I’m not going to bother ranting too much about what a shit year this was for all of us. But I will say a lot of the music I listened to was my 2020 soundtrack for survival. It’s fair to say music was both an escape and reality check as to what we have all been going through and still feeling. In essence the spirit of the music on this list is rooted in the connection of feelings we all share like anxiety and a yearning for something better. That said, it’s no mistake that my album of the year picks up on themes around human struggle, even those moments of longing for connectivity. And so, without further ado, I invite you to check out the ten most influential albums I’ve listened to repeatedly this year.
10. Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers (Fat Possum).
I met and briefly chatted with Courtney Marie Andrews back in late 2018 at one of her acoustic shows here in Melbourne, and was taken aback by her big-heartedness, despite her seemingly shy nature away from the microphone. But I guess that was always expected when standing next to my six foot three inch frame! Anyway, there is really no simple answer as to why I am so mesmerised by Courtney, except maybe to say that, it just might be because of her honesty as a songwriter. For instance, she can easily draw vivid pictures of people and places, making every song she writes a constant and compelling listen. But what draws you into her world more than her stories about humanity, are all the somber and quiet moments about her own life. Like flashes of memories, Courtney sings about her sadness and struggles that we all can relate to, especially on Old Flowers.
9. Sasha Sloan – ‘Only Child’ (RCA Records).
After several promising EP releases, Russian American Sasha Sloan finally dropped her first full-length album, Only Child this year. Having successfully transitioned from being just a gun for hire (songwriting for the likes of Katy Perry and John Legend), Sloan has in recent years taken a leap of faith in trusting her own instincts as a singer songwriter; and in the process there have been plenty of moments where she has put her own anxiety through the ringer via her songs. Her highly anticipated debut is a case in point of the poignant brutal lyrics she writes. When asked earlier this year by Billboard to describe her debut album, Sloan didn’t hesitate to say it’s a cross between Robyn meets Eva Cassidy meets ‘90s alternative. While tracks like Lie and Hypochondriac showcase Sloan’s affinity for confessional songwriting, House With No Mirrors for my mind stands as a triumph of the deep contemplation and honesty Sloan is aiming for on her album. Check it out!
8. Deep Sea Diver – ‘Impossible Weight’ (High Beam/ATO).
Thanks to my admiration for Sharon Van Etten, I discovered Deep Sea Diver’s third studio album Impossible Weight back in September. While it helps that Van Etten is featured on the album’s lead single, it’s not the only reason why this album rocks! Deep Sea Diver is in essence a Jessica Dobson project that fuses indie rock with pop to create a collection of songs about personal struggle. While the songs are about Dobson, there is a universal sentiment about them that resonates with the listener. This is an album that has been largely ignored by mainstream publications and I don’t know why. There is honestly a lot to like from Dobson’s epic guitar work on Eyes Are Red (Don’t Be Afraid) to the raw beauty of the acoustic ballad Run Away With Me. And while Dobson’s guitar work is definitely a feature on Impossible Weight, I’m equally smitten by her expressive vocals which range from piercing highs to intense raw rock passion.
7. Fiona Apple – ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ (Epic Records)
While you won’t hear Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters on the radio, major music publications will have you believe that her album is one of 2020 most outstanding release. Jenn Pelly from Pitchfork gave “Bolt Cutters” a perfect 10: “No music has ever sounded quite like it… It’s not pretty. It’s free.” The Guardian called it “a strange and exceptional album. Rolling Stone hailed it “a triumphant statement of self-discovery and solidarity.” And more recently, Consequence Of Sound named it their album of the year.
For the record I am a big fan of Fiona Apple and it’s certainly a thrill to have Fetch The Bolt Cutters join her impressive back catalogue. Personally though I’m not so sure it’s the best album of the year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely an exceptional album, and for those of us still hiding away from the world, we will undoubtedly find something interesting in Apple’s poignant commentary, even after such a long absence.
6. Pearl Jam – ‘Gigaton’ (Monkeywrench/Republic).
Upon its release I absolutely loved the first half of Pearl Jam’s eleventh studio album Gigaton, especially its first four tracks. The second half not so much. At the time I thought Vedder and company should have mixed it up a little better than they did. It’s heavy on ballads and acoustic arrangements and a lot of these songs felt like they could have easily belong on any of their other previous albums. They had a perfect opportunity to reinvent themselves especially with the lead in with Dance of the Clairvoyants. Look at what the Foo Fighters are doing at the moment. They sound better than ever! Nonetheless, as the year continued to turn to shit, that second half of Gigaton became an unexpected joy. From the prophetic melodies of Seven O’Clock to the pump organ of closer River Cross, Pearl Jam reminded me why I love them so much.
5. Dua Lipa – ‘Future Nostalgia’ (Warner).
Dua Lipa gave us this year a wonderful escape musically speaking with her disco-laden sophomore album Future Nostalgia. She mastered some amazing jams that proved disco is a thing again. No really! From the dream-pop party starter Don’t Start Now to the straight-up grooves of Levitating this was an album I never thought I would give that much attention to considering my alternative rock leanings. But in truth, there was once a time years ago when pop and dance music was a staple music diet on my stereo with the likes of ‘90s Kylie Minogue and Rhianna, so what the hell I’m all in with the new queen of pop. Though I do wonder how I will look back at Future Nostalgia in years to come? That said I have a good feeling that its 43 minutes running time of pure unadulterated dance pop will probably age well just like a fine wine.
4. Gordi – ‘Our Two Skins’ (Liberation Records).
The idea of making electronic folk music – blending acoustic arrangements with electronic elements – is something that feels wildly innovative. One of my favourite examples of this in recent years is Sophie Payten (aka Gordi). Since releasing her debut Reservoir in 2017, she has become one of the most recognisable voices in folktronica circles. Her unflinching persistence and experimentation in this continually evolving genre is documented in a collection of songs on her ARIA award nominated album Our Two Skins. Interestingly, her willingness to experiment doesn’t overshadow her personal and world-weary approach to songwriting. In fact, both words and music on the new album compliment each other to great effect. In a press release Payten said: “Our Two Skins chronicles the intense and impossible time (she) spent renegotiating who she is and how she fits in the world.” Moreover the album seems to document a cauldron of emotional baggage that has surfaced or crept into Payten’s life in recent years. From Radiator, a song about releasing the pressure valve on love to Volcanic, which details what it’s like to suffer an an anxiety attack, Our Two Skins is strangely a positive listening experience.
3. Taylor Swift – ‘Folklore’ (Republic)
For years I’ve tried to ignore Swift’s insatiable hold on the charts but then came two of the most inspiring lockdown records of the year that saw Taylor Swift release Folklore and Evermore. While Evermore is excellent in its own right, it is Folklore that first stole the show this year with Swift surprisingly returning to her roots to record a toned-down folk-inspired album. In short, Swift said yeah guys I’m feeling a little nostalgic, how about I give you something from the heart. Like its sister release (Evermore), Folklore is full of unexpected moments and some of Swift’s best storytelling in years. In short, I much prefer this Taylor Swift than the pop goddess she become during the last decade. If she’s proved anything to me, it is that she’s not dead after all. I honestly wouldn’t mind if she stuck around for a little while longer.
2. Alexandra Savior – ‘The Archer’ (30th Century Records)
I’ve had to go back all the way to the start of this year to single out one of the most played albums on my stereo this year. The album I am alluding to is called The Archer by Portland-based Alexandra Savior. It made this year’s top ten lists at number two primarily due to its dreamy lyrics and haunting atmospheric moments that looked back at the turmoil of her life in recent years. Earlier this year I said that it was like a cinema soundtrack that seamlessly ebbs between dream pop, desert rock and psychedelic rock, as Savior’s hypnotic vocals and gut wrenching lyrics help it to play out like a tragic Hollywood noir story. I still feel almost a year on from its release that it is an incredible album. It’s probably the most underrated indie release on this list. Moreover this was an album produced by a young woman on a mission to take control of her own creative process, especially after being terribly taken advantage of by manipulative forces in the music industry. On a final note, the comparisons between Lana Del Rey are easily heard on Savior’s album but don’t be fooled she is no Lana Del Rey clone.
1. Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Punisher’ (Dead Oceans)
No other artist except maybe Alexandra Savior or Waxahatchee came close to making one of the best indie albums of 2020 than Phoebe Bridgers. That said, I want to go on the record by saying that I pretty much made up my mind about this album back in July or August when I said to a fellow colleague that I didn’t think it was as great as Bridger’s debut album Stranger in the Alps. Well, that in hindsight was a mistake because as the year continued to play out like a horror story I strangely found comfort in Bridger’s melancholic and artful folk rock masterpiece Punisher.
Whether it’s a coincidence or not Punisher picks up intuitively (even though it was written between the summer of 2018 and into the following year) on the everyday moments of life and human struggle that we all share at present, maybe even more so than at any other time during the 21st century. Moreover I guess in times like these (intermittently in and out of lockdowns) no one really wants to be alone and I think Bridgers is onto something in songs like Chinese Satellites that remind us of our yearning for connectivity. Her dark sense of humour also doesn’t go unnoticed as does her forte for songs about love and resentment. It’s worth noting back in November Punisher picked up four Grammy nominations for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song (Kyoto), Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist. I really hope Bridgers cleans up at the Grammys. She’s come a long way since her troubles with Ryan Adams to cement her indie chops.