It cannot be understated that 2020 was the year of surprises. "Surprise release" became the catchphrase of an unexpected record release. Because of the virus, it seemed, the marketing machine crashed. Soon some of our favorite bands, whom we hadn't heard from in years, were dropping full-length bombs on us, without a word of warning.
It was an exciting year for music. Here are my favorite albums of 2020.
The album that I listened to most was Stay Vibrant by San Holo. For an album that barely crests the 35-minute length, it feels more like a passing mood. An uplifting vibe that ends quickly, leaving you wanting more. What started as a weekly release of music to "soothe our soul during the pandemic," turned into an amazing half-hour journey that made my summer runs reflective while becoming the soundtrack of our camping trips.
DJ music is not my go-to, but there's something about the sincerity of "We're All Just On Our Way Home," that hooked me. Partly due to Luwten's beautifully crooned chorus, but mostly due to the introspective instrumental that San Holo put into motion.
The biggest surprise of 2020 had to be the shocking comeback of the 90s alt-rockers, Hum. Returning from Champaign, or wherever the hell they were, 22 years later they delivered a powerful, relevant album, entitled Inlet. A full-length space odyssey timed perfectly with the pandemic that propelled us through some bleak moments. Covid-19 hit, we were stuck in our homes, and this was the respite we needed. It was a kick in the butt, dropping the needle on "Waves" as it chased the virus away, briefly. "Waves of lost hope, venom is in my head, They fill my days with sorrow." We revisited our youth. Hum was right back where they belonged and so were we.
Another huge surprise was the subtle return of the Manchester band, The Doves. Like Hum before them, there was no promotion for this album, and yet, there they were at the top of my Release Radar. After 11 years, they brought with them some of the best songs they've ever written. The Universal Want continues to pay dividends with each listen. "Carousels," and their unorthodox approach to pop music, made us remember why we love this band.
Released, literally, on the day before Halloween, Atmosphere released a dark and moody masterpiece titled just that, The Day Before Halloween. His most introspective work, that can be digested in one scrumptious sitting. Like San Holo's EP, this one clocks in around 40 minutes and provokes endless listens. I love the talk of family, therapy, and the struggles of present-day society. "Just put your hands in the air and hit follow/What a time to be alive and scared of tomorrow." -"She Loves My Not"
What can I say? I did not see this one coming. Surprised would be an understatement. "Slug and Murs made another Felt record," a friend texted, early one August morning "Are they still a thing," I wondered to myself? 11 years later it seems they are.
Initially combining forces in 2002 on Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci, the duo has built a cult following with each release. Now on their fourth record, Felt 4 U, they remind us of what rap once was with an ode to the storytellers. "Hologram" finds Murs describing a George Floyd situation where he narrowly escapes a case of mistaken identity. After refusing to press charges, Murs celebrates the all-too-common situation with a sleeve of Oreos. "Hit the store before it close, copped some golden Oreos/Celebrate the close call, y'all know how the story go." It's an absurdity that can't be portrayed any better, yet it's real, unlike a hologram of a rousing 2Pac being beamed to the stage. "Put your hands up in the hologram!"
I found myself going back to Delta Spirit's What Is There more and more throughout the year. They have continued to make great rock music, and this album has everything you would want from a classic rock and roll record. Dive right in with album opener, "The Pressure," and let this one play straight through.
Who would've thought that a night out on our church lawn would turn into a jazz obsession? Lawn Lounge was something that our church (Bethany UCC) started, to bring people together, safely, outside. Each week they would have a guest musician or band play in the courtyard and Matt Ulery was one of them. The first night he played select songs from his catalog, and the second, encore night he played through his latest record, Pollinator. It's a moody, piece of work, unlike anything I've ever heard. To hear it live though it was a treat. From the somber tones of "Feed," to the upbeat rhythm of "Jelly." On his 10th album, joined by some of the best musicians in the business, Ulery makes the sousaphone cool again, and this batch of swinging tunes begs to be heard. Pollinator was a staple in the Fall chapter of my 2020.
Morrissey's, I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, is the best batch of original material he has released in the last decade, and still, he is without label yet again. NME 's headline stated "His Best Album In Years (If You Can Tune Out His Opinions)." Well, there you have it, BMG Records grew tired of his continual foot in his mouth, which has always been his downfall. His new music is stellar though, and songs like "Booby, Don't You Think They Know," reveal an artist with a lot left to give. Where Low In High School seemed aimless, 'Dog seems to have laser precision, feeling determined, and purposeful. So much so that I looked forward to his next release, that is, if we get to see one?
I have to add The Districts to this list. This might not be their best work to date, but I have definitely come to appreciate the vibe they were going for. Throughout 2020 I have found myself coming back to You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, time and time again. All said and done ‘'Velour and Velcro’ is the song I catch myself singing the most, but what hooked me was the prog-rock of "Cheap Regrets," and its tale of excess in LA. I loved "Hey Jo" as a single and still appreciate how they discussed the Trumpian world we are living in. I feel we will look back at this record with a lot of respect as time moves on.
Felly is one of the hardest working artists in the game. Initially, he was a beatmaker turned rapper, now he's playing every instrument, producing his records, and delivering soulful joints that many rappers couldn't conceive of.
After releasing the incredibly versatile Mariposa, Fel went on to release a string of singles in 2020 that all delivered.
The diehards will stay, the sycophants will stray.
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