Plus: The ERTAS 2020 Albums of the Year
In case you hadn’t noticed, 2020 was a terrible, terrible year for pretty much everyone and everything.
Even Coronavirus, which had a better 2020 than most, received bad news in the shape of vaccines that threaten to eliminate it.
That’s how bad 2020 was – even a killer virus ended up with a sense of gloom and foreboding.
Still at least 2020 itself could feel pride that it would be the worst possible year of all time and that, in the words of John Lennon, things “couldn’t get much worse”.
Until 2021 said “Hold my beer”.
It seems hard to imagine we will see anything worse than a Jamiroquai-lookalike-led siege – with pipe bombs – of the US Capitol, even if hip hop star Azaelia Banks did try to top it by digging up her dead cat and boiling it live on Instagram (it’s okay, apparently she wanted the skull as a keepsake).
Highlights of the Year
It’s hard to see too many sunlit uplands when you are stuck indoors and unable to leave the house for more than an hour a day, but at least some musicians did their best to lift our spirits. Some did more than enough (that’s you, the Imagine-on-Zoom-singing-rabble) but the likes of Fripp and Willcox, Sophie Ellis Bextor’s kitchen discos and Tim Burgess’ Twitter Listening Parties all chipped in gamely.
The idea that the lead singer of The Charlatans has been permanently available every night like a mop-haired utility, for us to play records and chat about music with, sounds rather fanciful, never mind that he also herded up the people who made the albums and got them to chat with us too, but 2020 was the year when this actually happened. It’s been easier to listen to records at home with Tim Burgess and, say, Paul McCartney, than it has been to get a supermarket delivery slot.
And we discovered some great things on the way.
We learned that The Libertines had an unusual approach to protect their hearing during the recording of Boys in the Band…
…we learned of Martha and the Muffins’ unlikely role in the naming of OMD’s Architecture and Morality…
…of Pulp’s brilliant French marketing efforts….
…and the origin of the title of Ash’s “Goldfinger” (which had always confused me as it never mentions any Bond villains of any description).
We could even speculate on the sinister origins of one of Paul McCartney’s solo tracks…
These distractions aside, a fair amount of music in 2020 was made by the stuck-at-home, for the stuck-at-home.
If ever an artist thought they might have a “Nebraska” in them, 2020 was the year to have a try and indeed Taylor Swift did. Twice.
If ever an artist thought they might have a “McCartney 1” or “2” style album in them, 2020 was also the year to try, and sure enough Paul McCartney did, with his third McCartney-plays-every-instrument solo album. What else did you expect them to do after large swathes of their diaries were cleared, including their respective headline appearances at Glastonbury? Bake sourdough?
Meanwhile, Lewis Capaldi, Harry Styles, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and Stormzy were the top five selling acts in the UK and over 80% of music “consumption” was through streaming.
Sadly, the other 20% of music “consumption” is what most musical acts are destined to die from as a result of extreme poverty unless the income generated from streaming services can be more widely spread. Getting on a popular Spotify playlist, or being chosen for Autoplay by an algorithm has never been more important, and so Spotify newly allowed artists to “promote” songs in this way to get more plays. There was just one catch – extra plays would be in return for a reduction in royalties paid.
This way of reducing the amount Spotify has to pay artists (from a minuscule starting point, let’s not forget) is, of course completely different to “payola” – the 1950s scandal of DJs being given financial incentives to play particular songs on the radio – in the same way that Henry the Mild-Mannered Janitor is entirely different to Hong Kong Phooey.
Meanwhile, the power of TikTok to boost a record (see Lil Naz’s “Old Town Road”) even affected an old classic like the 43 year old “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac which saw streams rise from around 3m per week to 14m per week after a video went viral on the platform.
We might have laughed at dodgy MTV videos in the eighties and nineties but the current equivalent of Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” is a random bloke posting a video of himself on a skateboard drinking fruit juice with a song playing in the background. If only he’d known, Michael Jackson could have saved himself a fortune on the Thriller video and still sold millions.
On a positive note, new vinyl record sales increased in the U.K. by 11.5% to 4.8m copies purchased – a 13th year of consecutive growth. This confirmed the enduring appeal of the format, or at least of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which continues to be the biggest selling LP. Meanwhile audio cassette sales almost doubled to over 150,000 copies sold, demonstrating some fans will buy almost anything.
It is estimated by experts that of the 150,000 cassettes sold, fewer than seven have actually been played.
There’s no truth in the rumour that pencil sales also doubled in 2020.
Digital download sales reduced 19% leading industry experts to wonder “who the hell is still downloading MP3s?” 5.9 million albums apparently, more than vinyl, so still plenty of you out there it appears. The biggest issue downloads have to overcome in today’s social-media driven world, it seems, is that MP3s are more difficult to post on Instagram.
CD units fell by over 30% year on year, to 16 million – but still three times as many CDs were sold last year than vinyl records.
None of which matters if the music isn’t any good, and while social distancing may have raised barriers to recording music, there were still plenty of great albums and tracks released during the year. We all have our personal favourites, but here are the Every Record Tells A Story Top Ten Albums of 2020, followed by a Spotify playlist of top 2020 tunes – all six hours of it.
The Every Record Tells A Story Album of 2020 is…
Jarv Is – Beyond The Pale
The return of Jarvis Cocker, with a new band, and his best collection of tunes perhaps since Pulp’s This Is Hardcore.
Vinyl notes: Special editions included a Rough Trade clear vinyl run of 1,500. The Rough Trade Records webstore offered a direct-to-consumer Glow in the Dark version for those without a local indie store and a taste for the exotic.
Fleet Foxes – Shore
Lush waves of gorgeous music splashing over your toes on the Fleet Foxes’ best album since their 2008 debut.
Vinyl notes: CD release only so far with all vinyl copies being released in 2021, including an indie-stores only coloured version. A couple of direct-to-consumer variants are already fetching silly money from wealthy diehards and beardy-indie-folk-loving hedge fund managers.
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Released at the start of lockdown, this collection of songs feel like a career high from Stoke Newington’s finest singer/songwriter/guitarist. Nominated for a Mercury Music Prize and a Grammy. Marling helped the nations finger pickers during lockdown with her “Isolation Guitar Tutorials” (still on YouTube) that displayed her mastery of scary-looking alternative tunings.
Vinyl notes: a few coloured variants, including a silver one still available at Rough Trade limited to 500 copies.
Released just before the U.K. belatedly entered lockdown, this is an outstanding LP from Wolverhampton’s Singh brothers with a T-Rex influence noticeable on a few tracks. We were robbed of seeing the band play this album on the summer festival circuit in 2020 – let’s hope happier times will come.
Vinyl notes: a number of coloured variants, courtesy it would seem from an overactive PR person who is having fun with naming the colours like they work at Farrow and Ball. We have a “California County Orange & Roller Rink Pink Vinyl” variant, plus “Raincoat Yellow and Summer Sky Blue vinyl” and “Racing Green & Brittany Blue Vinyl” variants.
Flaming Lips – American Head
A return to the songwriting styles of Yoshimi and Soft Bulletin, and a move away from the more experimental Lips of the last fifteen years, with not a heavy fwend in sight, an approach which worked for me.
Vinyl notes: if you were quick, your local indie store had a tri-colour variant which sold out on the day of release. A repress in black still comes in a colourful and pleasing gatefold sleeve.
Doves – The Universal Want
A happily high quality atmospheric return from the reformed Mancunians, back from a decade-long hiatus.
Vinyl notes: red and white coloured versions available.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
The album has won four Grammy nominations and is a low key, moody, late night, indie joy.
Vinyl notes: released in the modern style, which is to say there are almost as many different coloured variants available (7 and counting) than there are songs on the album.
Paul McCartney – III
“It’s great, it sold, it’s the bloody McCartney III album, shut up!”
Vinyl notes: speaking of coloured vinyl variations…ten different colours at the last count, including a special Third Man Records edition, limited to 333 copies pressed on ‘yellow-with-black-dots’ vinyl created using 33 recycled vinyl copies of McCartney and McCartney II. All good Jack-White inspired fun, but beware: if you weren’t quick on the trigger, copies are now fetching prices above £2,000. NB they don’t sound any better than the black vinyl version. Not at that price. You wouldn’t dare play it…
Asylums – Genetic Cabaret
Power pop with a social conscience, written and recorded by Southend’s finest and released on their own Cool Thing label. Produced and mixed by go-to indie genius Steve Albini.
Vinyl notes: if you have a black vinyl version, beware: it may have been coloured-in with a sharpie. This was released on green vinyl only.
Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
Debut solo album from The National front man (not to be confused with Morrissey, the National Front man) produced by Booker T Jones and which even featured the wonderful Gail Ann Dorsey on one track, “Silver Springs”. A more relaxed, less edgy sound than The National.
Vinyl notes: an abundance of signed and coloured variants available on Berninger’s website, with a bonus disc and including an option (very fair) to buy a fashionable green neck scarf and – in a nod to the coffee-culture associated with fans of The National – perhaps my favourite piece of 2020 merch, a set of four “Serpentine Prison” themed coasters.
Here’s the Spotify playlist of my songs of the year…
What were your favourite songs? Let me know in the comments section.