Top 10 Albums of 2020 | Mike Rengel

Photo of Matthew Good by Matt Barnes courtesy of Warner Music Canada.

If ever there was a year that required the comforting, healing, heart-fortifying power of music, it was this one. As the pandemic went from hypothetical to reality, then set in, and finally became our open-ended “new normal,” I worried new music would be another casualty of our socially distanced, isolated, quarantined year. But thankfully there was a steady stream of new music to help get us though. While it was easy to rely on old favorites as comfort food, I found artists continuing to express themselves, and to find new ways to collaborate, record, share, and perform music to be a heartening development, and a welcome counterbalance to the comfy sweater hug of the classics.

As always, art doesn’t much like being quantified, graded, sliced, and diced. I’m not claiming these are the best, or the only albums that mattered this year. But they are the ones that I played the most, and that got me through the interminable Groundhog Day that has been 2020.

The Top 10

Matthew Good | Moving Walls (Warner Music Canada)

Moving Walls, Matthew Good’s ninth solo album, is closer to the conversational mood of one of his solo acoustic shows. That’s not to say sparse. Moving Walls is symphonic noir, often sumptuous. And it does it all in a way that finds Good learning how to use his changing voice to excellent effect. He now sings in a lower register, but is still a highly expressive vocalist. And he remains a compelling, highly literate lyricist—equally adept at singing about interpersonal dissolution and the cyclical nature of history. Album opener “One of Them Years” explores the resurgence of nationalistic and xenophobic regimes in countries where previous generations gave their lives to stop such things, and how fear is like a flame that can be diminished but not snuffed, and also easily fanned. “Boobytrapped” exemplifies the nuanced way Good writes about loss, acceptance, and moving on, using swirling strings and dancing acoustic guitar to paint a portrait of someone driving around a city late at night, realizing that they’ve sloughed off years of accumulated trauma, and that they’re no longer a bomb waiting to detonate. Good wrote the album in his parents’ garage, after his divorce and while helping his mother care for his father, who was suffering from cancer and dementia. That informal setting seems to have seeped into the DNA of these songs, making for a record that feels cinematic in scope, yet committed to intimacy, like sharing a glass of whiskey and opening up to a close friend on a long, rainy night.

Nation of Language | Introduction, Presence (Self-released)

At first, Brooklyn-based synth pop group Nation of Language sounds like a half dozen post punk bands stapled together. In their debut album Introduction, Presence, it’s easy to hear Joy Division’s pulsing, harrowing rhythms (bassist Michael Sue-Poi has an innate understanding of harnessing the power of concurrent rhythm and melody), the big, New Romantic gestures of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and the Human League, and Depeche Mode’s locus of the synth and the sinew. While this sound is alluring, what makes it noteworthy is the way the band blends these influences into something that doesn’t mimic, but transcends. It’s also in the memorable melodies, and the fearlessness with which Ian Devaney sings about weathering adversity and finding ways to survive. Also memorable is the grand space keyboard player Aidan Noell creates for these songs to breathe, glide and sing. On Introduction, Presence, Nation of Language takes now 40-year-old building blocks and uses them to create something fresh. That’s no mean feat.

 

Kathleen Edwards | Total Freedom (Dualtone)

In 2012, Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards had had enough. Enough with the music industry, enough with the pressure of touring, enough with trying to maintain a sense of self while never sitting still. So, she decided not to do it . She retired to her hometown of Ottawa and opened a café called, appropriately and self-awarely, Quitters. After eight years of slinging java, forging a community, spending time with her dogs, and living life, she returned with a purposeful, pretense-free set of songs. The most striking thing about Total Freedom is its straightforward sincerity. “Glenfern” looks back at her touring days, and her relationship with ex-husband and collaborator Colin Cripps, with folky twang, clarity and humor—“we toured the world and we played on TV / we met some of our heroes, it almost killed me”—and finds, along with gratitude for the past and satisfaction with the present, that rarest of beasts, closure.

            I guess some things we should have said
            ‘Cause it was too late when we did
            Like, “You changed too much”
            “You didn’t change”
            And I am sorry for everything
            For everything
            And I will always be thankful for it

“Who Rescued Who” is a loving homage to her late golden retriever Redd—there’s not a song in 2020 more likely to make you burst out in tears. “Simple Math” is a heartfelt ode to a lifelong best friend. “Ashes to Ashes,” an atmospheric tribute to a Quitters regular, is also a humanist meditation on grief and mortality. These are the kinds of songs only an artist who is truly comfortable with herself could write and write convincingly. Even songs of romantic dissolution and betrayal never ossify into bitterness, and come served with a generous side helping of accepting personal blame. “Hard on Everyone,” “Feelings Fade,” and especially the loping, chiming “Fools Ride” paint realistic, truthful portraits of things falling apart, emotional abuse, and getting screwed over, but also of the human frailty involved in allowing yourself to be screwed over. It’s how life happens, and here, as exemplified by the shimmering “Birds on a Feeder,” Edwards seems to have found strength in telling these stories, as well as peace in solitude. Total Freedom is full of these sorts of miniature memoirs. And instead of being opaque and self-serving, they’re compelling in their open, unaffected truth. It makes for some of the best work of her career, and is a strong reminder of the value of being true to yourself.

Fleet Foxes | Shore (ANTI-)

Shore is a ray of sunlight in a relentless year characterized by a constant pall of gloom. It’s not obnoxiously cheery, but it’s optimistic in a way that few things in 2020 had the audacity to be. Robin Pecknold’s baroque folk songs fly majestically overhead, like a flock of birds over the foamy spot where the sea crashes into the beach. Golden songs like “A Long Way Past the Past” and “Sunblind” radiate perseverance and hope, while “Can I Believe You” dares to find positivity in a world that often seems to careen from one tough to swallow injustice to the next. Sure, toxic positivity is a thing, but so is toxic negativity. Shore dares its listeners to try to square the circle, to find the slivers of beauty and light that allow us to acknowledge, navigate, and endure the world’s pain and darkness.

Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher (Dead Oceans)

How can a sophomore album sound like the work of a master craftsperson? Oh wait, it’s just Phoebe Bridgers. Bridgers burst onto the scene as an old soul, and has been remarkably prolific since releasing her debut album in 2017, seeking out collaborators and incessantly honing her songwriting skill. Punisher fleshes out the arrangements, and continues her strength at making the wispy quiet feel as powerful as getting hit by a diesel locomotive. These warped folk songs are as vulnerable, slyly devastating, self-aware, and empathetic as anything she’s written. “Garden Song” floats along on oddly discomfiting handpicked acoustic guitar and burbling electronics that match the subject matter of recurring nightmares, and is filled with arresting imagery. (“And when I grow up I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life”; “The doctor put her hands over my liver / she told me my resentment’s getting smaller”) “Kyoto Song”, an uncharacteristically punchy song about imposter syndrome, is also about not having to accept an apology from someone who’s hurt and abused you. Its 12-string guitar and bursts of brass make for a lively sequel of sorts to, and evolution of, her debut album‘s highlight “Motion Sickness.” The rushing, staccato synth strings in “ICU” mirror the queasiness of a relationship falling apart, and the starkness borne of only figuring out what you want after you blow something up. The record’s centerpiece is also its finale. “I Know the End” is a dystopian road movie—the heartbreaking first half a sparse, reluctant farewell to a person, the second half a farewell to a dying planet and a broken country, building to a truly impressive and terrifying crescendo. Punisher is a holistic record for a fractured year; Bridgers is a songwriter self-aware enough to recognize the trouble we’re all in, and compassionate enough to see us through.

Bright Eyes | Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (Dead Oceans)

Read my full review elsewhere on the site at: http://theartsstl.com/bright-eyes-down-in-the-weeds-where-the-world-once-was-dead-oceans/

Lera Lynn I On My Own (Ruby Range Records/INgrooves)

On My Own is that special kind of record, a chance encounter that bowls you over and becomes a firm favorite. Lynn’s smoky, mood lit torch songs are infused with an irresistible classic rock stomp. On My Own is punctured by resignation, but confident in the face of struggle. Lynn’s voice is a straight-up revelation—she sighs, purrs, and soars, sometimes all within the same song—recalling a film noir Elizabeth Ziman. “A Light Comes Through” has the unexpected grace of slowly falling from a cloud and landing unscathed. It and songs like the yearning “What I’m Looking For” and the trip-hop funk strut of “Let Me Tell You Something” all share the album’s pervasive focus on finding light in the darkness, and do it with an uncommon, quiet strength.

Margo Price | That’s How Rumors Get Started (Loma Vista)

Sitting down with a Margo Price album is like sitting down to coffee with a best friend, one who will listen intently but also tell you hard truths, and not let you get away with anything, all while an eclectic playlist wafts over the cafe’s sound system. That’s How Rumors Get Started is equal parts Tom Petty, paisley-patterned psychedelia, and not-gonna-play-nice country. “Letting Me Down” surges with Benmont Tench-style organ and a vocal that inadvertently taps into the isolation we’ve all been feeling in a year dominated by distance and lack of physical contact with the people we care about. On the title track, Price is flowing and piercing, channeling solo-era Stevie Nicks in a heartbroken but resilient ballad that doesn’t feel out of place as an album opener. Meanwhile, “What Happened to Our Love?” and “I’d Die for You” underscore Price’s talent for brewing an intoxicating mix of Damn the Torpedoes and Gram Parson’s Cosmic American Music. It’s also worth noting how great this album sounds. Producer Sturgill Simpson makes every song sound pristine but lived in; Price’s vocals are crystalline, the percussion impossibly crisp, and keyboards and guitars intertwine with impossible ease. That’s How Rumors Get Started doesn’t waste a note, and feels like a trusted companion in a year when we can all use as many of those as we can get.

Tan Cologne | Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico (Labrador)

Interdisciplinary artists Lauren Green and Marissa Macias met in Taos, New Mexico, and quickly formed a strong bond forged in a shared passion for creatively exploring the seemingly otherworldly oddities of the Land of Enchantment. The duo created Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico as a way to use sound as a “vibrational connective tissue.” Fittingly, they recorded the album in a couple of one-of-a-kind spaces—an over-250-year-old adobe fortress in Ranchos de Taos Plaza, and an open room casita (a small, often adobe, house) in northern New Mexico.

The unique setting makes for a unique musical experience with a strong sense of place. “Strange God” features guitars that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chris Isaak song. “Empty Vessels” slowly gathers steam, sounding like Mazzy Star coated in desert dust. “Alien” seems, true to name, not of this earth, with Green and Macias’ ethereal vocals drifting in, out, and around a hypnotic bassline and more of those magnificently snaking guitars. The song, and the album, recall The Church’s skill at wringing emotion out of a commitment to atmosphere and impressionistic lyrics and vocals. Songs like “Cerro” highlight the album’s pervasive languid atmosphere, which makes the entire record sound as if it’s been saturated by a high desert monsoon. Cave Vaults on the Moon is a singular work, more akin to the audio portion of a multimedia installation at your local contemporary art museum than a traditional album. Spinning it is a surefire way to travel while sitting still—a sonic voyage that’s extra welcome in a year bereft of physical adventures.

Lydia Loveless | Daughter (Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late)

Lydia Loveless has always been alt. country’s adorable hot mess. Her music wears its heart on its sleeve—alternately brash and vulnerable, and only willing to let you get so close before pushing you away, lest it get hurt. Daughter, Loveless’ fourth album, chronicles a period of things falling apart—she divorced her longtime bandmate, left her home base of Columbus, OH, and had an acrimonious split from her longtime label, Bloodshot. The record finds Loveless continuing to work things out in public, but with less of her trademark fight or flight, and a newfound willingness to sit down and talk it out. That bravery to sit with the difficulty and tumult informs every one of the album’s songs. “Wringer” rides a circular guitar riff that brings to life the lyrical focus on the way breaking up often takes a few tries; it’s a bittersweet look at how losing someone is often less an explosive hard break than a series of fights, tentative reconciliations, and ever weakening fault lines. “Love Is Not Enough” and “When You’re Gone,” in addition to being two of the album’s most immediate tracks, add a charming British Invasion jangle to her music. “Never” rides a loping piano line and one of Loveless’ best vocal performances, standing on the borderline between regret and steadfast knowledge of having done the right things.

The heart of the album is its wrenching title track, a searing, heartbreaking exploration of how a woman’s worth is all too often reduced to its relative value adjacent to a man.

            Don’t call me a sister victim or your child bride
            Just take me for what I already am
            Honey make me feel like a man
            Cause there’s never been a better time to be alive
            The same sun shines in everybody’s sky
            But everything inside of me has turned to dust
            If I gave you a daughter would it be enough

Daughter is Loveless’ most personal, most honest, and most nuanced album. This is even reflected in her vocals, which are now far more expressive and conversational, while still rising to her trademark brash cowpunk vibrato when necessary. She never once loses sight of the drama and passion that makes her music so great, but here, she imbues it with a newfound, lasting weight.

Honorable Mentions

U.S. Girls | Heavy Light (4AD / Royal Mountain)

Expertly mined and twisted soul, disco, and art-pop, along with songwriter/mastermind Meghan Remy’s silky voice, are the candy that U.S. Girls use to sneak ideas of collective emptiness, righteous feminist rage, and the pain of abandonment past the guard and into the boardroom.

Mark Erelli | Blindsided (Self-released)

Mark Erelli might be the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of. In a lengthy career paddling Americana tributaries, Erelli has quietly amassed a catalogue of songs about heartbreak, struggling but proud losers, American history, and characters who sound like they’re just searching for a place to call home. Blindsided explores the march of time, the surprising salvation of new love, and the romantic, yet corroding (and usually false), notion that the old days were gold days. And on it, Erelli turns in one of the best songs of 2020, “A Little Kindness,” a salve of a tune for a year in which we’ve all been searching for just a touch of exactly that.

Doves | The Universal Want (Heavenly / Virgin)

As Joni Mitchell sang, “don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” That certainly applies to Doves’ deeply felt absence. The Universal Want comes on the heels of a decade-long hiatus. Here, Jimi Goodwin, and Jez and Andy Williams deftly update the melodic, heavy-but-spacey Doves sound with a few loops and treated synths, but mostly this is big slabs of aching, soaring, pondering Doves music. Doves greatest strength is their timelessness, and ability to counteract the troubles of day by simply being themselves.

Samia | The Baby (Grand Jury)

Samia Finnerty’s debut album is the work of a young adult who’s wiser than her years. In songs that sound brighter than they are, Samia writes about body image, uncertainty, the fear of being misunderstood, and being someone else because you’re worried who you are will scare people off. Her lyrics aren’t wordy, but they are quietly poetic, and she sings them in a voice that sort of melts all over the music—in a good way (think chocolate sauce, not ice cream left out in the sun). The Baby is the kind of record that, as soon as it ends, you feel compelled to start it right back up from the beginning—it’s as if Samia wants you to get to know her…but not too quickly, which matches these songs’ tentative, but sincere, desire to connect.

Natalie Huggins | Split Oceans (Self-released)

St. Louis’ own Natalie Huggins is a singer and piano player (and teacher). She’s also an accomplished songwriter who’s devoted to dissecting and helping others learn about the songwriting process. On Split Oceans, she showcases her marvelous voice and compositional prowess. Songs like “Bones” and album opener “Are You Alone” are prime chunks of 1980s synth rock, while “Easy to Love Me” and “Hospital” are goth-tinged deep dives into uncertainty and the transformative nature of loss. The jaunty, confident “Matrix”, with its nimble piano and saxophone, is a refreshing curveball, its lively arrangement couching a lyric exploring the pain and frustration of being unseen in plain sight. The best part about Split Oceans is knowing that Huggins is committed to growth—meaning this record is her just getting started.

Darren Jessee | Remover (Bar/None)

Read my full review elsewhere on the site at: http://theartsstl.com/darren-jessee-remover-barnone/

Fish | Weltschmerz (Chocolate Frog)

See my full review elsewhere on the site: http://theartsstl.com/fish-weltschmerz-chocolate-frog/

HAIM | Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia)

True to the album’s title, HAIM’s excellent third album is all about, well…being a woman in the music business. It’s an often sunny, and always effortlessly tuneful, record about the myriad manifestations of depression and having to fight tooth and nail, and be 10 times better than male counterparts, just to be considered on the same level field. Danielle, Alana, and Este Haim’s songwriting and instrumental chops have long been evident. Here, they even add production to their many list of talents—Women in Music, Pt. III was co-produced by Danielle, while deepening the band’s fruitful production collaboration with Ariel Rechtshaid and Rostam Batmanglij. It’s a testament to all involved that something that’s often so intricate always sounds so effortless.

Darlingside | Fish Pond Fish (More Doug / Thirty Tigers)

Boston-based Darlignside excels at constructing chamber rock versions of Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to god,” full of graceful, slowly-building harmonies that give their songs a warm glow and towering, yet approachable, presence. Fish Pond Fish is an album steeped in the elemental—“Ocean Bed”; “Crystal Caving”; “Green + Evergreen”; “Mountain + Sea.” Each song sounds like going on a hike, starting out alone, but picking up companions along the way, until the destination (planned or accidental) explodes in colorful conversation, camaraderie, and understanding.

Courtney Marie Andrews | Old Flowers (Fat Possum)

There’s nothing novel about the heartbreak of a broken relationship, and the consuming sorrow of loss. But it’s such a universal part of the human experience that everyone has something to say about it in their own unique way. Old Flowers is uncomplicated and devastating, finding clear eyed and genuine ways to play through the pain and try to come out on the other side. Nowhere is this on better display than the one-two punch of “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” and “How You Get Hurt”—the former a winking country-rock number about placing and accepting blame, and the latter an Emmylou Harris-grade tearjerker about vulnerability, getting hurt, and finding the strength to not put the shields back up when it doesn’t work out.

Hamilton Leithauser | The Loves of Your Life (Glassnote)

Each of The Loves of Your Life’s songs was written about a specific person. It’s a record full of satisfying, well-crafted melodies and Leithauser’s ever-increasing vocal range and skill. It features some of his best songwriting to date, and that’s saying something considering the strength of his previous release, the Rostam Batmanglij collaboration I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. In a time when we’re separated from so many of the people we care about, and as we wonder more so than usual how everyone we love is doing, these vivid explorations of relationships resonate even more. Zoom chats and Facetimes help, but all we want is to hug our people and to laugh and smile with their real faces. This record, even coincidentally, seems to understand that. And it’s a welcome boost in these trying, isolating times. | Mike Rengel

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