There’s more great new music than ever before – so why can't we bring ourselves to listen to it?

Rare chart-toppers: Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers of Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg - Hollie Fernando
Rare chart-toppers: Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers of Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg - Hollie Fernando

In 2022, I saw the future of music – and it looked like the past.

For Abba Voyage, Blade Runner met the Eurovision Song Contest in a blockbuster, multimedia, sci-fi spectacular, which saw the septuagenarian Swedish supergroup Abba return to the stage every bit as svelte and glamorous as when they broke up 40 years ago. The success of the so-called “Abbatars” (digital avatars of Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Frida) performing at a state-of-the-art purpose-built arena in London’s Olympic Park was the latest proof that nothing can impede the progress of pop’s booming heritage industry.

Acts long past their prime continue to compete with contemporary talents for the entertainment dollar, fuelled by endless rereleases, remixes and remasters, and ceaseless touring even by bands whose surviving membership is dwindling. The Rolling Stones (reduced to three by the death of Charlie Watts), the Eagles (without the late Glenn Frey), Genesis (whose Phil Collins is confined to a wheelchair), Elton John (on the longest farewell tour in pop history) and the evergreen Paul McCartney (who rocked Glastonbury) were among the highest grossing touring artists of 2022.

In a streaming market where every track ever recorded is instantly available, ready to be discovered or rediscovered, old is just another form of new. And so it was that Kate Bush’s 1985 single Running Up That Hill became the defining track of 2022, reignited by an appearance on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things to top charts around the world, giving the 64-year-old singer her biggest ever hit in America. An Abbatar-type show featuring Bush’s imaginatively conceived and choreographed songs would be an enticing experience. But what does all this mean for new music locked into a struggle with the past – and apparently losing? Not a single new artist convincingly broke into the commercial mainstream this year.

There were no debuts among the 40 best-selling albums in the UK in 2022. Not even Wet Leg, the feisty duo from the Isle of Wight who played rapturously received shows and even spent a week at number one in February on the basis of physical sales. Yet all that failed to carry over into the kind of household name awareness that makes pop part of the fabric of the nation.

It gets worse. Barely a handful of albums actually released this year rank among 2022’s bestsellers; those that did were from established stars such as Harry Styles and George Ezra along with America’s Taylor Swift, Drake and the Weeknd. Catalogue albums from popular acts including Ed Sheeran, Adele, Dua Lipa, Sam Fender and Lewis Capaldi lent the charts at least a veneer of contemporaneity, but they found themselves rubbing shoulders with compilations from the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Elton John, Abba, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Oasis, Eminem and even Little Mix (who are taking a break after 11 poptastic years as Britain’s favourite girl group). An old Arctic Monkeys album, AM, outsold (or more accurately out-streamed) their excellent new one, The Car.

Meanwhile, the singles chart is no longer fit for the purpose, reduced to a jumble of streaming data calibrated in ways few could clearly understand, throwing up hits that rarely reach beyond their core audience. Where are the new songs that speak to us today?

It leads to all kinds of awkward questions, about whether pop has exhausted itself, run out of new ideas, fresh sounds, original melodies and interesting rhythms that connect with the modern world. Maybe younger generations don’t attach the same significance to popular music, enticed by a bombardment of alternatives in our contemporary culture of perpetual distraction. Maybe (as fans of a certain vintage tend to think) old music was just better.

Running up that same old hill: Kate Bush was arguably the year's biggest breakout artist when her 1985 hit was used in Stranger Things - Peter Mazel
Running up that same old hill: Kate Bush was arguably the year's biggest breakout artist when her 1985 hit was used in Stranger Things - Peter Mazel

Perish that thought. As a critic on the beat, I know there is fantastic music pouring out on every platform at a time when the tools of creation and dissemination have been so democratised that anyone with a hankering can participate. Thousands new tracks are uploaded to Spotify a day – which presents a problem in itself. Keeping on top of new music can be overwhelming in a world where the gatekeepers of the press and broadcasting no longer hold much sway. When I compare thoughts on the best music of 2022 with fellow critics, there is a noticeable lack of consensus. Everything has fragmented, for better or worse (and many marginal artists might argue it is for the better).

Mojo’s album of the year was by revived indie songsmith Michael Head; Uncut chose Radiohead spin-off the Smile; BBC Radio 6 Music opted for audacious US rapper Kendrick Lamar; The Quietus website endorsed UK electronic duo Jockstrap, while made Spanish electro flamenco adventuress Rosalía its most praised release of 2022.

Worldwide, the most streamed album was by Puerto Rican reggaeton rapper and singer Bad Bunny. Discerning listeners are spoiled for choice, while casual fans fall back on the familiar. Where once the mainstream was offset by a lively counterculture, now there is only self-curated culture, where we can all agree to disagree, then stick in our earbuds and tune out the rest of the world. Spotify’s most popular song has been stuck for four years in a row on 2019’s Blinding Lights by the Weeknd.

I saw many fantastic young live bands this year, passionate artists with a dedicated following, putting everything on the line for their art: Yard Act; the audacious Nova Twins; the supremely gifted Wolf Alice – and, from Ireland, Inhaler and Fontaines DC. It should be cause for optimism, but in order to grow, these acts need to sustain themselves financially while finding ways to be heard beyond their core audience.

Genuine entertainer: Sam Fender - Joel C Ryan
Genuine entertainer: Sam Fender - Joel C Ryan

Where are they supposed to do that? Not on TikTok, with its 17-second sound bites. The most popular social-media platform among the young, TikTok can generate streaming hits out of nowhere, yet its algorithms make it a wild card in the music landscape, with little or no follow-through to help musicians build careers.

Gigging is the more traditional route to growing an audience. Yet in a market where only globally recognised superstars are making serious money, touring is becoming a disaster area, especially for rising artists. Put simply, costs (petrol, trucking, flights, accommodation, plus expensive visas in a post-Brexit environment) are increasing, the market is over-crowded (with a post-Covid resurgence of artists on the road, trying to make up for lost revenues), while the same financial squeeze has resulted in shrinking audience numbers (between promoters, there is discussion of ticket sales being down as much as a third in the UK this year). Many tours have been cancelled or postponed, including shows by Sam Fender, Wet Leg and Yard Act. It is tough out there, and it is not going to get any easier if all record companies can think to do is snap up the latest TikTok novelty hit and squeeze a bit more out of their back catalogue.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge amount of money swilling about the British music business. According to a recent report, music contributed £4 billion to the UK economy in 2021, and £2.5 billion in exports. However, this represented a 31 per cent and 15 per cent decrease respectively from a pre-Covid 2019, suggesting Britain is a musical superpower in decline.
The all-conquering star of 2022 was Harry Styles, with his inescapable earworm hit As It Was, bestselling third album Harry’s House and a stadium tour. He is a deserving star, who seems to have it all: charisma, wit, empathy, cross-gender sex appeal and a pliant voice applied to cool, adult pop songcraft.

Harry's world: Harry Styles's career continued to soar - Lloyd Wakefield
Harry's world: Harry Styles's career continued to soar - Lloyd Wakefield

But in a sense, Styles is a heritage artist too, whose solo stardom is an offshoot of an established boy band. Along with the global success of Ed Sheeran (whose 2021 album = continued to ride high), Adele (who ended a difficult year with a triumphant Las Vegas comeback) and a record-breaking tour by Coldplay (who became only the 11th band to have achieved more than $1 billion in career ticket sales), Styles makes it look as if musically Britain is punching above its weight.

But for how much longer? Without new talent to freshen the pool, our musical future seems hopelessly rooted in nostalgia for a time when British pop really did rule the world. The answer cannot be just another Beatles box set of reformatted recordings from over 50 years ago. Or can it?

In June, I went to see the Rolling Stones at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC. It felt like a glorious last stand as Mick Jagger raced about like the world’s fittest septuagenarian, and Keith Richards played open chords with arthritic hands, both determined to maintain a reputation as the greatest rock and roll band in the world. But on the way to the stadium, a taxi driver asked me what was going on at Anfield. “The Rolling Stones,” I replied.

Winners take it all: ‘Abbatars’ of Björn, Agnetha, Benny and Anni-Frid
Winners take it all: ‘Abbatars’ of Björn, Agnetha, Benny and Anni-Frid

“They’re rolling what?” he said.

“The Rolling Stones are playing,” I persisted.

“There’s a game on?” was his puzzled reply. “I thought the season was over.”

He had honestly never heard of the Rolling Stones. “I was born in the 1990s,” was his excuse. He liked EDM and grime. His idea of vintage music was Britpop. It turned out he had heard of the Beatles, though. 

“It’s Liverpool, mate. You can’t get away from them.”

I thought it was funny at the time. Now I’m not so sure.