More than ever, I've needed the support of music to get me through 2020. While I've been in the privileged position of not being in a key role (and therefore, able to work safely from at home), I've worked harder than ever before. I only took a week off throughout the year, and I was really feeling frazzled and zombie-fied by the time Christmas came.
Thanks then, to all the artists who have kept me going in 2020. With touring cancelled, they need our support more than ever - buy their music and merchandise and tell others how good they are.
Albums of the year
1. Warnings - I Break Horses
Buy Warnings on Bandcamp
Six years after their last album Chiaroscuro, I Break Horses (Maria Lindén) finally returns with Warnings. Apparently there had been various obstacles, such as losing a hard drive with tracks, so I'm relieved she didn't give up entirely. It's the opposite of what Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify was arrogantly telling artists to do in 2020. I'd rather artists release when they're good and ready. (Aside: I do use and enjoy Spotify, but only alongside maintaining my own purchased music collection - that's for another post).
I often think of their sound as "If shoegaze used synths instead of guitars" - lush, dramatic and often dark. Warnings sounds even more cinematic than previous output - it truly was the album that provided escapism in 2020 and it rightfully takes the top spot.
Standout tracks: Well, of them. It really is a standout album, but if I had to choose: Death Engine, Baby You Have Travelled For Miles Without Love in Your Eyes, and I'll Be The Death Of You.
2. Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers
Buy Punisher on Bandcamp
After a few years of collaborations with others (Boy Genius and Better Oblivion Community Centre are particular highlights), Phoebe Bridgers finally finds time to release a second album. This was accompanied later in the year with Copycat Killer, an EP of four songs from Punisher re-performed with strings. Some of that EP felt a bit hurried, but the version of Chinese Satellite was sublime.
Punisher is an emotive delight from start to finish. I've seen I Know The End appear on a lot of end of year lists, and quite rightly. It's a gutsy, apocalyptic end to a brilliant album.
Standout tracks: Chinese Satellite, Halloween, I Know the End
3. Muzz - Muzz
Buy Muzz on Bandcamp
As Paul Banks of Interpol has such a distinctive voice, solo work and side projects like Muzz can easily sound like a continuation of Interpol at first listen. When you look past the vocal style though, it's clear that they're very different. I love how effortless this album sounds, it's so fluid. They also released a four track EP of covers a few weeks ago with a gorgeous version of Mazzy Star's Fade into you which is well worth your time).
Standout tracks: Red Western Sky, Knuckleduster, All Is Dead To Me
4. We Were Never Here / Cropping the Aftermath - Epic45
Buy We Were Never Here on Bandcamp
Buy Cropping the Aftermath on Bandcamp
I've placed both of Epic45's 2020 albums at the same spot, as I kind of treat them as being as being two parts of one large album. We Were Never Here is a wonderfully sparse, atmospheric affair, while Cropping the Aftermath is more rhythm based (veering towards drum n'bass at times - a new direction for them). So while they're not stagnating, it's still the same haunting music that evokes memories of growing up in the Midlands. Sadly, Epic45 were one of the list of cancelled gigs in 2020.
Standout tracks: Rainstorm Breaks, Buildings aren't haunted - people are, Eulogy, Among Ruins, Sidings
5. Vespertine - This Will Destroy You
Buy Vespertine on Bandcamp
As featured on a recent episode of Troika, this is the soundtrack to the Vespertine restaurant 'event' in Los Angeles. Each track has been written to enhance a particular part of the experience (Entrance, Kitchen, Dining Room etc.). Minimal, uplifting and calming - just what I needed this year.
Standout tracks: The album really is one very long track ;)
6. Children of the Slump - Marble Arch
Buy Children of the Slump on Bandcamp
Introduced to me by Wes, and actually from 2019 (but too good to miss from this list). I'd not come across French band Marble Arch before, but I particularly loved the organ/keyboard sounds that I can only describe as 'wonderfully woozy'.
Standout tracks: Gold, Moonstruck, Children of the Slump.
7. American Head - The Flaming Lips
Buy on the Flaming Lips Store
I hate to use the music critic cliché "a return to form" but American Head is up there with 'Yoshimi…' and 'Soft Bulletin' - the best work the Lips have done in years. Don't get me wrong, I've loved a lot of the output, but as an album this is their most consistent and cohesive in ages.
Standout tracks: Assassins of Youth, Dinosaurs on the Mountain
8. Ceremony - Phantogram
Buy on the Phantogram Store
Despite being evangelical about Phantogram since their debut Eyelid Movies, their last album Three (2016) didn't quite hit a chord with me. No such vagueness about Ceremony however, and In a Spiral typifies the boldness of their matured sound.
Standout Tracks - In a Spiral, 'Let me down, Into Happiness, Ceremony*
9. Shortly after Takeoff - BC Camplight
Buy Shortly after Takeoff on Bandcamp
The final part of BC Camplight's "Manchester Trilogy". The lyrics deal with the dark subject of his mental health and consideration of suicide in such a poppy and carefree way that the gravity was lost on me for the first couple of listens. He's someone who has developed their own particular (and peculiar) sound, which really stays with you.
Standout Tracks - Back to Work, Ghosthunting, Cemetery Lifestyle
Ringo Deathstarr - Ringo Deathstarr
Slow Rush - Tame Impala
Re-Animator - Everything Everything
I also continued listening repeatedly to New Hell - Greet Death, Silencia - Hammock and Invitation - Heather Woods Broderick from last years list.
Non Album Tracks
I also need to mention a couple of tracks that weren't related to any album:
This Recliner - Starflyer 59
Buy This Recliner on Bandcamp
No new album from my fave band this year, but an EP with a couple of new tracks, and a couple of reworked ones. The standout 'This Recliner' is one of the best things that Jason Martin has done in years. The opening notes could be Interpol, but it soon becomes that SF59 sound . A lot of his recent albums have dwelled on themes of getting old and feeling obsolete, but this time This Recliner does it while being an absolute belter.
Absence of Birds - The Radio Dept.
Buy Absence of Birds on Bandcamp
This simple pop track was THE sound of my summer. A loud street party becomes a lovely metaphor for missing someone.
Salvador Sanchez (Acoustic version) - Sun Kil Moon
Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon (and Red House Painters) have been my blind spots until 2020. Phoebe Bridgers' cover of 'You Missed My Heart' on Strangers in the Alps made me aware, but (oddly) it wasn't until this meme that I started listening:
It did the trick though, and the beautiful acoustic version of Salvador Sanchez (2003) became one of my most listened to tracks of the year.
Obviously low on gigs this year, but as a family we managed to see Bombay Bicycle Club twice (Oxford and Birmingham) on the Everything Else Has Gone Wrong tour in January, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen at the Round Chapel in Camden in February. Even though it was a few weeks before lockdown, the threat of COVID-19 was hanging, and it felt like the last time I'd be seeing live music for a while.
I tried a few livestream gigs, but these mostly didn't engage with me, even as a 'next best thing' substitute. One exception was Nick Cave's Idiot Prayer, which was superb (if imagining it as a movie, rather than a 'live concert'). Filmed at Alexandra Palace, and performed solo with just a piano, it's amazing how he can fill all the space!
Spotify Playlist for 2020
So there we are for another year, hope you're all well and that next years list will have more positivity!