The ordinary boys: how Ed Sheeran-inspired troubadours swept the chart

They’re soulful, tattooed, wear hats and, from Tom Walker to Lewis Capaldi, they’re absolutely everywhere. So what does their dominance say about 2019?

By the end of 2018, critics were sounding the death knell for conventional pop. Thanks to streaming, they argued, the global accessibility of everything from Latin trap to K-pop meant that these once-niche sounds could thrive without being watered down for western audiences. “What looks like the simultaneous triumph of several parallel sounds – molten, streaming-oriented hip-hop; punkish Soundcloud rap; forward-thinking country music and more – is in fact the ascendance of one set of ideals that define what pop music has become,” wrote the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica.

In this moment of international pop utopianism, Britain, naturally, has gone the other way. Our current pop stock-in-trade is a school of male singer-songwriters with exceptional voices and wilfully unexceptional images that entrench an impression of authenticity. They are all white, despite their soulful vocals, which sing of safely secular salvation (they’ll provide it), epic loves (they’ve had and lost them) and struggle (broadly defined). These ordinary boys bolster their yearning with a sound that homogenises sturdy rock heft, EDM dynamism and delicate electronica, with occasional intimations of hip-hop. And hats.

Last week saw a double victory for what the pop chart analyst James Masterton calls these “privateer talents”: Scottish songwriter Lewis Capaldi remained at No 1 with Someone You Loved (with Rag’n’Bone Man’s Giant biting at his heels). Tom Walker topped the albums chart with his debut, What a Time to Be Alive, weeks after being named best British breakthrough at the 2019 Brit awards. Chasing him were Ireland’s Hozier, and Britain’s ruling, unassuming pop kings, George Ezra and Ed Sheeran.

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