The half-year in music: Jan-June 2020

In January of each year since 2015, I have started a new Spotify playlist. Over the course of the year, I add to it. Songs I hear on the radio or on Spotify playlists or through social media go in there. The only criterion for admission is that the tracks have to be released in the playlist’s own year. At the end of the year, I have a record of the new music I listened to that year, and I make another playlist.

We’re halfway through 2020, a year which makes no sense. What follows is some snippetty review of what’s on my playlist so far, in the order that I added the tracks.

And if you want it, here’s the playlist:

No star ratings or that, but REALLY GOOD TRACKS are in BOLD.


1 – Stormzy – Still Disappointed

The best song written in 2020 may well be a petulant three-minute diss track from January 10. Stormzy spits out a sneering assault on grime godfather Wiley. It is alternately hyper-articulate and unashamedly puerile, over a sullen, squelchy bass. Stormzy apparently cooked up this slice of fried gold fully-formed in about a day, after Wiley made some unpleasant comments about Stormzy’s mum. It ends with a casual murder: Hey fuckboy lemme know how you wanna die / twenty-four hours to reply.


2 – Rhiannon Gidden with Francesco Turrisi – Little Margaret

I think this actually came out in 2019, but at the time I heard it my 2020 playlist was in dire need of numbers so I bent the rules. Turrisi’s twanging drums give an entrancing sway to Gidden’s arrangement of an old American folk song. The lyrics are haunted and the beat is too. It sounds like it could go on forever without cutting you loose. This is one of those tracks that I liked so much that I set it as my alarm and then got utterly sick of it for a bit.


3 – Stormzy – Disappointed

An earlier projectile from the same Stormzy / Wiley crossfire. Still Disappointed is the One, but this also rocks.


4 – Pearl Jam – Dance of the Clairvoyants

5 – Billy Talent – Reckless Paradise

7 – Gorillaz ft. Slowthai – Momentary Bliss

8 – The Used ft Jason Aalon Butler – Blow Me

9 – Lamb of God – Checkmate

10 – Clutch – Spacegrass

22 – Biffy Clyro – Instant History

31 – Evanescence – Wasted on You

A lot of tracks get onto the playlist because they’re the new song from X band and then I end up skipping them when they fail to grow on me. File all of these under ‘not their best’. Shame about Lamb of God. Through that Ashes of the Wake – Sacrament – Wrath period in the mid-2000s they were unstoppable. Now they sound quite …stoppable.


6 – Childbirth – Siri, Open Tinder

I heard this in a coffee shop back when there were coffee shops and I thought it was quite funny. It’s still quite funny, thought it doesn’t bear much repeat listening.


11 – Skunk Anansie – This Means War

Another band who used to be good…this time being decent. A thinner, brattier version of Skin’s always impressive vocal skills seethe atop this snarling single. Skunk mellowed out after their window-smashing debut Paranoid and Sunburnt: this might be their heaviest track since then, although that heaviness comes from a disco-glam stomp in place of the spiky riffs.


12 – Noise – Nightwish

Nightwish deal in epic. Had they held back the rich syrupy production which has been poured with the usual pomp all over the guitars and keyboards, the hissing evil in the verses of this song could have been kindled into something subtler and more sinister. But Nightwish deal in epic. Big choruses, monolithic riff, thunderous instrumental passage, a bit that sounds a lot like the theremin from the Doctor Who intro. Nowt wrong with it in fairness.


13 – Demons – Avenged Sevenfold

If this had been on City of Evil it would have fitted in just fine. And City of Evil is a cracking album. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that I had heard this long before I ever heard it. I still like the stretchy, sneery sonic space that A7X open up when Matt Shadows does his whingiest singing and Synyster Gates harmonises by kicking in with his whiniest guitar solo. It’s a lovely, scuzzy, compelling type of sound.

Oh apparently this is a re-release of an old B-Side or something. Makes sense.


14 – Living the Dream – Five Finger Death Punch

If you made a compilation album of all of the songs with the worst lyrics, every track would be by Five Finger Death Punch and every second track would be this one. I’m not even going to spoil it for you. Just type it into YouTube if you want to think the thought ‘these are bad lyrics’ and be correct.


15 – Sugar Shack – Beth Hart

Beth Hart’s heartstring-jerker piano ballad ‘LA Song’ is probably how she ended up in my algorithms. Presumably I stuck Sugar Shack in the 2020 playlist when it floated across a ‘recommended for you’ screen or something. Not my sort of thing at all.


16 – Endorphin – Crossfaith

This would be good for bouncing around a metal club to, or maybe exercise to? Until there are metal clubs again it’s one to skip (unless you need to exercise.)


17  – Ragnarok – Corvus Corax

If you have read the title of this track and the name of the band then you already know what it sounds like. Cheesy mythologically themed metal with the same epic aspirations as Nightwish but without the budget or songwriting chops.


18 – Unholy Elixir – Kate Tempest

The cerebral complexity of this track is a bit alarming after the brain-numbing properties of tracks 14-17. Kate puts a slithery twang on her voice here which reminds me of Slowthai. Compared to the other work of hers I know, it’s a bit more hip-hop and a bit less spoken-word, a bit less melodramatic and a bit more …defeated? It sounds rain-drenched and lamppost-lit.


19 – Hildur Guðnadóttir – Fólk fær andlit

Written about the mistreatment of refugees in Iceland. Haunting, solemn and choral. This really takes you somewhere for five minutes then gently guides you back.


20 – Hozier – Jackboot Jump

I really love Hozier at his best. This isn’t it, but it’s a solid protest stomper that name-checks contemporary authoritarian abuses of power. Hozier’s Irish accent bleeds through an unusually muttered vocal performance which teams up with a bleating, dissatisfied high-pitched guitar lick. The final verse tries too hard to bring closure to a very open topic, and the concluding optimism — you know good things are happening when the Jackboot needs to jump — rings hollow.


21 – Billie Eilish – No Time to Die

The Jack White and Alicia Keys one is still the best Bond theme.


23 – Bury Tomorrow – Choke

24 – Bleed From Within – The End of All We Know

Very serviceable tracks from two bands who have a solid grasp of where metal is at in 2020 and how to pull it off. Considerably overshadowed, mind, by…


25, 26, 27 – Trivium – Catastrophist, What the Dead Men Say, Amongst the Shadows & the Stones

It’s such a fucking incandescent triumphant thing to have Trivium back for their second proper, thumping, complex, intelligent, good album in a row. Trivium got famous very young off the back of their era-defining second album Ascendancy, then received a vicious, largely undeserved critical backlash for The Crusade. Matt Heafy has always seemed easily wounded by this sort of thing, and for a decade they veered wildly. Their next attempt, Shogun, was excellent but without the radio hits of Ascendancy it failed to stabilise the band, who took refuge first in the denser textures of In Waves. Then came the true miss-steps: the banal anthems of Silence in the Snow and the woeful pop-metal of Vengeance Falls. It seemed safe to think of Trivium as a band who used to be good.

But then! 2017’s The Sin and the Sentence thundered out of left field, bringing a wonderfully polished blend of extreme metal intricacy with stadium-rock-sized choruses and solos. Bassist Paolo Gregoletto took over lyric-writing duties with assured effect. It sounded like Trivium’s early brilliance all grown up. This year, they’ve done it again. The new album What The Dead Men Say has a few weaker moments, but its best tracks put it alongside Sin as one of the best metal albums of the post-2010 era. ‘Amongst the Shadows and the Stones’, in particular, is a diamond.


28 – Machine Head – Circle the Drain

Listen to Trivium.


29 – Butterfingers – Bad News

Reformed veteran Queensland comedy-rap-rock do I need to finish this sentence?


30 – Ramin Djawadi – Wicked Games

One of the best things about Westworld season 3. Season 1 was so good, what happened?


32 – Joe Bonamassa – A Conversation with Alice

33 – Datcha Mandala – Stick it Out

34 – Larkin Poe – Keep Diggin’

When I started working from home in lockdown I decided to rediscover listening to radio. This is where the ‘attempting to find a decent UK rock radio station’ tracks come in. After a few days the presenters annoyed me and I switched to BBC Radio 6 instead.


(You can tell that this is about where I stopped thinking like I had to add any old track I came across to bulk out the playlist, and adopted the far less exhausting approach of only putting in songs that I actively enjoyed)


35 – Leaving LA – Tim Minchin

Tim’s very witty and a bitty embittered and he does bittersweet so bitterly and sweetly and well. 


36 – Slipknot – Nero Forte

You see all those metal tracks in this list, from Lamb of God, Avenged Sevenfold, Five Finger Death Punch, Machine Head… all those macho 2000s American metal bands who sound just like they always did and that isn’t bad but it isn’t enough? Well this is how you fucking do it lads. Nero Forte is furious, ripsnorting, a burnt-rubber collision of Old Slipknot verses into New Slipknot choruses that results in a rusted, adrenaline-charged nine-headed robot that kicks over buildings.


37 – Hozier – The Parting Glass

Hozier has a lovely voice and he sings a lovely old sad song.


38 – Within Temptation – Entertain You

Sometimes slick, poppy Euro-metal would work better if it just committed to being pop. There’s no need for the glossy, weightless distorted guitars, and the barking male vocalist detracts more than he adds to Sharon den Adel”s habitually rousing lead vocal. All the ingredients are here of a decent Lady Gaga track, and Within Temptation almost end up making it.


39 – Metallica – Blackened 2020

This is the best Zoom song, no-one else need bother trying to do a Zoom song, this is it. An acoustic take on a Metallica classic, turned down and slowed up into a bewitching, pulsing haze with a Kirk Hammett solo that, even turned down and slowed up, takes you to all the places a Kirk Hammett guitar solo should.


40 – Little Simz – Might Bang, Might Not

This is where I gave up on rock radio and switched to 6 Music. This track’s an espresso shot of sass and vim. Bouncy bassy MIA-esque UK hip-hop cluttered with smirking asides.


41 – Laura Marling – Held Down

42 – Half Moon Run – All at Once

To be fair I do rate both of these, but in the category of The Radio 6 Period, they are very much in the shadow of: 

43 – Fiona Apple – Drumset

Isn’t it unpleasantly infuriating when you see everyone saying something is brilliant but you don’t pick up on it at once so later you come to it with the completely unfounded assumption that it’s been overhyped and overrated but it turns out that, no, it’s just brilliant, it’s just a superb artist making wonderful art? Isn’t it unpleasant, that? Doesn’t it reflect really poorly on you? I mean…me.


44 – Oceans of Slumber – A Return to the Earth Below.

There hasn’t been much great heavy metal in the past half-decade or so. There’s been the Trivium Reappearance — see above — but apart from that… Parkway Drive’s Ire was back in 2015, and Gojira’s Magma wasn’t as good as we all wanted it to be. Code Orange’s Forever had as much to do with hardcore punk and Nine Inch Nails as metal. And then there was Oceans of Slumber’s 2016 Winter, which was beautiful and perfect, female-fronted Southern-gothic Texan progressive metal. 2018’s follow-up The Banished Heart wasn’t bad but it wasn’t Winter. This new track sounds like they’re back on top form.


45 – Oceans of Slumber – Strange Fruit.

…And then there’s this, from the same band. Ah holy shit just listen to this. An icy weight of black-metal guitar sludge powering an overwhelming cover of Billie Holiday’s tragically still-timely classic. Cammy Gilbert’s voice wrenches sound into falling ash.


46 –  Run the Jewels ft. Pharrell and Zach de la Rocha – JU$T

Do you want to hear Zach de la Rocha yelling look at all these slave masters in his Zach de la Rocha voice in the background of a furious anti-capitalist, Haitian-Revolution-refering Run the Jewels rant? I do, and now I can.


That’s it that’s the blog. Half a year of the sort of shit that Aran listens to, summarised for your reading pleasure. Tracks of the year so far: Still Disappointed, Amongst the Shadows and the Stones, A Return to the Earth Below.

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