Monday, 7 March 2011

Clare Maguire and the BBC 'Sound of' Poll: a blessing or a curse?

The year began with reviews of the BBC SO2011 nominees.  It was an exciting start, discovering new music and predicting the successes of the year.

Three months on and three of the top five nominees have released their albums: Clare Maguire, Jessie J and James Blake.  Do the nominees live up to the hype?  Have their nominations been a blessing or a curse?

I write this whilst listening to Clare Maguire's newly released album 'Light After Dark'.  It's by no means a bad album, but it's undoubtedly a disappointment.  Ain't Nobody really grabbed my attention at the tail-end of last year and I fell in love with her voice, so had high hopes for the album.  Listening to each track in isolation is fine, but once you listen to the album in full, the eighties inspired (over)production is relentless.  Each track aims to emulate the appeal of singles Ain't Nobody and The Last Dance, though it all spirals into repetition.  It's a real shame as Maguire has an incredible voice, but the songwriting just doesn't match up, lapsing into cliché with its forgettable lyrics.  Ain't Nobody, along with the stunning video, promised dark sensuality and seduction, but the full album delivers merely clichéd sentimentalism.  I hope, like ironically titled final track This is not the end, the sentiment rings true - Maguire is a true vocal talent who deserves success with a second album.

What about the winner, Jessie J?  Again, first single Do It Like A Dude was superb, posing a feisty version of femininity as a perfect follow-up to previous female 'Sound of' winners.  Then there was Price Tag, a bubblegum pop track that totally belies her attitude and sense of cool.  Unfortunately, the album has followed the template laid by Price Tag, with a series of pop ballads that seem totally unsuited to her.  Then there's James Blake, whose beautiful cover of Limit To Your Love wowed critics late last year.  But now the full album is out, I question whether his minimalist approach is uniquely experimental or covers for a lack of songwriting skill.

The point is that each of these artists are incredibly talented (particularly vocally), but this arguably hasn't been demonstrated in their albums.  Perhaps they were released in a rush to capitalise on the hype, when ironically they could've done with a longer gestation period.  Has the 'Sound of' poll raised expectations too high?

What about previous winners?  When last year's winner Ellie Goulding released her debut, the critics panned her lack of innovation.  It wasn't until the re-release following single Your Song that the album hit success.  The number two spot went to Marina & The Diamonds, who recently stated "I'm pissed off I'm not bigger".  2009 winner Little Boots has dropped off the scene.  Even Adele, who won in 2008, has only received the full attention she deserves with her second album '21'. 

Of course, there are success stories.  Adele has now fully come into her own and will surely be showered with further accolades and awards.  Florence Welch, having taken third place in 2008 with her music machine, has famously taken the industry by storm.  Recently, Hurts won Best New Band at the NME Awards 2011.  In these cases, the poll brought publicity which springboarded their success, though it seems they are exceptional.

To conclude, what is the impact of the 'Sound of' poll on an artist's career?  For some, it provides much needed exposure and for others it raises the hype to an unattainable level, setting them up for a disappointing fall.  But the poll can't be blamed for an artist's career - it is undoubtedly an effective tool for gauging expectations.  Ultimately, it's down to the artist to prove their talent.  And of course, the joy of music is its subjectivity - one man's innovation is another man's cheesy pop. 

Most importantly, once these acts release their second albums (and more) their longevity will be proven.  Adele has succeeded - who will follow suit?