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My year - The Herald arts critics look back at their highlights of 2012

If 2012 can't be characterised as a year in which a fresh act emerged to set pulses racing, then it did at least feature several bands coming of age.

One unquestioned highlight came in January, when The Maccabees finally confirmed all the potential of their first two records with Given To The Wild. It was smart, clever guitar pop, and their QMU appearance later that month was an exhilarating celebration.

Equally, it was heartening that The xx delivered an excellent follow-up to their 2009 debut with Coexist, a collection of songs that seemed even more stripped-down and sparse at times, yet flourished in a live setting. They showcased a fine grasp of stage dynamics at the Usher Hall in September, filling the large venue with an impressive ease that I must admit I wasn't sure they'd pull off.

There were excellent records too from the Walkmen, who seem to be enjoying a purple patch; and Bloc Party, who after the creative misfire of Intimacy returned in angry and aggressive fashion with Four. It was a tough, loud record that reflected the fierce nature of their live shows. Unsurprisingly, such songs pummelled the senses at the O2 Academy in October.

There were more mixed offerings from the arena size bands, however. Muse's The 2nd Law didn't entirely convince as they experimented stylistically, yet they remain a band with a canny understanding of crafting a genuinely spectacular show, and the way the threesome handled the SECC was testament to that.

Less impressive, both live and on record, were The Killers, with Battle Born a real trudge to get through, and the least impressive record of Brandon Flowers and company's career.

Equally disappointing were certain new bands that failed to fire – the appearance of Tribes' retro Britpop on the NME Tour brought the less than thrilling realisation that even poor mid-90s acts are now inspiring equally lacklustre imitators. Spector talked a good game, but then promptly came across as a photocopied Vaccines instead of pop's saviours.

There were some grounds for optimism, though. Alabama Shakes didn't quite produce a great record, but Boys & Girls was still very good, and their songs were lifted in a live setting. Brittany Howard dominated the King Tut's stage in a manner that suggested she was set to be a star, and the fact they were soon back in Glasgow, this time at the Barrowland, was proof of that. Morecombe foursome the Heartbreaks also unveiled a clutch of cracking tunes with Funtimes, a stellar effort.

Scotland wasn't left out, either, with The Twilight Sad adding a dose of Krautrock to their work, while Admiral Fallow continue to grow.

The biggest letdowns came from the pure pop side. While One Direction embarked on a campaign of global domination with some undeniably catchy tunes, there was very little spark elsewhere. Formula throttled pop to a worrying degree, with Cheryl Cole's astonishingly insipid arena dates in the autumn a shining example. Pop is supposed to be fun and off the wall, yet there was little of that on display. The ever spinning wheel of X Factor contestants didn't even throw up any surprises this time, and last year's winners Little Mix have yet to unveil anything distinctive.

Yet there were unexpected triumphs from older acts too, and not just the shock that Guns N' Roses weren't terrible when they played the SECC in May. Duane Eddy showed why he's still the master of twang with a delightful Oran Mor display, and Shirley Manson led Garbage through a thrilling, virulent display at the Barrowland that suggested there are some bands you should never write off.

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