As far as ‘Ones to Watch’ lists go – MTV’s annual ‘Brand New’ line-up has good form. Previous years have seen them giving nods to the likes of Tinie Tempah, Wretch 32, Jessie and Labrinth in lists that – whilst usually offering a fair deal of crossover with the BBC Sound of… and BRITs Critics Choice nominees – commonly aim for a more urban orientated swathe of acts.
And just like Christmas and hefty dollops of brandy-buttered pudding, the announcement of each year’s Brand New line-up wouldn’t be the same without an accompanying duo of gigs to showcase the fresh bevy of artists ‘in their element’. If anything, it’s as good an opportunity as you’ll get to see a fair share of the year’s hotly tipped young upstarts in one swoop.
With the first of this year’s shows taking up residence in Camden’s Electric Ballroom, Dublin outfit Kodaline had the honour of kicking off proceedings; which they managed with the aplomb of a band clearly already incredibly comfortable with a strikingly rapid rise to public awareness. Following a mountain of on-air praise from Radio 1’s Fearne Cotton, the emotional video for their single All I Want shot to over a million views on YouTube, and tonight the song’s love-wracked refrain was every bit as poignant. For our money though, it’s still their U2-esque set opener Lose Your Mind that offers the most promise. Either way, the band’s versatility is impressive – ranging from Mumford-styled balladry to more strait-cut rockers; in all instances, their musicianship apparent in a fullness of sound that swelled to fill every corner of the venue.
Much the same could be said of soon to be man-of-the-moment Tom Odell. Already hailed as 2013’s BRITs Critics Choice winner – maybe it was some sense of impetus to live up to expectations, or more likely, just natural musical effervescence, but to watch Odell on stage is to watch a young man in love with his art. Pounding at a piano like his life depended on it, his radio cuts Another Love and Can’t Pretend already feel like classics, whilst Odell himself is refreshingly humble; still intertwined with the nuances of youth and the simple self-fulfilling joys of music performed in the manner and setting for which it was designed. Consider the hype justified.
It felt a touch ironic then that the headliners – The Vaccines – courted the best reception from the crowd, yet delivered the most underwhelming set of the night. Teenage Icon and If You Wanna quickly sent the front rows into a jittering frenzy, sloshing cups of beer held aloft – each song tight to a point, oh so very slick. Almost too slick; the sound of a band going through the motions, recreating a performance they’d delivered a hundred times before. Was it only last year that The Vaccines were being held up as the trailblazers of a resurgence in Radio 1-friendly guitar music? Going by tonight’s performance, it’s as if any essence of that same spirit has already deserted them.
The second of the two nights took a discernible tilt toward the poppier end of the spectrum, with headliner – and previous year’s ‘Brand New’ winner – Conor Maynard attracting a horde of teen girls to the Forum in Kentish Town; ear-piercing cries of rapture greeting a performance that chimed neatly with the release of his new single, Animal.
‘Voice of John Lewis’ and The Power Of Love balladeer Gabrielle Aplin turned up with full band and a host of other ethereal folk-pop tunes, but left us cold. We first heard Aplin back in November 2011 when songs like Keep Pushing Me suggested an artist ready to gun for the position of the next Ellie Goulding or Laura Marling, but tonight evidenced a singer ill-equipped to deal with a venue this large – the sound muffled on every track, the atmosphere stifled, disinterested. We’re in no doubt Aplin has better to offer, but the lingering suspicion was of a budding star floundering to catch up with her rapidly burgeoning success.
It was the night’s first act and former Soundgirl member Little Nikki who ended up being the real revelation however – this happened to be the third time we’d caught her live, but last year’s taster track Intro Intro remained a sensational highlight; the frenetic mid-track drop accompanied by a wash of light and giddy audience fervour more akin to an East London rave-up than the baroque decadence of the Forum. Meanwhile, new track Give It Up – debuted for the first time here, promised Nikki’s most radio-ready moment to date, a sugary bit of reggae-influenced pop that recalled Girls Aloud’s hit-that-should-have-been Control Of The Knife.
History tells us that every year, Ones to Watch lists have their casualties as well as their successes – just ask Clare Maguire or Michael Kiwanuka. But based on this duo of live showcases, it feels safe to say Little Nikki and Tom Odell in particular will be flying the flag high for British solo artistry this year. The real challenge now lies beyond the buzz and blog hype, a nation to be convinced to actually go and purchase their music over the course of what we imagine to be meticulously planned album campaigns. Time will tell whether it all pays off.