1 Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Matador). "Half of my whole life is gone" is the opening line here. It's not a lament. Not a regret. Mid-life crisis? No. Instead, it's a time of forgiveness—of the self, more than anything—and for moving toward a time when "shadows soften toward some tender light." Not that Perfume Genius's Mike Hadreas is a shiny, happy person peddling you some self-healing. This album, like all his work, mines a lot of pain, mixed with a romanticism and eroticism that's all the more powerful when it's clear how important—and difficult—it is for a lot of people to transcend mountains of negativity to achieve those idealized states.
2 Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History (Impulse). Shabaka Hutchings has become a jazz crossover sensation through his work in Sons of Kemet and the Comet is Coming, both of which are thrilling, visceral and ecstatic; it's not hard to understand their appeal to non-jazz audiences. This more traditional group, with South African musicians, is more laid back. Though Hutchings's melodic style is unmistakable, this music is driven largely by upright bassist Ariel Zamonsky's Mingus-y lines, while drummer Tumi Mogorosi and percussionist Gontse Makhene lay down some Afro-Caribbean grooves underneath him. The poet Siyabonga Mthembu's gospel-esque Zulu vocals bring a lot to the table, but are never the focal point. He does, however, provide the the context for an album inspired by Extinction Rebellion and other crisis points: the songs were composed based on his titles, which include "They Who Must Die," "Run, the Darkness Will Pass," and "Beasts Too Spoke of Suffering." "We are here because history called," he sings. Hutchings says the music is "a reflection from the ruins ... Music is the seed from which new worlds must grow." In a year when it became more important than ever to reimagine a "new normal," this was a spiritual salve.
3 Agnes Obel – Myopia (Deutsche Grammophon). Piano, cello, voice, and absolutely haunting minor-key melodies steeped in melancholy: perfect for lonely, uncertain times. Every song is a miniature sonic film, and titles like "Broken Sleep," "Island of Doom" and "Won't You Call Me" reinforce the mood. What makes it even better, however, is this Berlin-based-Belgian's approach to production: all the instruments are often pitched higher or lower, including her voice—like Fever Ray, she likes to harmonize with a "male" version of herself in a lower register. If that wasn't otherworldly enough, the drum sounds and overall use of reverb make this seem like it was made at the bottom of a frozen lake in the German Alps. Which seems like a nice enough spot to get myopic and shelter in place. I listened to this daily, almost obsessively, at the beginning of the lockdown. It's lost none of its magic and mystery since. The one concert ticket I had pinned to my wall when the pandemic hit was to see her open for—wait for it—Dead Can Dance.
4 Junia T – Studio Monk (Pirates Blend)
Wrote about this here and here.
This album should be to the next generation of Toronto what Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People was to indie rock in the early 2000s. Junia T steps to the forefront after being Jessie Reyez’s tour DJ for the last few years to craft this masterful collection of grooves built from the bottom up with live musicians and invite an array of mostly Toronto talent to shine in his stead. It functions not so much as a solo record but as a mixtape with all-stars like Reyez, Sean Leon, and River Tiber, but relatively unknown singers Storry and Faiza, as well as highly underrated Toronto vet Adam Bomb. Sometimes this much talent on one record means a lot of compromise and mush, but every single artist here brings their A-game. (Well, maybe not Nate Husser.) Jessie Reyez is the only big name here, but every guest here shows off big personalities while never overshadowing the brilliance of Junia T’s arrangements, which draw from vintage funk, neosoul, reggae, triphop, Brazilian beats and jazz. The beats are killer; the bass lines even better. The singers are all pitch perfect. Slakah the Beatchild is behind the boards, ensuring a rich, warm, vintage sound. This album was two years in the making, and it shows: there is a deep attention to detail and mood on every track.
5 Melt Yourself Down – 100% Yes (Universal). One of my all-time favourite jams is Pigbag's "Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag" (a.k.a. the theme from CITY-TV's The New Music), and so to discover a current London band mining a similar vibe is nothing short of glorious. But nothing else sounds like this, and if it does I need to find it: Killer grooves, heavy percussion (timbales, congas, darbuka), a raunchy two-saxophone attack (bari and tenor) run through distortion, and a compelling singer howling in Mauritian, English and made-up languages. There's no doubt this is a party band, but so were the Specials and Mano Negra and Asian Dub Foundation, and, like those bands, the lyrics here are rich with reactions to racism and recent British history (i.e. the indifference to the Grenfell highrise tragedy). There's been an explosion of creativity in British jazz lately, and it should be noted that this band—which is not jazz—dates back to 2014, after which two founding members left to form Sons of Kemet, among other projects (including Shabaka and the Ancestors; see above). Between that association and a jump to a major label, this band should be much better known than they are. This is perhaps the one 2020 record I regret most not being able to see live (this is kind of fun but doesn't really cut it); that said, it's a hot, sweaty mess even just coming out the headphones.
6 Pantayo – s/t (Telephone Explosion)
Wrote about this here and here.
It’s safe to say that few people, if anyone, in North America has heard a band like this, which combines traditional Filipino percussion (kulintang) with modern R&B and pop. Producer Alaska B (Yamantaka//Sonic Titan) ensures everything sounds rich, thick and totally pro: deep Solange-ish grooves over which the Moondog-ish metallophones and other kulintang percussion sparkle with life. If this were just a novel and evocative instrumental record, it would already succeed, but these women are also great singers: check out the sultry soul ballad “Desire,” which absolutely could and should be a pop hit. The brooding pulse of “V V V” is a 2020 anthem (“They lie / they will never tell the truth”). “Heto Na” and “Taranta” have some serious ESG vibes, while obviously sounding nothing like them. I was thrilled when they made the Polaris shortlist, because this deserves to be heard around the world.
7 Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom (Dualtone). Edwards is a master of economy: lean but lovely arrangements, great players, and 10 songs so good that her long hiatus has been entirely justified. But bring hankies—especially if you're forty-ish or over and living with a bunch of regret. For those rare moments when you're not, "Glenfern" might just be the greatest song ever written with affection for an ex, remembering the good times with gratitude and moving past the hurt. (After years of armchair trainspotters wondering who Edwards's songs were about, that one is quite explicitly about ex-husband Colin Cripps.) And though I'm not well versed on the canon of canine songs, I'd hazard a guess that "Who Rescued Who" is also near the top of that niche. As always, there's an ace band behind her: longtime friends and collaborators Jim Bryson (keys, guitar), guitarist Gord Tough (also heard on Sarah Harmer's record), drummer Peter Von Althen and bassist Darcy Yates. Extra points for the driving kosmische Canadiana of "Hard on Everyone." I have to admit that I took this record for granted: on many levels, it sounds like Another Kathleen Edwards Album—an extension of 2012's fantastic Voyageur and entirely predictable, for better or worse. But as the weight of the songs began to sink in, it was not only a reminder of what a great writer she is, but that she keeps getting better: the character portraits, the tiny lyrical details, the turns of phrase, the earworms. Take your time, Ms. Edwards. You've more than earned it.
8 Witch Prophet – DNA Activation (independent)
Wrote about this here and here.
“Bow down to queen,” demands Ayo Leilani on her second album as Witch Prophet. As we should: DNA Activation is a completely captivating, entrancing journey through trippy soul with an Eritrean Erykah Badu bent. Jazzy vibes, deep grooves and synesthesiac textures abound, creating a sonic splendour in which it’s easy to get lost. Leilani’s vocals aren’t a focus as much as they are a centring guide, a soothing presence asking, “Where do we go from here, when the whole world is falling?” Karen Ng’s saxophone plays a key role on three of the 10 tracks, indebted to Ethio jazz. “Makda” comes off like a trippier Dan the Automator. Everything about DNA Activation is a huge step up from her promising debut; its only real drawback is that it’s incredibly brief: 10 songs in 24 minutes. This is hypnotic, healing music for humid days, during days when these lyrics strike deep: “Where do we go from here / When the whole world is falling / Through darkness / And we cannot see the light.” The woman known as Witch Prophet brings that light.
9 Frazey Ford – U Kin B the Sun (Arts and Crafts)
Wrote about it here and here.
Words will always fail to describe Frazey Ford’s voice, probably because she fails to enunciate most of her words in the first place. Such is the magic and mystery that this soulful singer brings to everything she does, whether it was the folk revivalism of the Be Good Tanyas 20 years ago (!) or the soul music she immerses herself in here. This is not exactly retro R&B, but it is a solid live band with a Hammond organ (or imitation) hovering over the bass-heavy grooves and gospel-tinged backing vocals. She’s a devoted D’Angelo fan, and her last record used the same band Cat Power did on The Greatest; Ford brings her own hippie B.C. vibe to the genre. She’s not in this game to win; she can take or leave the music business, as she’s proved over the years while moving at her own pace. The music she makes is for healing, for uplift, for the spirit. Which is all well and good and inspiring, but the songs she brings to the table this time, and the players she gathered to perform it, that elevate this far beyond mere good intentions. The Aretha Franklin of the Kootenays?
10 U.S. Girls – Heavy Light (4AD / Royal Mountain)
Wrote about this here and here.
This was recorded by humans in a room together at the same time. Crazy, right? Meg Remy and her circle are politically progressive but have decidedly old-school beliefs when it comes to musical chops: you should be able to play, you should be able to play well with other people, and no amount of multitracking can substitute for the sound of amazing singers surrounding a microphone in real time.
Heavy Light aims to be a What’s Going On of this generation: lyrics that address personal and systemic pain, enveloped in melodies, grooves and arrangements that seek to soothe rather than confront. “You gotta have boots, if you wanna lift those bootstraps,” goes the opening track, addressing historic economic inequality in the guise of a sweet soul song. “Overtime” is a first-person song about a widow discovering that her overworked husband drank their savings away. “Born to Lose” could be a Sarah Kendzior or Barbara Ehrenreich book about American decline in a torch-y song with a choral chorus, set to ’50s lounge exotica. A Latin excursion on “And Yet It Moves / Y Se Mueve” works surprisingly well—or, not so surprising at all, considering the calibre of musicians involved. The entire record is lush and expansive, and yet always in subtle ways; this is not a record that wants to show off, it wants to draw you in.
Remy has a lot of top-shelf help here: Basia Bulat, Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury, partner Slim Twig, the band Ice Cream, future superstar James Baley, the E Street Band’s Jake Clemons, the underrated Geordie Gordon and Michael Rault, engineer Howard Bilerman, and vocal arranger Kitty Uranowski. It’d be hard to make a bad record with those people in the room. But with Remy at the helm, the result is an instant classic.
Everything about this exudes empathy and community, which is exactly what we need right now.
11 Nihiloxica – Kawali
12 Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia
15 Wye Oak – Horizon EP
16 Deerhoof – Love Lore
Playlist for all top 20 albums is here. Shuffle it up:
21-40, in alphabetical order:
79ers Gang – Expect the Unexpected
Mourning (a) BLKStar – The Cycle
Prince Nifty – We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Slow Leaves – Shelf Life
Etuk Ubong – Africa Today
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind
Donovan Woods – Without People
Dana Gavanski – Yesterday Is Gone
Terrell Morris – Lavender
Tricky – Fall to Pieces
William Tyler – New Vanitas
Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Transmissions
Prince – Sign O the Times
Pylon – Box
Blurbs for those are here.
2019 albums I was late to in 2020:
Bon Enfant – s/t