2020 in the Rearview Mirror
BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 23, 2020
On - My Year
1 January 2020. I woke up feeling like a dog’s dinner having fallen ill the previous night. I felt like a Nokia that hasn’t been charged since 2003. Must have been something I picked up in Hong Kong just before Christmas. Then there was a persistent dry cough. That’s not on the checklist of main flu symptoms.
Who knows? Nobody knew about it apart from a poor few souls in Wuhan. In any case, I had other things on my mind. The year was barely out of the starting blocks, and I was back in hospital having sternal wires removed. Extricating unwanted souvenirs of last year’s trauma put me in a frame of mind for an action-packed 2020, so onward and...
...COVID happened. First the biannual Grands Jours was cancelled and then the world nearly wobbled off its axis when en primeur fell victim.
I confess that the first lockdown had its silver linings that made it bearable and even intermittently enjoyable. It felt like a rerun of 2019 except that freedom was curtailed by global illness instead of a personal one. I counted my lucky stars. If I had contracted COVID before my operation, then I wouldn’t have stood a chance in hell. With sternal wires gone, I gained upper body flexibility and this enabled me to do something that I never imagined enjoying, let alone doing...
Catalysts for many, a Vinous article popped into my febrile imagination whilst pounding the streets. Initial fears that I would be twiddling my thumbs during lockdown soon vanished as pallets piled with primeur samples materialised on my driveway and grateful neighbours began being inundated with leftovers. My next-door neighbour made a delicious vinaigrette from the remains of a 2019 First Growth.
In August, when many thought we were out of the woods, the governments “Eat Out” campaign saw restaurants packed with customers enjoying 50% off their bill, and I packed in as much eating out as I could. The summer lull in COVID, coincided with the return of my wanderlust. A short trip to Chablis was just the tonic and reaffirmed that I feed off travelling and tasting in the region. I need that human interaction. By September I began considering how I was going to taste Burgundy from barrel since missing such an important report was untenable. So after a precautionary flu jab (I’ve felt like a human pin cushion in recent months) I embarked on a month’s intensive tasting before the second wave reared its ugly head and curtailed my trip. I had never worked so hard, but it “got me out of the house” as the saying goes.
Lockdown Part II has been harder to deal with, as most people have found, though I am thankful that so far the virus has not contracted me, unless that really was COVID in January. At least there is light on the horizon with news of vaccines. Call me a deluded optimist, but I believe that after what is going to be a hard few weeks, life will spring back to a sense of normalcy and society will have a newfound appreciation of the many things we have missed. Roll on 2021. I don’t want anything special - just a return to normality.
Coming towards the end of my stay in Burgundy, this just after tasting at Drouhin.
On – Wine
Twenty-twenty has been a tough year for everyone. It has been a year of just getting through the day, the week, the year by keeping safe, keeping sane. My lifebuoy of optimism, kept afloat by the rollout of vaccines, is currently threatened by a virus mutation, festering in the area I live. Consequently, we enter another soul-sapping lockdown that snuffed out all our plans for the festive season. Hard weeks lay ahead. But I cling to the idea that next year will see the first buds of a return to normal, accompanied by newfound appreciation of the many things we were deprived of in 2020. Roll on 2021.
Wine of the Year
2010 Domaine Jean-François Coche-Dury - Meursault Rougeots
It wasn’t that this beauty was firing on all cylinders or that it is rare or that it was a third of the market price at Pot d’Etain. It was simply the relief, the thrill of enjoying fine wine after weeks in isolation. It was a bit of my old life returning. Plus it tasted bloody amazing.
Value For Money White
2017 António Madeira Vinhas Velhas Branco
This live wire Vinhas Velhas blew me away when I ordered it from the list at Elystan Street restaurant in the summer. Cheap as chips (and delicious).
Value For Money Red
2010 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Selección Especial Rioja Reserva
This Rioja gem was so fantastic that I immediately declared, in my best Withnail accent, that I would be drinking the entire bottle, a rare occurrence these days.
Memorable Bottles of 2020
These bottles also lit up my year, from English sparkling wonders to Bandol, Barolo and Holy Grail Burgundy. There is no distinction in terms of price. They are simply the wines at the forefront of my my memory listed in order of vintage.
1899 Marqués de Murrieta – Rioja Blanco
1928 Gruaud Larose
1945 Vieux Château Certan
1948 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru
1961 Vieux Château Certan
1964 Domaine Bonneau du Martray – Le Corton Grand Cru
1964 Clos Saint-Martin
1980 Domaine Georges Roumier – Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru
1982 Grand Puy Lacoste (magnum)
1990 Domaine Guffens-Heynen – Pouilly-Fuissé La Roche
1991 Ridge – Montebello
1991 Kanonkop – Paul Sauer
1992 Domaine Jean-Claude Ramonet – Montrachet Grand Cru
1993 Domaine Jean-François Coche-Dury – Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru
1999 Thierry Allemand – Cornas
1999 Domaine J-L Trapet – Chambertin Grand Cru
2001 Bruno Giacosa – Barbaresco Santo Stefano
2002 Taittinger – Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne
2004 Domaine Guffens-Heynen – Pouilly-Fuissé La Roche
2005 Brovia – Barolo Riserva 150 Anniversario Rocche-Villero
2007 Rolly Gassman – Pinot Gris Rotleibel de Rorschwihr Vendange Tardive
2007 Château de Pibarnon – Rouge Bandol
2009 Pepe Raventós – Mas del Serral Cava
2010 Domaine Jean-François Coche-Dury – Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru
2010 Sugrue – Trouble With Dreams Sparkling Wine (magnum)
2012 Giuseppe Rinaldi – Barolo Tre Tine
2013 Ian Naudé – Chenin Blanc Old Vines
2014 Nyetimber – Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine
2015 Jean-François Ganevat – Côte de Jura Les Chalasses Vieilles Vignes
2015 Wiston – Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine
2017 Mullineux & Leeu – Cinsault Basson Old Vines
2017 Hatzidakis Winery – Assrytiko Cuvée No. 15
2019 Paulus Wine Co. – Chenin Blanc Bosberaad
NV Marcalalberto – Brut Nature Metodo Classico
NV Mullineux Family Wines – Olerasay
On – Eating
Hands up who’s missing dining at restaurants.
Me too. I’m writing this the day after my final lunch before another lockdown in London as it enters Tier 3. How many will survive? My most memorable meal was Sorrel in Dorking in mid-March during the last days of normal life. Despite the disquieting feeling of foreboding, this set lunch was perfect from beginning to end and I cannot wait to return. I must also mention Brett Graham’s sublime grouse and the quartet of ‘28s at this year’s Grouse Club. It was a little oasis of the hedonistic life snuffed out by events.
Worst meal of the year is also not a difficult choice: Restaurant Hostellerie du Clos in Chablis that plumbed new depths of culinary ineptitude. I would have laughed had I not paid through the nose for the privilege. Shame because otherwise it’s a lovely hotel that does a smashing breakfast.
Sorrel in Dorking – a perfect meal from start to finish.
On - Music
Two things that I sorely miss are restaurants and gigs. What ultimately will survive for live music over the COVID horizon remains to be seen. Live music in its myriad of forms will make a barnstorming return once we can tame the virus. Imagine the euphoria of that moment, the sense of release as the band begins to play. Expect to see me in the mosh-pit, even if it’s Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In the meantime, the music played on and artists’ creative juices flowed. With nothing else to do than self-isolate in studios, 2020 witnessed a slew of planned and unplanned albums and apropos Taylor Swift, BTS, Sault and Trees Speak, two albums apiece. Music was a vital strand of continuity that got us through to the end of the year. Here are my picks. I created a Spotify playlist if you want to hear my soundtrack of these strange 12 months.
Album of the Year
SAWAYAMA - Rina Sawayama
My album of the year was an easy choice, one that inexplicably, I never selected for album of the month. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama came out in April to critical acclaim and you will find it included in many 2020 best-of lists. Born in Japan and raised in London, she released her first single in 2013, so it is no overnight success. In one sense, SAWAYAMA is pure pop: bright and sparkly. But pop music is currently the most adventurous musical form and her album welds styles together to startling effect. Taking millennial pop titans Christina and Britney as her starting point, SAWAYAMA mashes up nu-metal, Neptunes-inspired beats, R&B and show-stopping balladry. Lyrically she broaches everything from consumerism, sexual identity and cultural misappropriation (hilariously skewered in the introduction to her STFU! video.) Blessed with a strong voice, proven by impressive acoustic versions on her YouTube channel, it lends her music real depth, especially on ballads like the affecting Chosen Family. Everything is bound together by Clarence Clarity’s stunning production, packing layers of intricate percussion, samples and beats without swamping the overall sound. SAWAYAMA should have made her a massive star up there with Ariana or Swifty. It has not quite happened yet, but after a memorable live performance of “XS” on Jimmy Fallon, she deserves to rule in 2021.
In Waiting - Pillow Queens - After releasing one of the uncut gems of 2019 with the anthemic “Gay Girls”, this Irish four piece delivered a debut that lived up to expectations. It received positive reviews but should have made more waves.
Roisín Machine - Roisín Murphy - Ex-Moloko singer Roisín Murphy offered her sublime, skewed update of disco. Her unmissable lockdown podcasts proved that she’s a bit bonkers in the nicest possible way. That’s why she is one of our most cherished stars at the top of her game.
Don’t Shy Away - Loma - Loma received the maiden album of the month on Vinous for 2018’s eponymous debut, intended as a one-off release. But Emily Cross, Dan Duszynski and Jonathan Meiburg, with the patronage of God a.k.a Brian Eno, they made a second album that’s even better, God producing the closing rack. Hopefully Loma will get round to a third. Please?
Song For Our Daughter - Laura Marling - Marling has barely put a foot wrong since bursting onto the UK’s folk scene back in the mid-2000s. Songs For Our Daughter is full of poignant lyrics and her finest songwriting yet.
Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers - Bridgers threatened to become a star after her first album, though few people foresaw her second would be so assured. Not sure about the skeletal attire though.
Maze of Sounds - Janko Nilovic & The Soul Surfers - Treading a fine line between Muzak and genius, 80-year old Nilovic aided by The Soul Surfers, released a sublime album that you will either love or hate. I love it.
American Head - The Flaming Lips - Wayne Coyne & Co. had been around since the mid-1980s believe it or not. This ranks amongst their finest, psychedelic yet grounded in more humanity with wonderful contributions from Kacey Musgraves.
Ohms - Trees Speak - This mysterious Arizona band released two albums in 2020. This is their first, channeling their inner Neu!/Can: full of motorik beats and analogue keyboards to create a soundscape as unsettling as Ohm’s cover art.
What’s Your Pleasure - Jessie Ware - Dua Lipa almost ran away with pop album of the year until Ware released her sophisticated fourth album of what you might call “thinking dance music”. She’s always had a great voice. Now she had the killer songs.
Bedroom - bdrmm - Released on Sonic Cathedral, Leeds’s bdrmm took inspiration from shoegaze and updated droning guitars for a new generation of teenagers who refuse to come out of their bedroom.
Disco Volador - The Orielles - This was meant to be my album of the month back in January until Tame Impala stole it away. Sorry Orielles. But this is still a great album.
Folklore/Evermore - Taylor Swift - Whilst I have long admired Swift as a talented singer, a dab-hand as a songwriter with clever lyrics, the unannounced release of Folklore altered my view of her as an artist that belongs amongst the canon of great singer-songwriters. She neatly transitioned from C&W starlet to pop icon. Aided by The National’s Aaron Dessner she produced a timeless classic that saw her retreat from her megastar status. If that was not enough, she went and dropped a second album in December, Evermore that’s just as good. It even includes a song called “Champagne Problems”, presumably relating the difficulty of secondary fermentation.
BE - BTS - The K-pop septet broke all kinds of records in 2020. BTS is partly on this list because my eldest is a member of the “BTS Army” and, well, fathers do this kind of thing for their daughters. But when I actually listened to BE (I had no choice in the car) I was genuinely impressed by the songwriting, adventurous production and the sentiment, one of enduring this crappy time together, not alone. My eldest said that BTS made lockdown bearable. That’s the power of music, right there.
Also worth listening to:
Countless Branches – Bill Fay
The Universal Want – Doves
Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa
Re-animator – Everything Everything
Sixteen Oceans – Fourtet
Beyond the Pale – JARV Is…
Morchedai – Khruangbin
Silver Ladders – Mary Lattimore
Kitchen Sink – Nadine Shah
SOURCE – Nubya Garcia
McCartney III – Paul McCartney
Viscerals – Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
RTJ4 – Run The Jewels
The Slow Rush – Tame Impala
The Menace of Mechanical – Music Team Picture
What Kinda Music – Tom Misch & Yussuf Dayes
Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee
Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club
Song of the Year
The Hour of the Blackbird – Ninebarrow ft Hart Voices and Chantry Singers
No other song encapsulates 2020 like “The Hour of the Blackbird.” Watch the video on YouTube. Remarkably, folk duo Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay Labouchardiere) never met the two choirs when they re-recorded the song in May this year. It’s the most evocative simple folk song, voices perfectly blended, that swells to a celestial conclusion. I found it completely moving. All proceeds to the MIND charity.
Other Great Songs In 2020
Straight To The Morning - Hot Chip featuring Jarvis Cocker
Banger from start to finish with the legendary Cocker adding a je ne sais quoi, this just bounces along with so much energy.
Robber - The Weather Station
Hounds of Love mixed with Arcade Fire? Yes please. I love its slow-burn crescendo and the Twin Peaks-inspired video. I look forward to next year’s album.
Levitating - Dua Lipa
Feeling a bit blue as lockdown hit, the standout from Dua Lipa’s album got the adrenalin pumping and had me itching to dance around the living room, to the annoyance of my embarrassed offspring.
Beaches - Black Honey
Just when I had given up on indie music, I discovered the brilliant Brighton four-piece Black Honey. Both Beaches and Run For Cover are insanely catchy slices of retro/surf rock guitar, trashy and glorious. Album out in February. Can’t wait.
Personal Shopper - Steven Wilson
Pulsing techno banger that excoriates consumerism from the ex-Porcupine Trees frontman, like the Pet Shop Boys soundtracking an episode of Black Mirror.
Désolé - Gorillaz ft Fatoumata Diawara
Nope, there’s no end to Damon Albarn’s genius in sight. Love Malian singer Diawara’s vocals on this.
Four American Dollars – U.S. Girls
Fantastic, cod-soul opening track from Meghan Remy’s “Heavy Light” album. It’s intricacy and funkiness reminded me of Thin White Duke era Bowie.
Both Of Us - Jayda G
Hey “Cheesy Quavers”, do you remember when we used to go clubbing and there was that looped piano refrain so hypnotic that you wanted it to go on forever and ever? This has one of those riffs that will take you straight back to 1988/89 and ingeniously drops the bpms to zero, yeah, just like Lil Louis’s classic “French Kiss” before it kicks back in and you’ll feel that adrenalin rush just like you did when you didn’t care about tomorrow.
WAP - Cardi B ft Megan Thee Stallion
Absolute filth. Would you want it any other way?
This Place - Plastic Estate
It sounds like a classic from 1981, all tinny Yamaha DX7 synths and catchy chorus. I think only 300 copies of this 7-inch were released but you can find it steaming services.
HowdoIlook - Pillow Queens
Another fantastic song from the Irish four-piece’s debut. You have to wait two minutes before the chorus kicks in - just be prepared to jump up and down.
Supertouch - Simona Castricum
Pulsing trance/techno from Simona not unlike prime Felix da Housecat.
Most Overrated Album of the Year
Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
Hyped to the heavens with a rare perfect ten courtesy of Pitchfork, I listened to Apple’s album a couple of times and came to the conclusion that it’s all a bit self-conscious for me, as if predesigned to grab that perfect 10. Sorry Fiona.
Bojack Horseman and Diane discussing life in the final ever scene.
On - TV
We live in a golden age of TV and there is no end in sight. Imprisoned in our homes, TV is our balm to daily strife and ennui. There’s so much good stuff that it can be too much to digest. If only we had more than one set of eyes. It was the first year where my viewing habits flipped from terrestrial to streaming. Amongst them were ludicrous heist drama La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) that helped improve my Spanish and taught me how to rob a maximum security bank; Itaewon Class (South Korean drama that I reluctantly watched in order to bond with K-drama-obsessed daughters); the sublime Normal People; four series of the gripping and violent Ozark (if you thought your job was stressful, spare a thought for Marty Byrde laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel) and monarchical shenanigans courtesy of The Crown. But two series that bookended 2020 are indelibly printed in the part of my brain labelled “TV Viewing”.
I watched the first episode of Bojack Horseman in the Lake District on New Year’s Eve and binged through to its finale. What begins as a surreal satire with a cast of anthropomorphic horses, cats and dogs inter alia, transforms into a dissection of the human condition and redemption of a deeply flawed anti-hero. Alcoholism, drug addiction, ambition, loneliness, childlessness, child abuse, dementia, sexism, friendship, depression and suicide are concurrent themes and the narrative does not flinch from addressing these issues, whilst still making you laugh. Don’t ignore its exquisite wordplay simply because it’s animation. Some episodes are breathtaking: “Ruthie”, “Time’s Arrow”, “That’s Too Much, Man” and “Free Churro”. If you have not seen the best animated series since The Simpsons, then stick with the first few lighter episodes that lower your defences before you realize that you have entered a dark tunnel, albeit one always with light at the end.
During my five weeks in Burgundy, every night I wound down with an episode of Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek. The storyline is straightforward: wealthy narcissistic family lose all their money and must relocate to a rural backwater and slum it with the hicks. What begins as a funny situation comedy develops into something more meaningful, a masterclass in character development, a rare sitcom that improves as it goes along. When creators, Eugene and Daniel Levy pulled the plug, it made headline news before winning more Emmys than any other comedy for a single season. It deserved those accolades merely for the best ever coming out without explicitly saying so. Using wine analogies to clever affect, David tells his friend: “I like the wine and not the label.” Genius. It’s on YouTube.
Portrait of a Lady On Fire directed by Céline Sciamma.
On - Film
Going to the cinema is a communal pastime that feels so alien post-COVID. South Korean film Parasite was worthy of its Oscar win for best picture. Talking of the Oscars, exactly how Adam Sandler was overlooked for his visceral performance in Uncut Gems is beyond comprehension. Its relentless pace was exhausting viewing but I was hooked. Armando Ianucci’s A Personal History of David Copperfield was clever and entertaining with a fabulous cast that ignored race.
But the flick that really made the biggest impression was the brilliant Portrait of a Lady On Fire, the story of illicit love in 19th century Brittany that made Céline Sciamma the first female winning director at the Cannes film festival. What is not said or shown heightens the simmering tension and eroticism. The colours are so vivid. The acting is outstanding, and the wordless final scene will just get you.
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Album Review of The Flaming Lips - American Head, Neal Martin, September 2020
Vinous Table: Le Pot d’Etain, Neal Martin, September 2020
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Albums of the Month, Neal Martin, July 2020
Album Review of Song For Our Daughter - Laura Marling, Neal Martin, May 2020