2020: the best bits
The end of a year that left a lot of holes: so many gone, to be mourned only at a distance. People I loved, people I worked for and alongside, people whose artistry — whether expressed in one 45rpm disc or across the entire arc of a long career — affected my life. Musicians including Keith Tippett, whom I knew for 50 years, and Little Richard and Gary Peacock, to whom I’d been listening for even longer. Ennio Morricone. Juliette Gréco. McCoy Tyner. Lee Konitz. Andy Gill. Betty Wright. Henry Grimes. Florian Schneider. Jimmy Cobb. Tommy DeVito. Roy Head. Hux Brown. And on, and on.
Between the start of 2020 and the onset of the pandemic in mid-March I saw a handful of memorable gigs: Craig Taborn at the Royal Academy of Music, an extremely on-form Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall and a riotous benefit for Louis Moholo Moholo at the Vortex. And that was it for the live experience. Thank goodness for streaming, which gave many musicians a route to their audience and made unanticipated introductions — in my case to the Welsh guitarist Toby Hay, whose series of improvised outdoor morning and evening ragas lifted the spirits during the spring lockdown.
There was special gratitude, too, to the people who make high-quality television programmes, a near-universal balm this year. So let’s start with them.
1 Normal People (BBC) I watched it week by week, rationing myself, wanting to extend the experience of this perfectly written, designed, filmed and acted adaptation for as long as possible. Afterwards I read Sally Rooney’s novel for the first time and discovered that Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were inhabiting the characters on the page: a reciprocal benefit.
2 Call My Agent (Netflix) High comedy of great wit and style, with a parade of mostly female French stars — Juliette Binoche, Béatrice Dalle, Nathalie Baye, Françoise Fabian, the Isabelles Huppert and Adjani — lining up to take the piss out of themselves. The regular cast — Camille Cottin, Thibaut de Montalembert, Liliane Rovère, Grégory Montel and the rest — were equally magnificent.
3 Small Axe (BBC) For me, the highlight of Steve McQueen’s sequence of five feature-length films was Lovers Rock, in which lighting, camera movement, editing, diagetic music and Mica Levi’s score largely took the place of dialogue as a superb cast — including Michael Ward, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Shaniqua Okwok — established a mood that seemed to hang around for days.
4 The Bureau (Amazon Prime) A story in The Times recently quoted a French military chief’s complaint that the external branch of his country’s secret service — the DGSE — habitually screws everything up. That would come as no surprise to fans of The Bureau and its magnificent cast, not just Mathieu Kassovitz but particularly Florence Loiret-Caille and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends.
5 Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC) An exemplary reconstruction of the Bush/Blair intervention, at its most harrowingly effective when allowing the Iraqis to tell their own stories. The interviews with American military personnel are all the evidence anyone might need that no lessons at all were absorbed from the experience of Vietnam.
1 Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
2 Ambrose Akinmusire: On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note)
3 The Necks: Three (RnR)
4 Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
5 Keith Tippett: The Monk Watches the Eagle (Discus)
6 Maria Schneider: Data Lords (ArtistShare)
7 Sault: Untitled (Rise) (bandcamp)
8 Hedwig Mollestad: Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon)
9 Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You (Columbia)
10 Matana Roberts / Pat Thomas: The Truth (Otoroku)
11 Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl: Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12)
12 Eyvind Aarset / Jan Bang: Snow Catches on Her Eyelashes (Jazzland)
13 The Henrys: Paydirt (Bandcamp)
14 Pete Judge: Piano 2 (PJM)
15 Robert Cray Band: That’s What I Heard (Thirty Tigers)
16 Lucia Cadotsch: Speak Low II (We Jazz)
17 Martin Pyne: Spirits of Absent Dancers (Discus)
18 Carla Bley / Andy Sheppard / Steve Swallow: Life Goes On (ECM)
19 Jasper Høiby: Planet B (Edition)
20 Matt Rollings: Mosaic (Dualtone)
21 Dave Alvin: From an Old Guitar (Yep Roc)
22 Soft Machine: Live at the Baked Potato (Moonjune)
23 Misha Mullov-Abbado: Dream Circus (Edition)
24 Diana Krall: This Dream of You (Verve)
25 Hailu Mergia: Yene Mircha (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
ARCHIVE / REISSUE
1 Richard & Linda Thompson: Hard Luck Stories (Universal)
2 Mike Westbrook: Love and Understanding (My Only Desire)
3 Charles Mingus: Bremen 1964 & 1975 (Sunnyside)
4 Roberta Flack: First Take (50th anniversary edition) (SoulMusic)
5 Solomon Burke: The King of Rock ’n’ Soul (SoulMusic)
6 King Crimson: The Complete 1969 Sessions (DGM)
7 Bryan Ferry: Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 (BMG)
8 Kenny Carter: Showdown (Kent)
9 Carla Thomas: Let Me Be Good to You (SoulMusic)
10 Jon Hassell / Farafina: Flash of the Spirit (tak:til)
1 Aaron Cohen: Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (Chicago University Press)
2 Andy Neill: Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here (Universal)
3 Magdalena Grzebałkowska: Komeda: A Private Life in Jazz (Equinox)
4 Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate)
5 Luc Sante: Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Verse Chorus Press)
6 Philip Nanton: Riff: The Shake Keane Story (Papillote Press)
7 Edwin Prévost: An Uncommon Music for the Common Man (Copula)
8 Duncan Heining: Stratusphunk: George Russell, His Life in Music (Jazz International)
9 Ian Preece: Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels (Omnibus)
10 Maureen Mahon: Black Diamond Queens (Duke University Press)
Ed Caesar: The Moth and the Mountain (Penguin Viking)
David Diop: At Night All Blood Is Black (Pushkin Press)
Caroline Bird: The Air Year (Carcanet)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)
Charlotte Salomon (Jewish Museum, London)