I got into SO MANY records this year. I had much more of a drive than usual to search for new music. Maybe it was due to being at home much more and needing to feel connected to the outside world. Maybe it was due to an exceptionally good year for music. Whatever it was, I have a ridiculously big amount of music to talk about. I usually write way too much every year for this thing, and this year will be no different.
(Note: I stopped ranking these a while ago. It’s just a big list. Is Fiona my #1 of the year? Or is it Jeff Rosenstock? I DON’T KNOW, THAT’S FOR YOU TO DECIDE.)
Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters
In the eight years it took Fiona Apple to put out a new record, it seems like she got even more restless and wild than she already was. When you take that long to make music, your every idea can make its way into your songs. More than any of her past work, this record is heavily reliant on found percussion, frantic piano, and all the sounds of a home, from singing in the kitchen to unceasing dog barks. Apple knows she has a captive audience, and she literally brings us into her private world.
A lot has already been written about how this feels like a record that’s quite reflective of Quarantine Life. I agree with that, but there are many moments of pure liberation. When we become aware of the things that are dragging us down, we get closer to freedom. On “Relay,” Apple sees that negativity and hurtfulness spreads from one person to the next, until we are all seething at each other. I suppose that’s not good. But it also feels amazing when in the same song she says, “I resent you for being raised right, I resent you for being so sure. I resent you presenting your life like a fuckin’ propaganda brochure.” We can try to stop the relay race of hatred, but also acknowledge why it feels so good to be negative.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is probably not Apple’s very best record, but it’s undoubtedly her boldest and most daring. This is the sound of someone who sees a constant mess all around her, but will never stop trying to make that mess into defiant art.
Jeff Rosenstock — NO DREAM
There is no good excuse for my previous dismissal of Jeff Rosenstock’s music. I listened a bit, thought it was alright, but didn’t deem him worthy of further exploration. This is unacceptable. But according to my good friend Derek Muse Lambert, who really pushed for me to give this record a shot, NO DREAM is probably Rosenstock’s most accessible record so far for a guy like me who likes his rock’n’roll with lots of punk and grit and heart. Maybe this is why when I finally took Derek’s suggestion and sat down with NO DREAM, everything clicked for me.
More than just a punk record, this thing takes in all the good elements of modern indie rock and emo to create an ecstatic sound all its own. Rosenstock is not the best singer in the world, but he sings his ass off, which is almost better than being good. He sings about being depressed, about how capitalism is shitty, about the seemingly insignificant moments of life that are actually beautiful, and about AirBNB’s, for some reason. He is self-deprecating and really funny, but cuttingly truthful when it counts. Some of my most passionate sing-along sessions of 2020 came during NO DREAM. I needed those. Here was one of them: “You’re the only person that I wanted to like me/You’re the only person that I wanted to like me/All these other motherfuckin’ douches can bite me/because you’re the only person that I wanted to like me.”
Armand Hammer — Shrines
It’s not one guy, it’s actually two fairly established indie rappers: Elucid and billy woods. As a duo, they make the type of hip-hop that prides itself on not being easy to digest. I would shy away from this description if I were you, assuming it’s harsh noisy stuff like Death Grips. But this is not that. Elucid and woods rap over beats that might kick and scream, but the beats ultimately have very cool melody and structure to them. But the structure doesn’t always lend itself to even-metered rapping, so Elucid and woods treat everything like emphatic spoken word diatribes, and it works wonderfully.
Shrines came out right as the BLM protests began in earnest, and though it’s not an explicitly political record, I feel like it represents the spirit of the movement — in a time of utter chaos, anything is possible.
Ulcerate — Stare Into Death and Be Still
I’ll just get this out of the way first: yes, this record title is quite fitting for our experience this year.
I usually would balk at terms like “technical death metal,” as most of that stuff is too dense for me, with no real riffs or anything to hang onto. But Ulcerate is too good to ignore. A cursory pass for the average listener might not get this, as much of the music seems to be moving at warp-speed, with guttural death metal vocals on top of it. But a deeper listen shows so much more beneath the surface. There is such a rich depth of melody happening here, even when it seems like it’s all a blur. But there are plenty of parts where it’s not a blur, and the band locks into a groove that becomes hypnotic. And then it’s warp speed again. So crazy.
I came back to this record over and over again this year, and each time I was floored. It just washes over me. To be able to write and play music like this must be so difficult, but Ulcerate does it with ease. New Zealanders really are just better at everything, huh?
Unleash the Archers — Abyss
Five records into this list and I’m already having to yell at you, “DON’T JUDGE ME.” Yes, this is cheesy power metal, along the lines of Dragonforce or other goofy bands who sing about killing people with swords and riding on the wings of an eagle or whatever. But I’ll defend myself with these two points:
First, this was my #1 Exercise Record of the Year. Not being able to go to the gym has forced me into my basement where I try to work out five days a week. It is not always easy to get up for a workout when you’re at home, so I need music that can get me pumped up in a hurry. Unleash the Archers did that for me every time I put them on. If my muscles started to ache and I thought it was time to quit, I just listened to Brittany Slayes sing, “I am alpha, rule absolute — you think you can win? I know you only can lose.” That did it for me.
Secondly, I just think this is superbly crafted metal. The riffs are so catchy, Slayes is a tremendous singer, and it all works. Judge me all you want. I’ve got this sword in my hand and I’m not afraid to use it.
Ric Wilson and Terrace Martin — They Call Me Disco
What a fun-ass record this is. Terrace Martin is an in-demand producer who did a lot of work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. For this EP, he crafts immaculately danceable tunes for emcee Ric Wilson to sing and rhyme over. In just six songs, it moves from Gap Band funk to the best of modern hip-hop to drowsier end-of-the-party songs. Wilson seems to be a really bright political mind who has lots to say, and he says some of it here, but mostly on this EP he is just having a blast. You are in no position to not join him.
Bartees Strange — Live Forever
I can’t fully describe Live Forever to you in the amount of space I’m giving to each record here. But I’ll try.
Bartees Strange can apparently do anything. Super-charged indie rock? Yep. Atmospheric hip-hop? Yep. Folky emo? Yep. Indie rock and hip-hop in the same song? And all made by a guy who played football in college? Believe it. It’s just everything, yet none of it feels jarring or forced. This guy has such a clear vision of what he’s doing that it’s a completely cohesive artistic statement. It helps that he’s a great songwriter and an even better singer. I only discovered this record about a month ago, but it has been living inside my brain ever since. Seriously, check this out.
Bob Mould — Blue Hearts
I’ve probably said this before in years past, but if Bob Mould can keep making a record like this every couple years until he leaves this mortal coil, I’ll be satisfied. He turned 60 this year, but you absolutely wouldn’t know it from hearing this. Mould’s songwriting skills are just so sharp. He can craft a brilliant melody out of four chords, and can just as adeptly scream and shout. “Next Generation” is easily one of the best songs of the year. What a rager. And the end of “American Crisis,” when Mould evokes his darkest years as a gay man living through the AIDS epidemic and sings, “Silence was death — never forget,” my goodness. It’s incredible.
Shopping — All or Nothing
I gotta once again shoutout my buddy Derek for hipping me to something cool. Shopping are a British band who didn’t get the memo that disco-punk was out of fashion. In fact, this is better than about 95% of the disco-punk that reigned throughout the 90’s and 00’s. The tempos are upbeat, the playing is crisp, the singing is cool. Franz Ferdinand needs to give whatever remaining residuals they get for “Take Me Out” to Shopping, because all their past work has been made irrelevant by these newcomers.
Laura Jane Grace — Stay Alive
The first truly solo record from the frontwoman of Against Me is the type of thing I would love to make if I had talent, or a good voice, or skills, or any of that stuff. There is a drum machine here and there, but this is largely just Grace, her voice and her guitar. She exhibits the entire range of her vocal delivery, partially because she has to — there are no fancy tricks that can be pulled here. The record goes by like a breeze, but demands much of you while it’s there.
Misery Signals — Ultraviolet
Back in my early 20’s when I suddenly decided that metalcore was my absolute jam, and I headbanged to mosh parts but could never actually get into the pit, Misery Signals was the band I loved dearest. They were always a cut above the rest, using such a strong sense of melody and writing lyrics that came from the deepest places of sorrow. Lead vocalist Jesse Zaraska left the band in 2005 after only being on one EP and the classic-of-the-genre Of Malice and the Magnum Heart. The band continued on, went on hiatus for a while, and then welcomed Zaraska back into the fold. Ultraviolet is Zaraska’s return, and though it doesn’t hit the heights their previous work did, they tried really hard to do that. They don’t attempt to shake the metalcore label, but instead they embrace it and see how it can be pushed forward. Above all, it was just a thrill to hear the original lineup of a band that I think will never properly get its due.
Angelica Garcia — Cha Cha Palace
I’ll admit I was drawn to this record because I have a crystal clear memory of watching a Richard Simmons workout video many years ago and hearing him yell “STEP INTO MY CHA CHA PALACE!” I even tweeted at Angelica Garcia to ask if her record’s title is a reference to this, and I understandably did not receive a reply.
I hold no ill will against her for this, because she is a goddamn badass. Like the Bartees Strange record discussed above, Garcia moves through genres with not a care in the world. She embraces the musical roots of her culture, embraces the wild sounds of the Los Angeles in which she grew up, and just does whatever the hell she wants. And also just like Bartees Strange, she has a powerhouse of a voice, and she uses it to its fullest capacity.
Bugsy — Moody Knows Best
Due to some connections through my wife’s cousin, I discovered this Minneapolis band who is just doing everything absolutely right. Super sharp indie-punk with a singer who is not to be reckoned with. They play so hard. I hope they keep going beyond this EP and make the big full-length they deserve to give us all.
Dua Saleh — Rosetta
Another EP from another obscure Minneapolis artist, this is some really interesting weirdo hip-hop that’s kinda gothy too. I can barely describe this. One of the songs sounds like the coolest 80’s Sad Kid song you’ve ever heard, but made by a rapper. Other songs are evil and cool. I don’t know. Listen to it!
Open Mike Eagle — Anime, Trauma and Divorce
Despite the record’s title, there is thankfully very little anime here. The other two things, though? Definitely. Open Mike Eagle is a super engaging dude who makes artful hip-hop that laughs at itself even while confessing dark secrets. On “The Black Mirror Episode,” Mike repeats over and over, “The Black Mirror episode ruined my marriage,” and then goes into great detail about an argument that seems like it for sure happened, and features such specifically intimate detail that you just know he’s not making this up. The whole record is not so emotionally heavy, but it’s a testament to Mike’s ability that he can terrify us just as much as he can entertain us. (And I didn’t know until writing this that Mike put out this amazing video featuring the amazing Paul F. Tompkins!)
Serengeti — AJAI
A collaborator and compatriot of Open Mike Eagle, Serengeti is a Chicago rapper who likes to create and inhabit characters in his music. Most notably is the character of Kenny Dennis, a guy who talks the like Chicago Superfan guys from the old SNL sketches, gets angry at everything, but is calmed down by his favorite drink, O’Douls. Serengeti has made several records as Kenny Dennis, and the second half of this record continues his story. The first half follows a man named Ajai, a materialistic weirdo who focuses his energies on buying exclusive sneakers and assorted fashion accessories, but ignores the very real needs of his wife. Over meticulously crafted beats, Ajai and Kenny tell their stories with lots of room to roam and explore.
Run the Jewels — RTJ4
Killer Mike and EL-P will never stop, nor should they. What they have is golden. Their production is second to none, pulling in crazy sounds and making it all work. EL-P made a beat out of “Ether” by Gang of Four, which I just got a bick ol’ kick out of. They can pull off having guests as disparate as Josh Homme, Mavis Staples and 2 Chainz, and it all feels right.
Speaking of guests, Zack de la Rocha makes another appearance on this record, and I just have to take a second to say how much I love hearing that guy. He still sounds so pissed off, so pitch perfect, and the second he comes on in “JU$T,” I can’t help but get all giddy. What a guy.
Coriky — Coriky
Fugazi has been broken up for nearly 20 years. They’re never coming back. However, this year brought us maybe the closest thing to that reunion, which was Ian Mackaye starting this band with his wife Amy Farina on drums, and the immortal Joe Lally on bass. Mackaye and Farina have already been performing as The Evens for a while now, so Lally just fits right in and takes the sound up a notch with all the depth he adds as a bassist — never plays too much, always plays what the song needs. This isn’t even trying to echo the Fugazi sounds of old. It’s people past middle age writing the music that moves them, and it’s just lovely to hear. It helps that the record is great, too.
Spanish Love Songs — Brave Faces, Everyone
I don’t think I heard a record this year that more succinctly described the acute depression being felt by so many young people in our country. Through a melodic blend of emo and pop-punk, with huge choruses, Dylan Slocum paints a picture of depression and insecurity that’s so specific, anyone could relate to it. “No cancer, no crash. It better all go as planned, or one day soon you’re not gonna get by. Know damn well there ain’t no promised land. The cost of living means the cost to stay alive.” Just brutal. Basically every song is like this, but it’s filtered through such brightly colored melodies that you leave every song with just the slightest bit of hope. Maybe that’s enough to get by.
Ether Coven — Everything is Temporary Except Suffering
Pete Kowalsky was the vocalist for 00’s metalcore band Remembering Never, vegan warriors who once improbably picked a for-real fight with the band Lit. Now he’s back with Ether Coven, a much slower and doomier take on the heavy stuff he has spent his musical career doing. These songs are long, crushing, and as the record’s title indicates, quite grim. Shortly after this record came out, Kowalsky was diagnosed with cancer. He seems to be fighting it pretty well, so all positive thoughts go to him as he deals with yet another reason to hate this stupid world.
Blu & Exile — Miles
The long-awaited true follow-up to their 2007 gem Below the Heavens, Miles is a 95-minute double album that acts as Blu’s grand thesis on just about everything having to do with the black experience. There are history lessons, personal stories and anything else you could ask for, which makes sense since this thing is so dang long. But it’s not exhausting or anything, you just need to put aside some time to let it do its job. It’s soulful hip-hop featuring tremendous beats and production from Exile, with every song feeling like a warm hoodie.
Beach Bunny — Honeymoon
I played the heck out of this over the summer. Perfect summer record. Super catchy melodies, great guitar leads, wonderfully sung lyrics about being insecure and unsure about everything. And they waste no time, it’s in and out in like 25 minutes. These are the type of Gen-Z kids of which I approve.
Naeem — Startisha
Naeem has been doing work for other people for a while, including Bon Iver, who makes a couple appearances on this record. Startisha is Naeem’s solo debut, and he shows the breadth of his talents all over it. He can do trashbag rap on “Let Us Rave,” filthy sexual stuff on “Woo Woo Woo,” earnest statements of love on “Stone Harbor,” and a really amazing story from his past on the title track. Man, that’s a hell of a song.
Jessie Ware — What’s Your Pleasure?
A late entry into this list, Jessie Ware has wowed me with her airtight take on disco and 80’s dance music. She’s huge in England, but not as huge here, because I guess we just don’t know how to let loose to music that’s actually good. Aside from a few of these being total floorshakers, Ware also possesses a deeply soulful voice that carries slower, more ethereal songs as well. I just wish clubs were open so I could dance to these songs (I also wish I was the type of person who ever danced at a club to begin with, but if this virus ever goes away, I think that’s what I have to become).
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit — Reunions
You didn’t think a bearded dad who wears plaid flannel wasn’t going to put the Jason Isbell record on here, did you?? Come on! But seriously folks, the guy is so popular and beloved because he rules. The songwriting here is just as good as it ever was, and Isbell still feels comfortable expanding his sound a bit, like on “What’ve I Done to Help.” And “Be Afraid” is another contender for best song of the year, as it calls out musicians who are too weak to speak out politically. That song brought me to tears the first time I heard it.
Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
Every bit of success and acclaim Phoebe Bridgers is receiving right now is totally justified. She’s writing songs that tap into a malaise felt by so many people, and she does it with lyrics that are insightful yet also genuinely funny. “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven,’ but it’s sad that his baby died.” And it’s sung so tenderly, it’s as if that’s part of the joke whenever she’s being hilarious. She just knows what the hell she’s doing. I’m sure she’s just going to keep getting bigger, especially if life continues to be this lousy for so many people.
Frances Quinlan — Likewise
The frontwoman for Hop Along’s solo record takes down the angular indie rock and offers a more straightforward accompaniment for her otherworldly voice. I mean, really, Frances Quinlan has one of the best voices in the world, so I would have loved these songs even if they had been played by five middle schoolers practicing the recorder.
Spirit Adrift — Enlightened in Eternity
Though their singer does sound a little butt rock-ish in spots, I forgive it because these guys have excellent riffs for days, and they write a pretty good song too. Also, you should look at their record cover, because while it features glorious warriors riding into battle on horses (as one would expect), these warriors are also riding into battle with two regular dogs in front of them. Just two friendly pups hanging out. Best record cover of the year, no question.
No Chemistry — Dead Wait
My Bay Area pal Ben Murray took a break from his huge rotation of the excellent bands he’s in (Heartsounds, Light This City, Wilderness Dream), and he finally put out a solo record (where he plays all the instruments, because he’s just that damn talented). It diverges from the all of his past sounds, staying somewhat in that riffy pop-punk lane but slowing things down and getting even more melodic and introspective. Ben has never been shy about putting his struggles out there for the world to see, and this record is no different.
Homeboy Sandman — Don’t Feed the Monster
Intensely personal hip-hop is my jam! I knew nothing of this guy until a couple months ago, but he has a pretty extensive catalog already so I should have known. Quelle Chris provides the beats and production, while Homeboy Sandman gives us confessions both horrifying and amusing. I still need to dig into this one further, as I know future listens will make it better and better.
Benny the Butcher — Burden of Proof
This guy is part of the Griselda crew that is slowly carving out a huge name in hip-hop. I liked Westside Gunn’s two records this year okay, but that guy just makes too many irritating gun sounds with his mouth for me to be on board. Benny the Butcher, on the other hand, just relies on his experience in the drug game and seeing the hardest times that life has to offer, and he turns that into swaggeringly triumphant verses that always land. Add to that some really good production, and a lean run-time of 38 minutes, and you’ve got my definition of a winner.
R.A.P. Ferreira — purple moonlight pages
Jazz rap, cool rap, beat poet rap…whatever it is that this guy does, I think it’s great. His verses are so dense that, like the Homeboy Sandman record, it’s going to take some time for me to fully get what’s going on here. But I know it’s fiercely creative and super cool.
The Koreatown Oddity — Little Dominique’s Nosebleed
At nearly an hour, this record runs the risk of wearing out its welcome for me, but The Koreatown Oddity keeps things dizzyingly fun the whole way. It’s indie hip-hop that dips into silliness and kinda does whatever it wants. This guy has lots of stories that will make you smile.
I liked some black metal and black metal-adjacent records a lot! You should listen to them if you kinda like that stuff! Here they are:
O — Antropocene
Nite — Darkness Silence Mirror Flame
Gaerea — Limbo
Havukruunu — Uinuos Syomein Sota
Audn — Vokudraumsins Fangi
And here are a bunch of records that I also liked, but my goodness, I have just written too many words at this point, so they will get honorable mentions and friendly recommendations:
AC/DC — POWER UP
Svalbard — When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Lydia Loveless — Daughter
Disheveled Cuss — Disheveled Cuss
Thank You, I’m Sorry — I’m Glad We’re Friends
Bruges — A Thread of Light
Dogleg — Melee
Lucinda Williams — Good Souls, Better Angels
Surfmaster — Surfmaster
Sinai Vessel — Ground Aswim
Mortality Rate — Sleep Deprivation
Midnight — Rebirth by Blasphemy
Kvelertak — Splid
The Acacia Strain — Slow Decay
Joshua Virtue — Jackie’s House
Kylie Minogue — DISCO
Ratboys — Printer’s Devil
X — Alphabetland
VAC — II
Sam Russo — Back to the Party
Jaye Jayle — An Alcoholic Blue Bird
Brian Fallon — Local Honey
Worriers — You or Someone Like You
Erica Freas — Young
And now, for the first time ever, I will end this column by evaluating the #1 Record of the Year picks from various publications.
Paste: Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters
*insert Borat “high five” GIF*
Consequence of Sound: Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters
*insert Stone Cold Steve Austin “Oh Hell Yeah” GIF*
New York Times: Sufjan Stevens — The Ascension
This guy is a dork and I will never listen to his music.
Time: Taylor Swift — Folklore
This is the album where she started cussing or something? Who gives a shit, her music has absolutely never been worth talking about.
Rolling Stone: Taylor Swift — Folklore
Again, no. If you want to study how actual music journalism got shoved aside in favor of writing about artists who bring in the most clicks and ad revenue, look no further than the fact that all of music media has to pretend that Taylor Swift is as essential to our modern era as like, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan were to theirs. Get OUTTA here with this shit, come on.
Complex: The Weeknd — After Hours
I don’t know, he’s okay but I’ve never really listened to his records. He is playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show this year, which is a shame because there will be no one in attendance to not know any of his goddamn songs. Instead, everyone will just be doing that at home.
Slate: Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
Hey, not my very favorite of the year, but I fully understand someone picking this as their #1. It’s real good!
As of press time, they have not yet published their list. They might put Fiona’s record at #1, since they gave that an extremely rare perfect 10.0 score. But they also might give the #1 spot to like, a record that’s just David Byrne farting. You never know with Pitchfork.
NPR: SAULT — untitled (Black Is)
An absolutely fascinating choice for best record of the year. SAULT is a collective that shrouds itself in mystery, but its mission is clear: to promote black excellence. This record was released on Juneteenth, arriving at an incredibly prescient moment. It speaks truth to power, it speaks to the moment we’re living in perhaps better than anything I’ve heard this year.
But here’s the thing: it’s not in any way a conventional album. There is no lead vocalist. There aren’t really verses and choruses. Instead, these songs are meditations on a theme, sometimes only featuring one or two lines per song. Musically, they vibe on a theme and don’t offer lots of highs and lows. Don’t get me wrong — it’s really well-crafted and engaging. But Album of the Year? For an album that is barely what we recognize as an album, and is more like a movie in album form?
I don’t think it’s unfair to say NPR put this at Number One because of its embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement and everything that went down this year. But is that the only reason? Could it be that my definition of what qualifies as well-crafted music, as a conventional album, is possibly outdated? And if music hits the soul and gives voice to an urgent struggle, and it sounds cool as hell, is that good enough?
Does that maybe mean that evaluating records in any way is ultimately a futile gesture?
Nah, that can’t be right. See you here next year with lots more records!