Fiona Shepherd: 2014 a triumph for unique voices

THE corporate and creative worlds competed for attention in a memorable year for pop, writes Fiona Shepherd

Young Fathers won the Mercury Music Prize this year. Picture: John Devlin

In a year when U2 felt that the best way to flog their inferior new album Songs Of Innocence was via a decidedly non-innocent hook-up with enormocorps Apple, when Pink Floyd’s feverishly pre-ordered new/old album The Endless River was notable less for the music within than for taking vinyl sales past the one million units mark for the first time since 1996, and when banal troubadours Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith emerged as the year’s top-selling artists, popular music needed the idiosyncratic artistry of Kate Bush more than ever.

Thankfully, she responded to the distress call with the unforeseen announcement that she would return to the stage a mere 35 years after her first and only tour with Before the Dawn, an epic residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo which was as much high concept theatre as music concert. For the lucky ticket holders, this was the rock and pop story of the year. Yet in Scotland, 2014 yielded an embarrassment of riches as our musicians, promoters and venues stepped up to the plate to make the most of the country’s season in the international spotlight.

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Glasgow’s gleaming new arena the Hydro hit the ground running in its maiden year, ranking a very impressive third place in Pollstar’s Top 100 Worldwide Arena Venues list, thanks to a proactive policy of almost always being open for (show)business and luring a host of superstar players. Beyoncé strutted her Amazonian stuff in February, Justin Timberlake brought his classy soul revue in April, Miley Cyrus and her giant tongue came in like a wrecking ball in May, while Dolly Parton was altogether more approachable when she charmed the masses in June.

But the greatest buzz was reserved for royal funkmeister Prince who swung by Scotland for the first time in 19 years on his Hit and Run tour, causing a back-of-the-wardrobe scramble for those long discarded purple T-shirts. His effortlessly brilliant performance created a far more natural party atmosphere than the Ryder Cup Gala Concert – which, by most accounts, was saved in the closing stages by the feelgood presence of Nile Rodgers and Chic – or the manufactured hysteria of the MTV EMAs which scooted by in two breathless hours of seamless scenery and costume changes, hectic performances and filmed acceptance speeches by acts who were washing their hair elsewhere that night.

Either of these ceremonies could have been the signature pop happening of any other year but 2014 was fairly awash with musical extravanganzas. Bannockburn Live drew criticism first for its poor ticket sales and then for being unable to cope with demand to watch its battle reenactments but the live music programme was a good-natured celebration of the breadth and talent of our folk, roots and traditional music practitioners.

In glaring contrast, Radio 1’s Big Weekend brought the pop circus to Glasgow Green, shipping in major acts such as One Direction and Pharrell Williams for perfunctory, profile-raising performances. Sam Smith was informed live on stage that he was top of the pops with Stay With Me and thus his bland assault on 2014’s parched pop landscape began. But it was Coldplay who supplied the personal touch with a dedication to the students who had lost their degree show work in the Art School fire the day before.

There was barely time to recover from this before Glasgow Green and other live zones around the city were activated for Festival 2014. The hugely heartening cultural offshoot of the Commonwealth Games seemed to sweep along every Scottish musician who wasn’t nailed down. At one end of the star spectrum, Lulu, Susan Boyle and Rod Stewart put in their high profile appearances, while the up-and-coming likes of Prides and Chvrches also featured, whether in person or over the PA, during the key ceremonies. Scottie dogs aside, the highlight of the opening ceremony was the entrance of the home team to the pumping strains of The Shamen’s Move Any Mountain while, across town, Belle & Sebastian were the ideal opening act on the refurbished Kelvingrove Bandstand.

Away from the flagship events, a host of Commonwealth-funded projects aspired to leave a more enduring footprint. Songwriter Aidan Moffat teamed up with filmmaker Paul Fegan for Where You’re Meant To Be, a tour and film exploring Scotland’s varied oral traditions. King Creosote supplied the music for Virginia Heath’s documentary From Scotland With Love, composed entirely of archive footage of Scottish social, political and cultural life. Most ambitiously of all, Chemikal Underground Records curated and ran the East End Social, a six month programme of music events and mini-festivals in out-of-the-ordinary venues across Glasgow’s east end.

Closing event the Last Big Weekend was maybe a festival too far in a saturated year, but the smaller and perfectly formed Duke Street Expo was a gem of a concept, coaxing music fans out of their comfort zone and along one of the city’s most characterful local strips with pop-up gigs in shops, cafes and tattoo parlours. All of this meaningful grassroots activity stood in sharp contrast to the BBC’s Live at Edinburgh Castle, a glitzy but random showbiz broadcast from the esplanade with little direct relevance to the Games beyond a quick drive-by for the Queen’s Baton Relay.

Many musicians were galvanized by the indyref debate. David Bowie was one of the first non-Scottish artists to enter the fray with his enigmatic “Scotland, stay with us” speech, delivered by his proxy, Kate Moss, at the Brit Awards. But in our entirely non-scientific poll, roughly nine out of ten musicians who expressed a preference were pro-independence, ranging from SNP warhorses The Proclaimers, whose Cap In Hand was adopted as an unofficial campaign anthem, via Biffy Clyro, whose frontman Simon Neil draped himself in a Yes-emblazoned Saltire during the group’s T in the Park headline appearance, to hip-hop ensemble Stanley Odd, whose commemorative track Son I Voted Yes is Nicola Sturgeon’s fave rave.

However, it was another Scottish hip-hop act who cleaned up critically this year. Edinburgh trio Young Fathers scooped both the Scottish Album of the Year Award and the Mercury Music Prize, the former for their EP Tape Two, the latter for their long-awaited debut album Dead, deservedly recognised for their innovation and blurring of boundaries when many of their peers were opting for comfier territory.

Perhaps inevitably, album releases by Scottish artists were mainly overshadowed by this year’s remarkable calendar of events – with one notable exception. Paolo Nutini came of age with his masterful third album Caustic Love, an old school soul epic which judiciously ignored commercial trends but still flew off the shelves, injecting a bit of much needed integrity into a predictably safe list of the year’s big-sellers. Take that, Sheeran, Smith and, indeed, Take That.