The Soundtrack of Silence

After a reasonable start at tracking my listening in the first few months of 2020, things tailed off in lockdown, mostly because my opportunities for music-listening were more limited when I wasn’t riding back and forth to work every day. (As for podcasts, I’m impossibly behind.) For the months of the first lockdown and the summer school holidays I was sharing the flat with everyone else all day and not wanting to impose my tunes on them all the time. After school went back I hadn’t wanted too many musical distractions while working from home.

Still, I managed to keep up with some of the big releases of the pandemic, and made a few deep dives into artists I’d never given enough time before. So before I turn to my favourite music of this year, here’s the best of (the rest of) last year’s. Hey, if Tokyo 2020 can be held in August 2021, so can 2020 Best Ofs.

The big pop hitter of the year was Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, whose singles dominated Radio 1 whenever I was in the car with the kids, and sounded pretty good to me – I listened to it more than the year’s new releases by Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Charli XCX. Annie’s Dark Hearts had its moments, but was bogged down by some middling tracks. Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? was smooth and enjoyable. Kylie’s Disco was her best album in years – since the last time she mined the genre twenty years ago – with almost every track a potential hit single. But my favourite pop album of 2020 was Rina Sawayama’s Sawayama, which I discovered only when it was deemed ineligible for the Mercury Award because the singer, although a permanent resident of the UK who was raised here, wasn’t a citizen. That rank injustice rankled with me, and moved the album up the ranks before I even heard it. No need, though, because it’s great: musically eclectic, with a lot to say, and saying it in style.

Beyond straightforward pop, the buzz around Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Laura Marling’s Song for Our Daughter prompted me to check out both albums; I couldn’t really get into Apple’s, but Marling’s was good. Many other artists I’ve loved in the past came out with new albums in 2020, but a lot of them (Sufjan Stevens, Paul McCartney, Semisonic, the Killers, the Pretenders, Travis, Snow Patrol, the Struts, the Avalanches, the Smashing Pumpkins) didn’t really land for me, though maybe they eventually will.

A few did, though. The Strokes’ The New Abnormal might be my second-favourite album of theirs, after a dip in quality in the 2010s (although I remember liking Angles a decade ago). James Dean Bradfield’s Even in Exile was a good solo stop-gap while waiting for the next Manic Street Preachers album. Jarvis Cocker’s (or Jarv Is, as he now Is) Beyond the Pale was strong, if not as strong as Pulp at its best. Doves’ The Universal Want felt as if they’d never been away; if you like their 2000s albums, this one won’t disappoint. Midnight Oil’s The Makarrata Project was an unexpected and welcome comeback, albeit too short.

I was also pleased to learn that one of my favourite bands of the 1990s and 2000s, Luna, had started releasing music again in 2017, with the covers album A Sentimental Education and instrumental EP A Place of Greater Safety, 2019’s B-sides and rarities compilation Postscripts, and some live sets. Frontman Dean Wareham also released some solo work last decade that I’d managed to miss, all of which kept me busy on Bandcamp.

When I think of the music I was listening to in 2020, though, most of it wasn’t from 2020. The deaths of musicians prompted me to dig through some back catalogues, like Fountains of Wayne’s, which I knew a little, or Van Halen’s, which I knew from my teens and twenties. Other retrospective explorations were triggered at random, like the later works of the Go-Betweens, the Canadian band Stars, the 2001 Shins album Oh, Inverted World, and (thanks to its use as the theme of Deutschland 83) the Peter Schilling track “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and its parent album Error in the System.

Three belated discoveries stand out. The first, only forty-odd years late, was the first EP and near-perfect trio of 1970s albums released by the punk band Buzzcocks, who I’d never investigated despite years of watching Never Mind The.

Second was the Boss. I’d heard Born in the USA and its singles, which were ubiquitous in my teens, and his ’70s smash Born to Run, but something about Rolling Stone’s canonisation of Bruce Springsteen put me off going any further in the 1980s and 1990s, which looking back on it seems oddly perverse. But last summer, prompted by a random tweet from a fan, I checked out his 2019 album Western Stars, and loved it: less “Born in the USA”, more Glen Campbell reborn. It prompted me to look up lists of his bestloved albums and listen to them, which (as the whole world apart from me already knew) are full of great music. Even Born in the USA sounded better when I returned to it with a newfound awareness of its wider context.

Last, and the opposite of least, was the unlocking of an entire genre of sound that had never clicked for me before: hip-hop, and especially gangster rap. It only took a late-night watch of a documentary about Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine and how they ended up working together, which made sense of N.W.A., which led to Ice Cube’s solo work, and pretty soon I was exploring lists of best hip-hop albums and listening to Snoop and Kanye. I kept going back to N.W.A. and Ice Cube, though: what a moment that was.

Here, then, are my favourites of 2020, in order of discovery:

Weyes Blood, Front Row Seat to Earth (2016)
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka (2019)
The Strokes, The New Abnormal
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Buzzcocks, Love Bites (1978)
Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars (2019)
N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton (1988)
Ice Cube, Death Certificate (1991)
Rina Sawayama, Sawayama
James Dean Bradfield, Even in Exile
Peter Schilling, Error in the System (1983)
Kylie Minogue, Disco

And one last one, which I’ll discuss in the next post.

26 August 2021 · Music