You may have noticed that the rampant success of COVID19 in 2020 has been a bit of a pisser on so many levels, not least the fact that as I approach REALLY old age, the ability to wring every last drop from the few lucid days I have left has been somewhat curtailed.
Stupidly, when I made my New Year’s Resolutions for 2020, I failed to factor in the inevitable “deadly global pandemic” scenario (as you do) and therefore the big plans I had for twelve months of rampant gig-going disappeared quicker than Philip Schofield’s wife. Instead, I’ve avoided people like the plague (literally), taken “being a grumpy twat” to a whole new level, put on half a stone and treated Mrs Egg Box to new flooring in the bathroom. It really has been a fucking blast…
Anyway, the one bright spot, despite the decimation of the live music industry, was the quality of new music released in 2020. This is evident when you look down through the list of my favourite thirty albums of the year, a list that includes several brilliant new acts dotted amongst the old stagers who still continue to release wonderful records.
What else floated your boat this year Mr Egg Box? I hear you ask. Well, hold on to your culturally superior horses and I’ll tell you…
Gig: No, you shut up!
Film: The Trial Of The Chicago 7
TV: The Queen’s Gambit
Book: Pete Paphides – Broken Greek
Disappointment Of The Year: 2020
I love championing new music, especially from artists who may not (yet) be household names. So, below my Top 30 I’ve added a Spotify playlist with a track from each of my chosen albums. Due to the catastrophic situation they now find themselves in, many of these talented people are struggling to make ends meet and need your support more than ever. So, if you like what you hear, rather than just streaming their music, maybe you could spare a few pennies and buy one of their records/ CDs/ downloads. I know from my online conversations with many of these artists that they truly are grateful for any support you’re able to give.
I’m (nearly) always happy to hear from any of you who want to comment on my blog posts or have suggestions about new music I may have missed or you think I might enjoy. So, I’ve added a box below this post for you to write your lovely comments in or offer me untold riches relating to my literary prowess or comedy genius. Alternatively, you can subscribe to my blog and receive notifications when I post something new yet utterly pointless.
Thanks for reading, you brave and lovely people!
30: PAUL MCCARTNEY – McCartney III (Capitol)
29: JESSIE WARE – What’s Your Pleasure? (PMR)
28: BADLY DRAWN BOY – Banana Skin Shoes (One Last Fruit)
27: REAL ESTATE – The Main Thing (Domino)
26: THE MARINERS – Tides Of Time (Self Released)
25: THE HANGING STARS – A New Kind Of Sky (Crimson Crow)
24: M. WARD – Migration Stories (ANTI-)
23: FLEET FOXES – Shore (ANTI-)
22: JONATHAN WILSON – Dixie Blur (Bella Union)
21: CEELO GREEN – CeeLo Green Is Thomas Callaway (Easy Eye Sound)
20: BEN WATT – Storm Damage (Caroline)
If there’s a nicer couple in pop than Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn then I’ve yet to hear about them. The fact that they are still making great records (albeit individually and not as Everything But The Girl) after forty-odd years is a big bonus. Watt’s fourth studio album, Storm Damage, is gentle and melancholic; a reflective set of songs written by a man now approaching his sixties. The ruminative “Summer Ghosts” encapsulates the mood of the whole album: “And when you look back you find you haven’t travelled far/ You thought you’d changed until reminded who you are/ And every piece of you that you volunteer/ Just brings the summer ghosts near”. As good as this is though, I’m still longing for just one more EBTG album before they both retire.
19: GREGORY PORTER – All Rise (Blue Note)
With his yearning, smooth-as-silk baritone, Gregory Porter resides in the soul-jazz universe once inhabited by Donny Hathaway and Grover Washington Jr. “All Rise” is his first album since 2016s “Take Me To The Alley”(AEB No.20) and once again he glides through a set of songs encompassing gospel, Hammond backed jazz, smooth soul and funky toe-tappers. Highlights include the gorgeous, Nat King Cole channelling ballad “If Love Is Overrated” and the gospel stomper “Revival Song”.
18: THE DEVONNS – The Devonns (Record Kicks)
Like Durand Jones & The Indications before them, Chicago’s new soul kids on the block have released a cracking debut album that bristles with the prospect of what’s yet to come. As with many of the best new soul acts, whilst The Devonns songwriting pays respect to the classics, but it does so without making them sound like a Motown or Stax tribute act. Amongst some fine ballads (“Think I’m Falling In Love”, “I Know”) and groovy mid-tempo shufflers (“Tell Me”, “More”) the band have recorded one of the best songs of the year in the civil-rights cracker, “Blood Red Blues (Protest Song)”: “Blood runs on the parking lot, Cops said another boy’s been shot, Mama works for the house she got, But the bank came along took everything she got”. On the strength of this debut record, The Devonns (and songwriter Mathew Ajjarapo) are definitely ones to watch.
17: LAURA MARLING – Song For Our Daughter (Partisan/Chrysalis)
It could be considered lazy of me to describe Laura Marling as the British Joni Mitchell, but rather than that being a cop-out to fill a few lines in a review, its meant as a great compliment. “A Song For Our Daughter”, Marling’s seventh LP, is something of a concept album – the ten songs are written to/for her imaginary daughter about the struggles of womanhood in a 21st-century world. Hidden amongst the plaintive melodies are a slew of barbed and acerbic lyrics. The title track gives us: “Taking advice for some old, balding bore/You’ll ask yourself, Did I want this at all?” whilst “Hope We Meet Again” points to the metaphorical loss of a lover or child “I tried to give you love and truth/ But you’re acid-tongued, serpent-toothed”. As beautiful as it is poignant, “Song For Our Daughter” is Marling’s most accomplished album yet.
16: ISOBEL CAMPBELL – There Is No Other (Cooking Vinyl)
Since Belle & Sebastian founder Isobel Campbell’s last solo studio release in 2006, she’s recorded three albums as the sylph-voiced foil to Mark Lanegan’s Woodbine baritone. But, on “There Is No Other”, she’s binned Dark Mark and returned to soothe our fevered brows with a thirteen track set full of mellifluous, sunny psychedelia. Album opener “City Of Angels” is a shimmering heat-haze of a song that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Only a breezy cover version of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and the jangle of 60s influenced “Hey World” raise the tempo to “brisk walk”. Mesmeric stuff.
15: SWAMP DOGG – Sorry You Couldn’t Make It (Joyful Noise Recordings)
Swamp Dogg (Jerry Williams Jr to his mum) is now 78, and despite gaining cult status in funk, soul and blues circles, he remains largely unknown to mainstream audiences. This is a ridiculous state of affairs considering he’s been making records since 1954 plus “Sorry You Couldn’t Make It” is his twenty-fourth studio album under the Swamp Dogg moniker since 1970. As it was recorded in Nashville, the album inevitably has a country feel to it, however, for the large part, this is deep Southern Soul – much of it of a lovelorn variety; “I Lay Awake”, “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)”, “I’d Rather Be Your Used To Be” tell tales of relationships gone (or going) wrong. However, the albums saddest moment of all is saved for the closing track “Please Let Me Go Round Again” – a duet recorded with his close friend of fifty years, the legendary singer/ songwriter John Prine, who died of COVID shortly after completing the record.
14: MONOPHONICS – It’s Only Us (Colemine)
Blue-eyed soul singer, Kelly Finnigan, reached No.30 in last years run AEB chart with his debut solo album “The Tales People Tell”. This year, he’s risen into the Top 20 as front-man with San Franciscan psychedelic soul outfit, Monophonics who are also signed to consistently superb Colemine Records. I’ve probably listened to more albums released on this label over the past few years than any other; when their roster includes Durand Jones, Delvon Lamarr, Black Pumas, Ben Pirani, Michael Nau, the Dip and many other fine contemporary soul artists it’s easy to see why. Monophonics’ sound is rooted in that fertile early 70s period which saw the Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye et al start to explore new conscious-soul avenues. Finnigan’s sweet falsetto certainly wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any of that era’s records. When you listen to album high point, the glorious seven minutes of “Last Man Standing”, you too will ask yourself how it’s not a cover version of a lost classic from 1971.
13: CANDY OPERA – The Patron Saint Of Heartache (A Turntable Friend)
I’m going to bet good money that Liverpool four-piece, Candy Opera, are the best British band you’ve never heard of. The fact that they have never become a household name is one of the greatest travesties/mysteries in the history of British pop music. Formed in 1980, they had it all: a great singer and lyricist in Paul Malone, songs with melodies to die for, high profile performances alongside the likes of The Go-Betweens and The Pogues and some great reviews in all the best publications of the day. But for some inexplicable reason, it never happened for them and they split in 1993. However, in 2018, Firestation Records collected a bunch of the band’s recordings together and compiled the band’s first-ever album – a limited edition eighteen-track “best-of”, “45 Revolutions Per Minute”. I fell in love with their music after just one play. But this review isn’t for that album (as great as it is) but for “The Patron Saint Of Heartache”, a brand new studio record from the newly reformed band, and what an absolute beauty it is. If you love Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Orange Juice, Deacon Blue or The Pale Fountains I implore you to check out this glorious album. In the meantime, here’s the video to one of the stand-out tracks, “These Days Are Ours”.
12: THE MOONS – Pocket Melodies (Colorama)
The Moons have been making consistently fine albums since “Life On Earth” was released in 2010. Occupying a similar 60s inspired folky/ psych-rock space as The Coral, Gomez, The Last Shadow Puppets et al, vocalist and songwriter Andy Crofts certainly knows how to construct songs with a timeless pop quality a la Kinks and the Small Faces. In fairness, he’s not in a bad position to pick up a few tips as, along with fellow Moon, drummer and percussionist Ben Gordelier, he’s a permanent member of Paul Weller’s band. “Pocket Melodies” was recorded at Abbey Road and seemingly by osmosis, a Beatles influence has seeped into several songs, especially “The Old Brigade”, “Tunnel Of Time” and “Where Are You Now”. Favourite track? There are several candidates, but the sunny, pastoral folk of “Riding Man”, written by Crofts after he was inspired by Bradley Wiggins’ Tour De France victory is a belter.
11: THE AVALANCHES – We Will Always Love You (Astralwerks)
In 2020 Australian electronic cut-and-shut sample kings released only their third album in twenty years, and what a fine collection of (sometimes) “proper” songs it is. There album features collaborations with, amongst others: Sananda Maitreya (the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’arby), Johnny Marr, Tricky, Neneh Cherry, Jamie XX, MGMT and Karen O. The intertwined themes of the album are light, radio waves and the cosmos and the EDM dance-pop of Alan Parsons Project sampling “Interstellar Love” (featuring Leon Bridges) pulls all those celestial threads together in one superb track. In a year full of endless gloom, “We Will Always Love You” insists that you sit back, fire up the lava lamp and set your controls for the heart of the sun.
10: CLEO SOL – Rose In The Dark (Forever Living Originals)
Twenty-year-old Londoner, Cleo Sol, was born to be musical. Her mum, a half Serbian/ half Spanish singer who also plays the guitar and flute, and her dad, a Jamaican bass playing pianist, met whilst playing in a jazz band. She grew up surrounded by her parents’ Motown, Latin, reggae, soul and Acid Jazz records and cites hearing Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” as her eureka moment. The melding together of all those influences + Sol’s effortless, smooth-as-silk voice = “Rose In The Dark”; her dreamy, Inflo produced debut. Despite the briefness of the 1-minute and 20-second opener, “One Love”, it sets the tone for everything that follows. “Rose In The Dark” is an album about love and for lovers. Rather than sounding like an album comprised of eleven separate tracks, it has a soulful grace that allows it to flow like a river of silk. Throughout, Sol displays a vocal maturity that belies her age; at times you are reminded of Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Solange and Angie Stone, however, if you were to ask me who Cleo Sol most reminds me of, without hesitation I’d say Minnie Riperton. Cleo Sol really is a young lady on the cusp of greatness. Here’s the video to “When I’m In Your Arms” just in case you were in any doubt.
9: THE FLAMING LIPS – American Head (Bella Union)
Even though they’ve lost none of their psychedelic kookiness, The Flaming Lips 16th studio album is their most accessible and enjoyable collection since “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” back in 2002. Given the mind-expanding nature of their widescreen soundscapes and (often) cryptic lyrics, trying and explain the meaning of individual tracks in the space of a few lines is nigh on impossible. Who needs explanations though, especially when frontman/ songwriter Wayne Coyne and composer/ arranger Steven Drozd construct songs which have a depth of meaning that goes beyond mere words. If the lush, cinematic orchestration and lysergic dreamscapes of the accompanying video to “Flowers Of Neptune 6” whets your kaleidoscopic whistle, then this album will tick all your boxes. And let’s face it, an album containing a song called “Mother I’ve Taken LSD” really can’t be ignored. Syd Barrett would be mightily impressed.
8: EL GOODO – Zombie (Strangetown)
Those fine Welsh folk have produced several of my favourite rock bands over the years. Many of those bands possessed the ability to produce quirky, literate and curiously melodic folky psychedelia often with at least one foot rooted in classic 60s pop. And now, despite the fantastic “Zombie” being El Goodo’s fourth album since 2005, I’m hoping those same qualities help them become “overnight” successes and deservedly mentioned in the same breath as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci or Super Furry Animals. In the studio, the band have metaphorically travelled from Laurel Canyon to the Vale of Neath via the Californian coast. This journey is summed up perfectly in one track: the surf-rock classic-in-waiting, “Grey Tower” with its fuzzed-out guitars, squally saxophone and cast of seventeen musicians! The welcome ghosts of The Byrds, The Beatles and Big Star loom large throughout this fine album, and on “I Can’t Leave” we even get to hear the original synth used on Joe Meek’s “Telstar”. Bands like El Goodo deserve to be heard, so do yourselves and them a favour and buy this record! (TRIVIA QUESTION: without looking it up, where did the band get their name from?)
7: POPINCOURT – A Deep Sense Of Happiness (Milano Records)
Olivier Popincourt is a fine songwriter with a keen ear for a melody. He’s also French, and a stylish card-carrying Mod. For those of you who are fans of superior pop a la Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole, Paul Weller, Boo Radleys, Supergrass, The Beatles, Everything But the Girl et al, you’ll find much to love on “A Deep Sense Of Happiness”. If you’d like to read my full review of this fantastic album, click on the following link: https://wp.me/p9hY2N-sb
6: THE EXPLORERS CLUB – The Explorers Club (Goldstar)
When the new LP from a band I’d never previously heard of kicks off with something that sounds like a collaboration between The Turtles and The Monkees, there’s a good chance my interest will be piqued. And as if by magic, that’s exactly what happened when I heard “Ruby”, the opening track on the eponymous 4th album from South Carolina’s, The Explorers. The band are, in effect, a “revolving collective” assembled by main Explorer, Jason Brewer. They’ve released two albums in 2020, this one and a collection of cover-versions, “To Sing And Be Born Again” – a good record but not a patch on their own luminous material. Brewer’s lavish orchestral arrangements, Beach Boys harmonies and melodies Bacharach & David would swoon over bathe the album in a warm sunny glow. One notable departure from this lush aural summer is the Byrdsian psychedelia of “Somewhere Else” – proof that The Explorers Club are happy to ditch the strings and ramp up the guitars at least once in a while.
5: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – Letter To You (Columbia)
Bruce has now released two of the best albums of his nearly fifty-year recording career in the last two years. 2019s phenomenally good, “Western Stars” was my album of the year, a record I felt compelled to write a companion piece for, explaining why it meant so much to me. As great as “Letter To You” is, it’s a different beast to the epic sun-drenched panoramas conjured up by “Western Stars”, in part due to the welcome return of the E Street Band. That said, even though this is a more “classic” sounding Springsteen record, many of the themes touch on ageing and mortality. These themes feel more profound given that Springsteen is now in his 70s and his band are minus Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici who both died before they reached old age. If you love Bruce, you’re going to love this album; if you don’t, anything I write here isn’t going to change your mind at this late stage of the great man’s career!
4: STONE FOUNDATION – Is Love Enough? (100% Records)
I didn’t have enough room here to give this great band and their finest album to date justice. So, to read an in-depth review (plus videos and music) of Stone Foundation’s “Is Love Enough?” click on the following link which will take you straight there: https://wp.me/p9hY2N-z7
3: NATHANIEL RATELIFF – And It’s Still Alright (Stax)
Death, destruction and heartbreak aren’t friends to most of us, but they are sources of great inspiration for the earnest singer-songwriter. This is especially true for country-soul man, Nathaniel Ratelif. In the seven years since his last solo album, Ratelif has gone through a bitter divorce and lost his best friend and musical collaborator, Richard Swift, to an alcohol-related illness aged just forty-one. Painful for him, but fantastic for us, as these often lyrically bleak songs have resulted in a career-best album.
The foot-stomping Southern Soul of Ratelif’s output with his band, The Night Sweats, is on temporary hiatus – fine music though they make, it’s a million miles from the introspection of “And It’s Still Alright”. The album’s title track has despair haunting every line: “They say you learn a lot out there/ How to scorch and burn/ Only have to bury your friends/ Then you’ll find it gets worse”. “Expecting To Lose”, “You Need Me” and “All Or Nothing” follow, and are all painful explorations of love gone bad – the latter reminiscent of prime Harry Nilsson. For me, the album highlight is the soulful beauty of “Tonight #2” complete with violin, a simple acoustic guitar riff, a gospel choir and Ratelif at his yearning best.
No, the underlying emotions here aren’t joyful ones, but I urge you not to let Ratelif’s sadness put you off as this is an eminently listenable and hugely rewarding album. One word of caution though, if you’ve recently lost someone close, the final track “Rush On” is a tearjerker. Even Ratelif himself admits to finding this song about the death of his best friend nearly impossible to sing without breaking down.
2: PAUL WELLER – ON SUNSET (Polydor)
To say that Paul Weller is mining a rich vein of form would be an understatement. “On Sunset” is his fifteenth solo album and his fifth No.1 – it’s also his fourth LP in five years and was just a whisker away from being my album of the year. At sixty-two he shows no signs of either slowing down or getting stuck in a rut either. His previous effort, the introspective and personal, “True Meanings”, was the 2018 AEB album of the year and one of my favourite Weller albums of all time. As is his wont though, “On Sunset” sees him continue with his sonic experiments. This time round he’s left the traditional song structures of “True Meanings” behind and veered off in a soulful and psychedelic direction.
It takes a brave man to open their new album with a nearly eight-minute synth-driven epic which changes tempo after two minutes and has a minute of burbling, squelching, clattering and bleeping free-form electronica in the middle. It sounds crazy, but it works majestically. The next two tracks, however, couldn’t be more different. On “Baptiste” a Hammond backed Weller has rarely sounded more soulful: “I never used to pray/ I never been to church/ But when I hear that sound/ It goes to my heart” and then, “Old Father Tyme” (which he’s surely nicked the opening piano riff from Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie” from!) mixes 70s uptempo soul with 2020 production values. “Village” boasts a gorgeous melody and lyrics hinting at contentment (Weller, contented!?) “Not a thing I’d change if I could/ I’m happy here in my neighbourhood” and features his old mate Mick Talbot on keyboards.
“More” could have been lifted from a Blaxploitation movie whilst the title track is a funky, summery, string-laden delight; I also get the feeling that the spirit of George Harrison wasn’t far away when it was written. There are several times throughout “On Sunset” that Weller tips his hat to Bowie. On the you-either-love-it-or-hate-it, “Equanimity” (featuring Slade’s Jim Lea) he’s opted for an Anthony Newley music-hall incarnation of the great man. Album closer, “Rockets”, on the other hand, is beautiful. A full orchestra swooping and soaring behind a vocal and arrangement DB in his 1970s pomp would have been proud of. It’s a fine track to bring another exceptional Paul Weller album to a close.
1: SAULT – Untitled (Black Is)/ Untitled (Rise) (Forever Living Originals)
On Saturday the 13th June 2020, Gilles Peterson played the whole of SAULT’s “Untitled (Black Is)” from start to finish. For an hour, I was transfixed as I listened. Not only was it obvious after just fifteen minutes or so that this was a truly special record, it eventually struck me that this was going to be one of the most important and influential albums of this, or any other, year. The world was reeling from George Floyd’s death at the hands of an American police officer on May 25th when the first of the mysterious UK collective’s double-albums of 2020 landed just twenty-four days later. With a backdrop of the ensuing anti-racism marches and protests throughout the UK in June, the release of “Untitled) Black Is” served as a prescient and powerful soundtrack to those momentous events.
“(Untitled) Black Is” and “Untitled (Rise)” are first and foremost soul albums; they are also protest albums and angry albums; albums with a palpable sense of the colossal struggle black people STILL face on a daily basis, but they are also albums embracing messages of hope, resilience and positivity. The band themselves are shrouded in mystery. There have been no photos, no press releases and no advertising. There are a handful few things we do know about them: the records were produced by Inflo who has previously worked with Michael Kiwanuka – MK contributes to several tracks and has a guest vocal on the afro-beat scorcher, “Bow” and songwriting credits are assigned to Cleopatra Nikolic – better known as labelmate Cleo Sol. Melisa Young (aka Kid Sister) also contributes vocals to several tracks.
Of the two albums, the 20 track “Untitled (Black Is)” is the more militant and hard-hitting. Both albums have black cover art “Black Is” features the image of a clenched fist “Untitled (Rise)” whilst the more progressive “Rise” depicts praying hands (hope?). “Out The Lies”, the call and response opening track on “Black Is” sends a stark message of intent: “The revolution has come (out the lies)/ Still won’t put down the gun (out the lies)”. This is followed by the angry breakbeat of “Stop Dem”, the soulful “Hard Life” and the powerful “Don’t Shoot Guns Down” which pulls few punches: “Don’t shoot, I’m innocent/ Racist policeman (don’t shoot, I’m innocent)”.
Elsewhere there are two beautiful spoken word poems “X” (after Malcolm X) and “Us” plus tracks full overflowing with r&b, funk, soul, gospel and tribal beats and chants. As well as being one of the best tracks of the year, the album highlight for me is the haunting, atmospheric “Wildfires” with its mesmeric beat and soulful female vocal recalling Soul II Soul at their best. Behind the song’s seemingly benign veneer though lies a lyric as hard-hitting as any other on the album “Take off your badge/ We all know it was murder/ Murder, murder/ Murder”.
“Untitled (Rise)” hit the streets just 3 months after “Black Is”. Although it’s no less hard-hitting there’s definitely a more positive vibe pervading the album’s fifteen tracks. Opener, “Strong” is a cracker: 80s funk mixed with tribal drumbeats and a call to arms lyric: “Got to stay, even when they’re (Wrong)”. This bright opening is followed by the upbeat “Fearless”, the brief but beautiful spoken words of “Rise”: “It’s time to face a new morning/ The sun’s shining just for you” and “I Just Want To Dance”. It’s not until you reach the military cadence of “Rise Intently” that things take a darker turn “We ain’t playing no more (Nope)/ Can’t take my money no more (Nope)/ Made my brother choke (Choke)/ This here ain’t no joke (Nope)”.
For all its upbeat positivity, “Untitled (Rise)” concludes with a gospel-tinged reality check – “Little Boy”. The song is a message from an adult to a child about the realities they could face growing up as a black person: “Little boy, little boy when you get older/ You can ask me all the questions/ And I’ll tell you the truth about the boys in blue” before offering solace to them with the hope that: “And the Lord’s truth for those who look like you/ Heaven’s angels is shining down on us/ They won’t go away, God has chosen us/ Heaven’s angels is shining down on us”.
So there we have it, thirty-five tracks of diverse and compelling music across two incredible albums. Records with messages as powerful as this come along once in a blue moon – SAULT have given us two in the space of four months. Hopefully, the events of 2020 will be the catalyst for a more permanent change in attitudes, because so far those changes haven’t gone nearly far enough. Racism is a disease that needs curing every bit as urgently as COVID, and we ALL need to play a part.
Maybe part of the cure lies in this quote from the great Dr Martin Luther King:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”