The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

23-Year-Old Southern Rock Guitarist Marcus King Shines On Soulful Solo Debut

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Playing For Change and that organization’s incredible videos produced with musicians from all over the world, covering well-known songs. One of the clips I highlighted was The Weight, featuring Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr and professional musicians from eight other countries. The first thing I thought was, ‘how cool is it that Robertson and Starr are in the video. My second thought: ‘The young dude playing guitar and singing is killing it on vocals with his soulful voice. That guitarist was 23-year-old Marcus King. Earlier today, I listened to his solo debut album El Dorado and have to say I’m pretty blown away!

King who hails from Greenville, S.C. is not a newcomer. In fact, he has performed for a whopping 15 years! After beginning to play guitar at a very young age, already as an eight-year-old he started to be on stage with his father Marvin King, a professional blues guitarist. In 2013, as a 15-year-old, he formed the Marcus King Band. In October 2015, their debut album Soul Insight appeared. They have since released two additional records and two EPs. El Dorado, which came out on January 17 this year, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Let’s get to some music!

Here’s the beautiful opener Young Man’s Dream. Spill Magazine called it reminiscent of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush era. With King’s high pitched vocals and the tune’s sound, I think that’s not too far-fetched. Co-written by King, Auerbach and Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, the track also has some early Rod Stewart feel. It’s just cool!

The Well, a nice blues rocker that’s right up my alley, was co-written by King, Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, a bluegrass vocalist and songwriter. I dig the main guitar riff and sound of that tune. Check it out!

Next up is Wildflowers & Wine, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Bowman. I really find it impressive how much soul the 23-year-old has in his vocals. That’s three great songs in a row, which already make it worthwhile to listen to this album.

There’s more. How about some country? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Sweet Mariona, yet another tune co-written by King, Auerbach and Bowman. Listen to that sweet-sounding pedal steel guitar!

Another soul gem with a dose of country flair is Beautiful Stranger. I also love the gospel type backing vocals. To write this song King and Auerbach teamed up with country singer-songwriter Paul Overstreet.

The last track I’d like to call out is Too Much Whiskey, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Overstreet. It’s a great mix of blues and country.

In addition to King (lead vocals, guitar) and Auerbach (bass, guitar, backing vocals), other musicians on El Dorado include Gene Chrisman (drums), Matt Combs (strings), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Chris St. Hillaire (percussion), Russ Pahl (guitar), Ray Jacildo (Glockenspiel, keyboards), Dave Roe (bass), Mike Rojas (keyboards), Billy Sanford (guitar), Bobby Woods (keyboards), as well as backing vocalists Ashley Wilcoxson and Leisa Hans.

Deservedly, El Dorado has received great reviews. Rolling Stone called it “excellent” and King “one of the most exciting guitarists to break through in years.” NPR’s rock critic Ken Tucker characterized the record as “a real beauty — and a turning-point for King.” Last but not least, Spill Magazine opined the album is a “musical masterpiece.”

King seems to be happy with the result as well, as he should be. “I’m really proud of it,” he told Rolling Stone. And what did Auerbach, who has produced for other artists like Dr. John, Ray LaMontagne and The Pretenders, have to add? “It’s staggering how good he is, how crazy-good his vocals are, how he can go anywhere on guitar.” I think that nicely sums up my sentiments.

Sources: Wikipedia; Spill Magazine; Rolling Stone; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube