From hi-NRG bangers to Dr Seuss-themed beats
We all know 2020’s been shit and weird. So that’s that out of the way. But it’s also been, if nothing else, pretty interesting, and full of great music, at least some of which wouldn’t have been made, or made in the same way, were it not for the (mainly horrible) events we’ve endured this year. This, then, is a reflection on all of that: the strange and excellent music that’s made 2020 somewhat bearable, and what the relationship is between that music and our melting brains.
How did you spend your New Year’s Eve? I went to a Roaring ’20s-themed party, which seems fitting, really, considering the economic crash, civil unrest and creeping fascism that descended on the world as quickly as my hangover on the 1st of January. It’s like we’re doing a Weimar Germany speedrun. Cool!
The two tracks that I most associate with the beginning of this year are Keeley Forsyth’s gaunt, trembling ‘Debris’, and Dua Lipa’s euphoric ‘Physical’. They’re more or less polar opposites: the former a funereal, desolate piece, as scratchy and windswept as the Brontë uplands near Forsyth’s Yorkshire home; the latter an utterly derivative and completely irresistible hi-NRG banger – camp, knowing, saccharine, and bursting with hooks.
Lipa’s masterful disco-pop – the full album of which, Future Nostalgia, is some of the most nakedly enjoyable music I’ve heard in ages – and Forsyth’s spectral avant-folk gestured towards two competing visions of the year ahead. The day-glo salvation implied by a track like ‘Physical’ may not have been what anyone realistically expected out of 2020 in general, but it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to look forward to some hedonism, some collective joy, some fun, soundtracked by escapist gems like this. What we ended up with, of course, was much closer to the post-apocalyptic isolation and gloom of Forsyth’s ‘Debris’. Which isn’t depressing at all. Good song though.
As frightening stories of the coming pandemic became increasingly difficult to escape, the UK government – and, to be honest, most of the public, including myself – bumbled along more or less as normal. There were gigs to go to, pubs to drink in, friends to visit, and a horrible virus sprinting towards us across Europe. Halcyon days.
After a steady climb since its December release, The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ hit UK no.1, his first track to do so, despite basically sounding like the background music for a radio advert on GTA 4. Princess Nokia’s ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ was a much stronger two-minutes of childlike, Dr Seuss-themed hip-hop, just in time for us all to lock down and regress into rarely wearing anything other than pyjamas and mainly eating potato waffles. Or maybe that was just me.
And then It Happened. As it became clear the previous strategy of talking over the virus wasn’t working and we probably weren’t going to simply defeat Covid-19 in the marketplace of ideas, the UK belatedly and clumsily locked down, pantsing the music industry in the process. Reeling at the flood of cancelled shows, haemorrhaging revenues and lost jobs, many of us turned back to old favourites to steady ourselves, including L&Q contributors: Sam Walton got back into the prescient eeriness of Radiohead’s Kid A; Skye Butchard kept club culture alive in their flat with the help of bangers from Addison Groove and DJ Swisha; Isabel Crabtree wandered around a deserted NYC with Hinds on full blast. For my part, I spent a lot of time listening to Burial’s early stuff and Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights, because I’m a miserable cliché.
Speaking of old favourites, on 2nd March indie rock’s favourite randy uncle returned from his retreat into the Derbyshire hills with a song that was, if anything, too timely. Jarvis Cocker’s JARV IS project announced a debut album with ‘House Music All Night Long’ – six minutes of classic Jarvis, all slinky grooves and synthy melodrama – whose lyrics really did feel a little on the nose as we headed into lockdown. Lines like, “One nation under a roof”, “This housebound sound is gonna set you free”, and “Lost in the light of the living room, adrift in a world of interiors, it’s serious” may have been written many months before the pandemic hit, but they couldn’t have been more apt. It’d be almost unbearable were it not interspersed with couplets like “Goddamn this claustrophobia, cos I should be disrobing ya”. Who else could get away with that?
At the end of March, Boris Johnson tested positive for Covid, joining the ranks of rightwing leaders whose scoffing at the virus somehow didn’t protect them (as I write, I believe Jair Bolsonaro is currently battling his sixteenth case of the disease). As April began, he was admitted to intensive care, and the internet descended into a squabble about whether it was okay to indulge in some light schadenfreude at the illness of a man with – by this point – tens of thousands of deaths on his hands (spoiler: it is).
Charli xcx set the tone for April with ‘forever’: the first track from her lockdown project, recorded at home during quarantine. A weird mix of subdued emotion and glimpses of manic energy, it pretty much summed up how we were all feeling as lockdown really began to settle in. You could say the same for Phoebe Bridgers’ skeleton-costumed folk-rocker ‘Kyoto’, albeit with the emotion dialled way up and the mania way down.
The first weeks of May more or less picked up where March and April had left off, with moderately better weather. Grimes gave birth to her and Hank Scorpio’s first child, obviously called X Æ A-12, hot on the heels of her ‘Wonderwall’ cover from February, and we continue to bear down on the meme/life singularity.
In other rich dickhead news, Poundshop Machiavelli Dominic Cummings swept away the remaining few crumbs of public trust in the government’s pandemic strategy with the revelation of his trip to various County Durham beauty spots in the middle of lockdown. It’s important not to overstate the significance of his antics – spare us the howls of ‘hypocrisy!’ and ‘incivility!’ – in the face of far more deep-rooted and fundamental combinations of incompetence and corruption, but it really would help if the entire British ruling class wasn’t so desperate to wrap itself around the little finger of Comic Book Guy’s scrawny kid brother.
In the middle of the month, Aussie rapper Tkay Maidza returned after a quiet period with the astonishing ‘Shook’, a song and video so good that it made pretty much everyone else around look amateurish. We knew then that once we got back to printing the magazine she had to be on the cover.
Towards the end of the month though, everything changed: George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by police in Minneapolis, triggering the biggest uprising in recent US history and a wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the world.
A full account of the (still ongoing) Black Lives Matter movement is far beyond the scope of this fundamentally silly little article, so I’ll let other people (including Jamal Guthrie in our latest issue) pass comment on that. One of the essential audio documents of the period, though, was released just days after Floyd’s death: Run The Jewels’ RTJ4, led by superbly aggy singles ‘Ooh La La’ and ‘Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)’. The political significance of the record is self-evident, but back in the UK, it also took on a more personal meaning for our writer Gemma Samways: ‘Ooh La La’ was the first non-Disney song her two-year-old daughter properly got into. Start ’em young.
In the context of so much pestilence and social unrest, many found Taylor Swift’s soft-focus indie record folklore a welcome reprieve, its cosy atmosphere and relative restraint pleasantly out of step with the tense mood of the time. Our writer Austin Laike described it as “about seven tracks too long, overly-saccharine and with a penchant for over-dramatics, but it’s pretty good”, which is fair enough. I personally always agreed with Neil Tennant’s superbly testy description of Swift, as “the Mrs Thatcher of pop music”; undeniably effective on her own terms, but a nailed-on reactionary. That said, ‘august’ is quite nice.
Ah yes, the month of Eating Out that did not, in fact, Help Out. Restrictions in the UK were relatively loose at this point, and with the weather being comparatively warm, it felt semi-normal again for a while. Gobby new wavers Working Men’s Club capitalised on the country’s brief window of sun-dappled levity to unleash ‘Valleys’, a muscular bit of Hacienda-ready baggy-punk that harks back knowingly to the Second Summer of Love. It’s fitting, really: how better to recapture the spirit of 1988 than an illicit trip out to the hills, defying an increasingly authoritarian right-wing government with the help of a big bag of pingers and more than six mates?
It was also the month that 2020’s most inescapable song was released upon us: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’. It’s a good tune – but the beauty of its cultural impact was the way people reacted. The American right’s weediest galaxy brain, Ben Shapiro, performed an all-time classic conservative self-own by confidently announcing that his wife would consider having a ‘WAP’ a medical problem. Fellow feminism expert Russell Brand weighed in entirely unprompted, with a video entitled WAP: Feminist Masterpiece or Porn?, which was greeted by the derision it deserved.
The track also blew up on TikTok, becoming an ‘Old Town Road’-level sensation on the platform and further cementing the video-sharing network’s dominance over the music consumption of Generation Z.
We also can’t talk about August without shouting out Headie One, who dropped ‘Ain’t It Different’ with features from Stormzy and AJ Tracey. It’s the tune that’s finally made him the breakout star of UK drill – a landmark moment not only for him, but the scene as a whole.
Can’t remember much about September. It was my birthday, and Pa Salieu put out a really good tune called ‘My Family’, which I believe is about that horrible Robert Lindsay sitcom. Will that do?
As the UK careered headlong into increased Covid restrictions as the death rate started to accelerate again, grime’s old guard stepped back into the frame like a reassuring hand on the wheel. The new tracks from Dizzee Rascal, D Double E, and Ghetts all hit hard; tunes like ‘Don’t Be Dumb’ (Dizzee ft Ocean Wisdom), ‘IC3’ (Ghetts ft Skepta), and ‘Tell Me A Ting’ (D Double E ft Kano) are masterclasses in old-school grime. It’s telling that a near-20-year-old genre, when done well, still at least sounds so fresh and nostalgia-free. Whether it’s actually possible for it to escape that nostalgia is another question, but the scene’s constant churn and support of its up-and-comers does help stem the tide of sentimental repackaging.
At the end of the month, Black Country, New Road – arguably the most exciting new rock band in the world at the moment – dropped their long-awaited new single ‘Science Fair’, and it was as unhinged and brilliant as everyone had hoped. And things slightly began looking up.
Within the first few days of November, Donald Trump lost an election to another handsy septuagenarian in cognitive decline, and the first news of a viable Covid vaccine – still a few steps away from widespread availability – was announced by Pfizer. Neither of these events imply an immediate change in fortunes for most of us, but at least they suggest that 2021 might be an improvement on 2020. Of course, the big news this month was Hollywood A-listers Ryan Reynolds’ and Rob McElhenney’s purchase of National League football club Wrexham AFC, as if acting out an It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia episode written and directed by Trevor Bastard.
At the time of writing, it’s still November, so it’s hard to say what the defining track of the month will end up being. Billie Eilish did put out a new one the other day though, ‘Therefore I Am’, which does all the stuff you want a Billie Eilish song to do – some nearly-singing, PS1 Music 2000 production, a general feeling that she can’t really be arsed. It works well enough overall, so I’ll put my money on that.
Let’s have Black Country, New Road for Christmas No. 1 and be done with it. Roll on 2021, or at least fuck off 2020.
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