Well folks, I am not going to be the one to tell you about how “crazy this year was and how we hope you and your family are safe during these unprecedented times”. That’s Arby’s or Chase Bank’s job. My job is to recommend you music and luckily I’ve got quite a lot of it here. It’s Warm Visions’ Top 50 Albums of 2020, ranked for your pleasure.
I know a lot of people are switching away from ranking albums to make it less of a competition, but I’ve never really thought of it that way. I’m just one guy that listens to 500-something albums every year. There are no advanced metrics happening here, just records I would consistently return to while the deluge of other art passed through my consciousness. I also don’t take myself super seriously, so I don’t think you should either.
In a normal year, I’d have the luxury of seeing many of these artists live to influence my digestion of the material. I’d also be able to “road test” albums by listening on commutes or walks about town without worry. These records were primarily listened to at my desk in headphones. I mention this because once we’re allowed back in the wild, we’ll then see what albums I actually start returning to, which will likely change the list order. In fact, albums moved up and down the day this was published. It’s a snapshot, nothing permanent. Think of this list as a moment frozen in time to look back on in the future: “this was really my #24 album of 2020? What? I listen to that every day now!” Yada yada, you get the picture.
For right now though, I recommend you listen to every single album here, even the honorable mentions. You will not regret it. I think I’ve pulled together a fulfilling and special selection of records that indeed has a few usual suspects seen on all the other AOTY lists, but some other things you may have missed in the shuffle too. I sincerely hope you’re keeping it easy going into 2021. Enjoy.
- ARMAND HAMMER – Shrines
- ASA TONE – Temporary Music
- BREAKING – Breaking
- CHARLEY CROCKETT – Welcome To Hard Times
- DISCOVERY ZONE – Remote Control
- DOMENIQUE DUMONT – People On Sunday
- DUMA – Duma
- DUVAL TIMOTHY – Help
- EYELINER – Drop Shadow
- THE KOREATOWN ODDITY – Little Dominique’s Nosebleed
- LUIS PESTANA – Rosa Pano
- MADELINE KENNEY – Sucker’s Lunch
- MERCE LEMON – Moonth
- SPARKLE DIVISION – To Feel Embraced
- YALC123 – Yalc Nitsua Mailliw
50. ANDRAS – Joyful [Beats In Space]
Zooming way out on a busy city intersection via drone camera and making all the people look like ants.
The imaginary soundtrack to the most joyous platformer video game you’ve never played, with delightful bubbly acid house textures, bendy melodies and punchy bass.
49. GEORGIA – Seeking Thrills [Domino]
A party-starting superpower is bestowed upon you and once you help the entire Earth party together, you expand your operations into distant space, supercharged by the jubilation from your own edge of the galaxy.
Bombastic, exuberant, joyful pop music with hooks, rhythms and excitement that just spill out of this record. First four songs are absolutely bulletproof. Go see her live when that’s a thing again.
48. NORTH AMERICANS – Roped In [Third Man]
A hidden waterfall cascades currents filled multi-colored flower petals, causing river banks to be peppered with pops of bright color for a good country mile.
Meditative instrumental guitar music would be one easy descriptor. Going deeper, it’s like opening a vast dimension of plush, breezy tufts of strummed steel strings, nestled between gentle nods of floating ambiance.
47. FONTAINES D.C. – A Hero’s Death [Partisan]
A person returns to their small hometown after trying to make it the big city, recounting their sorrowful and harrowing tales to deadbeat bar-crawlers.
Electrifying rock n roll from Ireland, building some nuance into their sound since their debut. Really love the last two songs on here.
46. FIONA APPLE – Fetch The Bolt Cutters [Epic]
Refusing to leave your house, instead crafting miniature cities filled with cardboard cutouts of people and getting wrapped up in the mundane dramas you create for them.
Do I really need to explain this one to you?
45. WINTER – Endless Space (Between You & I) [Bar/None]
Diving incredible depths into a dark ocean and discovering a vast galaxy of cosmic beings residing in an undersea gardens of unearthly delights.
Ultra-dreamy shoegaze with a few songs in Portuguese + featuring a Brazilian pinch of flavor. Shimmering and swirling with some fantastic guitar effects.
44. NANA ADJOA – Big Dreaming Ants [Bloomer]
Traveling across a futuristic prairie-covered continent via hover cycle, from one city capital to another, to deliver an important antidote for an ailing resistance leader, encountering friends and foes along the way.
Shimmering indie rock from a promising newcomer. Lots of small, unique sounds paired with grandiose instrumentals that build up the individual songs in big ways. Lovely vocals and some epic songwriting + arrangements.
43. BADGE ÉPOQUE ENSEMBLE – Self Help [Telephone Explosion]
One groovy pilot takes a commercial flight from Toronto to Albuquerque above the cloud layer, into space and defies gravity with a spectral trip these passengers won’t ever forget.
Truly heady, metamorphosing jazzfunk grooves that take the listener into space, alternate dimensions, etc. Top notch performances + great vocal features from Meg Remy, Jennifer Castle, James Baley and Dorothea Paas.
42. SPACE AFRIKA – hybtwibt? [Self-Released]
Synthesizing repressed and difficult memories with everyday ambient noise into a dreamlike tapestry, warping and distorting around you depending on your mood.
Technically a mixtape, but it’s in here anyways. Micro-fragments of pop, ambient, R&B, dub and soul mixed with field recordings and spoken word delving into race injustices in the world, released the week massive protests began. A hypnotizing, touching collage of hurting, healing and important sounds.
41. CHLOE X HALLE – Ungodly Hour [Parkwood / Columbia]
An anti-gravity chamber on a far-future space station is the setting for the most innovative and entertaining pop concert ever recorded.
A pop album of the highest caliber. Some expertly-crafted earworms with bouncy production and flooring vocal talent from a duo of sisters. Plus it’s largely self-written & self-produced, so that adds extra points. True artistry! Cmon talent!
40. TENCI – My Heart Is An Open Field [Keeled Scales]
Holding hands with someone, laying down in a field & trying to decide whether a flying, blinking object overhead is a satellite, aliens or a shooting star speaking in morse code.
Earnest, charming folk that in my mind channels the great plains. Vocals conjuring the great American warblers of old. At times sparkling and spectral, like a UFO flying over a cornfield, waving at us before zooming light years away.
39. THE AVALANCHES – We Will Always Love You [Astralwerks]
Taking a leisurely drive down Rainbow Road in Mario Kart and not worrying about racing anyone or anything. Just cruising through constellations.
Sparkling interstellar grooves made of samples, guest features and live instrumentation scrapbooked together in an astronomer’s manual. Inspired by the Golden Record that was shot into space + really sounds like the album was beamed up there.
38. JOEL ROSS – Who Are You? [Blue Note]
A family dedicates their lives to taming the sea off a small coastal town, mastering the cyclical moon waves + storms across generations.
If you like vibes, this record is for you. It’s jazz led by a vibraphonist – har har. Fantastic dynamic narrative arcs that builds on melodies and themes throughout its duration, backed up by some wicked performances by the band.
37. GUM COUNTRY – Somewhere [Self-Released]
Falling asleep in a shopping cart, accidentally rolling into a skate park and then doing mad tricks.
Instant foot-tap inducing rock. Every song has a great uptempo beat, catchy riffs, crunchy guitars, snappy percussion. Vocals that could be considered “slacker” – think of something like a classic Hardly Art release in the mid-10s. Peak 2020 rock, y’all.
36. LIV.E – Couldn’t Wait To Tell You… [In Real Life]
Having an unidentifiably large amount of tabs open in your internet browser at 4am, reaching enlightenment.
Sun-baked psychedelic soul and spoken-word poetry kept moving by groovy looping instrumentals. Almost like something you’d find flipping channels late at night from a hidden local station; a groovy night with Liv.
35. MAMALARKY – Mamalarky [Fire Talk]
An uncontrollable sneezing fit during class leads to various objects flying out of your nose like confetti, french fries, frogs, vitamins, cartoon drawings come to life & stamps.
Charming trickster indie rock that delights on throwing curveballs into song structures, melodies and grooves. Most songs feel like dangerously running across a tightrope while laughing hysterically, or like they’d all somehow nail the furniture in your room to the ceiling, but in an endearing way: “oh Mamalarky!”.
34. DERADOORIAN – Find The Sun [Anti-]
Entering the sacred temple and releasing yourself from your tumultuous earthly desires to accept a life of transcendence.
I listened to this album while reading about cult b-movie Mystics In Bali (do NOT watch the trailer if you wanna watch the movie), and with its song titles, I picture some epic pilgrimage to learn the dark arts. Swirling and smoky experimental rock with touches of lounge and krautrock.
33. FACS – Void Moments [Trouble In Mind]
Every time you try and leave your house you get instantly teleported back to being chained to your basement floor.
An exercise in calculated destruction. Some of the most caustic guitar, bass and drums I’ve heard all year. Every instrument here has a say, nothing is washed out. Music that feels like it’s actively corroding its way through your brain.
32. BETTER PERSON – Something To Lose [Arbutus]
Streetlights streaking across empty city blocks as tears cloud your field of vision while you run home from an emotional date.
Dazzling, dramatic synth pop, overdosing on romance, lovesickness and city nights. Scratches that specific itch similar to Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile. Some songs in Polish!
31. ADRIANNE LENKER – songs [4AD]
Autumn-colored dead leaves spill out from behind framed pictures of family, flood old photo albums and pile out of closets and crawlspaces as you lay in the middle of your living room floor.
Fragile paper cranes of voice + acoustic guitar organized on a mossy log. As vulnerable as we’ve known Lenker’s solo material (and Big Thief work) to be, and with songs that are just as potent. Subtly wicked guitar work. Lenker is a gift to the instrument.
30. MARIE DAVIDSON & L’ŒIL NU – Renegade Breakdown [Ninja Tune]
A retiring matriarch of a local theater troupe puts on one last grand production acting not only as a dramatic autobiography, but a scheme to fake her own death.
An exciting, genre-less exploration of life after the club scene. A psychedelic melt of neo-folk, krautrock, prog rock, electropop, Twin Peaks lounge, tender-strummed love songs and more. Bold and experimental at every turn.
29. NICK HAKIM – WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD [ATO]
Primitive teleportation technology allows us to fleetingly capture unstable, flickering projections of those wishing to transport and record their messages before fading away.
Blown-out and disorienting psychedelic lo-fi pop & soul. So incredibly raw and swerving like the music itself is reeling from an emotional loss. Soulful and smooth in some parts, brash and wild in other parts. Tender and genuine throughout.
28. LAURA MARLING – Song For Our Daughter [Partisan / Chrysalis]
A grandparent reflects on their more wild and wanderlust-fulfilling days and finds pride in watching their grandchildren express the same rambunctiousness they once did.
Expertly crafted, written, performed and arranged singer/songwriter record. Wonderful pacing and balance of sadder, introspective songs and more upbeat pop songs. Everything in its right place and oh so satisfying, like something you’d find in between the masters of songwriting of the 60s and 70s.
27. THANYA IYER – KIND [Topshelf]
A twinkling meadow populated by floating bioluminescent creatures exists in a cave behind a secluded waterfall.
The songs here billow out of your speakers or headphones like smoke, slowly engulfing your listening space in formless approximations of sound given structure by slick, meditative grooves, experimental and jazzy flourishes, and some of the best bass lines I’ve heard all year. The most necessary hypnosis of 2020.
26. KA – Descendants Of Cain [Iron Works]
The centuries-running meeting of the oldest book club in the big city, discussing the words of scholars of the past and the future and equating them to the perils of everyday life.
Masterful simmering hip hop from Brooklyn. If you know Ka, you should already know what this sounds like and that’s not a bad thing. Dude doesn’t miss. Retro film & soul-sampling beats provide a home for rumination on hardships in BK, blackness and brotherhood.
25. JOHN CARROLL KIRBY – My Garden [Stones Throw]
The Spanish tiling in your kitchen is exquisite and matches the sea breezes coming through your foyer open windows.
Aromatic breezes of soft synth, buoyant bass and rubbery synth pads build a world of pure bliss and a bit of mystery. Like exploring a tropical island and finding untouched ruins that you respectfully explore. Totally unsuspecting, but something I continued coming back to throughout the year when I needed a sigh of relief from the world. Dude is also a producer extraordinaire and likely had a hand in some of your favorite LPs from the last few years.
24. KEIYAA – Forever, Ya Girl [Forever]
The sun shining through clouds during a rainy day and watching the water evaporate in large droplets off your body and into the sky.
Woozy, smeared soulful R&B that could lull unsuspecting listeners into a “chill playlist dude” vibe with its beats, but then smacks them upside the head with serious vocal chops. Sounding smooth has never sounded this effortless. Sitting in bed watching the rain on a Saturday morning kinda album.
23. KATE NV – Room For The Moon [RVNG Intl.]
Innocuously tuning into a late night public access one-person theatre production complete with puppets, costume changes, magic tricks, a planetarium backdrop, velvet curtains and in-camera editing.
Taking cues from early 80s pop and Japanese city pop, a fantasy world of its own is populated by animated cartoons along with NV herself. A transcontinental pop fairytale of squirmy instrumentals bursting at the seams with joy and curiosity.
22. ELYSIA CRAMPTON – ORCORARA 2010 [PAN]
Watching a meteor shower from inside the belly of a translucent snake.
Experimental electronic + spoken word with striking beauty foiled against some brutal ugliness. Feelings of stabbing headaches paired with a wide-open prairie of flowers shaken by a gentle breeze. The piano sound on this album is heart-stopping and the narrators have excellent voices to be paired with this music. The two vocal features are great too – Embaci and Shannon Funchess of Light Asylum!
21. FRANCES QUINLAN – Likewise [Saddle Creek]
A giant painting leaks associated words into the walls and floors that surrounds it.
Lead singer of Hop Along’s first album under her own name. The usual stunning vocal gymnastics with more stripped back instrumentals that have just as much heft as the typical rock backing. There is no possible outcome where I didn’t love this record. If you aren’t familiar with Frances Quinlan or Hop Along, you must be new to the blog.
20. ANA ROXANNE – Because Of A Flower [Kranky]
Floating on your back in shallow currents, feeling schools of minnows billow below you.
Slow, sober meditations of sound and space. Glossy ambient textures shine next to gossamer, mist-like vocals. Calming beyond comparison, like opening your eyes underwater in a clear lake, with beams of sunlight shining through to the bottom. A house in the forest with the windows open, letting in the sounds of rain hitting the leaves outside.
19. MARY LATTIMORE – Silver Ladders [Ghostly]
Watching a beautiful meteor shower crest over Earth’s surface as you float through space.
Multidimensional instrumental harp music that billows like a deep-sea jellyfish, all pulsating with bioluminescence. Erase your preconceived notion that harps are for angelic music only. This carries some true darkness (I’m not talking just wicked rippin solos), but murky, uncertain and cosmic passages of pure beauty. To me this is Lattimore’s best work yet.
18. JESSY LANZA – All The Time [Hyperdub]
An intelligent humanoid made of water can morph its shape and alter its state, diffusing into a gas to pass through walls, hardening into ice to slide down hills, and combining it all to accomplish its goal of being the greatest dancer of all time: this is their story.
The queen of the micro-groove / polyrhythm dance is back and guess what? She’s still on her A-game. Overall a more mellow vibe compared to her last two albums, but still loaded with slick, uniquely Lanza grooves, fully carbonated with bubbly electronics and smooth melodies. The first four songs on this album are as strong of a start as ever, with two lead singles, a punchy opener and “Badly”, which held my jaw on the floor the first time I heard it. The song is a perfect summation of why I love Lanza’s work so much – so many small, independent parts clicking together into some sort of mechanical, ever-running contraption. With so many new faces in my Top 20 favorite records of 2020, it felt comforting to be enthralled by a long-time favorite like Lanza.
17. TOOTARD – Migrant Birds [Glitterbeat]
A one-way ticket on a trans-dimensional time machine that transports you to a sparkling disco club in the Middle East, in a universe free of US foreign intervention, only dancing.
Maybe the most slept-on release here? Fun Arabic disco from a Golan Heights-born brotherly duo with infectious earworm synth hooks in nearly every song. Even the slower songs have some melodic aspect to them that gets you moving. Stellar rhythm guitar, era-correct drum machine mixed with live drums, melodramatic strings, and smooth vocals sung in Arabic. But let’s be real: it’s all about the quarter-tone synthesizer. It is the star on every song, laying down wicked-fast melodies + hooks like nothing. To the fresh/untrained ear it might sound silly and maybe the songs all start to blend together, but give it time and it’s like finding a buried gem of essential disco at a time when we all need to feel good + let loose on whatever dancefloor we can.
16. WAXAHATCHEE – Saint Cloud [Merge]
The perfect summer weather that reminds you of all the best summer vacation memories from childhood.
Channeling classic country along with certain patches of sunny radio rock from the early 00s / late 90s (paging Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow!) Waxahatchee made a homerun of an album where every song feels like a “hell yeah” moment. These moments are like “wow, this is GOOD songwriting” or it could be a deliriously good hook. The instrumentals aren’t reinventing the wheel or anything, but Crutchfield is at her most direct, letting her elite songwriting speak for itself and crafting an album that feels like it’s almost begging for it to be blasted in a car with the windows rolled down. I do not doubt that whenever any song from this album starts playing on the PA before a show I’m gonna clutch whoever I’m with and say “ohhh maaannn remember 2020 and how good this album is??”.
15. WESTERMAN – Your Hero Is Not Dead [Partisan]
Swimming down a river at sunrise scented with pleasing, balmy fragrances.
Earnest, dreamy sophisti-pop with a touch of Arthur Russell-level eclecticism thrown in for good measure. Epic (but not empty) landscapes of melodies toasted in reverb soar above jazz-trained percussion and nimble guitar work that sometimes feels smeared together across the length of the album, but there are enough true heaters on here to make it feel separate. I previously wrote it felt like gliding down a lazy river, but it’s not like there’s nothing else happening aside from flat, moving water. On this album you’re surrounded by a lush forest of sound with colorful birds flying overhead, sun shining through the canopy and fragrant flowers spilling into the river from the shore. It’s engaging and soothing, a staple of my early-summer listening.
14. THE MICROPHONES – Microphones In 2020 [P.W. Elverum & Sun]
Rewatching the most impactful moments of your life on 35mm as you plummet to Earth from space.
One long song not only chronicling the life, scrapbook style, of The Microphones’ Phil Elverum, but also acting as a metaphor for his creative career, morphing along with the narration. This one’s for the true Elverum heads. Phil’s vocals don’t come in until about 7 minutes into the song, and the song is mostly just one chord throughout the whole time. Eventually loud guitar and drums come crashing in, and it sounds like a Elverum project. I love when Phil gets loud and distorted, especially around the middle of the track. We haven’t heard this timbre from him in a while, and it’s great to get back to that spot. It’s still as emotionally steamrolling as his recent material, so fair warning. I just love Phil’s art. I hope he’s having a good day.
13. ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF – All Thoughts Fly [Southern Lord]
Standing on a towering cliff above the ocean and letting the wind whip around you as the waves rip at the rocks below.
Absolutely massive instrumental works of pipe organ. Overwhelming at some points, tender and soaring at others, but gorgeous through and through. Came out on a metal label, so there’s a little insight into the mood here. As someone who was not raised in a church, I’ve always found the organ to be an incredibly interesting instrument and one I could hear more in an everyday context. Well, here we see why it’s not used that way – it’s all-consuming and can back itself up with melodic and harmonic counterpoints, rendering other instruments useless.
Intense, swirling passages of organ crash around the listener, while high-pitched tones cry over top. Every sound here was made with one organ. Your brain almost makes you not want to believe that – it couldn’t possibly all be coming from one place, much like Colin Stetson’s transcendent saxophone playing. It reminds me of the din of cities; hearing hundreds of little sounds at once coalescing into one hurried transmission. Carries real pain, real anguish and real hope. No other record out there like it. Put it in nice headphones or a good speaker system and let it engulf you.
12. EARTHEATER – Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin [PAN]
A shapeless smoke druid acts as a siren to the River Styx, luring unwitting travelers to their doom once they touch the swirling currents.
Orchestral experimental pop music that seems to exist in its own, torch-lit dimension. Arrangements of swirling strings engulf the landscape in an ash-choked fog, distorted uncanny electronics provide a craggy landscape for the songs to build upon, and the stripped back acoustic guitar and Eartheater’s spindly vocals act as wisps of spirits that echo through the cinematic, barren wasteland. The striking cover and song titles (“Volcano”, “Kiss Of The Phoenix”, “Airborne Ashes”, “Burning The Feather”) also provide the listener ample imagination fuel to picture where these songs would exist: a bright, smoky expanse. Eartheater successfully creates a home in the flames of hell.
Despite all these seemingly-negative attributes I’m giving it, this is one of the most beautiful records of the year, striking a balance between a myriad of genres and styles and executes each well enough not to feel like too much or too less of one thing. It is succinctly Eartheater, a touchstone of the NYC experimental scene for at least the last five years, and Phoenix is her best yet. This record grew on me like crazy since its release, and I expect it to continue to do so after 2020 ends.
11. NUBYA GARCIA – Source [Concord Jazz]
A generation of genius, prodigal children beyond their years begin solving complex world problems and develop psychic powers they ultimately use for good in their communities.
Jazz to the stars. Incredibly talented sax player leads her band through dynamic, genre-hopping odysseys of groove and rhythm. No smooth jazz here! I’m not gonna act like I’m some jazz critic that can articulately analyze the nuances of the playing or the writing, but I can say this music makes me feel good. The performances are pretty unreal and the variation of sound and style is pretty remarkable. Not to mention it’s not often a female jazz bandleader gets this much shine. Please make this a common theme. If you’re looking for a punchy jazz record to knock your socks off, I say choose this one.
10. SEA OLEENA – Weaving A Basket [Self-Released]
Watching wisps of smoke from a blown-out candle trail and mix into the starry sky.
Vast, airy dreamscapes of sound where everything feels like it’s moving in slow motion. Most of the songs are on the longer side, allowing the instrumentals to gradually build over time to carve out grand formations of misty synthesizer, stretched out strings, constellations of acoustic guitar and liminal field recordings for Oleena’s light vocals to swirl around. It seems like I discover something new on each listen. Especially with the weather getting colder and more “ethereal”, this is the perfect companion for walking in the woods or staring out into the gray expanse, finding beauty in the natural world despite obstacles or society-branded “beauty” standards. Comparison is a poor man’s game, but this really does evoke all the same feelings I get from my favorite music of Grouper + Julianna Barwick, and that’s as high of a compliment as I can give. Those artists have brought me so much in terms of “music as healing” and the fact that this album can be entered into that canon is wonderful, I’m so happy about it.
9. SHABASON, KRGOVICH & HARRIS – Philadelphia [Idée Fixe]
Keeping a weekly journal of cloud formations and nice texts you send to and receive from friends.
Meditative, poetic caresses of songs ruminating on the magic and beauty in still moments. Turning the ordinary into extraordinary, but not making a big deal out of it. Instrumentals are laid back, mostly consisting of mellow synthesizer, wafting winds, fretless bass, deep piano and steady percussion. Subtle grooves bubble up from natural hot springs. A beam from the setting sun refracts through a window ornament onto the floor. Your sleepy dog yawns, shifts positions on the floor in front of you, and sighs satisfied at another great day. Herons picking for food in the foggy marsh on a morning walk. A letter a friend wrote you, held down by a paperweight, ripples gently from an open window breeze. This record is perfect for my style of descriptions. I try and point out the magic in little moments in short blurbs on a blog, these guys synthesized that into a full album.
8. LIANNE LA HAVAS – Lianne La Havas [Nonesuch]
The most refreshing beverage on the hottest day of the year grants brief ice powers, cooling down your entire block and popping pockets of air into edible ice crystals.
I honestly don’t have too much to say about this album except that it’s damn near perfect. Just super solid. It’s an album that I hope gets entered into the canon of top soulful pop records. La Havas’ strong vocals and guitar chops shine on every track and the overall atmosphere is split between super mellow and shining bright. There’s also a cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” (the superior cover of the two released this year, imo!) that absolutely rips. I doubt you could tell it’s a Radiohead song. La Havas has a fantastic voice and expert dynamic control. If you love soulful pop stuff like (ok I’m gonna name big names here) Alicia Keys or Corinne Bailey Rae and are nostalgic for the moments when those artists were always on the radio with hits, this is perfect. OR, if you just wanna listen to something good, this is also perfect.
7. LAND OF TALK – Indistinct Conversations [Saddle Creek]
A woodsy bike ride at dusk transports the rider into a rare twilight realm plane of existence, and they must connect with their memories to escape before sunrise.
Brilliant rock music with masterful control of dynamics, songwriting and overall tone. The first thing I think of when it comes to Indistinct Conversations is the guitar tone. I don’t know anything about guitars, but the way the guitars sound on this record is immaculate to me. They channel smoldering ashes at the bottom of a campfire, with the according ambiance that floats around them acting as the smoke. The production and the way Land of Talk budgets how much space every sound takes on this record is unparalleled on this list, with everything falling into place perfectly. Deep percussion booms in the background, Elizabeth Powell’s voice switching between a whispery burn to a commanding presence, and all the little flourishes that fill in the empty spaces is just wonderful. And like I mentioned before: the guitars. This is a rockin record with its own moments of tenderness. It’s a deeply satisfying and fulfilling record that I thought was highly overlooked this year, especially after Big Thief enraptured so deeply us last year with something similar. I will fight to the death for this thing.
6. CHARLI XCX – how i’m feeling now [Atlantic]
Vision blurring after endlessly scrolling through your phone until 5am every night.
how i’m feeling now was created entirely during quarantine, which at the time of its release had only been about 2 months. Thinking about quarantine, COVID, lockdown now it’s like, wow that was child’s play. We’re still technically in quarantine. I’m just numb, downtrodden, blinder-vision now. But I digress. how I’m feeling now is pop music that attempts to wrestle free of its government-ordered shackles along with the personal demons that Charli is forced to confront while in lockdown. At times feeling finds the party within itself and with interpersonal relationships, illuminated on some ace love songs. The album is best when it goes the hardest, with “pink diamond”, “anthems”, “visions” and “claws” naturally increasing my heart rate and providing a cathartic blast of energy to fight off the apathy of this imposed sedentary lifestyle. The slower songs also shine, however, with great vocal hooks and the same wonderful production we’ve known from Charli’s past releases. It’s strange though – as I’m writing this it feels like this album came out eons ago, before the world was set on a permanent spin cycle. It almost feels like a period piece from the early adjustment to isolation. This is not the worst thing to remind you of that time. I’m glad it’s Charli.
5. YVES TUMOR – Heaven To A Tortured Mind [Warp]
Alien glam rock entity from the same universe as Interstella 5555 reckons with their former self as their memories are returned to them.
One of my most-listened to records of the year, for good reason. Yves Tumor knows how to write incredibly addicting and engaging tunes. Touches of his experimental past work are here, but for the most part it’s just distorted kaleidoscopes of glam rock with plenty of chaos. There are some true earworms on here, “Kerosene!”, “Super Stars”, “A Greater Love”, “Gospel For A New Century” – it’s lit. Some songs act more as interludes to stitch disparate moods together, others are just chaos. It’s a high-budget rock fever dream that invades your brain and lives in your head for 36 minutes. I can’t wait to see where he goes next. I gotta believe these live shows would have been incredible – hopefully he’s still willing to perform some of these in the future.
4. TOPS – I Feel Alive [Musique TOPS]
Rollerblading through a hometown mall with your friends and encountering glamorous drama between rival schools in your town.
ALL KILLER. NO FILLER. TOPS have been one of my favorite bands for around six years now and it delights me that I’m still getting a thrill out of their new material. So many artists just fade for me after albums that fail to build on their previous works, but TOPS continue to get stronger with each release. There are no curveballs here, TOPS are just getting better at what they do. I Feel Alive is a romantic pop fantasy, like it could soundtrack the imaginary prom of your dreams: sweaty-palm teen romance, stomach butterfly-vanquishing dance montages, friend drama (how could you go to the rival college of mine?? I thought we were going to be together forever!), lovely reunions and all the cliches you know and love. TOPS provided a safe space for us to dream of past party memories (although this definitely dolls them up a bit), and likewise think of a brighter future. Every song is great (although “Colder and Closer” is the overall winner for me). I cannot wait to see them live again (for the sixth time!).
3. SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is) + UNTITLED (Rise) [Forever Living Originals]
An unending, unyielding, unbreakable, unstoppable, inspirational, beautiful, foundational force that pushes gloriously forward against madness and injustice.
Standing a bit taller after passing some young kids talking about how bright the future will be.
SAULT are a semi-shadowy collective from the UK making inflammatory soul and R&B with a smooth kick, easy to listen to alongside their potent messages. In 2019 they dropped two criminally slept-on records that I was happy to catch before the year was over. Like in 2019, SAULT dropped two albums in 2020 and I’m counting them both here. Unlike in 2019, these two new albums are starting to bring the level of attention that the collective deserve, albeit for being released at the perfect time and adding motivational musical fuel to fight in battles we wish we didn’t have to engage in. “The Revolution Has Come”.
The first, (Black Is), dropped in mid-June and seemed uncannily timed for 2020, but this unrest, injustice and widespread cruelty has been rampant and a major theme in this country and the world for centuries. It felt especially relevant for this summer, but it could have come out summer 2014, in November of 2016… pick any day in the last half decade as the greater public of the US started realizing what was happening to our friends and it would have felt just as relevant. It’s not even political! It’s just human rights! Stop killing black people! SAULT brought ferocious funk, intense realism and deft poeticism, offering sobering realism as well as gorgeous escapism through music and community as healing.
The second album, (Rise), came a few months later (also by surprise) and is just as funky and soulful as the first. More into taking action, fighting back, dancing through, standing tall and unity. Don’t give up alone. Since then, I haven’t seen any interviews, no big press runs. I don’t pay attention to playlists, but I don’t think there’s been an intentional playlist push either. This music isn’t about raising their profile, but it’d be nice if they got a bit more recognition (hello P*tchfork?) because the players on here are skilled, the musical and compositional ideas are fresh and creative, and like I’ve said before, their messages are important. The 2020 UNTITLED duo are beautiful, touching, powerful records that every person living in 2020 should listen to.
2. JESSIE WARE – What’s Your Pleasure? [Interscope]
A roller rink disco fantasy of your dreams, sweat cooled by a swiveling fan each circuit.
In 2020, I just wanna feel good. In a “normal” year, I’d have enough good stuff going on where I’d give myself plenty of excuses to feel bad about, in retrospect, nothing. 2020 is just handing out BOGO coupons to the dread store. I need something to feel good. Jessie Ware then released What’s Your Pleasure? and I said “thank you Jessie”. Time and time again I returned to this record for a disco-scented spark and it delivered. Immaculately produced, performed and arranged retro pop bringing all the drama and dance I’ve been missing back to my daily life. There aren’t any high-bpm barn burners like similar-sounding 2020 releases from Róisín Murphy and Dua Lipa, but that doesn’t matter. The tender moments are soaring (“Adore You” is just so good, y’all! “The Kill”? Are you kidding me?) and the uptempo jams hit that sweet spot.
I saw a comment on one of her YouTube videos about how all the engineers in the studio must have been high-fiving after listening to the album and I gotta agree. It sounds immaculate, from the pockets of strings swirled in, the punchy bass, the background singers, the synth backing, and Jessie’s vocals are forward and get the job done. I definitely played this record in the apartment and lip-synced to most of it to my partner, much to her chagrin. Folding clothes? Doing dishes? Going on a masked bagel run? All made enjoyable while grooving to this. Please don’t let her eventual NYC show sell out in 10 seconds because of bots. PLEASE.
1. CINDY LEE – What’s Tonight To Eternity? [W. 26th St / Superior Viaduct]
Mimicking the pirouettes and plies from an old black and white VHS recording of ballet in a decrepit, empty apartment building.
Cindy Lee, the drag queen persona project of Patrick Flegel, pulls heavy inspiration from girl groups and the melodies and motifs from lavish 50s and 60s pop, with warbly guitars and lush orchestras. The kick is that Flegel obscures or distorts these tropes under oppressive sheets of noise or uncanny distorted effects. The usual result is pop music that feels misremembered or caustic at the very notion of it popping into your head, achieving a Caretaker-like effect. The brutal foil of angelic pop tropes and the chaotic noise, swirling together with undercurrents of paranoia and euphoria, is explored throughout most of Cindy Lee’s discography, but none better than this.
“Plastic Raincoat” is a rather inconspicuous opener with an uncertain bass line setting the ominous scene for Flegel’s vocals to shine through. The spotlight is on. A wayward sax calls out into the night and hollow-body guitars shimmer behind the scenes. “I Want You To Suffer” is our first introduction to the violence of the universe, from comically tinny and pitched up keyboards, to a chasing uptempo drum beat, to an extended section of harsh, blown out noise that engulfs the track like a panic attack. The song returns to the present clearly changed. “The Limit”, potentially the most blissful song on here, features the best string section and sounds like it’s layered in disintegrating film, with constant static evaporating off the tinsel-lined rotating platform Flegel is singing upon. The title track features an unnerving synth pattern, knotted and labyrinthine, establishing even more dark ambiance than before. “One Second To Toe The Line” might be the most straightforward rock song, with a janky Ethiopian funk-like groove. “Lucifer Stand” calls back to the title track’s synth pattern, and sets the stage for a nightmarish chase sequence through grimy back alleys and dingy apartment complexes. The recording of a person recalling their conversation with the devil is chilling as well, capitalizing on the paranoia and religious fervor of the satanic panic of the 80s and 90s.
What I think is the centerpiece of the album, “Speaking From Above”, is the noisiest track since “I Want You To Suffer”, with ear-splitting distortion kicking the track off, but slowly developing into one of the more beautiful, touching tracks. “Just For Loving You I Pay The Price” sees the music kind of reach an acceptance place, with melancholy synthetic strings and angelic vocals juxtaposed with sludgy guitars. The final track, “Heavy Metal” is like waking up in the morning with the sun shining through after a night of panic and pain. Life will continue, as vibraphones reverberate into the sunrise.
What’s Tonight To Eternity held my top spot of 2020 for the entire year. Part of me felt bad about that, not finding any joy as immense as the joy I find here with any other album across a 12-month span. But alas, no other album transports me to such a unique and vivid world like this one does. What’s Tonight To Eternity is like nothing else. It’s a cinematic, dark journey through grief, self-flagellation, demons, sexuality, identity, hope and more. The album is damaged and beautiful, shimmering like a gold tinsel-lined dress under a milky spotlight. The dual destruction and worship of such storied American musical tropes is such a fascinating approach to noise pop, and has yielded the most inspiring album of 2020 for me. It was my most-listened to 2020 release, consistently providing another realm to wander through for when this life became too heavy.
- CINDY LEE – What’s Tonight To Eternity?
- JESSIE WARE – What’s Your Pleasure?
- SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is) + UNTITLED (Rise)
- TOPS – I Feel Alive
- YVES TUMOR – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
- CHARLI XCX – how i’m feeling now
- LAND OF TALK – Indistinct Conversations
- LIANNE LA HAVAS – Lianne La Havas
- SHABASON, KRGOVICH & HARRIS – Philadelphia
- SEA OLEENA – Weaving A Basket
- NUBYA GARCIA – Source
- EARTHEATER – Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin
- ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF – All Thoughts Fly
- THE MICROPHONES – Microphones In 2020
- WESTERMAN – Your Hero Is Not Dead
- WAXAHATCHEE – Saint Cloud
- TOOTARD – Migrant Birds
- JESSY LANZA – All The Time
- MARY LATTIMORE – Silver Ladders
- ANA ROXANNE – Because Of A Flower
- FRANCES QUINLAN – Likewise
- ELYSIA CRAMPTON – ORCORARA 2010
- KATE NV – Room For The Moon
- KEIYAA – Forever, Ya Girl
- JOHN CARROLL KIRBY – My Garden
- KA – Descendants Of Cain
- THANYA IYER – KIND
- LAURA MARLING – Song For Our Daughter
- NICK HAKIM – WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD
- MARIE DAVIDSON & L’ŒIL NU – Renegade Breakdown
- ADRIANNE LENKER – songs
- BETTER PERSON – Something To Lose
- FACS – Void Moments
- DERADOORIAN – Find The Sun
- MAMALARKY – Mamalarky
- LIV.E – Couldn’t Wait To Tell You…
- GUM COUNTRY – Somewhere
- JOEL ROSS – Who Are You?
- THE AVALANCHES – We Will Always Love You
- TENCI – My Heart Is An Open Field
- CHLOE X HALLE – Ungodly Hour
- SPACE AFRIKA – hybtwibt?
- BADGE ÉPOQUE ENSEMBLE – Self Help
- NANA ADJOA – Big Dreaming Ants
- WINTER – Endless Space (Between You & I)
- FIONA APPLE – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
- FONTAINES D.C. – A Hero’s Death
- NORTH AMERICANS – Roped In
- GEORGIA – Seeking Thrills
- ANDRAS – Joyful