I guess 2011 must have been a good year for underground pop music, not least due to the fact that this was the year, and I think for the first time at least since I’ve started dealing with this stuff, that the music community finally had found something to actually talk about. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there’s not usually a good deal of blathering and chattering about all kinds of things peripherally related to music, but usually it’s not really about popular music itself. This year though, the music community, or at least the more reflective part of it, suddenly revolved mainly around itself after Simon Reynolds had published his book Retromania, postulating on some 500 pages that contemporary popular music is facing total creative stagnation in consequence of collectively being trapped in backward-leaning nostalgia. The impact of the rather simple thesis was astonishing, virtually everyone felt the need to respond – mostly in defence of the current scene. There were some rather fierce reactions, like Not Not Fun’s Amanda Brown bluntly stating that “the Simon Reynolds perspective is the least modern attitude one could have toward art”, and some more subtle, witty ones. But be it as it may, at least there was something to talk about, an opportunity to pause and to deliberate, and well, that’s a good thing, innit?
For me, one piece stood out of the bulk of Retromania-related articles though, Adam Harper’s essay “Borne Into The 90s” on Dummy, in which he thoroughly discussed the creative possibilities of the latest incursion of nostalgia into pop, the inevitable 90s revival. And indeed, many things in this year’s underground pop that obviously had that decade as their most obvious reference point were way too clever and sophisticated to be considered merely “retromaniac”. Take London via Tallinn artist Maria Minerva for instance, who had a stream of exciting releases in the last twelve months on Not Not Fun and its dance offspring 100% SILK. Everything in her music screams “EUROTRASH”, but it’s all so damn astutely constructed (or, rather, deconstructed) that there can be no doubt that this is a fresh, new, innovative thing.
Another project whose point of reference (albeit more subtly and even more ironically) in 90s mainstream pop culture is of course London duo Hype Williams, who also had a very prolific year, although I’m rather unsure if they still manage to live up to the expectations set by their first releases dropped in 2010. More precisely, the full-length One Nation on Hippos In Tanks is among the best releases of 2011, while the subsequent Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II EP on Hyperdub was rather disappointing to be honest, and I couldn’t help but sense a commencing creative exhaustion. Anyway, One Nation’s track “Businessline” is a true highlight of this year:
In any case, both members have embarked on very worthwhile solo endeavours, and what they’ve put out on their own this year not only shows a terrific amount of pop sensibility but also no sign of exhaustion whatsoever. Especially Inga Copeland’s untitled 12”, sold out within a few days, includes some of my favourite underground pop tunes of 2011.
The question posed by Reynolds in his book was of course basically, “How innovative do we have to be?”, and though this was supposed to challenge contemporary pop music in general, I guess it’s safe to say that the part of it that usually wouldn’t object to be labelled “experimental” naturally does care a lot more about these things. Now let’s be reminded that neglecting classic song writing structures and using some vintage analogue synths has never been either a sufficient or even necessary condition to be justifiably considered avant-garde – still, the most compelling response to Retromania was given by a guy who’d always been doing exactly that: James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual is so very 2011 that the claim that the current pop underground was lacking innovative forces seems almost absurd. Though of course we could discuss if a work like this should still be considered a piece of music in the strict sense of the term.
My absolute favourite of 2011 however was a rather unobtrusive cassette released by the tiny Californian label and artist collective Brunch Groupe. The self-titled tape by KWJAZ, the solo project by label founder Peter Berends, is just perfect in its pure, effortless hypnagogic bliss and has remained on heavy rotation all year long. After being sold out on cassette, the piece was reissued on 12” vinyl by Not Not Fun, and by the way, Reynolds and I apparently agree on this one– and so the circle is complete.