Hoo boy… What can I say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said by countless others? It was the year that gave us a global pandemic, protests, and a heavily contested election that, even now, continues to tug at the very foundations of our political system. It was full of conspiracy theories, science skepticism and denialism run amok, incompetent and cowardly politicians, renewed debate over policing and racial injustice, and a growing sense of division.
I daresay that for many of us, we’ve never felt so alone and separated — and not just because of social distancing. It’s hard not to feel that, in some way, our frayed society is slowly coming undone, apart at the seams. There seems to be little that unites us any more, no grand cause that we can all support, no over-arching meta-narrative that provides a sense of unity and identity. (In my more cynical moments, I think that maybe there never really was, and the scales are just now beginning to fall from our eyes.)
In such a time, art can seem pointless, useless, irrelevant. But I would argue that now, more than ever, is when we need beauty and truth in our lives. That’s not to say that music should be mere escapism, although I’d argue that sometimes it can be healthy to find some escape every now and then, if only to get recharged and reoriented. But in a year packed with so much ugliness, hatred, division, selfishness, and injustice, a little beauty can go a long way in reminding us of deeper truths. That, and sometimes we just need a catchy melody, slick riff, or solid beat to help us get through the day.
As always, these songs were those that stuck with me throughout 2020, that provided me with moments of beauty, serenity, hope — and yes, maybe even a little fun. I’ve also put together a Spotify playlist that contains most of these songs.
Back in the ’80s, a number of Christian metal groups led by Stryper challenged the notion that you couldn’t worship the Lord with blazing riffs and soaring guitar solos. With 316’s “Commando for Christ,” Daniel Smith (of Danielson fame) pokes fun at those bands as only someone who genuinely loves the music can. From the hot riffs to the monologue about a “Yahweh M-80 rocket launcher” to the exhortation to “go commando for Christ,” this song brings back so many evangelical youth group memories that I simply can’t not love it.
The duo of Sean Booth and Robert Brown, better known as Autechre, have earned a reputation over the last 30+ years for producing abstract and challenging electronic music (just don’t call it “intelligent dance music”). Their latest album, SIGN, is just as dense and cerebral as the rest of their catalog, but it also contains some surprising moments of subtle beauty, like the melancholy and wistful “Metaz form8.”
Sweden’s Carbon Based Lifeforms is the long-running ambient/techno duo of Johannes Hedberg and Daniel Segerstad. 2020’s ALT:02 is a collection of remixes and alternate versions culled from the duo’s considerable discography. “Supersede (First Version)” is spaced out ambient techno of the finest kind, a near-beatless cascade of synths that transports you to the outer limits of, well, somewhere way more transcendent than 2020.
Who knew that it would be the funklordz in Chromeo who’d tell us what we all needed to hear during the coronavirus pandemic: “So you ain’t never, ever gotta feel less than/If you’re spending all day in your sweatpants.” The song’s lyrics are by turns heartfelt and cheeky, as they give props to essential workers and poke fun at covidfluencers, and it’s all backed by an undeniably infectious (npi) G-funk groove.
Ukrainian dreampop act Endless Melancholy has more than lived up to that evocative moniker with a discography of 30 releases since 2012. With a discography that extensive, it’s hard to know where to start, but A Perception of Everything is as good a place as any. “As the World Quietly Ends” is the album’s final song, a gorgeous bit of shimmering, pastoral ambience that’s a balm during troubled times.
Epic45’s We Were Never Here is a soundtrack to accompany of a book of the duo’s own original photography, a pairing that makes perfect sense because their nostalgia-soaked music is perfect material for rummaging around in old memories. But “Among Ruins” filters the duo’s “nostalgist” pop through more abstract electronics. The resulting music is still as lovely as anything that epic45 have put to tape, but it also possesses a more surreal, otherworldly aspect that makes it all the more affecting.
Released after a thirteen-year absence, 2018’s Not Thrilled was a stunning return to form for Fine China. And they’ve continued that momentum with “Trees at Night.” The band’s ’80s-influenced songwriting is still present, but so are the influences of New Age staples like Mannheim Steamroller and Windham Hill Records. The resulting tune is definitely beguiling (and hopefully a sign of more to come).
Brooklyn’s Forever Honey describes their music as “jangle-pop, sob-rock” — and their first single, “Christian,” definitely lives up to the first part of that description. Aida Mekonnen’s jangly guitar evokes classic alternative bands like The Smiths, and her tones pair perfectly with Liv Price’s sighing vocals. (As an added bonus, check out the song’s ’80s-tastic video.)
When Harold Budd died this past December, the world lost one of its great minimalist ambient composers. Budd’s style of piano playing, which he called “soft pedal,” resulted in music that possessed an incredible sense of space and vastness but at the same, warmth and intimacy. It only makes sense, then, that Budd would find a kindred spirit of sorts in Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie, a man who also knows a thing or two about creating evocative sounds. Another Flower was their final collaboration released before Budd’s death, and “Pleasant, If Not a Little Deadly” is a perfect example of how well each man’s individual approaches to creating dreamy, atmospheric sounds dovetailed.
I’ve been saying this for years, but Quebec’s Handful of Snowdrops is one of those acts that just seems like they ought to be so much bigger than they actually are, especially considering how long they’ve been at it. Case in point: “The Four Winds” is about as perfect a synth-pop/darkwave single as you could ever ask for, thanks to its aggressive (yet danceable) rhythms, chilly synths, and razor-sharp guitars. And Jean-Pierre Mercier’s urgent vocals and anguished lyrics are the icing on the cake.
Harpist Nailah Hunter envisioned each song on her Spells EP as the component of an actual magical spell which, when combined, would transport the listener to a more restful, peaceful place. Even if you don’t buy into rune magick and all that, there’s no denying that “White Flower, Dark Hill” is a gorgeous, peace-inducing song. Delicate waves of sound emanate from Hunter’s harp, as her lilting voice dances and weaves about in the background. The song’s brevity makes the song seem even more fragile and dream-like.
Iress’ Flaw is a juggernaut of an album, blending doom-y guitars and crashing drums with Michelle Malley’s gloomy siren’s call of a voice. “Shamed” is the album’s first song and it immediately sets the stage, its lumbering rhythms and turbulent guitars evoking a shadowy version of Lush or Slow Buildings-era Pale Saints. Meanwhile, Malley’s voice sighs and drifts over the instrumental turmoil, haunted and world-weary as can be — and all the more glorious for it.
The pairing of the Thai funk-influenced trio Khruangbin and Grammy-winning soul singer Leon Bridges is a match made in heaven. The trio’s music evokes windswept Texas ghost towns and sun-baked highways while Bridge’s silky smooth voice brings in an element of longing and wanderlust. Queue this one up the next time you take a road trip, but be careful — you might just want to keep on driving even after you reach your destination.
When I compile these year-end lists, I usually just try to limit it to one song per artist. However, Khruangbin had a banner year in 2020. They released the excellent Texas Sun EP with Leon Bridges, an excellent LP titled Mordechai, and an entry into the long-running LateNightTales series of albums. On the latter, they included their cover of Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” which has long been featured in the hip-hop/soul cover medleys that the band performs in concert. The recorded version is 100% pure chill; Mark Speer, Laura Lee, and Donald “DJ” Johnson lay down a groove so smooth and effortless, it can (and should) go all night long.
Though they take their name from the heroines of the classic cyberpunk anime series Bubblegum Crisis, Knight Sabers’ music handily sidesteps the clichés of synthwave and future funk thanks to the swirling dreaminess of Nina Pulimood’s vocals. Put another way, “Ephemeral Love” is the best song that Grimes wishes she would’ve written.
Akira Kosemura’s cover of Illumine’s “Alas Orpheus” is a delicate and meditative piano composition that evokes modern classical artists like Nils Frahm and Max Richter. As I wrote back in April, “Kosemura’s delicate piano notes and bell-like synths come together to create a calm, meditative space that’s slightly shaded with melancholy — as befitting the current global situation.”
For his latest album, Endless Destiny, Makeup and Vanity Set’s Matthew Pusti looked to the secretive, faceless algorithms that control our lives and determine so much of our reality via social media. It’s a gloomy premise, to be sure, as well as a relevant one — but that doesn’t mean that the resulting music can’t slap. Case in point, “Algorithm,” the first single from Endless Destiny. It’s one of the catchiest songs that Pusti’s released in awhile, and it features his characteristically ominous synth textures tapping into a Daft Punk-y vibe to great effect.
Oliviaway is an enigmatic and extremely prolific ambient producer who hails from London. And just how prolific, you might ask? She’s released over 200 titles since 2017. Her compositions consist almost entirely of deep pools of shimmering sound, lush synth chords, and a lightly melancholy air. From my review of Origin Glow (which was one of seven releases she put out in August alone): “This is ambient music that’s serene and composed, but still moves at an inexorable and emotional pace.” Highly recommended for fans of Projekt’s most atmospheric darkwave, like soulwhirlingsomewhere.
More than two decades have elapsed between Plone’s debut album, 1999’s For Beginner Piano, and this year’s Puzzlewood. But as Puzzlewood’s title track shows, the group’s brand of nostalgia-infused analog synth music is no less dazzling given the passage of time. Twinkling synth notes, arpeggiating bleeps and bloops, and a whirling array of other vintage sounds all come together to create a tiny magical world full of whimsy and charm.
Duncan Sumpner takes years between Songs of Green Pheasant albums, which just makes his ephemeral, psych-influenced folk music all the more interesting when new songs do eventually surface. “The Wormwood Star Falls” is one of the highlights from his latest album, When the Weather Clears (his first album for Rusted Rail in 8 years), blending fuzzed out guitars and accordions with spectral drones, a loping bassline, shards of guitar noise, and clattering percussion. In the hands of a lesser artist, the song would be cacophonous, but in Sumpner’s hands, the tumult is haunting.
Vancouver’s own Spectres have been at the post-punk game for a long time, and it shows. Even after some major lineup changes, “The Call” is absolutely perfect, from its bouncy bassline and infectious rhythms, to the spidery guitar lines and Brian Gustavson’s yearning voice. But all of the polish doesn’t dull the song’s edge one bit, as Gustavson sings about failing empires and “the politics of hopelessness” that “are in vogue again.”
Inspired by the soundtrack for a sculpture exhibit about alien civilizations as well as the New Mexico landscape, “Empty Vessels” is a languid and dreamy song that would be the perfect score for long, meandering drives down forgotten stretches of desert highway. Tan Cologne’s combination of ghostly vocals and psyched out guitars make for a trippy listen that fans of Damien Jurado, Starflyer 59, and Mazzy Star definitely ought to check out.
There are certain sounds and tones that just get me, and one of them is the spectral, echo-laden guitar tone that’s often found on post-punk albums. That tone figures prominently on Topographies’ “An Eye, Open” alongside cavernous drums, icy synths, a serpentine bassline, and vocals that seem channelled in from the after-life — which handily explains why I love this song. The San Francisco trio have released some of my favorite post-punk in recent memory, and “An Eye, Open” is a perfect example of why.
Following their acclaimed 2019 album, It Won/t Be Like This All the Time, The Twilight Sad had been discussing releasing a live album — and then the pandemic came along and releasing it seemed even more imperative. As we’ve come to expect from The Twilight Sad, the live versions of songs like “Vtr” make for some bracing stuff thanks to the dual threat of Andy MacFarlane’s guitar onslaught and James Graham’s rich, heavily accented vocals. Of all of the songs on this list, “Vtr” definitely demands to be turned up loud… really loud.
On their latest album Abyss, the Canadian power metal outfit Unleash the Archers deliver a barrage of blast beats, virtuosic riffage, operatic vocals (courtesy of Brittney Slayes), and bitchin lyrics replete with epic sci-fi/fantasy imagery. This is anthemic, fist-pumping music for jumping into your starship, priming the hyperdrive, screaming out a battlecry, and charging headlong into the alien hordes threatening your home planet.
Compared to last year’s excellent Heavy Age, Unwed Sailor’s Look Alive is more raucous and intense, with shoegaze and ’80s hooks mixed in with Ford’s trademark melodic basslines. The album’s title track is a clear highlight, from Matthew Putman’s massive drums to the moody synths that evoke classic Cure albums like Seventeen Seconds and Pornography. Terms like “math rock” and “post-rock” have been attached to Unwed Sailor ever since 1998’s Firecracker EP, but “Look Alive” is proof that such terms only begin to scratch the surface of the band’s music.