My pop highlight of 2017, by Rag’n’Bone Man, Charli XCX and more

From Craig David’s intergenerational Glastonbury success to Tim Jonze’s run-in with Marc Almond, pop stars and Guardian music writers pick their musical memories of the year

Alexis Petridis
Stormzy’s storming Glastonbury set

There is something uniquely thrilling about being in the audience at a show that, as it progresses, starts to give off a feeling that it may be the zenith of the artist’s career thus far. That is what being in the audience during Stormzy’s set at Glastonbury felt like. He seemed to perform the whole thing in a state of stunned disbelief: at the size of the crowd he’d drawn; at the vociferousness of their reaction; at how obviously he held them under his sway, so that the minute he mentioned a moshpit one erupted in front of the stage. But for all his incredulity, you could see why Stormzy has ended up grime’s biggest breakout star. He was both magnetic and appealingly gangly; he radiated charisma and everyman charm. He gave an angry, impassioned speech about the “fuckery” of the Grenfell Tower fire. He seemed like the right pop star for now.

When he played Shut Up, the crowd around me erupted into delirium. I didn’t witness another piece of music have that extreme an effect on an audience for the whole weekend; doubtless there were pockets of Foo Fighters fans driven to a similar ecstatic madness by their interminable headlining set, but I didn’t see it. I started thinking about my daughter, about how much she loves this song, about the startled laughter and conspiratorial don’t-mention-this-to-mum glance that passed between us the first time we listened to it together and it got to the end, which I’d completely forgotten about: “Shut your stupid fucking mouths, chatting bare fucking shit, shut the fuck up.” And I started thinking about the weird journey that particular three minutes of music has been on over the last two years: a freestyle over an eight-year-old underground instrumental, filmed in a South London park, filled with references to grime-scene beefs. It wasn’t made for 11-year-girls to dance around the kitchen to, or for vast crowds at festivals to sing along with. But that’s exactly where it’s ended up: a perfect, joyous example of the transformative power of pop.

Rag’n’Bone Man
Genuine respect from Pink

Earlier this year I was in Paris doing a radio event. Radio events are kind of shit sometimes. It’s an audience of people that have won a competition to come to a gig and it wasn’t just me playing, it was other artists as well, so they’re not necessarily a fan of you – sometimes it can be a bit dry. This time it was Pink playing with me and a few French artists in a really small venue called l’Elysée Montmartre – that was nice because Pink pretty much only plays arenas and stadiums. I brought my missus and my little boy, because my missus is a big fan of Pink – she was way more bothered about seeing Pink than seeing my concert.

We warmed up backstage and did our set, and then I was at the side of the stage when she came on singing my song. I was like: “It’s fucking Pink, singing your song!” She sang Human – obviously it’s probably the only song of mine she knows. Afterwards, she saw me at the side of the stage and gave me a bow. It was really nice, a genuine connection: I thought, she’s a worldwide superstar and she thinks I’m good. Me and my missus were looking at each other, like “this is my life now – shit like this happens”. She was a bit starstruck – I think she’s still a bit starstruck now.

Charli XCX

Feeling the pain of Agony by Yung Lean

Charli XCX: 'I’m somebody who’s always grasping for misery.'
Charli XCX: ‘I’m somebody who’s always grasping for misery.’ Photograph: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

I was on a plane – I don’t even know where I was going to be honest, but flying somewhere – and Agony by Yung Lean came on. This was at a time, which I’m still very much in, where I was feeling very lost and alone. It’s him just singing at a piano and then a kids’ choir comes in. It’s so different, really pure and so emotional. We used to know each other but I haven’t seen him for years, and I really felt his pain in this song.

Obviously, I’m really lucky to do what I do and travel so much, but it does definitely take its toll. Recently, I’ve been going at 100, not really doing things that I even want to do that much. Sometimes you can’t really help feeling like you’re on this ride that you can’t get off. That was part of it. There was a little bit of other stuff – I’m somebody who’s always grasping for misery. The song really amplified that and made it feel OK for a minute. It’s not a happy song, it didn’t make me feel better or anything like that, but now it always makes me feel the same way: calm but also very emotional, and empty – three great states.

Tim Jonze
An enraged Marc Almond

I’d like to think I’ve had more meaningful musical moments this year; I’ve certainly had more enjoyable ones. But meeting Marc Almond for about six minutes back in August is the one that sticks in my mind.

Marc Almond: ‘It’s like the 80s all over again! They’re not taking me seriously!’
Marc Almond: ‘It’s like the 80s all over again! They’re not taking me seriously!’ Photograph: James McCauley/REX/Shutterstock

We were supposed to be meeting for a Guardian Culture webchat, a regular feature in which readers post questions and an artist answers them live. They’re usually pretty relaxed. Almond, however, was not – he was terse and distracted over some aspect of his stage production. Still, I thought, once he sees the questions from readers he’ll come around – there were hundreds of them, covering everything from his avant-garde influences to his new covers album, via his version of The Days of Pearly Spencer (which I was planning on telling him had been one of the first singles I ever bought on CD).

Wrong again. After fetching him a drink, I found Almond pacing around the room, theatrically announcing that he simply could not tolerate this any longer. “These questions are facile! It’s like the 80s all over again! They’re not taking me seriously!” I tried to explain to Marc that he could just skip the sillier ones and focus instead on the numerous ones about his artistic process, but to no avail. “I mean, what is this?” he exclaimed, prodding the print-out of questions. “DO I LIKE ALMONDS?” With that, he stormed out.

A colleague told me he’d spotted Almond outside, still enraged at the nut-based line of questioning, and tried to persuade him give the webchat another go. He was unsuccessful, which was probably for the best – I’m not sure how Almond would have survived the question that lurked on the other side of the page: “Would you ever consider becoming Marc Marzipan or are you scared of the process?”

Craig David
Connecting with new fans

Craig David at Glastonbury: 'There was such a widespread demographic of people in the crowd.'
Craig David at Glastonbury: ‘There was such a widespread demographic of people in the crowd.’ Photograph: Harry Durrant/Getty Images

Last year, when I performed on the Sonic stage, I thought I’d experienced my Glastonbury moment; I never thought the next year I’d get the call-up to be on the Pyramid stage. It was unreal. There was such a widespread demographic of people in the crowd, ones who would have been there when I released my first album Born to Do It back in 2000, and then there was a younger generation who had only just discovered my music. After I finished my set, I was walking back to the dressing room area and two young boys, they must have been about seven or eight years old, ran up to me, proper excited, and asked for a selfie. It quite overwhelming to think I was even on their radar at their age.

I always felt like I could write a song, and I hoped that people who grew up with my music would love the new music, and if nothing else they would love some of the throwback stuff from the earlier albums. But I heard kids saying: “Have you heard of this new guy called Craig David, he’s got this song called When the Bassline Drops,” and I’m thinking: “Wow, ‘new guy’!” That was pretty cool. Success is almost better the second time round, because you have all the wisdom of what you learned before, and you realise what’s really important.

Harriet Gibsone
The magic of Frank Ocean

At the risk of disrespecting the thousands of teenagers in attendance at Lovebox 2017, the hour I waited for Frank Ocean’s headline set felt like being trapped inside an episode of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. Only minus the suspicious parents – a bollocking by a disappointed mum might have come in handy, actually. Essentially it was just lots of very sweaty hammered people, shouting, pushing and licking each other. Someone even stole the straw from my drink. Bad energy all round. It should have been a toxic setting for a rare sighting of music’s most enigmatic performer, all sunburned flesh and mad eyes.

Frank Ocean at Lovebox festival, London, in July.
Frank Ocean at Lovebox festival, London, in July. Photograph: PJP photos/Rex/Shutterstock

What happened next was a miracle. Within seconds Ocean had pacified the hundreds of fans in my periphery. He didn’t even play the hits, instead choosing interludes, extended versions – the soulful Stevie Wonder odyssey he took Good Guy on being the specific musical highlight of 2017 – two different takes on Thinking Bout You and a couple of songs that he had released digitally a few weeks earlier. No Pyramids, or Sweet Life. Just the ghostly, modernist orchestrations from Blonde performed by Ocean, guitarist Alex G and two other guys I don’t know the name of. He turned the stage into a bedroom jam session, and in the process enhanced his lyrics about awkward nights out, loneliness and the temperamental navigation of your early 20s.

Here were songs we had consumed and interpreted in the privacy of our headphones – with their shifts from dream-like nonsense to explicit pleas – now being interpreted live, with a gloriously cathartic communality. Bathed in celestial floodlights, the crowd that I hated with such vitriol at the start of this experience had evolved into rounded emotional beings. With mad eyes.

Michael Hann
Transported by the Hold Steady

I went to Brooklyn to see all four nights of the Hold Steady’s pre-Christmas residency at the Brooklyn Bowl. During a pre-show Q&A, Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield told the audience the band had changed his life, and I rolled my eyes. A middle-aged man saying a rock group had changed his life! How ridiculous!

I held that thought for seconds, before it was replaced with the certainty that, well, they really had changed my life. Why else would I be in a club in the late afternoon, still badly hungover from last night’s show, watching them play songs I’d heard them perform dozens of times before?

The Hold Steady at the Brooklyn Bowl.
The Hold Steady at the Brooklyn Bowl. Photograph: PR

I am not, as my wife will attest, a socially comfortable man. I find talking to strangers, generally, to be an ordeal. But over those four nights, I felt like a different person. I instigated conversations (perhaps helped by pints of frozen margarita) with people who, like me, had spent a huge amount of money not just to see the shows, but to celebrate a community.

On the Sunday afternoon after the final show, I joined the Hold Steady’s singer, Craig Finn, in his local bar to watch the Minnesota Vikings. The place was full of his fans who had turned up for a last beer or five before heading off to airports and stations. Each got a hug, and a thanks for coming. Each departed knowing, as I did, that we had all been part of something bigger. And that is music’s greatest gift.

Faris Badwan, the Horrors
A gender and musical transition

My friend Sophie, the electronic producer, and I have known each other since we were 12 – we grew up very close to each other near Northampton. Sophie was the person who first played me David Bowie; she also gave me the first Pixies album. We would swap a lot of records, and we didn’t know that many people who were into the same kind of music. As we got older we lost touch for a few years, and then the next thing I heard from Sophie she was making this completely crazy electronic music that sounded unlike anything else I’d ever heard. We started doing a few things together – we wrote and produced a couple of songs for a band called Let’s Eat Grandma, which are going to come out next year.

Recently, Sophie transitioned to become a woman. She released a song called It’s Okay to Cry, and it almost marked the beginning of her new life. It’s the first time you can actually hear her voice properly. The actual music was so moving, and really unusual. I think artists should always challenge themselves and others, and Sophie has done it in a totally unique and brave way. It’s such a crazy thing to watch someone you’ve known for your whole life go through such extreme changes and to come out the other side so much happier. It’s really moving, knowing how challenging that must have been.

Sam Richards
The Scott Walker Prom

Sometimes the Proms’ efforts to reel in classical-music sceptics have been hamfisted; last year’s Bowie Prom was proof that you can’t just slap an orchestra on something, rope in a few random guest singers, and expect it to fly. But this year’s Scott Walker Prom was different – the songs on his four extraordinary self-titled solo albums, released after the breakup of the Walker Brothers in the late 1960s, were already wonderfully orchestrated. This was an unashamed wallow in a world long gone, but what a wallow.

Jarvis Cocker was the first of the guest singers to take the stage – he couldn’t sing like Scott, of course, but there was no doubting that he felt every word of Boy Child and Plastic Palace People, two of Walker’s most painfully wistful songs, about the selfishness of dreams versus the drudgery of reality. In whispering the latter song’s poignant final words – “Just hanging there, just hanging there” – his faltering voice was perfect. Scott himself was apparently in attendance, although no one I spoke to could make a positive ID. It seems unlikely he will ever perform live himself again, so this may be the closest we’ll get to experiencing his genius in the flesh.

Dave Simpson
The power of the sea

We used to holiday in the west-coast seaside resort of Blackpool every year. I remember ice creams and donkey rides and the “little dipper” ride (I wasn’t old enough for the bigger version). After Dad died when I was six, we kept going for a while. I felt closer to him there than anywhere.

I went back to Blackpool this year for a piece on music in seaside towns, and the young grime MC Afghan Dan told me how deprivation, lack of opportunities and drug abuse had wreaked havoc on the place: “It’s still a postcard seaside resort, but behind the seafront, things are bad.” He told me about his troubles and described how, when things got on top of him, he would head down to the beach and stare at the sea.

Later, down on the sand, listening to Afghan’s brilliant track Blackpool describe this experience (“Grab my coat and head for the beach / Stare out to the sea / Shove my earphones in / Phone on silent and that’s me”), I suddenly remembered my dad on our last holiday, staring wistfully into the waves. The following year, as a small boy, I’d done the same, perhaps hoping that if I stared hard enough, he’d come back. Now, I started wondering what it was about the sea that could provide such powerful comfort to a dying tax collector, a mourning child and a grime MC, decades apart. Perhaps the feeling of a timeless force that will be here long after any of us renders everything else insignificant, and somehow that makes everything OK. I started picturing thousands of men, women and children, who must have gazed out in the same way over centuries. And somewhere among them, I saw my Dad.


Artist interviews by Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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