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

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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!

AfterpartyAngel - “Death Presence” 10″ (2020)

Created as part of a digital art exhibition, AfterpartyAngel’s four-song EP Death Presence is dark dream-pop, dripping in synths and otherworldly female vocals. The somber mood and languid singing fit perfectly in 2020, giving it a hint of claustrophobia and a fluidity that makes everything blend together, much like the days and weeks in this COVID nightmare we find ourselves living in. “In Love” manages to break free a bit with some faster tempo, albeit briefly, before giving way to the soulful closer “Sexy Death Presence”.

There’s a bit of info about the record and exhibit HERE. I learned of it because Reykjavik’s Smekkleysa Plötubúð posted about it on Facebook, so I ended up ordering my copy from Iceland because I couldn’t find a Bandcamp page for them… which was due to not realizing that the band’s name was one word and not two. So the good news is you, faithful reader, can go give Death Presence a listen HERE, as well as order one of these red vinyl beauties before all 200 copies are gone.

“Tour Support Reimagined” Compilation (2019)

I should have written about this record last year. If I had, it might have finished on year-end Top 5 list. So why didn’t I? Well, I preordered as soon as I learned about it, primarily due to its association with Dream Wife (more on that below). I got the digital download immediately and played the hell out of it, but figured I’d write about it after the vinyl arrived. A friend got his copy sometime around October, but nothing for me outside a confirmation that it shipped. So I waited. And waited. And then sent some emails via Bandcamp that went unanswered. And for months it sat at the top of my list of things I ordered but hadn’t arrived yet. While everything else got crossed off, there it sat. I was about to cross it off and give up a month or so ago, but figured I’d try one more email… and I got a response immediately! The person who wrote me back asked for a few pieces of info and said they’d ship one out to me. With the COVID new world order international shipping is taking a lot longer than normal, but four weeks later my yellow vinyl, signed copy of Tour Support Reimagined arrived from the UK.

I was fortunate enough to interview Dream Wife’s Rakel Mjöll back in 2018 for an article that was published the following year in Reykjavik On Stage magazine (a shortened version of which can be read online HERE) and during our conversation she talked about the band’s work with Girls Rock and their call for female-identifying and non-binary artists to support their tour. Seven of these artists appear on Tour Support Reimagined, their music remixed by Dream Wife guitarist Alice Go. In fact the recordings used were from live performances associated with the tour, making it all that much cooler. The overall style is very pop oriented, though the styles vary considerably. I’m hesitant to identify favorites - you just need to puck this up and give it a listen yourself.

The digital download for Tour Support Reimagined is available for purchase on Bandcamp HERE. I believe the vinyl was limited to 250 signed and numbered copies, which include a zine. My copy, however, while signed, is not numbered and didn’t come with the zine, so I’m not sure if because I got this sort of after-the-fact and this was what was on hand, or if there was a second non-numbered pressing. Regardless, this is a great collection of songs and well worth the effort to track down.

Strypes - “The Difference” (1986)

This is another of the 1980s Seattle-area records I picked up a few weeks back from Hi-Voltage Records. Hailing from Tacoma, Washington, the Strypes had a decently long career as a popular touring band throughout the 1980s, apparently particularly notable for their fanbase in Asia. The Difference was their only full-length record, one the band self-released in 1986 after having put out three 7″ singles during the first half of the decade.

The Difference reveals a band that is quite tight - the songs are cleanly recorded and everyone clearly knows their place. Much of the material has that mid-80s pop-rock sound about it, that absorption of new wave into the mainstream. That being said, they do have some edgier moments, most notably on “Dead Stop”. Holly and I were talking the other day about whether one can listen to an album for the first time and identify “the hit”, and “Dead Stop” is actually an example of this - I latched onto that jam immediately the first time I heard it, and when I subsequently did some research learned that it was originally released as a single-sided 7″ the year before and was the only one of their prior singles that Strypes included on The Difference, so clearly they thought it was great and recognized the need to put it on the album. I don’t share this to imply that I’m some kind of music savant, because I’m clearly not. But it does support the idea that a better-than-average song is quite often immediately recognizable as such.

Is The Difference dated? Sure, to some extent. I mean, while there are still bands making 80s style hard rock and metal, poppier fare tends to move on without a lot of looking back. Strypes did a reunion concert as recently as 2014, and given the opportunity to see them live in the future I’d certainly consider going.

Thomas Dolby - “The Golden Age of Wireless” (1982)

My record buying started with, I believe, two 7″ singles. To this day I don’t recall if I bought them at the same time, or if I got one before the other. But those two A sides I wanted were the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”.

While I eventually went on to buy other Eurythmics and Annie Lennox albums, I sort of feel like I’ve never even heard another Thomas Dolby song in my entire life. Is that possible? I mean, the single obviously had a B side, and even as a 12-year-old I must have played it at least once. But I’ll be damned if I can remember doing so, or even the title of the B side. I think I had the purple label version, which means it was “Flying North”. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about “Flying North”. According to the interwebs Dolby charted three singles in the US mainstream charts, all three of which appeared on the most common versions of his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless. “She Blinded Me With Science” made it to #6, “One of Our Submarines” to #17, and “Europa and the Pirate Twins” just snuck into the Top 40, topping out at #37. He did better in his native UK, but never managed a Top 10 hit there (somehow “She Blinded Me With Science” only made it to #49 in the UK…).

So here I am, roughly 37 years after I bought my first and only Thomas Dolby single, sitting down and spinning The Golden Age of Wireless for the first time. It’s a bit quirky, meaning “She Blinded Me With Science” wasn’t an anomaly - in fact it feels a bit tame compared to tracks like “Europa and the Pirate Twins”. Synth-laden and poppy, it maintains its own unique character throughout. I particularly enjoyed “Commercial Breakup”, for what it’s worth. Overall decent, though not sure I’ll end up spinning it again.