From Taylor Swift to Hozier 2014 was dominated by solo artists
Ed power takes a look back at the year in music...
If every generation gets the pop stars it deserves, how fitting that Taylor Swift should be the biggest artist of 2014. With Swift, it's hard to tell where the Instagram feed ends and the person begins: her life is a 24/7 social media sugar-rush, so much so that it is possible to develop a keen sense of who she is and what her career represents without having ever experienced a note of her music. She's the quintessential Gen Y meta-celebrity, a retweet addict, for whom art and publicity can seem one and the same.
For those who do choose to go the 'full Taylor' and listen to her songs, along with keeping up to date with her Twitter feuds (she clashed with Katy Perry among others), her latest musical guise is surely her most fascinating yet. Stripping away the last vestiges of her country-rock beginnings (always a means to an end rather than a destination in itself) she went sparkly and cyber-pop with 1989 - the year of her birth and also the closing point of the decade that spawned the synth sound championed relentlessly on the new collection.
It felt significant that Swift's nearest challengers in 2014 - among them Ed Sheeran, sad soul-boy Sam Smith and interview-adverse Wicklow native Hozier - were also solo artists. In 2014, standing on your own two feet was the prevailing trend; it is hard to think of a new band which meaningfully impacted on public discourse (there continues to be One Direction of course, much as there continue to be clouds even on a sunny day).
In Sheeran's case, arena-bestriding success was at the price of a watered-down aesthetic - listening to the plasticine funk of 'Sing' you had to remind yourself he was once an earnest young songwriter who worshipped Damien Rice. Selling out is no sin in 2014 and yet you wish Sheeran had done so with greater wit and invention. Not that he can be much bothered with what critics think - with a record-busting three nights at Wembley Stadium planned for 2015 (he will be the first solo artist to hold the mega-venue in his thrall).
The closest to an Irish Ed Sheeran was surely Hozier, for whom 2014 has been full of contradictions. At first pass, it was a wildly successful 12 months. 'Take Me To The Church', his Coldplay-esque mega-dirge, was the year's most streamed song, listened to an impossible to comprehend 120 million times on YouTube and Spotify. Yet, there have been missteps too: an embarrassing turn at a Victoria's Secret's Fashion Show in London (well, he seemed embarrassed) and a debut album that, though of course praised to the skies in Ireland, was - should I whisper this bit? - distinctly average.
Yes, his very best songs are astonishing: rootsy and epic in the same heartbeat. But there were lots (and lots) of 'meh' moments on Hozier also. Attending his recent 'hometown' show at the Olympia, it was shocking just how many threadbare tunes were contained in his repertoire - at his worst he resembled a one-man Mumford and Sons, sad because he'd lost his waistcoat. Almost as shocking, was a high turnout of casually boorish 'fans' - the sort who go to gigs to snap selfies and yell abuse at the performer. At one point, a chorus of 'Ole Ole Ole' broke out. The cool kids, if they were ever on board, have assuredly left the building. You do wonder if things might go a tad 'Little Green Cars' for Hozier, with instant acclaim giving way to a terminal cooling-off period.
Swift may have been the year's highest profile female artist. However, she was in no way the most interesting. That honour is split between comeback matriarch Kate Bush, performing in Hammersmith Apollo over 22 nights, and FKA Twigs, the English singer who, to her ongoing bafflement, stumbled into celebrity by dint of a relationship with dreamboat vampire Robert Pattinson. Don't let Twigs' 'overnight' elevation to the ranks of Heat magazine fodder put you off: her debut, LP1, was a woozy tour-de-force: listening to it was like slipping into unconsciousness while a classic soul record tooted in the background.
Twigs would have been a worthy Mercury Music Prize winner for best British (and, in theory at least, Irish) album of the year - so it was a shame the judges took a tokenistic route and gave the gong to obtuse Edinburgh rap trio Young Fathers (impact on the record industry following their win: less than zero). At home, the Choice Music Prize for outstanding Irish album went to Delorentos for Little Sparks: given the mediocrity of the shortlist, their win was deserved, though 2014 finished on an ominous note for the Dubliners with their major label debut vanishing without trace.
One outsider who assuredly left her imprint on 2014 was St Vincent's Annie Clark. After four albums of varying quality - ignore the snobs who tell you her early records were her best - she followed through on her potential with 'St Vincent', a remarkable coming together of indie-pop preciousness and r'n'b vim. However, her true impact was as live performer: Clarke's set incorporated non-ironic Beyonce dancing (here, it helps that Clarke is leggy and provisioned with killer cheekbones) and irresistible robo-grooves. You watched her hip-swivel across the stage at Dublin's Olympia in February and thought, 'a star is born'.
In the electronic realm, the relentless march of the mindlessly yammering EDM movement appeared to stall, and there were worthwhile records from Aphex Twin - hilariously he is eligible for the Choice Prize by dint of having been born in Limerick - and Caribou's Dan Snaith, whose ruminations on the joys and responsibilities of parenthood on Our Love, yielded beauty and heartache in equal measure.
As stated already, it wasn't a good year for bands. Granted Philadelphia's War On Drugs released the gorgeous Bruce Hornsby-goes-shoe-gaze Lost In The Dream and UK duo Royal Blood showcased their talent for reheated Jimmy Page riffs on a self titled album that whooshed to the summit of the UK charts. However, more established groups underwhelmed: for instance, you probably didn't notice that Coldplay - allegedly one of the world's biggest combos - put out a new LP, so thoroughly did news of singer Chris Martin's 'conscious uncoupling' from Gwyneth Paltrow overshadow the release. Likewise, records by Elbow, Foo Fighters, Interpol and Alt-J (aka the Jobridge Radiohead) slipped out without anyone paying much attention.
That was as nothing compared to the debacle attending U2's Songs Of Innocence. Bad enough that the LP - and I'm aware my original, heat of the moment, opinion was very different - came off like an unconvincing retread of several of the group's more agreeable tropes. Worse yet, was the hubris that led the Dubliners to believe they could crowbar the collection into the iTunes accounts of 300 million people and not suffer any blow back.
With Bono's messianic posturing already making the band an easy target, there was no lack of people willing to chuck figurative rotten fruit at U2 and the backlash manifested more or less immediately. As complaints from iTunes customers alarmed to find an unsought U2 album on their hard-drive went viral, the haters had a field day, accusing the band of arrogance, incompetence and demonstrating a tin ear towards privacy sensitivities post-Edward Snowden.
The long-term fall out from the miscalculation has yet to be tallied. Nonetheless, we can say with certainly that U2 find themselves on the wrong side of a digital generation gap. As with the always-tweeting Swift, they have sought to harness new technology to their cause.
But, in their late 50s, these veterans have seem not to understand how technology and music interact in 2014. Swift moves effortlessly between the two realms whereas U2 come off like someone's dad splitting their trousers on the dance floor. It's a lesson other warhorses seeking to retain credibility should heed.
Stick to what you know and under no circumstances attempt to get down with the kids - you'll end up with egg on your face and an inbox seething with hate mail.