Essential Listening: The Best Albums Of 2020

Are we all still alive after Christmas with your family? Is your family? Not dismembered among a morass of Turkey bones? I’ve had a stressful Christmas, which I won’t get into, suffice to say Christmas was cancelled and I’ve barely had time to get this column finished, or rather honed into something legible. It took me three attempts to spell legible correctly. My brain’s that fried and pre-occupied.

Anyway, who cares about my tawdry personal problems? If you’re here, likely by complete random bad luck, you might be curious to see if I have decent taste in music! I believe so. As per my favourite songs of the year piece last week, where I explained the reasons for my methodology, I’ve kept this list short too. This list is in alphabetical order and there are no hierarchy or rankings, however, Róisín Machine was the best album of 2020, just wanted to make that clear.

And so here comes 2021. The year of Brexit. Expect the worst, hope for the best.

Bill Callahan – Gold Record

This one makes you wish you had an open fire so you could get your slippers on and sit down in front it. As per usual Callahan finds intrigue in the mundane. His lyrics are dense with sumptuous wordplay, analogy and imagery, interspersing them with sudden moments of introspection and contemplation. Callahan, quietly, has built himself quite an impressive body of work, and he’s on a roll right now, his last four albums have all been excellent.

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

There’s always a bit of trepidation whenever His Bobness releases a new record. He’ll be eighty next year (gulp), but may he continue to live and defy expectations of age induced decline that besets so many. This is one of his better records, not just recently, but in his whole catalogue. Still, let’s not get carried away here, it’s not in his pantheon – Blood On The Tracks, Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited – but what it does do is remind us that in an industry which has (mostly) sold out to hackneyed laziness, be it autotune, generic trap beats and other forms of banality, that wordplay, insight, allegory and storytelling still have agency. The epic ‘Murder Most Foul’ has received most of the attention, but I particularly enjoyed ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ which works well as a reprise to ‘Desolation Row’ and Dylan’s penchant for macabre sarcasm on ‘My Own Version of You’.

Duval Timothy – Help

Remember five or six years ago when James Blake was releasing spartan compositions that borrowed inflections from dubstep yet somehow also sounded ephemeral, mesmeric and captivating? Timothy occasionally incorporates Madlib-esque Jazz sampling too. There’s unpredictability, at one point going from a piano only instrumental ‘9’ straight to ‘Groundnut’ which borrows from the Loose Ends 80’s Streetsoul aesthetic. There’s beach funk notes on ‘Morning’, while ‘Slave’ is pointed with its ‘help’, it’s both contemporary but works as a wider historical metaphor, that the exploitation of black musicians signing away their mastering and publishing rights down the decades is a legacy of slavery.

Jon Collin & Demdike Stare – Fragments of Nothing/Sketches of Everything

Recency bias pick, and two separate releases. Both marry Collin’s delicate blues guitar with abstract wintery soundscapes. Sonically dystopian and at times threatening, it mirrors our period of immense uncertainty and concern, but simultaneously its serenity made me relax, offered clarity, and aided a means of escape. It was badly needed.

Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine

This isn’t supposed to be a list with any hierarchy, but this, unquestionably, was my favourite release of 2020. It’s been on constant repeat. And why not? In a year of bad news and fatalism, and that, even at the best of times, life can be a bit hectic, it reminds you that you need a bit of joy in your life, and there’s nothing more uplifting than disco and dance songs with an abundance of hooks.

Sault – UNTITLED (Black Is) / UNTITLED (Rise)

Even if you’re not sure about or enamoured with footballers taking knees, Antifa blockades and occupations, statues being felled, and what the wider Black Lives Matter movement is and whether it will be effective (surely the most important thing) you can be sure about this compilation. Soul, Funk and Roots grooves galore. Technically these are two separate releases, but we’ll consider them as two parts of the one project. While Rise is a more accessible listen than Black Is, both are worth checking out.

Shit & Shine – Malibu Liquor Store

If you’re familiar with the Shit & Shine project you’ll know what to expect – ironic, drug hazed, abrasive juxtapositions as found on ‘Devil’s Backbone’ and ‘Hillbilly Moonshine’. However, there are curveballs on this one; ‘Rat Snake’ would perfectly score a horseback chase sequence through the Mojave Desert, the cheesy disco of ‘Chervette’ could’ve been the intro to a crap 70’s cop show, and ‘Barbara and Woodrow’ is inspired given the album’s title and concept. The latter evokes sensations, transporting me to propping up a barstool in a dive bar in some warm weather city, clasping a cold drink and the leather cover on the stool doing likewise as my balls sweat profusely.

Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello

So jarring that I rubbished it as kitsch bollocks made using fruit machines (ala the dreadful Crystal Castles), or, to be more accurate, arcade game samples, on first listen, but gradually won me over with each repeat. It’s immense fun. Aphex Twin’s recent releases have reverted back to a retro aesthetic. Whether this approach was inspired by Richard D. James or just a bit of nostalgia, I’m always up for a frenetic bombardment of early 90’s rave sonics and 8-bit Amstrad sequencing which opens the album, ‘Nervelevers’ being my favourite or the Blade Runner inspired ‘Detroit People Mover’, and, for the comedown, it ends with ambient dubstep on ‘80 Ondula’.

Sven Wunder – Eastern Flowers (Doğu Çiçekleri)

First released last year on Bandcamp, but given a full release in 2020, and deservedly so. Swedish produced Turkish and Persian funk, TM vibes, and some awesome fucking guitar work. The wicked bass groves demand (at the very least) a passable sound system. It takes me back to my furloughed summer, getting paid to sit back, relax and do whatever I wanted. 2020 wasn’t a complete write off.

Various – Tribute to Marc Bolan: AngelHeaded Hipster

As with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, you always gain additional appreciation, perhaps insight, for their song-craft when their work is reimagined and performed by someone else. So what of Marc Bolan? Bolan died so long ago, and well after his early seventies peak, that his songs have seldom been covered in a way indistinguishable from the original and or well – Placebo in Velvet Goldmine tritely covering ‘30th Century Boy’ being an example. While there are straight covers among the twenty-six, Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s of ‘Mambo Son’ being one, this is Bolan predominately covered sans the glam rock aesthetic. Highlights include a 80’s pop version of ‘Metal Guru’ by Nena (remember her?), a foot stomping bluesy rendition of ‘Bang A Gong (Get It On)’ by David Johansen and Nick Cave’s solemn take on ‘Cosmic Dancer’.

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Song Of The Day – It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year by Andy Williams

From the album ‘The Andy Williams Christmas Album’ (1963)

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Song Of The Day – The Best Songs Of 2020

Good riddance 20-fucking-20! A forgettable year for many, that won’t soon be forgotten by us all. Have you heard that the virus may have mutated into another strain? Maybe 2021 will be the same as 2020? Great times! And yeah, the inevitability of that prospect seems especially galling at this time of year, after being locked up together with your family for months, with the only reprieve being going to work (for some), if you’re a key worker (oh, what a privilege), now you get to spend Christmas and New Year with them too. The obligatory formality of the holiday period is usually only made bearable because it occurs over a short period of time once a year, but doubling down after doing it most of the year? I shouldn’t be glib or sarcastic about this, but surely there’s been, or will be, a rise in the suicide and homicide rates caused by family members? So yeah, that’s my message: peace, unity and patience, just for a wee bit longer.

Like many I was placed on furlough for a bit, and that should’ve allowed me more time to listen to more music. But, well, life, yeah, aye. I’ve never felt more unmotivated and enthusiastic than right now. And even if that weren’t the case things seldom work out as ideally as you envision them or how you aim to allocate your time in the moment. Oh, the first-world struggle, it never ends amigos.

Nonetheless, belonging to the last generation with some residue of the capability, I did manage to have the attention span and discipline to listen to some music, and the following tracks are the ones I’ve deemed worthy of repeat listens. I’ll do my albums of the year list next week, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out from the tracks I’ve selected here what one of those albums will be.

As per usual the tracks are in alphabetical order. There’s a random number of selections here, fifteen. I know I’ve pejoratively alluded to a lack of attention span among the yoof, but it does stagger me somewhat that most music websites roll out top fifty or even top hundred album and track of the year lists. Even in lockdown, other than music journalists (and do they even?), who has the time and inclination to forensically go through a list that long? A psychologist would say this is me, in a round-about way, suggesting that my abbreviated list is better. I’ll shut up now.

More importantly, and once again: stay safe, stay sane, and don’t kill anyone this Christmas.

Actress – Turin

From the album ‘Karma & Desire’

Beatrice Dillon – Workaround 2

From the album ‘Workaround’

Bob Dylan – Crossing the Rubicon

From the album ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’

DJ Python – Descanse

From the album ‘Mas Amable’

Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure

From the album ‘What’s Your Pleasure’

Nadine Shah – Buckfast

From the album ‘Kitchen Sink’

Perfume Genius – Describe

From the album ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’

Planet 1999 – Party

From the single ‘Party’

Pregoblin – Anna (Flowers Won’t Grow)

From the single ‘Anna (Flowers Won’t Grow)’

Róisín Murphy – Murphy’s Law

From the album ‘Murphy’s Law’

Róisín Murphy – Shellfish Mademoiselle

From the album ‘Murphy’s Law’

Róisín Murphy – We Got Together

From the album ‘Murphy’s Law’

Shit & Shine – Barbara and Woodrow

From the album ‘Malibu Liquor Store’

Theo Parrish – This Is For You (feat. Maurissa Rose)

From the single ‘This Is For You’

Yves Tumor – Kerosene

From the album ‘Heaven to a Tortured Mind’

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The last days of Trump?

This was the most pressing question I had towards the end of his now infamously incoherent press conference.

What we can be certain of – it provided everything his detractors and his supporters wanted.

Ponder the plot synopsis sans Trump – a reality TV show host, an inconsequentially boorish vacuous costal socialite and obnoxious television personality (the UK equivalent being Jim Davidson with a large property portfolio) decides to run for the US presidency as a joking publicity stunt, only, to his great surprise, to win behind a slew of populist doublespeak that’s subliminally racist, openly xenophobic, sexist, incendiary and lurid. Maybe it was pitched as an episode of Black Mirror but didn’t make the cut? Charlie Brooker and the writing team thought it was just too out there.

No doubt Trump, having already experienced a significant level of fame and notoriety, was seduced by reaching fame’s highest echelon, particularly as a self-fulfilling prophecy for his narcissism. The only remaining question was the what and the how? At worst someone like him winning the Republican nomination and running for president in his way would be memorable. At best, being in charge of everything is the zenith of power and attention. The president of the United States is never irrelevant.

Defining Trump’s popularity concisely, or at all, is a tenuous endeavour. ‘Make American Great Again’ is an enticing slogan, but there’s more merit to the theory that because it’s impossible to take Trump seriously as a politician it enhances his appeal. He doesn’t act or talk as a normal human in his position would. There’s calculation of a sort, but little diplomacy, no mediation or ideology, a sprinkling of carelessness, a large dollop of myopia and contempt for convention. Then there’s the lingering suspicion that he’s happily winging it, that having not expected this, he’s treating being president as a game – which saw him employ and embolden some really unhinged sorts. Throw in Trump cutting such a ludicrous sui generis phenotype: an obese orang-utan, hairless and excessively Tango’d, who’s had its chromosomes damaged by a decades long regimen of chemotherapy, junk food and Wotsits, that it creates a sense of make-belief and general dis-belief that he’s the POTUS. It should be noted that this phenomenon would be replicated if you put Paul Rutherford, circa 1983, in Trump’s place, though he’d surely do a far better job just handing out MDMA and condoms. While tempting and so easy to do, petty sniping and gloating – hey, writing the above description of Trump was fun for me – only now that Trump’s lost the job, avoids why he ascended to begin with.

Also achieving very little, and helping to boost Trump as a genuine alternative – the po-faced charisma vacuum of mainstream American politics, which churns out disingenuously technocratic candidates, mixed with the smug, condescending, self-righteousness of Trump’s critics and advocates, both have a repellent potency for some and foment disinterest for many more. The left wing wokers and intellectual elite claim to be open minded but they’re just as intolerant and belligerent as Trump. He’s the perfect opponent to excuse a hardening of their position(s) and settling of their grievances. But it’s a mistake to unduly credit them for Trump’s success four years ago, or recent failure.

Sam Harris, among others, overstates the influence of their insufferable brand of sanctimony (and it’s boring too). Keith Oldermann’s rants are amusing but it’s also preaching to one side of the divide. Without the Trump punching bag around, the hatred for Trump and what he’s come to represent will lose traction. The aversion to Trump is mostly superficial, it’s motivated by embarrassment that a country that’s offered so much to literature, art and modernity would elect such an imbecilic luddite and as such it’s certainly not seeking to be inclusive or win the argument. Group identity politics is incompatible with the mainstream modern sociological construct. The recent success of Trump, who, as an individual, puts his sense of self-worth above all others, is proof of this.

That there was even an opportunity for Trump to become the fucking president in the first place should be terrifying enough to encourage change. However, the remedy requires a level of introspection on a mass scale. This is difficult when all social media platforms continuously offer a stage to display unfiltered hedonism, neuroses and egotism, that easily morph into callous abuse, dismissive one-liners and snide digs, especially as the consequences are often negligible when accompanied by anonymity. Trump’s popularity partly stems from him replicating his online persona in public. It’s a brazen conviction most of us are inherently incapable of and removes the dubiety under which we often operate in the virtual sphere. No wonder it appeals to the despised and marginalised; anti-vaxers, pro-lifers, gun nuts, white supremacists and bible thumpers. He screams ‘stop the count’ on Twitter then later doubles down in his press conference with the voter fraud, stolen election angle.

Social media wasn’t supposed to be this insidious. It would connect, educate even. It would be the perfect vector to rationally debate each other’s differences and views. The opposite, as we’ve found out, is true. It’s made us even more intolerant, prejudicial and judgemental. Faced with this reality many now choose to believe what suits them, remaining confined to echo chambers, which reaffirm confirmation biases, makes life easier. With social media, the narrative can be what you make it, like Scientology, or any cult, surround yourself with enough believers, it can be a movement, and the message can be true. Trump’s weaponised social media’s discordant predilections, where genuine disinformation and conspiracy theories can spread before they’re refuted and facts can be dubbed ‘fake news’.

Thankfully imagining a Trumpian figure reaching power in the Netherlands, Japan or Sweden remains far-fetched. But such enclaves of sanity are shrinking. Which brings us to the worst facet of Trump and what can be tritely termed Trumpism, it has normalised political fecklessness or cynical modes of populism. Comparatively, every other leader of a secular country, no matter how inept or self-interested they are, now looks normal or sane. It could even make you momentarily thankful that Boris Johnson is your PM, until you remember he’s a fucking two-faced cunt and bumbling charlatan. Even Bolisaro benefits, he shouldn’t, and in his case while he’s perceived to be less ridiculous and clownish than Trump, ideologically his actions have proven to be far more damaging.

Given this wider context, how can Trump’s defeat be celebrated as a victory? Will all of the discord it took to get rid of him prove to worth be it? Or is it all about optics and feeling selfishly assured that you’re on the right side of history in the moment? Is it enough that Trump might degrade himself further, acting like a failed dictator on a world-wide golf course tour? Publicly putting on a front but privately still haunted by such a humiliating failure, who, when the cameras aren’t rolling, allows his rage to boil over by clubbing Gophers after he’s shanked another five-iron into the bunker. Those who believe he fiddled his taxes certainly wouldn’t think so. Nothing short of prison will suffice. Imagine thinking making an example of Trump will solve any of the issues that dog the culture. But that’s all you’re being offered.

But rather than bash Trump, the far left, the far right, anti-vaxers, or other general kinds of idiocy, is there a solution to this malaise? I don’t have one, and I’m not sure there is one. I reckon, just as Trump’s presidency perished due the immediacy of his botched handling of Covid-19, so too will the collective psyche suffer a similar longer-term fate through other forms of neglect to secularism, fairness and compromise. Factions will grow wider, positions more extreme as we retreat to our conformation biases. The irrationality of white guns nuts, Antifa, pro-life picketers, pious wokers, xenophobes, Islamic terrorists, nihilistic online trolls will set the tone and continue to encroach and cannibalise the space rest of us occupy, as we look on bemused, helpless, unable to find the appropriate reaction.

Trump’s defiantly talking of running again in 2024. And why wouldn’t he? He accepts the rules of the game for what they are, not what he wishes them to be. Four years from now, given the direction of traffic, what will the paradigm look like? It’s not a far-fetched prediction to say Trump and his ghoulish brood could easily benefit again.

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Song Of The Day – Murphy’s Law by Róisín Murphy

From the album ‘Róisín Machine’ (2020)

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