Sunday, December 21, 2008

2008 in review...

I was going to write some thoughts about 2008 and whats happened musically but then my mate Kiran Sande from FACT Magazine went and wrote something a whole lot better than I could ever manage. So here it is cut and pasted from the FACT Magazine website. I'm not claiming this in any way but thought it was an interesting read. Enjoy.

2008: Put a donk on it....

What was 2008 all about? What does it boil down to? The global financial crash? America electing their first ever black President? Burial being unmasked? By its very nature, history, however recent, is a formless mess; we humans impose order and teleology on it to stop ourselves going mental. The past is, at best, a sub-Burroughsian cut-up, a jumble of phrases and sentence fragments with the occasional unifying flourish. There’s no grand narrative, no through-line that we can draw from Mark E. Smith killing a couple of red squirrels to Sam Taylor-Wood releasing a single on Kompakt and ‘Put A Donk On It’ clocking up a million YouTube views. Or is there?

Status update: since the turn of the century, the fate of music has been inextricably linked with the evolution and convolutions of the internet. Recording, production, distribution, publishing, marketing, listening, copying, pirating: these are all activities that have been revolutionized, rotted or reinvigorated in the era of Web 2.5. Our day-to-day relationship with music is no longer passive. These days we’re all getting involved, all giving our tuppence-worth: not only listening to music, but blogging about it, remixing it on our cracked copy of Reason, rubbishing or recommending it to our mates on Facebook.
Perhaps the most significant ‘net trend of ‘08 has been the ubiquity of the album-sharing blog. Such sites are often harmless, even helpful, to an artist: as on “sharity” blogs, which bring hard-to-find or out-of-print records to an audience they might never have otherwise found. But then there are the other kind: those sites which leak albums far ahead of their release date, sometimes even before they’ve been completed. “Making music is no longer a way to make a living,” declared Morgan Geist’s when his Double Night Time turned up on a blog a whole three months before it was due out. Deerhunter’s Weird Era Cont and embryonic Atlas Sound tracks were pilfered directly from Bradford Cox’s Mediafire folder. “Who do they think they are exactly,” Cox railed, “to decide when my album comes out?”

We music fans are deeply complicit in all this: while we might not officially ‘approve’ of the Rapidshare era, who among us hasn’t at least once enjoyed its fruits? Still, you have to laugh at some of the most shameless, self-aggrandising bloggers behaving as if there’s moral purpose to their antics: they see themselves as Robin Hood figures, liberating music from the tyranny of marketing and release schedules, and getting it to the people who need it. “Well, to say that I’m living up to my reputation today is an understatement,” proffered Antiquiet’s Skwerl shortly before he was arrested for posting tracks from Guns ‘N Roses’ Chinese Democracy. That arrest is unlikely to set a precedent – the epidemic is too virulent and diffuse to be easily contained. Most people under the age of 25 view music as a free entity, on a par with air or water – albums are no longer released, they are simply leaked. Wait three months to pay £10 for a Telepathe album when you can get it for free now? Are you fucking joking? Legal action might be costly, but the record industry’s best option could be to attack: don’t be surprised if dummy albums and virus-ridden zip folders flood the web in 2009.

War isn’t the only option. Creative and commercial minds alike have realized that – indignity of indignities - music alone isn’t going to be enough to sell music (though it’ll happily help you sell jeans or mobile phones). No, if you want people to buy an album, you have to give them some incentive. While the In Rainbows pay-as-much-as-you-want model proved untenable for less robust artists (just ask Cliff Richard – his loyal but not entirely stupid fanbase didn’t want to pay much more than £0), it sparked a vogue for deluxe vinyl editions of old, and more crucially new, albums: Portishead, Primal Scream and Madvillain all got the deluxe treatment. The Flaming Lips went as far as to offer popcorn and a gig ticket with their Christmas in Mars CD, while bands like Foals, Earth and Sunn O)) continued the time-honoured tradition of tour-only 12”s and 7”s. Kate Moross’s Isomorph label presents short-run 7”s and 10”s by artists like Midnight Juggernauts and Heartsrevolution in bespoke, visually ravishing artwork, and sells them directly to fans at a premium price. Underground acts as diverse as Blank Dogs and The Caretaker placed a little more trust in their fans, giving them the option to download music for free and/or purchase it on limited vinyl, cassettes and CDs.

Ah, the poor old CD… Much of the early part of ’08 was spent intoning its funeral rites, but reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. The CD not only continues to shift units in all genres, it’s also the most versatile, space-saving way of owning musical physically, and surely the best vessel for enjoying much ambient and long-form music. Yes, the CD is the lumbering Neanderthal man to the mp3’s homosapiens, but trust me – it will live on for some time, if only as a nostalgia item (and nostalgia is, let's face it, big business these days). Labels like Touch, Ghost Box and Raster-Noton have always striven to make CDs beautiful – and the latter’s GAS book, a lavish photo-journal with a disc of previously unreleased music enclosed, suggested a way forward. At the other end of the scale, home-made CD-Rs from artists like Hush Arbors, Glass Candy and Voice of The Seven Woods proved very desirable, and even the humble cassette enjoyed a resurgence thanks to hipsterish bands like Titus Andronicus and Times New Viking. The OED’s secondary definition of ‘fetish’ applies could conceivably be that of ‘record’, ‘cassette’ or ‘CD’: “an inanimate object worshipped by primitive peoples for its supposed inherent magical powers”, “a thing evoking irrational devotion or respect”. In 2008, we came to terms with our fetish, and went out of our way to indulge it.

If the 12” and cassette are these days the realm of fantasy, then the internet is our undeniable reality, and this year saw major and independent labels accept the reality, to work positively with bloggers and websites to generate hype around their artists. Hence a deluge of free mixes, mp3s, internet exclusives, webcasts – an unprecedented level of choice for the average consumer.

Right up ‘til the end of last year, major and medium-sized labels were signing up British indie bands and nu-ravers faster than Topman could manufacture natty belts, hoping for the next Klaxons, Hot Chip, Horrors or Libertines. Hardly any of these derivative, idea-starved groups sold any records; most were dropped, and the world’s eyes turned away from London and over to Brooklyn – where scene godfathers like Gang Gang Dance, Yeasayer and Animal Collective found themselves presiding over a vibrant petri-dish culture of neo-hippie pop. As well as launching a thousand cult concerns like Telepathe and High Places, this new psychedelia has crossed over into the mainstream thanks to the watered-down iPod fodder of Chairlift and the rather more affable anthems of MGMT. The band’s most famous song seems to nail not just the spirit of youth, but of our general cultural condition: we are indeed fated to pretend.

The noisier likes of Ponytail and their west coast counterparts No Age pushed through: they made some of the year’s best records and have reached many, many more listeners than their sales figures might suggest (that’ll be the blogs…). Of course, with so many blog-inches to fill, many more bands are getting hyped then rapidly discarded: here-today-forgotten-tomorrow neo-hardcore bands like Health and Lovvers are a case in point. In Britain the media continues to puts it faith in quirky solo artists like Little Boots and Lykke Li. I mean, who is actually “into” Lykke Li?

As our current decade enters its twilight phase, the one that preceded it falls into focus, and we begin to look back on it in earnest. The ‘90s have resurfaced everywhere I look – in the nu-gaze of School of Seven Bells, in Zomby’s ‘ardkore tribute Where Were U in ’92, in the box-office-busting My Bloody Valentine shows at The Roundhouse. A raft of that era’s foremost electronica artists were formally canonized in 2008 – with reissues of key works by GAS, Basic Channel and Pole on that most ‘90s of formats, the CD. Perhaps this renewed interest in idea-heavy techno of the past had something to do with contemporary minimal techno running aground. Villalobos and Hawtin shows were more like circuses than raves; Berlin became overrun with wasters and wannabes; the underground had, inevitably, become the establishment, attracting idiot punters in their legions and off-putting sponsorship from companies like TDK and T-Mobile. More crucially, the music itself seemed to lose any semblance of punk attitude – even the better stuff was drowned out by the boring, merely functional records crowding the market. Minimal felt like one long, draining after-party that none of its self-conscious revellers could afford to leave. The comedown is going to be savage.

Dubstep, once a united front, splintered into (for the most part friendly) rival factions – the wobble-heavy thugstep expounded by Caspa, Coki et al, and the sleek, skippier, techno-influenced sound pioneered by producers likes Peverelist, Appleblim, Ramadanman and Martyn. Bass music – for want of a better word – was resoundingly where the action was to be found. The wonky sounds of Starkey, Ikonika and Rustie were big news, but it was Joker – the young Bristolian behind ‘Gullybrook Lane’ and ‘Snake Eater’ – who emerged as the most exciting, inventive beat-maker of the past 12 months. The Numbers and Lucky Me axis, earmarked for greatness throughout last year, also came good: Hudson Mohawke’s ‘Oops!’ being a highlight. The B-more breaks favoured by Jackmaster and his Dre$$ to $weat roster found favour with a post-MIA, post-Diplo public attuned to global ghetto music’s occasionally sublime frequencies. It’s telling that Mujava’s ‘Township Funk’ – a lo-fi South African kwaito tune roughly inspired by ‘90s bleep techno – was one of the year’s biggest dancefloor burners.

Of course, the “dancefloor” is by its very nature a global construct these days. The proudly localized phenomenon of pirate radio is, to all intents and purposes, a thing of the past; but online mixes and podcasts have taken up the slack – and proved to be even an even more invaluable tool for breaking new dance music, whatever the genre. You didn’t have to be living in the Greater London area and listening live to hear Marcus Nasty and Mak10’s landmark September mix for Rinse FM, widely considered to be the moment funky “happened”. From the soca-pop of Crazi Cousinz ‘Do You Mind’ to the heavy bruk of Roska and Lil’ Silva, this grime-infused derivative of funky and tribal house, bassline and garage sidestepped the considerations of fashion or propriety to capture London’s imagination and, after years of male-heavy, police-targeted grime raves and gangster-centric MC culture, everyone, not least the girls, got dancing again.

We’re all music fans now – and whether your taste is for Nigerian funk or Norwegian black metal, an online community, with an attendant shitload of free music, awaits you. Not only that: whether we know it or not, we’re each of us becoming cultural archivists, musicologists searching for and occasionally providing a context and a reference and a precedent for everything. The internet is a living museum, and it’s open all hours. But remember: there’s a world outside it too.

2008 was the year that the past became ever present – which makes the future a strange and thrilling prospect indeed. It was also the year that Timmy Mallett did the Rolex Sweep. Oh, to be sure: it’s been a good one.

KIRAN SANDE (Fact Magazine)

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