For British music in America, the times are hard to read.
Superficially, the mid-December U.S. album chart looked encouraging: 13 albums in the Top 100, counting U2 under British Isles. However, most were veterans ranging from Paul McCartney to Phil Collins. Apart from Coldplay, the post-2000 successes -- Craig David, David Gray -- were tailspinning commercially.
Then consider an absent friend: Robbie Williams, British pop's MVP. He's doing great, honestly. But his 2001 album, "Swing When You're Winning," a Sinatra-era celebration recorded in California, was never even released in America. Still, it sold 6 million copies in the other 60% of the world market. His latest, "Escapology," not out in the States until spring, has already shifted a U.K. million and hit No. 1 in 10 other countries.
No wonder he currently mood-swings between ingratiating song lyrics -- "God bless you, Uncle Sam," even "I'm moving to L.A." -- and saying, "I'm not interested in breaking America -- it's too much hard work."
Here's the rub. Williams can make do without America. But, long term, his record company, EMI, and the rest of the British music industry probably can't.
More indicative of new Brit-think is a young band, the Music, tipped by this column last year and signed to EMI's U.S. wing, Capitol. A potent Led Zeppelin-meets-Chemical Brothers crossover, the band sees America as "the ultimate challenge."
The band's manager, Tim Vigon, stresses the Music's commitment: "We plan to play a hundred shows annually in the USA for five years." Proving honorable intent, after its self-titled debut album's release on Feb. 25, the band has about 40 gigs through May, including Coldplay support spots. That is, indeed, the spirit.
But here's another twist. While the Music feels its domestic success -- good live reputation, No. 4 album -- will mean nothing across the Atlantic, bands from other nations are more than ever using the U.K. as a launchpad for their American campaigns.
Inspired by your very own Strokes and White Stripes, Sweden's Hives and Australia's Vines, leapfrog contenders in 2003 include Boston's Cave In, New Zealand's Datsuns and Denmark's Raveonettes.
No wonder U.K. label associations BPI and AIM (representing independent labels) are itching for the British music "embassy" in New York to open its doors ASAP.
Despite it all, this column's annual Brit tips make up enthusiastic recommendations for diverse and alluring talents:
The Libertines: Punchy punk pop; album "Up the Bracket," produced by the Clash's Mick Jones, out in March; playing L.A. at Spaceland on Jan. 23 and the Viper Room on Jan. 24.
The Streets: A.k.a. Mike Skinner; Cockney rap-u-like album "Original Pirate Material" -- a critics' favorite.
Sugababes: The acceptable face of girl-group pop.
The Thrills: L.A.-based Irish Beach Boys fans' truly thrilling sounds, debut album maybe May.
Robbie Williams: This time, let him entertain you.
Phil Sutcliffe is a London-based writer and a contributing editor to Q magazine.