Even With the Clubs Closed, 2020 Has Been a Stellar Year for Disco

I don’t think I’ve ever listened to as much disco as I have in 2020. That’s saying a lot for someone whose regular listening habits include a decent dose of the dance floor singles of the 1970s and the many grooves that have spun off from it in the decades that follow. 

This year was different, for reasons that really don’t need to be rehashed; in the nine months that have passed since the clubs closed, though, disco has motivated me on the treadmill and while I’ve hustled at my desk. It’s lured me down internet rabbit holes that have nothing to do with pandemics or U.S. elections. While there were plenty of nights where I was fueled by the catalogs of the Bee-Gees and Giorgio Moroder, most of what’s been on my stuck-at-home playlist is new. That’s the other thing about 2020; it’s been a really good year for disco, even if there’s nowhere to play it in public. 

Kylie Minogue was the most upfront with her intentions. The Australian pop star titled her fifteenth studio album Disco. Much of the album was recorded at home during the lockdown. Knowing that makes the album a joyous gift to everyone who misses the days of balancing cocktails while squeezing through packed dance floors to club-hug your friends. We might wish that we could do this with “Magic” or “Say Something” playing in the background, but, for the time being, the album will play in full as we connect through text messages and video calls. 

Róisín Murphy dropped her latest album, Róisín Machine, in October. At nearly an hour in length, it’s a dive into the sounds that have influenced the beloved singer throughout her life and career, even giving new perspective to pre-pandemic singles like “Incapable” and “Narcissus.” With a visual language that recalls punk and post-punk, Murphy gives a nod to the genre-blurring club culture of the early ’80s. 

Jessie Ware drew from the late ’70s and early ’80s, often recalling the late, great Teena Marie on her fourth album, What’s Your Pleasure? Released in June, Ware gave fans a summer of jams so sticky that songs like “Step Into My Life,” “Ooh La La” and “Save a Kiss” could easily remain in your head the morning after you heard them, as if you had heard them while out on the town.

And then there’s Dua Lipa, whose hit album, Future Nostalgia was followed this summer by Club Future Nostalgia. Helmed by The Blessed Madonna and featuring contribution from Dimitri from Paris, Jacques Lu Cont and others, the remix album allowed fans to bring the discotheque into their homes. 

In a year of virtual crate digging through sources like Bandcamp, Beatport and Traxsource, I’ve been filling carts and making wish lists with releases from labels like Midnight Riot, based in London, and Glitterbeat, from Hamburg. The latter released Migrant Birds, an homage to Middle Eastern disco from TootArd that’s become one of my favorite albums of the year. Partyfine, founded by French DJ/producer Yuksek, is another one of my go-to labels in 2020. Yuksek’s own full-length, Nosso Ritmo, is packed with goodies, particularly “G.F.Y.,” which features Queen Rose on vocals and sums up the encounters with creepy, overeager club guys that I definitely haven’t missed this year. Partyfine also released “Gang,” from French musician Anoraak with Sarah Maison on vocals, a cut with such a fierce, early ’80s vibe that it became a personal obsession. I’ve also been collecting tunes from producers/remixers like Hotmood and Monsieur Van Pratt, both from Mexico, and Ladies on Mars, from Argentina, who all have a great sense for balancing classic and modern dance music. 

I’m using disco here in the broadest sense of the word. Khruangbin usually gets the psychedelic tag, but “Time (You and I),” from their album Mordechai, is disco. U.S. Girls is known more for indie pop, but “Overtime,” from her 2020 album Heavy Light, is a stomper in the vein of northern soul that became 100% disco when Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost! remixed it. Then there’s The Diabolical Liberties, who released their debut full-length High Protection & the Sportswear Mystics this year. The album is filled with funky, dubby punk, not unlike what bands like Gang of Four and The Clash did 40 years ago. Ultraflex, an Icelandic/Norwegian duo who released their debut album, Visions of Ultraflex, this year, look more towards the synth-heavy dance music of the ’80s, but that’s totally disco too. 

Sometime during the summer, thanks to a compilation from Berlin label Toy Tonics, I was turned on to Phenomenal Handclap Band. They’ve been around in various forms for years – I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard them until now – but they also dropped the album PHB in May. This was exactly the music that I had been craving, from the psychedelic funk of “Skyline” and “The Healer” to the new wave-ish “Do What You Like” and Italo-leaning “Riot” to the gospel-tinged “Judge Not.” It’s disco at its most eclectic. PHB became part of this year’s listening habits and I was excited to hear them guest on Love and Dancing, the debut from U.K. DJ crew Horse Meat Disco

All this, though, is just scratching the surface. There is so much in this year’s treasure trove of music, from Scissor Sisters singer Jake Shears channeling Sylvester on “Meltdown” to The Shapeshifters teaming up with actor Billy Porter for “Finally Ready” to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s cover of early ’00s Eurodisco hit “Crying at the Discotheque.”  

Not all of this music came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some were released before mid-March. Others may have been in-the-works, or fully recorded, before lockdown. However, their release in 2020 has made the year at home a little more bearable. 

How Kylie Minogue Became Part of Pop’s Pantheon With Aphrodite

“Dance, it’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?” Kylie Minogue asks at the start of “All the Lovers,” opening her 11th studio album, Aphrodite. Taking her cue from the goddess of love, the Australian pop star began this decade with a 12-track celebration of dance and romance that became one of the finest moments of her career. Aphrodite was a commercial hit, debuting at the top spot on the British charts and becoming her second highest charting album in the U.S, and spawned the successful Aphrodite: Les Folies/Aphrodite Live tour.

In 2001, Minogue kickstarted the sound of the ’00s with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” A rousing piece of synthpop that hints at an ’80s influence, it reflected what was going on in indie electronic music at the turn of the century (Ladytron and Miss Kittin and the Hacker come to mind), but became a global phenomenon. At the Brit Awards the following year, she performed “Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head,” bringing together her hit with the New Order classic and putting mashups, still an underground trend at the time, on a much more visible stage. With “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” the accompanying video and the “Blue Monday” mashup, Minogue created a mood board for the first decade of the new century that both established and rising pop artists (Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga) would follow.

Minogue is well-known as a pop artist who is unafraid to experiment (as on the 1997 album Impossible Princess), but her skill as a tastemaker is woefully understated. With the release of Aphrodite in 2010, she played up on what was influential about her work in the ’00s while subtly foreshadowing what would become the next-big-thing in first half of this decade.

Aphrodite was a creatively successful album, its impact more apparent now at the end of the decade. It’s a stylistically eclectic collection of songs. Tunes like “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)” and “Closer” pump the disco vibes with which Minogue has long excelled. “Cupid Boy,” a standout on the album, plays up the New Order-influenced indie dance groove that she helped bring to mainstream popularity nearly a decade earlier. “Better Than Today” gives a little taste of the country-dance style she would delve into on her 2018 album, Golden. Aphrodite pits Minogue as more than a pop goddess capable of inspiring love on the dance floor. Here, we see the full extent of her power, from the influence she had on pop music in the first decade of the 21st century and how that would continue in the second.

In an unusual move for Minogue, she enlisted an executive producer to oversee the direction of the album as a whole. As a producer and remixer, Stuart Price was integral to the sound of dance music in the ’00s. His remixes of artists ranging from The Killers to Royksopp to Gwen Stefani, released under various names, permeated nightclubs. Moreover, he was a producer for Madonna’s landmark 2005 album, Confessions on a Dance Floor. Minogue and Price hadn’t worked together before – in an interview, Minogue mentions that they connected via mutual pal, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters – but their aural aesthetics were strikingly similar. In fact, back in the late ’90s, Price (under his Les Rythmes Digitales moniker) remixed Bis’ club hit “Eurodisco” with a Depeche Mode vibe that was a precursor for the synthpop revival Minogue brought to the mainstream with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”

Under Price’s watch, a slew of collaborators brought Aphrodite to light. They included some names recognizable to indie music fans of the time. Shears (who previously worked with Minogue on the 2004 song “I Believe in You) co-wrote “Too Much.” Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane helped pen “Everything Is Beautiful.” Richard X, who made a name for himself during the initial mashup craze and went on to work with artists like Annie and M.I.A., was a writer on “Can’t Beat the Feeling.”

Aphrodite also benefited from the work of a few up-and-comers who would see their own careers blossom in the following years. Calvin Harris, who co-wrote “Too Much” with Minogue and Shears and produced the track, was a rising star who had collaborated with Minogue on her 2007 album X. However, it would be another year before his collaboration with Rihanna, “We Found Love” became a monumental hit. He would go on to spend more than half of this decade as the world’s highest paid DJ. Meanwhile, “Cupid Boy” was co-written and co-produced by Sebastian Ingrosso, who was right on the cusp of superstardom with his pals in Swedish House Mafia. Sisters Miriam and Olivia Nervo (you might know them best by just their last name) co-wrote “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love).” They were already acclaimed songwriters, but as this decade progressed, they became known for their own dance hits and DJ sets.

In some respects, Aphrodite was an incubator for the artists who would go on to mold the sound of dance music in this decade. But, it also foreshadowed what Minogue would do in her own career. In 2015, she appeared on Nervo’s debut album, Collateral, alongside Shears and Nile Rodgers on the song “The Other Boys.” In 2018, she merged country and dance music on Golden. At the time of that album’s release, she told Billboard how Aphrodite played a role in the development of the songs, thanks to a “Dolly Parton litmus test” that she and Price had developed. In the summer of 2019, she played the Legends spot at Glastonbury. BBC reported that her set drew the highest viewership in the festival’s broadcast history. When this decade started, Minogue cast herself as part of the Greek pantheon but, by its end, she became part of the pop pantheon.

NEWS ROUNDUP: RIP Dolores O’Riordan, New LP Releases, & More

  • RIP Dolores O’Riordan (September 6, 1971 – January 15, 2018)

    We lost one of the greats this week. On Monday, January 15th, Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of Irish rock band, the Cranberries, passed away in London, where she had been recording. She was 46. The sad news was announced by her publicist. The cause of death has not been announced but authorities are not treating it as suspicious and are awaiting the test results of a coroner’s examination.

    Born in 1971 in Ireland, O’Riordan auditioned for the Cranberries (then called The Cranberry Saw Us) in 1990 after answering an advertisement seeking a female singer. After recording a rough demo of “Linger,” she was officially in the band. They soon went on to record the EP, Nothing Left At All and eventually signed to Island Records. The group achieved mainstream success with the single “Dreams,” off of their 1993 debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? The song immortalized nineties teen angst (visually preserved in an especially memorable scene of “My So-Called Life”). The album eventually sold over 40 million records. In 1994, the band took a more serious turn with the release of No Need To Argue which featured the hit single, “Zombie,” a protest song written in memory of two victims of the 1993 IRA bombings in Warrington, England. After No Need to Argue the Cranberries released three more albums – To the Faithful Departed (1996), Bury The Hatchet (1999), and Wake Up and Smell the Coffee (2001), before breaking up in 2002. O’Riordan then went on to put out two solo albums, Are You Listening? (2007), and No Baggage.

    In 2009, the same year that she released No Baggage, The Cranberries reunited on tour and recorded material for their 2012 release, Roses. In April of last year they released their seventh studio album, Something Else. They embarked on an international tour in support of the album before having to cancel in July 2017 due to health issues with O’Riordan’s back. Despite this knowledge, O’Riordan’s fans were hoping for a comeback as the singer had posted on Facebook during the recent holidays, saying that “she was feeling good” and accomplished her “first bit of gigging in months.”

    O’ Riordan will be buried in Ireland next week. She is survived by her three children.

  • New Albums from Belle & Sebastian, Porches, Tune-Yards & More!

    This has been the biggest week for album releases in the year thus far. Belle and Sebastian released How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt. 2. It’s the second part of their much anticipated EP trilogy; the final installment is slated to arrive February 16th.

    Just in time for his upcoming tour with Miguel, SiR released his latest album, November. The jazz-inflected R&B singer is signed with TDE; the label is riding a incredibly high wave thanks to their critically-lauded 2017 releases, including Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and SZA’s Ctrl.

    The Go! Team made us feel old by releasing their fifth (!) album this week. Semicircle features their signature mash-up of cheerleader shouts and marching band sounds, with some ’60s sitar thrown in for good measure. They play NYC in April.

    Swedish band First Aid Kit gave us Ruins this week. It’s their first album in four years. Aaron Maine released The House, his third album as Porches. Two tracks off the release, “Find Me,” and “Country,” have already been given the video treatment.

    British dancepunk trio Shopping also released their third full-length this week. The Official Body will have you contemplating current events and social institutions while grooving to dance synths and heavy basslines reminiscent of Bush Tetras and Au Pairs.

    Last but definitely not least, Tune-Yards released I can feel you creep into my private life. The band’s founder, Merrill Garbus, recently told The New York Times that the new album is heavily influenced by learning how to DJ and attending seminars about race relations. Case in point? The catchy pop grooves of lead single, “ABC 123,” will have you bopping your head to the lyric, “I can ask myself, what should I do? But all I know is white centrality. My country served me horror coke. My natural freedom up in smoke.”

  • Other Highlights

    Wu-Tang’s RZA appears in a brand new video for PETA. The ad features the longtime vegan’s voiceover as his face shifts into different people and animals. Governors Ball announced James Blake as its final headliner for the 2018 June lineup. Kylie Minogue’s new single, “Dancing,” gives us a taste of her fourteenth studio album, Golden, out April 6th. Cardi B is the subject of a new Tidal “mini-documentary.” I’m Here Muthaf*ckas follows her as she headlines Jeremy Scott’s Art Basel dinner party for Moschino. Julien Barbagallo, the drummer of Tame Impala, released a video for “L’échappée.” The single is off of his upcoming album, Danse Dans Les Ailleurs, which is sung entirely in French. Five of David Bowie’s albums are getting vinyl re-issuesLow, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, and Stage will be available individually on February 23rd via Parlophone. Migos member Offset has offended many with a homophobic statement (this time in a lyric), AGAIN. Mary J. Blige honors the Time’s Up movement with new single, “Bounce Back 2.0.” Fischerspooner’s new NSFW music video celebrates male sexuality. Bad Wolves have released their cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Dolores O’Riordan was scheduled to record vocals for the track before her passing; proceeds from the single will benefit her children.