2020 does not need an introduction. We all lived it. But keeping with tradition...
Normally at this point I take a moment to reflect on those we lost over the year. The loss was so great that it affected everyone. As I type, over 1.76 million have died worldwide from the pandemic. I'm sad and angry.
Music was the one thing that Sarah and I clinged to, anxiously awaiting for records to arrive in the mail.
Personally, any hopes of getting out on the road to promote the latest Audra album, Dear Tired Friends, were squashed. Despite the limitations, I was able to stay musically busy, releasing a new EP, performing a series of fifteen 3+ hour live-streams, teaching countless online music classes, resurrecting the LotP YouTube channel and preparing for some upcoming action in 2021.
Thank you to our friends from across the world that took the time to compile their lists below! Make sure to follow / listen to the Spotify playlist that is embedded at the bottom of this post. Listen while you peruse. :)
If you're reading this, we all look forward to your comments and lists, so please interact here or follow us on Facebook / Twitter / YouTube
Here's to a better upcoming year.
- Bret and Sarah
P.S. We do earn a commission if you purchase anything through the links in this post.
Life on this Planet | Audra
Danish singer Amalie Bruun abandons any metal edges on her 3rd solo album, putting forth a collection of traditional Scandinavian folk songs. It's pretty breathtaking. Have a listen to the opening track "Ella" - or better yet, watch the promotional video with its epic landscapes.
Solo pipe organ recorded at Örgryte New Church in Gothenburg, Sweden. "Persefone" personifies all of the emotions that this year has brought. It's dark, sad, lonely, but at the same time feels like there is hope lurking somewhere off in the distance.
Being a music teacher, I know first-hand the influence that Taylor Swift has had on inspiring girls to pick up a guitar. I've taught almost every song in her catalog since the release of her 2008 debut. And while I didn't find myself listening to her music at home, I was always impressed with her ability to craft witty catchy-as-hell song after song after song. I didn't intend to explore folklore, because my head felt like it was not in the right place. Then I heard "mirrorball." Then I found myself hitting repeat. Over and over again. So much that I ended up covering it the following week in one of my live-streams. Song of the year? Perhaps.
On extra stressful days, Healing is a Miracle was always on the turntable to help subside the anxiety. Barwick's clouds of looped vocals are angelic. Healing.
The post-punk tag gets thrown a lot these days. Mostly it’s used as a ruse for “darkly-inclined” bands with a tone deaf singer, a factory-programmed drum beat, a live-show involving heavy use of fog and/or cobwebs and grade school poetry. Where was I? Oh yeah, Moaning. These guys stand high above, effortlessly concentrating on solid, hooky songwriting over style. Uneasy Laughter, and the 2018 self-titled debut, should be in any true post-punk fan’s collection.
I was sad when Hilary Woods left JJ72 in 2003, shortly after the release of their second album I to Sky. The Irish trio seemed destined for success, but it wasn’t to be. Ten years would pass before word trickled out that Woods was working on new music. Her 2018 debut, Colt, was a favorite of the year (listen to "Kith") and this year’s Birthmarks is a remarkable followup, expanding upon the dark, melodic minimalism of Colt with layers of noise to unsettlingly accompany the delicate balance of arpeggiated guitar, cello, synth and that striking voice.
Back in January when Countless Branches was released, we didn’t quite know what we were in for this year. Listening to “In Human Hands” now, 6 days before the new year rings in, I feel pretty choked up. The prophetic words that I quoted in our mid-year feature, ring out even more strongly now: "Everyone knows it. It's self-evident. This world ain't safe in human hands.” Preach.
“We all bleed the same blood.” The closing track to Price’s third album sends shivers down the spine. In a year filled with so much pain, division and loss, “I’d Die for You” should be the song to accompany 2020’s closing credit roll.
Silver Ladders came to me right when I needed it. It’s my second-most listened to album of the year, and has been in constant rotation since Sarah put it on my radar. The landscapes that harpist Mary Lattimore creates are vast and my ears follow looped melodies until they fade off into the distance - like watching a helium-filled balloon drift up into the sky until it’s no longer visible. Neil Halstead of Slowdive produced Silver Ladders, also providing his signature guitar sound subtly, but enough to create an atmosphere, as Mike describes further down this page, Pygmalion with Harp. Stunning.
It’s probably no surprise that this is my #1 pick of the year. I mean who can put out a record this perfect after a 29 year recording break? I’ll keep this brief as I’ve already discussed Made of Rain here. All I want to reiterate is that the world needed these songs and it’s about time we have a studio version of one of The Furs’ career best songs: “Wrong Train.” I just hope we don’t have to wait nearly as long for a follow-up.
Side Note: In addition to the albums listed above, there are 4 songs that were released as standalone singles from Iceland's Sólveig Matthildur that need to be mentioned. "Window," "Venus," "Last Date" and "Politician... of Love" were my most-listened to songs of the entire year. Hoping that they will be collected on a proper album in 2021. Support her directly on Bandcamp.
If you'd like to watch / listen to brief discussions of each record from my list:
Sarah Quarrie Helm
Life on this Planet
10. I Break Horses - Warnings
Sarah says: Where did the year ago? With the restructuring of how we work and shop, my listening habits have been drastically altered as well in 2020. Less time commuting meant less time listening to SiriusXM in the car, less time in the office meant less time listening to Spotify. More time in front of the computer working, sitting in silence because I could not concentrate hearing anything outside of my head. Things were just weird. I found myself drawn to more familiar albums from the past and purchasing physical copies of back catalogue rather than getting my hair balayaged. As for new releases, I honestly haven't taken the time explore many this year but the ones I did hit hard. Thankfully I have the best partner to quarantine with, and we've lifted each other up by trying to carve out a little time every week to listen to records old & new. Our mutual safe space is our vinyl collection, and my list represents my 2020 contributions. I think that all of these albums are gigantic, emotive and each embodies a statement of their own. There's an air of epiphany and triumph in them. At least we got some great music out of this year!
Honorable mention to IAMX's Echo Echo since it was technically my most listened to. While released this year, it is a compilation of masterful acoustic renditions of previously released songs. A recent discovery, Christine and the Queens' EP La vita nuova has been gaining frantic replays as Chris' French and English electropop is filling a Robyn-shaped void making me kick myself for not taking the time to listen to her sooner than last week.
Rockford, Illinois | Contributor since 2014
Rockford, Illinois | Contributor since 2014
The first new studio album in 5 years from this unique, psychedelic, all instrumental space-rock collective, inspired by the natural sights and sounds of coastal Scotland as well as the notion that our pandemic lockdowns have finally provided the Earth space to breathe. I’ve been a fan of these guys since my friend (Hi Scott!) turned me on to them in the early 90s and, honestly, they never let me down. This is headphone music, and goes particularly well with cannabinoids.
This guy has been a consistently great songwriter for years now. A former member of Drive-By Truckers (who also released not just one but two really good albums this year) Isbell & The 400 Unit have, in my eyes, eclipsed that band in many ways. There are so many excellent songs here. It’s the kind of album where, just when you think you have a favorite song, another one plays and you change you mind again.
20 years after her debut appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, and 18 years after her first album, most people I know have still never heard of her. I came on board in 2007 with her album ‘Balls’ (as in, “Sometimes, it takes balls to be a woman!”) and have been a fan since. Although considered a country artist, her albums are often full of other flavors from blues, bluegrass, soul, folk, and rock. Aftermath was produced by Butch Walker who, among other artists, has produced records for Weezer and Green Day. Full of delightful surprises, this one.
This is the first album since Doves put the band on a back burner in 2009 to pursue individual interests, but the hiatus didn’t seem to mess with their mojo in the slightest. A fair portion (all?) of this album appears to have been recorded since COVID-19 changed everyone’s way of life. Some of that reveals itself in lyrics that are alternately fearful, defiant, and hopeful. That aspect really spoke to me and made this one of my favorites of 2020.
I knew nothing of this band until this release, but the aggressive feel of the music and lyrics that were equal parts furious and caring grabbed me right away. Lead singer Joe Talbot is actually more of a lead talker, coming across more like someone organizing a protest than trying to carry a tune. It’s the perfect fit for music that lives somewhere between punk and metal. This shit gets my blood pumping and my hand reaching to turn up the volume.
I spent a lot of time listening to The Beths’ debut Future Me Hates Me in 2018. It didn’t make it into my Top 10, but it definitely put the New Zealand band firmly on my radar. A few edges have been polished and the pace has occasionally been slowed here and there, but it all seems to work perfectly on this album. The near-perfect pop album among my choices in this list.
These guys are culture jammers, audio pranksters, found-sound manipulators. I discovered them just after high school, listening to college radio shows with a focus on experimental music, almost 40 years ago now. Sometimes what they do is just very creative audio collage, but they are at their best when they are trying to make statements about modern culture. Their unique form of audio art has gotten them sued and dropped from record labels, but still they persist. The World Will Decide is the second of two interconnected albums (the first being True False from 2019) that focus on the many blurred lines of our current reality and the variety of technologies that surround us on a daily basis. Experimental and thought-provoking stuff.
Their first album of new music in 29 years! The last time I saw The Furs live in Milwaukee on a split bill with James, they played us a new song. Not only did it sound great but it was an exciting hint that we might be hearing more in the near future. That song was “The Boy That Invented Rock & Roll” and ended up the first song on this new album. Even though it has been almost three decades since the last Furs album, they sound as fresh and energetic as ever!
02. Halsey - Manic
I’m proud to say that, as a father of a now-20-year-old daughter, I’ve turned her on to a lot of music over the years, and have hopefully helped shape her musical tastes. I’m also proud that she is now off at college pursuing a music career. How fitting, then, that this said same daughter is fully responsible for introducing ME to Halsey through some of the stuff she was putting on mixes that we would play while driving around. I was immediately blown away by Halsey’s voice, but quickly realized there was more variety and creativity to her music than I ever expected.
My friend Jim (Hi Jim!) turned me on to John Moreland with his 2017 album Big Bad Luv. I liked it a lot, although it didn’t make it into my Top 10 that year. Very early in 2020, a couple songs from a follow-up album were released. I loved them! Very detailed but laid back at the same time. At the end of January, we had the opportunity to see Moreland play live in a very intimate venue near us. Both my wife and I were blown away. That concert turned out to be the last show I ever saw before COVID-19 started shutting everything down. LP5 was released on February 7 and has been played constantly around our house and in our cars all year long. I offer this as my favorite album of 2020 without any hesitation. The kind of music you tend to like even more with each listen.
Western Massachusetts | Contributor since 2017
Silver Ladders was a late addition to my list this year. I heard a brief clip on someone's Instagram story and knew it was something I needed to investigate further. Mary’s harp playing layered with the guitar of Neil Halstead (Slowdive) are absolute dreamlike. Think Pygmalion with harp and you’ll be close to the sound of this record. Beautiful stuff.
I don’t know too much about Swedish musician Sven Wunder other than the fact he makes some pretty excellent psychedelic/progressive jazz. Wabi Sabi has a lot of Asian influences such as flute and zither, along with funky bass and drums. This has been on constant rotation in my house since it was released.
I really loved the debut from Mildlife that came out in 2018. So much so that it landed in my #3 spot that year. Their follow up Automatic from 2020 doesn’t venture too far from the sound of their debut...fun and funky psychedelic jazz. I’ve seen some call it a little too much of the same thing. In my opinion, when a band is as good as this then a bit of the same is never a bad thing.
I feel like Torres is an underappreciated and somewhat overlooked musician, and I’m not sure why. She has become one of my favorite artists in the past ten years or so. I usually don’t gravitate towards singer-songwriters, but with Torres there is something about her lyrics and guitar playing that I just love. Silver Tongue came out just before the world went into the gutter and reminds me of a time that hopefully isn’t too far away again.
This may be the record that first grabbed my attention in 2020 (well, this and the Torres). Matt’s guitar playing on Everlasting Spring has kept me completely captivated the entire year. Meditative guitar goodness from another dimension.
I’m lumping my 5 through 3 picks all together here because they soundtracked the entirety of my summer, and I feel like I will forever have them linked in my mind. Rose City Band’s Summerlong and Khruangbin’s Mordechai made up the majority of my listening in the months of June and July. In this dumpster fire of a year I spent a lot of the warmer months doing outdoor activities like hiking/kayaking/camping/etc...really no more than in previous years it was just that I felt more appreciation for these things because of the lack of other options. Rose City Band’s lazy sounding country tinged Grateful Dead-esque jams were a perfect accompaniment to my summer fun. In 2018, Khruangbin’s Con Todo El Mundo topped my list of best albums, so I was very much looking forward to the release of Mordechai and it didn’t disappoint. While not landing as high on my list as their previous effort I really love this record a lot and can’t wait for what's next. My number 3 record Flower Of Devotion by Dehd came into my life in August and took over my ears the rest of the summer and into the fall. Dehd sort of remind me of a more upbeat Beach House...dream pop with a bit of post-punk energy(or something like that). Some of my favorite and most played songs came from this album.
I’m a big fan of anything with haunting female vocals where the voice is basically treated as an instrument. Lyra Pramuk’s unique, nearly wordless vocalizations, coupled with electronic manipulations made this a real close contender for favorite album of 2020.
It’s hard for me to put into words anything meaningful that will do this incredible album justice. Healing Is A Miracle, Julianna’s fourth album, has completely buried its way under my skin. Her angelic vocals and ambient-like sounds create the atmosphere of floating on a cloud, a welcome escape from the craziness of this year. I hadn’t listened to any of her music since 2011’s The Magic Place, which was a favorite from that year. I’m just glad that her music is back in my life because it was very much needed.
Chicago, Illinois | Contributor since 2018
French electronic composer creates a very visual cinematic album. It’s nothing less than brilliant and minimalistic.
Unlike everything else they have written, STRFKR take a dive into ambience. What comes out of this is an intense journey of the mind that makes you feel like the soundtrack to 2020. The track "Anxiety", an anthem of the pandemic. I hope they continue to write more like this.
Canadian indie folk musicians. With it’s somewhat sleepy and altered state of songs, the gentleness moves along like a sunny Spring day.
A husband and wife duo creating rich dream pop/indie folk music. Amazing it is their twelfth album as you would think it was their first. It’s very warm and gentle and introspective.
A voyage indeed! I felt like I was strapped into a rocket, sent in space, roaming the universe. Natural instrumentation with world beat sounds mixed with a mellotron. Once you start this voyage you are mesmerized.
What a prolific moment for Ride front man. When he’s not playing with Ride he’s doing his Glok side project and now this masterpiece of psychedelic indie rock that calls on the spirit of The Beatles.
I heard this album right when the pandemic forced us all to isolate. It had a way to convey exactly how I felt. Nils is really one of the most ground breaking ambient/electronic musicians of our time. This album is a serious work of art that I haven’t heard for a long time. I’ve seen his live shows on video and he’s a force of nature.
A lovely album rich in natural sounds with this trio. Reminiscent of Talk Talk and Cowboy Junkies and even Mazzy Star. Emily Cross has an amazing voice. It’s hard to walk away from this album once it starts.
02. Pure X - Pure X
Somewhere between rock and shoegaze with lush chords and echoey lyrics. Every song could be released as a single. Plush and lofty, with a sultry cadence.
Still holding as best album of the year since our ‘best of so far’ mid-year is Memorex Memories’ The Life of Riley. His sounds are quite beautiful, something you could dance to or just stand there glossy-eyed and looking at a forest. It’s a colorful picture without vocals. It takes on the spirit of Boards of Canada and Tycho and creates something new. I’m looking forward to what Sean Harte will do next.
Seattle, Washington | Popdose
Seattle, Washington | Popdose
The former America’s Got Talent mandolin-strumming QT 3.14 has been putting out consistently lovely pop records since she won her season, and this late 2019 entry is her best yet -- gorgeous, sophisticated pop that sets the stage for the four disco albums that follow in this list.
These two albums arrived the same day, and have been entwined in constant play ever since. In 2020, most of us turned our kitchens into discotheques and these were the welcome returns to form for two beloved legends. Each was as much a nod to classic disco as it was the turn of the century mod pop of Black Cherry-era Goldfrapp.
Why this band isn’t the biggest band on the planet is beyond me. Equal parts Queen, The Darkness, early Foo Fighters and Slade, they are three for three in the anthemic albums dept.
20 years after the 90’s greatest rock band (yeah, you heard me Nirvana and Pearl Jam and don’t anyone dare mention Oasis) imploded just past the peak of their creative prowess, 3/4th so them reinvent themselves as a pop band with spectacular results. All that’s missing is some divine feminine firepower from D’Arcy or Melissa Auf der Maur.
Hot on the heels of Harry Styles’ turn as a modern Bowie, Horan emerges from 1D as perhaps this generation’s McCartney -- or at least Harrison. Rhythmic rock and roll suits his Irish good boy vibe much better than the wince-inducing tweenage dream pop of his forgettable debut.
Holy crap -- this one’s a stunner. One of the best 90’s alt rock albums ever arrives 30 years late, but is worth the wait. Ideal listening for anyone missing early Liz Phair, late-era Lush, or cultier acts like the Heartthrobs and Curve.
This was the sleeper hit of the year -- landing on loads of year-end top 10 lists. If Dua Lipa was the arena disco album of the year, this was the exclusive, word of mouth, VIP, small club after show dance jam.
At this point in James’ stellar career, I tend to forget the “former Transvision Vamp” angle of her CV. James knows how to write a sinister song, in just about every musical style imaginable, and recruit the right studio ringers to bring ‘em to life. This double album, sequenced in the order she wrote and recorded it, reaches “best rock record of the year” status long before the halfway point.
Adam dropped two great albums this year, this sultry studio jam, and a greatest hits disc of his live tours with Queen. While his studio albums have never reached the potential of his mind-melting Idol performances, they’ve at least straddled the balance beam between really good and excellent. Velvet is a dreamy pop record, with little of the bombast he reserves for his Queen tours, he still reaches for the “classic album” brass ring, nails a reverse row sit back, and sticks the landing. Not the path I expected, but he truly fulfills his artistic potential here. If only sales would follow.
Remember when that virus hit and every album on the Pause & Play new release calendar was suddenly postponed indefinitely? Lipa swam upstream against the tide and dropped her sophomore album early and then rode that wave for 10 months with a breathless schedule of appearances all the way through the end of the year. She absolutely OWNED Pop Culture in 2020. The album was the perfect antidote to the somber, dreadful, anxious mood of the Trumpian hellscape we still call life. And before we could fully appreciate the awesomeness of it all, she recruited Madonna and Gwen Stefani for the full-length DJ remix follow-up, Club Future Nostalgia, and then topped that with two more brilliant non-album singles. The year’s top pay-per-view concert? Check. Slaying her turn in the BBC’s all-star benefit cover of Foo Fighters’“Times Like These” -- done. Heart-swooning turns on Jimmy Fallon (a charming Love Actually- themed duet) and SNL (two songs and a skit) -- kaboom! While most megastars were still trying to figure out their Zoom settings, Lipa was delivering unique high budget music video performances for every talk show and virtual awards gala she attended around the world. Throw in some epic radio sessions that will hopefully get standalone or bonus-disc CD releases someday and there was never a moment her smile, style and magic pop was there to chase those dark clouds away. Rumor has it, a new album, Future Nostalgia Side B, is coming soon.
Here I thought the last minute splash on the list would be Paul McCartney's McCartney III, which is OK, but the game changing, list-reordering kudos actually go to the TWO soundtracks from Netflix's new amazeballs Bridgerton series -- one a fantastic soundtrack of modern classical originals by Kris Bowers and the other an EP of classical re-interpretations by the Vitamin String Quartet of modern hits from the likes of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. Both transcend the boundaries of traditional scores and classical albums and land in the same magic candy apple universe as the series itself. Other mad last minute 2020 props go to !!! -- who until a friend posted her 2020 best of list, I had no idea dropped a new EP (Certified Heavy Kats) and a half dozen breathtaking multi-track singles since or slightly before last year's amazing Wallop.
Event of the Year:
So much has been said about this set, and boy did it deliver on every note of hype. This mega box raises the bar in terms of reissue sound mastering, track selection, editorial, packaging, promotion (the sequel podcast series on The Current), and so much more. While Warner Bros still has a few more Prince re-releases on their slate (all the movie-tied titles), Sony Legacy has the purple reins now; we’ll see if they can ever top this.
Song of the Year:
Still. Gets. Me. Every. Single. Listen. This breathtaking fundraiser single is the band’s best ever and so perfectly captured how 2020 felt in a nutshell.
Blissful and contemporary, dreampop perfection that makes you long for spring days and early morning rays.
The two prolific rappers unite to create an album full of infectious, collaborative, and cool free flow.
08. Bdrmm - Bedroom
A new and glorious shoegaze classic that stands up as tall as the best of them. Fuck yeah.
Moving past the fuzz from last year's debut, Ellis, returns with an even more focused songcraft that expands off all of the dream pop shine that made her sound so great, to begin with.
Distorted and fuzzed-out guitars drip with 90’s flair as the dual male and female vocals drift indistinguishable between one another, delivering a punch haze of glory.
Self-assured, sophisticated, and soft, filled with gorgeous melodies that arise once freedom is found after the heartbreak of a failed relationship.
04. Hum - Inlet
Having now listened once for every year they were away - 22 times to be exact - I can safely say this is truly the perfect follow up to Downward is Heavenward.
03. Luke Jenner - 1
Blissful, experimental, ambient, and captivating.
A reckoning without the ball that typically destroys everything. Grounded and mature, thoughtful and wise in all its lyrical beauty.
Paying homage to early ‘80s NYC post-disco heroes, Mrs. Ware, reinvents herself for the sweaty togetherness of the dancefloor. Creating the perfect soundtrack for socializing - distantly - while out on the town or with those you love back at home. Bonus points go to this album for also being the one thing my son can’t get enough of - through temper tantrums, long car rides and sleepless nights his mood dramatically shifts to smiles on hearing the first notes of "Ooh La La".
Uttoxeter, England | Contributor since 2015
Uttoxeter, England | Contributor since 2015
10. Future Islands - As Long As You Are
Hudson Valley Region of New York | Twitter, Instagram
02. Tennis - Swimmer
John's discourse: When it comes 'round to the end of Year "Best Of" I always work my way through the list of the years' releases and inevitably that throws up a list of albums I've missed (more of that later). Naturally I'm an optimist but 2020 has been the worst year I can ever recall in a wider sense, but one thing that has continued has been the supply of new releases. Looking through this year it occurred to me that it wasn't as good as 1981 which was the previous Best of I put together. Thinking about it, I think there is a lack of originality compared to the past. There have been a number of surprises with artists re-inventing themselves. The Taylor Swift album is a case in point which I make no apologies for liking a lot. Bob Dylan on the other hand compensated for the loss of his singing voice (let's be honest it was never great) by making what is virtually a spoken word record. Bruce Springsteen released a late career album which I like, but it didn't make the top spot by virtue of the lack of progression. I preferred last years Western Stars much more. The Pet Shop Boys made the top spot because they released a low key HUGE return to form. My favourite PSBs album is Behaviour and all others are judged against this, Hotspot captures that sound for me. The Strokes stopped trying to make Is This It and produced their 2nd best album ever. So back to the albums I missed. As always I will see things that my fellow contributors like and follow those up and from the "ones I missed list" The Pretenders, Smashing Pumpkins and Bush leap out.
Hudson Valley Region of New York | Twitter, Instagram
Released a month before COVID-19 took over America, Dan Bejar had already recorded the first “quarantine album.” Sitting at his kitchen table and recording his murky nasal voice deploying his never-less-than-terrific lyrics with dashing style and aplomb into a laptop, he collaborated electronically with producer John Collins and guitarist Nicolas Bragg to make an album I was underwhelmed by in February when my children gave it to me for my birthday and came to revisit only recently and recognize as a perfect sonic equivalent of the stasis, paranoia, and desperation that so marks this year.
09. Hum - Inlet
Wow, this one is good! I don’t go way back with Hum. I found out about them much later. A friend who started off as a co-worker got me listening to Downward is Heavenward (snatched up that new pressing this year, too) and You’d Prefer an Astronaut reached me by reputation. There was a time when all the music I listened to had fuzzed-out guitars and live popping drums. Now, it accounts for very little of my listening. I streamed Inlet once on Bandcamp when it was announced, pre-ordered the vinyl, forgot about it, happily remembered when it arrived months later, and have given it several spins since. Has such a satisfying tone and sound and does not feel like 2020 at all, yet is unencumbered with memory, association, or nostalgia, which is a blessing. There are moments that feel slightly shoegaze or akin to Slowdive, which I like a lot.
Robert Toher continues to carve out his unique patch of crepuscular soundscapes. Ambient crackle, field recordings, and sampled bells create a thick atmosphere for these songs to inhabit; inside these anxious soundworlds, synths wobble and breathe and glitches stitch the wounded patterns. His own ghostly voice like a pained wraith with a voice akin to that of Beth Gibbons singing prophecies and voicing a dis-ease within the land, giving tongue to a gothic malady, part of a tapestry or mezzotint you don’t notice at first, blending into the background, the lady trapped in her yellow wallpaper. Trip-hop is alive and well in this underworld, and not at all in a dated or derivative way. Opening up with something that almost feels called in from the urban sf nightmare world of Detective Nathan Adler and The Artist Minotaur, ending with what well could be the end credits of a claustrophobic and cathartic horror film, the album is over before you know it if you merely have it on in the background (conjuring as it does a heavy mood, there’s nothing wrong with this more passive form of listening). Toher densely layers each track, stuffing with them tons of aural information, much of it with a lived-in feel, a convincing patina. The more of your attention you give it, the more active your listening, the more it rewards you.
I had low hopes and zero expectations going into this latest Bruce Springsteen offering, which may partly account for how much I immediately loved it. I’ve not been such a fan of his partnership with producer Ron Anello, extending over the past several albums to 2012’s Wrecking Ball, but they got the balance right on this one, and it’s an incredibly vital, relevant, consistent record for a man at his age. An Italian kid from Brooklyn handed Bruce an acoustic guitar as he was coming out from his Broadway show one night, telling him it was made for him and that it was very special, and what-do-ya-know, it was true! The songs came pouring out of this new guitar real quick, and Springsteen recorded the whole album live with his band in a week, with only a minimal amount of guitar overdubs. Rather than get attached to his demos, he let his bandmates bring these songs to life from the first. The album’s immediacy is tangible. “Rainmaker” hearkens back to “Reason to Believe” as it tries to account for why so many people still have Trump signs and flags on their lawns and trucks. “One Minute You’re Here” is a disarming, immediate, beautiful opener. So many of the songs are about rock and roll itself, about life in a band, about the people you love and lose along the ride. “Ghosts” has got a hell of a chorus. “House of a 1,000 Guitars” is a reverential musing on the places where they get on stage and do what they live for, as he finds a melody too good to stop singing. Mixed in with the new numbers are at least three very old Bruce Springsteen songs that never got placed on an album. Newly recorded, they are highlights here—“Janey Needs a Shooter,” especially, which splays a smile across my face every time. It’s easy to detect the more Beat-style lyrics and the worship of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home-Highway 61 Revisited-Blonde on Blonde run on these songs. Particularly wonderful throughout the album is Roy Bittan’s piano playing. A long-time E Streeter, he also played on Bowie’s Station to Station and Scary Monsters. I love the player-piano way great effusive rolls of his keys eddy on tides of purring amplifiers above the swirling whir of the organ, sitting just right in the mix. There’s a joyfulness in the playing here. In a year of isolation, you hear this group of men who love each other and the artist’s wife in the studio, having a hell of a good time making music, bringing new songs to life, and digging into ones they’ve carried for decades. You don’t need to watch the black-and-white “making of” film to get that sense of camaraderie; it shines through.
This is exactly the album I wanted Myrkur to make. In laying down the mantle of her black metal personae, she delivers a superb LP as consistent as it is authentic. Weaving together Nordic folk music with original compositions from the same skein, the power and control of her voice and her accomplished technical artistry on old instruments such as the Swedish nyckelharpa and the lyre rise to the fore. Albums made of traditional material can be a little too respectful of their sources, winding up feeling overly curated—pieces set to admire in an airless museum and then move along from, but not something that is living. Fortunately, that’s not the case here, where Myrkur’s deep passion for and knowledge of her tradition is brought to vivid life with restrained performances precisely recorded that soar out over deep valleys. Christopher Juul produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered, as well as contributing mandola and percussion; the record’s qualities of unity, warmth, and clarity are at least partially owed to this fact. This is music that is deeply stirring; whether you call it collective memory or soul, this is epic music, bard’s tales by a fire which eternally burns. It was most welcome in a year that called us to be still and to retreat into our imagination and memories for reprieve from the tedium and monotony of quarantine, and it will be more welcome still as we settle into a winter of discontent. A final note: the sleeve is beautifully done. Relapse Records took the care to produce a canvas-like texture to the sturdy cover, which is a reproduction of a painting that hangs in the artist’s home. The record is black and thick, with a warm, full sound that has a level of surface noise that I don’t find detracts from the work.
I bought every new Pearl Jam album the day it came out from Vs. (mine doesn’t say vs on it, anywhere) on, carrying the flame long past the moment of their cultural zeitgeist. The self-titled was the only one I didn’t like at least some of a lot and Lightning Bolt was the first album of theirs I didn’t bother picking up; for me, Backspacer felt like the end, and a fine send-off to fans, with “The Fixer” being one of their greatest songs. But when this new album was announced, I just had a good feeling about it. This is their best album since Binaural (that’s twenty years, in case you’re wondering). Every song delivers. They mixed it up and found some great new sounds. The result is a revitalized Pearl Jam recalling their heyday while sounding new. The dash of Talking Heads in “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is a very welcome change; on this track, they all switched instruments. As usual, there are a couple stunning acoustic songs by Eddie, this time around “Comes Then Goes” (which some opine is a personal reflection on his friendship with the late Chris Cornell) being the standout. Eddie waxing on matters astrological in “Superblood Wolfmoon” and “Retrogade” is something I am in the bag for. “Quick Escape” is probably my favorite song on the album. There is just a monster of bassline on this song, and it is prowling the house, looking for blood. With a bassline like that, you know Jeff Ament had to be behind it, but he also plays guitar and keys on it, and programmed the drum loop. I went out to get the record right as things were starting to shut down, and my local guy didn’t have it, so it was months before I finally owned a physical copy, at which point my connection with it intensified. In the first couple months of shutdown, there were so many wonderful or well-intended live-stream music events, on and off television. The most star-studded was I thought mostly rather embarrassing, but Eddie Vedder sitting at his pump organ at home and singing this album’s final song, “River Cross,” in a trucker hat raised the hairs on the back of my neck and brought tears to my eyes. Seattle’s promise hadn’t let us down, these thirty years later. Even my dad, who always cast shade on pearl jam, commented on the performance to me. The songs that ended pearl jam albums were mostly events, seriously stirring numbers that sent you drifting off, nerves tingling and emotions whirring—I'm thinking of songs like “release,” “indifference,” “immortality,” and “parting ways”—and “River Cross” takes its place among these deeply moving final tracks. On album opener, the chorus runs, “Who ever said it’s all been said gave up on satisfaction.” That feels like a maxim guiding this shockingly good album from grunge’s last band standing. They may not have invented anything new (under the sun), but I can only imagine they feel as satisfied for making this album as I do listening to it.
No one knows what goes on in that head of Dylan’s. I thought Tempest might be the last batch of original songs we heard from the bard. Saw him live last year and it was a great show. When the songs started coming out, “Murder Most Foul,” then “I Contain Multitudes,” finally “False Prophet,” strung with so many rich allusions, to literature and history and song, delivered with that late-period style only he could pull off, they felt like gifts. (With a line about “All the Young Dudes,” he finally acknowledges the author of “Song for Bob Dylan” in one of these songs.) There’s a lot of space in these songs. In the anxiety and mania of quarantine life, they were these quiet portals to contemplation, to memory, to something like prayer. Better minds and hands than mine have tried to articulate what is so affecting in these new Bob Dylan songs finding us at this moment (such as Nick Cave on “Murder Most Foul” on The Red Hand Files). I thought I preordered the album the moment the announcement went through and the site went live, but with my 2020 brain, I had actually never checked out and it was months before I finally got it, picking it up from my local indie. For whatever reason, I just refused to stream it. I killed my Spotify subscription in the middle of the summer and hobbled along on YouTube to year’s end. When I finally got the double-LP set in the fall, the warmth of the records and the strength of the songs made me weak in the knees. As soon as you drop the needle on it, this spirit enters the room. It’s really affecting in a way I have a hard time articulating, and I’m grateful for it. A huge fan of Dylan’s late period, with Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft” being two of my favorite records of his career, he continues to astound. And Fiona Apple, who put out a damn fine album herself this year, plays on it! Matt Chamberlain is on the drum kit, a long-time Dylan drummer and one of the industry’s best (he’s also back in Tori Amos’s band after a long absence with her surprise Christmastide EP). Charlie Sexton on guitar. Basically, the band he’s been playing live and recording with for the past twenty years. They deeply understand each other now. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is yet another gorgeous love song, its paradox being the supple strength you can feel within its gentleness and the brittle frailty of his age and voice. For me, the album’s highlight arrives with the song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” What is it about this song? Mostly just two chords, an accordion in the background, softly brushed drums. I have no idea what the song is about, but it feels mysterious and lived-in and reminds me how much world and life is out there beyond the walls of this house I continue to live in lockdown in. It’s hard to put into words what makes this album so great. It just is. If you love Dylan, when you put it on, you feel it and you know. One of the only good things to come out of this year.
A live album? No, a modern classical album recorded in the metal idiom. All classical albums are recorded live. This record is comprised of three parts, the first and third of which have appeared in studio form within Celtic Frost discography. The “Rex Irae” movement was first released as a track on their second album, Into the Pandemonium, in 1987, and the concluding movement, “Winter,” was released on the final Celtic Frost album, Monotheist, in 2006. The bulk of the album is the new material, the second movement, “Grave Eternal (Chapter Two: Transition),” which is spread across six tracks. This piece of work is monumental. It flows along with absolute strength and stylistic versatility, yet utterly consistent, one moment evoking Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, the next Pink Floyd, the next Ligeti. A drum and percussion passage, a choral passage, a movement of bells in the vein of Arvo Pärt. Yet all the time, it never loses a feeling of heaviness. The orchestra is perfectly balanced with the metal band; it’s not a case of a metal band playing their hits with a live orchestra. The whole performance is seamless and hypnotic; no applause until the end of the whole piece, like with classical music. Since this was a project Tom G. Fischer / Warrior had been carrying for over three decades, which he had intended to bring to completion as soon as he transitioned Celtic Frost into Triptykon, and since he considers it something of a curse that he is freeing himself from, with no plans to ever play it again, he and his band and the orchestra had to get it just right. It was filmed for posterity and several versions exist for purchasing with CDs, vinyl in different colorways, the DVD, a deluxe book and pictures, etc. The point being, everyone was completely on and focused, and that carries through in the performance. It’s riveting. There’s a palpable aspect of presence. When Warrior begins to gutturally repeat, “Wave after wave,” it shifts something inside me, it touches something ancient. Requiem is an ambitious, major accomplishment. It succeeds as metal; it succeeds as classical; it is the rare essential live album. Personally, I prefer the versions of the previously released songs in this new performance, where the female vocals are less shrill and the strings carry you out through the infinitely falling snow, falling on the living and the dead. I will be listening to it at night with my complete attention throughout the winter.
When the author of this blog played the song “Wrong Train,” featured on this album, in one of his many generous livestreams this year, I was knocked flat. What was this song? It was speaking the truth of my life to me right now. The thing is, despite trying at several times with different albums over the years, I’d never been able to get into The Psychedelic Furs. I got the new album and it unlocked the entire kingdom of their music for me. Like Hum, this is their first new album in about twenty years. Seems some folks are too cool for it, but I love it. I love Richard Butler’s delivery on it, the effortlessness of his put-downs, the embrace of his more tender moments, the bravado of its more rocking songs. Texturally, it feels almost abrasive at times, with a lot of layers of noise that keep your ear quite busy, samples and loops and guitars run through effects. The album is at times atmospheric in a way that is not soft or moody, such as on the urban stomp of “Come All Ye Faithful” (not the Christmas song) where you can almost smell and see the steam coming out of grates. The saxophone, which was a core part of the band’s identity at inception, is most welcome throughout. The songwriting is strong, the melodies delicious, the balance of grit and grace superb. Twelve songs I’m happy to have in my life.
“And I realized, that’s exactly what I’ve been my whole life: islanded.” When this line comes in, it’s one of many from spoken interludes delivered by other people of other sexes and genders that do so much of the thematic heavy-lifting on this gorgeous, multi-textured album which is my favorite of the year by a wide margin. Moses had me at “Polly,” which ends the first record of this double-album (the actual record is a beautiful artifact with excellent production values, two image-heavy lyric books, a transparent decoder sheet, full photo sleeves, and different colorways thanks to Jagjaguwar; the CD, which I also bought, is a single-disc affair that doesn’t aesthetically honor the difference between these two “halves” of the album [12 tracks on part one; 8 on part two]). And what a star! It’s great to have someone this amazing to look at, with such an interesting sense of style, who also has plenty of thought-provoking things to say. In fact, that’s how I got into him. I just happened to click on an article/interview which had a pull-quote about men being in a unique position at this time in history to avail themselves to the many models of masculinity from antiquity to now and pick what’s essential, useful, and true, and eschew with the bullshit. I have always been on the alert for this kind of thinking and loved it. There’s nothing androgynous about his body; a jaw-dropping muscular frame he presented in novel ways throughout the year as he enjoyed his moment at the most inopportune time. But his voice! So often in that sweet, high, feminine register employed by the likes of D’Angelo and Prince in their own ways, it’s a sensuous and affecting thing. Sumney has a degree in Creative Writing, and his lyrics are much better than average. I love the humor in bits like “Two Dogs:” “I had two dogs in the summer of 2004 / One was boot-black, the other whiter than a health food store.” The mercurial wordplay and shifting imagery in “Polly” is allusive and elusive, achieving heartbreaking levels of pathos he will assuage later with affirmations that transcend the quotes-in-squares of wellness women on Instagram. “Virile” is a crackling song with unusual time signatures and a hard-to-define heaviness. As it describes a walk through the Blue Ridge Mountains and an image of nature taking over his skin, it taps into something primal and true lovers of nature may have experienced. Lyricists this good usually play acoustic guitars but not here. The album has a lot of textures and colors. The second half is more intimate and pared back, his electric guitar with jazzy phrasings and his falsetto archly crooning and reaching; but sounds cascade and crash in around the listener earlier on. “Bless Me” serves as the album’s climax, and while it’s a beautiful song, its chorus, lyrically and melodically, is very, very close to that of “Barfly” from Ray Lamontagne’s second album; compare the former’s “bless me before you go / you’re going nowhere with me” with the latter’s “kiss me before you go / I’m going nowhere lately.” That’s something of a bummer for an otherwise ambitious, resplendent album that manages to be emotionally affecting, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually engaging all at the same time.
Dream Pop Jesse Deitermann
Phoenix, AZ | Contributor since 2012
Phoenix, AZ | Contributor since 2012
I never imagined myself rushing out to preorder a T Swift record and cassette but here we are! It's start to finish a great album swirling dreamy melodies laced with folky goodness with a sister album to follow it up with for 2021.
This indiepop outfit is a real delight to put on the platter, they remind me of Alvvays a bit but hold up on their own definitely a ray of sunshine for any day needing a pick-me-up.
08. DMA's - The Glow
From Australia these guys are a name I kept seeing the name pop up on record shops in UK Instagram feed so I had to get in on them for a listen and now I'm sold. Great songs with a great voice.
Irish postpunk?! I'm in! I really love this one, I imagine being in a crowd with no sound and in slow motion Lights strobing the only thing in my ears is Fontaines D.C.
Shoegaze from Finland, these guys are a dream for me reverb aplenty reminiscent of DIIV's guitar work
The third album from one of my favourite bedroom dreampop bands comes Melodrama a very different sound on this compared to it's predecessors much more chilled out synthwave tunes with some very dreamy sounds on a few I feel great things are coming for this one man band.
04. Bdrmm - Bedroom
I found these guys from a Resident Records newsletter. That said this will sellout quick so grab one whilst you can, I never believe when anymore writes this so as usual I had to check on it and ended up getting one. I have no regrets.
Another one that fits right in for me...loads of reverb I can't really say more other than just wonderful. I had tickets to see them but this was amongst many that were cancelled.
A reimagined version of rides this is not a safe place. Not much of a remix album fan but this is not a remix album rather reworked into beautiful ambient/ orchestral versions. Definitely a cloudy day record for me.
Another one from my fave Charlatan. Tim's writing style just gets me. No one mashes words into a tune like he does it, at least in my opinion.
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