This post is the outcome of a personal project that started in late August. I was reading the review for Deep Purple’s new album on Pitchfork; as I scrolled through the sites’s easy-to-navigate Reviews page, I was surprised to see new 2020 albums from other familiar names…some that I’ve been a big fan of for years, and some that I’ve listened to only because of a catchy track heard on the radio. And what a luxury to have every one of them immediately available on Spotify, in comparison with the desperate efforts of years past to access new music. So I resolved to listen to each of these new albums in full and that’s been such a joyful experience for the past two months! Here is Part 1 of my reviews of those new 2020 albums in chronological order of release.
Of Montreal – UR FUN (17th Jan): Of Montreal is the first of several bands in this list that revolve around one individual’s creative vision and musical mastery. Kevin Barnes, the enfant terrible of angsty indie-pop has found happiness since I last listened to his music on 2008’s Skeletal Lamping. Barnes attributes all that joie de vivre to his relationship with singer Christina Schneider (who now goes by the name Locate S,1). This 40-minute ode to love is packed with several enjoyable tracks including Polyaneurism (playful vocal theatrics overlay a standard dance beat), Get God’s Attention (catchy chorus), Gypsy That Remains (with a melodious riff reminiscent of ABBA), You’ve Had Me Everywhere and Carmillas of Love. My favourite track by this band has been An Eluardian Instance from Skeletal Lamping, but there are so many tracks on this new album that are just as good.
Stone Temple Pilots – Perdida (7th Feb): Much has changed for STP since their breakout at the peak of the grunge movement in the early 90s. Two lead singers have died under tragic circumstances (founder Scott Weiland and Limp Bizkit’s Chester Bennington) and musical tastes have changed immeasurably. But the other three founding members – the DeLeo brothers (Dean on guitars and Robert on bass) and drummer Eric Kretz – persevered and hired songwriter/vocalist Jeff Gutt for a return to the recording studio with a self-titled album in 2018. Now they are back with a new release, styled like an MTV Unplugged recording. With my reference point being 1994’s Purple, I felt like I was listening to a completely different band. Once I got past that, I really enjoyed the album, which has standout tracks like Three Wishes, the amazing Perdida, the wistful I Didn’t Know The Time and She’s My Queen with a Jethro Tull-style flute interlude. With all the songs predominantly acoustic, there’s a yearning, introspective, occasionally melancholic feel to the album, that’s not out of place at all for a Sunday evening! The spare arrangements reveal melodic underlying song structures and I can well imagine some of these tracks being rearranged for a full-on rock version in the future.
Tame Impala – The Slow Rush (14th Feb): Here’s yet another one-man-band, the brainchild of Kevin Parker from Perth, Australia. I had listened to 2012’s Lonerism, enjoying it for a period of time, but eventually drifted away from their music. And so, I was pleasantly surprised when I started off on this album, their 4th studio release. Overall, there’s a shift in style from psychedelic rock to electronica. A mix of musical influences shows through…the opening track One More Year sounds like the best of Pet Shop Boys; Instant Destiny sounds like it might have been song by Mayer Hawthorne; It Might Be Time has elements of Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers; the first half of Posthumous Forgiveness is psychedelic enough to sound like it could belong to The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute album. Overall, my favourite song is Is it True, which is so catchy I just can’t stop listening to it. (25th Nov update: The album has received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album).
Huey Lewis and the News – Weather (14th Feb): The band last recorded new material 19 years ago. They started work on a 10th album in 2017, but had to abandon the effort after recording just 7 tracks because Lewis was diagnosed with hearing loss. Eventually, the band decided to release what they had, resulting in this 26 minute album. I have always loved the band’s 50’s rock sound (they were a perfect choice to appear in Back To The Future) and listening to this new release was indeed like going back in a time machine. However, the reality is that most of the songs just aren’t very catchy. The one happy exception is Remind Me Why I Love You Again, which definitely brings back the magic of their old hits.
Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man (21st Feb): It’s amazing to see a rocker who started his career in the 60’s continue to churn out material half a century later. Mr. Osbourne has played it safe with his 12th album, it follows his tried and trusted sound from the past 40 years as a solo artist; in particular he’s mastered the art of composing rock ballads (like So Tired from 1983 and Mama, I’m Coming Home from 1991) and anthemic slow rock songs. There are a bunch of songs from the new album which fall into this category – All My Life, Goodbye and Ordinary Man. What is commendable are the collaborations on the album – the title track has guest vocals (and piano) from Elton John, with Slash on guitar; on It’s a Raid and Take What You Want, Ozzy shares singing duties with Post Malone, one of the more innovative artists in contemporary music; rapper Travis Scott also guests on Take What You Want; pop singer Charlie Puth plays keyboards on Straight to Hell; Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine plays guitar on Scary Little Green Men; Chad Smith, the drummer from Red Hot Chilli Peppers handles the percussion on all the tracks. Overall, not as great as his first few solo albums from the early 80’s , but not bad either.
Pearl Jam – Gigaton (27th Mar): This is Pearl Jam’s 11th studio album and my benchmark remains their debut release from 1991, Ten. The album is a mixed bag. There are songs like Never Destination which sound a lot like Pearl Jam songs from the 90’s, which I never really cared for. There is some interesting experimentation on Dance of The Clairvoyants, with electronic beats and vocals that sound like Talking Heads! But the best songs for me are when the band dials down the noise and Eddie Vedder’s vocals take centre stage; songs like Alright, Seven O’Clock, Buckle Up and Comes Then Goes and Retrograde. Overall, it’s definitely worth a listen, although I’m not fawning over it like most critics are.
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (19th Jun): Perhaps the most iconic folk rock singer of all time, Bob Dylan’s 39th album (his first came out in 1962) can be described as introspective, which is not unexpected for a man approaching 80. The highlight of the album is Murder Most Foul, a reference to the JFK assassination, which manages to incorporate dozens of references to American pop culture from the years following the assassination into a 17-minute-long hypnotic, melancholic version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. Another standout track is the bluesy Goodbye Jimmy Reed, an homage to the blues icon who influenced everyone from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley to The Rolling Stones. Overall, the experience was less like listening to a rock album and more like an hour’s worth of recitations with a poet; he is still an extraordinary wordsmith.
Khruangbin – Mordechai (26th Jun): This band is my most recent discovery, having come across their music for the first time only a year ago. I loved their unique blend of Lo-fi dubstep, eastern rhythms and bassist Laura Lee’s ethereal vocals (although most tracks are predominantly instrumental). Their debut release was in 2015 and Mordechai is their third album. It’s their most consistent effort, and I enjoyed it from start to end. The opening track First Class brings back a flood of good memories from the previous albums, while the next song Time (You and I) introduces some funk and 70’s groove, followed by full-on eastern rhythms in Connaissais de Face. Father Bird Mother Bird, Pelota and So We Won’t Forget are the three signature tracks of the album…they are so good, I sometimes feel like I only want to listen to these songs for the rest of my life. Khruangbin (meaning airplane in Thai) is one of the most unique-sounding bands to have emerged in the past few years and I can’t recommend them highly enough for anyone who has enjoyed world music.
HAIM – Women in Music III (26th Jun): HAIM’s debut in 2013 was a high profile affair, with critics and listeners alike wowed by their throwback musical style, invoking memories of Fleetwood Mac. Now the three sisters Estee, Danielle and Alana have their third album out, in which they have solidified their sound while continuing to channel some much-loved musical styles. For example, I’ve Been Down definitely made me think of Sheryl Crow and Man From the Magazine could easily have been sung by Joni Mitchell. Overall, the album is really good and pulled me back for several rounds of repeat listening. In addition to the above tracks, Los Angeles and Gasoline had me hooked the first time around. I’m pretty sure this is a band I’ll be listening to for years to come.
Of these nine albums, there are five (from Of Montreal, Stone Temple Pilots, Tame Impala, Khruangbin and HAIM) that I really enjoyed and am already returning to regularly to re-listen to. Tune in for another nine albums in Part 2.