Before posting my top 40 of 2020, here are 10 other records I enjoyed this year that deserve to be in the time capsule: mostly either by promising newbies or vets who continue to surprise.
Destroyer – Have We Met (Merge). Come for John Collins's impeccable and interesting production, which is an '80s throwback that improves considerably on the original era. Stay, if you like, for Dan Bejar, who's more miss than hit this time out; some of his weaker lyrical moments prevent me from loving this more than I do, because musically it's one of his strongest.
DijahSB – 2020 The Album (independent). "It's time for me to become a household name," this Toronto rapper told Xtra recently. Why not? This is a bright, bold, funky record with serious flow, an album made for the dancefloor that never falls into trap. Musical positivity abounds, even when the lyrics are brutally honest about the chronic pitfalls of poverty ("I'll Pay You Back on Friday," "Broke Boi Anthem."
Dana Gavanski – Yesterday Is Gone (Flemish Eye). Here's what I wrote earlier this year: No wonder this odd little record is so fascinating: it was born in Vancouver, Montreal, the Laurentians, Banff, Toronto, and Serbia. Gavanski packs a lot of work, discipline and experience into her debut album, which fits into a lineage that spans Nico to Aldous Harding (and FWIW I’m not a fan of the latter). It’s unassuming at first, with subtle arrangements and Gavanski’s deadpan voice somewhat off-putting. But the intimacy and delicacy of the instrumentation ultimately draw you in; every tiny production decision here is very particular and deliberate, creating a world you want to inhabit on a lazy afternoon. Fans of Jennifer Castle should be paying attention.
Magnetic Fields – Quickies (Nonesuch). With 28 songs in 47 minutes, there's not much time to dislike anything here—though there are definitely a few duds—and Stephin Merritt is up to many of his best tricks. Who else could spin a relationship metaphor from "Kraftwerk in a Blackout"? And I'm kind of surprised that "The Day the Politicians Died" ("billions laughed and no one cried... celebrations spread worldwide") didn't get more play in this hellish year.
Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope (You've Changed). If this record sounds like a long-lost '60s pop gem, that's because it kind of is. McKiel lives in Sackville, N.B., where he bought an old analogue reel-to-reel tape recorder from an online seller. The recorder came with some tapes. On one of those tapes were isolated tracks: instruments, vocals, and even one complete song. McKiel took the tracks to Jay Crocker, a.k.a. Joyfultalk, and chopped them up into pieces from which McKiel then wrote his own songs, collaborating with an artist he never met and never will. The result is hazy, psych-folk pop rich with mystery.
Terrell Morris – Lavender (Blakk Velvet Arts). Multi-dimensional Toronto R&B/hip-hop, silky singing voice, decent rapper, but most important a breadth of styles heard over the course of this album. Opening track "Winterfall" ("Fuck I hate the winter / damn I love the fall" speaks to me) spends half its running time with Morris accompanied by only a solo alto saxophone. The more contemporary "Roxy" features a video co-starring 2019 longlister Sydanie. "Play the Fool," primarily a solo acoustic guitar track, puts him in Bahamas/Kiwanuka territory. "Got the Love" is a Kaytranada-esque pop song. "Renaissance" is in super-smooth Sade territory. Fans of fellow Torontonians Junia T, Keita Juma, Charlotte Day Wilson, Daniel Caesar et al should be tuning in.
Sneaks – Happy Birthday (Merge). "Tell me, do you want to go out tonight?" HELL YES O GOD PLEASE MAKE THIS LOCKDOWN END. (Safely and scientifically, of course.) Sitting somewhere between early Solange and Le Tigre with some 80s Detroit techno in the mix, this DC artist's fourth album ("I'm not overrated / I'm not underrated / I'm just slightly sophisticated") would have sounded great after last call at your local, but in 2020 it became a soundtrack to driving around desolate streets late at night remembering what was.
Charles Spearin and Josefin Rusteen – Thank God the Plague is Over (Arts and Crafts). So, yeah, about that title: this was recorded in a 16th-century chapel in a tiny Italian town ravished by the Black Plague, and the titular phrase was 400-year-old graffiti on the wall. Spearin (Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think) and Rusteen (a Swedish violinist who's played with Ane Brun) improvised in this chapel every day during an artist's retreat set up by Feist, on nyckelharpa and violin. There are ghosts in this music, and two strangers who don't speak the same language found common ground among them.
Tricky – Fall to Pieces (False Idols). I only check in on Tricky every few years, but the success of Backxwash (with whom I'd love to hear a collaboration), the continued influence of Billie Eilish, and other elements in the zeitgeist made me realize how much we still hear 1995's Maxinquaye every day, in different ways. What I hadn't realized is that he lost his 24-year-old daughter in 2019, and wrote a memoir about his tumultuous life later that year. This new record is very much a 21st century blues album, particularly the raw "Hate This Pain." Most of it is sparse, lovely, and features Polish vocalist Marta. It's his 14th album. I don't claim to be intimate with every minute detail of his discography, but I'd hazard a guess that this is one of the best.
William Tyler – New Vanitas (Merge). I'm not going to the U.S. anytime soon. I'm not going anywhere soon, for that matter, except the furthest reaches of my imagination. For those journeys, Nashville guitarist William Tyler makes great driving music. It's vivid and meditative music, but always seems to be in motion, full of changing landscapes and small details spotted at the side of the road. And whereas someone like Julianna Barwick--whose music served a similar function for me this year--seems to reside in fantastical places, Tyler sounds rooted in the natural world, or at the very least in the quotidian corners of your neighbourhood you never noticed before you were forced to explore them when the world collapsed around you.