It should be easy for me to do this, to just wade back through my Albums of the Month posts for 2020 and pick my favourites, but there are many records which I only discover in the act of putting together an end of year list. This year in particular, with the lack of touring and the demise of many music publications, it has been much easier to miss things. I found the rise of Bandcamp to be particularly heartening, although it created the unusual side effect of making me buy more live albums than I ever did before, and I’m sure that was also a result of me missing live gigs so much.
So here is a list of my ten favourites – and the reasons why – including a couple of releases which I have not featured on here before. As always these are ordered alphabetically by title.
By The Fire – Thurston Moore (Daydream Library Series) September 25th
The Thurston Moore Group have made some of the most interesting rock music of the last half-decade and By The Fire is their zenith, perfectly combining the classic indie-rock of prime period Sonic Youth with the more experimental leanings which have informed TM’s solo work since. In terms of overall look and feel, By The Fire has much in common with last year’s instrumental epic Spirit Counsel. This is a remarkably varied and fascinating rock record as it moves between intricate guitar music (the 12 minute ‘Siren’), powerful indie rock (‘Breath’, ‘Hashish’), and delicate introspection (‘Calligraphy’) before joining it all together whilst still pushing the boundaries (‘Locomotives’, ‘They Believe in Love’).
England is a Garden – Cornershop (Ample Play) March 6th
Released just as the pandemic was starting to hit, this double album became the soundtrack to those sunny Spring months when the first UK lockdown took hold. If you’re going to make a comeback, do it like this. Cornershop’s first album for quite a few years managed to build on the very best elements of their back catalogue and refine them into an utterly glorious whole. This is the record they’ve always threatened to make, and whilst it didn’t deviate too much from the sound of their mid to late 90s records, it came across as a much needed burst of joy and celebration.
Inner Song – Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound) August 28th
A record which I have turned to many times since its late summer release. It is strange that an album which begins with a cover version (Radiohead’s ‘Arpeggi’) should succeed as such a powerful original document but Inner Songs builds into something special – skirting around the edges of techno and indie-electronica, with the astonishingly strong ‘Jeanette’ and the dreamy, other-worldly collaboration with John Cale, ‘Colour of My Sky’.
Microphones in 2020 – The Microphones (Bandcamp download) 7th August
This is a remarkable thing. Following two intense but often beautiful records (as Mt Eerie) dealing with his grief after the passing of his wife, Phil Elverum has returned to his original band name for this new release which is one long 40+ minute song. Once again it’s a very personal record, reminiscing mostly around his formative years in the music world, telling a story of how his life evolved.
Peoples Motel Band – Chris Forsyth & Garcia Peoples (Bandcamp download) 20th March
This emerged on the first “Bandcamp Friday” around the time we realised that the live music industry would be in a precarious state for a long time to come. It started a ball rolling which meant I bought so many live albums I could do a separate list for those alone! This is one of the best live recordings I have heard in recent years. Recorded September 14, 2019 before a packed and enthusiastic hometown crowd at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, it concentrates on the songs from Chris Forsyth’s excellent 2019 album All Time Present plus the tour-de-force Dreaming in The Non-Dream and gives them a fresh lease of life, it fizzes with a remarkable energy and virtuoso playing, like prime Television but more wigged-out.
Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers (Dead Oceans) 19th June
It is clear from her releases so far that Phoebe Bridgers possesses an immense talent and Punisher only serves to consolidate this. This time around she has expanded her sound from the delicate indie-folk of her debut into something more expansive. She has a lyrical skill in using a banal fact or incident to capture an emotion which some find hard to describe – “The doctor put her hands over my liver/ she told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” is one of my favourite lyrics of the year. I’m not sure how she managed, but this record is both sad AND apocalyptic yet it does not leave you feeling bleak, and I guess that’s a skill in itself.
Rough And Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan (Columbia) 19th June
Surely one of the biggest surprises in this whole ridiculous year was not just the release of a Bob Dylan album, but the release of a Bob Dylan album which held its own with his major works. That’s what Rough and Rowdy Ways was. As well as the hard hitting yet restrained musical arrangements, there was a lot going on here lyrically (and a myriad of cultural references and current social comment) and no doubt Dylanologists have much to pore over. The teaser track ‘Murder Most Foul’ was remarkable enough, but the rest of this record can hold its own with that.
Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee (Merge) 27th March
Katie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee has been making brilliant albums for a while now and Saint Cloud is no exception. It is a more organic record than its predecessor, the fine indie rock album Out in the Storm. This record is deeply rooted in the country and folk of the American South but it still sounds like Waxahatchee. She crafts a song as well as anyone, it’s hard to think of which of her contemporaries can match her.
Songs for Pierre Chuvin/ Getting Into Knives – the Mountain Goats (Merge) 17th April/ 23rd October
Band of the year, really, and not just because their 2005 tune ‘This Year’ has become an anthem for our times. In March they finished what would be their most elaborate record for years, Getting Into Knives, and were planning a tour when the pandemic struck. As a means to make some money back for his band and crew John Darnielle unearthed his ancient Panasonic tape recorder to record a brand new set of songs which were released on cassette for fastest turnaround. It ended up charting! Six months later the main album emerged, an elaborately produced collection of songs up there with the best of their recent work, and the two night live stream to promote it – now released on Bandcamp as the Jordan Lake Sessions – was the best gig I streamed all year.
We Will Always Love You – Avalanches (Modular) 11th December
The last great record of 2020 may well be my favourite, and it suits this year perfectly. This pandemic has led to the loss of many people and many things and this album, recorded mostly before 2020, has sadness and loss as its central theme. It begins with a voicemail, a goodbye note, from a woman who has presumably passed away and the entire ‘Pink Champagne’ section (actually the album’s working title) quotes heavily from the lyrics of the late David Berman, specifically from his Purple Mountains swansong. Having said that, this still sounds like The Avalanches – though this time there are more guest appearances than ever – over 20 I think – there is an incredibly skilled balance between dark and light elements in their sound. Sad elements can still come with a catchy tune.
Others worth a mention and your attention…..
Antarctica – Flat Worms, Blue Hearts – Bob Mould, Concret – Bailter Space, Coriky – Coriky, Gold Record – Bill Callahan, Healing is a Miracle – Julianna Barwick, Heart’s Ease – Shirley Collins, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never – Oneohtrix Point Never, Names of North End Women – Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree, Off Off On – This is the Kit, Out Of My Province – Nadia Reid, Suite for Max Brown – Jeff Parker, Untitled (Black is) – SAULT, The Universe Inside – The Dream Syndicate