2020: The Year I Travelled Through Music

I have been very lucky to do what I do for a living up until this point. My work affords me the opportunity to travel around South and Southeast Asia about once a month in normal times. In fact I spent the last weekend before Singapore's 'circuit breaker' on a beach in Galle, Sri Lanka following the previous week's work in Colombo.

Unfortunately though, we've all been grounded for months now, our brains stultifying due to lack of external stimuli. At the start of lockdown I, like you I'm sure, binged Tiger King on Netflix and hated myself for it. I turned to reading but seem to be suffering some sort of lockdown brainfog, which is clouding my concentration. This is a shame because reading is usually such a great escape from the confines of Singapore's scant 728 km2.

So, instead of books, this year I have found my escape in music, which has transported me through time and space to pastures new (once I threw off the shackles of the all-knowing algorithm that is!).

In 2020 I have discovered, not just more new artists and albums than I have in the last five years, but whole new genres I barely knew existed. I have already written in depth about my newfound love for Synthwave and its ability to send me back in time to an 80s that never was. But here, in chronological order of release and discovery, are the top 15 albums that have soundtracked my pandemic year.

1. Dream Electric Vol. 1 from Electric Dream Records

This was my introduction to Synthwave, the first in a series of beautifully packaged compilation albums from Electric Dream Records in Chicago. I picked this up at Underground Records in Adelaide late last year and have listened to it almost daily since.

2. Hyperspace by Beck (November 2019)

I thought I was a pioneer when I discovered Synthwave down under but Beck has always been ahead of the game and combines nostalgic synths with cutting edge beats on his latest.

3. WHO by The Who (December 2019)

Bought for me last Christmas by my uncle I'll admit I was skeptical at first but blow me, Daltrey's still got the pipes and Townsend's still got the chops. The whole album's a banger but none more so than I Don't Wanna Get Wise.

4. I Am Not A Dog On A Chain by Morrissey (March 2020)

Okay, it is essentially a gammon's rant against 'wokeness' and identity politics but his voice remains unmistakable, his wit undeniable and his melodies irresistible, especially on the Motown-y Bobby Don't You Think They Know?.

< Enter COVID-19 and a change of tone >

5. Mixing Colours by Roger Eno & Brian Eno (March 2020)

When the pandemic hit Singapore and we went into lockdown I got a bit introspective with the help of Roger Eno and his little-known brother Brian. This airy, ambient album transports you to somewhere lighter and brighter with no masks or sharp corners.

6. Dear Life by Brendan Benson (April 2020)

Power pop maestro Benson churns out pure sinalongable melodies as he muses on his life and the lives of others in Dear Life. Lead single Richest Man is the best way in to this album and, I like to think, his lovely family.

7. Age of Unreason by Bad Religion (May 2020)

These old rebels very much have a cause and it's getting Trump out of office. Unfortunately they are preaching to the choir but who cares when they do it so well, particularly on Big Black Dog, which is begging to be heard live in a squash of bodies, fists raised high, screaming the chorus!

8. Delicious Detonation by Soul Grenades (May 2020)

The second release from my brother's ten-piece London funk outfit, this outing incorporates guest vocalists from across the, apparently, thriving UK funk scene. As winter draws in this is a ray of warming sunshine that'll take you right back to summer (not this summer, obviously, but a better one!).

9. Petals for Armor by Hayley Williams (May 2020)

It's her, y'know, from that band, the one with the red hair, remember? No? Don't worry about it, she's solo now and composing eery lo-fi pop like this.

10. Help 25th Anniversary Edition by War Child (September 2020)

In 1995 the great and good of Britpop came together on one album to aid the plight of Bosnian children caught in conflict. 25 years later and the album, originally mastered by Brian Eno, has been released on vinyl for the first time with accompanying 'making of...' podcast (see bottom), all of which takes me right back to London in the 90s - which was a fabulously happening place to be let me tell you. The final track on the album was by The Smoking Mojo Filters, a super group that included Paul McCartney, Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, just imagine yourself being there...

11. Voyage au Soleil by numün (September 2020)

I found this album by way of a playlist by ambient label A Strangely Isolated Place (I think), and fell hard for its organic soundscapes of traditional instruments played in untraditional ways. This album is a trip, I just don't know where to...

12. AWE by The Analog Girl (September 2020)

Singapore's sultry-voiced synth whisperer went a little Synthwave herself with this year's release and that's alright by me.

13. Rise of The Synths OST by OGRE Sound (October 2020)

Soundtrack to the crowdfunded documentary narrated by the Godfather of Synthwave John Carpenter, this is what the 80s wanted to sound like but didn't...until now.

14. Nick Luscombe presents Tokyo Dreaming (November 2020)

This is my new obsession, Japanese City Pop, a genre of music derided during its 70s and 80s heyday as the music of yuppies but now being reevaluated on its many and varied merits. Close your eyes, press play and find yourself in an upmarket cocktail bar in downtown Tokyo circa 1984.

15. SEED by Syndicate (December 2020)

Literally just bought this collection of beats compiled by Singaporean label/collective Syndicate featuring a whopping 23 artists all sharing one instance of what they've been up to in lockdown and transporting the listener around the region via a mix of modern and traditional Southeast Asian sounds.

And one for luck!

16. Brits & Pieces by Brits & Pieces (December 2020)

This is a brand new compilation of British guitar bands in the mould of the Shine series of compilations from the 90s. Brits & Pieces is a pedlar of nostalgia but put this together to help new bands who can't currently gig, which is why all profits go to them. I've not heard it all yet but it's on its way from Rough Trade in England and I can't wait for it to arrive!

Another great comfort this year were podcasts, filling in for banter with friends and providing more depth and drama than almost anything I've seen on television. Here, in brief, were my top 5.

  1. Tracks: Origin (Series #1) by BBC - Nine-part, first-person, dystopian drama in the Black Mirror mould - do NOT listen alone!

  2. Gossipmongers - Four series of utter filth to binge on until you laugh up your Christmas lunch (though not as good since Poppy left - sorry lads)!

  3. Darknet Diaries - Tales from the dark side of the Internet brought to you by host Jack Rhysider

  4. 25 Years of Help - The story of how they got Blur & Oasis on the same record in 1995 alongside the best of Britpop's pretty young things.

  5. Britpop Revival Show - Nick, the loveliest man in radio, presents a weekly show of Britpop classics, re-issues and new discoveries with guests who there, man!

What have you listened to this year that raised your spirit or transported it somewhere safe and warm? I'd love to know. Merry Christmas and let's all hope for a more tangible, communal and human 2021.

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