FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: 2020 IN ALBUMS
Rather inconveniently, today is the first day of a new year rather than the last day of the old one. It might have been neater to do some form of year-end review and publish it on 31 December but Fifty3 Thursdays doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Anyhow, admittedly to end the year rather than start the new one, I set about the task of picking out some full-length albums released in 2020 that I had particularly enjoyed. By the time I got way past 30 I decided it was to be yet another improbable mission to the pare the list down to a consumable number. This, of course, is good news for the album per se but less great for those I have eliminated simply on the grounds of word count fatigue.
They said that digital music would sound the death knell of the album as people gravitate to cherry picking tracks and creating playlists yet I can gladly report that there are still things you love hearing from start to finish and artistes who take care to order their work in a holistic manner. So, the album as a concept is alive and well as we enter a new year, still beset with tiers. If you are struggling to work out what plausibly might be happy about it though, take heart from the quality of music which, like mercy, is not strained and continued to rain down gently over the past 12 months. Here are some highlights.
The Harriets – Hopefuls
We should start with Hopefuls, not least for its encouragingly optimistic title but more so that the impressive debut full-length from the cheerful Leeds quartet, The Harriets, set something of a benchmark for the self-released album in 2020 and is a perfect soundtrack to ring in the new. With songs that lyrically take you there in an instant and stick in your head tunes, The Harriets sounds as fresh today on record as it did when I first saw the band live at The Library, Leeds in August 2019. The album bottles much of that on-stage energy so it seemed appropriate to share its sparkling lead track, “Café Disco”, as performed by The Harriets at that very same show.
Andrew Maxwell Morris – Save The Light
I have followed the fortunes of Surrey-based singer-songwriter, Andrew Maxwell Morris, for many a moon and he wins the prize for the act I have watched the most times at Glastonbury. He has a head start, mind, having played at the last ten festivals on the Green Field stages. An abiding feeling is that this gifted songwriter and passionate live performer would step up onto a major stage with consummate ease, given the opportunity. His latest album, Save The Light, available digitally and now on vinyl via Banquet Records among others, is built on themes of time, space and light. It offers a departure of sorts from Morris’s acoustic roots with a more electrified sound yet retains his characteristic hallmark throughout, as evidenced on the strong opening track, “Lost My Soul”.
Miss Kitty – Kiss & Tell
Conversely Bristol-based, Kit Bennett aka Miss Kitty is a relatively new discovery. I came across her spirited single “Flowers” in June and it wasn’t that long before she revealed her full hand in the shape of Kiss & Tell, her DIY long player released in October. Having left school at 15 to strike out on the road to a rock n’ roll lifestyle, Kit featured in the acclaimed folk-pop band, Wildflowers. Now a solo artiste she draws on colourful life experiences that add real texture to her songs. Kiss & Tell deals with aspects of love, betrayal and protest in a range of styles from rock to pop, country/folk to piano ballads, always with passion and vigour. “Fly Me Home” is quite literally uplifting and typifies the sheer joie-de-vivre that Miss Kitty brings to her work, however good or bad the times.
Dizzy - The Sun & Her Scorch
The Sun & Her Scorch by Canadian quartet, Dizzy, has to be one of the most satisfying records of 2020. It is one of those rare albums in which everything seems to fit; the songs are fully realised and the players are at one with each other so that there is a seamless flow to it all. Katie Munshaw crowns the proceedings with her exemplary vocals, equally able to deliver quiet passages as euphoric moments, signed with an individual soft drawl. Every song is there on merit and seems to find a natural place in the running order. Charting the insecurities that arise and concessions that must be made when pursuing a career in music, “Roman Candles” is as good an introduction to the world of Dizzy than you can ask for.
Annie Dressner - Coffee at the Corner Bar
Cambridge via New York City singer-songwriter, Annie Dressner, has a lilting, easy on the ear vocal style and writes bright melodies that anyone who enjoys the likes of First Aid Kit will really love. Her 2020 album, Coffee at the Corner Bar, is the perfect distillation of her art. The 12-track collection features a charmingly understated selection of personal memory-inspired songs. The album includes deeply personal, yet easily relatable family memories; the trick is always in the telling. This fine example of the songwriter's craft, “Dogwood”, is especially poignant as it recalls the singer-songwriter’s mother and is named after her favourite tree.
Lanterns on the Lake – Spook the Herd
With a Hyundai Mercury Prize ‘Albums of the Year’ nomination this year, Lanterns on the Lake's fourth studio album, Spook the Herd, got some well deserved recognition. The Newcastle upon Tyne collective has always had gravitas as it tackled socio-economic issues lyrically amid grand, sweeping soundscapes. On this latest album, key themes have moved on to embrace climate change and the downside of social media, while the music is just as eloquent if more stripped back and spacious. “When It All Comes True” is the magnificent album opener, described by the band’s vocalist and lyricist, Hazel Wilde, as “a twisted coming-of-age love story where we’re let in on the thoughts of what seems like a deranged narrator with a premonition.” This stunning live performance adds lustre to the harbinger’s tale.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
For over a decade Katie Crutchfield has used the moniker Waxahatchee for her solo project, taking her name from Waxahatchee Creek, in Alabama where she grew up. Saint Cloud is her fifth album over that period and marks a shift in style from the strident yet polished alt-rock she perfected on her previous LP, the sumptuous Out in the Storm. The new record sees her closer to Americana territory, recognising her southern roots though with her beautifully off-kilter imprint all over it. Her vocals are softer though still with that distinctive vowel twist that stamps her individuality. The songs chart her well-publicised decision to abandon alcohol dependency. Here, on “Fire”, she appears to affirm her self-regard after a journey through dark times. She’s now ‘wiser, slower, and attuned,’ sentiments that course through the album.
Katie Malco – Failures
Back in June, London-based artiste, Katie Malco created a big impression with her debut long player entitled Failures, cataloguing a series of hard-learned personal experiences and snapshot realisations. Of course, the sum of the parts became something quite opposite - true success. Moving on from past failings and vulnerabilities, Malco bares her soul over ten songs that span a range of guitar-led moods; some rocky, some pitched closer to more accustomed singer-songwriter territory. “Fractures” is particularly potent, showing how trying to live up to another who occupies a pedestal you can’t reach ends in a better kind of self-awareness. Like everything here, it is beautifully sung and wholly relatable.
Laura Veirs - My Echo
Portland, Oregon songstress, Laura Veirs, is by comparison a seasoned veteran but just as capable of delivering a stunning album. My Echo is her eleventh solo long player no less and was written against a backcloth of marital breakdown. Veirs herself labels it as the “my songs knew I was getting divorced before I did" album and by the time it was being mixed, the singer and her husband/producer Tucker Martine had decided to go their separate ways. On My Echo, Veirs pictures loosening her bonds and deals with advancing age, domesticity, political and environmental issues. “Burn Too Bright”, inspired by the passing of the notable producer and musician, Richard Swift was the first track she shared from the album and reflects the album’s focus on falling apart, death and the transient nature of things.
Creature Comfort – Home Team
Creature Comfort, a five-piece band from Nashville, Tennessee, delivered an autumnal delight in Home Team, an album glistening with fine vocals and inspired instrumental work. The band spices up Americana with indie rock, applying the tongue in cheek label of ‘bootgaze’ to its music. Frontman and lead writer, Jessey Clark, peddles a nice line in homespun wisdom on songs like “Woke up Drunk” and “Big, Buff, and Handsome” (featured here). The latter song shows that self-deprecation comes easy as Clark contemplates bad choices and failed intentions, masked by male bravado. It remains sufficiently up to allow the hope of redemption nicely underlined by the Sasquatch character in the video who trashes the camp but then picks up the camera at the end.
So, to 2021. Among the records I am especially looking forward to are Hannah Scott’s forthcoming Help Musicians-funded album, Californian Soil from London Grammar, Bed from Owen Duff, Jordan Paul’s Already Gone, The Weather Station’s Ignorance plus promised releases from The Powdered Earth, Olly Hite and Goat Girl among many more. And of course the fun of weekly new discoveries! Happy new year to you all.