What Came Before and What There Will Be:
IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Marten/PHOTO CREDIT: Rory DCS (for Wonderland)
Why I Am Looking Forward to 2018
THIS year is almost at an end…
IN THIS PHOTO: Lorde/PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Seliger
but that does not mean I am resting and laying back until then! I have already collated and recognised my favourite songs and albums from this year – Lorde’s Melodrama getting the album honour – and I am still revelling in all the new music coming through. It has been a terrific and busy one for the industry and there are things we can look forward to in the next year. There have been triumphant and stunning albums this year but a couple of disappointing offerings into the bargain. Three big acts I thought would get critics drooling and buzzing have produced albums that are past their very best. Björk released Utopia and, when it was announced a while ago, I was among the most excited and eager to hear the new record. It is, in her words, an album that looks at love and rediscovering happiness. Previous records have looked at breakup and scars whereas her latest album addressed renewed purpose and joy. It is good to hear that from Björk but many were expecting a very different L.P. What we have is something personal and experimental; it is spacious and glacial – there is little of the innovation and energy of her best creations. Perhaps that is inevitable – given the fact she is nearing middle-age – but critics felt the listen was too dull and unengaging. I really like the album and know it will take a little while to bed-in and resonate.
IN THIS PHOTO: Arcade Fire/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Two other artists who were primed for big releases were Arcade Fire and Eminem. Very different in terms of sound and purpose but here are two huge acts who have, between them, crafted world-class albums. Arcade Fire’s previous album, Reflektor, showed a little weakness but there were moments of brilliance in there (among them David Bowie-featuring title-track). It was a great album but not up to the lofty heights of past material. When Everything Now came out; there were some who instantly praised it and proclaimed it their finest work. As the reviews came in; that heat went away and many had a more reasoned and demure attitude. It is not a terrible album but there are very few songs that remind us of the better-days Arcade Fire. Some songs, such as Chemistry, fall very short of the mark and make me wonder whether they have lost their touch. Considering they produced masterpieces in The Suburbs, Neon Bible and Funeral: Everything Now appears rather limp and sallow stacked alongside them. It is inevitable certain bands will weaken over time – I hope Arcade Fire regain the purpose and spark that made their first three albums such works of brilliance. Eminem is, perhaps, the biggest disappointment from the year. He is around the same age as Björk but, whereas she is talking about new love and exploring fresh horizons: Eminem is on the attack against the government and trying to rekindle the explosions we heard on albums like The Marshall Mathers LP.
Revival is fresh out but is getting some rather mixed reviews. Those who feel it is up to the hype are celebrating his intense raps and incredible wordplay; the collaborative spirit and the fact he still has that fight and determination. It is clear Eminem is fired-up and angry but has that led to a muddled and unfocused album?! It is a huge, nineteen-track record that covers a lot of ground and brings stars like Pink and Beyoncé into the fray. That association with mainstream artists has led some to say he has lost his edge and is going after fame and big names over his own voice and talent. Whilst Revival is not as immense and wondrous as The Marshall Mathers LP; there are some standout moments and reasons why he should not be written off completely. I wonder whether there will be a tenth album and he can regain some of the genius we all expect from Eminem – he is in his mid-forties so he is past the glory-days. There have been other slightly disappointing albums but those names were the ones expected to create year-defining work. I have been impressed by the likes of Lorde, Thundercat and IDLES: music’s variations and eclectic spirit have seen some tremendous albums come through. As we start to say goodbye to a busy and interesting 2017; there are many, myself included, already making proclamation and predictions regarding the year ahead.
IN THIS PHOTO: Hip-Hop hopeful (and Grammy-nominated artist) SZA
I am pumped looking ahead and how music will change. I will come to the two albums/artists I am most excited about but, if you look at how some genres are coming into focus; I am sure Pop and Hip-Hop will have the biggest say. Pop has always been a bit of a shaky and unpredictable side of music that mixes credible and intelligent acts with the commercial and depressing. The fact Lorde sticks out in my mind is because she has taken a genre I am sceptical about and added her own stamp to it. She is one of the finest songwriters out there and has blown me away with her skill, quality and diversity. I am hearing a lot of similar artists coming through and it seems there will be a move towards more credible and mature Pop. The same is true of Hip-Hop- a genre that has always had to fight for attention. The fact The Grammys included so many Hip-Hop artists in its main categories is a very good sign. I am pleased there is recognition of truly fantastic musicians doing incredible work – the fact it has taken this long to acknowledge them is a little troubling. It is hard to say what will prevail and rule in 2018 but there are a couple of forthcoming/possible releases I am pumped about. One I definitely know is happening is from Jack White. We have seen a teaser/sound-collage video released that fuses various songs together – snippets of them, at least!
One hears some Rock blasts and acoustic numbers; Bluegrass contemplation and scintillating Blues. I am not sure what the album is called but it appears, as the weeks go by, more details will come to light. The White Stripes legend created six albums with Meg White and has already released two solo works. Blunderbuss was his 2012 debut and was a solid album that pleased fans and critics alike. Its 2014 follow-up, Lazaretto, was a step forward and still retained that diverse and exceptional songwriting. Both albums showed White could perform with new musicians and continue without Meg – without repeating what he had done with The White Stripes. It is three years since his last release so high-time there is fresh material! Both his previous solo outings have been solid four-star releases: it seems the songwriter has not created a bad record in his career to date!
IN THIS PHOTO: The cover for Jack White's album, Lazaretto
I am excited by what I have heard so far – brief as it is! – and there has been a surfeit of great Rock this year. I have mentioned IDLES (they are more Punk) but, if you check out the new breed of Rock bands, there are few that stick in the mind. I love acts like REWS but have heard so many others that are quite weak and generic. Foo Fighters released Concrete and Gold this year and that hardly blew me away; Queens of the Stone Age’s Villains was impressive but, aside from them, there was evidence to suggest the validity and popularity of band-made music was waning – as the solo artist took more focus and, once more, produced the best material of the year.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
There are rumoured albums and various possibilities (for 2018) but an album from Jack White is what the world needs! Not only will it bring back a musical talent who has inspired many: other acts/bands will hear his work and take guidance from it. I feel there are too many stadium-aiming bands who want to produce aimless riffs and big sounds – so long as it gets the crowds moving. Royal Blood’s How Did We Get So Dark? was another album that I was excited about but was left cold and angry by – it did not progress from their debut and had very little depth and nuance. Jack White is a different beast and someone who broadens his songwriting and creates colourful, wide-ranging releases. I mentioned Lorde scooping my album prize this year: last year, the honour went to another, but different, female talent. If 2014’s best album was from D’Angelo and The Vanguard (Black Messiah); 2015’s was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly: 2016’s best record was from a young and beguiling Yorkshire lass. Writing of Blues and Yellows first came to my attention a few months before its release. I was aware of Billie Marten before then – having seen a few of her videos on YouTube – and I was one of the first journalists to review the record (when I was writing for The Metropolist). I hope to receive that same honour next year – I am not revealing spoilers when I say Marten is working on new material...
She has written, on Twitter, how she has been in the studio and looking forward to her second album – without revealing any songs/dates quite yet. One of the riskiest things Marten could do is abandon the Folk template she utilised on her debut: so many young songwriters go in a different direction on the second album and risk ruining things. Marten has tipped artists like Scott Quinn so, perhaps, there might be a more Electronic/Soul vibe on the next record? My biggest hope is she assimilates new sounds but keeps the foundations of her sound true and solid. I adore Writing of Blues and Yellows and was mesmerised by its maturity an instant sense of gratification. In the review I wrote, I foolishly side-lined two tracks as potential near-fillers: Green and Emily. Both and incredible songs that cannot be accused of weakness. The former has some terrific percussion and is one of the bounciest/spirited tracks on the record. Emily is Billie Marten showing everyone out there how to write a haunting, unforgettable song. It is howling and strange; it has beauty and incredible build-up; there are electric flecks and echoed backing vocals – a riot of emotions, sights and possibilities. I think the song is the strongest on the album and proof the teenage Marten is a sensational talent one can easily link with Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell – she has the talent and ability to equal their work and become one of our finest artists! There are similar-minded acts like Lucy Rose (another incredible songwriter) - but Marten is ahead of them all.
Although it would have been nearly two years since her debut – whenever the sophomore album is out – that is no slight. Marten has been busy touring and taken the album to various nations. The U.K. is her base and she has been around the country amazing crowds. Every time I spin Writing of Blues and Yellows (I have the vinyl; put it on and close my eyes) I can imagine the songwriter walking the Yorkshire countryside alone with her thoughts. The epic and sweeping scenes, the British weather; the tenderness and quiet – that all comes through in the album. What blew me away was the emotional nakedness and candid revelation from a new artist. Tracks such as Teeth expose Marten’s fight with mental-health (and its poison); Heavy Weather is as evocative and spine-tingling as you can imagine. That song, in fact, was one I could not get out of my head in 2016. The chorus is something that gets into the heart and bounces around the soul; the vocal is transcendent and it is a song you are buckled by and bond with. Slower, building tracks like Hello Sunshine and Unaware show how Marten can muse and pontificate (slightly) - and keep the intrigue high. Bigger, critical-noted songs like Lionhearted and Bird have been played on radio and celebrated; Milk & Honey is the accusation against a hero – of immaturity and greed - whereas Live is the young woman fighting against restraints, wanting to explore the world; have freedom and space (its homonymic title caused a few problems - and is a right bugger when you are putting through Google!).
As I pitch out my journalistic tent next year; there are artists I am desperate to interview – Billie Marten is right near the top of the list! Whereas Jack White thrills me with the possibility of fireworks and his assured magnificence: Marten’s ethereal and gorgeous tones, coupled with her inspiring songwriting, offers grace and purity. I wonder how she will grow and change on the second album; whether there will be harder/sexier elements or she (as I hope) continues down the same path as Writing of Blues and Yellows. There are other records coming out in 2018 but these are the two I am most excited by. It is great seeing some new acts come through and the promise of the New Year titillate and excite music-lovers. I have made some predictions about 2018 – and assessed some highs and lows of this year – but, in truth, music keeps us all alert with its unpredictable and always-brilliant sense of rebellious. As we begin to reflect on 2017 and all the fantastic music that has come before: we cast our eyes to the horizon and what we can expect to find in 2018. I am hopeful next year will produce some of the best new artists and albums we have heard this decade, That is a lofty expectation but I am hearing rumblings and suggestions there could be an earthquake approaching. Let us celebrate what has come and get excited by what will arrive. Before then, naturally, let’s prepare for a…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
VERY Merry Christmas indeed!