Well, what a year it’s been: a bitterly contested US Presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement and a global pandemic that brought the world to a standstill. The word ‘unprecedented’ must be the most well-used of 2020. The impact on the music industry has been profound. Live music venues and artists who rely on income from touring have been severely affected while the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons has been examining the economics of streaming services and the long-term impact on artists and record labels.
However, it’s not all been bad news for the music industry. Artists, creative by nature, have found new ways to connect with audiences and the growth of online gigs has been incredible to witness. Also, we have delighted in the release of such wonderful music. Throughout the year, the quality and quantity of musicians’ output has been a tonic amidst bad news. At times, the sheer volume of videos appearing in my in-box was staggering.
This was the year of home-made videos, using Zoom and mobile phones. There were videos that captured the gloomy, prevailing mood and others that sought to distract us with joyful performances. Many videos mined the depth of political feeling and the tide of social consciousness that was 2020. Perhaps the best album that was written about quarantine and released during the depths of the crisis was ‘Oh Quiet world’ by David Berkeley. It’s a record that defines the year and ‘Beside the Shuttered Doors’ is a very fitting introduction to this video review of the year. This fan-made video was created by Ehud Lazin, using photos of New York’s eerily empty streets taken on an iPhone. It’s gently prayer-like when Berkeley sings: “After it all may we not be the same // When we come back, may we come back changed.”
So, here is a brief review of 2020. The only self-imposed rules were that only one video from each month could be included and they had to have been posted on AUK at the time. Consequently, many great artists and songs won’t be found below because the releases of great singles frequently coincided. So, these are not necessarily the songs of the year but they are videos that were striking at the time, remained in the memory and punctuated a challenging twelve months.
January: Tré Burt – ‘Real You’
One of the first video of 2020 that really grabbed me with its inventiveness was ‘Real You’ by Tré Burt. It’s about the end of a relationship and Burt said of the song: “We were never able to see each other for who we really were, despite our incredible magnetism towards each other. It left me mourning what could have been and why it wasn’t.” Check out the brilliant vocal and that foot-tapping rhythmic strum.
February: Sam Lee – ‘Lay This Body Down’
In an utterly absorbing and moody video, Sam Lee takes you on a journey to the other side. As on all the songs on recent album ‘Old Wow’, Lee’s voice is magical. This carries extra personal significance because Sam Lee’s gig in Cambridge was my final live show before the lockdown. Also, I was delighted to interview Lee in the spring. Read more here.
March: The Blaze Velluto Collection – ‘Fish Mountain, Part II’
This is simply joyful. When I first saw this, it made me smile all the way through and will brighten your day. It’s a colourful, psychedelic trip through the imagination of Blaze Velluto and it’s a song I have returned to throughout the year. With exposure to so many videos to select from to post on AUK, it’s hard for many to lodge in my consciousness but this one stayed around. Enjoy.
April: Larkin Poe – ‘Self Made Man’
April was a brilliant month with excellent releases from the likes Swamp Dogg, William Prince and Nathaniel Rateliff. However, this blast from Larkin Poe had to represent the month. The video is uncomplicated and is all the better for it, perfectly complementing the direct, forceful nature of the song. The aggressive, bluesy title track from the brilliant ‘Self Made Man’ feature tremendous guitar-work and will have you stomping your feet.
May: Jerry Joseph with Drive-By Truckers – ‘Days of Heaven’
One of my highlights of the year was posting the video premiere of ‘Days of Heaven’. This is one of the songs of the year. Lyrically beautiful and uplifting, the song is incredibly well-crafted and features fine backing by Drive-By Truckers. It’s the opening track from the new album ‘The Beautiful Madness’, which was produced by Patterson Hood. Take in how this song builds and makes you rise up with it. Terrific stuff.
June: Our Man in the Field – ‘Thin (I Used to be Bullet Proof)’
Another video we were delighted to premiere was the second single from ‘The Company of Strangers’. Alexander Ellis’ fine, delicate vocal floats above Henry Senior’s haunting pedal steel. It’s written like a letter to Ellis’ younger self. There is still time to get back to being the person you want to be. Timeless sound. Timeless theme. This emotional song is the opener from a remarkable debut album.
July: Charley Crockett – ‘Run Horse Run’
With the recurring and mysterious telephone and old clock, Charley Crockett’s spaghetti-western styled series of videos were so striking this summer. Each was a brilliantly inventive and well-realised piece of cinema and these visuals are my favourites of 2020. ‘Run Horse Run’ positively gallops along, all driving rhythm and haunting vocals. This is taken from Crockett’s terrific, atmospheric album, ‘Welcome to Hard Times’, and his is possibly the most distinctive voice in country right now.
August: Ferris & Sylvester – ‘I Should be on a Train’
“I can’t bear your touch,” wail Ferris & Sylvester in this direct, bluesy romp from the summer. Quiet lulls contrast with blazing guitar and emotional blasts. Adding to the emotive pull of the song, the video pairs nostalgic-looking Super 8 footage of Ferris and Sylvester on a day out in the countryside with scenes from their last headline gig before the lockdown. This was the title track from a 5-song EP released to whet our appetites while we wait eagerly for a full-length album from the pair.
September: Emily Barker – ‘Where Have the Sparrows Gone?’
During this tumultuous year, the environmental crisis seems almost forgotten. In an incredibly imaginative piece of song-writing, Emily Barker places us into an apocalyptic future, in which the birds have disappeared. Ending with the image of a sketch of a bird left on a beach, the video is a sensitive accompaniment to a lyrically adventurous song. This is song-writing with purpose. That it should also be so beautiful is a sign of Barker’s rare gift. This is from ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’, a remarkably cohesive, consistent record, which is nominated for UK Album of the Year at the AMAUK Awards.
October: Lady Nade ‘Ain’t One Thing’
This song is such a warm, open-hearted anthem for love and positive body-image. Featuring a beautiful melody and effortless vocal, this is an inclusive, celebratory declaration of love and a very welcome counter-balance to all the negative voices out there. Timelessly absorbing.
November: Austin Lucas – ‘Drive’
Austin Lucas produced one of the albums of the year in ‘Alive in the Hot Zone’, an inspiring collection of songs reflecting the global situation as he sees it. Lucas is an authentic voice with a punk-background, who blends genres and is in the form of his life. Above all, the album is simply full of great tunes. ‘Drive’ is one of the highlights. Of the video, Lucas says: “I organized some of my dearest friends in Berlin and we set about making a video that is a celebration of friendship and love. The song goes out to anyone escaping horrible situations at home, in order to live as their truest and most authentic selves.” Hopeful music in the midst of a difficult year.
December: Courtney Marie Andrews – ‘Ships in the Night’
‘Old Flowers’, nominated for Best Americana Album at the 63rd Grammy Awards and winner of Best International Album of 2020 category in our readers poll, is a deeply personal record, written after the end of a long term relationship. Rightly acclaimed by critics, it is raw, honest and emotionally complex. ‘Ships in the Night’ is one of the standout songs, full of resignation but ready, just about, to move on. When Andrews sings: “I know you tried to reach me, // I know you tried // I know we felt the same way // but the timing wasn’t right,” it comes close to breaking your heart. And this brings us to the end of the year with one of the finest singer-songwriters around today.
So, there it is: a video review of 2020 that doesn’t include Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Margo Price or Sturgill Simpson. I couldn’t find a space for these or many other personal favourites, including Beans on Toast and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald. But the quality of music on offer here is an absolute joy. Three of these songs are currently nominated for UK Song of the Year at the AMAUK Awards, while four more selected artists are nominated in other categories.
It’s hard to predict which songs or videos will remain with you long after they are posted and that’s really what all these have in common. Amongst the hundreds of videos sent my way this year, these have been truly memorable. For one reason or another, they have fought off fierce competition to remain in my musical consciousness for months. These songs are the small helpings of sonic wonder that have walked by my side through this toughest of years. I hope they stay with you too.
May your Christmas be as fun and festive as possible in the circumstances. Here’s to 2021, the return of live music and all the songs that are to come.