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Friday, December 27, 2013 

The worst music of 2013.

Here's what might be a first for our annual shit room round-up: considering how low the bar was set by 2012, it's hardly surprising mainstream music in 2013 saw a general uptick in quality.  Problem is, perhaps to make up for that very slight improvement in listenable pap, the "underground" seems to have suffered as a result.  It could just be me, but by my reckoning 2013 has been mostly extremely disappointing, whether it comes to dubstep, drum and bass or bass music in general.  Perhaps this is understandable in that there has been so much innovation in recent years there was bound to come a point when productivity suffered as a result, yet it also might signal we've a few years of stagnation to persevere through, akin to the point between 2001 and 2003 when UK garage (not that I liked garage, or the commercial variety at the time) was in the doldrums and yet to mutate into both grime and dubstep.

This isn't to say there haven't been gems released this year, as there always will be, and a couple of developments have been very welcome indeed.  Dusk and Blackdown continue to carve out their own niche, with their Keysound label revitalising the too fast to be house and too slow to be dubstep/grime 130 bpm sound on its own, releasing albums and EPs galore.  Also encouraging has been the resurgence in instrumental grime, again mostly precipitated by the Butterz crew, with this year seeing the release of the Grime 2.0 compilation on Big Dada, as well as a whole EP worth of remixes of Youngstar's foundational Pulse X.

Also prevalent have been breakbeats, whether used by Tessela and Special Request to devastating effect, or as the bedrock of a couple of the best pop songs of the year.  Both John Newman's Love Me Again and Olly Murs' Dear Darlin' co-opted the amen break (or something remarkably close to it, as actually sampling Amen Brother properly would involve paying the Winstons, and extremely sadly they've seen almost no money whatsoever despite their music being integral to the development of entire genres) and while doing absolutely nothing original whatsoever with it, there's just something about that break which transforms what would otherwise be entirely run-of-the mill pop tunes into something even snobs like me can say they don't dislike.  True, Emeli Sande somewhat started the trend with her Funky Drummer sampling Heaven, without the slightest doubt her best song by a factor of a thousand, but let's not be too cynical about a trend that isn't completely ghastly, right?

At the other extreme, one of the most depressing trends of the year also involves Ms Sande.  Her album Our Version of Events, despite being released in February last year is also the best selling album of this year, or at least was 2 weeks ago with Michael Buble and One Direction bringing up the rear, having sold an incredibly puny 640,000 copies.  2013 hasn't been a stellar year for albums as we'll discover in a couple of days time, but for an album that wasn't much cop to begin with to come out on top nearly 2 years on from its release suggests the rise of streaming services and download sites allowing you to pick and choose which songs to buy could spell the end for the album as we know it, as the more hasty have been predicting for years now.  I may well be in the minority, as ever, but I like listening to a record as a whole; plenty of songs don't make proper sense listened to on their own without being complimented by the surrounding tracks.  What's more, when the biggest sites continue to churn out whole albums for £5 or less, there isn't really an excuse for not buying something in its entirety.  Add in how I can't see the bailed out and taken over HMV lasting much more than a couple of years when habits are changing so quickly, and there's an extremely uncertain future ahead.

We have though digressed somewhat from the worst music of the year, so let's plunge back in.  We may as well restart with the aforementioned La Sande, and while she hasn't been as ubiquitous this year as she was last, her presence has still been disconcertingly constant.  In keeping with the continuing promotion and celebration of mediocrity as being the height of musical aspiration, when you're constantly assailed by her collaboration with Labrinth on Beneath Your Beautiful (which was actually released last year, but seems to have been in rotation all this year as well), certain things come to mind.  Mostly that Labrinth is both an idiot and a cretin, as only someone who thinks grammar is for English teachers could possibly be.  Beneath Your Beautiful isn't only grammatically confused, it seems to be English as spoken by someone with an extremely rudimentary grasp on the language.  One presumes the protagonist of the song wants to see beneath the "beautiful" and "perfect" exterior of his object of affection, and yet that isn't clear as regardless of whether you're is misspelt as your, you cannot see beneath someone's "perfect" or "beautiful".  You can want to see what lies beneath the skin, or get to know someone as a person as opposed to an object, but this doesn't seem to be what Labrinth means either, as the implication appears to be that he wants to, err, get inside their body as opposed to their mind.  If you weren't confused or annoyed enough by the lyrics, there's also the gloopiness of the music and insipid delivery of said words by Labrinth to contend with.

Almost as bad is Sande's own Clown, yet another of those hellish tracks where producer and singer have decided less is more, meaning there's no getting away from the lyrics.  Supposedly about how awful it is being an aspiring pop singer and being subject to the indignities of interviews by record company execs, it instead strikes as yet another of example of an established star complaining about their lot in life while the rest of us proles continue to go through our far more mundane drudgeries.  Do execs really laugh at those like Sande and demand they sell everything out from the very beginning?  Perhaps if Sande had started out on a talent show you could understand it more, but she didn't; indeed, Simon Cowell gave her a boost when he said back in 2010 that she was his favourite songwriter of the moment.  It isn't quite as bad as Jessie J's Who's Laughing Now (probably not Jessie or those who decided she was the Next Big Thing, considering the way her second album has flopped), but it's not far off.

It would be remiss to not mention the two biggest "controversies" of the year in pop, both of which predictably involve naked flesh.  In a move that could only have been more cynical and transparent if it was spearheaded by an anthropomorphic jellyfish fiendishly rubbing its tentacles together, Miley Cyrus was rebranded as an extremely curious mixture of Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, only given a wardrobe with even fewer clothes.  The video for We Can't Stop can't be called beyond parody; it can be better be described as the moment when parody died, like when satire died the moment Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  It's as though some colossal joke was being played on Cyrus and those who fill their ears with such crud, as no cliche was considered too mined or example of outlandish behaviour felt too crude.  A man then bites into a sandwich full of $100 bills, while at one point Cyrus pulls a stuffed animal of some kind on a lead, while wearing a white fur coat and holding a stuffed lamb.  If this itself was meant to be satirical, it was a point lost on pretty much everyone, unsurprising considering the rest of the video seems to be the appropriation of everything wrong with modern, "glamorous" pop music.  For Wrecking Ball any such comment was abandoned, and Cyrus instead swings on, err, a wrecking ball while buck ass naked, with a shot every so often of her licking a sledgehammer.  According to Cyrus this was indicative of the collapse of her last relationship, while everyone else just thought it was a pop star getting naked and simulating something remarkably close to fellatio.

By the same token, the entire point of the video for Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, which in its unrated version features a variety of ladies in a state of undress from the first frame, seems to have been to delight teenage boys and wind up feminists and parents.  Like Cyrus, Thicke defended the video, saying the song was about his wife, an interpretation that is stretched to breaking point by the verse where T.I, who talks of how his "last bitch" wasn't "as bad as you", and how he wishes to give the woman "something big enough to tear your ass in two".  Quite apart from the misogyny inherent in the lyrics, even if it doesn't warrant banning as some student unions have, it's just how dire the song is that really offends.  It's one of those records that despite being terrible in every way manages to lodge itself in your head, the key as usual being its repetitiveness.  That, along with the video has been the key to its success, beating Daft Punk's diametric opposite Get Lucky to be the biggest selling single of the year.  If it reminds of anything, it's the Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up, a track designed to get a reaction and which had a video with a "twist" ending which supposedly made everything seen before it all right after all.  It signalled the Prodigy's collapse into insignificance, and one suspects Thicke won't be around for long either.

2013 also saw the return of perennial favourite, Lily Allen.  I really can't be bothered with broaching the controversy surrounding her video supposedly satirising the way women are used in pop videos, so let's concentrate on the music instead.  Her cover of Somewhere Only We Know, which unaccountably hit number 1, isn't just mediocrity recorded, it's the sound of the very least possible being done to even constitute a song.  Allen's real crime however wasn't her personal output this year, but rather her "discovering" of Tom Odell.  Odell makes previous hand picked "critics" winners at the Brits look positively radical, such is the conservatism of his music and more unmentionable, the fact that his voice just isn't strong enough to convey the emotion he thinks are in his lyrics.  Another Love is an utter dirge, the kind that makes Adele's Skyfall seem positively lively.  The only small mercy was his album wasn't nominated for the Mercury prize, despite some columnists being disgruntled that it missed the cut.

Finally, we come to the artists the critics have either been incredibly kind to or could possibly have been "persuaded" to praise.  Lorde's Royals was a huge smash in America, and to be fair, the message of the track that pop and television often portray a very unrealistic picture of the lives of the young is a reasonable enough point to make.  It's that I just can't stand the track itself, can't understand how anyone could when the words are delivered in the most aggravating fashion imaginable, and also can't fathom how anyone could possibly say it's a better track than anything produced by Lana Del Rey, who I also didn't rate.

Even more unfathomable though has been the rise and rise of Disclosure.  Pitchfork rate Settle the third best album of the year, the Graun has it as their sixth, and yet depending how much weight you give to certain publications, the album overall is either the 8th best or, err, the 92nd (the same method does also rank Arcade Fire's Reflektor as 94th, though).  Settle does absolutely nothing that far superior artists have either done in the past, or are still doing now.  Nobody Else by Dusky knocks everything released by Disclosure into a cocked hat, for instance, with next to no recognition for doing so.  What they clearly have had is record company largesse, first to get them the likes of Eliza Doolittle to "feature" on their beats, and second some of the most laughably soft coverage a group has had for some time.  It would be easier to take if the Lawrence brothers also didn't say that they had hated dance music, or pose the question of which people would rather hear, their stuff, or the likes of David Guetta on the radio.  As Blackdown responded, there is a third way, and if your music is indistinguishable from that of 10 years ago, there's almost certainly something wrong with it.  Whether it's down to ignorance, plain bad taste or as you sometimes have to suspect, "persuasion", there's no excuse for mediocrity being a critical as well as commercial success.  Sort it out next year, please.

Yeah, right.

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