2020: Music in Review

So that was a year. I probably don't need to recount all the terrible, monumental events that went down - let's just hold our breath for a week and welcome 2021 with high hopes. The live music experience (but really, life itself) took a brutal beating through the scourge of coronavirus, something that was innocuous enough to joke about at the BAFTAs in February and by December had killed millions around the globe, shutting down economies and civil liberties, introducing physical distancing and masking to societies not used to such concepts. Coupled with an economic downturn and the most recent flame-up of violent social unrest brought on by unchecked systemic racism, all presided over by an inept and actively harmful leader, 2020 was seen as the equivalent of the 1918-20 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement all within a calendar year. Throw in the malevolent influence of the social media echo chamber that leaves zero room for nuance or discussion, and you have a perfect recipe for societal collapse. Oh, and half of Australia burned down thanks to catastrophic climate change, but that was way back in January.

For me, the ability to attend or perform concerts was the hardest change to adapt to, and it's a scenario that seems almost impossible to envision happening again anytime soon. We have been so thoroughly trained for 6 feet of physical distancing and wearing masks and sanitizing hands and being orderly that the idea of throwing yourself into a sweaty, churning moshpit at a show seems not just irresponsible but totally implausible. Taking a rush hour train home and being so crushed in with other bodies that your feet aren't even touching the ground? That was a welcome change for better. Being fortunate enough to keep working from home as many others could not? Very thankful. The entire local music industry being crushed when they couldn't manage the razor-thin margins that kept it open and functioning? Not so welcome.

Some positive music things this year: Bandcamp's "Bandcamp Fridays" saw all revenues directly given to the artists, and the enormous profits that the initiative generated appears to have made it an ongoing event for the foreseeable future. Post Malone's streaming Nirvana tribute gig in April, which sounded so dire but turned out to be so exhilarating in the first stretches of lockdown and lost live shows. And of course, the on-going onslaught of new albums, some of which I highlight below. Lots of albums were likely delayed into the next year and beyond, but plenty of artists forged ahead with new releases, some even done post-quarantine. In the end, the list of music I listened to and appreciated this year was voluminous and worthy of praise. As is de rigeur, please see the below Spotify playlist highlighting some essential cuts from the top 50, lead by Burial's new single (and automatic Song of the Year) which puts a final nail in 2020's coffin and gives us hope going into "twenty twenty won" - come with me.

Albums of the Year

50. Thundercat, It Is What It Is

Stephen Bruner continues his excellent run of off-kilter R&B/yacht rock/funk albums with this concise collection of Brainfeeder-appropriate eccentricities. Whether mourning his late collaborator Mac Miller, checking on the sexiness of his durag or just cruising the cosmos, Thundercat will be his own muse.

49. Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia

As bold and colorful as the cover art, the Canadian-Colombian artist follows up her Polaris-winning La Papessa with an unabashed celebration of Colombian culture, a reclamation of her country's crown (it is named after the infamous 2015 Miss Universe gaffe where the host claimed the wrong winner), proud Afro-Colombian rhythms and Spanish-language singing which shows that great music is universal.

48. Pop Smoke, Meet the Woo 2

One of the most commanding young voices from rap was on track for superstardom, and got it - on the back of a bloated, label-mandated posthumous album. No, the real juice you need on Pop is this snarling beast of a mixtape released a week before his death, his gravel-mixer voice running roughshod over 808Melo's icy, dramatic drill productions, an incandescent flame burning into the darkness.

47. Mac Miller, Circles

2018's Swimming was always meant to have a companion album rather than serve as a swan song, and producer Jon Brion ensured that Mac's final vision would be as close to complete as possible. This is hardly a rap album - lush production, sad and hopeful vocals from beyond the grave; a rocket to near the top of posthumous albums. A promising career lost.

46. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour

The sisters Bailey came through with the harmonies of angels who've spent a lifetime practicing - they went for the jugular with this collection of future-R&B, hip-hop and swooping vocal acrobatics, all within a compact 37 minutes. As sleekly presented as something you would expect from Beyonce's boutique label, Chloe and Halle have a bright future ahead of them.

45. Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song

A huge step up from her already great debut album, Owens' sophomore album kicked off with a cover of Radiohead's "Arpeggi" (filtered with some heavy Boards of Canada atmosphere), and never let up in its quest to fill the dancefloor and achieve mental serenity. She delayed the release in solidarity with record stores suffering the effects of lockdown, and allowed us to have the ideal soundtrack for when the weather started to cool off after a lost summer. Great things will come.

44. Neptunian Maximalism, Eons

Long-form albums became pretty de rigeur this year as we had some more time to focus on extended pieces. One of the most rewarding and longest was the Belgian collective's triple-disc collection. From their Bandcamp: "By exploring the evolution of the human species, NEPTUNIAN MAXIMALISM question the future of the living on Earth, propitiating a feeling of acceptance for the conclusion of the so called "anthropocene" era and preparing us for the incoming “probocene” era, imagining our planet ruled by superior intelligent elephants after the end of humanity." A bewildering amalgam of Sunn O))) and Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Swans, this cosmic journey rewarded your attention and left you with a true sense of a journey well taken.

43. Mourning [A] BLKstar, The Cycle

A stunning R&B/jazz/Afrobeat melting pot from the Cleveland collective, whose prowess comes from a rigorous rehearsal and recording routine that utilizes all eight members and the spontaneity of improvisation, powerhouse vocal performances and pitch-perfect samples (especially the weighty Fred Hampton speeches). Absolutely captivating.

42. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

The undisputed breakthrough champ of the year was the girl in the skeleton suit with the beguiling smile and haunting lyrics. It takes some time for this mostly quiet album to reveal itself, and there is still room to grow, but her choices showcase an artist willing to take risks, one who will likely shower us with a masterpiece sooner or later.

41. SW., TRUElipS

The mysterious co-founder of the SUED label dropped their first LP since 2016's beloved Album, and stayed right in their lane of melodic techno created with peerless pacing and deft album-length precision. Warm pads, breakbeats, IDM flashbacks and heavenly major chords swirl around as you are led along by a master at work - an album directly in my wheelhouse.

40. Spectral Lore / Mare Incognitum, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine

A split double-album from the two black metal artists resulted in one of the year's most engrossing journeys, as the two take turns exploring each of the planets of the solar system ("weaving fables through a synthesis of their distinct physical features and a mythical personhood representing these features") before coming together and bashing out a grandiose finale on the late, lamented Pluto. Your threshold for black metal excellence will be tested, and your patience richly rewarded.

39. Pa Salieu, Send Them to Coventry

The Gambian-British rapper synthesized his background and various linguistic inflections into a perfectly paced debut mixtape, one which will stand alongside such touchstones as Dizzee's debut. His voice is alternately ice-cold and melodic, never too far from slipping into unrecognizable patois, with an uncanny mix of Afro-beats, drill and trap. A standout even in a wildly inventive UK scene.

38. CS + Kreme, Snoopy

Every year brings along some inscrutable electronic album that is impossible to describe - the Melbourne duo of CS + Kreme manage to create an unholy fusion of electronics and classical instruments (pipe organ, harpsichord, brass), a beast that is digestible and often lulling yet too dark to be sleep-appropriate.

37. Shabaka and the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here By History

Further cementing his place at the forefront of an insanely fertile modern jazz scene, trumpeter Shabaka Hutchings and his sextet of South African players throw fuel on a fire of South African township jazz and Afro-Latin influences, a towering inferno of impassioned playing and eery end-times themes. You can play it for the philosophy or play it for the beat, but play it loud.

36. Sorry, 925

A great example of the post-everything upbringing of the Web 2.0 age, the London duo try their hand at almost every genre under the sun, and with their winning personalities and charm they manage to keep their debut from sounding like an utter mess - "Right Round the Clock" is so interesting on its own that you barely even notice the prominent lift of a very famous hit song's lyrics. Sharp production and strong songwriting make this a promising first step.

35. Ambrose Akinmusire, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment

Inspired by the effects of gentrification on his home community, the trumpeter howled back with this reflective, searing portrait of avant-garde bluesy jazz (two pillars of musical expression in the Black community) that attempts to dissect the complexity of Black life in America - it was released mere weeks after the public execution of George Floyd and captured how much has yet to change.

34. Emily A. Sprague, hill, flower, fog

Aphexian ambient works in a year we sorely needed a little breather, Sprague's lilting sound design and harmonies was released in March as a Bandcamp Friday self-release to benefit a community project for LGBTQ+ youth, and was rearranged at the end of the year as an official release on RVNG Intl. It was a perfect balm in either format.

33. Boris, No

Recorded quickly when the band entered lockdown, Boris turned up the speed for this blast of hardcore-influenced fuzz-rock ragers. This totally self-released effort (no streaming, and accordingly to Wiki, their 26th) is a brainmelter, one of their most aggressive and hyped-up in a long time, the mirror which "gathers and reflects people’s negative energy at a different angle, one that is positive" - whatever the intent, give me some more please.


32. Shinichi Atobe, Yes

The famously reclusive Japanese producer has delivered another blank CD to his label (his preferred method of communication) and to the masses, making up for lost time and allowing us another glimpse into his immaculately produced world. Techno for home listening pleasures.

31. Kate NV, Room for the Moon

An exhilarating pop album from a Russian artist with one foot in fiery post-punk and the other in improvisational orchestral work; there are five languages utilized to bring these charming, windswept songs to life, and though you are never certain what will come next, you can rest assured that it will be fantastic.

30. Fleet Foxes, Shore

Released nearly without fanfare on the vernal equinox, Robin Pecknold and crew delivered what might be their best album, depending on your view of the experimental long-form exercises on Crack-Up (it is a grower, go back and check). The songs and production fitted the release date perfectly - it is like a walk through a sunny forest as the leaves are turning color, the breeze flitting around your head.

29. Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA

Sprinting through the thicket that Grimes chopped down with Miss Anthropocene, Rina loudly used nu-metal - one of the most maligned styles of the rock era - as the bedrock of a snarling beast of a pop album, exploring deeply personal themes with a Y2K filter that is most welcome for an aging music fan. It's hard to say if it will hold up as well as nu-metal did, but like some of that era's output, it's great for the moment.

28. K-Lone, Cape Cira

Composed during a harsh British winter, K-Lone's debut become that much more universal with the dawning of a pandemic and lockdown. The warm melodies, looping polyrhythms and sensuous fourth world musical touches provided a warm escape during dark days, and ideal summer backyard hangout soundtracks.

27. Arca, KiCK i

Possibly her most astounding album to date, Arca loudly flashes her nonbinary nature on these short vignettes of pop and noise, bringing godmother Bjork and Rosalia along for the ride. This is the first of a promised four KiCK albums, so hopefully all her selves will get some airtime and a chance to shine.

26. Nubya Garcia, SOURCE

Taking the fast lane to become a leading light in the brightly-burning UK jazz scene, saxophonist Nubya Garcia's debut album manages to say new things with the genre, bringing in doses of R&B and calypso, echoing dub and fierce saxophone leads. Jazz has been going through a trendy upheaval of late, and this is yet another great album to throw on the pile.

25. Jessy Lanza, All The Time

The Hamilton producer once again hooks up with Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan for another triumphant leftfield pop album on the Hyperdub label - the tempos are a bit slower and allow Lanza's lyrics some space to breathe (something like "would you rather be lonely" cut deep this year). Consistent excellence.

24. Moodymann, Taken Away

Kenny Dixon has been repping Detroit hard for decades, and his work has a delightful idiosyncrasy that sets him apart from his peers. Taken Away is a sinuous album that was promised long ago (or was it?), the first word after a long absence (or was it?) following his glorious 2014 self-titled album (that it was) - this is an urgent and meaty house album from a master.

23. Roisin Murphy, Roisin Machine

Since the Moloko days, Murphy could be relied on to bring some idiosyncrasy to the dancefloor. That is mostly tamed here, as her stranger ideas are reigned in at the service of the 4/4, a lush and immersive disco record that is almost pungent in its successful evocation of a time and place we couldn't visit this year.

22. Krust, The Edge of Everything

Drum n' bass enjoys a fledgling afterlife after being the subgenre du jour in the late 90's, mostly thanks to vanguards like Krust and massive albums like this cinematic effort, his first in 14 years and every bit as classically-minded as the era's peak. Minor missteps like the soliloquy on "Antigravity Love" aside, this things paces and leaps like a panther in flight.

21. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Alfredo

Pleasure-zone rap in the mumble era. The Alchemist's tasty productions provide a hypnotic and familiar bedrock for Gibbs, a long-time veteran who has found his lane and is absolutely owning it, to flow buttery over - the only debate is whether it is as good as last year's Bandana or better.

20. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

Everyone's favorite Albanian/British pop star ditched the soppy ballads of her debut and went full disco killer with this nearly flawless album built for the empty clubs - two duds and a mediocre club remix album by the Blessed Madonna couldn't dull its shine, and it was my 7 year old's top of the year.

19. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

The first album of original material from the Nobel laureate could have used a bit more of the "rowdy", but you are really here for the lyrics, and boy does he deliver. His voice is a marvel now, all the world in its timbre, and when he unspools the 17 minute history lesson of "Murder Most Foul", you know you are in the presence of a master.

18. Duma, Duma

If your only exposure to Nyege Nyege Tapes was their excellent Sound of Sisso compilation, this scorched-earth electronic industrial grindcore noise album from the Kenyan duo will likely spin your head. There were moments where some unbridled aggression were called for to deal with this unusual year, and they found a cathartic outlet here.

17. Oneohtrix Point Never, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

A calling card for mainstream acceptance now that he is hobnobbing with the Weeknd and scoring major Hollywood films (sort of), Daniel Lopatin constructs this as an evening of flipping through the radio - static and snatches of melodies abound. Watch out for 2023 for that OPN/Taylor Swift collaborative album.

16. DJ Python, Mas Amable

The deep reggaetón of 2017's Dulce Compania - already a minor classic - has been turned into a free-floating pool of warm water, one of the most healing and embracing albums in a year that needed some reflection. The centerpiece of this 50-minute ambient drift is the lengthy, whispered tone poem from Brooklyn poet LA Warman on "ADMSDP" - "it's OK to feel hopeless because the whole world is hopeless". Not so much while this was playing.

15. Jessie Ware, What's Your Pleasure?

Stolen parties were a big theme this year in home listening, and few made you pine for the dancefloor more keenly than Jessie's immaculate throwback post-disco record, when the tempo slows and the bodies get closer together. A perfection of production and soaring melodies: save a kiss because if the disco ever reopens, this is going to be slaying.

14. Theo Parrish, Wuddaji

A monumental deep house work, given extra weight with the added map of the Michigan vacation community of Idlewild, these eight tracks are unfussy and clean productions, running rampant with soulful keys, elegant diva vocals and the elemental build-release formula of classic house music. A piece of paradise we could all visit in our hearts.

13. Lady Gaga, Chromatica

Mother Monster went extra hard this year with this breathless 43-minute odyssey to the darkest corners of the year's empty dancefloors, making us shriek and clutch our sorrows to our hearts. True story: "Stupid Love" come up on my playlist at mile 18 of a springtime marathon right after I had crested a hill and ingested an energy gel, and the resulting adrenaline spike nearly felled me. I haven't listened to music during runs since - that's gossip.

12. Deftones, Ohms

On the year that White Pony celebrated 20 years, it felt so gratifying to get yet another great effort from the Sacramento art-metal band, something a bit more aggressive than 2016's Gore but just as textured and balanced. No signs they'll be slowing down anytime, long live the 'Tones.

11. Charli XCX, how i'm feeling now

By this stage, this album is from an entirely different era - made just as lockdown was entering its "I guess this is legit" stage. Bangers for the dancefloors that never opened, where Charli laments missing her friends: this is super of-its-time, but hopefully will transcend those trappings to become a universal loneliness and love album. An essential work from one of our most essential stars.

10. The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You

No epic waiting - four years after Wildflower, the Aussies return with an almost unbearably romantic and heartrending love letter to humanity and the cosmos, a unified whole that was teased throughout the year by an endless stream of advance singles that weren't great on their own, but were perfect in context. A beautiful work that gave some much-needed hope at the end of a brutal year.

9. Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Sean Bowie went supernova on this fully-blown rock star record, incandescent pop material performed with verve and charisma, something that would have absolutely been on fire on stage. Their ambient soundscapes firmly in the past, Tumor's eyes are on the heavens now.

8. Boldy James with Sterling Toles, Manger on McNichols / Boldy James & the Alchemist, The Price of Tea in China

The victor of the rap year was Chicago rapper Boldy James, who has been doing it for years but put in a masterclass for 2020 over four amazing albums with four separate producers (please also check The Versace Tape made with the ascendant Griselda crew, as well as Real Bad Boldy made with L.A. fashion house/producers Real Bad Man - each are short and totally banging). I could not choose a clear winner between these two so they are presented in tandem: a typically soulful production from The Alchemist, and a decade-old bit of soulful and psychedelic tinkering from Sterling Toles, each perfectly crafted to support Boldy's world-weary voice and precise verses.

7. Moses Sumney, grae

It was possibly a disservice to split this album into two separate releases over a few months, but then again perhaps it acclimated us to the level of greatness that Moses ascended on this effort. This is the type of deeply personal, no-holds-barred effort that only young talent is foolish enough to attempt, and pull off with such ease - an art rock, baroque R&B exploration of the self and isolation, an ever-shifting record that contains multitudes.

6. Autechre, PLUS / SIGN

Starting the decade off with a similar touch to their 10's, SIGN is indeed their warmest (and shortest!) album since Oversteps, a richly human effort from their patches. That PLUS came a month later as a surprise sells it short, as it is the punchy younger brother. Together, they are two sides of a gleaming coin that represents Autechre at their still inimitable best.

5. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Mike Hadreas has been floating like a butterfly around the periphery for close to a decade with carefully crafted albums, and if 2017's No Shape hinted at greatness, it still couldn't prepare us for this triumph. Reuniting with producer Blake Mills, the sound design is pitch-perfect, as it compliments Hadreas' rich vocals with deeply moving deconstructions of baroque pop and Americana, something time-worn and immediately recognizable. Destined to be a modern classic.

4. Actress, Karma & Desire

Given that Splazsh was my AOTY ten years ago, trust me when I say this is a feat of sustained brilliance from Darren Cunningham, a sort of best-of all his previous sounds and some of the loveliest production of the year. His summer mixtape 88 loaded the bases for this grand slam, as luminaries like Sampha, Zsela and Aura T-09 lent a hand in weaving a lush tapestry, a superlative work in a career full of them.

3. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

"Should I release it? Like soon? Like really soon? I think I’m gonna." And thus the floodgates of a critical onslaught were loosed - is it the overwhelming masterpiece it has been universally hailed as? Is it even the best Fiona album? It's too soon to tell of course, but I'll be darned if I haven't listened to it constantly since April and enjoyed the nuances and excellent writing all the while.

2. Run the Jewels, RTJ 4

If RTJ3 felt at times like the bloated finale of an increasingly grand trilogy, El-P and Killer Mike brought things back into clear focus on their fourth album, hitting their marks with clean precision and professional savagery. The dick jokes are scaled back, and the social commentary was as appropriately fiery as you would hope for in a year of such civil unrest - that these lyrics were written well before the death of George Floyd yet seem to predict his outcome only speak to the broken system we are cogs in. Run the Jewels' voices needed to be heard more than ever, and this year they delivered with aplomb.

1. Sault, Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)

Smarter people than I can articulate what these albums from the mysterious UK collective represent for the larger black community, and how they manage to take all the rich history and culture and boil them down into these two powerful statements of intent (they said it best for Black Is's July release: "We present our first "UNTITLED" album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives...Change is happening...We are focused). They quickly followed that album with Rise in September and somehow seemed to get even better. What elevates this to great art and makes it easy to praise is how easy they are to listen to: snatches of disco, neo-soul, funk and R&B commingle in a palatable whole, smuggling revolutionary ideas and pain in a pillowbox. Fun and weighty, ideal in the car or at home, these were the ideal sounds and ideas for a year we can forget about.


Prince, Sign 'O' the Times: Super Deluxe Edition
Outdoing themselves after last year's huge 1999 release, the Prince estate presented his consensus best album with a gargantuan 8-disc edition in a 12x12 hardbound essay/photography book. It will take ages to wade through the 60+ vault tracks and watch the live DVDs AND read the 120-page hardbound book, but am I ever ready for it.

PJ Harvey, Dry / To Bring You My Love Demos
Given that a stealth pick for Best PJ album is 4-Track Demos, it sure was edifying to receive these editions of two of her fantastic early albums in raw demo form. Ageless perfection.

Honorable Mentions

X, Alphabetland
Picking up the sound after 1983's More Fun in the New World as if the past 35 years haven't happened, the original members of the LA punkabilly band rock out - and rock out HARD - for the sheer love of the music.

Beatrice Dillon, Workaround
A clinically precise electronic album composed entirely at 150 BPM, with a gaggle of collaborators allowed to improvise all over - the 3D shapes on your PC screensaver come to musical life.

Taylor Swift, folklore / evermore
Almost bizarrely focus-grouped to my exact demographic, Taylor's two surprise collaborations of dad-rock with members of the National and Bon Iver was one of the best surprises of the lockdown year, and hopefully pads the Dessner's bank accounts after their decades of indie stardom toil.

Yaeji, What We Drew
A perfectly downcast home-techno mixtape from the beginning of the year, Kathy Lee is teetering on the edge of stardom, something that her well-regarded live show probably could have accelerated this year.

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V: Together / Ghosts VI: Locusts
One of the first major COVID albums, Reznor and Ross released the next batch of dark, creepy Ghosts instrumentals in a year they also dropped two Oscar-worthy scores for David Fincher and Disney - bet 1994 Reznor did not see that kind of development for 2020.

Paul McCartney, McCartney III
Not all McCartney albums can be McCartney albums. Kudos to the man for keeping things interesting as he's pushing 80, long may he live and thrive!

Gulch, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
The big hardcore record that even your mother heard this year, Gulch went blindingly fast and furious for 15 minutes of white-knuckle power.

The Bug & Dis Fig, In Blue
Kevin Martin and Dis Fig brought the dread bass for a year that needed it.

Annie, Dark Hearts
The first album in 11 years from the Swedish pop powerhouse was a bit too beholden to that synthy Chromatics/Drive aesthetic, but made for great mood music at night.

Andrea, Ritorno
An immaculate bit of Skee Mask-style techno from the Illian Tape label.

Nation of Language, Introduction, Presence
Post-punk worship from the Interpol school that plays like a greatest hits, excellent tracks throughout.

Shabazz Palaces, The Don of Diamond Dreams
Reigning in the wildness of Quazarz, this was the most straightforward and enjoyable Shabazz album since the debut.

Meghan Thee Stallion, Good News
A legend-making "debut" album from the raunchy Texan, and a welcome bit of lyrical skills in an era where mumble and sing-song is the rule.

Four Tet, Sixteen Oceans
Kieran doesn't miss - another essential Four Tet album of meditative bangers.

The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
And thus the Music for Cars era ends with a giant orgasm of maximalism. There is much great material here if you are willing to wade in the deep.

Nicolas Jaar, Cenizas
The first of Nico's two solo albums this year, along with a scorcher of an Against All Logic album, made him the year's most fascinating busybody.

Squarepusher, Be Up a Hello
Tom Jenkinson went full Syro on us with a throwback album to the Squarepusher sound of old - familiar, comforting, totally bugged out.

Pantha du Prince, Conference of Trees
Warm electronics imagining conversations between trees, this largely ambient album has been lulling me since January.

Live Albums

Darkside, PSYCHIC LIVE JULY 17 2014
Nico Jaar and Dave Harrington made a totally excellent album in 2013 before seemingly disbanding. This year, they gifted us with this transcendent recording of one of their final performances, then dropped a bomb to kill 2020: new studio album in 2021. We are ready.

Dungen, Dungen Live
The Swedish psych-rock collective lead by Gustav Ejstes has kept the faith - this 2015 live recording has no song titles, only extended grooves you can get lost in and not worry about being cool.

Nick Cave, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace
Is it a live album? A greatest hits? Something else? Nick Cave, alone with his piano in cavernous Alexandra Palace in the year of lockdown 2020 A.D., running through a career of great tracks. Might become his essential release.

David Bowie, I'm Only Dancing: The Soul Tour 74
There has been no shortage of live Bowie albums released in recent years, but this one is particularly cool as it presents a lost period in Bowie live lore: a short tour after the Diamond Dogs extravaganza, with a smattering of new tracks from the upcoming Young Americans, Bowie himself ragged, hoarse and captivating as if he'd been destroying his throat on the road for months on end.

The War on Drugs, LIVE DRUGS
Plenty of people give them guff for their laid-back sound, but there were few such satisfying and well-produced slabs of rock released this year.


There was enough bad, downright terrible stuff in the real world to focus on doing a worst albums section: there will always be terrible music in any year, and 2020 saw plenty from the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, Diplo, Justin Bieber, Green Day and Katy Perry; Tame Impala created a mood while losing their soul. I can (and did) choose to ignore them and focus on the tidal waves of good music that came. The true worst of this year was the list of musicians and related who passed away from natural causes or as a result of COVID-19, and I want to take a moment to remember some of them.

Neil Peart, January 7 - the Rush drummer was a giant influence on me personally and his death at 67 should have been a harbinger of the terrible year to come.

Andy Gill, February 1 - a guitar legend whose Gang of Four sound is still influencing the new generation was 64.

Andrew Weatherall, February 17 - an electronic production/DJ legend, he was 56.

Pop Smoke - the ascendant Brooklyn drill rapper was shot and killed at the age of 20 just a week after releasing the highly promising Meet the Woo 2 mixtape.

Genesis P-Orridge - the British industrial legend was 70.

Cristina, April 1 - the underrated No Wave singer was 61.

Adam Schlesinger, April 1 - perhaps the first big COVID fatality was the prolific and beloved Fountains of Wayne songwriter, who was only 52.

John Prine, April 7 - the legendary country songwriter was 73.

Little Richard, May 9 - one of the foundations of rock n' roll reached a ripe 87.

Jimmy Cobb, May 24 - the drummer for Miles Davis' first Quintet was 91.

Ennio Morricone, July 6 - the hugely prolific and influential Italian movie composer was 91.

Regis Philbin, July 24 - although better known as a TV personality, Regis had a fine singing voice.

Justin Townes Earle, August 23 - an accidental overdose claimed the singer/songwriter at only 38.

Riley Gale, August 24 - the singer for the extremely good Texas thrash metal band Power Trip was only 34.

Toots Hibbert, September 11 - a powerhouse performer to the end, one of reggae's biggest stars was 77.

Chet "JR" White, October 18 - the bassist for the late indie rock band Girls (whose Album is a great classic) was 40.

King Von, November 6 - the ascendant Chicago rapper was shot and killed at the age of 26.

Laszlo Benko, November 18 - keyboardist for the world's longest-running rock band (Omega, from Hungary) was 77.

Tamas Mihaly, November 21 - bassist for the world's longest-running rock band (Omega, from Hungary) was 73.
I will forever love this song:

Harold Budd, December 8 - a master of ambient music and frequent Eno collaborator, the American poet was 84.

John "Esctacy" Fletcher, December 23 - rapper from the underrated Golden Age duo Whodini was 56.

Leslie West, December 23 - the Mountain guitarist (you'll know "Mississippi Queen") was 75.

Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

I think a lot of children my age had a first musical hero. I can't recall what came first: "Darth Vader from Planet Vulcan" threatening to melt George McFly's brain to the tune of guitar squealing, or my dad off-handedly mentioning Eddie Van Halen as a guitarist who will blow my young mind. Needless to say, at some point in 1993, I borrowed a cassette of Women and Children First from the library and promptly lost my mind at the crazy vocals, the huge choruses, and especially the baffling guitar solos. I was hooked - Van Halen was the first CD I ever bought, I was likely the only kid in fifth grade crapping my pants with excitement for the release of Balance, and Right Here, Right Now was the exact snapshot of how I wanted my rock stardom to look like.

Eddie made me want to play the guitar really badly - he also made me quit dreaming about guitar heroics and make a side step to behind the drums, where I could at least somewhat keep time. He had a God-given classical musician's innate skills that he honed with iron discipline and utilized to make timeless rock music for heshers - melodies that refused to leave your head, flights of guitar lyricism that made you drop your warm stadium beer in awe, backing vocals that let you glimpse heaven. At the height of my fandom in the post-Cobain grunge era, Van Halen were passe: Sammy on the way out after a couple of lukewarm albums, Dave back for brief buffoonery, Gary Cherone landing with a resounding thud, reunion tours of widely varying quality. Hence it was a great shock for me to see the huge outpouring of genuine grief for Eddie in the days after his passing from cancer in October. Artists from all areas united in their love of the music and the man, a one-time kingmaker who I figured had slipped into the realm of forgotten hero, maybe best remembered by the fringe.

I am very fortunate to have seen my first hero play live three times, and will especially cherish an excellent show the band put on with Dave in 2007. Eddie's joy while playing was palpable all his career, his grin playing to the back rows, and the music he released was timeless. Happy trails to you, Eddie, and thank you for the music.