This is a long post. Grab yourself a drink.
What do you say about a year with no light? Not without actual, physical light (although the explosion of the Sun itself would be a very apt thing to happen this year), but rather the light of Hope, or Joy? This year obliged us all to hurl, head-first into The Darkness (not the band): to live cooped-up and wary of others; constantly to exist with, as in the Reznor and Ross track, the gentle hum of anxiety. This year has, indubitably, for better or worse, been one unlike any other (or many yet to come). It has also – particularly now that we find ourselves in December – been a dark year (and I did indeed binge-watch all of Dark on Netflix).
It all started so well – not just “new year, new me,” so much as “new decade, new everything?” My life was full of plans. It is hard to cast one’s mind back to January when an entire year has so cynically dissolved into a sludge of time, with one day lethargically sliding into the next with nought to say for itself. It didn’t start like that – not at all.
I was flitting between continents via a tunnel that went under the Sea (travel feels utterly alien now; a new sensation when one does dare to try it), and I had devised what I felt was the ultimate method to ensure that no new, or interesting, music would escape my ears (it’s still patent-pending). I have a voracious appetite for the aural euphoria that is Music, you see, and we Snobs kicked off the year with AS X, our tenth major release, comprising a compendium of our top tracks from releases 1 – 9, in both A- and B-side formats. That release remains top-tier curation and is exemplary of what we seek to do over here at Snobbery HQ (to make sure that you listen to good music before you die), and I would strongly encourage you go and listen to that playlist. The release itself spurred deep, ambitious thought about everything Audio Snobbery is and will be in my mind’s eye. Thoughts raced through my head as I would walk from rue Saint-Sauveur’s many delights back through Boulevard de Magenta’s less salubrious environs to catch my train home to the Big Smoke: This album is totally unoriginal. Shortlist that one to listen later. I must buy Destroyer on vinyl.
Indeed, it was Destroyer’s Have We Met that first grabbed me this year. I am a fan of Bejar (and will probably never shut up about the fact that our first journey onto the Internet as Audio Snobbery was to review him performing live), and this record did not disappoint. It was refreshing to hear him turn more ostensibly towards Pop and, even if his lyricism might look weaker under catchier melodies (ho-hum), the opening lyrics of the aptly-titled Kinda Dark now seem oddly prescient (“…every night you took the air, gasping for anything…”).
You may remember, however, that, at the turn of this year, all eyes (and ears) were expectantly upon Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala, and boy did he disappoint. I don’t really see much point in launching into a venomous slating of his album and am a firm believer in the fact that less is more, so that’s all I’ll say about that unforgettable gust of self-absorbed moist flatulence here, but you can go read our thoughts, if you so wish.
It was around this time that the whispers of a sickness in Wuhan began to grow that tiny bit louder.
I’m a weirdo. I think it’s fair to say that. I tend to get interested in stuff most people could not care less for and I worry about things like World War 3. By February in London, I was wearing a scarf over my face when taking public transport or walking in the street. My logic was that, if no one gives a shit about a new virus, and China is a major global economy, then it’s being ferried all over the planet right now, whether we like it or not. Sometimes, being the weirdo, you are devastated to find you were on the right track. I’ve since stocked up on tin foil hats and canned beans. You just never know.
This was just the cusp of the world beginning to slip into a blur of numbed atrophy. When I try to describe this sensation, I can think of no better medium of expression than Daniel Avery’s Infinite Future or India Jordan’s Westbourne Ave: everything blurring into movement, light and sound, but nothing discernible happening as you are enveloped in a blanket of steady uneasiness. Avery’s album – released as everything turned to shit – is one of the year’s highlights (as is Jordan’s). I think it’s his best effort since 2013’s Drone Logic. If you are ever unsure of exactly what you should be feeling as you walk the deserted streets of your city as part of your daily, allotted exercise allowance, you may find these two artists have the answer.
On our part, we managed to release AS 11 and were just beginning to kick into gear when some fatuous cockwomble with a terrible haircut decided wishing a virus away while doing absolutely nothing would not stop the death count rising, and so we all had to stay at home (“What a difference an indifference would make.” – The Knife, Raging Lung). Thus the steady slide into discombobulating monotony began. Your dear Snobs recognised this was it and pulled together a farewell to Earth in the form of AS x COVID-19 (“…it’s a miracle we need: The Miracle.”) before we, too, started to behave like hibernating mammals, The Day The Whole World Went Away.
When the light was first extinguished, it paradoxically coincided with the advent of glorious weather. Mother Nature breathed when we switched off our combustion engines and bequeathed us with warm sunshine. “Lockdown,” as it has come to be known, was not half bad, if you could avoid the ‘Rona. Trapped at home and after a good, herd mentality-driven, hoard shopping spree, I was one of the blessed ones with an outdoor balcony. Life at home was really quite pleasant: I can do what I want! It was vinyl a-go-go, as I adjusted my sprinting pace on the money treadmill down to a much more pleasant jog, rid of commuting and travel.
And yet, while we all busied ourselves with figuring out how to have fun at home and marveled at the sunshine, the lifeblood of my passion had suffered a nearly mortal wound – a severed artery – and it’s still bleeding out today. Live Music has suffered immeasurably. It’s not its fault. It’s no one’s fault. It’s not as though any reasonable individual charged with shepherding us sheep through the uncontrolled spread of a new disease could stand atop their pulpit and say, “but yeah, gigs are alright – keep going to those.” No, it was never going to happen. That did not stop me from buying my tickets for Primavera Sound two weeks before the global shutdown began in the vain hope that good news might come sooner rather than later.
The last band I saw live was Efterklang.
Yeah, Efterklang. They are fucking great. Even now, as I listen to Casper Clausen’s beautiful voice on Vi er uendelig (from 2019’s Altid Sammen), I am transported back to the Barbican, where a few hundred of us shared an incredibly intimate evening with a band who similarly seemed slightly perturbed by what was happening around them. Clausen made a couple of nervous jokes about being careful “out there” before bidding us adieu, ominously declaring that the group were not sure when they would see us again. Perhaps he felt it, too, the looming darkness.
We had one brief glimmer of hope for live music, when Stereodista was able to see Everything Everything live at Myu in October, and by God was it a welcome experience… albeit one that was perhaps too preemptive as, shortly thereafter, we were consigned back to our caves by the powers that be. The virus hates fun.
So, what does a music snob do when they’re cooped up at home with no live music? Well, we all started to trip the fuck out (on Music, of course). We tripped out on Nicolas Jaar (Penny, Mud), Tim Maia, Róisín Murphy and Jorge Ben Jor, producing a formidable suite of the best playlists we’ve come across from two more iconic Brazilian artists and two superb Electronic virtuosos. Every single one of these posts is worth your time. We know this, because we’ve tested them on our friends (who are definitely not biased), and they say they’re good. So they’re good. Go and read these posts and listen to their accompanying playlists. You will love each and every one of those acts.
It wasn’t all “tripping out,” though. We worked through albums from the past we had wanted to visit, too, beginning with Stereodista’s look at The Manics’ Gold Against the Soul. John then decided to take on reappraising one of the most sacred albums of all time: Radiohead’s OK Computer (I can’t lie – I was scared about his decision to take this on, as perfection is challenging to critique but, the choice to explore the parallel between being locked-up at home and Yorke & Co.’s own decision to lock themselves up to record the album went down very well). It then transpired that John was far from done when it came to reviewing incredible albums from the past that you should have in your record collection, as he revisited The Chemical Brothers’ Further – an album, I am ashamed to admit, I had not paid enough attention to (I am a big fan of the Brothers but lost touch after We Are The Night).
Continuing the crate-digging theme, Otacon shed a very necessary light on Japan’s Shintaro Sakamoto, opting to review his 2014 sophomore album, Let’s Dance Raw, a delightfully quirky slice of Japanese indie designed, deliberately, as the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic world (how fitting for 2020). El Mascarado, in turn, has begun a 5-part series on the David Byrne-curated World Psychedelic Classics, beginning with volume 1’s sublime Os Mutantes (truly one of the most creative and influential acts to have come out of Brazil). Stay tuned for several exciting follow-ups there, as our masked man educates all of us on further musical wonders from less obvious sources.
Closing out the albums of the past that we felt worth pushing into your eardrums this year, I finally got around to eulogising Lynn Goldsmith’s alter-ego, Will Powers, in Dancing For Mental Health, one of the most original pieces of work I have ever come across, both for its hilariously cutting satire and its capacity to yield absolutely banging tunes (Kissing With Confidence became the soundtrack to much-needed break in Portugal, spent with one of my closest friends in this journey we call Life, a trip that I was only narrowly able to pull-off amidst this shit show of a year [Editor’s note: how diabolically reckless!]).
On the “new” music front, I was, personally, relatively let down by Trent Reznor’s decision to release new Nine Inch Nails as a surprise (after his having teased new NIN for months, at this point), only to discover it was more soundtracking work . That said, seven months later, I am still listening to Ghosts V & VI (Run Like Hell being a very apt track name for this year), but have included some better Reznor work in this year-end playlist to remind us of his superb singing voice and rock talent (All The Love In The World), and better soundtracking work (WHICH CAME FIRST, from the Watchmen soundtrack, which clearly truly got Reznor & Ross’ creative juices flowing).
Next up was Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters, which has already (rightly) made a fair few “album of the year” lists. Will it make ours? Find out this week [Editor’s note: we hope], only on Audio Snobbery! Shameless plug aside, I can’t lie: the album impressed me with its originality, and I still very much agree with my own review, a fair few months later (which is a good sign). Whatever you think of this record, it is an important one and will continue to be referenced for years to come. If you haven’t heard it yet, I recommend listening – ideally, several times over. I love it, and hopefully you do, too. Opener I Want You To Love Me became a pretty close companion through several months of lockdown as I uncovered the many nooks and crannies of its production and Apple’s own incisive lyricism.
Amongst the other Snobs, Stereodista listened to Ed O’Brien’s rather lacklustre (on reflection) solo début as EOB with Earth, as well as long-time favourite, BRAIDS’ new… offering, in Shadow Offering. Easy C, on the other hand, returned to the fore (after spending an almost unforgivable amount of time in Snobbery wildnerness), reviewing two of this year’s most important releases in new music: pseudonymous group SAULT’s second album in a year to deal with the manifest (and entirely unacceptable) problems associated with being Black, even in our supposedly liberal 21st Century, via Untitled (Rise), and, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Dehd’s superb, stripped-down indie work, Flowers of Devotion (Disappear has gone on to become one of my favourite songs of this year – a year during which, several times, I have indeed wanted to disappear). Last but not least, Otacon reviewed a personal favourite of his own, Future Islands, and their latest album, As Long As You Are, itself showing some promise at breaking the Future Islands mould, as it were, only to revert to something more formulaic.
These looks at Music, old and new, provided some rays of joy amongst countless, idle minutes of unbearable tedium. I cannot begin to describe how some songs, albums and artists have helped me to abide this most shite of years. My heroes are always there (and always will be), and the release of the “super deluxe edition” (barf) of Prince’s seminal Sign ‘O’ The Times turned out to bring truly welcome respite to my anxiety. I was also thrilled that such an enormous amount of his legendary Vault is beginning to see the light of day, whether it is in the form of Rebirth of the Flesh, which absolutely set me off on my Prince obsession as a young teenager (but which I know my fellow Snobs will not “get”); the whimsical All My Dreams; or in the stunningly beautiful Power Fantastic (included in this playlist). I still, however, do not yet have the means of expression to fully write about Prince just yet. One day, I shall Trip Out on His Majesty, but that day is not today, nor is it yet tomorrow.
Bowie was also, predictably, present in spades. This year, it was Cactus from 2002’s Heathen that really hit the spot—surprisingly (for those of you that didn’t know), it’s not even a Bowie original, but a Pixies cover. No prizes for guessing which version I prefer. That wasn’t the only Bowie that kept recurring through 2020, but more on that in a moment.
Hero candidates and new Signs ‘O’ The Times also continued to impress:
Christine and The Queens released the phenomenal La vita nuova EP (before then over-doing a bit on the live-streaming and collaborations front), where the title track was without doubt my absolute favourite song of the year, but Je disparais dans tes bras made it into this playlist, lest the former gets overplayed.
Personal favourite, Methyl Ethel, also squeezed out a sneaky lockdown EP in the form of Hurts To Laugh – it’s no Triage, but Majestic AF is worth listening to as a reminder of his talent. All my radar are tuned to wait for Webb’s next full-length, however.
Caroline Rose’s third album, Superstar, continues her transformation into pop starlet and, whilst on first listen John and I felt the album was much, much weaker than 2018’s LONER, we almost simultaneously came to the realisation later on this year (a month or so ago, in fact), having now got the album on vinyl, that this was a very overlooked album, even by our standards. Nothing’s Impossible is exemplary of that oversight (we are fallible!).
Lianne La Havas also really kicked things up a notch with her sensuous, self-titled album. Whilst her own, original work — particularly Paper Thin and Sour Flower — is reason alone to listen to her incredibly beguiling vocals, it was the fact that she managed to cover Weird Fishes without making me spontaneously morph into pure, enraged venom that surprised me most. That is the first and only Radiohead cover I have been able to honestly say I enjoy, and that is a very impressive feat.
BC Camplight, however, was my true surprise favourite of the year, stepping forward with another album of the year candidate in Shortly After Takeoff, where Born To Cruise has become my standout favourite. The album had completely escaped my supposedly faultless music discovery system and it took the recommendation of another friend for me to stumble upon it but, one listen in, I knew I had something special pumping into my ears. The lyricism is fantastic and yes, I haven’t bloody gotten around to reviewing it, but just use this post as the message, and the message is simple: listen to the album and buy it on vinyl. If BC Camplight tours next year (should tours be allowed), go and see him. The guy is a winner. Big time.
Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper alive (yeah, no contest), also popped up in Busta Rhymes’ wonderful Look Over Your Shoulder to remind us why he is so excellent. Other honourable mentions go out to a few returning acts, in various guises: Django Django (The Ark), TRAAMS (for Greyhound, but Sister from 2015’s Modern Dancing made the cut), U.S. Girls (The Quiver to the Bomb), Caribou (Magpie), Phoenix (Identical – finally!), and Muzz (Patchouli). Jaar and Harrington’s own DARKSIDE also managed to edge in there with a late, surprise release in Liberty Bell and fuck me am I excited to hear a new album from that duo, as if we needed any reason at all to bring on 2021!
The most exciting thing happening in Music right now, however, in my esteemed opinion, is U.K. Post-Punk. Something I have felt is sorely missing from the musical landscape of the last few years is — to paraphrase myself like a pompous ass — Music’s seeming incapacity to demand it be listened to, in and of itself. To do so successfully, Music must also say something authentic, lest you (to paraphrase Talking Heads) “talk a lot but don’t say anything.” This can, by necessity mean that music can, and perhaps should, be abrasive. Nine Inch Nails didn’t break through quietly. Nor did Prince. Nor did Bowie. Nor did any hero. Do you expect phenomenal music to make good background office ambience? If you do, you might need to visit the Musical Correctional Facility we call the rest of our website.
Well, that authenticity and demand to be listened to is rising in one particular scene in the U.K. – that of Post-Punk (which is a lazy catch-all, as it also comprises Math Rock and a few other sub-genres). Its poster children are black midi (Ducter) and Black Country, New Road (Sunglasses). I don’t think I have felt this excited about upcoming acts in a little while, particularly Black Country, New Road, who have yet to release their full-length record (bring on 2021!). Their lyricism is so astute, cutting and contemporary — it could only serve the here and now — that it demands to be listened to. It’s not necessarily an easy listen, at first, but as it grows in personality with repeated listens, I will be stunned if you aren’t struck by the power of both the music itself and what these artists are saying. As an aside: finally, some fucking guitars! These artists are all young, too; they have transcended our addiction to nostalgia and vacuous bullshit and mercilessly poke fun at those still holding onto it for dear life. If you are interested in getting into new bands with real promise, you will purchase black midi’s Schlagenheim and listen to it front to back, several times, while you wait for the release of Black Country, New Road’s LP. Then you’ll come see them all live, with us.
The only dumb move this group of bands have made so far is that black midi thought it would be fun to ironically cover some Christmas number ones. It totally undercuts their message, but I know these youngsters are all about being approachable rather than terrifying or abrasive (in personality) – fuck that, I say. Give the middle finger and live.
Anyways, like I say, U.K. Post-Punk. Mark my words: going to be big, and rightfully so.
Amidst the Great Tedium, we Snobs experienced our own need to adapt in the form of what we call “remote listening.” 2020 marked a fair few milestones amongst the Snobs, you see. Milestones that could have easily torn us apart, but didn’t. El Mascarado, our resident Hip-Hop-loving, good-vibing, perpetually-country-swapping masked avenger ditched the Big Smoke for sunny Lisboa’s more welcoming post-Brexit environs. What’s more, La Quinta do Hedonismo Fácil, a.k.a “HQ” finally came to an end after several years, as an increasing number of Snobs have been pricked by Cupid’s arrows. The most surprising case here was John—yes, John. Our resident hedonist is awash in loving endorphins after having met “The One” (as we Snobs were wont to call her, upon their first meeting) at last year’s Primavera Sound. We couldn’t be happier for him. HQ is thus now a “decentralised HQ” of sorts (which, for those of you who know me, I of course absolutely love). Maybe one day HQ will take on a new, centralised guise again but, for now, remote listening and remote Snobbery are the ties that keep your Snobs insanely close, no matter where we are, and it is fucking awesome.
Remote listening was the way we were able to continue to curate and produce playlists for your monthly listening pleasure. 2020 saw the release of AS 11 – 17 and, yes, 20 will be a big one (just like 10). As if one set of numbers wasn’t enough, John also started counting all by himself (coinciding with the U.S. election was pure coincidence, we promise). He’s made it to 40, so far, but now he needs your help. Submissions welcome for the songs up to 60 – reach out the usual way.
Revisiting all of the above as the year draws to a close truly underlines to me how utterly bizarre this year has been: I struggled to place the dates and times of when all of these things happened, despite us Snobs all regularly chatting with each other as we considered all of this music. There’s actually some science to this, in case you didn’t know: trapped in one location with minimal variation, our wee brains actually struggle to create memories, so mundane is the unchanging environment. I can confirm this is indeed true, after almost ten months of mind-numbing lockdown.
Music and song, however, can help to create and anchor a memory (this is why any playlist that focusses on a specific decade will inevitably trigger the demographic to which it is most relevant). A fair few songs did punctuate what few memories I was able to create this year: all of them feature in this playlist for exactly that reason. Some are attached to very important moments, which I have always felt refer to chapters in my own life. Others cannot carry the same significance but, whenever I hear them, I am instantly where I was when I first heard those songs. Gwen McCrae’s Let’s Straighten It Out is one of those: I will forever be with a small (responsibly-so) group of friends, when one put it on and McCrae’s voice began to caress my ears, and I dared to realise I was having fun. Pitch The Baby was sent to me by the same friend I visited in Portugal shortly after the trip. It was a sunny day, and I reminisced about beaches and how rarely I listen to the Cocteau Twins. OutKast’s infectiously catchy Love In War (from 2003’s too-forgotten Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) is now the memory of the love of my life and I dancing a jig around our kitchen table, because what else are you going to do, scroll through pointless dross and moan? Elastica’s Connection, on the other hand, is just an absolute banger.
Love is a wonderful thing. It makes life worth living (I Love This Life), and if there’s one thing we can observe at decentralised HQ in hindsight this year, it is that Love truly did blossom across the board for your dear Snobs this year, amidst and despite the global shutdown. We mentioned John and The One, but El Mascarado, too, is still deeply in love with the self-titled Gorda who penned his eponymous tripping out, as one can tell when we all choose to communicate with each other via video and over the Internet: despite seeing each other through a screen and a camera, it is blindingly obvious that El Mascarado is one loved-up human-being, even with the mask on.
I similarly find myself deep in the thrall of Love, and though the initial germ of that love may have sprung in the time Before Snobbery (approximately 2 B.S. in human years, and yes: all years Before Snobbery were bullshit), that germ has continued to grow into a love that I am not ashamed to admit runs greater and deeper than anything I have ever felt before. What started as an overly-passionate, somewhat embarrassing declaration of love in the kitchen of my old flat before a house party has morphed into an indescribable adoration for someone that I did not know was possible. Truly, if there was one blessing to come from this sodding virus, it was that it was mandated that my lover and I spend all our time together, whether we liked it or not. The great realisation to come from that experience? It is that I am completely and utterly — entirely — incapable of existing without her at this point in my life. I would, I do believe, top myself, should we not be able to be together. Happiness would always be tinged with pain and sadness without her. Upon realising this, it became clear that I needed to once again risk tremendous embarrassment and reveal a modicum of my passion once again in some form of physical manifestation.
So it was that I used the pandemic to propose to my now fiancée (she did, indeed, say “yes” although, first, she said “thank you!”). To commemorate the occasion, I curated a ‘once in a lifetime’ playlist that will forever be the musical chapter marking our engagement — no, unfortunately, you, dear reader, cannot hear this one, but to drop a few teasers (I can’t resist) and perhaps reveal that I am indeed a Kook (there’s another teaser), it included (of course) some Bowie, in the form of Boss Of Me and Girl Likes Me. I keep this playlist private because it means too much to us — I say “us”, but I cannot lie; my other half didn’t pay any attention to my playlist as I put it on to drop subtle hints at what was coming (a proposal), so it’s more for me than her, but that captures our relationship (when it comes to Music) in a nutshell. However, when it comes to our Wedding playlist, I have perhaps given myself the ridiculously insurmountable challenge of crafting AS x Marriage (coming 2021). Is it possible to create the ultimate wedding playlist? I have no idea, but out of self-loathing, I have decided to attempt the feat. Stay tuned.
And so there you have it: a year without light — Une Année Sans Lumière. Perhaps, on reflection, not quite the bleak, hopeless year I had thought: I experienced one of the most everlasting and happy memories of my life amidst the seemingly unchanging days of 2020, so the light of Joy did indeed shine bright for one, unforgettable moment. I wish I could say it was the same for many others, but we know that’s not true, so I will not miss 2020 and look forward to 2021. I hope all of you do, too.
Keep listening to good Music. It always helps get you somewhere new.
Happy New Year.