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’.