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Tuesday, July 20, 2010 

Very long music rant with Mercury prize moan at the end.

The collapse of the music industry has long been predicted, not least by the music industry itself. In the 80s it informed a bewildered public that home taping was killing music, something which wasn't reflected in their results come the end of the year. When faced with the mortal danger of Napster and then more general file-sharing, the RIAA decided the best thing to do was to sue a few individuals for hugely disproportionate amounts of cash for allowing a few token files to be accessed by others in lieu of doing anything practical to deal with the problem. Finally realising that online distribution was the only way to battle back in the face of rampant piracy, they first demanded that their files were digitally protected from being shared once purchased, then eventually dropped even that.

The industry has essentially gone from always claiming austerity to acting suicidally, or at least by their previous standards. The order of the day now is stacking it high and selling it ever cheaper. Sites like 7digital offer full album downloads for £5 (still £4.99 too much for the latest by Eliza Doolittle and Professor Green); back in the early 90s you could pay that for a CD single, although admittedly one usually with plentiful b-sides and remixes, before it was decided that a single could only be twenty minutes long max, conveniently so they could sell you two copies instead of one, but I digress. From claiming their product was worth the premium price they put on it, they now frankly admit that it's all but worthless, which is to go from one extreme to the absolute other. £5 presumably is the highest amount they think the downloading generation will willingly pay, and it might well be a correct assumption. It doesn't matter that it's for a vastly inferior product to an actual CD, which you can do absolutely anything you want with; as most are just sticking it straight on their phone anyway it makes little difference. For those of us who will pay a little more for either lossless files or better yet an actual physical copy, increasingly rare as we are, it's a deeply depressing time. The music stores with the exception of HMV, and Fopp, which is HMV-owned, have now gone, the majority of independents with them, and even those places seem to be increasingly reducing the space they give to CDs. In a couple of years they might well abandon them entirely.

Accordingly then, mainstream music itself seems to have given up any real semblance of innovation. The closest it currently has to anything approaching subversion is Lady Gaga, and everything about her also feels like a cynical exercise in having your pop culture and eating it. When her main competitors however are either the Black Eyed Peas, having managed to sell a million digital copies of I Gotta Feeling, the sort of statistic which really does undermine your faith in humanity, or Katy Perry, whose California Gurls (sic) was appositely described by a showbiz blogger as being the kind of song which even the Spice Girls would have been embarrassed to have released, it's not difficult to be something completely different.

More than anything, it's the mediocrity which is now so willingly promoted as brilliance which is so aggravating. Mediocrity is fine when it's considered as such, as this blog has demonstrated so wonderfully over the last five years; it's when the equivalent of "will this do?" is treated as close to perfection that it starts becoming aggressively annoying. Never has average been such an apt description for a band as it has been for Florence and the Machine, yet they're currently headlining more or less all the major festivals, the album Lungs has sold by the bucket load, and it received the Brit award as the year's best, although that's not exactly a kite mark of quality. All this despite one peculiarity. George Orwell wrote that in times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act, and while I've always considered that one of his more pompous statements, it seems correct when it comes to Florence Welch. She simply cannot sing. She can shriek, she can squawk, she can make a noise approximate to being in tune, yet she never quite reaches actually, truly, singing. Again, this wouldn't be a problem if it was admitted that she isn't the greatest singer ever to be in a band, as plenty of other main men and women haven't been able to sing either. It's that absolutely no one in any review or article about the band I've read has apparently had the courage to say so, unmentionable as it apparently is.

This is covered up by the fact that so much of her music is strident in its nature, requiring her to shout rather than harmonise, yet the closest I've seen to a backlash was the Graun's conclusion that her performance at Glastonbury was milking it slightly. This could be similarly forgiven if the music itself was engaging, yet it's that exact stridency of it, without letting up for a second, which drives you away. Essentially, she has one decent song in Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up), the formula of which she repeats in Drumming Song and Dog Days are Over, and one absolute abortion of a cover version, massacring Candi Staton's You Got the Love in a horrendous fashion, yet which unfathomably has also become a hit.

Far worse, and fundamentally underlining just how mediocrity is now being rewarded was Lily Allen winning three Ivor Novello awards. These, rather than being decided by the record companies and music industry, are instead voted on by writers themselves. Last year was a barren year for mainstream and "indie" music, yet still, honestly, an award for The Fear? I'll concede that The Fear does have a good tune, yet did they really also decide that its lyrics were amongst the best the year had to offer?:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuck loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them

...

Life’s about film stars and less about mothers

It’s all about fast cars and cussing each other
But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic
and that’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic


Now, even presuming that Allen is taking on the persona of the typical vapid celebrity of cliché and stereotype, the lines about diamonds just come across as crass and insincere, and not something that they would ever express. Has life ever been about mothers? As for rhyming plastic with fantastic, the less said the better.

If you're wondering what this is building up to, then after all that we'll now discuss this year's Mercury Music Prize nominations. Last year, notoriously, Speech Debelle won from what was a pretty dire shortlist with the exception of the albums by Bat for Lashes (which should have won) and the Horrors. Debelle herself was the epitome of mediocrity, as was her album; it would never have been the best album of the year even if hers had been the only one released in it, and such was the surprise at her victory that the likes of Amanda Platell concluded it was a conspiracy to reward someone for being both black and from a poor background. More likely was that the judges were just having one of their off years, as they repeatedly have, giving it to M People and Talvin Singh before. Klaxons were an odd choice in 2007, a decent album but not the best from the shortlist, while Elbow seemed to get it in 2008 not on the back of Seldom Seen Kid, a fine album although again not the best on the shortlist (that would have been Burial) but for their years of service with critical if not up to that point crossover success.

The whole point of the Mercury prize is that it is, probably apocryphally, meant to reward those pushing at the boundaries and unlikely to be nominated for other more mainstream awards through commercial success. It encouraged this line of thinking somewhat when it unexpectedly gave the award in 1997 to Roni Size and Reprazent's New Forms, in the same year in which OK Computer by Radiohead was nominated. OK Computer is often regarded as one of the best, if not the best album of the 90s, while New Forms, despite being a milestone in the progression of urban music and probably the best distillation of drum and bass's moving out of the underground from its jungle days at the time, is not as fondly remembered and acclaimed.

Speech Debelle's win last year then seems to have been the step too far by rewarding something perceived to be innovative by the judges which was in fact dull, so they've gone entirely conservative this time, at least to judge by the mediocrity of so much of today's announced shortlist. Getting the excellent stuff out of the way first, Laura Marling's I Speak Because I Can, Wild Beasts' Two Dancers and the XX's XX are all great albums, completely worthy of the prize (My tip incidentally is for Marling to win, as you'll either love or hate Wild Beasts due to the singer's falsetto, while the XX are already the favourites and the obvious choice and the favourites and obvious choice almost never win). Good also, but not as good as their debut which wasn't nominated previously is Foals' Total Life Forever. The critics have also praised Corinne Bailey Rae's The Sea, which I'll give the benefit of the doubt to.

The rest, though, especially Paul Weller, who hasn't released a good album in over a decade, and Mumford and Sons, are little short of dreadful. Mumford and Sons is what happens when you take the nuance out of folk-rock; you get rock, and not very good rock, overbearing, overwrought and that word again, insincere rock.
Biffy Clyro and Dizzee Rascal are perfect examples of the mediocrity alluded to above writ large: they both used to be good. Biffy's first three albums were good examples of British, or Scottish attempts if we're being pedantic at something approaching post-hardcore, which were again critically praised but commercially got nowhere. They then seemingly decided if they couldn't beat them, then they should join them, and so heavily diluted their sound to the level to where it can be accurately summed up as Coldplay not being quite so limp.

Much the same is the case with Dizzee. Top bloke as he may be, he's done what the other rappers and MCs who cut their teeth in the grime scene have done in order to make the top of the charts: gone pop. Nothing against Bonkers, which was a fine track, and his latest effort produced by Chase and Status isn't bad as far as faux-dubstep with rapping over the top goes, but the rest of his output is now the kind of music which is the soundtrack to punch ups and throwing up in city centres across the country, a very very long way from his Boy in da Corner album which won the award back in 2003. Yeah, I'm being incredibly snobbish.

It's also disappointing when there have been more than a few brilliant records this year in the indie/rock category which haven't got a look in, most notably These New Puritans' Hidden. It literally does sound like absolutely nothing else released this year, building on their already excellent debut by almost entirely dispensing with guitars, not overwhelming on their first effort to begin with, and starting again. Attack Music and We Want War are effectively statements of intent, and the rest of the album is even more adventurous. Fuck Buttons' Tarot Sport was also thrilling, although it's disputed whether they even put themselves forward, as their name would almost certainly count against them. The fact that it costs money to enter the prize also mitigates against some minor labels and artists, who simply can't afford the fee (rumoured to be in the hundreds of pounds range, which is their profit gone, if indeed they make one). The awarded is sponsored now by Barclays, for crying out loud. Surely they can cover the cost of the submission fees. Also overlooked were Los Campesinos!, The Fall's latest one, some of their best material in years, 65daysofstatic's We Were Exploding Anyway, and Field Music's Measure, as well as probably some others I've missed.

Most questionable of all, the biggest oversight is there is absolutely nothing primarily electronic on the entire list, with the possible exception of Dizzee's opus. They've not only passed by Hot Chip, with their best album since The Warning in One Life Stand, as mournful and lovely as anything released this past year, but also Four Tet's latest in There is Love in You. Where, even more dispiritingly, is the "bass music", the dubstep and all its permutations, currently in a creative stage which rivals that of drum and bass back in the 90s, and without that genre's inherent limitations, currently being taken about as far as they can by the artists associated with Autonomic? It seems Burial's Untrue was as much of a toe as they want to dip in, which is just but one section of a movement which continues to grow exponentially. You can argue that dubstep and all its offshoots are best suited to single tracks or mixes rather than albums, never quite reaching the cohesive whole which other genres do, yet there still been some great attempts at proving that wrong over the past year. There have been full lengths from Silkie, Clubroot, Kryptic Minds, Ikonika, Guido, Breakage, Actress, Rude Kid and King Midas Sound which have ranged from way above average to superlative, Mala has just released the most anticipated three slabs of vinyl of the entire year in Return II Space which probably wouldn't qualify as being more of a triple pack than an album in the definitive sense but which is a dead cert for the top of end of year polls, and while it definitely doesn't qualify as Paul Rose aka Scuba is German*, Triangulation is almost certainly even better than all of the above. Were none of them submitted for consideration or did the judges really think that some of those they've nominated had made better albums? It certainly seems so.

If the music industry wants to arrest its apparent inexorable decline, it could do worse than uses its last gasp to attempt to promote music which might just reinvigorate it. It's either this or the Black Eyed Peas, Florence and the Machine and Dizzee Rascal and their clones from now until doomsday.

(I try not to make a habit of this, but this post has gone through some fairly extensive editing/re-writing post-initial publishing as it turns out that I can barely string two sentences together without using the same word twice, as well as an above average amount of grammar/spelling/typo cock-ups. No opinions or otherwise have been changed, it now just doesn't make want to reduce my hands to stumps or put a bucket over my head. Apologies. It hopefully now also reads hell of a lot better, which makes you less likely to want to throttle me for being such a moron.)

*
As Stephen Whitehead kindly points out in the comments, Paul Rose is in fact from Crouch End and I'm a complete fuckbubble who assumed as he lives in Berlin that he simply must be German, so Triangulation does in fact qualify and should probably rank above Hidden on what should have been on the shortlist. And while I'm here, my own latest comment should be clear that while the Holy Bible came out in 94, it would have been on the following year's shortlist, as it was released in August. That should be Alexandra Burke rather than her brother, Alexander Burke too. This post has gone well, hasn't it?

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An Indian friend of mine once told me that if you wanted to know if an Indian takeaway was any good, the trick was to let it get cold - if the flavours were still there, it was good cooking. I've never tried this - seems like an expensive way of courting disappointment - but I was reminded of it by Florence Welch's "singing". She's got some vocal power - when she's belting it out, she sounds like a decent singer belting it out. But if you listen to the way she sings in quieter moments - or for that matter in straight rock numbers like "A kiss with a fist" - there's basically nothing there. She's a good yeller, basically. And Lily Allen is just as good a songwriter as she is a singer.

Glad to hear there's some good new stuff out there, although TNP didn't do much for me - great ominous beats, but I couldn't take the quiet bits seriously.

Sound post, agree with most of it, disagree with some of it.

I'm a hardcopy man through and through and as much room as my library of CDs takes up, I don't care. If thy ever stopped being made I'd be utterly gutted, I hope not.

As for innovation, I suppose that I never see that as the mainstream's job, there is plenty of innovation in (not an exclusive list) heavy metal and grime and hip hop and some great guitar bands out there pushing some boundaries.

But by there very nature there home is the fringes.

I concur with your assessment of FTM clatter and Lily Allen's vomit but really liked Speech Debelle's LP, heart on a sleeve record, which is often lacking, although I'm not a fan of the Mercury Prize anyway.

I hope Laura Marling wins out of the list (which is really poor list) but not sure if this LP is better than her first, maybe it is.

I read your stuff on Dizzee nodding vigorously, it breaks my heart that all the talent from the grime scene gets bum-raped by the industry, or am I putting too much weight on the industry and not enough the artists failure to keep doing what got them there? Chipmunk, who is one of the most skilled rappers we've produced ever, has been turned into an object d'art, it is cruel and disgusting.

I could talk about music all day long sir, may I recommend a couple of guitar based bands for your enjoyment:

BLK JKS
Let's Wrestle
The Drums

Nice rant. I don't agree with all of it but it's nice to see a politcal blogger immersing himself in his passion for music.

I saw Florence and the Machine almost a year ago to the day. They were supporting Duran Duran(Don't laugh. They were fecking excellent)at their Edinburgh Castle gig. I didn't much like their music but I felt sorry for them because it bucketed down with rain for the duration of their performance. The rain ceased and the sun lashed out once the Duran boys commenced their set. I wonder if you were in charge of god's rain tap.

As for the Mercury Music Prize nominations, I too would have liked to have seen the TNP album on the list but also the Yeasayer one.

The Drums are rather fine, if the kind of band I get the feeling will probably make one album and then wither away. The other two I haven't had the pleasure of and will have to check out.

I don't blame the grime MCs for realising what they had to do to get success, it's just a complete shame that we couldn't embrace them before they had to go that far. Then again, the genre tends to be dark and impenetrable, and the pirate radio shows don't really help with that; I often catch the end of the Roll Deep show on Rinse before Oneman starts on a Sunday night, and when all they essentially do is continually spit the same, often not very inspired verses every ten minutes, completely drowning out the often far superior music beneath them I don't blame anyone for not giving it a chance when it's presented in that form. I do like the new D Double bits, although as good as he is on them he's again helped by great production, Woo Riddim and the Street Fighter instrumental are as good as much of the dubstep out there. Skream's remix of P Money's Left the Room, despite being somewhat tear-out is excellent too. I always catch Ellijah and Skilliam when they're on Rinse now as well, loving the stuff they push and picked up the Terror Danjah 12" they released on their label; got his Power Grid EP on Planet Mu while I was at it as well.

The Drums has been getting heavy play on my system, I think of them as Duran Duran meets Joy Division.

I agree that grime presents itself badly when its just diss tracks over excellent beats; when in reality the spitting could occur over any track because it never engages with the music, merely skims over the top.

At least in old school and Golden Age rap, they interacted with the tracks underneath.

It has some gifted people though, D Double E of Newham Generals is grand as you said, Shifty from Manchester and Wariko from my home town of Notts also.

To paraphrase your Orwell quote - in times of universal mediocrity, difference becomes a revolutionary act.

And revolution is a risky business strategy.

Frankly I think you've gone past of the point of needing to give a shit about the mainstream music, awards and the bands who headline festivals.

I don't buy this glory days era, the music industry has always promoted mediocrity and blandness ("Ok computer one of the best albums of the 90s? ), and radio stations have always promoted bands who've been lucky to have managers prepared to sleep with playlist controllers over letting djs discover new music. (With the exception of Peel of course - we're never going to have another radio 1 dj playing grindcore or death metal again).

Perhaps take the example of Anathema - I defy anyone to say that any of their last 5 albums wouldn't - with radio airplay and decent marketing - have sold shitloads of albums to the sort of people who bought coldplay, stereophonics etc as well as the indie enthusiasts. But because they started out as a death doom band and toured with Cradle of filth they get labeled and placed in the "metal" section, despite not playing it for over a decade, and remain only playing to the supposedly closed minded extreme metal scene. It’s just lazy classification, when the most interesting music is always the difficult to classify stuff anyway.

My advice is to forget about the industry, the radio playlists etc, and just stick to finding stuff for you.

Paul Rose isn't German, he's from Crouch End!

That aside: all of the above is true, but why let it bother you? All of the mainstream music outlets, from the big record companies to the major radio stations are thrashing around like dinosaurs in a tarpit. At the same time, it's easier to find, share and even watch great music than it's ever been before. From raiding friends' spotify playlists, to bittorrent, to the endless series of great mix podcasts, to MP3 blogs, to even some of the rubbish you post, I hear great new records every day. And since all of those routes net the artists about 4p, the good ones tour constantly which mean we can see them too.

Like planeshift says, the mainstream has always been dominated by hysteria over mediocrity: there's always been people, from critics to DJs, who are willing to pour exuberant praise over any artist which can achieve a certain level of commercial super-success. There are just more and more ways for good music to slip through the net and into my ears.

Well bugger me. Just assumed as he lives out in Berlin that he was German; name maybe should have tipped me off, eh? I love Triangulation so much I'd probably put it above Hidden in what ought to have been on the shortlist.

I don't disagree with both of your points, the charts always have been full of crap, it's more that at least before it was a more diverse load of crap. I had the misfortune a couple of weeks back of being around when someone put a recent NOW CD on, and maybe I'm just getting old and listening to too much dubstep at incredibly loud volumes is damaging my hearing, but every single goddamn track sounded almost exactly the same. Ten years ago it would have been just as dire, but it would have had pop, a couple of landfill indie acts and some of the mainstream trance radio edits on it. Now it's this soul-destroying electro-cack which is fine when La Roux or Little Boots do it, and unbelievably naff when everyone else does. The Pussycat Dolls track on it alone could have been used as far more abrasive music to torture to than anything the Americans blasted at their charges in Guantanamo and Bagram.

What really, really gets me is that the likes of Florence etc are just one step above the X Factor winners, who are themselves just one step above those who Simon and co decide to humiliate and castigate for the nation's viewing pleasure for even daring to believe that they could sing in tune or follow in the footsteps of such success stories as Steve Brookstein or Chico, a delusion which they first have to perpetuate in order to persuade anyone in the first place to show up for the auditions. And the truth of it is, they aren't really much worse than those who have gone on to win; we've essentially elevated to an artform the karaoke night down the pub, and told those who are better at it than others that they're superstars and the most perfect, admirable and venerable human to have ever been excreted onto the surface of the planet. It's no wonder then when it's seemingly a choice between Alexander Burke, Leona Lewis or Florence, the Kings of Leon and Lily Allen that the mass media decide to back complete mediocrities over and above cabaret acts. And let's not just pretend that it's these nobodies with an tin ear on Radio 1 and 2 that do it, the sainted Lauren Laverne, who used to be in average band herself, and whose popularity I can't even begin to fathom who's one of the worst culprits, going on alarming a couple of years back about how wonderful Amy Winehouse had been during her headline set at Glastonbury, the same set in which she was so drunk that she couldn't sing a note and punched a fan for supposedly trying to feel her up. Mark Radcliffe stood at the side and just looked bemused.

Also the point about OK Computer was not necessarily my view, I'm one of the few that still finds much of the equally hyperbolic praise for them to be wildly over the top. Definitely their finest work, but still. My favourite album of the 90s and indeed ever is the Holy Bible by the Manics, which wasn't so much as even nominated for the Mercury back in 1994.

The Mercury Prize is a bit like the Oscars really - both claim to honour the best British/Irish album or the best film of the year, but really it means the best within certain pre-set parameters (so if you're a comedy or animated film or you're an act like These New Puritans or Four Tet, forget about it). To be honest, the Mercury Prize goes to debut albums so often now (only three non-debuts have won since Pulp in 1996 I think), they might be better off making it a debut album prize. Still wouldn't help Four Tet et al admittedly.

That said, I still take a bizarre fascination with the Mercury, just like I do with the Oscars. I'm a hopeless case.

the only good music today is american or canadian, but it's progress that the music is now all a lot cheaper. my god, i can remember paying £12.99 for OK Computer...

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