A year to forget in so many respects. But a year in which the music didn’t die, despite all the restrictions put on it. Quite the opposite in fact – without the solace and inspiration of music all the madness would have been even harder to face. Musicians – and venues – have suffered badly, their livelihoods snatched away. But many of them have responded magnificently, finding countless new ways of performing and recording – and involving their audiences. The spirit of music lives on.
We all knew lockdown was coming by the end of February, if not earlier. The sense of foreboding grew. At the same time, it didn’t feel like the time to retreat from celebrating music – it felt more like the last chance. In the week before lockdown I went to two great events: the 6 Music festival at the Roundhouse on 8 March and the brilliant Moses Boyd at the Electric Brixton on 12 March. I relished both and hoped that things might be back to normal in time for Latitude in July. Some hope! Now we are left hoping that all the festivals won’t be cancelled in 2021; but realistically I can’t see social distancing rules being disapplied by then, even with the rollout of vaccines. Best not to raise the expectations too high.
In the run up to lockdown and in its early phases I found myself drawn to old favourites – the classics. A lot of Beatles, Dylan, Bowie, Radiohead and, of course. Bruce Springsteen. Led Zeppelin and U2 too. Back to basics, I guess. They seemed real, reassuring. Unusually, I found it hard to get too excited by new sounds. That indifference didn’t last long – thanks to BBC 6 Music more than anything. Lauren Laverne, Mary Anne Hobbs, Tom Ravenscroft, Gilles Peterson in particular. And the mighty Iggy Pop, on his Friday evening Confidential show. Some of their influence can be seen in my top twenty this year, with electronica and jazz featuring more than usual.
Jazz – and all its variants – really embedded itself in my listening in the summer and beyond. It was partly a response to some of the new music I was hearing – with the aforementioned Moses Boyd in the vanguard – but also the result of a rather large playlist I compiled on Spotify, which ranged from the absolute masters like Miles and Coltrane to the new jazz movement in London and elsewhere, which is so exciting at the moment. In between, I went back to a lot of my 80s and 90s soul, rap, electronic and funk favourites, which had jazz inflections. Gilles Peterson was an inspiration then, as he is now. I called the playlist Allthatjazz, and it’s public if you want to give it a listen at johnsills. I find it the music for all occasions in lockdown life: reading, writing, chilling out late at night, walking… and just dreaming.
At the halfway point of the year I wrote a blog called 40 from 2020, with an accompanying playlist, which featured tracks that I’d really liked up to that point. On the whole I didn’t really connect them with albums – and many were stand-alone tracks. That, of course, is a growing feature of recorded music today, where people stream single tracks rather than whole albums a lot of the time. In fact, you could say that having a list of best albums of the year is rather archaic. But those lists that people compile in December still feel important and exciting to me – and I still discover a lot of new music through them. 6 Music, Rough Trade, the Guardian, Loud and Quiet, Line of Best Fit, NME, Pitchfork… I devour them all. There’s some consensus, but a huge variety too. Just as there should be.
And so here is my top twenty. The top four picked themselves, though I did change my mind about the order from time to time. Below that, the rankings are pretty fluid – I’ve spent the last couple of weeks prevaricating, altering, bringing in new candidates, re-listening to make sure. The benefits of not working! I’m pretty happy with this list – at least until next week…
Top Twenty Albums of 2020
- Folklore by Taylor Swift
- Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens
- Letter to You by Bruce Springsteen
- Untitled (Black Is) by SAULT
- Sixteen by Four Tet
- Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
- Dark Matter by Moses Boyd
- Lianne la Havas by Lianne la Havas
- A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC
- To Love is to Live by Jehnny Beth
- Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975
- Source by Nubya Garcia
- Shades by Good Sad Happy Bad
- There is No Other by Isobel Campbell
- Color Theory by Soccer Mommy
- Some Kind of Peace by Olafur Arnalds
- Home by Hania Rani
- A Dark Murmuration of Words by Emily Barker
- Wu Hen by Kamaal Williams
- The Main Thing by Real Estate
My No 1 choice, Taylor Swift’s Folklore, came out of the blue at the end of July. I loved it from the moment I heard The 1 and Cardigan as I was out walking – and then it grew on me even more! It’s the ultimate lockdown album: reflective, wistful, nostalgic, full of love and regret. The songs are beautifully, simply constructed and the lyrics full of clever twists as well as being heartfelt. She made the album with Aaron Dessner, the guitarist from The National, and there’s a duet, exile, with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Esteemed company, for sure; but this album is all about the inner Taylor Swift. An album I return to, again and again.
And Taylor has just sprung a follow up, Evermore, on us! More of the same on first listen. One to absorb in the coming weeks.
Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Song is both introspective and outward-looking. Apparently she was coping with a difficult break up as she composed the album, and some of the lyrics reflect that; but there are also musings about the environmental catastrophe that faces us. All this is wrapped in layers of electronica, some floating dreamily, some banging out the beats and heavy bass lines. The album begins with a fascinating interpretation of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (which she just calls Arpeggi) and the standard never drops. John Cale provides a lugubrious vocal on Corner of my Sky (The rain, the rain, the rain, thank God the rain…) It’s a wonderful, absorbing mix of sounds and feelings, and I really can’t wait to see her perform it live.
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You was another one that seemed to spring from nowhere. And what a joy it is! Bruce has reassembled the E Street Band and taken the time machine back to the 70s, to his glory days of Darkness on the Edge of Town. There are three tracks, too, that he wrote as a young man – now recorded for the first time. Janey Needs a Shooter – that title should be on Greetings from Asbury Park! This album has power, passion, anger and a sense of pure celebration. It’s nostalgic – that theme again – and reflective of the passage of time. Bruce is now 71, and he can still bawl out the rockers. A remarkable album from a remarkable man.
And so to SAULT and Untitled (Black Is), one of two albums this collective released this year. This is a breathtaking piece of work, a symphony of protest, anger, hurt, defiance and pure soul. It’s an important album, symbolising resistance to the oppression of black people everywhere. Rough Trade made it their No 1 album of the year and called it the What’s Going On of our time. I don’t think that is an exaggeration – it has some of the same despair, bewilderment and sense of redemption. It’s an album that demands to be listened to from start to finish, though there are also outstanding soulful tunes like Wildfires and Miracles that can hold their own in any company. Essential listening.
These four albums stood out, but the supporting acts were pretty special too. And again they reflected the times. One thing I didn’t have this year was the summer festivals, which always point me to a wealth of new music, some of which then makes it into my end of year selections. That perhaps explains the relative lack of indie guitar music in the twenty this year. The only two that really meet that description are Fontaines DC and Good Sad Happy Bad. It took me a while to appreciate A Hero’s Death fully, as there’s little of the vibrancy of the band’s brilliant debut from 2019, Doggerel. These songs are long, darker, more subdued. But the layers reveal themselves after a few listens and the depth of the songs become clear. A brooding masterpiece. Shades starts with rather lo-fi, slightly quirky indie and then plunges into a psychedelic cacophony that I find captivating. There are elements of Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine, and a wild saxophone which recalls The Stooges’ Funhouse. I haven’t seen this on many end-of-year lists, but I don’t know why. It’s weirdly brilliant.
I guess you could call Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy indie, though sensitive singer-songwriter might be a more accurate description. Songs of angst, love, disorientation and a lot of that sensitivity. Beautiful voices to heighten the effect – and a real pop sensibility. Phoebe Bridger’s Punisher is rightly receiving a lot of end-of-year plaudits; Sophie Allison, the singer behind Soccer Mommy isn’t quite so in the spotlight; but her song Circle the Drain is an absolute indie-pop classic. Her album Color Theory is, like the Fontaines album, a real grower. Real Estate are another band who are bracketed as indie; but to me this is something else: a modern take on classic West Coast rock. Naturally, therefore, they hail from the East Coast. Rather like the band they immediately reminded me of when I first heard them: Steely Dan. The Main Thing is an album to wallow in, and take yourself back to the sumptuous 70s. The lush melodies, the harmonies, the guitar breaks… it’s Can’t Buy a Thrill!
Jazz, as I noted earlier, has formed a big part of my listening this year, so it’s no surprise that there are three, arguably four, entries from that genre in the twenty. Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter is a musical masterclass that soaks in the sounds of young London as well as the influences of the jazz masters. His drumming is sensational – and it takes me back to that last pre-lockdown concert. Nubya Garcia’s Source is aptly titled as she and her band explore the roots of the music that has influenced them: the sounds of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and, of course, London. She is an inventive and subtle saxophonist and this album is pure pleasure. Kamaal Williams is a producer, keyboard player and drummer, though what drew me most to Wu Hen was the richness of the saxophone on tracks like Pigalle and Mr Wu. This is the cool sound of London. Lianne la Havas has been around for a while, but I’ve never really got into her music until I heard her self-titled album this year. It’s a beautifully soulful, jazzy collection. There’s a lot of pain in these songs – Paper Thin for example – but they are suffused with warmth and fellow feeling. Love and Affection you might say. Like Kelly Lee Owens, Lianne has covered Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. Rather differently of course; but put the two together with the original and you get a real sense of what a great song it is.
I’d like to recommend, too, a tremendous jazz compilation called Blue Note Re:imagined, which does exactly what the title suggests. It features many of the stars of that new jazz and soul movement, including Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective, Alfa Mist, Poppy Ajudha, Jorja Smith and Yazmin Lacey. Listen to this and feel the groove.
As days drift by without much shape or form in 2020, and with lots of time for reflection, electronica, ambient music seems especially well-suited to the times. It’s good to listen to when you are writing, or even working, which I still do occasionally. Four Tet’s Sixteen was perfect for the circumstances, with its loops and beats and washes of aural colour. I transported myself to Iceland for Olafur Arnalds’ atmospheric soundscapes. Some Kind of Peace is a thing of windswept beauty. There’s more beauty in the music of Hania Rani, a Polish pianist, whose recorded music has some similarities with the gentler side of Nils Frahm’s compositions. Home is an entrancing album, as was its predecessor Esja. It’s thanks to Mary Anne Hobbes for the introduction. All these albums feel at one with nature, something I could also say about Emily Barker’s A Dark Murmuration of Words. Emily is an Australian folk singer who settled in England many years ago, but still feels the tug of home. I’ve loved her music for a long time, and this album is something of a return to her roots. There’s a beautiful simplicity in it, a reverence for home and for nature. A reverence and fear – as Emily sings, Where Have all the Sparrows Gone? Isobel Campbell’s There is No Other touches on environmental themes too, but its appeal is in the lush, wistful, dreamy ballads. There’s something deeply soothing about this album, and Boulevard is one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard all year. Imagine yourself once more in that Parisian café, watching the world go by. It’ll happen one day…
That leaves me with two idiosyncratic and fascinating works: To Love is to Live by Jehnny Beth and Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975. Jehnny Beth is the singer with the awesome Savages. This is her first full solo venture. There’s a lot going on on this album. There are songs that ring out Savages-style, but there are beautiful, wistful ballads too, and a whole load of off-piste sounds in between. As befits Jehnny, there is a real intensity to it; and her French roots are more discernible than they are in Savages. I heard an interview with her where she said that she was very affected by the death of David Bowie as she made this record and listened to his final masterpiece, Blackstar. She said to her collaborators that she wanted To Love is to Live to sound like it was the last record she was ever going to make. I get that. Notes on a Conditional Form is what you might call singer Matt Healy’s flawed masterpiece. That’s what we always liked to call double albums that would have made great single albums in years gone by. I’ve never really listened much to the 1975, though they were pretty good at Latitude a few years ago. But I read the reviews of this album, some of which were rather critical, and I thought it sounded interesting. And it is – very! It’s a journey through the history of pop, rock and dance since the 80s and a very entertaining one. You’ll probably only listen to the Greta Thunberg track once though…
I’ve made a playlist with three or four songs from each of the albums in this top twenty, which is at the end of this post. With added extra…
As I observed earlier, it’s really not all about albums these days, and I’d like to mention four artists who have been favourites through the year, but have so far only released EPs and tracks. I think they are all gearing up for albums in 2021, so there’s something to look forward to already! Biig Piig is the stage name of Jessica Smyth, who is from Ireland, but is based in West London and spent a lot of time as a child in Spain – she sings in Spanish occasionally. Her jazzy soul-rap really caught my imagination after I first heard the track Switch on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Recommends show (although Switch itself is not typical of her sound). I’ve played her collected works a lot since then – so much that many of the tracks found their way into my Spotify Wrapped! Arlo Parks is another young Londoner. She’s been getting a lot of praise for her soulful, introspective ballads. There’s a darkness to a lot of them – Black Dog, for example – but a cool beauty. Sade, Lianne la Havas, Joan Armatrading might all be reference points. And she does a great version of Radiohead’s Creep. Maisie Peters, from Brighton, has had a few mentions on this blog in the past. I like her thoughtful, intelligent, touching, catchy pop songs; and she has been productive during lockdown with four excellent singles, my favourite of which is called, appropriately, The List. That’s a list of all the things she needs to stop doing. Very lockdown. Rather different in style is Greentea Peng, whose striking voice and fusion of soul, rap, reggae and jazz beats makes for a very distinctive sound. I guess there’s a bit of Grace Jones about it – and her. I think she could be destined for great things.
There are four songs from each of these artists on the playlist, plus four other tracks, simply because they are too good to leave off. Three are lovely ballads: Hallelujah by HAIM, The Roving by Bonny Light Horseman and the gorgeous, optimistic In a Good Way by Atlanta’s Faye Webster. I think she might have fallen in love! And just to show I still like a bit of rocking, Freya Beer’s Dear Sweet Rosie packs a good old-fashioned punch. Thanks to 6 Music’s Marc Riley for that one.
There’s a song on Bruce’s album called House of a Thousand Guitars. It’s my favourite track. I played it six times in a row while out on a walk the other day. It made the world feel like a better place – as did the nature around me. It’s something of a call to arms, a reminder of the redemption in music, which is one of Bruce’s perennial themes. Whatever shit gets thrown at us, we’ll always have the music…
Well it’s alright, yeah it’s alright, Meet me darlin’ come Saturday night, All good souls from near and far, We’ll meet in the house of a thousand guitars.
Here’s to 2021.