It is impossible to write about the music of 2020 without writing about the music of 1970, right? You just have to. Well, not you, maybe. But I am a man of a certain age, and if anyone releases any music in a year that ends with a naught, then men of a certain age feel a moral obligation to compare that music to the music released in other years that end in a naught. That’s just the way life is. And if you can go back a pleasingly round fifty years to compare, then the imperative is even more pressing. It’s more or less the law. A half century! I’d been waiting for 2020 to arrive since 1989. That it arrived in a state of some disarray, raging and plague-ridden, is of no concern to us here. People still made recorded music. If they didn’t want to be judged against history, then they should have worked harder and got their stuff out in 2019. Or worked less hard and gone for 2021. But no: they had the hubris to risk the zero.
So let’s begin by looking at 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-ever guitar solos, by Eric Clapton, on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” (I prefer James Burton to Clapton most of the time, but the solo here is deeply musical rather than extremely fast, and it kills me every time.) And there’s the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, the one containing “Sweet Jane” and “Who Loves the Sun” and a few other tracks I’ve been listening to ever since, quite often while watching a support act in a club. It was the year of the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, and the Stooges’ Fun House, and the Who’s Live at Leeds, and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and Van Morrison’s Moondance. You may have heard one or two of the tracks on Bridge over Troubled Water—the title song, for example, which begins “When you’re weary, / feeling small”—and a couple more on the Beatles’ Let It Be. My favorite Aretha album is Spirit in the Dark, I think, and if you haven’t bothered with the nearly eleven-minute version of James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (on the album Sex Machine) until now, then what is COVID for? (I understand you might not be feeling exactly like being a sex machine, but see how you get on.) Ladies of the Canyon was a 1970 record, and Led Zeppelin III, and Déjà Vu, and Paranoid, and Curtis, the one that gave us “Move On Up,” and the first Funkadelic album.
Anyway. You get the picture: lots and lots of classics, albums you have heard at least some of even if you were born in this millennium. But let me tell you, young people, how we listened to albums in the 1970s: we listened to them over and over again. I owned probably three albums in December 1970, and maybe twelve by the end of 1971, and that was all the music I had access to. Sometimes I borrowed a friend’s record, and sometimes I listened to the one BBC station that played pop music, but they played mostly chart music, and I didn’t like Andy Williams or Rolf Harris that much. (I will explain the phenomenon of Rolf Harris, an Australian children’s entertainer, another time, but he is not long out of prison, and we should probably not stir it all up again.) The albums I owned I turned into classics through sheer force of will. If I didn’t like it the first time, I played it again until I liked it more. Nobody of my age can be trusted to tell you about classic albums of the 1970s and how much better they were than anything that’s come since, because we never listened as hard to anything ever 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 bought most of the others in later years, as my tastes broadened and I found out more, but most of them have been cannibalized, reduced to favorite tracks on playlists.
And, let’s face it, a lot of those albums are shibboleths, more often nodded at nostalgically than consumed. All Things Must Pass was a triple album, and a third of it consisted of musicians jamming to no real purpose in the studio. Let It Be is the Beatles’ shoddiest record, sad aural evidence of all the discord that preceded the band’s undoing. It’s by the Beatles, so people forget, or never knew, that the reviews were hostile—“a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone,” said New Musical Express at the time. It ended up on Rolling Stone’s infamous white-rock “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list anyway. Those artists all had an advantage too. The music Neil Young made on After the Gold Rush didn’t exist even six years previously. There was a whole fresh, unexplored world out there, an unspoiled planet. In the fifty years since, artists have claimed more or less every available plot of land as their own, and younger people have had to write better, think harder, create imaginative extensions to the existing geography to get noticed.
Which brings us to 2020, a year so extraordinarily, dazzlingly full of great albums and great songs that it is entitled to feel a little sorry for the old-timer. “Really? That’s the best you could do? Even though you had an unspoiled musical planet? And we had rampant disease?” To be fair, the rampant disease seems to have assisted the music-making, or at least removed the distractions and alternative (and vital) income streams that usually prevent so much music from being recorded. The year 2020 was when some people released two great albums, or one great double album; you could pick pretty much any particular genre and list ten records you may or may not end up listening to for the rest of your life. If folk-country is your thing, then you might love Sarah Jarosz’s World on the Ground, or Jason Isbell’s Reunions, or Lucinda Williams’s Good Souls Better Angels, or my particular favorite, Katie Pruitt’s Expectations, or my other particular favorite, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, or Kathleen Edwards’s Total Freedom, Tami Neilson’s Chicka Boom!, Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over, Elizabeth Cook’s Aftermath, the already deeply beloved debut Bonny Light Horseman. That’s ten, and I’m leaving out Gillian Welch and the Drive-By Truckers, which obviously can’t be done. In other words, there’s a great folky-country record for every month of the year, a record that would repay close attention. But who’s got the time for close attention? Even when all we’ve got is time? And who wants to limit themselves to folk-country? And if you do, then you’d better make some room for both Evermore and folklore, Taylor Swift’s breathtakingly good offerings this year. You can play the same game with hip-hop, and R&B, and probably manage a whole separate ten for the subgenre of artists who combine elements of both.
Here’s something that happened in 2020: the Prince estate released the Sign O’The Times boxed set, which contains sixty-three previously unreleased tracks. That on its own is a staggering amount of new music, a collection that really demands a month of focused listening. If it had come out a year after the original album, I probably wouldn’t have listened to much else that year, not least because a good chunk of my annual music budget would have been blown on the one artefact. Oh, and Tom Petty’s 2020 Wildflowers and All the Rest nearly doubles the length of the original Wildflowers album, which was as perfectly realized as Prince’s masterwork, if less formally ambitious. Bob Dylan released the extraordinary Rough and Rowdy Ways and the brilliant “Murder Most Foul,” an elegy to America that sounds sadder with each passing breaking news atrocity. Springsteen released the rock-solid Letter to You. The song I played the most in 2020 was the Pretenders’ “You Can’t Hurt a Fool,” a song to rank alongside the best Chrissie Hynde has ever written, and therefore a pop-rock classic. Prince, Dylan, Petty, Bruce, the Pretenders—you could have spent the entire year listening enthralled to people pushing seventy, pushing eighty, no longer with us. I had forgotten the great new albums by Swamp Dogg (age seventy-eight), Bettye LaVette (seventy-four), and Toots Hibbert (who died this year, at age seventy-seven)—they belong in this paragraph too. The Rolling Stones have managed only a terrific zeitgeist number one single.
I haven’t even mentioned the music I admired the most last year. Phoebe Bridgers has yet to release a song that hasn’t caused my heart to stop, at least for a moment, and sometimes for worryingly longer than that, but that might just be an unconnected age thing. I suppose she’ll make music I don’t like someday, but there’s no sign of it happening soon. Punisher, her second album, is perfectly crafted, perfectly sad, even when it’s poppy and riffy. The song “Kyoto” begins, “Day off in Kyoto. / Got bored at the temple. / Looked around at the 7-Eleven,” and you think, Come on, Phoebe, you can’t be writing about rock-tour ennui already. And within no time at all, a few lines, she’s getting into some kind of painful family thing clearly involving the narrator’s father. (Interviews with Bridgers will lead you to the conclusion that, in this case, the narrator and the singer cannot be separated.) “And you wrote me a letter, but I don’t have to read it,” she sings in the second verse; “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t beat me to it,” she sings in the third. The ache in the voice and the song is something I haven’t come across before, despite the familiarity of the setting, like she’s trying to find as much consolation as she can amid the sore spots. If you want to see how deep she can cut when she wants to, check out “Funeral” from Stranger in the Alps, (“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time,” runs the lovely chorus) or her devastating version of Tom Waits’s “Georgia Lee.” Twenty-one million people have listened to “Kyoto” on Spotify at the time of this writing, a number I find deeply comforting. She’s a big deal, and an old soul.
Nobody knows that much about Sault. They made two rapturously received albums in 2019, and two more, Untitled (Black Is) and (Untitled) Rise, in 2020. Their Wikipedia page is four lines long. They are British, some of them, but one of the prominent singing voices belongs to an American, Melisa Young, known as Kid Sister. The songs were written by UK producer Inflo and Cleopatra Nikolic, better known as Cleo Sol, whose album Rose in the Dark also came out in 2020. These people are on a scalding creative streak. What do Sault sound like? A lot of things—Portishead, sometimes, or Soul II Soul, or Fela Kuti—but everything sounds great, and “Wildfires” is an instant classic.
Did I listen to too much music in 2020? Emphatically, no. I wish I’d listened to more. It was, as you probably know, a tricky year, and music never fails to provide solace, inspiration, cheer, excitement. Is it possible to listen to too much new music? I rather fear it might be, and I don’t know what to do about it. I have referred to a lot of artists in this piece, and a lot of new albums, and even now I’m remembering things I’ve loved over the last few months (HAIM! Maria Schneider’s Data Lords!) that didn’t fit into the entirely arbitrary categories I’ve made here. But my relationship with it is of necessity shallow, or certainly not as deep as the relationships I made with records fifty years ago. Those were the days in which the fade-out of one song immediately enabled me to anticipate the intro to the next, and guitar solos could be hummed note for note, even the solos on At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band. Does that mean I have lost something? Have I swapped the depth of a marriage for the narcotic cheap thrill of a hundred one-night stands? Or has the constant exposure to the new simply created a different kind of listener? I would like to think three or four of these albums will be my constant companions forever, but that isn’t going to happen, I suppose. Newer music will come along, and then there’s all the old music; maybe those of us who have listened to new music all our lives have different ears now that we all own everything.