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2020: the best bits

A still from Lovers Rock, part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series

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.

TV SERIES

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.

NEW ALBUMS

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)

MUSIC BOOKS

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)

OTHER NON-FICTION

Ed Caesar: The Moth and the Mountain (Penguin Viking)

FICTION

David Diop: At Night All Blood Is Black (Pushkin Press)

POETRY

Caroline Bird: The Air Year (Carcanet)

FILM

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)

EXHIBITION

Charlotte Salomon (Jewish Museum, London)

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Atkins #

    Have to disagree about your Small Axe choice of the five productions it was the most, to me at any rate, meaningless, but perhaps that’s because I have no knowledge of or interest in lighting etc the storyline but hey, each to his own. Happy Christmas and a Covid free 2021.

    December 18, 2020
  2. Paul Crowe #

    Thank you, Richard, for your consistently readable and erudite contributions and also for just expanding my December wishlist.

    December 18, 2020
  3. Peter Brown #

    Thanks for all the bluemoments this year, Richard. Your precision workmanship illuminates my inbox like one of Richard and Linda’s bright lights. Have a good one. Peter🍷.

    December 18, 2020
  4. Colin Harper #

    Happy Christmas to you & yours, Richard. I seem to have been involved, this year, in a number of musical retrievals from some of those lost to us – helping with BBC box sets of Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum (just released) and Phil May’s Pretty Things (forthcoming) and another late artist, which I can’t talk about yet. Perhaps this is the most poignant, though – an unreleased, probably unrecorded, song by the late Bert Jansch (d.2011) that existed in just one audience recording of a 2011 concert. I asked Sarah McQuaid to record it, purely as a YouTube thing, and Mark Stratford (formerly MD of RPM) very kindly pulled the no-budget video together. ‘Shine your light – forever and a day’. A good message to leave the world with.

    December 18, 2020
    • Tim Adkin #

      Colin, Lovely stuff. Sarah lives just down the road in Cornwall and sings, when she’s available, in a pretty decent amateur choir that my wife joined last year. Nice lady (Sarah – and the missus!).

      Well done with the Colosseum box. Have a good one – and you too Richard and thanks for the many posts.

      December 18, 2020
      • Colin Harper #

        Thank you, Tim! I didn’t think there’d be any Sarah fans among Richard’s followers – what a small world it is, and a lovely part of it that you live in!

        December 19, 2020
  5. Thanks for the heads up on the Shake Keane book and glad you are still a Henrys fan. Have a good xmas and a better news year.

    December 19, 2020
  6. GuitarSlinger #

    Hmmm …. the ‘ best ‘ bits . Errr … sorry mates …but having personally gone from cancer treatment ( successful ) direct into the throws of the COVID -19 epidemic … ( my current personal count … 49 fending family etc who’ve had it .. 28 friends , family , musical associates , mentors etc dead ) it had nothing directly to do with the arts … though its impact on the arts will be profoundly felt here in the anything but United States of America

    The best bit is … and has been .. watching Trump’s slow but very real disintegration . From losing the election ( by far too close a margin IMO ) to his hand picked SCOTUS and AG turning against him … to Palm Beach evicting him ( from residing there ) … its been a joy and a heaping plate of schadenfreude .. albeit too ( bleep ) late ) for comfort

    So why will this affect the arts ? Because my little cross the pond cousins … the 350 lb orangutan in the oval office and his quisling sycophants have been doing everything imaginable within their power to disassemble the NEA , NPR , PBS and every arts organization dependent on donations

    So here’s to … at least a saner .. if not a better … New Year .. with my personal Xmas arriving on .. January 20th 2021 !

    December 19, 2020
  7. GuitarSlinger #

    Ahhh … but then there’s the worst bit imaginable .

    Dylan selling off his entire catalogue … with many others standing in line to do the same

    By doing so ( and for the record if I were in his shoes I’d of done the same .. and in fact are about to ) … Dylan is proclaiming the hard ugly truth about the music … errr … business .

    That being ;

    It don’t matter if’n yer name is Bob Dylan or Bobby WhoEver… Paul McCartney or …. Paul Nobody …

    You aint making a dime off yer royalties in this day and age … and are better off selling while the selling is good

    And who’s fault is this y’all might ask ? Well … partly the digital disruption … and partly the business itself … but the majority of the blame falls directly on the the shoulders of …..

    YOU …. the consumer .. and all the convenience vs quality choices y’all been making the last 15 years

    So congratulate yourselves this 2020 … for helping to destroy the very thing you ‘ claim ‘ to love

    Nuff said 😎

    December 19, 2020
  8. Your blog is amazing 🙂

    December 20, 2020
  9. There was another “best-bit” in Derby in September when the eleven piece LOOSEN UP played five, live outdoor shows. Derby Jazz produced LOOSEN UP to make some properly paid work for local jazz musicians. We didn’t promote the shows too vigorously for fear of attracting unmanageable crowds. You can see a film about LOOSEN UP on the Videos page of the Derby Jazz website https://www.derby-jazz.co.uk

    December 21, 2020
  10. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Thanks for all the recommendations in your posts during 2020 – much appreciated. It has been a grim year for so many reasons, but listening to all the great music that has been released during 2020 has provided some much-needed comfort. It looks as though live music will continue to be a ‘grab it while you can’ experience for the immediate future – I was lucky enough to grab Binker Golding’s very fine quartet at the Jazz Cafe a couple of weekends ago; a reminder of what we have been missing – but I look forward to seeing you and others at the Vortex, Cafe Oto, and other live venues in London soon. Best wishes for Christmas and a happier New Year.

    December 21, 2020
  11. Tim Rolls #

    Richard, thank you for that posting, for your selections of 2020’s best and your blogs throughout the year. Much appreciated. thank You.

    December 22, 2020

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