Quin Kirchner – The Shadows and the Light (Astral Spirits). This Chicago drummer wants to blow your mind right out of the gate, with the solo percussion piece "Shadow Intro," but it quickly becomes clear that this record is anything but an ego trip, ranging from full band freakouts to more melodic material, to songs featuring just an unaccompanied horn section, to the delicate kalimba-and-upright-bass "Pathways," to the dreamy, interstellar Sun Ra-ish journeys heard on the latter half of the record.
Mourning (a) BLKStar – The Cycle (Don Giovanni). Is there a secular gospel movement afoot? Last year Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble put out Where Future Unfolds, featuring a chorus of voices singing modern civil rights songs over jazz instrumentation and electronics, and it was fantastic. This year Cleveland's Mourning (a) BLKStar showed up with this stunner, featuring three lead singers with clear gospel skills, a robust horn section, and grooves harkening back to Massive Attack's Blue Lines, with organ at the forefront. "Mist :: Missed" opens with the lines, "I've been dealing with a whole lot of shit / Got my mind racing over it / Folks don't care what they say / It's like they're playing different games." Amen.
Owen Pallett – Island (Secret City / Domino). There's always more happening on an Owen Pallett record than first meets the eye. At first glance, I thought this was his most stripped-down record, with most songs based primarily on acoustic guitar or piano. Which is ridiculous: part of Pallett's immense talent as an arranger is the delicate detail that you're not even aware is happening. (See also: his soundtrack to the documentary Spaceship Earth, released this year.) Island is much more of an interior mood piece than any of his previous records, and it's a mood that landed exactly at the right moment (for listeners, anyway; it sure put a wrench in his touring plans).
Also: video of the year?
Prince Nifty – We're Not in Kansas Anymore (Bandcamp exclusive). "A soundtrack for doing nothing." Well, that's 2020 in a nutshell, ain't it? Matt Smith is a long-time collaborator of Owen Pallett's, dating back to Les Mouches, and had a hand in Lido Pimienta's excellent Miss Colombia. Here, in his solo alias, he opens with "Over the Rainbow," on solo acoustic guitar and sounding like he's being beamed in from Mars, and from there spends most of his time futzing with synths in what sounds like '70s sci-fi soundtracks. There are two layered vocal tracks that could accompany a Guy Maddin film, while there's also a dramatic Angelo Badalamenti cover and a beautiful acoustic original called "Imitation of Life" (def not a cover of R.E.M.'s worst single). As a whole, it doesn't make a lot of sense. But what does these days?
Slow Leaves – Shelf Life (Birthday Cake). I wrote this earlier: It’s not like critics are stumbling over themselves in a hunt for the new Lightfoot in 2020. But hey, FWIW, Slow Leaves is likely the new Lightfoot, or at least the most worthy contender since Doug Paisley dropped the 2011 classic Constant Companion. Davidson sings with a gentle lilt and affecting tremolo, his breezy folk rock designed to be played on crackly vinyl or around a campfire. Davidson sounds like a middle-aged dad, which he is, and this is an ideal midlife rainy day record when accompanied by coffee and/or scotch. It’s not new or dark or sexy; it’s just life.
Julian Taylor – The Ridge (independent). Taylor has spent more than 20 years knocking around Toronto's music scene in two original bands (one of them eponymous), but this solo acoustic record has proven to be his breakout. Small wonder why. These are gorgeous, folk-country songs with rich production and Taylor's velvety voice. The full-band arrangements are gentle and warm; this whole record feels like a warm blanket in front of a campfire on a chilly night. It's comfort food, but it's fucking delicious.
Throat Funeral – OU812212 (Bandcamp exclusive). Why, yes, all things considered, 2020 is the perfect year to debut a new noise project called Throat Funeral that sounds like a chest being eviscerated. Riff-rocker / heavy metallist / prolific podcaster Danko Jones has had this record in the can for a while, and decided to unleash it on the world now. There are guest spots from Tanya Tagaq (naturally), first-wave grunge singer Tad Doyle, and Swedish avant-garde saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby, but all other sounds here were generated in the deepest depths of Jones's chest and lungs. It's paradoxically aggressive and ambient, somehow both soothing and terrifying. It's 2020 in an audio nutshell.
Etuk Ubong – Africa Today (Night Dreamer). This Lagos trumpeter arrives with accolades from Seun Kuti, and it's not hard to hear the connection to that family's legacy. Recorded live to disc in the Netherlands, this is a document of a band on fire; every single player is fantastic and stands out in the mix, as impossible as that seems (though the keyboardist and percussionists are essential). In a year of horrible headlines from Nigeria, this was some welcome news.
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind (Sub Pop). I've said this often in the past three years: Wolf Parade Mk 2 is infinitely superior than this band's first kick at the can. Sure, Apologies to the Queen Mary, which turned 15 this year, is an untouchable classic, but 2017's Cry Cry Cry and now this display a band hitting their stride all these years later: as songwriters, performers and singers. Underestimate them at your peril. I wrote about this here and here. Oh, and for the Globe and Mail here.
Donovan Woods – Without People (Meant Well). Are you feeling lonely in a long-term relationship, possibly exacerbated by a pandemic lockdown? Then hey, have I got the bummer country-pop album for you! Ontario's deep, dark Woods is a master of economy who keeps getting better: in his melodies, in his lyrics, and here he paints some devastatingly vivid pictures on tracks like "Seeing Other People" and "Clean Slate." This record is full of earworms, and the more they get in your head, the more he's here to remind you that "lonely people wrote every song you ever loved."