Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 - the year in music



I have complained a lot over the years to anyone who would listen that popular music is getting worse. And in some ways that is justified. Hip-hop has been only intermittently interesting since the mid-90s, while alternative rock hasn't been much good for about 10 years. But the pop music in the charts seems to be actually getting a bit better. Oh, there's still some utter dross out there, exemplified by Pitbull's continued appearance on the charts, or RedFoo's execrable Let's Get Ridiculous. But I've just looked over the year-end charts of the biggest hits in the US and Australia, and most of it is not terrible. Some of it is actually pretty good, and some of it is actually really good. I mean, I don't really ever want to hear Katy Perry's Roar or Miley Cyrus' We Can't Stop ever again, but to give them their due, they are pretty well-constructed pieces of pop music.
If we view music in terms of the mainstream and the alternative or underground streams, there is sometimes a huge disconnect between the "good" music being made on the margins to some critical acclaim but little commercial success, and the trashiness of commercial pop. Every serious music fan knows of countless brilliant artists who barely register a blip on the mainstream's radar, while the likes of the Vengaboys and Nickleback rake it in. (Consider that Ke$ha has apparently sold 55 million records in less than 5 years, while Nas' Illmatic album, which pretty much everyone agrees is the greatest hip-hop album every released, took 7 years to scrape together a million copies sold.) Going back a few years, I couldn't listen to commercial radio or music video channels without being assailed be horrible cheesiness and music that has clearly been made to expressly appeal to horny stupid teenagers.

But yeah, something was a bit different this past year. There was a lot of music around that both mainstream and underground could get down to. Maybe it's that mainstream hitmakers started trying harder to make good music, maybe the people who would have been marginalised have been welcomed into the mainstream. Maybe mainstream audiences are sick of dross and are ready to welcome some better music. Or maybe my whole theory is bullshit and it's just that I've become too accustomed to bad commercial pop that I'm no longer disgusted by it.
But to me, the new mood in music is exemplified by songs like Icona Pop's riotous I Don't Care or Sky Ferreira's You're Not the One, two extremely sugary pop hits yet which have enough spike to them to have a non-mainstream appeal. Lorde, the teenager from New Zealand whose songs are a smarter take on the teenage experience, also straddled that line.

I can see it in the realm of popular electronic dance music, where the meathead-house of David Guetta seems to have gone out of fashion, replaced by the slightly classier likes of Avicii and Calvin Harris, while acts like Disclosure and Rudimental can create hits while still doing interesting things in the realm of UK garage and drum n' bass. Daft Punk renewed our interest in the classier side of the disco era.


2013 was also the year of Pharrell. I noticed last year that Pharrell Williams' career had gone quiet since being anywhere and everywhere in the early noughties. But the producer/vocalist roared back in a huge way in 2013, being involved in three of the year's biggest hits. He helmed Robin Thicke's unavoidable Blurred Lines, sang on Daft Punk's Get Lucky, and shone as a solo artist on Happy, which to me is probably the best song of the year. It's fun without being dumb, doesn't dive too deep into the well of cheesiness, and has a video that perfectly captures its vibe of carefree dance and celebration.