My top 10 albums: 2020

As the worst of all years in living memory nears its end – and to prove that I didn’t exclusively listen to older music this year despite my project blogging about my 100 favourite songs – here are my top 10 albums of 2020 and a Spotify playlist with favourite tracks from the records in question, plus a few honourable mentions of LPs that didn’t quite make my list.

There’s a decent mix of bands both new and old – including two debut albums plus the 30th LP by one longstanding favourite (who could that be?!).  One of the many deprivations of 2020 has been the lack of gigs and I missed out on seeing quite a few of these acts this year, so hopefully 2021 will be better on that front and many others. Oh yes and I have purchased all these records on either vinyl or CD, not just because I like having “stuff”, but also to help out the relevant musicians in these straitened times – I actually believe that all artists who help to lift our spirits and bring us joy deserve to be rewarded accordingly, even if Mr Spotify may not agree.  Mini-rant over, so here’s my top 10 albums of 2020…

10. “Mind Hive” by Wire

The first great LP of 2020, Mind Hive arrived in January; an enticing start to a year that was obviously soon to mutate into a nightmare.  A tightly focused nine songs, Mind Hive is a perfect distillation of Wire’s disparate strengths, mixing later period industrial crunch with tunes reminiscent of the imperial Chairs Missing period such as the album title quoting Cactused.   And in Off The Beach, Mind Hive boasted a close cousin to the melodically beautiful Outdoor Miner (number 21 in my favourite ever songs list), a hugely welcome development.  

9. “Puzzlewood” by Plone

Plone returned with their delightful second album Puzzlewood on Ghost Box in April, a mere 21 years since their Warp debut For Beginner Piano.  Sounding even more like Boards Of Canada let loose in a sweet shop or a Fisher Price Aphex Twin, Plone’s playfully evocative electronic ditties were a welcome tonic in the depths of lockdown v1.0.  What did surprise about Puzzlewood was its enduring listenability; an album that some may dismiss as novelty muzak continued to provide joyful treats through the year, with standout tracks including Puzzlewood, Watson’s Telescope, Day Trip and Chalk Stream.

8. “The Universal Want” by Doves

Another welcome comeback, September’s The Universal Want was Doves’ first LP since 2009’s Kingdom Of Rust.  And where that record sounded slightly tired and undercooked compared to Doves’ sparkling first three albums, The Universal Want instead felt like a classic Doves collection; comfortingly reassuring widescreen anthems with just a nod to the dancefloors of yore.  In a turbulent year, The Universal Want’s great gift was that listening to it felt like putting on a pair of familiar much-loved slippers to help kick back and relax – with favourite songs including Broken Eyes, For Tomorrow, Mother Silverlake and the soaring Prisoners.

7. “Ultimate Success Today” by Protomartyr

Building on the jagged foundations of 2017’s fourth album Relatives In Descent, Detroit post-punkers Protomartyr continued to develop their intense, skewwhiff clatter on July’s Ultimate Success Today.  Sounding like a modern day Dischord band (quite fitting in the 40th anniversary year of that ground-breaking record label), Protomartyr marry powerhouse riffs with a slightly jazzy rhythmic sensibility on both straight out rockers such as Tranquilizer and Michigan Hammers as well as the more melodic likes of The Aphorist and closing ballad Worm In Heaven.  Protomartyr originally planned to preview this ambitious album at an intimate show at The Lexington in April, one of many gigs that Covid has taken away this year.

6. “Working Men’s Club” by Working Men’s Club

One of two debut albums in my top 10, October saw the self-titled release from Working Men’s Club, a young Yorkshire band who shifted from the guitar based roots evident on early singles to the electronic inspired direction of this record.  Such evolution also meant that brilliantly named frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant is the only founding member to feature on this inspired Working Men’s Club mash-up of New Order, early Human League, Earl Brutus and The Fall, which ultimately creates its very own Leeds/LCD Soundsystem.  Snarled vocals pay tribute to John Cooper Clarke and take potshots at Bobby Gillespie confuser Andrew Neil (on Cook a Coffee) over squiggly synths and meaty beats, all building to the motorik chug of epic 12 minute album closer Angel.

5. “Mirrored Aztec” by Guided By Voices

Motoring away from debut territory now with August’s Mirrored Aztec; the 30th LP released as Guided By Voices by absurdly prolific genius frontman Robert Pollard who has put out over 100 albums in various guises.  I rhapsodised about Guided By Voices earlier this year when nominating Game Of Pricks as my 4th favourite song of all time – and I would say that Mirrored Aztec is actually the best GBV LP since Captain Bob started putting out GBV records again in 2010.  Whereas most recent GBV albums always contain at least one or two stellar songs but can be wildly inconsistent, Mirrored Aztec is instead a beguiling listen throughout with many customary two or three minute power pop pleasures  – Bunco Men, Thank You Jane, Lip Curlers etc – as well as more esoteric fare such as Biker’s Nest and the child choir featuring Math Rock.  Mirrored Aztec also features surely the best song title of the year: A Whale Is Top Notch.  Who can argue with that?

4. “Women In Music Pt.III” by Haim

By far the highest profile and most widely listened to LP amongst my top 10, I would have been very surprised at the start of the year if you’d told me that I’d be featuring Haim in such a list.  And yet here is June’s Women In Music Pt. III at number 4, a thoroughly modern sunshine pop record that also tips its hat to hazy FM rock.  As a big Fleetwood Mac fan, I quite liked what I heard of Haim’s 2013 debut Days Are Gone but paid no attention to 2017 follow-up Something To Tell You.  However, Women In Music Pt.III appears a real jump forward for the LA based sisters, deftly mixing modern pop production with timeless songwriting chops to concoct an album with strong cross generational appeal.  An expertly sequenced record, key tracks include Up From A Dream, Gasoline, I’ve Been Down, Now I’m In It and Summer Girl but the undoubted highlight is the Cass McCombs starring second track The Steps, an out and out pop banger that is probably my favourite song of the year.

3. “Saint Cloud” by Waxahatchee

Already riding high in many other end of year lists, Waxahatchee’s fifth album Saint Cloud was released at the end of March to uniformly strong reviews.  The moniker of American singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, Saint Cloud saw Waxahatchee move further away from her lo-fi folky origins to embrace a much fuller, Americana style sound with considerable success.  Crutchfield has stated that Saint Cloud’s main themes concern “addiction and codependency”, having quit booze after struggling with alcoholism during the tour supporting 2017’s Out In The Storm album.  And there is a real clarity to Saint Cloud’s winning mix of country chuggers and more circumspect ballads on what is a beautifully arranged and produced album; adroitly evoking long summer nights in an idyllic wilderness, welcome escapism during 2020 and all its attendant restrictions.

2. “Collector” by Disq

The second debut album in my top 10 list arrives from Madison, Wisconsin courtesy of Disq, a youthful five piece responsible for March’s Collector.  This record first came to my attention when reading a couple of reviews the same day that both cited Pavement and Teenage Fanclub as antecedents, comparisons that are always going to grab my attention.  Add in an album cover paying homage to Pet Sounds (including one band member in a candy coloured striped shirt) and this is already ticking a lot of my boxes.  Fortunately, Collector lives up to such expectations, with echoes of Teenage Fanclub on beautifully wistful tunes such as D19 and Drum In – while the Pavement influence is apparent on off kilter gems such as Daily Routine and I Wanna Die.  Collector is just a brilliantly varied indie album overall, expertly cooking up multiple flavours over just ten songs in the manner of Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted and more latterly Parquet Courts, a recipe sadly not so common these days.  Disq are also yet another concert casualty of 2020 for me; their planned London gig has actually moved twice already, first to April then September before obviously needing to be postponed once more – so I’m really hoping they can make it over here sometime in 2021 to showcase this fantastic album.

1. “Sideways To New Italy” by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Emerging in early June (as we entered the third month of the first UK lockdown), Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s second LP delivered a highly refreshing injection of exuberant, blissful jangling tunes.  Following on from 2018’s superb debut album Hope Downs, the Melbourne maestros delivered ten more tracks brimming with sunny melodic invention.  RBCF may be ploughing a familiar musical field but when their songs and performances are this much fun, who cares?  And their triple guitar line-up helps to make RBCF a ferocious live proposition too, as I encountered last year at London’s Village Underground – and will hopefully do so again at Primavera Sound in Barcelona next year…hopefully…  Finally, Spotify have this week confirmed that Sideways To New Italy was the album I listened to most this year (as well as on my Rough Trade blue/cream vinyl of course!) so it’s highly fitting that this life affirming record takes top spot in this list, helping to spread a little joy in a decidedly joy-free year.

Honourable mentions: 5 more great albums from 2020

  • “Power Up” by AC/DC
  • “Gold Record” by Bill Callahan
  • “Eight Gates” by Jason Molina
  • “By The Fire” by Thurston Moore
  • “Be Up A Hello” by Squarepusher

Compilation of 2020: Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs present “The Tears Of Technology”

Although not a frequent consumer of compilations, I did want to highlight this brilliant collection of electronic tunes from the turn of the 80s pulled together by Saint Etienne’s Bob and Pete which was released early in 2020.  The Tears Of Technology highlights the charms of primitive early synths and how there was a deep melancholic beauty lying behind much of this then modern music.  A real feast of discovery, the track listing includes early deep cuts from familiar names like The Human League, The Teardrop Explodes and Simple Minds as well as more obscure artists such as The Electronic Circus: a duo led by Gary Numan’s keyboard player Chris Payne whose Direct Lines is a personal favourite from this album but is not currently available on Spotify. I have however included three songs from The Tears Of Technology that are available on Spotify in my 20 from 2020 playlist below…

  • “Tidal Flow” by Illustration: Hailing from Stockport, Illustration played with the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes in the early 80s but their only recorded song was Tidal Flow; featured on side one track one of 1981’s “Some Bizarre Album”, keeping company on this early sampler with the then-rising Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and The The.
  • “Grey Skies” by Turquoise Days: A Jersey based duo whose only vinyl record was this single in 1984, a simple synth pop ditty reminiscent of early Depeche Mode; definitely sounding more like 1981 than the year of its actual release.
  • “Lights Of April” by Eyeless In Gaza: An artist I was dimly aware of before, Lights In April (from 1982’s third album Drumming The Beating Heart) is not so much synth pop as synth folk, just over two minutes of atmospheric bliss from this Nuneaton based pair.

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: My 20 from 2020

Featuring one song from each of my top 10 albums, 3 from The Tears Of Technology compilation, plus another song from albums 1 to 7…

One thought on “My top 10 albums: 2020

  1. Pingback: My top 10 albums: 2021 | No Longer Teenage Fan Club

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