In a bleak COVID-ridden scenario, the music world anxiously awaited the arrival of June 19. The legendary Bob Dylan had promised another masterpiece, after building up the buzz by releasing three songs earlier. When his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways was finally out, it grabbed rave reviews all over, as everyone talked of how the 79-year-old could still spin out such sorcery.
On the same day, another veteran operated stealthily. Neil Young, four years younger than Dylan, decided he didn’t need new songs or marketing muscle to hit the headlines. Actually recorded in 1974-75, he quietly slipped in Homegrown. Barring three songs, they were all previously-unheard releases.
The initial success of both albums thrilled the older generation, which had another reason to prove why artistes from their era were the real thing. But the younger lot wasn’t perturbed, as they latched on to the latest albums by Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, soul star CeeLo Green, and reggae-pop sensation Jason Mraz, whose number ‘Look For The Good’ went perfectly with the theme of offering hope in troubled times.
Despite the threat posed by COVID-19 and the cancellation of concerts worldwide, the first six months of 2020 actually worked well for popular international albums. Artistes continued to put out recordings, depending on digital streaming platforms and online promotional activities for exposure.
According to industry figures, 438 albums were released between January 1 and June 30 this year, with 85 in March and 79 in May. So nothing changed from 2019. AllMusic, a website that chronicles new releases, listed between 15 and 20 album releases every week over the past three months. A sizeable section came under the alternative rock, singer-songwriter, and dance-pop categories. This was unlike the Indian non-film scenario, where the focus had turned to singles, and only the brave were releasing albums.
We noticed four other trends. Many of the new releases had some backing from the established record labels, whether it was the complete deal or just a distribution arrangement. These include Sony Music’s Columbia Records, Warner Records and its unit Reprise, Universal Music divisions Interscope and Republic, and BMG Rights Management. In other words, the known acts avoided releasing independently.
Secondly, the old artistes still attracted a huge fan following. Dylan and Young were classic examples, but earlier in the year, there was James Taylor, whose album American Standard revived interest in songs from the Great American Songbook. Last year too, ‘classic’ artistes like Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, The Who, Santana, Steeleye Span, and Young generated plenty of interest.
The third thing was that female stars came out with great stuff during this period. Lady Gaga had an amazing dance-pop record Chromatica, and with Future Nostalgia, British star Dua Lipa proved she was here to stay. At the Grammy awards, Billie Eilish became the first female artist and the second musician to take home the major categories for last year’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? While Norah Jones and Selena Gomez attracted their set of devoted fans, former teenage prodigy Mandy Moore returned to the scene after 11 years with Silver Landings.
Finally, one noticed a general tendency to show influences of music from the 1980s, be it Pop, Reggae, or Soul. This was clearly evident in albums by Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, CeeLo Green, Jason Mraz, and Jamaican dancehall star Buju Banton, whose Upside Down 2020 went unnoticed. Whether it was composition, singing style, production, or the artiste’s image, that retro stamp was there somewhere.
While the year was good for the oldies and straight-ahead pop, the alternative and metal scene didn’t offer any pathbreaking stuff. Offbeat acts like The Strokes, Tame Impala, Car Seat Headrest, and metal band Lamb of God put out regular fare, which didn’t match their past glory.
Among the other known names, grunge band Pearl Jam’s Gigaton garnered a lot of pre-release buzzes, and though it took time to grow and many felt the earlier 1990s albums were better, it received favourable media reviews.
Rap star Eminem’s Music To Be Murdered By had average reviews but was a commercial success. Its euphoria was shortlived.
In terms of chart performance, Dylan, Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Eminem, and The Weeknd all reached No 1 on the UK charts, whereas Neil Young and Selena Gomez reached No 2. Dylan was No 2 on US Billboard 200, whereas Lady Gaga, Gomez, Eminem, and The Weeknd reached No 1. Lady Gaga’s Chromatica was also the year’s fastest-selling vinyl record, though the industry is awaiting the worldwide vinyl release of Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways on July 17. The album was only available digitally so far.
Despite the number of releases and the overall response in the first six months of 2020, the next few months will be very crucial. Most albums released so far were almost complete or in an advanced stage of production when COVID-19 struck. So they only required finishing touches. With consumers in quarantine, they could devote adequate time to streaming. But with many listeners now slowly getting back to their jobs, they may not have adequate time to focus on music. With no concert insight, artists are heavily affected.
Some big releases are due over the next few months. These include Alanis Morissette, Willie Nelson, Deep Purple, Alicia Keys, and Bon Jovi. As we wait for what’s in store, let’s list down the top 10 albums from January to June. This is the writer’s personal choice.
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways/ Singer-Songwriter:
Clearly one of Dylan’s best in the last 25 years, with lyrics that justify his Nobel Prize for Literature. The 18-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ is a classic.
James Taylor – American Standard/ Evergreen
With his distinct singing style, Taylor has developed a cult following. He renders standards like ‘Ol Man River’, ‘Moon River’ and ‘The Nearness Of You’.
CeeLo Green – CeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway/ Soul, Rhythm n’ Blues
A honey-rich timbre is Green’s biggest attraction, as he goes in for more mellow stuff. The picks are ‘Slow Down’ and ‘People Watching’.
Lady Gaga – Chromatica/ Dance-Pop
One of the most versatile artists around, Lady Gaga goes in for a sound blending pop, house, disco, and electronica. Ariana Grande and Elton John appear as guests.
Neil Young – Homegrown/ Folk-Rock
The Canadian legend actually recorded this over 25 years ago. The album sounds like an extension of his records Harvest, Old Ways, and Comes A Time.
Jason Mraz – Look For The Good/ Reggae-Pop
Known for the hits ‘I’m Yours’ and ‘The Remedy’, Mraz focuses more on reggae in his new album. With all the right ingredients, the title track is a winner.
Pearl Jam – Gigaton/ Rock
From the early 1990s, Pearl Jam has built up a huge fan following. Vocalist Eddie Vedder is in full form on this new album, which takes a while to grow on you.
The Weeknd – After Hours/ Rhythm n Blues
The album blends a 1980s radio-pop sound with modern hip-hop. The Canadian singer has a unique voice and the songs go with any mood.
Selena Gomez – Rare/ Pop
Interestingly, Gomez went around for a while with The Weeknd and also Justin Bieber. The songs mostly talk about past relationships and fightback.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia/ Pop
The British singer, who visited Mumbai last year, has some teenager-friendly songs like ‘Break My Heart’ and ‘Cool’. Although the sound is rooted in the 1980s, it sounds contemporary.