Sure, New Zealand’s pandemic experience hasn’t been anything like the horror show it has been elsewhere. Yet the Covid anxiety levels were still high enough to undermine a lot of the creative resolutions many of us took into lockdown: read that good book, learn Spanish, teach yourself coding etc Most of that didn’t happen. All praise therefore to the remarkable artists who produced such a lot of great work in 2020 despite the virus, and despite the anxiety from losing their ability to tour, and earn a living.
Here are some of the albums (and tracks) from this year of years.
Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher
Now 26, Bridgers has been insanely prolific over the last two years, after she escaped from the toxic grip of former “mentor” Ryan Adams. Adams was the subject of her breakthrough hit “Motion Sickness” and he (and his ilk) remain as spectral presences on some cuts (eg “Tokyo”) on her second album, Punisher. On the side, Bridgers is also part of the trio boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker and she is also one half of the group Better Oblivion Community Center, with Conor Oberst. Early this year, she produced Christian Lee Hutson’s debut album Beginners, and she’s already followed up Punisher with a six track EP of album remixes. Feel like an under-achiever by comparison? We all do.
Even so, she’s still easy to under-rate. If you skim-listen to Bridgers, her pleasantly attractive voice could sound like just one more generic ‘dear diary’ singer songwriter, and the lush production on some Punisher cuts can be equally deceptive. “Kyoto” starts out as a bored-with-touring track, and then slides into wistful recriminations with a former lover. (Bridgers is really, really good at writing “I’m so over this, but BTW while I think of it, take that, asshole” kind of songs.)
Even the pretty “Garden Song” turns out to be another wry attempt at exorcism, while the title track opens with this great couplet: “When the speed kicks in/I got to the store for nothing..” as she tries to sift out the blame from the self-blame at a point somewhere downstream from a failed relationship : “I swear I’m not angry/that’s just my face” is her best shot at a conciliatory gesture. Hey, it was complicated.
What I’m getting at is that Bridgers has a keen sense of humour along with her musical chops and a skewed perspective along with the usual regrets and angst. By the time you hit the gonzo apocalypse she evokes on the album’s final track “ I Know The End” you should be ready for just about anything.
Ka:Descendants of Cain
The hip hop album of the year….? Alfredo, the collaboration between veteran rapper Freddie Gibbs and producer The Alchemist has its advocates, and Run the Jewels returned to top form with their RTJ4 album. But IMO, the most rewarding hip hop album – clocking in at a brief 33 minutes – was Descendants of Cain by the 48 year old rapper (and sometime New York City fire officer) Kaseem Ryan, aka Ka.
Ever since his “Cold Facts” breakthrough single from 2012’s Grief Pedigree album, Ka has carved out a style all his own: a kind of hushed, conversational delivery that is so concise and on point that its easy to miss the smouldering artistry that has gone into shaping it. (On one track, he even disses what he does as being simple reportage.) The internal rhymes and the line by line rhythms are astonishing:
Quiet and frigid disposition, growin’ up the cold
Surprised I ain’t get high from what I was low enoughh to behold
Like when Pops shot at the neighbour’s shop, put one hand to his head
He knew how he grew me, threw me the gun, a hundred, and fled
I was raised to age a few years in a day
If not elite, didn’t eat if you didn’t pray…
Amid the bleakness, there’s humour at work. “Never marinate on beef/you don’t plan on finishin…” is good advice at any time. ” And then there’s this striking vision of the neighbourhood heroes and spiritual guides: “Our yogis did stretches upstate/ I saw Lancelots at round tables cuttin’ eighths..”
But the humour isn’t cheap, the sentiments earned. The final track “I Love” is a touching three verse tribute to his partner, his mother and a dead brother. Here’s “Patron Saints” from the new album,
And here’s Run The Jewels with their naggingly great BLM anthem…
Adrianne Lenker: Songs and Instrumentals
A couple of months ago, a New Yorker profile of the Big Thief lead singer Adrianne Lenker likened her voice to birdsong. Meaning: she sounds vulnerable, but she’s also naturally strong and sure in her messaging. Mid-year, Lenker made her third solo album in a cabin in the woods with little more than her guitar and some random sounds of nature. She was also subsisting in the wake of a devastating breakup from the Australian musician Indigo Sparke. “Zombie Girl” is a quiet song that arguably, carries more emotional weight than a sackful of punk anthems…
What a dream that was
I almost couldn’t wake because
I was frozen in bed with a zombie girl
Vacant as a closed down fair
Sleep paralysis, I sworn I could’ve felt you there
And I almost could’ve kissed your hair
But the emptiness withdrew me
From any kind of wishful prayet…
Until she was eight, Lenker was raised in a Christian religious sect. She’s been looking after herself since her mid-teens. (There’s a brilliant portrait of her mother and a childhood accident in “Mythological Beauty,” one of Big Thief’s greatest songs) By the end of 2020. Lenker was on the road again living in her van, with her band unable to tour, and future uncertain.
Over the past five years, she has built up a large body of work with three solo albums and four Big Thief albums that she almost single-handedly wrote. Much of it is infused with rare melodic grace. Lyrically, her recent songs are becoming ever more tersely poetic and well observed. (There’s a Ted Hughes intensity to the animal spirits that feature in “Ingydar.”) My favourite track on this album is “Anything” – a skitteringly propulsive song about the desire for belonging, and the ache of absence.
Natalie Lafourcade: “Una Vida”
The Mexican singer Natalie Lafourcade released this song exactly 12 months ago, but I only came across it a few months later so ( hopefully) it still counts as a 2020 track. While I haven’t got a sure grasp on the lyrics, “Una Vida” includes what sounds like a line about “Today has taught us /there is only one life…” Precious to recall, when thousands are dying daily.
Her earlier 2015 cut “Hasta La Raiz” is great too:
Also: the Colombian born , New York based singer/producer Ela Minus released several atmospheric dance tracks (eg “Dominique”) during 2020. But “El Cielo No Es Nadie” really conveys the time decay and general disorientation that sets in after working from your apartment has mutated into living at the office…Sometimes, having no routines isn’t always a form of freedom.
Taylor Swift:Folklore As the Canadian critic Carl Wilson indicated, this album wasn’t lockdown dependent. It seems more like a move that Swift needed to make, to get out of the funhouse/stylistic prison in which she’d become encased. A speedily recorded (by her standards) and collaborative effort (some tracks with the National’s Aaron Dessner, others with the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff) it has been widely viewed as some kind of folkie pastoral retreat. Her country album, even.
Yet it is also a cryptic puzzle like the ones the Victorians amused themselves with. For Swift, drawing on the old folkie traditions of ghosts and lovelorn pinings and betrayals – provided something of a mirror for her own twenties life and loves. Not new ground for her in that respect – but done at a mature distance, this time.
Not that Swift has lost any of her smarts. Some of these tracks are rabbit holes from which listeners may never re-emerge. Early on for instance, she made it clear that the “Cardigan” “Betty” and “August” tracks form three linked Rashomon-like takes on the same teenage love triangle. Yet until recently, I didn’t know the protagonists are named after the three children of Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively. Hmm.
On the archly goofy bonus track “The Lakes” she takes the ghostly faux Gothic conceits of the album to an absurd extreme. Amid the calamitously poetic Lake District loves and insurmountable griefs (complete with roses growing through ice-frozen ground with alas, no-one there to tweet them) Swift still finds the time to diss and dismiss Scooter Braun, the creep who sold off her recording masters: “I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze/Tell me what are my words worth…” Pun intended.
Here’s “Cardigan”with its recurring lines “When you are young/they assume you know nothing..” I loved the final images in the video of her piano being (literally) her life-raft.
On the “Exile” track, Swift joins forces with Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. At this point, the song’s narrator retains only a few embers of interest in figuring out exactly what went wrong, and who (if anyone) really was wronged. Lyrically, it is an interesting foray into third person story telling from someone better known for strip-mining their own romantic misfires. As she said with amusement in an interview around the time Folklore was released, she was relieved to find she could still write sad breakup songs even while these days, she’s pretty happy.
Dua Lipa:Future Nostalgia. This was released in March and instantly became the soundtrack for a party that never happened. It is a formidably sleek machine of club anthems, a formula that Lipa has impressively perfected over the past three years. Lipa was born in the UK and raised in Kosovo, but she’s become the leading international exponent of a dance music that (hopefully) will survive the pandemic and spring back into to life at some unpredictable future date. For now though, the party has to be in your own head. Here’s the great “Don’t Start Now” a classy banger among an album full of them.
While we’re in this neck of the woods, here’s Charli XCX with maybe her best ever club anthem. This one is actually called “Anthems” and the yearning for them is pretty much 2020 in a nutshell:
I’m so bored, woo
Wake up late and eat some cereal
Try my best to be physical
Lose myself in a TV show
Staring out to oblivion
All my friends are invisible
Twenty four-seven, miss ’em all
I might cry like a waterfall
I feel afraid when I feel alone, yeah, uh
Have sex, me and my Romeo
He says I’m irresistible
I’m gassed up like I’m Texaco
I ride, ride, ride, ride, ride, ride, ride, ride, ride, ride it
Sometimes I feel okay, some days I’m so frightened….
Oh, and here’s Werewolf’s album of the year pick:
Fiona Apple: Fetch The Bolt Cutters
OK… The fearless energy that propels the artistry behind every bolt and rivet of this project makes it IMO, the only serious contender for album of the year. If and when we escape the pandemic, this will have been its soundtrack, the album that took the whole range of 2020’s personal and social desires and anxieties head on – not simply in the content, but in the manner of its making as well.
Meaning: Apple made this at home, using her window shades as sound baffles, and that’s her dog barking in the background. The songs range from her dread acceptance of her own foibles (“Heavy Balloon” “) to her stubborn refusal to yield to them on the title track, and “Drumset.” Also: “Ladies.”
Almost everything about the album is off-kilter, affirmingly and abrasively. For that reason, it’s a hard album to return to for an escape, but many of us will never forget the rush of recognition on first encountering it. As the songs move further away from the piano-based numbers (“I Want You To Love Me”) that commence it, the voice and percussion carry the album off to some wild places of memory (“Shameika”) and of foreboding. Plus, its often very funny. And annoying at the same time. Probably, a portrait of the artist.
Oh, and it almost goes without saying that besides her melodic gifts, Apple has always been a great lyricist. “Relay” for instance, consists of a percussion-driven tribal chant built around a perfect summary of the metastasising nature of social sickness in the age of Trump : “Evil is a relay sport/When the one who’s burnt/Turns to pass the torch…” Likewise, “Cosmonauts” uses a sharp metaphor of lovers under lockdown being like cosmonauts… stuck in limitless time and space, and fraying apart at the mental seams.
When the pandemic is finally over, she might even tour down here. Dream on.
Tracks in Time
And few individual fine tracks that IMO, are worth checking out…
Zagga : “New Hail ( Coronavirus)” From the yard in Jamaica, Zagga touts the merits of a new style of greeting. Namely, foot bumping as a healthy option to any other form of bodily contact in the light of the pandemic:
Taylor Childers: “Long Violent History” Childers brilliantly used old Appalachian fiddle music as a setting for the best protest song of the year. Basically, it is a call to rural white men living in poverty to empathise with the daily black experience of police brutality that has driven the Black Lives Matter movement
Porridge Radio: “Sweet” In a different era, NME and Melody Maker would have made this band into stars, but chances are, this minor success could be their high point…Regardless, it is a great, explosive record, and lead singer/writer/guitarist Dana Margolin has charisma to burn. Let’s hope there’s more.
For her day job, Emily Cross, the lead singer and writer for the Texas shoegaze band Loma works as a death doula – someone who guides people through the death experience, and/or prepares them for it in ‘ virtual funerals” meant to lessen the anxiety we all feel about our inevitable extinction. This lovely, hovering track “Ocadillo” is haunting for different reasons:
Linden Jay: “Got Me All Wrong” Don’t know much about this androgynous sounding guy except that he’s from North London, and was jazz trained. Great song and delivery, though:
Bartees Strange: “Mustang” One of the most distinctive new forces in indie rock happens to be a black guy from Mustang, Oklahoma. Safe to say, this song isn’t the usual hometown celebration, but it’s good to know he escaped…Is anybody, he asks, really up for this one? Sure thing.
Waxahatchee: St Cloud
After a string of excellent indie rock albums. Kathie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee has finally spotlighted the country music elements that were always waiting in the wings of her music. And guess what? She sounds like a young, modern version of Dolly Parton…”Lilacs” for instance is a song I’m betting Dolly would be proud to call her own, and it is too bad that it got trapped here in a truly terrible dance video…Listen, but don’t look :
And then there’s “Oxbow” which is the album’s opening cut…Like the meandering river course for which it is named, the song finally gets to its source, to a point where she can say that yes really, she wants it all…
Perfume Genius : Set Fire to My Heart Immediately
Great title. As widely noted, this time around Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) isn’t quite as intent on liberating the body as he was on No Shape’s central cut “Slip Away”.. On this album, he’s intent on finding a way that the mortal body and its imperatives can endure in the world. Meaning: this a more grounded, more contemplative album, but with no loss in melodic sense. (The production is as lushly emotional as ever.) The single “Describe” has an amusing gay dude ranch video, with some line dancing! – but IMO, “Your Body Changes Everything” is the album’s drum-driven emotional centre.
And this track is Hadreas in achingly vulnerable mode:
Finally, a track from the Sahei desert region of Africa that puts the music back into the midst of a social context. The band Etran De L’Air are from a mountainous part of northern Niger, and in 2018, they released a terrific album (called No. 1) available on Youtube. Yet dodgy sound and all, I love this video of Etran De L’Air playing at a marriage celebration in Agadez..