Arts: Why the sun is rising in the west

After a spectacular decade, pop now seems stuck in the doldrums. But there are signs of new life - across the Atlantic. By Fiona Sturges

Fiona Sturges@FionaSturges
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:56

As with almost every facet of our existence, there is a feeling that a millennium will mark some sort of watershed in music. Pessimists speculate that independent record companies will either be forced into liquidation or be subsumed by the major labels who will step up their output of manufactured tat. A more optimistic view is that the advent of a new century will flush away the industry's evils, from Britpop's obsession with retro and boy/girl bands to the tyranny of the big labels. Neither will happen, in my lifetime at least.

For the next 12 months, it will be business as usual with teen acts continuing to spread across record labels like a rash. Boyzone may have reached the end of an unfeasibly long road but they have already spawned suitably saccharine offspring in the shape of Westlife. Reduced to their constituent parts, the solo Spice Girls met a mixed reception this year but, as their recent tour demonstrated, their appeal as a unit shows no signs of abatement.

However, while it's true that, at this portentous moment, pop is stuck in neutral, things are simply not as bad as they seem. After years of Britpop's smug effrontery, the past couple of years have heralded the return of American indie-rock in the guise of acts such as Smog, Will Oldham and Wheat. My hopes are pinned on Nashville's Lambchop to continue this trend next year with their new album, Nixon (City Slang). The band remain curiously uncelebrated in their own land but have slowly gathered a cult following here. Fourteen musicians, headed by the charismatic Kurt Wagner and his weary, semi-spoken vocal style, Lambchop offer an unlikely blend of soul and country replete with understated strings, choirs, horns, and the obligatory steel guitar. As a critic on this paper put it: "It's real music for real people."

New Jersey's Yo La Tengo have always been on the fringes of American rock, though their wilful experimentalism and mercurial live performances have guaranteed them a quietly fanatical following. Among their fans is the movie director Hal Hartley who regularly uses them to provide soundtracks for his films. Yo La Tengo's guitarist, Ira Kaplan, was once described as "the Jewish Jimi Hendrix" - some recommendation - yet, in some ways, that undermines the tenderness and subtlety of their sound. They return in February with their 10th album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador), a hypnotically fragile collection of songs that explores themes of love, marriage and history.

At the opposite end of the rock spectrum, there are a clutch of US bands that are guaranteed to have parents and offspring at loggerheads. If you watch MTV you will know that Limp Bizkit are already huge in America with their videos on a seemingly permanent loop. Limp they most certainly are, though their empty-headed blend of rap and anthemic rock has got angst- ridden, baggy-trousered teens in a fever.

Rap-metal crossover bands Korn and Filter will also be doing the rounds in 2000, as will Rage Against The Machine, the granddads of polemical funk-rock who are trying to relive their glory days of 1993. As far as this particular fad is concerned, I'm with the parents.

Closer to home, three major players from 1997, Radiohead, Oasis and ex- Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft are all releasing albums. Thom Yorke's penchant for soaring vocals and maudlin sentiment has led to a recent proliferation of Radiohead imitators - Travis, Coldplay, Ben Christophers and Muse, to name but a few. So can Radiohead astonish us once more, or will they turn on their disciples and become, say, the undisputed kings of samba?

In the words of countless gameshow hosts, it's make or break time for Oasis. The band that spearheaded Britpop - sorry, Damon - return in February with a new album Standing On the Shoulder of Giants (Creation). The Gallagher brothers' last album, 1997's Be Here Now failed to match expectations; it will take a very special album indeed to propel Oasis back to the dizzy heights of the mid-Nineties. It is unlikely that the recent changes in personnel will make a difference. Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs has been replaced by ex-Ride bassist Andy Bell; but would anyone really have noticed if they had swapped him for a bloke in a local pub band?

Richard Ashcroft is due to release a single in April and an album set for the summer will feature steel guitarist BJ Cole, bassist Pino Palladino and former Verve drummer Peter Salisbury. Determined to surpass his success with The Verve's Urban Hymns, Ashcroft recently stated: "I really want to seize the moment this time around." Oh, please.

Bar the Chemical Brothers, the early Nineties innovators in the dance world (notably Underworld and Leftfield) are no longer the giants of the genre, having released disappointing albums this year. But a sparkling debut from Basement Jaxx proved there's still life in dance music yet. No doubt it will continue to sub-divide and mix genres, forcing the music press to come up with increasingly absurd classifications.

The next Madonna album is nearing completion, with a little help from her friend William Orbit. We are also awaiting albums from Primal Scream, Embrace, the Wannadies, Elastica and Smashing Pumpkins. You can see Beck live in March, Prefab Sprout and Brand New Heavies will play in April.

But will there be any real surprises? There is always the odd shock debut to look forward to - who could have predicted the rise and rise of soul sensation Macy Gray this year? But the most outlandish promise recently came from My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, whose last album, Loveless, ran up such huge studio bills that it nearly bankrupted Creation in 1991. He has vowed to release a new album, sometime in the next millennium.

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