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

It’s That Time of the Year Again for a Rock Marathon

Next Wednesday morning, right before Thanksgiving, classic rock radio station Q104.3 starts their annual marathon of counting down the “Top 1,043 Classic Rock Songs Of All Time.” The list, which takes a broad definition that goes beyond classic rock in the traditional sense, is based on listener submissions of their top 10 favorite songs.

Playing the entire list from song no. 1,043 all the way down to no. 1 will take from Wednesday, November 25, 9:00 a.m. (EST) until Sunday, November 29, sometime in the evening, usually between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. On Thanksgiving Day at noon, the countdown is interrupted for Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.

This year marks the 20th time of Q104.3’s holiday tradition. Each year, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven has been the eternal no. 1. While the station doesn’t disclose actual vote counts, each year I’ve listened they said Stairway won by a substantial margin.

Rigged voting? I don’t think so. Q104.3 plays plenty of Zep as part of their regular rotation. One of their DJs, Carol Miller, who has been on the air since 1973, is a huge Led Zeppelin fan, and hosts the long running segment Get the Led Out. As such, I think it’s safe to assume many folks who listen to Q104.3 dig Zeppelin. And, honestly, if I could only choose one classic rock song, I also would go with Stairway.

Admittedly, the entire exercise is a bit nerdy but quite appealing to a music nut like myself. BTW, each submission is weighted equally, so the order of the picks doesn’t matter. But think about it, when can you ever hear 1,043 different songs in a row on the radio? Most stations tend to play a limited set of tracks over and over again.

Above is an image of my picks for this year and below are clips of the corresponding tunes. While I still dig all of my picks from last year, this time, I deliberately decided to shake things up and submit an entirely new list. And it doesn’t even include two of my favorite bands of all time, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, not to mention Led Zeppelin. Here are my choices without further explanation, other than these are all songs I dig, though they aren’t necessarily my all-time favorites.

The Jimi Hendrix ExperiencePurple Haze (non-album single, March 1967)

Creedence Clearwater RevivalBorn on the Bayou (Bayou Country, January 1969)

The Allman Brothers BandBlack Hearted Woman (The Allman Brothers Band, November 1969)

The WhoThe Seeker (non-album single, March 1970)

Bruce SpringsteenBobby Jean (Born in the U.S.A., June 1984)

Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersMary Jane’s Last Dance (Greatest Hits, November 1993)

Lenny KravitzRock and Roll Is Dead (Circus, September 1995)

Sheryl CrowIf It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow, September 1996)

PretendersHate for Sale (Hate for Sale, July 2020)

AC/DCShot in the Dark (Power Up, November 2020)

Sources: Wikipedia; Q104.3 website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

My latest exploration of newly released music includes songs from rock veterans Pretenders and three other artists most readers likely don’t know. Highlighting work from the latter really is what mostly inspired me to introduce this recurring feature six weeks ago, since it’s fair to say the blog mostly focuses on prominent acts. Let’s get to it!

Pretenders/You Can’t Hurt a Fool

Initially, the 11th studio album by the Pretenders was scheduled to be released yesterday, May 1. Because of COVID-19, Hate for Sale (gee, what a cheerful title!) is now slated for July 17. Interestingly, if I see this correctly, their 5-month North American tour with Journey has not been postponed yet and is still scheduled to kick off in Ridgefield, Wash. on May 15. Remember, that’s the one of the first states that became a hotspot for the coronavirus when it wrecked havoc at the local nursing home? Hate for Sale is the Pretenders’ first new album as a band since Break Up the Concrete from October 2008. In October 2016, Chrissie Hynde released the aptly titled Alone under the Pretenders name, but it only featured her with different backing musicians. In addition to Hynde (guitar, vocals), the Pretenders’ current line-up includes co-founding member Martin Chambers (drums), as well as Carwyn Ellis (keyboards), James Walbourne (guitar) and Nick Wilkinson (bass), who all joined sometime after 2000. Released on April 14, You Can’t Hurt a Fool is the third and most recent single from the album. Like all other tunes on Hate for Sale, the ballad was co-written by Hynde and Walbourne.

Robert Francis/Amaretto

Robert Francis is a singer-songwriter from Los Angeles in the indie folk and Americana arena. He released his debut album One by One at age 19 in August 2007. Junebug, the lead single for his sophomore Before Nightfall from October 2009, became successful in Europe, topping the French charts and also charting in various other European countries. Amaretto, Francis’ eighth album, came out yesterday. It features notable guests: Ry Cooder, Marty Stuart and Terry Evans who since passed away. This means that at least some of songs must have been recorded as ealy as 2017, since Evans died in January 2018. Here’s the title track. If you dig Americana, I’d encourage you to check out this tune and the entire album.

Sawyer Fredericks/Flowers For You

In February 2015, Sawyer Fredericks, a soft-spoken 16-year-old teenager from Newtown, Conn., became the youngest winner of The Voice at the time. Meanwhile, that record was broken by a 15-year-old female vocalist in February 2018. Since I dig good vocals, I was watching the TV singing competition frequently back then. About a year or two ago, I stopped since I felt everything had become too predicatble. Unlike American Idol, which sparked the careers of some big-selling artists, such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, most winners of The Voice haven’t accomplished real breakthroughs. As such, I’m particularly happy to see a previous winner who went on to become a recording artist. Since The Voice, Fredericks has released an EP and four albums, including his latest Flowers For You, which appeared yesterday. The now 21-year-old singer-songwriter definitely has something. Not only is Fredericks a pretty talented musician, but his voice is quite unique, varying from a deeper raspy sound to a very high range. And the young artist writes pretty good songs. Here’s the bluesy title track from the new album.

Resurrextion/Hold On

Resurrextion are a New Jersey jam rock band I follow. Full disclosure: I’m also friends with these guys, but that’s not the reason why I feature them – in fact, they have no idea (yet) that I do. Resurrextion were initially founded in Jersey City in 2006 and started out as a cover band. After beginning to work on own material, they released their studio debut Comin’ Home in 2013. As the band gained more visibility and opened for national acts like Dickey BettsFoghatPoco and Blues Traveler, music increasingly started to interfere with their day jobs and families, so they decided to take a break. In 2018, they reunited and have since performed at many Jersey venues in Asbury Park and beyond. Resurrextion mostly remain a jam rock cover band but also play their own songs – and evidently work on new material. The current lineup includes Phil Ippolito (lead vocals, keyboards),  Joey Herr (guitar, vocals), Billy Gutch (guitar, vocals), Lou Perillo (bass, vocals) and Johnny Burke (drums, vocals). Hold On is a mid-tempo rock tune the band released last month, while laudably practicing social distancing. Each member recorded their part at their respective homes. Thanks to technology, I think everything came nicely together!

Sources: Wikipedia; Resurrextion Facebook page; YouTube