Arts review of 2019: Fiona Shepherd on the year in pop

Lewis Capaldi performs on the main stage during the TRNSMT Festival at Glasgow Green on July 14, 2019 PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Lewis Capaldi performs on the main stage during the TRNSMT Festival at Glasgow Green on July 14, 2019 PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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In 2019 a Swedish teenager spearheaded a global cultural shakedown and climate activism became the new rock’n’roll, as the youth took to the streets en masse. Meanwhile, mainstream popular music continued its retreat to a place of safety and the biggest new star of the year was a thoroughly ordinary young man from Bathgate. In their contrasting ways, Greta Thunberg and Lewis Capaldi were everywhere in 2019, Thunberg even featuring in a cameo capacity in one of the year’s most breathtaking live shows, delivering a short, clear-sighted filmed address during Björk’s esoteric eco-themed Cornucopia extravaganza.

Capaldi, meanwhile, was more down-to-earth than earth warrior, scoring the biggest-selling single and album of the year with, respectively, the ubiquitous Someone You Loved and the horrendously titled Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, but winning just as many hearts and minds with his wry humour and weaponised self-deprecation.


This gave him the PR edge over his initially more fancied countryman Tom Walker, whose debut album, What a Time to Be Alive, was another big seller. Both trade in inoffensive, gruff-voiced pop soul but it was Capaldi who became the poster boy for smart but responsible use of social media, responding to Noel Gallagher’s distemper with disarming wit and never wasting an opportunity to promote his love of Greggs’ baked produce. The boy-next-door then repeated his success in the States, topping the Hot 100 and securing a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.


He’s got a fight on his hands, however, from fellow nominee Lizzo, the other breakout star of the year with a unique skillset – singer, rapper, flautist – which she parlayed into the irresistible all-killer no-filler soul funk set, Cuz I Love You, an album which truly makes the people come together.


Madonna remained stubbornly unwilling to relinquish her top diva spot, despite continuing mixed fortunes. Her high profile comeback appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest – roughly equivalent to the coveted half-time slot at the Super Bowl – was an embarrassment but the following album, Madame X, clawed back some credibility.


The jury was also out on Kanye West’s gospel album, Jesus Is King, which was as pithy as its creator is verbose, and on The Spice Girls reunion, which hit Murrayfield in June. The songs were as ebullient as ever but the chemistry of the remaining foursome felt forced.


Cher’s Here We Go Again tour was named in reference to her role in Mamma Mia 2 and accompanying Dancing Queen album but could just as easily have been a critique of her perfunctory performance. The return of her peer Suzi Quatro may have garnered less attention but she packed more punch on her No Control album. Meanwhile, the overall pop queen crown remained safe in Kylie’s hands as she continued her golden jubilee celebrations with a glorious Glastonbury celebration which she reprised over a couple of nights at Edinburgh Castle.


Promoters took their chances with a Scottish summer like never before and a packed line-up of outdoor concerts attracted fear and favour. The sun shone on TRNSMT but objections to the male-dominated line-up spawned the Queen Tut’s stage of female talent and calls for integration of more diverse acts.


The Edinburgh Summer Sessions concerts in Princes Street Gardens during the Fringe were lashed with rain but also criticisms of curtains and barriers which obstructed the view of the Castle and access along Princes Street. Over in Glasgow, the highlight of their Summer Sessions series was The Cure’s first show in Scotland in 27 years, where legions of old age goths struggled through the mud to bask in their moody magnificence. Maybe Belle & Sebastian had the right idea – escape the vagaries of the Scottish summer climate entirely by chartering a cruise ship for the Boaty Weekender, their floating festival in the Mediterranean.


Veteran maestros Scott Walker, Ginger Baker and Dr John all passed away, as did 13th Floor Elevators founder Roky Erickson, Sensational Alex Harvey Band drummer Ted McKenna and Malcolm “Molly” Duncan of Average White Band, but there were also sad losses among a younger generation of musicians, including Glasgow-bred Jake Black of Alabama 3, The Prodigy’s chief firestarter Keith Flint, Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis and cult troubadour Daniel Johnston.


Leonard Cohen proved that death was no barrier to creativity with the posthumous release of Thanks For the Dance, curated by his son Adam, and The Cranberries polished up Dolores O’Riordan’s final recordings as In The End, while Nick Cave continued to work through his grief at the loss of son Arthur with the soothing balm of double album Ghosteen and the family of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison set up the Tiny Changes mental health charity in his honour.


Other seasoned players tried something new – Iggy Pop on the languid, ambient Free, Bruce Springsteen on the orchestral Western Stars and 79-year-old electro pop legend Giorgio Moroder on his first ever concert tour, while Coldplay pushed the envelope a tad with double concept album Everyday Life. However, two of the year’s best albums came from artists amping up what they do best – The Specials’ Encore picked up where frontman Terry Hall had left off in 1981 and Lana Del Rey’s Norman F***ing Rockwell was a stunning Californian odyssey.


Closer to home, Sacred Paws, Idlewild, Anna Meredith and C Duncan continued their run of assured, idiosyncratic music making, while Tenement & Temple, Roseanne Reid and Faith Eliott all produced immaculate acoustic collections. Scotpop legends Edwyn Collins and Lloyd Cole were as urbane as ever, soul crooner Joesef positioned himself nicely for breakthrough success in 2020 and Young Fathers associate Callum Easter performed wonders with an accordion and some effects pedals.


Some of these artists were nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year Award; some will surely make the cut next year. In 2019, the country’s most prestigious music award continued to be unpredictable and unpretentious – this year’s winner Auntie Flo accepted his award mid-DJ set at the Skye Festival.