15. 'Rough and Rowdy Ways' - Bob Dylan
It’s fairly safe to say that ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is unlikely to be anyone’s first experience of a Bob Dylan album. When the single ‘Murder Most Foul’ was released no one asked who the guy behind the 17 minute single with no verses or choruses was? You knew.
'Rough and Rowdy Ways' is a vast collection. Much like Louise Gluck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, I can spend ages chewing over a single line. Unfortunately though, on this record, it's the one where he compares himself to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, and the Rolling Stones (on ‘I Contain Multitudes), that causes the most alarm. Anne Frank? The same Anne Frank that was killed by the Nazi’s? You’re comparing yourself to Anne Frank? Not your greatest moment Bob.
This leads me to the unavoidable fact that Dylan has made an album that Dylan obsessives can pick apart through the long nights of any past, present, or future lockdown. That 'Hamlet' line is just one of many literary references that pepper this record. Steinbeck, The Bible, Edgar Allen Poe, Ovid, William Blake all get name-dropped here. It makes the average Manic Street Preachers album look facile by comparison.
Frequently engaging, occasionally inaccessible, 'Rough and Rowdy Ways' is exciting and infuriating in equal measure. Much like it's author.
14. Black Pumas
One of the most elevating musical treats this year was watching Black Pumas NPR Tiny (Home) Desk performance.
As well the sublime synergy of Grammy-winning-rap/soul/rock aficionado Adrian Quesada with Eric Burton’s gospel trained vocals that created a soaring psychedelic funk and soul, it put pay to the criticism that this was all built in a laboratory, that it was all a bit fake.
From the urgent brass on 'Fire' to the sweet strings on 'Oct 33', this was a passionate and, damn it, genuine article.
13. 'People on Sunday' - Domenique Dumont
It wasn’t long after the first lockdown took hold that streaming service were throwing together their ‘working from home’ playlists.
At Outsideleft, I was prescribing a gentle cocktail of Japanese ambient music from the Eighties (Yoshiaki Oshi, Hiroshi Yoshimura... that kinda thing), some playful early Raymond Scott, and (no surprise’s here ), Brian Eno. I just needed to hear something soothing.
Dominique Dumont’s new score for the Berlin-based silent documentary would have fitted snuggly amongst such calming colleagues. These are dreamlike arrangements that evoke a sense of wonderment and innocence. Played alongside the original film, the music compliments the tranquility of the lives being depicted on screen.
And yet. Just as the trio of filmmakers fled to Hollywood to escape the horrifying rise of Nazism, so the tone of the closing section of this album becomes dislocated, melancholic, even haunted. A sense that the period of calm was a fleeting one.
There may be a lesson here! In bridging the ninety-year gap between the visuals and music, Dominique Dumont has made something historical now seem oddly prescient. A remarkable record.
12. 'Old Wow' - Sam Lee
It’s early February at the Glee Club in Birmingham. Sam Lee and his
band is on a stage, which can best be described as cosy, to perform songs from his latest album ‘Old Wow.’
I wasn’t aware that it would be my last gig experience of the year, that all shows in my diary would very soon be canceled. Or, in doing so, that this show would take on a wholly unintentional significance.
In retrospect, there is something compelling about spending my last gig with Sam Lee though. It has much to do with the endurance of the songs he has collected, that they span centuries and that there is some solace in the idea they will live on after whatever global panic has passed.
The illustration on the front cover of ‘Old Wow’ shows Lee barefoot amongst trees, as deer, owls, woodpeckers, foxes, and hares are around him. It is nature at its most idyllic. The nature theme is there in the metaphorical ‘Garden of England’ that opens the album. A song that moves from the sowing of the, ahem, seeds of love at its start to the grief for the decay of said garden at the end.
The most spellbinding moment on the album however is a charming adaptation of The Moon Shines Bright, a duet with Elizabeth Frazer, whose voice has rarely been as shudder-inducing and piercing as it is here. It’s production (by Bernard Butler) is so sensitive and unobtrusive. A delight.
Sam Lee may have only released two further albums since his Mercury Prize-nominated debut a decade ago but the handful of records are one of the most vital additions to the folk canon. Old wow indeed!
11. 'Red Sun Through Smoke' - Ian William Craig
It’s difficult to identify moments in music when you hear something that is so utterly different from anything you have heard before. In 2014 Canadian musician Ian William Craig released his shockingly beautiful debut ‘A Turn of Breath’. A post-classical masterpiece that fused his classically trained voice and tender keyboard melodies with the sound of broken tape machines, modified tape reels, and distorted recordings of his own voice. It felt like huge gothic buildings were disintegrating around you.
‘Red Sun Through Smoke’ is the second of two releases in 2020 by Craig to make our end of the year list and I’m convinced that this may be his finest work. The title alludes to the fact that the album was recorded whilst forest fires encircled his Canadian home. One of his relatives became terminally ill as Craig and his family were locked down in their smoke surrounded home.
These tensions informed the music that Craig was creating. Less layered than previous recordings, the rawness is apparent throughout the record. His voice, so much more than an instrument, as his lyrics of love, loss, and (as Craig describes it): ‘the random nature of life’ resonate.
Red Sun Through Smoke is a gift. A record that seeks to make sense of a nonsensical world. Something that we all need.
you know that main image is the unparalleled Elizabeth Frazer, right?