Prince sang about partying like it was 1999. I don't think anyone will ever want to party like it was 2020. It was the worst of years - and the best of years, because the pandemic made us realise how important music (and art) is in our lives. Music helped us to contemplate what happened to the world in 2020 while helping us escape from that reality. It was a year of George Floyd as much as Covid-19, of disorientating social alienation and fear. It was a year of Fiona Apple and Run The Jewels as well as our own Fontaines DC and Róisín Murphy. Let's hope next year we'll get to see them perform their music in concert.
1 Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Who says Fiona Apple isn't funny? On 'Ladies', she offers her former partner's new love a dress that she left behind when she broke up: "'I didn't fit in it /It was never mine /It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine." But, mostly, Fiona Apple is serious, intense, original, brilliant. On 'For Her', to the tune, briefly, of 'Singin' in the Rain' from the musical, Apple sings: "Good mornin', good mornin'! / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in." Both songs are from Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
In her early career, Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart's mother suggested she take the name Fiona Lone. She liked being on her own.
Apple feels everything, maybe too much. Collecting her award for Best New Artist in 1997, for her debut album Tidal of the previous year, 20-year-old Apple said: "This world is bullsh*t."
Everybody should love Fiona Apple. Her fifth studio album Fetch the Bolt Cutters is extraordinary, beguiling and peculiar - as only a record that has a box containing her dead dog's bones used as percussion can be perhaps. Like Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, Joni Mitchell's Hejira or Kate Bush's The Dreaming, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is 13 songs of impressionistic, piano-driven introspection and, ultimately, empowerment. The title was inspired by a scene in the TV crime drama The Fall, when detective Stella Gibson says "fetch the bolt cutters" to the police to release a girl who has been tortured. On 'I Want You to Love Me' she is singing of her own death: "I know when I go/ All my particles disband and disperse."
2 A Hero's Death
This didn't quite turn out to be the maudlin Beach Boys album that it was rumoured it would be. Inspired by the line "everybody's looking for a hero's death" in Brendan Behan's The Hostage, the second album is a black-comedy, equal parts disorientating and uplifting. Frontman Grian Chatten seemed to be in a mood that could be described as morose, brought on by the huge expectations of fans and the media after the much hyped success of their debut album Dogrel. He told the BBC before A Hero's Death's release, "I've definitely gone too far in what I've made myself think about on stage." On 'Big', which opened Dogrel, Grian sang: "Dublin in the rain is mine." Here on 'I Don't Belong', the first song from A Hero's Death, he sings "I don't belong to anyone."
There is nothing on A Hero's Death as immediate as 'Boys In The Better Land' or 'Liberty Belle'. It is better for it. The mood of claustrophobia becomes almost infectious. Grian seems to want to tell us that although things are doomed or, mostly, don't turn out happily, stay positive because, as he sings on the closing song 'No', "Give us all you got/ You're in love and then you're not/ You can lock yourself away/ Just appreciate the grey." The mantra on the title track goes, over and over: "Life ain't always empty."
Run The Jewels
RTJ4 by Run The Jewels - Killer Mike from Atlanta and El-P from Brooklyn - is zeitgeist hip hop in the grand tradition of Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (which contained the song 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos: "I got a raw deal and I'm going for the steel") or N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton (with its infamous track 'F*ck Tha Police': "F*ck the police comin' straight from the underground/A Young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown," both released in 1988.)
Thirty-two years on, Run The Jewels' 'A Few Words for the Firing Squad' is just as defiant and full of righteous black rage : "For the truth tellers tied to the whippin' post, left beaten, battered, bruised/For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit/Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, 'F*ck you too'."
'Walking In Snow' is also angry. It has a lyric that pre-dates Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd: "You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper - 'I can't breathe'/And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV," Killer Mike raps about Eric Garner, whose death in 2014 in Staten Island was a homicide caused by a police office's chokehold. Elsewhere on 'JU$T', Pharrell Williams and Rage Against The Machine's Zack de la Rocha make a guest spot with some fittingly angry lyrics about police brutality, racial and economic injustice, like "Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar" and "A recipe for early death threatening/But the breath in me is weaponry."
4 Rough and Rowdy Ways
He's sung about hard rains falling and slow trains coming, about seeking shelter from the storm, and about the importance of not following leaders but watch, instead, your parking meters. All good wisdom handed down over the years. On the Americana gothic of his 39th album, and now 79, Bob Dylan appears no more at ease with himself or mortality than he ever did. The only concession to putting his affairs in order before he might meet his maker is the line from 'I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.' "I hope that the gods go easy with me." Apart from that, Dylan is as restless as ever of heart and mind.
On 'Black Rider' his "soul is distressed," his mind "at war"; on 'Crossing The Rubicon', he is "three miles north of Purgatory" and "one step from the Great Beyond". He could be alluding to the Trump age when he sings on 'Murder Most Foul', a song ostensibly about the murder of John F Kennedy: "The day that they killed him, someone said to me, 'Son, / the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun." 'False Prophet' and 'Goodbye Jimmy Reed' sound like songs Dylan would have played on his Theme Time Radio Hour. 'I Contain Multitudes' could be 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' with a twist. His first original material since 2012's Tempest album, let's hope Rough and Rowdy Ways is not the great man's last masterpiece.
5 Women in Music Pt. III
The Haim sisters from San Fernando Valley in California, Alana, Este and Danielle, were prompted to give their album this slightly ironic title when they found they were being paid 10 times less than a male artist playing on the same festival bill in 2017. With a feel throughout that has elements of Stevie Nicks (who called Haim "my sisters of the moon"), Joni Mitchell and Sheryl Crow, this is both confessional and beautiful, courtesy, to name but two, of songs like 'Leaning On You' ("It takes all that I've got not to f*ck this up") and 'Hallelujah' ("Old fears, helped to ease them in my mind/New tears say that they will dry in time."
6 Róisín Machine
The shapeshifting outsider from Arklow gave us an escapist disco record in a year that felt like the apocalypse was always just around the corner. Her first album since 2016's Take Her Up To Monto, Róisín Machine - a collaboration with Crooked Man (aka DJ Parrot) - is an exercise in euphoria and time-travel: taking us back to a time before pandemics. On 'Shellfish Mademoiselle', the one-time Moloko frontwoman spells out her philosophy: "How dare you sentence me to a lifetime without dancing when my body's made for feeling?" On 'Something More,' she sings:" Ten lovers in my bed /But I want something more." 'We Got Together', 'Jealousy' and 'Murphy's Law' are a call to the dance-floor.
In the summer of 2017, when I interviewed Swift in London, she said that she uses her lyrics to process the emotions of a break-up - from Jake Gyllenhaal to Harry Styles - and will only run out of having break-ups to write about "if I stop having break-ups". In July of this year, Swift released an album, recorded in secret, that was a departure from the music we expected and from her style of diary-like song writing. It was simple, eerie, economical, revelatory and melancholic. It felt right for the times we were living in and through. The pop superstar sang simply and movingly about her grandfather in World War II, about a widow, about childhood ("Picture me in the weeds…")
8 In Waiting
From 'Child Of Prague' to 'Holy Show' to 'Liffey', this is a magnificent debut from the Dublin all-women quartet, singer and guitarist Sarah Corcoran, Pamela Connolly, Rachel Lyons and Cathy McGuinness. Corcoran is a future superstar.
9 American Head
The Flaming Lips
You can tell a lot about a band by their song titles. And so it proves with Wayne Coyne's post-punk Pink Floyd from Tulsa, Oklahoma. 'At the Movies on Quaaludes', 'Mother I've Taken LSD', 'God and the Policeman', 'Mother Please Don't Be Sad' and 'Will You Return/When You Come Down' sound just as weird (but wonderful) as you think they will sound. And I haven't even mentioned 'When We Die When We're High'. Nor the fact that The Flaming Lips were compelled to write this album by the tale of Tom Petty's pre-Heartbreakers band, Mudcrutch, coming to Tulsa in the 1970s.
10 The Ascension
"Don't do to me what you did to America," Sufjan sings on the 12-minute 'America'. Starbucks pop for the metaphysically anguished, as someone quipped.