2020 – the year in music

Myra Melford (left) with Snowy Egret, via https://www.myramelford.com

According to Spotify, I listened to 462 music genres over 2020. I did not know that there could be that many genres, and I’m certain I couldn’t name them. At the end of a year’s listening for those signed up to the service, they send a cheery, personalised summary of your year’s listening, packed with statistics and charts to make you listening habits sound like some glorious adventure (which, of course, is what they should be). So I find that I listened to folk most, then avant-garde jazz, then ‘drone folk’. What is drone folk? It sounds rather suspiciously like something accompanied by bagpipes, but I’m absolutely certain I did not listen to a single set of bagpipes all year. The mystery must remain.

Anyway, next up in my reviews of the year is music. It’s been a year of discovery certainly (I listened to 494 artists that were new to me, Spotify informs me), marked by three periods of obsession, when all I could listen to was one sub-genre, one instrument, and one musical family. Some highlights are below, with a significant omission. Bob Dylan, who has had an astonishing year, must get his own review of year.

The sub-genre that got me hooked for months is contemporary women’s blues music. It started off when I picked up on Canadian singer-guitarist Sue Foley, then followed ‘fans also liked’ and the suggested playlists and all of the other lures created by Spotify, and so found Rosie Flores, Larkin Poe, Debbie Davies, Heather Newman, Deborah Coleman, Dani Wilde, Valerie June, Mary Flower, Little Miss Higgins, Samantha Fish, Amanda Fish, Lucinda Williams, Deb Callahan, Jesse May Hemphill… My goodness, what music. I’m not quite sure what lies at the heart of the female appeal. Maybe it’s something to do with contrast, but the songs I have listened to are too varied for any pat thesis. Maybe it’s just the evident thrill they find in the music, combined with a love of its tradition. Rather than pick two or three songs, I’ve posted what is – quite frankly – a killer playlist.

But I have to pick one song from the above list, because (as the helpful Swedes tell me), it’s the song I listened to the most over 2020. Carolyn Wonderland is an American singer-guitarist who sounds equally authentic and innovative in her approach to the various forms of the blues. Her characteristic style is rootsy electric blues with superlative guitar playing (she has followed Eric Clapton and the late Peter Green in becoming lead guitarist with the eternal John Mayall’s band). But the song that transfixed me is a piano-and-voice number from her 2001 debut album Alcohol and Salvation. ‘Feed Me to the Lions’ is a song for anyone who has been at the end of their tether, puzzled that somehow they keep going (“hide me away in the jungle now, before they feed me to the lions”). It’s one of those songs that stand out by sounding conventional yet quite unlike anything else around them.

At the start of the March lockdown, while everyone’s minds was on other things, I published a series of five posts on my favourite 100 guitarists, rightfully gaining a tiny number of readers (or listeners) for a list that, to be honest, revelled in its obscurity (German avant-garde musician Hans Reichel at no. 1) and perversity (Jimi Hendrix at no. 54). At no. 44 came William Tyler, American acoustic guitarist, who skilfully combines the tuneful with the experimental so that you cannot hear the join. It was only some months after putting the list together than I came across ‘Crystal Palace, Sea of Glass’, from his 2008 album Deseret Canyon (originally released under the name The Paper Hats). Over twelve minutes long, it is epic and hypnotic. Come to think of it, you could describe it as drone folk…

The musical family that got me hooked were the Roches. Back in 1979 I remember reading enthusiastic reviews of the debut album by the trio of New Jersey sisters (Maggie, Terre, Suzzy), but never managed to hear them (I guess John Peel must have given them a miss). Forty years on, I stumbled across ‘Hammond Song’, their signature song with its economic narrative, beguiling harmonies and subtle guitar (Robert Fripp). I have subsequently binged on the family’s music in its many permutations, from solo ventures, to their children and other musical partnerships. It is such a rich listening history that it merits a future blog post of it own, where I must speculate on the special nature of family harmonies. But of all Roche songs, this is my favourite. Written by Maggie Roche (one of the great American songwriters, it is clear), sung by Terre, it comes from their 1975 duo album, Seductive Reasoning. It’s about the thrill and failure to be found one small life. It might be the finest song I’ve ever heard. For the time being, it is.

Two jazz pianists on the experimental edge of things, but with a melodic heart, became firm favourites over the year. American pianist and composer Myra Melford appears twice in my 2020 top ten. My third most-listened-to piece was a gentle solo endeavour, ‘Still Life‘, but just seven places behind came ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’, an entrancing number played by her Snowy Egret quintet. It paints such a picture, a musical quest where listener and musician can never be quite sure what lies next around the corner.

The other pianist is Swiss free improvising musician Irène Schweizer. She’s someone who always sounds like she’s having so much fun playing the piano, whether it’s some challenging experimentation or a rousing crowd-pleaser like this joyful piece of swing, with the great Louis Moholo accompanying on drums.

Nostalgia time. Back in far off days, I was particularly fond of an obscure 1975 album by music producer Tom Newman, entitled Fine Old Tom. Best known for helping set up Virgin’s Manor Studio and for producing Tubular Bells, Newman was able to call upon a starry line-up of the kind of odd-ball musical geniuses who benefitted for a time from Richard Branson’s largesse, among them Fred Frith, Mike Oldfield, Hugh Flint, Mick Taylor, Lol Coxhill and Neil Innes. The songs are whimsical and off-the-wall; catching them after his music became available on Spotify and YouTube this year, they have lost none of their charm. His later music ventures are a little too new age-ist for my tastes, but ‘Superman’ (from Fine Old Tom) remains a joy – a kind of deconstructed reggae that almost collapses in on itself, yet somehow holds it all together.

More guitar. American free-ranging instrumental guitarist Bill Orcutt produced one of his best, most approachable albums in 2019, Odds Against Tomorrow. It’s like birdsong.

This is just a one-off, but there is a particular pleasure to be found in solitary gems. Georgie Fame has been around forever (nostalgia creeps back as I recall ‘Rosetta‘, his 1971 duet with Alan Price); he knows a thing or two. His 1992 version of the standard ‘I Almost Lost My Mind’ has a sad restfulness about it that can only come from a complete musical sincerity.

I follow the new British jazz explosion with great interest, if only occasional great enthusiasm. All of it is pleasing; only once in a while does it take you by the throat and demand that you go on an adventure. Percussionist Sarathy Korwar was born in the USA, raised in India and now plays in London. His is the music of one who has been everywhere and could go anywhere. ‘Flight IC 408’ is a thrilling long piece from his one-take 2020 set with the Upaj Collective, Night Dreamer (released two weeks ago, because I’m so up to the minute).

Another one-off. I listened to what I could of the Silver Jews, after discovering ‘San Francisco B.C.’, and others from their particular American indie rock family (Pavement, Stephen Malkmus). None of it touches the quality of this sardonic shaggy-dog tale of love, murder, robbery and killer haircuts. It loves words and it tells a story that remains as compelling on a tenth listen as on the first. What more do you need?

I listened a lot in 2020 to Maria Muldaur, earthy doyenne of the New York folk-blues scene in the 1970s, still making fine music to this day. Her 1974 album Waitress in a Donut Shop is the place to start. ‘Cool River’ is a song I may take with me to the desert island. A swooning song of loss and longing, with perfectly-judged production.

And finally, John Coltrane. I’d not heard ‘Dear Lord’ before now. This version is from 1965. A beautiful ballad, for anyone.

Next up, Bob.

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