Simon Price: Breast in peace, The Darkness

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The Independent Culture

When an enormous pair of breasts hovered above my head on 7 February, Justin Hawkins was literally flying high. Nestled in the cleavage of the fibreglass knockers, The Darkness singer was launching the band's UK tour with the first of two nights at Alexandra Palace, having just released a second platinum-selling album. If this was failure, then most bands would sell their grandmothers for an eighth of it. And yet, the urban myth that The Darkness were "over" or "finished" was everywhere. During the mega-success of the quartet's debut Permission to Land, they annoyed almost as many as they enchanted, and the vultures had been hovering ever since, waiting for the merest whiff of a backlash.

They need only have waited another six months: in August, The Darkness pulled out of a festival in Denmark and cancelled the remainder of their European tour. The reason soon emerged: Hawkins spent September undergoing rehab in The Priory. In October, he announced he was quitting The Darkness, with plans to release his debut solo album in 2007. Meanwhile, his brother Dan, drummer Ed Graham and bassist Richie Edwards intend to carry on under a different name. One suspects they'll get back together one day: brothers usually do.

Britain's most-watched concerts of 2006, if you believed the hype, were performed without an audience in the room. Between February and March, Sandi Thom - an unknown 24-year-old from Aberdeen - played 21 shows in her Tooting basement flat which were webcast to viewing figures reaching, according to some (read: Thom's) sources, as high as 70,000.

The Thom rags-to-riches story was quickly debunked, but not quickly enough to stop her debut single, "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)", which had, it emerged, already been released the previous year, from shooting to No 1 in May.

An egregious piece of sub-Tunstall singer-songwriter by numbers, "I Wish..." had the unique property of being able to make you want to kill the perpetrator after hearing just one line. But the Thom saga was emblematic of one of the key themes of 2006: the increasing importance of the internet.

When Sandi Thom reached No 1, the song she knocked off the top was "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. A not-unpleasant slice of psychedelic soul made by fading singer/rapper Cee-Lo Green and Gorillaz producer Danger Mouse, "Crazy" was unremarkable in itself. Its place in history is as the first-ever UK No 1 not to exist in physical form: all its sales were downloads.

The canniest net nerd of the year was Lily Allen, who rode the MySpace wave to stardom with her infamously undiplomatic blogs and tuneful reggae-lite. You wouldn't wanna be stuck in a broken lift with her, but her ability - nay, compulsion - to indiscriminately irritate and insult anyone and everyone is refreshing.

Arctic Monkeys cleaned up withWhatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, breaking UK records for first-week sales of a debut album, and winning the Mercury Prize with its Libertines-fronted-by-George-Formby sound. In the flesh, however, they were hard to love: diffident at the NME Awards, petulant at the Mercury ceremony, and charmless at Reading, where they were easily outshone by Muse, whose sci-fi rock spectacle was sufficiently impressive to help them fill two nights next year at Wembley Stadium.

The best acts at Reading - Peaches and The Dresden Dolls - were on the smaller stages, but the festival of the year was Latitude. Held in a picturesque lakeside forest in Suffolk, Latitude was dignified by staff who didn't treat you like a criminal, fences which didn't put you in mind of Belsen, and a friendly, best-kept-secret atmosphere. One day, all festivals will be like this.

One star of Latitude was Nicky Wire, the Manic Street Preacher whose solo tour was chaotically entertaining. Wearing a salmon-pink suit, he resembled the best man at a gay wedding and span 30 minutes of material into a 50-minute show by ranting about Italy, healthy school dinners, Snow Patrol and David Cameron.

2007 was, like any other year, a year of comebacks. The Sugarcubes were were worth travelling all the way to Reykjavik for. George Michael was great as long as he stuck with the "Fast Love" and away from the slow stuff. Jarvis Cocker jerked his skinny bones like he'd never been away. If you wanted real oldies, Candi Staton's gospel soul and Dionne Warwick's indiscreet one-woman show were the pick. Less endearing was Morrissey, whose bad- tempered show at the Palladium (short, rude, no encore) left cartoon question-marks hanging over punters' heads.

The mainstream pop tour of the year came from Take That who, love 'em or hate 'em, put a smile on every face, cleverly deconstructing the boyband industry en route. But the finest pure pop show of all came from Scissor Sisters who bathed Trafalgar Square in a scarlet glow, and charged precisely zero for the pleasure.

The best new discoveries were the abrasively funky New Young Pony Club, the joyously mischievous CSS, the MOR troubadour Mika, and the stars of the Club NME New Rave tour (notably Klaxons).

s.price@independent.co.uk

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