Well…that year was awful.
That being said, this was a great year, musically. Within the mainstream, beyond it, across many genres – 2020 actually provided a ton of fantastic releases.
Here are ten of the greatest things to come out of the worst year in modern history…
#10. Allie X – Cape God
I’d been aware of Canadian singer/songwriter Allie X for some time, though only by reputation. I should’ve checked her out long before the release of Cape God.
Despite listing acts like Mariah Carey, Bjork, ABBA and Tom Petty amongst her influences, Allie X has always worked to push the boundaries of what pop can be. Much like Ellie Goulding back in the day.
Cape God was my starting point. And yes, it’s an album which plays around with pop. Allie X strides confidently across pop’s darker edges. “Fresh Laundry” matches the cover art well. Here’s a figure in a strange landscape, rich with otherworldly electronica.
“Devil I Know” marries the compelling dark pop of Billie Eilish with the sass and stomp of Charli XCX.
There’s elements of steampunk on “Rings a Bell” and slapping retrowave on “June Gloom”. “Love Me Wrong” (featuring Troye Sivan) nails the essence of tragic love, whilst also feeling like a piss-take of romantic tropes.
“Life of the Party” is where the real magic happens. It’s intense, banging electro-pop. Being the life of the party kind of sucks, especially if you feel like “They stripped me down like a Barbie”. It’s a song which betrays Allie X’s imaginative and production expertise. The line “was the life” repeats over and over at points – X is jammed, trapped by the revelation that the good times are over, or soured at the very least.
It doesn’t matter though. Because like Cape God overall, “Life of the Party” is something you want to show up for.
#9. Georgia – Seeking Thrills
This is the earliest album on the list. I knew this would make the list as soon as I’d finished my first playthrough.
There were many listens after this, because Seeking Thrills is fantastic. Imaginative, energising electro-pop with strong dance roots. Which is unsurprising as Georgia Barnes is the daughter of Neil Barnes, cofounder of Leftfield.
That’s some interesting trivia, but this fact shouldn’t detract from Georgia’s distinct identity and sound. This all comes across from the earliest bars of “Started Out”. I was really sold thanks to track 2, “About Work The Dancefloor”. A muscular slice of techno-pop which opens with a penetrating drop and rushes forward to magnificence.
Georgia’s work is perhaps a little too left field (heh) for mainstream listeners. But she definitely deserves a significantly larger audience.
#8. Snow.Drift – Closed Eyes, You’re Missing Everything
Snow.Drift has a track record of producing delicate yet vibrant dream pop. Every song I’ve heard from them is laced with fine threads of emotion.
Closed Eyes… is their finest collection yet. Opener “Leaving with Sunrise” is breezy, almost summery (thanks to its riff), but there’s still a wistful quality to it. It puts me in mind of long coastal drives – riding across a breathtaking landscape under a heavy, dark sunset. It invokes a complex, hauntingly beautiful atmosphere, which the rest of the album builds upon.
“dominoes falling/unburied bones” is jangling guitar pop perfection. It tumbles along without missing a beat.
There’s some interesting instances where Snow.Drift mixes things up. “Infinite Space” (a collaboration with Tyler Morris of Tired Violence) is more electrifying, thanks to its fuzz guitar and “b.h.c” features some seriously dramatic vocal delivery.
Closed Eyes… ends with “Dreaming Solitude…Fading with Moonlight”. There’s a little more swing to it, and it flips around the 3 minute mark, segueing into ocean waves and slowed vocals. We’re yet again on that coast, drifting across it, able to reflect on everything that’s gone before. It’s the perfect way to tie off a beautiful and affecting album.
#7. No Joy – Motherhood
Ah the power of cover art. Who doesn’t love a crazed goat with a deranged blep?
That was a weird sentence.
Motherhood is high calibre rock with a range of dynamic ideas. You get this right from the off, with “Birthmark”. Affecting lead vocals, stabbing key melody and cool percussion. It sets an epic tone which the rest of the album lives up to. It’s an intoxicating journey.
“Dream Rats” is absolute fire and crosses time lines. Post-punk bass, tempo and guitar lines which are very 90s, leading to a kick-ass song with something of a timeless quality to it.
There’s electronica in here, most notably on “Ageless”. Electro-rock bordering on EDM. It’s both wonderfully gothic and a decent floor filler. It’s a good demonstration of the inspiration behind Motherhood in general.
No Joy is willing and eager to toy with genres, and confidently brings a shit ton of ideas to the table. Motherhood is a shining testament to this.
#6. Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas produced one of the coolest albums of 2020. Both in terms of the sound and the general aura around it.
Her self-titled third album is neo soul of the highest order. Twelve tracks that ooze cool, while working with many different ideas and textures. Musically, “Bittersweet” could fit in well on a chillwave/study playlist. But La Havas’ smoky vocals give it some emotional range. It builds to a chorus that bursts with drama.
There’s also a good deal of experimentation here. “Green Papaya” takes you down a strange river. Sailing along with a trippy guitar. There are a couple of tracks like this, the most notable being a stellar cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”.
La Havas’ version has a strong break beat under it. The song amps up around the four minute mark with a killer solo. Cymbals begin clashing, but everything still entwines with the exquisite vocals of La Havas and her backing singers.
It’s a feel good album. But not in a sappy or saccharine way. It’s an album that reflects on the complexities of life and relationships. The messy and the magical.
#5. Astrophysics – Apathy
It’s a practically perfect way of summing it up. Apathy is interesting because it manages brings modern synthwave and dark, gothic post-punk together.
Actually there is a little more going on here. Opener “Oneironaut” has some drum and bass wired into it. Dance is relevant to the history of the kind of new wave and post-punk which emerged during the 80s. Joy Division became New Order, and this kind of continuity came to mind when listening to Apathy.
I got lost in “How To Dance Your Pain Away”, with its strong retrowave tones, clattering beats, unusual vocals and glitchy effects. “Soft Goth” is very, well, goth though not especially soft. It features some wonderful Cure-esque guitars which felt like coming home to someone as old as me.
“Traumacore” is my favourite track, but I’d actually like to draw more attention to “Shine”. “Shine” shows another side to Astrophysics – a neat grasp of ambience. It’s a drifting soundscape, closer to dream punk than anything else. It’s resonant thanks to an exquisite, guitar line shimmering across a deep beat coming from a rock-solid kick drum.
Apathy was an incredibly welcome surprise.
#4. Calicry – Otherrealm
2020 was the year I discovered Wave. A sub-genre with a vague tag, but a fuck ton of great music. If I have to boil it down, I’d describe it as a synthesis of witch house, garage, trap and grime.
My main introduction to Wave came via TITAN777. An epic compilation showcasing some of the scene’s brighter lights. The collaborative nature of the album demonstrates another key aspect of Wave – an emphasis on community.
Artists in the genre often coalesce around one or more collectives. These groups provide mutual aid as well as collaborations. They also help promote the individual creators themselves – giving artists space to breathe while welcoming them into a greater whole.
They are trips. But you’re not being led through dark twisted occultism as you would be by witch house. Rather you’re exploring abandoned neon-lit cities and underground spaces. Places very much alive, even if no life is actually present.
Every track segues together perfectly, so it’s not super-necessary to single tracks out. That being said, tracks like “Aura” and “Perfectly Aligned” are sublime demonstrations of this album’s power.
Otherrealm is a dream. Sometimes relaxing (despite its darker edges), often haunting and overall mesmerising.
#3. Takamachi Walk – wither.
I’m cheating here. Sort of. Touhou “doujin circle” Takamachi Walk’s wither. dropped on 31st December 2019, which, historically, would put it out of the running.
But it’s my list. And wither. got me through a lot of darker moments throughout 2020. Its incendiary blend of post-hardcore, metalcore and electro helped me through bouts of anger and despair. Which makes sense considering doujin circles make music based on a “bullet hell” games where kawaii figures battle demons.
“Empty” meant so much. It’s awesome while tapping into doomer moments. Serious riffs and pounding drums, a frenetic pace; all backing up killer lines like “So I’ll pretend I’m alright, act like I’m fine. I say that I’m okay but that’s just a lie”.
“A Desire to Disappear” closes the distance between traditional instrumentation and synths. It carries an epic melody, distinguished by cycling keyboard runs.
And then there is “Purlieu”. It strikes somewhere between dubstep and EDM. This track’s vocalist, Sasi, has a masterful grasp of flow, rapping lines like “I feel the pain that’s left inside, all that’s left for me to do is to, stand up keep up fuck up their might.’
wither. is mighty. It’s emotionally complex. And it was a year in the making. Collaborators from around the world came together to produce a monumental passion project.
#2. Backxwash – God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It
2020 was a big year for Ashanti Mutinta, aka Backxwash. The Zambian-Canadian rapper’s profile surged, with a great deal of overdue acknowledgement and praise. The Great Egg himself Anthony Fantano repeatedly heaped praise upon God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It. And in October she was awarded Canada’s Polaris Music Prize.
Watching Backwash’s growth has been inspiring. Heartwarming even, in a way I would never have expected. We’re watching an inspired and jaw-dropping talent flower.
God… is an intense album. There’s righteous anger, brutal self-reflection and a fiery exploration of life and faith. The weight being carried by a passionate musician who owns every aspect of her craft. From writing, to performance to production – Backxwash pours everything into songs which we’re lucky to have shared with us.
Marrying occultism to hip hop is refreshing. It feels like Backxwash is rejuvenating the genre. As her career progresses and influence grows we will see how far this reverberates. Hopefully very, very far.
#1. Alpha Chrome Yayo – 19th Hole
Nothing could have stopped this from hitting number one.
Alpha Chrome Yayo’s 19th Hole is one of 2020’s unalloyed high points. You might think, considering how awful 2020 has been, that this wouldn’t have been hard. But if ACY’s golf wave opus had dropped in any other year, this still would’ve been the case.
Draped in the aesthetics of 90s yuppy culture, 19th Hole proved itself to be far more than just ironic vaporwave. Yes there’s a lot of irony here, but it distinguishes itself by being goddamn hilarious.
In my review of 19th Hole I noted how “I was crying with laughter by the time I reached “Sweater Round the Shoulders (And One for the Waist).” Which was, lest we forget, only track two.
19th Hole is full of wonderfully bizarre titles. “Gimme dat Wood,” “Bitchin’ Putt” and “Now That’s Hard Driving” being fine examples. But they’re also fine examples of the insightful nature of 19th Hole. ACY actually rolls commentary into such tracks. These three being distillations of the weird machismo of golf. To put it another way: middle to upper-class men swinging clubs in lieu of comparing dick sizes.
“Where the HELL is that Caddy?!” is a weirdly profound soundtrack to the tensions between the haves and have nots. But like everything else on 19th Hole, its tongue remains firmly in cheek. It’s my job to delve deeper, but this never stopped me from soaking in the blissful silliness of 19th Hole.
What really put this over the top for me was “Power Drive”. The best song on 19th Hole, and a strong contender for best song of 2020.
Full-on cock rock which explores the trials of a salaryman whose only joy in life comes from hitting the green. My joy came from the track itself. The concept, the impressive production and collaborator Danny Madigan’s suitably over the top vocals.
19th Hole was an oasis in the desert of 2020. It brought laughter and light to a year fraught with fear, misery and danger. And I’m so grateful to Alpha Chrome Yayo for making it.