Here’s my summary of the last few months in music. I make no effort to actually keep abreast of new musical developments, and pay no attention to media that others breathe on an hourly basis. However, these revelations occasionally reach me in some twisted form, and will be regurgitated here.
The first words have to be on the sad and untimely death of Amy Winehouse, one of the few genuinely talented artists to have graced the top of our charts in the past decade. Inevitably the years ahead will see every breath she ever mumbled into a mic released in glorious packages (in fact, her new album was announced today), and the appearance of countless watered down Winehouse variants promising to evoke her spirit like no other. Gone are the days when her image represented nothing more than a girl who sung great songs. As memory of these times fade, let us never forget the reason she was great was because that’s all she was – A girl who sung great songs.
Those that passed through the doors she opened have built careers in her faded shadow. The most recent, most successful, and (by far) most talented of these is Adele, who’s album 21 could be in the UK’s top 10 best selling albums of ALL TIME by its first birthday in January 2012, an incredible feat in an age when ‘nobody buys albums anymore’. Her success in itself means very little; exceptionally great pop albums will always sell. But it’s worth noting that its the only album in this bestseller list to be released by an independent label, in this case Beggars Group/XL Records. When Beggars head Martin Mills defiantly stated that no indie should now have to release stateside through a US Major label licensing deal, as Adele had through Sony, he sent out an important message – that indies can now make global superstars too. If he’s right, this is the most overlooked but potentially rule changing revelation of this whole Adele affair.
Adele aside, 2011 has been a relatively quiet year for new acts or groundbreaking albums of genuine note, with reunions continuing to be big news. In a riotous summer where many of us (not only those who passed through Saint Martins College) needed reminding of how little we understand some sections of the Common People who reside in this country and others, Pulp’s emphatic return was well timed.
But the fact their 15 year old song, that primarily addresses the naivety of the upper classes, should summarise this lack of understanding between social groups better than any more recent offering speaks volumes for pop’s (and its gatekeeper’s) musical ambitions. Pulp, Jarvis, and their music was welcomed by the festival masses and critcal press alike, filling a void we didn’t even know was there.
Another reunion of note, for its ticket sales if nothing else, was of course Take That’s ‘Progress’ stadium tour. Playing to over a million people in the UK alone is undoubtedly impressive, but as much as I enjoyed the show (no really, it was amazing) for me it simply reinforced the idea that the masses love a story of conflict and reconciliation, of friendships, of ….. Progress. If there are quality pop songs to back it up (as Take That have) then the X Factor generation will sign up in record breaking numbers. I just can’t help but wonder what the modern mainstream press would have done to The Beach Boys story had they existed today.
Elsewhere, Lady Gaga released her second album with predictable success, but missed the opportunity to define it as a pop landmark in itself. Her obsession with convincing her ‘Monsters’ (fans) to express themselves sounds commendable, but in todays world where everyone has a megaphone, understanding what you want to say is surely more important than being given the confidence to say it. Born This Way? Born WHAT way? When Robyn, the alternative pop princess, stubbornly insists “I’ll Keep Dancing On My Own” she says more about herself (and consequently the identifying fan) in one line than Gaga can on a whole album. This won’t dent her sales, but will dent Gaga’s chances at proudly watching her music evolve into timeless classics, rather than pop dance hits from yesteryear.
One voice that’s been whispering away unnoticed for years is James Murphy, who’s time as LCD Soundsystem sadly came to an end in April at a farewell show at Madison Square Garden. Their music is as unique now as it was on arrival a decade ago, probably because Murphy was completely aware of the impossibility of achieving such a feat.
From debut single ‘Losing My Edge’ – “I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties” to final album closer ‘Home’ – “Cause you’re afraid of what you need. If you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about” – Murphy made music happy to confront the paranoia of becoming artistically irrelevant, or becoming meaningless to his fans. Only now they’re gone will we realise that great music simultaneously commentating on its own scene, band, lyrics, and fans was an accomplishment beyond the ability of most.
I’ll leave you with the knowingly cool Lana Del Rey, and her wonderful song ‘Video Games’. Her transition from fabricated indie birth last month to major big buck career last week will continue to be a fascinating watch over the coming months. I’ll be sure to misinterpret and regurgitate here for your enjoyment when the time is right.
Click here to listen to the Words About Music playlist, which will include some songs mentioned above, for a while at least.