A tough year
The year 2020 was just ridiculous. For Canberra residents like myself, we went from one disaster to another.
The year began in the height of the bushfire crisis that dramatically affected the south-east of the continent. Although our city was not directly impacted by fire fronts, the smoke from those fires very close to us cast a choking atmosphere across the region. At one point we had the worst air pollution in the world, hundreds of times worse than chart toppers like New Delhi.
On the back end of the bushfire crisis, Canberra and the surrounding New South Wales region were subjected to massive dust storms which blanketed towns and blocked out the sun.
Less than 24 hours later, Canberra was absolutely belted by a brutal hailstorm. Hailstones bigger than baseballs smashed hundreds of houses, damaged more than 44,000 cars, and stripped leaves off trees, killing many hundreds of birds. That storm passed through in just 15 minutes.
Then Covid-19 got out of control. By the end of March we were in lockdown. People worked from home, and kids did their schooling online from home. People panic-bought everything. The whole situation was unsettling, disconcerting, stressful, upsetting … (you add your own words!).
So, what got you through the tough times, particularly during lockdown and isolation? Exercise? Baking bread? Booze? Someone said to me that “you’ll come out of isolation a hunk, a chunk, or a drunk!”.
I saw families out for daily walks in my street that I’d never seen before. Jigsaw puzzles were in high demand. People read books that had been piling up for months/years. Some people connected with family and friends, often more than they did before, through Zoom meetings. I certainly partook in fortnightly “iso-beers” with friends scattered across the country and overseas. Engage with nature, draw, write, cook, knit. There is something you can do.
Music is still one of the key things in this world that keeps me sane. Brilliant music is still created and released despite, or even in spite of, the chaos of world events. And contactless trade meant people could still buy music from their local record store.
I talk with friends a lot about what records I listen to. I love to share things I’ve discovered, and equally love to learn from others. Below, I share with you some of the important music that came my way in 2020. Music that indeed made my year so much better.
I freely admit that I am not a great reviewer of albums. I often just let the experts do their jobs, they are so much more practiced in the art of analysis. When I write, I usually describe what I like, rather than attempt to break a record down. I’ll occasionally refer you to a review that I value or enjoyed reading.
I thoroughly enjoyed these records. Check them out if you get some time. No, wait, make some time to have a listen!
Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
An extraordinary record, based around Apple’s piano, voice and most importantly, her lyrics. Built around her is a wild collection of unconventional percussion including banging on walls, stomping on floors, handclaps and chants. Even the barking dogs get credits. Vocals change rapidly from raw to sweet, sometimes whispered, other times belted out. Fabulous instrumentation including some incredible bass playing. Album of the year on multiple lists around the world. My words could not do this album justice. Please listen to it.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Just a stunning record. I discovered Bridgers in recent times in Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Centre. Dubbed as ‘emo-folk’, the singer-songwriter wears her heart on her sleeve. Much like her most obvious influence, Elliott Smith. I love the Pitchfork and Rolling Stone reviews, if you’re looking for more.
Joe Pernice – Richard
Born of isolation and lockdown, this is the first of two albums released by Joe in 2020. Exiled to his basement bike workshop while his wife worked from home, Joe laid down some wonderful songs, with just voice and acoustic guitar. A beautiful record. The second album? A superb collection of Barry Manilow covers!
Nada Surf – Never Not Together
Yet another wonderful album of uplifting power pop genius from Matthew Caws. He’s been producing the goods for more than 25 years. A slight change with instrumentation, with the addition of Louie on keys, and Matthew back to being the sole guitarist. Standouts are “So Much Love”, and “Something I Should Do” with spoken passages reminiscent of a song they released long ago.
Witchskull – A Driftwood Cross
The third album from the Canberra power trio, their first release on the world renowned Rise Above label. A monumental classic rock / metal hybrid, the album features head pounding riffs and thumping drums, all supporting Marcus’s occult story telling. Songs range from blunt force trauma gallops to slow doomy burns, with clever tension and dynamics keeping the whole lot together. The brief Kerrang! review sums it up perfectly: “… they mightn’t have reinvented the wheel, but even the most jaded veteran will be reminded what made metal great in the first place”.
Lucifungus – Derek
How can two guys make so much noise? Another Canberra product, the doom/sludge/stoner duo lays down heavy riffs melding obvious influences such as the Melvins and Black Sabbath. A raw and rude, fun record. Even more impressive live.
Lowrider – Refractions
The Swedish band’s second album, their first in 20 years, delivers pure stoner rock in the vintage sense, but hardly outdated. One review described them as “more Kyuss than Kyuss!” The album topped many end of year lists. Let’s hope volume three doesn’t take another 20 years.
King Buffalo – Dead Star
A record I picked up on when it was reviewed on the Doom Charts website. A band new to my ears, I instantly fell for this album, the riffs and rhythms, and the incredible tones. Eerie, heavy, psych rock.
Hail The Void – Hail The Void
Another Doom Charts reviewed album, this one coming from the Vancouver heavy trio. Loads of great crunchy stoner-doom riffs, clean-ish vocals, enough melody to make it accessible, swirling blues-psych jams and plenty of slow burn. Glorious.
Saving For A Custom Van
A thoughtful, heart-felt tribute to Adam Schlesinger who died at the age of 52 from complications of Covid-19. Adam was a founding member and primary songwriter in the Fountains Of Wayne and Ivy. He was also a music producer and wrote songs for film and television, being nominated for Academy, Golden Globe awards (for the title track of the Tom Hanks film “That Thing You Do”), Tony awards, and winning Emmys and a Grammy. The 31 song compilation, released by Father/Daughter Records on Bandcamp, is brilliantly curated and the performances are exceptional. Don’t expect to make it through without tears welling.
Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy, Volume 2
A compilation of 77 songs curated by David Byrne, released on Bandcamp for one day only. The collection includes songs old and new, by artists of varying musical genres, all of whom are empathetic to democracy and social justice. A refreshing set of material distracting the listener from the turmoil of American politics. The compelling Rhiannon Giddens track is worth the price of admission alone.
Bob Mould – Circle of Friends
Exclusive to record stores for Record Store Day 2020, Demon Records released 2,000 vinyl copies of the audio of the concert film Circle of Friends. Recorded in 2006 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C, this is an outstanding performance and the sound is supreme. A must for any fan of the man’s work.
I’ve been a fan of the band and AC Newman’s work for many years. The band had been to Australia once before but this was my first opportunity to see them live. Their first visit to Canberra saw them welcomed by a modest yet very enthusiastic audience.
The band had as much fun as the audience, which was obvious during the show, and commented on by band members in social media in the days afterwards. Newman was having such a good time he actually asked the audience for requests!
The band played 24 songs from their eight albums, with a decent helping of material from the most recent album In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights. They even played a Dan Bejar song with Newman doing the lead vocals. An exciting and thoroughly impressive performance from a very talented collection of musicians.
Timing was impeccable with the tour finishing in Australia a couple days later, and the band returning home to North America before international travel was shut down. My son and I felt very grateful to have seen the show.
Covid lockdown restrictions put a huge dampener on the live music scene across the globe. The majority of artists could not perform to live audiences so they moved online. Some performed for free, some arranged ticketed events.
Joe Pernice performed multiple sessions live to Instagram, often at short notice (or with zero notice!), from his somewhat cozy bike workshop in his basement. Very casual, intimate sessions, Joe played anything he felt like from his extensive catalogue, often interacting with friends and fans and taking multiple requests. He used the sessions to promote and play songs from the Richard album. It was delightful to hear some of the stories behind the new songs.
A couple of free-registration zoom meeting events live from the couch were just as good, with songs, more back stories, a couple of beers, and a surprise as a framed picture decided to fall off the wall mid-show!
In a similar vein to Pernice, Matthew gave a couple of impromptu solo performances live to Instagram from his home office, just voice and acoustic guitar. Again, lots of interaction with friends and fans, and an enormous catalogue of Nada Surf material to play. Thoroughly compelling and a privilege to witness.
This brilliant Canberra band, in partnership with The Basement venue, led the way in returning live music to the community in 2020. A staggered process, the first weekend of shows saw the band play four times to a very small number of socially distanced punters (and all captured on video for a future release). Soon after, as restrictions were eased further, the band played two shows to an audience of 100 (the venue holds 700), sitting at suitably spaced tables of four. With venue owner Mikee’s mantra of “sit the fuck down”, everything went smoothly. We felt quite lucky to be watching live music again, particularly as other parts of the country were still locked down.
Well, there’s a quick summary of the music I enjoyed in 2020. What music kept you sane?? I would love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading