Music: Like islands in the stream

So the future's wearing a scary Celine Dion mask, is it? Not necessaril y. Pop is alive and well and kicking rock's behind.
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The Independent Culture
The fag-end of 1998 glowed red with fears for pop's future. There were many good reasons to be anxious: the imminence of a time when Prince's "1999" would look back rather than forward; the prospect of Alan McGee going on about the Internet at even greater length; widespread fears as to what will happen (to him as well as to us) when Robbie Williams's heroic conviction that just being Robbie Williams may be enough no longer suffices. And, on the credit side of the new year balance sheet, things looked even bleaker.

Could Gay Dad (elderly ex-music journalists clutching glam textbooks) and a swing revival masterminded by ex-members of the Stray Cats really be all we have to look forward to in the millennium's dying embers? The answer to this thankfully hypothetical question is a resounding and triumphant "No way, Grandad!" The future is not waiting around the corner wearing a scary Celine Dion mask and clutching a stocking full of Spice coins; it is already upon us. And very exotic and wonderful it sounds, too.

Cher's wobbly voice treatment on "Believe" (inspired, OK magazine revealed, by no less a musical pioneer than Roachford), the strange hubbly-bubbly noises in the background of Mousse T's "Horny", Air playing "Sexy Boy" live in the style of Tik and Tok, the Beta Band swapping instruments among on-stage greenery, Beck forsaking the Dust Brothers' sample library for the joys of his live band. Once you start listing last year's hopeful signposts into the great beyond, it is hard to know when to stop.

The holiday season alone brought two great pop moments, though admittedly both of them involved The Tamperer featuring Maya, on ITV's Record of the Year - a bizarre pop plebiscite hosted by Denise van Outen. With Boyzone winning and The Tamperer coming last, it tended towards the conviction that democracy, like Kestrel Superlager, is something of which one can have enough. The gladiatorial ring of the intimidating hook line of "Feel It" ("What's she gonna look like with a chimney on her?") was reinforced by the fact that all those performing it were dressed as gladiators. On the Christmas Day edition of Top of the Pops, Maya took to the stage dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and threw a toy-dog Toto over her shoulder with regal savagery. Black, white, gay, straight - this gesture had something for everyone. "Feel It" is built around a sample from The Jacksons' "Can You Feel It?" so brazenly obvious it would make Puff Daddy blush, and yet so ingenious in its simplicity that it not only works on its own merits, but also makes you think about The Jacksons in a different way every time you hear it. In the hands of The Tamperer - also responsible for that other great rallying cry of 1998, "If You Buy This Record Your Life Will Be Better" - pop is not in any kind of trouble. In fact, pop is doing very nicely, thank you. It's rock that's in trouble.

A couple of years back, the very idea of that old pop/rock division had begun to seem a bit ridiculous. At Cool Britannia's apogee, the 1996 Brits awards, the music industry was able to celebrate a convergence of critical acclaim, its own musical taste and what the kids were buying, unmatched since The Beatles. Jarvis wiggled his bottom in front of Michael Jackson, Noel Gallagher spoke of the 17 people giving hope to Britain (Oasis, their road crew, Lorraine Kelly, Ainsley Harriott, etc) and all was rosy in the Britpop sandpit.

Since then, a classic younger sibling rebellion has taken place - every bit as vigorous in its own way as punk or acid house - against the massed forces of what a dissenting music press voice courageously dubbed "dad- rock". As galling as the Day-Glo vacuity of Steps may be to more refined palates, it would be wrong to stigmatise a new generation for insisting that there must be more to life than Ocean Colour Scene.

What could be more natural than to want something shiny, new and honest in its artifice? If I were an 11-year-old girl with the choice of the debut album by B*witched or Pulp's grim and gruelling This Is Hardcore, I know where my pocket money would be going.

Watching an imperious Mel C and a suitably sulky All Saint on BBC2's Never Mind the Buzzcocks, magnificently oblivious to the pub-rock humour of their host and team captains where, a couple of years ago, Louise Wener would have been desperate to play along, it was hard not to conclude that laddish irony had been routed.

What we have now is two parallel worlds which cross over only at magical random points. In the shy and retiring person of the aforementioned R Williams Esq (who would have thought that it was he who was stealing Oasis's souls at Glastonbury that fateful summer of '95, not the other way round?). In the fact that the Spice Girls' gorgeous "Goodbye" contained a folk harmony ("You're not here/ interfere") straight out of the Gorky's Zygotic Mynci songbook. In the way B*witched, perhaps aware that it is no longer cool - if indeed it ever was - to say "What are you like?" now enliven the spoken-word moment in "C'est La Vie" by saying something different each time in a manner clearly influenced by Arab Strap's "First Big Weekend".

So next time someone tries to tell you that Boyzone's inexplicable continuing hold on the nation's pre-pubescent hearts is somehow a bad thing, reply that consensus is the enemy of progress. Last time everyone got all gloomy about the future of pop, Tony Parsons had barely finished telling us it was dead before Suede emerged from the ruins with an intoxicating whiff of formaldehyde.

Tempting as it is to wave away the nay-sayers this time around with a disdainful flick of a perfumed glove, it is worth remembering that boomtime meant record companies throwing money at every bogus Britpop ensemble that ever got a parking ticket on Camden High Street. A bit of new-found perspective doesn't go amiss, and now that the seemingly endless flow of blowhards and half-wits proclaiming themselves "the best band in the world" has slowed down, room is opening up for some genuine innovation.

Any climate in which the Beta Band's charismatic proto-folk ambling is everyone's idea of the new thing can only be a healthy one. Ditto an epoch that can consider a charmingly irresponsible maverick such as Badly Drawn Boy a serious commercial proposition. Ask the latter reckless zeitgeist surfer what he has in mind for his debut album and he will say: "I'm constantly amazed

by what is possible - the way someone with an acoustic guitar can just blow you off your feet."

Acoustic guitars that can blow you off your feet: that's one thing to look out for in the year ahead. The great Will "Palace" Oldham reborn as fearless old people's home cabaret entertainer Bonnie "Prince" Billy, that's another one. The record that the Scottish tension and release specialists Mogwai have just made in the Catskill Mountains with Mercury Rev's Dave Fridmann should be something to savour. And let's not forget electronics treated like real instruments.

Sitting in the North London bedroom where she recorded the whole of her amazing 1998 Martian pop-soul debut, Like Weather (Rephlex), Bjork's former sample triggerer Leila Arab demonstrates the hand-held mixer on which she made her first recordings.

"You listen to the great bands," she explains, thumbs battering the tiny console with the practised ease of the hardened computer game veteran, "whether that be The Doors or the John Coltrane Quartet. I'm talking about ensembles that played shit hot together. There's dynamics - the bass gets loud at one point then the guitarist tries to get in... No one's really got to that with electronics, which is why I try to treat electronics like real instruments, so that when I'm mixing a song, each channel is a band member fighting for supremacy."

Each channel is a band member fighting for supremacy. The future is going on ahead to meet the past round the back. The millennium is like Bill Clinton's penis: the closer you get to it, the less interesting it is. Think about how long it seems since Gary Barlow was the ex-Take That man most likely to, Mark Owen was the dark horse and Robbie Williams was just a tubby also-ran. Now imagine the joy of a whole new century to fill with stuff of that quality! Why don't we put in some pre-emptive retaliation and just get on with it?

Mercury Rev, Mogwai and Bonnie `Prince' Billy all play the London Astoria (0171-434 0403) in the week beginning 18 January. Ben Thompson's book `Seven Years of Plenty' (Victor Gollancz, pounds 10.99) is already in the shops