A year of uneasy listening
Ladyhawke, a 2012 highlight.
IN MUCH of 2012's music, it sounded as though the artists were up against it: some musicians faced off with their fears and others tried to outrun them, but either way it was a year of often uneasy listening. No particular genre had a stellar time and there were few definitive new artists who made a statement with a breakthrough album, but in the cracks and crevices were fascinating failures and welcome returns.
Neil Young opened Psychedelic Pill, his double album reunion in front of the indomitable Crazy Horse, with Driftin' Back, a 27-minute (try editing that for radio!) piece of churning rock'n'roll noise where the wafting harmonies were at odds with the electric thrill of the guitar playing. Nostalgia has generally come with a bitter edge in Young's work, so it made sense that this was the year he would indulge it and declare ''don't want my MP3''.
Bruce Springsteen reached for the mythic with Wrecking Ball, an album full of spirits and spiritual music that wandered a version of post-global financial crisis America that felt slack in parts but nonetheless drew acclaim elsewhere.
For some acts, whether neophytes or veterans, an album was simply an excuse to keep touring and bands were often on the road before the records were out (or properly finished). Yet despite the endless stream of live options, the concert market displayed resilience in 2012. Consumer confidence steadied and so did ticket sales, although that was partly due to the shake-out following the panic of 2011, when it appeared we'd reached a tipping point with too many high-price tours and summer music festivals. A year ago even the Big Day Out looked under threat, and while there was cost-cutting then, this year - with Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Killers as headliners despite lacklustre albums - it again appears an institution, alongside the likes of the hard-edged Soundwave and the electronic-based Future Music, with distinctly Victorian favourites Meredith, Golden Plains and The Falls.
For smaller venues, the foundation of Melbourne's still-deserved reputation as the country's music capital, it was a time of consolidation. There were no emblematic closures; instead venues kept pushing north and, finally, west, although the issue of noise complaints by residents continues. Some local bands circulating in smaller pubs made a fetish of the mundane and everyday backed by lo-fi guitar jangle. If there was an underground movement in Melbourne this year it was the sound of the New Ordinary (or Dolewave, as some wags labelled it). There were antidotes - see the bracing self-titled album by New War - but self-reflexive songs about trips to the bottle shop were not unknown.
This insularity is a reaction to the ascendancy and expansiveness of pop music and the indie-electronic scene, but if you listened to pop music it sounded colder and more aggressive. Despite the club melodies being imported from Europe (it was a big year for Stockholm), the definitive pop record may have been Rihanna's Unapologetic, where she performed a duet with R&B singer Chris Brown previously convicted of assaulting her, and went to jittery extremes bereft of euphoria. In such circumstances, it wasn't surprising that teen pop flourished. Even as Justin Bieber turned 18 and started his difficult middle years, there was the swashbuckling One Direction, a British boy band that inspired the year's best hysterical screaming. Their album, Take Me Home, was at best slickly effective, but they were a release valve that functioned well even as their commercial operations hit overdrive; the 1D 3D concert movie is coming.
Some of the best albums were made by female artists who refused to cut corners or pull punches, and whether it was Fiona Apple's immersive The Idler Wheel … , the shimmering self-therapy of Ladyhawke's Anxiety or Sarah Blasko's stark I Awake, their music spoke of their lives in a way that transcended the gap between audience and artist. In an uncertain year, you couldn't ask for much more.