Celebrating 2020’s exceptional music

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    Fleet Foxes: "Shore" Contributed photo

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    Bambara, "Stray" Contributed photo

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    Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, "May Our Chambers Be Full" Contributed photo

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    Deftones, "Ohma" Contributed photo

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    Ego Ella May, "Honey For Wounds" Contributed photo

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    Wilsen, "Ruiner" Contributed photo

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    Thurston Moore, "By the Fire" Contributed photo

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    Thundercat, "It Is What It Is" Contributed photo

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    Sufjan Stevens, "The Ascension" Contributed photo

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    Hum, "Inlet" Contributed photo

  • Thomas Leahy Staff photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 1/4/2021 8:48:52 AM

As we close the final chapter on the year 2020, it goes without saying it was a very strange cycle around the sun for everyone. Like many other industries, live entertainment experienced necessary virtual shifts to prevent extinction. But while we were not able to experience the exclusive intimacy of physically attending the performances of our favorite artists, the year of the global pandemic brought about countless artistic contributions that you just may have missed.

 As someone blessed with the privilege of being able to work remotely, I found myself with time to attentively dive into new releases of artists (both big and small) and have thus compiled a list of my 2020 favorites. I hope you find that it offers equal parts sincerity and variety and it assists you in generating a more positive, “rear-mirror-view” perspective of this past year.

10. Fleet Foxes: ‘Shore’

Genre: Indie Folk, Indie Rock. For fans of: Simon & Garfunkel, Beach Boys, Local Natives.

Throughout most of my adult life, Fleet Foxes has always consistently been my go-to musical pick for the autumn season. Something about Robin Pecknold’s passionate vocal delivery over alluring, atmospherically earthy folk-rock really set an appropriate mood for my commute home from work down the mountains of southern New Hampshire (especially when there was foliage). With this in mind, it feels appropriate that the group’s fourth LP titled “Shore” was released on the exact date and time of the autumnal equinox this year.

Due to COVID-19, Pecknold performed all of “Shore” without the contributions of the band’s remaining members. According to an ANTI Records press statement on the group’s website from Pecknold himself, his experiences following the lockdown in response to the pandemic helped to completely reshape his perspective on writing music and allowed his writer’s block-related anxieties to dissolve. He also shared that he received large inspiration for some of his vocal parts during his routine drives from his apartment in New York up to Lake Minnewaska and into the Catskill Mountains (sound familiar?). 

“Shore” boasts a much brighter, more optimistic sound than most of Fleet Foxes’ previous records. Its radiant melodies add a refreshing splash to the group’s signature songwriting and feels just as full and delicately textured as previous records (despite only featuring the talents of a single member). All of the vintage Fleet Foxes components remain intact including the powerful, chamber-like acapellas. The acoustic guitar once again serves as the album’s focal instrument and, this time around, the record’s production does feel shiny and polished in ways older records may not have (I would describe “Helplessness Blues” as warm or cavernous). This change in tone perfectly fits the shift in mood and exemplifies a balance of both newness and familiarity.  

Even though “Shore” was released on the autumnal equinox, I would argue this feels more like a spring record as it celebrates new life and perspective. Decide for yourself.

9. Bambara: ‘Stray’

Genre: Post Punk, Noise Rock. For fans of: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Daughters, Protomartyr.

Eerie, ambient synthesizers set the tone for the thunderous, groovy bassline ahead. You find yourself teleported directly into the “pink room” scene from David Lynch’s “Fire Walk with Me.” You are seduced by a deep, sensual, half-sung/half-spoken vocal performance colliding with a mesmerizing wind section. You enter a trance and begin slowly dancing alongside Laura Palmer. You want to warn her, but this album is just too damn good.

That paragraph illustrates only the first minute of the opening track (“Miracle”) of “Stray” — the new album from Brooklyn’s Bambara. The trio includes the talents of twin brothers Reid (Vocals/Guitar) and Blaze Bateh (Drums) and William Brookshire (Bass). Since 2001, they have gradually cultivated a unique brand of rock reminiscent of ‘80s era post-punk acts (such as Bauhaus or The Birthday Party) but with outside influences that have slowly shifted with the group’s gradual maturation.

2020’s “Stray” serves as the fifth entry in the three piece’s catalogue of LPs  and demonstrates a further shift from the noisy, harsh, faster punk sound of earlier works. These elements are still very much present but are more effectively woven into layers of alluring ambience. The sonic footprint here channels a gloomy, gothic vibe but also manages to incorporate a country western atmosphere (think a “skull-in-a-desert” aesthetic incorporated into music). 

Throughout its 10 tracks, instrumentation functions as the ideal backdrop to Reid Bateh’s poetic, narrative vocal approach. Locked in perfect synchronization, the emotion in each syllable performed is matched flawlessly by the music’s atmosphere and mood. 

If you are looking for something new and exciting to get lost in, start with this record.

8. Emma Ruth Rundle& Thou: ‘May OurChambers Be Full’

Genre: Doom Metal. For fans of: Chelsea Wolfe, The Melvins, The Body.

When my year-end collection of highest ranked records was published in 2019, I tried to avoid including more extreme styles of heavy metal due to my belief that writing about such subgenres catered to a more niche audience. I generated a separate list for my personal blog knowing my personal readership would grasp the content with more ease and thus my list shared with the newspaper was limited to “indie rock” albums. However, 2020 brought a collaborative effort between Louisville, Kentucky-based singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle and Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s sludge-lords Thou that I simply had to share with the general public.

Throughout its seven pummeling tracks, Rundle operates as Thou’s bandleader on “May Our Chambers Be Full” and helps to introduce an accessible branding of the modern doom/sludge metal landscape. This alliance comes as little surprise to fans such as I myself, who had the opportunity to see them perform together on stage at the Flywheel in Easthampton back in early 2019 (remember concerts?) and experience a preview of what they would eventually craft here. Neither Rundle or Thou are strangers to collaborations, but there is a very special and distinctive harmony to be found as the best of both artist’s worlds meld effortlessly through this mini LP’s runtime.  

In a similar vein to her Sargheant House labelmate Chelsea Wolfe, Rundle’s past solo work has illustrated a harmonious marriage between gloomy folk and gothic ambience. This approach acts as an ideal coating to the thunderous, signature gloom of Thou’s body of works and helps to create a canvas with strokes of both vibrant beauty and nefarious ugliness. Rundle acts as an enchanting songstress as her divine vocals soar high above the agonizing shrieks of Thou’s frontman, Bryan Funck. Together, they act as a duet comprised of equal parts heaven and hell (a far cry from Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers). The malevolent screams of Funck are buried just enough in the mix that it allows Rundle to be the primary conductor for the dense instrumental backdrop. This dynamic generates a record that allows the most harsh extremities of the genre to shine through in a much more easily digestible format.

7. Deftones: ‘Ohms’

Genre: Alternative Metal. For fans of: Tool, Glassjaw, Quicksand.

Often unfairly lumped in with the nu metal/rap rock pop culture phenomenon of the turn of the century (including artists Linkin Park, Slipknot, Mudvayne, P.O.D., etc.), Deftones remains a powerful, evolving force guilty only of association and timing. While disbandment and self-parody seem to be the only two roads traveled for bands of this era, the Sacramento-based quintet has consistently selected the route leading to refinement and growth time and time again throughout the past two decades.

“Ohms” proves testament to this.

The group’s ninth LP resolves the snooze-worthy missteps found in 2016’s “Gore” and highlights a more recharged, focused culmination of the group’s strengths accumulated throughout a long career. Unlike the band’s contemporaries, Deftones strayed from hip hop influences to formulate sounds (unless forced. I.E. “Back to School”) and instead looked to less conventional influences to help sculpt unique art of their own. 

It is fitting that Deftones introduced me and a whole generation of teenage metalheads to Scottish dream pop pioneers Cocteau Twins with their cover of “Wax and Wane'' from years back. This is because Deftones’ unique approach to songwriting throughout the years has proved reflective of a similar compositional dynamic previously implemented by “The Twins” — especially on this record. Frontman Chino Moreno’s crystallized croons remain as angelic-sounding as ever (even in its most harsh and intense moments) but the instrumental cues revolving around this performance are quite different from the pristine psychedelica you may hear on a Twins record. The recipe throughout the 10 tracks of “Ohms” displays a contrasting juxtaposition of Moreno’s ethereal performance with lead guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s bludgeoning, thick guitar riffs that add a sense of intensity and destruction. While loud, Carpenter’s riffs do not interrupt or take away from Chino and remain harmoniously synchronized with both the vocals and the textured, sprawling synth playing from the band’s keyboardist Frank Delgado.

The latest record from the long-standing Deftones artistically reflects a band that has absolutely nothing to prove. A sweet spot may have been discovered, but it is not to be confused with any sort of plateau. “Ohms” proves to be a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the band’s legacy as it pulls together all of the group’s strengths learned through over 20 years of trial and error, emotionally encapsulates the group members’ collective experiences and traumas, and places it all in an ideal package for newcomers.

6. Ego Ella May:‘Honey For Wounds’

Genre: R&B, Neo-Soul, Jazz. For fans of: Ms. Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo.

South London’s singer/songwriter Ego Ella May (pronounced “eh-go,” according to her own Instagram bio) continues to explore her profound love for music on her sophomore LP “Honey For Wounds.” Incorporating elements of R&B, soul and jazz, May offers a listener a graceful and elegant front-to-back audible experience.

May’s lyricism on this record carries a sincere, honest look at the difficulties of tackling a genre often associated with sensuality and romance by strategically weaving her most personal grievances and critical thoughts into each alluring track (especially “Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys”). Its soundscapes mostly traverse through minimalist, subtle instrumentation that compliments airy, calm lullabies found within the relaxed charm of her vocal poetry. There are, however, sparse moments of explosive intensity — both vocally and instrumentally — where listeners will find jazz influences breaking through the quietness of the record (especially “Table for One”.)

”Honey For Wounds” demonstrates a bold, unapologetic sophomore effort from an artist one would assume is the result of decades-worth of songwriting experience. Its organic, genuine method of expression illustrates a growing point not often achieved so early on in one’s career and, despite being a very nuanced record, it is a very easy listen. I recommend one rotation of “Honey For Wounds” for each early morning cup of coffee to start your day off correctly.

5. Wilsen: ‘Ruiner’

Genre: Indie Rock, Dream Pop. For fans of: Big Thief, Japanese Breakfast, Men I Trust.

Another Brooklyn-based trio made my top 10 albums of 2020. Tamsin Wilson (guitar/vocals), Johnny Simon, Jr (guitar) and Drew Arndt (bass) are three puzzle pieces completing Wilsen and their new LP, “Ruiner,” is a mesmerizing and beautiful audible experience. On this record, the trio’s dream pop-influenced take on indie rock builds off the foundation of the group’s greatest strength: Wilson’s angelic vocals (like Cocteau Twins with Elizabeth Fraser).

My first experience hearing this band was with the song “Align” (“Ruiner,” track two) and it has since become the song I use to introduce them to my friends. It was also my most played song of the year (we have apps that now tell us these things). Rightfully so. Wilson’s ethereal vocal performance flawlessly matches the pristine, clean guitar-work and buoyant bass lines. 

Throughout its 40-minute runtime, tracks vary in speed and loudness with some of the earlier songs embellishing powerful, sprawling, upbeat, guitar-driven indie rock (“Ruiner,” “Align,” “Down”) and others displaying quiet and intimate acoustic, folk ballads reminiscent of Fleet Foxes (“Wearing,” “Birds,” “Moon”). Despite the form each track may take, the alluring and ethereal nature of Wilson’s vocals remains a consistent foundation throughout the entirety of the record and Wilsen collectively maintains a cohesive flow of both beautiful and captivating ambiance throughout the entire record. 

If you are looking for an additional soundtrack to your early morning cup of coffee, Ruiner is easily one of 2020’s top contenders to deliver that mood. Dreamy, ambient, catchy and chilling — this record is an experience you cannot miss.

4. Thurston Moore:‘By the Fire’

Genre: Indie Rock, Post Punk, Noise Rock, Art Rock, Avant-Rock, Experimental. For fans of: Sonic Youth, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr.

Every few years or so, I do a deep dive into Sonic Youth’s discography. I would do it more often but, with a 30-year career spanning over 15 LPs, multiple compilations, singles, EPs and “spin-offs” available for listening, such a journey can prove intimidating.

The pandemic inspired a much deeper plunge for me than ever before and allowed me to fully engage in the experimental chemistry implemented by Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley over the years (members have switched lead vocal duties and taken turns in leading the charge with ease). They’re like Gen X’s underground answer to The Beatles solely in their songwriting ebb and flow and the recognized individualism of each member’s styles. Moore and Gordon share a very interchangeable Paul McCartney and John Lennon vibe, Renaldo offers an unorthodox bizarrity in the form of quality over quantity much like George Harrison; Steve Shelley plays the drums and Ringo Starr also played the drums (not as well).

1998’s “A Thousand Leaves” was a record I tended to skip over but during this Sonic Youth phase of mine, I decided to give it another chance despite hearing it was essentially a “psychedelic slog” and contained pretentious improvised jams causing the album to overstay its welcome. Not only did I absolutely love the record, but I rank it on equal footing as a masterpiece with “Evol,” “Sister” and “Daydream Nation.” Allegedly, the story goes that after headlining 1995’s Lollapalooza in support of their previous LP, “Washing Machine,” the band used the money they earned from the festival to build their own studio in Lower Manhattan and record their own record on their own terms. The result was an up-close look at how the band truly wanted to sound without the sway of others and the more avant-garde moments may have been sprawling but, in my opinion, their most well-written and easy-to-digest record of the decade.

I had never in my life heard Thurston’s Moore’s solo material until this past September when a good friend of mine (and fellow Sonic Youth fan) informed me Moore’s new record “By The Fire” felt in many ways like a sequel to “A Thousand Leaves.” I can confirm without the deceptive lens of nostalgia (as I dove into both of these records a week apart from each other) this is very much the case and feels like a long-overdue callback to an album often overlooked. Just listen to “Sunday” by Sonic Youth and switch to “Hashish” off this record and you’ll see what I mean.

”By The Fire” is a worthy sequel that expands upon the foundations laid by its predecessor, but the full magic of the original remains impossible to recapture considering the absence of Gordon and Renaldo. Its runtime matches the length of a feature film and may demand more attention and devotion than what you are used to, but the experience is rewarding and well worth it every time. 

3. Thundercat:‘It Is What It Is’

Genre: Jazz Fusion, Hip Hop, Funk, Electronic. For fans of: Childish Gambino, Flying Lotus, Steve Lacey.

Following his 2017 opus Drunk, Los Angeles musician Stephen Lee Bruner (better known by his alias, Thundercat) bestows upon listeners a fourth LP packed with all of the humor and jaw-dropping compositions he is best known for. Like the casting of a David Lynch, Quentin Tarantonio or Paul Thomas Anderson film, artists that collaborate with producer Flying Lotus have a tendency to continue lending their talents to each other as “It Is What It Is” features FlyLo’s fingerprints through most of the record’s production as well as Kamasi Washington and Steve Lacey.

Bruner’s uncanny ability to blend silly, quirky lyricism with mind-bending instrumentation continues onward throughout this record’s 37-minute runtime. His unmatched bass guitar precision displays variety as the LP takes the listener on a spacey, sonic voyage through intricate jazz-fusion passages and more direct, funk-driven anthems. Guest artists include the likes of Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), Louis Cole, Steve Arrington, Ty Dolla Sign and Lil B (to name a few), each individually adding their exclusive flair to compliment the vast array of genres implemented into Thundercat’s signature sound.

”It Is What It Is” delicately balances elements of complex jazz-fusion with more radio-friendly, hip hop influenced funk in a way that has the potential to throw open doors for casual jazz listeners who have been intimidated by the genre’s depth. Its diverse collection of songs has something for everyone and features some of the most well-composed offerings of 2020 overall and (above all else) adamantly refuses to take itself seriously. 

Embark on this joy ride immediately. You won’t regret it.

2. Sufjan Stevens:‘The Ascension’

Genre: Indie Pop, Electronic. For fans of: Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Animal Collective.

Buckle your seatbelts, folks. We have a new Sufjan Stevens record — and it’s 80 minutes long.

If you are unfamiliar, Stevens is no stranger to ambition and this track length is no surprise for his previously established fanbase. Years ago, he announced he would be releasing a large series of concept albums named after (and with lyrics encompassing) each of the 50 states that comprise the United States. Of course, this was all a publicity stunt but he did offer Michigan and Illinois, which both individually served as some of the strongest pillars of early-2000’s indie rock. He has never hesitated to think big and has spent his career cultivating a unique, cohesive brand of songwriting that remains consistent despite frequent shifts between genre and overall instrumentation.

”The Ascension” picks up where “Carrie & Lowell” (2015) left off emotionally, as it reintroduces the previously unfamiliar sense of melancholic intimacy through it’s full 15 track run. However, an obvious difference that fans of the previous LP may immediately notice is the complete absence of Steven’s mesmerizing, trademark finger-picking style. Allegedly, he left his banjos and guitars in storage during a move and decided to revisit powerful, ambient electronics along the lines of an older record of his titled “The Age of Adz” (2010). While it may contain similarities to the explosive synth-driven soundscapes of “Adz,” it maintains a focused sense of minimalism and strips away some of the theatrical flair.

The 80-minute journey explores a full spectrum of moods ranging from jubilant dance numbers to sorrowful, digital ballads while nourishing a focused sonic trajectory. The sounds and topics of the album remain more consistent than the scattershot subject matters of his more grandiose works but still serve as a more broad canvas than his childhood memories featured on “Carrie & Lowell.” “The Ascension” yields a sincere artist’s outlook on the current events of the world and a lifelong struggle with faith and God and its entanglement with politics. It asks more questions than it provides answers to but feels authentic and offers another exposed look at the indie rock icon. 

While it may be an intimidating listen even for longtime fans, every minute and song that comprises Steven’s eighth LP is essential and placed with precise intention. It is a grower of a record and you will find yourself connected to each song one at a time. It is almost as if we, as the listeners, were handed a large unfinished puzzle and left to place the pieces in an order we choose.

1. Hum: ‘Inlet’

Genre: Alternative Metal, Space Rock, Shoegazing. For fans of: Deftones, My Bloody Valentine, Failure.

Have you ever heard a record that sounds exactly like something you envisioned yourself writing only a million times better? Well, that’s what happened to me when Illinois-based, loud guitar legends Hum decided to surprise-drop their first record in over 22 years — it contained songs very similar to the ones I was writing at the time but they were actually good.

Not just good. Amazing. 

Hum was mostly known for the band’s 1995 single “Stars” off the record “You’d Prefer An Astronaut,” which served as a deciding factor in my decision to pick up a guitar. The quartet implemented a collision of emo, grunge, shoe-gazing and space rock that fit comfortably within the era with its nasally vocal delivery peaking above layers of bludgeoning riffs that compare to having your eardrums slammed with slabs of concrete (in a good way).

While the group might not have received the attention they deserved at the time, their sound continues to heavily influence modern artists including Deftones, Deafheaven, Nothing and Gravedash (that’s my band. Yes, shameless self-promotion. You would do the same thing if you paid attention to your Bandcamp statistics. We were literally scheduled to play our first show in May and then the pandemic hit — give me a break.)

In their fourth LP Inlet, Hum unsheaths a refocused, matured version of a band whose sound and production has aged like fine wine. The quartet experiments with longer song lengths, more unique arrangements and a much heavier emphasis on the loudness and density of the guitars.

The ‘90s grunge element remains in its era and is instead replaced by modern doom/sludge metal influenced compositions. What sets this record apart is its flawless blends of melody and brutality. 

Despite the fact that half of its eight tracks come close to the 10 minute mark (a first for the band), Inlet continues to keep its listeners guessing with unpredictable twists and turns of atmospheric segues and tempo shifts. My biases for loud guitar emphasis and melody combined unfortunately render my top 10 list unfair because it wins by a landslide.

This is my absolute favorite record — not just of 2020, but in years.

With time, I think it will be recognized as an absolute classic.

Thomas Leahy writes about arts and entertainment. He can be reached at tleahy@recorder.com. Comments can be left at his music blog, thelookoutboston.com.


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