I wasn’t going to do a list this year. It’s not really a year I want to memorialize or look back on. Can’t we all just pretend that all the great music that came out this year actually got released in 2019 or 2021 and just forget 2020 ever happened? No? I guess not. It wouldn’t be fair to the bands that put all that hard work into their art just to have it drop in the crappiest of years. And there was some really exciting stuff released in 2020. Little bits of light shining out through the darkness.
I turned 40 this year … during quarantine, on furlough from my job, struggling with some really heavy existing anxiety that the global pandemic kicked into high-gear. I spent most of the year listening to — and filling out my record collection with — old favorites and comfortable, comforting, familiar albums. I’ve been buying a record a week beginning in April (on my birthday). And, because I can’t resist a good list, I even decided to document it, calling it “40 Years, 40 Records.” The project has given me something to look forward to each week, something to take my mind off of everything going on around me. In some ways, music has become even more important to me this year, than it already was. You can check out what I’ve bought so far this year on my Instagram (www.instagram.com/lionsdenlions) if that’s something you’re interested in.
That being said, I did buy some 2020 releases and listened to some others and even managed to get to one show this year before everything completely went to shit. So … below is my un-ranked, un-quantified list of 2020 music stuff I liked in 2020.
[album] Sweeping Promises – “Hunger For A Way Out” (Feel It Records): Another year, another year-end roundup appearance from Lira and Caufield. Last year, their band Mini Dresses made the list with the stellar “Heaven Sent.” In 2018, they made the list as one of my favorite live shows of the year opening up for Wildhoney. Sweeping Promises deliver brilliant pop-tinged post-punk that brings to mind that early Rough Trade sound.
[TRACK] Corvair – “Sunday Runner” (Paper Walls/Bon Mots Music) Rocking indiepop with boy/girl vocals from members of Eux Autres (who I have sorely missed). The first two tracks off their upcoming record have been aces. I’ve already pre-ordered the album. You should too.
[album] The Very Most – “Needs Help” (Lost Sound Tapes/Kocliko): TVM’s best yet? Quite possibly. It took Jeremy Jensen 5 years to make this album happen and the result is worth every second. Jeremy is joined by at least 10 guest vocalist, including Melanie Whittle (The Hermit Crabs), Kristine Capua (Tiny Fireflies), and Cristina Quesada (Elefant Records). The songs have all the dream-pop goodness, boy/girl vocals, lush harmonies you’ve come to expect from TVM. It’s a winner.
[track] Jeanines – “Been in the Dark” (WIAIWYA): This track on the band’s EP on WIAIWYA clocks in at just under 2 minutes (1:59), so you might as well listen to it two or three times. Alicia Jeanine’s voice channels shimmering ’60s pop vocals to a T. I’m hearing equal parts The Seekers and Dolly Mixture, which is a winning combination.
[track] Gary Olson – “Giovanna Please” (Tapete): The first single off of Gary Olson’s (Ladybug Transistor) debut solo album, which was released this year. This track, with sweeping strings, soft vocals and harmonies, was recorded in Norway, and brings to mind Scandinavian artists like Acid House Kings or Sambassadeur. It reminds me a great deal of Jens Lekman and is danceable in the same way. I’m a big fan.
[album] Boyracer – “On A Promise” (Emotional Response): The indiepop legends are back with their 13th(!) full-length. Stewart Anderson is joined by Christina Riley (Artsick, Burnt Palms) and a veritable who’s-who from the pop world — previous band members Simon Guild and Laura Bridge, Mary Wyer and Anita Rayner (Even As We Speak), Penny McBride (Cannanes), longtime Boyracer members Matty Green, Jen Turrell, Ged McGurn and Ara Hacopian, and more. On A Promise offers 16 passionate pop-punk gems.
[track] Archers of Loaf – “Raleigh Days” (Merge): Raleigh Days opens with a few quick guitar strums and keyboard plinks before bursting forth with some much-missed rock-and-roll fervor. Driving guitar and earnest vocals propel the song forward, not letting up for the entirety of the track’s short 2:20 play time. Really glad The Loaf is back.
[track] Seablite – “High-Rise Mannequins” (Emotional Response): Bouncing bass and jangle give way to shoegazey guitars and dreamy vocals on the title track of Seablite’s latest EP. This is everything you want from a fuzzy, Sarah-inspired indiepop song.
[album] Peel Dream Magazine – “Agitprop Alterna” (Slumberland): This is pure fuzzy goodness. With buzzing guitars and vocals that sound more like an instrument than words. Just close your eyes, surrender to the drone and let PDM carry you away on a dreamy little field trip.
[album] Close Lobsters – “Post Neo Anti” (Shelflife): Probably my favorite band on the C86 tape, Close Lobsters are back with their first album 31 years — and they have not missed a beat. They’re as jangly, fuzzy and shimmery as ever. This is wonderful.
[track] The Flatmates – “Shut Up and Kiss Me” (Old Bad Habits): Indiepop royals The Flatmates released a new album this year. With shimmering lead vocals from Lisa Bouvier and driving pop-punk guitar, this track wastes no time — starting strong and not letting up, save for a brief organ bit about halfway through. The Flatmates continue to crank out fuzzy pop gems, just like they did in 1988.
[track] Peaness – “Kaizen” (Wipe Out Publishing): In Japanese, the word “kaizen” means “change for the good” and that’s what Peaness is clamoring for with this song. Pushing the listener to take a stand and “be a voice and not an echo” as “the living fabric of our tiny world / is slipping right through our fingers.” The song follows that upbeat, bouncy, punky pop that Peaness has basically perfected.
[album] The Beths – “Jump Rope Gazers” (Carpark Records): The Beths offer a sleeker, but no-less exhilarating, follow-up to “Future Me Hates Me.” The band mixes in some power balladeering and some softer seriousness, but this collection of songs is still a whole bunch of fun.
[track] European Sun – “The Future’s Female” (WIAIWYA): European Sun is Steve Miles, who writes and sings the tunes, joined by Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey. This track also features guest backing vocals from Sarah Corrie (Velocette, Comet Gain). “The Future’s Female” is “a rallying cry for progressive people to have hope in a decade that threatens to be dark.” The song mixes poignant and personal storytelling with humor and playfulness, slagging off Brexit, macho men, and hyper-sexual male rockers without being preachy or political. The simple, hummable melody will be kicking around in your head for days.
[track] Fortitude Valley – “Wreck” (Fika): I love this song so much. Laura K’s voice perfectly channels ’90s alternative a la Juliana Hatfield. And Daniel Ellis’ (Martha) guitar playing reminds me of all the guilty pleasure alterna-pop I listened to in high school (and still do sometimes … I can admit it). The harmonies behind Laura as she sings “I’m a wreckkkkk” push this track into play-this-song-on-repeat-all-day territory. Can’t wait for the album. (Was this actually released in December 2019? Doesn’t matter, I loved it in 2020.)
[live] John Lodge of The Moody Blues at Cary Memorial Hall, Lexington, MA – 8 March: The only show I was able to attend this year was part of a belated Christmas gift for my father-in-law. COVID was just beginning to become serious, but events were still going on as planned. We probably shouldn’t have gone, but we did. John Lodge was the bassist for The Moody Blues, and also wrote a bunch of their songs. They played a bunch of well-known Moody Blues songs, some deep cuts, and some of Lodge’s solo work. I’m not a huge Moody Blues fan, but this show was fun. The sheer enthusiasm of Lodge and his band made it good.