My favorite music of 2020
In 2020, I found myself spending more time with extreme forms of music—harsh noise, experimental, drone, and all forms of metal and hardcore. There are plenty of things on this list for everyone, but the trend toward the extreme was worth noting.
One quick note: Spotify Wrapped has become a huge social event every December, allowing artists and fans to post their listening stats all over social media, amounting to a super effective, low cost, grass-roots marketing campaign for a company that abuses their relationship with the musicians that they depend on. Raw listening numbers also tell a very one-dimensional story. Liz Pelly quoted Holly Herndon in this essay:
For me, the most important music which has shaped me as a person and as a musician myself is not necessarily music that I listen to on repeat. It's music that contains an idea that I really just needed access to, like a book or a really good movie. I needed access to that idea to open up a new perspective on the world...
There are plenty of albums in the list below that fit this description. They might not make my most-played artists list (which has mostly been overtaken by my kids' ongoing obsession with the Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack, anyway). It's the impact they had on me that makes them worth documenting.
In alphabetical order, because ranking art reinforces a false capitalistic idea that art is somehow a competition.
Bill Callahan: Gold Record
The songwriting here is full of subtle, graceful winks and nods, like being in on an inside joke with your cool philosophy professor. "The Mackenzies" gets me in my feelings every time.
Black Bra: Black Bra
I've been waiting for this record for a long time, and I was not disappointed. It's like a newly-discovered PJ Harvey collaboration with Sleater-Kinney.
Blake Mills: Mutable Set
What it would sound like if late-era Talk Talk recorded an entire record at whisper volume, so as not to wake someone napping in the next room.
clipping. - Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Noise rap at its best, from one of its founding groups.
Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats - UNLOCKED
My first significant time spent with both artists. Aggressive, fast-paced rapping over sturdy beats with a nice bounce. I’ll admit that the intro video they made for the album sold me on checking it out, immediately followed by a deep dive into their other work.
Eerie Gaits - Holopaw
A great entry in the ever-growing subgenre of Americana-influenced ambient and post-rock. Slide guitars and finger-picked acoustics floating around each other. This is “making coffee on a cold, misty morning” music.
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou - May Our Chambers Be Full
This sludge metal collaboration made me wonder why they don’t work together more often, and hope that they will. Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle are each powerful on their own, in different ways, and combined they create a third entity that stands alone as a separate, magificent entity.
Fleet Foxes - Shore
The first Fleet Foxes album to give me that instant nostalgia feeling since their first album came out in 2008. Spectacular songwriting bathed in endless reverb. The Colbert performance of "Can I Believe You" with the Resistance Revival Chorus was particularly special.
HAIM - Women In Music Pt. III
This album covers so much pop territory and, somehow, its two most stand-out tracks to me are relegated to the bonus tracks section at the end: “Hallelujah”—not yet another Leonard Cohen cover, thankfully—and “Summer Girl”, in which they reference Lou Reed and thoughtfully credit him as a songwriter.
IDLES - Ultra Mono
One of those post-punk bands that has sat at the edge of my periphery for a couple years, and I’m glad to say this album is the one that finally made it all click. Check out “Grounds.”
Keith Fullerton Whitman - To (a) Certain Extent
Whitman was a new-to-me experimental and ambient artist who put out an abundance of releases this year: eight collections of new material, by my best count. This album, likely due to the space in which it was recorded, sounds so organic and rich with breathing room and warmth, in contrast to so much of the cold, unfeeling work that comes out of the experimental noise scene.
Lua with Phayam - Hibiscus
This year, thanks to Bandcamp, I discovered Cho Oyu, a label that focuses on releasing records by ambient artists primarily in Thailand. Hibiscus was the first Cho Oyu release I came across. Synthy ambient music that manages to avoid sounding kitschy or overtly new-agey. I ended up buying the entire label’s catalog on Bandcamp.
Nothing - The Great Dismal
I don’t think I’ve ever not included a Nothing album on a year-end list since they started making music. However, this might be my favorite LP of theirs yet. The production by Will Yip took their signature shoegazey sound in a whole new direction that paid off. The nihilism is palpable, and makes for a fitting backdrop to a dark year.
Protomartyr - Ultimate Success Today
Protomartyr, too, never fails to make it on the list when something new comes out. The post-punk vibe holds strong and the heady lyrics, rich with references from religion, history and literature, pack a wallop as always. I'd love to have a long talk over drinks with Joe Casey.
Run the Jewels - RTJ4
All of the rage, sociopolitical commentary and untouchable production served to document the realities of 2020 in ways that even Killer Mike and El-P could not have fully anticipated. The wordplay and flow on “JU$T” unfolds so perfectly that I’m usually chuckling with glee by the time Zach de la Rocha’s guest verse is over.
SUMAC - May You Be Held
This one expanded my understanding of what the rules of metal can be. This comes as no surprise, coming from Aaron Turner, of Isis and Old Man Gloom fame.
Sadness/Soulless/In Autumnus/Grief & Bliss - Hiraeth
A four-band DSBM split I tried out on a whim, only because I was familiar with Sadness. Every song shines and no one act upstages any other, which means I had three new metal bands’ back catalogs to delve into.
Stephanie Lambring - Autonomy
Stephanie’s songwriting holds nothing back. She covers a lot of difficult subject matter, from fat-shaming to evangelical bigotry, in a way that reminds me a lot of another favorite brutally honest songwriter of mine, David Bazan.
This Will Destroy You - Vespertine
Another favorite band of mine that bridges the gap between ambient and post-rock. This was a commissioned recording that played its separate tracks in each respective room at a Los Angeles restaurant concept. Even without that context, it stands on its own as one of their best works for me.
A handful of artists I discovered, spent more time with than ever, or returned to for comfort this year, unrelated to anything they might have released in 2020:
Prurient, Merzbow, Sonic Youth’s live archive, Viagra Boys, Jesus Piece, Harm's Way, The Chariot, Rage Against the Machine, Thou, Full of Hell, Sunn O))), Boris, OM, deafheaven.
Here's hoping 2021 brings us plenty more fantastic new music and far fewer global dumpster fires.