10: Trust – Ane Brun
Album: How Beauty Hold the Hand of Sorrow
Released: Nov 27, 20
Ane Brun’s stunning 2020 LP How Beauty Hold the Hand of Sorrow is perfused with heartbreaking lyrics, theatrical arrangements, and an endearing delicacy typical of her discography. The opening track, Last Breath sets the tone of human sorrow most vividly in the lines “I didn’t understand how beauty holds the hand of sorrow, how today can outshine tomorrow”. Numero cinco, Truth, continues the same enchanting tone of the rest of the album, but with as much monumental radiance as anything from the entire year of music. Brun’s vocal performance is truly a force that will hit you where it hurts most.
Truth is an exercise in patience; much of the track sounds suspended in slow-motion and Brun is perfectly happy to leave the instrumentals shimmering softly in the background when needed. This is an understandable choice given the painful lyrics of grief, time, and the passing of life. The opening line “I can see only bright fields behind you” is so perfectly in tune with the sentiments of the music and the message; it becomes, in fact, a little hard to listen to if one has endured a similar pang that accompanies loss. But here, in the atmospheric sunscape of sound and the wistful longing in the songwriting, death is not a binary state that follows life. It leaves a legacy before it passes: a note on the ground. Brun captures that most difficult of moments with the unmistakable imprint of someone who has experienced it. It is easy to forget how simple this song is because it truly doesn’t need to be anything more.
9: Sports! – Dream Wife
Album: So When You Gonna…
Released: Mar 10, 2020
London-based punk outfit Dream Wife produced one of the albums of the year on So When You Gonna… The LP itself has an eminently 80s new wave feel and in blending their 70s punk and 90s grunge influences, this criminally under discussed trio creates a sound that is both an ode to punk and a fresh take on what it can be. Sports! sublimely fulfills the role of the opener by seizing the listener’s ears and asserting the tone of both the group and the album. Incidentally, this is one of their strangest tracks to date, sung with sarcasm and executed with electronic exuberance. Its first words, before any instrumentation, are “Fuck sorry, fuck please, will you so kindly start again?” and they are said with as much confidence as any line of the year. It is an ironic call to stop apologising for the sake of yourself.
In the track’s continuous invocation of condescending tropes, “do you even play this sport?” “keep your eye on the ball when it’s in your court”, Sports! transports its message through the adrenaline of anti-inequality punk and ensures that nothing is watered down. The Clash did a similar thing on I’m So Bored With the USA, employing upbeat guitar riffs over lyrics of international corruption. On that tune, however, Joe Strummer snaps, saying “never mind the stars and stripes, let’s play the Watergate tapes”. Dream Wife commits to their juxtaposition by overloading the cliches: after all, responding to damaging notions of inequality by simply holding up a mirror can sometimes be as punk as it gets.
#8 You’re Too Precious – James Blake
Released: 24 Apr, 2020
In what was a fairly prolific year of music from James Blake, two tracks stood out as some of his best work: there was the wonderfully evocative feel away with slowthai and Mount Kimbie and the otherworldly You’re Too Precious. Elsewhere, his Godspeed cover is a lovely track from the artist but feels a little cloying when you’re not in the mood and the Before EP sounded a little closer to trimmings from his earlier work. Blake’s best of 2020, You’re Too Precious, is an utterly unusual track that heralds the originality which has led to his status as one of the best producers around. There is a strange structure to the music and it retains a flow that, at each switch-up, feels perfectly unexpected but entirely right.
The beginning of the song seems to communicate so much without really taking a clear form; I think the vocals are saying ‘so now’ but I can’t be sure and if I am right what the hell does that mean anyway, James? In any case, the extended loop is so unerringly pretty that it’s difficult to take your ears off it. The wait is certainly worth it, as the track shifts into wonderfully detailed and delicate phases; it almost feels like a whole EP condensed into one song. Blake said of the track that it is about “wanting to take a little off someone’s load and just loving that someone”. This comes through the lyrics most clearly—”I’d take the calls you don’t want to, I’d take the hair in your food”—but also in the gentle vocals, the ethereal production and, the simply gorgeous tones that saturate the music.
#7 The Boon – Wilma Archer, Samuel T. Herring
Album: A Western Circular
Released: 3 Apr, 2020
It begins like a fleeting interlude: everything is so indeterminate and soft that the eventual climaxes of the track feel as far away as they could possibly be. When Herring’s vocals arrive, they coincide with Wilma Archer’s stellar percussive production to instantly set a tone of longing. Something in Herring’s vocals lends itself to a desperate vulnerability that was very much apparent several years ago on a collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD (see: Time Moves Slow). The structure of the track is dictated by his voice, steadied by the percussion, and heightened by the idiosyncrasies of Archer’s technical capability: the wailing sax is bizarre, but feels, forgive me, so fucking right.
The songwriting on this track is truly transcendental: “The trace is long open, In the space of a sound, In the world spinning round, In the days finally found” I will let speak for itself. The song more generally is about being together when ‘the sun goes down’, whether that be from a drug-induced comedown as I believe is being hinted at here, or simply at the closing of a chapter. It is an aching lament that sounds as though it was recorded in the golden hour of the day, with its diaphanous tones and bittersweet invocations of something sweet dwindling.
#6 Reunion – Samantha Crain
Album: A Small Death
Released: 17 Jul, 2020
A Small Death arrived after Crain was involved in three car accidents in three months; she was left without the use of her hands for years. Crain sums up the pain in many ways on this album and elsewhere, but two of her descriptions really stayed with me: the first, in an interview with the BBC, reminding us that “Americans are in a car wreck and then spend the rest of their lives in debt”. If there exists a crutch for the incidental horror of the universe, it certainly isn’t the US healthcare system. The second was on this track Reunion, where she sings “Stone cold eyes like the rainy curbside. I was gonna be, be somebody. Bought the dress, brought the booze. I guess I’ll try to be, life of the party”. It seems to crystallise years of pain into just one image: of someone, outside a party in the rain, wondering if she ought to go in; if she’ll enjoy herself if she does and if the booze and the dress were worth buying.
The production on this track is so perfectly crisp and never once steps out of beat. The guitars do not chop, the drums do not thrash and the piano does not riff. Everything quietly moves in the same direction, entrusting Crain’s vocals and songwriting to make the song as interesting it is. Prior to the wonderful hook of the chorus, the instruments freeze before a brief “Yeah” from the singer. This is not a new trick, but it is evidence of a songwriter having endured so much enjoying herself and the music which conveys her liberation. In Crain’s own words, she “got this sort of bonus round, this extra chance to make another record, so it deserved extra attention.” The attention is clear and manifests through a remarkable sound.
#5 Wildfires – SAULT
Album: Untitled (Black Is)
Released: 19 Jun, 2020
SAULT arrived out of Britain shrouded in mystery. The fog most certainly hasn’t cleared from their identity, but with two albums in just several 2020 months, thirty five songs in the year, I am sure we can forgive their silence. Wildfires is an anthemic tour de force that seeks to expose every racist statement or act for what it is. The track spawned in June of 2020, a month that will be forever remembered as a toppling point in history—one that continually reverberates. The lyrics are appropriately direct and do not qualify themselves. Indeed, the candor of the songwriting that accompanies the drum claps is what first hits the ear.
In an online release, SAULT stated “We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused.” It is a message to anyone standing on the right side of history to not fall into apathy, let alone be tempted or seduced by the peddling of racist sentiments that seem to float about cyberspace. This essence is one of immense solidarity against everything that blockades anti-racism: every “I get what they’re saying…but” and so on, and so on.
#4 For Her – Fiona Apple
Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Released: 27 Apr, 2020
I’ll keep this one really brief. For Her is a song about sexual assault, inspired by conversations with someone Apple knew years ago. Though the song is a brutal cataclysm, the message is short: “I want primary colours. I don’t want any half measures” the author notes. This track is so much more than a ‘fuck you’, if it is that at all; it is the soundtrack to an indescribable moment of confusion and then, one hopes, clarity. For Her contains the most unsparing line of 2020 and I am certain you will know what it is.
#3 anything – Adrienne Lenker
Released: 23 Oct, 2020
Big Thief’s Adrienne Lenker has always employed some of the most instantly recognisable vocals in the indie rock pool but rarely have they sounded as soft as they do on anything. 2018’s abyskiss LP from Lenker was an extremely moving release that indicated a strong prospective solo career should the singer wish to flirt with this route; songs truly vindicates this in the most quietly assured way. The fact, which I could not help but think about when I listened to this song and this album, is that talent and genius are at their most convincing when they are silent, going about their way as if no one was watching. On anything Lenker whispers her poetic utterances as if they were routine thoughts.
In much the same way that Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks revealed its genius with the opening line “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dreams, would you find me?” Lenker displays her writing with the vivid intimacy of notebook jottings from someone existing both inside and outside of ordinary human experience. Take, for example, the line “staring down the barrel of the hot sun, shining with the sheen of a shotgun” and consider who else might have uncovered the sun in this way. The imagery is wonderful and requires only a few chords in the rhythm of a recently metamorphosed butterfly flapping freshly away to convince us of its aims. On this track, Lenker inserts herself into the cracks of human existence and brushes up against the very best of today’s songwriting.
#2 Held Down – Laura Marling
Album: Song For Our Daughter
Released: 10 Apr, 2020
If, remarkably, you aren’t tired of my voice as we close this list, you can read my review of Song For Our Daughter here: Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter ★★★★★ – The Beaver Online (thebeaverlse.co.uk).
Listening to Held Down elicits the same feeling as any of the all-time folk classics: Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You; Nick Drake’s Pink Moon; Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. One feels in the presence of an immensely observant songwriter who has reached an artistic tipping point. Song For Our Daughter is stunning in every sound it makes and Held Down is undoubtedly its own miniature peak. In short, this is the album and the song that Laura Marling’s discography has been leading to after over a decade of writing music.
The reviews, almost all positive, point to the immediacy of the song’s brilliance and it is difficult to deny: in the way the song moves and shifts gears, Marling presents nothing but the best of what storytelling and acoustic hooks can be. As a genre, folk is not designed for the intricate thrashings found elsewhere in rock music and at its most resonant, gently illuminates something common to the human spirit. Held Down is about someone loving and leaving; it is one of the finest heartbreak songs to have ever been written. The bittersweet tone is similar to Bob Dylan’s perfect Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and I think that’s where both songs succeed in propagating an emotion. Marling’s songwriting does not overpour but remains effortlessly succinct and wholly beautiful.
#1 Fade – Pepe., runforrest
Released: 25 Sep, 2020
Fade is the most astounding sound I have heard in years. Loosely, the song concerns a feeling of nostalgia during the long processes of death and grief: of the album, the artist writes, “Afterimages consists of 8 songs inspired by my Grandma. Torn by various memories, I decided to put them into sounds to reflect the emotions that accompanied me every time I’d spend time with her. It is also an attempt to tame the hidden anger, the melancholy and the sadness caused by the passing of a loved one.”
Where other producers might have opted to convey this sentiment with tender hands, Pepe., on Fade, welds the magnitude of his collaborator’s anguishing, tormented voice over choppy drums and mechanical breaks. The track maintains an unusual tempo which prompts it to loom impressively in the saturated plane of electronic music. The emotional palette of the production is not dissimilar to any of the greats: I hear a lot of Burial and Neil Davidge (producer of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album), but in the fast-moving landscape that is this beautiful tune, it is Pepe.’s own originality and structural strength that dominates.
The vocalist, runforrest, possesses a remarkable voice that belies his baby face: it is bruised and battered to the point of eminent grit. The harsh qualities of his vocals eventually simmer effortlessly into the falsetto of the chorus. This moment repeatedly provides an acute emotional stirring with its despairing lyrics and naked vulnerability.
The album itself is truly a feat of production from start to finish. It has managed to evade the mainstream publications, but one desperately hopes this magnificent talent gains a deserved traction. Fade was my favourite track of the year and I believe it fits in as the best. It is bizarre, difficult, but breathtaking.
THE 20 HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Living in a Ghost Town – The Rolling Stones
Most Modern Painting – Sinead O’Brien
Melt! – Kelly Lee Owens
Blue World – Mac Miller
Till the Wheels Fall Off – MuRli
Sleep on the Wing – Bibio
I Still Need Love – The Twilite Tone
Love and Hate in a Different Time – Gabriels
The Joy in Sarah’s Eyes – Douglas Dare
With News About Heaven – William Tyler
Blow Up – Aoife Nessa Frances
Mulher Homem Bicho – Ana Frango Eletrico
The Neverending Story – Jay Electronica
Investing – Novelist, MC Tigs
Whole New Mess – Angel Olsen
VINCENT TYLER – Nick Hakim
Night Moves – Thorne Miller, Guy Herman
Weed in LA – The Koreatown Oddity
Special Times & Places – AKSK, Adda Kaleh
Robber – The Weather Station