Straight Outta Lockdown: The best sounds of 2020
The year has been awful for everything but consistently fantastic for music. Classic and contemporary artists have been on top of their game with new releases. And this is just a sampling (Editor’s Note: look up Secret Machines). Stream these nowUpdated: Sep 04, 2020, 22:55 IST
Run The Jewels’ fourth album dropped on June 3, just as the world was settling into The Long Wait. You can download the album for free from their website, or stream via paid services. Either way, RTJ4 is hip-hop, the news, and the rhythm of revolution. As with previous albums, the lyrics tackle racism, systemic poverty, and the commercialisation of media. This time around, artists such as Pharrell Williams and frequent collaborator (and fellow angry vocalist from Rage Against The Machine) Zack de la Rocha guest.
Taylor Swift’s eighth album holds the Guinness World Record for biggest opening day by a female artist on Spotify. Is it mostly because it was a surprise release? Or because we were a global captive audience in lockdown? Or because she’s switched pop for rich, downbeat electro-folk sounds? Either way, the album has been a critical and commercial success, a sign that the glitter-loving, heart-breaking artist has always been the smartest person in the room.
Fetch the Bolt-Cutters
Fiona Apple’s last album was in 2012. But her new work is a pleasant shock to new listeners and old. For one, it’s her most upbeat so far — despite lyrics about sexual assault and the casual cruelty with which women treat each other. The sound is an experimental percussion orchestra. Listen through and the urge to unshackle yourself (hence the title) will build, song by song. Critics call it her best work to date.
Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan still sounds as cantankerous as you remember. But in his first album since he became the only songwriter to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he surprises critics who’d written him off. One song is nearly 17 minutes long. Almost all of them consider how we’ve changed, the innocence we’ve lost, and the uncertainty of tomorrow. It hits home when you’re stuck at home.
Hate For Sale
The Pretenders are still around (Chrissie Hynde just clocked 40 years as a performer). And they know what you like. Their 11th album dropped in mid-July, and brings back founding member Martin Chambers. It means that drum-guitar magic you remember from the band’s ’90s work is back. But this time, with more punk, more fun, more of Hynde’s vocal seduction.
Father of All…
Green Day’s new album is no American Idiot, though it speaks to an America in greater need of a wake-up call than their 2004 work. Father of All seems almost retro in comparison, with a rock-‘n’-roll feel, songs about school shootings and screen addiction, rather than political manifestos. Still, it’s a pretty thought-provoking album.
Brace yourselves if you haven’t heard Eddie Vedder’s baritone in seven years. The Pearl Jam frontman brings solo acoustic songs to the band’s 11th studio album, in addition to songs with the full band. There’s the grungy sound that fuelled 28 albums in three decades. But also a kind of maturity on Gigaton. Fewer shouty choruses. Less guitar shredding. And lyrics about climate change.
Such Pretty Forks in the Road
If you saw Alanis Morissette performing Ironic with updated lyrics on The Late Late Show in 2019, you know she never stopped paying attention to the world. This album is not as angry as her iconic Jagged Little Pill. But the songs tackle drinking and eating disorders, ghosts of relationships past and new beginnings. One for the fans.
We Have Amnesia Sometimes
Fans of Yo La Tengo (by which we mean mostly music critics and this newspaper’s editor) are used to their experimental, indie rock, noise pop, and shoegazing style. Their lockdown album is exactly what you’d expect: a compilation of five instrumental singles recorded in quarantine with little or no rehearsal via a single microphone. It’s more new-agey and introspective than their usual work – almost like the background score of a drama film.
The New Abnormal
A Covid-19-derived album title if there ever was one. But The Strokes announced their title just before the world fell to pieces. It sounds like an ’80s band teleported to the future. There is punk rock, early R&B, lively guitar, and bits that sound like they were blessed by Billy Idol. Long songs with lyrics that meander without a verse-chorus-verse structure. And the Julian Casablancas falsettos that defined their first three albums.
That Neil Young has put out his 40th album is a feat in itself. That it came in June, using material recorded between June 1974 and January 1975 and put together remotely by the 74-year-old country-music artist is more impressive still. Homegrown is a rare rewind to Young’s year of creative rewards and romantic heartbreak. It’s chill but personal. Like a hippie’s diary written in longhand. And a wonderful place-marker for anyone who’s tracked his long, colourful career.
Want to see what HT editor Sukumar Ranganathan has had in his ear these past few months? Check out his playlist here.