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Jan 12·16 min read
This was the year live music came back after an unprecedented hiatus. A year without live music — what an unthinkable proposition. Like a subplot of twisted post apocalyptic television, we live in a world of our own creation so of course the music never stopped. Artists created pandemic albums, live streamed themselves and sold merchandise on Bandcamp and subscriptions on Patreon. Yes, peak weirdo bandaids for sure, but alas music was one of the things that helped make that splendid isolation even remotely tolerable. Here’s what helped me through it.
- Aaron Frazer — Introducing… (Dead Oceans/Easy Eye)
Some records manage to transport you to another place and time. They transcend convention and obliterate expectation. In addition to being the drummer for the great Durand Jones & the Indications, Aaron Frazer is also the owner of one of the sweetest falsettos in modern music. On his solo debut we are treated to one of the finest soul records in decades, an album that could have just as likely been made in 1975 than today. Featuring some of the warmest production yet by Dan Auerbach, who also released the album on his Easy Eye label, “Introducing..” is pure retro magic. It’s layered with jangly keyboards, flute, Frazier’s rock steady percussion and the perfectly understated guitars that keep things moving.
Most of the dozen songs on “Introducing. ..” are about love lost, found, and saved. This album feels like a walk on the clouds, mood music for the soul, and a reminder that what’s old can be made new. On the exceptional “Bad News” we hear Frazer crooning “ I know I’m getting older / But the winter seems much colder than before / We should stop and see what you’ve been doing to me / I can’t take much more.” There wasn’t a better record this year for me than the silky smooth debut from one of the most talented musicians playing. Drop the needle, put a log on the fire and lose yourself in the groove.
2. The Fruit Bats — The Pet Parade and Siamese Dream (Merge)
There is a certain kind of rustic Americana rock that just gets so deeply under my skin that it’s hard not to drift back and forth in time through the summers of my life. Like the Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Blitzen Trapper, Midlake, The Jayhawks, Wilco, Father John Misty, Dawes, and whole bunch of other great modern American rock bands, Fruit Bats (aka Eric D. Johnson) is one of those artists that would have felt right at home in the 60–70’s era Laurel Canyon scene. His slightly nasal vocal twang is Lennon meets Dylan on a Graham Parsons trip somewhere out in Joshua Tree.
“The Pet Parade” an album of gorgeous original material that is as dreamy and beautifully meandering as anything he has ever done. From the dizzyingly hypnotic “On the Avalon Stairs” to the shimmering “Discovering” he covers a lot of emotional ground searching for open space while locked up in the suffocating year of 2020. Some records are perfect in the moment and some seem ageless from the first listen, but this one is clearly both.
As if this minor masterpiece wasn’t enough for one year, Fruit Bats also released another beautiful ode to The Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream.” He covers every song of the 90’s classic in a patient, often magically earnest way. It’s hard to imagine a better song of celebration than the original “Today” but this one is even more raw and visceral. What a year for an artist who has recorded on two of the finest independent labels of our time (Sub Pop and Merge) over the past 20 years — an artist’s artist through and through.
3. The Weather Station — Ignorance (Fat Possum)
We are living in a time with so many young brilliant female folk rockers, while rock as a genre seems to be dying on the vine. It is a buzzy bunch that includes Phoebe Bridgers, Laura Marling, Weyes Blood, Lucy Dacus, and Julian Baker, but it’s The Weather Station that sits atop the rest for me. Toronto based Tamara Lindeman’s (aka The Weather Station) new album is easily one of the most richly produced efforts of the past decade. It seems ripped out of the stoney hills of the 70’s California, filled with piano, horns, and a loose but deadly serious jazzy rock style. Her voice comes off more Joni Mitchell than her peers, and leads a band as tight as just about anyone playing this year.
On songs like “Robber” she takes us on a ride towards somewhere we’ve never been, the music spun up like a dust storm, a small orchestra lifting us up before we hear “I never believed in the robber, I never saw nobody climb over my fence, no black bag, no gloved hands … I figured everything he took was gone.” The best music transports us out of the moment into a place that mostly exists in our minds. More than anyone in recent years, The Weather Station envelops us in a blanket of sound and spins us into the stratosphere, reminding us that we can escape and go where we need to go on the darkest or brightest of days.
4. Brijean — Feelings (Ghostly International)
There was not a record so consistently and calmly vibey than the sophomore effort by Toro y Moi and Poolside collaborator Brijean Murphy and producer Doug Stuart. This is a sound caught between 70’s hipster lounge and dayglow retro jazz. In some respects it conjures reminiscences of Stereolab, Koop and others with its chilled out retro sounds with keyboards and percussion measuring the beats across some sort of surreal background.
Brijean’s hushed vocals are set neatly back off center while the beats just slowly develop around them in the most patient groove oriented way. On the mesmerizing “Wi-Fi” Beach” Murphy quietly chants “I want to be / Deep in love” against the backdrop of a sultry bassline, and jazzanova keys. For an album this nuanced yet versatile, it’s amazing how easy these songs can get under your skin causing smiles and subtle swaying.
5. London Grammar — California Soil (Ministry of Sound)
It’s been four years since the last proper London Grammar album, but almost more than any band during that period they have been in almost constant rotation for me. Like The XX and Zero 7 before them, London Grammar taps into a kind of ethereal groove that just soars through time and space. Singer Hannah Reid, whose silky alto is a heavenly blend of Beth Orton and Florence, takes us on a journey alternating between quiet contemplation and raw elegant power.
On “Lose Your Head” and “How Does It Feel” the trio leads you into their trademark slow boiling bliss towards a distinctive and meditative joy. But on tracks like “Baby It’s You” they just drop you immediately into an infectious pop song (that was immediately remixed by Kolsch) almost accessible enough for a mainstream audience. London Grammar has never really played late on the festival circuit but they are a band whose sound you can imagine drifting into the night sky like a blanket of warm muted lights. Bands like this come around only once in the bluest moon. I hope the ride lasts for quite a while.
6. Black Coffee — Subconsciously (Ultra)
There is no modern DJ as distinctive and versatile as South African phenom Black Coffee. In addition to being the godfather of modern African house music, he has become one of the best producers of vocal electronica today collaborating with everyone from Diplo to Celeste. But it is really within his deep tribal sets where he shines most darkly. His songs take their time building slowly and subtly over long periods before exploding into thick walls of sound.
But like most DJ/Producer “albums” “Subconsciously” features more traditional songs that are pure polished pop like the massive hit “Drive” featuring David Guetta and Delilah Montagu. On “Never Gonna Forget” featuring Diplo and Elderbrook, there is a similar melodically dark beauty which tows the line between accessibility and edginess. For me the album standouts “Lost” and “You Need Me” stay truer to the African rhythms that define his live performances that are rich and expansive. This is a world of magic.
7. Cleo Sol — Mother (Forever Living Originals)
Cleo Sol is a prolific british neo-soul goddess who is a member of the mysterious Sault collective, recent collaborator with Little Simz, and solo artist whose gorgeous sophomore album “Mother” is a minor ethereal masterpiece. Mixing the pure soul of Dusty Springfield with the smoky electronica of Skye Edwards of Morcheeba, Cleo Sol has carved out that magical place transcending time and era.
On the gorgeous “Sunshine” she croons “Only love will save you this time /Hopelessly fighting to escape your mind /And nobody can help you / In this foreign land where loneliness can keep you down.” There is a patience and deliberate lack of urgency that envelopes this album in a kind of surreal haze, somewhere between a dream and foggy morning. What a wonderful place to visit.
8. Noga Erez — Kids (City Slang)
It’s rare that new indie artists are initially best seen live. These albums are usually delivered out of some frenetic creative impulse without much live experience, and the great performances come later. Tel Aviv based Noga Erez is that rare newbie that seems to have arrived fully formed. I first saw her at ACL earlier this year and then again at Outside Lands a month later and was left blown away both times at her radical mix of hip hop, indie dance, and electronica.
On “KIDS” her second full length she leans even harder towards her MC instincts, but also swerving towards an almost Sofi Tukker style of indie electronica. On “End of the Road” she meanders through an odd journey towards some ambiguous ending. On “Views” where she trades vocals with her bandmate ROUSSO she mixes social comedy with a self deprecating irony: “People buy views, I know it’s old news / But I got bad news for everybody / Holy water is no juice, but I know us Jews / We don’t like to lose to anybody.” No doubt, Noga seems like the deal, the only real question is exactly how big she get along the way … at the end of the road.
9. Parcels — Day/Night (Because Music)
Australia’s disco pop band Parcels took three years to finish one of the most ambitious concept records in decades. Weighing at 19 songs, the first nine songs (Day) are light and bouncy resembling their triumphant and jangly debut, with the last ten being darker and moodier (Night). On the one hand this could have been the best ten song album of the year with some vicious editing, but that would somehow miss the point: juxtaposing the two states of mind we travel through every day as lightness fades to darkness.
Still here is the 70’s Chic-esque disco jazz that attracted Daft Punk the first time out. One album that stands out “Somethingreater” is a patiently infectious guitar that accompanies the lilting chorus “ Until it lasts forever / Until it lasts so long / Until we’re back together / I’ll be alone” all sung with a kind of matter of fact optimism that keep pushing us hopefully forward. When day turns to night we find ourselves in a kind of hipster Studio 54 on “Almost Famous” with the band meditating on the fickle perils of fame. This is a record for people who still enjoy “records” as a fully realized piece of art meant to be enjoyed entirely as day passes into night.
10. The War On Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic)
There has always been a measure of surrealism or otherworldliness that defines the music of War On Drugs. The songs tend to build as a ballad before erupting into anthemic magic. On “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the fifth full length record from Adam Granduciel and company, the band has become more open to straight forward melodies than its historically stonier meandering groove. There is more Springsteen than Dylan here, and more accessible Americana than tortured indie rock, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is of course the second major label debut for the Philly band who have taken their time trying to figure out who and what they want to be.
There are no major thematic departures here, but more of that same focus on love, loss, hope and pain. There are upbeat rockers like “Wasted” and “Harmonia’s Dream” and soulful crooners like “Living Proof,” but everything is distinctly War On Drugs and each song is four to seven minutes more like novellas than just pop songs. On album standout “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”, with backup vocals from Lucius, we hear them sing: “??I’m gonna say everything that there is to say /Although you’ve taken everything I need away.” If you were pining for an album to finally lift us out of a Covid haze filled with optimism and hope, this is the one.
11. Arlo Parks– Collapsed in Sunbeams (Transgressive Records)
Arlo Parks is a 20 year old half Nigerian, half French Brit, with a voice like a sultry angel and the soul of a trip-hopper twice her age. For the past few years she’s been releasing some of the most addicting songs in recent history. Reminiscent of the earliest Zero 7 vocalists, she blends neo-soul with folktronica effortlessly grooving slowly until she manages to get under your skin scratching itches you never knew were there.
In mid 2020, knee deep in the pandemic she released the insta-hit “Eugene” followed by the even better “Back Dog” vaulting her into that rare air that would have found her playing the festival circuit (had there been one). On “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” her first full length album, she dazzles with a laid back confidence usually reserved for musicians with quite a bit more behind them. She is one of the artists I am most excited to see live when the dark cloud of Covid lifts and concerts are mercifully available again.
12. Liz Phair — Soberish (Chrysalis)
One of my top five desert island albums will always be Liz Phair’s 1993 manifesto “Exile in Guyville.” Presumably she wasn’t even writing the album for me, but maybe it was that she grew up in Winnetka, IL (where I spent my first 10 years) and went to Oberlin (a few hours from Cleveland where we eventually moved) that everything she wrote just seemed to resonate with my midwestern artistic cravings. She was beautiful, sarcastic, highly literate, and a hipster sensation long before the internet turned celebrity into a shallow joke.
Her solid second effort “Whip-Smart” was followed by the poppier “Whitechocolatespaceegg” which was still tethered to her DIY roots, but signaled a drift away from that original magic. Her next few albums had her packaged and pointed towards pop stardom, but the dress didn’t fit. She spent the 2010’s raising her son, writing a memoir working on an aborted “White Album” concept record.
And so now we get “Soberish” which plays like the album we’ve been waiting for ever since her epic run in the 90’s. Produced by Brad Wood, who unlocked her sound on “Exile,” who marries her pop bias with her understated melodic inclinations. On standout “Hey Lou,” her elegy to Lou Reed and Lori Anderson, she drops us into an imagined fucked up night on the town with rock’s music most brilliant asshole. But it is on “Good Side” where she conjures the youthful self-reflection of her debut with the confidence of a rock star at peace with her middle age: “There’s so many ways to fuck up a life / I try to be original.” Although not every song is perfect, there is much to love, and who doesn’t love rooting for that underdog you loved as a kid, and admire as an adult. Pour yourself a bourbon, and live in her world somewhere between sober and not.
13. Ben Howard — Collections From The Whiteout (Island)
On Ben Howard’s sublime fourth album, he further solidifies himself as one of the most patient and mesmerizing rockers of our time. In a match made in indie heaven, he engaged The National’s ever present Aaron Dessner to produce, along with a supergroup of collaborators to record one of the richest albums of the year. On standouts like “Sorry Kid” he sings of movers and shakers making money and playing a rigged game: “To play the game without a hand / You really must be a stand-up man.”
Howard’s only real competition in the rarified air of modern folk is the great Argentinian Swede José González. They both share a style and ethos that combines serenity with laid back intensity. Both have angelic voices, which they pair with gently strummed guitars and a kind of moody optimism. Bathe in the glory of this minor masterpiece of small moments and transcendent understatements.
14. Lucy Dacus — Home Video (Matador)
The world of indie rock is rich with young female singer songwriters, and Richmond, VA’s Lucy Dacus has been one of the drivers of this renaissance. Her confessional based lyrics are both a reflection of her generation’s state of mind as filtered through the lens of Covid based isolation and introspection. Her knack for both musical and lyrical melodies seems uncanny for such a young artist, but sometimes the simplest things are hardest to accomplish.
There is a kind of soaring cynical optimism that exists in most of her songs but also a kind of ironic nostalgia for something in her fairly recent past. She begins with “Hot & Heavy’’ waxing about fooling around in a basement: “Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood in my pulsing veins
/ Heavy memories weighing on my brain / Hot and heavy in the basement of your parents’ place.” This is one of the easiest albums of the year to just press play and purely enjoy.
15. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine — A Beginner’s Mind (Ashmatic Kitty)
Over the course of almost two decades Sufjan Stevens has become not only one of our most versatile and adventurous songwriters, but also one of the most experimental performers of the modern age. This time out he collaborates with label mate Angelo De Augustine on one of the most delicate and beautiful folk albums of the year. They both sing with hushed restraint, creating an angelic energy as they mine the depths of life, love and longing.
In one of the best songs of this year, or any for that matter, we are taken on a mystical trip “Back To Oz” a place where “All my life was calling / All my dreams were buried away / You love me but you don’t know me / In due time you’ll throw it away” Like David Byrne, Radiohead, Bowie and others, Sufjan Stevens keeps moving the goal line out into the future, a place where you know you would go if you could only find your way.
A bunch of other great stuff …
16. Sault — 9 (Forever Living Originals) This near perfect curiosity of an album, which intentionally disappeared (except for Vinyl and YouTube) from the streaming universe after 99 days. Like most Sault recordings, it is political, gorgeously produced, and features a variety of the best vocalists you’ve never heard of before. Do spend the extra time and seek it out.
17. Jose Gonzalez — Local Valley (Mute) Blessed with one of the most distinctive folk voices in modern music, “Local Valley” continues to extend his acoustic tendencies with a quiet meditative collection featuring his first Spanish language tracks as well as lyrics that reflect his recent experience as a new parent. Sublime.
18. Snail Mail — Valentine (Matador) Like a much needed time capsule from the mid 90’s, Lindsay Jordan’s second album is a worthy homage to all of the great lo-fi indie pop records of that time. There is nothing particularly complex about the three piece band, but it’s the simplicity that creates a kind of miniaturized perfection.
19. Elbow — Flying Dream 1 (Polydor)I am obviously a committed fanboy of Guy Garvey’s angelic vocals and the ethereal orchestrations of his majestic bandmates. This is an album that just kind of takes its time going nowhere in particular, but ultimately taking you somewhere you’ve never been. For twenty years now the band has been creating cinematic soundscapes
20. Roosevelt — Polydans (City Slang) Most of the time dance music sounds either better live or remixed, but on Roosevelt’s third full length album there is a sweetness and genuine 80’s new wavery that beams brightly like the soundtrack from your favorite John Hughes film.
21. Courtney Barnett — Things Take Time, Take Time (Mom + Pop) Not only is Courtney one of the cleverest lyricists in modern rock, she has become an even more capable live performer alternating between mesmerizing acoustic ballads, and enormous rock anthems. 10k hours.
22. Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg (4AD) Any debut on 4AD is worth paying attention to but this post punk effort, led by singer Florence Shaw’s talk-sing storytelling and surrounded by angular guitars, is a breath of nostalgia for fans of The Fall and other such icons.
23. Gruff Rhys — Seeking New Gods (Rough Trade) On his seventh solo album, the former leader of the Super Furry Animals has once again created a minor masterpiece of mood and melody. Like a Welsh version of Belle and Sebastian, he tells stories marrying a bit of calm psychedelia with a gentle twee sense melancholy.
24. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Philharmonic — Promises (Luaka Bop) It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely yet beautifully magnificent collaboration than this eerie, fragile, cinematic project that often feels like you are standing on the literal edge of the world watching the curtain fall for the last time, as the sun hits the horizon and fades away for good.
25. Low — Hey What (Sub Pop) For almost 30 years the Duluth, MN married couple have been creating hymn-like music juxtaposing their own religious faith with a sonic spontaneity that alternates between the sublime and the unnerving. This is challenging art, but also something so unique and special we can only keep finding the inspiration.
26. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee (Dead Oceans) It would be hard not to love this breezy 10 song album from Michelle Zauner. It is brighter, poppier but also more complex thematically and musically with a full orchestra (at times) helping her toe that line between accessible and still edgy enough.
27. Mdou Moctor — Afrique Victime (Matador) There is almost no guitarist on the planet that plays like Moctor. This is West African Tuareg guitar mastery that rips through your soul. It is almost as if the whole continent has chosen this band to tell the world of the beauty and the pain of its collective experience.
28. Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing) It is hard to describe the gentle potency of Jenkins second album that meanders cerebrally through the deep corners of her mind and heart. The lush production perfectly matches the quiet contemplation of her vocals. Pure magic.
To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest 2020 listen here: