What were we saying last year around this time? How horrid 2019 had been, and that things couldn’t get much worse? We, uh, stand corrected — 2020 felt like a rollercoaster ride straight into hell, or through some kind of desensitizing purgatory at least, a seismic cultural shift that no one could have seen coming. And now, with over 335, 000 American lives claimed by the insidious coronavirus, it’s difficult to imagine a lower, more soul-searing nadir. It really took the wind out of everyone’s sails, all over the world.
But what was happening with musicians around the globe? I instantly grew curious, wondering how, or if, their creativity had been affected, so I made a couple of crucial decisions in early March. Instead of wringing my hands here in San Francisco, waiting and praying for local nightclubs and concert venues to reopen, I resolved to peg all stories in the foreseeable future to record release dates, and I wanted to check in with as many artists as possible, musicians who had the fortitude — or even temerity, given their chances for sales-figure success — to put out new music in such an oppressive era.
I was determined to keep fans informed of the latest work from their favorite acts, and the stars were happy to talk about their material, the fires in which some of it had been forged, and the life-changing lessons instilled in them by COVID-19, a deadly opponent they all respected. The conversations were grim, initially; but they’ve brightened. People are now seeing the silver lining of long-repressed climate change awareness taking center stage, around the globe, for 2021. And the message — succinctly phrased by the United Nations recently — is clear: Man is waging a suicidal war on nature, and it has to stop.
That should lay the aesthetic groundwork for some majestic motivational music next year. But for 2020? Hey, I can’t claim that these 10 records are a perfect panacea, the hair-of-the-dog cure to what ails you. But they’re damn close, and proof positive that some incredibly bright, almost uplifting music was made this year, in the darkest of times. I’m just glad that I was alive to hear it.
10) Hen Ogledd, “Free Humans”
If you can picture The Flying Lizards having a switchblade fight with James White and the Blacks in a No-Wave New York Alley, presided over by ABBA, you’ll have a good idea how this truly surreal alt-folk-pop UK quartet sounds. It’s one of the most delightful surprises of 2020.
9) Lucinda Williams, “Good Souls Better Angels”
One of the first of the year’s scathing anti-Donald Trump rants — and there were quite a few — this panegyric finds our reigning alt-country queen mad as hell, and not willing to take it anymore. There was no mealy-mouthed “Let’s agree to disagree” in Williams’ harsh new world. .. out with the bad air, in with the good.
8) Green Day, “Father of All Motherfuckers”
The Trump-referencing title track alone pretty much says it all — Billie Joe Armstrong and company, like countless punk rockers before them, used the medium to shake their furious fists and take a pro-environmental stand, augmented by the monstrous glam-retro production of Butch Walker. It all, strangely enough, made perfect sonic sense.
7) Jehnny Beth, “To Love Is to Live”
Remember when an album used to really challenge the listener, pushing the pop parameters in experiment after sonic experiment? This Savages songstress certainly does on her first stunning solo disc, which she somehow found time to make while writing a short-story collection, anchoring TV and radio programs, and resuming her long-dormant acting career.
6) The Killers, “Imploding the Mirage”
The first four songs on this release are some of the most celebratory, rabble-rousing anthems in this Las Vegas outfit’s already-estimable catalog, and worth the price of admission alone. Brandon Flowers’ voice just has that innate power to inspire. And the louder you played him, the better you felt.
5) The Bobby Lees, “Skin Suit”
This atavistic, garage-trashy sophomore effort from feral Woodstock foursome The Bobby Lees was a much-needed dose of old-school adrenaline in this soul-crushing year. And charismatic film-actress/frontwoman Sam Quartin is a true superstar in the making. Get on board this train now.
4) Old 97’s, “Twelfth”
Twelve albums in — not counting all his solo sets — Old 97’s anchor Rhett Miller is still firing on all cowpunk six on these smart, acerbic singalongs. Who else but this campy tunesmith could work the sketch-comedy troupe “Kids in the Hall” into a feel-good anthem?
3) Mark Lanegan, “Straight Songs of Sorrow”
Easily 2020’s MVPP (Most Valuable Pandemic Player), the former Screaming Trees anchor penned his autobiography “Sing Backwards and Weep” this year, plus a book of poetry, and collaborated with many other musicians, including his wife in the gothic combo Black Phoebe. But this stark solo statement, a companion volume to “Weep,” was his magnum opus.
2) AC/DC, “Power Up”
What was that we were just saying about adrenaline? This surprise comeback from these bloodied but unbowed Aussies — after the death of founding rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and vocalist Brian Johnson’s sudden hearing loss — felt like that notorious needle-in-Uma-Thurman’s-heart scene from “Pulp Fiction.” Your heart jolted back to life and just kept racing.
1) Bruce Springsteen, “Letter to You”
Sometimes it’s just wonderful to sit back and watch an old sidewinder slither out from under the floorboards and bite with the most potent venom around. Venom so strong you’d almost forgotten about it. Look no further than this collection’s fanged metaphorical masterpiece “Rainmaker” for starters. Then bask in the hearth-fire glow of “Ghosts,” “Burnin’ Train” and “The Power of Prayer” to shake off that shivery lockdown chill.