You may last have touched an instrument in primary school recorder lessons, but let’s claim this one for all of us anyway: we, the British, are great at making music.
Two-thirds of the way through the year, the Official Charts Company has published a list of 2014’s biggest selling albums in the UK, and nine of the top 10 are homegrown. That beats eight on last year’s list, which also featured a greater number of more bankable veterans, namely Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow and Rod Stewart. This time it’s a youthful bunch, almost all under 30, three of which are on their debut albums. Unknowns not long ago, London Grammar, Sam Smith and Bastille have all put down near permanent roots in the hit parade.
Look slightly further down the list and you’ll find more debut artists in the shape of The 1975, John Newman, Rudimental, Disclosure and George Ezra, whose Wanted on Voyage album reached the number one spot for the first time this week after a long upwards creep. It’s a new wave of stars, who are making inroads internationally too, and proving that the music world doesn’t need to cling on to hopes of a new Adele album lining their coffers before the year is out.
Whether Adele surprises us or not, three other reliable British sellers, One Direction, Calvin Harris and Olly Murs, are definitely back next month, and wallets will also be opened for albums of unheard material from Pink Floyd and Queen. However, this Christmas run-up is traditionally the time when the big guns are unholstered everywhere, so that also means an international onslaught from Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Foo Fighters and David Guetta next month.
But we should hold our own. Swift’s bestie Ed Sheeran is our top seller of 2014 so far with his second album x, followed close behind by Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour. Neither man is a looker or a YouTube must-watch. You could trip over a dozen Sheerans in any student union bar in the country. That leaves fine voices and excellent songs as the source of their appeal.
Nor is the current homeland success of UK artists driven by parochialism or any desire to buy British and avoid the foreign stuff. The internet has made music a worldwide level playing field, hence the recent UK number one singles by Nico & Vinz (Norway), Lilly Wood & Robin Schulz (France/Germany), Mr Probz (Netherlands) and Lorde (New Zealand). The best tunes find their way to the top, without the need for a groundbreaking marketing campaign or innovative means of distribution – witness the ongoing U2 and Thom Yorke backlashes for mediocre albums delivered by stunts.
The presence of so many new acts on the sales list suggests a bright future for UK music. We’re not just ticking over waiting for the return of familiar heroes. This time a decade ago, there were only three British acts in the top 10 biggest albums, and one of those was Robbie Williams’s Greatest Hits. Apart from Alt-J, currently sitting in the top 10 in the UK and the US with a pretty weird second album, the younger stars aren’t doing much that’s radical – the most popular music rarely does – but nor are they aping the past.
So there’s Smith, first heard making dance music with Disclosure before settling into life as a soul man; Sheeran, the only singer-songwriter bold enough to take on arena gigs completely solo; London Grammar, putting classic songwriting in of-the-moment electronic clothing; The 1975 and Bastille, taking the indie band format into the digital realm; and Ezra, bringing humour and a mastery of social media to the world of the traditional troubadour.
Away from the charts, new acts are lighting up the more cerebral environment of the Mercury Prize shortlist as well. There are seven debut albums on the 12-strong list, compared to five last year, from which a winner will be picked on October 29. I’ve been won over by Jungle’s slick disco-funk, Nick Mulvey’s intricate acoustic sounds, the dense hip hop of Young Fathers and FKA twigs’s spooky future R&B. Meanwhile, straddling both the shortlist and the charts, incendiary Brighton duo Royal Blood look like the most impressive new rock band since Arctic Monkeys, sending their self-titled debut album straight to number one in the summer.
It’s all good reason to celebrate, as the BBC did this week with a new version of the Beach Boys classic God Only Knows, sung by a stellar international cast but dominated by Brits, from giants (Elton John, Brian May, Chris Martin) to newer stars such as Emeli Sande, Florence Welch, One Direction, Sam Smith and Jake Bugg.
The Corporation cleared its schedules on every channel to show the video simultaneously on Tuesday evening, an indication of how important it now sees its BBC Music brand. The last such clip was produced 17 years ago, a cover of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. “I want Arts and Music to be as recognised with the BBC, as BBC News is,” said BBC Director-General Tony Hall earlier this year. They’re building up to a brand new ceremony, the BBC Music Awards, to take place at Earls Court, the former home of the BRITs, on December 11.
Along with the BRIT Awards in February and the Mercury and the MOBOs this month, it’ll be another chance to shout about all that’s good in UK music right now. Punching well above our weight in pop since the days of The Beatles and The Stones, the new wave is shaping up to be yet another generation of winners.