Best of Newly Heard 2020

Dec 15, 2020 · 1483 words · 7 minute read

Six album covers for from the six tracks selected below

Perhaps it’s a delayed reaction from 2018, but this year more dance and electronic music choices has filtered into my listening. It might also be that, as I get older I find it easier to become distracted by clearly sung lyrics and need something more instrumental or where the words are not as clear. Or perhaps it’s also something to do with The Pandemic; that my usual stomping ground of ‘rock’ bands remind me too much of public concerts and gatherings, something that’s not clear when it will return, and how safe it will be to do so, and I’ve been subconsciously suppressing these in favour of what I think of as less party and more contemplative music. The top six picks, plus honourable mentions are available as a Spotify playlist .

Age of Consent - New Order

New Order was a band where, other than Blue Monday I hadn’t listened to much, and then for some unknown reason, I started working my way through their albums at the start of the year. This coincided with our second child being born in the winter, so I would be driving to and from the hospital between visits, in the dark, with various New Order albums playing on the stereo, which is going to be a link that’s going sit forever in my memory.

One thing I like about long-lived bands, is being able to see them evolve, and in New Order that’s very clear; at the beginning, as they start on Movement sounding very much like Joy Division, before becoming more and more settled into their new identity. In that sense Power, Corruption and Lies feels like the point when they’ve really found themselves.

Age of Consent was the track, perhaps because it’s the first one, that really grabbed me, even if Your Silent Face is also excellent. Interesting is also 5 6 8, as it clearly contains parts that also appear in Blue Monday, and so listening to it is a bit disorientating, as you keep trying assign bits of one song to the other. I haven’t managed to find much online explaining the connection and lineage between the two songs, and would like to understand more. The single Blue Monday was released before Power, Corruption and Lies, in March of 1983, with the album following in May, but not featuring the more famous song, instead this variation.

By coincidence later in the year Transmissions: The Definitive History of Joy Division and New Order was released, which added a lot of detail and context to what I’d been listening to.

Korolev - Public Service Broadcasting

This entry seems like cheating, as it is closely linked to 2014’s Race for Space, being from an EP that collects a series of Sputnik remixes, but I only heard it this year, so it counts. I’m normally not that interested in remixes1, as I feel most aren’t as good as the original, and don’t tend to different enough to be very interesting. You get the same issue with covers, but in most cases they inject more of the covering band’s own style. That’s true of the re-mixes of Sputnik on this EP, but the B-side had escaped my notice until now, which is a pity as it’s a great song.

Why Korolev didn’t get a space on the album, or become a single, is a complete mystery to me, as it’s better than many of the other tracks on Race for Space. Perhaps it’s too up-tempo and didn’t fit in the album pacing of story ark? Or perhaps it’s just too classic PBS and they were trying to get away from the heavy use of spoken samples in some tracks? Whatever the reason, it’s hidden gem that should have been on there.

Sommer ‘89 (Er Schnitt Löcher in den Zaun) - Kettcar

Kettcar is not a new band, releasing their first album in 2002, and apparently consider themselves Indie Rock, even if they’re often lumped in with the slightly earlier ‘Hamburger Schule’ bands. I’m pretty certain they could be described as German Emo. Sommer ‘89 comes from the more recent 2017 release ‘Ich vs. Wir’, and tells the story of someone driving down to the Austrian border and helping Germans escape from East Germany.

There are also other good tracks on the same album, and a full back catalogue. While they claim no connection to the ‘Hamburg School’, and for them Hamburg is only a place where they met, you can understand how people want to force the link as there are local references peppered throughout their material, such as in the first album “Du und wieviel von deinen Freunden” [“You and how many of your friends?”], in song names like Landungsbrücken raus (naming the main ferry terminal on the river) and lyrics:

Aber irgendwie schon besser im Taxi zu weinen,
Als im HVV-bus, oder nicht?
[Isn’t it better to cry in a taxi than,
in a HVV2 bus?]

For the curious, the name ‘Kettcar’ is a brand of children’s pedal powered car .

Definition of Happiness - David August

I can’t find this track as a recording you can buy or stream, only as a Youtube Video , but it’s an interesting electronic track with a mix of different textures that are introduced beautifully and smoothly mixed together while keeping their distinct sounds. As it’s not on Spotify, I’ve instead picked Epikur, which I think has a similar feel in some ways.

I’m still stumbling my way around electronic music, so haven’t really been able to figure out what I like and why. I think August’s work appeals because the textures are very varied, but it’s still got more of a beat and song structure than some other, more ‘found sound’ based things I’ve heard, and isn’t quite as background ‘ambient’3.

My Only Swerving - El Ten Eleven

I think officially they count as ‘post-rock’, but the chords and structures they use feel very Emo, but calling it ‘Post-Emo-Rock’ is going too far in genre categorisation.

It certainly evokes some nostalgia in me, and sounds very much like the year of its release, 2005. It’s more immediate than other post-rock music, and there aren’t any really long and overly self-indulgent tracks, with only Connie breaching the six minute mark. The way they’re able to create such complex music as a duo is very impressive, but perhaps also what keeps them sounding a bit more like a rock band than a soundscape.

(The plane nerd in me is obliged to tell you that the album cover is infuriating. The band is named “El Ten Eleven”, after the common pronunciation of the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar passenger aircraft, but the aircraft in silhouette on the front is not an L-1011, but instead a different Trijet, the Boeing 727. I can only assume this has been done on purpose to annoy pedants like me.)

Blinding Lights - The Weeknd

Compared with everything else on this list, this is dangerously modern, released only at the end of 2019, and being omni-present on the radio filtered into my own listening. It’s more polished pop than most of what I listen to, but it’s fair to recognise it as an excellent, and catchy song, that combines multiple genres (synth-pop, R’n’B, New Wave?) into one smooth and evocative package.

Other Notables

A couple of unexpected collaborations drew my attention, the first is King’s Call by Phil Lynott and Mark Knopfler, in what must be the ultimate dad-rock collab. I also learnt about the 1995 Neil Young album Mirror Ball , that features members of Pearl Jam. Given the inputs you might expect some pretty spectacular results, but they’re relatively mundane, even if it’s an interesting idea. The track I’m the Ocean is nice though [Note: after Niel Young’s falling out with Spotify, it looks like you can’t hear this track in the playlist any more].

The NOFX cover of Frank Turner’s Thatcher Fucked the Kids is a very fun cover, and demonstrates what I like in a cover, unlike most remixes, where the changes are substantial enough to make it into its own thing. The most typical entry is probably Editor’s No Sound But the Wind, which I first heard on the album Violence, but there’s something about this full band version that I prefer, even if the production is clearly slightly unfinished.

There’s also some more electronic music, with an examples from the relaxed Pantha du Prince, or the more techo deadmau5 and Tinlicker. Enjoy.

  1. There are of course exceptions. The remixes on Mogwai’s A Wreched Virile Law are mostly excellent, as are some remixes of Puscifer. ↩︎

  2. HVV being the Hamburger Verkehrsverbund, the local public transport network ↩︎

  3. The excessive use of quote marks around terms here is a pretty clear indicator that I don’t know what the correct terms for these things are in this genre, and there’s a whole vocabularly to learn. ↩︎