This is usually the time of the year when I trawl through the Best Albums lists for the previous year; as it turns out some of my big favourites made pretty damn great records.
As with everything else, 2020 was a strange year for new music. I didn’t shy away from the new stuff completely, but I was also aware that, when it came to music, I mostly found myself reaching for the comfort of my old faves. Pink Floyd in particular got a lot of play, though I’m not sure why a glum affair like The Wall should feel so comforting. Anyway, though overshadowed by COVID-19, end-of-year lists by the various online publications yielded some excellent albums to get stuck into.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
I’ve no idea what I would have made of this album if it was my first taste of Fiona Apple. As it happens, I’ve been a fan for almost as long as she’s made music, including her brilliant last record from eight years ago that experimented with unusual instruments, and moved away from her early jazz-influenced sound that was rather easier on the ear.
Recorded over five years while living out of the public eye, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is even more exceptional and offbeat. It has a raw home-made feel, with unorthodox percussion and noises that include barking dogs, and unconventional song structures where pretty harmonies and pianos give way to chaotic outros full of industrial clatter. Apple’s instantly recognisable smoky voice has always been marvellous, but her singing has rarely been more expressive than here, going from gossamer to guttural howl to the kind of bonkers vocal ornamentations only a truly I-don’t-give-a-damn singer would record.
Lyrically, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is one of the rare albums I listened to with a lyric sheet in hand, so as not to miss anything. Sometimes lyrics feel optional and not really essential to enjoying a song, but with some artists you genuinely miss out if you don’t pay close attention to the words. Apple has always been an acerbic, scathing and amusing lyricist and pretty much all of her albums tackle the darker side of life; terrible controlling men and abuse of women is one of the standout themes here. But she’s never sounded so resilient and full of compassion (including towards her own younger self) that only comes with experience. There’s a fair bit of looking back: Shameika is about Apple as a kid dealing with school bullies, and the title track laments giving too much weight to opinions of others when you’re young and insecure. The album is full of lines that instantly stick in your mind:
I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me
Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up (in a song about being dragged to a pompous dinner party)
Evil is a relay sport / When the one who’s burnt / Turns to pass the torch
Good morning, good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in
And though she hardly planned it, Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long is a timely lyric for the age of lockdowns.
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
I had wondered if the title of Marling’s seventh album was meant to be taken literally, but turns out it’s not: the songs are written for an imaginary child, offering wisdom and insights about ‘what it is to be a woman in this society’. This might sound a tad premature from an artist who only just turned 30, but then Marling has always sounded like a preternaturally old soul.
If this concept sounds a tad treacly, the results are thankfully not; it’s another finely crafted, beautiful and intimate album whose melodies unfold more the more you listen to it. Musically it’s more sparse and minimal than Marling’s previous record, often featuring nothing more than vocals and acoustic guitar. As lovely as it is, I do feel that the second half could use more of the bounce and energy of the early standout track, Strange Girl, an upbeat full-band tune that could well be one of my favourite Laura Marling songs.
Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
Róisín Murphy is a pop outsider who should be way way bigger than she is (it beats me why 2007’s Overpowered never became a monster hit). It’s not even as if pop world is entirely hostile to eccentrics or mannered vocals, but it seems like her own personal leftfield style just never really crossed over. Lack of fame notwithstanding, the former Moloko frontwoman has been consistently excellent in her solo output, and this swaggering and confident disco/dance record is no exception. Though it’s rather ironic that this album, which by all rights should be blaring in sweaty packed nightclubs and hitting pleasure centres of the partying folk, came out in a year when nightclubs must feel like distant memories from another life to most people.
Like Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, Róisín Machine was designed to play as one continuous mix, which adds greatly to its vibe of hedonistic dancefloor fun. Though it hasn’t lost the sense of idiosyncrasy that marks all of Murphy’s music, it’s definitely a stronger showcase of her pop sensibilities than the last couple of albums. In fact, it feels like a perfectly balanced encapsulation of Murphy’s sound and could well be her finest work.