There’s no need to re-litigate the sins of 2020. Away back in 1993, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, referred to 1992 as a ‘annus horribilis’ for the Royal Family. I think we can conclude that 2020 was that for the rest of us.
And yet, there was music. Amongst the ways I found to cope with the crazy of the year (running, kayaking, dogs, reading, hiking), music was probably my number one coping mechanism. I listened to a lot of music, both through the auspices of The Typescript, but also the music I found, or was sent to me by friends. And a lot of it was great. It was, oddly, a bumper crop for good music.
So, without further ado, this is my Best of 2020, in no particular order.
1. Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart, The Black Lips
Atlanta’s favourite scuzz punks returned at the start of the year in fine form, having rediscovered their early career glory, but now, older, wiser, and, well, scuzzier. Montréal’s Jeff Clarke joined them on guitar, and was given equal billing with band founders, Jared Swilley and Cole Alexander, contributing a handful of tracks, including the Stones-esque ‘Georgia.’ Alexander also gave us the stunning and bizarre first track, ‘Hooker Jon,’ a country-tinged rocker scraping the bottom of the barrel of society . The Black Lips were also the last live show I saw in 2020, in late February at Les Foufounes Électriques, one of Montréal’s legendary spots (a famed Smashing Pumpkins gig there in 1991 in front of about 8 people, including me, saw Mellisa auf der Maur meet Billy Corgan).
2. Thin Mind, Wolf Parade
Montréal’s finest returned with their second album since they reformed in 2017, and their fifth in total. Bassist Dante de Caro left the band before this album, reducing it to a trio of founding members: Dan Boeckner (guitars/vocals), Spencer Krug (synths/vocals) and Arlen Thompson (drums). This saw Krug take the bass responsibilities back, as he had them away back in the day when Wolf Parade first formed, playing it via his synth. And, oddly, the reduction of the band to a trio made them sound more vital, fresher, than they have for some time. Like the Black Lips, 2020 saw a venerable underground band rediscover their form.
Rachael Sage does not write the kind of music I usually listen to, I have to say. She is more playful than I usually like in my music, but Character is an album that speaks to the soul. She wrote it as she recovered from cancer, and the ways in which she explored the alienation of serious illness, in terms of the body rebelling, the effects of illness on our place in the world, and the survivor’s guilt one feels on the other side, was just so human, so compelling. And I found myself listening to this album in the darker moments of 2020, reminding me that there is another side.
‘Hidden Hills’ is a song I think any songwriter wishes they’re written. This is such a stunning, beautiful track, centred around the interplay of John Hamilton’s rolling bassline and Neil Thomas’ guitar, flourished with a stuttering drum line and strings. It doesn’t hurt that the video for this track is equally stunning, as the band play the song in an old lighthouse on the English coast.
‘Same Guy’ is another stunning track, Eades’ first single of 2020. Over a Bollywood-inspired percussive beat and Talking Heads-esque guitars, frontman Harry’s dead-pan vocal delivery ponders the mysteries of life.
6. RTJ4, Run the Jewels
I don’t know what else can be said about this album. A stunning collection of fury and earnestness, spat out by two Gen X rappers at the peak of their powers, over expansive beats, El-P and Killer Mike explore the fuckery of race politics in the US, and damn near everything else. Fuck. Just vicious. And Killer Mike on ‘Walking in the Snow’…
7. Coriky, Coriky
Coriky is Ian MacKaye and Joe Lally of Fugazi with MacKaye’s wife, Amy Farina. Less in-your-face than Fugazi, and bolstered by Farina’s energy, Coriky gives space to Lally and MacKaye’s bass and guitar. And the result is postpunk masterclass taught by three of the greatest. But the other thing we get here is a sense of Mackaye’s humanity. His public image, and his music has always see him as uptight and rather furious and humourless. Here, the expansiveness of this power trio sees him deliver another side to himself. And the first track, ‘Clean Kill,’ is one of my favourites of the year.
8. Naujawanan Baidar, Naujawanan Baidar
Naujawanan Baidar is the brainchild of N.R. Safi, aka Nik Rayne, who is of Afghan descent. He has never visited Afghanistan, and yet, the music of the ancestral land has been floating around him for years, and Naujawanan Baidar is a double-album compilation of two mixtapes he’s released. Comprised of loops, traditional Afghan melodies, psychedelia, and atmospheric noise, this album is hypnotic. Safi’s primary material was a collection of tapes he inherited from his grandfather of songs from Kabul, recorded sometime in the 60s.
Nasville’s Country Westerns début album is a collection of Americana filtered through vintage Replacements, centred around frontman Joseph Plunkett’s 12-string guitar. Rocked out brilliance.
10. Antarctica, Flat Worms
In many ways, Flat Worms sound like bands I listened to in the early 90s, post-punk noise centred around a monotonal vocal delivery, and the quotidian reflected back to me. Produced by Ty Seagall and Steve Albini, the band create this soundscape to explore the banality of the world around us. I spent a lot of time outside in the yard this year, clearing out scrub (by hand), and digging new gardens in our front and side yards, and painting the eaves of our old New England home. And I listened to this pretty much non-stop.
11. Inner Song, Kelly Lee Owens
This album took a long time to grow on me. I absolutely adored Owens’ self-titled début album, but I found this one to be cold, more difficult to get into initially, perhaps put off by her more prominent vocals. I don’t know. But sometime in November, I tried again, and found myself pulled in by the cold, electronic beats, her ambient vocals, maybe it suited the weather? I don’t know. But for the past two months or so, Inner Song has been on constant rotation here. And the track, ‘Corner of My Sky,’ with John Cale on vocals is just stunning. And the video is kind of funny.
12. Marge, Peter Bibby’s Dog Act
Mother of Christ. This album is just pure snarling viciousness. Bibby has made a name for himself as a singer/songwriter in his native Australia, perhaps most famous for his track, ‘Work for Arseholes.’ Here, though, he teams up with a kick ass rhythm section in “Strawberry Pete” Gower (bass) and “Dirty Dave” Taylor (drums). And the result is this furious assault on our ears, screeching guitars, pounding drums, propulsive bass, and at times, you wonder if Bibby hasn’t gone off his fucking rock. His vocals on ‘Oceans,’ for example, a meditation on being lost at sea. Or in ‘Wyalla,’ as he ponders the wonders of South Australia’s third most populous city, offers another such example.
13. Blue Hearts, Bob Mould
Bob Mould hasn’t been this pissed off in decades. This is Mould at his best, I have to say. He’s furious at the state of the United States, by the evils of Trumpism, by the rising tide of fascism. He sounds more vital than he has since the 90s, his guitar is turned up to 12, and he just wails away, aided in his blistering attack on everything by Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums.
Alien Tango, a Spanish dude based in London, makes really far out music, but he also makes music that is catchy as all get out. ‘Arthur Conan Doyle’ sees him imagining life as the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries as alive in our world today, and also offering his ‘dark magic’ skills to meet women, wandering through some nameless Spanish city on what looks a viciously hot day. I played this on repeat for a good 6 weeks.
Plants and Animals released their 5th album in 2020 and found a way to reinvent themselves. It’s not that they’ve ever really been static, as each new album has seen them explore a new facet of their sound, but on The Jungle, they seem to have gone further than expected. Importing synth sounds, loops, and the like, they explore an early 80s sonic palette, combined with some of their strongest songwriting in years.
16. Book of Curses, Adulkt Life
This might be my favourite album of the year. Fronted by former Huggy Bear frontman, Chris Rowley, Adulkt Life bring it. Huggy Bear was a pioneer in the riot grrrrrl scene, kind of an English counter point to Bikini Kill. Older and wiser here, though no less engaged, Adulkt Life is an essential collection of post-punk fury, centred around Rowley’s scarred vocals. I just can’t get enough of this album.
Paris’s Psychotic Monks delivered one furious, claustrophobic, vicious stab of nastiness to end 2020, and, in many ways, this seems the perfect epigraph to that shitastic year.
18. Visions of Bodies Being Burned, clipping.
I was late to the party with this one. I was not a fan of clipping. the first time I heard them, with 2016’s Splendor & Misery, and so dismissed them, as on that album, Daveed Diggs seemed mostly interesting in aping Busdriver’s ridiculously fast flow. But for some reason I gave this a listen in December and was like, whoa! This is a dark, dark album, cacophonous beats, horror movie samples, fantasies of murder, and abrasive beats. This was the second half of a diptych with 2019’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood. This album is stunning.