We were unable to see much live music this year due to you-know-what but it did not mean that there wasn't any good music about, quite the opposite. Here is my annual round-up of the best of the year....
It could have been the year the music died.
Starved of gigs, tours cancelled, venues closed. Income streams dried up, new releases delayed. The support structure that oils the wheels of the industry rendered silent. Furlough payments not applicable. Singing not allowed to reduce the spread. A vital part of our culture left to wilt. Government-funding and Arts Council grants eventually came to many venues, but not all, and as a result many are facing a very uncertain future. Close to me in Halifax, for example, the town's first purpose-built venue in decades, The Lantern, where I saw the only gig I paid for this year when Liverpool band She Drew The Gun came to town, was identified as being one of the 30 most at-risk sites in the country, and like many others, have launched a crowdfunding appeal.
|She Drew The Gun, The Lantern, Halifax|
But the industry fought back. Live streams, regular events like the Listening Parties hosted by Tim Burgess of the Charlatans on Twitter, and some cracking releases lifted the year out of what could have been an even more calamitous situation, although as we head into 2021 there is a growing concern that when musicians (and other professional artists and sportsmen, for example) are allowed to travel again into Europe, the provisions following Brexit are going to be cumbersome and expensive, with frequent equipment checks and much form-filling required.
Sadly, as ever, some wonderful musicians left us during the year. Re-invigorated by a new album, with a tour scheduled as well, Freddie 'Toots' Hibbert, who with his band the Maytals, was a trailblazer in the world of reggae, passed away a couple of months ago aged 76. We also lost Dave Greenfield of The Stranglers, Andy Gill of Gang Of Four, Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, Eddie Van Halen, Charley Pride, John Prine, Bill Withers, Kenny Rogers, Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, Little Richard, Phil May of The Pretty Things, Steve Priest of The Sweet, Peter Green, Wayne Fontana, Trini Lopez of 'If I Had a Hammer' fame, Johnny Nash, Spencer Davis, Ennio Morricone, to name but a few.
And what of the music on offer? Well, there has been some great stuff. From 80's style disco to reflective folk, from electro to indie, as our daily routines and listening patterns changed we have embraced a wide range of fine music. Trying to pick out my favourite albums and tracks has been no easy matter, and whilst no one album stood out to the extent of my favourite from 2019, 2020 by Richard Dawson, the one that is my number one of the year is a mighty fine album. I have this time included 15 albums that I think are the best that I have heard all year. And as ever, a couple I have only managed to hear in the last few weeks threw a curveball into my original thoughts of going for 12! In no particular order, then, here's my choice, up to my Album Of The Year:
Fontaines DC - A Hero's Death
More reflective than their brilliant debut album of last year, this was a more than worthy successor. Featuring well-crafted songs with thoughtful lyrics, there was a solidity about A Hero's Death which suggests that the band is here for the long-run with a willingness to update and not just repeat the same formula. Favourite track: I Don't Belong.
Starting with a cover shot featuring a classic Ford truck in the middle of a field festooned with flowers and the artist, aka Katie Crutchfield, reclining on the cab roof, this album just oozes Americana whilst managing to convey the spirit of indie. Great songs with cracking tunes, with more than a nod to Lucinda Williams (whose own 2020 release I have not heard yet), this was an uplifting soundtrack to counter the year's gloom and frustrations. Favourite Track: Can't Do Much.
A great album from Lancaster's finest. Consistently good songs and quite varied as well, but still unmistakeably the sound of husband and wife team David and Holly. I thought that this might have been the album to break them through to a wider audience, but for now it seems, The Lovely Eggs will have to remain one of the most popular cult bands around. Favourite Track: This Decision.
This is a fine album, full of radio-friendly tunes delivered by Nadine with a twinkle in her eye, keen wit and observations on the traditional roles of women in our society. An album though that lifted your mood, that made you smile, that made you want to dance, whilst leaving no doubts about its underlying theme. Favourite Track: Club Cougar.
A heady mix of sonic landscapes as Kieran Hebden takes us from the dancefloor to the countryside. There is music to move your feet, music to chill you out, and having not heard anything of his before, it made me want to delve into his previous stuff. There are swirling synths, chimes, wonderful cascading melodies, and on Baby, vocals by Ellie Goulding. An album in which to immerse yourself. Favourite Track: School.
This was an unexpected pleasure. Coming from someone who has often featured as a member of Oh Sees, this was far removed from the often frenetic music associated with John Dwyer's Californian collective. Folky in the main, but with jazz featuring on the title track, this is a delightful album from start to finish. Favourite Track: The Fool.
This was an album I only heard for the first time a few weeks ago. A real in-yer-face attitude but with shedloads of humour running through some brilliant lyrics. Expect late-night garages, supermarkets, and the joys of daily working life to feature. There is more than a nod to Bette Davis in Billy's delivery at times, methinks. To say that your debut album is produced by no less than Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Beak, and features Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods, with whom she makes an appearance on their latest single, and I think it is fair to say we are going to hear a lot more of Billy Nomates. Favourite Track: No.
Another classic from Dylan as he takes us on a tour of 20th Century USA history. The death of JFK was covered in the 17 minute Murder Most Foul which arrived unannounced just as lockdown started, and preceded an album which provides sobering and thoughtful reflections at a time of great turmoil. I've still got plenty more listening to do to take it all in. Favourite Track: Murder Most Foul
An album that just crept up and grabbed me. Basically a solo side project for Wooden Shijps' Ripley Johnson, RCB play tracks with large swathes of instrumental breaks of which Uncut said capture "the lesser-spotted genealogical link between the road music of German motorik, Canned Heat, and trucker country". And I can't say it better than that! Chock full of soaring guitars and heavenly riffs, Summerlong is a gorgeous listen throughout. Favourite Track: Real Long Gone.
The second of two albums released this year by one of the true survivors who have continued to plough their own often lonely furrow since late 70's albums like Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. The first of these, Mind Hive, was a fine album too, but this one, featuring previously unreleased tracks from 2010 plus ones from 2020 that didn't make it on to the first album. Ours is not to question why tracks like German Shepherds and The Art of Persistence weren't included on Mind Hive, but they sit well in and amongst this collection of excellent tunes. Favourite Track: The Art of Persistence.
Those of us who had enjoyed the visceral, post-punk attitude and swagger of WMC's first two singles, Bad Blood and Teeth (the latter included here having undergone a grungy, funky re-work), were treated here to a revitalisation of the band from Todmorden as they moved firmly into dancefloor territory with more than a passing nod to the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Fat White Family whilst still retaining some touches from their indie roots. Produced by Sheffield-based Ross Orton, this debut album features a synth-led techno sound to replace the previous guitar-led format, but with lead singer Syd Minsky-Sergeant's snarling vocals still holding sway amidst the beats, Working Men's Club is an amazing ride from start to finish. And it is my undisputed choice as album of the year. Favourite Track: Valleys.