The palleative balm of pop culture – A summation of the best of 2020

A funny thing happened to this list. Back in december of 2020, reading the usual barrage of end-of-year lists, a thought popped in my head. An old thought that’s bugged me for the past 7 years or so.

“Why do we bother with lists?” No, really. What is this obsession with lists good for? Nobody cares about reviews. Nobody cares about lists. It’s all fluff. It’s all shilling. It’s all waffle. Even in the best of cases, it’s a well-intentioned word salad meant to boost the ego of a co-worker who dabbles on bedroom indie or whatever. Too many websites passing off their collaborators’ stuff as “best of”. You know who you are. We broke bread together.

This was a longer piece. There were 30 releases, including EPs, that made up for a considerable article (3k words or so). It was finished on December 13th, 2020.

“Too many” I thought. Previous lists that I’ve written seemed like forgotten sermons by disgraced priests and I didn’t want to saunter into that path again. So I deleted the article. Depressing holidays ensued. “No time to write, Doctor Jones!” as the ball dropped in an eerie, vacant Times Square. The party that never was.

January came and went and I kept putting the list off. “This friday, I’ll do it.” “Tonight, I promise, I’m gonna fix it alright!” Work, blue monday and housework got in the way. And now it’s a little over half February. January was late for this. February is just pisstaking. But then again, many publications, some of them well-regarded, start their fookin’ “best of” lists in November. So it goes.

Vaccination roll out still is in shambles in most countries. Coffee’s getting cold. The memories of a recently departed loved one still linger in the house. “Was that a ghost? That weird blur, in the distance, behind the pots, shuffling his feet downstairs for dinner?” Twitter has us all on the edge, ready to snap back at any, snarling like feral beasts out for blood. Just one more tweet. Wait, I need to tell this fucker my political view. I’m sure it will end well…

Or was it just the wind, playing games, his voice fading now more than ever?

Nobody cares. Music kept playing, but nobody cared. Release dates pushed, concerts and festivals roll into future dates, every time farther on the horizon. Music might not save us. Music might not help people recover from this fucking virus. Music might not alleviate the financial woes of many an unfortunate soul. Music won’t keep families together.

But hopefully, in this humble selection of albums, you might found something that’ll wash it away. A small respite from the barrage of negativity we’re all wading through.

They are not presented in any given rank.

Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink

I’d be lying if I told you the exact time I heard of Nadine Shah. Most of 2020 is a blur, with everything after March feeling like one long, dreadful Tuesday in February.

Kitchen Sink seeps through and there’s no way to hold it. Its loudness resides in the brutal, raw imagery splattered by the immense lyrical work. The musical composition is a soundtrack to a baker’s dozen of film endings, each one draining you from the raw emotions the previous one ripped from your heart. The theatre is silent, not a soul moves, they are still digesting what they witnessed in the now pitch black screen.

Once Kitchen Sink ends, I felt like I had been Outside, in the Dangerous Outside where maskless revel into their madness. I scurry backwards and take a long wash. I still feel dirty. It wasn’t outside where the contamination resided. It was coming from me all along.

Suggested track: Trad.

Shell of a Shell – Away team

I consider Away team as the last “normal” release I heard in 2020. Pre-lockdown anxiety-ridden rock that felt like it was closing a chapter. And it was, all the signs were there, and serendipitiously this album intertwined with what felt like a long bucket of reality hitting us all. We are still reeling from that impact, but somewhere, inside a myriad dissonant chords, a safe haven.

Aside: I’d like to thank Dan Goldin for sending this one over. Heck, the entire team at Exploding in Sound always go above and beyond with their music selection, campaigns, and treatment of bloggers, no matter if they always deliver on time or slack their time away. Sorry. I’ll be better.

Suggested track: ‘Don’t Expect’

Grant Lee Phillips – Lightning, show us your stuff

I have a complicated story with Mr. Lee Phillips. I used to hate ‘Mockingbirds’, and I avoided his previous band for years. Then, Season four of The Shield, a bout of insomnia and my scrambled mind crossed paths. ‘Demon called deception’ made me a fan and I worked my way through a fabulous back catalogue of gothic folk. Then his solo career, with folky adventures and even re-interpretations of iconic 1980s (please, listen to the beautiful nineteeneighties) songs made me a fan.

In Lighting, show us your stuff, Grant Lee Phillips ages gracefully, the music still heartfelt, with a slower pace and the wisdom of years seeping through the solemn, autumnal music. A musician with his career could just ride the wave, one that turns into a riptide for some, but no, Grant‘s writing pen still has a direct line to his heart and it shows. The snow keeps flurrying around, a warm beverage steams into nothingness and a well-worn guitar continues to strum.

Suggested track: ‘Leave a light on’

Katie Malco – Failures

The cyclical nature of deep cleaning becomes evident with age. Listening to Failures threw me back in time. Almost ten years ago, a cold, damp, drafty student room in a ratty house in the middle of Crookes Road. The quiet of the night broken by parading black cabs returning ne’er-do-wells and drunken revellers back home. Maybe someone chundering. It was a dark time, but it was freedom. It was a strange flavour of paradise, the one I can’t describe but somehow Failures made me re-live that time in my life.

Katie Malco” the name rung a bell for a while. And there it was, a promo of “…and the slow parade”, all the way back from 2011. Great to hear from you again. A polished sound, but emotions raw as ever. A delightful album.

Suggested track: ‘Let’s go to war’

Nnux – Ciudad

I only knew of Nnux from her previous band, but her evolution as an artist is palpable in Ciudad, a reflection of these steel and concrete aggregates we call cities. It doesn’t matter if it’s New York, London or Mexico City, stories about identity, heartbreak and self-realisation abound everywhere and Nnux uses her keyboard -and a healthy amount of plug-ins, filters, and field recordings- to reflect it all back to us. No judgements, no lessons to be learned, just frank storytelling. The accompanying videos complement the songs in a masterful way.

Suggested track: ‘Piezas’. The inherent urgency in this track is heartbreaking and beautiful.

I like trains – Kompromat

Dear I like trains

Welcome back, ILT. Your brand of droning post-punk was sorely missed by this Mexican. It’s been a while. I can hear the seeping anger what lingered in all your previous albums is now closer to the surface. The urgency of the instrumentation sharpens the vocals into a mechanical juggernaut that shakes me whenever you ask “how do you sleep at night?”

Currently? Not very well.

Suggested track: ‘Desire is a mess’.

Alpha Male Tea Party – Infinity Stare

As you could pick from the somber intro to this article, I lost someone close to me in 2020. The grief always stays with you. It waxes and wanes, sometimes casting a full shadow over you. Music, as it seems, it’s a remedy. You can sense through Infinity Stare how Alpha Male Tea Party veer from joy to desperation, from manic to depressive, in deft arrangenments that bring a little glimmer of hope. Infinity Stare gave me a comfort that nothing else has and for that, I thank them.

I don’t know how many times I’ve said to myself “I need to write more about AMTP” and I keep leaving it for later. That later may become never if you’re not careful.

Suggested track: ‘Bonfire Disaster Movie’.

Emma Swift – Blonde on the tracks

There’s a congregation of gatekeeping music fans that always resort to that old subterfuge of “all covers are bad”. They’ll never go away. That’s a truth.

Another truth that also exists in this mad fucking world is that sometimes a cover can bring out what you initally loved about the song. Maybe you never invested time into Bob Dylan‘s vast catalogue.

I encountered Emma Swift’s music a few years ago thanks to a delightful cover of Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Secret Garden’. It was just a matter of time to see a selection of Dylan‘s music converted into beautiful arrangements that veer from gospel territory to a baroque pop starkness. Small nuances that I never picked from the original jumped to the front in these cover versions and made me appreciate Dylan‘s stuff even more.

A masterful tribute.

PS: Dylan purist in every single comment section – go watch I’m not there.

Suggested track: ‘The man in me’.

Vennart – In the dead, dead wood

Mike Vennart was in a fantastic band that never got the success that it deserved. He took touring guitarist duties with some scottish loonies, adding a dreamy layer of guitar to their vivacious live set.

It’s Vennart, his repository of expansive madness where the real art is developing. Mike‘s range as a musician covers ambient, prog and straight from the bottle rock. There’s the supercool loud stuff must of all junkies crave for, but there’s the pensive reflective breaks we appreciate. The quiet and the loud. The bitter and the sweet. My copy of In the dead, dead wood is probably lost in the Mexican mail but that matters not, the album is now ingrained and physical media is not a necessity to consume this gorgeous album.

Suggested track: “Elemental”

Dig Nitty – Reverse of Mastery

A brightness in the dark. A base camp in a long climb. An acid flashback during history class. The occasional burst of anger at a mad city like New York. Resorting to an attitude that seems deceptively lackadaisical, but it’s more about acceptance and being laidback. And then the anger spills over and we shout again at New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Paris. And we go back to the garage, the heater malfunctioning, the mattress with a few springs loose.

Suggested track: A perfect tie between the dreamy ‘Starling’ and the wistful ‘Restraint’.

Squirrel Flower – I was born swimming

There is always something hopeful in Squirrel Flower’s music. It might be in the wistful vocal work of Ella Williams, perhaps the straightforward arrangements. The meniality of life in a pandemic world fades away in each track, small breath of tranquility pulsing in the darkest of nights.

Suggested tracks: ‘Seasonal Affectation Disorder’ and ‘Home’. Y’all gotta listen them as a combo.

And that’s your lot. I can also recommend Doves, New Ghost, Hum, Wye Oak, A Flock of Dimes, Vast Robot Armies, and Luke Haines’ new stuff.

Thank you for reading this far. big love.

Sam “Men will make “best of” lists instead of going to Therapy” Valdés López

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