Ah; the 2010’s. A plateau built upon sex, religion, existentialism, and records. Mainly the records. And having been asked to write about this demi-decade from a musical perspective, I’m struck by just how much music there is. The shape of it. The weight of it (quite literally, should you get locked into a serious vinyl habit). “You can holler, you can wail, you can blow what’s left of my right mind,” to quote The Kills and their 2011 single ‘Future Starts Slow’. And it’s a fine sentiment, except that the future hasn’t started slow. Anything but. “Fast” and “fierce” would have been far more coherent statements; I distinctly recall lying in ditch, drunk, as December 31st 2009 hit the run-out groove, and the thoughts that dribbled though my consciousness were full of excitement for our musical itinerary, but also trepidation, the risk of becoming overwhelmed… rather prescient, as events transpired.
For we live in era in which the obsolete machinery of vinyl pressing plants can’t keep up with demand. When every band of our giddy youth reforms for one last payday, in the process selling out far larger venues than they ever did the first time around. And when the nicest thing to say about the records that the mainstream offers us – those that predictably shift the most units – is that they’re the musical equivalent of lettuce. The acme of generic, delivered by identikit munchkins with slipshod hair and all the passion and bite of the Zane Lowe voiceover invariably employed for the TV ad. “So-and-so, blah blah, and the incredible new album, Slippers Are Splendid and Keep Your Feet Warm, available in all good supermarkets.”
Indeed, it’s fascinating to watch those 35 year-old episodes of Top of the Pops BBC4 have been furnishing us with throughout the 2010’s. For however much rubbish clogged up the charts back then, at least it was interesting rubbish. Varied rubbish. Rubbish bedecked in a range of different fabrics – should the crinoline not appeal, there’ll be some cracking chiffon along in a minute. And in amidst the dross, some rather marvellous records gatecrashed proceedings. For instance, watching Public Image Limited mime along to ‘Death Disco’ on Top Of the Pops (#20 in 1979) is both an education and a weird, warped kind of joy. And were such a record to be released in the present day, I’m betting it wouldn’t receive exposure on primetime, fun-for-all-the-family TV.
We’re not allowed contemporary Top of the Pops (except at Christmas, which doesn’t count). We were too naughty; some of the presenters naughtier still. And that’s probably for the best; a peek at the hit parade of a 2015 vintage is akin to that 3am insomnia fugue when you flick on the television, only to find each channel is showing some Hungarian movie from 1951 – without subtitles. Everything’s badly lit, nothing makes any sense, and the credits flash up names little more than a random jumble of letters.
Okay; I’m an ageing music obsessive who struggles to come to terms with the fact that it’s no longer 1988; I’m not in chart music’s demographic, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Yet even a cursory glance at now versus then – pretty much any then – reinforces notions that the mainstream has spent that last however many years ghettoising itself. That having erected barricades against sound even remotely challenging, it’s free to exclusively shift product to such discerning audiences as pre-teens, the deaf, the recently deceased, and those eager to stuff yet more £50 notes into the waistband of Gary Barlow’s Agent Provocateur undercrackers (and he’ll be paying the appropriate level of tax on all that dosh – Tory’s honour).
This is all rather odd, considering that we’re at the midpoint of a decade stuffed with shiny. For whilst it’s difficult to critique artistic endeavour of any particular timeframe with objectivity – too recent, and we haven’t had the space to effectively evaluate; too far away, and nostalgia skews the narrative – I have the sneaking suspicion that the 2010’s (or at least its first five years) will be viewed by the music geeks of the future as a moment of high tide.
The steady snap, snap, snap of textured, nuanced records will do that to a hunch. Yet this is more than mere treasure unearthed in new release racks (after all, every cross-section of the rock and pop era ripples with albums and singles both jaw-dropping and life-affirming); if the contemporary musical landscape – or that of the very recent past – does carry significance, it’s the manner through which rejection by the mainstream has liberated musicians and audiences alike.
Because the mainstream has never been a meritocracy; success and longevity reliant upon vogue, image, marketing and serendipity as much as talent or invention (see also: a willingness to sell your soul to the lowest bidder). And supposing that the hit parade was far more of an open arena than it is today – eager to embrace less commercial styles and genres – then so the price of entrance was subservience to the aesthetics of fad, fashion and fickleness; a watering down like so much cheap beer.
It’s how the mainstream subsumed the cold experimentalism of synth-pop, taking music that in the late 70’s was sited beneath a flyover, JG Ballard novels and Kraftwerk records the main currency, and reconfigured it for a far wider audience, so that by the mid-’80’s, the analogue synth was shorthand for cheap and ubiquitous, and as such so disinteresting that it took fifteen/twenty years for the oeuvre to regain its initiative.
It’s how, in order to sell records, hard rock became synonymous with riff, hair and spandex (rather than anything as fundamental as song).
It’s how the jangly guitars and outsider indie-pop sentiment of the early ’90’s became, under the mainstream’s sponsorship, the bloated monstrosity we call Britpop, where songcraft and nuance fell a very distant second to the cheeky grin, Small Faces posture, and the sort of general buffoonery that makes aficionados of the cultured song do a little sick in their mouths; it’s no coincidence that a genuinely interesting band such as Pulp released their weakest singles in the mid-’90’s – which also became their biggest-selling – just as it isn’t chance that the most “celebrated” band of the era (inverted commas highly intentional) were a bunch of Mancunian ape-like creatures who’ve always sounded to these ears like a fifth-rate Rutles covers band without any of the grace or the humour.
And now that we’re in the 2010’s… not only would Oasis (were they up-and-coming) fail to sell anywhere near as many discs as they did, but the element that made them so popular in the first place – the mainstream’s appropriation of scene – no longer functions. Because chart music exists as narrow entity and the rest of us have been forsaken, leaving us to a musical landscape where vogue, image, marketing and serendipity hold very little value. Years ago we were dependent upon the radio (i.e. John Peel) introducing us to the new and the remarkable – or failing that, music press say-so and the recommendation of a clued-up friend. Now, and it’s as if sonic textures reveal themselves at every turn, the internet (and allies such as BBC 6Music) representing a gravity well of high-order eclecticism that translates so well onto vinyl.
(Or even CD, whatever those are).
In order words, by rising above prevailing fashions promoted by the mainstream, then aligning itself to a democratisation of distribution, this era’s soundtrack is as varied as it is formidable. A context in which artists and audiences celebrate spectrum rather than sit (passively) betrothed to specific sonic components. Whilst writing this piece I’ve listened to a number of albums released in the last five years, pulled from the shelves at random, and whilst we should always be wary of small sample sizes, in no way would I argue that such a playlist is unrepresentative of this here and now.
From the pristine jangle of Veronica Fall’s 2011’s eponymous debut to the Krautrock-infused Chilean psychedelia of II by Föllakzoid. The event horizon electronic assault of the self-titled Blanck Mass LP to John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts, 2013’s examination / celebration of the erudite confession. There’s baroque RnB (Janelle Monáe’s The Archandroid); folk-tinged space-rock (The Silver Globe by Jane Weaver); lithe and playful post-indie (Cadenza by Dutch Uncles). Records full of cold surfaces and wide-open spaces (Field of Reeds by These New Puritans), ambient folk (Diamond Mine, the collaboration between King Creosote and John Hopkins), sly and robust blues-pop (Fears Trending, 2015’s release from The Phantom Band).
What links all of these LPs (and the above is by no means a definitive list) is the skein of modernity that runs through each. There’s no kowtowing to trend; no playing to the gallery. Instead, a detectable confidence to reside outside of categorisation, the influences behind each deployed knowingly, delicately, making new shapes out of tired tropes.
These are discs that exist purely on their own terms – and that, for me, is what makes this decade stand out from the white noise of back catalogue; we’ve thrown away the template of what a decent record apparently sounds like, and whilst neither universal nor necessarily permanent – for whilst there’s a mainstream, there’ll always be scenes and bandwagons and a moribund music press telling us what we should be listening to – this freedom to dip in and out of stylistic vestige without record sales being hit or inflated by vogue, image and marketing should be celebrated.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some sex, religion and existentialism to be getting on with.