Music played an especially important role in my life throughout this past year, given the unusal amount of time I spent at home. I'm happy to have the opportunity to share some of my favorites with you. This list is totally subjective, of course, and I hope that you find something here that you enjoy. There are many more musical artists I could have highlighted (Hum, Lomelda, Jay Som, just to name a few), but the following songs were an integral part of my 2020.
“Loner” - Dehd
Dehd are a Chicago-based three-piece indie band, who have a distinctive sound built around the interplay of singer/bassist Emily Kempf and singer/guitarist Jason Balla, backed by the primitive drumming (primitive in the Moe Tucker sense) of Eric McGrady. While their earliest work had a stark quality, their latest album displays a fuller sound. I’ve chosen “Loner” as the most representative track, but Flower of Devotion is exciting and engaging from start to finish. At a little over 38 minutes, this is an album that you’ll want to start over the moment it ends.
“Can’t Sleep” - Anna Burch
Taken from the album If You’re Dreaming by singer-songwriter Anna Burch, “Can’t Sleep” is a wistfully propulsive song about sleeplessness, and it’s wordless chorus is one of my favorite things that came out of 2020.
“Migration of Souls” - M. Ward
M. Ward may be the most well-known musical act on this list. The singer-songwriter has had high-profile collaborations with a number of other artists, and while not all of this has connected with me, I think his 2020 album Migration Stories is the best work he’s done since his 2003 album Transfiguration of Vincent. Migration Stories is essentially a concept album about crossing borders geographically and spiritually. The song “Migration of Souls” is a beautiful example of this metaphysical migration.
“Fall Apart” - Ellis
Much of my favorite music can be categorized--maybe reductively--as “dream pop.” This style of music has experienced a renaissance over the last decade with artists like Beach House, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Chromatics, and many others. While there’s considerable variety within this type of music, Ellis occupies a space on the intimate singer-songwriter end of the Dream Pop spectrum. "Fall Apart" appears on Ellis' album Born Again.
“Broken” - White Poppy
White Poppy is the solo project of artist Crystal Dorval. If Ellis occupies a space on the singer-songwriter end of the “dream pop” spectrum, White Poppy is over on the shoe-gaze side. With layered guitars, a bassline that would fit in on a New Order b-side, and deceptively gentle vocals, “Broken” is a perfect example of what Dorval does best.
"A Thousand Words" - Jay Som
Jay Som released "A Thousand Words" as a 7" single in 2020, following her acclaimed 2019 album Anak Ko. This track works perfectly as a stand-alone introduction to the artist, capturing the wistful energy and bouncy melodicism that is her trademark.
“Blonde” - Roger Eno and Brian Eno
“Blonde” was my most-played song of 2020. It is taken from the Roger Eno / Brian Eno collaboration Mixing Colours, which was my most-played album of 2020. Ambient music was an ongoing source of comfort for me throughout the year, as it has been for many others who found themselves spending considerable time at home, distanced from loved ones, and profoundly concerned about the state of the world. If that sounds like your 2020, I recommend spending some time with the soothing reverberations of Mixing Colours.
“Racetrack” - Beach Bunny
Beach Bunny are another indie-band from Chicago. Fronted by singer-songwriter Lili Trifilio, Beach Bunny found surprising success in 2020 with a viral TikTok video that featured the song “Prom Queen.” I would single out “Racetrack” as my favorite song on the album Honeymoon.
“No Nightmares” - Oneohtrix Point Never
Oneohtrix Point Never is the alias of experimental recording artist Daniel Lopatin. (The alias is actually a play on the name of the radio station Magic 106.7.) Lopatin makes music that can justifiably be described as “difficult,” despite the fact that he’s provided the score for two successful films (Good Time and Uncut Gems) and this year collaborated with popstars The Weeknd and FKA Twigs. Lopatin’s 2020 album Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an ambitious attempt at a concept album, and to be honest I much preferred the artist’s 2018 album Age Of. If the album as a whole is a bit uneven, I highly recommend the song “No Nightmares.” Featuring vocals from The Weeknd, “No Nightmares” plays like a weird pop standard from an alternate reality 1980s.
“Heavy Metal” - Cindy Lee
Cindy Lee is the current musical outlet for Patrick Flegel, a musician probably best known as singer/guitarist for the defunct Canadian art-rock band Women. Flegel refers to the Cindy Lee project as “confrontation pop” and consciously seeks to challenge gender norms as part of their musical expression. Cindy Lee sounds like a synthesis of much of my favorite music: you can hear the influence of The Supremes, Nico, Martin Rev, Patsy Cline, chiming guitars, experimental production. “Heavy Metal” is the final track on Cindy Lee’s album What's Tonight To Eternity, and I love everything about it.
My Favorite New Music of 2020 Playlist