Friday 20 October 2017

Music: A golden age for pop in a fraught 12 months

Power couple: Beyoncé' and Jay Z
Power couple: Beyoncé' and Jay Z
Kanye West
Lisa Hannigan
Christine and the Queens
John Meagher

John Meagher

Not since Venus and Serena Williams in their pomp have two sisters hit the zeitgeist as profoundly as the Knowles siblings. Beyoncé released a stunning sixth album, Lemonade, which was record of the year for many - this critic included - while Solange's A Seat at the Table beat her big sis to the title of album of the year by taste-maker Pitchfork.

Both albums were full of personal preoccupations, particularly Beyoncé's, and both had much to say about a nation that has been riven by fear and loathing this year.

Much of the most notable music emanating from the US was similarly fixated on race relations, including Common's superlative Black America Again, and Kanye West's bloated exercise in experimentalism, The Life of Pablo - although, this being Kanye, there were some dazzling moments amid the dross.

The mouthy Chicago rapper had a rough year and he found himself in rehab shortly after suffering something of a meltdown in concert. A few days later, he surfaced at Trump Tower, looking decidedly uncomfortable in the presence of the President-elect.

2016 was a year in which we lost several giants, including David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, but both delivered magnificent final albums before their deaths. Blackstar and You Want It Darker can stand proudly alongside their best work and, yet, take on even greater resonance because they were made by men who knew their time on earth was drawing to a close.

Another veteran, Bob Dylan, was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't show up in Stockholm to receive the gong, claiming prior commitments, but his non-appearance angered those already annoyed a songwriter had won the prestigious award - even one as vital to the culture of the past half century as Dylan.

Several newcomers really made their mark this year, not least Héloïse Letissier, the Gallic chanteuse best known as Christine and the Queens. Her debut, Chaleur Humaine (French for 'Human Warmth'), was an instant pop classic and it spawned some of the year's most enduring songs, including the magnificent 'Tilted'.

Manchester's The 1975 also offered some magnificently direct pop songs on their second album, the ludicrously titled collections of '80s-tinged belters, I Love It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It.

Both Christine and The 1975 were among the hot tickets in concert this year, with the former in especially stunning form when making her Irish debut at Longitude, Dublin, during the summer. It was her first appearance in this country and one of the truly great festival moments in a year rich with them.

If the rapidly expanding Irish festival and live music scene took quite a battering during the recession, it's but a distant memory now. Just nine days after the first batch of acts were announced, Electric Picnic sold out, while Guns N' Roses at Slane and Coldplay at Croke Park (both to be held next summer) sold out in minutes. We're talking 80,000 people for each of those gigs.

The clamour for tickets for several high-profile concerts was such that desperate fans were forced to pay well above the odds on legal resale sites including one, controversially, that was owned by Ticketmaster.

There was massive interest in the Bruce Springsteen shows at Croke Park and he duly delivered those marathon sets he's become legendary for - although I can't have been the only one who thought Croker, for all its scale, wasn't as special as those shows he's done at the RDS, his spiritual home south of the Liffey. It was quite a year for The Boss - his memoir, Born to Run, was one of the most compulsively readable music books in a year full of bounty.

Try also Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free and John Seabrook's The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. They're books that take the reader on, respectively, a potted history on how downloads helped threaten the very foundations of the music biz, and an inside look at how super-successful songwriter-producers like Max Martin are shaping much of the landscape of pop.

The latter, incidentally, scored his 22nd US number one single when Justin Timberlake's 'Can't Stop the Feeling!' topped the Billboard 100 during the summer. It makes the Swede the third-most-successful songwriter of number ones behind Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

While it was a fine year for albums, it wasn't a vintage one when it came to Irish releases. Trad maestros the Gloaming were on exemplary form on second album 2 and Lisa Hannigan confirmed she's one of our most gifted tunesmiths with a third album, At Sea, which was produced by the National's Aaron Dessner and inspired by, among others, the late Seamus Heaney.

And, at the very end of the year, the Blades released their long-awaited album Modernised, which offered a reminder of why so many people fell in love with this great Dublin band at the end of the 1970s.

Elsewhere, James Vincent McMorrow was roundly praised for his third album, We Move, but in his efforts to move into the big time he lost some of what made him special to begin with to this critic. Others, though, lapped up his more polished sound.

Intriguingly, he worked with the Canadian producer Ninteen85, who was one of the masterminds behind the year's most inescapable hits, Drake's 'One Dance'. It topped the UK singles chart for 15 consecutive weeks, a record it shares jointly with Wet Wet Wet's 'Love is All Around', and by the end of its run, it was every bit as irritating as the Scots' ditty the early 1990s. If 'One Dance' dominated the singles chart this year, the album chart was propped up by Adele's 25. Although released at the end of 2015, it continued to shift in the sort of numbers the record industry once took for granted for its major stars. It's become increasingly clear that the Londoner's sales might is an anomaly - and the same can be said of the Now That's What I Call Music franchise. If you removed the Adele album from the equation, Now 93 - released in March - would be the year's biggest selling in Britain. The current iteration, Now 95, has also been a sales sensation in the run-up to Christmas.

For some acts, though, 2016 was the year that hard realities came home to roost. The Dublin-based Fight Like Apes called it quits after a decade together and, in a spirited message on Facebook, suggested that streaming culture was of little help to struggling musicians. "Don't fool yourself into thinking that your £10 subscription to Deezer and Spotify helps us at all," they wrote. "It does not. Look how many bands are on there and do the maths."

While several behemoths entered the stream revolution in 2015 - including Apple Music - this year was all about consolidation as punters have to decide which of a plethora of services to sign up to. Exclusive deals with certain providers - especially Tidal - proved to be an irritation for many and cynics noted that Tidal added several hundred thousand subscribers as a result of Lemonade being up there for the first few days exclusively.

Tidal is owned by Beyoncé's husband, Jay Z, after all. A silver lining, then, for a rapper seemingly in the firing line on song after song on that album - the one that defined the year in music.

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