Hopefully that clears that one up. (Although it's possible it might be trackies - I tried asking one of the songwriters on Twitter, but never heard back. Still, the newly topical cover photo works either way.)
Anyhoo, merry Christmas, such as it is. It looks like we've got ourselves a tradition now, as 2020 is the third year in a row that my Pick Of The Year compilation has dropped on Christmas Day. But what does my 39th POTY look like at the end of the most messed up year in living memory? Well, it's a lot more insular - no travelling means no foreign language songs, and the only nations represented are the British Isles and America (I'm choosing to assume Nick Cave is ours now). Emotionally, it's even more of a see-saw than usual, with a mixture of the happy, the sad, the angry and the topical (with those last two categories overlapping somewhat).
As ever, it's all yours to hear right now in both video and Spotify formats. And also as ever, at the end of this piece we have a competition (closing date January 31st 2021) to win a CD of The Devil Set My Takkies On Fire for yourself. Will it be Dave, or will it be not Dave? The answer is in your hands. (Particularly if you're Dave.) Anyway, here we go.
1. JIM BOB - 2020 WTF! (from Pop Up Jim Bob) [video]
What's the one song that you'll associate with this pandemic until the day you die? For me, it'll be the POTY 2001 closing track Vatican Broadside by Half Man Half Biscuit, simply because it's under 30 seconds long and the perfect tune to have in your head while you're doing a comprehensive wash of your hands. Jim Bob's equivalent is closer to the Government mandated 20 seconds, and has the advantage - or otherwise - of reminding you of the circumstances that led us to this. I've not really been paying attention to Jim Bob's music since the glory days of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, and it's odd to hear an album of his songs where the cultural references are less than thirty years old (particularly in his credible, though ultimately doomed, bid for the Christmas number one). It'll be interesting to see if those Japanese guys cover this era, too.
2. THE RUBBERBANDITS - Waiting (single) [video]
There's still a @Rubberbandits Twitter handle, but these days it's being used exclusively by Blindboy Boatclub for the purposes of plugging his podcast and related activities. His bandmate Mr Chrome has been keeping quiet in the meantime - as Blindboy said on one podcast, "when there's some singing and dancing to be done, he'll be back." It sounded a little patronising to me at the time, but that was before I heard the band's comeback single, and Chrome sings and dances the shit out of this one. These days we know how closely Blindboy is involved in the musical side of their output, and he's put together a backing track that manages to sound like a satire of pop music just by being such a delightful example of it. Then Chrome comes in, delivers a soulful vocal without compromising on his accent one iota, and tops it all off with a video featuring him and proper dancer Oona Doherty in a gloriously surreal pas de deux. And if it all goes a little weird towards the end in both sound and vision, it's the least we could expect from this lot.
3. FIONA APPLE - I Want You To Love Me (from Fetch The Bolt Cutters) [video]
One unexpected consequence of the pandemic - as I've been effectively locked in the house with The Belated Birthday Girl since mid-March, I've been hearing a lot more than usual of her own personal music choices, and several of them have made their way onto this year's compilation. Fiona Apple is one of those artists I've observed with interest from afar, though I think my view of her has been clouded for some time by the making-of video of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, in which she depicted her then-boyfriend's bad reviews in the form of an interpretive dance. Anyway, in the two decades since then she's become a lot less away with the fairies, and this particular album seems to have struck a chord with people in lockdown. There's no denying her way with a tune - I'm a big fan of the way that the chorus of this song manages to lose all of its confidence in the space of a single line, and it's almost all done melodically.
4. ELVIS COSTELLO - No Flag (from Hey Clockface) [video]
Congratulations are due to Elvis Costello - he was here for the first Pick Of The Year back in 1982, and he's here for the 39th one in 2020. He's pretty much guaranteed a place in history for that, unless Graham Parker suddenly has a career revival in time for the 40th. Hey Clockface is an interestingly confused album: on some tracks, Elvis has become the cheesy crooner that some of us suspected he may turn into in his later years, while on others he seems determined to prove he can still crank out a noisy racket when he wants to. I'm happiest with the noisy racket, inevitably, though I'm afraid the French version doesn't do it for me at all - the lyrics turn out to be a large part of what makes the racket work.
5. MARY COUGHLAN - Family Life (from Life Stories) [video]
It wasn't until this song turned up in a radio edit on Spotify a couple of weeks ago that it struck me: Mary Coughlan's treating this as a Christmas single. I've loved the song ever since The Blue Nile released it first back in 1996, but it has to be said that Family Life is a Christmas song in much the same way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie - sure, it's set in the right time period, but it'd only be the choice of people who want to prove that they're too cool for traditional festive fun, and want Christmas to be all about emotional trauma or shot-off kneecaps. Put that aside, and Mary turns out to be the perfect person to cover this song, with the vocal chops to even make a three dot ellipsis seem heartbreaking. "Jesus, you..."
6. BLACK BRA - I Was A Young Girl (from Black Bra) [video]
A global pandemic turns out to be a bad time to discover new bands. Most of the acts on this year's collection are old favourites who've appeared on previous ones, or people I've liked in the past who happen to have gone the extra mile this time. Black Bra are the only band I can consider as a new discovery, and that's all thanks to their keyboard player Jesse Case. He was the co-host of one of my favourite podcasts, Probably Science, until a diagnosis of 'stage four ass cancer of the ass' made him the solo host of another of my favourite podcasts, Jesse vs Cancer. In his spare time, he also plays synth, which is how I got to hear about his work with a Nashville rock band led by Elizabeth Grace Cameron. You could argue that Cameron has listened to too much PJ Harvey for her own good, but I'd argue back that there is no such thing as too much PJ Harvey. Either way, this is a cracking song, and it has to be said that Case's grungey keyboard swoops during the choruses work wonderfully.
7. SUFJAN STEVENS - My Rajneesh (from single America) [video]
Sufjan Stevens has never been one to do things conventionally, and this year has been no example. He started it with a new age album he made with his stepdad, and then wrapped it up with his own album which climaxed with a twelve-minute state-of-the-nation epic, America. And then he released that twelve-minute song as a single, throwing in a ten-minute previously unreleased tune as a b-side. And that b-side turned out to be the best thing he'd done all year. My Rajneesh is self-consciously a piece of many movements, and the descent into noodling in the final minute or two is possibly one movement too many. But up until then it's a distillation of all the things people love about Stevens - the delicate melody, the intricate arrangement, the sudden bits of noise where you least expect them. Hell, if you consider 'going too far' as being one of those things people love, even the ending works.
8. THE WATERBOYS - My Wanderings In The Weary Land (from Good Luck, Seeker) [video]
More traditional bombast courtesy of Mike Scott and The Waterboys, just one year after they last appeared on POTY with a track from their previous album Where The Action Is. My favourite 2019 Waterboys song was a piece of spoken word over a musical backing, and it turns out that my favourite 2020 Waterboys song is the same, just a bit more aggressive with it. In other people's hands this could be ridiculously self-mythologising nonsense, but Scott has been doing this long enough to sell it, and the way the band drops out briefly as he yells "this place is love's fortress, and so am I!" gets me every time.
9. JARV IS... - Swanky Modes (from Beyond The Pale) [video]
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: in this year of weirdness, three artists came forward and each came up with their own unique take on how to film a concert when there's nobody else in the room. In the case of Jarvis Cocker's new solo project, his approach was to set up his band inside an underground cave, light it like a fairy grotto and record the results. So far, the film's just had a two-day outing on YouTube and not been seen since - plans to give it a limited cinema release fell foul of Lockdown II. Watch out for it if it eventually comes out in some fashion or other, it's quite a thing. In the meantime, we still have the album, which does all the things that Cocker does best, such as this typical bit of sleazy narrative. How about you get on this?
10. GHOSTPOET - I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep (from I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep) [video]
Ghostpoet was last included on one of these things three years ago, but I was a little uncertain about it at the time. I'd enjoyed the mixture of darkness and beauty on his earlier albums, but Dark Days + Canapes went all the way over to the dark side and I missed the other stuff. The new album doesn't seem to have got any lighter - why should it? - but alarmingly, the rest of the world seems to have gone dark with him, making Ghostpoet the perfect soundtrack to this pandemic. Although just to mess up my thesis, shortly after I locked down the track listing for this compilation he re-released this album with a bonus track that brings back the gorgeousness from his early days. I'm all confused now.
11. NICK CAVE - The Ship Song (from Idiot Prayer) [video]
The second of my favourite lockdown gig films of the year, Idiot Prayer, featured Nick Cave sat at a piano in the middle of a deserted Alexandra Palace, playing selections from the whole of his back catalogue. Whereas the Jarvis show was all about his chats to camera and his attempts to bring the viewing audience together somehow, Idiot Prayer's very much a celebration of solitude, and you couldn't ask for a better person to help you celebrate it in a socially distanced way. Again, this was a one-night streaming affair whose subsequent cinema release was wrecked thanks to the lurgy, but at least the soundtrack album is still available while we wait for the cinemas to open again.
12. JOE GIDEON - Comet Coming Down (from Armagideon) [video]
Lockdown gig films are all well and good, but what about actual meatspace concerts? Well, as you'd imagine, we didn't get to many of those this year, which is particularly frustrating given The BBG's plans to see a dozen shows by unknown artists before the year was out. Still, one of the best we managed during that brief period of freedom in early 2020 was Joe Gideon, who we first encountered at a Nick Cave gig over a decade ago. To this day it still seems to me that he's a live artist first and a recording artist second, as his songs always seem to work best in a face-to-face setting. Having said that, it's alarming to realise that this song's warning of an impending apocalypse was a favourite of mine as far back as January of this year, suggesting that Gideon's now a prophet on top of everything else. Count yourselves lucky that this compilation isn't called All You Need Is A Hard-On And A Spade, a title that only lasted as long as the time it took me to do the picture research for the cover.
13. PET SHOP BOYS - Burning The Heather (from Hotspot) [video]
Let's compare Elvis Costello with the Pet Shop Boys, shall we? Costello's been on these compilations the longest, but the PSBs have always been the most consistently there. Both acts have been cranking out the tunes for several decades now, and are happily occupying the Radio 2 playlists you'd expect for performers of their vintage. With Elvis, though, you still find yourself wanting him to ditch the pastiche crooner act he sometimes becomes, mainly because it's obviously pastiche. A mellower-sounding Pet Shop Boys, on the other hand, is a perfectly delightful proposition, without clashing horribly with their ability to still produce dancefloor bangers when the time comes. In the earlier part of their career, if they'd released a number largely driven by acoustic guitar, we'd be looking for the ironic twist - but here, it's evidence of the rock-solid songwriting Tennant and Lowe have had in their arsenal all along, with a subtle narrative thread and a final line guaranteed to make an audience go 'awwwwwwwwwwwwwwww'.
14. SPARKS - One For The Ages (from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip) [video]
It was a joke when I first said it several months ago, but it turned out to be true. As I spent six weeks in furlough writing three books, I had various bits of music playing in the background, with Spotify's now-deleted Working From Home With Minimalism eight hour playlist proving a handy accompaniment in the early weeks. But the song that was going through my head most often while writing was the then-current single from Sparks, telling the story of an office worker who's secretly writing a bestseller in his spare time. Well, a man can dream. If we're talking about longevity, it should be noted that Sparks have been going longer than anyone else on this compilation, even though this particular track is their POTY debut. Here's to many more appearances by them in the future.
15. EVERYTHING EVERYTHING - In Birdsong (from Re-Animator) [video]
This track by Everything Everything - another one from The BBG's side of the CD collection, of course - is, I think, the first bit of music that boasted about having been produced under lockdown. The band recorded all their contributions at home without meeting face to face, and assembled them all into a whole after the fact: and then, for an encore, they did the same thing for the video, with the aid of motion capture technology and a bit of CGI. This pandemic's going to change the way artistic collaboration works for good, and we'll have to keep a close eye on the long term effects of that, both in music and elsewhere. In the meantime, it's interesting to note that whenever I include an Everything Everything track on one of these things, it's never one of the angular Yes-with-better-haircuts dance numbers they're famous for - it's always a slowie with a whisper-to-a-scream slow buildup at its core.
16. ROISIN MURPHY - Jealousy (from Roisin Machine) [video]
Roisin Murphy was responsible for the third of those three great lockdown gig films I mentioned earlier, alongside Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave. She took yet another approach - creating a warehouse party for a government-mandated bubble of six musicians, and inviting us all to watch. The results were utterly glorious, and it's a shame that she doesn't currently have any plans for it to be seen again after that initial streaming day. (On a side note, let's give thanks to her streaming partners Mixcloud, normally best known for archiving loads of complete DJ sets, which have become the soundtrack to the two-person discos that The BBG and I have been having in our living room during lockdown Saturday nights.) As an old person, it's been frustrating watching Murphy release single after single over the last few years, as I've been waiting for an album to pull all her work together like they used to do in the days before digital releases buggered people's attention spans. Well, now we have an album of her dancefloor diva phase, and it's just as magnificent as I'd hoped it would be. Let's hope for a slightly more crowded warehouse party in her future.
17. EELS - Waking Up (from Earth To Dora) [video]
One more track courtesy of The BBG, who's been an Eels fan since the beginning. I've enjoyed the gigs of theirs I've been to (like this one), but the records have never quite hit with me till now, so I'm assuming that Earth To Dora has become another beneficiary of the change in focus that lockdown has brought. E has always been a good man to rely on for a casual bit of swearing, and the tiny amount here adds just enough spice to a typically pretty love song. And barring the inevitable F-bomb that you'd expect in track one of this compilation, we appear to have got through the whole of the 2020 collection with the bare minimum of cussing. Except...
18. (hidden track) [Bandcamp link]
I had a whole riff about catharsis lined up for this paragraph. I was going to talk about how this song was a source of solace and comfort at various times throughout 2020, and the sheer rush of joy I felt on tweeting it out on the day that the result of the US presidential election was called. But then things got weird - a couple of weeks later, the track vanished altogether from both Spotify and YouTube. My personal suspicion is that it was removed because the other version of the song - the one with a British name in its title rather than an American name - was being lined up for release in both SFWish and massivelyNSFW versions. And at the time of writing, we're facing the very real possibility that the other version might well be our Christmas number one. For me, that one's the inferior version - a pop craftsman like Kunt (and let's face it, there's actual craft involved here) must be aware that a three-syllable name fits the rhythm of the song so much better than a four-syllable name. But there's not much that we can do about that now. So for those of you listening on Spotify and YouTube, you'll need to click the Bandcamp link above when track 17 finishes, as it's the only way you can hear the song now. But if you're one of the half dozen people who's got the CD, it'll play as track 18.
And if you want to be one of those half dozen people, here's the competition to win a CD copy of The Devil Set My Takkies On Fire for yourself. Here's the question: the song Family Life has now appeared on two POTY compilations, in both 1996 and 2020. Which other track on this year's compilation has done something similar, but different? Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org before 23:59 GMT on January 31st 2021. First correct answer received wins: in the event of there being no correct entries, the first reply received will win.
So that's 2020 - we can keep the good bits and forget about the rest. I think that's allowed. Being a monkey, and all.