The Best of 2020

Like almost everyone else on the planet, I’m glad to see the end of 2020 rapidly approaching. All things considered I certainly can’t complain – we’ve stayed healthy and safe and are both still working. Sure, it’s been stressful. We’re getting a little stir crazy since we’ve both been working from home since March, and we had a number of events and trips cancelled, but with a COVID vaccine coming out maybe, just maybe, we can get back to some semblance of normal in 2021.

If you follow the blog at all, I’m sure you noticed a lot less activity in 2020. I’d have thought lockdown would have made me more prolific, but after something like seven years I sort of lost focus a bit – I just wasn’t sure I had much interesting left to say. I also started playing Dungeons & Dragons again (via Zoom), and that resulted in an entirely new blog that is basically a novelization of our weekly game. It’s called Defenders of Phandalin, so check it out if you’re interested in RPGs or just fantasy-style fiction.

So here’s to hoping your 2020 was safe and as sane as could be, and that maybe I’ll run into you at a record store or concert somewhere in the world in 2021.

Top 5 New Releases In 2020

1. The Ghost Choir – The Ghost Choir (Iceland)
2. Farmacia – Farmacia (Argentina)
3. The Rise of India (Deluxe Edition) – IndiaBoy & Pési-B (Iceland)
4. So When You Gonna… – Dream Wife (UK / Iceland)
5. Neyslutrans – Hatari (Iceland)

Most years selecting my favorite release of the year isn’t hard. Sorting out the rest of the Top 5 can be a bit tricky, but generally there’s one album that hits my like a lightning bolt and rockets right to the top of the list.

That didn’t happen this year. In fact, I didn’t decide on the order of the first three spots until I sat down on Christmas morning and listened to the three albums one more time, and even then it was still tough. What it came down to, ultimately, was this – not only have I played The Ghost Choir a ton, but it’s also the album I recommended to people the most often, and all those folks told me they liked it. Stylistically it reaches across categories – electronic, classical, jazz, soundtracks… there’s something there for almost everyone. It truly is an outstanding record.

Farmacia dropped on December 23, so I have only had a few days with it, but man is it killer. As always, brothers Ariel and Diego Sima stretch the boundaries and expand my mind with their electro compositions. Had this been around for a few months would it have taken the top spot? We’ll never know. My understanding is that this will be coming out in a limited vinyl release soon, so be on the lookout for that, and I’ll likely do a blog about it soon. The Rise of India was probably my biggest surprise Top 5 entrant being that I’d never heard of anyone involved in the album prior to playing it for the first time. It’s a ton of trap fun.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1. Disciplinatha
2. King Ani Mal
3. Captain Syrup
4. Latimore
5. Idris Elba

This is a bit of a mix of old school and more contemporary stuff, and it covers a wide range of genres. I feel like i didn’t listen to as much new-to-me stuff in 2020, or at least not as albums. Working from home certainly allowed me to listen to more music than ever before, but much if not most of the time I found myself playing Spotify playlists, in which case I knew almost all the music (80s metal and pop) or I didn’t know any of it (Techno Bunker). I guess the difference between 2019 and 2020 was that I was less intentional about what I played. Plus not traveling meant not exploring new record stores, and new scenes which was a major bummer. All that being said, the above are all excellent and recommended.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

1. Collection of funk/soul/jazz
2. Live at Red Rocks – Devil Makes Three
3. First Demo 12/29/80 – S.O.A. (signed by Henry Rollins)
4. Music for the Other People Place Part 1 box set
5. Is Anybody Listening? – Cell7

I was lucky enough to be gifted four huge moving boxes of 1960s to 1980s soul, funk, and R&B from a friend’s dad. There was some great stuff in here – James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Brass Construction, etc. Probably 75% of it is still in the garage, but the others were cleaned, played and moved inside. Live at Red Rocks was a fun pick-up since we were at the show a few years back. The S.O.A. demo was something I totally lucked into – Rollins posted about these on his Facebook page and on a whim I just ordered one right then and there. It tuns out they sold out in minutes, so for once an impulse buy paid off. The Music for the Other People Place box set was an interesting project in which electronic artists were given free rein… and we as the purchasers are not told who contributed albums to the collection. The Cell7 record was one I supported via crowd-funding, and not only is the album super cool, so is the amazing poster, which i framed.

Top 5 Live Shows

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

Yeah, we didn’t see any live shows in 2020. Because COVID and all that. Which is too bad, because we had tickets to see KMFDM and Ministry, and also had our early bird passes for Iceland Airwaves. Here’s hoping 2021 doesn’t suck as hard.

Top 5 Most Played Songs On Spotify

1. “Balls To The Wall” – Accept
2. “Beepers” – Sir Mix-A-Lot
3. “World Eater” – Bolt Thrower
4. “Speed of Light” – Alex Stein
5. “Realm of Chaos” – Bolt Thrower

We decided to get a Spotify subscription early in the year. Rest assured, I’m still addicted to physical formats and will buy them whenever possible. But there’s a lot of new stuff I’d like to just check out, plus it dawned on me that there are still a lot of classic albums that I’ve never heard in their entirety. I think it was the Music Exists podcast that got me thinking about this when Chuck Klosterman and Chris Ryan were talking about Exile On Main St. and I realized I’d never listened to it.

My list is interesting. I mean, a metal song from 1983 tops it, and perhaps even stranger, I’ve never owned an Accept album in my life. Go figure. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Seattle’s own Sir Mix-A-Lot made the list, though the fact that the track is “Beepers” and not something from Swass is interesting. That being said, “Beepers” was often requested by Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane during backyard evening listening sessions, so it made it to the Top 5. Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos is exactly the kind of reason I got Spotify, and I played the hell out of it for a few months (still looking for a reasonably priced copy on vinyl with the original cover, though). As for Alex Stein’s “Speed of Light”… I was shocked when I saw this because I have no idea who Alex Stein is. I think this track is on the Techno Bunker playlist, which would explain it because we play that one a lot.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

1. Bandcamp
2. Discogs
3. Karolina Fund
4. Direct from Artists
5. Lucky Records – Reykjavik

We didn’t get to do any travel in 2020, which sucked. We did make some visits to local area shops and have tried to do our part to help them survive all these lock-downs. But 2020 was really the year of mail order music. Bandcamp served up a number of days where all the money went to the artists, and I certainly spent a lot of time there. I also ordered a decent amount from Discogs, particularly from two sellers (who shall remain my little secret) who have some great stuff at reasonable prices and do an amazing job with their packaging and shipping. Karolina Fund is a project-funding site from Iceland, and a lot of Icelandic musicians have used it to do vinyl versions of their releases. I’ve had great success contributing to projects on the site. I also bought stuff direct from artists through their Facebook or Instagram pages. And of course I did three (or was it four?) mail order boxes from my favorite shop in the world, Reykjavik’s Lucky Records. I was bummed I couldn’t shop there in person in November, but if all goes well we’ll be there in 2021.

Top 5 Music Books

1. Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr
2. Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan
3. Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 2 by Henry Rollins
4. Rusted Metal: A Guide To Heavy Metal And Hard Rock Music In The Pacific Northwest (1970 – 1995) by James R. Beach, Brian L. Naron, James D. Sutton, and James Tolin
5. Total F*cking Godhead by Corbin Reiff

I think I read seven or eight music books this year, and Burning Down the Haus was the clear winner, a well-written and well-researched history of the punk movement in East Germany. Highly recommended. I also particularly enjoyed vinyl-nerding-out alongside Henry Rollins with Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 2.

So there you have it kids, 2020 in a nutshell. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you in 2021!

MAMMÚT – “Ride the Fire” (2020)

Greetings again, dear reader. It’s been a while. In looking back I see this is only my third post in November in what has been a year of sporadic updates. I don’t think the saga that has been 2020 is entirely to blame, thought it has certainly contributed. The ironic thing is I feel like I’ve probably spent more time listening to music this year than I have in a very long time, and maybe ever since I can have it on while I’m working at home. And even though the three trips we had planned for this year all got cancelled, along with the record shopping that would have accompanied them, I’ve continued to buy music at a fairly steady pace. In fact I’m expecting one more shipment from my friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Record right before Christmas, chock full of new releases.

So why the slowing of the blog? I don’t know. I started to feel like I was writing the same thing over and over. I’ve heard Henry Rollins describe the end of his music career by saying he basically woke up one morning, realized he had no more lyrics, and knew he’d never write a song again. For me it wasn’t quite that harsh, but there is definitely a feeling of not having much new to say, at least not unless an album is particularly compelling.

It’s a gray, damp morning here in the Seattle area. It’s also Thanksgiving, which is an important day here in the US. But of course COVID had other plans. We’ve only had two people inside our house, besides us, since March, and it’ll be just the two of us for Thanksgiving dinner. But we still have so much to be thankful for, even in this crazy year. Neither of us have contracted COVID (as far as we know) and our families and friends are healthy. We’re both still working. We lost a dog, but added a new pup to the household. And even with all this time together in the house, both working from home, we’re still happy to be with each other.

Ride the Fire is the perfect soundtrack for a reflective morning like this one, its sense of wistfulness sandwiched between a light layer of sadness and another of hope. It’s hard to believe this is the same group we saw for the first time back in 2010. Is this really the same band that put out Karkari back in 2008? It’s hard to reconcile but also makes perfect sense. It’s as if you can feel how the members of Mammút have matured over the years, both in becoming more talented musicians but also, just as importantly, adults. The members were young teens when the band started in 2003, meaning they’re probably all in their early 30s now. Some of them have children of their own. There are jobs and bills to pay and responsibilities. Relationships have come and gone. Life happened. And that’s reflected in their music.

Ride the Fire has been getting a lot of play here over the last few weeks, and I suspect it will be getting plenty more. You should definitely go give it a listen yourself at Bandcamp HERE, and maybe pick up a copy on red vinyl while you’re at it.

The Fall – “[Austurbæjarbíó] – Reykjavík Live 1983” (2001 / 2020)

I’m fascinated that this show was recorded, and done so well enough to be released as a live album. I mean, it’s not like in 1983 people were saying, “you know where would be a killer place to do a live album? Reykjavik.” For most of us, at least in the US, about the only thing Reykjavik was known for, if it was known at all, was the 1972 World Chess Championship when Bobby Fischer defeated the Russian Boris Spassky, a feat that actually got him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But here it is, and it sounds pretty damn good, too.

I’m not a big fan of The Fall, though I respect their achievements and music and role. If I’m being 100% honest, what turned me on to this album was the fact it was recorded in Reykjavik. Who was in the audience for this show? The guys from Þeyr? Purrkur Pillnikk? Were the kids from Tappi Tíkarrass there, including their young lead singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir? I feel like there’s a good chance most if not all the who’s who in the first generation Icelandic punk scene may have been there. Does it matter? Maybe kinda sorta, but not really. Except to me and some people in Iceland, probably. And maybe my friend Bryan in Boston.

As I mentioned above, this actually sounds pretty great. Originally released in 2001, this got the Record Store Day treatment in 2020 in a limited 2XLP edition of 1,000 copies. Is it rock, or punk, or post punk? Who cares. Put the genre labels to the side, pour yourself a whiskey, and drop the needle on this sucker.

Tómas Jónsson – “3” (2020)

I have a copy of Tómas Jónsson’s 2016 self-titled debut, but for whatever reason it never made it onto the blog. That has me curious enough to want to go back and give it another listen. But for now I’m sitting down on a dark, rainy Friday morning and spinning his latest release, 3.

For some reason I was expecting this to be a jazz album, and while at times jazz-like elements such as brush drumming and slow piano passages come to the surface, the description isn’t quite right. It’s a blend of jazz and electronic and ambient, yet none of those things at the same time. It’s definitely chill out music and perfect for rainy mornings and coffee and an intentionally slow pace. There’s a soothing quality that takes the edge off the frustrations of work and COVID and whatever else burdens you, the slow lifting of that weight off your shoulders. The B side cuts loose a bit more, upping the tempo at times, but still retains an overall relaxed feel (OK… “Sálmurinn Um Gaukinn” will likely get your blood pressure up as it approaches crescendo…)

My good friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records put this out on their label, so while that may make me biased I’m still digging this album and recommend you check it out.

Steindór Kristinsson – “Klippur” Cassette (2020)

Iceland’s Eyewitness Records, now renamed as Eyewitness Inc, is back again with another intriguing electro release. This time it’s a six-song cassette by Steindór Kristinsson. It’s an interesting collection of tracks. Two (“Anin” and “Upstairs”) are beat-driven yet still experimental, the beats standing front and center and providing enough structure to hold things together. The next three songs (“Noise”, “Aspect”, and “D”) offer more of a horror sensation, creating fluid and sinister vibes that lack the structure of their predecessors. The tape concludes with “Windy”, a track that brings the two themes together, a blend of styles and tempos that keep you unsettled.

You can listen to Klippur on the Eyewitness Bandcamp page HERE, and it looks like they still have copies of the cassette for sale as well. I suspect this is limited – some of the other Eyewitness releases were in editions of 50 or less, so you may want to jump on it if you want a physical copy.