So, how has your year been? Do anything? Go anywhere? Cough on anyone? Sell your publishing for $300 million?
The good news is you're reading this, hopefully safe and warm and healthy. Thank you.
Without further ado, here are my 18 favorite records of 2020. The first 13 are in random order because the thought of ranking them crossed my mind, which is why they are in random order.
But, my Top 5 are indeed ranked.
Here we go.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS- GOOD SOULS BETTER ANGELS
"Good Souls Better Angels" is "Plastic Ono Band," "Raw Power" and "Blood On The Tracks" all wrapped in one naked, nasty and ferocious piece of work. The first time I listened to it was soon after listening to some Sandy Denny acoustic demos and the liner notes included comments from Linda Thompson, who pointed out more than once, how Denny was always more brilliant when the red light in the studio wasn't on. I mention this because what appealed to me while listening to "Good Souls Better Angels," aside from how relentless it felt, was how it all sounded like it was unfolding in real time, which made the record so much more intense. One of the best of Lu's career.
THE LEMON TWIGS- SONGS FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC
Once again I got totally hooked on the D'Addario kids, aka The Lemon Twigs. The brothers might just be too talented for their age. It's as if their minds are working faster than their ability to properly create what they're thinking, which could explain why the moments of brilliance are often coupled with head-scratching insanity. Still, what's good on "Songs For The General Public" is excellent. The music takes inspiration from the likes of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, and of course, the most obvious influence, Todd Rundgren. And like Todd Rundgren, the boys just don't know when to reel it in. Still, I truly love this record and I know that a Lemon Twigs masterpiece is down the pike.
FIONA APPLE- FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS
I would not call myself a fan of Fiona Apple, though there is something to love on every one of her records. "Fetch The Bolt Cutters" is the strangest release of her career. But it is also, to my ears, the most appealing. I don't know if I kept going back to it because I couldn't believe what I was hearing, or if at its heart, I heard a truly infectious and unique collection of songs. I think this record is smart and funny, and full of hooks. Just allow them to grab onto you. This record is a refreshing and welcome change of pace. And trust me, you CAN dance to it.
MANSION HARLOTS- ALL AROUND A FAIRGROUND
If you've paid attention for the last eleven years, you'd recall a few
recurring complaints, with the two most recurring being "there are no
songs on this record" and "no one makes records anymore." The new
release from the U.K.'s Mansion Harlots has shut me up for the time
being. Released just in the nick of time for 2019, which in my book
might as well be 2020, "All Around A Fairground" is a collection of
strong songs, even stronger melodies and big time record making. It is
pop music at its finest.
A tip of the hat to Don over at the invaluable IDHAS for his wonderful write up of this record, otherwise the Mansion Harlots would have never crossed my radar. I will steal one of his lines here, as it nails my exact feelings about "All Around A Fairground"- "What does shout out here is the sheer melodic quality of the record." Boy does it ever! Rather than label the Mansion Harlots as one kind of band, I'll say this, each song evokes the very best qualities of all the music I have been loving for years, from the early days of The Beatles, to the great AM radio pop hits by The Four Seasons and The Turtles, to the crunchy pop of the Raspberries and Cheap Trick to the big vocals of Queen. I had so much fun with this record, I played it twice and then chose some random tracks just to convince myself that this was the real thing. Trust me. It is.
THE JADED HEARTS CLUB- YOU'VE ALWAYS BEEN HERE
I always feel like I am cheating whenever I include an album of covers on my year-end list. But I quickly get over it because a song ain't nothing unless you make it a good record. I was reminded of something Jeff K said after listening to Bob Dylan's new record. "Don't know if I should listen to it or read it." I have not listened to "Rough & Rowdy Ways" since the first week of its release. Maybe a song here and there. But when I'd reach for it, it felt like homework. Some of it is brilliant, but quite frankly, it isn't any fun. I don't want to go back to it anymore than I want to reread "David Copperfield."
The Jaded Hearts Club, on the other hand, is the most fun I've had all year.
Few records kick ass like "You've Always Been Here," the first release from this sorta supergroup. You might recall seeing and hearing their version of The Four Tops' "Reach Out, I'll Be There" on these pages a while back. If not, I've posted it again.
Matt, Graham, Nic, Miles and Sean from Muse, Blur, Jet, The Last Shadow Puppets and The Zutons respectively, plow their way through ten cuts by the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, Chris Clark, The Human Beinz and The Sonics, among others. It's a relentless assault and yet somehow oozes with soul. Both Miles Kane and Nic Cester trade lead vocals, and both possess some real pipes. The arrangements are made to rock, with a juiced-up bass guitar leading the way most of the time. Even the songs you think you'd never want to hear covered again--"Money," "I Put A Spell On You" and "Nobody But You"-- offer a thrilling diversion from the deeper cuts, like Motown one shot Chris Clark's "Love Gone Bad" and an Isley Brothers single from their short life at Motown, "Why When The Love Is Gone," two of the best tracks on the record.
It's a covers record, but I don't care. It does what it is supposed to do. It's a blast and great record making.
A GIRL CALLED EDDY- BEEN AROUND
One way to avoid a sophomore slump is to take sixteen years in between
your debut record and its follow-up. Erin Moran, aka A Girl Called Eddy
did just that, and to say I have been wanting this new record for some
time is an understatement. I loved that 2004 self-titled debut but the
just released "Been Around" is even better.
From the title track which opens Side One, a Bacharach-David meets "Eddy
In Memphis" beauty, to the more than just a nod to Chrissie Hynde &
James Honeyman-Scott on "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart," to what is
now and could end up being my favorite song of the year, "Charity Shop
Window," a gorgeous heartbreaker evoking Rickie Lee Jones,
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, "Been Around" is everything I could
have hoped for and more.
"She saw his coat in the charity shop window/where the past lives on at a bargain price/long ago dreams find another chance to live again/memories are cheap in the charity shop window/She can almost hear if she really tries/their first hello, their last goodbyes."
Sixteen years is a long time, with the only bit of relief coming from Moran's 2018 collaboration with Mehdi Zannad on the pleasant enough "The Last Detail." People have waited less time for a kidney. But, I am happy to say, "Been Around" was worth waiting the 5,800 days. Richard Hawley's production on Eddy's debut was lush and fit Moran's voice perfectly. But Daniel Tashian's work on "Been Around" gives Moran more room to breathe, and that is why I think this collection sounds so vibrant and fresh.
"Been Around" is a big time winner.
TOOTS & THE MAYTALS- GOT TO BE TOUGH
Just about everyday since March of this year brought bad news, tragedy and a feeling of hopelessness. One of the few bright spots and joys for me was and is the music of Toots Hibbert, and just days after releasing his first new music in ten years, the sweet and dandy Mr. Hibbert succumbed to COVID 19.
"Got To Be Tough" captures the last recording of this reggae pioneer, with help from another reggae legend Sly Dunbar, as well as Cyril Neville, and man behind the scenes, who also plays guitar, Zak Starkey. Toots' voice sounds better than ever, giving every song, whether a standard Jamaican groove or a funky variation, a rootsy and soulful Otis-like vibe. (Redding, not the Mayberry drunk.)
"Drop Off Head" gets things going with a feel that would make Keith
Richards proud. "Just Brutal" drives along with a great call and
response, and a vibe that reminds me of Lennon's "Whatever Gets You
Through The Night." And "Struggle" the album closer and not a revamped
version of the old Maytals classic, is a funky workout that should make
even the most ardent non-reggae fans feel good.
Toots does not abandon the traditional sound altogether, as most everything in the middle is soaked in the rhythms and rhymes that made this man legendary. A great loss, but what a gift to leave us all.
THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS- MADE OF RAIN
I've been a Psychedelic Furs fan since the first time I heard what I thought was a new Bowie single, "Sister Europe" on my friend's boombox in the basement of his Sheepshead Bay house in 1980. In 1986, I rearranged a trip to the left coast just so I could see the Furs at the Universal Amphitheatre with support act The Untouchables. And I am one of about twenty six people who love "Book Of Days" and "World Outside," the last two and mostly forgotten Furs records.
"Made Of Rain" is a ridiculously solid return, that impossibly sounds
like both prime-80's Furs, and fresh, gracefully-aged Furs. It's a
Psychedelic Furs album through and through, and if you're a fan, you
should find nothing to moan about. Just let Richard Butler do the
moaning for you.
You're damned if you do and damned if you don't, right? Would I have preferred an Americana record from this band? A big band album of standards? No, of course not. "Made For Rain" is none of that. But it is what Richard & Tim Butler do best: pulsating beats, texture and color, mournful melodies and epic rockers. There are keyboard flourishes and melodic runs in both the album opener "The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll" and "You'll Be Mine" that could have soundtracked your favorite John Hughes film, as well as some darker moods, as on "Come All Ye Faithful" that will evoke that very first Bowie-esque record from 1980.
It would not be a stretch to say that the Furs made the best record of their career 40 years after their debut. "Made Of Rain" is that good.
THE EXPLORERS CLUB- S/T
Well, it's only been a week or so since I raved about this record, but I'll save you the trouble of scrolling back. Here's what I said:
"The Explorers Club" is, as one friend put it, a "hit machine." Every song feels like a tribute to the great AM hits of the 60's and 70's. And while it's easy to dismiss it all as pastiche, the songs and production are so good, it really doesn't matter if you think you've heard it before. It's not easy to make records that so perfectly evoke the summer sounds of The Turtles, The Buckinghams, and of course, The Explorers Club's biggest influence, the Beach Boys. Try it. Jellyfish sealed their fate in pop history doing it. They just tapped different bands.
If their debut leaned a bit too much on the Beach Boys side, at times sounding more like The Rutles doing the Wilsons, the new record plays like a more mature band who have used their time wisely, writing songs that are fresh enough to jog the memories without feeling like full on parodies.
ELVIS COSTELLO- HEY CLOCKFACE
Some of the most popular topics on Burning Wood over the years have been the following:
A) Are the Rolling Stones still worth their exorbitant ticket prices?
B) Does Bob Dylan really have a good singing voice?
C) What the hell is wrong with Sal and why the hell does he like heavy metal?
D) Has Elvis Costello made a great record since "Imperial Bedroom?"
The answers are:
C) Leave me alone
D) Of course he has. He's made more great records than not.
And "Hey Clockface" is another fantastic addition to Costello's diverse catalogue of music.
No, it doesn't sound like "Pump It Up" or even "Veronica." But it is pure Elvis. He is angry. He is a punk. He croons. He even rocks, though only a little bit. It's a greatest hits of the styles he's given us over the years.
If you are the Elvis Costello fan who gave up at "Almost Blue," I can't imagine this record is for you. I've already tried my best to convince you that "Momofuku" is an overlooked classic. On the other hand, if you've embraced the changes, the brilliant acoustic country and blues of "King Of America," the sweeping pop and balladry of "Painted From Memory," the funk textures of "Wise Up Ghost," the love letter to New Orleans with Allen Toussaint "The River In Reverse" and the most recent change of pace, "Look Now," one of the best of EC's career, then "Hey Clockface" should not disappoint.
Considering the circumstances of its creation--isolation, quarantine, three cities with two different sets of musicians--this is remarkably cohesive. Costello's singing never gets over the music, and while that may be offputting to those who want to hear "Oliver's Army," the songs on "Hey Clockface" are as melodic and heartfelt as anything in his career.
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS- HOWL
Long time readers and those paying extra special attention know that the three Ultravox records with John Foxx are among my favorite records of all time, with the 1977 self-titled debut ranking as high as some of my other beloved classics. I got off the bus soon after Midge Ure took over. Even Foxx's solo work over the years has left me cold. But the new record, "Howl" reunites Foxx with Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon who appeared on "Systems Of Romance," and it delivers in a big way.
"Howl" plays like a perfect follow-up to 1978's "System Of Romance." Underneath the industrial strength Bowie/Roxy/Eno textures, are terrific melodies and hooks. These are fresh sounding takes on the best parts of late 70's and early 80's art rock and new wave.
If you've never been a fan of those three Ultravox records, "Howl" is probably a hard sell. But if you are like me, and have no use for the MTV-version of Ultravox, John Foxx & The Maths should satisfy what's been missing for forty years.
Man, this one was a long time coming! I really didn't think they had it in them, but X has delivered a record as classic as their one-two punch of "L.A" and "Wild Gift." This is fast and hard, and those one of a kind John and Exene harmonies are right where they need to be. I've played this one a lot, sometimes chainsmoking it because it's over so quickly. "Alphabetland" is an amazing return to form.
(SPACE RESERVED FOR "MCCARTNEY III")
THE TOP FIVE:
5. SPARKS- A STEADY DRIP DRIP DRIP
The Maels have been on a hot streak for almost 20 years, beginning with 2002's masterpiece, "L'il Beethoven" and continuing with a string of records that rival anything in their long respected career. In 2017, I said this about their release "Hippopotamus":
"You are either in or you are out with Sparks. I have loved Sparks since "Kimono My House" and it couldn't thrill me more to see the Maels release one of the greatest albums of their career over 40 years after that classic. Critically acclaimed, totally unique and absolutely hook-filled... if you like songs about Ikea. And who doesn't?"
Three years later and I find myself thinking the same thing about "A Steady Drip Drip Drip." This is what Uncut Magazine said:
"The 14 new songs on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip are filled to the brim with the usual abundance of trademark lyrical zingers, tenacious earworm melodies and stylistic zigzags. It’s enough to make most of us feel irredeemably lazy and dull-witted."
Mojo too, loves it. They put it at #25 and said this:
“[The album] worked as an object lesson in how lengthy and auspicious
careers can nurture risk and eccentricity rather than diluting them.”
But I wonder, is this the way to sell a record to the uninitiated? I guess it all sounds wonderful if you're okay with Russell Mael's distinct Lily Pons-ish singing voice...or Ron Mael's offbeat subject matter...or the brothers sense of humor.
This new record works me up everytime I play it. When listening to it, I react in the same way I react when I watch a Simpsons episode or read something in The Onion. It's too good. I am stunned into silence by the genius. But that's not to say Sparks isn't a great rock band. It's not just the wit. Just listen to "Self-Effacing" or "iPhone." Or really anything off of the long list of classic records The Maels have released. The elements for hit records are in abundance, going back to their glammy Island output, or their infectious dance music with Giorgio Moroder, or their new wave hits with Atlantic. They know how to create hit records, they just do it their way, which a little bit more than slightly different than anyone else.
You've got to start somewhere, so why not start with "A Steady Drip Drip Drip." It's appearing on many Best Of 2020 lists for a reason. (Well, maybe not in Rolling Stone.) Give it a shot.
4. THE FLAT FIVE- ANOTHER WORLD
I had been waiting for a new Flat Five record since about 15 seconds after the debut album finished playing. "It's A World Of Love & Hope" was my favorite record of 2016. It was a collection of songs written by the mad genius Chris Ligon, turned into some of the most offbeat and melodic sunshine pop by his brother Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough, both current members of NRBQ, Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor and Alex Hall.
"Another World" picks up where "Love & Hope" left off in a number of ways, including another 11 songs written by Chris Ligon. And while the formula is basically the same--upbeat melodies and mostly swinging arrangements, there is something about "Another World" that seems tighter, maybe just a bit more focused.
Ligon's songs remain as dark as ever. "The Great State Of Texas," sung by Miss O'Connor, describes the last things one experiences before execution, all in a sweet lullaby, while "World Missed Out" is...well...just absolutely chilling. I won't spoil it.
It's not all dark. "Butterflies Don't Bite" is a complete joy, sounding exactly like the perfect Tijuana Brass tune if it had lyrics, and "The Girl Of Virginia," a short and sweet waltz, sounding like a cross between a country classic and a jazz standard, shows off the brilliant harmonizing of Scott and Casey.After the first pass of "Another World" I was happy, but wasn't quite satisfied. The Flat Five had some big shoes to fill after their debut. But by the third spin, "Another World" proved to be just as smart and in some ways, even better. I didn't think that was possible, but that's how good this band and Ligon's songs really are.
3. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN- LETTER TO YOU
I know a couple of Bruce fans. They are friends, real dyed in the wool Springsteen fanatics who thought "Letter To You" was just okay. They were happy it came out and are happy it exists, but nothing more. But I also have friends, who like me, hear a rock solid Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band record that would push all the right buttons even without a pandemic. I'm sticking to that because "Letter To You" is still with me, after repeated spins. It is still pushing my Bruce buttons because it is a great Bruce record.
It'd be easy to say "Letter To You" came out when we needed it most. The world has all but ended, with millions sick and dying and only until a few days ago, no end in sight, and here comes a classic E Street sound with emotional lyrics and choruses built for stadiums at a time when not a single person or artist was permitted inside a stadium. Any news, any sounds, anything other than death and sickness, was welcome. But other records came out, too. And I can't think of one that made people feel what they felt and say what they said the way "Ghosts" did.
You all know the story by now. "Letter To You" recorded live and quickly, with few overdubs. You can hear it if you're paying attention. One of the missteps, the clunky "House Of 1000 Guitars," was mentioned by Bruce as his fave on the record. To my ears, it sounds like it was tossed off in two takes, if that. One of my favorites, "If I Was The Priest" was mentioned by another friend as a pointless resurrection of a song that wasn't so great in the first place. And that's the way it will always be with artists like Dylan, and Pauls Simon and McCartney, and Elvis Costello. You're damned if you do. You're damned if you don't.
"Letter To You" is a great rock record. It's a great Bruce record. And it's one of my three favorites of the year, partly because it is indeed, what I wanted. But mostly because, Bruce Springsteen knew what we wanted and gave it to us. Few artists, if any, do that at this stage in their career.
Let's for a moment, be our most cynical. Let's all assume this was a record conceived to prey on the vulnerable. Here's Bruce Springsteen, in his Colts Neck mansion, rubbing his hands togeher like Boris Badenov, concocting some scheme to make money by writing songs and making a record, for a sole purpose to rake in the dough and pull one over on us, the desperate fans, in our time of weakness.
Okay. Now what?
Musically, it's still fucking good!
If you are claiming you would have preferred something else...a folk record, an acoustic record, another "Tunnel Of Love"... well, I don't believe you. You don't have to love "Letter To You," but if you claim to be a Springsteen fan and just dismiss "Letter To You" as disappointing, I can't help you. Go listen to "Darkness."
This is probably the last record from this man and this band that will sound like this and I'm soaking it all in and enjoying every second of it...even the clunky missteps, of which there are few.
2. CHUCK PROPHET- THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT
Chuck Prophet's "The Land That Time Forgot" took some time to get here. COVID delays saw the record get released one song at a time, until a hard copy finally saw the light of day months after the digital release. I checked out the first two singles, but waited until the vinyl was in hand for my ritualistic, proper spin. Worth the wait? Oh yeah!
Simply put, this is the best record of Chuck Prophet's career and that is saying something since this guy has been on some roll since 2009's "Let Freedom Ring."
Every song on "The Land That Time Forgot" is a mini-movie, and I got lost in every one. Prophet has a way of telling a story that can be both heartbreaking and hilarious, often at the same time. And though his brand of lead vocal is of the talk-singing kind, he still writes hooks that can snag flounders.
The production on "The Land That Time Forgot" seems deliberately low key, and I'd venture to say it was a COVID recording except that the record was finished before all hell broke loose. So, let's just say timing was everything, as this record has the perfect vibe and the perfect finale in "Get Off The Stage."
1. PAUL WELLER- ON SUNSET
I've seen Paul Weller's new record "On Sunset" described as "the most
overtly soul and funk-infused" record since The Style Council. Actually,
I think The Jam had more funk and soul in their frenetic, Who-inspired,
three minute blasts of mod punk than anything on the Style Council
records, which I always thought sounded cold, like so much of the
manufactured and synthetic pop of the 80's, a few solid singles aside.
That said, I think Weller's new record is indeed full of soul, but even more important, "On Sunset" doesn't rely on style or trends like so much of his solo career. Every song within feels like it could be a single. The songs here are natural and accessible, and yes the Philly strings, occasional Tamla/Motown backing vocals and funky beats all add to it. But "On Sunset" doesn't lose its way, like some of Weller's recent work. This is a straight forward pop record as much as it is a soul record and it plays beautifully.
There are a few hints of Weller's past, like the lovely one-two of "Equanimity" and "Walkin'," the former sounding like a title theme from a mid-70's Neil Simon flick and the latter like every AM radio pop hit from the early 70's. And I can't help but think of both Oasis and The Verve while listening to the the finale, "Rockets." Still, "On Sunset" is mostly what it aims to be, with elements of Marvin Gaye, pre-MTV Hall & Oates and even a bit of Isaac Hayes wig out on the track "More."
The heart of this record beats like the heart of all those great records by The Jam and the heart of Weller's finest solo work. I love this record and it is by far, the best thing Paul Weller has done since "Stanley Road," and I love a lot of his solo records, especially "22 Dreams," "Illumination" and "Wake Up the Nation." But "On Sunset" made me do something I haven't done in ages...I dropped the needle right back on Side One as soon as it was over.
Pop? Soul? Let's just do away with the labels. "On Sunset" is one terrific record and it is my favorite record of 2020.