Thursday, 28 January 2010

Notes on a Decade: Or, my first/last ten years in pop.

Notes on a Decade: Or, my first/last ten years in pop.

The year 2000 began with a whimper. Tony Blair was linking arms with the Queen in the Millennium Dome and I was in small market town in North Norfolk feeling pretty excited about being allowed to stay up late. I was ten, nearly eleven, a few months away from leaving primary school. At this point in my life music was just something that existed, just something I heard in the car. With the exception of Puff Daddy’s tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., the video to which nearly reduced me to tears every time I saw Puff fall off his motorbike in slow motion, music had no real affect on me. I was too busy drawing, playing International Superstar Soccer 1998 and getting myself incredibly worked up because it looked like it might rain. Such is life.

January of 2002 was when my love affair really began. On the last day of the Christmas holidays I walked into the Norwich branch of Virgin Megastore armed with gift vouchers and a list of albums I’d copied from an issue of the NME. I walked out with Is This It by The Strokes and Since I Left You by The Avalanches. Both records remain two of my favorites of the decade, and rather wonderfully for me, both went on to be hugely influential. The Strokes went on to spawn seemingly hundreds of identikit bands all decked in skinny jeans, battered leather jackets and Converse Chuck Taylors, who forgot that The Strokes appeal lied in them being a breath of fresh air. The Avalanches, with their album consisting of over 900 samples, never made it ‘big’, but inspired the likes of Girl Talk. The band seem to have disappeared, teasing us with the prospect of a follow up to Since… for the last eight years. After falling in love with those two bands my taste was largely stolen from the pages of NME. When they got into The White Stripes, I got into The White Stripes. When they got into Franz Ferdinand, I got into Franz Ferdinand. When they got into The Darkness, I closed the pages of the magazine and ran for the hills.

The arrival of broadband out in the sticks was another turning point for me. Sure, I’d downloaded MP3s off Kazaaa and the like, but who really had the patience to wait forty-five minutes for a low quality recording of Power Lunch by Har Mar Superstar? Though the sites had existed for years before I looked at them, the likes of ResidentAdvisor, DrownedInsound and the undisputed behemoth of online music journalism Pitchfork Media, offered a portal to music I’d never dreamt of hearing before. The writing may be overly personal (and yes, I do appreciate the irony in moaning about music writers being too self-involved), occasionally pretentious for the sake of it, but the majority of the time Pitchfork get it right; the amount of artists and albums they’ve turned me onto numbers into the hundreds. It has become easier and easier to make and release music as well as to listen and write about it. The proliferation of blogs over the last few years is something I see as hugely positive: anyone with the ability to listen to music and type can get their thoughts out there. Obviously this leads to thousands of badly written, ill-informed pieces, but the diamonds in the rough (blogs like 20jazzfunkgreats, Lower End Spasm and House Is a Feeling) are well worth searching for.
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the development and refinement of my taste. Pre-2004 I was content to mainly listen to bands who sounded like they’d never heard a record before Is This It. Indie was dominant. I even tried to listen to Radio 1’s Evening Session with the whippet-thin, Colchester United supporting, indier-than-thou Steve Lamacq, but even I could only take so many fourth rate bands from Leighton Buzzard with names like The Knitting Needles for so long. So I did what comes naturally to middle class white boys who wear glasses: I got into grime. Grime, as you all know, is hip-hop’s scuzzy, furious, sonically filthy English cousin (and it’s important to recognize the sheer Englishness of the genre) and I was first introduced to it through Dizzee Rascal’s classic debut single ‘I Luv U’. Being steeped in guitar music, I’d never heard anything like it: the bass sounded like it was being pushed up through manhole covers, the hi-hats cut through the mix like blades and Dizzee’s screechy, teenage voice sounded alien to me. I was hooked. After ‘I Luv U’, my afternoon routine consisted of coming in from school, making a sandwich and then sitting down to watch a few hours of grime videos on Channel U. Even to this day, names like ‘D Double E’, ‘Wong’ and ‘Bearman’ hold a place in my heart and I still want to be like the stars of the videos I watched, and spend my days hanging around outside chicken shops, posing with motorbikes. Maybe it’ll happen. Hell, if Dizzee can become the first legitimate Black British Superstar then surely I can stand outside a Morley’s.

Quick detour here to look at the people who shaped the decade in pop and R’n’B: Simon Cowell and The Neptunes. Cowell has been responsible for unleashing some of the worst music of the decade on us, but idiots keep on lapping it up. In fairness, without the X-Factor we would never have heard ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis, a song as good as any American R’n’B tune this decade. But pop in general felt stale, no one seemed to take any risks. Indie writers got hard-ons for Girls Aloud, something which continues to baffle me to this day. R’n’B was musically, far, far, far more interesting. The first few years of the decade saw The Neptunes, and to a slightly lesser extent Timbaland, at the height of their powers: The Neptunes’ rigid, coldly minimalist funk is decade defining. With tracks like ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly, ‘Slave 4 U’ by Britney Spears and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’, they produced some of the finest music of the 00s period not just in their genre. Timbaland continued to work wonders with Missy Elliot and though he’s completely lost it now, had a resurgent period working with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtardo. Timerblake was, alongside Beyonce, the star of the 00s, and like Beyonce, released some fantastic stuff. R’n’B continues to look forward, much to the delight of nerdy white boys everywhere.

In the ‘alt’ world, it was bands like Animal Collective who ruled the roost. AC went from freak-folk/electronica weirdoes (on Sung Tongs and Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished) to a bona-fide festival headlining act capable of putting out euphoric, techno inspired Pop with a capital ‘p’ (‘My Girls’ and ‘Brothersport’ off 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion). For alternative music, the 00s was a time when the sheer availability of music, thanks to broadband and filesharing etc, lead to a huge range of sounds being incorporated, and there being a real sense of creative freedom. An ostensibly ‘indie’ band could put a seventeen minute dubstep track that featured samples of obscure Ugandan folk bands and no-one would bat an eyelid. I think this is a good thing.

Hmm, what have I missed? The absurd popularity of second rate pub rockers The Libertines. The rise and fall of UK Garage. Dubstep becoming the dominant sound in London’s clubs despite the face you can’t really dance to it. The emergence of minimal techno. The rehabilitation of funky house. Dr. Dre making a triumphant comeback with 2001 and then buggering off again. Britney going mad. Tinchy Stryder somehow becoming a superstar. Michael Jackson’s death. ‘The death of journalism’.


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