Back in March, as the world was getting used to being in total lockdown, Sophie Ellis-Bextor had an idea. The pop singer found herself in the same situation as everyone else, stuck in her house with her husband and five sons, everyone going stir crazy. So to bring a little fun to the world, she started streaming half-hour performances every Friday night, but with a twist. Her Kitchen Disco was just that: a karaoke performance in her kitchen with her kids in tow, her husband and sons handling the camera work. It was chaotic but crazily enjoyable; Sophie would be singing “Murder on the Dancefloor” and “Take Me Home” under a glitter ball, and her little kids would be dancing, goofing around, fighting, or all of the above. She’d sing a line, try not to step on an infant, separate a tiff between brothers, and not miss a beat. It was nothing but joy, an artist trying to figure out what to do to involve audiences, and before long the show blew up online.
The weekly Kitchen Discos arrived at a perfect time for yours truly. Man, those lockdown days at work were brutal. Although I was very lucky to still have a job, my normally routine-based work was suddenly chaotic as the workload exploded and demands from the public became angrier by the week. Thanks to Sophie, Friday afternoons gave me a tiny respite from the stress. Her Kitchen Discos were uploaded to YouTube in the afternoon here in North America, so for a half hour I’d blast the show as I finished the day’s shipping.
This was a very common theme for a lot of people in 2020. As Erik Highter so perfectly put it not too long ago, we sought out social music in an antisocial time. Full disclosure: I do not like to dance. I hate dancing. But man, do I love dance music. Just like blasting metal, dance/pop music offers a brief escape, cleansing the palate of all the negative detritus that everyday life can bring to any person. I’m always on the lookout for good dance and pop music, and somehow the timing was so perfect as so many artists put out some real pop classics this year.
Lady Gaga staged a gigantic comeback in 2020, announcing a return to her garish, flamboyant dance persona, and Chromatica (Spotify) turned out to be a very welcome return to that sound. It didn’t break any new ground like her first few albums did, but it did its best to stay contemporary (Blackpink and Ariana Grande made high-profile guest appearances), and bangers like “Stupid Love”, “911”, and “Rain on Me” were welcome escapes into her crazy little world. Meanwhile, Kylie will always be The Queen to me, and after a couple adventurous records she decided to return to her club roots on the aptly named DISCO (Spotify). Like Chromatica, DISCO served up nothing but propulsive dance tracks, which is totally within Kylie’s wheelhouse. Written and recorded during the pandemic, Kylie exercised a lot more control of the product than usual, from songwriting to engineering, and there’s a cohesion to this album, a flow that’s irresistible. It’s rare to hear a 15th album by an artist sound as fresh and rejuvenated as this.
As far as dance/disco albums went, Jessie Ware was easily the biggest and most pleasant surprise. Not becauseI didn’t think she had it in her, but rather I didn’t expect her to take this route. Her debut album Devotion was a landmark release in 2012, but her subsequent albums were mannered, fairly sombre affairs, which I was getting pretty bored of. From its Warhol-inspired Polaroid cover to the swanky Italo-disco music inside, What’s Your Pleasure? (Spotify) presents a looser, groovier Jessie Ware, who is clearly loving life and is ready to have some fun. Her smooth R&B voice is still the same, but when placed in front of a glitzy dance club backdrop it hits another level. The arrangements veer subtly from classic disco to house, trip hop, and even hi-NRG, and Ware channels everyone from Diana Ross to Baccara. She even goes as far to quote Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” over a wicked club track. The album unfolds like a night out, and when the pastoral “Remember Where You Are” kicks in, you can feel that tired but euphoric feeling of watching the sunrise after a fun night out.
It’s been stated that some of the only people who had a truly great 2020 were Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Dua Lipa. Before the pandemic happened, Dua Lipa was already dropping plenty of hints that her new album would be massive. The singles “Don’t Look Now” and “Physical” were huge, and deservedly so, sleekly produced disco homages that were perfect showcases for her husky voice. The timing of Future Nostalgia (Spotify) was perfect: right when people needed an escape from all the upheaval in their lives, there was Dua Lipa singing club bangers as though COVID never happened. Much to my own pleasure, the album turned out to be shockingly tight, not to mention absolutely loaded with phenomenal songs over the course of 35 minutes. “Hallucinate” cranks up the funk grooves, “Break My Heart” contains a very sneaky and smart nod to INXS’s “Need You Tonight”, and “Levitate” boasts perhaps the mightiest pop hooks in any song from 2020, an absolutely soaring exercise in what makes a song so perfectly catchy. Future Nostalgia was by far my most-played new release in 2020, and I have yet to tire of it.
If there’s one “escapist disco” album from 2020 that just might have the most staying power, however, it’s Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine. I’ve always liked the Irish singer (“Overpowered” was a mid-2000s classic) but her fifth album takes things to another, truly iconic level. There’s something about the way she presents herself on this record that just stays with you. She sings with such ease and elan that she sounds huge, untouchable in the process. The ultimate diva. You hear it in her restrained yet commanding presence on the wicked dance jam “Simulation” and the murky, operatic “Kingdom of Ends”, a sort of 17-minute suite that kicks the album off with a mighty bang. After that, the record kicks into high gear: “Something More” is both hopeful and defeated in its longing, “Shellfish Mademoiselle” is a lot more playful, “Incapable” would have been massive if Adele was singing it, but she doesn’t have that level of talent around her. “We Got Together” sounds straight out of Manchester circa 1989, a glorious rave-up that channels both Happy Mondays and Paul Oakenfold, “Murphy’s Law” has some self-deprecating fun atop a pulsating arrangement, while “Jealousy” concludes things on a raging note, as Murphy goes Full Diva as the song pounds away relentlessly. It’s the exact kind of music that I crave when times are tough, something huge, something wickedly catchy, something transcendent. In a year absolutely dominated by phenomenal dance albums by some truly phenomenal music, Róisín Machine is arguably the finest.
Fittingly, Sophie Ellis-Bextor helped bring the year to a close the other day with a xmas episode of Kitchen Disco. There they all were, Sophie, her hubby, and their maniacal brood of ginger boys raising a holy ruckus in their home as mom sang dryly, “We’re still home.” Ellis-Bextor has never stopped making music, thanks to that innocuous project, her career is back on the upswing, and she smartly pounced on the opportunity, releasing a long-overdue greatest hits compilation, something I’d been craving for years. In fact, the double-vinyl LP is on its way to my house right now, and if things go well – fingers crossed! – it’ll arrive before the year is out and Stacey, Eddie, and I can ring in the 2021 in style. Heck, we’ll be playing all these great albums. 2020 might have been the ultimate dumpster fire, but hope abounds, and at the very least, we can remember that it, miraculously, brought us some truly great music.
And just to keep with tradition, here’s the closest I can get to an official, ranked top ten albums of 2020. Have a great holiday, and here’s to a 2021 filled with friends, tolerance, and lots and lots of good tunes.
1. Róisín Murphy, Róisín Machine
2. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
3. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
4. Deftones, Ohms
5. Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor
6. AC/DC, Power Up
7. Haim, Women in Music Pt. III
8. Imperial Triumphant, Alphaville
9. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
10. Blue Oyster Cult, The Symbol Remains