Top 12 Albums of 2020 | Michael Koehler

Photo of Phoebe Bridgers courtesy of Stay Golden PR

Here is my list of “Best Of” albums for 2020. I’m horribly behind in listening to stuff as it has been a hard year for me to listen to music or even try to relax and enjoy things, so to grab my attention it really had to be good. What I felt was good, or better stated, what I enjoyed, was exceptionally good. This is certainly in no order.

Andy Bell | The View from Halfway Down (Sonic Cathedral Recordings)
This is a late-in-the-year entry for me. This is an excellent debut solo album from one of the founding members of Ride (not the Andy Bell from Erasure, even though he is mint). Wonderful blend of ethereal keyboard-driven tracks as well as guitar ones. Some of the tracks are airy while there are others that are dense. It really is what you would expect from a member of Ride.

Nothing | The Great Dismal (Relapse)
Despite the name, this album fills me with so much joy. This is so in my wheelhouse of shoegaze-y noise, bordering at times on melodic metal, at times almost breezy. I knew nothing of them prior to this (shame on me), but damn, this album made me a fan. I found out about them from a random post from What Culture Wrestling’s Andy Murry, and for that I am so grateful. This just ticks all of my happy boxes. This album, more than any from 2020, I have listened to the most.

EOB | Earth (Capitol)
Debut album from Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. I mostly have given up on Radiohead post-Amnesiac, still hoping they will make that great three-guitar album a la The Bends again. But alas, nothing they’ve released since has interested me (in fact I actively loath most of it—sorry, RH stans). This, however, is just a wonderful little album that is a blend of post-Britpop and dance-y textures. I lucked out and was able to catch Ed in one of the few North American shows he did in the run up to the release. The show was excellent and really drove home the beauty in his songs. And he is a genuinely lovely man who took the time to meet everyone after.

Osees (formally Thee Oh Sees) | Protean Threat (Castle Face)
A tight, focused, weird, and fuzzed album from John Dywer and crew, and this has produced several remixed projects already—this man never stops! They’ve dialed back the proggy jams from the last several albums and amped up the spastic energy even more. JPD has even brought real world issues into his lyrics, which is most unusual for him. Lyrically, they’ve shied away from real world issues and focused on characters and mundane things, and a metric ass-ton of DND-like stuff. John Dwyer is a national treasure and the world does not deserve him.

beabadoobee | Fake It Flowers (Dirty Hit)
If you want that mid-to-latish ‘90s girl indie rock feel, this is the album for you. Such a wonderful, confident, and self-assured debut LP that ranges from whispery and lush string-laden ballads to the aforementioned ‘90s era indie to shoegaze to grungy pop. Just such an enjoyable listen and I hope we hear more from beabadoobee because she has a lot to say and sounds incredible.

Bob Mould | Blue Hearts (Merge)
Just another tremendous, late career renaissance release from Bob. Since 2012’s Silver Age, Bob’s 2010s releases have been just as strong as anything he’s released previously with the exception of 1992’s Copper Blue. 2019’s Sunshine Rock found Bob being optimistic, which is not something we are accustomed to. Throughout his career we’ve seen song after song filled with rage, self-loathing, heartbreak, and grieving. It was a lovely change of pace to see him embracing life and letting out the joys that he’s felt. Given where we were at in the world, it wasn’t expected. Blue Hearts is not that. It is filled with rage, frustration, and downright anger towards where we were at in the US in 2020 and the destruction we are doing to ourselves as a nation and to earth itself. He’s never been one to shy away from any of that, but this release may be the most overt about it. He is incredibly focused, deliberate, and passionate throughout every track. Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster are the best band Bob has had, with no offense to any previous incarnations of his solo band, Sugar, or Hüsker Dü. Jason and Jon are just perfect with Bob.

Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher (Dead Oceans)
Until this year, I knew of Phoebe Bridgers in name only, I’d never listened to anything she ever recorded nor really bothered to investigate. I started seeing the early reviews of this and, being in quarantine for several months at that point, I decided to listen and that was the best decision ever. This wasn’t written specifically for times like this where we are self-isolating, but the dark lyrics blended with the sunny/poppy arrangements feels like it might have been. There are times I surprise myself in liking something that is out of my listening comfort zone; this is certainly one of those times. If I had to pick one album to be my Album Of The Year, this would be it.

Hum | Inlet (Polyvinyl)
This came completely out of nowhere for me. I should have suspected they had been working on new stuff after seeing them live a couple years ago, but this just feels like out of nowhere. And man alive is this tremendous, picking up right where they left off with 1998’s Downward Is Heavenward. The sound is just so incredibly thick and I for one cannot wait until gigs return so we can lose our minds seeing this live.

Secret Machines | Awake in the Brain Chamber (TSM Recordings)
I am a huge fan of their debut Now Here is Nowhere, only liked some of the follow up 10 Silver Drops, and actively disliked their third (and seemingly final) self-titled album. I hadn’t heard they were back and honestly didn’t know the tragedy that was the death of founding member Benjamin Curtis in 2013. I’ve seen this pop up on multiple year-end lists and have given it multiple spins. This is nothing like Now Here is Nowhere. Instead, this is their homage to Krautrock meets ambient and may in fact be the best thing they’ve recorded as a unit.

Doves | Universal Want (Heavenly/Virgin)
Doves have been on hiatus for 11 years. So much has changed in that time in the world in general but in music specifically, but they haven’t. This picks up immediately where they left off with their epic take on post-Britpop sweeping anthems. This is incredibly dense and thick but still manages to not weigh the listener down.

Jarv Is | Beyond the Pale (Rough Trade)
I mean, it’s Jarvis Cocker, who is one of my top three musical idols: of course this would land on my best of list. Unlike his previous two solo records that were excellent but found him treading the waters of being like Pulp but trying not to be, here he embraces the more electronic disco side of things. His lyrics are still as razor sharp as ever, but have started shifting inward as he is mush older than in his Pulp days and he’s looking at the normal, banal things in life and finding comfort and curiosity in them.

Bombay Bicycle Club | Everything Else Has Gone Wrong (Mmm…)
I’ve off and on kept up with them since their debut in 2009. Some of their previous work of more mature indie pop has been hit or miss for me. However, they have improved slowly with each release. 2014’s So Long, See You Tomorrow was particularly well received and an enjoyable listen. I honestly thought they were done as I hadn’t seen anything since until this album popped up. Time away has been kind to them as a unit as tracks on EEHGW are well-focused, nuanced, and well-crafted and shows they are looking their place in the world and coming to grips with getting older and dealing with uncertain times. This is their best release to date.

Honorable Mentions:

The Cribs | Night Network (PIAS)
The Psychedelic Furs | Made of Rain (Cooking Vinyl)
Fontaines D.C. | A Hero’s Death (Rough Trade)
IDLES | Ultra Mono (Partisan)
Run the Jewels | RTJ 4 (BMG)
The Beths | Jump Rope Gazers (Rough Trade)
Protomartyr | Ultimate Success Today (Domino)
Bill Callahan | Gold Record (Drag City) | Michael Koehler

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