First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.
2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.
With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.
The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.
So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.
Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…
I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:
In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.
Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs, a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.
Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.
For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.
So let’s do this:
Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’
Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.
It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.
While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.
And that just leaves…
Pearl Jam – Gigaton
Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).
As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!
Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:
It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.
Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).
I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.