Some of the music I liked this year

A few year-end playlists ago, I realized that the music that most defines any given year for me often isn’t music from the same year. Like anyone who writes about music, I try to keep up with acclaimed releases as they happen. But as often as not, the thrill of novelty comes from uncovering older records. “Old,” in fact, may overstate the point: I inevitably find that some of my favorite albums of the year are just the ones I’m catching up on from last year. (See: Caroline Polachek and Two Hands.)

This seemed particularly true in 2020. In the preface to her year-end picks for The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich writes about how her listening habits changed during the pandemic: “I found myself especially uninterested in indulging anything other than what immediately sounded meaningful to me,” Petrusich says. “By June, I was operating chiefly on feeling.”

I’ve seen this sentiment echoed by several other music writers as the annual cycle of year-end lists arrives. And indeed, with a few exceptions, the records I enjoyed most in 2020 were the ones that attached themselves to me immediately. I didn’t have as much patience for wading through the weekly release cycle, which meant that I missed out on several buzzed-about albums. But it also meant that when something did stick, it stuck around for a while; I had the space to stay on a single artist for a week or a month at a stretch. I also returned to familiar favorites, remembering why I loved them in the first place. (The best thing I got out of Shore was an excuse to listen to Fleet Foxes again.)

Only now do I realize how much catching up I have to do. (This week, I’ve been spinning Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, a definite album-of-the-year contender that I somehow missed when it came out in June.) Going back to 2017, I’ve published my favorite albums of each year. This year, I didn’t have a set of five or ten albums that I could realistically identify as highlights, much less rank. Instead, in roughly chronological order, I’ve decided to focus on 10 songs that I loved in 2020— whether they were released in 2020 or not.

  1. Sheer Mag, “Expect the Bayonet”

I have to thank Bernie Sanders — or rather, whichever savvy campaign staffer picks the music for Bernie Sanders — for turning me onto Sheer Mag’s “Expect the Bayonet,” the rare protest song that actually deserves the label. Sanders’ team played the track at a New York rally in October 2019, days after his recovery from a heart attack, and I’ll always associate “Expect the Bayonet” with the palpable optimism that surrounded his movement leading up to the first primaries in February. (For their part, Sheer Mag endorsed the song’s usage, writing that Sanders was “the only viable candidate to beat Trump in 2020.” If only!) Back then, the prospect of a Sanders administration seemed not only possible but within reach. No one could have predicted how much and how quickly the world would change.

The excitement of early 2020 feels distant now, as if from a different world entirely. Yet “Expect the Bayonet” recognizes that the struggle doesn’t begin or end with Bernie Sanders. Or, for that matter, with any one person. “We’re not on our own!” Tina Halladay reminds us, and to those in power, her warning is clear, putting a new spin on Malcolm X’s famous words: “If you don’t give us the ballot, expect the bayonet.” With its analog warmth and power-pop guitar licks, there’s joy in “Expect the Bayonet.” But there’s a melancholy, too, captured in the descent of the verse’s melody, as if acknowledging the exhaustion that comes with fighting back. Solidary for those underfoot; the struggle continues.

2. Fiona Apple, “Rack of His”

On an album full of kitchen-sink productions and makeshift percussion, “Rack of His” may be the most homespun of them all. This cut from Fetch the Bolt Cutters, reconstructed by Fiona Apple from a decade-old sketch of a song, begins with four percussive knocks like a stranger banging at the door; the plucky artificial strings that form the song’s base sound as if they were recorded from the other end of a room.

As always, in her post-mortem of a doomed relationship, Fiona Apple is unsparingly honest and mordantly funny. “Check out that rack of his,” she murmurs, spinning the objectifying trope on its head; in this case, it’s his rack of guitars, “lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes,” that hoards all the attention. Although it’s more unassuming in its presence than some of its peers on the album, gradually fading into silence as Apple hums her way through the outro, “Rack of His” is Fetch the Bolt Cutters in a nutshell — raw and unbound, sounding at once not-quite-finished and infinitely refined.

3. Sparks, “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”

“Thank God It’s Not Christmas” might work as an ironic addition to a holiday playlist around this time of year. But in early May, it made a perfect soundtrack for the peak of the initial phase of lockdown. I listened to Sparks’ 1974 album Kimono My House a lot during that time, walking or jogging around my neighborhood when I had nothing else to do. Perhaps it’s because everything about this record is so much — Russell Mael’s hyperactive, desperately horny falsetto, Ron Mael’s unbridled arrangements, Adrian Fisher and Martin Gordon’s comically epic guitar parts. There’s a sense of delirious mania to it all, which I suppose made it something of a release valve for the pent-up anxiety of isolation.

The five-minute “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” ends the near-flawless first side of Kimono My House. Like most of the album, it is quite funny: Russell Mael plays a sexually-frustrated narrator who dreads the holidays because it’s the one time of year where he’s stuck with his partner and can’t go out on the town. (As he so delicately puts it, “Thank God it’s not Christmas / Where there’s just you to do.”) Ron Mael’s composition is properly bombastic, trying on keys like new outfits and obliquely referencing the “caroling kids” whose appearance before the holiday season always seems “a trifle premature”; you can almost hear the ding-dongs and sleigh bells behind the descending scale that opens the song. This is glam rock as a parody of itself, which might be the most glam thing of all.

4. Kate NV, “Telefon”

Really, the most essential Kate NV song might be “Kata,” off 2016’s Binasu, but to stick with 2020 for this pick, I’m going with “Telefon,” the last track from this year’s excellent Room for the Moon. Moscow’s Kate Shilonosova was the most exciting new musician to come on my radar in 2020, an artist whose natural attunement to rhythm and repetition filled the Cate Le Bon-sized hole in my heart a year after Reward. Her sonic palette has few contemporary parallels, perhaps other than Le Bon; she’s drawing from a palette that includes Japanese experimentalists like Haruomi Hosono and Mariah’s Yasuaki Shimizu, the no-wave of Lizzy Mercier Descloux, and the proto-dream-pop of Anna Domino. I love all of these things, so it wasn’t hard for me to be sold on Kate NV.

“Telefon” may not be the best example of Room for the Moon’s unique, geometric approach to space and rhythm—for that, see “Not Not Not” or “Ça Commence Par”—but it is a showcase of Shilonosova’s way with pop songcraft. As on “Kata,” she teases brief phrases that sometimes restate themselves, building expectation for the hook, but just as often pass by as soon as they arrive. The fact that “Telefon” is sung in Russian means that when the bubblegum outro finally arrives, what hits is pure, unfettered melody. You don’t have to know the words for the exuberance to rub off on you, but here they are anyway: “Where, where, where are the lights of memories leading us? / Where, where, where, let’s wave them goodbye / Where, where, where are the delirious minutes carrying us? / Where, where, where, we can never come back.”

5. Songs: Ohia, “Hold On Magnolia”

More than anything released this year, the album I spent the most time with in 2020 was undoubtedly Magnolia Electric Co., Jason Molina’s final release as Songs: Ohia. Rarely does listening to an album feel like reading a novel, but Magnolia Electric Co. has the scope and vision of a Southern Gothic or a Cormac McCarthy epic. (And with an iconic, in medias res first line to boot: “The whole place is dark.”) Molina’s songwriting paints an American landscape populated by supernatural omens and recurring images — a ghost, a black hen, a dead moon at midnight. The narrator at the center is beset by the demons of addiction and depression but determined, as he puts it, to “make a change,” and the backing band conveys this spiritual tumult with extended jams that summon the ghosts of heartland rock and outlaw country.

This is an album of unrelenting despair, but it’s held together by a faith that there is a light on the other side, however dim. “Hold On Magnolia” is the sound of that promise, an epilogue after the darkness that precedes it. “In my life I have had my doubts,” Molina sings, “but tonight I think I’ve worked it out with all of them.” It’s a wish, if not a reality — if only we could work out our doubts once and for all — and one gets the sense that Jason Molina knew this better than anyone. “Almost no one makes it out,” he admits earlier in the record, a line that is doubly tragic knowing how his journey, in real life, ultimately ended. But what’s important is that we might.

6. Dehd, “Flood”

It’s strange to say, but Dehd’s Flower of Devotion sounds like a throwback to 2014. And maybe it’s just because I was sixteen in 2014 — and more invested in the idea of “indie rock” than I ever have been, before or since — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Chicago trio was an outlier in a year dominated by new wave and disco, recalling the gauzy guitar pop of groups like Real Estate, Lower Dens, and whatever else the college radio station was playing during my morning commute to school.

Flower of Devotion is uniformly enjoyable, but “Flood” is a stunner. With a verse that has shades of Elizabeth Fraser’s haunting rendition of “Song to the Siren” with This Mortal Coil, the song is a showcase of vocalist Emily Kempf, whose dynamic presence is what separates Dehd from any number of lesser bands. “I am a flood for you,” she sings, stretching the song’s title across two syllables, as if the word itself held within it all the melancholy and agony of desire, at any moment liable to break the dam.

7. “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Peter Gordon, “Without Warning”

In November 1976, composers “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Peter Gordon put on the “Trust in Rock” concert series at UC-Berkeley, assembling the Bay Area’s experimental arts scene to play several original compositions. The idea was to shake up a school of avant-garde music that, in the composers’ minds, had gone stale. By wedding the minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich to the vernacular of rock music — in other words, by trusting in rock — Tyranny and Gordon created something completely new.

New York label Unseen Worlds issued Trust in Rock last year, finally bringing recordings of the concert to a wider audience. The composition that leads the album, “Without Warning,” knocked me flat when I first heard it in September. Featuring Tyranny on keys, Gordon on saxophone, and a backing band led by vocalist and performance artist Patrice Manget, the track begins as an off-kilter take on soft-rock, Manget sounding like a cabaret singer backed up by a pep band.

If the song stopped there, it’d be a worthy piece of avant-pop on its own. But about six minutes in, the relatively standard song structure gives way to an extended meditation in minimalism, repeated fragments of melody and rhythm cascading over each other in hypnotic cacophony. It’s as if Faust decided to play Music for 18 Musicians, and that sense of ecstatic spontaneity, borrowed from rock and roll, is what makes the 20 minutes of “Without Warning” such a revelation.

[Edit: RIP “Blue” Gene Tyranny, whose death was announced just after this was published. He was 75.]

8. Nation of Language, “Rush & Fever”

The ’80s were certainly in the air this year when it came to pop music. But where artists like Jessie Ware and Roisin Murphy turned to hi-NRG and disco on their 2020 releases, Brooklyn’s Nation of Language went the route of The Human League, Depeche Mode, and latter-day Joy Division for their debut album Introduction, Presence. It’s the kind of pastiche that makes no secret of its source material, yet it’s done with such attentive care that you can’t claim the band lacks imagination. I’m reminded of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, whose 2009 debut (and one of my non-2019 favorites of 2019, incidentally) was an homage to ’90s shoegaze and twee. Like that album, it’s hard not to love Introduction, Presence, even if it’s hard to be particularly surprised by it.

Every track is strong, but my favorite may be “Rush & Fever,” which finds the trio at their heart-on-sleeve, cathartic peak. The melody, delivered by vocalist Ian Richard Devaney in a quivering deadpan that steps up to the line of parody and stops just short of it, barely departs from a single note, at first. But Aidan Noell’s staccato synth line expertly builds the tension around him, rising to a cathartic climax. Without a lyric sheet, I’m not exactly sure what Devaney is singing about — at one point, he drops the phrase “secondhand malaise,” which sounds about right. But that matters less than the feeling Nation of Language evokes, the kind of unspecified longing and life-affirming urgency that long drives and lost loves are made of.

9. The Walker Brothers, “The Electrician”

By now, Scott Walker’s unconventional trajectory as a musician — from teen idol to avant-garde experimentalist plumbing the darkest depths of the subconscious — has been thoroughly mythologized. After his death in 2019, I explored two of the towering bookends of his solo career: the four self-titled albums from the late 1960s on one side, and 2006’s The Drift on the other. But until recently, I overlooked what happened in the middle.

Walker’s transformation from Jacques Brel-covering crooner to emissary of nightmares really begins with 1978’s Nite Flights, the final Walker Brothers album. Nite Flights was produced as the band’s record label was going out of business, and on his four contributions to the record, it’s evident that Walker took the opportunity to indulge some of his wilder impulses, drawing from the late-’70s boom in punk and art-rock. On “Shutout” and “Nite Flights,” the resemblance to Berlin-era David Bowie is almost uncanny.

“The Electrician,” however, is Walker’s alone. Every Scott Walker-ism is there, from the dissonant wall of strings to the macabre lyrics, apparently sung from the perspective of a sadistic CIA torturer. If it sounds heavy, that’s because it is — but Walker’s remarkable ability is to spin something beautiful out of it anyway, just to pull one over on the listener. Just past the two-minute mark, a drum break sends the song into free fall, rivaling “In the Air Tonight” for sheer melodramatic effect, before a gorgeous string section arrives and returns us to level ground. There’s an almost cinematic arc to “The Electrician,” with a clear rising and falling action. Yet when the end does arrive and those shrieking strings slowly re-emerge, it’s clear that we’re just back where we started. “There’s no help, no,” Walker sings, before it cuts to black.

10. Jessie Ware, “What’s Your Pleasure?”

It’s a tragic irony, if a comparatively minor one in 2020, that in a year full of records made for and about dancing — Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Kylie Minogue’s DISCO— there was no way to properly enjoy them. Of all these, Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? was a high-water mark, a decades-spanning ode to the dance floor that pulls from Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, Nile Rodgers and Chic, Japanese city-pop, San Francisco hi-NRG, and Italo disco.

The title track leans toward the latter two categories, its bass line alternating octaves at a 115-BPM clip as Ware beckons her partner through a series of escalating innuendos: “Make a wish, blow out my candle / Make a wish for me.” Ware and producer James Ford nail the delicate balance between mechanical insistency and human instinct that marks the best dance music, and the result is one of the most exciting pop tracks of the year. Maybe next year, we’ll be able to dance to it.

If you use Spotify, you can listen to my full 2020 mix below:

Writer based in Durham, NC, contributing music features and reviews to INDY Week. Formerly the arts & culture editor at The Duke Chronicle.