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James Poole recommendations

2020: Top ten albums

As we entered 2020, I expected the year to be overshadowed by political uncertainty; Brexit turmoil on this side of the Atlantic, and a nation taking a long, hard look at the socio-political fabric falling apart over in the US. And, while this was a fairly bleak view, I was longing for musicians to respond with the same seismic shift we saw in the late 70s and early 80s. I was longing for the excitement of new voices and for the thrill of protest. In part, I got it. But that’s only one half of the story for 2020.

The year was overshadowed by something much larger than mere politics, and much darker: Covid-19. The scale of loss it has wrought, both human and economic, is astonishing. In the face of tragedy: music representing joyous, uplifting celebration. And so, while there’s been anger and protest, this has also been a year with a marked concentration positive, life-affirming sounds. We’ve needed them.

Kicking off with the best album of the year…

Laura Marling – ‘Song for Our Daughter’

As a soundtrack to 2020, there’s simply nothing better. ‘Song for Our Daughter’ is a deeply personal reflection on the changing nature of relationships; a timeless, emotional study built around sparse yet spiky arrangements. ‘Held Down’ is about as perfect an example of songcraft as you’re going to find this year – layered vocals, acoustic guitars, a soaring lead from Laura Marling… just beautiful. It’s been a great year for ground-breaking music. In ‘Song for Our Daughter’ Laura Marling has pulled out an album that wouldn’t sound out of place in any decade from the 70’s onwards, yet still manages to breathe lungs of fresh air into every crevasse. We will be listening to this for years to come.

And the rest, in no particular order…

Paul McCartney – ‘McCartney III’

Here’s the reason for always holding back on producing a best-of list: something might just land at the end of the year and warrant inclusion. A worthy companion piece to McCartney and McCartney II – this is Paul having an absolute blast. ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ is the song you didn’t know you needed – it’s like being in on a jam session where Paul has decided to throw down a bit of Celtic funk. And ‘Deep Deep Feeling’ is up there with his absolute best… meaning it’s an immediate classic. A simply great album.

Billy Nomates – ‘Billy Nomates’

Sleaford Mods know a few things about spotting talent. They shone a light on Liines, and so too onto Billy Nomates. In her self-titled debut, Billy Nomates lands a no-holds barred DIY slab of social commentary. It sounds like nothing else, and I chuffing love it. Check out ‘Supermarket Sweep’, with Jason Williamson lending his own distinctive vocals – an ode to anyone wanting to escape into a new life… a powerful tune. We need more from Billy Nomates.

A Certain Ratio – ‘ACR Loco’

On the eve of release, ACR’s Martin Moscrop noted that this might just be the best album that they had ever released. I shrugged this off as a bit of well-intended pre-release hype. But, he was only right. ‘ACR Loco’ landed as a greatest hits; a stylistic journey through the ACR back catalogue… without ever feeling even remotely stuck in the past. It’s an incredible album, where optimism meets industrial funk and batucada. So yes, Martin – it might well be your best yet. And, if this is what ACR are knocking out after 40 years, I can’t wait to hear more.

All We Are – ‘Providence’

Three albums in for All We Are. All of them great. Following on from 2017’s more reflective ‘Sunny Hills’, it’s notable that their reaction to 2020 is to knock out an album which is much more upbeat and more accessible. I maintain that All We Are should be truly huge; ‘Heart of Mine’ and ‘Deliver It’ offering standout tracks that should have sound-tracked our summer. Seriously, check them out.

EOB – ‘Earth’

As we headed into lockdown, ‘Earth’ landed. Its absence from year-end lists confuses me; maybe it was a quirk of timing. This is Ed O’Brien demonstrating that Radiohead isn’t just the Thom and Jonny show. The pandemic robbed us of the chance to see EOB live on the festival circuit – I maintain that this would have been the setting for the lush, layered textures contained here. Sitting in a field, beer in hand, taking in ‘Shangri-La’ would have been a highlight of the year…

Doves – ‘The Universal Want’

Welcome back. You’re still ace. This is Doves being Doves. 2020 was better for it.

Lightning Orchestra – ‘Source and Deliver’

This is as large a slab of psych-rock-funk as you’re going to hear this side of 1966. This is simply massive. With echoes of Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Fela Kuti, Talking Heads and Gill Evans, Lightning Orchestra delivered a sound so large it practically burst out of the speakers. For extra credit, check out the Dr Petier remix of ‘For Those Who Are Yet To Be Born’ – it’s wild.

Lianne La Havas – ‘Lianne La Havas’

I’m about to commit blasphemy: Lianne La Havas’ cover of ‘Weird Fishes’ improves on the Radiohead original. If that doesn’t warrant an album’s inclusion in the list, I don’t know what does. She’s great.

Sault – ‘Untitled (Black Is)’

Topping many a best-of list, and with good reason, this is a modern classic. ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ captures the mystery collective behind Sault showboating their production flair, a vital political voice and in ‘Wildfires’ in particular, a grown-up pop classic in the making. Albums like this don’t come along very often. When they do, they’re to be savoured. This is perfect.

And, that’s your lot for 2020. Here’s to 2021…

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