As part of wrapping up the year, I have again made my list of the music that has had the greatest impact on me that was released this year. This isn’t a “Best of” list, per se, because I didn’t listen to everything released in 2020.
There is such a vast musical universe out there, it really is impossible to absorb all of the great work released in any year. I often find a great track or album from a recent year and wonder, how in the heck did I miss this?
I primarily find new music from outlets like NPR’s All Songs Considered and KEXP’s podcasts. It should be said though, that trying to follow every week means you will end up with a large list of podcasts. So while I used to scramble to listen to everything in a quest to find that one track I didn’t know existed, I am more realistic.
Have A Relationship With Your Music
This space is also my annual quest to talk about streaming. Streaming is easy and convenient. Streaming is also lazy and pays artists terribly.
It is okay to pay for music! I promise! Physical media is back, primarily vinyl. Even better, when you purchase a new vinyl release these days, they almost always come with a download card with the digital version. The best of both worlds!
And then there is Bandcamp (check out my Bandcamp collection)! In the past couple years, Bandcamp has become a major player in this space. You can purchase physical or electronic media on the marketplace. When you do, your releases end up in your Bandcamp collection and you can download in virtually any format from pure WAV to lossless media to MP3 in many different bitrates. In addition, you can actually stream your collection on the Bandcamp app.
More and more major artists are using Bandcamp. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have both used Bandcamp recently. Mr. Bungle (listed below) just had their highest charting album on the Billboard 100 released through Bandcamp.
Owning your music is a good thing! And you can give support to artists you really need the help this year with touring continuing to be off-limits through much of 2021.
So with all that being said, what follows is My 2020 In Music list.
Fold Up, by Poliça
Released: January 31
This was a comeback release. In 2019, lead vocalist Channy Leaneagh fell off her roof clearing an ice dam in a Minnesota winter and broke her back. She couldn’t comfortably walk for months. In the pain and depression that followed, she managed to write and their album, When We Stay Alive, was born. The tone and mood of this track is right up my alley, but I like the entire album.
People Wake Up!, by The Heliocentrics
Released: February 14
This was a great find on All Songs Considered. Perfect example of a track I likely never would have found on my own. This has some callbacks to the psychedelic era.
Track: Surprise, by Kevin Krauter
Released: February 28
This track came by way of KEXP. I typically listen to their podcasts while doing my outdoor walking. When I come to a track I like (this one), I have to make a quick note of the podcast time so I can go back and figure out who the track actually is.
Track: Gone, by Real Estate
Released: February 28
I really blew it with Real Estate. They have been around since 2009 and The Main Thing was their 5th record. I had heard enough of them through All Songs Considered that I finally got into Bandcamp and discovered they were fantastic! This album is my favorite.
Track: Ceremony, by Phantogram
Released: March 6
I discovered Phantogram, and their previous record, through The Mad Platter (RIP – 2020). When I saw they had a new album, I jumped right on it. I love this track, but I don’t love the album quite as much as their previous release. This track is fantastic though. Phantogram also breaks my Bandcamp embed streak – some groups still need to sell through there!
Track: Sweet, by Porridge Radio
Released: March 13
This song was an incredible find via All Songs Considered. It is a tough, hard-edged rocker. The lead singer is something else. The video for this song is also stunning, although not great if you are photosensitive.
Track: Genesis, by Rachel Morais
Released: March 20
Bandcamp does this thing where they email you if the people you follow buy music. I usually turn off most emails, especially from the Labels, but I do get emails when Alex and Joe buy music on Bandcamp. I remember seeing they both had this album so I took a look. It is a great instrumental record, with beautiful piano ballads, and if you look at the release date you’ll figure out that some peaceful music was sorely needed.
What It Takes, by Sufjan Stevens, Lowell Brams
Released: March 24
Sufjan Stevens has been around forever, and is as close to Indie Rock Royalty as it gets, but I don’t always love his records. Even stranger, Sufjan made this album with his Stepfather. The result though is fantastic! There are a lot of tracks on Aporia, because being primarily snippet instrumentals they move quickly. I picked one of my favorite “longer” tracks for you to listen.
Track: Letting Go While Holding On, By Nine Inch Nails
Released: March 26
Something else that became common – groups putting out unreleased material as the pandemic started. Nine Inch Nails might have been the first. They released not 1, but 2 albums that are a continuance of their earlier Ghosts Instrumental Album. Those were titled Ghosts I to IV (one track is the sample that inspired Old Town Road), so naturally, Together and Locusts were Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts. I am a Nine Inch Nails superfan that owns every Halo release ever made, so of course it took me about 4 seconds to get this one. The digital release was free, even better.
Track: Have A Smoke, It Could Be Your Last, by The Dandy Warhols
Released: April 1
The Dandy Warhols followed with a similar Archives release. I don’t remember what I paid, but it wasn’t much, and it was more of the band giving something out when people were locked down. Something that 9 months later we are experiencing yet again. A lot of tracks are very long, and some are far too long, but this one was my favorite listen.
Track: Ever Roving Eye, by James Elkington
Released: April 3
This was another KEXP find. James is a Chicago-based indie rock musician and when I heard this one the first time, I stopped immediately to track the time. This is one of my favorite indie rock song of the year. Splendid.
Track: Holy Mother, by Clarise Jensen
Released: April 3
All Songs Considered does a great job of finding enjoyable music outside of what it’s audience primarily listens to, so why not a great cellist? This is quite a beautifully haunting track. I suspect most people with no background would listen and not pick up that a cello was doing the primary work!
Track: Kerosene!, by Yves Tumor
Released: April 3
This song came via KEXP, and after I picked it up, Yves Tumor’s album, Heaven To A Tortured Mind, ended up with a lot of critical acclaim and is all over everybody’s Best Of 2020 list. What genre is this? Pop? R & B? Rock? All of the above? It’s a smooth track with a lot of perfectly moving parts.
Track: Fetch The Bolt Cutters, by Fiona Apple
Released: April 17
Considering my age, I am really late to the Fiona Apple party. But I had heard enough of how great her quietly released previous records were, and people jumped on Fetch The Bolt Cutters as soon as it came out. I am not sure I think the album reaches the heights that the critics believe, but it is really damn good.
I thought a while about which track to go with, and finally decided to go with the title track. The chorus is perfect, and, the home recording really brought me back to older times of Trip Hop and Lo-Fi that I fell in love with in the 1990s. And yes, this is the track where here dogs are barking in the background, and I do love she left them in.
Track: Brasil, by EOB
Released: April 17
EOB, of course, is Ed O’Brien of Radiohead. Known as the “quiet” member of the band, and definitely the most unassuming, I didn’t have big expectations for his first solo release. He had played a supporting role in Radiohead for so long, I just didn’t know what I would hear when he was making all the big artistic decision. All in all, a very good record, actually. Brasil is my favorite track, and was inspired by many trips his family made for vacation and to escape England. This one made my 2020 In Music because it shows that even the “quiet” guys in your favorite bands probably make incalculable contributions to the music you love!
Track: Across The Ocean, But Not Yet, by Madeleine Cocolas
Released: May 8
This song is a beautiful atmospheric track. Perhaps not quiet ambient, but a peaceful and well written instrumental that I have been listening to a lot during my times of reflection. The entire album is good, but this song is one of my favorites.
Track: Pre-Fabled, by Noveller
Released: Jun 12
This is another excellent instrumental. Many of the tracks on this album are built around guitar and piano. This was another surprise All Songs Considered find and this song in particular has been with me for the last 6 months. These instrumentals defined My 2020 In Music.
Track: Wasted, by My Morning Jacket
Released: July 10
In recent years, I’ve been listening to a lot more folk/Americana (RIP, John Prine) and at some point when one does such a thing, you come across Jim James. I have primarily been listening to his solo work at the expense of the band that put him on the map, My Morning Jacket. Well, they released a new record this year, and it’s excellent. This track, in particular, is one of several great deep cuts I highly recommend.
Track: Honey, by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
Released: July 15
These guys are big in Australia, and they are regularly on KEXP‘s podcasts. I never gave them a big listen but this released single caught my ear.
Track: I Know The End, by Phoebe Bridgers
Released: June 18
Phoebe seems to be the center of the indie-folk universe these days, and for good reason. Her debut album was good, and here side-bands from boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center were very good. Her second album was excellent and I went with the album closer. The payoff is at the end, and it seems to hit a 2020 note that I can really appreciate.
To S., by Father John Misty
Released: August 17
Father John Misty, arch-enemy (maybe) of Robin from below, didn’t release an album but released 2 related singles on Bandcamp. Josh has a certain lane has found since releasing Pure Comedy that works. This song falls in that category. I am sure these will eventually appear on his next record.
Track: Wading In Waist-High Water, by Fleet Foxes
Released: September 22
First, I must admit that I thought the new album from Fleet Foxes, Shore, was a disappointment. Robin said he created the idea of using optimism as a a way to make it through what’s been a really difficult year. Well, I’m not really buying that and it doesn’t speak to me that much. 2020 extinguished optimism. What the album really sounded like was an overreaction to the (completely incorrect) criticism of their last album, Crack-Up, which I thought was excellent. Not that Fleet Foxes really fail though, this album has many great moments including a track dedicated to people we have lost, such as Richard Swift, John Prine, and others. I went with the opener, which I think is the strongest song on the album.
Dawn Colors, by Akasha System
Released: October 2
This is a Portland-based electronic artist that published not 1, but 2 albums this year. I originally discovered him from KEXP, and have been following his releases on Bandcamp ever since. The sonic environment he creates evokes some idea of the outdoors, and alas, many of his tracks come from his visits out of the city. Akasha System is great music to relax, reflect, and quietly enjoy. A lot of my peaceful walking during the pandemic was aided by this artist, making it a great addition to My 2020 In Music.
Track: I Fix My Gaze, by LOMA
Released: October 23
LOMA released a good album that I ultimately found disappointing. The issue, of course, was that their 2017 debut was so good (my favorite album of 2017, actually) that the follow-up probably didn’t have a chance. There is a little more Pop in this record, and Jonathan Meiburg‘s arrangements aren’t as strong as their first album (or anything he does in Shearwater, for that matter). So the album only struggled because of expectations. This was a good track though – there are many isolated moments that are great on Don’t Shy Away, none better than when this single hard bass line hits early in the song.
Track: Hypocrites / Habla Español O Muere, by Mr. Bungle
Released: October 30
I assume you are not a Mike Patton fanboy like me. People know he is/was the lead singer of Faith No More, but Mr. Bungle was his first band. They were also the gateway drug to some of the weirdest, beautiful, avante-garde music I have ever listened to (metal-jazz, anyone?). As it turns out, Mr. Bungle did create a demo called The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny in 1986 that was poorly recorded by a group of teenagers in Eureka who often practiced in a chicken coop.
34 years later, Mike, Trey Spruance, and Trevor Dunn, decided to make a proper recording of the album. Not only did they pull that off, but they convinced Dave Lombardo (from Slayer, and played with them in Fantomas) and Scott Ian (from Anthrax) to play on the album. So somehow, in 2020 we ended up with brand-new, 34 year old thrash metal music and I couldn’t be happier with how beautifully awesome and ridiculous it is. Mike Patton has done everything from metal to rap to Italian opera. His voice can literally do it all.
They added a couple covers to the original album, and this one is from Scott Ian’s side-band S.O.D., who made the song Speak English or Die. But this is Mike Patton we are talking about, so he had to turn it upside down and play with the message. The new version, loosely translated as Speak Spanish or Die, is just cool as Hell and a great way to take something that perhaps hasn’t aged well and maybe make a few xenophobes think for a minute.
Track: Her Revolution, by Burial & Four Tet & Thom Yorke
Released: December 10
I didn’t expect any Thom Yorke music this year, but out of nowhere, Burial and Four Tet teamed up with him for 2 new tracks. There was a super limited vinyl released that benefited a couple of London record stores, but for the rest of us, they luckily released it in digital as well. Unfortunately, our last release is not on Bandcamp, but there is hope that 2021 will see even more mainstream artists using the platform.
My 2020 In Music Recap
Thank you for reading about My 2020 In Music. There were a lot of great indie releases, unexpected finds, ambients, and incredible instrumentals. Good music to reflect on life, in a year when it was imperative to reflect on what is really important about life.
Did I miss anything? Any releases from 2020 I should check out? Let me know – I enjoy comparing notes with discerning music fans.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.