Pop in 2013 - Under the influence

What to listen out for this year.

These days, pop music appears to exist in three distinct worlds: young people’s, older people’s and the soul revival – a genre remarkable because a) it won’t go away and b) people download it for free and buy the CDs in just about equal measure. The ways in which we measure “big” in music today – and what that even means – are only just emerging. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was Spotify’s most-played song in 2012 (he’d have got about $0.009 each time) but the music press hardly touched him. Last January, the retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was named BBC’s Sound of 2012 by a group of industry heads but no one was talking about him by the end of the month. And we were all fed up with the concept of Lana Del Rey by the time the “physical” came out.

So grim are the results of showing too much too soon that new bands hide on the internet, generating heat by their lack of presence, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits before they’ve even got a press shot to supply. Savages and Palma Violets, two post-punk internet buzz bands yet to release their debut albums, courted anonymity in the early stages by ensuring that they hardly had anything on YouTube. The Glaswegian electro-pop trio Chvrches (one of an increasing number of young bands namechecking Prince as an influence) wrote one of the best songs of last year – “The Mother We Share” – and they’ll have an album out at some point but it remains to be seen whether people will be still excited when they’re signed.

Elton John has already been seen at a gig by the Strypes, a capable child band from Ireland who do a kind of rollicking, Cavern-era Beatles and early Stones show with two mouth organs – a redefinition of “R’n’B” for 14-year-olds.

As far as teens are concerned, there’s also Haim, three sisters from the San Fernando Valley in California who grew up in their parents’ rock band. They sing like more light-hearted versions of Florence Welch, look like Joan Jett and sound not a million miles from Eighties Fleetwood Mac. It’s kids’ music but there’s something really heartening about watching them attack old sounds as though no one’s ever been there before.

Last year, Emeli Sandé was a reasonably interesting proposition because she came from behind the scenes – she’d been part of the X Factor songwriting team. This year, A*M*E (aged 19, real name Aminata Kabba) is another antidote to the production-line methods of modern R’n’B. Her song “Beautiful Stranger” was a number-one hit for the South Korean girl group f(x); she’s signed to Gary Barlow’s label; she’s also co-written with Sandé – and while this is all just another way of saying she’s been hanging around the industry for a few years, it doesn’t matter because her music is tremendous fun: south London post-Gaga pop permeated with Pokémon aesthetics, like a Game Boy version of Rihanna or Azealia Banks, Gangnam-style.

In this postmodern age, the musicians who stand out are those manipulating multiple influences, not just pastiching one or two. The Toronto rapper the Weeknd is a well-finished concept, with his Jackson-airy voice and raw psychodramas – the critics’ll probably try to call him the new Frank Ocean.

And one of the most distinctive sounds comes from Laura Mvula, a “classically trained” singer-songwriter from a gospel background who laughs in the face of structure and draws from the well of Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott and Rodgers and Hammerstein. She did all her string arrangements on GarageBand, and then her producer dropped a real orchestra in. Young people today, and so on.

Last year was dominated by the rock veteran and it’s hard to imagine what more they can do now that Keith, Neil and Pete have done their autobiographies, the Stones have marked their half-century and Paul McCartney has done Kurt Cobain for a night. Aerosmith – the American Stones, who’ve been together for 40 years, with Steven Tyler, like Keith, still baffling people with his ability to perform despite years of well-documented self-pickling – will tour Europe in 2013 (a very rare event) and Bruce Springsteen will take his Wrecking Ball tour all over the world, minus sax solos.

Then there’s Björk, who will be performing her ingenious Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. It’s a show so magical and meaningful, its value will only increase over time.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop critic

Björk will be performing her Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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