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Thursday, December 27, 2012 

Worst music of 2012.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was ready to declare 2012 as one of the worst years for music for quite some time.  Considering that 2009 and 2010 were both fairly horrific and 2012 has gone quite some way beyond the awfulness of those years, this would have been quite the statement.  Since then, in preparation for compiling the quite obviously definitive best of the year list, I've been listening again to a veritable boatload of this year's albums, and I've somewhat reassessed my opinion.  If you completely ignore the mainstream and dig a little deeper then there has been some superb music released this year, so much so that it counterbalances the dreck to a certain extent.

This post is about music in general though, and considering just how much crud has been shovelled down our necks this year by all mediums, whether it be the internet, television or radio, you can't help but reach the conclusion that the musical apocalypse is almost upon us.  The homogeneousness of the mainstream this year has been something to behold: almost every other song sounds exactly the fucking same, for the reason that they almost are exactly the fucking same.  For a while I thought it was age beginning to catch up with me, and I was starting to turn into my father, who likes nothing better than listening to Radio 2 the entire day. Then I realised it wasn't me, it was everyone else.  With EDM having exploded in America for reasons that no one can properly ascertain, every pop song must now sound as though it was produced in Europe circa 96 to 99, only with the occasional added screech.

Not that there's anything particularly wrong with the odd slice of Eurocheese, especially when you're between 12 and 14.  I quite liked Sash! at that age, alongside the very slightly more credible likes of DJ Quicksilver's Bellissima, with Insomnia by Faithless rating as my absolute favourite.  It's pretty incredible then that around 15 years later the Europop formula has returned, been suitably toned down so it doesn't sound completely like trance, and then served up for our delectation over and over and over again. 

As with so much else, we have Rihanna to blame: the success of (Only Girl) In the World, written and produced by the Stargate duo, seems to have been the main catalyst.  Rihanna is one of those remarkable critic proof artists, not that the critics have ever really monstered her until the release of her latest album, and that seems to have been as much to do with her renewed relationship with Chris Brown as anything else.  That she can't sing and can't dance hasn't really mattered when her entire act revolves around her wearing as little as possible and all but urging the listener to imagine that they're fucking her as they do so, or indeed, actively saying that she wants you to.

Into this breach has entered Nicki Minaj, who I will admit from the beginning I simply don't get.  Super Bass, one of the biggest hits of last year, was almost tolerable, even if the title doesn't make much sense when there, err, isn't really all that much bass in the track.  According to her A&R, Minaj won't simply rap or sing over any old beat, which seems a strange comment considering the number of times she's featured alongside other artists, including with such notable originators as, err, David Guetta.  It's even more staggering when you consider that her two main singles of the year, Starships and Pound the Alarm, are so aggravatingly execrable, both by the numbers tracks that would otherwise only be notable for the amount of flesh on display in the videos.   That the top comment for Starships on YouTube currently is "this is the weirdest porno I've seen all day" pretty much says it all.

Even if she's delved into the current trend for Europop, Minaj made her name as a rapper, and so it would be remiss if we didn't also take note of "Stupid Hoe". For a start, Minaj doesn't seem to have realised that hoe has a silent e, instead saying how, making it sound as though she's asking an ungrammatical question rather than insulting someone, while secondly the video has picked up more than 600,000 dislikes on YT, more than double the likes. For an otherwise popular artist who isn't Justin Bieber, that's quite the achievement.

The other sign of how dismal a year it's been for pop is the number of one hit wonders the year is likely to become known for.  It began with Gotye's Someone That I Used to Know, continued with Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, which seems to be ironically topping some track of the year lists, and ended with the phenomenon of Gangnam Style.  Psy's worldwide smash doesn't deserve to be in any worst of the year list, it's true, but it is further evidence of the homogeneity alluded to above.  At first I thought it was a parody of the current Europop trend by a savvy Korean artist mocking the Gangnam area of Seoul at the same time, except it isn't.  It's simply K-Pop, with a highly amusing video and nothing more.  Any life it did have has since been strangled by the sheer number of parodies, each one worse than the last.  It's also indicative of Western culture as it currently stands: for anything from outside America or Europe to get attention, it has to become us.  Little wonder there was such a lot of sound and fury when it turned out Psy had in the past lambasted the US, leading to a humiliating apology.

In a year when the low moments just kept on coming, there was still one that must have scarred memories across the world.  The Olympics closing ceremony was shockingly awful in its entirety, yet there was one moment which suggested irony was something that didn't enter into the producer's equation.  Of all the ideas they must have kicked around, how was it exactly that no one objected to the prospect of Jessie J being driven into the Olympic stadium in the back of a gold Rolls Royce while she performed Price Tag?  It's not about the money, they didn't want our money, they just want to make the world dance.  Except they did take our money, Jessie J must have took the money, and so did Rolls Royce.  Also performing was Emeli Sande, who started off last year with a track that co-opted the Funky Drummer break, and ended this one with a song that rhymes night and light and thunder and wonder.  How long do you reckon she slaved over those lyrics?

Finally, we must as always recognise the role The X Factor and Simon Cowell continue to play in shaping our cultural landscape.  Not only were we treated this year to a video of judge Tulisa slapping herself with her ex-boyfriend's penis, something she later described as an "intimate moment", there was this tear-inducing performance from the three finalists at the switching on of the Downing Street Christmas lights.  Silent night indeed.

Addendum: Last year, I said Martin Clark was wrong to suggest there wasn't much life left in "dark 140bpm half-step beats". Straight-up dubstep has duly this year been for the most part dismal.  Here then is how the genre has changed, or perhaps a better description is how it's subsequently been sequestered, from 2003 when it was still to be named, up till today.

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Thanks for your summary: knowledgeable and interesting as ever, certainly to someone coming from completely outside that scene (when I am dead and opened, you shall find "Peel" and "Free Trade Hall" engraved upon my heart.)

The videos sound to me like they're from a completely different genre from, oh, probably Doctor P onwards: certainly the Skrillex effect on La Roux, and the chorus lift wub-wub on The Good Natured seem like mere nods of acknowledgement to the previous sound, rather than any kind of commitment to it. That's a shame in itself.

Personally, I find Nicki Minaj "entertaining in passing". Her bizarre videos all seem a bit like the machinations of a well-meaning neon-clad sex robot who's seen short clips from Billie Piper's "Because We Want To" and thought that the modern-day equivalent is exactly what 2012 needs. But as I tend to avoid Radio 1 and commercial radio, then I've had limited contact with her outside of the fact that she's at least a fairly gutsy artist fighting some of the attitudes within her often execrable genre. If on the other hand I, like you, had seen her and Rihanna gradually co-opting what were once genuinely likeable, or even loveable, beats, then I'd probably hate her as much as you do.

Music - by which we both presumably mean the sum total of most commercially available genres, biased towards what's reasonable for your average punter to encounter - seems this past year to once again have been simultaneously consolidating and fragmenting: Gangnam Style and the like are a big shadowy body, eclipsing a long, long tail of all the tiny and more interesting artists. I suppose what I'm saying is that we should both try to cheer up, as there's good stuff to be discovered in that tail yet. But you probably know this already.

Digital Mystikz were in fact one of the last artists John Peel championed prior to his passing, and they played on one of the shows paying tribute to him. You're right though, the last three do sound like they're from a separate genre because they might as well be; Sweet Shop was the last track to be played by DJs fairly across the board. Spongebob is the key though: there were aggressive tracks that went all out with the mid-range prior to it (see Vex'd especially), but it effectively popularised the concept and led first to Caspa and Rusko doing much the same but with diminishing returns, then Doctor P and Flux Pavilion and now through to the likes of xKore. And the genre as a whole lies bleeding.

Incidentally, if you think the Skrillex remix of La Roux is bad, and when it drops it makes me laugh and then want to cry, you should check the Doctor P Remix of Krome and Time's The Licence. Defiling two genres at the same time.

Oh, The Licence is a bit of a shame, isn't it? Where did the jungly messiness go? He seems to have produced it to a weirdly polished hyperdefinition. That in turn takes the edge off things like the stretched vocals, and almost makes it mandatory to add sawtoothy wubs, if only to reclaim some of the original atmosphere.

I know. The great thing about hardcore and jungle in general looking back now is how many artists made their tracks with such basic samplers and equipment. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that you can get a free app for your phone that'll do pretty much what you had to pay £1,200 for or more back then. That amateurish, not quite knowing what they were doing or whether it worked aesthetic you get especially from early jungle is part of its charm.

When I listen to dubstep from 2004-06 it already sounds seminal; I didn't know about it at the time as I only really discovered the genre properly in 07 so I can't claim to have been there from the beginning, but to me the early DMZ catalogue, the foundational stuff from Skream and Benga and all the rest of it feels incredibly special. It has soul, it has weight, it has movement, it's inspired by the past while also looking forward. Then you listen to Skrillex or any of the other "brostep" producers that have followed in his wake and it's as though they've heard something completely different, not the weight or feel but just the surface noise. It's like all the recent remakes of old 70s/80s horror: they've ignored the atmosphere of those films, their social comment, and just focused on the gore. It's completely and utterly shallow.

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