Blake’s Beats // 20 Records That Got Me Through 2020

The best sounds from the worst year

Photo made with Topster

You’ve read enough about how shit 2020 has been.

Through the continued health crisis and all the vitriolic political theatre, music was always there at the end of the day to calm our anxiety-riddled minds. I struggle to think how the year might have played out differently, personally, if it weren’t for a truly spectacular year in music helping to ground my fears and soothe my worried psyche.

Below are the twenty records that most helped me get through this cartoonishly-catastrophic year. Long after the dastardly days of 2020 conclude, these records will remain a testament to music’s unique ability to heal, inspire, and move me forward. I hope they can do the same for you.

Sample these songs, support the artists through their websites or Bandcamp, and sink into the best sounds of the worst year in recent memory.

You damn well deserve it.

20. bdrmm // Bedroom

Photo by bdrmm

bdrmm’s debut album is modern-day, UK shoegaze for the nostalgic romantic. Bedroom recalls the same soaring, effects-laden, post-punk soundscapes elicited from tracks by bands like The Cult, Slowdive, and early-early U2. Both ascendant and inward, the ten songs that make up this record explore steadily-deepening worlds built upon the foundation of dreamy, elastic guitar work. Each subsequent song drills deeper into the human psyche, painting probing pictures through reverb-soaked brushstrokes, all while the wall of sound is erected ever higher. This debut record comes fully-formed, a brilliant sign of things to come from a band poised for contemporary shoegaze greatness.

Come for: Happy

Stay for: If….

19. Kid Cudi // Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

Photo by Kid Cudi

This one is, admittedly, a bit of a sentimental pick for me. Kid Cudi meant a whole lot to me at one point in my life. It’s the same origin story as every other white dude you know: right around the time Cudi dropped his first mixtapes and debut record, a close-knit circle of friends and I consumed copious amounts of cannabis together while listening to the Man on the Moon’s musings, instantly connecting with his stoner soliloquies that seemed to arrive at exactly the right time. Pretty soon, however, that circle of friends starting going their separate ways, an organic evolution for all. Likewise, I found my interest in, and connection to, Cudi’s music gradually dissipate the further it moved away from that introduction. Still, there’s something undeniably nostalgic, cathartic even, in hearing Cudi attempt to purge his soul and hum his problems away. If only it were that easy. Is this record as impactful as early Cudi? Of course not, but the feeling reminisces just enough for me to accept that when I look back at 2020 years from now, it’ll probably seem weird if I didn’t have an official Man On The Moon entry on this list.

Come for: She Knows This

Stay for: Lovin’ Me

18. Mk.gee // A Museum Of Contradiction

Photo by Mk.gee

There’s some debate as to whether A Museum Of Contradiction counts as an EP/mixtape or a proper LP. It should say something that even if this is “just” an EP, I want it on this list. However we want to classify it, this tightly-produced 2020 release is a moody, groovy evolution of Mk.gee’s dreamy, bedroom sound deserving of placement. Nine songs span a concise, yet sonically expansive, twenty-four minutes. Bouncy and at times baroque, Mk.gee’s compositions create their own little worlds through a mix of entrancing rhythms and subtly-heartbreaking harmonies. Don’t be surprised if this one haunts you a while.

Come for: Overtime — pt1

Stay for: Isn’t It So Convenient

17. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever // Sideways To New Italy

Photo by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Like the “swimming in my head, ringing in my heart” lyric Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever refrains on The Second Of The First, lead track off Sideways To New Italy, this Australian quintet’s second album seeks to inject good old fashioned guitar gymnastics straight to the vessels in ways that reminisce Mia Wallace’s jolt back to life. The greatly exaggerated reports of guitar rock’s death have little bearing on RBCF’s intentions. This record swells on the tides of a three-guitar onslaught, cutting melodically to matters of the heart with help from a book of coy, at times conversational, lyrics that soar alongside the instrumental theatrics. Always propulsive and optimistic, Sideways To New Italy is a surefire spirit-lifter.

Come for: She’s There

Stay for: Cars In Space

16. Against All Logic // 2017–2019

Photo by Against All Logic

Like so many others on this list, 2020 has been quite the year for artist Nicolas Jaar (owner of the Against All Logic moniker). After releasing 2017–2019 all the way back in February 2020, Jaar kept the pace with not one but two additional releases as Nicolas Jaar (released in May and July, respectively). All three records are excellent, but I keep coming back to this one. It was the first record of the year to make me begin, in earnest, my cataloging of the releases most important to me. Jaar’s earworm production, displaying stunning aptitude and control of the boards, seizes every fiber of your rhythmic being right from the jump. The nine tracks are just as sure to move you physically as they are emotionally; a record equal parts dancefloor bop and meditative, electronic reflection that always feels of a piece. Jump in and don’t look back.

Come for: Fantasy

Stay for: Penny

15. Dinner Party // Dinner Party

Photo by Dinner Party

While I’m not the biggest fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I consider Dinner Party to be a jazz-equivalent of The Avengers. No doubt one of the smoothest, funkiest supergroups ever to assemble, Dinner Party is made up of Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder. These are undeniable titans of the jazz and hip-hop worlds, and the band’s personal origin story tells all you need to know about their pursuits: “Dinner Party is years of friendship, shows, dinners, conversations, laughs and life experience, all converging into one moment. Dinner Party is a metaphor — a group, a project, a spirit, an imprint of time — and also the name of the album… Dinner Party is invite only, but it’s for everyone.” Marinate on that for a minute. Each track drips with the familiarity of friendship and musical history between the artists; their saxophones, pianos, guitars, drums, and production interplaying harmoniously like subsequent courses of a great meal. Savor this one, and be sure not to skip Dessert.

Come for: First Responders

Stay for: Freeze Tag

14. Kevin Morby // Sundowner

Photo by Kevin Morby

Kevin Morby is quoted as saying of Sundowner, “It was my goal to capture the vast openness of the middle American landscape sonically.” Mission accomplished. No matter where you find yourself listening to this record, it won’t be long till you’re feeling the warm evening breeze of a Midwestern plain as you tap your toe to Morby’s campfire confessions. The absence of sound is just as important as its presence here, with songs cozying up to their mellow melodies amidst moments of steady build-up and silent reflection aided by nothing but a crackling fire or windchimes dancing on open Texas air. Morby’s wandering, wondering writing style is backed by crisp, yet jangled, guitar licks, and drums that patter and rumble like a rolling storm in the sky above. Sundowner is one of the most transportive albums of the year.

Come for: Campfire

Stay for: Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun

13. Thundercat // It Is What It Is

Photo by Thundercat

Thundercat’s fourth album is a jazzy jaunt through space, time, and grief. With that trademark lava lamp bass and his most introspective lyrics to date, Thundercat’s 2020 release, It Is What Is Is, strengthens his reputation as a consistently unpredictable artist. Dedicated to the late Mac Miller, a close friend of Thundercat’s, several songs fixate on subjects of loss and one’s inability to affect the world around them. Juxtaposing the gloom are various tracks painting the world in a humorous, vivacious light that brightens the darkness and rejects the existential dread at so many of our cores. It Is What It Is chooses to make sense of the incomprehensible through the truth of music and love in spite of the universe’s indifference. The answers don’t always reveal themselves on this cosmic journey, but Thundercat knows that only through the quest can true knowledge be obtained.

Come for: Dragonball Durag

Stay for: Fair Chance

12. Kllo // Maybe We Could

Photo by Kllo

Kllo is made up of Chloe Kaul on vocals/keyboards and Simon Lam on production. Cousins from Melbourne, Australia, the duo’s individual styles meld together in the way only true family can. Kaul’s silky, smoky voice glides instinctively over Lam’s intricate production with such grace. As much R&B as it is UK garage or electro-pop, Maybe We Could bounces from mood to mood, keeping you bouncing in step all the while. Lam’s musical education was based in the jazz drumming tradition before he brought his rhythmic sensibilities to the realm of electronic music, and that background lends itself perfectly to the shifting styles present throughout Maybe We Could. The synthesis of Lam’s tight grooves and Kaul’s versatile voice is so crisp and effective on this record. You best be ready to dance before putting it on.

Come for: Maybe We Could

Stay for: A Mirror

11. Ela Minus // acts of rebellion

Photo by Ela Minus

acts of rebellion turned out to be a perfect soundtrack to the shitshow that was 2020. Recorded in the isolation (solitude?) of Ela Minus’s Brooklyn apartment, this Columbian-born musician’s debut record meditates on themes of resistance, persistence, and screwed-up sleep schedules across ten moody rebel songs that defiantly dance amid the darkness. Whether your frustrations lie in political climates, the denial of basic human rights, or the stupidity of those prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic, acts of rebellion offers electronic respite from the world outside. And it might even inspire you to get out in the world to do something about it.

Come for: they told us it was hard, but they were wrong

Stay for: dominique

10. Phoebe Bridgers // Punisher

Photo by Phoebe Bridgers

No two ways about it, Punisher will be on any year-end records list worth reading. And it fucking should be; few people had a better 2020 than Phoebe Bridgers, even if that bar was considerably lower than usual. It’s hard not to love Phoebe. She captures the best of what capital-I Indie music can offer: reaffirmation that the weird, little life you lead should be seen, celebrated, and ruminated over. Phoebe relishes in her world, making hyper-specific observations about her own life that somehow sting with nostalgic familiarity. There’s a lot of darkness here, a lot of sorting through emotional baggage to reveal the best path forward, but doom and gloom have never sounded so reassuringly resplendent. The last two decades of indie have taught us just how powerful conversational lyrics beneath horn-swells and cresting choruses can be. By way of just her second record (!), Phoebe captures the very essence of indie music, creating a new, modern masterpiece sure to inspire the generations that follow.

Come for: Kyoto

Stay for: I Know The End

9. Jay Electronica // A Written Testimony

Photo by Jay Electronica

A lifetime in the making, Jay Electronica’s full-length debut, A Written Testimony, arrives with fully-formed purpose. Sophisticated production, deeply-observant lyricism, and a palpable sense of urgency comprise this masterclass in rap with a broader perspective. Electronica frolics on beats influenced by various countries, dialects, and languages, distilling the rapper/producer’s Islamic affiliations through sounds of the globe. Purportedly recorded over forty days and forty nights, Jay (Electronica) employs the talents of his fellow Jay (-Z) across the majority of A Written Testimony’s ten tracks. Hov delivers his best lyrical performances since Watch The Throne, rising to the historic moment for Electronica and his worldly meditations on religion, politics, and the lives we lead. There’s truth to be found in this record, no matter the path you walked to arrive at its doorstep.

Come for: Shiny Suit Theory

Stay for: Ezekiel’s Wheel

8. George Clanton & Nick Hexum // George Clanton & Nick Hexum

Photo by George Clanton & Nick Hexum

If ever there were an album to radiate through 2020’s suffocating smog, it would be this one: George Clanton and Nick Hexum’s unexpected team-up record released, quite thankfully, in the summer that never was. The ten hazy, shimmering bops on this self-titled record call back to the sunny, smoke-filled summers of yesteryear: Clanton’s legendary vaporware production the proverbial chocolate to Nick Hexum’s laid-back, peanut butter vocals. It’s a flavor combination we didn’t know we needed, and one we should appreciate while it’s here, when we need it most.

Come for: Aurora Summer

Stay for: Time of Wandering

7. Tame Impala // The Slow Rush

Photo by Tame Impala

Kevin Parker (Tame Impala’s central force, in case you weren’t aware) has the incredible knack of searching more and more introspectively as his profile expands outward. With 2015’s Currents, Tame Impala turned its fuzz-pysch-indie-rock explorations into electronic-focused contemplations, gaining a whole lot of new fans while pissing off his early fans in the process. A tale as old as time. The InnerSpeaker and Lonerism truthers still haven’t forgiven Parker for trading in his guitars for turntables. Fuck those people. The true impala was untamed long ago; The Slow Rush will play dance clubs and indie nights alike long past the days colored by a pandemic. With a near-Machivelian level of control, Parker’s crafted an emotionally-honest account of an existence larger-than-life still tethered by the humble, driving truths of rhythm. Few have a better grasp on the possibilities achievable at a drumkit than Kevin Parker, and the manifestations of that truth support this record front to back. What more can you say about a creative force that seems near-bulletproof? The Slow Rush is another all-timer from Tame Impala, no matter your sonic leanings.

Come for: Breathe Deeper

Stay for: One More Hour

6. TOPS // I Feel Alive

Photo by TOPS

I Feel Alive stands as one of the most important records for me this year; an album that served to reinvigorate my sunny disposition as the clouds of 2020 gathered above me. TOPS succeeds in brightening skies through their unique brand of nostalgic dream-pop that recollects the best of what Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and soft/yacht rock can do: create glimmering, golden odes to a life of love, lust, and luxury. “The album is about being out in the world as a free agent,” said lead singer Jane Penny of the band’s fourth full-length release, “but it’s also about human relationships; about falling in love in a deep way.” The record follows an intentionally-designed narrative that rises and falls across three acts: think The Hero’s Journey had Joseph Campbell written his thesis with aid from a few rails and a bubbling bottle or two. Penny’s sultry vocals (and incredible flute work) tell the tale of youthful jubilance turned knowing trepidation; airy guitars, textured keyboards, and roomy drums co-write the underlying narrative. Listen to this one if you need to remind yourself why you’re here.

Come for: I Feel Alive

Stay for: Colder & Closer

5. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist // Alfredo

Photo by Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist

Goddamn, I love Alfredo: the proverbial love letter to good rap co-written by rapper Freddie Gibbs and producer The Alchemist. This is my favorite rap record both of the year and of recent memory. From start to finish, Alfredo ebbs and flows as one singular statement told through painterly, cinematic production and some of the hardest bars of the year. The Alchemist weaves in dreamy audio clips from film and television, complimenting his smooth soul samples while underlining Freddie’s rap clinic to intoxicating effect. Freddie typically raps about the same few things (cocaine, sex, rap itself), yet, like a great crime writer or his contemporary Pusha T, Gibbs finds new, acrobatic methods of reconceptualizing similar themes in a way that wows you as if they were brand new. Package in top-tier features from the likes of Rick Ross, Benny the Butcher, and Tyler, The Creator, and you have all the makings of a rap classic that gets better the longer you let it swirl around your mind.

Come for: God Is Perfect

Stay for: Something to Rap About

4. Dehd // Flower Of Devotion

Photo by Dehd

Dehd is a three-piece from Chicago. The singer/bassist (Emily Kempf) and lead guitarist (Jason Balla) used to date, but they don’t anymore, and Flower of Celebration celebrates those truths. The narrative of past lovers continuing their musical relationship will likely always follow Dehd, as Kempf and Balla’s romantic history, supported by the steady, objective drums of Eric McGrady, is central to the band’s harmonic intimacy. It’s not hard to hear. Balla’s harmonizations, by way of his guitar and backing vocals, undertone Kempf’s brassy, playful delivery in a staggeringly complementary way. Every song presents itself without reservation, broadcasting emotional interplay between voices that seem made for each other. The album straight up slaps throughout, featuring a mesmerizing blend of soulful harmonies and irrefutable rhythm. There’s no denying the chemistry here.

Come for: Loner

Stay for: Letter

3. The Avalanches // We Will Always Love You

Photo by The Avalanches

Albums like these are why you don’t put out your year-end lists in the first week of December. To call We Will Always Love You, released December 11, 2020, a magnum opus almost seems reductive. Every release from The Avalanches (of which there have now only been three in twenty years) can objectively be described as a landmark event for the real indie/electronic heads. You can read up on the collective’s mythology on your own time, just know that this record arrives following significant anticipation and somehow lives up to the hype. We Will Always Love You is a hauntingly beautiful trip through the hopes, dreams, and desires of not just us, here and now, but of all those that have come before (to say nothing of those on the extensive guest list). It’s a philosophically weighty record, described by its creators as exploring “the vibrational relationship between light, sound, and spirit,” that effervescently bubbles along as one, overwhelming celebration of life. WWALY reaches out to the recesses of space while simultaneously spelunking through caverns of the heart. There’s really nothing I can write here that can communicate the vision and intention of this record better than the music can. It’s good good.

Come for: We Will Always Love You

Stay for: Born to Lose

2. Porches // Ricky Music

Photo by Porches

Ricky Music is an intimate tour-de-force of passion and vulnerability, an album that moves Aaron Maine’s creative outlet, Porches, forward as he looks back longingly. At only twenty-five minutes, the fourth full-length release from Porches covers so much emotional and musical terrain in such little time. Songs come and go at a moment’s notice (only one song exceeds three minutes), penetrating your soul before catching the wind, leaving you breathless. Right when you think you’ve regained your barrings following the cathartic barrage, the album ends. Naturally, you find your mind wandering back to that headspace again and again; chasing that high, looking back longingly. Porches is one of my favorite artists of the past five years, and this album is his best to date. Take a drive or a walk, light one up, and give Ricky Music a spin. See where it takes you.

Come for: I Wanna Ride

Stay for: rangerover

1. Yves Tumor // Heaven To A Tortured Mind

Photo by Yves Tumor

Heaven To A Tortured Mind is my favorite record of 2020. Yves Tumor as an artist is known for their unique blend of abrasive experimentation, industrial electronica, and gritty R&B sensibilities. On Tumor’s fourth record, the rough edges are ground down ever so slightly, polished just enough to reveal a lascivious, maximalist masterpiece laden with krautrock and psychedelic soul influence. The rhythm section alone is worth the price of admission to this carnival of carnality: each song propelled forward by deep bass and some of the best drum work of the year. Atop all this pelvically-charged propulsion lies Yves Tumor’s naked, transgressive tale of love lost and lust found. Calling on jagged guitar licks and a crooning cavalcade of female vocalists, Tumor’s raspy, meditative vocals sensually dance with their partners, drudging through the hypnotic, hellish sludge with anarchistic aplomb. Heaven To A Tortured Mind will light your fire even in the coldest of winters. I can’t help but keep coming back for a little more of its heat.

Come for: Gospel For A New Century

Stay for: A Greater Love

Like what you’ve heard?

Continue your musical exploration of the year 2020 with these playlists:

100 Songs That Made 2020 Less Shit (Part 1)

100 Songs That Made 2020 Less Shit (Part 2)

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Blake Matson Becker

Blake Matson Becker

Asheville-based writer following the feel and chasing down wonder.