It’s inevitable to draw comparisons between the music of 2020 and 1970; after all, men of a certain age are obligated to do so when the year ends in a 0. It’s almost a requirement. Fifty years is a nice, round number to make a comparison against, so it was something eagerly anticipated since 1989.
In spite of the disordered state of the world, music was still being made and released during 2020. If musicians had wanted to avoid being judged against history, they should have either released their work in 2019 or 2021. But they chose to take the risk and release their music in the year 2020.
We can start by considering the albums of 1970. It was the year of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos, and the home of one of my favorite guitar solos, by Eric Clapton, on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” (Though I normally prefer James Burton, the solo here is quite musical and affects me every time I hear it.) Also from that year was the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, which contains “Sweet Jane” and “Who Loves the Sun,” and a few other tracks I’ve listened to regularly, especially while watching a support act in a club.
Additionally, we had the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, the Stooges’ Fun House, the Who’s Live at Leeds, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and Van Morrison’s Moondance.
You may have heard some songs on Bridge over Troubled Water, such as the title song which starts with “When you’re weary, / feeling small,” and another couple of songs on the Beatles’ Let It Be. Another great album from 1970 is Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark, which I think is my favorite.
And if you haven’t listened to James Brown’s nearly eleven-minute version of “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” on the album Sex Machine until now, COVID is the perfect time to do so. (Even if you don’t feel like being a sex machine, why not give it a try?) Also from that year were Ladies of the Canyon, Led Zeppelin III, D eja Vu, Paranoid, and the first Funkadelic album, Curtis, which gave us the hit “Move On Up.”
In any case, you know what I’m talking about; there are a lot of classic albums that you have heard of, even if you were born in the 2000s.
However, I want to tell young people how we listened to albums in the 1970s: we heard them over and over. I had a mere three albums in December 1970, but by the end of 1971, I had twelve.
Now and then I borrowed a record from a friend, and occasionally I listened to the one BBC station that played pop music, though mostly it was chart music and I wasn’t fond of Andy Williams or Rolf Harris. (I’ll clarify the phenomenon of Rolf Harris, an Australian children’s entertainer, another time, yet he is recently out of prison, so we should maybe not bring it up again).
The albums I owned I converted into classics throughout sheer strength of will. If I didn’t care for it the first time, I played it again until I enjoyed it more.
People of my age can’t be trusted to tell you about the classic albums of the 1970s and how much better they are compared to anything that has come since, because we never listened to anything as much again.
The only two 1970 albums I owned in 1970 were Paranoid and Live at Leeds , neither of which I would sit through again. I got most of the others in future years, as my interests broadened and I discovered more, yet the majority of them have been reduced to favorite tracks on playlists.
It’s clear that many albums are paid lip service to more than they are actually consumed. All Things Must Pass, for example, included a third of the track time dedicated to musicians jamming without a specific purpose. The Beatles’ Let It Be is often overlooked for its poor reviews, but still made Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush was a new and unexplored album when it released, but since then, all the land has been claimed and for younger artists to make an impression, they have to draw on imaginative extensions of the existing music.
2020 was an iconic year for music, with many amazing albums and songs being created in spite of the challenges due to the pandemic. Many artists released two great albums, or even one great double album; in the genre of folk-country, Sarah Jarosz’s World on the Ground, Jason Isbell’s Reunions, Lucinda Williams’s Good Souls Better Angels, Katie Pruitt’s Expectations, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, Kathleen Edwards’s Total Freedom, Tami Neilson’s Chicka Boom!, Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over, Elizabeth Cook’s Aftermath, and the popular Bonny Light Horseman were all released.
Furthermore, Taylor Swift put out two excellent albums, Evermore and folklore, proving that 2020 was a year full of music to be enjoyed and appreciated. Hip-hop, R&B, and a blend of both genres also saw a plethora of releases, providing a wide array of music for every listener.
2020 was a year that saw a huge release from the Prince estate – the Sign O ‘The Times boxed set, with sixty-three previously unheard tracks. Had it come out a year after the original album, I would’ve likely devoted a lot of my music budget and listening time to it. There was also Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and All the Rest, which more than doubled the size of the original album. Bob Dylan released his acclaimed Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the poignant “Murder Most Foul”.
Bruce Springsteen was not to be outdone, and put out the well-made Letter to You. One of the songs I listened to the most this year was the Pretenders’ “You Can’t Hurt a Fool”, a track that is an instant classic. Legends like Prince, Dylan, Petty, Bruce, and the Pretenders kept fans enthralled. Other great albums were released by Swamp Dogg (78 years old), Bettye LaVette (74 years old), and Toots Hibbert (died in 2020 at 77). The Rolling Stones managed to get a tremendous number one single.
Discussing the music I was captivated by last year, I must mention Phoebe Bridgers. Her songs never fail to touch my heart, either for a moment or for a bit longer than I would expect for my age.
Nevertheless, I am sure that she will eventually produce music I don’t like. Her second album, Punisher, is both melodious and sorrowful. The track “Kyoto” starts off with a lighthearted description of a day off in Kyoto, but then it quickly goes into a possible family issue involving the narrator’s father. Bridgers sings, “And you wrote me a letter, but I don’t have to read it” in the second verse and “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t beat me to it” in the third. Her voice is full of pain and sorrow, yet she still finds solace in this experience.
An example of her heartbreaking work is “Funeral” from Stranger in the Alps, featuring the lyrics “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time” in the chorus. To date, “Kyoto” has been streamed on Spotify by twenty-one million people, which is an incredibly comforting number. Bridgers is renowned and has the soul of an old-timer.
Not much is known about Sault, but they put out four albums in 2019 and 2020 that were met with much acclaim.
Their Wikipedia page is quite short, but the band is comprised of British and American members, including Melisa Young (otherwise known as Kid Sister). The music was written by Inflo and Cleopatra Nikolic (Cleo Sol), who also released her own album, Rose in the Dark, in 2020. Sault’s music is a melting pot of sounds, reminiscent of Portishead, Soul II Soul, and Fela Kuti. “Wildfires” is a standout track, quickly becoming a classic.
In 2020, I didn’t listen to too much music, though I wish I had. It was a difficult year, and music was a source of comfort, encouragement, joy, and excitement. Is it feasible to listen to too much new music? I’m afraid it might be, but I’m uncertain what to do about it.
I have mentioned a lot of musicians and albums in this piece, and now I’m recalling the things I’ve enjoyed during the past few months (HAIM! Maria Schneider’s Data Lords!) that did not fall into my somewhat arbitrary categories. My connection with the music is shallow or not as profound as my connections with albums from fifty years ago.
Back then, I was able to easily predict the introduction of the next song following the fade-out of one, and I could sing the guitar solos note-for-note, even those on At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band. Have I missed out on something? Did I substitute a deep relationship for numerous fleeting encounters? Or has the continuous exposure to the new merely constructed another type of listener? I’d like to think that several of these albums will always be my companions, but that probably won’t happen. There will be newer music, and all the old music; it could be that individuals who have listened to new music all their lives now have different ears due to having access to everything.
Rewording the same idea, it can be said that the world has become more interconnected due to the development of technology in recent years. Advancements in the technological realm have caused a greater interconnection among people globally. As a result, the boundaries between nations have slowly disappeared.
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