This past year was an excellent year for music, much better than the travesty that was 2020. Right from the beginning with the early releases it promised to be a strong one, and quality-wise it never really let up. The music did come along in fits and starts: a bunch of late winter/spring releases, a bit of a lull through summer into the fall, and then a final surge very late in the year. It was this last bit that proved problematic, because the late releases were so strong they threw off all the calculations I had made up to that point. By mid December I had to completely rethink my top-tier albums.
In terms of genres, what attracted me is largely divided between various forms of instrumental ambient electronica or industrial, and good ol’ rock‘n’roll/metal. A bit of proggish and alternativey stuff is sprinkled throughout, but not too much. There were certainly surprises along the way. I ended up with an even dozen albums that stand out; I think this is the strongest year for music in a while.
Gary Numan released his crowd-funded album early in the year, and Shriekback did the same thing in December. Industrial legend Bill Leeb gave us two offerings: one from Front Line Assembly and another from the long-quiescent Noise Unit. Mariusz Duda, who has an inordinate fondness for trilogies, also released two albums to complete his latest, which was begun in 2020 with Lockdown Spaces. The Tea Party emerged almost out of nowhere to demonstrate that they are still very much alive and a force to be reckoned with. The long-awaited new album from post-metal masters Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster finally appeared.
Back in June I lamented the evisceration of the year in terms of music, and since then not much has changed. I just did not have the emotional energy for really investigating new music. My album list is ridiculously thin — it won’t even reach a Top Ten. However, I continued to pay more attention to individual songs, in an effort to reduce the wastage (both of money and storage space) of buying albums I rarely play. Spotify Discovery and Release Radar lists provide a rich mine of suggestions, more than I can rightly get to, and it is possible to purchase individual tracks through Bandcamp and iTunes. Of course the downside is that I end up with fewer albums on the Year End list. If that really is a downside….
So this year I will start with an individual Songs of the Year list, essentially a short-list of songs that I heard and flagged for follow-up, and then decided that I liked them enough to buy them. I used to make playlists constantly on cassette way back in the day, and I recall having some excellent ones. I need to do that more often (not on cassette, of course).
The songs here are either standalone singles, or from albums or EPs that did not make my final Album list. They are sort of ranked…I mean, I like them all, but some I do play more than others. Continue reading The Music of 2020 — The Songs→
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
2015 has been a wonderful year for new music, one of the best years in recent memory. Almost all the new releases I checked out were worthwhile, even the ones that eventually didn’t make the cut. What’s more, most of the albums I found that had come out in previous years were also exceptional. It is quite the opposite of last year when I had real trouble coming up with ten albums to talk about; this year the difficulty is deciding what to leave out. That is why I have gone with a Top 15 of 2015. Too much is just too good.
Some clear themes have emerged: this year’s music of preference seems to be either hard and heavy post-metal, post-punk, or sludge/doom metal; or beautifully sweeping songs, lush and melodic…there are few exceptions. But pretty much all of it features lots of great powerful riffage, and real honouring of the song. Instrumental music makes up a significant portion of the albums I chose. Established artists surprised by the shift in their direction, and new artists absolutely stomped into prominence.
This was also the year that the 1980s dominated: the influences from that decade are all over the damned place. Two bands active in the 80s that I hadn’t paid any attention to for years (or ever) blasted out of the past with monster releases. At least three other bands heavily reference 80s sounds (although technically one will not release their album until next year; at this point a single is available). Several decent live albums were released but only one snuck into the list. Live albums are generally not regarded as legitimate candidates for year-end lists, and the one that made it into mine was actually released in 2014, but fuck it, this is my list and I’ll include what I want.
So: onto the list, starting at Number 15 and working upward.
Ghost are a band with a clever, well-formulated gimmick, and they are not unskilled, and Meliora is an album of nice poppy metal, nothing too straining, pleasant to listen to, but I do not understand why everyone seems to think this is a great album. No, it is not “great”, it is well done but not exceptional by any means, and there could be other contenders for the bottom spot that didn’t quite make it. This is the kind of album I play when I do not want to pay too much attention to what I am listening to: it has to have some merits in terms of good song structure and decent melodies, but not too demanding of one’s attention. Meliora fits.
The Fierce and the Dead: Magnet
I do admire Matt Stevens; he is a dedicated guitarist and untiring in his self-promotion, which one must be in this day of DIY musicianship. However I tend to prefer his band project, The Fierce and the Dead, over his solo efforts. Magnet is a brief EP that came out this year showcasing their eclectic style, hard-rocking somewhat freeform math/post-rock.
Steven Wilson: Hand Cannot Erase
I write this as I am listening to Insurgentes, Wilson’s first solo album. The differences between these two albums, the first, and his fourth, could not be more stark. Insurgentes is superb; but I find that listening to H.C.E is an exercise in sheer determination to get through it; it must be done though because it is, you know, Steven Wilson and he is god (or something). Naturally, the album is superbly executed with exceptional performances by the musicians, beautiful melodies, and is at times almost poppy (a welcome shift away from the jazz influences of the last two albums) — and while it is clearly meant to grab at the heartstrings I find it so obviously manipulative that it just leaves me cold. But you can read my (rather generous) review here.