Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Anti-BRITS: 25 Ways to the Future

'BRIT Awards'. Check. 'NME Awards'. Check. 'Academy Awards'. Check. 'Grammys'. Check. Silly season featuring crushingly predictable roster comprising Kasabian Clyro Cribs Maccabees Vaccines and Adele Mumford-Mastercard and her Sons shite. Check.

In this of all weeks, we thought it best to check that you were still alive and hadn't drifted off into some blandness-induced coma. Now, here's the beginning of a counter-attack! 

In April 2012, when Messrs Gibson, Niven, Lichfield and I concluded our epic 'Worst 200 Songs' trawl, I alluded here to the prospect of an epilogue to that project, identifying what each of us liked in current '2011-12' music. Basically: an optimistic coda, posting YouTube clips of recent music we loved with brief explanatory comments.

Well, the BRIT Awards has motivated us to complete this task, which you will see has become less a coda and more a lengthy mix of 'earnest chin-stroking'*, 2012 diary and cultural manifesto. Not forgetting an obligatory dig at the 'winners' of the 'Best British Band' 'Award' at the BRITS, those Cameronite leeches Mumford and Sons, draining the life from the culture with their anodyne music and bumpkin apparel.

(*to quote one of our 'keyboard warrior' nemeses on that haven of reason, Digital Spy)

Alex has not been able to join us in writing here, but he has recently written in The Guardian about the preposterous BRIT Award spectacle and the lack of any subversive impulses: 

'It hasn't always been like this. Not so long ago, we ridiculed awards ceremonies as comic charades. Even at the height of Britpop, bands used to turn up to the Brits in order to drunkenly take the piss out of the whole enterprise. Now, on the other hand, we are disappointed when prize events don't live up to our bizarrely high expectations. This shift reflects a deeper malaise in the recent history of the arts. Put simply, we now spend so much time discussing prize nominations and their theatrical showcases because there is no visible alternative to speak of.'
As Alex suggests we are treated to a 'narrowness' in the Official Music Culture of the BRITS, but, outside of this bubble music in a healthy state and has a powerful part in our lives, as the writings below from David Lichfield, John Gibson and I attest. There has been great pop and great music outside of the mainstream, which does not need gongs, emotive speeches and bland presenters to give it 'worth'. 

DLHello. I’m thirty. That’s the age in which we’re all expected to close our ears to new pop music in order to retreat to either sounds of the past or more embittered, grown-up music, whether of the MOR type or of the more leftfield, rustic persuasion. Pop music has always been widely seen by those hitting a certain age as something disposable, unintelligent or perhaps even too abrasive or unlistenable. However, early mid-life crisis or not, personally I’m now listening to more chart-friendly contemporary music than ever, addicted to the youthful rush that it brings and sense of excitement that tends to characterise it. I’m not lamenting the overall absence of guitar bands in the charts one iota, and since the wave of supposed ‘Britpop 2’ bands thankfully died an overnight death circa 2008/9, either splitting up, going on a long hiatus or signing to Cooking Vinyl, I’ve been more engaged with pop, R‘n’B and dance than I have been for years.

My preoccupation with more alternative forms at various points during the 2000s wasn’t due to ignorance about pop, however – composing ‘best of the year’ playlists for each of these years confirmed that the charts were in fact rubbish in the mid-noughties. Meanwhile, a return to guitar-dominated charts is something that has regularly been mooted by various sources over the last few years. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than an army of boring Oasis sound-alikes coming to fruition in 2013, and intuition tells you that it’s a return to 1996 as opposed to 1979 that’s being longed for by the vast majority of tedious past-dwellers. It’s bad enough listening to this little turd of walking cliché go on. Hopefully, the following ten records will allow me to demonstrate that the future is in the hands of gloriously inventive yet accessible pop architects, and does not lie in re-treading the footsteps of past fixated guitar-wielding bores.

The success of bands like Alt-J does however hint at a more avant-garde future for popular guitar bands, but the transatlantic glories of banjo-fornicating pretend farmers do not. 

Meanwhile, for me the recent Brit awards ceremony was not utterly depressing because it reflected a particular dull music scene, it was in fact more frustrating because of the lack of acknowledgement for the exciting and invigorating music that is out there – especially when some of the more deserving acts who were nominated but left the o2 empty-handed are considered; alongside the lack of recognition for some fantastic music that is completely in the popular consciousness. Not to mention the bizarrely cynical nomination of a dead retro soul singer who didn’t even release anything posthumously last year, or indeed win the award after all. Of course, there does remain a sizeable wealth of inane and superficial pop music on heavy rotation – but that’s been the case since 1952. Allow me to present ten stunning records that support the idea that the last twelve months have offered some stunning singles, regardless of whether they’ve troubled a chart or not. 

1. Plan B - 'Ill Manors' (2012, #6)

Ah yeah. If there’s no room in your heart for a scintillating, Shostakovich-sampling diatribe documenting the causes and event of the 2011 riots, I doubt that we can be friends. Top Ten singles rarely get as era-defining as this, or as political. In fact, you can probably count on the fingers of two hands the politics-addressing Top Ten singles of the last eighteen years. I’ll go for: ‘Common People’, ‘A Design For Life’, ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ and, erm, ‘Where Is The Love?’ which was stomach-churning. Add to that ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ and you’ll still have one hand left. ‘Ill Manors’ was a bolt out of the blue when it first surfaced last spring, and a joy to hear on heavy rotation during release week. It was possibly unlistenable for the army of housewives who purchased the previous album of bar room-crooning Strickland Banks, but kudos to Ben Drew for using that to build a platform to say something stupendously important.

2. Major Lazer feat. Amber - 'Get Easy' (2012, #56)

A cut from the early-anticipated second album Free The Universe, which sees the combo halved to what is essentially a solo artist in the form of Diplo with a series of guest stars, ‘Get Free’ marked a much more solemn affair in comparison to the often belligerent stylings of yore. However, it was an instant classic documenting themes of loss, uncertainty, natural disasters and futile efforts to break free of some sort of intolerable environmental situation over a sparse, reggae-tinged backdrop. Amber from the Dirty Projectors guest stars on one of the great lost singles of 2012.

3. Sub Focus feat. Alpines - 'Tidal Wave' (2012, #12)

Drum'n'Bass re-imagined for the smartphone generation with added euphoria; even the now thankfully disbanded Pendulum couldn’t stop that high-octane beat from remaining completely remarkable in the right setting. The best EDM feels utterly contemporary whilst keeping one eye on the past, and the last twelve months have been littered with ecstatic, hook-laden sophisticated and blissful electronic pop records, such as this pulsating masterpiece that feel entirely up-to-date whilst evoking the sheer intoxication of the best early nineties dance. And it’s for these reasons and several others that Jake Bugg is the Skol to Sub Focus’s Cristal.

4. Future of the Left - 'Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman' (2012, did not chart)

The only guitar band in my list, ‘Sheena…’ is a rollicking affair that combines every thrilling aspect of the Welsh-four piece's manifesto and squashes the results into two minutes and eight seconds of furious exhilaration. A caustic, cautionary tale about those who wear band T-shirts from Top Shop despite having no knowledge or two shits to give about the often iconic combo that they are 'endorsing', and a perfect curtain raiser from the magnificent third album, The Plot Against Common Sense.

5. B Traits feat. Elisabeth Troy - 'Fever' (2012, #36)

Another collaboration: the spirit of ’91 is once again evident in this #36 hit from last year. This whole chart positions thing is becoming more arbitrary with each passing week, and you’ve only got to compare the Radio 1 playlist to the actual Top 40 to how that particular institution seems to be an increasingly unreliable source when it comes to gauging popularity. It’s not even possible to merely point the finger at illegal downloads anymore. Whether you’re streaming a track, downloading it on Spotify or have simply purchased its parent item, there are countless ways to enjoy a track legally without influencing its singles chart position one iota. However, if you take a look at the Official Charts Company’s streaming chart, that’s even more stagnant and tedious than the official rundown, meaning that incorporating streams into proceedings would not seem to be the answer. I also discovered this work of incredible jubilation via the Radio 1 playlist, which is essential for keeping me up to date with the most thrilling, stirring and sublime new music around, making it a far better reference point for keeping abreast of developments than the charts itself. There is a respectful nod to Bizarre Inc, but it still feels unique. I’m glad that the ecstasy has returned to dance music, without any compromises on class or sophistication being necessary.

6. Jessie Ware - 'Running' (2012, did not chart)

Infuriatingly overlooked at the Brits, Ware’s debut album Devotion is a cherishable collection of sophisticated and evocative electro-tinged soul and R‘n’B tracks of an almost timeless calibre. As contemporary as they come, yet instantly familiar, the epic ‘Running’ is just one of a steady stream of modern classics from the likeable Jessie in pop.

7. Frank Ocean - 'Pyramids' (2012, #129)

‘Pyramids’ is a mammoth, evocative, ten-minute electro-soul hybrid that fully justifies its length by leaping seamlessly through various genres, with a sense of earthy melancholia in its sad grooves that helps to set Ocean’s work completely apart from the often superficial R‘n’B stylings that have come to dominate the charts over recent years. Drawing comparisons between ancient Egypt and the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All member’s own love life, this richly-produced track is a joy to experience through headphones and has been compared to both ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Paranoid Android’, due to its length and the cinematic, journey-like qualities that it positively oozes. It’s not often that the ‘soul’ tag lives up to its name, with scores of highly successful yet utterly empty records being filed under it, but ‘Pyramids’ could scarcely be more heartfelt or inventive.

(TM: This Saturday Night Live version is different to the epic album version, and just as tremendous)

8. Madeon - 'Icarus' (2012, #22)

One of the last singles to be played heavily by the then-outgoing Chris Moyles, ‘Icarus’ was one of the most convincingly upbeat pop singles to be unleashed in 2012, with a feel of huge euphoria that once again demonstrates that the current pop climate is in a state of rude health, and certainly isn’t suffering from a deficiency in guitar-wielding luddites, thank you very much.

Orchestrated by teenage French super-producer Hugo Pierre Leclercq, the track equates to a cacophony of Daft Punk-influenced, shiny contemporary joy that seems to characterise so much pop music these days. It’s for these reasons that I’m now listening to more Radio 1 than ever, despite finally slipping out of its target audience at the age of thirty. In fact, recently putting together playlists documenting every single year of music that I’ve listened to has backed up the argument that in terms of pure unadulterated, joyous pop and dance, you’d have to go back about a decade or more to find any pop climate that rivals that of the current era.

Plus, with a no-longer-punchable Nick Grimshaw, who genuinely seems to adore exciting, energetic, engaging sounds and Sara Cox and Scott Mills still at the helm in the afternoon, I’m going nowhere, sunshine. Did you see this playlisted on Capital? No, you didn’t. Radio 1 is the most diverse, least complacent radio station out there by a country mile when it comes to breaking and supporting new artists, and I wouldn’t have encountered the vast majority of the songs that I’ve chosen without it.

Plus, in any case, why would you ever lose your interest in new music? A tune to convince even the most determined manic depressive leap out of bed to take on the grinding misery of British life in 2013.

9. Swedish House Mafia - 'Greyhound' (2012, #13)

Music written for the sole purpose of advertising a certain product (in this case Absolut Greyhound) doesn’t come with the most robust reputation, but when a track is as vibrant, exciting and zeitgeist-capturing as not only this but the other five Swedish House Mafia singles were, it’s easy to put all of that to one side. Each of their singles, whether vocal-led or instrumental, has felt like an event rather than a simple pop music - with the exception of ‘Save The World’, which was shit. 

An EDM supergroup consisting of Sebastian Ingrosso, Axwell and Steve Angello, SHM were just one part of a scene that continues to thrive, with related acts such as Avicii, Steve Aoki, Cazzette and Afrojack being responsible for an ongoing series of huge-sounding, euphoric, celestial stadium house records.

10. Rudimental feat. John Newman - 'Feel the Love' (2012, #1)

The only chart-topper amongst my selection of tracks; there was no way that this ultra-soulful, nu-DnB epic was being overlooked. A truly unique sound, real Hammond organs and brass bring glowing warmth to a genre that was sometimes considered rather more abrasive than this. You’d feel that this song would lend itself perfectly to almost any genre. A distinctive vocal talent and adept producers together craft one of the most original number one singles of the past couple of decades. Part ‘Ghost Town’, part ‘Sweet Harmony’, part ‘Inner City Life’, even part ‘Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay’ if you say so, all Hackney genius.

: These are five great pop songs from “recent times”...

11. Battles – 'Ice Cream' (2011, #48 - album)

A mesmerising swirl of summery and increasingly psychedelic funk and Matias Aguayo’s breezily nonchalant chanting that is utterly hypnotic. That the lyrics are actually about ice cream makes it all the better. 

12. Santigold – 'Disparate Youth' (2012, #33 - album)

Rising out of an Ikonika-like dubstep low end, Santigold’s new song is a strutting, insouciant piece that appears to be about fighting power. However, in the current climate a song like this carries ambiguities; the dreams she’s singing about could just as easily be about looting Nike as about conventional understandings of ambition. One of our more perspicacious pop stars. 


13. Cooly G feat. Simbad – 'Landscapes' (2011, did not chart)

A stunning blueprint for a futurist, subversive dream-pop, with Cooly G’s buttery vocals sashaying through a thicket of relentlessly tight post-dubstep beats like fine silk. Elsewhere the swirling synth backdrop intelligently references early 2000s glitch and tech-house (Crane AK; Andreas Tilliander), leaving “Landscapes” sounding like little else currently out there. 

14. Bahamas – 'Caught Me Thinking' (2012, did not chart)

Simple and straightforward like all good pop songs ought to be (it’s just a break-up song), yet Arfe Jurvanen builds a deceptively complex, intricate structure ought of a few breezy bits and a deliciously evocative Caribbean guitar lick that sends a might shiver up my spine whenever I hear it. Beautifully affective pop.

15. Camera Obscura – 'French Navy' (2009, #141; #32 - album)

Alright, it’s from 2009, but Tracyanne Campbell makes elegantly doomed romance sound so personal that you just want to cry. Far from the grind of postmodern pastiche, “French Navy” is a full-on, heartfelt soul epic, conveyed through a muted, pastel Glaswegian sky. Swoon.

TM: On 10 July 2012, I was pleased to accompany John Gibson and friends to see a concert at the Sage, Gateshead; this seemed to encapsulate the 'Loved Songs' and 'Worst Songs' ideas in microcosm. To begin with: a tepid, sleep-walking fusion of tiresome trends - as manifested in the Leeds band Swimming Lessons. Their one mildly inventive and beguiling song used up at the start. They amounted to a neutered Coldplay, if that is possible; drearily unspecific lyrical content and multiple synthesizers acting as sham window dressing on plodding 'epic' rock. Clearly, some think there is a point in regurgitating the surfaces of Arcade Fire, instead of doing something fresh. The singer, who vaguely resembled a Family Guy character, yelped his way through one particularly egregious five-minute number. The only mercy was that their set was limited to 25 minutes. It was as inevitable as rain in a North-East sky in July that I'd make the pithy reflection in the interval: 'They made Geneva sound like My Bloody Valentine'.

tUnE-yArDs, on the other hand, were stupendous. After the paucity and utter lack embedded in British guitar music, we were presented with vigorous life and acquainted with the unexpected. Vocals manipulated and looped on stage; two saxophones, non-Western rhythms and synthesizer used sparingly with infinitely more nurturing impact in comparison to Swimming Lessons' tired instructions. As a member of the audience, you were encouraged to dance, not implicitly urged to a nodding torpor by a band of office workers carrying the day-job mood into their music.

t-y's songs were distinct; the sounds were not uniform or amorphous - there was some fascination in engaging with what these able and enlivening musicians were doing. What were they going to come up with next? It was a heartening sight to see the audience's limbs gradually loosening and to be part of this myself.

When we first set about this article in July, I had been wanting to select Jessie Ware's as was then '110%' but as she is getting the deserved exposure now and has coincidentally been picked by Lichfield, it seems less necessary. Likewise, the mighty Drake-Kendrick Lamar-Frank Ocean axis... There has been a resurgence in Hip Hop of the less aggressive, De La Soul-A Tribe Called Quest style, with added electronica: the hazy, psychedelic and soulful likes of Angel Haze, Oddience, Kilo Kish and THEEsatisfaction. Joker Starr and Lady Leshurr in the UK; plus, many others mentioned by Neil Kulkarni that I must listen to. I could have picked something from the fringes of indie guitar music that is actually thoughtful, affable and winning: Dent May's 'Fun', Yuno's 'Sunlight', Field Music's 'Just Like Everyone Else'. 2012 was the year I subscribed to the Wire magazine, and its Tapper and Below the Radar compilations included stormers like King Felix's 'Armstrong Limit', the Bersarin Quartet's grave 'Perlen, Honig Oder Untergang', evoking European cities in ruins, and the glistening, sighing delirium of Tudor Acid's 'The Sound of Raindrops'. 

There is indeed a WORLD of music out there that is barely hinted at by the sterile, absurd spectacle of prize giving that is the BRIT Awards. I'm not a 'Brit', as Alan Bennett says, that's too ugly and aggressive word to identify positively with. And a couple of more credible nominations (Ware, Ocean, Alt-J - though I'm unsure I yet agree with DL on just how promising they are) do not make the whole ridiculous rigmarole worthwhile. I quite agree with Jonathan Meades's assertion of the bankruptcy of awards across the arts; we must move beyond this. 

I intend my ten selected songs to represent some of the more outward-looking and intriguing music of our time. A story of music finding its way to brighten lives, as it always does. This is a step away from the deadening detritus of our 'Worst Songs' list and a subtle clarion call for open-mindedness and cultural renewal. Oh, and there are no 'prizes' or 'winners'. Think of that!

16. Joe Nebula feat. Patricia Edwards - 'Shuffle As One' (2012, did not chart)

'See, the rain it ain't forever...'

Nottingham-based Nebula unleashed a firecracker here, that inevitably didn't trouble the charts. This was one of several lovely, lubricious tunes that DJ Bailey played on his BBC1Xtra  show last spring; it is as evocative of that season as the late lamented Kevin Ayers' 'Girl on a Swing' (1969). This is a splendid compound of the erstwhile Drum'n'Bass and RnB pop music that, absurdly, is not being allowed to become popular.

Overcast, hazy synths hover, with that inkling of sun always just about to break through. It is a stately, wistful, ambling techno, possessing some of that glorious synthetic soulful essence of Roy Ayers/Lonnie Liston Smith/Heatwave/Light of the World. Just listen to those laconic, slight guitar figures: as balmy and cool as Jeanne Moreau or Jean-Paul Belmondo in late-1950s Americophile French films like Lift to the Scaffold and A bout de souffle.

Ah, but ah, I have to mention Marcus Intalex's 'Sell You Soul', Jaydan's 'Insatiable', Planas feat. Ed Thomas's 'Breathtaking', Pennygiles' jazz tableau 'Au Revoir Blackbird', Sevin's squelching city stomper 'Tonight', Sub Focus & Alice Gold's electro-pop  'Out the Blue', Level 2 & DJ Chap's 'The Sky's the Limit' - using a Notorious BIG sample, smoothing the big lad's anomie over into sun-kissing bonhomie - to give you some idea of the languid landscape of Bailey's show circa March 2012. This music treads a line between summery euphoria and that tangible uneasiness in much of Chris Morris' music selections for Blue Jam. I hope to hear more such music in the spring of 2013.

As with Huddersfield's DJ Q and his bassline show, this has now departed as a weekly proposition. Which, as Robin Carmody has rightly stated, will allow cultural conformists and Conservatives to sleep that little bit easier. Because, as we know, the BBC should be about prim and proper and Tom Good and giving you what they think you want rather than what you didn't know you wanted!

Bailey provided what I didn't know I wanted, or that even existed: delirious, lush, verdant urban music being made in the here and now.

'All day, all night, forever
Could be the rain...
Why I feel like I do'

17. LA Vampires with Maria Minerva - 'A Lover and a Friend' (2012, did not chart)

Now, women and electronic music go together: Delia Derbyshire, Roisin Murphy, Nite Jewel, Sally Shapiro or the splendid Caro C, seen recently with John G at the Star and Shadow cinema, as part of a tribute night to DD. MM's music has intrigued me since I read an extended interview piece with her in the Wire by the estimable Nina Power.

Somewhat submerged, gigantically gleaming, 'A Lover and a Friend' emerges like a TARDIS underneath Jodrell Bank. Maria's vocal is even more engaging than Nite Jewel's; she delivers what amounts to a lovesick dramatic monologue, with disarming directness. Just before the minute mark, there's a glorious, bursting-out-of-the-chrysalis moment when the overlaid percussion breaks in; followed by the space-disco warmth of newborn synth lead parts. There is a sense that late-70s/early-80s retro influences are being turned to vitally lively ends, as with the Wire cover star Flying Lotus's music; listen to the whole of the LA producer's abstracted opus Until the Quiet Comes but, especially, 'The Nightcaller'. 

Charlie Fox has an excellent review of the album over at The Quietus here; he comments eloquently on this immense closing track: 'These surroundings slowly slip away, leaving her voice in mid-air, before soon fading, too. A choir of ecstatic voices swoop in - think of the 'White Lines' singers set at permanent, gorgeous high - majestic strings at the edges, an acid spiral sparking against smooth piano and comforting low-end. End-of-the-night, edge-of-the-morning delirium is reached and that moment of trance takes over, stretching out in regal splendour. Then, slowly all the atmospheric glitter transforming into rainfall, fantasia just fading out. Disco bliss.'

Maria is about to release this, which is mighty pop, designed for a wonderful land that you cannot quite place.

18. Stubborn Heart - 'Knuckledown' (2012, did not chart)

A blunt, very English slither of grumbling, downbeat electro-pop. This London producer's music is in the lineage of My Computer and Darkstar, which is fine by me. Halls -with his imposing Ark album - is another Londoner working in this spare, melancholic mould; just listen to 'White Chalk' and marvel at its hushed, powerful, choral ambience.

Misery guts lyrics, heart-tugging chord changes. Rarely did 2012 music offer up something as specific, downtrodden and palely absurd as this.

'But there's a five year old child in the driving seat of my car'

A distant synthetic cor anglais to evoke dulling, harshly beautiful countryside. The sound of grim stoicism distilled into five minutes of far from popular song. Seagull sounds play us out, pitilessly evoking the personal response to society's 'NOSE TO THE GRINDSTONE' nonsense and a 'can't go on I must go on' grit. 

19. Two Inch Punch feat. Mikky Ekko - 'Paint it Red' (2012, did not chart)

'Two Inch Punch, you're an absolute genius, even if you did think I was from Birmingham rather than Nottingham' - MistaJam, BBC1Xtra, 26/01/2013.

The above show included a truly glorious guest mix from the Londoner T.I.P., fusing hip-hop, RnB, electro-funk and house - Timbaland, Brandy rubbing up against Disclosure, Rudimental - with a persistently languid, aqueous feel.
Ben Ash (T.I.P.'s real name)'s stunning, skittering British slow-jam is very much in the same vein: somehow dank and neon in equal measure. Beats asthmatically judder, torchlight synth pads quiver, a lone guitar ploughs a brief, courtly course. We are treated to some of the finest wavy technicolour lead synth parts this side of Silkie, Skream and Rustie: what about that section around the three-minute mark? Magnificent! If you like Burial and exquisitely sodden, anguished balladry, you will adore this.

'It's too late, it's too dark to see...
But I can feel everything... everything...'

I first heard this via Paul Lester's Guardian New Band of the Day entry back in May. I quickly learned that Ash had produced Jessie Ware's lush, sophisticated tunes. Along with fellow PMR records alumni Disclosure, Julio Bashmore, Javeon McCarthy, T. Williams and L-vis 1990, they are increasingly forming an inspiring UK counterpoint to the Odd Future aggregation.

This is music for proper speakers or headphones, not the tinny i-pod earbuds or meagre laptop speakers. Play it loud, and love the fact that this doesn't need to go under a silly moniker like 'lovestep'.

20. Slugabed - 'Sex' (2012, did not chart)

Now, this is a twinkling, should have been dance-floor smash from Bath based Greg Feldwick. Aptly for someone previously on Planet Mu record label, this evokes μ-Ziq and Aphex electronica, styled for these fraught times. This sinuous single summons its title; bodies in crescents, flesh and blood in concert. Urgent, heart pounding, giddy deliriousness. Like Forest Swords pitching for a different kind of dance-floor, though I would love more of that Merseysider's weird memory music, following his wonderfully contrasting sets at the AV Festival last March. The first half's haunting, drifting tones - backed by monochrome images of Luder's Gateshead car park in the 1960s - were followed by compulsive, bass-driven dubstep, bringing in the British Summertime and inciting bodily movement.

The Slugabed album was one of the most purely enjoyable in the dance or electronica vein of its year, alongside Barcelona native John Talabot's dreamy ƒin and Mancunian Andy Stott's striking, avant-dance-dub set Luxury Problems. Slugabed's Time Team formed a winning counterpoint to my walking around Heaton, Sandyford and Ouseburn in Newcastle in late July, while flat-hunting. It evokes Heaton Park, Heaton Park Road, Warwick Street, Starbeck Avenue; the topographical question mark that is the City Stadium. Reminds me now of thinking: yes, regardless of an initially fruitless viewing of a poky flat above a shop that was having work done on it; yes, I'd like to live around here.

The album suggested and suggests an urban, forward-thinking way of living that is in touch with the past. I moved to Sandyford in early October 2012; on the day of the move, I was straight into the second TUSK festival at the Star and Shadow Cinema. Particular highlights being electronic adventurers Hieroglyphic Being and NHK'Koyxen - from Chicago and Osaka, respectively. Cosmopolitanism and the shock of the new brought into reach by a move to a proper city.

21. Nneka - 'Shining Star (Joe Goddard Remix)' (2012, did not chart)

I'll tell you what was more engaging in 2012 than the new Hot Chip album: the 2 Bears album, Be Strong: the most huggable pop-dance album of the year by some distance.

Having said all that, the summit of Goddard's year was this: which made the humble remix more akin to a Turner canvass or an Easter Island Head, rather than your jobbing DJ's tepid arsing around or your Skrillex's unwanted assault. The Nigerian Nneka's original is pleasant enough, but this is stratospheric. It is sped up, injected with percussion that sounds notably more Nigerian than the original version. This 9-minuter GALLOPS where the original merely gently jogged. 

Communal. Optimistic. Like the 2 Bears' movingly jubilant 'Church' at the end of the path. No  steel drums this time, but acres of sparse, hopeful minimalism then followed by that gently underpinning, utterly euphoric major-key synth chorale.

This is the undeniable, irresistible stuff of which gigantic dreams are made. And giddy grins.

Communal. Optimistic. In the Blighty of 2013, those seem precious, endangered adjectives.

22. Avicii feat. Salem Al Fakir - 'Silhouettes' (2012, #22)

Now for some pop that has actually troubled, if not stormed, the charts. The third song in chart history with this title, but considerably livelier than the bland simpering of Herman's Hermits in 1965 or the even ghastlier, sax-infested 'doo wop' of Cliff Richard in 1990. Stockholm's Tim Bergling raises the bar many levels, yet this charted 19 and 12 places lower than those two wet blanket 45s. Aye, those 'punters'; they always know best!

'So we will never get back to
To the old school
To the old grounds, it's all about the newfound
We are the newborn, the world knew all about us.
(We are the future and we're here to stay)'

This is jubilant, crusading pop, which may speak of open-mindedness and social liberalism - as the video suggests, with its images of gender reassignment - as well as providing a clarion call for a younger generation to rebut Peter Hitchens-style conservatism. It could represent an attack on the vested interests of guitar band nostalgia. It most certainly does represent an enticement to dance and communicate.

You say I idealise Sweden, but why not? The country can summon up: Abba, Ingmar Bergman, Sally Shapiro, Jens Lekman, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's crime fiction, exemplar social democratic politics and much of today's best pop music. They do have academies to answer for, admittedly, but I haven't yet heard of any Gove or IDS-style doctrinaire ideologues quite as actively trying to turn the clock back.

In a similar vein, I should also mention the Dream Academy-gone-techno-house of fellow Swede Otto Knows's 'Million Voices', which reached #14 and stayed around for 17 weeks. It is gigantic, beaming and open-armed; like an Olympics sized rebuttal to the cretinous Tory MP Aidan Burley. Like 'Silhouettes', it makes most supposedly 'euphoric' music sound like it is voiced by Puddleglum or Eeyore.

'We've come a long way since that day
And we will never look back, at the faded silhouette'

23. Kimbra - 'Cameo Lover' (2011, did not chart)

We hear the voice immediately, pitching us straight in without prelude. Twinkling promise accompanies a tale of love in the moment. This evokes a panorama of city prospects and personal columnated ruins reassembling. Her voice is sinuous, shape-shifting; twisting 'like a silhouette in dreams'. This is Lavender Diamond sweet, touching the places pop has not reached since moments in the music of Yelle, Amerie and Solange. Moments in love; a low-down of 'love' - is it actually to be in inverted-commas? Delicate, plaintive guitar embellishments amid the neo-orchestral drama. Sheer, vocals-as-pizzicato ecstasy at the end.

Best International Female Solo Artist, y' say? 

22-year-old New Zealander Kimbra makes the sort of intuitive pop links and hooks missed by so many who strain for weathered profundity or catchy banality. She has the right influences - Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton, Prince, Rufus Wainwright - but does not pay pointless homage - instead she rather channels the head-rush of vintage northern soul or Motown and makes it hers. She is of course rightly famed for her contribution to Gotye's timely and humanistic #1 hit 'Somebody That I Used To Know' and more people should listen to her own music. 

Best International Female Solo Artist, y' say? What about Maria Minerva? What about Kimbra?

'Open up your heart'. 

24. Lescop - 'La Foret' (2012, did not chart)

'Dans le foret...' 

I heard this via a Kitsune Parisien compilation released this year; there are other delights - for example, Slowdance's reinvigorated Stereolab-isms ('Airport') or Birkii's follow-up to the majestic 'Shade of Doubt'.

A thudding, Alan Braxe-style intro; an assured, ineffably cool vocal. As the song progresses, its Post-Punk guitar chug gradually elides into a sort of shuffling, Gallic funk. 

The structure makes this a particularly special pop song: glacial, unhurried and sparse intro section, urgent pop centre and that warm, communal final part(ing). So much more unusual and memorable than the often predictable stuff in our charts. This is brilliant electronic pop, taken to the sublime stratosphere with that gorgeous, redemptive coda: when the electric piano enters, glasses clink, conversation rolls.

25. A*M*E feat. Mic Righteous - 'Find a Boy' (2012, did not chart)

After the party has subsided, an uncertain morning.

I could easily have selected veteran talents (Peter Hammill's 'Constantly Overheard', Scott Walker's 'Epizootics', the Pet Shop Boys' shattering 'Invisible', the Beach Boys' even more shattering 'Summer's Gone' or Peter Blegvad & Andy Partridge's 'St Augustine Says', a slice of pure head-rush, headlong pop from two angular old lags). But then there'd be no space for this: for me, clearly the best UK single of 2012, predictably nowhere near the radar of those culturally savvy 'Brits'.

There was a flurry of urban house-pop singles in the spring: Rusko's 'Somebody to Love', Sub Focus feat. Alice Gold's 'Out of the Blue' and Disclosure feat. Ria Ritchie's 'Control'. Oddly, only the second of these charted (at #23). This fact, along with this song being kept off playlists and spurned by the cultural gatekeepers, demonstrates just how far we have to go to have truly interesting charts.

The second West African in this list, the Sierra Leone-born Aminita 'Amy' Kabba moved to Lewisham, London when she was 8. 

MistaJam DJ'd at the Hacienda in Manchester when he was 14. His show was the first place I heard this - and it was no surprise that he just kept on playing it in the early summer, show after show. This is a jagged, pummeling juggernaut of a song; pop music going for the jugular in a way it all too rarely has of late. 

It starts with a submerged beat, like a club that is underwater. Then soon we get the distinctive, siren-like double-note stab - that recurs throughout the song, acting as impure punctuation. The trailing, mournful semi-orchestral background seems like it can barely keep up with the pounding beats. It reminds us of the core sample in Plan B's 'ill Manors', but is more stately, drawn out and resigned, where that was irreverent.

And we get a tense, insistent voice, delivering what sounds like an internal monologue:

'Find a boy who's willing to spend and give all he's got'

The 'find a boy!' refrain is repeated, an exclamative given even greater emphasis by the barbed desperation of the synth stabs behind it. This is perhaps even more direct than Maria Minerva's vocal in song #17. A*M*E*'s voice is deadened, emptied of hope due to unsatisfying experiences. You can hear a teeming impatience, a frustration that the reality does not match the ideal and the jabbing insistence of lust.  

'Find a boy who can love me and love me all the time
TIME TIME Love me all the time'

Mic Righteous's intervention is crucial: providing a reality check, cautioning her against seeing love as consumable object of desire:

'Looking for the right one
You ain't gonna find love in the night club'

He counsels about finding yourself; required before you can hope to find love. Love does not live in the market liberal cattle-market of the night club. Is it all about nurturing accommodation or a competitive bout?

The music cries in its show of not crying. It evokes and detonates 50 Cent's club, by giving a clear sense that feeling and thinking are essential in urban music as in life; rather than cynical, boastful braggadocio.

In this story of 2012 music, a surprising redemption can be found for arch-Tory, Ken Barlow-boring Gary Barlow, who indeed discovered Kabba and signed her to his now defunct Future Records. Even more significantly, Emeli Sande, who co-wrote this track with Naughty Boy, is redeemed: 'Find a Boy' provides a stark sign of life, in contrast to her interminably safe, dull debut album and Olympics and BRIT Awards omnipresence.

No comments:

Post a Comment