We all know 2020 was the worst year on record for the entertainment industry. Live music was especially hit hard as musicians couldn’t tour to share new music, reach new audiences and earn their bread and butter. We did get about two and a half months of live music at the beginning of the year, but after mid March, WHAM! All of our favorite clubs, music venues, festivals and more closed down for (what we would learn months later) the year. Fortunately, like all intelligent creatures, we found new ways to communicate to each other and share the love of music. This came in the form of streaming media sessions on the likes of Twitch and YouTube, then one on one meetings with artists as they did online virtual meet n greets through Zoom and of course new music could still be released through the usual outlets like Bandcamp, Apple Music and other online retailers. So, we weren’t completely stamped out, but it sure feels like a good smothering if nothing else as human interactions were limited to just a few outdoor drive in style concerts, drive around truck beds and occasional outdoor patio viewings.
Despite all that, we still did get some amazing music. Albeit a little harder to come by, if you looked hard enough and listened to others, you could find out some true hidden gems.
Here at In The Loop Magazine, each year, we discuss our favorites. These are our favorite concerts, albums, videos and events, but now will include what we saw as some of the best online events, concerts and performances as well.
Our staff picks for 2020.
For me, 2020 was a mix bag of tricks. I saw live concerts from January to March that were pretty good but coming to a complete stop was a shock to the system. I need live music in my life. I’ve been going to concerts since I was 10 years old with my parents and 16 on my own ever since. I’m one of those people who truly feed off the sounds, the crowds and interactions.
To keep my passions going, I’ve moved to online for everything. This includes concerts, festivals, interviews, reviews, music videos and purchases. I’ve actually been able to build up my vinyl record collection with music I’ve been wanting for years as well as a slue of new special edition album releases from some of my favorites.
Play it safe folks. Mask Up. Here’s to 2021!
In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite things that 2020 had to offer:
Top Albums of the year (in alphabetical order):
Best Concerts, Events & Streams of the Year:
#saveourstages #saveourstagesact #niva #chicagomusic #localloop #independantmusic #covidconcerts
Have tried off and on to come to grips with my review of the past year, everything going as per usual as far as working live shows and producing reviews, before everything literally falling off a cliff for me after Wednesday March 4th, which was my last time covering a show for In The Loop, which was Cult of Luna with Emma Ruth Rundle and Intronaut from the House of Blues Chicago.
At least it was cool going out with a bang with this show, a band worthy of your utmost attention with Cult of Luna, and the praise heaped throughout this year with Emma Ruth Rundle and her latest release: “May Our Chambers Be Full”, a collaboration with Thou, which has made quite a few Best of Metal for 2020 lists.
And how many shows did I cover total for 2020? Sadly, a total of nine.
Of the nine, some extraordinary nuggets of outright memorable beauty, starting with experimental folk music stalwarts Heilung, who looked and felt like they came to Chicago right out of the Bronze/ Iron and Viking ages of the past. Easily one of the best shows of the year, even if I was up to my usual 75 to 100 shows a year. Same with John Cale at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cale performing at the end of The Art Institute’s Andy Warhol exhibit back in late January.
Such a riveting performance with Cale, in the intimate Rubloff Auditorium, hanging on his every word, and immersed in his iconic presence.
Was amazing to photograph and review deadmau5 twice, bookending this oh- so- weird year – first with his massive new Cube V3 at the packed Navy Pier back on February 1st, and then the last show I photographed this year over Halloween weekend with a Drive Inn concert in Seatgeek’s stadium west facing parking lot. Both shows with Joel Zimmerman equally unique and worthy of review in so many ways- the first being a celebration of EDM in a massive indoor complex at the east end of Navy Pier back on 2/1, and then the inevitable outcome of an unruly pandemic- an outdoor socially distant spaced show from a gigantic parking lot, in the cold, with no deadmau5 cube, but still sophisticated with giant LED screens in sync with Joel’s beats.
Interspersed before the inevitable end of photographing shows of any sort- The Empty Bottle’s “Music Frozen Dancing”, with a barn burning outdoor performance in the middle of winter in the late afternoon with Seth Sher and Heather Gabel of HIDE- a band as incendiary no matter where they decide to play, no matter the uncomfortable conditions. Another transfixing performance, with Heather working the stage like a caged animal, and music that is bone rattling and trailblazing.
Another awesome show was at House of Vans in the West Loop on Valentine’s Day with none other than Lamb of God, and as volatile as ever, with lead vocalist Randy Blythe menacingly commanding the stage as always, with his usual gigantic leaps coming close to touching the lighting rig of the House of Vans stage.
But dealing with COVID- 19 and this pandemic in general throughout most of this year- it feels like all the energy and communal spirit of live performance has been sucked out of the room, with no end in sight, vaccine or no vaccine. Have tried to come to grips with this off and on since mid March, even to the point of producing live videos on this very subject through my Facebook page, chronologically coming to grips with weekly cancellations of major festivals and indoor shows, all falling like dominos in creeping and descending order, each show you were looking forward to landing with a thud and another punch to the gut. And to top it off, it being an election year, and having to come to grips with an oh so flawed president, and an administration that has been just so laughable and inept in every which way possible- let’s just say that to survive this, and to get this far (knock on wood) unscathed, makes you grieve for the sickened and the one’s who passed away. And on top of that- losing Neil Peart and Eddie Van Halen this year, along with so many others- it’s just been so unrelenting with the scourge and nastiness that is 2020.
In my opinion, going into 2021, even with a new administration that brings a sigh of relief and a breath of fresh air- not much is going to change with shows in general going into mid to late 2021, even then. Don’t get your hopes up folks. Yes, my glass is half empty at the the moment. Too much is at stake to simply open up the doors and start producing shows, even socially distanced shows for that matter.
Having said that, there’s still been a cavalcade of releases that are worthy of your attention in all genres of music this year. Hard for me to choose and to attempt to whittle the list down to a select few, since what I’ve picked overall- most of these albums have been on repeat for me since their release date. Had originally selected thirty albums worthy of review, whittled down to twenty.
So here goes, in no particular order, all tied for first in my opinion:
– Jehnny Beth- To Love is to Live
– Hum- Inlet
– Idles- Ultra Mono
– Bob Dylan- Rough and Rowdy Ways
– Ganser- Just Look at that Sky
– Code Orange- Underneath
– Run the Jewels- RTJ 4
– Mr. Bungle- The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny
– SAULT (Two different releases): Untitled (Black Is), and Untitled (Rise)
– ….And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead- The Godless Void and Other Stories
– Fleet Foxes- Shore
– Bootblacks- Thin Skies
– Rina Sawayama- Sawayama
– Enslaved- Utgard
– Phoebe Bridgers- Punisher
– Deftones- Ohm
– Cabaret Voltaire- Shadow of Fear
– Grimes- Mrs. Anthropocene
– Sparks- A Steady Drip Drip Drip
– Imperial Triumphant- Alphaville
– Fontaines D C- A Hero’s Wrath.
There’s more, obviously, with Chris Stapleton, Lady Gaga, AC/ DC, Riki, The New Division to add a few.
So yes, to put it succinctly, 2020 has been a beat down. Going into to mid late 2021 and beyond, and want the words “socially distant” removed from the vocabulary.
Stay safe everyone- we need you alive and well going forward. So wear your masks, and view everyone you meet no matter what as a nutty Q Anon / Proud Boy Republican. That will keep you socially distant and safe for the time being. Hope to see most of you in person mid to late 2021.
Top 10 Best Albums of 2020:
– Charlie XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
– Run The Jewels – RTJ4
– Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
– Chance The Rapper – The Big Day
– Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
– Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
– Smashing Pumpkins – CYR
– Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin Grass
– King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – K.G.
– Green Day – Father of All Motherfuckers
Wash. Your. Hands.
Cover. Your. Face.
A Look back on 2020 Music.
What would normally be a fond reflection of all the great live music and creative inspiration, has turned out to be a clarion call on the state of our broken society. What we are experiencing is the full dynamic range of society’s unvarnished truth. The shining best against the horrid worst. Mostly the worst.
Too much suffering and sacrifice to pretend everything is just a question of hunkering down through this shit storm. The human cost in life paid so far is too great.
So I humbly share my most influential 2020 Music: The Specials: Encore. (https://www.thespecials.com/the-music)
This 2019 deluxe two CD release does not qualify by calendar, but most certainly for its content. Each song is a message like a crystal ball for this privileged guy. Yet another oh-so-familiar testimony of the cutting injustice so many live with day-to-day. One person’s woke is another’s breaking point.
With each listen I got deeper. From groove to melody, lyrics to meaning, then outrage. Encore did what it should do, radicalize. And The Specials did what they always have done best, mercilessly critique society.
The Specials (https://www.thespecials.com/the-band) are one of the founding forces of the early 80’s second wave 2-Tone ska movement. Surviving members Lynval Golding (guitar) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynval_Golding) Horace Panter (bass) (https://www.horacepanterart.com/biography/) and Terry Hall (vocals) (https://www.terryhall.com) celebrated their forty anniversary with a stunning collection of newly recorded material. And just with as much punch as 1979’s “Concrete Jungle”. Teaming up on songwriting with Danish producer/writer/instrumentalist Nikolaj Torp Larsen,(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolaj_Torp_Larsen) brought their sound to a new level. Add in former Paul Weller guitarist Steve Cradock. (https://www.stevecradock.com) He been with the band since 2014.
A second bonus CD features their classics caught live between 2014 and 2016. Tracks include ol’ favs “Gangsters”, “A Message To You Rudy”, “Nite Club”, “Ghost Town” and more. Marley’s “Redemption Song” is an unexpected treat.
Riveting, their sound has evolved from the expected unta-unta-unta, up-beat ska guitar rhythm, to lush and more complex arrangements and instrumentation. An array of musical modes and styles. All painting a sonic background for poignant lyrics. They are not a parody of their former selves but have moved onward. They reinvent and stay relevant.
1) “Black Skin Blues Eyed Boys” the opening track is a take on the 1971 Eddy Grant (https://www.eddygrant.com) and The Equals top ten U.K. single.
The chorus fiercely proclaims
“Together we’ll be when the war is over,
You see the Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,
They ain’t gonna fight no wars.”
They declare “People won’t be black or white, The world will be half-breed”. Aspirational to end war for good.
2) Not letting up, track two “B.L.M.” is a five minute funk-groove. A musicbed for Golding’s spoken word. He recounts ugly personal racism stories throughout his life.
Each verse, a story, followed with the chorus: “But I’m not here to teach you,
I’m not here to preach to you, I just want to reach out and say….”
The final chorus, as if taking him a lifetime to finally choke out, just like this current generation of BICOP, resolves…. “Black lives matter”. Unflinchingly, Golding captures all the pent up anger in the aftermath of George Floyd, Brena Tayor and so many more unnecessary victims of violent bigotry.
3) “Vote for Me” blends a straight reggae bass, drum and rhythm with an exodic minor chord progression on a grand piano. Add that haunting Jerry-Dammers-style organ sound. Layers that wrap around my tired soul.
“You’re all so drunk on money and power Inside your Ivory tower.
Teaching us not to be smart.
Making laws that serve to protect you.
But we will never forget that.
You tore our families apart”.
Midway, a bridge leading back to the verse turns ghoulish with a haunting vocal ease. A comic uncertainty. Then stripping down to only a dance hall beat, enter here Tim Smart’s muted trombone solo that returns to riff through the fade out. Brilliant.
The video is visually stunning.
4) “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)” is a reboot of The Fun Boy Three 1981 U.K. single penned by band members Neville Staple, Terry Hall and Lynvil Golding.
“I’ve seen the faces of starvation. But I just can not see the point.
Cause there’s so much food here today. That no one wants to take away.
The lunatics have taken over the asylum.”
This arrangement continues like the previous track where Nikolaj’s (https://www.instagram.com/nick2piece/?hl=en) piano adds grandeur like an opulent Hollywood staircase entrance. Horace Panter’s bass is impeccably steady behind the sort of carny-like melodica sound. You know, asylum music. Not one wasting note, the song doesn’t so much as end as it unravels with wobbly strings countering the controlled chaos of dissonant piano.
5) The weight of a “Breaking Point” juxtaposes a bouncy two four tuba bass line, klezmer-style, a street opera arrangement with dark truth. Muted trumpet, sharp, staccato strumming and cutting lyrical irony sets up a certain desperation. It depicts various breaking points.
“Heavy is the load of a creature ill-disposed
Of a man who finds the end before the start,
It breaks your heart”
“With the help of God and a few marines
We’ll blow this place to smithereens
Here we are, at breaking point”
6) “Blam Blam Fever” Here they do a rendition of an old obscure 60’s blue beat cover by The Valentines. Again the dichotomy between this simple, happy-island-ska sound against the no-nonsense commentary on our collective love of gun violence. Sadly, another timeless topic.
“Every time you read the New York Times
17 dead in a school gone crime
It’s the fever, the gun fever!
The simplest thing is ra-tata-tat
NRA how you deal with that?
It is the fever, the gun fever”
7) “10 Commandments”
Guest vocalist artist, model, activist Saffiyah Khan (https://www.instagram.com/saffiyah__khan/?hl=en) unshakably speaks her personal manifesto. A military drum roll opens before the dub beats drops. This is not grandma’s 60’s bra burning. If you are not outraged, then you are not paying attention.
“I shall not be the icing on your cake
And I shall not be the candy on your arm
But I shall be seen
And I will be heard
The commandments of I, Saffiyah Khan”
The video is a stunning combination of spoken word, music, visuals for an in-your-face message of claiming sovereignty from misogyny. This collaboration between Khan and The Specials is powerful beyond just a passing listen.
8) “Embarrassed by You” calls out stealth scooter riding thugs who most likely only seen on security cam footage vandalising. Feral Hooligans.
“We never fought for freedom
For nasty little brutes like you
To come undo the work we do
You bring shame on this country for true
Embarrassed by you”
The video paints the picture.
9) “The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression)” Another spoken word against Horance Panter’s standout bass line akin to Jethro Tull’s “Living In The Past”. Layered keyboards and guitar. Thoughts that tap into private insecurity. Disabling. No way to navigate modern psychology.
“Don’t tell him it might never happen, because you know what?
It probably already did
Maybe show him some understanding
Give him time, let him breathe, let him live, yeah
The emperor has got new clothes”
10) Closing track “We Sell Hope” is a descending minor chord progression with a sullen lyrical plea. Soft, driven, tense, questioning, searching.
“Looked all around the world,
We’ve gotta take care of each other,
Do what you need to do.
Without making others suffer”
Time for our humanity to take care of each other. A hopeful plea.
This is the music that shaped my 2020.