The next big things? Why 2016 is a hard year for musical predictions

The pollsters, algorithms and venue-owners say 2016 will belong to earnest troubadour Jack Garratt. But hip-hop outliers J Hus and Jme are set for greatness too, says Alexis Petridis

It is, traditionally, the time of year when the media becomes gripped by the question of which artists are going to make it big in the next 12 months.

The most famous musically predictive institutions – the BBC, the Brits and MTV, all of which seem convinced that a singer from Little Chalfont called Jack Garratt is going to be big this year – have recently been joined by the upstart Google Play.

The search giant has deviated from the standard model of polling industry figures to find out who they think is headed for success, and has instead used “volumes of streams, search activity and social media buzz” – in order to divine that Jack Garratt is going to be big this year.

Indeed, there’s something faintly unsettling about how preordained Garratt’s popularity seems to be: two months before his debut album is released, he is already booked to play the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy in April. Then again, in recent years, the public have shown an unerring willingness to do what is expected of them and troop out to buy the poll-winners’ albums.

If you were desperately scanning the results for information about ongoing trends in music, you could learn that British hip-hop in its multifarious forms is in rude health – by some distance, the most exciting artist on the BBC’s longlist is the 19-year-old self-styled “ugliest MC in Stratford”, J Hus, whose track Dem Boy Paigon has racked up more than 3.5m YouTube views, and who says he wants to be “weird and as unique as possible”. You would also note that the slump in fortunes of the kind of alt-rock that was once the lifeblood of the poor old NME continues apace.

Pop poppest … Blossoms
Pop poppest … Blossoms. Photograph: Laura Harvey

Among the various artists tipped, only London-based quartet Vant and Stockport’s Blossoms really cleave to that model – you might include the Jamie T-inspired Rat Boy at a push – and judging by their interviews, the keyboard-heavy Blossoms seem far more interested in emphasising their pop side than any putative notion of “indie” credibility: “Pop music is pop. It’s popular for a reason,” they told the BBC Sound of 2016 website. “We’re not ashamed or shying away from the fact we want to be as catchy as we can be. Our aim is to make people put their arms round each other and sing and be able to dance at the same time.” They clearly know which side their bread’s buttered on.

Most artists on the lists exist in the musical area whose various boundaries are patrolled by Tom Odell, Emeli Sandé, Ed Sheeran and London Grammar or, at a push, James Blake at his most commercial. It’s a little bit earnest-folky-troubadour, a little bit singer-songwriter-at-the-piano, a little bit soul-inspired, and occasionally has a smidgeon of melancholy electronic ambience thrown in. It is uniformly tasteful and well-done – the singers can all belt it out, the songs are nicely turned – but it seems designed to waft pleasantly in the background rather than grip you by the throat and demand your attention.

It’s certainly not going to stun you with its vast originality: the overall message is that the stuff people are going to like in 2016 is pretty much the same as the stuff they liked in 2015. The one thing you might describe as a surprise is the distinct influence from the once-reviled 90s genre of trip-hop. The best song on offer, Canadian singer-songwriter Alessia Cara’s Here – already a gold-selling hit in the US – is based around the same Isaac Hayes sample that fuelled Portishead’s Glory Box and Tricky’s Hell Is Round the Corner 20 years ago, while among the other regularly mentioned hopefuls lurks Izzy Bizu, who has also covered Portishead’s Glory Box.

You get the feeling that those employed to cheerlead the poll results might be slightly over-egging how characterful some of this stuff is. Nevertheless, there is some genuinely great music among the suggestions – aside from J-Hus, there’s the Timbaland-produced rapper Tink and the off-kilter, eclectic R&B of Kali Uchis – but it’s tempting to say that the most exciting outcome of all these predictions might be that someone, somewhere is so unmoved by what’s included in them that they will resolve to do something about it themselves.

Off-kilter … Kali Uchis
Off-kilter … Kali Uchis Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

If they did, there is at least a faint glimmer of evidence that they could make it happen for themselves, completely bypassing the kind of people who put together these lists in the first place. One of the most cheering developments in British music over the past couple of years has been the commercial revival of grime: largely written off by major labels after an initial splurge of interest in the early years of the last decade, it retreated underground, and grew without the music industry’s interference.

In fact, it grew so exponentially that it started making inroads into the charts. In May, Integrity, the third album by rapper jme – whose Twitter bio boasts “no label, no pr, no publisher, no manager, no pa, no stylist” – entered the charts at No 12: just before Christmas, he and his brother Skepta headlined the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy.

Section Boyz, who appear on the BBC’s Sound of 2016 longlist, have already made the Top 40 with an independently released mixtape, the same month that south London rapper Stormzy gatecrashed the Top 20 with his single Shut Up, the first grime freestyle ever to make the charts. It was an authentically vibrant and exciting single. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that one of the reasons was because it was music that had unexpectedly managed to reach a mass audience while completely avoiding the blandishments of the music industry: it hadn’t had its character surgically removed in the belief that all people want is something unobtrusive. It would be nice if more stuff like that happened.

Perhaps the most exciting prediction you could make for 2016 is that something unpredictable might occur.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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