Top Albums of 2020

It seems a little disingenuous to make any kind of year-end retrospective in 2020 without acknowledging up front that this was a bad year. You know it, I know it, we don’t need to get into it. I hope music brought you the kind of relief it brought me.

A tertiary, insiginificant side-effect of all the everything was that the music industry slowed down to a geological pace, so, finally, my asynchronous, autobiographical, back-catalogue music review format is more relevant than ever. I knew this day would come. 

Oh, hey, also, I made an album last year. If you like my music reviews, you might be interested in it. I’m not shameless enough to write an entry about it on my own best-of list, but I’m so consistently terrible at self-promotion that I haven’t mentioned it even once on this blog.

As always, no rankings, no order, no gods, no masters.

  1. Dr John – Locked Down (2012)

Once, in 2000s, there was this little wave of older artists making albums produced by hot young up and comers. Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash made the American Recordings series, Jack White and Loretta Lynn made Van Lear Rose, Jack White and Wanda Jackson made The Party Ain’t Over, and Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) made this album with Dr. John.

Dr. John is a weird guy with a decades-long career of not quite being a marquee headliner. He worked a lot and he showed up everywhere, from The Last Waltz to the theme song to Blossom to having a muppet based on him*, but he never had a name like, say, Randy Newman or, uh, maybe like George Clinton. And yeah, that probably has to do with the Lousiana voodoo shaman person that he used. Regardless, that outsider status gave him a flexibility that other long-established acts don’t always have, and this album puts it to good use. From his already diverse roots in jazz, soul, and funk, Dr. John folds in elements of Fela Kuti’s afrobeat and Mulatu Astatke’s ethiojazz into tight pop-rock arrangements. There are suggestions of Ali Farka Touré-esque Malian blues. That sort of appropriation can be a tricky line, but it’s a testament to the album that it feels like a natural contextualization of Dr. John’s New Orleans into global african music. Which, yeah, that’s weird because Dr. John is white, but frankly there are enough white artists working in black styles without paying their dues that it’s nice to see such a prominent counterexample.

And, look, Setting aside the coincidence of the album’s name, this album feels really appropriate to 2020 thematically. It’s an anxious and constrained portrait of a wrecked society still under the thumb of crumbling, corrupt institutions. All that and it’s got those deep grooves and shuffling rhythms that really make you want to move while you pace around your house in your pjamas and worry about how instagram fits into the politics of biopower.

As with any Hot Young Producer comeback project, the strengths don’t come from, say, Dr John trying out a triplet flow over dubstep, but from looking at the established artists strengths and drawing them out into fresher contexts, suffusing them with new energy. It also provides a tremendous backwards entry point into the deeper discography. I recommend going straight for his 1968 debut Gris-gris.

*That would be Dr. Teeth. Here, enjoy this surprisingly legit cover of the Band’s Ophelia.

“Ain’t never was, ain’t never gonna be another big shot like me”

  1. Angélique Kidjo – Remain in Light (2018)

Speaking of the African diaspora, for argument’s sake let’s start with James Brown’s music, which boldly developed pop and R&B into funk, which didn’t really exist before he started making it. Brown’s records found their way to Nigeria, where Fela Kuti would reinterpret elements of funk into Afrobeat. Talking Heads got a hold of Kuti’s work in the 80s in New York, and developed those influences int their landmark new-wave album Remain in Light (which you might remember from last year’s list). And then, in 2018, Angélique Kidjo, superstar Beninese pop diva, re-records Remain in Light song for song, with a crew of musicians that features afrobeat pioneer and Kuti collaborator Tony Allen. That’s a damn lineage.

If you liked the original album, you’ll probably still be swept away by the sheer volume of reimagination in the new work. If you didn’t like the original, you might appreciate how accessible this is in comparison. Not to say that the edges have been filed off. I don’t know how this album fits in Kidjo’s extensive discography, but it’s really a hell of an entry point. It’s exhilarating and propulsive. It’s fun and bouncy and with these surprising heavy hits and foundation-shaking grooves. I listened to this album a lot while fixing bikes at work, and it’s the kind of thing that can remind you of the joy of possessing a physical body even while you are engaged in labour.

“She is moving to describe the world”

  1. Ouroboros – Kitchuses (2017)

Fished out of a chest of free promo CDs at Edmonton’s immortal CJSR, this album has been with me for a while, but this year I really came to appreciate it. Ouroboros is a party band from St. John’s with four saxophone players and a drummer, and they absolutely crush it on Kitchuses.

There’s sort of an ongoing debate in jazz discourse about dancing. Some think that jazz really grew up when it left dance halls behind in favour of smoky clubs, others think that jazz got esoteric when it abandoned its roots as dance music. Jazz is big enough that both of these observations are correct, but on balance, dance-forward approaches haven’t been dominant in jazz since the big band era. Now, Ouroboros is not, strictly speaking, a jazz band, and they dabble in klezmer, funk, balkan, rock and latin styles, but it is extremely refreshing to listen to jazz and jazz-adjacent ideas in an explicitly dance-based context. This has been a long walk to the point that this is a jazzy, dancy album with good beats and good notes and good tunes.

  1. Nate Smith – Pocket Change (2018)

Nate Smith is one of the absolute best working drummers today. He’s got an incredible grasp on complicated and subtle concepts and he can play a million beats per minute and big showboating fills and whatever else. If drumming were judged as an athletic competition, he would absolutely be a gold medalist.

The thing that really makes him stand out from the pack, though, is his restraint. He uses a tiny little five-piece kit in his tiny desk concert, and a three-piece kit for most of his collaborations with Vulfpeck, and that’s a band where the concept is “what if all the musicians were flexing all the time?”. He’s more interested in grooves and feels and he doesn’t need to solo through the verses to prove his worth as a drummer.

Restraint makes Pocket Change not just work, but soar. When Smith settles in to make an album that’s Oops, all drums, you can trust him to compose and perform real actual pieces of music. There’s so much going on here. You can just spend the whole album in awe of the technique or you can get up and dance for the duration. It’s an almost philosophically difficult aspect to describe, but somehow the inherently wankiness of an album-long drum solo has been obliterated in service of something much greater, much deeper and much heavier.

And, look, you want to talk restraint? Most of these tracks are less than three minutes long. In instrumental jazz, that’s an astonishing decision.

  1. Melody McIver – Reckoning Ep (2017)

Melody McKiver, electro-acoustic violist, is purposefully creating a new genre of Anishinaabe compositions that incorporate electronic percussion, western classical music, looping, and whatever else they want. Reckoning is full of rich and haunting soundscapes and little tonal narratives, by turns intense, graceful, haunted, muddy and clear. 

I’m most able to contextualize this EP in terms of work from Andrew Bird or Owen Pallett, who both work with bowed chordophones, looping and western classical recontextualization. I have a harder time explaining why I feel the difference so sharply between the three. I like Bird’s poppier, rockier stuff, where his atmospheric looping experiments never seem to get around to having an idea. I have no appreciation for Pallett’s work at all, which I find to be very affected but not very engaging. Mckiver’s, in contrast music has a warmth and depth to it that I find really appealing and comfortable even as the forms and melodic ideas are unfamiliar.

  1. Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates (2017)

When you put this album on, it keeps turning your speakers up louder and louder until a minivan full of musicians shows up at your house a takes you away to a party in a community hall where absolutely everyone is dancing. Old people, young people, all just moving to the music. Metaphorically, I mean. In reality you’re probably just dancing alone in your living room.

If you’ve followed my reviews over the years, you might have noticed a real thread developing about brass bands. Indeed, Red Baraat is the second such band on this list. In the interest of differentiation, I think Red Baraat is the most stylistlically diverse. Beyond the most obvious pillars of bhangra and brass music, there’s all sorts of stuff mixed in here: surf rock, ska, jazz, psychedelia, carnatic music, other stuff that I don’t actually have the cultural background to be able to name. It sounds like a tremendous effort, meaning, like, work. The band is clearly giving their all to these tunes, and it shows.

Incorporating traditional musical forms in modern music can be something of a rigged game. If something doesn’t work, it’s easy to discount: too derivative, too superficially updated, too modern, not fully realized, etc. Red Baraat doesn’t seem troubled by any of these distinctions because they are partying too hard, and they’re perfectly comfortable at any intersection they might drive through on their way to your house.

“Todo el mundo puede cambiar, se hace el mundo al andar”

  1. Imaginary Cities – Fall of Romance (2013)

I’ve been ignoring this album for 7 years. I used to listen to CBC radio 2 a lot and their singles did very well. Perhaps too well. Perhaps the hook on “Chasing the Sunset” is a bit too catchy. I suppose it did the job anyway because seven years after I still had it stuck in my head and decided to check out the whole album. I’m really glad I did.

I don’t exactly know where to start describing this album. Rock? I guess so, but more like Queen than, say, the Stones. Retro? Yes, but how exactly? It doesn’t sound like any particular year or genre or scene. The 2010s dreaming of the 80s version of the 50s, maybe? Indie? Sure, is anything remotely alternative from 2005-2015 not indie?

I can’t say enough about the part writing on this album. The problem with the orchestral pop thing is that it’s too easy to have all the things going off at once. It can easily become overbearing, almost manipulative, like a John Williams score telling you how to feel. That works in a Celine Dion kind of way but it doesn’t really work for me. Pop music has different sensibilities, and intuitively tries to flatten the dynamics of orchestral music. Imaginary Cities’ approach is to bring a formidible composition game, so while the beats and layout remain radio friendly, the instrumental and voice parts are carefully, cleverly arranged. None of these are “pop song with a studio string section laid over top”, all the basslines and synth parts are as carefully measured as the brass and strings. The band incorporates a lot of non-diatonic notes in their phrasing, that lends a pleasing, bendy chromaticness to their melody lines. It give their songs a real 1930s flavour without sounding overtly pastiche.

This is an extremely earnest little album. It gives the impression that the people who made it are very kind. I have no way of knowing if that’s true but it’s nice to think.

“Lesson learned never do that again”

  1. The Beths – Future Me Hates Me (2018) and also Jump Rope Gazers (2020)

Everything I’ve read about this band describes them as indie, which, sure, ok, fine, but for my money, this is pop punk. But wait, come back! The genre isn’t strictly 2005-era Green Day ripoffs and Good Charlotte. The Beths are blasting out distorted, high-energy jams about personal emotions, but there’s always a little extra soul put into it, a little extra consideration in the arrangement, a little extra ambition in the playing. It’s full of beautiful harmonies, unexpected chord choices (crunchy major 7s, 6s and sus chords, string-skipping open chords), and really striking vocal melodies. Teenage me would have followed this band to the ends of the earth. Current me is not legally allowed to enter New Zealand.

I’m trying to structure my reviews a bit more carefully this year but this band just really really rips. I’ll give a slight edge to Future Me Hate Me for being slightly more consistent. On the otherhand, Jump Rope Gazers has “Dying to Believe” on it which is just terrific.

“It always looks backwards from the way that I imagine”

  1. Michael Kiwanuka – KIWANUKA (2019)

I have a some kind of complex about singer-songwriters, which is strange because I am one. It’s just, I dunno, there’s a particular breed that succeeds by fulfilling the coffee shop stereotype, usually with a good singing voice and acceptable lyrics. Often, even if the lyrics are good or even great, the songcraft is just musically unambitious. Boring. I don’t have to qualify that. If you’ve been to an open mic you know what I mean. However, I am almost always on board when singer-songwriters go big. Worst case scenario it reveals how pat their work is and everyone can safely ignore them (see: Jewel’s ill-conceived pop spectacular 0304), and best case scenario, it supercharges the artist’s lyrical strengths because they have to complement more interesting music (see: Josh Ritter rocks out on The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter). I know this has been contentious since Dylan went electric, but frankly we, as a society, have enough midtempo acoustic three-chord songs. 

KIWANUKA is absolutely best case scenario. Not to say that Michael Kiwanuka has ever really been stuck down in that rut before, it’s just that this album pushes farther and harder than any of his older stuff. It leans into fuzzed out psych-funk, seventies soul strings and spare drum grooves. It’s very much a folkier Gnarls Barkley vibe, which makes sense because Danger Mouse produced it, and he produced the hell out of it.

And hey, just because we’re starting what looks like another monumentally difficult year, heads up: this album is pretty dark. It’s about any number of grim subjects, from police murdering black people to the apocalypse, and it’s not meant to be comforting. Taken as a meditation on acceptance, change, sadness and rage, it is something of a tonic for 2020, but it’s a bracing one.

“I won’t change my name, no matter what they call me”

  1. Nina Nastasia and Jim White – Follow Me (2018)

So there’s a concept in rock music called the power trio (drums, bass, guitar) which is a reliable standard because it covers rhythm, harmony, and melody* in a comprehensive way with a very small number of musicians. There’s a lot of bands that fit that description, from Green Day to Supergrass to Wide Mouth Mason. Less common is the power duo, which for whatever reason tends towards garage-rock-blues kind of stuff (the Black Keys, the White Stripes, Kitty and the Rooster, the Vertical Struts**). The thing about power duos is that it’s actually very common to have a studio bass player, and probably a touring bass player. Or at least an octave pedal on the guitar. It’s very rare to hear just guitar and drums, because while the guitar can conceivably be harmony or melody, it’s not always successful as both.

Nina Nastasia and Jim White are more clearly in the acoustic folk category, but the comparison is useful for framing the minimalism of their experiment. Nastasia sings and strums and picks and Jim White carefully throws a small drum kit down the stairs. That’s only a slight exaggeration. White’s drumming brings an entire dimension of dynamics to this album, alternately commenting on, pushing against, and locking in with what would otherwise be pretty standard guitar work. Sometimes it’s so off-kilter that the song seems about to break apart, sometimes it’s so fluid and gentle you hardly notice it. An acoustic guitar can create a lot of non-periodic noise, so it makes sense to steer your snare drum away from whatever the guitar is doing, but it’s actually a very uncommon decision. It also really makes the vocals stand out in the mix. 

This is a really clear case of music as more than the sum of it’s parts. Like, I think this album would actually be substantially diminished by a bass player, locking things in and holding the lower registers down. Instead, it’s loose in an unpracticed, but not undisciplined, way, teasing the edges of conventional music organization. Maybe it’s better to think of this as a singer-songwriter going big, just not really big. 

*this is a simplification for illustrative purposes. Don’t get mad at me because you think I think guitars aren’t rhythmic or whatever.

*to get hyper-local on you for a second, the Vertical Struts seems to have been fully wiped from the internet. I found a single live video of them. On a related note, Edmonton had about the only bass-and-drums power duo I can think of, the awesome Whitey Houston, who are apparently gone from even spotify now. Keep your CD collections, kids.

“I am transformed into rain and dirt and weeds and leaves”

  1. Bear McCreary – Black Sails OST (2014)

(This one is a bit tricky to track down but here’s the spotify link:

I don’t have a ton to say about this except that Bear McCreary is very good at his job, the silly pirate show that the music is from is very bad, and this compilation of jaunty, gothic sea shanties is fantastic. If you’re not getting enough hurdy-gurdy and accordion in your diet, give this a listen.

“Well I will give you silver and I will give you gold

And the hand of my daughter if you will be so bold

To swim alongside the spanish galilee

And sink her in the lowland lowland low

Sink her in the lowland sea”

  1. Eric’s Trip – Purple Blue (1996)

One of the things that I actually kind of like about the 90s Canadian rock scene is that it’s so small potatoes that there’s not really a canon. Like, if you’ve never heard of Econoline Crush or the Watchmen or whoever, no one is going to make fun of you. It’s not that big a deal. The flipside is that bands with even moderate saturation are inescapable while smaller bands can get lost in the shuffle. I’ve heard more than enough Our Lady Peace for the rest of my life, but I’ve never heard of Eric’s Trip at all. It turns out that they were something of a big deal in the 90s; touted as a Canadian Sonic Youth, part of the Halifax grunge scene, even though they’re from Moncton.

I’m no grunge connoisseur (or whatever micro-genre of alt-rock this might belong to. I’m going to keep calling it grunge), but there’s just something about this album that connects with me in a way that nothing in the radio-rock grunge canon ever did.* It’s murky and distorted and aggressive but there’s a defining sense of melody, even a sense of fun to the noisy experimentation going on. On the downside, the first song is a three-part mini-opera, which you have my permission to skip.

*Never had any exposure to grunge outside of 10,000 hours of Nirvana and Pearl Jam on terrestrial radio. Never had any desire to investigate further. 

“I’m sick of writing love gone wrong songs”


About Jesse Conlang

Jesse Conlang lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has trained squirrels to operate pens and pencils at his whim. You can probably tell that by the quality of the work.
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