Like many others, I must admit I did feel a little odd trying to apply any sort of ranking to music in this most bizarre of years: essentially everyone who got anything out into the world deserves a huge amount of praise. Many other sites have done away with ranking entirely, and I’d largely agree with that approach, that said, there’s a part of me that does, and probably always will, love approaching an end of year list, whittling down the many hundreds of records the site has covered in one way or another and slowly reaching some conclusion as to which ones meant the most to me. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, I have not listened to every record put out this year, because that’s impossible, and as always I’m sure there will be several records released this year that I end up loving as much as some that did make the list. The list is also not in any way meant to be any reflection on the wider impact of the records, while I still believe music can change the world, this is entirely personal opinion. So without further ado, here are my twenty favourite records of 2020, I hope you find something to love, that is after all the only reason for doing any of this.
20. Suzie True – Saddest Girl At The Party [Get Better Records]
Starting life as the solo-project of Bearcats drummer Lexi McCoy, Suzie True have since expanded to a power-pop trio, walking the line between skater-punk and melancholic pop. The Los Angeles-based band’s enigmatically titled debut album, Saddest Girl At The Party, almost didn’t come out at all after abuse accusations against a former label left them high-and-dry, thankfully in their hour of need, Get Better Records came to the rescue.
Across its eleven tracks, Saddest Girl At The Party is a record that rarely stops for breath, a rush of sugar-sweet pop-punk, full of unwanted crushes, parties you don’t really want to be at, and shitty day jobs. Musically, the record felt like the middle-ground of the 1960’s girl-groups and The Ramones; infectiously catchy harmonies colliding with delightfully fuzzy, blurs of guitar and drums battered to within an inch of their lives. Particularly brilliant is Camel Crush with its Be My Baby-drums and lyrics that exist on the border of sweet and obsessive, “daydream about you, always, always, decorate my bedroom with your x-rays”. Youthful heartache might not exactly be a new topic in pop-music, yet when it’s as honest and infectious as Suzie True, you’ll probably be shouting along too loud to care.
19. Post Louis – Descender [Self-Released]
Picked out here as one of my twenty bands for 2020, Post Louis’ fantastic album Descender was one of the first to arrive this year, and the fact it’s still pinging around my head is a sign of its enduring quality. The London-based art-rock quintet had previously caught the ears of many with a series of well-received EPs, yet Descender felt like a huge leap forward for the band. A labour of love, Descender was written and recorded over an eighteen month period, the band eking out free moments around their day jobs. If that’s all sounding a little too DIY for your tastes, well the resultant record is anything but lo-fi, a lush, textural and ambitious album, where the band seemed to refuse to cut a single corner.
As well as influencing the production of the album, the world of work and post-capitalism was also a thematic influence, a record that reflected the, “desperate exhaustion”, that so many feel as they attempt to balance work and creativity. Across Descender, Post Louis seem willing to tackle the big stuff, from toxic masculinity to loss and longing, the intensity of their message matched by the ambitious musicality. Across the album’s twelve tracks, Post Louis turn their hand to both wiry guitar-led tracks and ambitious orchestral numbers, fusing the worlds of post-punk and chamber-pop into a sound entirely of their own imagination. This might be a record that deals with the difficulties of modern living, yet it is one that refuses to be dimmed by it, Post Louis refuse to compromise their sound, refuse to shift their bold musical vision, and it is all the more thrilling as a result.
18. Charmpit – Cause A Stir [Specialist Subject Records]
Charmpit’s debut album starts with Do It Together (First Timers), a how-to-guide for forming a band, a reminder to embrace your mistakes, learn as you go and remember, “if your first song smells, it’ll just get better”. Favourites on this site for a number of years, the London-based punks formed to play First Timers Fest back in 2016, and without losing any of their DIY-ethos have slowly gone about making quite a splash, catching the ear of Bristol-institution Specialist Subject Records along the way. Released back in April, the quartet’s debut album, Cause A Stir, was a deliriously fun blast from start to finish, eleven songs about friendship, being queer and proud, and their love for shopping malls.
While still perfectly unpolished, Cause A Stir was unquestionably a step-up from Charmpit’s previous output, co-produced with Rich Mandell, their lo-fi roots were fleshed out, owing as much to the chart-pop they’ve always openly coveted as it does to their punkier tendencies. Take a track like Princess Video, around Alex’s driving rhythm, there are lush piano flourishes, shimmering guitars and perfectly poised harmonies, all delivering a message about being the star of your own story; if it popped up on the Radio 1 playlist it wouldn’t sound out of place. Elsewhere, Sophomore Year is a delightfully harmonious anarchist anthem, Kissing You perfectly sets first date anxieties to bubblegum-punk, while Dyed and Gone To Hairven is a song about haircuts that sounded like early-noughties emo. In a year when we all needed cheering up sometimes, Charmpit did it as well as they always do, and more than that, scratch the surface and they also made you think, a record for the heart and the head, Charmpit’s debut was everything I hoped it would be, and a whole lot more.
17. Little Kid – Transfiguration Highway [Solitaire Recordings]
If this was a list for best song-titles rather than best albums then Little Kids’ track, I Thought That You’d Been Raptured would take some beating; thankfully the album it is lifted from is just as good. Releasing music since back in 2011, Little Kid is ostensibly a vehicle for the songwriting of Toronto-based musician, Kenny Boothby. Now expanded to a four-piece band, Little Kid’s album, Transfiguration Highway, marked their first release on a label, and fittingly, was their most ambitious record to date.
The titular highway was a theme that ran through the record, charting the path Kenny has walked since leaving his home town of Petrolia and gradually making his way to Toronto, charting the increase in pace of life, volume and godlessness that came along with that journey. While in no way a Christian record, Transfiguration Highway is an album that borrows heavily from the imagery that so intrigues Kenny, for example the aforementioned I Thought That You’d Been Raptured, tells the story of a man who comes home to find his wife’s clothes on the living room floor and believes her to have been summoned to the heavens, when in fact she’s having an affair. Elsewhere there are less theological reference points, What’s In A Name, borrowing a line from Romeo & Juliet to explore ideas of names and gender identity, while the gorgeous duet All Night (Golden Ring) was a response to the story of Tammy Wynette returning to record an album of duets with her abusive former partner George Jones, after their failed forays as solo artists. These deep thinking narratives are set to an array of expansive alt-country, nodding to the likes of Wilco or Lift To Experience, while still carving out a niche entirely of Little Kids’ own. Particularly wonderful is Thief On The Cross, all bassy pulse and helter-skelter piano flourishes, it uses the idea of a thief being crucified next to Jesus as a metaphor for the competitive edge of many music scenes, “praying you’ll remember me, when you finally reach the entrance to eternity, I played in that old three piece, we opened for thee way back in 2015″. Transfiguration Highway is a record that rewards repeat listens, its clever lyricism and complex musicality revealing new charms with each listen, give this album your time, and you won’t regret it.
16. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher [Dead Oceans]
If you’re as interested in end of year lists as I am, then you’re probably a bit bored of hearing about Phoebe Bridgers by now. Her new album, Punisher, has been such a regular fixture on this year’s lists that it becomes difficult to add anything further to the conversation. The follow up to 2017’s break-out album Strangers In The Alps, Punisher is a solo album that pushed Phoebe’s boundaries, stretched her musical ambition, and allowed her, and her stellar cast of collaborators, a freedom of expression to take her songwriting wherever it was destined to go.
Across Punisher, Phoebe seems to take her music further than ever before; a reflection of the many stories and places that have come her way since Strangers In The Alps gave her a platform to explore her musical dreams, without ever losing the essence of what makes her songwriting so special in the first place, her own viewpoint of the the world. Take the album’s second single, Kyoto, at first listen it is as upbeat as her music has ever sounded, yet that belies its underlying message of feeling lost and alone, even as your dreams appear, from the outside at least, to be coming true. Elsewhere the bewitching Garden Song, with its stunning fluttering guitar-line, felt like a subtle refining of her previous output, while the gorgeous Chinese Satellites fused lush orchestration to a stunningly complex rhythm, and Savior Complex was the sort of bare-bones folk that Phoebe’s voice was surely built to sing. In 2020, Phoebe Bridgers seemed to become that rarest of spectacles, an artist whose new album felt like a cultural event, a moment where the world, or at least a small sub-section of it, seemed to come together and really celebrate someone’s art, and when it’s a record this special, it was easy to see why.
15. NOVA ONE – lovable [Community Records]
Nova One, the project of Rhode Island-based songwriter, Roz Rankin, first emerged in 2018 with the acclaimed EP, Secret Princess. A collection of retro-pop songs presented through a DIY-lens, it was a fascinating introduction; a hint of Roz’s talent as a songwriter, yet it barely prepared listeners for quite how good their debut album, lovable, would be. An exploration of femininity, queerness and learning to love yourself and others, lovable seemed to reach out of the speakers and remind you that whatever life throws your way, you are not alone in anything you’re feeling, and it sounded utterly wonderful doing it.
Lovable opens with the uneasy twang of To Be Kind, set to a distorted guitar and pounding, primal rhythm, it is a song about the uneasy relationship we all have with ourselves, “it’s easy to be kind, not to be wise, you’re great but you lie, you’re good in denial”. From there the record seems to slide into a warm cocoon of sound, even if the relationships it details are troubled, and the battle for self-acceptance is a struggle, Nova One offer a beautiful soundtrack, a perfect fuzzy place for self-exploration. The influence of classic-pop songs lingers throughout, from the strutting guitars of Somebody, to the heartbreaking country-pop of the title track, like Best Coast or Neighbor Lady, this was a record that looked to the songs of the past and then dragged them into the modern world. Lovable is a record that lives up to its name, from those first furtive glances where it looked so intriguing, it was with time that it truly gave you something to fall for, just make sure you’re ready to fall head-over-heels for Nova One.
14. Porridge Radio – Every Bad [Secretly Canadian]
While I came into this year expecting big things from Porridge Radio, I must admit I never saw it going quite this well for them. Having established themselves on the UK’s DIY-circuit as something of a word-of-mouth hit, somewhere along the way they caught the ear of indie-label behemoths Secretly Canadian, who saw enough in them to agree to release their latest album, Every Bad. From there came 6Music plays, an ever growing audience, and ultimately a Mercury Music Prize nomination, not bad for a band who were half-way up the bill on the second stage at Indietracks festival only a summer earlier. All of that success arriving so quickly might seem a tad confusing, especially for a band who seemingly haven’t compromised their angular sound in the slightest, yet give Every Bad a few listens and the pieces will quickly fall into place.
What really makes Every Bad stand out is the fact that it instantly hits on a sound all of its own, you can distill a fragment of one track down and think you’ve spotted an influence, yet put it all together and the picture is entirely Porridge Radio’s own. Throughout Every Bad is a record that seems to flick between moments of melody and moments of shouting in your ear;, one second there’s an open hearted lyric hinting at some sense of tenderness, the next it’s descended into a world-ending, existentialist howl. Taken as a whole, I remember the record initially seemed jarring, more intense and angular than the hushed majesty of the record’s first single, Give Take had hinted at, yet on repeat listens the edges began to become the appeal, this is a record that does not set out to be lovable, it’s bigger than that. This is never more evident than on the remarkable Lilac, a song that starts with a blast of static guitar noise, fits in a series of repeated howls for positivity and a better world, and yet somehow despite that does sort of make sense as a single. Every Bad is ultimately a record of a place and a time, a raw outpouring of a whirring mind, get past the prickly exterior and this is a truly remarkable record, one deserving of every bit of praise so many have rushed to pass its way.
13. Caitlin Pasko – Greenhouse [Whatever’s Clever]
Based out of Brooklyn, Caitlin Pasko has been something of a fixture on the thriving music-scene there, working both behind the scenes and collaborating on various intriguing projects. Amid all her other work though, is the weaving of an intriguing solo project; 2017’s Glass Period set the scene, placing Caitlin’s fluid piano playing and elegant vocals within a shimmering chapel to grief. Back in August, some three years on from Glass Period, we find Caitlin returning once more to a glass structure for influence, here a Greenhouse serves as both protection and nurturer, reflecting the shoots of new life that emerge when we are able to let our past traumas pass.
Written once again with Caitlin’s Glass Period collaborator, Henry Terepka, Greenhouse is a reflection on the way relationships fade and grow, be they romantic, familial or with ourselves. The album was written at the end of an emotionally abusive partnership, documented in particular on the stunningly raw Horrible Person, yet fittingly, that is presented in the album’s centre, not allowed to have either first or final word on the matter. Elsewhere on the record we find Caitlin in various guises, often seemingly levitating above herself, looking back on past situations and finding new meaning and carving out the ability to move on. The whole record seems to build towards its closing track, Intimate Distance, it is a moment of clarity and understanding, as Caitlin sings, “it took a fallen snow to feel that growth and letting go are so complexly intertwined”, it brings us as listeners back to the greenhouse, the glass above that shields us when our growth is fresh and new, and allows us the best chance to survive and find the better days that are still to come.
12. Savage Mansion – Weird Country [Lost Map]
It was only in 2019 that Savage Mansion came roaring out into the world with their superb debut album, Revision Ballads, yet they wasted no time in getting straight back to it. In April, the Glasgow-based project, a vehicle for the songwriting of Craig Angus, returned with their second collection, Weird Country, a series of songs that took the slacker-punk sensibilities of their debut album, and re-imagined them in the great story-telling tradition of acts like The Kinks or Courtney Barnett. Alongside Craig’s razor-sharp songwriting came a new found musical swagger, the tracks fleshed out into a more complete and eclectic whole.
The album opens with Karaoke, a homage to the band’s home, “a magical and intoxicating city that captivates and frustrates in equal measure“, it is set to a soundtrack of slide-guitars, bar-room piano and cooed vocal harmonies, with a subtle nod to Transformer-era Lou Reed. Elsewhere across the record, Craig is both scathing and humorous, whether picking apart narrow-minded British exceptionalism on Taking The Four’s, or exploring more distinctly Scottish history on The International, “a tribute to those who joined up with the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War”. As well as the more state-of-the-world missives, there’s also some surprisingly tender moments, for all it’s rambunctious clatter, Merrie is a rather beautiful slice of unrequited workplace adoration, “are you getting married to that man? I’ve really tried hating him but I can’t, and do you think it’s strange that I wear my hair the same these days?” Perhaps best of all is the title track, a biting assault on anti-immigrant sentiments, set to a country-rock setting, as Craig half speaks out his words, “we begged for passengers, citizens to build and rebuild this nation, this is our most sickening shame”. Throughout this album, Savage Mansion feel like a band evolving, sharpening their focus, carving out their niche and becoming the band I always hoped they would become.
11. Magana – You Are Not A Morning Person [Self-Released]
Over a decade ago, Jeni Magana left, “the desert heat”, of Bakersfield, California and moved to New York City. It’s hardly a unique tale, so many of those of us who grow up outside the bristling metropolises are drawn to their shining lights, the freedom and opportunity they seem to offer can be intoxicating. You Are Not A Morning Person, the debut Magana album, which Jeni shared back in October, is a reflection on what happens next, what New York gave her, and ultimately why she chose to leave.
Across its ten-tracks, You Are Not A Morning Person is a dissection of the tiny moments that make a life, sometimes beautiful, sometimes unfair, sometimes a cause of celebration, and sometimes a reason to scream at the top of your lungs. It marked a distinct musical departure for Magana, moving from the ghostly sketches of her previous output to a fuller, heavier sound, here Jeni incorporated a full-band to adorn her vocal with an array of ideas from the Mothers-like flourish of Who Am I, to the driving crush of No More Friends. While more musically complex than previous material, this is equally a record that strives for a direct connection, particularly on the spell-binding Face In A Locket, and the heart-wrenching tale of falling hopelessly in love that is the closing track, Stay A While. While this might have been a farewell to New York, it was a thrilling introduction to the heights Magana’s has reached, an artist unafraid of reinvention and striding confidently forward to whatever new chapter is waiting round the bend.
Check out part two of my favourite records of 2020, HERE.