Despite what the world and everyday living and existence may throw up (literally), there is always music. Here are some sounds that made 2020 more bearable.
Ray La Montagne -Monovision - in which Ray has come back to his core strengths after going psychedelic and exploring the margins over the last few years. If nothing else, this is a great exercise in trainspotting & namechecking influences on this acoustic themed 1970's type singer- songwriter outing .
Hear John Fogerty ("Strong Enough"), John Denver ("Summer Clouds", "Rocky Mountain Healin", "Highway to the Sun"), Van Morrison (Astral Weeks ish "Misty Morning", "Roll Me Momma"), even Paul McCartney ("Weeping Willow") . All the while the presence of a seventies acoustic Neil Young hovers in the background.
However, instead of being a straight lifting of those artists mentioned above, Ray can pull this off because he is such an affecting singer and the prowess of the players and production team are up to the task.
The Rolling Stones - Goats Head Soup Reissue - allowed in on a technicality with the "new " tracks as part of the reissue, this is Rolling Stones Mach II at a virtuoso themed creative pinnacle, even though the actual GHS album has been maligned over the years. Aside from it being Jagger's peak as a singer before the parody set in (take your pick at various times he has inhabited cockney, calypso, country ,folk, soul, and reggae voices from 1974 onwards ), this serves up the combined talents of Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston , Bobby Keys and Jimmy Miller to enrich the material that Mick & Keith conjure up.
Listen to the accompanying Brussels live album of 73 and shake your head at how great they once were. Rolling Stones Inc needs to stop releasing atrocious new material like "Living in A Ghost Town" and forensically examine anything in the vaults from the early 70's with a view to release it in whatever form. Just don't give it to Don Was. Ok rant over, on with the list ...
Bob Dylan - Rough & Rowdy Ways - Perhaps Pete Townshend put it best when once asked about the influence of Bob Dylan. Pete responded by saying" that's like asking me about how much influence my mother had on me being born". I know what he means - where do you begin with trying to assess the impact of one of the greatest songwriters ever? Well, in 2020 Bob popped back into the lockdown consciousness with "Murder Most Foul" as the teaser, then the album Rough & Ready Ways. a few weeks later. Those who saw "Murder" as incoherent ramblings missed the point. Bob was taking lyric twists and turns and circling back in a way only he can.
Yes, the genius was intact this year, and remember this man turns 80 next year. As for the music it just lacked a Daniel Lanois production touch (as per Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind ) to smash it out of the park completely. However there was enough groove from his veteran band to keep it interesting (see "False Prophet" and "Goodbye Jimmy Reed"). And with "Key West," he has a new song to enter his all time top 20. As George Michael once said: "Listen without Prejudice".
Emma Swift - Blonde on the Tracks - Speaking of the subject of Dylan in 2020, here we have a great title and a great time to examine the rich vein of Dylan's catalogue through a fresh set of eyes and ears - in this case an Australian singer/songwriter named Emma Swift. The Blonde on Blonde material in particular ("Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", "Sooner or Later" ) sung by a female voice and minus the Bob punk sneer from the mid-60s is a revelation.
There are heaps of other great performances too ("Simple Twist of Fate", "Going Going Gone") over 11 tracks that even takes in "I Contain Multitudes' from Rough & Ready Ways . What a 2020 for the legend that is Bob Dylan. It makes you ask the question - At $300 million did he sell his catalogue too cheap?
Soccer Mommy - Color Theory - Soccer Mommy is 23 year old Sophia Allison from Nashville. This is one for those who like New Zealand's own The Beths, and intelligent indie guitar thrash.
You can an hear some Kurt Cobain like chord progressions and voicings at times along with some great melodies. I've listened to this a lot throughout the year.
The Killers - Imploding the Mirage - The Killers identity Brandon Flowers has successfully stripped any guitar thrash that might have once been in The Killers past and replaced it with an 80's synth heavy sheen. It's no surprise that Lindsey Buckingham turns up on the great Springsteen meets New Order "Caution" and a Fleetwood Mac album title has been stolen along the way.
Yes you get the feeling Flowers would like to take a similar career trajectory - a bit of solo indulgence , a bit of the Killers band/brand. At the same time his vocal Meatloaf/Jim Steinman stylings continue unashamedly. Yes, it is stadium rock 2020 without a stadium in sight and it's great.
The Flaming Lips - American Head - who can remember the great Yoshimi Meets the Pink Robots album nearly 20 years ago? (!). Well this seems to be the overdue sequel in the years in between the Flaming Lips have diverted all over the place. All the great elements of the Yoshimi release are in play - acoustic guitar (is it me or is it still "Space Oddity" and the C major - E minor sequence that is being checked all the time?) meets electronica . This time they have offset Wayne Coyne's voice (always the biggest weakness) with vocal treatments and other vocalists contributing.
It all packs an emotional punch with songs that are likewise hilarious and sad (song titles include "At the Movies on Quaaludes", "Mother I've Taken LSD" & "You N Me Selling Weed") . For those that like Pink Floyd but without the virtuosity.
I've had songs by this largely solo vehicle of Adam Weiner pop up in playlists over the last few years but this is the first Low Cut Connie album that has sustained many a repeated listening. Weiner sounds like Daryl Hall meets Tonio K; both white soul singers who found fame in the 70's & 80's.
Then you find that Weiner is a native of Philadelphia and the soul influence fits even further . Private Lives is a long listen at 17 songs but maintains great momentum throughout. Nice new wave clipped guitars meet carefully arranged background vocal arrangements all the while anchored by a powerhouse Weiner vocal performance throughout. Lyrically, Weiner takes in the concerns of the street level American trying to get through. In the process, I'm also reminded of the great Willy de Ville. Perfect summer party music.
Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin Grass Vol 1 & 2 . As well as the greatest name in show business this guy is one of the new breed of artists that has emerged and sustained a career out of Nashville in the last decade..
His 2020 included being hit big time by Covid 19 in Europe early in the year ( there is a great podcast about Sturgill's year here ) and once well enough, he turned to this project which is largely reinventions of material already recorded but put to a bluegrass setting. Don't be put off by that as the songs and singing are that good.
Paul Weller- On Sunset . When Keith Richards once quipped "There is the sun and the moon and the Rolling Stones" he could also have been describing Paul Weller. This guy has been around 43 years now (!) and in a year where he also revisited the often maligned but underrated Style Council via an extensive reissue (Long Hot Summers: The Story of The Style Council ) which is well worth checking out too), he also released On Sunset, his best solo album in a long time.
The emphasis is on soul music, a genre that he was always close to, even before the Style Council ( I remember the Jam covering Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" back in the early '80s…). Great songs and great production - Here's to the next 43 years, Mr Weller!