The Best Album of 2020
So Far, At Least

I didn’t really know Brian Healy.

I only spoke with him a handful of times, at both Cornerstone and AudioFeed. My friend Jeff Elbel was a regular part of Brian’s bands at those festivals, so by being in Jeff’s orbit I got to meet Brian a few times. He was an imposing figure – very tall, husky build, bald, always wearing sunglasses and black clothing. But he was also, as everyone who knew him has said over the past few days, a kind and generous individual.

Brian Healy was the mastermind behind Dead Artist Syndrome, the first Christian goth band. If those two things together make no sense to you, you should probably hear some DAS. Brian had a quirky sense of humor (he titled songs “Young, Sexy and Dead” and “Jesus Wants You to Buy This Record”) and a penchant for cutting right to the heart of things, and his music – reminiscent of Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy, led by his rumbly baritone – was unlike anything being produced in the spiritual corner of the music world. He was a misfit speaking to misfits, and in their (well, let’s be honest – our) language.

I would often wonder how Brian managed to get such great musicians to play with him. His albums and concerts featured members of the 77s, the Choir and Undercover, and my friend Jeff is certainly no slouch. The reason is simple: people loved Brian Healy. Where other subcultures might have found a lot to mock about him, this one embraced him. And I’m proud to have been a part of that.

After years of health issues, Brian Healy died last weekend of a brain hemorrhage. He was only 60 years old. He leaves behind a six-album musical legacy, but more importantly, the mark he made on the lives of so many people in this strange little corner of the music world. I’m sure this year’s AudioFeed will feature a tribute to him, and I’m sure that I will be there, singing along. Rest in peace, Brian.

* * * * *

The last year of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. has been non-stop eulogies so far. I’m hoping for a respite from untimely death so I can talk about music again.

I’ve already heard several new records this year. I’ll get to Eminem and Sons of Apollo next week (and if you can guess the connection between the two of them, I’ll be impressed), and eventually I’d like to talk about Algiers and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Cursive and a few others. But so far, one record stands above all the others for me, and it’s Making a New World by Field Music.

The brothers Brewis (David and Peter) are a lot better known in their native England, but they’ve been releasing smart, sophisticated pop records as Field Music since 2005. I usually let them come and go, and I’m not sure why. Their work is routinely excellent, thoughtful yet fun, complex yet hummable, drawing on decades of British pop from the likes of 10cc and Supertramp. I never quite know what they’re going to do next, and that’s the mark of a terrific band to me.

Case in point: 2018’s Open Here introduced them to new audiences, its Brexit-themed songs receiving much critical acclaim. So what better way to follow it up than with a concept album about World War I and its impacts on the next century of world society? That’s what Making a New World is – it grew from a project the brothers put together for the Imperial War Museum to accompany a graphic representation of the bullets fired in the first moments after armistice ended in November of 1919.

What they ended up with is a 42-minute thesis statement about the events of the war and its aftermath, and how they have shaped everyday life since. Songs are color-coded on the artwork to correspond with liner notes detailing the topics they address, ranging from skin graft surgeries to the development of the Ondes Martinot (one of the first electronic musical instruments) to the marketing of sanitary napkins. Each one of these can open up a Wikipedia wormhole that will swallow you for days.

I know, right? This all sounds like so much homework to enjoy a pop album. Well, never fear, because the music is wonderful and will sweep you along even without context. The Brewis brothers’ lyrics are impressionistic, vague poetic snatches instead of full-on history lessons, and their music is their usual blend of glorious melodies and harmonies. “A Change of Heir,” for example, is about Harold Gillies, who pioneered skin graft techniques in 1917 and went on, in 1951, to perform one of the first gender reassignment surgeries. But in the song, that idea is summed up in one line: “If the mind won’t fit the body, let the body fit the mind.”

Musically this album plays like a single thought. Its 19 tracks segue – many of them are instrumental interludes – and it’s possible to think of Making a New World as a single piece. In fact, it probably makes the most sense to think of it that way, because it will carry you along before you have time to check the track number and song title you’re on. The songs are delightfully clever, but some – like the mustard gas cautionary tale “If the Wind Blows Towards the Hospital” – are over almost as soon as they’ve begun. As songs they’re fragments. As fragments they add up to something remarkable.

This is, no doubt, a weird record. “Only in a Man’s World” finds David Brewis asking “why should a woman feel ashamed” and declaring that “things would be different if the boys bled too,” as a rejoinder against the male-led marketing of feminine hygiene products that began shortly after the war. Right after that is a song (“Money is a Memory”) about Germany’s final payments in the Treaty of Versailles, which it made in 2010.

These are uncommon subjects for pop songs, but then Field Music is an uncommon band. In a lot of ways, Making a New World is just another thoughtful, fascinating album for them. It’s been the one I have listened to most since the start of the year, and is my favorite album of 2020 so far. Yes, that’s certainly laughable, given that we’re only three weeks in, but if calling it the best album of the year so far gets a few of you to listen to it, well, mission accomplished.

Next week, Eminem and Sons of Apollo. And after that, Kesha, Pet Shop Boys, Green Day, Nada Surf, Tame Impala and on and on. Year 20, year last. Let’s go.

See you in line Tuesday morning.