Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020: My Year In Music

It's often said that your music taste peaks at around 14. Whatever music you were singing and dancing to halfway through secondary school will be the music you listen to for the rest of your life. And I think to a certain extent that's true.

I will always have a soft spot for pop punk, for instance, a genre that was at its peak when I became a teenager. I still come back to All Time Low's Nothing Personal and Paramore's Brand New Eyes - both of which were released when I was 13 - and I know them almost lyric for lyric.

But something about that statistic scared me a bit. With so much music from all around the world at my fingertips, I didn't want to end up listening to the same 30 songs purely through lack of trying. So for the last few years I've made an effort to listen to everything and everyone I can. And now I want to share some of that experience with you.

2020's been a crazy year, with few blessings to count. But it's given us some great music, and time to explore music that we haven't heard before. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 albums that I discovered this year... 

After Hours (2020) by The Weeknd

The Weeknd's sophomore album Beauty Behind the Madness is firmly cemented in the soundtrack of my university days. What could be more relatable to a hard-boozing student than the self-destructive sentiment of "Can't Feel My Face" or the hungover haze of "The Hills"? I loved dancing and drinking to the Weeknd, but I never imagined liking his music.

But there's little to dislike about After Hours. As immaculately produced as his previous efforts, it retains the bright synths and lilting rhythms that made The Weeknd a party playlist staple. But the lyrics reveal a maturity, a vulnerability we've rarely seen before. "Take off my disguise," he asks in the record's very first line - as if inviting us to see what lies behind his sheen of reckless decadence.

It's a beautiful, brutal album. Regret pulses through heavier tracks like "Too Late" and "Save Your Tears," while the more radio-friendly numbers explore broken relationships and the fear of being alone. A cheery record it is not, but Abel Tesfaye's gorgeous vocals guide the listener through it, and tracks like "Scared to Live," it's clear that inside all this self-sabotage and sadness, there is still hope

My highlights: Alone Again, Hardest to Love, Blinding Lights, In Your Eyes

OK Computer (1997) by Radiohead

As a big fan of Coldplay, Muse and other bands who wouldn't exist without Radiohead, I can't believe it took me so long to start listening to them. And, though I listened to every album in order, it was no surprise to find that OK Computer captured my imagination more than the rest. I've always known it's one of the greatest records of all time, but now I really understand.

Retrospectives all across its 23-year life have claimed that the themes of OK Computer are, if anything, more relevant today than they were in the 90s - and 2020 is no different. Radiohead saw a world of ubiquitous technology coming, and they perfectly captured the all-too-familiar isolation of a world that relies more than ever on technology for a sense of normality.

What's more, for all its technical, musical and lyrical experimentation, it's still a cracking rock album. The pulsing guitars and headphone-busting drums of 'Airbag' and 'Electioneering' contrast perfectly with Yorke's baleful crooning on 'Exit Music (For a Film)' and 'The Tourist'. It's a perfectly crafted record and I can't stop listening.  

My highlights: Subterranean Homesick Alien, Let Down, Karma Police, Lucky

Walking Like We Do (2020) by The Big Moon

I'm normally a sucker for the raw indie sounds of a debut album - all the uncut potential of a band writing without a producer. But despite the critical acclaim of The Big Moon's debut Love in the 4th Dimension, its rough, grungy sounds didn't capture my imagination as much as this year's excellent follow-up Walking Like We Do.

This second album has a cleaner, more polished sound that allows the band's inventive melodies and compelling harmonies room to breathe. Lyrically, the record brushes up against the biggest issues of its day - the idolatry of consumerism takes centre stage on "Holy Roller", while "Dog Eat Dog" could be read as a criticism of the institutions who stayed silent in the face of the Me Too movement.

But the light touch with which The Big Moon explore these heavy topics makes this album perhaps the perfect record for 2020. They do not ignore the confusion and uncertainty of these times, but the overall outlook is hope that we can succeed in the face of adversity. "We don't know where we're going," they sing on the penultimate track, "but we're walking like we do."

My highlights: Dog Eat Dog, Take A Piece, Barcelona, A Hundred Ways to Land

Planetarium (2017) by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAllister & Sufjan Stevens

This album is the biggest surprise of the five. I stumbled across it while wading through Sufjan Stevens' back catalogue, and it's been my go-to work soundtrack ever since. Blending poetic, thoughtful lyrics with ethereal electronic sounds, it manages to be at once an all-consuming musical experience and just a great record to 'have on in the background'.

Even in today's musical culture, space is still usually represented through classical instruments. Not so here. From earth-shaking pads to subtle control-panel leads, synth sounds take centre stage, and they capture a sense of unknowable power in our familiar night sky. Stevens' vocals are soft and plaintive throughout - his voice a small space probe, at times echoing in the void, at other times almost drowned out by the sheer gravity of sound.

Finally, this record has something that few concept albums possess: simplicity. Despite its grand subject matter, Planetarium is never pretentious. It's understated, caught up not in the cleverness of the music or lyrics but in the awe of these heavenly bodies. There's no complex narrative, just a series of carefully constructed vignettes on a theme. The result? A body of work about our solar system that even Holst himself would be proud of.

My highlights: Neptune, Pluto, Saturn, Mercury

Hadestown (2019) by the Original Broadway Cast of Hadestown

Les Misérables. Billy Elliot. In the Heights. Broadway's no stranger to portraying the lives of marginalised groups. But is it the best art form for the job? In her video essay on Rent, Lindsay Ellis contends that these shows often fly the revolution flag while pandering to the middle-class tastes of those who can afford the tickets. It's no wonder that the 'oppression' aspect of these shows often plays second fiddle to narratives of love and self-acceptance.

That's what's so impressive about Hadestown. The tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold with tenderness and hope, but in every love song there is the shadow of something bigger at hand. The titular town is an industrial underworld where poor workers give their all to Hades, all to enrich and protect him. Hades doesn't appear as a powerful god, but as a scheming businessman whose deals control the prosperity of the whole world. Sound familiar?

And the immediacy of Hadestown's politics is matched at every step by Anaïs Mitchell's musical prowess. From the Jazz club at the underworld's entrance to the deep rumbling bass of Hades himself, the soundtrack is a compelling listen from start to finish. It's a small story with big ideas, and I'll be first in line to see the show when theatres reopen.

My highlights: Wedding Song, Epic II, Why We Build The Wall, Flowers

Honourable Mentions:

  • Dreamland (2020) by Glass Animals
  • An Unwavering Band of Light (2012) by Jenny Owen Youngs
  • Giants of All Sizes (2019) by Elbow