2020, right? For its second year, No Magic just about endured the loss of live studio guests, and I still managed to play 1100 tracks and host 44 new shows. Musically, the trend this year was to play a lot more older tracks: Nostalgia and the familiar made for vital comfort in trying times. All the same, the show still featured 12 brand new albums.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” people used to say. What fools. After 2020, that old adage has been perversely inverted: We stagger from this societal wreckage of the eponymous year, into a future defined by an indignant collective refusal to learn from experience.
A lot of us muddled through the cavalcade of crises with dark humour. “Oh, fucking 2020” we mutter in response to every conceivable atrocity. Personally, I became quite a fan of the “endless March” meme. Yet at the end of the calendar year, it’s too easy to channel macabre defiance. Oh! To stride into 2021 staring rigidly ahead, middle fingers aloft and reversed toward all we wish to forget. But I find the nervous jokes come unstuck. In January 2021, Donald Trump is still playing pretend president (also: golf), Facebook will still be publishing rampant propaganda undermining an imminent run-off election, and hundreds of thousands of people will go about their business oblivious that they are yet to “die with COVID-19-related complications”. Just because it’s finally raining doesn’t mean we’re getting clean.
I cannot confine 2020 to a bubble-universe to float to the ground, weighed down by its crude oils. Compartmentalisation will not save us. Though the new year is an opportunity for renewal, I am determined not to banish a year, however villainous.
Beside the rolling global catastrophe, my year brought the death of beloved people, a crisis of loneliness bourn of distance from my homeland and loved ones, heartbreak and quiet desperation. It has hurt so much, still now as it did before. But those experiences and the people in those experiences are all too important to glibly shrug away. I am not going through all this shit for nothing.
In between the craggy monoliths that punctuate the landscape of this year, is the mundane. In imperfect routines we laboured to make it this far. Routines have soundtracks, and of course, music is what we do here. In digging for musical highlights, there’s opportunity for catharsis over the whole debacle. Music that soothed, uplifted, defied, and distracted. It might take a decade to heal the trauma of 2020, but the music will still outlast it all.
Before we get to the list: Music and musicians were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Live music was effectively eliminated the world over, with most music consumption now routed through streaming services that pay artists a pittance. I would like to draw your attention to the #BrokenRecord campaign out of the UK, that is pushing for fairer streaming compensation for artists. Also, I applaud Bandcamp. Besides being a more modern and equitable model through which to buy music, they started “Bandcamp Fridays”; forgoing their service fee to pay artists a bigger cut. Finally, many of us here at BFF.fm worked hard to keep our local community radio on the air, and create new outlets for local live music, as we took our monthly Bestie Bashes online: You can watch archived performances on YouTube, and as always you can support all of our work with a donation:
OK. What shall we listen to?
Open Mike Eagle is a prolific and talented artist, putting out at least one project every year for the past five, and always keen to move on to the next. By his own admission he tends to operate lyrically with somewhat deflective metaphor, or raps about social trends quite broadly. AT+D bucked that approach in response to personal crises, embracing his art as an outlet for the titular experiences in his life. It’s as lyrically intricate and clever as anything he’s ever written, but baring himself as a subject.
Though these events occurred prior to 2020, the album dropped deep in the pandemic lockdown. The themes of vulnerability, trauma and mental health was a balm in the midst of the year. Perhaps there’s something instinctual to connect with a record that’s so open about traumatic experience when we’re all going through something. We all identify in some way with lives upended, while a track like WTF is Self Care (“For obstacles that you struggle past/the key is taking bubble baths”) shares a knowing grin at how we scrap to look after ourselves.
Eagle has credited producer Jacknife Lee with putting “light magic in the songs to season the dark,” and there’s a good instrumental variety to the tracks backed by carefully restrained beats, and there’s standout detail: a beautiful mourning trumpet solo at the end of Bucciarati, the fragile piano loop the backs Everything Ends Last Year, and a sample of Eagle’s son singing making up the hook in Asa’s Bop.
My personal stand-out track on the album is Everything Ends Last Year, which laments the collapse of multiple artistic endeavours; television projects that OME had invested a great deal of himself in. I’m someone who, throughout life, has failed to even start projects because I’m paralysed by the expectation of failure. In this, I found something really affirming; that you can do things, fail, survive, and make something new. Plus, the refrain of “It’s October and I’m tired…” was almost eerily prescient.
We tried alone and together
Tried until we got tired of losing
Tired of pulling on levers
Tired of trying to balance them ledgers
When there’s one rock and one feather
Also, while this record was coming out, OME was maintaining a daily Instagram stream — Quarantine Drive Time Radio — that was a most incredible source of community and comfort during isolating times. Thank you, Mike.
Kelly Lee Owens‘ self-titled debut was one of my favourite records of 2017. I’d looked forward the follow-up, Inner Song, all year, and after a delayed release due to the pandemic, its eventual arrival was a delight. Her mix of techno and pop influences are well honed in both instrumental form and with her own vocal tracks. There are great tunes, good beats, lots of floating ethereal synths, and the album is punctuated with a bold guest vocal contribution from John Cale.
As a massive Radiohead fan, I pass on the inclusion of her cover of Arpeggi/Weird Fishes without comment. Owens said she had previously tried to record vocals, but rejected that quickly. I think the result is a dream to hear something so familiar in this other context. I also just think it’s a tremendous, gutsy choice to open the record with a cover like this. Such conviction.
It’s a sublime record, perfect to lose yourself in.
In This Moment is Polly Scattergood’s third solo EP, but she was also half of On Dead Waves, a collaboration with Maps. That record was one that I’d enjoyed a lot back in the Eclectic Kettle days, and pulled from my record shelves mid-year on a whim. By coincidence, this was just as her imminent new solo record was landing, and what a discovery. Built mostly around piano-led songwriting, filled out electronically but produced with a dedication for powerful acoustic percussion and cinematic strings, it leans on the epic and euphoric.
What makes it stand out, I think, is the structure of the album: Scattergood considers these songs a collection of twelve “moments”. The very personal, often delicate observations of spaces and experience really resonate in a year we’ve spent alone with ourselves, staring at the walls.
I mentioned that one habit this year was to find comfort in familiar records. Mid-year, one of my all-time favourite records got a 20th anniversary deluxe release: Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump. A record of world-wariness, claustrophobia, and homesickness. It’s one of my favourite records of all time.
Now, it would break my rules to pick a reissue as a record of the year. However, it came with a bonus of surprising quality. Jason Lytle re-recorded the entire record, solo on a wooden piano in his basement studio. I generally approach such deluxe extras with some skepticism. Demo versions and live recordings; such things are usually more of a curiosity, of variable quality. But, Lytle’s recording here is so much more than that. …On a wooden piano is well recorded, and captures the comfort of a beloved record with the loneliness of performing alone. The quality of a solo performance in the corner of a bar perhaps? One that you’ll sit in all night, captivated.
These are songs you may know inside out, played with intimacy, care, and knowing affection. The result straddles being a record that’s new and a product of the moment, and a nostalgia trip. And, as it was recorded in post-lockdown conditions, it’s maybe the most authentically “pandemic” record of this selection.
These songs have much to be revealed stripped down. The original recordings never exactly obscured emotional provocation, and yet in this form you hear the cracks and it’s all the more powerful for it. Also, it should be noted that this isn’t unproduced: Lytle still layers in synths, backing vocals, and harmony to provide just the right amount of structure to the songs. The “ahhh-ahhhs” of Miner at the Dial-a-View are present and correct, the soft pillow to float away on in that chorus. All the while, he indulges himself a few ad-libs; glancing winks to the audience. I’m struck by what a thoughtful realisation of this project it is.
To hear this version at this time, bridging pandemic isolation and a record I know so well and love so much is an absolute gift for which I am so thankful.
I only saw two live shows in 2020. (Side note: What the fuck?) At least, though, one of them was this, inevitably rooted in a swirl of tumultuous circumstances. Having just spent Christmas at home, I found myself returning to the UK in February for a funeral. My first family loss in 20 years, the first of two this year, but the only one I was able to travel for. The last time I would have to visit home before lockdowns and quarantine protocols spread around the world. Thanks for being here with me on this journey; when I started writing I had not realised how 2020 somehow sucked even more than I had remembered. Fuck!
Anyhoo. While I was there, my Dad got sick. (Just for a day, to be clear, given the above.) He had tickets to see Max Richter’s inaugural performance of this new piece, Voices. So in his stead through this mixed-fortune, I accompanied my brother to Barbican in London. Richter introduced an “upside down” orchestra, proportioned with double-bass and cello in dominance over higher register strings. The piece is recognisably Richter (if you know his Sleep work, in particular), but the construction of the orchestra makes it unique.
So far, our commentary on 2020 has been limited to the pandemic and quarantine isolation. Alas, I regret we must also check in with rampant nationalism. The end of the Trump presidency offers some respite, but Brexit just happened still, so I’m not feeling great. The past five years have been an open wound of humanity tearing itself apart, manipulative stoked hatred of race and ethnicity driving fascist agendas, dragging us collectively backwards and apart. What a moment, then, for this piece to be commissioned.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
The piece is built around the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, a firmly intentioned response to a world that has visibly rejected such powerful principals. Comprising narration of the articles and with recordings of people in many languages (some of countries where human rights are not well realised), it is an unsubtle rejection of the rising status quo in our world. It’s very blatant with its theme, but that in itself feels like an inevitable part of reacting to a world of such crass villainy.
Voices is a deeply moving experience, elevating these provocative ideals of our ancestors.
(Aside: A performer from the original Barbican performance, Samara Ginsburg, has spent the pandemic recording cello arrangements of classic TV themes. You should watch them all.)
Lots of other good stuff this year: Alice Boman’s Dream On almost made the main list, a devastating narrative of a lost relationship. Erland Cooper completed his Orkney triptych with the release of Hether Blether. And, Jarvis Cocker followed through on the JARV IS… tour that started in San Francisco last year with a recorded album that’s a lot of fun. Run the Jewels did their thing to provide an aggressive outlet for the frustrations of the world. Cults and Loma both put out records that I featured on the show, and I find myself holding a lot of affection for them, likewise Death Valley Girls Under the Spell of Love which is tremendous fun.
Also helping with the “something familiar” part of my pandemic survival was the return of Doves, after an 11 year hiatus. They came in real hot with Carousels, built around an incredibly tight Tony Allen percussion sample and belting euphoric chorus. It’s without question one of the best tracks of the year and as good as anything else in their career. Their album The Universal Want is also good, but the production left me a little flat after setting such a high bar here.
Long-time show favourite’s Shearwater also applied themselves during lockdown, releasing a series of long, ambient and drone works called Quarantine Music. It’s warm and comforting and beautiful. You can find that on their Bandcamp.
Usually my standout favourite track of the year is conveniently found on one of the album picks. But if 2020 is going to fuck everything up, it might at least give you something extra to listen to. Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton are bringing Arab Strap out of a 15 year hiatus. The album As Days Get Dark will be out in March (hold that thought for next year’s post, I guess), but they dropped The Turning of our Bones in September. I’ve played it almost excessively on No Magic, and I’ll do it again. Something about this just presses all my buttons just right. From that opening guitar hook, the mood and tone is perfect. It’s just unrelentingly great: lyrically, musically, and the intriguing depth of its subject matter. It sounds so fresh. A band getting back together and delivering something that sounds essential.
We’re all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams
And the sun, the moon, the earth, the neighbours long to hear our screams
In think, perhaps, there’s something in this story of lifting the dead aloft, dancing and living again that ignites me: Fuck you 2020, “let’s live now before we’re back below.”
Hey… so, did we catch all of those murder hornet nests, or no?