March 7, 2020 was the last time I saw live music. I finally got to see Chalk Circle, a beloved band from my youth, as part of a benefit show at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace. Five days later the entire music industry in Canada — and largely around the world — shut down and everything changed as we entered The Pandemic Times.
Listening to music in total isolation is strange. Sure, if you’ve got any lonerism in you it’s not that strange. After all, dancing alone to records in your bedroom isn’t entirely daunting if that was half your life in high school. What was missing in 2020, though, was the feedback. Not the actual buzzing noise of feedback, but that static in the air that comes with a shared joke about a song you’d listen to repeatedly on a road trip with friends, or the universal hatred that comes from every mall clothing store playing that same song of the summer constantly. This was the year of no road trips and no shared listens. And none of that feedback that elevates a song to becoming something more, something communal.
That said, with no concerts, no recreation, no visits and virtually no hobbies, this year ended up being a very all-consuming music listening one for me. I listened to more new music this year than any time in recent memory. Which is saying a lot considering that for more than 20 years my professional duties have generally meant listening to new albums all day, constantly, day-in, day-out.
While that need to chase the new sound, to discover anything that could make me feel was incredibly strong, it was the familiar that gave me the most relief. Albums from the likes of Public Enemy, Thurston Moore, Rufus Wainwright, Run The Jewels, The Avalanches and Flaming Lips certainly don’t represent brave new waves at this point, but they provided comforting blankets of sound, even if the actual sounds some of them make are far from comforting.
Language barrier be damned, the experimental cumbia the Meridian Brothers throw down was a party, and the fascinating sci-fi of the Futuro Conjunto project suggests there’s an incredibly exciting alt wave of Latin music to be explored. Elsewhere, Cheekface’s Emphatically No. may turn out to be an unexpected late-stage win for the legacy of Cake, and Daniel Romano’s outlandish series of quality releases (10 or so records, depending on how you count) would only be more impressive if it didn’t make the rest of us feel so bad about our comparatively failed productivity during the pandemic.
But enough wistful pondering, here’s my top 10 albums list for 2020:
10) Kaytranada — BUBBA
I like Kaytranada’s sound and vibe, but BUBBA‘s greatest asset may be its ability to just stick and remain effortlessly cool and enjoyable after repeat listens. It’s a testament to Kaytranada’s skill as a creator. Highlights include “Go DJ,” “10%” and “Vex Oh.”
Kaytranada’s “10% ft. Kali Uchis”
9) The Chats — Dine N Dash
I halfway thought I had grown out of silly pop-punk songs about catching venereal diseases, eating pub food and drinking too much. I was wrong. These Australian garbage pail kids are way more compelling than they should be.
The Chats’ “The Clap”
8) The Dears — Lovers Rock
The Dears might be my favourite band. There’s no band on Earth I’ve seen more than them and at this point I’m not sure I have the ability to accurately assess them as a professional music critic. And so here they are, plunked into a relatively politically neutral spot on my annual list.
The Dears’ “Instant Nightmare”
7) The Budos Band — Long In The Tooth
We have a saying in the Risky Fuel household called “you find your people.” Normally applied to straight up weird bands, movies, art, parties or whatever, it’s the principle that if you’re into some bizarro wackadoodle shit and you find similar people into similar bizarro wackadoodle shit, sometimes something bizarro wackadoodle amazing emerges. A bunch of band dorks trying alchemically fuse Black Sabbath and Fela Kuti qualifies.
The Budos Band’s “Long In The Tooth”
6) Gorillaz — Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
If you told me in 2000 that Damon Albarn would have a band made up entirely of cartoon characters, that they’d be a worldwide phenomenon, and that “the kids” wouldn’t even know who or what a “Blur” was I would straight up fight you. And yet here we are, and on close inspection the globetrotting sound thievery that is Gorillaz is probably the superior Albarn work.
Gorillaz’s “Severed Head ft. Goldlink & Unknown Mortal Orchestra”
5) Sarah Harmer — Are You Gone
There are like three songs on this album — “St. Peter’s Bay,” the ice skating one, “What I Was To You,” the Gord Downie one, and “Shoemaker,” the one about her grandfather — that run the risk of making me cry if I make the mistake of listening to them too closely.
Sarah Harmer’s “St. Peter’s Bay”
4) Witch Prophet — DNA Activation
DNA Activation feels more timeless than of a time, a trip-hop/jazz/soul exploration of family that doesn’t quite sound like anything else that came out this year. Highlights include “Makda” and “Musa.”
Witch Prophet’s “Tesfay”
3) IDLES — Ultra Mono
The thing that shocked me most about IDLES’ new album Ultra Mono was the backlash. To be clear, it’s not surprising that they’d have their enemies. After all, they’re an unapologetic “leftie” and “soft” activist hard rock band. There are people for whom such a thing even existing at all is offensive. Backlash from those sorts wasn’t surprising. What was surprising, though, was the pushback against them from progressive types. Their feminism isn’t right, they’re faux working class, their politics are too simple… They’re all arguments that might be correct, but they’re also all arguments that are very progressives-are-eating-their-own-again. Regardless of whether or not they perfectly meet the ever-changing standards for whatever gatekeepers want and expect them to be, there are at least five bangers on Ultra Mono that are worth soundtracking the war, and those can’t be taken away.
IDLES’ “Mr. Motivator”
2) Jessie Ware — What’s Your Pleasure?
If someone releases a perfect disco album in the middle of a global pandemic and nobody can gather on a dancefloor to hear it, does it even exist? In this case, the answer is a lonely, twirling-around-by-yourself yes. Ware’s shift from sad R&B balladeer into full-on dance diva was one of this year’s unexpected turns, but it was an entirely welcome one. What’s Your Pleasure? is a vessel for escape, something which was incredibly necessary.
Jessie Ware’s “What’s Your Pleasure?”
1) Protomartyr —Ultimate Success Today
I listened to an advance copy Ultimate Success Today for the first time on March 17 when we were just days into the uncertainty and anxiety of lockdown #1. With only the barest hints of colour amidst smears of grey, a bristling post-punk record that confronts one’s mortality and systems of oppression like this really shouldn’t have helped, given the circumstances. But it did. And continued to do so throughout the year. This was my soundtrack to fear and unease, an aural manifestation of the bleak, precarious nature of every single day in 2020. I’m not quite done with this album yet, but truly hope for a time to come in the not-so-distance future where I’ll never want or need to listen to this record ever again.
Protomartyr’s “Processed By The Boys”
Other album lists…
2019 Top Ten — Julia Jacklin’s Crushing is #1
2018 Top Ten — Idles’ Joy As An Act Of Resistance. is #1
2017 Top Ten — Land Of Talk’s Life After Youth is #1
2016 Top Ten — Daniel Romano‘s Mosey is #1
2015 Top Ten — SUUNS + Jerusalem In My Heart’s SUUNS + Jerusalem In My Heart is #1
2014 Top Ten — Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is #1
2013 Top Ten — M.I.A.’s Matangi is #1
2012 Top Ten — Dirty Ghosts’ Metal Moon is #1
2011 Top Ten — Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On is #1
2010 Top Ten — The Black Angels’ Phosphene Dream is #1
2009 Top Ten — Gallows’ Grey Britain is #1
2008 Top Ten — Portishead’s Third is #1
2007 Top Ten — Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock is #1
2006 Top Ten — My Brightest Diamond’s Bring Me The Workhorse is #1
2005 Top Ten — Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl is #1
2004 Top Ten — Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry is #1
2003 Top Ten — The Dears’ No Cities Left is #1
2002 Top Ten — Archive’s You All Look The Same To Me is #1
2001 Top Ten — Gord Downie’s Coke Machine Glow is #1
2000 Top Ten — Songs: Ohia’s The Lioness is #1
1999 Top Ten — The Boo Radleys’ Kingsize is #1
1998 Top Ten — Baxter’s Baxter is #1
1996 Top Ten — Tricky’s Maxinquaye is #1