In the world of music, it is not just at the beginning of the year that we are given predictions about who is the Next Best Thing or One to Watch. However, the intensity of this forecasting increases around this time. One such predication that has been done by the BBC since 2003 is Sound Of 20__. Each year, a group of pundits release a list of who they think are the best and most exciting acts that are new to the public. The hottest prospect is made the winner. Given that 50 Cent, Adele, Ellie Goulding and Jessie J have all been winners, it is a fairly reliable indicator of success.
The pundits did quite a good job last year as well. The Sound of 2012 was soul singer Michael Kiwanuka. He didn’t quite have the same explosive impact as Jessie J, the winner the year before, but given the lack of his genre’s popularity compared to Jessie J’s brand of dance-R’n’B-pop which has taken over the charts, for his album Home Again to reach number 4 is a good effort. The winner should have perhaps been second-placed Frank Ocean. I say perhaps only because it is debatable whether he should have been on the list on the first place, as he had already released a critically acclaimed mixtape in 2011 (Nostalgia, ULTRA) and had a cult following as part of band Odd Future, but 2012 was certainly sensational for him. His album Channel Orange was loved by fans and critics alike. Behind Ocean, third-placed Azealia Banks had one of the most infectious tunes of the year (although 212 was actually released in 2011). Elsewhere in last year’s longlist of fifteen were rapper A$AP Rocky, who reportedly has a two-year $3 million record deal; Lianne La Havas, whose album was declared best of the year by iTunes; and Skrillex, who provided the definitive soundtrack of 2012 for teenage bedrooms and clubs alike. Notable absentees were Jessie Ware and Alt-J, who won this year’s Mercury Prize.
The list also revealed a few wider trends in music. Frank Ocean, influenced by Kanye West’s 808 & Heartbreak album, blurred soul, hip-hop and rock (for an example of this in one song listen to Pyramids) to make music sounding like Drake and The Weeknd (who is on this year’s list). He also came to attention after releasing a mixtape, now common practice for rappers and hip-hop artists. Skrillex, who finished fourth, showed us how dirty, heavy dubstep could become mainstream dance music for clubs and arenas. Friends and Niki & The Dove made pop fused with electro and indie influences not dissimilar to the biggest-selling song of the year, Somebody That I Used To Know.
This year’s list should therefore give us a good guide to music in 2013. As usual, there are a few names which may already be familiar. Palma Violets had their first single Best of Friends voted NME song of the year for 2012. Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, released three mixtapes to widespread acclaim in 2011. Yet I doubt many people beyond those who work in music will have heard of Laura Mvula, Little Green Cars, Arlissa or A*M*E, to name some others on the list. This year, expect traditional genres to be transcended further and new musical movements to emerge. Will Palma Violets succeed like the Vaccines in reenergising rock? Is AlunaGeorge the new sound of dance music (described as “thrillingly futuristic” by the Guardian)? After the steady commercialisation of Nicki Minaj, will Angel Haze revitalise women’s rap?
There is an inherent flaw in lists such as these, which is that they are to a large extent self-fulfilling prophecies. Let’s take the example of the Sound Of lists. Just as last year, the top five acts on the list are being profiled on Radio 1. Afterwards, they can expect substantial coverage on the station (still influential in the age of the Internet) because by virtue of its commitment to blending mainstream and new music it will put their music into its playlist and probably give them interviews with the big DJs. Furthermore, the pundits who decide the list are people who work in television, radio and print. These are the people who decide which musicians we listen to, watch and read about anyway. If they like an act, we are going to find out about it, and it is in their interests for their predictions to come true.
However, the omissions from last year’s list, and the unexpected success of some songs (a certain chubby South Korean comes to mind) suggest even they can’t predict exactly what will we will listen to and like. This is on balance a good thing as it means our music tastes are not completely dictated to us, and that there is spontaneity and randomness, especially in the age of the Internet, when music changes quickly and the distinction between the up-and-coming and already-there blurs. Lana Del Rey became an internet sensation on the back of Video Games, and received endless coverage on music blogs like Pitchfork and Stereogum, which fed into traditional media. By the time her album came out, she was already well-known and a few weeks later picked up a BRIT Award for Best International Breakthrough Act. She epitomised how easy it is to become famous in the era of YouTube. Compared to the days when the route to becoming a top act was narrower and more restricted, fame is easier to attain. However, wider access means more competition, so fame is paradoxically harder to hold on to. Among the countless other forgotten names, ask Steve Brookstein, the first X Factor winner, or The Bravery, BBC Sound of 2005. The ultimate test for the crop of 2013 will not be about imprinting themselves into our consciousness, but imprinting themselves into our memory.
*changes made on 03/01/2013 (from “self-prophesising” to “self-fulfilling prophecies” and from “Parma Violets” to “Palma Violets” twice)