Boy, I never thought the end of 2020 would get here. It seemed like five years rolled into one. Between Covid-19, isolation, quarantining, everything being closed, no concerts, weird work situations, family all home for at-home schooling, and a summer that felt like an extension of spring. Of course there was the election, anti-maskers, conspiracy theories, and then me actually getting Covid-19. Which leads me to here, second week of December and just compiling my year-end list.
I’d say this is probably the most electronic-centric year end list I’ve ever compiled. Partly because not a lot of band-oriented records came out thanks to bands not getting together to record. But also because so many amazing electronic artists work alone that quarantine for them was more time to write and record albums. I feel the electronic music community created some of the most inspired work this year, and labels like Spun Out Of Control, Behind The Sky, Soundtracking The Void, Library of the Occult, Third Kind, and Burning Witches Records came through.
For me personally, these labels gave me a pocket of sanity in a year full of madness to lock into and escape a bit. They gave me music to listen to, be inspired by, soundtrack summer walks and runs to, write about on a daily basis, and just have a place to forget about the fact that the US was deep-diving into a divisive abyss.
Of course, El Paraiso Records was another highlight of 2020. And Azure Vista Records. Two staples of my music diet for the last several years, these two labels have offered up some of the most forward-thinking rock, jazz, experimental, and electronic music out there. 2020 was no different. El Paraiso Records has upped their game in the jazz and improvisational realm, and they continue to expand their reach outside of Denmark and Europe.
So without further adieu, here’s my favorite albums of 2020, numbers 50-25. Also, I’ll be highlighting a couple labels this week and talking about their amazing output; including Library of the Occult and Soundtracking The Void. Anyways, enjoy my blathering. 2020 may have been a shit year, but the music was on goddamn point.
Number Fifty : Glass Parallels’ Aisle of Light
Justin Pinkerton’s solo psych project locks into more pop vibes than his work in Golden Void, or his Italio-inspired Futuropaco. Light, airy, and dreamy swirls of guitar and keys make for an exquisite drop into hazily-tinted tunes. Besnard Lakes-meets-Flaming Lips.
Number Forty-Nine : Jeff Tweedy’s Love is the King
Wilco frontman and one of our finest American songwriters Jeff Tweedy made a quarantine album with sons Spencer and Sammy. They’re warm, ornate mostly acoustic strummers showcasing Tweedy’s penchant for low key advice on love, life, and keeping your sanity in a world nearly gone insane. Another solid solo LP from one of our finest.
Number Forty-Eight : Kanaan’s Odense Sessions
Norway’s finest prog/fusion/rock trio went into Causa Sui’s Jonas Munk’s studio for a couple days to see what they could cook up. Improvising and letting the vibes flow, the band plus Munk created this amazing set of loose and improvisational jams that became Odense Sessions. Just another magical slap of music from Kanaan and El Paraiso Records.
Number Forty-Seven : Dehd’s Flowers of Devotion
Chicago’s Dehd made a record worth falling into. Jangly, in your face, with serious power in the vocals, Flowers of Devotion is like a time capsule of late 80s/early 90s indie and college rock. A time where you could be catchy and pop-oriented and also have an edge. Dehd have both in spades. Flowers of Devotion is a knockout of a record.
Number Forty-Six : Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline
Andy Shauf has become one of my favorite singer-songwriters, ever since I had the pleasure of discovering his album The Party a few years back. On The Neon Skyline Shauf becomes a fly on the wall of a local dive bar and proceeds to tell us the stories of the souls that haunt the booths and barstools. It’s a fun and engaged musical world, songs that lope and navigate like the best 70s songwriter albums did. Newman, Nilsson, Wainwright, and Stevens all make their presence known in Shauf’s subtle songs. If you’re looking to whet your whistle and hear a story or two, look no further than The Neon Skyline.
Number Forty-Five : Mythic Sunship’s Changing Shapes
Mythic Sunship’s sets at the Roadburn Festival 2019 were fiery ones, and Changing Shapes captures their most exploratory set of the festival. With saxophonist Søren Skov, the four-piece harbingers of “anaconda rock” lay waste to minds and ears as they lock into tracks like “Awakening”, “Ophidian Rising”, and “Olympia”. The two-guitar attack and thunderous rhythm section, along with the ethereal saxophone, gives the impression of Coltrane setting the stage on fire with Black Sabbath. It’s a stunning set. One for the ages.
Number Forty-Four : Wasted Shirt’s Fungus II
Ty Segall and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale made one of the year’s loudest, antagonistic, and avante garde rock records. The coming together of two of our most revered noise makers seemed like a miracle of serendipity in the first place, but to witness the insanity put to tape in a hot Cali home studio is completely another. I haven’t felt so spent and gloriously ecstatic as when I dropped the needle on this record for the first time. Fungus II is the antidote to a year gone to shit.
Number Forty-Three : Shortwave Broadcaster’s Afraid of Ai
The musical world of Keith Canisius’ Shortwave Broadcaster is a quiet and ethereal one. Swaths of guitar heavily-effected into clouds of tone and melody, which give the impression of melting into the universe. Guitar+Eurorack+open mind=Afraid of Ai. This record is like falling slowly and effortlessly, without fear, into an abyss that welcomes you.
Number Forty-Two : Fuzz’ III
Another Segall-related record, this time Ty getting the band back together. Which band? His early 70s-inspired fuzz/garage rock outfit Fuzz. Fuzz like to turn it up to 11, engage the fuzz pedals, and give us Sabbath-meets-Blue Cheer eardrum-splitting bangers of the highest order. Fuzz is a three-piece to be reckoned with, and III might just be my favorite album of theirs. The songs rock, but on their third LP there’s more catchy tracks. AOR-ready rock and roll. Another stunner from these harbingers of molten fuzz rock.
Number Forty-One : Treebones’ Midnight Radio
Treebones’ Midnight Radio is an electronic record that seems to have appeared from the ether. Downtempo beats, spooky melodies, and a late night vibe give this album the feel of finding something in a dream, then finding it again wide awake. It’s like a haunted Boards of Canada; a radio station playing broken dance tracks that you can only hear after midnight. Subtle and deceptively eerie.
Number Forty : Peel Dream Magazine’s Agitprop Alterna
Who doesn’t like a good shoegaze/dream pop album? New York’s Peel Dream Magazine made a great one in Agitprop Alterna. If you have albums by Lush, Slowdive, Ride, and Chapterhouse, then you might just dig this one.
Number Thirty-Nine : Meridian Arc’s Timelapse
Andrew Crawshaw’s heavy synth project Meridian Arc is one of the best synth-inspired projects out there. On Timelapse he leans heavily into Froese, Schulze, and Jarre for a compelling record that allows for serious zone-out moments whilst taking a sci fi-heavy sonic ride.
Number Thirty-Eight : Alone 1980’s Humanity
Sweden’s Alone 1980 continues to evolve their imagined soundtrack albums, building more pristine sonic worlds and pushing the arranging and narratives to give each release its own feel. On Humanity the sound opens to more sonic uplift, creating a record with more human touches; less about sci fi horrors and killers on the loose and more about where we are as a society(and this came out way back in February before everything got dicey.) If heavy synth and imagined soundtracks are your thing, Alone 1980 does it right.
Number Thirty-Seven : Deftones’ Ohms
The Cali 90s survivors of rap rock(something they never were) continue to astound and expound on their post-punk/dream pop/alternative rock recipe for longevity. Ohms is the band’s best album in almost a decade, though nothing they’ve released within that decade ever really disappointed. But Ohms locks into the guitar-heavy vibes of albums like White Pony, Deftones, and Saturday Night Wrist without sounding like a rehash. It’s a powerful, catchy rock record.
Number Thirty-Six : Steve Roach’ Tomorrow
Ambient/New Age synth maestro Steve Roach returned this year with one of the year’s most expansive electronic records. Tomorrow is a dense and heady double LP of sonic tomes and meditative synth worlds where the mind and body can regenerate and recuperate from the jagged world outside. It’s a blessing of an album. Dig in.
Number Thirty-Five : AC/DCs Power Up
It’s always a welcomed surprise when new AC/DC arrives, especially when it’s almost the same crew that gave us Back In Black, For Those About To Rock(We Salute You), and Flick of the Switch. The OG crew(minus the late Malcolm Young) have returned with a back-to-basics, all hands on deck rock and roll banger. Power Up is raw and buzzing with the sonic muscle of a band just starting out. It’s a solid album through and through. Welcome back, fellas.
Number Thirty-Four : Rupert Lally’s When The Dark Speaks
Ruper Lally’s Stephen King-inspired album takes us on a journey through King’s haunted New England, giving us musical tours of famous locales in King’s stories. Lally locks into the spirit of the stories, while giving us his own very unique perspective of the places that live in our psyches long after we read the final page.
Number Thirty-Three : Andy Fosberry’s Blair, Maryland
With Andy Fosberry’s Blair, Maryland, the British composer and musician locks into the world of the Blair Witch, giving us a Gothic tour of those dense, dizzying woods where a legend of horror lives. Giving us a striking and majestic score to get lost in, then giving us a sort of 80s reinterpretation of the same score, Blair, Maryland is the perfect soundtrack for that afternoon jaunt through any woods of questionable safety.
Number Thirty-Two : Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple’s musical trajectory is one of those things that boggles the mind. Going from her debut Tidal, being touted as some music pop diva to her follow-up, the Jon Brion-produced When The Pawn. Those albums couldn’t be any more different. Both great in their own ways, but When The Pawn felt like an artist opening up and showing her true colors. It was apparent Apple didn’t have the same mission statement that the record execs had. She’s continued to evolve as an artist and as a human being, and Fetch The Bolt Cutters feels like that strange and awkward artist at the peak of her powers.
Number Thirty-One : Daniel Davies’ Signals
Daniel Davies has been making music for years in various rock bands, but he came into prominence when he became part of his Godfather’s band. That Godfather is John Carpenter, and Davies has worked on all of Carpenter’s records for the last five years, including 2018s Halloween score. In 2018 Davies released a solo LP called Events Score that locked into dark vibes, and earlier this year he released a follow-up called Signals. Signals was inspired by the mixed media art of Jesse Draxler. Daniel locks into the steely black and white art with heady synths and electronics, making Signals a dense and mysterious record.
Number Thirty : Johnny Woods’ Pavilions
Johnny Woods Pavilions is an improvised modular synth electronic album that has a therapeutic affect every time I play it. Gorgeous and simple melodies emanate from each track, giving the feeling of a late evening walk in a cooling southwestern desert. Skies turning hues of pink and orange, giving the landscape an otherworldly feel, much like Woods’ modular compositions.
Number Twenty-Nine : The Flaming Lips’ American Head
American Head feels like the Flaming Lips finding their footing after several years of experiments, collaborations, so-so songwriting and repetition. I get the feeling from this album that I got from albums like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, and that feeling is songs that want to say something. Songs that have a point of view, and emotional heft. This is as close to a singer/songwriter record we’ll probably ever get from Wayne Coyne. I think fatherhood has done him good, as it’s opened his heart back up and is allowing him to give us something we can hold onto.
Number Twenty-Eight : Andy Fosberry’s When Comfort Is Stranger
It was a hell of a year for musician/composer Andy Fosberry, and his release on Third Kind Records When Comfort Is Stranger showed his compositional skills in full force. From distorted explosions of noise to quiet, ambient vibes, Fosberry made a sampler of sound, style, and sonic sophistication.
Number Twenty-Seven : Kanaan’s Double Sun
Kanaan’s proper follow-up to their 2018 El Paraiso Records debut opens the trio’s sound into more headier rock landscapes. Still steady and solid in their fusion-meets-rock flair, Double Sun has more psych and heavy 70s rock vibes, going even into Krautrock territory. An album of hefty riffs and heady intentions.
Number Twenty-Six : Hunter Complex’ Dead Calm and Zero Degrees
Lars Meijer makes fantastic electronic music as Hunter Complex. From the self-titled to Heat to 2019s Open Sea, his sound continues to evolve into something that combines both 80s retro influences with more far-reaching intentions. Open Sea hit me hard and was my favorite album of 2019. Dead Calm and Zero Degrees was written and recorded in the same time frame as Open Sea, so it has some of the same connective DNA as that album. Each are sort of a different sonic side of the same musical coin, if you will. Dead Calm and Zero Degrees is another stunning work of music from my friend Lars Meijer. An absolute must-have.
Okay folks, this concludes the first part of my year-end list. Tune in next for 25-11. I’ll have some year-end stuff sprinkled in throughout this week, so keep checking in. See you soon.