Best new music 2020

Snow on branches

It’s the morning of Boxing Day, December 26, 2020, and Ontario has been back in full lock-down since midnight. At least we are avoiding the worst possible super-spreader effect of the annual shopping melee. We are ten months into the pandemic, and even though there is a vaccine now, most predict that it’ll be the end of the year before things go back to “normal.” More likely, there is no real going back to normal, but it remains entirely unclear what will happen next. Catastrophe or opportunity, withdrawal into the literal different worlds we have made for ourselves — or wake-up call to take a planet-wide view on climate and poverty, and finally properly care for one another? Of course there is a glut of predictions, but they are formulated within the parameters of today’s disciplines, genres, ways of apprehending the world (the future of “work,” “travel,” “learning,” “commercial real estate,” etc.). As such, and not surprisingly, they seem to entirely miss the mark.

Almost exactly a year ago, my partner and I moved from Toronto to Guelph, about 75 minutes due west. Since we both primarily work from home, getting out of the city’s constant construction, traffic, transit and housing price problems seemed like a good idea. Little did we know just how fortuitous our decision would turn out to be. We have been immeasurably lucky to weather the pandemic with space to sit outside, garden and go for undisturbed walks; surrounded by friendly neighbours; and we’ve both been very fortunate that our business livelihoods have only been marginally impacted. Being stranded from a travel perspective has been difficult for me, particularly because I cannot see my mother, who lives in Germany. But I have also spent the year having a series of intimate and terrific Zoom conversations with friends old and new, near and far, about the state of the world, what moves us, what we want and need to do next. Somehow, our sudden forced embrace of this technology has facilitated a “better,” more dialogical form of connection, and I value it very much. I think new ideas, projects, trajectories and movements will emerge from it, and I look forward to them.

With that, and at the risk of repeating last year’s signoff every year, here’s to a better year next year.

Stay safe & healthy,

These are the new albums that have given me the most pleasure this year. It’s not necessarily meant to be a definitive list of the “best” music of the year (despite the title, which by now is more of an annual tradition). 2020, like all other years, ultimately revealed what kind of a “year in music” it was, even if the pandemic did its best to send the music world scrambling in all sorts of ways. I’d say it was about disco revival specifically, and maybe “retro” (possibly: 80s retro) more generally. A trend that references these very specific “better times” makes sense, of course. Between the increasingly terrifying political developments and the once-in-a-lifetime global epidemic, we were looking for comfort and safety — and perhaps a little distraction —  and musicians were happy to give them to us. What’s more interesting is that, rather than listening to soothing fare suitable for managing our anxious minds while being homebound, we were apparently interested in dancing — imagining ourselves partying at Studio 54 (Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue, Dua Lipa) or on Ibiza (Róisín Murphy). — Furthermore, I think production technologies and techniques have now given us the capability to produce not just 80s-sounding simulacra, but writing and production teams have caught up and become able to imagine new music in the right idiom. This year’s iteration of Miley Cyrus as well as artists like Meg Myers and All We Are illustrate this idea powerfully. Theirs is true 80s music, just not from the 80s.

(Link to Spotify playlist with everything in sequence, all 23 hours of it.)

Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide: Aesop Rock’s rapping is never not breathtaking. An unstoppable torrent of poetry — elegant, earthy, quick-witted, unconventional, exactly on point and funny as hell. This is a concept album of sorts, a reportage from travels in a psychedelic spirit world, the subjects animals (spirit and otherwise) and Aesop Rock’s own anxious mind.

The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You: If you loved The KLF and The Orb as much as I did in the early 90s, this project — full of samples (Carpenters, Alan Parsons…) and guest voices — will be right up your alley. It sounds like a hopeful embrace of all the heartbreak and joy out there in the world right now.

Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers: Young Filipino-British singer/songwriter makes a surprisingly good first album that competently reprises a particular indie sound from the mid-90s: Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, etc. Leaning on riffs and patterns that could just as easily have belonged on Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and coupling them with a deft sense for melody and the dream pop idiom, this really delivers the goods. (NME called it “anthemic slacker rock.”)

Brandy Clark – Your Life Is A Record: Brandy Clark is one terrific songwriter. Every track on this album sounds like it’s been finely crafted, polished, edited and cared for until it was just perfect. There’s not a wrong note, not a cheesy or overly sentimental word, not a misplaced emotion. Musically, it’s an elegant kind of retro country soundscape with strings and horns, and beautifully sung.

Bridget Kearney & Benjamin Lazar Davis – Still Flying: A rich and rewarding hybrid of contemporary indie rock production and Ghanaian music, often putting its African guests at the centre. A smart album with interesting songs that bring composure, connection and hope in difficult times. This should have received more critical exposure than it did.

Caribou – Suddenly: A perfect pop record with dance floor roots that’s intriguingly experimental, but within manageable bounds. Vocals are more central here than usual, and he really commits to exploring radical de-turning as a technique to destabilize our listening experience. The album is a bit of a chameleon: I can listen to it in my earphones while going for a walk or out loud in the kitchen while cooking dinner. “Pop” enough to be listenable but nerdy enough to keep me coming back.

The Chicks – Gaslighter: One of the best pop albums of the year is a country record. Not just politically, The Chicks’ hearts have always been in the right place. Here, they do their righteous anger justice by wrapping it in perfectly produced modern roots music that works across generational and taste lines. One thing I love in particular (always have — it was there from album #1): the elasticity and funkiness of their rhythms.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia: One of the funnest records of the year, nearly every track a potential radio hit that’s also surgically designed to move a dance floor. She’s been making the media rounds talking about how this record is about “dance-crying,” and even if nobody can really know how much writing she actually did here it doesn’t matter because dance-crying is exactly what this year of disco revival is all about.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple is the most intimidatingly amazing songwriter — simultaneously completely free of genre constraints or the conventions of popular song structure, and in deep conversation with the blues, folk and jazz idioms her songs are rooted in. The music is surprisingly percussive and funky, and her tumbling and twirling lyrics and biting sense of humour are a treat every time. Echoes of Tom Waits, and also the best rappers.

Frazey Ford – U Kin B The Sun: Rootsy new songs underscored by elastic, slinky, old school Muscle Shoals R&B written and sung by a Canadian with a delightfully unusual voice. Ford has been tending this field for a while now and really hits it out of the park here. I cannot get enough of her fantastic voice — or the Hammond organ.

Haim – Women in Music Pt. III: SoCal band of sisters make a varied, great album full of rich songs with smart lyrics. I am continually reminded of Fleetwood Mac, mostly I think because Danielle Haim drums with the same singular effortless groove as Mick Fleetwood — but also because they write California-themed pop songs with cross-generational appeal.

Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?: Another installment in 2020’s slate of disco revival records. Jessie Ware presents a slick, R&B inflected take on disco — elegant music that’s good for a party or just listening. The full stylish package conjures up memories Roxy Music’s Manifesto (for me).

Kylie Minogue – Disco: A slice of formidably hedonistic disco revival warmth in a year that had its fare share of disco revival warmth — both totally silly and totally welcome. Kylie Minogue recommits to her core aesthetic and comes up with a set of brilliant songs to make you sing and dance. I don’t ever apologize for liking anything but felt slightly self-conscious about how much I enjoyed this while gardening in the fall…

Lennon Stella – Three. Two. One.: Perfect electro-pop album from a promising young Canadian singer/songwriter. Refreshingly quiet (i.e. not over-emoted and over-sung), these are thoughtfully crafted and produced melancholy songs that fit really well into 2020’s ups and downs (though perhaps not intentionally). Didn’t get a ton of attention, but should have.

Mandy Moore – Silver Landings: Stunningly mature and accomplished country rock album from the former teen star and actor. Songs focused on exploring what happens when you have to rebuild your life fused to production that could have been straight-up late 70s Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. Tender, intelligent and strength-giving.

Meg Myers – Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 The Disco and I’d Like 2 Go Home Now (2 EPs): Meg Myers is wonderfully talented and intimidatingly intense, returning here with two EPs (which probably should have just been an album, maybe bundled together with her separate cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”). Big, serious, fully committed 80s-indexing radio pop, slightly out of time but rarely short of amazing.

Melt Yourself Down – 100% Yes: Having originally emerged from London’s “new jazz” scene, MYD reintroduce themselves with a wild and definitive record that sounds like a political ska and funk dance party in a box, all righteously shouty vocals, gutbucket bass and squawking horns. It’s the kind of album that could only have come out of Britain in 2020. I can listen to this for hours.

Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts: Most reviewers were distracted by the “conceit” of apparently trying to faithfully recreate the sound of 80s mainstream radio and got caught up in how Cyrus didn’t/couldn’t meet the high standard this apparently requires. In the process, they completely missed how insanely fun this is, how good the material is, and how well it coheres into an album.

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher: Such a beautiful indie pop record. Thoughtful songs, intelligently written and performed, this has a richness that occasionally feels like it rivals Brian Wilson’s music. I particularly love the almost imperceptible, tiny little sad synth melodies hidden in many of the tracks.

Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine: The year’s most serious disco record may also be its best prog rock record. Echoes of Grace Jones and Eartha Kitt underscored with brilliant and hard-grooving retro-futurist production lament the Ibiza party life that once was — and maybe also pre-2020 party life in general.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Songs from the Kitchen Disco: Greatest Hits: Strictly speaking, a best-of, so not exactly new music, but a very pleasurable compilation that fit right into the year of home disco. Ellis-Bextor live-streamed a weekly family dance party from her kitchen and thus recontextualized a nearly peerless collection of dance hits for 2020. What songs, what a voice. Sadly not really known in North America.

Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions and Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 – The Cowboy Arms Sessions: Sturgill Simpson, alt-country’s most extraordinary songwriting talent at the moment, used 2020’s forced downtime to re-record many of his songs as fully-formed and apparently entirely idiomatic bluegrass tunes. His voice — classic country, able to milk every last drop of intent and impact from this music — sits atop a band of handpicked professionals as good as any as you’ll hear.

Taylor Swift – Folklore and Evermore: Taylor Swift further cemented her emerging identity as a serious singer/songwriter during 2020’s unplanned hiatus from touring. Spread across an unexpected two albums, her music turned away from some of her worst instincts and towards atmospheric indie pop with thoughtful, expressive lyrics and story songs. Her main collaborator Aaron Dessner’s (The National) style is quite unique, and Taylor Swift went all in. It remains to be seen is what comes next. Another reinvention is sure to come soon.

Víkingur Ólafsson – Debussy-Rameau: Mixing Debussy and Rameau (late Romanticism and Baroque French composers who otherwise never end up in the same program) turns out to be a genial move, juxtaposing pieces that reveal themselves as being related (or relateable) after all. Beautiful playing, as always from Ólafsson, who originally became known for ambitious and interesting electronic re-renderings of classical keyboard music (Bach Reworks; also worth hearing).

Westerman – Your Hero Is Not Dead: Young British singer/songwriter with a folk background finds good purchase in songs that sonically oscillate somewhere between thoughtful 80s fare like Talk Talk and late 70s intelligent radio rock. Deft turns of melody and phrase keep the ear interested and make this stand out above much else.

Zsela – Ache of Victory (EP): A major new young R&B voice finding songs and production that suit her astonishing instrument. I could listen to her sing for hours and can’t wait for what she does next (There’s also a completely amazing live EP, but only on Bandcamp.)

Other records you might want to hear:

All We Are – Providence

Bob Mould – Blue Hearts

Get The Blessing – Rarer Teas

John Lennon – Gimme Some Truth (remixed/remastered versions of a broad selection of his songs, sounding better than they ever did before)

Lina_Raül Refree – Lina_Raül Refree

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Various Artists – Velvet Desert Music Vol. 2

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