Unknown pleasures

The past year has been a tale of Pop Idol and garage rock, rap stars and skate punk. Andy Gill takes a look at what 2004 may hold
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It's virtually impossible to predict, as a new year begins, what will be the important developments in pop over the forthcoming 12 months.

It's virtually impossible to predict, as a new year begins, what will be the important developments in pop over the forthcoming 12 months. Unlike films, books and theatre, all of which entail such extensive preparation that it's possible to make a decent guess about their impact months in advance, pop has always worked in a more mercurial way. Who could have foreseen, a year ago, the rise of The Darkness, Dizzee Rascal, 50 Cent or Kings of Leon? Or, for that matter, the fall of Ryan Adams, rock's great white hope only a few months before?

All one can do is offer a few extrapolations from last year's trends, secure in the knowledge that those trends will be rudely usurped within weeks. Although it's safe to assume rap will continue to dominate the charts for a little longer, at least, 2003 was the year that hip hop officially became the global pop mainstream, with the year's most successful rock albums - by skate-punkers Linkin Park and where-did- they-come-from? prog-rockers Evanescence - only mustering about half of the sales of the top rap albums, 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' and my own favourite album from last year, OutKast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below, both of which shifted upwards of six million copies in America alone. The latter's success is especially encouraging, in that, unlike 50 Cent's ghoulish nihilism, it didn't play to stale gangsta stereotypes, but offered a more musically audacious, life- affirming worldview that was endlessly stylish, fun and funky.

It remains to be seen whether the flagging momentum of dance music will be revived in 2004 by long overdue albums from The Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Fatboy Slim and Moby's latest offering, under the pseudonym Voodoo Child. January also sees the release of Kelis's Tasty album, while Coldplay's forthcoming album includes appearances from Timbaland and The Streets, which would have been groundbreaking collaborations in 2002 but hardly daring now. Timbaland also turns up as one of the production team for Beck's next album, which mercifully is reputed to be a more than his maudlin break-up odyssey, Sea Change. Even musical hod-carriers Oasis are said to be "thinking much more outside the box" for their next album, produced by Death In Vegas duo Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes.

Other big rock bands, among them U2 and Manic Street Preachers, appear to be moving in the opposite direction, working with gilt-edged producers whose reputations were established back in pop's halcyon era. Chris Thomas, whose CV includes The Beatles, Roxy Music, Dark Side Of The Moon and the Sex Pistols - oh, he'll do, I suppose - is at the helm on U2's next album, intriguingly described by Bono as "punk rock made on Venus". The Manics, meanwhile, are working in New York with pop wizard Tony Visconti (T. Rex, David Bowie), whose profile has been recently restored through his reunion with Bowie and his work on Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham's L'Avventura, one of last year's most pleasant surprises. Morrissey has also opted for a big-name producer on his provisionally titled Irish Blood, English Heart, working with Trevor Horn.

The new year promises to be a busy time for several superannuated Sixties stars. Eric Clapton has two albums in the can, one comprised of Robert Johnson covers: the first should appear in April. The death of John Entwistle, meanwhile, doesn't seem to be holding back The Who, currently readying a new album and doubtless, in due time, a globe-girdling stadium assault, despite dwindling band membership. Pete Townshend drolly anticipates life as a duo by claiming that he and Roger Daltrey are "facing our new Everly Brothers format with excitement and trepidation". So, expect close-harmonies and windmilled power-chords with a side-order of mutual antipathy.

The first big album of 2004 - unless you're on tenterhooks waiting for those Cat Stevens reissues or that indispensable Santana remix collection - looks like being Nightfreak & the Sons Of Becker, The Coral's third full-length release in 18 months, which arrives in a couple of weeks. If it's half as splendid as last year's endlessly enjoyable Magic & Medicine - for me, the best British album of 2003 - then a good time is guaranteed for all. Also worth watching for is Joss Stone's The Soul Sessions, which receives a full-blown "hard release" early in the new year, following last November's limited "soft release" (don't ask). Already making sizeable waves in America, the Devonian teenager's debut unveils an extraordinary blue-eyed soul talent, who by this time next year should be a household name.

The American alt.rock wave reaches critical mass in the first few months of the year, with new albums from Wilco, My Morning Jacket, The Magnetic Fields, Mark Lanegan - widely expected to cross over with his next release - and Lambchop. It seems that when 'Chop helmsman Kurt Wagner finally gave up his day-job laying lino, he vowed to write a song a day, and soon had enough material for a two-disc set - though whether the results are an improvement on the pallid Is A Woman remains to be seen.

Other indie releases in the next few weeks include albums from Franz Ferdinand, Brighton belles Electrelane, Aussie trance-jazzers The Necks - whose Drive By has the shifting, balmy quality of Miles Davis' In A Silent Way - and hotly-tipped New York boy/girl duo Joy Zipper, whose long- delayed American Whip album finally appears a year after its original release date. Fans of industrial music (stand up, Sid & Doris Zeitgeist of Sheffield) will be delighted by the imminent arrival of new albums from Einsturzende Neubauten and a re-formed Throbbing.

A pinch of spice is added to the release schedule by several intriguing collaborations, few likely to be weirder than Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge's Orpheus: The Lowdown, a concept album steeped in mythological allusion, and to my knowledge the only rock record to include a lyric by galactic-brained polymath George Steiner. The most straightforwardly entertaining collaborative effort will probably be Toots Hibbert's re-recording of his old Maytals hits like "Time Tough" and "Funky Kingston" as duets with the likes of Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams; the most eagerly-awaited, though, will be Nancy Sinatra's comeback album, being readied in New York with help from a motley trio of loose cannons: Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and the post-rock auteur Jim O'Rourke.

This, of course, is but a tiny fraction of the vast corpus of digitised music set to bury us in the coming months - way too much, truth be told, and mostly woeful. Still, it's not all bad news in this respect: benevolently lightening our listening load, both Suede and Sinéad O'Connor have finally called it a day, putting up the shutters to spend more time exploring opposite ends of the moral spectrum - Sinéad devoting herself to religious pursuits, while Brett Anderson goes in search of ways to "get his demon back".

But perhaps the best news for 2004 is that Alanis Morissette apparently wrote all the songs for her forthcoming album in under half an hour, which hopefully means that we won't have to suffer for much longer than that, either. Though I'm sure we'll all be grateful for the opportunity to bestow upon Alanis's art the same industrious regard that she herself affords it.

What else can we expect in 2004? Well, some things are so obvious they're barely worth mentioning. TV talent-contest fodder will continue to infest an increasingly meaningless singles chart. American R&B acts will continue to piss away the noble heritage of Sixties soul music. New, more pointless ways will be found of repackaging Elvis Presley's back catalogue yet again. Another ghetto hoodlum will be proclaimed the authentic voice of the streets and catapulted to fleeting fame, while countless others less fortunate wind up in jail or mortuary. Oh, and call me a reckless gambler, but I reckon Cliff Richard will release a Christmas single next year, too.

But look deeper into the undergrowth around these rusting hulks of corporate sales strategy and you'll find, scurrying away like little mammals in the shadow of lumbering dinosaurs, a host of fresh, new acts and trends, yet to be allotted their place in pop's taxonomy, but poised to provide the next transfusion of energy that keeps pop music in all its many forms the most vital and responsive of arts.

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