Was the year easy on the ear?

Winter is drawing in; the days are getting shorter, the weather colder. At this time of year, there’s nothing Alex and Matt like better than to curl up beside a roaring fire and reflect on the past twelve months of music over a cup of mulled wine. What changed in 2010? What didn’t? How will the sound of 2010 be defined for posterity?

Most strikingly, the boundary between pop and alternative music became blurrier than ever. After their debut album Sigh No More went double-platinum, folk-rockers Mumford & Sons attracted a fanatical following. Elsewhere, the muted tones of indie minimalists The xx, the adolescent pop-rock of The Drums, and a toned-down, nostalgic Arcade Fire came to define the mainstream rock sound of the year. The xx in particular, what with Four Tet’s remix of ‘VCR’ and Jamie xx’s collaborations with a range of eclectic electronica artists, promoted a new strain of tasteful indie-electro fusion that’ll grow in 2011.

In the charts, the success of acts like Jason Derulo and The Wanted demonstrated the enduring appeal of insipid, lowest-common-denominator music, while the Simon Cowell battery farm continued to breed and milk its annual cash cows. But thankfully, the reactionary spirit that so triumphantly thwarted Joe McElderry’s hopes for the last year’s Christmas Number One remains. A growing desire to embrace the underground has seen genres such as drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep – in the guise of Pendulum, Chase & Status et al – elbow their way into the mainstream.

Accordingly, the standard ‘popstar’ model is growing more sophisticated. Florence Welch and Lady Gaga are following the examples set by Björk and Madonna in cultivating striking, warped media personas. On the other hand, as Laurence Osborn argued last week, the ascendancy of artists such as James Blake and Rudi Zygadlo heralds the emergence of the bedroom producer as a star in his own right. Whereas electronica was once the preserve of weird nerds like Aphex Twin, strands of it are now acquiring legitimacy through their clever Burial-esque sampling of catchy 90s RnB (see ‘Best Single of 2010’, opposite). Blake’s very personal cover of indie singer-songwriter Feist’s ‘The Limit To Your Love’ indicated his genre’s crossover potential.

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At a time when cutbacks in funding are plaguing cultural institutions and undermining artistic industries the country over, the UK music industry’s becoming ever more dependent on live shows as a source of revenue. But it’s working – on the back of sold-out festivals like Glastonbury and Reading/Leeds, the industry actually grew by 5% in 2009, and possibly by even more this year. Bestival 2010 stood out as a commercial success story – not only did it sell out, it did so on the back of a non-mainstream lineup that represented a bizarre conflation of genres. Is this kind of all-purpose music festival a thing of the future?

As new music becomes ever easier to record, upload and listen to, breakthrough acts now have to think further outside the box. Although the role of the album as an artistic statement remains important, we’re seeing a shift in focus to the four-minute single, the live performance, and the construction of a striking public image. Whether these trends continue to develop in 2011 remains to be seen.