Most of us would like to delete many of 2020’s memories as the year draws to a close. But for music lovers, this past year has been remarkably good. The forced lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing have meant there have been no tours or gigs. That has hit hard the livelihood of musicians and left fans disappointed. Yet it has also led to more musicians heading to the studios to make new songs, albums and EPs, many of which have been brilliant.
This is the time of year that music publications come out with their annual lists of the best albums, EPs and songs. Numerous such lists have already been published. But what if you had to compile a list of 10 of this year’s albums, drawn from different genres and, perhaps, representative of the kind of creative resurgence that the Year of Covid witnessed? Which ones would you choose? Well, here’s what I would like to ring out the year with.
Khruangbin’s psychedelic music draws inspiration from every corner of the world. The Texas-based band had a new album this year titled Mordechai. But they also released Late Night Tales: Khruangbin, a curation by the trio of 15 tracks to listen to at night. They come from artists as diverse as Carlos Santana and Alice Coltrane; Nazia Hassan, the Pakistani pop singer (popularly known as South Asia’s Queen of Pop) who died in 2000 at age 35; Nigeria’s reggae superstar, the late Maxwell Udoh; and the Roha Band from Ethiopia, who fuse modern and traditional music enchantingly. Play the album at night and prepare to be transported.
Canadian band Destroyer’s powerhouse is singer and frontman Dan Bejar, who makes records that are always distinctively different from each other. On the new album, Have We Met, the only conventional instruments are an electric guitar and bass. Everything else is electronic. But you will be hard-pressed to realise that because the sound is so alive. The lyrics are cryptic yet thoughtful, and the synth-pop sound surprisingly enjoyable. If you want to reverse 2020’s lows, spin it.
If you haven’t heard Porridge Radio, Brighton’s indie rock band, try their latest, Every Bad. This band has everything going for it: the DIY ethos of their recordings, vocalist Dana Margolin’s dynamism (she whispers, she screams, she snarls but can also be tender), the lyrics (Born Confused begins with I’m bored to death, let’s argue), everything. Their lyrics question and contradict; their music is messy but the production is slick; and their attitude is in-your-face. What’s not to like about an album that has all that and is also on this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist?
Even if hip hop isn’t your scene, you won’t regret trying Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye. The British-born actor and activist’s second album is themed on the rise of racism in the wake of Brexit and the alienation that South Asian Britons face. There are samples of Indian and Pakistani music and references to the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. If you don’t like rap, listen to Ahmed in Where You From: Skinheads meant I never really liked the British flag/ And I only got the shits when I went back to Pak/ And my ancestors Indian, but India was not for us/ My people built the West, we even gave the skinheads swastikas/ Now everybody everywhere wantin’ their country back.
You will likely listen to the rest of The Long Goodbye. On repeat.
Not long back, this column featured the Fleet Foxes’ new album, Shore, an instantly likeable set of 15 songs that act as a welcome salve in these troubled times. With tracks that include a nostalgic tribute to musicians who died this year and earlier, and other songs that are a soothing mix of melancholia and happiness, Shore, created by frontman Robin Pecknold during a protracted lockdown period, could find an essential spot in a playlist to end this year.
Rina Sawayama was born in Japan but raised in Britain. A graduate of Cambridge University, she began her singing career in a hip hop band, but her debut full-length, SAWAYAMA, is an unlikely amalgam of crunchy guitar riffs and R&B-styled pop vocals. SAWAYAMA is an ambitious and bold album. Its unique sound, and unusual (for pop) lyrics (in Akasaka Sad, she sings: Hotel corridor, blacked out rear window/ Crawling under my skin/ Flew here to escape, but I feel the same/ Jetlag making me thin) make it an avant-pop album that you would want to explore.
Damon Albarn’s pet project, the virtual band Gorillaz, is never afraid of pushing the envelope or breaking rules. Their new album, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, is part of a project that includes singles and videos. On the album, Gorillaz collaborate with guest musicians, including Robert Smith of The Cure, Elton John, Beck, Peter Hook (co-founder of Joy Division), ScHoolboy Q, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and many others. Phew! The list is so impressive and the music so diverse—name a genre and it is there—that the album slips effortlessly into my list.
The seven albums listed above—in no particular order—are by no means an exhaustive list of 2020’s best. After all, the year also saw brilliant releases by many other musicians. But three of them stand heads and shoulders taller than the rest. And they are from three all-time greats: Bob Dylan released his grand masterpiece, Rough And Rowdy Ways; Neil Young dug through his (evidently bottomless) archive to give us Homegrown, a bittersweet blast from the past that was recorded in the 1970s but remained unreleased for 46 years; and then, recently, out popped a Jimi Hendrix album, Live In Maui, recordings from one of the guitar wizard’s last few gigs before he died tragically in 1970. Those three albums make up the rest of this year’s winding-up playlist, bringing the total to 10.
The Lounge list of 5 albums to bookend your week
1. ‘Late Night Tales: Khruangbin’ curated by Khruangbin
2. ‘Every Bad’ by Porridge Radio
3. ‘The Long Goodbye’ by Riz Ahmed
4. ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez’ by Gorillaz
5. ‘SAWAYAMA’ by Rina Sawayama
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.