At the turn of the decade I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of music I liked, forever standing in Vinyl Exchange in Manchester looking at the racks full of inlay cards, not have a clue what to buy, pocketed hands desperate to flick through the racks but paralysed by indecision. The stock answer was that I’d listen to anything but in truth the pregnant pauses of life accompanied by Alanis Morissette or Sheryl Crow albums with the odd film soundtrack on heavy repeat. Slowly it became apparent that in fact my approach to music was similar to most people’s approach to art, I knew what I liked, but I couldn’t simply acknowledge that. I was embarrassed by it. The whole of music history has passed me by. All I knew was that I hated country music and dance (without much of an inclining about either of them).
Across the decade, I’d like to think that has changed. Firstly there were the world music courses, reading Rolling Stone Magazine, the trips through the local libraries listening to everything from folk to R&B indiscriminately, then ploughing through all of the Proms in 2007, forced myself to experiment across the genres, slowly educated myself with cds and latterly Spotify as my Henry Higgins. Eventually I realised that I didn’t hate country music and dance, that there wasn’t much music worth detesting, prejudice and ignorance blown apart. The month of music writing contributed to this blog in 2008 is symbolic of that change, of embracing the eclectic. Now I’m the kind of person who can genuinely say they like Britney Spears’s early releases, Haydn’s Mass In Temore Belli and Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue, which doesn’t make me deep, I know, just more receptive than I was.
Despite all of that I’ve also spent much of the decade listening to girly-pop, which I hadn't properly noticed until I was working my way through the 411 album the other day noting the influences and imitations. Honestly. For all my snootiness about the Simon Cowell axis of shit, I’ve somehow managed to amass a surprising knowledge of a genre which I’m only about fifty-percent appreciative of. I know all of the words to Avril Lavigne’s Let Go album. The Promise by Girls Aloud grew on me. Which means I have had to listen to it enough times for it to grow on me. And let’s not get started on the Sugababes saga which has threaded through this blog like poison ivy. I was one of the three people who thought Jewel’s only proper pop album 0304 was a good idea. I’ve heard of Gretchen Parlato. No one’s heard of Gretchen Parlato.
I’m not embarrassed by this. While strong musical tone of the nineties was indie music and Brit pop, the noughties saw a proliferation of purer pop music, most specifically by female artists. There’s been the odd boy band and revived boy (now man) band, and the three guitars and a drum kit model still ploughs on ahead, but its female voices have been the prevailing sound. For once, the zeitgeist caught up with me (or the other way around). The quality threshold hasn’t been brilliant. It’s the singers on the fringes of the genre that seem to work best in album terms, the Norah Joneses and Regina Spectors. Those in the epicentre tend to be sustained by their singles, a reaction to the increase in downloading probably. The aforementioned 411 album genuinely only has one and 1/8 good tracks, the one everyone’s heard of On My Knees and the unison singing that greets the opening of Chance.
It’s plaudits then for Norah Jones’s politically tinged Bush-era Wake Me Up with the opening refrain “Wake me up when it’s over, wake me up when it’s done, when he’s gone away…”. To Natalie Imbruglia’s White Lillies Island and its opening track That Day which comforted me through the rubbish commutes earlier in the decade. To Little Boots, A Fine Frenzy, Kate Nash, Joss Stone, Lilly Allen, Lady Gaga, Paloma Faith, Girl Aloud, Bananarama, Christina Aguilera, Jewel, Madelaine Peyroux and everyone I've missed for producing at least one good singable single each. To the Sugababes for being so consistently entertaining even if their music always hasn’t been. And to All Saints for setting aside their differences and trying again, even if the resulting album lacked the power of some of their solo efforts (particularly Appleton’s Fantasy). C’mon Siobhan, if Shazney can do it …
But my favourite singer of the decade, and the most consistently brilliant is Shakira. Oh yes. Most Europeans probably first encountered the Columbian hip-wiggling prodigy as be burst from the sea in the Whenever, Wherever unaware of her already lengthy career in her home country, but the depth of her subsequent English-crossover album, Laundry Service demonstrated that she wasn’t some thrown together new blonde sensation but an artist of real substance. Subsequent listens demonstrates that the key to her success is the fusion of the Latin American sound with more standard rock tropes laced with hints of dance music. It simultaneously sounds like nothing else but entirely familiar and if anyone sought out her earlier nineties material they’d find that the only thing that had changed was the shift in language.
But threading through her work is the undercurrent of intoxicating oddness, of the music and of her image. Hoots of derision greet her lyrics. A standard interview or profile piece will mention some of the linguistic hoops she spins through but the truth is that a large proportion of her words are poetry. Don’t Bother from her next album Oral Fixation Vol. 2 (whose title is easily explained by the previous overlooked in this country Spanish language Fijación Oral Vol. 1) is almost Dickensian in its subtle setting out of a character, the popular rival for a boy in her school. Unlike those purveyors of girly-pop whose albums are structured around singles and whatever else can be bunged on a cd, Shakira’s album are consistently interesting and refreshing right the way through.
And like the fusion of world music sounds within mainstream pop, Shakira constantly seeks to be different to the pack yet remain popular. So while she’ll collaborate with Beyonce she’ll also appear on album covers mimicking the Virgin Mary or Eve in Eden accompanied by a snake or on her latest a ferocious image of feminity. The other interview cliché is to mention how clever she is, and she is. When Evan Davis interviewed her at the close of the decade for the Today programme about her charity work, it was car crash radio simply because he’d expected a pop princess using poverty as a vehicle to sell records. It didn’t take the listener long to realise that there was far more to her than that.