easily challenge or be challenged by the teenage angst it seemed initially to encapsulate. There are modern day fans of the Manic Street Preachers for whom “Generation Terrorists” is a youthful joke, a throwaway compilation of decent songs with too much naivety, too much eagerness for the title of the next enfants terribles. Who were Radiohead at the time? What label was attached by contemporary critics: indie, grunge, alt.rock, was any of that created yet? Was this the start of shoegazing or the continuation of something else, something older?

“Pablo Honey” begins with “You”, a sarcastic, sardonic love song, with a sneer in vocals and thwacka-thwacka guitars which could have come across the Atlantic. At the time, both US and UK teens had their own brand of educated anti-establishment soundtracks, both of whom documented the end of their own respective worlds. “You” sounds like the linear successor to Morrisey’s forlorn hope from the middle of the previous decade, an update, an extension. Of course, “Creep” would be too mawkish even for The Smiths; as Kurt Cobain would find, such cryptic self-referential anthems would be both albatross and accolade. “Creep”, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, both celebrates and derides teenage listlessness, balances the delight and despair of introspection. Did Michael Stipe feel the same, hearing “Losing My Religion” adopted as soundtrack? This unholy triptych, this unlikely period piece of youthful diary-writing, hailed as something so fucking special…

This week, Radiohead released “King of Limbs”. That is, in the language of the 90s, they “released” their new album, for in the 21st Century, they did nothing more than allow fans to pre-book for downloading. Nobody in 1993 could have foreseen the advances in technology, nor could anyone have assumed the indie boys with a sneer and complex lyrics turn away from melody and rhymes and instruments to the Wonderland world of “Kid A”, “Amnesiac”. Listen to “Ripcoard”, the highlight nobody remembers today, and you might as well be comparing Catatonia with Katatonia.

Is “Pablo Honey” any good? Yes. The NME of the time said “…flawed…but satisfying”. Rolling Stone considered it “grungy” before that term was coined. (Well, okay, the Oxford English Dictionary has Vanity Fair using it in 1991 and the Guardian in 1992, but only referring to Nirvana and Hole. I can only suspect that Britain held out against using the term for home-grown bands.)

There are more highs than (artistic) lows on “Pablo Honey”. There is muddle, there is clear teenage shoe-scuffing, there is nothing exactly original (“Prove Yourself” could well be There Might Be Giants.) By “The Bends”, their career advancing classic, Radiohead had moved on as quickly and assuredly as a train moves from station to station. In the context of the new, obscure, unusual release, its dubstep and ambient elements utterly unknown in the early 90s, “Pablo Honey” is the postcard from a past we cannot bring ourselves to entirely forget. It sounds honest even if the content was not entirely true to themselves.

From our vantage point, older and wiser and more knowledgeable, we can understand the exuberance of youthful excitement, of expression and of intent. “Pablo Honey” is not the record of where Radiohead wanted to be; it’s a vital piece of evidence of how much further they were than their peers even then.

For Great Justinz

Justin Bieber is the 12/14/18/22 year old starlet beloved by tweens and loathed by the rest of us. His schtik – young tyke discovered on YouTube raised to megastarstatus – smells fishier than Fleetwood Dock, nevertheless he has become one of the most successful young pop stars in modern times. Marketed to the nth degree as the Timberlake for those with channel-hopping attention spans, his legions of fans have an obsessive character which borders on the evangelical. No website is safe from the “Bieberatti”: entire towns could be filled by their number, their on-line enthusiasm blanking out debate on almost every other subject.

Bieber, of course, has very little to do with the music released in his name. Listening to any of his songs is very difficult. Not in a Mogwai or Inuit throat singing difficult, more overdoing the post-production by a year sort of way. Clearly his lyrics are meaningless, and obviously he has no sincerity in singing them. I can’t escape the view from the wilder parts of my brain that, like a washed up end-of-the-pier variety singer, he walks off stage after a gig to light up a cigarette and swear like a garage mechanic.

Created by the Internet, Bieber has his career shaped and ultimately decided by the on-line world. An infamous messageboard tried to send him to North Korea for a special gig, YouTube videos are hacked and replaced by hardcore pornography. His television appearances are rare, like terrorists in Afghan caves he only appears in website form. His autobiography will be the first tangible sign of his existence after his birth certificate, although this could feasibly be a hardcopy print out of a Licence User Agreement.

The ickle pop boy nobody likes has, it now seems, won over another audience without lifting a finger or singing a note – okay, that’s what he already does, what I mean is, through the work of an unknown DJ Shamantis, a reworked version of a Bieber single has become an instant internet phenomenon. Fittingly for Bieber, outside the walls of the world wide web, the new version of his song is totally unknown. He has failed where “Newport State of Mind” succeeded in that field, at least, a rare loss.

The track – which at over 30 minutes long is an average Bieber track multiplied nine fold – can be enjoyed here. Stretched to its absolute slowest using a music manipulation programme – the claim is 800% slower, something causing Doctors of Music Tech and Production some concern – the resulting soundscape is unexpected, immense, a touch pretentious and absolutely mesmerising. It’s SunO))) on ket, whalesong as re imagined by Tiesto, or both muddled up with Sigur Rós and Cocteau Twins.

If this is the only piece of ambient music the “Bieberatti” listen to throughout their entire lives, the experiment would be worth it. Okay, so there are questions to be asked from this – is this any less meaningless than the Hallmark card lyrics of the original and so on – although I lean towards the side of the argument which considers the track a successful reimagining. Think TATU taking on “How Soon Is Now”, for an obvious example.

Like all pop starlets, Beiber will fade. His celebrity is temporary, his songs will not last into the next decade if that. The Internet will create, form, and reject more like him. However, the ‘net can also make unexpected superstars at its own behest and will (I’m looking at you, Rick Astley, and no, I’m not linking to THAT SONG…). This “800% slower” version sound exactly like some of the best tracks of its kind in my collection, and if it’s taken to be superb or nothing more than Enigma for the 21st century, it has got more attention from the ‘fashionable’ side of music than any of the original material. Enjoy it for what it is, Beiber is ultimately musical candyfloss, 30 minutes worth of his stuff in real time would make you very ill…

Say It Again

A friend tells me that overheard, whilst walking through town, an old woman in mid-flow: “And the best thing was, it was only cancer”. You can prefer the sparkling dialogue of an arthouse director all you like, nothing quite compares to the snatches and snippets of phrases picked up by accident and chance from yer actual real person.

“She said if I suck her toes later she’ll give me a gobble tonight,” said the tracksuited teen outside a shop two weeks ago. My most recent favourite is the woman who, two people ahead of me in the queue, muttered to a friend, “It is a shame to see dear old Marks and Spencers looking a bit ‘Asian corner shop'”.

This last incident was delivered sotto voce, very much the preferred way of spreading opinion in every office and workplace I have ever called my own. The influence from reality television is very prevalent within offices nowadays, as though addicts of Big Brother and such have re-programmed themselves to speak in the manner of contestants worried about eviction night or electrocution hour or whichever punishment has been contrived.

Whilst waiting to get into the Manc Academy – who for? Was it Biffy Clyro? No….t’was Fightstar, ah yes…..Anyhoo, behind me stood and chatted two young women who were clearly close friends. I was made aware of their closeness by their long and detailed conversation centred around a bloke was some kind of common link. “Does he still ask loads of questions during sex?” one asked the other. “Am I doing this right, how’s this, what about this?”. I wondered how far this q&a would go – bedroom doors have a lock on them for a reason, no? – until they were met and interrupted midflow by a cheery man who was clearly the fella with the love making interview process. You could not, really, make it up.

Will spend today away from the temptations of eavesdropping, if I can. Some writing needs to be done, as does cleaning (the flat is looking ‘lived in’ rather than ‘livable’). To help me, I need music in the background (I am blessed without easy access to BBC One and therefore Sunday morning stables like Nicky Campbell’s increasingly contrived ‘debate’ show).

I have been mostly listening to Preston’s ambient metal hotspurs Stichthread, whose temperament bubbles underneath like a married couples argument.

Much repeated listening too to Cats and Cats and Cats, who are now on the radar of all the magazines hip people skim-read waiting for the Tube, through whom I am now enjoying Wot Gorilla?, whose plucky-strummy-loveliness nevertheless implies all Hell could break loose given the chance.