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Wednesday, December 29, 2010 

Most disappointing and worst music of 2010.

Writing this post at the end of every year, I'm beginning to feel a little like I imagine the Queen must do preparing her Christmas message; how exactly am I going to say the same damn thing while making it sound different? There is, after all, only so many times you can mention just how good a year it's been for the Commonwealth and get away with it. The same goes for attempting to explain just how shit almost all mainstream music is.

For if last year was when the music industry's chickens came home to roost, this must have been the twelve months in which they had their necks wrung. Take a look at the various "best of" end of year critics' choices, and what becomes immediately apparent? Not only is there a massive paucity of "indie" bands representing our septic isle, but there's also hardly any debut records to speak of. There surely can't be a better sign of the oblivion just around the corner than the end of almost any financing or backing of artists that aren't a carbon copy of what's already well known and has sold well.

Some will doubtless argue this is a direct result of rampant piracy, or just a creative blip, rather than the music industry going from one outrageous extreme in pricing to another in such a short period of time. The truth is that there's still plenty of money to be made out there should the record companies be bothered to do so, even if the expense accounts of talent scouts are not what they once were. No, it's just far easier and cheaper to either wait for them, especially via the likes of The X Factor, to come to you or to simply jump as ever on the latest passing bandwagon. Hence the biggest breakthroughs of this year have been variously, Eliza Doolittle, ripping off Lily Allen, Plan B, going the Amy Winehouse route after his debut bombed, Professor Green, treading the already well worn path of other grime artists going pop and becoming so insipid as to be deserving of being put down, and Ellie Goulding, who's so bland that it's almost difficult to get worked up about her. I say almost as if I hear that fucking tuneless, monotonous and cretinous cover of Your Song one more time, I might just have to pierce both my eardrums with a knitting needle.

The overall outlook does in fact seem remarkably similar to that of around 11 years ago. The bands deemed to be Britpop had run out of ideas, the manufactured boy and girl groups were finding their audience was growing up fast, and into the breach stepped trance and UK garage. While this time round there doesn't seem to be an obvious successor to the "wasps in a jar" trance sound of 1998/99, UK garage has both the already mentioned grime acts and now also potentially dubstep artists waiting to crossover, both genres having emerged from the wreckage of a movement which collapsed under its own contradictions.

Even here though it's apparent just how much has changed in the decade long interim. Whereas the majority of UK garage acts which briefly flourished did so on the back of either their DJing or completely independent productions which were then signed by the major labels, this time round we have the likes of Katy B. Katy, almost entirely predictably, has emerged from the exact same set-up which has given us Adele, Kate Nash, The Kooks and La Winehouse, having been prepared for greatness by the BRIT school. In fairness to Ms B, she has unlike most of her contemporaries finished a degree (albeit in that most testing of academic subjects, popular music) and has signed to the thoroughly independent label ran by the formerly pirate Rinse FM, a station which deserves much of the credit for putting dubstep in the position it currently is, yet it's still difficult to give her the kudos which the likes of Ms Dynamite deserve, having established herself through MCing.

In one other respect she does share something with those who have gone before her, having had her vocals thrown glibly over an already produced instrumental. While Katy's efforts gel well with Benga's On a Mission, it can't be said that she's either the world's greatest singer or that her lyrics ever rise anything above either the mundane or, as on her work on the two tracks on Magnetic Man's album showcases, the completely execrable.

Magnetic Man for their part are the other example of how the music industry seems to be repeating the mistakes of the past. Comprising of two of dubstep's foremost producers and DJs, Skream and Benga, along with the even more experienced Artwork, they first performed together as part of an arts council funded project, before being signed by Columbia at the end of last year and given around six weeks to produce an album. Quite what orders if any the major label gave them are unknown, but the end result of that six weeks was an album so thoroughly underwhelming that it's difficult to shake the feeling that the pressure of working under the confined conditions got to all three. The lead single, I Need Air, an attempt to meld the traditional dubstep beat pattern with trance-like elements would have been an honourable failure if it hadn't been for the addition of Angela Hunte's vocals. Auto-tuned to oblivion, the lyrics hardly helping, they turned something that would have worked in the right settings into something all but unlistenable. The same pattern is repeated throughout the album's tracks: The Bug, which would have made for a decent instrumental is completely ruined by the auto-tuned vocals which sound ominously like the Black Eyed Peas at their worst, Boiling Water features a totally unrecognisable Sam Frank (oddly enough, an example of decent use of auto-tune is his contribution to Skream's solo album on Where You Should Be) while Ms Dynamite goes through the motions on Fire. The one moment where they truly get their act together, the amen-led Perfect Stranger, Katy B duly turns up and warbles the track to death. Even by her standards the lyrics are terrible:

Are you from another world
I never seen someone who looks like you
Beautiful stranger how do you do?
Tell me is there something I can do for you

The same is true of Crossover, where it's difficult to know what to make of the main refrain:

Crossover and come inside

Quite. Most indicative of all is that the other best track, Mad, was given away free and in an extended version to the one on the album before its release, a wonderful example of the contempt still shown on occasion towards the customer.

While it's difficult to see dubstep achieving the same overall chart success as UK garage briefly did, especially without it fracturing in a similar fashion (although arguably it already has), anything would be preferable to the continuing stranglehold which acts either from The X Factor or endorsed by the programme have over it. The Daily Mail had a hypocritical fit over Rihanna performing in her scanties on the show when the really offensive thing about it was just how awful she was and the song is. Even worse is the assault on the ears of Only Girl (In the World), which seems to be an attempt to outdo the stridency of even the most over-the-top Florence and the Machine track, except set to the most unexceptional of electronic backdrops.

Indeed, the biggest indictment of the state of music at the end of 2010 is that a boy band group put together with the most cynical of motives back in 1990 are not only top of the album chart, but also deserving of being there when compared with their competitors. This is a world in which the original version of the Christmas number one by the X Factor winner, still a fairly dismal song yet vastly superior to the cover can only reach number 8 before plummeting down to 25 the next week. Resistance really does seem to be futile.

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