I was going to write a little preamble about 2020, but, well....you were there. But thank God 2020 had some incredible music.
So, Lets get this show on the road!
Phish, Sigma Oasis: I may as well get this one out of the way early. Specifically in the modern era (3.0, for fans), Phish’s studio efforts have been pretty bad, even by their own “necessary evil” standards. Phish announced the surprise release of this April 1st album the previous night, during their second instalment of their quarantine-created “Dinner and a Movie” stream. I love Sigma Oasis. It is produced by Vance Powell, who intimately knows and understands Phish. It was recorded in The Barn (Trey’s Vermont recording studio), with the band recording together in one room; capturing Phish in its purest and most organic form. It captures all the great things about this band. “Everything’s Right and “Thread” even signal their improvisational mastery in a studio setting; very difficult to achieve while still sounding genuine. “Thread” is just an absolutely incredible track. It's so impressive that they are able to pull this off 37 years into their career. I can’t say enough about this fun, impeccably produced, and much needed in 2020, record. I love this album. I love this band.
*Note: I never put Phish in these lists, because I know I am biased (and all their albums since I started writing these year end lists kind of suck), but I had to include this because I believe Sigma Oasis genuinely deserves to be there.
Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters: You can’t really have an end-of-the-year list without this record. The release of this record was an event. Every music fan had something to say about it. It received perfect scores on nearly every reputable review site. Several months later, while the hype has died down, the album holds up. Truth be told, it hasn’t had the long-term impact (on me) that I thought it would, but Fetch the Bolt Cutters remains a classic 2020 release.
Arbouretum, Let It All In: This album checks a lot of boxes for me. Let It All In is an expansive psych folk record that touches upon various forms of the rock genre. Guitarist Dave Heumann expertly thread formidable guitar playing in a very subtle way; one that doesn’t overpower the folky bedrock, or charming harmonies. The breadth of ideas are arranged in a way to maintain a cohesive album with well-thought songs. There’s a little something for everyone on this record
Bonnie Light Horseman, S/T: Easily the prettiest album of 2020. This folk rock supergroup came together to record a compilation of new material and traditional folk songs. You can practically see the rolling hills and grey skies as the album eases it's way through. This album is exquisitely produced, and was able to accentuate the mesmerizing vocal harmonies and string arrangements.
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher: After blowing the doors out with her debut, Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers wastes no time with a sophomore slump. Punisher is one of the most well-written, and most well-produced records of the year. Punisher expertly captures Bridgers foggy LA cynicism. With lyrically cerebral passages, subtle psychedelia, and vibrantly lush orchestral swells, Punisher is a huge step up for the already compelling Bridgers, solidifying her as one of the worlds best up and coming songwriters. One of the best albums of 2020.
Caribou, Suddenly: I have always really liked Dan Snaith's (AKA Caribou) brand of downtempo-ish IDM. Apparently created from hundreds of different samples, Suddenly is, for better or worse (mostly better), Caribou's busiest album since his 2010 game-changer record, Swim. Suddenly lacks the flowing disco of it's predecessors. Snaith's nocturnal ambiance is cloaked in brisk transitions, hip hop breaks, and a much larger focus on songwriting; namely Snaith's role as vocalist. While perhaps not as serene as his other efforts, Suddenly. is certainly the most personal.
Causa Sui, Szabodelico: A languid trip. The Danish psych rock outfit riff their way through lush layered bliss. Szabodelico brims with atmosphere, as one song drips into another like an aural Dali painting. With hints of jazz, ambient, and surf rock, Szabodelico has an unhurried beauty that allows the ability to listen as actively or passively as they want.
Dan Deacon, Mystic Familiar: Interesting album title from this Baltimore noise maker; this album illustrates the title’s dichotomy. While busy and chaotic, Deacon has actually laid off a little bit of the noise to express human vulnerability. Deacon has written some very personal lyrics, and is not solely relying on noise. The result is a trippy journey through his own introspection. Mystic Familiar is a sonically crowded album that might not be for all moods, but it is a beautiful soundtrack for diving into yourself, just as Deacon did.
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways: One of my favourite releases of the year. Dylan absolutely knocks it out of the park with this album. Dylan’s prolific life and music has led him from troubadour to owlish grandfather. I found the wistful nature of this album to be extremely comforting; the musical equivalent of laying around listening to a baseball game on AM Radio. Dylan’s recent albums have all had an apocalyptic feel to them, but Rough and Rowdy glows with a delicate peace. Vulnerable might be a tough word to use when describing Dylan, but this is the most open and honest he has been in ages.
*Note: Key West is one of the best songs of 2020, and could be a perfect capstone to his career (god forbid).
Elder, Omens: Elder has really risen to one of my most listened to bands in 2020. After a decade or so of being a powerful stoner metal trio, Elder has added/replaced some members and have now leaned into the proggy experiments on their previous album, Lore. Infinitely dynamic, Omens showcases deep long-form jamming; playing around with airy melodies amidst the extremely complex musicality. One of the most engaging listens of the year. Great headphones record!
Flaming Lips, American Head: My favourite Flaming Lips albums are Yoshimi and Soft Bulletin (Soft Bulletin is one of my favourite records of the 90’s, FYI), where they swath melody and pathos in psychedelia. Following the Yoshimi Era (for lack of better term), Flaming Lips decided to really push the envelope. Some of the their albums from this era were pretty good, but they generally fell off track; and even their best works lacked the pop hooks made their brand so unique. American Head is a brilliant and accessible return to form for The Lips; quirky but grounded lyrics alongside plaintive and melancholy psych rock. Their best record in years.
Garcia Peoples, Nightcap at Wits End: Garcia Peoples have been one of my favourite bands since I first discovered them in 2018. These guys really do it for me. Unreal live shows, long improvisational jams with a rock and roll bend to them. After their improvisational heavyweight album, One Step Behind, released last year, Garcia Peoples headed to the studio and recorded their most proper album to date. Nightcap is thematic and cohesive, but a genuine record, rather than one long jam. Great songwriting, and a lot of balls. You can hear the krautrock and heavy psych influence; crashing guitars into spectral headiness. I am really looking forward to these guys getting back out on the road.
*Note: These guys absolutely kill live, so check out their recordings on your live music platform of preference.
Nubya Garcia, SOURCE: Nubya Garcia is a rising star in the London driven Jazz renaissance. SOURCE is full of lush sounds and styles. Garcia is a fantastic saxophonist, and as a composer, never shies away from exploring unfamiliar ground. She has an uncanny knack for appreciating and blending all subforms of jazz, as well as other genres, perhaps most prominently dub. Super fun listen for fans of Jazz and beyond.
Haim, Women in Music Pt. III: While I always respected Haim a ton, I never really got deep into them; I don't know why, but whenever decided to listen to Haim or something else, I usually chose the alternative. But they blew the doors down with this album. Easily my favourite in their catalog, Women in Music is their most multifaceted work they have laid out in their short but significant career. Women in Music is filled to the brim with evocative and colourful lyrics paired with equally colourful California pop guitars. This record begs to be played loud, out of your car stereo, with the windows down on a warm sunny day.
Charlie Kaplan, Sunday: As the title suggests, a lovely Sunday morning coffee record from this Brooklyn singer-songwriter. Kaplan created thoughtful singalongs with easygoing jangly guitars, and some low-key reverb jamming. Super uncomplicated, just mellow and carefree jamming.
Matt Lajoie, Everlasting Spring: This record sounds like what it feels like to walk through the woods. Endlessly expansive, Everlasting Spring slowly unfolds in front of you. To me, the most fun part of music is the journey, and this is a perfect example of that…directionless in the most beautiful way.
Stephen Malkmus, Traditional Techniques: Frontman from one my favourite bands from the nineties, Malkmus is fundamentally unable to write a bad album. For Traditional Techniques, Malkmus strips down to acoustic folk songwriting. Very straightforward (in a good way) lyrics from a man often being overly witty and sardonic. Probably his most honest and most not-Pavement album to date.
Kevin Morby, Sundowner: Inspired by his move back home to Kansas City, and a self-imposed isolation, Sundowner radiates the warmth of a Midwest Golden-Hour. Sundowner has all the things people love about Kevin Morby, but scaled with a sparse and introspective peace. The quietness is a nice contrast to his sprawling predecessor Oh My God. Sundowner is Morby's most confessional and conversational album to date. Such a pretty record.
*Fun fact: Morby's partner is Katie Crutchfield, AKA Waxahatchee. Making this year the first time a couple has had their own respective work featured on Chigsfork.
Mosses, TV Sun: Mosses is led by Ryan Jewell, who is a bit of a darling in the NYC Psych underground (though he recently moved to Denver). He did an incredible job with his latest band effort. Though TV Sun has moments of big guitars and glitches, the album is most firmly rooted in English Folk, but with a proggy texture to it. This feels like a really limitless record, touching upon psych, krautrock, garage, and freak folk influences; basically an anthology of the wonderful NYC Psych scene.
The Necks, Three: This might be a bit of challenging listen for some. Extremely free-form record from the Australian trio. The Necks toe the line between jazz and experimental, and density and atmosphere. Three is a highly percussive album that focuses far more on mood than melody. Three contains a zoney ambience that pulses through the three lengthy tracks. Once you see the beauty in this album, Three is a perfect album to get lost into.
Jeff Parker, Suite For Max Brown: One of my absolute favourites of 2020. Despite seeing Tortoise in 2004, I’ve only ever really gotten deeply into Chicago Post-Rockers a few years ago. This solo record from Tortoise guitarist, Parker blew me away. A great amalgamation of the Chicago music scene in one record. A true fusion record, Parker effortlessly blends jazz with hip hop, subtle electronic, and textural atmospherics, and a little bit of jamming taboot, to create an incredible record. Suite For Max Brown is exceedingly fun and dynamic. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Perfume Genius, Set my Heart on Fire Immediately: Really beautiful and artsy. I never got too deep into Perfume Genius; he has always been too avant-garde and over the top for me, but this album really did caught me. Stunning and sprawling arrangements with multiple instruments. While the production of the album is the highlight, don’t sleep on Hadreas (AKA Perfume Genius) impressive vocal range. Be ready for some heavy stuff.
Pottery, Welcome to Bobby’s Motel: Super fun and energetic. It is really sonically chaotic, so you have to be prepared for a lack in continuity and kind of a lot of sound, but the album is (tenuously) held together by lead guitarist Jacob Shepansky’s brand of energetic funk, paired with Austin Boylan’s quirky unglamorous take on life on the road. Welcome to Bobby’s Motel sounds like Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads had a baby.
Daniel Romano, Visions Of A Higher Dream: Nobody had a better year than Toronto's own Daniel Romano. Despite the world falling apart, Romano was able to release ten! albums; each one fantastic in their own right. Always a chameleon, Romano toyed with several different genres throughout the year, including late seventies/early 80's hardcore, and sweeping 22min prog suite featuring TOOL's Danny Carey. His best work, however, is Visions of A Higher Dream, which features Romano's flawless take on classic rock. This album could be just as comfortable forty years ago as it is today. Filled with hooks and overflowing with raucous Rock and Roll energy, this album is beyond infectious.
*Note: Check out Romano's Bandcamp page for all of his wonderful records from 2020.
Rose City Band, Summerlong: Heavy California vibes from Ripley Johnson (also the brainchild behind Moon Duo and Wooden Shjips). Summerlong, as the name suggests, is a wonderful sunny day BBQ record. This album doesn’t ask much of the listener, it just chugs along at an easygoing cosmic country pace (think, maybe, The Byrds). Good song writing, great jangly guitars, and sonic nods to Jer. What else can I say…one of my most listened to records of the year.
FYI: Ripley Johnson is a psych-rock genius, and all of his aforementioned projects are worthy of a deep-dive as well.
Run the Jewels, RTJ4: I had a hard time with this record, regarding the year end list. This album, for better or worse, is now the soundtrack to the brutal climax (albeit maybe a hopeful one…please?) of an ugly facet of American history. I listened to this record a lot in the late Spring/early Summer, but not much after; it’s too emotionally pregnant for me to just “throw on.” But no album captures the frustrations of 2020 better than RTJ4. 400 years of imperialism and oppression, with an extra four years of horseshit, summed up in 40 minutes of impeccably produced beats and hair-raising rhymes.
Slift, Ummon: This French trio came out of 2020 with one of the trippiest, proggiest, and hard-rocking records of the year. Ummon plows through deep-space metal. Despite some noisy droning and being a pretty long album, Slift's brand of atmospheric stoner rock moves with purpose, a heavy blend of space, sludge, and speed. Quite the badass interstellar journey for all the nerd rockers out there.
Taylor Swift, Folklore: If this year couldn't get any weirder, Taylor Swift wrote one of my favourite albums of the year. Swift has always had an understanding of what makes a good pop song, and she puts it on full display in Folklore. Already having street-cred with the Pitchfork nerds, Swift employs Aaron Dessner (The National) and Justin Vernon (AKA Bon Iver) to create a folk-pop force. Lyrically, there aren't a ton of surprises; fairly simple musings ranging from interesting to eye-rolling...nothing out of the norm for pop. But, her words are swathed in a beautiful bohemian breeziness. Perfect record to walk along wooded Rhode Island shoreline. Make no mistake, it's a pop record, but it is done well and showcases a mature Taylor Swift.
The War on Drugs, Live Drugs: I have become accustomed to a certain type of recorded live music. Every morning when I work out, I listen a singular Phish show/set. Similarly, when I listen to the Dead, I pick a show and go into it full-on. This has always been my preferred way to experience a live recording; whole. The War on Drugs challenged me by deviating from this paradigm by creating one of the best live albums in recent memory. Pieced together from four years of touring, Live Drugs is meticulously crafted with songs gracefully segueing into another to give that true-to-show experience. Truth be told, I wish they included SOME music from Slave Ambient, but this perfectly curated live record can stand toe-to-toe with some of the all time great releases (I’m talkin’ Frampton, Europe 72, Springsteen, ETC). I fucking love these guys
*Note: Especially this year, there have been a metric fuckton of live releases. For this, and actually all of my year-end lists, I only include singularly produced and released live albums, rather than archival series releases. So, no LivePhish series, King Gizzard live, or GarciaLive releases will be on this list.
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud: Katie Crutchfield’s (AKA Waxahatchee) post-breakup record; the part where you emerge older and wiser. Good ol’ folky Americana. There are pieces of heartache throughout the record, but it is done with a sly grin. It is such a breezy album, Saint Cloud offers some much needed congeniality in 2020.
Just a reminder, if you see something you like, go to Bandcamp, or the official website, and buy a digital download, or hard copy of your favourite music. This year absolutely devastated an already hurting industry. Our favourite musicians hold us up when we are feeling down, and sometimes they need to be held up too. Let's make sure our favourite bands don't hang up their gear and go to law-school!