Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Soundtrack to the weirdest year...

 I haven't done this for a while, but I thought 2020 merited a brief comment on my playlist during this weirdest of years. I have spent a lot of time working at home, typing, preparing, reading, thinking, when I've not been in Zoomworld. And to keep the right side of sane, I've been playing some great music - some of it new, some of it the comfortable old favourites you snuggle up in when the world feels bleak and inhospitable.

So, I've listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, quite a bit of Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. I've also rekindled a love for LCD Sound System, Dead Can Dance, Kate Bush and Vaughan Williams.

So here's a run-down of new stuff that has delighted my ears this year (in no particular order until the end):

Smoke Fairies, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home - languid, bluesy, beautifully played and sung.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways - when the 17 minute reflection on the consequences of the Kennedy assassination dropped  in the early Spring, I was astounded (I even reflected on it theologically for a mate'a church newsletter). But I was not expecting it to be followed by Rough and Rowdy Ways, probably Dylan's finest work of the century, a great record full of wit and wisdom and some great tunes.

The waterways, Good Luck, Seeker - I'm a long time Waterboys fan and this is up among the best that Mike Scott and his attendants have recorded. It's a mixture of rock and celtic folk; it's got a great cover of Kate Bush's Why Should I love You; and has a centrepiece - My Wonderings in a Weary Land - that ranks among one of the band's best ever tracks. Spiritual, odd, tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully realised.

Fleet Foxes, Shore and Sufjan Stephens, The Ascension dropped at the same time. They are good but I am still not sure what to make of them, especially the Stephens record which lacks his customary ramshackle guitar in favour of a Prophet 5 synth (I'm not sure I like the change...). But I shall continue listening and allow them to reveal their hidden treasures.

Deacon Blue, City of Love - this slipped out in the early Spring and I only noticed it in the autumn. It continues the late renaissance of one of my favourite bands of the 1980s. Following in the footsteps of The Hipsters, A New House and Believers, this album has a slightly harder edge to the mellifluous tunes, more prominent guitar and still the lush vocal support of Lorraine McIntosh. Ricky Ross gets better and better as a lyricist and tunesmith.

Ben Watt, Storm Damage - I didn't think Watt (one half of Everything but the Girl) could better Hendra, his 2014 first solo album for two decades, but he does so with Storm Damage. Watt is a great chronicler of the effects of the memory on the present, wonderfully gifted at conjuring up a sense of place and time - nowhere better than on Summer Ghosts. But every track on this album is a thing of beauty. Indeed, it would have been my album of the year but for...

Nick Cave, Idiot Prayer - strictly peaking this is not an album of new material. It is rather a solo live album where the Cave songbook is reimagined for solo piano and Nick's rich baritone played in an empty Alexandria Palace. I was supposed to see him and the Bad Seeds at the O2  this year, a gig that has now sadly been cancelled (the silver lining being the promise of a new album in 2021...). Idiot Prayer reveals the depths and strengths of 22 Cave classics from across his back catalogue. I loved 2019's stripped back, minimalist Ghosteen  and Idiot prayer captures that vibe across a range of Cave songs but brings a unity of theme and atmosphere to them. It is an unforgettable and immersive one and quarter hours of heartfelt and searching songs that offer insight into a poet's journey through grief in a year when so many of us had to make that journey. It is truly a gift.

So 2020 will not be missed for all sorts of reasons but it has given us a great deal of great music. I am sure it will have seeded  rich crop of great albums yet to be revealed in 2021. Bring it on...

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