December 22nd, 2006


The year in (anything but) music

If music didn't exactly die in 2006, it certainly felt sidelined, jilted, demoted, decentred, dethroned as the exemplary creative activity, the most vibrant subculture. Even the days of new movements like Freak Folk and new messiahs like Devendra Banhart felt far away and a million years ago. From where I stand (and I'm not standing here by accident), visual culture now occupies the central position music once did. I don't just say that because art fairs are booming, because art has become a better investment even than property, or because I spent three months as a performance artist and got gigs in as many galleries as rock venues. The signs are all around us.

It was the year when the megalithic mastodons of music toppled. Institutions like Tower Records and Top of the Pops crumbled and fell. David Bowie, whose 1972 TOTP appearance changed my life as it changed many others', crowned his year with a comedy song on the Ricky Gervais show Extras. And the death of Ivor Cutler, a staple of the John Peel show, reminded us again that the central pole of UK alternapop's big top still hadn't been adequately replaced, and perhaps never would be.

Meanwhile, new institutions came along to replace the old mastodons. Web 2.0 brought us YouTube and MySpace, which became the way most of us discovered and shared new music, and relived old. If someone mentioned a band, YouTube was the place I went first to hear their music. I even released a couple of "YouTube singles" myself, Frilly Military and Nervous Heartbeat off my 2006 album, Ocky Milk (which popped up on quite a few album of the year lists, thanks everyone). Note, again, in the YouTube-ization of music, the sly upstaging of audio by visual content.

MySpace (which I refuse to have a presence on, but can't avoid consulting) continued the "famous for 15 people" trend. It was here we discovered new acts like No Bra (who I'm pleased to say will support me at my gig at The Spitz on January 4th) or Nobuko Hori or Joe Howe aka Germlin. It was here too that we kept up with musical friends and collaborators; O.LAMM's shiny and massive "Monolith" album, the new Konki Duet.

Other friends, seeming to recognize the crisis in music, pushed at the boundaries, or the exit: Toog made a record using a bird as the main artist and threatened to do the same next time with a tree. Meanwhile Anne Laplantine gave up music to play go, like Duchamp quitting art for chess.

I completely understand Anne's decision. 2006 was the year I decided that roomtone was preferable to the endless flow of iTunes muzak. My eulogy for pop music came in the form of the catchphrase ubiquity is the abyss and, inevitably, accompanying Wired News article Hell is other people's music.

The music I ended up tolerating best this year was appropriately quiet and self-effacing. Gutevolk's Hirono Nishiyama made, I think, the record of her career in Tiny People Singing in the Rainbow (due early next year). Kansai band Popo made a lovely minimalist record called Kibito. And I titled my appreciation of The Mountain Record by Yuichiro Fujimoto In Praise of Quietness. Kahimi Karie's 2006 record, like Cornelius's, drew its strength from quietness and self-deprecation too.

I found myself listening a lot to the trilogy of records made by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai; Vrioon, Insen and the EP Revep. Sure, in one sense these are coffeetable ambient records, 20 years after Eno's groundbreaking On Land, the embourgeoisement of the Clicks and Cuts movement. But in another they're formally beautiful, with lots of space allowing you to admire the clarity and elegance of the suspended shapes and colours, or just get on with other things. Even the videos (and Insen came out as a luscious live DVD with visuals by Karl Kliem) were minimal and elegant. But wasn't I more excited by the fact that Sakamoto had edited an eco-sex magazine? Like Cornelius, whose videos eclipsed his slight singles, style leader Eye Yamataka seemed more interesting for his visual activities than his music.

When things are dead you spend a lot of time at the museum; I got interested in Enka, Cambodian khmer cassette pop, Nyahbinghi reggae, and rediscovered the great Jake Thackray thanks to a brace of BBC 4 documentaries. There was also an outbreak of what I call epigone pop in the form of some shameless coffin-snatching by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who enlisted the usual suspects to pastiche her dead dad's style. I preferred Jarvis as a radio journalist, though, guiding us through the history of the British art school.

The death of Syd Barrett made one wonder whether the switched-on art student wouldn't have skipped straight to painting if he'd been born in 1980. It wouldn't necessarily have been a betrayal of music: he could have become an artist like Luke Fowler, whose film about Cornelius Cardew was one of the best things I saw all year.

My favourite new guitar band of 2006 was New Humans. But is "guitar band" really the right term for a project which "began out of bassist Mika Tajima's art practice and continues to be a large part of her investigation of space and minimalist concepts"?

The art world also seemed to annex the best pop music when Bjork disappeared into the belly of whale-boyfriend Matthew Barney's new film, Drawing Restraint 9. Who knows if she'll ever re-emerge, and, when she does, whether there will even be such a thing as pop music left for her to cling to. Her collaborators Matmos made a record featuring the sound of semen, burning flesh, and the embalmed reproductive tract of a cow. Their Best of 2006 list appears in art magazine ArtForum.

When people did treat pop as if it had evolved into a serious artform rather than weakening and being annexed by visual culture, the results were terrifying. Scott Walker's The Drift, though utterly admirable in its ambition and originality, was too horrifying to listen to more than a couple of times. The record -- the last album ever made, in a sense -- spoke with a moral authority popular music no longer commands, and seemed to expect to be listened to with ears more adult than anyone currently has. Well, at least we still have eyes.