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.