Rock column, Mail on Sunday, January 4 2009

Prediction, they say, is a mug's game. But this becomes less true in a
fast-forward culture, hungry for the next big thing, where prophecies
are more likely to be self-fulfilling. This time last year, one of the
hot tips was Duffy, the shy, sweet Welsh woman with the Sixties voice
and hairdo. She ended up selling more albums in Britain in 2008 than
any other act.

There was an even hotter tip than Duffy last January another young
woman with a single name, a big voice, a retro sound, and not a great
deal of stage presence: the 19-year-old Londoner Adele. She came top
in the most influential of the regular prophecies, the BBC's Sound of
2008 poll, which canvasses about 130 pop critics and broadcasters.

Adele did very well too, selling a million copies of her album 19. And
Duffy wasn't exactly missed by the BBC poll: she came second, ahead of
the Ting Tings and Glasvegas. It's possible for an act to be tipped by
the BBC's voters and not make it two years ago they nominated Joe
Lean And The Jing Jang Jong, whose debut album was pulled at the last
minute but most of them are a sure thing.

Since last year, there has been another big self-fulfilling prophecy
in the Critics' Choice award at the Brits. Awards ceremonies normally
abide by two powerful conventions: the winners are announced on the
night, except for lifetime-achievement awards; and the awards are
given for work that has already been released and sampled by the
public. There is no Oscar for Most Promising Picture.

The Critics' Choice award breaks both these rules. It goes to an act
that hasn't released an album yet, and it is announced two months
before the Brits ceremony. So an act called Florence And The Machine
has already been crowned Critics' Choice of 2009. One pundit said the
trophy should come in the shape of an albatross but it doesn't seem
to have done any harm to last year's winner, Adele.

This critic declined to take part, because I don't believe prizes
should be turned into predictions. But I do think my fellow critics
have made a better choice this time. Adele and Duffy, for all their
strong voices and likeable personalities, are conservative performers
who have brought little that is new to the charts. You get the feeling
their record-company bosses looked at Amy Winehouse's success and
said, 'We need one of those, minus the drugs.'

This year, there's a crop of female acts who are much more original.
They are individuals, not clones or throwbacks, and their influences
are not Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw but the fiercely independent
women who came later Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey. Their names sound
like bands, but they often perform solo, playing a range of
instruments and using backing tapes rather than surrounding themselves
with session musicians, who tend to be male. These women would rather
rely on a machine than a man.

Florence And The Machine are, or is, Florence Welch, a 22-year-old art
student from south London. Her music is quite different: ramshackle,
exuberant, and audaciously unclassifiable, with elements of blues,
folk, pop and electronica. Her single Dog Days Are Over (Moshi Moshi,
out now, FOUR STARS) combines the visceral rhythms of PJ Harvey, the
vocal zest of Cat Power, and the dreamy femininity of Imogen Heap. A
song called Between Two Lungs is even better: check it out on YouTube.
Her album isn't out till May, and her Brit award remains premature,
but she is certainly intriguing.

Florence is shortlisted for the BBC Sound of 2009, to be announced on
Friday. Also in contention is another woman of high promise: Little
Boots, aka Victoria Hesketh from Blackpool, a one-woman art-pop band.
After picking up fans on YouTube, she graduated to Later With Jools
Holland, where she made a good impression playing piano and a funny
little instrument that looked like an Etch-a-Sketch. Her single Meddle
(50 Bones, out now, FOUR STARS) has the forceful intelligence of Fiona
Apple. She is produced by Joe Goddard from Hot Chip so men still
have their uses after all.