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

Clips & Pix: Neil Young/Deep Forbidden Lake

My streaming music provider served up this beautiful tune by Neil Young. Even though I dig the Decade compilation, on which Deep Forbidden Lake first appeared in October 1977, I had to look up the song. I guess it’s fair to call it a deep cut.

Originally, Young had recorded the track for Homegrown, an album he had intended to release in 1975. But in good ole’ Neil fashion he dropped it at the last minute and instead put out Tonight’s the Night in June that year, another previously completed but unreleased album.

Homegrown finally appeared in June this year sans Deep Forbidden Lake. It’s a nice mellow tune that’s perfect for a Sunday morning.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Neil Young’s Long Shelved “Homegrown” Finally Sees Light of Day

It’s been a long time coming. Some 45 years. But it was worth the wait. Today, Neil Young officially released Homegrown, an album he initially had planned to put out in 1975. But written in the wake of the breakup of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, it felt too personal to him, so he decided to shelf it.

According to Apple Music, Young also had an entire second album written: Tonight’s the Night. In fact, he already had recorded it in August and September 1973, but had not released it. After deciding to stash away Homegrown in the drawer, he put out Tonight’s the Night.

Back to Homegrown. While these songs were written during what arguably was Young’s most creative period, I think it’s fair to say we’re not looking at another Harvest or Harvest Moon, to name two of my favorite Young albums. Still, this is a fine record, which takes Neil Young fans on what I think is a fascinating time travel journey back to the mid-’70s.

All of the 12 tracks on Homegrown were written by Young. Five of the tunes previously found their way on other Young records: Love Is a Rose (Decade, 1977), Homegrown (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars). Additionally, Young had performed other songs like Separate Ways or Try live but not officially released on a record.

I’d like to start with the opener Separate Ways, a tune directly addressed at Snodgrass: …Though we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharin’ our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…The little boy is Zeke, who was born in September 1972. According to this New York Times Magazine story from September 2012, Zeke has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot. Young’s second son Ben who he had with his second wide Pegi Young (née Morton) is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and non-verbal. Young also has a daughter, Amber Jean Young, his second child with Pegi, who is a visual artist. To me, Tim Drummond’s melodic bass line and the pedal steel fill-ins by Ben Keith are the song’s musical highlights. BTW, none other than Levon Helms manned the drums on this track.

As previously noted, Homegrown first appeared on Young’s eighth studio album American Stars ‘n Bars from May 1977. While the two versions are similar, the original take feels “less produced,” starting out with some studio banter. Karl Himmel played drums on this recording.

We Don’t Smoke It No More is a nice, largely instrumental blues tune. Unlike the title may suggest, it actually does smoke quite a bit. Ben Keith, who also provided backing vocals and produced the track, did a nice job on slide guitar. And Young proofed that when it come to the harmonica he also some blues chops.

White Line is one of the album’s gems. The original acoustic country-oriented version we hear here sounds significantly different from Young’s previously released grungy take on Ragged Glory. I also feel it’s superior. In addition to Young on vocals, guitar and harmonica, this recording featured Robbie Robertson on guitar. According to Wikipedia, Young also recorded White Line for Chrome Dreams, yet another album that wasn’t released at the time – gee, I don’t believe I’m aware of any other music artists who creates entire only to shelf them! In October 2007, Young released Chrome Dreams II, but other than being an obvious reference to the shelved record, I don’t believe the two have anything in common.

The last track I’d like to call out is Star Of Bethlehem. While this recording is pretty much identical to the version Young previously included on American Stars ‘n Bars, it’s another highlight and as such simply too good to skip. Undoubtedly, that’s largely because of the beautiful harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. Ben Keith also provided backing vocals, as well as dobro, but it’s really Harris who makes the song shine.

Like most of Young’s records since 1989, Homegrown appears on Reprise. The album was co-produced by him, Elliot Mazer, Ben Keith and Tim Mulligan. Apart from the above mentioned, additional musicians include Stan Szelest (piano) and Sandy Mazzeo (backing vocals.)

The final word here shall belong to Young. If you’ve read my previous posts related to this record, these words probably sound familiar. “This album should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest, Young wrote on his website. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; New York Times Magazine; Neil Young website; YouTube

Neil Young Releases Second Upfront Single From “The One That Got Away”

Evidently trying to build some buzz ahead of Homegrown, Neil Young on Friday released Vacancy, the second single from his long-awaited album that originally was supposed to come out in 1975. It’s a classic Young mid-tempo rocker he wrote and, as reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, one of seven tracks that were never issued on any other of his subsequent albums.

Homegrown was recorded at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch Studio in 1974 and early 1975, and features Stan Szelest (organ), Ben Keith (lap steel), Tim Drummond (bass) and Karl T. Himmel (drums). Additionally, there are guest appearances by Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris. Originally, this album was scheduled to come out after Harvest and prior to Comes a Time.

I apologize, wrote Young on his website back in February. This album ‘Homegrown’ should have been there for you a couple of years after ‘Harvest.’ It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind…but I should have shared it. The love affair Young alluded to was his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress from late 1970 until 1975.

The album is actually beautiful, Young went on. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. Anyway, it’s coming your way in 2020, the first release from our archive in the new decade.

Five of Homegrown’s 12 tracks were previously released on other Young albums: Love is a Rose (Decade, 1977), the title track (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars).

Homegrown was recorded in analog and mastered to vinyl from the original master tapes, restored with love by John Hanlon, Young further explained. This album, in vinyl, displays the beauty, feeling and depth of music recorded in the analog domain, before digital. It’s the perfect example of why I can’t forget how good music used to sound.

This is the one that got away…Well, while 45 years certainly is a long time, I have no doubt many Neil Young fans will be excited and think it was worth the wait! Homegrown is scheduled for June 19.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ultimate Classic Rock; Neil Young website; YouTube


Neil Young to Release Long-Lost Album “Homegrown”

Next month will see the release of new albums by two of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Both are scheduled for June 19, which I assume is a coincidence. I’ve previously written about Dylan’s new work Rough and Rowdy Ways, most recently here. Young recently announced the release date for Homegrown, an album that originally was supposed to come out in 1975. But the end of Young’s 5-year relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress caused him too much pain, so the songs ended up in the vault.

As reported by Relix, Homegrown includes 12 tracks and features guests like The Band’s Levon Helm (drums) and Robbie Robertson (guitar), as well as Emmylou Harris (backing vocals). Other musicians include Ben Keith (steel and slide guitar), Tim Drummond (bass) and Stan Szelest (piano).

The title song and tunes like Love Is a Rose, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem already found their way on other Young records over the years. The remaining tracks will be released for the very first time. Here’s one of them called Try, a country tune you could easily picture on the Harvest album. It sounds like Harris is singing backing vocals on this song.

Relix also published a statement by Young: I apologize. This album Homegrown should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away. Recorded in analog in 1974 and early 1975 from the original master tapes and restored with love and care by John Hanlon. Levon Helm is drumming on some tracks, Karl T Himmel on others, Emmylou Harris singing on one. Homegrown contains a narration, several acoustic solo songs never even published or heard until this release and some great songs played with a great band of my friends, including Ben Keith – steel and slide – Tim Drummond – bass and Stan Szelest – piano.  Anyway, it’s coming your way in 2020, the first release from our archive in the new decade. Come with us into 2020 as we bring the past.

Pitchfork revealed the album’s tracklist:

01 Separate Ways
02 Try
03 Mexico
04 Love Is a Rose
05 Homegrown
06 Florida
07 Kansas
08 We Don’t Smoke It No More
09 White Line
10 Vacancy
11 Little Wing
12 Star of Bethlehem

Looking forward to this one!

Sources: Relix; Pitchfork; YouTube