Yep, it’s time for this shit again.
These are, of course, in no particular order. I was able to get an embed for every single album on the list the year, which was nice, and at least one easy to get to alternate option for the people who don’t like Spotify (to be fair, I’m not thrilled with them either, though I do think they learned most of their bullshit from the major labels while they each had an interest in the company, and I feel like there isn’t enough said about that) on all but two releases. (If you’re curious, everything that’s on Bandcamp here is on Spotify, though that was only the case as of December 9th, because Emma Swift gave Blonde On The Tracks a four month window where it wasn’t on the streaming services after release.)
Unfortunately, I did have to take one album off the list because the artist in question has said a bunch of “just vague enough to have a thin layer of plausible deniability to them” COVID denier-type things in recent months (and is associating with people who are known to be much, MUCH worse about this shit than she is) that I only found out about late in the process of writing this article, because there was a language barrier to the coverage about it. I can’t, in good conscience, tell y’all to listen to a record from someone like that. It really sucks, too, because the album’s fantastic, and the artist is one whose stuff I’ve loved for decades. I’m not gonna name her here, because the point of this is to not give people like her press, but if you ask me privately, I may volunteer the information. And, nope, in most cases (and at this point, I feel guilty about the ones where I can’t quit the artist in question, because there are a lot of other artists out there who could use fans instead of those people), I can’t “separate the art from the artist”.
I listened to a whole fuck of a lot of music this year. The working list of every album I deemed to be noteworthy this year (and I listened to at least a little of every one) is like 129 hours long, and I’m sure it’s missing plenty that I didn’t remember to put on the list. I don’t know how sustainable any of it is in this world, but right now, there is a whole fuck of a lot of music being created, even if lots of it, you’re not going to find unless you look for it, even with fancy algorithms that will let you know from time to time things like, no shit, The Dazz Band have a new single out.
A thing I’ve come to realize over the years, but one that it doesn’t seem like a lot of other people are totally on board with, is that, if there’s an artist you liked something from, and you haven’t heard anything about them in a while, if they’re alive, chances are, they’re still making music. Check in on them. They get lonely out there sometimes once they’re out of the zeitgeist (even if many of them are relieved to be out of it). When I see peoples’ lists of the music they like, there’s a lot of the obvious, massively popular choices, and there’s also a whole bunch of the new stuff that we all get told about by the usual sources, but legacy artists, especially those who aren’t on a bigger record label, tend to get lost in the shuffle if they don’t have really devoted people working on keeping their names out there, especially if those artists aren’t Internet-savvy or particularly interested in doing their own marketing. I’d say around 40% of the albums I put on this list were made by the kind of artists I’m talking about. Show them some love.
I think I’ve said enough before we start on this, and don’t wanna be like one of those recipe blogs that spends 3 pages talking about how random depressing things before they post the goddamned recipe, so here goes! Enjoy!
Black Hole Rainbow
The first album (and new-to-me artist) I found in 2020, way back on January 10th, in The Before Times. Throughout the year, when I needed to feel better, this ended up being my go-to. So, thanks, Devon, for making me feel better, and thanks to Aaron Lee Tasjan for hipping me to Devon and a bunch of other artists, some of which are on this list.
(non-Spotify options here)
Roger Eno & Brian Eno
This was the record I went to when I needed to feel calm. It came out the week after the shit hit the fan in the States, and not a moment too soon. Gorgeous stuff.
(non-Spotify options here)
I found out about Choir Boy from John O’Leary last year, and even got to see them with him at Great Scott, back when Great scott was in what is now “the old location”, with them due to take over the old Regina Pizzeria space. Back to Choir Boy, though. They are the deeply sensitive band we wish we had in 1983. No, we did not have enough of those, thank you very much! Fans of early Tears for Fears and Jimmy Somerville’s various endeavors, y’all need to check out Choir Boy.
Clint Mansell & Clint Walsh
I was deeply sad to read about the events that led to this album’s creation, as Clint Mansell is a good guy who I spent some time around in a past life, and I’m still very sorry for his loss. With that said, he and Clint Walsh (who I knew of mainly from The Motels before I realized that he’s worked with pretty much everybody) have done a beautiful thing by creating this album. It’s an amazing work that recontextualizes Lou Reed’s Berlin album to honor the memory of a lost loved one, without trampling the original work in the process (quite the opposite, in my view). It’s moving, and I hope it’s as comforting to Clint as it’s been to me this year.
…and now for something completely different. I have Carcass to thank for my marriage. This EP is what they do, so it’s of course fucking great.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
Phantogram don’t reinvent the wheel, but they’ve low-key soundtracked a good chunk of my last decade. Their last album, Three, wasn’t quite as good as this one (great singles, but the rest of the album lost me a bit), but this is a solid, focused return to form for them.
(non-Spotify options here)
Fetch The Bolt Cutters
It’s a challenging listen (I took a few months off from it after the first month I had it), but it’s worth all the praise the critics have been throwing at it. I’ve said this elsewhere, but it’s also the Einstürzende Neubauten album I wish they had released this year, instead of the one they did.
(non-Spotify options here)
The Psychedelic Furs
Made of Rain
29 years off from releasing a studio album? No problem! Seriously, it somehow manages to just sound like the album after World Outside, while being completely contemporary.
The Dream Syndicate
The Universe Inside
Since reforming, The Dream Syndicate have released 3 albums, two of which, including this one, have made my list of year-end favorites. I may need to go back and listen to These Times, from last year, which is the one that didn’t. I may have just missed something about it. I already need to revisit the older stuff, as, for whatever reason, it didn’t grab me back then. Sometimes, we’re just ready for music at different times in our lives. Anyway, The Universe Inside is a journey, as you may have guessed if you noticed that the first track on the album is 20 minutes and change long. The album’s kind of the answer to the question “What would happen if we let a band that was on college radio a lot in the ’80s really, really jam?”, and I’m pleased to report that, at least doing it in 2020, it works out pretty well.
I’m really new to Sevdaliza. A friend (and bomb-ass DJ) in Second Life named Berkeley Yoshikawa played her “Human” in a set a few months ago, and I did a weird thing where I loved it, found out what it was, and then fell asleep and forgot about it for like a month. When I came back across the song, I listened to everything else she’s made, including this album. So, thanks, Berks! If you don’t wanna just press the “Play” button, it’s dark, moody, severe trip-hop kinda stuff. Just press the button, though.
Letter To You
It is a definite sign that I’ve been away from the state where I spent most of my first 40 years for over a year now, longer than I’ve ever been away in my lifetime by a considerable margin, that I’m listening to Springsteen (and not just this album), and that this album (which is not his and The E Street Band’s best by any means, but if you played it for someone who likes this sorta thing, but had somehow never heard him, I think they’d love it) made my year-end list. Call me sentimental! I’m not made of stone, y’all. It was really good to have a piece of the old country show up when it did, and it’s good to have Bruce around for however long we will. Bruce spends a good chunk of his time on this record seemingly exploring his lapsed Catholicism and thinking of departed friends, and it’s still a good time. People who were around for various periods of his career all have cut-off points, favorites, and so forth, and this album, if I had to compare it to any of the prior ones, is definitely more The Rising than Born to Run, but I’m not such a first-few-albums purist that I didn’t The Rising well enough, and again, if you wanna call me a big softy for this pick, go ahead.
(non-Spotify options here)
Hey, Annie! When did you decide to channel Floating Into The Night-era Julee Cruise? This question’s sort of answered here, in fact. That Julee Cruise thing isn’t a knock at all, by the way. Steal from the best and all that! It’s a terrific album, and it’s good to have her back around.
(It’s on the other major streaming services, but Annie doesn’t have a lnk.to or something similar for the album.)
Band I completely slept on over 20 years ago (I even got a free copy of Downward is Heavenward in the mail when before it came out, and…nothin’…it’s definitely time to revisit and visit their back catalog…) releases monster new album out of nowhere. Film at 11. If I were to play the comparison game here, I’d go with Catherine Wheel, Jesu and some of Devin Townsend’s stuff (thinking Ocean Machine and Physicist without as many blast beats as the latter had). So, it’s really good.
BOB MOULD IS BACK, AND HE’S PISSED OFF! For my money, it’s his best since Silver Age. (Wow, that’s 8 years and 4 albums ago now.) It’s a very direct album in its language about everything, and it’s very raw, but in the best possible way. If you’re reading this, chances are, you know who Bob Mould is already. If not, while I don’t know him personally, he seems like a guy that’s worth knowing.
I like this one a bunch. She’s got her own voice, but also clearly has a cool record collection. She does a bunch of world-building within her songs that establishes a core aesthetic. (She’s apparently really into horror movie gore.) The material is strong enough to overcome the choices she and her producers made here and there that I might not have made in how things were arranged and recorded (and to clarify, there aren’t a ton of these, or this wouldn’t have made the list, but there’s stuff here and there that sounds like a major label meddling, even if that wasn’t the case). It’s a really good start, and I look forward to hearing more.
(non-Spotify options here)
John Foxx & The Maths
Always good to have John Foxx keepin’ at it. He’s lived what seem to be a dozen lives creatively and professionally. In recent years, he’s been doing a lot with Benge, Hannah Peel and Serafina Steer as John Foxx & The Maths, and it’s the closest he’s been in sound to his ’76-’85 output, solo and with Ultravox. Robin Simon, his erstwhile guitar player from that time period, joined The Maths on this release, and the guitar’s fantastic and Fripp-ish and I quite like this one.
The best heavy band on the planet right now continue to destroy us all. People who wish to have their faces melted, apply here.
Blonde On The Tracks
Emma’s been a real bright spot this year in a great many ways. Patron saint of Bandcamp, co-host of one of the best streaming shows of the pandemic (Tomorrow’s show is her birthday show, too!), co-keeper of Tubby and Ringo the cats, and, of course, maker of the finest Bob Dylan cover album money can buy, a Bob Dylan cover album so good that it charted higher than Bob’s new one in Emma’s native Australia earlier this year. I first saw Emma, without knowing who she was, a little under 5 years ago at a show locally, and I was blown away by how good she was. I’m glad to see that the rest of the world’s catching up.
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd
I came to this one late, and found out about it, sadly, a week after it came out, when Harold Budd passed away. It’s gorgeous. It’s Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd being Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. If you don’t know what that means, well, you’re on the Internet reading this. You can figure it out. Or you can just press “Play”. It’s not like the old days when we’d have to spend $11 for a tape at Sam Goody and the tape might suck.
Zeal & Ardor
Wake of a Nation
This one’s difficult listening, probably the most difficult on the list, because it is a raw, direct expression of pain from racist police violence, but it’s also great, and I’m glad that Manuel Gagneux used his music to speak out in the ways that it seems like he felt he really needed to. The music, while a little different in tone and type of intensity than the first couple Zeal & Ardor records, is terrific, too.
Elizabeth Cook made a hell of a record here. Great songs, great vocals, great playing, great production, it’s smart, it’s honest, it’s tough, and it’s tender. Highly recommended. Give it a listen. I’ve made it pretty easy for you to do that.
(One non-Spotify option here, but hey, it’s something.)
U.D.O. and Das Musikkorps der Bundeswehr
We Are One
This album is kind of a lot, to put it mildly, so I ended up writing more about it than any of the others. At the core of it, it’s a concept album that’s the vision of a 68 year old white German man who doesn’t want civilization, such as it is, to end, and the Earth to die. This is, of course, the point of view of most sensible people (though obviously, there are people who want civilization, people who think civilization is whatever seemed OK before it started affecting them and want that back, and all points in between), but in this case, the 68 year old white German man in question is Udo Fucking Dirkschneider, who you may remember from Accept, or his solo band U.D.O. (featured here), and to try to reach people with his message, he recruited Das Musikkorps der Bundeswehr, the official concert band of the German Armed Forces, to help him. If you’ve ever dreamed of hearing Udo Dirkschneider and his band play metal anthems about saving the Earth with a 60 piece military orchestra and a full chorus behind them, gosh, have I got great news for you.
It’s a remarkable record, not like any other “metal band with an orchestra” record or, really, any other record. It’s, of course, ridiculously over the top, but that’s absolutely a strength in this case. The musicianship and production are outstanding, Udo’s band integrated seamlessly with the orchestra, and Udo is in great voice, to where he sounds 100% like he’s leading the chorus, rather than following it. The message in the songs (and to be clear, this is an album of entirely new music, not orchestral covers of past U.D.O. songs), while being largely sensible and from a point of view that I agree with, has alternating moments of being very corny in how earnest it is, being the words of a well-meaning 68 year old white man from Germany who doesn’t quite have the hang of social and environmental justice yet (and hey, everyone’s gotta start somewhere, but not everyone starts by making an album with a 60 piece military orchestra while they’re doing it), and, I’ll say it, I do still get nervous whenever I hear Germans talking or especially singing about unity, however well-meaning they may be, because of that thing that happened a while back. With that said, a tremendous amount of resources, effort and care were put into trying to reach people who might not otherwise be reached with a message like this, at what I’d describe as at least some professional and personal risk for Udo and his band (to say nothing of the German Armed Forces), because people who oppose these messages tend not to take kindly to it (especially not here in the States, though we are far from having a monopoly on far right-wing people). Ultimately, I do believe that everyone’s hearts were in the right place when they made We Are One, and they created an incredible, unique listening experience in the process, too.
(It’s on the other major streaming services, but U.D.O. doesn’t have a lnk.to or something similar for the album, because Udo is a busy man, y’all. He trusts you to find him.)
Well-crafted, left-wing extreme metal with a woman (Larissa Stupar’s her name) as lead singer/primary lyricist who can melt your face off with her screaming? Sure, sign me up. Sometimes, it’s that easy.
This one was a late add, after a lot of thought. The question I had to ask myself was this: in 2020, does a great Richard Marx album…not “a great album that happens to be made by Richard Marx, but may or may not be what he does, usually”, but “a Richard Marx album that does a great job at what Richard Marx does”…make it onto my list of my favorite albums of the year? The fact that you’re reading this, if, in fact, you are, answers that question. I’m not a Richard Marx super-fan by any stretch of the imagination, but going all the way back to when I first saw the video for “Don’t Mean Nothing”, I have been at least a little sympathetic to the cause. He’s largely a solid citizen by most accounts, and he does the thing he does really well. If you’re reading this and wondering whether it sounds dated (because he was such a cornerstone of a particular time and place), it is absolutely a contemporary-sounding album that sounds like a Richard Marx album as well. If his voice weren’t as recognizable as it still is, you’d think it was one of the younger kids on the pop charts doing modern stuff that sounds kinda like Richard Marx. Another question I had for myself on this album (and, moreso than in previous years, every album on this list) was “Am I going to end up listening to this after 2020 ends?”, and I’m pretty sure I will. I didn’t listen to it all the way through a ton this year after release day, but I came back to “Another One Down” plenty, I thought about the fact that I was pretty sure Richard Marx made a great album this year a lot, and I’ve listened to the album in full a few more times while I’ve written this list. Some of the albums I really thought were going to make this list did not pass that test, and some of the bigger releases this year (you’ll know them by the fact that they’re not here, even though some of them are on everyone else’s lists like this) didn’t, either. The good ones, whether they’re ambient music or death metal, weird psychedelic stuff or straight-up pop, make you want to keep listening and paying attention while you do, even if you’ve got a lot of other things you want to get to. LIMITLESS is, in fact, one of the good ones.
((non-Spotify options here)
As we wrap this thing up, a thing I tend to do every year, as I’m going through the year, is to do kind of a shorter, time capsule playlist of the new songs, even if the albums they’re from didn’t make my list of albums, that stuck with me the most throughout the year. I’m really pretty happy with this year’s model, and hopefully, you enjoy it, too…
Finally, if you want to listen to all of the albums I named here in one list…in a row, or on shuffle, you can do that, too.
So, what new music did you listen to and love this year?