❉ Our annual indie Half Term Report returns for its third year. Pay attention at the back!
I’ll try to keep the preliminaries to a minimum because you all know the score. My initial thought (somewhere in March) was that this Covid-spoilt year would prove disastrous for music, but how wrong I was! If anything, this 50 is the best one I’ve curated – not due to anything I’ve done, it’s just that there’s been so much great music this year that trying to cut down the list to a manageable number has been pleasantly difficult – and so many songs and artists have just blown me away or enriched my life during these ghastly times.
The rules are simple: each artist is allowed just one track in the chart (which caused my biggest headache whilst trying to apply the Wisdom of Solomon to the two equally matched, and quite stunning I Break Horses tracks), and nobody I know personally is allowed in the chart.
There’s a Spotify playlist link of all the tracks featured at the end of this article.
50. Postcards – Fossilized
Album: The Good Soldier
Fantastic shoegaze/dreampop from Lebanon. Album The Good Soldier is outstanding as well. Julia Sabra’s almost ethereal singing feels like I’m divining this song from some sort of celestial radio millions of light years away. Postcards are the sort of earnest-sounding, soulful, life-enhancing band I’ve so much missed seeing live during Lockdown.
And I’d rather give up going to live music than the (mooted) scenario of the drive-in gig!
49. Karen Dixon – I Want to Be Free
Album: For the Love of You
It’s a long, honourable and well-established tradition (well, almost a mighty two years now) that I’m allowed to include just one cover version in the fifty. Them’s the rules. Splendid indie label Athens of the North’s compilation For the Love of You asked a variety of artists to cover various soul classics (the Isleys, The Gap Band, Archie Bell and others) and give them a late 70s-style lovers’ rock makeover. For me, this is the pick of the bunch. Karen Dixon’s version of Deneice Williams’ 1976 classic number one is six minutes of utter bliss.
48. Christine and the Queens – I Disappear Into Your Arms
Album: La Vita Nuova
Is there a better name in pop than Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier? (Rita Crudgington aside, obviously.) Such a classy pop star and if you saw her superb interview on Joolz Holland’s Lockdown CATQ special, you couldn’t have failed to be impressed by her charm, her wit, her friendliness and her incredible command of code-switching from formal, standard English to any number of informal variants. I Disappear is great, but It’s spoiled by the repeated sampling of what Victorians would call an ‘ejaculation’ (many years before those dirty so-and-so moderns changed its semantic implications) – and every fifteen seconds or so on this record, you can hear what sounds like Homer Simpson shouting D’oh! whilst sneezing. It spoiled a great song for me; and now I’ve drawn your attention to it, I’ve probably spoiled it for you.
47. Caroline Rose – Nothing’s Impossible
From: Long Island/Vermont
Caroline’s a big favourite of mine. Superstar is a really good album (although it hasn’t grown on me as much as her previous album Loner) and standout track Nothing’s Impossible is one of those songs that hits you on the third or fourth listen and you begin to think ‘Eff-me’ (if you’re a foul-mouthed bastard), ‘that’s ruddy marvellous!’ A lovely slice of yearning synth pop from a great indie pop star.
46. Kaytranda (featuring Charlotte Wilson) – What You Need
The artist still known as Kevin Louis Celstin and the siren-like vocals of Charlotte Wilson with one of the dreamiest tracks of this or any year. My most-played track of pre-Lockdown 2020.
45. International Teachers of Pop – Don’t Diss the Disco
Album: To be released
A little repetitive – and not perhaps the Teachers’ finest chorus, but you can’t argue with:
Stepped on your fantasy, tried to believe
In a whole lot of shit that you’ll never redeem
And you’re living your day in an innocent way
That your heart is a disco ball waiting to say
Modern synthpop with a delicious retrograde feel.
44. Foster the People – Lamb’s Wool
From: Los Angeles
Album: Lamb’s Wool
Shades of Tame Impala on this frankly lovely single from Messrs Foster and Pontius:
It’s hard to look into your eyes
Knowing it might be the last time
The spaces in between our breaths
They’re singing to the infinite
One of those dangerously melancholic tracks that you (I) could imagine listening to over and over again as I overdosed on mescal and absinthe in some cheap Paris lodging house overlooking the Seine. Or something:
God, I miss travelling. Damn you, Covid-19!
43. Tame Impala – Breathe Deeper
From: Perth, Australia
Album: The Slow Rush
Talking of whom, here’s the return of Kevin Shields with a vaguely funky number from the new album. The usual Beatles influences are evident, but this time with the addition of some lovely added tinkly Italian house piano embellishments.
And – as usual – the Sound of Summer.
42. Soccer Mommy – Yellow is the Colour of Her Eyes
Album: Color Theory
I’ve just about forgiven Sophia Regina Allison for sending her band offstage so that she could do her solo spot when I saw her in Liverpool last year. Mainly because she has the best birthday date of all and (partially) because Color Theory is one of the best albums so far this year.
Yellow is a fantastic single – her greatest song in a short but distinguished career.
41. Anna Burch – Party’s Over
Album: If You’re Dreaming
There’s a lovely fragility in Anna’s voice – almost as if she’s yearning for a better world. I was SO disappointed when her gig was (inevitably) cancelled this year. Good to see that her skinhead has grown out (not that there’s anything wrong with a skinhead), but I was somewhat taken aback when I caught her at Manchester a couple of years ago and then those lustrous locks had been shorn into a Carl Dreyer Jeanne D’Arc penny-all-off.
Another magical single.
40. Allie X – Rings a Bell
Album: Cape God
Released as a single last year, but also included on 2020’s excellent Cape God, this is further proof that those crazy electro Canadians are storming the 50 again.
An almost magical song, which – for some probably nonsensical reason – reminds me of 80s popsters Matt Bianco’s Sneaking Out the Backdoor.
39. PVA – Divine Intervention
Album: to be released
An electro dancefloor-filler of the highest order, and you can sing Spandau’s I Don’t Need This Pressure On as you listen to it. Bonus!
38. Sorry – Perfect
Saw them supporting Sunflower Bean last year in Liverpool and they seemed destined for great things. They’re almost there.
37. Cassowary – She Funked Me
Beautiful, creamy, sun-splashed, jazz-influenced funk/soul, the gift to the world from 25 years old Miles Shannon. You can sing the refrain from Heatwave’s Boogie Nights pretty much throughout the track.
The soundtrack to many back-garden pub replacement evenings this year.
36. Asylums – Catalogue Kids
Album: To Be Released
All the Catalogue Kids I knew gravitated from the toy section to the ladies underwear section in the blinking of a sordid eye. Not me, though – I went straight from Toys and Games to Soft Furnishings and Gardening Equipment because God didn’t put us on Earth to be disappointed when reaching the Miss Mary of Sweden section of either (the) Freeman’s or Kays – and thus presaging the quotidian aesthetic misery of the men’s shoes and slacks section.
Catalogue Kids is a thrilling – dare I say it – rock single with hints of Sonic Youth and Ash. Don’t let the James-alike vocals spoil your day.
35. HANYA – Dream Wife
EP: Sea Shoes
Musically speaking, Brighton has been my favourite British musical city for years now. HANYA are the latest in a long line of quite brilliant bands to emerge from the South Coast’s own 2020 Laurel Canyon. Dream Wife is an effortless and haunting four minutes of high quality dreampop. Looking forward to the album and seeing them live later this year.
34. Torii – Forward Retreat
From: the Netherlands
Album: Return to Form
I was going to use the band’s name as an excuse for a long and predictable rant about how much I hate the Tories (the bastards), but it has nothing to do with this genuinely spiffing record, so I won’t.
Forward Retreat is gentle, lovely, wistful psychedelia at its best – and the second Dutch entry in the chart.
33. Elephant Stone – Hollow World
Rishi Dhir’s wonderful band are back with another pop-psychedelic near masterpiece.
32. Dana Gavanski – Catch
Album: Yesterday is Gone
More brilliant Canadians. A tender, wistful, yearning and quite lovely song from an outstanding album. Another artist whose British tour was postponed this year – I’m hoping upon hope that the rearranged gigs go ahead later this year. Catch is best played as the sun starts to dip on a warm summer evening.
31. The Jacques – I Never Want to Be Your Boyfriend
Album: Born Sore
Delirious, heavenly pop and a lovely video.
The title reminds me of something I said to a lot of prospective partners – with the added rejoinder of an ‘ed’ on ‘want’, and a comma-ed, tagged, ‘anyway’. Just to preserve my dignity, obviously.
I want to hear this song played as I’m sitting outside drinking my second beer at some Parisian or Berlin café later this summer.
30. Hinds – Riding Solo
Album: The Prettiest Curse
A song that was born to have been released on Ze Records. A bit like that old standard Mockingbird – without getting on your tits.
Possibly the most joyous song of the year.
29. Courting – David Byrne’s Badside
Album: to be released
Starts off all Oasis-y (not a good sign), and then takes a more interesting turn into Idles and Fontaines territory. David Byrne’s Badside (I’ve been trying – unsuccessfully – to shift David Moyes’ Backside from my consciousness for a while now) tells the tale of the borderline racist misanthropist titular character (not THE David Byrne apparently) who fails to see the irony of the benefits of his pan-European, globally-sourced world whilst holding on to the imagined glories of his Brexit Britain:
Homes Under the Hammer, well, it blares from the bar
Until Daddy picks him up in his European Sports Car
“A ’19 plate?” Well, he muses who made it
“Built in England,” he wonders, “a Britishman’s labour”
Yet painful to watch as he watches The Chase
As he hates all his neighbours, he praises his saviour Nige.
It’s a tremendous 2020 update of The Fall’s Fiery Jack and has nice mid-seventies Bowie saxophone solo to boot. Superb.
28. GUM – Out in the World
From: Oklahoma City
Album: Out in the World
Whatever happened to GUM clinics? Just when I’d mastered some poor-quality acronym-heavy gags (and after years of crafting my STD puns), they get re-named just to destroy my patient years of creativity. Val Doonican must be spinning in his grave.
Anyway, Out in the World – a sensational melodic pop track from a brilliant album. (The opening’s a bit like Crowded House’s Weather With You if you’re trying to pinpoint it in your drug-addled mind.)
27. Moaning – Falling in Love
From: Los Angeles
A song which brings to mind The Killers (especially the vocals), but Falling in Love is much more synth-heavy than Brandon’s mob, and all the better for it. An ice-cold, glacial gem.
26. Benny Sings – Sunny Afternoon
Album: to be released
The Netherlands’ Tim van Berkestijn records under the moniker Benny Sings – and for those of us of a certain vintage, the temptation to make up album names such as I Do Have Needs, Miss Diane almost becomes an imperative – especially with the death of Large from the classic British double act Little and Large.
This is a lovely, light jazzy track, almost bordering on Jamiroquai territory (without the listeners’ feelings of self-hatred) and even Alessi’s underrated Oh Lori.
You can almost feel that soft, cooling breeze on your face.
25. Occult X – Be Mine
Album: to be released
The second Nashville act in the fifty. I can’t find much about this band, but like most people (I’d imagine) ‘Nashville’ triggers off a series of stereotyped images which are so far away from this lovely lo-fi dreampop single.
A hidden gem from 2020 which I’m sure will still be there in the end of year Top 50.
24. Parsnip – Adding Up
Album: Adding Up
In the 1970s whilst most of my older contemporaries (does that make sense?) were shuffling round in army and RAF greatcoats with Santana, Camel and Rick Wakeman albums under their arms and discussing Robert Plant and Led Zep’s paeans to their penises and what those gentlemen were going to do with their ‘wuh-mann’ or ‘laydee’, some of us more introverted types dreamed of a gentler, more feminine utopia where all-female bands were called something like ‘Parsnip’ and played great seven inch pop for a much brighter audience.
That day has arrived.
Absolutely gorgeous pop music with shades of early Altered Images.
23. Max Pope – Just Friends
EP: In Limbo
A superb, lilting paean to lost love. Just beautiful and another summer classic.
22. Jockstrap – The City
EP: Wicked City
I know this is going to sound tedious (So why say it, hey? I love talking to myself), but never was there such a disconnect behind a band name and the beautiful music it makes. Apart perhaps from Swarfega Incident, Instant Thrush and Foraging for Farage – although as I’ve just made these band names up, my original contention remains unaltered. Jockstrap sound like no other band – although there are shades of Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow in this track – and when this delicate voice and piano song suddenly mutates into what sounds like a mosquito trapped in a sequencer, things get genuinely weird.
A great song/track – Georgia Ellery’s beautiful voice will lull you into believing that Jockstrap are from singer/songwriter territory, but if anything they’re more like label* mate Aphex Twin in their electronic experimentalism. I first heard of this duo a couple of years ago via their fabulous single Hayley – and their Wicked City EP is just immense.
*Warp – how much pleasure have they given me over the past twenty or so years? Cap doffed.
21. The Innocence Mission – Movie
From: Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Album: See You Tomorrow
A band that’s been around since the late eighties (which would normally be a case of me thinking ‘just call it a day, now’, but not in this case) and still producing challenging and beautiful music.
The shortest song in the fifty – and quite the saddest.
A beautiful track.
20. Cold Beat – Prism
From: San Francisco
Sounds like a late eighties classic synthpop single in the manner of something from New Order or Dep Mode’s Violator. I got told off for dancing to this song – although in my defence the lush synth intro does bring to mind the opening to Flashdance (What a Feeling!).
19. Dirty Projectors – Overlord
EP: Windows Open
The opening bars of this song are uncannily like Professor Yaffle’s mandolin arrangement of the Everton Z Cars theme for Put it Out on the brilliant (and largely undiscovered) Cosmic Lullabies album; I’d be slightly annoyed if I were him.
Overlord is superb – Maia Friedman’s voice is a thing of great beauty which transports the listener to something or somewhere better.
And I remain one of the few people to have seen the odd British 1974 flick entitled Overlord, featuring the mysteriously disappeared-from-view Brian Johnson. (No – not that one; or indeed, that one.)
18. Låpsley – My Love was Like the Rain
Album: Through the Water
A mesmerising, beautiful slice of electronica from one of the albums of the year. Holly Lapsley Fletcher (granddaughter of Norman Stanley) is a prime mover in Merseyside’s astonishing musical re-birth. There are distant hints of Broadcast here, but Låpsley’s music is very much her own musical sound.
17. Public Practice – Compromised
From: New York
Album: Gentle Grip
Pardon the language, but this is f***ing great! Three minutes and fifteen seconds of tuneful New York Post-Punk with an added dash of the B52s and The Waitresses, and the bassline nicked from Delta 5’s early 80s gender-battle classic You.
16. Indigo Bunting – I Fell Through
From: Austin, Texas
Album: To be released
My favourite shoegaze single of the year so far. Like something I’d hear in a beautiful distant afternoon reverie. I’ve racked my brain trying to think of what this song reminds me of – to no avail, but I can definitely sing a few bars of Wings’ London Town at some point.
15. En Attendant Ana – Down the Hill
I continue to come across Tweets and FB posters who think that French pop is still all Johnny Hallyday and the sort of variety show crap you’d tell your French exchange student to switch off. Immediately.
Mind you, most of my ‘alternative pop’ friends are still stuck in a late 70s/early 80s New Wave-type thing and haven’t listened to anything vaguely new in years.
So forget those new hippies – this is glorious French pop!
14. Ciel – Days
Another Brighton band. It must be something in the water.
Brilliant shoegazey/dreampop from a fantastic EP.
13. Shadow Show – Charades
Fabulous, melodic garage pop from a talented trio. Check out the video – all the delights, joys and possibilities of being young in three lovely minutes.
12. Irene and the Disappointments – Sweet Drift Honey
Album: To be released
Liverpool is o’er brimming with talent at the moment and it has its healthiest music scene since the late seventies to mid-eighties. This is a lovely single with a vocal which has echoes of the much-missed Dolores from The Cranberries.
A brilliant live act as well.
11. Ringo Deathstarr – Disease
From: Austin, Texas
Album: Ringo Deathstarr
A tremendous return to form from one of my favourite bands. (Although I’m also a huge fan of tribute band Petebest Moonbasealpha).
Haunting, lyrical and lovely.
10. Grimes – My Name is Dark
Album: Miss Anthropocene
Although her real name is Clare Boucher, of course.
A couple of things: what did the artist Grimes see in the billionaire Elon Musk?
How crap is ‘dope’ as a means of expressing quality? (Although it will invariably slip into my vernacular when it’s least appropriate to use it.)
A stunning track from Grimes’s superb Miss Anthropocene album – although the opening bars are blatantly ripped off obscure British indie band The Heartbeats’ 1989 single Dreamtime.
9. Yazmin Lacey – Not Today Mate
Album: Morning Matters
I thought this was Erykah Badu when I first heard this. It’s that good.
A beautiful, instant, nu-soul classic and just perfect for summer evenings.
Yazmin Lacey is a major talent already – and she’ll only get better.
8. Oracle Sisters – Most of All
EP: Paris 1
The Parisian trio’s best work yet. Most of All sounds like it came out of Laurel Canyon rather than some unspecified arrondissement. The song almost goes country at one stage – luckily the slide guitar actually enhances the sound rather than making me want to switch it off.
A beautiful record.
7. Honeymoan – Still Here
From: Cape Town
The first South African act to make the chart. Still Here is wonderful – an existential examination of the dark noon of existence. Possibly the first band to fill the void in my musical life left by the sad demise of The School of Seven Bells.
This sad and beautiful song contains my favourite lyrics of any of the songs in this Half Term Report 50:
“Living in a question mark / Time is stumbling in the dark
Waiting to complete the arc / This story blows who’s the writer
More than just to sleep and eat / Again, again repeat, repeat
What happened to a short and sweet / This one seems will never end”
6. Peggy Sue – In Dreams
Another band whose live absence brought back just what I’ve been missing – and the essence of happiness – in Lockdown. I’ve lived with the songs and tracks in this list for the past six months, but it’s only whilst compiling this list that I’ve realised that I’ve been burying such (admittedly) minor sadness as only stereotyped British people can do.
Peggy Sue are quite frankly ace, and their Motorcade single from last year was almost my number one. In Dreams is almost as good.
5. I Break Horses – I’ll Be the Death of You
An absolutely magical single from my favourite album of the year so far. It was a toss-up between I’ll Be the Death and the equally fantastic single A Prophet for a one-off inclusion in the list.
I still feel some bizarre residual guilt.
4. Caveman – You Got a Feeling
EP: New Sides
Despite my declared vow that I do my best to avoid all-male bands, there often comes along a band and song just to show up my aversion/theory to being the utter nonsense it undoubtedly is.
Not much more to say about this apart from the fact that it is effortlessly, ineffably beautiful and brought me to tears at one of the sadder moments of this very sad year.
3. Avi Buffalo – Skeleton Painting
From: Long Beach
Album: to be released
He’s always been good, but this is sublime. I saw him playing a tiny venue club in Liverpool last year and he was such a lovely fellow. Hopefully this song will propel him to the next stage.
2. Basement Revolver – Romantic at Heart
From: Hamilton, Ontario
Album: to be released
The most requested and played song at the bookshop. Heartbreakingly beautiful from the off and one of those melancholia-inducing songs I’ve been told to avoid, but it’s difficult to resist a siren call. With the risk of sounding like Jilly Goolden, whenever I hear this song, I get soupçons of Holding Back the Years, Wouldn’t it Be Good? and The Three Degrees’ Year of Decision.
A fantastic record.
1. Hazel English – WAKE UP!
Album: WAKE UP!
At last, the number one. Quite simply a fabulous pop song – quietly urgent, uplifting and sung by an angel. If this song doesn’t make you feel just that little bit better in life, you’re probably already dead.
Nice one, Hazel!
So there you have it. Lots of French, Californian, London, Liverpool and (of course) Canadian acts, but kudos to Brighton for the unending succession of great bands which have sprung from such a fantastic, creative hub. Here’s the Spotify link:
See you all at Christmas!
❉ Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at the Liverpool Sound City festival at the end of September.