Six of the best from this year
Who has time to listen to new music? That might be a weird question from a music fan who edits a music website, but it’s a serious one. I work from home (so no commute to get those headphones on) and this year, in particular, has offered a million distractions, on top of all the usual ones (like the kids being at home for long periods, pretending to do their schoolwork and saying “can you make me some lunch” at 11.50am) and the obvious health concerns.
I remember working in an office of about 12 people in the early ’90s (the company was video/music industry related) and music was on all the time, often very loud! We’d take turns putting tapes or CDs on. It was like a badge of honour: “Yes, I may be on the phone to a client, but I can still do my job with that racket blaring in the background”. These days I tend to need a bit more peace and quiet if I’m trying to concentrate, especially with writing. It’s hard to choose words to write when someone else is singing other words into your earhole. I often opt for instrumental music to listen to, such as soundtracks and even some jazz (man).
Given that my main ‘job’ (after ten years, I’m still getting accustomed to the concept) is to focus on reissues and box sets, that’s another impediment to getting into new albums – I’m often just listening to old ones.
Despite all of that, I am of course still very interested in new music, although the fuddy-duddy truth of the matter is that I’m no John Peel, spending hours discovering and seeking out new artists. Probably like many of you, my new music consumption is largely anchored around familiar artists, with the odd exception. So with all the provisos and excuses out of the way… Here’s the SDE pick of 2020: Six new albums from six very different artists.
I really look forward to reading about what you have enjoyed this year, in the comments section (by the way, SDE reissues of the year will follow later this week).
Pet Shop Boys: Hotspot
Such were the trials and tribulations of 2020, Hotspot feels like it came out a lifetime ago, but it was actually released at the end of January, with a couple of physical singles extending its lifespan, like in the old days.
While I hadn’t exactly given up on the Pet Shop Boys, if pushed, I’ll admit I got to a point where I was still dutifully collecting and buying their albums and singles but not necessarily enjoying their output too much anymore. Perhaps I was not trying hard enough (although how ‘hard’ should it be?). I was just not overly engaged by albums like Electric and Super and the love affair that had started way back in 1985 was seriously waning. But along came Hotspot and, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure of, I was excited by their music, again
Lyrically, the record is very strong and lyrically, Neil is on top form. I like all the references to Berlin (where much of the album was recorded) and a relatively simple song like ‘You Are The One’ is lifted enormously by the verses and Tennant’s evocative narrative and delivery. ‘Hoping For A Miracle’ is Behaviour quality in virtually every respect, other than the production, with Stuart Price’s slightly compressed and ‘fuzzy’ sound lacking the purity and crispness of Harold Faltermeyer’s analogue beats. But that’s ultimately a moot point, since with Hotspot, the songs are largely great, especially the singles ‘I Don’t Wanna’, ‘Monkey Business’ and ‘Burning The Heather’ (all of which were issued physically and had excellent non-album B-sides).
Only the dubby, dumbed down final track ‘Wedding in Berlin’ is a serious misstep, but they’ve won you over by that point so all is forgiven and you can just leave the party early.
Matt Berry: Phantom Birds
Better known by the wider public for his voiceover and TV work, Matt Berry is a fine musician and songwriter, and has been issuing albums on Eddie Piller’s Acid Jazz Records label for the best part of a decade.
2018’s Television Themes was a brilliantly executed nostalgia trip, but had the significant advantage of being full of music its target market was already very familiar with. Phantom Birds has to keep us interested via 13 original songs, all composed by Berry himself. Previous band, The Maypoles, are appear to have been handed their P45s, and on this record Matt takes care of all the instrumentation, other than BJ Cole’s pedal steel guitar and Craig Blundell’s drums. You might call the sound country-folk-pop.
There’s lots of acoustic rhythm guitar to accompany Cole’s pedal steel, along with unobtrusive drums and bass, and plenty of weird and wonderful opening lines such as “Like the tethered eagle, let me go free” (‘In My Mind’) or “The man who mows the field, take a bow” (‘Take A Bow’). With the possible exception of ‘Waving Goodbye’ – which stands out because it wears its late-Sixties, Byrds influence on its sleeve – the tracks do have a tendency to blend into one another, thanks to a consistency of sound and tone, but I actually quite like that. It simply makes Phantom Birds a true album listening experience; these songs feel like they belong together, almost need to be together to work individually. Their charms creep up on you slowly, in a controlled and steady manner.
Phantom Birds feels like music from another time. Something you might have found in your parents’ record collection in the late-Seventies. Many of the songs clock in at under three minutes and indeed the whole 13-track album is over in a tad over half an hour. Wonderful stuff.
Alanis Morissette: Such Pretty Forks in the Road
Eight years since her last record, Alanis Morissette returned with a wonderful and deeply moving album. No celebrity collaborations, no marketing declarations along the lines of ‘this might be my last’ (see Sheryl Crow) , just a highly focussed record full of great songs with heartfelt lyrics.
‘Diagnosis’ is as honest and raw as Plastic Ono Band Lennon as it addresses postpartum depression, set to simple piano and strings. It’s all about self pity either, as Alanis recognises how such a situation affects friends and family [“All of you are so frustrated / And everyone around me is trying to help as much as they can”]. In ‘Losing the Plot’ Morissette decrees that she is “grieving the end of superwoman-ing” and the brilliant ‘Reasons I Drink’ adds some big hooks to proceedings.
An album that spends much of its time concerned with mental health issues such as self-loathing, despair, depression and bitterness might sound a bit bleak, but it’s not. These are remain accessible pop songs elevated by lyrics of truth and meaning, not weighed down by them. The melodies and arrangements are all of the highest order and the reliance on piano accompaniment gives Such Pretty Forks in the Road a classic, timeless appeal. Highly recommended.
Paul Weller: On Sunset
Paul Weller just doesn’t do ‘bad’ albums these days (if he ever did). On Sunset leaves behind the autumnal, acoustic vibe of 2018’s True Meanings and opts for more variety and fun, as if someone has shouted ‘lighten up!’. Old Father Tyme has an almost hip-hop beat, the title track shuffles along a feel-good summer’s breeze (punctuated by horns and strings), while ‘Walkin” is a stompy, Beatles-y piano-driven number.
There’s a joyful everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach combined with a pick-and-mix variety, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter too much which clothes these songs wear, since the writing and the arrangements are so strong.Many tracks evoke the best of Weller’s early solo career and the cream of The Style Council. Even slightly ludicrous deluxe bonus track ‘Ploughman’ (“I am a ploughman and I plough my earth!”) raises a smile and would have made a fine B-side.
Ultimately, I think True Meanings is slightly better (I’m a sucker for the uniformity of style that album delivered) but now in his early sixties, the prolific Weller deservedly got to number one with this, his fifteenth studio solo album.
Like many albums this year, the Psychedelic Furs Made of Rain was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That in turn then scuppered the big comeback show at the Royal Albert Hall and like virtually every artist out there (except maybe Kate Bush, who probably bumbled along, unaffected) plans for 2020 were in tatters. It was particularly unfortunate for the Furs, because they had recorded their first studio album in 30 years and it’s an absolute corker.
Richard Fortus and Tim Palmer did a fantastic job crafting the sound of the record. Every song has that satisfyingly dark underbelly and is enhanced by the rich gritty vocals of Richard Butler. Tracks like ‘Don’t Believe’ and ‘No-One’ are somehow both very immediate while having enough depth and creases to reveal hidden pleasures and reward repeated playings.
There’s just so many good songs on show, including the dark, frantic and slightly dreamy opener ‘The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll’, the knowing ‘Wrong Train’ (Butler sings of “A wife that hates me / So does her boyfriend”) and my personal favourite the superb, regretful Ash Wednesday which is the album’s centre point.
A fantastic album, full of atmosphere and intrigue. It’s all wonderfully executed. Why did they wait so long?
Fiona Apple: Fetch The Bolt Cutters
The cover of Fiona Apple‘s fifth studio album does a pretty good job of conveying the music within. Dense, quirky, ‘homemade’, a bit mad in places.
Despite all the US critical acclaim and Grammy nominations in the last 20 odd years, Apple has not enjoyed much profile or success in the UK (Fetch The Bolt Cutters was a UK career high, peaking at 33 in the albums charts) and my very late introduction came via ‘Container’, her brilliant theme tune to Showtime’s TV series The Affair.
The fact that Fiona Apple chose not to benefit from that show’s high ratings during its five-year run, by commercially releasing the theme song (or even allowing it on streaming services), tells us a great deal. She’s clearly focused on creative, not commercial success, something underlined by Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
The album is Apple doing exactly what she pleases and can be a pretty challenging listen. The rhythms are at times a right old racket, but rather endearing, and Apple’s voice is quite ‘dry’ in sound, seemingly deliberately under-produced and even mumbly at times. The whole individualistic approach evokes the mindset of that other female contrarian Kate Bush, and in particular her 1982 album The Dreaming, which people seem to absolutely love or not like at all (Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ gets a namecheck on the title track of Fetch The Bolt Cutters).
For all the dogs barking in the background and general clatter, the homemade feel belies a certain precision; there are a lot of layers, including vocal lines intertwining. The songs feel like they’ve been worked on endlessly. Elements added, taken away, reworked until everything is exactly as Apple requires.
The best tracks on the album are the ones that pair the rambling verses with a ‘proper chorus’, such as the title track and ‘Under The Table’. The former has a very funny lyric (“I would beg to disagree / but begging disagrees with me”) and the album generally has a defiant ‘I’m not gonna take any more shit’ feel to it, from a lyrical standpoint.
‘Ladies’ offers some respite from the din, driven largely by double bass, drums and Apple’s piano but I’ll be honest, this is a record that requires you to put the work in. But the rewards are there and at this point I’m still exploring and enjoying.