Features I by I 31.12.13

2013 in review: critics’ round table

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2013 in review: critics' round-table

To cap off 2013, six of FACT’s writers – Tom Lea, Joseph Morpurgo, Chal Ravens, Chris Kelly, John Twells and Alex Macpherson – discuss some of the year’s big musical trends and events, from Daft Punk to Disclosure; Boards of Canada to Beyonce; MK to Miley Cyrus. 

2013 was the year of the comeback, from Bowie to My Bloody Valentine to Boards of Canada. Were any of them worth the wait?

JT: I don’t know if there was anything. The MBV album is fantastic, but does it need to exist? Is my life any better now that I know a Loveless follow-up exists and that it doesn’t suck? No. They’d already made that album and it was already good.

TL: I think what’s interesting about MBV and Boards of Canada was that there was a huge fanfare when they came out, and generally they were well-reviewed, but they were largely ignored when it came to end of year lists. Especially with MBV, it seems extraordinary.

JT: It was missing because there was nothing that makes you go back to it, when you could just as easily go back to Loveless. What about it makes you return to it over Loveless, a year down the line? Nothing.

JM: It’s not just that they sound like their classic records though, what’s interesting about Bowie and Boards of Canada – and MBV, of course – is that they all sound like the group’s last record. The Bowie one could have come out two years after Heathen.

AM: The Bowie one sounded like C-rate Britpop. I heard it by accident, one of the songs on this shitty 6Music show, and it sounded like Suede or something. But these are all heritage acts, making music that will get a lot of headlines because they’re established names and because the people that loved when they were young are now in established positions of power in the media. That’s why they feed the 24-hour news cycle. In terms of attracting new audiences or doing new stuff – no, they’re heritage acts. Would you expect the Rolling Stones to release a revolutionary album now? No, you wouldn’t. And I think we’ve got to the stage where we’ve got dance acts, and formerly innovative acts like Boards of Canada and My Bloody Valentine… it’s just heritage acts, doing what heritage acts do.

JM: But then I wonder if… Boards of Canada for example, if you’re 15 or younger, you might never have encountered those classic records. I wonder with youngsters, for whom they aren’t heritage acts for for whom this is the first time they’ve seen them enter the news cycle in a way that will impact on them, I wonder how they relate to Tomorrow’s Harvest or The Next Day or whatever. Maybe they do have an audience there.

TL: With Boards of Canada, I wonder how many young listeners would be convinced by Tomorrow’s Harvest because it doesn’t just sound like ’90s Boards of Canada, it sounds like so much that came after Boards of Canada too.

JT: It absolutely saddens me to think that a bright-eyed 15 year old could be inspired by Tomorrow’s Harvest. It’s such a dull record.

JM: That record and the MBV one in particular, it really begs the question: why did it take 10 years or 20 years rather than two?

AM: The amount of artists that are still making exciting and innovative music that deep into their careers is very minimal. You can probably count them on one hand. Genius in pop music and electronic music, generally, doesn’t last.

JM: But often they make much worse albums, or zoom off on a tangent that ceases to give you something new. What’s interesting about these albums is that they simply sound the same as their last album did.

JT: I think it’s important to qualify that as pop music, though. There are plenty of experimental acts who die making weird music. I’m talking very fringe artists like Parmegiani (sp) or Mimaroglu who’re do music into their later years and remain innovative and interesting. In pop music it generally feels like people make a couple of great albums then fizzle out or retreat into songwriting or producing for other artists.

TL: So were there any comebacks that were worth the wait?

CR: I think it says almost as much about us as writers, in terms of how we approach this and turn it into our livings. Heritage acts will always feed the news cycle, but generally what we’re looking for is novelty, always. You always want to hear something new and different that amazes you, and you can’t expect acts that were previously innovative to always be innovative. So you have this weird balance, where you have to give loads of attention to acts that aren’t innovative but are still big – Boards of Canada, Daft Punk – but you’re still more interested in stuff that’s new, which isn’t going to be those people. That’s why they didn’t end up in our end of year lists.

JM: But I think it’s interesting having this conversation in the context of the recent Bobby Womack and Gi Scott-Heron albums, and then before that the Vashti Bunyan one. These were examples of people coming back from decade-plus hiatuses and adding to their canon, rather than simply rehashing it.

AM: I think the two big comebacks of recent years for me, in terms of artists still making exciting music, are Portishead and Kate Bush.

TL: Swans, as well.

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TL: Next subject: in a year of unorthodox marketing campaigns, from the drawn-out long-haul campaign to the surprise drop, what worked and what merely aggravated?

AM: Beyonce did both! She pissed me off all year by not getting anybody anything. I went on strike as a fan two weeks ago! I was talking on Twitter to a 1xtra DJ and another Guardian journalist, and we all agreed to go on strike: we’d had it up to here with it!

CR: What does going on strike as a fan entail?

AM: I don’t know, I probably wasn’t going to buy her calendar or something. But then the album dropped, and it was ‘off strike, off strike! Where is it?’. So she aggravated and succeeded. I can’t wake up like that, from zero to 100, again.

TL: I think there’s two interesting points here. First, I can’t remember who I saw point this out originally, but the Beyonce, the Daft Punk and the Bowie were all released on Columbia, which is interesting in terms of one major label beating the others in terms of one-upping the established pre-release routine. I also think it’s interesting that more and more independent labels are favouring the surprise drop. Labels like LuckyMe, Modern Love and Numbers all dropped significant releases this year without any pre-hype – announcing a release the minute it’s available to buy, rather than going with the month-long lead-time that had become standard. I guess there’s such a problem now with the way listeners consume music – how it’s hyper-accelerated and the usual shit – that people often see a release announced, play the Soundcloud stream, and then have moved on before it’s available to buy. It didn’t happen with Beyonce – it couldn’t happen – and as much as a new Beyonce album is never really going to represent a risk for a label, maybe that’s why it sold so well.

TL: I saw a few comments about the Disclosure album – which I thought was perfectly good, if unmemorable – where people were saying ‘well, the best tracks were already singles and I’m bored of them already, so why would I buy this?’. It wasn’t long ago that it was the norm for a big pop record to be preceded by a series of singles.

AM: I think the Creep album suffered the same fate: I don’t know why it was delayed for so long, but the best tracks were singles dating back a couple of years and it didn’t receive much attention when the album came out as a result. It’s a really good album!

JM: The question referred to drip-drip, but we’re not talking about that – we’re talking about a sudden gush, if anything. There have been a whole number of slower moving, more labyrinthine campaigns like Boards of Canada and Daft Punk. And that actually applies to Beyonce too: rush-releasing 12 videos, that’s not simply dropping an album, you’re actually putting a lot of obstacles – albeit quite fun obstacles – in peoples’ way in terms of listening to the album. A lot of people grumbled about the Boards of Canada campaign, and people will grumble about Beyonce’s being a visual album.

TL: Especially as it costs more than a regular album.

JM: Indeed, and that’s fair. But when you step back and look at them, they’re both bold, high-concept choices made by big acts. To release a visual album in this way – it’s not Jay Z releasing an album through a cellphone, it’s not a cheap commercial move. It’s actually an interesting, high-concept approach to giving away a bit of art.

TL: In an age where people allegedly don’t watch videos anymore.

JM: Indeed, and I think that’s to be applauded. I don’t see it cynically, I see it as quite exciting … and with Boards of Canada, the way that they rolled out the album did seem like an extension of their aesthetic, into different media. It really tallied with the artistic identity that they’ve built over the last two decades. Their fans absolutely loved it, and if their fans loved it then what’s there to be cynical about? The campaign was infinitely more interesting, innovative and memorable than the album, so maybe the campaign’s to be applauded.

AM: I think if the album had been better though, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about their business tactics. We’re talking about their PR, rather than their music.

TL: With Daft Punk, the way they approached the campaign: this throwback to the old school style campaigns, Hollywood glamour, billboard ads over the highway to Coachella, it definitely worked with how the album sounded – whether you enjoyed that sound or not.

CR: But that grinding middle-ground, where people think that the way to release an album is to constantly tease things – 30 seconds of a video, here’s an Instagram about this – without any creativity or artistry, it’s so meaningless.

AM: Well I think that’s something for the PRs to worry about. Unless we’re music business or music industry commentators, which I don’t think any of us really are, it’s our job to ignore that, to cut through the bullshit and just focus on the music.

TL: I think we can all agree that the real criminal approach is records like 20/20 Experience Part 2 or the Ciara album, where they can’t be bothered to do a proper extended campaign so they just do a track title every day on Instagram or whatever.

CK: Looking back, we’ve said the drip-drip campaigns were aggravating but it’s clear that what worked were the campaigns that matched the content. Boards of Canada did that, and even with the Kanye one, there is something with that album and projecting videos of Kanye screaming onto the side of a building that really worked. It fits the album, it fits the tone. But a Vine or an Instagram preview of a song? It’s not useful for anybody, I don’t think anyone cares. Even a super-fan doesn’t want even seconds or anything. But campaigns like Boards of Canada and Daft Punk proved that there’s still life in the drip-drip: even if a lot of people are going to be copying Beyonce next year, I don’t think it’ll become the norm.

AM: We should give it up to the most successful PR campaign of the year, and also the most traditional one: Miley Cyrus, who went through the very traditional route of shock tactics.

TL: I’ve said this a couple of times now, all Miley did was roughly copy Britney’s 2003 campaign: do something outrageous at the VMAs – ala Britney kissing Madonna – strip off in a video, watch the press roll in.

CR: Well Miley has the same manager [Larry Rudolph] as Britney had then.

AM: I did wonder after the VMAs: what was all the fuss about? Why can I not move on the internet for think pieces? We saw this with Britney, we saw this with Christina. It’s a tried and tested path. The only way Miley’s one-upped her is explicitly talking about drugs.

JM: Without tumbling into discussing Miley’s media career over the last year, which has been done enough already, it’s interesting how the whole Gaga campaign – which took pomp and circumstance to ozone layer levels of extremity – has been trumped by the oldest trick in the book, which is simply that sex sells.

CR: The fascinating thing about Miley is that she’s not actually that sexual. There she is, apparently twerking, wearing clumpy, flat shoes, and just being weird, with a cat in the background or wearing a teddy bear costume. It’s not sexy. It’s not like Britney.

AM: Well Gaga’s doing it for art, Miley’s doing it for comedy. She’s being goofy. It’s like how male nudity is always a source of comedy, that’s what Miley’s doing.

CR: She uses her whiteness to do it. She uses the fact that she’s flat-chested, has short hair and she’s tomboy-ish, and I actually find that kind of ace.

CK: That came up in the Big Narstie thing – her lack of ass.

AM: Well it’s kind of the point. Her whole persona is ‘I don’t give a fuck’ – she doesn’t give a fuck how she’s being judged sexually, or over her ass.

TL: Let’s face it, there were two key things from that VMAs performance more shocking than Miley’s twerking: a) the choreography, and b) Robin Thicke’s suit.

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TL: MK topped the charts and Disclosure ruled the roost, is the UK’s house revival here to stay, or simply a flash in the pan?

JT: Don’t know, it didn’t happen over here.

CR: Well you say that, but it must have to some extent. Disclosure were #3 on Pitchfork‘s albums of the year, and high on Rolling Stone‘s and Complex‘s.

JT: They’re not in the charts the way they are in the UK charts though. My wife would never have heard of them, for instance.

AM: I think Disclosure are a bit of a red herring as I think they’re just OK. Black Butter though, might be my favourite label of the year. Everything they did had the midas touch, and they just perfected that UK house with a bit of an r’n’b vocal thing. I spent half of the year pretty much just listening to Black Butter. Did anyone else? You’re missing out!

TL: I think what’s interesting about this, is that famously there’s not as much money in recorded music as there once was. Also famously, one of the only ways you can make regular money through music is in the live arena. Now in the past, it would be very easy to dismiss what’s happening with house music in the UK as part of music’s natural cycle – you know, give it two years and guitar bands will be the thing again, A&Rs will be flocking to Camden to try and find the next Libertines. But with how music’s economy is at the moment, it’s never been more appealing to put on DJs, compared to bands, due to the costs. It’s also never been more appealing to be a DJ or electronic producer compared to a band, as it’s never been easier to access the necessary tools. That makes me wonder whether this won’t be just another part of that cycle, and whether it represents a significant shift.

CR: It doesn’t explain why house, in particular, is having its moment though.

AM: Well the electronic music industry booming isn’t exactly a new trend.

JT: It is in the US though. And even in the UK, it suffered hugely a few years ago after a lot of the electronic music distributors in Europe started to tumble when everyone stopped buying vinyl. It really took a tumble for a while – dance music was dreadfully unpopular, has everybody forgotten? I’m talking around 2002, I really it very clearly as I was working with a lot of distributors at the time and had to clear up the wreckage. People thought it was the end, and people just weren’t going to buy dance music again.

JM: I think the economic point is important, but I think it’s also both technological and psychological. We need to remember that kids going to school in the next 10 years will be taught code as a language – we’ve all seen kids aged 5 and under with iPads and seen the eerie fluidity with how they use electronic kit – and it wouldn’t surprise me to see people with such a spiritual connection with computers, use them as instruments by default. It wouldn’t surprise me to see drum kits and guitars start to seem very unwieldy to people who live their lives through screens. When people are able to build their own programs, as they’re schooled in that language, I can see why electronic music would become a natural option.

JT: I can see why more and more kids are gonna reject it though, because you’ll always have people that want to stand out.

AM: It’s worth noting that Rudimental, who’re one of the figureheads of the music we’re talking about, make a really big deal out of being a real live music act.

TL: As do Disclosure – they have guitar when they play live.

JM: Well Rudimental are effectively a ska electronic band – they push that side so much.

CR: I think John just threw up.

AM: I love Rudimental.

JT: I can’t see anything good about Rudimental, at all.

AM: ‘Baby’ is one of the best house tracks of the year! It’s so smooth and emotional. And ‘Feel the Love’? Hearing that blasting out of cars?

JM: I think what turns me against Rudimental, and I think what would turn other people onto them, is that they’re so crushingly earnest. Their music feels very human, as opposed to I dunno, your whole John Foxx electronic machine music or whatever. And maybe there is a place for that very humane brand of electronic music?

AM: I don’t think their music’s particularly earnest. It’s Basement Jaxx-style festival music – it’s feel good music. Whereas say, Visionist, I don’t know if he’s earnest in person, but his music sounds incredibly earnest to me.

CR: Well Basement Jaxx is a great example – when I’ve seen them live it’s at festivals, and that’s where their music works, as opposed to tracks for DJs to mix in a club. Same with Rudimental, they’re more like a band than producers – it’s more in tune with that rockist idea of what music is, and not to do with the kind of electronic music that we often talk about. That’s why the idea of EDM or whatever is so confused, grouping groups into genres depending on whether they use electronic kit or not.

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TL: For the first time in the history of the Billboard top 100, not one black act scored a number one. What does that tell us about pop music in 2013?

AM: Well we all know about the changes in rules which led to this [more details here]. It’s part of a larger cultural thing, especially in the States, where we’re not post-race yet, and not one act is to blame but you hear something like Lorde’s ‘Royals’ – and I don’t believe for a second that that song is racist in intention, she’s taking aim at rock excess as well as hip-hop excess – but you can’t help but hear it as part of this backdrop of… Well, how many massive pop songs in the last year have been about shitting on hip-hop? There’s Macklemore, Lorde, Lily Allen tried – tried it so badly that it didn’t work – and then you have people like Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, who’re established and respected as r’n’b acts, but why is it them as number one? It’s not just because of their marketing campaigns, and it’s not just because of their songs.

CK: Well the songs aren’t even their songs, that’s something to do with it. Everyone knows about ‘Blurred Lines’ and Marvin Gaye, but ‘Take Back the Night’ could be MJ. Obviously they’re going to borrow from those traditions, but to borrow so explicitly like that… And those are the songs that go to number one? I think the Billboard rule change isn’t exactly nefarious, and they had to do something – radio play and album sales aren’t the only factors that dictate an act’s popularity anymore – but there is something gross about ‘Royals’ and ‘Thrift Shop’, the fact that the only way hip-hop can top the singles charts is if you’re condemning it.

JT: We’ve got to remember that America’s a big place, and the middle bit is still pretty fucking scary and full of white people who’re worried about music that might threaten their ideals a little bit. Whereas songs like ‘Royals’ play into their hands.

JM: I hadn’t really thought about the correlation, but over here the first ever 24-hour black radio station [Choice FM] closed this year, and was replaced by Capital Xtra, which now presents urban music and dance as if they belong to the same gene pool. That strikes me as maybe a more significant change than rejigging how the Billboard charts are totted up, when it comes to what listeners are exposed to and how it’s presented.

JT: The thing is though, people are exposed to whatever they want because of the internet. People are listening to less radio and more internet, aren’t they?

TL: Yeah, but the Billboard 100 still has a lot of importance placed on it in America.

JT: I don’t doubt that, but saying that this or that doesn’t get played on the radio enough… I’m not sure how many people are going to the radio to find their music anymore, other than specific stations or specific shows.

CK: But then since the Billboard 100 does take into account YouTube and streaming, it’s not just about radio… ‘Thrift Shop”s also getting more YouTube plays than anything else.

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TL: This is the first year that I can remember the UK and US underground’s relationship feeling quite so balanced – I’m thinking of Kelala, Fade to Mind, Yeezus. Things don’t seem one-sided anymore – what’s changed?

CK: The Night Slugs / Fade to Mind stuff has been really interesting to watch this year: seeing people over here take notice of what Night Slugs have been doing for a few years and that become more popular, and seeing more connections made with singers and artists over here. This might seem the world is flat, boiler-plate type stuff, but it does seem like there’s a change going on, and especially when you’re not just talking Soundcloud interaction but Kanye bringing someone like Hud Mo into the studio, it’s starting to filter up. I don’t see that going backwards, I think more of it’s going to happen.

CR: What about more US producers seemingly discovering jungle and grime for the first time, whether that’s people who were making footwork before, or someone like Lee Bannon, who doesn’t have any obvious connection with that music?

JT: Yeah, this year it seems to have moved away from UK producers sitting around fetishising the US, which it has been for many years – I know that, being one! It’s suddenly like, I have US guys asking me about UK music, whether that’s dubstep or jungle or grime, when they didn’t give a fuck before.

CR: So why has that happened?

JT: I have no idea, but stuff like Danny Brown very publicity talking about the influence of Dizzee Rascal, and even Darq E Freaker, on what he did, that didn’t hurt.

JM: Well I wonder if there’s something in the water where… You know, the joke for many years was that Europe fell in love with dance music and America didn’t care, and now that dance music has become a pre-eminent cultural force, with the US catching up on something that they were largely late on, I wonder if that feeds into the underground too.

AM: Well the internet allows things to have a longer shelf live than they otherwise would. Let’s go 10 years, if US kids wanted to know about an equivalent to grime now – which I suppose would be garage – they wouldn’t be able to find it, because it wasn’t archived. There was no Grimetapes. Less people like us telling them about it.

JT: It’s the first year I think that the long-term influence of the internet has broken down cultural barriers to the point where it’s definitely there to stay, in the mainstream. Producers now just feel it’s natural that they should be grabbing sounds from the UK, say, or wherever, and it’s just not weird anymore. It’s normal, it’s an accepted part of music.

JM: Let’s not forget it wasn’t long ago that Skrillex shouted out Croydon in his acceptance speech. It doesn’t seem like this is just the internet dissolving boundaries and making stuff more porous in every direction – you US guys might have a different view, but there does seem to be something UK-focused as opposed to just international at the moment.

CR: Maybe we’re getting an overinflated sense of importance as we’re in the UK though, and really we’re just another trove of ideas to be pillaged in the same way that Baile Funk or Bhangra have been. I wonder if it’ll just be like ‘cool, we’ll put some amen breaks on this’ for a couple of years and then everybody gets bored of it. But then again, I suppose this is happening in the underground, rather than in pop music.

JT: Yeah, it doesn’t feel tokenistic at the moment.

AM: Well with Yeezus, I know where Evian Christ and Hud Mo contribute because I’ve read the liner notes, but if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be able to place them [as is roundly pointed out ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is an exception].

CK: The Dizzee thing is interesting, as someone who was 18-19 when Boy in da Corner came, that was pretty much the only grime record that ever did anything here.

JM: It was pretty much the only grime record that ever did anything here, ultimately!

CK: It was the only grime record you could really even access here though, that or Run the Road. But maybe now, 10 years on, it’s people in the States who were on those records that are now in the position to impact major albums. Maybe it just took a while.

CR: I do feel, well, not patriotic because that’s bollocks, but I think it’s just wicked that you can put on a Danny Brown album and half of the producers are from the US, half of them are from the UK, and the whole thing works. That makes me really excited.

AM: I do fear that people pre-judge these things because they sound great in our heads, and it’s kind of what everybody always wanted – and that these records will automatically get rave reviews that the music doesn’t warrant. I say this as someone who was massively disappointed with the Kelela album.

CK: While we’re getting all patriotic, you’re welcome for house and techno.

For more end of year mayhem, check out:

– The 50 Best Albums of 2013
– The 100 Best Tracks of 2013
– The 50 Best Reissues of 2013
– The 10 Best Record Labels of 2013
– The 30 Best Album Covers of 2013
– The 30 Worst Album Covers of 2013

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