Ones to Watch for 2011?: The Vaccines

I loathe having to include any excess punctuation in my post titles, but for this series I just about have to.  Spurred into action by the clarion call that was the BBC’s truly depressing Sound of 2011 poll, this run of semi-related posts will fulfil two functions; firstly, I feel it is my duty to debunk everyone else’s picks for 2011, and secondly, I can’t really pour scorn on other people’s predictions without providing a couple of my own*. Basically, if the dear old beeb is to be believed, 2011 is going to be an awful year for music.  I’ve already made my views on the BBC’s winner, Jessie J, perfectly clear in my last post, so now I’m turning my attention to the four acts that were the runners up; James Blake, The Vaccines, Jamie Woon and Claire Maguire.

It’s not really a surprise to see Claire Maguire on the list, as we’ve already established the poll’s predilection for female solo acts.  The problem is (aside from the leopard-print coat; a sure warning sign if ever there was one) Claire sounds awfully “nineties”; I thought we’d seen the last of this kind of music when the Corrs stopped making records.  The drum patterns, the cheesy string synth part and the desperately  tired guitar sound all add up to make her sound distinctly stale, but it’s her voice and lyrical delivery that make this sound so appallingly amateur.  There are thousands of singers like this prowling the open-mic nights of rural and suburban England; why has this one been singled out for special attention? Even more disturbingly, why has one of them been picked at all? I’ve always taken solace in the fact that music like this has never made it beyond simply local-radio-level success.  This really is music aimed at people who don’t actually like music; it sounds very slick, and there’s nothing dangerous or risky or challenging going on – in a word: boring.

At least Jamie Woon and James Blake are ploughing their own furrow and experimenting at the far reaches of technology? Sadly that argument falls down when you notice that there’s not all that much difference between them.  Neither of them can write a song, from the evidence on hand so far at least, and both spend far too long building up electronic soundscapes and ambiances without actually getting anywhere.  Negative space is a crucial factor in music, and one that a songwriter or producer overlooks at their peril, but I can’t escape the feeling that these chaps are rather taking the piss a little.  They’d both, I’m sure, prove a notable discussion point on a live bill – as anyone using loop pedals and the like is bound to – but once the initial curiosity has worn off there’s really nothing worth hanging onto with either act.  Oh, and someone should tell Blake that there’s only room in this world for one solely-vocoder-based track, and Imogen Heap’s got that corner of the market covered pretty comprehensively.

Against this morass of iniquity, London-based indie quartet The Vaccines positively shine.  They have actual, bona-fide pop songs (Post Break-Up Sex, and If You Wanna) and don’t play to a click track (shock! horror!), all coupled with an infectious enthusiasm that makes them feel like the Libertines reborn.  But alas, there’s the rub: this isn’t anything new.  Band’s have been making this sort of music since sex was first discovered in the sixties, and if you were to drop The Vaccines into any point in the last decade nobody would have batted an eyelid; The Vaccines are the concept of “indie” as an aesthetic writ large.  But maybe that’s enough? There are, after all, only twelve notes – and, in fact, in the world of pop there’s only really three chords – so what if they are re-treading old ground? Is that reason enough to begrudge them their success? I know many people who would say yes, it is – particularly in this instance when the music being made is so derivative – and in my more cold-hearted moments I would be inclined to agree.  But perhaps it’s the optimism of the new year, perhaps it’s the heady promise of spring-just-around-the-corner, or perhaps it’s merely just because they’re simply the lesser of quite a few evils, but whatever the reason, I’m inclined to give The Vaccines the benefit of the doubt and say that they really are a “one to watch” for the coming year.

The Vaccines – If You Wanna (Marc Riley session)

*That will, most likely, be picked apart mercilessly by yet more bloggers… Well, it’s only fair.

BBC Sound of 2011

January has always been a month of hope and expectation in the music world; the ravages of the Christmas chart silliness, coupled with the fact that everyone in the country pretty much turns off for a week or so, means we emerge into the new year bleary eyed and eager for news of what’s ahead.  Those amongst us on the web who consider ourselves “tastemakers” are always quick to respond to demand (more often than not in the blogosphere’s favourite format: a list!) but since 2003 the discussion has invariable been led by the dear old beeb and their Sound Of… poll.  Past winners have always gone on to reasonable commercial success, and inclusion in the short list is often enough to kick start a career or two, so the expectations are always high and the results are watched with great interest by all and sundry.

However, despite my automatic approval of anything the BBC does, I can’t help but shake my head in bafflement at their new list.  To cut to the chase, this year’s selection is utter tripe.  Past winners have included Adele, Little Boots and Ellie Goulding, with notable also-rans Florence & the Machine, La Roux and Marina & the Diamonds also featuring highly, so I’m sure the more astute amongst you have already detected the theme (name-in-the-title female singers, perhaps?) and will have recognised that stylistically-speaking this list has never actually been aimed at my particular demographic.  I’m happy to accept that, but even more eager to point out that, as a discerning listener of taste, I can happily admire the qualities of music that I dislike aesthetically; Adele and Little Boots both had a couple of songs that I could stand to listen to (unlike most of the Radio 1 playlist) and Ellie Goulding’s album, Lights, actually made it onto my Top 10 Albums of 2010 list.  So the winner is often not my cup of tea, but still worth a listen anyway? Not so this year…

As expected, the winner was yet another name-in-the-title female singer, but sadly Jessie J is a travesty no matter what standards you judge her against.  I’ve spent a little while mulling over how best to word my thoughts on her and her music, but quite frankly I can’t even gather the energy for even that much. For those of you not prepared to take my word on the matter, you can see exhibit A. for the prosecution here: where she gurns her way through the yankophile cliché-fest that is her lead single, Do It Like a Dude.

The short list for this award makes for interesting reading, as does the list of pundits who came up with the results, so if you want the full lowdown I recommend you visit this post by The Recommender, where the process, pundits and shortlist are examined in more detail than I can muster the strength of character to repeat here. There was one entry in the poll’s top five that did manage to pique my interest, and that act will be the subject for the first in a short series of post outlining my “ones to watch” for 2011 (don’t you just love a little artificial suspense!). Given that the BBC has let me down so badly I’ll just have to rely on the old addage, “if you want something done right, do it yourself”…

Jessie J – Do It Like a Dude (live on BBC Radio 1)