This is the second part of my Favorite Recordings of 2020 countdown. (You can read the first part — the Honorable Mentions — here.)

I look forward to writing up this list every year. Then, I start writing, and I realize just how much work I’ve assigned myself! I hope that some of these notes — written hastily during a very busy (and unusually difficult) transition from one year (and one Presidency) to another — will inspire you to explore and discover some new music. All of these albums were highlights of my 2020.

35.
Idles — Ultra Mono


Idles’ second album — Joy is an Act of Resistance —was my #1 of 2018, so this was one of the albums I was most looking forward to this year. And Album Three — Ultra Mono — is a blast, no doubt about it. It won’t do much to dissuade listeners from the impression that Idles are one of the most thrilling live acts in the world.

But where Joy as an Act of Resistance struck a brilliant balance of unhinged punk energy and affectingly conscience-fueled anthems, this one finds them staggering off balance, a bit punch-drunk either from the punches 2019 and 2020 have dealt the world or from the punches this band has been throwing back. They stumble here too far into a broad-stroke rage and guitar-smashing rants. And even when they often sound like they’re wrecking the stage, the production feels a bit glossier, a bit more… expensive?

So it says a lot that this record is still, in spite of its weaknesses, worth multiple listens. I had a significant appetite for raucous sets of righteous anger against the world’s death-cults this year. Sometimes, after reading the daily news, I needed to get in the car and pound my fists on the steering wheel along with drummer Jon Beavis as he seems to be striving to single-handedly pulverize the advancing war machines of tyranny and prejudice.


34.
Lo Tom — LP2

As with Idles, Lo Tom released another strong album that may not break enough new ground to last as one of my favorites, but it hit the spot in a year that was severely lacking in solid, straightforward, thought-provoking, arena-sized rock and roll.

David Bazan’s lyrics continue to impress: accessible but also challenging, honest in ways that are compelling without being garish or self-absorbed, and poetic enough to invite various interpretations. The band checks all of the boxes — they swagger, they ache, and they sound hive-minded in their precise synchronicity, but also inspired and earnest, each musician playing to support the whole song rather than to get attention. And it’s captured while they still sound excited about each song.

LP2 tells me this band has a promising future if they’ll stick with it. Can they, though, and remain a distinct entity from Bazan’s solo work and the reunited Pedro the Lion? Time will tell. For now, they’re just separate enough in my mind, but I’d like to see Lo Tom move forward with a strong sense that the band is making decisions together rather than just following Bazan’s lead, and I’d like to see them expand the songs with longer pauses and a greater spotlight on musicianship.


33.
The Innocence Mission — See You Tomorrow

How do we assess Innocence Mission albums anymore, as it’s far more difficult to trace what makes them distinct from one another than it was in the early days? Remember their self-titled debut which rightly earned comparison to 10,000 Maniacs; then the discovery of a layered, gauzy sound-garden all their own in Umbrella; then the way they coaxed brighter and more joyful colors from that garden on Glow; and then they showed us that garden in a winter so spare and cold and anguished that Birds of My Neighborhood became their masterpiece for its harrowing honesty.

Since then, the records have given us varying instrumentation, with the dialing down of percussion being the most evidently deliberate and sustained aesthetic choice.

Karen Peris’s lyrics —which continue to seem like intriguing and suggestive sketches of emotional experiences penciled into journals — have established her as a voice of deep empathy, humility, and watchfulness. She seems so superhumanly genuine and so anti-celebrity in everything she does that when I try to think of who she reminds me of I end up thinking about scriptures in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, holds things quietly deep in her heart… rather than of any other singer.

And Don Peris’s guitars has ceased to sound like performances and exist more like an ocean view I like to visit to see just what the light is doing there today. I’m not likely to be surprised by anything, but the colors and textures will minister to me with a subtle healing influence.

Having said these things, I have warmed with time to some of these songs as stronger and more lasting than others in recent releases: “On Your Side,” “Movie,” and “The Brothers William Said” are so intimate and vivid. I love, in “Movie,” the reference to film-projector reels as “California windmills,” as she wishes she could turn back time as easily as rewinding. If I could rewind anything with this band, I’d turn the clock back to the days when we had a fighting chance of seeing them play live. It feels like a dream, that I got to see them on two different occasions in Seattle, both times with Sixteen Horsepower opening for them, the most unlikely and yet the most perfect concert pairing I’ve ever experienced — oil and water.


32.
Lilly Hiatt — Walking Proof

I’m grateful to Thomas V. Bona for introducing me to Lilly Hiatt upon the occasion of Trinity Lane, a very impressive country-rock record that achieved a rare thing: It made me excited about going back for multiple listens of a contemporary country record. Perhaps I’m still overcoming a prejudice against a stereotype, but it’s rare that I find a country singer who seems like more of an artist than an entertainer, whose lyrics have enough poetry to draw attention to their craft rather than just delivering new variations on the same simple sentiments.

Here, Hiatt makes an even stronger impression on me. The musicianship is assured and energetic, blurring genre lines just enough to be interesting, and the lyrics invite me into interesting stories with interesting characters. But what I really like is how the songs breathe — particularly “Little Believer,” which is one of the few songs this year that I repeatedly sought out to heighten my heart rate on the morning commute.

Also, there’s a song set in Portland. Can a country singer with a voice like Dolly Parton’s make something out of Portland? Can any good country music come from Nazareth?


31.
Thurston Moore — By the Fire

I miss Sonic Youth.

I miss their grungy, adventurous sound so much that I picked up a used CD of the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack a couple of months ago, feeling a particular urge to revisit “Titanium Exposé.” (There are a lot of great songs on that soundtrack!)

So when I put on Thurston Moore’s new solo album, I was overjoyed to find myself blissing out to that familiar sound, and to find such generous portions of it served up hot and savory. While he does sing on it, I haven’t given the lyrics much attention yet because it feels more like an instrumental album to me — he jams, he explores, he rages, he dreams. And he shows no particular concern with “songs,” turning these instead into multi-stage rockets that keep surprising with new tones, new colors, new moods. There aren’t many rock guitarists anymore whose mastery can hold my attention for a whole record, but when Moore is in the zone, he makes magic sound effortless.

That picture of Moore on the cover is a pretty good imitation of me as I’m listening.


30.

Public Enemy — What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?

Growing up in an 99%-white evangelical Christian high school — and attending college in a place not much more diverse than that — I found early hip-hop to be like music from another part of the world, or even from another world entirely. I felt threatened by it — it sounded angry (it was, but often righteously so), it sounded brusque (it was, often righteously so). I didn’t understand it or want to.

Fast forward to 2020, and I am still not nearly as well-versed in hip-hop as I could be or should be, but I have found voices I find compelling and meaningful (thanks to Chance, Kendrick, Lauryn Hill, Run the Jewels, and more), and I am learning to take the position of a student learning from masters about lives, histories, hopes, and hardships that white privilege could so easily have prevented me from engaging. I am richer and wiser for how I am learning new languages in the arts, learning about the crimes of ignorance and prejudice in which I have been complicit.

2020 was a year like no other in as a social-justice gospel blazed hotter and hotter in music. Many of the voices at the forefront of that movement are new — you’ll see some further up my list — but Public Enemy are veterans of the genre and I actually recognize their voices and styles, which says something about that magnitude of their influence. (How can I recognize it when I never listened to this music — even actively avoided it — in my younger days?) They’ve already woven their way into the fabric of essential American music for more than three decades.

So this is the first album of theirs I’ve experienced from Day One and in its entirety. I expected it might sound outdated or, worse, egocentric. Instead, I find the lyrics compelling, the beats irresistible, and the whole greater than the sum of its parts as a substantial answer to all of the troubles and horrors that the last four years have launched against not only Black lives in America but against whole the American experiment and dream.


29.
Khushi — Strange Seasons

28.
Son Lux — Tomorrows I (with a nod to Tomorrows II)

These three records blur in my mind due to the adventures sonic experimentation, the cinematic textures and moods, the resistance to typical songwriting conventions, and a overriding sense of tender-heartedness in a context of anxiety.

Khushi is Kalim Patel, best-known as a producer for James Blake, but on the strength of this record I’d like to see much more from him. The epic track at the center of Strange Seasons — “This Is, Pt. 1 & II” — is one of the most sonically thrilling things I’ve heard all year. The lyrics reflect a personal journey of self-knowledge, suffering, and hope for salvation, but they also echo what has felt like a prevailing sense of pending apocalypse:

“There are
Things in me now, though they
Weigh me down, weigh me down
Maybe now, maybe now
I see
Coming in between the cracks
There seeps a light, there seeps a light
I hadn’t known, I hadn’t known…”

And then,
“And this is
Not quite what I intended
But it’s where I’ve ended, it’s where I’ve ended

This is
Not quite how I planned it, no,
But it’s where I’ve landed
It’s where I’ve landed….”

Son Lux — Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang — explore feelings of anxiety and dismay in confrontational expressions:

“What are you doing, love? Are you doing love?”

“You’re reaping what you’ve sown / But what you hoped would never grow”

“Count for me the cost
The number of tomorrows lost….”

But they balance the sense of dread and doom with appeals for love, forgiveness, and mercy:

“For nobody can see me
For who I will be
Please remind me
Come find me
It’s not too late.”

Both Son Lux records (I much prefer the first one; the second sounds rougher and vaguer) sound much more like a band, much less like Lott finding collaborators. The mix of songs and instrumentals cohere beautifully into something more like sound sculpture than conventional compositions.

Guitars often sound improvisational and playful, giving a lightness to the abrasive and ominous tones that sometimes threaten to give their sound an overbearing sense of horror. The drums are not scaffolds to support the other instruments; they are sometimes fitful, restless, surprising, and often surge into the foreground. Bold cello strains veer, careen, and drone with the severity of a Christopher Nolan film score.

And Lott’s vocals reveal characters at breaking points of emotion, seemingly crumbling under the pressure of unspecified fears. It’s hard to know whether the singers of these songs are confronting themselves or a society around them that seems hell-bent on sinking the very ship they’ve built while still on stormy seas. I can’t say I know what was on the musicians’ minds, but the strong sense of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty seems like a truth-telling expression of our 2020 world.

Cathartic and thrillingly creative.


27.
Son Little — Aloha

One of the first records I discovered and enjoyed in 2020 stayed with me all year long. I hadn’t been familiar with Son Little previously, and I need to go back and hear his first two albums, but I found the story behind this record compelling — the achievement that grew out of disaster, a whole album lost to a failed hard drive. Apparently, the original recordings were more complex and more heavily produced, but one of the things I love about this is how human and organic it sounds. Producer Renaud Letang is best known for his work with Feist, which makes sense when I hear how selective he has been with each layer of these spare, bright productions.

 


26.
Poppy — I Disagree

This stuff is hilarious.

AllMusic’s Neil Z. Yeung strives to describe this sound: “a metallic storm, informed by pulsing beats, thrashing riffs, and crushing breakdowns. That fury is punctuated by atmospheric electronics and sugary vocals that support her deceptively confrontational lyrics.”

Okay, yeah — it’s a 21-car pile-up of genres, performed with such giddy enthusiasm and inspired inventiveness that I find it irresistible whenever my Shuffle springs a track on me.

And yet, I can’t deny that the lyrics are often ridiculous. They have that mix of ignorance and pomposity that says “I’m being profound!” when, in fact, they’re really just run-of-the-mill rebellion-for-the-sake-of-rebelliousness nonsense, attacking organized religion and any kind of authority or cultural norm without any consideration of what is being championed except a vague “You can be anything you want to be” sentiment. (Okay — whatever. Actions don’t have consequences, so follow your whims and everything will be fine. And if you believe that, I’ve got more to sell you.)

But I’ll highlight one exception: “BLOODMONEY” is an intriguing, indirect affirmation of Christianity insofar as the lyrics are a furious condemnation of religious hypocrisy, heavy with references to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. I guess I’m down with that.

Somehow, Poppy is both twice as fun to listen to as Billy Eilish and only half as thoughtful. I guess that evens out and makes that this year’s answer to Eilish’s breakthrough. I can’t wait to hear what Poppy does next. But I hope she gets some good guidance and reads some good books first. What a joy this music would be if there was more substance in the style.


25.
Lonker See — Hamza

What’s that? You really wish you had some new sax-and-guitar-heavy Polish-jazz-metal overlaid with Enya-like vocals right now?

Well, you’re in luck.

This stuff is kind of amazing.

Check out the whole album for a whole palette of strange, psychedelic colors.

I kept coming back to this all year, because it was never boring. It’s so unlike anything else in my music library that the adventure feels fresh every time.


24.
Sufjan Stevens and Lowell Brams — Aporia


The first of two Sufjan Stevens records this year is the one I will listen to the most, even if it is the lesser accomplishment.
You might hear the opener “Ousia” next time you go in for a therapeutic massage, with its shimmering tide washing in and out while Eno-esque synthesizers play the part of morning sun on the waves. Then, a hint of a narrative buzzes in — perhaps a rowing team at practice, slicing rhythmically into view and then vanishing.


23.
tone-cluster — KYO SHU


I wrote extensively about this record already here at Looking Closer, and for that piece I interviewed the tone-cluster mastermind Eric Gorfain. You can read that here!

 


22.
Smoke Fairies — DARKNESS BRINGS THE WONDERS HOME

I discovered this one thanks to Ken Priebe, one of the Looking Closer Specialists!

From the grungy blues-guitar riff that opens the album, to the sense of trouble and foreboding in the opening verses, to the harmonies of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies that feel like a blend of Heart and Indigo Girls, with an occasional leaning in the direction of the rawness and roughness of PJ Harvey — I am hooked and ready to commit for a full album’s journey.

The lyrics are unnerving, setting a toned of doomed resolution. “On the Wing” deals with a metamorphosis into something feathered, taloned, and dangerous. “Elevator” hints at a story of a compromising and damaging relationship in a dangerous Hollywood hierarchy. “Disconnect” could’ve been an end-credits track for a Twilight movie, as the singer berates the object of her desires for his detachment, even as she invites him in and asks him to teach her to detach and live disconnected as he is: “Teach me we don’t need love / let me know it’s true.”

The overall effect is that of a collection of cautionary tales, of paths less traveled that make the traveler think back to that fork in the road and the moments that have made all the difference.


21.
Sufjan Stevens — The Ascension


Epic, ecstatic, enervating, and absolutely saturated with electronics, Stevens’ latest turns up the volume on the characteristics I find most difficult to appreciate in his music even as he sculpts and frosts lushly scrumptious seven-layer cakes of synthesizers and voices, making this sound much more like a record from the mad scientist who made The Age of Adz than the sublime singer-songwriter who made Illinoise. And he plays the hyper-spacey stuff with such energy and ambition that I’m exhausted by the halfway point and working to remind myself that he made my favorite album of the year just five years ago.

Having said that, there are some remarkable highlights in this apocalypse circus — particularly the lovely, gauze-y, dreamy “Run Away With Me,” which plays in that tricky territory of being both erotic and symbolic. Right in the middle of the sighing appeals to run away as lovers in a dangerous time, he grounds the appeal in the here and now, with the vocabulary of Jesus calling to his faithful:

They will terrorize us
With new confusion
With the fear of life that seeks to bring despair within
And they will paralyze us
With new illusions
Let the dead revive the beast within

And I will bring you life
A new communion
With a paradise that brings the truth of light within
And I will show you rapture
A new horizon
Follow me to life and love within.

The prevailing theme is a lamentation over betrayal by a culture and a community that has turned against its ideals and promises and causes irreversible damage to the world. Lovers and dreamers, devastated, pledge love to one another and long for some escape beyond the burning world. And sometimes, they reach points of desperation manifested as some of the most abrasive sounds he’s ever recorded. (I can barely endure the distorted vocals in “Ursa Major.”)

“My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything,” he sings to begin “Tell Me You Love Me.” And then…

Right now I could use a change of heart
or a kiss before everything falls apart.
Can you tell me this love will last forever?
As the world turns, making such a mess
what’s the point of it,
when everything’s dispossessed?
Can we carry this love across the desert?

And as the world burns
Breathing in the blight
What’s the point of it
If morning turns into night?

Following what sure sounds to me like a whole new genre — Pandemic Pop — he unloads “Ativan,” which sounds like the anxiety attack of a believer whose faith has been shaken to the breaking point by the behaviors of his own congregation. For me, it doesn’t get much more 2020 than that.

And we’re not even halfway through the album, which will culminate in an epic crescendo of rage and heartbreak simply called “America,” a finale equivalent in ferocity to the one on Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and second only to Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” in its ambitions for answering this year of disillusionment and despair.

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