The sounds of 2013

Savages, Haim and Bjork in a circus tent.

At the start of this year, singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was named BBC's Sound of 2012. His inoffensive acoustic soul – the sound of 1972 – sold a lot of CDs, but no one talks about him any more. The bright but musically underwhelming Emeli Sande is essentially another flash in the pan. The ways in which we now measure “big” in music – what that even means – are only just emerging. Everyone was fed up with Lana Del Rey by the time the physical album came out. A band can get a million hits on YouTube when they don't even have a press shot to supply. The Glaswegian electro-pop trio Chvrches wrote one of the best pop songs this year and they'll have an album out in the spring, though it remains to be seen whether people are still excited when the band are signed.

I hope they do because they're great, though they’re not to be confused with Curxes a frosty, art-pop, boy/girl double-act (always interesting) who sound like Siouxsie smashing up a giant oil-rig. New bands hide, posting mysterious, faceless videos on YouTube, because no one wants to reveal too much too soon. If you're making spikey, difficult music (see enjoyable girl-punk band Savages, whose debut is out next year) it makes sense to work it up in small clubs and have people crowing about your "white hot" lives shows.

There's a reassuring amount of unusual, aurally challenging material getting attention though. Laura Mvula is 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 even Rogers & Hammerstein. You sense an impressive amount of creative control. Other interesting post-Amy neo-soul voices – for they will keep on coming – are 14-year-old Mahalia and Rainy Milo. They don't make you want to bang your head against the wall, unlike Savannah's Kristina Train whose lyrics sound like they were written by a 60 year-old man (it was actually Ed Harcourt) and recall Katy Melhua.

Weirdly, there's also a surprisingly bright vista for soft melodic rock, too. Young bucks making well-oiled, emotionally and musically literate songs of the not-very-cool kind. Like Sons And Lovers and the rather unusual Dunwells who are Leeds' answer to Christian rock without, as far as I'm aware, being particularly Christian. Those chest-beating songs are surprisingly powerful in a live setting. If the brothers don't take hold in the UK, no matter because they're already huge in America. Sibling bands tend to be slick and confident - they've had a head start. You've also got Haim, three sisters from San Fernando who grew up in their parents' rock band. They’re supporting Florence next year, sing like a pluckier, lighthearted version of her, look a bit like Joan Jett and sound not a million miles from eighties Fleetwood Mac.

Meanwhile, somewhere between the world of Later... With Jools and the world of the blogs, there’s a murky region inhabited by artists who are hiding in plain sight. Like Phildel, whose atmospheric product has already been used on countless ads from Expedia to the iPad to Marks & Spencer, and has stirred the imagination of the goth market via a hundred weird YouTube tributes. The songs come from a strange place - her fundamentalist Muslim stepfather banned music in the house. It's a good story, which is what you need these days – like white male soul singer Willy Moon, who spent a period on the streets of Camden as a junkie, had his first crack at fame in 2011, and has just scored the latest iPad ad. And a quick glimpse at the gig horizon – a big tour by Muse and another by Aerosmith, who hardly ever come to the UK. And Bjork will be performing her brilliant Biophilia show in a circus tent for six dates in February and March - which is certainly worth going to Paris for.


Bjork: a highlight of 2013 (Getty Images)

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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.