Music review 2012: Pop is pretty healthy all round, except perhaps in Russia

Madonna performing at Murrayfield earlier this year. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Madonna performing at Murrayfield earlier this year. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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ON ONE hand, 2012 will be remembered as the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, with their accompanying celebrations of Britain’s diverse musical traditions.

Very diverse in the case of the Olympics opening ceremony, thanks to the sophisticated curatorial talents of confirmed music fan Danny Boyle.

On the other, a South Korean pop song with a silly horse dance took the world by storm. Here are some of the other notable stories in pop music besides the ubiquity of Gangnam Style.

Madonna ruffled a few feathers - again

The Queen of Pop successfully took her campaign of desperate publicity stunts around the world this year on her MDNA tour, flashing a nipple in Istanbul, branding an image of Jean-Marie Le Pen with a swastika in France, baring her nether regions for the victims of Hurricane Sandy and waving a gun around in Edinburgh as part of a stage routine the day after the cinema shootings in Denver. The most pertinent reaction came from her fans, who were sorely divided on whether she was worth the inflated price of admission any more. But she really hit the bullseye when Vladimir Putin called her a “moralising slut” because of her support for Pussy Riot. Speaking of Russia’s favourite protest punks…

Pop music got political – sort of

Western pop is still a largely apolitical zone, despite Plan B’s best efforts to engage. With one swiftly curtailed 30-second performance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in which they delivered a “punk prayer” to protest Putin’s re-election, all-girl ensemble Pussy Riot did more to kick over the statues than Frank Turner could manage in an entire career. When three of the girls – one of whom hadn’t so much as taken her guitar from its case – were convicted on hooliganism and hate crime charges, “Free Pussy Riot!” became the rallying cry of the year and brightly coloured balaclavas were suddenly on-trend.

The oldies showed the youngsters a trick or two

Leonard Cohen was on exemplary form with Old Ideas, which became the highest charting album of his career. Soul veteran Bobby Womack and the redoubtable Dr John flourished – with a little help from their younger producers, Damon Albarn and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach – on their new albums, The Bravest Man In The Universe and Locked Down, while neglected songwriters such as Rodriguez and Bill Fay were rediscovered.

John Lydon and Kevin Rowland reconvened their respective bands, PiL and Dexys, producing two of the year’s best releases, This Is PiL and One Day I’m Going To Soar. ZZ Top broke a decade’s silence with the surprisingly limber La Futura and, as the year drew to a close, some bunch of old lags called The Rolling Stones released a hungry new single, Doom And Gloom, and charged the earth for concert tickets. On the other hand…

Scottish art rock was alive and well

The inaugural Scottish Album of the Year Award went to Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat’s witty, sublime and outrageous Everything’s Getting Older but talk quickly turned to the potential riches of any future shortlist. Django Django’s self-titled debut album was roundly and deservedly embraced, while Errors and The Twilight Sad came of age with their respective efforts, the effervescent Have Some Faith In Magic and brooding No One Can Ever Know. Django’s Edinburgh College of Art buddies Snide Rhythms impressed with their witty ransacking of post-punk influences and psych folk outfit Trembling Bells teamed up with oddball troubadour Bonnie Prince Billy to produce the marvellous medieval acid prog of The Marble Downs.

The technological backlash started here...

While almost all was woe for many labels, Jack White’s Nashville-based Third Man Records went from strength to strength with some great music released in novel formats, including eight and 13-inch vinyl, tricoloured vinyl, glow-in-the-dark vinyl, scented vinyl, 3rpm vinyl, liquid-filled vinyl… you get the picture (disc). They even released a batch of flexi-discs into the stratosphere tied to helium balloons as a way of “exploring non-traditional forms of record distribution”. Next year: the return of the wax cylinder perhaps?

Beck went one backwards, releasing his latest album, Song Reader, solely in sheet music form. Was it any good? Depends how well you read and play music…

The boys fought back

Pop music still largely belongs to the girls. Emeli Sandé’s debut album Our Version Of Events was the biggest seller in the UK. Lana Del Rey, Rihanna and Florence also owned the charts and, in a relatively quiet year for Adele, she still had the second biggest selling album and made a brief but high profile appearance with her Bond theme. But 2012 was the year the young-man-with-guitar staged a bit of a comeback, thanks to the continuing momentum of Ed Sheeran, the stealth success of Ben Howard and the No 1-with-a-bullet arrival of Nottingham teenager Jake Bugg. And now X Factor winner James Arthur has just capped the year by releasing its fastest selling single.

Hip-hop cloned itself and came out of the closet

This was the year the hip-hop fraternity finally started to address its homophobia, with the likes of 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and A$ap Rocky coming out in support of gay rappers and singer Frank Ocean actually coming out with a touching open letter to his first love. Ocean, who is also a member of LA hip-hop crew Odd Future, is the most successful of a growing list of gay male rappers which includes New Yorkers Zebra Katz and Cakes Da Killa and a couple of gents who are proud to call themselves Sissy.

In other, more bizarre news, rapper Tupac Shakur again proved that death is no barrier to his continuing involvement in showbusiness when he “performed” in “hologram” form (a Pepper’s Ghost) at the Coachella Festival. A host of dead rock stars did not follow his lead but, given the music industry’s need to cash in on back catalogue, it is probably only a matter of time before we are all queuing up to catch Amy Winehouse’s comeback tour.