THE music world was shaken to its core when terrorists attacked the Bataclan in Paris, yet pop and rock’s power to heal and unify endures
This has been a year of many happy returns, involving multiple anniversaries and reunions. The centenary of Frank Sinatra, that titan of 20th century popular music, may have been the most notable but, for a more selective bunch of fans, there was no greater cause for celebration than when venerable noiseniks Mogwai, to their own modest surprise, turned 20 with no signs of speeding up.
In Glasgow, King Tut’s and The Cathouse celebrated their 25th birthdays at opposite ends of the year, although both of these venue anniversaries were overshadowed by the closure of The Arches after a quarter century of raving, rocking, eating, drinking, acting, exhibiting and being chased by aliens. The circumstances behind its liquidation were inauspicious, with many feeling that the venue was unfairly penalised for its transparency in reporting drug confiscations in its nightclub. The full effects of the loss of this vibrant institution are likely still to be felt.
T in the Park generated even more headlines and much wailing and gnashing of teeth, though for different reasons. In the pantheon of first world problems, moving house ranks high and so it proved to be a huge headache for Scotland’s biggest and best loved music festival.
T’s new home at Strathallan Castle certainly looked pretty, but this leafy woodland wonderland happens to be home to osprey and otters who weren’t for budging so that 85,000 mental music fans could party for the weekend. With the wildlife issues eventually resolved and the license granted, T’s troubles were only beginning. Over the course of the festival weekend, there were unacceptably long queues to get in, to get out and to get around the considerably smaller site. Adding insult to injury, reports emerged of a controversial injection of Scottish government money to ease the operational costs of the move.
And the music? Even if you could escape the pervasive sound of the fairground’s thumping rave soundtrack, it was not a vintage year across the stages, though Hot Chip and The Proclaimers were reliably great. There is much to work on for 2016 but the booking of The Stone Roses will smooth the way for some T regulars.
Out east, there were changes of a more positive nature as the Edinburgh International Festival under new director Fergus Linehan let the pop music mongrel leave its muddy footprints all over its pristine programme. The late night Hub Sessions were a canny addition to the line-up in an atmospheric space, Sufjan Stevens was received as an indie oracle by a capacity Playhouse and the glorious pop collision of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks – which could only be dubbed FFS – glam rocked the Festival Theatre to its core. This cheeky new combo then went on to rub up against other returning old favourites across the year.
Former Bronski Beat frontman Jimmy Somerville has kept a low profile over the past two decades but emerged from commercial exile with Homage, his lovingly crafted tribute to classic 70s disco.
Idlewild broke their five-year hiatus with a new line-up, new musical direction (sort of) and Everything Ever Written, their best album in years. A number of big indie beasts followed in their wake. Blur and New Order delighted with their respective comeback album offerings, the melancholic Magic Whip and the mighty Music Complete, while the business-as-usual Anthems for Doomed Youth could do nothing to tarnish The Libertines’ unassailable reputation.
A different pop generation were served when Jeff Lynne dusted off the ELO spaceship for the first time in 14 years and new album Alone in the Universe was greeted with nostalgic approval. However, one of the biggest and arguably most bizarre reunions is still to come, as the Bay City Rollers hope to resurrect Rollermania with a brace of sold out shows across the Central Belt this Christmas.
Those aching for some vital new music this year were ill served by the mainstream, as James Bay emerged to make Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran sound edgy. But somewhere in a Glasgow bedroom, a mild riposte was stirring. C Duncan’s home recorded Architect was a masterpiece of DIY invention. This one-man, low-budget (try £50) Beach Boys/Fleet Foxes-inspired gem received a richly deserved profile boost when it was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
Last year’s Mercury champs and reining Scottish Album of the Year Award winners Young Fathers were in contention for the latter prize again with their audacious White Men Are Black Men Too album, though they were pipped in the end by Aberdonian singer/pianist Kathryn Joseph, whose impressively stylised debut Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled boasted ethereal shades of Joanna Newsom and PJ Harvey.
Elsewhere, Chvrches and Django Django failed to succumb to second album syndrome with their bold electro popping and surf-psych-prog-kitchen sinkery as potent as ever, while electronica auteur Ela Orleans recorded her umpteenth release, Upper Hell, with some assistance from respected producer Howie B, and Kanye West-endorsed DJ/producer Hudson Mohawke released his debut album, Lantern, a blend of cutting edge electro and epic filmic production.
While Amy Winehouse was fondly and painfully remembered on celluloid, one diva dominated utterly come the autumn, as every other pop act in the known universe moved out the way of the Adele juggernaut. No matter that 25 was old before its time, its conventional piano balladry has broken chart records galore.
Only the invincible Taylor Swift can stop her now, fresh from taking on Spotify’s pathetic royalty rates on behalf of her puny fellow artists and managing alone where Jay-Z, Madonna, Rihanna, Jack White, Alicia Keys, Chris Martin and her boyfriend Calvin Harris had to club together to launch their alternative streaming offensive, Tidal. Even better, Ryan Adams secured Swift some more publishing profits by applying his golden touch to a gorgeous cover version of her entire 1989 album.
Further modern classics floated across the Atlantic over the course of the year. Americana troubadour Father John Misty borrowed heavily from John Grant on his sumptuous I Love You, Honeybear album, while Grant himself oscillated between electro weirdness and lavish MOR on Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. However, it was rapper Kendrick Lamar who broke the internet on the release of To Pimp A Butterfly in March. Behind the terrible title is a stunning critique of race relations in the US and beyond, set to a soul and funk soundtrack of an ambition not heard since the heyday of George Clinton and Gil Scott Heron.
While much of the rest of the commercial pop realm either kept its head down (Mumford & Sons) or made vacuous anthemic gestures (Florence & the Machine) for most of the year, there was nothing for it but to address the real world when IS terrorists stormed the Bataclan in Paris during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, killing 90 concertgoers.
The response from the music world has been dignified but defiant, with musicians from Shirley Manson to Duran Duran urging music fans to respond to the atrocity by continuing to enjoy and support live music without fear or partiality. By “finishing” their Paris gig as U2’s guests earlier this month, Eagles of Death Metal provided the year’s most potent symbol of the healing power and unifying force of music.