In the early days of this year, a tweet by the Canadian author Heidi Priebe was shared widely across social media. “January is not the month for starting a new life, sorry,” Priebe wrote. “You’re thinking of April or September. January is a Sunday afternoon. It is for sleeping in, making cinnamon rolls, having sex and reading bad fiction books.”
I thought of this the following week, when the BBC announced the winner of its annual poll of new musical artists to watch in the coming year. The title is coveted—previous winners have included Adele, Haim and Billie Eilish—and this year it went to the inventive and thoroughly worthy indie-rock five-piece the Last Dinner Party. Still, as with most years, it was hard not to feel jarred by the contest’s arrival so early in the calendar. I was half asleep making cinnamon rolls; I was content just listening to midwinter favourites from my record collection.
There is something unrelenting about the seasons these days. And when I say “seasons” what I mean is “commercial windows”. Summer turns to pumpkin spice to Halloween, Hanukkah, Christmas. Then New Year and on to Valentine’s. No week is left unmilked or unmarketed.
This happens as much in the music world as any other, and, by the time we reach January, I am exhausted by it all. The last thing I think any of us need as the year turns is a stream of Ones to Watch features. We do not require a burst of new bands to accompany the dry days and fitness regimes. It’s all too loud and too glaring. Each January, when I am inevitably asked to contribute my own tips for the coming year, I remember the indignation of the actor Phil Daniels in his guest spot on Blur’s “Parklife”, roused from his slumber by unwelcome cacophony: “I get up when I want,” he says, “except on Wednesdays, when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen.”
We do not require a burst of new bands to accompany the dry days and fitness regimes
It’s not that these hot tips and glittering recommendations don’t have a place, it’s that they might arrive at a time when they would feel less abrasive. “You’re thinking of April or September,” as Priebe put it; months when the land holds more excitement—the promise of gathering spring, the new-shoed clip of autumn. But not now. Not in the muted months of the year. Let us rest.
A few years ago, the online radio station Amateurism asked me to broadcast a show for them in the days between a lockdown Christmas and New Year. I gave a great deal of thought to the matter of music for a faded season and came up with a playlist I affectionately named “Bleak Midwinter Plague Songs”. It’s one to which I now return every late December and on through January and February. It has Kae Tempest and Mary Lattimore, Alan Lee and Lael Neale. In perhaps my favourite segue, Mary Oliver reads her poem “Night and the River” against a cello setting, then gives way to Kate Bush’s “And Dream of Sheep”. It has a sense of a world coming into view, I think; of beauty just around the corner.
The show began with Lhasa de Sela’s “Soon This Space Will Be Too Small”, a track from the singer’s 2003 album The Living Road. De Sela was born in the US, but lived variously in Mexico, Canada and France. She sang in Spanish, French and English, briefly joined the circus and recorded three acclaimed albums before she died of breast cancer on New Year’s Day 2010, aged just 37.
Once, Lhasa gave a short introduction to a live performance of the song—you can find it on YouTube. “When we’re conceived we appear in our mother’s womb like a little tiny light,” she said. “Suspended in immense space. And there’s no sound, it’s completely dark, and time doesn’t seem to exist.” But over time, we grow bigger. The immense space becomes uncomfortably small. The world beyond gets closer and louder. “And sometimes,” de Sela added, “mixed in with the sounds and sensations of this world, we hear sounds and feel shocks that come from yet another world.”
It’s a passage I think about often; its poignancy in the light of de Sela’s passing; the idea that perhaps it was not so much a death she met as the space of this world becoming too small for her. But I think of it, too, each January, when we find ourselves suspended in the immense space of a new year.
Soon, I know, the new world will grow closer and louder. There will be new sounds, new bands, new sensations. But this is not the time for musical rebirth; it is for the songs of sleeping in and Sunday afternoons. The Last Dinner Party can wait.