For what it’s worth, the pandemic improved my capacity for listening to new music for reasons that are all too apparent, especially to people like me who tend to be rather compulsive about hearing everything that comes out. During past “normal” years I had to struggle with this compulsion since I had other things to do and life, as they say, is short. These year-end lists are just the occasional, inevitable products of this compulsion, and so because I spent much more time at home in 2020 (and had less paid work for the same unfortunate reason), I could listen more intently and for longer periods of time to new releases. Frankly, it became something of a slog, since my conscientiousness got the better of me. I’m sure I wasted way too much time that could have been better spent gardening or finding a publisher for my book. Resorting to music in such a way is a classic procrastination gambit, unless, of course, you make a living from listening to music, which I no longer do (though I still deduct music purchases on my tax return). In any case, the one good thing that came out of all this is that it took less time to come up with the following list, since I didn’t have to revisit so many records out of forgetfulness or neglect. And for that reason, I am also fairly confident that the contents of this list won’t change in the coming months, which usually happens once I start discovering stuff on other people’s lists. (D.C. Fontaines, anyone?) And, yes, I’ve listened to both Punisher and Rough and Rowdy Ways enough times to know I like them but not that much. Though most of the records listed below were didactic, I needed music that did more than enlighten. It had to take me out of the house, even if was only in my imagination.
1. Billy Nomates (Invada/Big Nothing): First thing that comes to mind is the Au Pairs—a British woman’s voice wielding American diphthongs and singing stridently about personal matters. The Au Pairs’ thing was a Marxist take on sex, while Billy Nomates’ is run-of-the-mill capitalist incivility, except that Billy has a standup comic’s command of sarcasm, a rare gift in pop that turns her quotidian vignettes about shit jobs and awful rich men into mini-lessons in addressing the life you endeavor to leave behind by taking up music in your 30s. With aid from Geoff Barrow’s minimalist production, the hooks embedded in her rants make the success of such an endeavor that much more assured.
2. RTJ4, Run the Jewels (BMG): Released just as the virus began its merciless rampage and containing nothing directly pandemic-related, Killer Mike and El-P’s 4th joint nonetheless managed to sound up-to-the-minute because the stakes were so high in an election year and as a team Run the Jewels thrives on sociopolitical brinksmanship. It’s not just that they still know how to fashion savage beats for raps about murderous cops and state-sanctioned discrimination, but that their musical chops have aligned so perfectly with their clear-headed outlook that they can inspire contributors as diverse and dedicated as Zack de la Rocha, Josh Homme, and Mavis Staples. Viva the all-inclusive revolution!
3. Speed Kills, Chubby & the Gang (Partisan/Big Nothing): This London punk quintet surveys the same landscape as Billy Nomates, but with a decidedly more organizational approach that celebrates trade unionism and pub-centered camaraderie. Consequently, the musicianship conscientiously keeps up with the sophistication of the songwriting, a trait that may discourage hardcore purists who still believe in anarchy in the UK, but adds a righteous touch of glee to the requisite supersonic tempos. Nihilism is all well and good, but partying is so much more fun when you have a fair pay structure and reliable social services.
4. Untitled (Rise), Sault (Forever Living Originals): “Cool” in every sense of the word, this Brit-based soul-jazz outfit privileges whatever unidentified personality shoves their way to the fore at a given musical moment. Sometimes it’s a standoff between the singers and the drummers, though when the strings come in, be they real or synthesized, everyone stops and stares. It’s why I prefer this album to its companion long-player, which offers more hard-hitting social consciousness but less in terms of pure visceral pleasure. Here, “street fighters” prefer to dance their message, which may not sound very street but isn’t that how the venerated moral arc is supposed to bend—toward justice and joy?
5. Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa (Warner): Her only serious competition in terms of world domination was BTS, which has a huge machine behind them, and what she lacks in dance-diva distinction she makes up for with the kind of song-to-song consistency that fell off the charts after P!nk recommitted to her marriage. Dua Lipa’s exceptional flair for tune and her obsession with that bass is sufficient to make her a star. What makes her a genius is the way she transforms bargain bedroom compositions into arena-ready pop through the power of her performative instincts. Who needs a machine when you’ve got everything you need in your nervous system?
6. Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2, Tkay Maidza (4AD): There is something at least a little weird in the facility with which this young Zimbabwean-Australian loops from rapping to singing and back again without any change in tonal equilibrium. Less banging than her previous, major label stuff, her new music still scans as pop but without the signifiers that indicate the goal is immediate gratification. The designated single seriously messes with her natural sweetness and the collab with JPEGMAFIA sounds downright dastardly compared to the bouncy Caribbean vibe of “You Sad” or the TLC-ripping radio groove of “PB Jam.” As early career-corrections go, this is almost radical.
7. Nayda!, Bab L’Bluz (RealWorld): The trancelike properties of the Moroccan street music form called gnawa provide plenty of opportunity for sensual pleasure, which abounds on this debut. Guided by the pliant, ecstatic vocals of Yousra Mansour, whose heroes range from Saharan blues singers to Aretha, this multiethnic quartet plays a potent brand of rock on traditional instruments spiked with doses of flute, fuzz-tone, and funky bass. But it’s the tricky rhythmic counterpoint—a grinding, squirming insinuation—that best conveys the album’s title, which means “awakening.” Free the spine and the mind follows.
8. Never Will, Ashley McBryde (Warner Nashville): As a proponent of what’s currently hip in Nashville, McBryde knows her West Coast rock licks and her rhyming dictionary by heart, and she sings to beat the band at their own game. What makes this boldly conventional record so compelling is the way she’s bent tradition to a personality that seems fixated on bucking it. The acknowledgement of her (or her characters’) sexual and chemical weaknesses, the comical raging at charlatans, the empathy for noble failures all adhere more or less to the dogma of country image-making but take on a spooky power when you realize she’s in it all the way for the music at the risk of losing everything else, including her family and whatever gods she believes in.
9. acts of rebellion, Ela Minus (Domino/Beat): This Colombia-to-Brooklyn transplant’s implied rebellion comes across as restlessness on this DIY techno extravaganza, epitomized by her tensely monotonous vocal tracks. “They told us it was hard,” she crisply speak-sings, “but they were wrong,” and it’s the ease with which she constructs her aural world that’s striking. On top of house beats that sound as if they’ve been excised from an eternal loop she sandwiches her vocals between overlapping layers of divergent melody and then lets the completed, throbbing structure collapse after only three or four minutes. To a true, dedicated club artist, intentional brevity may be the most rebellious act of all.
10. In This House, Lewsberg (self-released): The goal of any self-respecting lo-fi indie band is to sound as if they have two members fewer than their actual number. In that regard, this Rotterdam quartet, which is always compared to the Velvet Underground, poses a paradox: How does an ensemble that purposely plays out of tune, whose lead singer sounds like a punch-drunk refugee from a Kafka nightmare, and whose songs are all about pointedly unimportant things manage to produce such a catchy record? Even NME won’t accuse them of taking the piss, so the only explanation is that when everyone’s creative mojo is perfectly aligned to the same idea, no matter how mundane, the result can be magic.
–Ho, why is you here?, Flo Milli (RCA): Rapping as peak manifestation of self-esteem at the expense of everyone in earshot, which in this Alabama MC’s case means female members of her age cohort and the men they currently date. She’s funny that way, literally.
–Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple (Epic/Sony): She really has realized her potential: Affecting art songs about love and friendship and violation that completely eschew metaphor.
–Sign, Autechre (Warp/Beat): Metal machine music for lovers.
–Alphabetland, X (Fat Possum): Not so much a return to form as an admission that what they did best was play rock and roll for pleasure.
–I’m Your Empress Of, Empress Of (Terrible): Making the struggle to create an enjoyable pop record in your living room, by yourself, reflect the struggle you had coming to grips with betrayal and uncertainty, which wasn’t enjoyable at all.
–Peninsula, Jealous of the Birds (Atlantic): Inventive word play and a penchant for not sticking to the same musical form, no matter how tempting it must be given how adept she is at every musical form she attempts.
–Anime Trauma and Divorce, Open Mike Eagle (Otherground): Rapping as peak manifestation of self-critical reflection and regret at the expense of loved ones, past and present. He’s funny that way, figuratively.