2020: The Sleeve Notes

Sherwood shed, since demolished, November 2020

Since 1988, we’ve sent out best of year cassettes since 2000, CDs) to friends around the globe. In 2019 we added a Spotify playlist. I’m not going to put that up until this set of daily sleeve notes is complete. However, this year I intend to extend the playlist so that, in addition to the twenty songs on the CD, there’s another twenty things there wasn’t room for. It’s been a very good year for music, if little else, so let’s celebrate that. In another year, The Big Moon, Loudon Wainwright III, Drive-By Truckers (two great albums!), Courtney Marie Andrews, Cowboy Junkies, Moses Sumney, James Taylor, Hen Ogledd, Richard Dawson, Maria McKee, Bill Callahan, Jason Isbell, Georgia, Nadia Reid & sophomore albums from YUNGBLUD, Rolling Blackouts CF and Fontaines DC would have featured, but part of our tradition is being forced to make hard choices and forge them into a sequence that holds together. So, without any further ado.

  1. Future Islands – Plastic Beach A song so good, Gorillaz named their new album after it. The band have dismissed their last album The Far Field as a rushed affair, but the new As Long as you Are is terrific, tunes that are full of self-doubt yet moving, even uplifting, with great synth hooks. Great driving music. Not that I’ve done much driving lately.

2. The Chicks – Gaslighter I have a penchant for moody female singer-songwriters. Or, if Sue were to describe them: mawkish & depressing. She’s placed an absolute ban on Lucinda Williams for instance, and there are a couple of people on this year’s CD who I wasn’t sure I’d get away with. In rejecting some acts from the first draft, however, she insisted I added this catchy, divorce song by the newly renamed Chicks (formerly Dixie) and I’m not arguing. You could argue that gaslighting has been an over-used term lately, but when the (current) US President and UK PM keep doing what it describes to their entire countries, the subject remains pretty pertinent.

3. Cornershop – One Uncareful Lady Owner Normally, an album is limited to one track and one CD on our best ofs, but I snuck ‘No Rock Save in Roll’, a December drop, onto last year’s best of CD and I’m certainly not going to miss Cornershop off this year’s CD. England is a Garden is, after all, our most played CD of the year. It came out before lockdown and was already in heavy car rotation. Since then, it’s always been there if we need cheering up. Been a fan since I Was Born for the Seventh Time in 1997, but never seen them (they long since stopped playing live). The new album is their best to date. Choosing which track to put on was tricky. Initially we went with ‘St Marie Under Canon’ which kicks off the album at pace. We ended up choosing a deeper cut that’s in a more traditional Cornershop vein: catchy, kind of melancholy, cut through with their distinctive humour. Enjoy.

4. Laura Marling – Alexandra ‘Song for Our Daughter’, the new album by the child-free singer/songwriter was the first of several Covid ‘sudden-drop’ albums (haven’t got round to the second Taylor Swift one yet but, who knows, a track from it may end up on the part two playlist). It’s another very strong Marling album. First saw her at the Rescue Rooms, when she was 18, last saw her in an arena, supporting Neil Young, and just bought an LP of her livestream from earlier this year. She wears her influences proudly, but always makes something unique and memorable from them. Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen are the most obvious examples, and the title of this song could be read as a tribute to the latter (here’s why).

Billy No Mates feat. Sleaford Mods – Supermarket Sweep My favourite debut album of the year and the first of her two top collaborations with the Mods. Supermarkets and key workers belong on this year’s CD and Tor Marie (from Leicester via Bristol and Bournemouth) has a distinctive, soulful way to capture that world. Corking, catchy commentary. The whole album’s excellent.

Jarv Is – House Music All Night Long A stonking song whose title we nicked for this year’s best of. Jarvis has said ‘‘It’s a straightforward love song about someone stuck alone in the house whilst the object of their affections is out dancing to House music at a rave.’ But, clearly, it has taken on other nuances this year, when we’ve need music to – how else can I put it – keep us sane. Early in lockdown, I listened to a lot of Gallery 47 to chill out to, with Cornershop and Vampire Weekend to cheer us up. I’d watch recorded live shows while on my exercise bike (Springsteen at Hyde Park took most of a week). Then the livestreams started to arrive. The launch show for the Jarv Is album, from Peak Cavern, Derbyshire, was – for us – the best musical (near) livestream of the year. The best play stream was a terrific version of Friel’s Faith Healer from the Old Vic, with David Threlfall, Michael Sheen and Indira Varma (see also my previous blog about the Playhouse panto).

7. Romy – Lifetime Yep, it’s the dancey part of the CD. Have to confess we haven’t heard the Kylie album (it’s on Sue’s Christmas list). Still, couldn’t miss off this soaring advance track from the first solo album by Romy (Madley Croft) of The xx. The single doesn’t seem to have bothered the charts, so maybe people prefer her in chill out indie soul mode. Be interesting to see how the album does. By the way, reviewing The xx, when my friend Mike Atkinson was taken ill, was what got me started writing for the Nottingham Post, over eleven years ago. Here’s the review, of the original line up (the closing lines ring true. When they next played here, it was at the Arena, which I figured was way too big for them, so I skipped it). The days of real live gigs still feel a long way off but I hope the Post will continue to commission reviews. A big shout out here to my long time editor, Simon Wilson, who left The Post during the pandemic. Thanks for letting me me write about so many great gigs, many of which I’d have otherwise missed, mate, and for occasionally letting me correct those reviews online – mostly before anyone noticed (OK, there was that time when I messed up the members of De La Soul). All the best for the future.

8. Adrianne Lenker – Zombie Girl It took me a while to ‘get’ Big Thief. Went to see them at the Rescue Rooms in a slimmed down version (the guitarist had recently split with the singer, Adrianne, and took a sabbatical), then again at Green Man last year, when I was impressed, but not blown away. Last year’s two albums, especially ‘Two Hands’ and a gig at Rock City, not long before lockdown, made me a fully fledged convert. Now Adrienne’s third solo album (a double, made in a trailer during lockdown: read this fine Amanda Petrusich interview for more) is also a thing of beauty – a fragile, haunting set of songs, of which this is the most memorable. They came on early at Rock City, and were over by twenty to ten, so my nephew Michael and I were able to head to The Golden Fleece for a full set by the next act, including the debut performance of the song he’s singing.

9. Gallery 47 – Change in the Weather I’ve just got a book by Jeff Tweedy titled How To Write One Song, which seems serendipitous because I have written precisely one song, or at least the words for one. Here it is. In 2018, fine singer/songwriter Jack Peachey aka Gallery 47 asked me if I was interested in writing with him, which, of course, I was. However I was also bereft of time and inspiration, so I sent him my 2001 Glastonbury novel Festival which contains partial lyrics to several songs I’d made up for a fictional singer/songwriter not unlike Jack, including one complete one that I was rather pleased with. Jack’s used part of that lyric in a song that hasn’t come out yet. Then, in late summer 19, when we were staying at a friend’s remote place in France, I remembered a lyric that I began when I was in my late teens and hadn’t completely given up on playing music myself. Turned out I had no musical skills and could barely hold a tune – or I might have pursued it further. I only had a couple of couplets but I knew how the whole thing sounded in my head, a bit like Gerry Rafferty in his Stealers Wheel days. Then Gerry started a solo career and the B side of his first single, ‘Baker St’, was called ‘Big Change in the Weather’, so I forgot about it for the next 40 years. Until, one afternoon in France, when I had the house to myself and had finished reading UNESCO applications, so decided to have a go at finishing the lyric. When I got home, I sent it to Jack and, just over a year later, here it is. Jack’s tune sounds nothing like Rafferty and I would never have imagine putting a riff at the heart of the number, but, you know what, it works. See what you think and, if you like it, please buy the album (one of four he’s released this year – the others are East Street, Terminal Rules and Saturation), Bye and Bye.

10. The Strokes – The Adults are Talking Amongst the things I wasn’t expecting this year, one was a cracking comeback album from The Strokes, the quality of whose output faded rapidly from their second album onwards. But here they are, with a track that’s up their with the songs on their debut. OK, they don’t keep this standard going throughout the new album, but it’s all very listenable. And the album’s title, The New Abnormal, turned out to be pretty prescient too.

11. Phoebe Bridgers – Kyoto I first came across Bridgers on the drive to Green Man in 2018. Henry had made a playlist of all the acts appearing and when she came up, I was instantly interested, so went to see her in the intimate walled garden space. An instant convert, I bought the album from the Rough Trade stall while I was still there and played her debut album – which is full of beautifully crafted, articulately self conscious, memorable songs – to death. Punisher, her new one, is the breakthrough – grammy nominated, in everybody’s top five etc. Inevitably, while it shares the same qualities, I don’t yet like it as much as the first. But then, her songs have a way of creeping up on you, so in six months’ time, I may think it’s better, but if you like this one, do check out Stranger in the Alps. I chose this song because it has a great pop hook, an earworm even, and because it reminds me of being in Kyoto three years ago, making me wish I could be back there, or, indeed, anywhere else. Also, it’s on Barack Obama’s end of year playlist, so it must be great, right?

12. Eels – Anything For Boo One of my favourite bands. Missed them at Rock City last year but that was because I was travelling back from Green Man, where I’d seen them the day before, leaning against the bar at the front of the stage. That was a rocky Eels incarnation, whereas the latest album, Earth to Dora, with its more poppy, Todd Rundrenesque feel, harks back to E’s pre-Eels solo albums, and none the worse for it.

13. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Ghosts Bruce’s first album with the E Street Band for nine years. I last saw them eight years ago, from front standing at the opening night of Leeds Arena. The new A Letter To You might have some reworked old songs and a couple of throwaways but is actually a lot better than the album he was touring then, Wrecking Ball (none of those annoying faux-Irish bits for a start) . This song is memorable and anthemic. Instead of an MP3 to stream, why not watch this video of them performing it in public on Saturday Night Live earlier this month, Bruce’s first public appearance with the E street band in quite a long time.

14. Waxahatchee – Fire Wasn’t sure I’d get away with this one, because she has a funny voice and Sue kicked off far more conventional songs by Bill Callahan and Courtney Marie Andrews. But this song is a corker which reaches parts other songs don’t connect with – it’s even been nominated for Tom Ewing’s World Cup of 2020. The album Saint Cloud is great, too.

15. Fleet Foxes – Can I Believe You? The fourth FF album, Shore, is Robin Pecknold on his own, but maybe, in a sense, they always are. The first time I saw them, the drummer did a support set as a wimpy acoustic balladeer. He re-emerged a couple of years later as Father John Misty. I also saw them at Green Man last year, where the big band’s lush sound made for a gorgeous Saturday night closing set. Shore is, I think, up there with their best work.

16. Haim – Man From the Magazine Another band who I should have seen this year (reviewing them at the Arena for the Post), from their thoroughly enjoyable third album, a short song reflecting on fame. They also did a mildly amusing update of the Waitresses Christmas Wrapping, which is officially the second best Xmas song of all time (Darlene Love won Tom Ewing’s poll. My favourite is also from the Ze Christmas album).

17. Frazey Ford – The Kids Are Having None of It If you’d asked me back in February, when I got Frazey’s album and booked to see her at Glee in June, I’d’ve said this song was a shoo in for song of the year and title track of the CD. A catchy, slurred slow builder, it’s my favourite number on a seductively soulful album with country roots (while her roots are alt countryish, FF recorded her previous album with Al Green’s backing band). My sense then was that my generation and those directly around it (ie 50-75 year olds, which I’m right in the middle of) have fucked up the world so badly that we really ought to step aside and help those who are inheriting our mess sort it out in the best way they can come up with. Instead…

18. Sault – Wildfires Choosing just one track from this year’s two Sault albums is tricky, especially as I only discovered them and their 2019 albums, V & VII, in the second half of this year, so I’m still absorbing them all. This is from their first 2020 album ‘Untitled (Black Is)’. Good luck finding a physical copy. Not listened to ‘Untitled (Rise)’ yet, but about to buy it here.

19. Bob Dylan – Black Rider It’s now clear that the five LPs he made of Sinatra covers, while they divided even the most hardcore fans (note: I come a Sinatra loving family and bought them all on vinyl) were preparing us for Dylan’s next phase, just as Good As I Been To You and (the superior) Good As I Been to You back in the 90s prepared us for the great sequence beginning with Time Out of Mind. Rough and Rowdy Ways is his best album in well over a decade and also his most penetrable for a wide audience. You wouldn’t want to listen to ‘Murder Most Foul’ too many times and it’s right that it gets its own disc, but boy, was it a treat to get it in the first month of lockdown. ‘Black Rider’ is right towards the end of the album, and is one of its least discussed tracks. It feels right to put it in the penultimate slot here, too. It’s a sombre song. No need to explain who the Black Rider is, because he’s coming for us all. Eventually.

20. Keith Jarrett – It’s a Lonesome Old Town I discovered Keith Jarrett in 1980, the year I graduated. Dave Mann’s music shop on the Alfreton Road had three second hand LPs in and I bought the cheapest, Facing You. This was quickly followed by the triple set Concerts and the double Koln Concert. Each was paid for out of my dole cheque. I transferred all of Concerts onto a C120 and used to use it as backing music while I endeavoured to write my first novel. 33 years and about fifty more Jarrett recordings later, I got to see him play a solo show at the Royal Festival Hall, a fantastic concert which, sadly, has not been officially released. This year I discovered that a pair of strokes in 2018 have left him unable to play piano, which is tragic for him. For the rest of us, there is so much of his music out there that you can spend a lifetime catching up with it. His last shows were in 2017 and his latest released recordings from the year before. The Budapest concert was released this year, and concludes with a tune I know from Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (one of his very best). It’s a melancholy way to end the CD but an appropriate one in a year full of personal and public tragedy. I listen to Jarrett’s beautiful performance and am reminded of the eerie sensation of cycling around our city’s vast, deserted market square during the first lockdown. Thanks for the music, Keith. Thank you for reading. Best wishes for 2021 to our friends around the world from this fucked up, failed state. Look at how we’ve destroyed our democracy and, please, learn from our mistakes. Not that we will.

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