2020 has been a strange and difficult year for most people, but that hasn’t stopped the release of some truly fantastic music. As we near the close of this tumultuous and trying year, here are the 20 albums that have resonated the most with me in 2020.
20. MJ Guider – Sour Cherry Bell
MJ Guider’s second full-length is full of beautiful melodies and classic songwriting, but she often elects to bury these more traditional elements just out of reach underneath dense and harsh electronic soundscapes and post-rock reverbs. The result is a deeply emotive and delightfully weird album that is equal parts menacing and comforting.
19. Kariti – Covered Mirrors
Described by its creator as “mourning folk”, Kariti’s debut album is largely based around lonesome and sombre acoustic guitar-based songs, but it is also steeped in the influence of heavy music. Kariti’s ethereal and sorrowful voice leads us through her cathartic journey that offers glimpses of hope amidst its passages of despair and yearning. This is a record that really makes you feel something.
18. Jaye Jayle – Prisyn
This album is a product of its circumstances, conceived as it was while Jaye Jayle mastermind Evan Patterson was on tour and only had his phone available with which to realise his new song ideas. It is, therefore, much more electronic-based than his previous output. Dark, brooding, jittery, experimental, and by Patterson’s own admission “a very odd record”, the distant and robotic textures provide an unsettling backdrop for a set of songs that are actually very human and often autobiographical. Genuinely avant-garde, Prisyn represents a new and rich creative direction for Jaye Jayle, and provides a freeing and rewarding listen for those prepared to plunge into its eccentric and aberrant dark waters.
17. Myrkur – Folkesange
With this release, Myrkur presents her version of “folk” music – lush, layered, rich and powerful. It is brimming with the duende of good folk music and it also incorporates the dark mysticism of neofolk. In many ways, it is reminiscent of groups like Clannad who also applied big and bold production aesthetics to folk music. Awash with grand harmonies and thick reverbs, Folkesange nevertheless feels like an intensely personal outpouring of Myrkur’s soul. Mournful, heart-rending and nostalgic, but also euphoric and life-affirming, Folkesange’s melodies infiltrate your mind as much as its feelings touch your soul.
16. Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
Bob Mould has had an illustrious and influential career within the punk and alternative scenes, having fronted both Hüsker Dü and Sugar. With Blue Hearts, he returns to a punk-infused delivery. In fact, many of these songs would sit absolutely comfortably next to the best of Hüsker Dü’s. Now aged 60, Mould’s vitality and energy remains resolutely undimmed. If anything, he’s angrier than ever. Often dealing with the current political state of America and the world, these songs are not only ultra-catchy but also deceptively sophisticated in their presentation. Blue Hearts emanates class and conviction.
15. Dool – Summerland
A beautiful fusion of prog rock, post-punk, and metal, Summerland is as visceral as it is emotionally penetrating. The way Ryanne Van Dorst’s voice glides, howls, and whispers on top of the dense and atmospheric music textures are gloriously life-affirming. Summerland seems to defiantly ignore current trends, instead weaving a sound-fabric that draws largely on elements from the 70s, 80s, and 90s alternative rock styles. Nevertheless, the album is Dool through and through. Essential listening.
14. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
Pallbearer’s fourth album is heavy, both musically and in terms of its thematic content. To accompany lyrics that deal with grief and touch on subjects including Alzheimer’s disease, the band was aiming musically “to capture the immediacy and what the songs feel like when they’re performed live”. The record has a nostalgia-inducing analogue warmth and, as well as blasting out classic doom metal riffs, the songs borrow elements from psychedelic rock, prog, and even bits of jazz. The pieces are expertly crafted and exhibit a feel for melody and structure that elevates Forgotten Days to a level of distinction far beyond many other riff-orientated heavy albums.
13.The Devil’s Trade – The Call Of The Iron Peak
The Devils Trade’s third album, The Call of the Iron Peak, is the sort of record that not only commands attention but also demands emotional energy. Dávid Makó, the sole member, does indeed trade in dark and unsettling themes. The Call of the Iron Peak’s journey is one of transmuting feelings of suffering, loss, grief, and pain into something cathartic and redemptive. Although ostensibly a “dark folk” or “gothic country” record, the album is unexpectedly massive-sounding as well as terrifyingly bleak. The sound is often adorned with a wall of effects that make it seem as though Makó is backed by a bank of synths as well as the mournful chimes emanating from his guitar strings. His voice is suffused with a rare conviction and it is consistently captivating as it wails, desperate but determined, through this dark and tormented but instantly memorable set of songs. There is a meditative, almost religious, quality to this album. Heed its call.
12. AA Williams – Forever Blue
AA Williams’ debut full-length record, Forever Blue is a collection of heartfelt, sincere, and melancholic songs of the very highest quality. They are supported by varied musical arrangements that always work wonderfully, whether they are sparse and tender in the vein of bands like Mazzy Star, or thunderously heavy in a post-metal style. Those with minds open to music that can convey both emotional fragility and crushing power will greatly appreciate the way that Forever Blue uses both – and everything in between – in its delivery of classic and faultless songs from the heart.
11. Bill Callahan – Gold Record
The latest record in Bill Callahan’s 30-year career (during the first 20 of which he went under the name Smog), Gold Record is a sublime album in the vein of classic Americana. Sparse, understated, heartfelt, and intensely intimate, these introspective and poetical songs recall those of such luminaries as Leonard Cohen. Sometimes melancholic, but just as often sleepily laid-back and blissed-out in a way that harks back to JJ Cale or Ry Cooder, the whole record emanates honesty and realness. Via his half-spoken croon, Callahan tells us 10 little stories, often suffused with wry humor and knowing wit. Not many people write songs half as good as this.
10. Völur – Death Cult
Canada’s Völur defy categorisation and has to be heard to be understood. This certainly applies to their third album, Death Cult, which fuses monolithic doom with black metal along with elements of folk music and free jazz. The band eschews electric guitar in favour of a lineup featuring violin alongside bass, drums, and vocals. The record is dark, complex, tense, anguished, and sorrowful. Lead-heavy riffs meet with psychedelic jams, onslaughts of black metal chaos, and Fairport Convention-esque instrumental passages. The vocals move seamlessly between tribalistic choir harmonies and frightening feral growls. The whole thing feels vital and empowering as it careers between deliciously weird waves of idiosyncratic catharsis.
9. Richard Thompson – Bloody Noses (EP)
Richard Thompson is an all-time favourite artist of mine. There are very few songwriters whose abilities come close to his, and this is fully evidenced on Bloody Noses – Thompson’s home-recorded and largely acoustic lockdown EP. Ostensibly operating within the folk-rock genre (and a former member of 60s giants Fairport Convention), Thompson’s songs in fact transcend such restrictive descriptions. As always, the songs here present a perfect juxtaposition of pop sensibility and deeply insightful rumination on the human condition with all its darkness and contradiction. Thompson’s understated delivery of his sublime lyrics mesh with masterful folk guitar accompaniment in such a way that his characters wrap themselves around your consciousness and illuminate hidden parts of your own psyche. With Bloody Noses, Thompson again casually and unassumingly presents us with a set of songs that sound like instant and timeless classics.
8. Sólstafir – Endless Twilight Of Codependent Love
Idiosyncratic and unconcerned with fitting any predefined mould, Sólstafir straddles genres including black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze. Endless Twilight of Codependent Love, the band’s seventh album, encompasses scuzzy and raw black metal, tender and soulful art-rock, celestial prog, and even Appalachian-tinged Spaghetti Western-inspired segments. All of it works together surprisingly well. In fact, this is a record that, whilst refusing to conform to expectations, ultimately sounds like it was always meant to be. It is artful, it is expertly assembled, and it is progressive in the truest sense of the word. Endless Twilight of Codependent Love is a deeply moving album that reveals further richness with every listen.
7. Green Carnation – Leaves Of Yesteryear
Leaves of Yesteryear is the first album in 14 years from Norway’s Green Carnation. Emotion is to the fore throughout this prog-doom-psych-metal masterpiece. We are gifted with all-encompassing doom riffs, mournfully longing melodies, necro-prog Floydisms replete with brooding synths, and awe-inducing vocal lines. The infinite layers of guitar and keyboard sounds slot in and dance with each other like a perfectly jigsawed ballet ensemble. Impossibly powerful and intensely beautiful, the whole record is technically perfect whilst still retaining its humanity. Leaves Of Yesteryear is a progressive metal album that will also hold a more universal appeal for anyone with an interest and heavy and emotionally honest music.
6. Jarboe – Illusory
Jarboe’s illustrious (and definitely not illusory) career speaks for itself, and with Illusory she continues on her path of creating esoteric but deeply rewarding and heartfelt music. This is an album that you need to need to sit with and allow yourself to be drawn into. Hypnotic, meditative, and trance-inducing, Illusory lulls you into relaxation with the push and pull of its synth textures. Mysterious repetitive sounds and rhythms – primordial yet synthetic, earthy yet still drifting out into the cosmos – are overlaid with chanting which often doesn’t appear to be in any known language. Once you allow yourself to be immersed in this world, the songs on Illusory tend to then catch you off guard from time to time; much of the music is intentionally slightly off-kilter in a way that makes you feel just a little bit disorientated. This is an album that takes work. On the surface, it may appear to be almost too minimalistic or too far removed from conventional structures. But it’s a record that – when given undivided attention – provides a unique cleansing and rejuvenating experience.
5. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
This collaboration between Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou (both of whom are luminaries of the alternative music world) manages to simultaneously embody several apparent opposites with grace and purpose. It is both monstrously heavy and beautifully delicate. It is abrasive yet also melodic. It is riff-laden but the music exists in support of the absolutely faultless songs. It often feels both bleak and euphoric. At times the album simultaneously recalls Tori Amos, Soundgarden, and Darkthrone. The vocal duets of Rundle with her gracefully emotive voice and Thou’s Bryan Funck with his harsh and feral screams are genuinely exciting. The unrelentingly superlative songwriting and expert musical arrangements on May Our Chambers Be Full make it an album that is a joy to behold from start to finish.
4. Henry Derek Elis – All The Pretty Little Horses (EP)
Henry Derek Elis is a stalwart of the metal scene, but his solo output sits just outside of the genre. This EP is a collection of four covers of songs that have touched Elis in some way. He presents them in his signature style which can loosely be described as “gothic country” – steeped in the influence of the American south but also betraying the influence of metal and post-punk. Whilst this sort of “metal adjacent” music is becoming more commonplace, few artists are genuine masters of both heavy music and traditional blues and folk. Henry Derek Elis is one of the few who can lay claim to these credentials. The EP takes us through covers of a traditional American folk song (the dark and brooding “All The Pretty Little Horses”), a Billy Idol song (the tear-inducing “Dancing With Myself”), a Danzig song (the heavy and demonic “Heart Of The Devil”), and a Steve Young song (a gritty country-blues rendition of “Alabama Highway”). If you are a fan of Wovenhand, Current 93, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, or music more generally that is emotionally heavy, dark, and redemptive, then you need to hear this.
3. Wino – Forever Gone
Scott “Wino” Weinrich hardly needs an introduction. His work with St. Vitus and The Obsessed speaks for itself. With Forever Gone (Ripple Music), his third solo record, Wino taps into that ineffable quality (duende, some have called it) that can be traced back and found in the output of artists such as Neil Young and Steve Earle, in country music, in old-time American folk, and in the traditional music that predates all of that. This is an acoustic guitar-based album that is equally genuine as a piece of Americana and as part of the “heavy” music canon. The songs are exemplary, and the sound is gut-punchingly forceful even when it consists of just a nakedly fragile acoustic guitar and Wino’s rough and soulful voice. Fans of both Americana and metal will find this to be one of the most decisively real albums of 2020.
2. Anna Von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly
Anna Von Hausswolff’s All Thoughts Fly is a tremendously bold statement. Even by the standards of Von Hausswolff – who is known as an experimental, progressive, and often unclassifiable singer-songwriter – the decision to release a full album of instrumental pipe organ music is somewhat unexpected, to say the least. Von Hausswolff used Sacro Bosco, a 16th-century Italian garden designed by Pier Francesco Orsini, as the foundation for All Thoughts Fly, and whatever inspiration she got from that stimulus clearly worked wonders. The album not only works but is truly captivating. The tonal and dynamic range Von Hausswolff generates from the pipe organ (augmented by effects here and there) is surprisingly expansive, and somehow the compositions seem to reach directly into the emotional core. The music references the full spectrum of human feeling – pain, loss, sorrow, love, hope, and joy – and does so using a unique and idiosyncratic approach. All Thoughts Fly doesn’t sound quite like anything you’ll have heard before, but it taps into feelings we all have – feelings that perhaps we all need to feel from time to time.
1. Liar, Flower – Geiger Counter
Liar, Flower is the new band fronted by KatieJane Garside (formerly of Queenadreena and Daisy Chainsaw) and consisting of Garside and her partner multi-instrumentalist Chris Whittingham. Their debut, Geiger Counter, speaks with such calmly forceful conviction that it demands all preconceptions be dropped. The music really flows. It effortlessly navigates myriad styles (from pastoral autoharp folk to punishingly abrasive punk) and in stepping forth never puts so much as a little toe wrong. Garside screams, she moans, and she whispers. She lulls us to sleep, safe in the arms of her all-powerful voice. She sometimes speaks and sings in her own untranslatable language. Whittingham’s musical arrangements and production flow effortlessly through the various twists and turns of this musical journey, whether using a ferocious full-band arrangement or a sparse acoustic treatment. A truly artful album, this music somehow cleanses and renews the soul, lifting us away from material reality to some kind of transcendence. The whole thing is like pure feeling distilled in audio form – a primal-scream-of-consciousness – and it is utterly beautiful. Geiger Counter is a truly exceptional release and one that deserves a lot more attention.