Billie Eilish and Lizzo were among the big breakthrough acts in 2019, while we bade farewell to the likes of Ginger Bakerand Keith Flint, writes Ed Power.
WHAT will be the defining image from the year in music in 2019? Slowthai brandishing the (fake) head of Boris Johnson at the Brit Awards? Taylor Swift’s Instagram feed as she escalated her feud with Scooter Braun over ownership of her back catalogue by taking the dispute to social media?
Or could it be that the tremor we will look back on decades from now will be Lil Nas X parlaying fame on TikTok — an app nobody over the age of 20 had previously heard of — to crush the charts with the country hip-hop crossover ‘Old Town Road’? (When they get around to making Reeling in the Years 2019 you may be sure it will first on the soundtrack).
The other potential candidate, of course is Rami Malik cradling the Best Actor Oscar won for portraying Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody — a reminder that, even as if forges aheads, popular music has never been so completely defined by its past.
Lana Del Rey’s Norman F**king Rockwell blended spliced pop, easy listening, fourth wave feminism and the LA troubadour tradition. Co-produced with Lorde/ Taylor Swift/ St Vincent producer Jack Antonoff, the LP put Del Rey in dialogue with the ghosts of rock’n’roll’s glory years.
Del Rey referenced Leonard Cohen on ‘Maritime Apartment Complex’ and Neil Young on ‘Cinnamon Girl’. It was a pop record that argued for the importance of pop music in the culture.
Critics likewise went wobbly-kneed for FKA Twigs’ Magdalene, a rolling-eyed blend of Kate Bush and the Aphex Twin, and for Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, a record that respectfully warned climate change is coming, if not already here and that we should perhaps consider doing something about it.
An assessment of the year’s finest must also include Tyler, the Creator’s Igor, Lizzo’s major label debut, Cuz I Love You, the Japanese House’s Good At Falling and Bat for Lash’s Lost Girls.
For once, the elder men and women took a back seat, though Nick Cave mesmerised with his grief-infused Ghosteen while The National addressed rock’s history of misogyny by putting female vocalists to the fore on I Am Easy To Find.
And Thom Yorke reminded us life after Radiohead wouldn’t be a terrible as all that, for either him or us, via the digitised ennui of Anima.
Billie Eilish emerged from the playlist undergrowth to dominate with her debut, When We All Fall Asleep,Where Do We Go? Recorded with her brother, Finneas, in their home in suburban LA, and part inspired by her sleep paralysis, it was a pop record that blended Max Martin with Nine Inch Nails. And it made Taylor Swift sound like Bon Jovi to Eilish’s Nirvana.
Another big winner was Scottish singer Lewis Capaldi, who took the Ed Sheeran formula of “normal bloke plus gushing ballads” and ratcheted up the contradictions even further (his breakout dirge was about his nan passing away – but oh how he loves his body odour gags).
Capaldi’s reward was a chart-topping debut album and a 2020 arena / stadium tour — including a date at Musgrave Park in Cork — that sold out in a heartbeat.
It was the year “bedroom” pop became a force in earnest. The teenage bedroom has long been a haven from the outside world. Now, thanks to technology, it has become pop’s most productive creative space This was where Eilish assembled her LP. This woozy genre has likewise given us stars in the making such as Clairo, Girl in Red and Nineties-referencing Beabadobee, tipped to break through in 2020.
The Decline of Kanye was confirmed with the hollowed-out, come-to -the-Lord gospel-rap pap of Jesus Is King. He was thoroughly outshone by the Brockhampton collective, Tyler the Creator, Denzel Curry, and Danny Brown.
In the UK, Streatham’s Dave won the Mercury and Stormzy became a generational poster child and chart-topper with second LP, Heavy Is The Head. Irish rap was having a moment, too —with an excellent debut by Mango X MathMan and a solid new Kojaque mix-tape, Green Diesel (with Luka Palm).
The break-out stars however were Ringsend’s Versatile, headlining 3 Arena even as their offensive/lampooning lyrics (delete according to opinion) ensured they were as divisive as they were popular.
Fontaines DC, the Murder Capital and the returning Girl Band led the fightback after years of dewy-eyed singer-songwriters. Their rumbling and angry pop landed like a brick through the window of Irish music. Still, the troubadour tradition hasn’t gone away, as demonstrated by the chart-topping run of Dermot Kennedy.
Little Green Cars, having broken up, were reborn as Soda Blonde. Pillow Queens continued to win new fans. In other words, and as it ever was, there were grounds both for optimism in Irish pop and also disappointment that so many artists seem to arrive with the rough edges already filed away.
After a surprisingly low key presence over a number of years, major promoter MCD (founded by Cork-born Denis Desmond) returned to the southern capital with a series of gigs at Musgrave Park. The ongoing Marquee events, and Sounds From A Safe Harbour ensured a bumper year for gigs in Cork, with an even bigger roster set for next year.
A chapter closed in the history of Electric Picnic with the Body and Soul arena announcing it would be folding its tent after 16 years in Stradbally. All Together Now at Curraghmore, Co Waterford, had a difficult second year, with huge day-one tailbacks turning Irish Twitter blue.
In Cork the National’s Bryce Dessner curated Sounds from A Safe Harbour, with lump-in-throat performances by Damien Rice, Feist and others. Slane, the lumbering behemoth of Irish open air events, returned with a roar as it welcomed thrash metal monsters Metallica. A tragedy overshadowed the Indiependence festival in Mitchelstown, with the death of Clonmel teenager Jack Downey after a suspected drug overdose.
Lana Del Rey lashed out at a journalist who dared write about her in terms that fell short of weak-at-the-knees effusiveness. And opinions differed over the Spice Girls comeback tour as it kicked off at Croke Park. Some dismissed it a prosecco-fuelled nostalgia; others cheered the return of a more uncomplicated and relatable generation of pop star.
Young rappers continued to depart before their time, with 21 year-old Juice Wrld — real name Jarad Higgins — the latest of the “SoundCloud” generation to die without having even made it to their mid-20s. Other music figures to pass away included Cream drummer Ginger Baker, Roxette’s Marie Fredriksson, Ranking Roger of The Beat, Scott Walker, Keith Flint of The Prodigy, and French composer Michel Legrand.
If you’re asking Taylor Swift, the only plausible answer is Scooter Braun, who acquired her back catalogue from her old label, Big Machine. Swift vowed to fight to regain control of her music and accused Braun of a campaign of “incessant, manipulative bullying”. But while she is getting all that off her chest, might we suggest a quiet word, too, with whoever suggested she appear in Cats?