Transmission Blog’s 2020 Roundup

Piecing together our musical roundup this year has been by no means an orthodox task. Perhaps the strangest year for music in the industry’s history, we’ve missed out on music in its rawest form with the cancellations of festivals and concerts all over the world. That being said, music as ever still maintains its seminal characteristic, it has, without doubt, continued to be a force pulling us all together in our absolute darkest of hours. Last year for me, induced a need to crack open the Specials as throughout lockdown, whilst feeling (absurdly) obliged to make use of my daily walk as if it was some kind of liberty I took pre-covid, it did appear as if we were all living in a ghost town. But have courage, the end is in sight, live music though ravaged by covid-19 much like the rest of the entertainment industry will make its return- we just have to hang in there for a little while longer. 

Aside from all the doom and gloom and me whinging about missing gigs (yes my family are incontestably bored of hearing about it) there were still successes in 2020 which I must dignify a round of applause. However, you must bear with me whilst I try and keep this entertaining for you, after all, this isn’t the music industry’s 2020 honours ceremony, my name isn’t the Queen and I don’t hand out MBE’s though if I could, there are a few artists I would have in mind. I must offer my condolences to those artists, however, as Craig David was handed that one, I heard the Duke of Edinburgh is a big fan.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of other awards to be won, in September, the Mercury Prize went to Michael Kiwanuka for his musically cohesive, self-titled, third album KIWANUKA. The album saw him confidently come into his own, resolutely regain his Ugandan identity and defy record producers who suggested that he alter his stage name to make it ‘easier’ to pronounce, which would supposedly help to sell more records. As it turns out, Michael Kiwanuka didn’t need any “help”,  rather, his refusal to conceal his cultural heritage and instead, his decision to amplify it with an instrumentally resplendent album that featured graceful yet consequential melodies is what secured his success. All of this combined with unique and mesmerisingly melodious vocals makes KIWANUKA a celebration of culture, an artistic and musical triumph, and a well-deserved winner of the 2020 Mercury Prize. My steadfast enthusiasm, though unshakeable, cannot deny the other nominees, however, who consisted of the wonderful Laura Marling for her album Song For Our Daughter, the acclaimed grime artist, and game-changing Glastonbury headliner, Stormzy, for the album Heavy Is The Head and alternative rock intellects, Sports Team, for their striking yet sensational debut album, Deep Down Happy, amongst others. 

An album that particularly stood out amongst this year’s nominees was Dua Lipa’s second studio album, Future Nostalgia which possessed the perfect blend of retro references and pop princess anthems making for a high spirited piece that certainly lightened up what felt like an endless national lockdown. Future Nostalgia included hit tracks Break My Heart and Physical but our personal favourite was Don’t Start Now which features a confident and carefree storyline with Dua declaring that bad ex-boyfriend a thing of the past and a thing she’s moved on so much from that ‘it’s scary.’ Dua Lipa’s third studio album certainly served up some of the joy that we needed to power through 2020 and it also deservedly put her at third in the UK album charts last year. Just pipping Dua Lipa to the post, runner up in last year’s album charts, went to Harry Styles for his free-spirited album, Fine Line. The album was certainly captivating due to its inherent charm and magnetism with the hit single, Golden, offering a glorious sense of expansion. Nevertheless, the best selling album of 2020 went to the witty yet wacky Lewis Capaldi, who when he wasn’t having the nation in stitches was fabricating the heartfelt album Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent. Despite only acquiring two stars from NME and three stars from The Guardian, Capaldi certainly won over the heart of the nation with his idiosyncratic ballads that truly captured the apparent flimsiness of love but also the hurt of heartbreak. Call Lewis Capaldi the male Adele if you like, because it’s certainly a fitting description.

More favoured by critics, however, was Women In Music Part III by the sisterly trio, Haim. With four stars from Rolling Stone and five from NME, the album was a stellar effort to address the prevalent issue of sexism in the music industry. It indisputably stood out from the Haim sisters’ previous releases seeing as it generally underpinned more serious topics and sustained a consistently sombre undertone. This is unsurprising, as each of the sisters found themselves under fire from new difficulties that life was rather aggressively throwing in their direction. Danielle’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, Alana was bereaved by the death of a close friend and Este continued to struggle with depression as a result of her Type 1 Diabetes. Their success is wholly deserved and their formidable work ethic, even through a time of deep distress, a true inspiration to other musicians. They confront sensitive issues so personal to them with such flair and they defiantly record events where they have all been denied the respect they deserve due to their gender with clarity and strength. Women in Music Pt III makes for a truly wonderful yet thought-provoking listen, utterly deserving of the praise it has received.

Some of Transmission’s favourite albums of 2020  included The New Abnormal by The Strokes (be sure to go and read our review if you haven’t already), Foolish Loving Spaces by Blossoms but especially A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.

 A Hero’s Death is the second installment from Fontaines and features unarguably some of their best tracks including I Don’t Belong, Televised Mind, and Living in America. The album features the ever sullen and distinguished voice of lead singer Grian Chatten who’s voice often mirrors Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the best way possible (just with an Irish twist). It’s difficult to describe this album in a way that doesn’t make it sound dark and gloomy, but that’s exactly what it is, the entire album is laced with this unremitting darkness but simultaneously a sense of anger and frustration. It is this wonderfully orchestrated depth combined with these intense and almost hypnotic guitar riffs that make their music so alluring.

Yet, to not end on such a solemn note, we will leave you with a few messages of positivity for the year ahead- I am aware we are already well into 2021, this post was a long time coming, so apologies and allow me to rephrase. To not end on such a solemn note, we will leave you with a few messages of positivity in mid-January. Whilst 2020 was probably universally one of the most arduous years in many of our lifetimes, especially if you’re a musician, there was some great music released last year, and whilst that seems like a microscopic drop in a monumentally ginormous great big gargantuan ocean, music has superpowers and it can put the world to rights even if it’s just for the duration of a three-minute single. Nevertheless, before you know it, live music will return and the world will be put to rights for the length of an entire concert, it sounds utterly ludicrous as we’re currently on a full-scale lockdown (or lockdown season 3 as I like to call it) but the end is somewhat faintly within sight and when that time comes you’ll be able to discuss your new favourite album or anything for that matter, with a friend in person, not over zoom or facetime. Honestly, the chance would be a fine thing. I assure you there will be plenty of albums to discuss in 2021 however, a new special from Royal Blood is on the cards or perhaps a debut album from Inhaler, either way, there are things to look forward to and with a bit of luck and a bit of the old AstraZeneca, I’ll be sat here in 2022, writing our 2021 round-up after attending a few much-missed gigs. 

It’s time for the music industry to face the music (and it’s wrongdoings)

 I have classed myself a feminist for as long as I can remember, I grew up frustrated with my female classmates who shied away from the label for it had been twisted and given a misleading radical connotation. It baffled me. What confused me even further was that my reward for seeking to discuss issues I was passionate about was being labelled bossy and opinionated. Surely being unafraid to discuss a situation that makes you unhappy and that is altogether downright immoral was a positive trait. Instead, I received the opposite impression, which left me questioning. Was I destined to be viewed negatively by others for having a voice and being unafraid to use it?

 Throughout lockdown, like many others suffering from bored as a shit syndrome, I devoured anything on Netflix that even brushed on interesting. Once I had finally finished waging my profound dislike for Tiger King’s Carole Baskin, I stumbled across Taylor Swift’s documentary titled Miss Americana. Now, I’ll admit I’ve never been Swift’s biggest fan, in fact reasonably far from it; don’t get me wrong after watching all 85 minutes you’re still especially unlikely to catch me red-handed in the act of discreetly tapping my foot to Shake it Off or throwing cushions or crockery at the wall to We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Nonetheless, what I did find was a newfound respect for a woman who can only be described as severely misunderstood, a mere chess piece tactfully used as part of a much bigger game. On the contrary, the confinement of the patriarchy is not an amusing little game like charades or monopoly (although I would argue the latter even in speed mode is truly the stuff of nightmares). 

Before watching Miss Americana, I had spent years of disliking the unattainable image that Swift put out to the world. I was skeptical because, to me, her unnaturally thin stature and exclusive group of supermodel friends portrayed her as an advocate for low self-esteem in young girls and women and the glorification of unhealthy eating habits or disorders. In the eyes of a budding feminist such as myself and undoubtedly many others, it looked like her women backing women facade was limited to beautiful women who had graced the covers of Vogue. Together, the Swift Squad (as it was then known) fed into society’s patriarchal ideas of the perfect woman, she was the “perfect” woman who refused to discuss politics and social issues but maintained her tiny waist and glossy blonde locks. What I should’ve guessed and what I ultimately failed to, was that behind this facade was a woman who was being pigeonholed by powerful men in the music industry and by the cruelty of cowardly bullies online. Taylor Swift had been playing the role that men wanted her to play, she became the puppet whose strings were being pulled by a society designed by white men, for white men. Naturally, this left me wondering, how many other women in the music and entertainment industry had suffered the same fate as Swift due to these sexist ideals?

 What I discovered as I dug deeper and deeper was that Swift’s tale was not an anomalous case, she was part of a hidden trend, part of a much wider issue that has been swept under the rug for decades. In recent years, our attention has been focused on the film industry. The conviction of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement had public condemnation centered around Hollywood and the movie-making scene whereas issues of the same foul and repulsive nature in the music industry went undetected and utterly unnoticed. The fact is that so many female artists have been subjected to beyond stomach-turning scrutiny and even worse, appalling instances of sexual assault or inappropriateness. 

Despite the pop music industry accumulating a total of £4 billion per year, it’s an industry in which late-night drinking and parties are the norms. However, what should not become part of the norm is women continually being on the receiving end of their male bosses or clients crossing workplace boundaries simply because the atmosphere is more informal and events often occur outside of typical office hours. According to Lara Baker, events manager at the Association of Independent Music (AIM), it’s not uncommon at all for people’s concept of formality to go out of the window when the lights in the room are low with a few glasses on board. In her words, “A woman will be in a taxi with her boss or a client after a gig and he’ll suddenly start kissing or groping her and she’s expected not to mind. It’s not easy for her to speak out when it involves a colleague or a client and her reputation is at stake.” 

To put a name to a face, world-renowned musician Lady Gaga openly revealed that she in the past has suffered from PTSD as a result of being a victim of sexual assault, aged only 19 at the hands of an unnamed producer. Absurdly, this unnamed man is allowed the privilege of keeping his name hidden, despite his indefensible acts of cruelty he is held unaccountable and allowed the liberty to live his life as a free individual. On the contrary, a woman has to bear the burden of these acts of violence for the rest of her life, these horrible events have to traumatically play out in a woman’s head over and over and over again. It is wrong. It is so very wrong, but the fact remains, it is still happening. 

Ultimately, to name a powerful perpetrator of sexual violence or indiscretion is dangerous for a young woman or a woman of any age for that matter. We at any point could find our careers under fire, our reputation ruined at the click of one’s fingers. Strangely, this idea of a woman’s reputation at stake takes me right back to secondary school English as if a woman is suddenly dubbed un-womanly or undesirable for refusing a powerful man in an Elizabeth Bennett-esque fashion. Or in other words, this age-old idea (and an ongoing idea at that) that to fit the bill we must be seen and not heard, or rather to be heard only when we are asked or told to speak. 

To this day, the concept that women, to be successful or desirable need to be fancied by men, remains widely undertaken. The fact that all of this is culturally accepted or challenged at the expense of women’s careers in the 21st century can only be indicative of the lack of progress we have made as a society and in the music industry. Women’s success is still often not based on her talent, hard graft, or resilience but rather on something as superficial as dress size. In previous years, female pop artists have shared their stories of lamentable criticism within the industry. Notably, in a law-suit filed by Kesha against the now infamous record producer, Dr. Luke, described some of the hideous name-calling that had been inflicted on her. Some of the insults involved him describing her as ‘a fat fucking refrigerator.’  Kesha has since battled head-on with an eating disorder. 

What makes all of this even more disturbing, is that unfortunately, none of these events even shock me. Of course, it breaks my heart but, it’s not like there’s anything astonishingly new about all of this. Kesha is simply part of a long list of female artists including the likes of Adele, Rihanna, Selena Gomez (I could continue) who have been the subject of objectification in the media, by their managers or online. To do this day, women are often still expected to adhere to patriarchal ideals if they want to make it in the industry. If your best friend, your sister or your daughter’s dream is to become a musician how do you tell her that the first step to success or to making it big is to suppress her values, her strength and her voice? Well maybe, like most of us you would say nothing, I guess that that’s what most of us would do, but unfortunately, this is the reality for many women striving to succeed as an artist.

 Although Taylor will never see this, consider this article my re-evaluation of her character. I’m sorry that I didn’t read between the lines and I feel awful that she was made to feel so small and to compromise her voice and values. I mean I still can’t say that I listen to her music, to be totally honest I think I’m far too much of a grumpy and sceptical teenager for Swift’s gladdened pop songs but I solemnly swear I’ll review my opinion in a few years. Maybe. Possibly. Okay, probably not. Nevertheless, I hope that other women that want to freely pursue their passion for music aren’t shoved in a box as Taylor was, she truly deserved better. All of us women deserve better and it’s not just up to women to make it better either, it requires men to address their bias, to rethink their misconceptions about how women should look, think or act in order for this to get better.

It’s clear to me that this pigeonholing can’t go on and we shouldn’t have to continue to compromise ourselves to succeed (except for maybe sacrificing the excess hours of binge watching Netflix shows, my god it’s a cruel world). Begrudgingly, I’ll allow my strong mindedness to continue to be classed as bossy if it means that one day, women aren’t treated like objects that powerful men in record labels have a monopoly on- see I did say that that game had bad connotations. It’s tremendously evident to me, as it should be to you,  that this is an issue that has gone on for too long, it’s too urgent for people to continue to shove their head’s in the sand. We need answers, we need solutions and we need them immanently. I think now is the time for the music industry to face the music.

The New Abnormal- The Latest Release From The Strokes

Released 19 years on from their pioneering debut album, The Strokes’ sixth instalment, The New Abnormal, provides a contemporary and refreshing sound whilst reinstituting familiar qualities that we know and love. The album is composed of nine songs with some resembling more closely the earlier work of the band and others creeping into more ingenious and experimental territory.

It is worth noting that the contextual references vary from track to track, covering everything from personal experience to perhaps the state of the topical political landscape. ‘Bad Decisions’, an early release from the album, briefly graced this landscape when publicly played for the first time in February at a rally for Democrat and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. This seems a fitting yet unsurprising debut as frontman Casablancas has frequently been known to express his apparent scepticism and disillusionment with the functionality of Capitalism. In our opinion, the opening track on The New Abnormal ‘The Adults are Talking’ takes on a seemingly insubordinate tone, a somewhat direct denunciation of the corrupt and immoral businessmen or politicians at the helm of our society. However, other tracks seem to take a more personal, reflective tone and something that perhaps a listener can relate to.

The instrumentation of The New Abnormal is ambitious, prominent use of synths accentuates the new wave influences present whilst contrasting the traditional garage rock stature of their earlier albums. However, an air of familiarity is secured by the development of riffs that are reminiscent of their more ‘traditional’ style. Each instrument present has been skillfully adapted to create an air of depth and atmosphere throughout each track. There is an interesting variety in valence created by the diversity in the tone of synths especially and there are many examples of manipulated dynamics throughout. From the thumping percussion of ‘Not The Same Anymore’ to the falsettos Casablancas delivers so effortlessly in ‘Eternal Summer’, there’s a clear sense of instrumental maturity present. Overall, the sounds of The New Abnormal resonate and it’s impossible to ignore the musical development and production that has taken place.

The New Abnormal has proven a truly valuable addition to The Strokes’ musical collective. Their highly anticipated and long-awaited 6th album has tactfully displayed the gradual development of the band’s sound and also proved Casablancas to be a genuinely successful lyricist as well as renowned riff writer.

Listen to The New Abnormal here: