Saturday, November 28, 2020

Top 10 of 2020

These records may or may not be "the best," art is not sports, I no longer have to review 250 new records a year (though I listen to at least that much), and so much of my listening this year was coloured by the state of the world. Make of all that what you will. This glorious music made 2020 somewhat bearable for me, hopefully for you as well: music of joy, pain, therapy, escape and beauty. Dancing, not so much. 

If this is all TL;DR, here's a 38-song playlist of single tracks from my top 40 albums (two are Bandcamp exclusives)

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. 

All of that is evident only if you listen to his lyrics—which you obviously should—but his skill as a songwriter is that it also doesn't really matter. If you listen to the incredibly sensual "Jason" and all you hear is a seductive tale, that's fine; read closer and only then will you realize it's about a one-night stand with a straight man who leaves his boots on, and sneaking a $20 bill out of his wallet after he tells you to leave. Or how a seemingly simple pop song about longing with the chorus "It's been such a long, long time without you" is actually about body dysmorphia. Does it matter? They're both perfect pop songs with or without the lyrics. The melody, the vocal performance, the production, the players all offer plenty to distract you, if distraction is what you're after. And sometimes a hot and horny song of pent-up sexual release like "Nothing At All" is simply exactly that.  

There are pop records I loved this year, experimental records I loved, sad music I loved, joyous music I loved. This is my No. 1 pick because it's all of those things. There are songs here that can easily appeal to anyone who loves Roy Orbison as much as Hadreas does. And there are songs here for people who love the "difficult" deep cuts on Peter Gabriel and Bjork albums. There's one song here, "Leave," that features what sounds like a pack of coyotes duetting with a gorgeous string arrangement. Several songs are incredibly sparse and haunting. There are five rousing anthems that should be played as loud as possible, at least one of which could be capable of creating the cinematic synergy that happened when his 2017 song "Slip Away" was used in Booksmart, in a scene that had me weeping with joy in the theatre last year.

Producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple, John Legend), who also helmed 2017's No Shape, deserves a lot of credit for how this record sounds, and his bass playing on "Jason" and "Just a Touch" manages to outshine even studio vet Pino Palladino, who plays on most of the rest of the album. Speaking of studio vets, heavyweight drummers Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain are also all over this, tasteful as ever. But it's what Mills does with Hadreas's longtime partner Alan Wyffels with the otherworldly synth textures here that provide each song with its own unique world to frame Hadreas's gorgeous melodies. 

Hadreas breaks down each song for this feature in Pitchfork, and for these liner notes on Apple Music.

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. 

Great New York Times profile here, and one in the Guardian here

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. 

An in-depth short doc about the artist:

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 
13 Marlaena Moore – Pay Attention, Be Amazed! 
14 The Dears – Lovers Rock
15 Wye Oak – Horizon EP
16 Deerhoof – Love Lore
17 Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
18 Nels Cline – Share the Wealth 
19 Sault – (untitled) Rise
20 C. Diab – White Whale

Blurbs for those are here
Playlist for all top 20 albums is here. Shuffle it up: 


21-40, in alphabetical order:

79ers Gang – Expect the Unexpected
Allie X – Cape God 
Julianna Barwick – Healing is a Miracle 
Bloto – Kwiatostan 
Budos Band – Long in the Tooth 
Caribou – Suddenly 
Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season 
Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record 
Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1
Sarah Harmer – Are You Gone 
Blurbs for the above 10 are here
Blurbs for the below 10 are here 

Quin Kirchner – The Shadows and the Light
Mourning (a) BLKStar – The Cycle 
Owen Pallett – Island
Prince Nifty – We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Slow Leaves – Shelf Life 
Julian Taylor – The Ridge 
Throat Funeral – OU812212
Etuk Ubong – Africa Today
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind
Donovan Woods – Without People
Playlist for these 20 full albums is here. Shuffle it up: 


10 more of interest: 
Destroyer – Have We Met 
DijahSB – 2020 The Album
Dana Gavanski – Yesterday Is Gone
Magnetic Fields – Quickies 
Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope
Terrell Morris – Lavender 
Sneaks – Happy Birthday 
Charles Spearin and Josefin Rusteen – Thank God the Plague is Over
Tricky – Fall to Pieces
William Tyler – New Vanitas

Blurbs for those are here.


Honourable mention, about which I can't possibly be objective:
Gord Downie – Away is Mine. Wrote about it for Maclean's here


My favourite singles and non-album tracks by artists not in the top 40: Magnetic Fields, Anderson Paak, Terrell Morris, Regina Gently, Destroyer, Sufjan Stevens, Will Butler, Buddy & Julie Miller, Serena Ryder, The Weather Station, Guiding Light, Eric Bachmann, The Ropes, Karen O & Willie Nelson, Beverly Glenn-Copeland


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
Kaytranada – Bubba 
Little Scream – Speed Queen
Little Simz – Grey Area 
Lankum – The Livelong Day
Lightning Dust – Spectre 
Mdou Moctar – Ilana: The Creator
Junius Paul – Ism 
Wilco – Ode to Joy
Yola – Walk Through Fire

Blurbs for those are here.
Playlist for those is here:

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