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

Advertisement

What I’ve Been Listening to: Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor

In May, I featured Tryin’ to Keep it Together in one of my Best of What’s New installments, a bonus track from Norah Jones’ then-upcoming Pick Me Up Off the Floor. Then, I completely forgot about the album that since appeared on June 12 – until a few days ago, when Jones popped up in my streaming service provider. While the title doesn’t exactly sound cheerful, listening to Jones puts me at ease, especially after a quite busy week. I find there’s something really special about her voice and the warm sound of her music. Both draw me in.

For a long time, I’ve been aware of Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz, though I haven’t really explored her music. Jones was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar on March 30, 1979 in New York City to American concert producer Sue Jones and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. After her parents separated in 1986, Jones lived with her mother and grew up in Grapevine, TX. When reading about Jones for this post, I realized she’s been around for 20 years. That’s kind of mind-boggling to me. I still well remember when Jones emerged in 2002 as a 23-year-old!

Pick Me Up Off the Floor is the seventh studio album by the now 41-year-old singer-songwriter who returned to New York in 1999 and still lives there. It follows her EP Begin Again from April 2019, and is her first full-length studio effort since Day Breaks released in October 2016. According to a song-by-song review Jones did for Apple Music, Pick Me Up Off the Floor is her first album inspired by poetry. Emily Fiskio, her friend and a poet, encouraged Jones to give it try. The two women ended up collaborating, and two of the resulting tunes are on the album.

In this June 8, 2020 photo, singer-songwriter Norah Jones poses for a portrait in Hudson, N.Y., to promote her latest album “Pick Me Up Off the Floor.” (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Poetry “…opened me up to a different avenue of writing,” Jones explained. “Plus, when you read Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to your kids every night, weird rhymes float around in your head.” Apparently, Jones had not set out to make another album. Instead, she recorded tunes spontaneously as they came together. “I was collaborating with different people and just trying to make singles rather than forcing an album. It was very freeing.” Let’s hear some of the results!

Here’s the opener How I Weep written by Jones. “This song began as a poem, and then I sat on it for a few months, unsure what was going to happen,” Jones told Apple Music. “I knew I eventually had to try to turn it into a song, because that’s what I do, so one night, I waited until the house was quiet, and played and sang until it came together.” It certainly did! How I/How I/Weep for the loss/And it creeps down my chin/For the heart and the hair/And the skin and the air/That swirls itself around the bare…The lyrics sound deeply personal, yet Jones’ voice and the string arrangement soften the impact.

Flame Twin, another tune solely written by Jones, injects a dose of blues. I dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who also plays electric guitar. And, of course, there’s more of Jones’ great singing. I also enjoy her piano playing. “This is another song that came from a poem,” Jones stated. “I brought it into the studio one day and was like, ‘Well, let’s see if I could put some music to this real quick and record it.’ And it came together pretty quickly.”

Heartbroken, Day After is one of her favorite tunes on the album, Jones told Apple Music. “I love how it came out with the pedal steel. It’s very mournful and heartfelt. And of course it references something specific, but I like that it’s still open to your own interpretation. It’s interpretable to the listener. So I’m not going to tell.” But again, Jones’ delivery and even some of the lyrics don’t make it an all-out bleak song…Hey, Hey/It’s gonna be okay/At least that’s what I tell myself/Anyway/Hey, hey/Don’t look so sad/It’s not that bad/Or is it?/It might be today…

For writing and recording I’m Alive, Jones teamed up with singer-songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy, who is best known as the lead vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. ” I’ve known Jeff for a long time,” Jones pointed out. “He was one of the first people I thought to call when I wanted to start doing collaboration singles, because I thought it’d be a great way to connect.” The tune’s lyrics have clear political undertones…He screams, he shouts/The heads on the TV bow/They take the bait/They mirror waves of hate…No name calling needed here!

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Were You Watching, one of the tracks Jones co-wrote with Emily Fiskio. “I wrote this song in March of 2018, and it was the very first session I did for anything that wound up on this album,” Jones said. “I knew it needed harmonies and I liked the idea of adding vocals that weren’t me, so I called my friend Ruby Amanfu. She and her husband Sam Ashworth came to New York and did a bunch of harmonies on four or five songs. Then I had this great violinist, Mazz Swift, who I’ve always wanted to work with, come in and add violin. She did a great job. She sounded like she was on the original live recording. It felt perfectly spontaneous.” Nothing to add other than the clip.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube