BEST OF 2020
Alright my fellow music lovers, so you’re saying how can we possibly say anything was a “best” in this godforsaken shit year! And you know what? You’d be right! All that being said, now more than ever we need to get lost in the music that moves us and now more than ever we need to make ”best of” lists of said music! So, let’s all give a large middle finger to 2020 as it exits stage left and let’s spend a minute (or three) rejoicing in all that was musically great about the previous twelve months!
Top 10 Albums of 2020
1) Fleet Foxes - Shore: Coming a surprisingly quick three years after Crack-Up, their last full length effort, Fleet Foxes (or really just Robin Pecknold this time out) are back with Shore…a more straight forward yet equally rewarding album. Gone are the more drawn out proggy arrangements and dour inward reflection in favour of concise, Beach Boys infused nuggets….songs with sun drenched guitars and equally sunny harmonies. Shore resets the Fleet Fox clock back to the 2008 debut, but this time out Pecknold does all the heavy lifting himself, because for all intent and purposes Shore is a solo record. In stark contrast to all the doom and gloom that 2020 has dished out, Pecknold sounds positively in love with all that surrounds him…the gorgeous strains of “Sunblind”, “Can I Believe You”, and/or “Young Man’s Game” all being perfect examples of just how Robin Pecknold is this generation’s Brian Wilson. Another Fleet Foxes classic…a perfect 4 for 4!
2) Hum - Inlet: Welcome back 90s alt rockers Hum. After a twenty year hiatus from recorded music, the Champagne, Illinois four piece returned with an LP of songs that hinted at where they left off with in 1998’s Downward is Heavenward, but the intervening years have revealed a more stoner rock aspect to the band. Songs like “Desert Rambler”, The Summoning” and “Shapeshifter” all feature extended run times and more riffs than you can count! Long may they continue!
3) Muzz - Muzz: Muzz is a trio that consists of Interpol’s Paul Banks, The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, and Bonny Light Horseman’s Josh Kaufman. Kaufman and Banks met way back as exchange students studying in Spain and Barrick knows both from their days of grinding it out in the New York City indie rock scene. Perhaps this familiarity shows its self in the warmth of the music even though the great majority of it is melancholy in nature. “Broken Tambourine”, ‘Red Western Sky”, and “Bad Feeling” et al reveal an emotionally vulnerable and unguarded aspect to Banks’ music that is the real revelation here. It’s an outstanding debut and one the makes the mouth water for a quick follow-up!
4) METZ - Atlas Vending:The Toronto noiseniks return with another collection of tunes designed to pummel and pierce, but it’s not all just musical mayhem. On Atlas Vending the trio shows signs of new ingredients in their pantry of evil tasting riffage with some added backing vocals, more refined vocal melodies and a more accessible hook here and there. Without doubt one of the pre-eminent noise rock bands working today!
5) Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves of Your Life: The former Walkmen lead man is back with his fourth solo effort (including his collabs with Rostam Batmanglij and Paul Maroon) and his first as producer….in fact he wrote, produced, and recorded the whole damn thing by himself! The record finds Leithauser somewhere in the middle ground between his Sinatra-esque debut and the more experimental LP with Rostam. There has always been a consistent streak through that runs through Leithauser’s albums and The Loves of Your Life is no different…tracks like “Isabella”, “Check The Score” and “Here They Come” all tapping into the same successful vein that came before.
6) Evening Hymns - Heavy Nights: Five years in the making, the fourth release in the Evening Hymns canon pulls together a lifetime of frontman Jonas Bonnetta's lived experience -- the ongoing grief over the passing of his father, the dissolution of a longtime romantic relationship and subsequent establishment of love anew, and the birth of his first child -- all packaged up nicely in a beautiful eight-song collection. Definitely a slow-burning late night affair, collaborators include members of By Divine Right and Destroyer this time around, with Bonnetta handling the majority of songwriting, arranging and production himself.
7) Neil Young - Homegrown: An absolute gem of a lost Neil Young album from the mid-70's, at least half of the songs here have never been previously available, and the other half have appeared on subsequent Neil Young albums in widely different arrangements (e.g. "White Line" as it appears is a bare bones acoustic collaboration with The Band's Robbie Robertson, a star contrast to the 1990 Ragged Glory garage rock anthem with Crazy Horse). Homegrown also represents one small slice of the excellent Neil Young Archives Vol. 2 boxset, which finally saw the light of day in late 2020.
8) Brendan Benson - Dear Life: The seventh Brendan Benson album in twenty-five years, the wait for Dear Life has been well worth it. Marking Benson's debut with Third Man Records, the songs in this collection capture much of the intensity and beautiful songwriting as his contributions to the 2019 Raconteurs LP Help Us Stranger, but the key difference here is that Benson is handling all instrumental performances, arrangements, and production entirely on his own. Its great to see how much talent this man is still able to bring to the table a quarter-century into his career.
9) Bonnetta/Huizinga - Dark Watchers: A purely instrumental ambient affair built around natural soundscapes captured in Big Sur, California in 2018, this low-key album had the good fortune of being released simultaneously with the announcement of the first province-wide COVID-19 lockdown in Ontario back in March. If ever there was an album to clear the mind of the soul-crushing reality of a worldwide pandemic unfolding in real time, this is it.
10) July Talk - Pray For It:The third July Talk LP ditches their established boy/girl bark & swoon schtick entirely in favor of a sound that is entirely more nuanced and mature. Recorded at The Bathouse Studio outside of Kingston, ON in 2019, the band have successfully managed to incorporate synths and layered vocal harmonies into their sounds in such a seamless fashion that its hard to imagine that this is the same band that delivered such binary rock songs as "Guns + Ammunition" at the start of the 2010s.
Top 10 Songs of 2020:
1) “Can I Believe You” - Fleet Foxes: This is just life affirming in every way…big arrangements, big vocals and a big payoff! Robin Pecknold has explained that the riff on this song is the oldest thing he had for Shore…he tried to make it work during the tour for Crack-Up but just couldn’t find it! He finally made the breakthrough when he changed the lyrical point of view and then he also added 500 backing voices to the lead vocal via an Instagram request for good measure!
2) “Bad Feeling” - Muzz: Much like the rest of their debut album, Muzz just take things super relaxed on “Bad Feeling.” A simple four chord progression and Paul Banks takes us on a lament about letting go of lament. A touch of brushed drums from Matt Barrick and a little added organ from (presumably) Josh Kaufman and you get one of my second favourite songs of the year.
3) “Step Into You” - Hum: On a record filled with lengthy stoner rock jams, “Step Into You” is the rare track that is as concise as it is rocking. The tempo remains in fifth gear for its entire runtime and even though singer Matt Talbot’s voice often reminds one of A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, his vocal acts as a natural balance to the wall of sound surrounding it. Hum is that rare breed that can epically jam or rock to the point.
4) “Cantaloupe” - Thurston Moore: As much as I love and miss Sonic Youth I feel like that part of my musical soul has been completely satisfied with Thurston Moore’s solo output since the band’s demise. This year Moore released By The Fire, a record that challenges the listener with lengthy jams and more of the improv flair that he always likes to come back to…but sitting amongst the extended cuts is the more biting and to the point “Cantaloupe.” Featuring another one of Moore”s instantly identifiable Jazzmaster-infused riffs, Canataloupe chugs along with all the usual Moore/SY hallmarks until around the two minute mark, where the most unexpected classic rock guitar solo spins magically by Moore’s guitar co-pilot, James Sedwards.
5) “The Garbage Men” - Hamilton Leithauser: Leithauser has been quite creative over the last few releases and “The Garbage Men” is no different. On this track Leithauser uses a trumpet sample that Paul Maroon (his former Walkmen bandmate) looped for him as the foundation while he and his daughters sing over the top of it and some timely cymbals crash to polish it all off. Lyrically, the song is one of regret…Leithauser longs for a friend who moved away and mourns how they used to stay up so late that they would see the garbage men picking up the trash early the next morning.
6) "You in Dreams" - Evening Hymns: The first song in a "dreams" trilogy that comprises the mid-section of the Heavy Nights LP, this particularly song evokes fireside late nights with Kenny G playing some soft sax in the background. On paper it shouldn't work, but Bonnetta's arrangements are so seamless that all of the disparate musical elements come together in perfect balance to capture a fleeting feeling of longing and memories all but forgotten.
7) "I Can if You Want Me To" - Brendan Benson: Easily the heaviest song that Benson has ever laid to tape, the arrangement features some seriously distortion-drenched guitar and bass, and a general urgency not heard from the songwriter since his work in the Raconteurs. A great album-opening song to capture the energy of the songs that follow.
8) "Governess Shadow" - July Talk: Yes, its arguably the most straight-ahead rock song on an album that prides itself on being anything but a straight-ahead rock album, but it is perhaps the perfect representation of the musical evolution that July Talk have undergone in the last decade. Both hard rocking and arty, raw but refined, this is July Talk at their most highly evolved.
9) "Slow and Low" - JEEN: Who would have thought that a Beastie Boys cover could be relevant, let alone revelatory in the year 2020? That is exactly the feat that Toronto-based JEEN has pulled off on her cover of "Slow and Low". This Ian Burton-produced track takes the Beasties' original and slows it down to a sultry pseudo-funk jam. Most surprising and exciting cover track of 2020.
10) "Hear Me Out" - Pixies: The A-side of a one-off 12" single that the Pixies graced us with in 2020, there is perhaps more excitement packed into these three-and-a-half minutes than can be found on the entirety of their 2019 LP Beneath the Eyrie. This is the sound of the Pixies getting back to a more familiar sound -- somewhere between Doolittle and Indie Cindy -- bringing the most accessible version of the Pixies sound back front and center. An entire album's worth of "Hear Me Out" would be a cop out, but as a standalone song it is entirely refreshing and familiar, like a hug from an old friend exactly when needed the most.