I sometimes find myself wondering who my favourite musician of the twenty first century is. There are a few contenders - Madlib or Mos Def from the world of hip hop perhaps or Damon Albarn or Thom Yorke - men who have transcended their indie roots to produce forward thinking and original music. Ultimately though it all comes back to a man who has worked with many of these other great acts - Kieron Hebden. Over the last decade he has been at the very forefront of modern music - always a step ahead of the pack and yet able to create beautiful melodies that are accessible to even the most casual of listeners.
Initially influenced like so many before him by Hendrix and Zeppelin (and later drum n bass) he emerged from the post-rock band Fridge in the mid 1990s having studied at the almost legendary Elliot Comprehensive (also home to Hot Chip and Burial) in South London. His first solo record, the jazz influenced Dialogue was released in 1999 but it was second album Pause in 2001 which really brought him to wider attention with his fusing of electronica and a folkier, organic style. Whereas Boards of Canada had captured a similarly emotive feel with their referencing of nature documentaries, Hebden tended towards real instrumentation and bedroom sampling and soon found himself at the forefront of the 'Folktronica' movement. This was consolidated on perhaps his best album to date Rounds in 2003. Probably my favourite album of the noughties, Rounds brilliantly builds abstract electronica around acoustic guitar hooks. Random beats and sounds are thrown over the top to combine experimentation with a distinct homeliness. First track A Joy features a 909 synth with random beats thrown over it to create a disorientating, and yes, joyful noise - quite unlike anything that has come before or since.
Rather than embrace the mainstream, Hebdon's next move was to record with legendary jazz drummer Steve Ried. I recall seeing the two of them play together in London and being blown away by what was essentially a set of just one track of about 40 minutes in length. This was more than just a current artist seeking to sit on the coat tails of a living legend, it was clearly a collaboration of mutual respect and the two men collaborated extensively until Ried's untimely death in 2010.
Next solo album Everything Ecstatic was released in 2005 and contained more magical moments as well as some excellent accompanying videos. By this stage Four Tet was a much sought after remixer and the Ringer EP in 2008 revealed a more minimal stripped back sound (Detroit techno influenced to these ears). This preceded the euphoric There Is Love In You in 2010. This album was perhaps a little patchy (and included a bizarre hidden track) but undoubtedly included some of his very best work including the Orbital-esque Love Cry and tribute to his favourite London nightclub Plastic People.
In recent years he has worked closely with Burial and with Thom Yorke amongst others. In 2011 they dropped Ego/Mirror which was an excellent 12 inch showcasing the talents of three of the greatest musicians of recent years. Hebden regularly drops low key12 inch vinyl releases which are remarkable in their consistency (check recent release Pinnacles for just one recent example). A hotly anticipated Fabric mix is due in September 2011.
As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, Kieron Hebden is more influential than ever. Check electronica album of last year Swim by Caribou or the more esoteric sounds of perhaps the world's biggest band Radiohead for just a couple of examples of the influence of the Four tet sound. Hebden himself admits that he refuses to sit still - always seeking to be more adventurous with his sound. Its impossible to know where is sound will turn next.
What is really noticeable about Kieron Hebden is his good taste and quality control. He doesn't compromise in any way and the attention to detail on everything from his remixes through to his artwork is immediately apparent. He somehow manages to reference folk, free jazz and hip hop and yet couldn't really be defined by any of them. He manages to bring warmth and colour to electronic music and is undoubtedly unique - long may he continue to be so.