Best Music of 2020

UPDATE: I’ve posted a DJ set where I played 39 songs from my best of 2020, some of which are not mentioned in the post below. Check it out!

Well, what a year. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad to see the back of 2020. During the long months of the pandemic, feeling isolated both physically and socially from friends and family, I turned to music even more than usual. Strangely, there were long periods when I didn’t (couldn’t?) listen to music, maybe because I missed hearing and seeing it live so much, but sure enough, as December came around, I found myself seeking out more stuff that was released this year and, perhaps surprisingly, there was a lot! Although I’m sure some musicians found themselves drained of inspiration, others took up the mantle and worked prodigiously. Welland, Ontario’s own Daniel Romano, with whom I’d been unfamiliar until this year, released TEN things this year, from a cover album of Bob Dylan’s Infidels to a live album to several new albums of material with his usual band, to collaborations with others. I’ve only listened to about half of this material, and so far it’s all excellent. Despite that, he doesn’t even make an appearance on my Top Ten. What can I say? It was a very strong year. (But you should immediately go and buy “Visions of the Higher Dream”, for a start.)

I hope my post will point you in some new directions, and bring you some of the joy that music brings to me. Hopefully next year we can return to seeing music in a live setting.

I was surprised that my top pick pushed its way to the top so late in the year. I only discovered Boston duo Sweeping Promises in December, and yet their debut record played on repeat in my earbuds from the first time I listened to it. 10 songs in just 28 minutes tells you that these are punchy postpunk earworms, with catchy riffs that remind me of everyone from Devo to UK singles bands like The Flatmates and The Shop Assistants.

I have to be honest. For much of the year, New Zealand’s delightful The Beths were occupying top spot. Their second album, Jump Rope Gazers, came out in July, and I discovered it and them at the same time, also getting to enjoy 2018’s Future Me Hates Me at the same time. In a year where Toronto’s Alvvays didn’t put out a record, The Beths filled that place easily. (P.S. I hope I’ve got something from Alvvays to talk about in 2021!).

I was surprised to see a new record from The Strokes and even more surprised how much I loved it. It came out way back in April and its title The New Abnormal seemed eerily prescient. It’s perfect for these strange times, and the record was very strong, considering it’s the first new material from the band in seven years.

I’d been hearing about Jason Isbell for a few years, and I knew that he played on the excellent record by The Highwomen last year; no surprise, since he’s married to Amanda Shires, one of the group’s members. Reunions is his fourth record with his band the 400 Unit. Prior to that he was a member of Drive-By Truckers. Isbell is an excellent songwriter who also possesses a really pleasant voice. I don’t mean that in a “faint praise” way. He really is lovely to listen to, and this record has some very strong and memorable songs, which touch on issues of political and personal responsibility. The video for his song “Only Children” is quite beautiful, too.

Liiek are a postpunk band from Berlin whom I first stumbled across on a free Bandcamp sampler. I’m glad I tracked them down, because every song on their self-titled debut release is great. So is their 7″ single. I believe they’re available for whatever you want to pay. I look forward to hearing more from them.

I had anticipated a new record from Phoebe Bridgers for quite a while, and Punisher did not disappoint. When I first saw her live, opening for Julien Baker in 2017, I knew that she was bound to break out sooner or later, and this year, she’s been everywhere, even as we’ve all been mostly at home. She claims to be an introvert, and this year, introverts have maybe been able to cope better than most. Bridgers’ music has certainly helped.

I’m not sure how I found Crack Cloud, but I’m sure glad I did. A Vancouver-based collective that apparently formed to help its members maintain their sobriety, the project has an infectious energy that reminds me of large-band version of Talking Heads. I’m looking forward to digging into their earlier material.

Back in late 2016, I was living in Dublin for a film festival contract job, and one of my first outings was to see one of my favourite bands, Teenage Fanclub. Opening the show was a singer-songwriter from Belfast called Malojian (real name Stevie Scullion). Fast forward a few years and he’s put out an amazing record called HUMM, collaborating closely (over the Internet, of course) with Jason Lytle (formerly of Grandaddy). The result is a perfect tonic for this miserable year, including the stunning album closer “The Singularity” which asks the listener “Is there anyone here who can heal the trembling of my heart?”

Sault came out of nowhere this year (well, okay, they came out of the UK) with not one but two strong albums of empowering r&b/hiphop/funk promoting black pride. They’re a semi-anonymous outfit who first emerged in 2019 with two albums entitled 5 and 7. This year’s are Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is). Both are worthwhile, though I’ve spent more time with Black Is. Music this timely is refreshing, especially when it spans so many styles so effortlessly. Despite heavy themes, it will lift you up.

Close Lobsters last released a record in 1988, so it was a complete surprise for me to encounter new material from them in 2020. Released at the end of February, the horribly-titled Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera In the Forest Of Symbols actually picks up right where the band left off, making intelligent and hook-filled music (start with “All Compasses Go Wild”) that should by all rights gain them some new fans. But that title. And don’t even get me started on the terrible album artwork.

I have to end this post by telling you how much I’ve grown to love Bandcamp. Not only do they give more back to the artist than nearly any other platform, I also love the simplicity of the design, and the fact that artists have control over pricing, as well as what songs are available to preview. I’ve found many of my favourites just from bouncing around on Bandcamp. They also have been doing monthly Bandcamp Fridays where they give up their own cut of the fees and the artists are free to keep that portion themselves or to donate to worthy causes. It’s an excellent initiative, and I feel good spending my money there.

Even more than usual, music helped me through this year’s highs and lows, reinforcing my belief that music is as essential to my life as food, oxygen, and love.

Sweeping Promises - Hunger for a Way OutThe Beths - Jump Rope GazersThe Strokes - The New AbnormalJason Isbell and the 400 Unit - ReunionsLiiek - LiiekPhoebe Bridgers - PunisherCrack Cloud - Pain OlympicsMalojian - HUMMSault - Untitled (Black Is)Close Lobsters - Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols

In list form, if you’re not visually inclined:

  1. Sweeping Promises – Hunger for a Way Out
  2. The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
  3. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
  4. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
  5. Liiek – Liiek
  6. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
  7. Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics
  8. Malojian – HUMM
  9. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
  10. Close Lobsters – Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

Some great EPs:

And a fantastic “re-issue” in that the music was made before 2020, although this compilation is brand new:

Just for fun, here are some of my previous lists:

How about you? What were some of your favourites?