Well, that was definitely a year.
Or so I’m told. It felt like at least seven years, possibly more. But no, it was just one year, though I think it’s fair to say it was a year like no other. There have been global pandemics before, but not in an online interconnected world that should allow for unprecedented collaboration and information sharing, yet somehow has instead led to a global atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt for many, and exasperation for many more.
Oh, while we’re on the cheery stuff, I saw a line go past on Twitter a few months ago that kind of hit me. It went something like:
Person 1: “Wow, this is the hottest summer of my life!”
Person 2: “No. This is the coldest summer of the rest of your life.”
Le sigh. So, in summary…
Obviously COVID-19 defined the year for many, and along with it the lockdowns, disruption, recession, protests and general idiocy that came with it. (I’m not here to document the pandemic—you can read about it pretty much anywhere else.) It was also the International Year of Plant Health and Year of the Nurse and Midwife, so that’s nice. What else? Well, Brexit finally happened *facepalm*, everything else that was supposed to happen in 2020 got postponed to 2021, including the kicksport, the Olympics, and the two gigs (My Chemical Romance and Lady Gaga) that I had bought expensive tickets for (and which have both since been postposed again to 2022), and a whole bunch of other stuff. They even cancelled Eurovision, which on balance I see as a good thing. US police murdered a black man called George Floyd and triggered a wave of unrest, riots and protests over institutionalised racism, Costa Rica legalised gay marriage, NASA sent Perseverance and Ingenuity to Mars, Africa eradicated wild polio (because vaccines, yay!), the Falklands were declared free of land mines, Joe Biden became 46th US President, the Arecibo Telescope collapsed, I learned a whole lot about video editing, and I bought a 12-ft above-ground pool for the back garden.
I left a lot out there. Various parts of the world were—and still are—in various states of upheaval due to international conflicts, civil wars, natural disasters, invasions, and general Bad Stuff, and frankly a lot of it is too depressing to retype here. And that’s without all the T**mp rubbish. 😞
We said goodbye to (as always, among many many others): Elizabeth Wurtzel, Neil Peart, Terry Jones, Nicholas Parsons, Andy Gill, Kirk Douglas, Andrew Weatherall, Jens Nygaard Knudsen (the inventor of the Lego minifig), Hosni Mubarak, Max von Sydow, Roy Hudd, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers, Adam Schlesinger 🦠, Eddie Large, Honor Blackman, John Prine 🦠, John Conway 🦠, Stirling Moss, Tim Brooke-Taylor 🦠, Brian Dennehy, Florian Schneider, Dave Greenfield 🦠, Little Richard, Jerry Stiller, Mory Kanté, Willie Thorne, Dame Vera Lynn, Ian Holm, Joel Schumacher, Ennio Morricone, Peter Green, John Saxon, Olivia de Havilland, Julian Bream, Chadwick Boseman, Diana Rigg, Terence Conran, Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), The Crobar, Eddie Van Halen, Spencer Davis, Bobby Ball 🦠, Sean Connery, John Sessions, Geoffrey Palmer, Des O’Connor, Jan Morris, Diego Maradona, Darth Vader (David Prowse), Chuck Yeager, Harold Budd 🦠, Barbara Windsor, John le Carré, Pierre Cardin, Alexi Laiho and Maurice the cockerel.
(As you might have guessed, 🦠 in the above list denotes a death attributed to COVID-19.)
Musically it was another bumper crop, though. Due to changes in financial wossnames I have had to reduce my rampant musical intake a little, but I still managed to find all of the following for you:
- AC/DC – Power Up. (Rock.) You know what to expect from Brian, Angus, and co. by now, and that’s exactly what you get.
- Aldious – Evoke 2010–2020 and Evoke II 2010–2020. (Metal.) This all-female Japanese metal band got a new singer and re-recorded a selection of their catalogue. Great fun.
- Alestorm – Curse of the Crystal Coconut. (Pirate metal.) The pirates from Perth return with their 6th long player, and get right on with shivering your timbers from the get-go.
- Ólafur Arnalds – Some Kind of Peace. (Neo-classical.) Evocative, minimal, lovely.
- Black Veil Brides – Re-Stitch These Wounds. (Hard rock.) BVB felt, on reflection, that their debut album could have sounded better, so they re-recorded it.
- Dirty Shirley – Dirty Shirley. (Hard rock.) George Lynch pops up with his first contribution for the year, with a slightly patchy but overall fun rocker, sporting a brand new singer, Dino Jelusick.
- Enuff Z’Nuff – Brainwashed Generation. (Rock.) Enuff never seems to be Enuff for Chip and his gang, as they’re back again with more.
- Intervals – Circadian. (Instrumental metal.) Aaron Marshall returns with another impeccably executed collection of hard instrumentals.
- Al Joseph – Labyrinth. (Instrumental metal.) Al’s effortless shredding and brutal riffage are always solid. Cracking.
- Lonely Robot – Feelings Are Good. (Prog.) Friend of the show, His Holiness John Mitchell, returns with his first solo album since the astronaut trilogy and explores some new ground sonically and lyrically. Top stuff, John!
- Lost Society – No Absolution. (Metal/thrash.) Brutal.
- Lynch Mob – Wicked Sensation Reimagined. (Hard rock.) George again! A complete re-make of the 1990’s classic, some songs benefit from the update, some not so much. YOU be the judge. (Note: George and co. have retired the “Lynch Mob” moniker due its oppressive historical connotations, so this will be the last LM album.)
- Rabea Massaad – Grinding Gears vol. 3. (Instrumental metal.) Rabea’s third collection of gear demo tunes showcases as always his jawdropping technical expertise and supernatural feel. This boy’s really got something.
- Tim Minchin - Apart Together. (Piano/pop.) Tim should need no introduction as a musical comedian, and this album is by turns funny, heartwarming and relatable. Good work.
- Kylie Minogue – Disco. (Pop.) What, I can’t listen to Kylie? Can, and will.
- Oh Wonder – No One Else Can Wear Your Crown. (Electropop.) I’ve loved these folks since I heard one of their songs on the telly. Sparse.
- Ozric Tentacles – Space for the Earth. (Instrumental psychedelic.) If you don’t know what the Ozrics sound like, I can’t tell you. If you do, then this sounds like that. Bloody marvellous.
- John Petrucci – Terminal Velocity. (Instrumental metal.) Trooch brings us his second solo outing, and once again there are some cracking tunes on here, and absoutely blistering lead work, as you would expect.
- Max Richter – Voices. (Neo-classical.) Max is not afraid to push the envelope, even if there’s danger of it falling off the desk altogether. This comes in two “discs”, as it were: one with spoken vocals and one without. The former is selections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set to classical/experimental backing. The latter has the voices removed. Intriguing.
- Sons of Apollo – MMXX. (Progressive metal.) The superest of supergroups is back for more, and bloody impressive it is, if you like that sort of thing. Do you?
- Testament – Titans of Creation. (Metal/thrash.) Thrashy. Heavy. Good.
Ready? OK. Here are the contenders for the top spot from 2020, a blighted year that still gave us plenty to listen to.
Jon Gomm - The Faintest Idea
It blows my mind that (at time of writing) if you go to the acoustic guitars page on the Ibanez website, there are three signature acoustic ranges: one for Steve Vai, one for Joe Satriani, and one for a guy from Yorkshire who I sort of know a bit. Like many acts who were suddenly everywhere, Jon was of course toiling away doing his thing for years before a chance confluence of circumstances led to a breakthrough event that catapulted him to much-deserved recognition back in 2013, following the release of his smash album Secrets Nobody Keeps. We’ve been waiting 7 years for the followup, during which time Jon has toured the globe, and traversed some no-less-gnarly personal and emotional terrain, and come out the other side scarred perhaps, but on the top of his game, and bearing an absolutely beautiful record. Raw, touching, personal, inspiring, fragile and slightly bloody. But enough about me, go listen to this record. Top track: “Deep Sea Fishes”
Green Day - Father of All Motherf***ers
You should know what to expect from Green Day by now. This particular album is more pop punk party than political pomp or puff proselytising, and there’s only 26 minutes of it, so pay attention. It’s really good, and you don’t want to miss it. Top track: Fire, Ready, Aim”
Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
My musical tastes—and my personality—have changed pretty wildly over the last year or two, and while I still dig rock music the most, you’re nowadays as likely to find me listening to girly pop as manly hetero testoterone-powered rawk. Say what you like about that, I couldn’t care less. This is a brilliant album, the songs are catchy as hell, the production is fantastic, and Ms. Lipa is one heck of a singer. Not sorry. Top track: “Hallucinate”
Nuclear Power Trio - A Clear and Present Rager
Barking, but brilliant. Check this out, why don’t you? Maybe that will help. Top track: “A Clear and Present Rager”
Plini - Impulse Voices
It was five years ago that Mr. Roessler-Holgate graced us with his first full-length album, and what an album it was. Here, then, is the followup and yes, dear listener, he’s done it again. It’s under 40 minutes again, but the quality of these songs… the musicianship, the composition, the production, the care and love that has gone into them… you can’t walk away feeling short-changed. Some of the songs feature a little more of Plini’s jazzier/fusionier side, but do not be afear’d – there is wailage aplenty, and it’s beautiful. Top track: “Pan”
Protest the Hero - Palimpsest
These Canadian boys make a goddamn wonderful metal sound. Rody Walker’s vocals are absolutely unnatural, the riffage the band smash out is always interesting, the compositions and production are top drawer… just a great band, and this is a great record. Top track: “All Hands”
Public Enemy - What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?
I am not, and have never been, a hip hop or rap fan. I was surprised by this album, though. Very listenable, and still relevant. Fight the power, indeed. Top track: “GRID”
Taylor Swift - Evermore
I don’t know much about Tay-Tay, and had never heard any of her music before the lockdowns came. But, as isolation threatened to scatter my mind beans to the four winds, I found solace in music I hadn’t previously tried, and I found Ms. Swift’s recent folkier output to be a wonderful tonic to the oppressive atmosphere of some of those long hot claustrophobic 2020 summer nights. Great stuff. Top track: “No Body, No Crime”
Taylor Swift - Folklore
Oh, and she even had time to release two albums in one year. I guess if you can’t tour because of a global pandemic, best get busy making music? I couldn’t choose between this and Evermore, so they both get a spot on the list. Splendid. Top track: “Exile”
And the winner is…
Lady Gaga - Chromatica
I was converted to the Church of Gaga via a friend in late 2019, and her music got me through some very very dark teatimes of the soul indeed. You may find that just the idea of listening to Lady Gaga leaves you cold, and that’s fair enough, I won’t try to change your mind. What I’ll say is that I’m a different person to the one I was two or three years ago, and listening to something other than constant rock has helped me to get out of a personal rut and feel less stagnant in my mind.
Something like that, anyway.
Whatever the case, if you’re able to appreciate pop music, then give this a listen. Stephanie Germanotta is a proper singer, songwriter and musician, so focus on the music rather than the ostentatious stunts that gave her so much publicity earlier in her career. (Meat dress, anyone?)
I love all her albums, though not every single track is a zinger. That said, Chromatica is perhaps the most consistent of them all to date. The production is epic throughout, and the songs themselves are expertly crafted, as you might expect of an album with no less than 13 producers credited, including such EDM/house/pop luminaries as Skrillex, Burns, Axwell, Max Martin and Tchami, all masterminded by Gaga and uber-producer BloodPop. Lyrically, Gaga deals with themes such as mental health struggles, self loathing, sexual assault, substance dependence, and desire for acceptance, but the overall tone of the album is one of hope. It is split up into three “acts”, each introduced with a short orchestral interlude, and can be characterised overall as a musical “quest for healing”.
And what songs they are. The relentlessly fun “Stupid Love” was the lead single, with its camp-as-Christmas-balls cyberpunk dance battle video (see below), and it only got better from there. “Rain On Me” (duet with Ariana Grande) is one of the best pop songs I’ve heard in recent times, and the slightly chewier subject matter in songs like “Sour Candy” and “911” keep the whole affair from vanishing in a puff of saccharin smoke.
I’m not going to go on much further – I’m not trying to convert you or to convince you. I’m just saying that this is without a shadow of a doubt my Album of the Year for 2020. A bright, shiny, fun 43 minutes of dance pop in a year that gave us very little to celebrate.
Top tracks: “Sour Candy”, “Rain On Me”, “Stupid Love”
Turkey of the Year
You know who just can’t sing? Ozzy Osbourne. I’ve spent time listening to Ozzy, and I realised, I was only really interested in whoever was on guitar in his band – Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee, Zakk Wylde, Gus G., etc. So when I stuck on his 2020 effort Ordinary Man and found the guitar to be pretty incidental and uninteresting, I figured that would be enough to make it the Turkey of the Year.
But no. No no no. That dubious honour goes to…
Reb Beach - A View from the Inside
I really wanted this to be good, and it really isn’t. I love Reb’s playing, from back in the day with Winger up to his newer stuff with Whitesnake, he’s always great and original-sounding. But this record is just… bad. It starts strong, with a remake of “Black Magic”–Reb’s track for the 1991 compilation album Guitars That Ruled The World–but unfortunately it goes rapidly downhill from there.
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