By the end of 2019, few people would have suggested we’d live through a year any more devastating than 2016. That year, famous musicians seemed to be dying on a weekly basis. 2020 had even more of a drastic effect on the music industry with a global pandemic putting a halt on gigs and forcing various small, grass roots venues to close their doors forever.
On the plus side – and you always have to look for a positive, even in the most dire of circumstances – a dramatic change in circumstances has forced musicians to change their way of working. For those with home studios, it’s meant we’ve seen an increase in output. We’ve even been given unexpected albums – right at the end of the year, there were surprise releases from Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift and various other interesting albums were put together remotely. …And as we take stock on a terrible year, it seems that the gift of recorded music has been one of our only constants: 2020 may have been an absolute bastard in so many ways, but we’ve all found new music to love.
At Real Gone we heard some great stuff…and our top picks of the year are, perhaps, more varied than ever before. As always, in the interest of fairness, we’ve limited our “best of the year” round-up to things you’ll find covered at our site. Hopefully, you’ll find things you missed, but also discover a couple of new gems. So without further ado…
KURT BAKER – After Party
Kurt Baker has been making great records for over a decade now and although 2019’s ‘Let’s Go Wild’ was a little bit disappointing in places due to a noisier musical turn, ‘After Party’ presented half an hour of classic Baker in full tilt power pop mode. There are hints of Joe Jackson, Squeeze, The Rubinoos and Cheap Trick throughout, but the album wasn’t a quick rehash of past glories. With a couple of tracks, the cult singer songwriter even experimented with bits of lounge and pomp rock. ‘After Party’ was a record not to be missed. [Full review here.]
JIM BOB – Pop Up Jim Bob
This album came seven years after Jim’s solo previous release, but a couple of tracks in, it felt as if the one-time Carter USM frontman had never been away. Songs like ‘Jo’s Got Papercuts’ and ‘#thoughtsandprayers’ showed off his social commentary with aplomb, while material like ‘Barry’s On Safari’ proved that the sneer of his 90s self hadn’t softened. Gaining a rave response from everyone that heard it, ‘Pop Up Jim Bob’ is James Robert Morrison’s best work since 1995’s ‘Worry Bomb’. [Full review here.]
TEENAGE HALLOWEEN – Teenage Halloween
This debut LP from New Jersey’s Teenage Halloween was an unexpected find and a real treat. A high octane performance blending the finest pop punk and emo sounds with a bit of power pop, the band proved to be among the best in their field. With most of the songs dealing with mental health and LGBT issues, it really felt like one of the year’s most important independent releases. [Full review here.]
JEFF SCOTT SOTO – Wide Awake (In My Dreamland)
By the end of the 90s, Jeff Scott Soto was considered a legend within melodic rock fan circles. His work with Takara, Talisman and Eyes had marked him out as one of his generation’s finest talents. Sporadic solo releases showed an even broader range of his talents. Into the twenty first century, he showed how he could turn his amazing voice to heavier things with his own SOTO project and the progressive metal slant of Sons of Apollo. Returning to solo work, ‘Wide Awake…’ almost plays like a career retrospective, stylistically speaking, but the new songs also show a man not just going through the motions. It wasn’t just one of the best albums of 2020, but one of the best of Jeff’s career. [Full review here.]
GREEN DAY – Father of All…
Green Day’s ‘Father of All…’ was an exercise in quality over quantity. Ten songs, twenty five minutes, no filler. None of it sounded like “traditional” Green Day. The album may be concise, but its stylistically rich, with the band exploring power pop, a bit of punk, sixties pastiches, garage rock and more… [Full review here.]
PAVID VERMIN – Cuttin’ Corners
A good example of musicians making the best of a bad year, multi-instrumentalist Glenn Robinson recorded a lot of material throughout 2020. The third Pavid Vermin disc for 2020 finds “the band” creating new pop punk songs based around Beatles song titles and the results are mostly stunning. Aside from a lyrical faux pas – something which Robinson says he’ll fix later – the record presented a flawless and exciting half hour of punky goodness. [Full review here.]
THE JAYHAWKS – XOXO
The Jayhawks can often be relied upon for a great album, even if it takes a while to appreciate their new work. 2020’s ‘XOXO’ took even more of a departure with the band taking turns at song writing and lead vocals. There have been times in the past where this approach has been fatal (see Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swansong ‘Mardi Gras’), but for The Jayhawks, it creates a great and fascinating record. On the plus side, Karen Grotberg gets a lot of time in the spotlight. [Full review here.]
GET THE FUCK OUTTA DODGE – Buzzkill
2020 was an insane year for GTFOD. They released an enjoyable covers album recreating all kinds of rock and pop in their heavily distorted image, and followed that with an EP of high octane hardcore punk. ‘Buzzkill’, an album of self-penned material makes good on the EP’s promise with stuff that settles somewhere between ‘Damaged’ era Black Flag and the Beastie Boys’ EP ‘Aglio E Olio’. Big riffs + bigger shouting + a huge amount of speed = maximum entertainment. [Full review here.]
JOAN OSBORNE – Trouble And Strife
In 2016, Donald Trump – a man with no previous political experience – became president of the United States. The country was increasing thrown into turmoil over the next few years as he took tips from fascist leaders, refused to denounce support from neo-Nazi groups and, generally, made America a very scary place. None of this was lost on Joan Osborne, and the singer songwriter turned in an album loaded with social messages. Backed with funk, blues, rock and pop grooves, she always ensured the messages came with feel good tunes…and ‘Trouble And Strife’ was unexpectedly good. It could even be the album of her career. [Full review here.]
THE ARTHUR BROTHERS – Nine
Every so often, an album comes along that’s so unexpected, it’ll knock you sideways. In the case of The Arthur Brothers, it took us four months to get the measure of their melting pot of influences and get a review together. ‘Nine’ is one of those albums where you can’t second guess what’ll come next. It needs to be heard to be believed… [Full review here.]
There were various other great records that caught our ear, from Goldie Dawn’s debut EP channelling the spirit of ’77, the brilliantly retro AOR of Stardust and some of the year’s best pop punk from Giant Eagles and The Livermores. A new project from Justine Covault, Justine’s Black Threads, experimenting with a country sound suited the pop punk/power pop star very well and we found retro garage pop thrills with The Gallows Birds. Powerman 5000 offered their finest work in a while with ‘The Noble Rot’ and Nick Piunti delivered timeless power pop on ‘Downtime’. Every one of these is worth seeking out.
As the old saying goes, “everything old is new again” and this year – perhaps more than any other – we spent a lot of time covering retrospective box sets, anthologies and reissues. At the end of the year, a new label, Strawberry Records released ‘Halcyon Days’ – a mod and soul box set that proved to be more interesting than your average 60s package; Cherry Red issued a lovingly curated box of Northern Irish punk with ‘Shellshock Rock’ (also marking the UK DVD debut for the documentary of the same name) and an ongoing Fall reissue campaign brought various treats – topped by an unmissable 3CD edition of ‘Imperial Wax Solvent’. For classic rock fans, the year brought various pieces of interest when Blue Oyster Cult opened their archive, but a document of their 45th Anniversary show in London when the band played their debut album from beginning to end marked a place as one of 2020’s most unmissable discs… [Full reviews can be found behind each of the band name/album title links.]
As always, we’d like to thank the various bands who’ve supported us and shouted about Real Gone on social media (we couldn’t do any of this without you). We’d also like to thank the labels and PR teams who’ve sent us stuff on a daily basis (especially Matt, Lou, Curtis and John) – we can’t cover everything, but we do our best to cover the albums in detail when they catch our ear – and our regular visitors who’ve made this year better than ever.
There are a couple more reviews to come from us before 2020 waves goodbye, but in the meantime, we’d like to wish you all good things. Here’s to 2021 and hoping it’ll be kinder to us all.