If I read one more album review that involves the phrase, “A balm for our troubled times,” I’ll scream and take all the vaccines, tested or not. That said, 2020 was clearly a troubled year for the music industry, with concerts shut down, venues closing and artists scrambling to make a living. If music was not a balm, it was at least a distraction. I mean, a video of a random gentleman on a skateboard chugging cranberry juice and chillin’ to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams was the year’s galvanizing musical moment. Other notable accomplishments and moments are noted below.
While picking up three awards at American Music Awards last month, Abel Tesfaye covered his face in medical gauze. A day later, when the Grammy nominations were announced, the pop star known as The Weeknd was the invisible man – inexplicably shut out of noms, his name nowhere to be seen. The snubbing caps off a year that saw the falsetto-voiced R&B crooner top the Billboard album chart for six weeks with his sublime After Hours disc. His single Blinding Lights spent a record-breaking 33 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100′s top five. In February, he’ll headline the halftime show at Super Bowl LV, a fitting finale to a touchdown year.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple
The American songwriter is hardly an unknown, but the audacious charisma of her latest album was a bolt out of the alt-pop blue upon its release in April. The quirky drama, unexpected humour and bold experimental expression of Fetch the Bolt Cutters captured critics’ collective attention. Among my other favourite albums this year are Rufus Wainwright’s Unfollow the Rules, Kathleen Edwards’s Total Freedom, Run the Jewel’s RTJ4, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Aquakultre’s Legacy, U.S. Girls’s Heavy Light, Caribou’s Suddenly, Bette Smith’s The Good, The Bad and the Bette and Sarah Harmer’s Are You Gone.
In a year of lost recordings revisited (from Joni Mitchell, Thelonious Monk, the Rolling Stones and others), the most refreshing recovered-music story arrived by Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a career-spanning compilation from a 76-year-old synth-folk pioneer, transgender icon and Odetta enthusiast currently enjoying a late-blooming renaissance in New Brunswick.
Megan Thee Stallion
The Houston MC was in our faces all year, if not with her featured presence on Cardi B’s scandalous single WAP then with her Black Lives Matter activism on Saturday Night Live or with an op-ed in New York Times about the victimization of Black women and the allegation that Canadian rapper Tory Lanez had shot her in the foot. Her single Savage set off a brief viral dance craze that Drake’s Toosie Slide failed to match. She ended the year with the release of her debut full-length album. It’s called Good News, and who couldn’t use some of that?
If there was a more soothing voice this year than that of William Prince, I haven’t heard it. Raised in Peguis First Nation and based in Winnipeg, the singer-songwriter used his cask-soaked baritone on a pair of recordings in 2020, Reliever and Gospel First Nation. His single The Spark, a hopeful, human song about things that burn good, won the annual English SOCAN Songwriting Prize.
The Columbian-Canadian music-maker, activist and Technicolor free-spirit scored a 2021 Grammy nomination for her second album, Miss Colombia. There’s more: She’s an artist who sells custom portraits in benefit of a Colombian relief fund, she’s a cartoonist for Toronto monthly boutique newspaper The West End Phoenix, and, this month, the indefatigable Pimienta released The Road to Miss Colombia, an 18-minute documentary on the making of her stellar LP.
The great American songwriter died of complications caused by COVID-19 at age 73. If anything good came out of his passing, it was the collective mourning that pushed his singular storytelling, humour and poetry into the spotlight briefly. Fashions come and go, but Prine’s folksy eloquence endures. Other musical people lost in 2020 include Justin Townes Earle, Peter Green, Vera Lynn, Ellis Marsalis, Ennio Morricone, Neil Peart, Krzysztof Penderecki, Helen Reddy, Little Richard, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joe Shaver, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bill Withers and Betty Wright.
Murder Most Foul, Bob Dylan
The pandemic arrived in the middle of March. We didn’t know what hit us. Two weeks later, Bob Dylan dropped a rambling 17-minute piano journey about a presidential assassination: “Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63, a day that will live on in infamy / President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high, good day to be livin’ and a good day to die.” The year only got weirder, darker and deadlier from there.
Music Lessons, Bob Wiseman
An unconventional book by an unconventional man, the Canadian keyboardist and producer’s Music Lessons is a wildly entertaining compilation of hundreds of random blog entries. The content covers off-beat recollections, piano-lesson conversations, thought-provoking vignettes and out-of-the-blue observations. All together, life lessons posing as music lessons.
He’s a British musician and a long-time Thailand resident who soothes wild monkeys in that Southeast Asian country by playing Greensleeves and Beethoven’s Fur Elise. The high-strung animals are confused, anxious and hungry; the music calms and distracts them. An allegory for 2020.