It is traditional between Christmas and New Year for The Social (the real one on Little Portland St) to shut its doors after closing time on the Dec 23. By that point only Graeme, Simon and a few of the staunchest West End drinkers would remain in the Upstairs Bar after weeks of madness. The lights would not come on again until late afternoon on NYE when we need to let the bands in to sound check, blow up some balloons, wipe down the bar and get set up for closing down another year together. In some ways this year is no different really (except the bar in W1 shut in March of course) with the website and daily ‘Afterwork Drinks’ winding down just before Christmas. I’m not certain on our plans for the 31st yet but I am sure as hell not missing the last minute ticket sale stress and guest list requests before NYE.
We decided to put together a penultimate post of 2020, a long meandering look back through this strange and fucked up year. We put word out to our friends, readers, writers, sages, drinkers and thinkers to try and shine some small but powerful shards of light on elements from the last 12 months that weren’t complete bullshit, before we move on into 2021 and hopefully something better. Thank you to everyone who has contributed below – it’s a mega-deep-dive-scroll-down epic this one, in an order that I thought worked but is very non-particular, maybe I just spread out the big bits and small bits, or the nice pictures and playlists, so you’ll need to read to the end or miss out on some treats and a ‘last word’ on the matter from Pete Fowler.
I think some good times are ahead everyone. Hold tight, stick together.
In the Spring it was almost impossible to read. The book that breached the impasse for me was Peter Kingsley’s Catafalque, a brave anatomy of dark Jungian insight into our collective spiritual paralysis and entropy. In the editorial downtime from White Rabbit and Social Gathering, both of which kept me busy, I managed to read Patrick Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy and I’ll be going back to him for more. Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth, coming out in January, is Edinburgh Gothic at its finest. Also, out of Scotland, special shout out to Common Breath, who has emerged as a voice (and publisher) of uncommon taste and vision. Tom Kromer’s lost ‘30s minor classic, Waiting for Nothing, was a hell of a find. I also loved Kevin Barry’s stories, Adam Sharp’s English Heretic Collection and Max Porter’s forthcoming Death of Francis Bacon. The book I am perhaps most looking forward to next year is Paul Morley’s life of Tony Wilson, which I commissioned thirteen years ago at Faber! I have heard rumour it will finally be published …
Music was easier to submit to as a soundtrack to tune out from the despair of the news. I loved albums by Heliocentrics, DJ Python, Bless the Mad, Trees Speak, Andy Bell, Yves Tumor, Warmduscher, Heather Leigh, Bill Callahan, The Soft Pink Truth, Roisin Murphy, Nadine Shah, Land Trance, Sonic Boom, Jay Electronica, Shit & Shine and my song of the year is Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan, which reduced me to a weeping wreck when I first heard it at some point in early April. The true return of a prophet. The best music has been found on NTS and Worldwide or Mixloud where djs have had a chance to reflect:Luke Unabomber’s aural acid house memoirs, Trevor Jackson, Optimo and Erol Alkan on NTS, Justin Robertson’s Temple of Wonders, Dennis Bovell’s dub and reggae digs, and of course the endless resource that is The Flightpath Estate and their curation of various Weatherall shows and gigs over the years. Sean Johnston has been heroic. His #ALFOS Emergency Broadcasts have kept the disco fires burning.
Thing of the year, of any year in fact, had to be the 17 album deluxe Sign o’ the Times reissue. Almost flawless in every respect.
I’d love to say that a record or a book saved my sanity this year but it would be a lie. I look back at my most listened to tracks on Spotify and it’s pretty much the same as the year before – a smattering of prog metal, some heavy techno, some ambient stuff that sounds like the dishwasher’s on the blink and a bunch of songs from Trolls World Tour soundtrack that my kids have forced me to play in the car (I mean, who can argue with Parliament’s Atomic Dog rerecorded in Troll form?)
2020 was less a voyage of discovery and more a retreat into a comfort zone. Most of the music I’ve enjoyed has been on the radio. I’ve treated 6 Music as an enveloping duvet of sound and I’ve used NTS more like a musical defibrillator (hats doffed to Zakia’s phenomenal Questing shows, Four Tet’s well randy mid afternoon rave ups and Andrew Weatherall’s untouchable Music’s Not For Everyone archive). Mostly though, I’ve listened to other people’s picks as part of The Social’s daily 6pm Twitter drink-meet. Each of those sessions is impossible to separate from the virtual community that’s formed each night, the music entwined with the conversation. It’s been a genuine joy to pop in for a couple of tracks every night on the way home from work and to raise a glass with absent friends sat somewhere on the other side of the internet. Go on, just one more, what harm can it possibly do?
The thing I’ve been most proud of has been The Social Gathering itself. I’ve worked with Carl and Lee in differing capacities over the years (Carl on Social and festival things, Lee on several print titles including this year’s history of Heavenly Recordings, my book Believe in Magic) but we’ve never collaborated on anything that’s run with such fierce intensity and determination. Why would we? If one of us had posted the big picture of what we’d end up doing this year, each of us would have run a mile. It worked because we didn’t know how long it would last for when we started – a few weeks? How long was the first lockdown meant to be anyway? – and it grew over time, getting its claws into us with the delivery of each new piece. By the summer, we didn’t want it to end, like an extracurricular Stockholm Syndrome designed to keep us awake at night while everything else around us went from chaos to boredom and back again on a daily basis. This was the fun part of 2020, as opposed to the panics about money and the health of family and friends. Just being able to mentally sit in the back booth of the bar talking shop and watching mad ideas spiral and bloom with Carl and Lee has been a blessing. I’m pretty sure they’d do a mean version of Atomic Dog too.
The Kent Border twitter
This has been a year of borders. Old ones being erected, new ones being put up. Being bored, hoarding. Borders closing. Social media heaped more stress onto pandemic life, bar @BorderKent. The account started when news of the Brexit-generated Kent Access Permit first emerged. Since then they’ve poked and pilloried, mocking derelict government with an ongoing series of Twitter polls to decide matters of state. A narrow majority voted for newly-independent Kent to have a monarchy which was then adapted, by poll, to an elected monarchy with wildcard Jacinta Ardern as Queen of Kent. The flag features sunlit uplands and a Kentish cobnut with a slogan: “Our quest is to congest”. Perhaps it helps that I grew up in Orpington – which is NOT IN KENT – but the account has jokes for days for all of us. Who is behind it? Well… that’s a border I won’t cross.
In this year of loss and longing, of fear and fury, I spent a lot of time sitting at my kitchen table, thinking, stinking, writing. Listening, too. The longest, most reliable relationship in my life is with music and, as I was suddenly confronted with some new realities in 2020, music did not retreat in the face of adversity. It stepped up. Legions from the past made themselves available – The Unique Thelonious Monk did some very heavy lifting in the summer alongside Plays Duke Ellington – but also contemporary sounds appeared before me, unbowed by their own unforeseen obstacles. So much music took my head apart this year. I became obsessed by a new song for days on end, testing it repeatedly before adding it to a long-running playlist (and then removing it a month later). In the absence of a social life I’d taken so for granted, these new songs presented themselves as friends much as they had when I was a young teenager. It got intense. It became personal. We have all watched the same unmissable box sets and bloodless sport. We may have read some of the same books and felt subsequently both enlivened and inadequate. But our music spoke to each of us alone, in its own language. I took fifty-two of my favourite songs, one to reflect each of my winters, and put them in a list just for you:
If I could choose one thing that has kept me entertained this year, it has to be BoJack Horseman. The Netflix animation had been recommended by countless trustworthy friends, but initially I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch a TV show about a talking horse. But BoJack isn’t just a horse, he’s a faded 90s Hollywood star, whose best days are behind him, yet even with all of the money and fame, he is undergoing an existential crisis.
An indication of significant art is when it makes you view the world with a fresh perspective. BoJack did exactly that; it is written in such a way that it suck ups the celebrity horror and gossip of Los Angeles and regurgitates it in the form of talking animals. No subject is off-limits, and its clever attack on Weinstein and portrayal of MeToo was flawlessly executed. After watching all six seasons, I knew I would always think about Hollywood through the BoJack lens.
BoJack Horseman carried me through the spring and summer of this year like no other television has since The Sopranos. By the closing episodes, I felt as though I had read one of the Great American Novels.
2020 has been a lot of things both good and bad, but at least it ain’t been boring! I feel blessed to experience this bizarre new world as it is, and Im forever the optimist so here’s to the brand new future and falling back into some kind of past gracefully. It ain’t ever over till the fat man sings so thank goodness Im a screamer! Be safe and see you on the sidewalk soon.
Early on I saw the apocalypse as a chrysallis, a space to stop and grow new wings. On the way to emerging again like a bullet, I discovered that: Johnny Aloha’s Tiki-lounge covers are a lens through which to perceive current humanity in a forgiving light, over cocktails; mezcal, orange juice and a dash of grenadine can almost do this without Johnny; Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo can help with not giving up tobacco; and American Animals, a film exploring an ill-advised crime, has one sentence in it about ‘crossing the line’ which we all should repeat at New Year. Salut!
In a year when focussing on anything has been nigh-on impossible, most records, books, films and so on have from my tiny mind in a puff of anxiety as soon as they went in. That perhaps has made the things that have stuck with me all the more memorable. Music-wise my interests this year have been split between records that have a ferocity that reflect the noise around us, such as Special Interest’s The Passion Of and Algiers’ There Is No Year. Then there’s the I’ve-caned-a bottle-of-wine-and-this-is-blasting-me-beyond-the-horror transcendence of albums by Einstürzende Neubauten and Hey Colossus, as well as lyricless music that, while not exactly a comfort, has provided a sonic fog to block out some of the tension – Richard Skelton’s These Charms May Be Sung Over A Wound has been my most listened to record of the year. Telly-wise I’ve been lusting after troubled men in suits via John Malkovic in Sorrentini’s The New Pope and the drug-addled Weimar wronguns of Babylon Berlin, but perhaps most of all though my cultural highlight of 2020 has been in the stressful therapy of building model aeroplane kits – the Eduard MK VIII Spitfire in Chindit markings my most successful build yet.
This year was the first time in my career I wasn’t always on the go. I was locked down in Australia with 150,000 records and rediscovered a lot of the vinyl I used to play from back in the day. I started my own little stream show so I could play a few tunes and share the music. Under the name of Cabin Fever – The Vinyl Sessions this has grown to be an award-winning weekly destination show from my studio and has allowed me to get closer to my audience. I play on three turntables and each show with its different theme is special but the standout show was the tribute to my father who passed away in Barbados. I couldn’t travel to the funeral so all I could do was dedicate a show him. I played his actual records, the ones that I listened to as a boy, and even though this is a music show I was joined live during the show by the Prime Minister of Barbados which was a huge honour for my family. Holding dad’s records and hearing the crackle of the vinyl was very emotional and it was amazing to read the loving comments from the techno fans as I played fifty-year-old Calypso records. I’m forty shows in and have no plans for Cabin Fever to ever end. 2020 showed me that no matter what is going on music has the power bring people together.
My 2020 saviour has been the Thames. Where I live in London I am literally caught by the river, and going down to the banks, watching it meander along as it has done through every planetary crisis for 30 million years, has been an antidote to lockdown claustrophobia and a highly effective instigator of perspective. “Sweet Thames, flow softly, till I end my song…”
An album that guided me through some tough months this year and lifted my spirits every time I listened to it is Love is Overtaking Me by Arthur Russell (released in 2008 on Audika), a collection of unreleased songs from 1973 to 1990 that are so beautiful they can make time stand still. Known for his eclectic mix of early minimalist house, dub and avant-garde and collaborations with Allan Ginsberg or David Byrne, these mostly acoustic country folk ditties fit just perfectly well in between Bonnie Prince Billy, Bill Callahan or Jeb Loy Nichols. If you get into the groove be sure to also get his 2019 release Iowa Dream (Audika), a ‘collection of demos, home recordings and lost songs’ from around the same time.
My favourite example of the audience-free streamed gig – that strange new performance artform – was Dinosaur Jr in November. I love the band because they are like an embarrassed tsunami – they create huge waves of incredible intricate sound but, with their odd, defeated lyrics and general shambolic presence, they seem almost apologetic about doing so. This gig was in the middle of a pine forest, and after each song rumbled to an end was nothing but an awkward silence. This felt exactly right – it may have been the perfect Dinosaur Jr experience.
Best Thing: wine in the garden
Worst Thing: homeschooling
Best TV: The Queen’s Gambit
Best Book: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Best Record: Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
Best Song: People by Tiña
People, hey people
People, come on people
Let’s go for a walk in the world
We can lеarn something new from each othеr
I seem to have missed you somehow
DJ Python – Mas Amable
The simmerings from the underground surfaced overground. 2020 vision may not have seen this coming.
Rest in peace to all, the departed naturally and abruptly. Condolences beloved.
Salutes to all, the calls to health, farm, police brutality, racial injustice protests, feeding the babies and unsheltered, landlords pass rent for tenants.
A time, the mental, physical, spiritual, emotional broke to poke, choke. Some offed, some on the healing terrain.
Intensity on the midnight train. Introspection and reflection, the core of empathy and sympathy.
Adjust the set, let it be. To the new decade, march to the light path from the dark.
In a tumultuous year when activism and human tragedy have made elements of the entertainment industry seem rather ridiculous, and when lives and careers have been temporarily interrupted, it’s perhaps understandable that some people have sought refuge in sentimentality. Robin Pecknold’s rustic highs have certainly been balm for many. Who didn’t love the Fleet Foxes’ Shore? I know I did, particularly ‘Featherweight’, one of the songs of the year, and something to keep you warm over Christmas. Look out, the Roaring Twenties are coming.
In 2020, art really fulfilled its purpose of taking care of my insanity. As the year progressed into darker and darker days, books, music and films widely improved my mental health. Poetry in particular has found a stronger place in my heart – stronger than ever. I was lucky enough to find by chance in a bookstore the work of a current poet: Timothy Donnelly, who’s collection The Problem of the Many has become one of my most cherished books. The modernity of the themes that he approaches is really refreshing, as well as the intricacy and originality of his language. Sharon Olds is also one close to my heart: Aria is a haunting collection which has stayed with me every day and inspired me to write. In terms of visual art, I have to credit the erotic illustrator Apollonia Saintclair for keeping my libido alert in the difficult days of self-isolation with her beautiful series of illustrated books Ink Is My Blood. Finally, I would wisely recommend the viewing of the TV series Cosmos presented by the Astrophysicist Niel DeGrasse Tyson, especially if you find yourself in need of spiritual answers but can’t abide any religion. The series itself is not exactly a work of art, unless you consider mathematics or physics an art form. Either way, expect to get your mind blown.
Jay Electronica took more than a decade to complete his debut album A Written Testimony. This Hip Hop masterpiece, mostly consisting of rap duets with an uncredited JAY-Z, saw the light just as COVID struck. Complete with samples of Khurangbin and Robert Fripp, prophecies of a worldwide plague (!) and unlikely lyrical references to Kate Bush, Madonna, Kermit the Frog and Frankie Beverly, this was my most played album of the year by a mile.
Paul Gormans new Malcolm Mclaren biography corrected Mclaren’s self-imposed stereotype as the great rock n roll swindler, positioned him as an artist in the lineage of Warhol, and suggested that Malcolm invented retro when he recontextualised fifties teddy boy clothing in the seventies. Informative and inspiring.
Pa Salieu is a rapper from Coventry who released his debut mixtape a few weeks back. Earlier this year one of London’s best young jazz musicians, drummer/producer Yussef Dayes, re-worked Pa Salieus ‘Frontline’, the live breakbeats making for thrillingly ravey results. Pa Salieus ‘Frontline’ (Yussef Dayes Remix) is my remix of the year.
Enjoy, and here’s to a better 2021 for all.
For months I have been taking long walks across a field near my home: a wheat field, now long-since harvested, that next year will grow corn. It has been a lesson in the detail of delight; how one afternoon the wheat might sound different in soft breeze, the earth smell brighter after rain, or the day be stirred by butterfly, skylark, cricket. For a time, through the hot summer months, it felt as if we all slowed down and looked like this, and it seemed to change the tempo of everything — the conversations I had, the music I listened to, the books I read. It was around this time that I discovered Melissa Harrison’s podcast (and later, book) The Stubborn Light of Things — though it had in fact been running since spring. It’s a quietly rapturous look at the landscape around Harrison’s home in Suffolk, and has been a continued source of delight and camaraderie for me. Elsewhere, there has been almost too much music to love this year, but my most-listened-to song has been Between the Hawthorn and Extinction — Field Works’ adaptation of Cecily Parks’ poem The Indiana Bats. It’s magical. And what a brave year to release a song about bats.
I’ve done a lot of writing this year – what else am I going to do when I can’t tour or meet up with people or go on holiday? Writing has been my escape from reality, and in the bubble of my office music is always playing. It has to be instrumental, otherwise I spend all my time focussed on the lyrics rather than my own words. Electronica is a big thing for me and this year I found out about a musician called Worried About Satan. I’m a big fan of Pye Corner Audio, but he doesn’t put new music out often enough for my liking, so Worried About Satan filled that void! It sounds like the (analogue synthed) soundtrack to some great atmospheric movie. Start with Time Lapse and work your way back through his catalogue.
I never used to watch much TV, but during lockdown my wife and I would feast of an evening on catch-up box sets. We enjoyed The Bridge and Broadchurch (neither of which I’d caught first time round) and now we’re on The Queen’s Gambit. But my wife shied away from Giri/Haji – too violent for her tastes. Me, I loved it. Japanese and London gangsters, family turmoil, guns and samurai swords and drugs and sex, with bravura performances and visual touches. Hell yes.
I thought I’d be reading Proust and Dostoevsky in lockdown but instead I turned to shorter, simpler books – tomes my skittish attention span could deal with. I really got into Georges Simenon. They’ve been reissuing his books in new translations. The one that blew me away doesn’t actually feature his most famous character, Inspector Maigret. Instead, it’s a dark wartime tale called The Snow Was Dirty. Basically the son of a brothel-owner commits murder. He’s a venal piece of work and we don’t at all sympathise with him – until the Nazis arrest, imprison and start to interrogate him. It is frank (about sex), grubby, and feels incredibly modern for something written in the 1940s. Dive in…
It’s hard to try sum up highlights of 2020 in 50-100 words, it’s either too many or too few words to fill. Highlights of the year included spotting a friend drive past me on one of many walks. Moments of the new Thurston Moore album By The Fire took me back to being 13 and discovering guitars, and I was very grateful for that and the power of music to take me somewhere else. I also watched the first 15 seasons of Top Chef exclusively like it was The Sopranos. I don’t think I even like it but for some reason competitive cooking shows became a comfort. Also watching 15 seasons back to back works as a great documentary of the decline of western civilisation. Though the cut of jeans has greatly improved since the early 2010’s.
Cornershop’s bittersweet remainers’ elegy England Is A Garden (Ample Play) and the joyous BLM skronk of Irreversible Entanglements’ Who Sent You? (International Anthem) were two albums which are still rising to the challenge of coming out in this of all years.
Dhanveer Singh Brar’s Beefy’s Tune: Dean Blunt Edit (the 87 Press) and Joy White’s Terraformed: Young Black Lives In The Inner City (Repeater) were two new perspectives on East London’s relentlessly mythologised terrain – the first cultural, the second ethnographical – which combined to offer a captivating glimpse of a post-psychogeography landscape.
Oliver Murray’s Soho jazz club rhapsody Ronnie’s (still on BBC iplayer the last time I looked) and Stewart Lee and Michael Cumming’s King Rocker (an unexpectedly moving portrait of The Nightingales’ lyricist and bellower Robert Lloyd) were two films which dared to confront the melancholy behind the rumpled charisma of bibulous British cultural institutions.
The highlights of 2020 feel like belongings salvaged from a fire. Amongst the horror, this kept me going: pre-lockdown, the few gigs I saw were mainly at Café Oto, residencies by Anthony Braxton, Moor Mother and Demdike Stare. Some records that stood out for me this year were Magik Markers’ 2020, Heather Leigh’s Glory Days, Nihiloxica’s Kaloli, the self-titled 1995 Epilepsy album, Shit + Shine’s three albums, Howling Hex’s Knuckleball Express, Pulled by Magnets’ Rose Golden Doorways and Coricky’s debut.
At home I enjoyed a few LFF films (Herself and Siberia were especially good), and some TV which would’ve been the highlight of any year (Small Axe and the Nxivm documentaries The Vow and Seduced), but it was hard to think of anything other than the world outside, so I watched programmes that tried to deal with it (American comedians zooming from home on Saturday Night Live or the nightly news on various channels). Books-wise I mainly read for research, but it was heartening to see White Rabbit hit the ground running with such a great run of books and I also enjoyed Real Life by Brandon Taylor, Drifts by Kate Zambreno and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.
Death to 2020 by Cold War Steve
Well, what can we say about a year like this one, a year that has perhaps made it clearer than ever how much we need music, books, art and each other. So what specifically got us through here at Rough Trade Books?
In print we’ve loved, amongst many many others, Emma Warren’s Document Your Culture pamphlet, Open Pen’s brilliant novelettes (every single one of them!), Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers from Makina Books, Xstabeth by the inimitable David Keenan, The Hungover Games by Sophie Heawood and the brilliant New Dutch Voices set of pamphlets by Strangers Press, designed by our brilliant designer Mr Craig Oldham. In humanity, Jonny Banger’s behaviour throughout the whole of lockdown and beyond—what a dude! plus the brilliant scenes in Bristol when they tore down the cunty Colston statue. On screen we dug the first online festival, Sea Change, by the good folks at Totnes’ Drift Records, my folks trying to workout how Zoom works, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films, Cold War Steve Meets The Outside World, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Jason Williamson’s Baking Daddy, everything that Dust-To-Digital posts on their platforms, and Caroline Catz’s film featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes featured on the programme of BFI London Film Festival that we watched from the comfort of our own home. Oh and not forgetting Irvine Welsh’s Twitter feed making us LOL!
In our ears, we’ve enjoyed SEX (oi oi!) a brilliant compilation that was only ever released on CD and this year came to life on vinyl with a release by our buddies at Stranger Than Paradise Records, Tidiane Thiam’s Sahel Sounds, Mirry by Mirry, people’s afterwork drinks playlists on The Social Gathering as well as some old disco numbers that came back into the ol’ memory glands and most recently, Chilly Gonzales’ Christmas album has got us feeling festive in Tier 4.
All of this plus, of course, our own wonderful authors and their publications that we’ve put out this year who have sadly not been able to take part in any real life events. THIS WILL NOT BE THE CASE NEXT YEAR!
In other news, our little helper Will has found a way of making himself useful in the kitchen and has come up with some delicious culinary delights as well as writing a book that we’re very excited about (The Paper Lantern, published by W&N summer 2021). RTB’s design genius Craig Oldham is about to become a Dad any day now to a baby girl (BIG congrats to him and Ellen) and after two and a half years, Rough Trade Books is moving out of the lounge, bedroom, kitchen, utility room, sometimes boot of car, as well as Carl ‘The Man’ Gosling’s summer house and into its very own little office. It’s amazing to have our lil’ cottage back in time for Christmas. So thank you very much to all the RTB customers, supporters and of course authors, see ya in 2021!
In this year of slacking dangerously I auspiciously entered 2020 in a state of fear and anxiety pouring over David Wallace Wells Uninhabitable Earth whilst actually in the middle of the Australian bushfires – disturbing but something everyone on the mothership should read. In this most peculiar of 12 months, weirdly of simultaneous hyperactivity and inertia, there were enough beacons to shine through the murk.
Edward Parnell’s Ghostland a Sebald journey through the mists matched equally by Benjamin Myer’s seductive The Offing. The existential heebie-jeebies that started the year were redressed a bit by John Higgs The Future Starts Here helping me realise the fun I might have with artificial intelligence. Stephen Stevlor’s bio Dave Godin: A Northern Soul gave me hope, and some tunes.
On that note thank you Working Men’s Club ‘self-titled’ for delivering and letting me join in to revisit the source. Hyperdub’s Nazar ‘Guerrilla’, selection of the year, with massive nods also to Uganda’s Ecko Bazz and DJ Die Soon. Closer to home John Foxx & The Maths’ sublime Howl really did and Gazelle Twin & NYX’s Fire Leap – a taste of rituals to come. Special mentions to Roisin (Murphy)’s Roisin Machine and to Luke Unabomber for keeping us awake and smiling in the great digital drift.
A list of things that have inspired me in 2020:
– I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel (TV)
– Saint Maud, Rose Glass (Film)
– Untitled (Black Is), SAULT (Album)
– Alistair Green (Comedy/Twitter/Instagram)
– Elsa Majimbo (Comedy/Instagram)
– Wanderlust, Nick Payne (TV)
– Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo (Book)
– That Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Book)
– Infinite Wisdom, Laura Groves (Song)
– To, Coby Sey (Song)
– White Riot (Documentary)
– Body By Ciara Squad (Fitness/Community/Instagram)
By any reckoning, it’s been a fell year, but the light has a habit of finding its way in. Bernie Fabre of the Convenanza Festival observed that we were about important work, spreading the light, so I have endeavoured to continue this undertaking in the spirit of departed comrades.
I began the ‘A Love From Outer Space Emergency Broadcast System’ at the beginning of lockdown and aside from providing personal focus and catharsis, it has helped maintain a sense of purpose and community through the sharing of music.
Despite everything, it has been an outstanding year for new music but there are a few pieces that merit wider sharing.
First up Brooklyn label, Our Starry Universe, their mission: to provide the surrealistic metaphysical sonic actualizations that will make up the soundtrack to the coming new love renaissance, they claim… Ranging from the meditative A Separate Reality to the angular Birds of Pandemonium, their output has really excited me this year. Tim Wagner, the label boss is writing partner to Amy Douglas, who wrote the standout single for Roisin Murphy’s Roisin Machine, which will doubtless be gracing many end of year lists. Another Roisin, collaborator DJ Parrot, in his Crooked Man guise, has continued to cement his position as Britain’s greatest ever house music producer. Won’t take my word for it? Check his mixes of Ursula In Regression by Mzylkypop. Finally, I couldn’t talk about music in 2020 without doffing a cap to my collaborator Duncan Gray (aka Monkton) and his Tici Taci label, which has the distinction of having supplied more ALFOS classics than any other.
Ale has featured very heavily for me this year and my spirit beer guides have been 7 Seasons Craft Beer of Hoxton Street, purveyors of the finest boozes known to humanity.
Social media has largely been divisive, but the one man philosophy treatise, stand-up comedy platform, and spiritual well-being pulpit that is Luke Unabomber’s Instagram account (alongside his Worldwide FM show) has proved to be essential.
Onwards, Brothers and Sisters! Keep your shiny sides up and your greasy sides down…
My favourite tracks of 2020:
Mogwai – Dry Fantasy
Music for the montage of my year
Tierra Whack – Peppers and Onions
“I’m only human, I’m not perfect, just a person, sometimes happy, sometimes nervous”
Sault feat. Laurette Josiah – This Generation
“This generation… cares”
Sonic Boom – Just Imagine
“Just imagine simplicity”
Bdrmm – A Reason to celebrate
“How naive we are, but we made it this far”
Khruangbin – Time
“If we had more time, just you and I, we could be together, we could play like children play”
Sinead O’Brien – Most Modern Painting
“This could be freedom ! “
Bon Voyage – High Power
Music for the rave we never had in 2020
Japandrew & Shamon Cassette – Metal Jackets
“The world is my constellation”
Idrissa Soumaoro – Nissodia (Mike D Remix)
Thurston Moore – Cantaloupe
Guitar solo of the year ! 2:08 – 3:25
Sarah Davachi – Live in Chicago
On repeat all night, every night.
Mark Pritchard – Be Like Water
Can’t wait to hear this loud some day on a beach, off my napper
Daniel Avery – Lone Swordsman
My track of the year. RIP Andrew Weatherall
Bob Dylan – Murder Most Foul
“The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watchin’, no one saw a thing”
Other stuff … I loved the films Parasite & Uncut Gems … and the Fela Kuti documentary … Book of the year was definitely Monolithic Undertow by Harry Sword, but honourable mentions to Robin Turner / Paul Kelly’s Heavenly book and Simon Halfons Cover to cover … most powerful moment of the year was Tamika Mallorys ‘State of Emergency’ speech … Respect to Tim Burgess for making us fall in love with albums again … Thanks to the Social Gathering for keeping spirits up … COYG – in Mikel Arteta we trust … See you in 2021 for the next instalment in the simulation, which hopefully includes TORIES IN JAIL.
This year has had some silver linings, including some AMAZING new releases from people like Tamil Rogeon, that ace Tokyo compilation from We Want Sounds and a recently discovered recording of Thelonious Monk playing a gig at a Palo Alto high school in 1968. But my number one highlight was probably shooting the breeze with Nile Rodgers over Zoom, and having him call me ‘Dr Frankenstein’ the whole time.
As my mental health buckled, I was grateful to be invited to join in a series of weekly on-line workshops run by @mcrstreetpoem. Guided by the instinctively compassionate Simon Le Roux, the workshops got us exchanging experiences, and finding solutions to problems. Most of the Street Poem family have known what it was like to be homeless and, in many cases, what it’s like to to sleep rough yet they all bring an irrepressible and infectious positivity to the workshops that spreads and concludes in the creation of inspired artworks that are built into public installations and meeting places.
It has been a year where I’ve listened to more music than ever before, and that is going some for a record shop. Everything has just made a lot more sense when soundtracked. I can listen to an album now and pin where I was this year when I heard it, what I was doing and which of the year’s many misgivings I was processing. The frenetic early days of summer, with Moses Boyd and Makaya McCraven playing to the sun-scored Totnes high street. The last light of Autumn with Richard Norris and Mary Lattimore offering otherworldly calm.
In a year that has certainly made a tranquil headspace something that needs to be called up on demand, you will not find a more untroubled 28 minutes than Green-House’s ‘Six Songs for Invisible Gardens’, it is absolutely beautiful. LA-based artist Olive Ardizoni created an ambient set of organic pieces, field recordings and spiritual tones that flow with the simplicity of light. A transcendental listening experience that I highly recommend to anyone.
Time will bring better times, and there will be music.
Elliot Eastwick’s World Famous Hot Sauce
The year of the incongruent. Of the apparent-oppositional. Time slowed and thickened, and yet it has somehow disappeared faster than ever. The body clock has succumbed to its own surrealism. Without socialisation (though we have had, it’s true, The Gathering’s righteous efforts), we have needed our culture perhaps more than ever. In terms of the written word high points for me included another batch of Simenon novels, Mark Lanegan’s memoir, Uniform Books’ wonderful Landscapes of Detectorists edited by Innes Keighren and Joanne Norcup, Ken Babstock’s Swivelmount, Robert Selby’s The Coming Down Time, and Laura Barton’s brilliant piece in the Guardian about her experience of solo IVF. Notwithstanding my obvious Rough Trade Books bias, I would have loved each of the 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE pamphlets they published this year, and Musa Okwonga’s forthcoming book for them will be a highlight of a lot of people’s 2021. I liked records by Swamp Dogg, Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass excursions, Bonnie Light Horseman, Bill Callahan, Rose City Band and of course the poignant postscript to Jason Molina’s career that was Eight Gates. I thought the Small Axe films were all incredible. Schitt’s Creek made me laugh, which seemed necessary. So necessary that I re-watched all of This Country too, only for the third or fourth time. Paul and Bob’s fishing trips also helped in that regard. I even got my post-Detectorists Toby Jones fix sated with a trip to the cinema to see him in Uncle Vanya. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, glorious it was too.
What a year. It started well, lots of projects, plans, travel and dreams lined up. Whilst in Dublin in March – the day we were about to launch an exhibition we’d been working on for months – Ireland announced lockdown. As we were working with the Welsh and Irish governments, we were quickly shipped back to the UK. Although the UK was pretending nothing was wrong, I went into lockdown. I moved my studio back home and that’s where I am now.
Luckily, I’ve been busy. Being busy keeps me sane. Creating new work, releasing t-shirts and prints to keep the juices flowing. I’ve bought a lot of books over the isolation months, mainly art and design, but one stands out above all of the rest. ‘The Real Izakaya Cookbook’ by Wataru Yokota contains over 120 classic Japanese bar food recipes. Its simple approach and mixes of ingredients – sometimes unusual – has been a real eye opener. Like adding 1/2 a teaspoon of soy sauce to a large pot of curry? Cooking is a creative process, which helps me switch off at the end of the day (the wine helps too). It’s been essential when working from home. That aside, it’ll soon be 2021. Don’t let the chimes of a clock or the changing of a calendar fool you into thinking the new year will be any better. The pandemic isn’t going anywhere plus we have the bonus of Brexit to look forward to. More wine?
Jennifer Lucy Allan
Koffee’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert
The 20-year-old Koffee is reggae’s shining future. You’ve probably heard one of her tracks – ‘Rapture’ or ‘Toast’ perhaps, cranked up in a car with the windows down or blasting out of wi-fi speakers this summer or last. If you don’t know what I’m on about here, the first 30-seconds of this Tiny Desk Concert will show you why she’s so hyped. This video has become my go-to when I need an injection of feel-good energy: Her flow is so agile, so tight and crisp, every phrase like a key in a lock. That watertight delivery then drops into the massive chorus of Rapture, and with the band in step behind her there’s a pure swagger and swing, it’s like they’re all aglow. For light on dark days, turn to Koffee.
Mike Jay – Mescaline
It is a good sign when you finish a book and it looks like it’s been in a Post-It sponsored tickertape parade. As a writer, Mike Jay’s Mescaline taught me how to dance with historical material that stretches across centuries and continents. As a reader it made stories I thought I knew feel fresh and more complex, and illuminated anecdotes I could never have imagined. It takes a trip around Peruvian archaeology, the peyote religion of the Plains tribes in America, and encounters with cactus in the West, including Allen Ginsberg and Jean Paul Sartre’s psychedelic visions – the former Moloch, the latter spiders. It also made me laugh out loud. It’s worth buying the hardback just for the serendipitous comedy timing of the page break between p97-98: “As he gazed across at the South Bank, he found himself ‘absolutely fascinated by an advertisement of…
The Wasted Times TV Guide
Possibly the only upside of a dismal year has been the lack of guilt in spending hours watching TV. Thankfully, 2020 has been a vintage year for drama in particular and I find that, despite my best efforts, I end the year with a watchlist still reaching into the tens, hours of potential entertainment for lockdown 2021. Silver linings and all that.
So here are my favourite moments of 2020 on the small screen. I’d love to know yours.
Best Dystopia Of The Year
Combining a very zeitgeisty pandemic storyline with an equally contemporary totalitarian takeover, NETFLIX’s THE BARRIER arrived from Spain to show other shows how to do it. Paced perfectly and not averse to the odd Hollywood moment, the show avoided wallowing in its extreme violence, built its narrative around a core of excellent performances from its leads and delivered a thoughtful and compelling exposition of what can happen to mature democracies when war, famine and human fallibility come together.
Best Western Of The Year
A relatively late arrival but Sky / NOW TV’s THE GOOD LORD BIRD was worth the wait. Borrowing heavily from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and not averse to moments of sheer dumbness, Ethan Hawke led a cast through a guts and glory story underpinned with an irreverence for historical truth and a delight in comic book violence.
Best Political Drama Of The Year
Netflix’s OCCUPIED remains the gold standard round my way for how to do this stuff. Series 3 moved the plot forward from a Russian invasion of Norway driven by oil reserves to a civil war setting with the underlying eco storyline moving back to centre stage.
Best Sci-fi Of The Year
I’m hardly moving out of the box here but Disney’s THE MANDALORIAN has, if anything, improved with Series 2. Our Man With No Face still borrows heavily from Eastwood and the child may be the most effective merchandising character of modern times but the compact nature of the 30 minute episodes, the nods to Star Wars heritage and, most importantly, the understanding that this stuff doesn’t need to get too clever to be effective make it one of the most watchable moments of the year.
Best Comic Book Adaptation Of The Year
Quite why it is hidden away on Starz Play (via AMAZON PRIME) I can’t fathom but PENNYWORTH proves that when DC get it right, they are light years ahead of Marvel. Shame they don’t manage it very often. Written by the GOTHAM team, the back story of Batman’s butler, set in an alternate 60’s England, delivers deliciously bad baddies, suitably heroic heroes, a dash of perversity and tease and a stand out performance form Paloma Faith of all people.
Best Spooky Story Of The Year
Literally just making the cut, BBC’s BLACK NARCISSUS is a beautifully paced chiller led by the imperious Gemma Aterton and containing Diana Rigg’s last performance. Nuns on a mountain in the Himalayas going barmy with repressed desire and all manner of strangeness. Extra points for suggesting the eroticism rather than, as seemed to be the case all too often this year, rubbing our faces in it. A triumph.
Best Crime Drama Of The Year
Netflix’s THE ALIENIEST was another that returned stronger this year with a new season. If the first gloried in its gore and blood, Season 2 switched the focus to the mind, with less guts and more guile. Weaving a brilliant underlying contemplation of the position of women in its late 19th century New York into the narrative, it delivered a sumptuously realised evocation of the dark side of the Big Apple in its formative and lawless years.
Christmas Moment Of The Year
Has to go to BBC’s UPSTART CROW for their lockdown Christmas special with its opening ten minutes of acerbic brilliance detailing every grumble heard in our year of in / out restrictions.
I would like to start by raising another glass, to toast the social gathering and Carl Gosling. Generously hosting at the regular 6pm time slot 6 days a week. What fun, great music, banter and community you created and served. So here’s to you and all who hosted the drinks!
There are two other pieces of radio programming that I have absolutely loved this year.
Night Tracks with Hannah Peel has been essential listening throughout the year. The show is always good but I especially enjoyed Hannah’s selections and delivery. The format is perfect late night radio. From classical, to torch songs. Old favourite singers and songs to brand new ambient and experimental sounds. The team creating the perfect blend and combination of music, presentation and vibe.
Check out the past shows on BBC Sounds and if you want a few days with of playlist bliss from Hannah then press play and relax with this playlist:
My other highlight is also from the world of broadcasting. This time it’s Zakia Sewell and Questing with Zakia on NTS as well as the My Albion show for the BBC.
My Albion is a quest in it’s own right, with special guests accompanying Zakia along the way on her journey through the songs, stories and the symbols within British folk culture. It’s as relevant a show as it’s possible to get in 2020. Fantastic documentary radio.
Then Questing with Zakia, every Saturday morning on NTS. Such strong musical selections from around the globe. I have to keep a pad and pencil to hand for all the new and old but new to me selections. This is a blissful, inclusive and exciting show, Once it’s back in 2021 then join me in tuning in, join the chat room, you won’t regret it I promise you.
‘Time to play b-sides,’ Blue Oyster Cult once sang, and so homebound, I settled into sorting records and reading Moby Dick. Call me Ishmaelenny. I had only a fleeting acquaintance with the mythic white whale, perused out of duty in college, but now, having waited a lifetime, I was able to fully embark on its cetacean obsession, its Biblical readability, Shakespearean staging, nautical detail; revenge, retribution, and resurrection.
I made up for lost travel by watching moving imagery set afar: the Paris of the nouveau vague, especially Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 and Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us; the 1950s Liverpool of Violent Playground; and Midnight Diner, a Japanese television show set in a small restaurant in Tokyo, where characters are transported by food into their innermost desires.
Musically, I was able to roam at will among genres. Dancing madly to Detroit techno for exercise; visiting the Belle Epoque in Upper Volta (Numero Group); delving into the discography of Fortune Records celebrated in Mind Over Matter (Kicks Books); getting stoned to the proto-metal of the Brown Acid compilations (Riding Easy).
And yes, finally finishing my long-in-the-writing book on rock and roll scenes, Lightning Striking. To become your own art, that is my 2020.
My response to the existential triple-threat of a global apocalypse, becoming a dad and turning 40 was to retreat to my comfort zone: country music. And it’s been a cracking year for it. New discoveries like Dougie Poole and Joshua ray walker slotted perfectly into the canon alongside old heroes like Gillian Welch and Drive By Truckers (who both had multiple records) and then Sturgill reminded everyone that he’s on another level. Some fella even wrote a book of poems called… Country Music which I hope i’ll hear him read from in the bar next year!
Cultural highlights for me this year has been characterised by a frustration with the immediate, the surface, and a need to remind myself that we inhabit more worlds than the merely visible. It would be easy to characterise this as an escapist instinct, but it hasn’t felt that way to me. Instead, it has felt more like the urgent necessity of acknowledging possibility, fluidity, multiplicity.
It was the perfect year, then, to at last engage wholeheartedly with the genius of Ursula Le Guin. I read, and was thrilled by, her short essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, beautifully published by Ignota Books, and then moved on to the novel which probably best illustrates her ideas of form and function – Always Coming Home. After that, it felt like only more, and bigger, worlds would do, and so I turned to Doris Lessing’s immense, maddening, flawed, yet inspiring Shikasta.
In non-fiction too, the theme was very much about imagining other possibilities or re-imagining the reality I currently inhabit. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful Braiding Sweetgrass fundamentally altered my perception of both the natural world and the disciplines by which we decode it, and Adrienne Maree Brown’s essential Emergent Strategy reminded me of the revolutionary necessity of both envisioning and planning a better world. Musically, the year seemed to belong to the organ, with works by Kali Malone, Anna Von Hausswolff and Sarah Davachi all summoning forth from my headphones the stillness and space I craved.
Over the last nine months I’ve spent unforeseen time with the pictures, photography and ceramics in my home – objects, each with a story, I have assembled over thirty years or more, but never sat with and drawn persistent nourishment from. Then, in the brief windows of possibility, I’ve wandered luxuriously around vast empty rooms of the collections at the Royal Academy, Tate Britain, The National Gallery – get down there when you can, before the tourists are back. The last art opening I got to in March as Covid was beginning to swirl, was in the back of a shop in Soho, where Shem, a young artist I’d recently met, had a wall in a group show. His paintings are a collision of colour, image and words, inspired by his city, London. Eight months later he had his first solo show, When the Sun Falls Out The Sky, at the resurrected Hoxton Gallery. It’s all still going on out there, just a bit harder to find.
Apart from ‘various brands of cider’ my saviour of 2020 was definitely Bandcamp. They proved that digital music companies didn’t have to have to be evil; they helped bands and labels out with initiatives like Bandcamp Friday; and they became my go-to place for discovering (and buying) new music in a year where music has been more important than ever.
Uwe Johnson – Anniverseries (trans. Damion Searls, New York Review of Books)
Somewhere around the midpoint of the first ‘proper’ lockdown I decided I should read something long and this was the longest thing to hand. It’s turned into quite a journey, over most of the year, but I have loved (almost) every page of this huge, beautiful work of art. I don’t think I’ve read something so transformative, so utterly and obviously a classic, in the last twenty years. And when I’ve finished this, I have Patrick Wright’s 800 page book on Johnson’s nine years living (and dying) in Sheerness (from Repeater Books) to fill out some of the backstory and relocate it to Kent. And after that? Something short.
. . and the last word from Pete Fowler
The year of the burning bin hasn’t been all bad. When things are this grim the bright lights seem to shine a little stronger like a beacon that says ‘it’s not all a bin bag of rotting British fish in a Kent lay-by’.
I’ve been doing my weekly Social after work playlists since April the 24th which right now, seems like a million years ago and doing them has kept me (mostly) sane over the months. Not being able to go out DJing at the Social amongst other places has left a hole the size of Boris Johnson’s brain cavity, so having the chance of hosting 3 hours of music every Friday on twitter with a gang pf people joining in has been a joy. Gives me and hopefully other people something to look forward to, not to mention alerting you to what day of the week it is.
Also hangovers on a Saturday. Some sense of what was normal pre pandemic.
I have a lot of friends in the hospitality business – bar owners, staff, restauranteurs and brewers, and supporting them in some way with keeping their businesses afloat has been something I’ve tried to do as much as possible. In particular Hackney Brewery. Their beer delivery service has kept me (mostly) away from factory tinnies and made sure my fridge has been weighted down and myself hydrated. If you like booze then I urge you to buy directly from breweries or direct suppliers if you can.
I’ve been doing a show on Soho Radio for about 4 years now (‘what is time?’ is the recurring question) with my good friend Ian, and soon as the first lockdown kicked in the crew running the radio tried to get as many people as possible set up to broadcast at home.
Already having DJ equipment set up here was a big help and myself and Ian took turns every other week to do our OPEN show from our homes.
Like the Social Fridays, it’s been something to look forward to. Two hours of live broadcasted music and chat has kept away the demons and made me focus on amazing music and hopefully sharing that with other people has helped a little bit with the massive stress and strains off this total shit show.
It went from something I used here and there, pre lockdown to something I use all the time. From chatting rubbish and swapping ever more ridiculous memes to genuinely reaching out, helping and supporting people who needed it.
One chat group I’m in, which regularly changes it’s name, has been a place to check in, almost like your favourite bar with regulars hanging out, ready to share stories, news, links and endless memes in an online clubhouse. Most of the group members I’ve never met but have grown into friends and people I look forward to meeting face to face and getting drunk and falling over with at some point. Also it’s a safe place to share ‘your mum’ jokes which have been turning into an art form.
Your mum has turned into an art form.
Also massive shout out to Helene for the constant laughs and daft songs.
Stay safe everyone! x
Pete’s Social After Work Friday playlists can all be listened to here