By BRUCE DENNILL
Various Artists: Grammy 2020 Nominees
Various Artists: Birds Of Prey – The Album
Various Artists: Rocktober
Bethel Music Kids: Come Alive
Amanda Cook: Brave New World
Reviewing a compilation of tracks that have already been shortlisted by a respected committee as arguably the best songs released in a calendar year requires critiquing those choices as much as the material itself, which means adding a layer of subjectivity to somebody else’s personal bias. For the purposes of this review of Grammy 2020 Nominees, then, things will be kept simple by considering the ratio of production piled on to the bare bones of the song – the premise being that writing so willfully obscured by sonic effects, auto-tune and club-worthy bass swells is probably stronger in its own right. It’s not a perfect formula, but then neither is a compilation that features a curated snippet of a much longer list of songs. H.E.R.’s Hard Place is a solid, clean pop tune, and is followed by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s Senorita, which has a few more frills and a touch of Latin influence. Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s I Don’t Care is probably not even the former’s best release of 2020, but few contemporary artists have a better understanding of linking melody and hooks, and the same can be said of Lover by Taylor Swift (on both counts). Sucker by the Jonas Brothers is strong and Harmony Hall from Vampire Weekend is even better, though the bar is still not set terribly high for the year under consideration. Lana Del Rey’s Norman F***ing Rockwell is a beautiful piano ballad, but good as it is, it’s not as good as anything on Sara Bareilles latest album, a song from which won a Grammy this year. Little Big Town’s The Daughters is moving and memorable and I Don’t Remember Me (Before Me) by the Brothers Osborne is well-constructed straight-up country music. As a snapshot of a musical year, this is not one of the past decade’s best.
The film Birds Of Prey – The Album soundtracks is unfailingly brazen throughout – loud, bright, brash and fast-paced, often to the detriment of much in the way of heart and soul. The music that goes with the action is, unsurprisingly, chosen to enhance those themes and that mood, and as a partner to the visuals in that way, this is an excellent album. As a standalone compilation, however, it is considerably less effective, as the style of the music is overwhelmingly similar and lacking in nuance – propulsive in a way that will drive an action scene, but light on emotion to help the listener engage beyond that. Lonely Gun by CYN is a highlight, with its gravelly Queens Of The Stone Age-esque guitar line, and Bad Memory by K Flay is arguably the best of the hip hop-inflected options. And Black Canary’s gentle take on James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World offers a respite from the general sonic assault.
A double-disc compilation of South African rock songs from the last 40 years or so, Rocktober does a good job collecting a number of tunes that refuse to age – arguably the best criterion to consider when trimming down the options to include – from the English rock output of local bands. At 40 tracks, there are probably no more than six or seven songs that would cause any real consternation among afficionados of the genre, and the best tunes here are great rock songs in any context, anywhere. On disc one, Ballyhoo’s Man On The Moon, Clout’s Substitute and Tribe After Tribe’s As I Went Out One Morning hark back a little, with Springbok Nude Girls’ Blue Eyes, Wonderboom’s Something Wrong and Zen Arcade’s Crazy Over You being more contemporary classics. On disc two, Kongos’ Come With Me Now, aKing’s Against All Odds, Squeal’s Runners and The Spectres’ Teddy Bear are some of the standouts. There’s nothing from pedigreed greats like Johnny Clegg, Seether, Tree63 or Bright Blue, but that may be down to licensing issues rather than any sort of oversight. Plus, there’s still plenty of great material worth including on the follow-up to this collection.
Whether or not music needs to be reworked in order to appeal to kids is debatable. After all, expectant mothers are told to play Mozart to their unborn children, and that music was written for kings and courtiers. The general thinking with Bethel Music Kids: Come Alive seems to be that slowing down the rhythm a little (sometimes with a gentle house beat), making synthesisers the bulk of the instrumentation and making kids sing the vocals will do the trick. It’s all pleasant enough – there is great source material including This Is Amazing Grace, Ever Be and One Thing Remains – but the above conventions make everything sound pretty similar, so it’s easy to lose focus when listening, which rather undermines the point of the exercise in a worship context.
It is often said that the best songs can be played with the bare minimum of instrumentation – just an acoustic guitar or piano and a voice, for instance. The trend in contemporary worship music towards adding massively layered synths (almost all of the time) and EDM rhythms (some of the time) makes getting a clear understanding of the source material more difficult than some listeners have the patience for, particularly when there are hundreds of alternatives at their fingertips. Brave New World suffers from a sonic similarity that makes its lyrical goals more difficult to reach. It’s not a bad sound, with widescreen atmospherics inviting you to close your eyes and explore what in visual terms would be a misty, mysterious wilderness, following the lure of Cook’s Sarah McLachlan-ish voice. But, as in a misty wilderness, it’s easy to lose your way and circle back, possibly finding yourself in the same place again and again. When that mood is briefly shifted, it’s only for short instrumentals like Flagship – very pleasing in their own right, but not adding anything thematically. Up front, Shepherd is stirring and The Voyage is perhaps the best combination of the elements used throughout the collection.