You probably wondered (if you wondered at all) if this blog is still alive. Did it get some sort of respiratory disease and reside? Nope, if anything it’s fallen out of its owner’s purview due to the internet being taken over by corporations and this blog’s inability to prompt you to look at it more (can I interest you in push notifications?). Nonetheless, if not more for me than you, here are 35 of my favorite records of 2020. Here’s to hoping we have something in common as well as some differences!
1. Coriky – S/T (Discord)
Ian MacKay and Amy Farina’s two albums as the Evens were ok, but they were lacking a certain something. Turns out it was MacKay’s former Fugazi bandmate bassist Joe Lally. Pop and politics is back on the menu here akin to early Fugazi and Mackay’s one-off Egg Hunt single he did with Minor Threat bandmate Jeff Nelson. The coolest thing about it all is way they incorporate 60’s pop like the Byrds and the Kinks into their punk pedigree to create something fresh yet familiar, providing something for dads, grads, and streamers. This album is prime evidence (see Clean Kill, Last Thing, and Have a Cup of Tea) demonstrating that there’s more left in the tank for aging punks everywhere to fight the power.
2. Melenas – Dias Raros (Trouble In Mind)
On their second album the Melenas continue to progress and come up with a winning combination of bright indie pop juxtaposed with moody drone. The Pamplona group sing in Spanish, but speak in the indie lingua franca sporting elements of the Bats, Electrelane and the Pastels. Dias Raros exudes a new confidence and added muscle that wasn’t evident on their debut. 3 Segundos is a ripper of a song and Ciencia Fiction pops off with a wild abandon that would have made Witman blush. This record is a flagship for the vibrant Spanish indie scene and worthy of your hard earned cash.
3. The Apartments – In and Out of the Light (Talitres)
The Apartments lead by Peter Milton Walsh have been around since the mid 1980’s, but In and Out of the Light is only their second album of the 2000’s. Besides the fact that Apartments albums are rare, it really surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I do. It’s got a dark yet hopeful quality to it that reminds me of the Blue Nile and At Swim Two Birds. Walsh’s voice carries the weight of the world with it and evokes landscapes and emotions with his slightly raspy delivery and sparse instrumentation. A well placed horn parts and minor keys abound encouraging you to put another log on the fire and look out at the falling snow.
4. Tough Age – Which Way Am I? (Mint)
Album number four from this Canadian band is full of jangly Flying Nun inspired songs. One, called Penny Current Suppression Ring sung by bassist Penny Clark is about getting a demo rejected by Flying Nun. So they take your Flying Nun and raise it an Eddy Current Suppression Ring? Good songs, sense of humor, take my money.
5. Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna (Slumberland)
Peel Dream Magazine songs ping-pong between My Bloody Valentine and Stereolab inspirations. Every song creates a warm cocoon of buzzy vibrations, droning keyboards and sighing vocals that wrap around each other creating a sweet spot as each song worms its way to the inner ear.
6. Destroyer – Have We Met (Merge)
Dan Bejar has a formula that he has loosely stuck to since Destroyer’s Kaputt in 2011. This album stays in the same synthesizer romance lane as Roxy Music and the Blue Nile. This batch of songs are some his best in a while and they are also replete with Bejar’s idiosyncratic humor.
7. RVG – Feral (Fire)
For their second album, RVG hire a producer Victor Van Vugt to perhaps emphasize their grimier side. To my ears there isn’t much difference which is fine since this band really doesn’t need much help sounding great. The songs feature soaring guitar riffs reminiscent of 80’s postpunk greats like Echo & the Bunnymen and the Triffids.
8. Fleur – S/T (Bickerton)
Dutch singer Floor Elman goes by Fleur. She teams up with guys from and instrumental group Les Robots to make a French ye-ye pop record that sounds like it was born in a garage and then taken for a walk on the beach. Authentic and fun.
9. Bdrmm – Bedroom (Sonic Cathedral)
Just when you thought shoegaze was dead, Hull’s Bdrmm come along and revive it. Their debut album balances a gray sky moodiness with a few bright sun breaks of ringing guitars that the Chameleons and the Cure were always so adept at.
10. Jack Cades – Perfect View (Bickerton/Beluga)
The Jack Cades specialize in 60’s inspired garage rock. Their second album is quite good. Just the right amount of reverb, an eye for a good hook and a perfect amount of psych rock influence. So good, it might get you double checking the track list of the Nuggets box set to see if it’s OG.
11. Matt Berry – Phantom Birds (Acid Jazz)
Matt Berry is an actor, comedian and musician. He’s made a lot of records, Phantom Birds is his 8th and based on its quality he’s not running out of ideas. It’s got a 60’s country feel in the vein of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and Dylan’s Nashville Skyline with a little bit of kitschy funkiness thrown in to make sure it’s not a paint by numbers sort of think.
12. Pop Filter – Banksia (Bobo Integral)
Melbourne, Australia’s Ocean Part rebrand themselves as Pop Filter and remove any self-imposed rules to make their debut album. A motoric groove here, an acoustic number there, some synth-laden janglers sprinkled in for good measure all while adhering to that Melbourne indie aesthetic that seems to keep going and going. (Note: The band released a second LP this month that I’ve yet to hear.)
13. The Snogs – Boyfriend’s Dead (Paisley Shirt)
San Francisco’s Paisley Shirt splashed onto the scene this year with some great finds. Santa Cruz, California’s Snogs sound like they’re from Olympia, Washington. The baritone vocals will definitely remind you of a certain flagship K records band. Even if they don’t, you’ll still dig the DIY sound, youthful enthusiasm and infectious songs.
14. Ringo Deathstarr – S/T (Reverberation Appreciation Society)
Austin, Texas shoegazers had been quiet for a bit, but return with quite a statement. They are masters at creating noisy sound collages that can sooth and blister and this record has some of their best of both.
15. Tapeworms – Funtastic (Howlin’ Banana)
This French group sound like a bunch of mad scientists. I could imagine that they’ve got a few Elephant 6 records, some Swirlies and Lilys to go along with their MBV. Funtastic is exactly that, innocent sounding buzzing pop ditties and the sound of band having a blast.
16. Pictish Trail – Thumb World (Fire)
Pictish Trail is Johnny Lynch who also runs the Lost Map record label which is quite excellent in its own right. Thumb World is the best Pictich Trail album yet. It’s got a DIY electronic feel which has never been a huge deal in rock and roll, but I’m a sucker for that everything and the kitchen sink mentality where he’s not trying as much to get kids on dance floor, but more for the satisfaction of just getting you nodding along, tapping your toes and opening up the window.
17. Galore – S/T (Rocks In Your Head)
The bay area has a bit of history of generating groups inspired by Flying Nun records. Galore, like Brilliant Colors before them make jangly pops songs in the vein of Look Blue Go Purple. It’s a low key, sort of ramshackle brilliance that Galore excel at.
18. Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song (Smalltown Supersound)
On her second album, Owens covers Radiohead and duets with John Cale, but it’s still her show. The combination the of bloops and bleeps with her ethereal vocals give you the feeling of being under, gliding on a wind gust and breaking through the atmosphere into low orbit.
19. Bananagun – The True Story of Bananagun (Full Time Hobby)
Combining the Byrds with Os Mutantes, Melbourne’s Bananagun create a tropical psychedelic rock record of extreme interest. It’s got cool wah-wah riffs and slinky beats and spacey ideas. Everything old is new again if you wait long enough and Bananagun deliver their take on this sound at a time when nobody was expecting it.
20. Porridge Radio – Every Bird (Polyvinyl)
Abrasive pop in the vein of Protomartyr, Shame and PJ Harvey. Singer Dana Margolin can shout and scream with the best of them, but she includes just enough sweetness in her choruses that kept me coming back to this album.
21. Aoife Nessa Frances – Land of No Junction (Basin Rock)
She didn’t seem to get as much attention as Aldous Harding or Cate LeBon, but her talent is at that level and this album rivals anything either has done. These psychedelic tinged folk songs may require several listens before they hit home, but with little but time on my hands I was happy to let it happen. This could be the low key sleeper album of the year.
22. Tara Clerkin Trio – S/T (Laura Lies In)
The seven tracks on the debut album by the Tara Clerkin Trio are not exactly verse-chorus-verse songs. They allude to those kinds of songs which is what initially catches your attention, but once they get your attention they take you to places you weren’t expecting to be taken. Which, when I come to think of it, is the reason I listen to music in the first place.
23. Boat – Tread Lightly (Magic Marker)
Seattle’s Boat took a hiatus six years ago, and returned this year with Tread Lightly. Singer Dave Crane got the guys back together and they picked up right where they left off. Longer in the tooth and slightly more grey in the beard, but no less precise in their idiosyncratic pop sensibilities. Tread Lightly could be the best Boat album, but I think that with every new Boat album.
24. Roy – Peace and Love and Outer Space (Idée Fixe)
Sometimes it’s ok to judge a book or a record by its cover. Toronto prog-pop collective Roy give exactly the right impression with the cover of Peace and Love and Outer Space. Super fury space jams that are perfect for surfing on a rocket among other things. Step in, step on. Seatbelts are optional.
25. Cindy – Free Advice (Paisley Shirt/Mt St Mtn/Tough Love)
This year SF band Cindy were plucked from obscurity into internet cult fandom with their second album, but it may as well have been their first since they were so under the radar. Free Advice is a record that is made for these times. Super chill, nearly hushed vocals accompanied by glacial guitars and some nice synthesized sounds. Galaxie 500 fans take note and snatch it up before it goes out of print (again).
26. The Reds, Pinks and Purples – You Might Be Happy (Tough Love)
Glen Donaldson who’s been in a few of notable groups like Art Museums and Skygreen Leopards now uses The Reds, Pinks and Purples to gift us with his pop magic. You Might Be Happy has a sadness permeating from it, but it’s not a downer. It’s more of a nostalgic feeling that it gives off. I’ve seen a lot of Sarah records comparisons which isn’t far off. It’s post-post Sarah too, inheriting from the likes of Trembling Blue Stars and running with it.
27. The Cowboys – Room of Clons (Feel It)
Bloomington, Indian’s Cowboys do smart(ass) post punk in the vein of Devo and Uranium Club, but they do straightforward pop too. On Wise Guy Algorithm (a nominee for song of the year) The singer sorta sounds like Feargal Sharkey until he hands the mic to one of his band mates for some of the other songs like the Kinks-Apples in Stereo inspired and kazoo laden Days. Recommended to folks who like curve balls served up in their rock ‘n roll.
28. Lake – Roundelay (Off Tempo)
Lake have been a Pacific Northwest treasure for going on 15 years now. Roundelay sees them at the peak of their powers. Clearly influenced by likes of the Carpenters, Stereolab, Free Design and Jim O’Rourke, but operating outside of any trends or indie zeitgeist. Singers Eli Moore and Ashley Eriksson’s sound like they grew up singing in an Olympia church choir and then went home and played K records on their turntables. Smooth rock never sounded so smooth and exciting at once.
29. Sweeping Promises – Hunger For a Way Out (Feel It)
Boston’s Sweeping Promises have gotten compared to 80’s post punk girl groups like Lilliput, Girls at Our Best! and Delta 5. Their minimalist and angular sound certainly merits it. I really like how they avoid any glossiness to their sound, going instead with a demo like quality to the recording which adds to the energy and allure of the album.
30. Snails – Hard-Wired (Glass Modern)
On their follow up to 2016 debut album, Bristol’s Snails sound just as good and deliver higher quality set of songs. Hard-Wired is full of pastoral melodies and bucolic harmonies. It puts a smile on your face like when the sun peaks over the hillside in the early morning, the dew glistens on the grass and the birds start to sing.
31. Elrichman – Heaven’s Mayor (Bobo Integral)
Paul Elrichman is from Toronto, but this record seems to have a Scottish indie flare to it. His warm tenor and impressive studio creations are reminiscent of the Bluebells, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice. Each song seems to start out with catchy riff and vocal drawing you immediately in and his instrumental wizardry is fully capable of making you think he’s hired a string section and a horn line.
32. The Cool Greenhouse – S/T (Melodic)
The Cool Greenhouse are into 4CHAN and Harry Potter and I bet the Cool Greenhouse are into CB too. I had my ears on (good buddy) for this record based on the rad-ness of their Cardboard Pet 10″ and London and Landlords singles and it didn’t disappoint. Minimalist repetition along with humorous erudite lyrics keep it endlessly interesting and fun.
33. Shopping – All or Nothing (Fat Cat)
The final show I saw in 2020 was Shopping at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard. It was March just before everything shutdown for COVID. It was packed and the band thanked everyone for risking it to come out. The UK trio were in synch that night as they are on All or Nothing. They effortlessly build riffs into anthems in an 80’s post-punk dance style that keep the politics of dancing on message and feeling good.
34. Lavender Blush – The Garden of Inescapable Pleasure (Shelflife)
Another San Francisco band in this year’s list (what’s going on down there?). If you dig the BV’s then Lavender Blush are gonna be a pleasure. They like big guitars and seem a bit moody and are obviously influenced by UK indie bands that lean toward the Sarah records catalog. Their pop sensibilities and dour attitude are a combination really works.
35. Marker Starling – High January (Tin Angel)
Marker Starling’s style of pop is light and slightly funky. The Aluminum Group come to mind, but he’s definitely a Steely Dan fan and very likely into Prefab Sprout. Do I really need to say more to convince you? Ok, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier provides her cool vocals on two songs too. Now, is Marker the captain of your heart? I hope so.
25 More records that I really liked:
Islet – Eyelet (Fire)
The Stroppies – Look Alive! (Tough Love)
Thibault – Or Not Thibault (Chapter Music)
Cloth – S/T (Last Night From Glasgow)
Flat Worms – Antarctica (Drag City)
The Bats – Foothills (Flying Nun)
Shabaka & the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History (Impulse)
Cmon – Mix of Nations (Mexican Summer)
A Girl Called Eddy – Been Around (Elefant)
Anna Högberg Attack – Lena (Omlott)
Slum of Legs – S/T (Spurge)
Jet Stream Pony – S/T (Shelflife)
Double Date With Death – L’au-Dela (Howlin Banana)
Mo Troper – Natural Beauty (Tender Loveinf Empire)
Jeff Parker & the New Breed – Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem)
Kelley Stoltz – “Ah! (etc)” (Agitated)
Gil Scott-Heron – We’re New Again: A Re-imagining by Makaya McCraven (XL)
Lars Finberg – Tinnitus Tonight (Mt St Mtn)
Sault – Untitled (Rise) & Untitled (Black Is)
Green Seagull – Cloud Cover (Mega Dodo)
Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today (Domino)
The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark)
Tidiane Thiam – Siftorde (Sahel Sounds)
Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 (International Anthem)
Luke Haines & Peter Buck – Beat Poetry for Survivalists (Cherry Red)