This mix will likely change in a few months as Nancy locks down her favorites and steals away with several of the best cuts, but for now, for the first time in several years, you get McQ's uncensored Best Of the Best as originally intended.
Coming in at precisely three hours, top 2020 efforts in just about every major genre are represented here; metal, hip-hop, garage, punk, post-punk, brit-pop, indie, country, classic rock, neo-soul, contemporary-pop, folk, and - because they were the strongest performing genres this year - a whole bunch of disco and singer-songwriter recordings.
So here's hoping you all find something new to love, courtesy of a rising pool of gifted artists who helped make a difficult year a little bit more bearable.
About The Albums, Artists, and Songs:
1. Help Me - Low Cut Connie: Kicking off our celebration of 2020's best music, a simple, pitch perfect, blue-eyed soul number (that also couldn't feel more pitch perfect for the year we all just endured) from Philly bar-band vets Low Cut Connie's sprawling, adventurous, and at times thrilling Private Lives (Solid Recommend).
2. Don't Start Now - Dua Lipa: While so far down the list of tragedies the world has endured in 2020-21 as to be rendered almost negligible, I still can't shake the thought of what a crime it is that this era's young twenty-somethings were denied the club experience in what was easily the best year in disco/dance music in over a decade (or at least since Robyn dropped Body Talk in 2010). And leading that diva resurgence was Brit Dua Lipa's unstoppable, irresistible second album Future Nostalgia (Highest Recommend), a dance-floor hookup album for the ages.
3. Joys Too Often Hollow - Daniel Romano's Outfit: That this simple, elegant Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers-styled country-rocker from DIY Canadian indie veteran Daniel Romano may be (at least to my ears) the most note-for-note perfect song of 2020 is in itself an accomplishment. But when one considers that the song was just one of eleven high quality songs from his delightful 2020 album How Ill They World Is Ordered (Solid Recommend), and that that album was just one of nine full-length efforts Romano released in 2020, producing this kind of dialed-in magic amid all that prolific output is extraordinary. Talk about making the most of pandemic down time.
4. Fearless - SAULT: Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters was my clear choice for 2020's album of the year (as it was for most critics, running away with the aggregate polls). But if there is one artist that defined 2020, for me, it was anonymous British production collective SAULT. The ultra-prolific studio-wonks had already gained critical traction in recent years with their many, simultaneously retro/cutting-edge soul groove releases, but the outfit completely outdid themselves in 2020 with a pair of politically charged/stylistically off-the-charts daring albums both released in direct response to the George Floyd killing. And while neither album fully hits the mark (the group sometimes undone by the scale of their ambition and the complex stew of hip hop, trip hop, plunderphonic, neo-soul and contemporary pop influences they are trying to corral), the high points on each album are riveting. We'll hear one track from each album on this mix, starting with Fearless, my favorite cut from their second 2020 release, the slightly more upbeat, future-focused Untitled (Rise) (Solid Recommend).
5. St. Marie Under Canon - Cornershop: Chock full of overstuffed arrangements and winning melodies, all spiriting a joyous musical attack that nonetheless packs a sharp lyrical bite, Cornershop's England Is A Garden (Solid Recommend) was my favorite Brit-pop album of 2020 and the multi-ethnic London outfit's best album in a long, long time. If classic rock with a Beatle-esque or Madchester sheen is your cup of tea, this is the first 2020 album I would recommend.
6. Cut Me - Moses Sumney: Along with the SAULT releases, Moses Sumney's sprawling double album Grae (Solid Recommend) might be the most artistically ambitious record of 2020. Focused on the concept of the personality multitudes lying within each individual, the album's ambition, again like on the SAULT efforts, sometimes exceeds its grasp (I still prefer his more narrowly focused but more consistent debut Aromanticism), but it is also another album with spectacular highlights. I was torn between my personal favorite, the overpowering, Radiohead-like Bless Me, and the much lighter, more Prince-like funk of Cut Me for representative track, but ultimately decided Cut Me was more uniquely indicative of the adventurous new directions of Grae.
7. Try Again - Andy Shauf: One of 2020's most charming indie releases, most of Canadian Andy Shauf's narratively driven The Neon Skyline (Solid Recommend) takes place in a single night, when the narrator agrees to join a group of close friends out for drinks at the local watering hole for which the record is named, only to learn upon arrival that his ex-girlfriend has returned to town and will soon be joining them. The delightful Try Again captures those awkward early moments of reconnection just after the ex arrives.
8. False Prophet - Bob Dylan: No mix representing 2020's best albums would be complete without a tip of the hat to Bob Dylan's wonderful late, late, late career effort Rough and Rowdy Ways (Highest Recommend). As calm and reflective and memory-soaked as anything in Dylan's canon, it's far from his best on an instrumental level, but the album gains tremendous emotional power on its back half as Dylan takes stock of his life in long, gorgeously ruminative numbers like Mother Of Muses, Key West, and the critically praised-to-death (pun intended) seventeen-minute, Kennedy-assassination-anchored Murder Most Foul. That said, to keep things moving on this mix, I felt it best to represent the record with its liveliest number, the grizzled blues workout False Prophet.
9. Simmer - Hayley Williams: My musical preferences are really showing here with the inclusion of this slow-burning opener from Paramore front woman Hayley William's solo-debut Petals For Armor, as it hits a particular type of synth rock groove I've featured variations of many times over the years (Neneh Cherry's Blank Project, School of Seven Bells Ablaze, Matthew Dear's Earthforms). But hey, you can never have too much of a good thing, right? Especially when it's executed as crisply and charismatically as it is by Williams here.
10. Deep In Love - Bonny Light Horseman: Easily my favorite folk album of 2020, the immaculately produced, eponymous debut for Bonny Light Horseman (Strong Recommend), comes to us from the supergroup indie-folk trio of Hadestown-creator/Tony-winner Anais Mitchell, The Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson, and Hiss Golden Messenger collaborator Josh Kaufman. Equal parts originals and age-old folk classics, the delicate instrumental arrangements are often breathtaking, as with the gorgeously interwoven strummed and finger-picked progressions that form the bedrock of favorite track Deep In Love here.
11. Error - Deftones: My favorite song from the Sacramento-based alt-metal legends excellent Ohms (Solid Recommend), an album many of my friends with harder-rocking tastes passionately insist was the best album of 2020, and really brought the band's decades-long obsession with quiet/loud dynamics to a brilliantly fluid and seamless conclusion. Even if your not a metal fan, in its clever annexation of shoegaze/dream pop tactics without sacrificing its overall metallic verve, this is one heavy, heavy album that should generate a lot of crossover appeal.
12. The Steps - Haim: For their third studio release, Women In Music, Pt. III (STRONG RECOMMEND), the sisters Haim turned inward lyrically, reflecting on troubled relationships with lovers, record labels, fans, and insensitive reporters (Este's Man From The Magazine is a standout), and outward musically, bringing in Vampire Weekend ex Rostam as primary producer to broaden their sound. The end result, while less sunny and uptempo than previous efforts, is without question their best album to date, loaded with a diverse array of strong, Laurel Canyon-accented numbers. Going with The Steps as representative cut, but it could just as easily have been I'm Not Down, Now I'm In It, FUBT, Don't Wanna or any number of the fine songs included amongst its fifteen tracks.
13. Clean Kill - Coriky: Loved this jittery lead single for the promising eponymous debut of Coriky (Solid Recommend), a new collaborative effort anchored around the indie/punk talents of Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye, his wife and Evens lead singer Amy Farina, and Fugazi/Messthetics bassist Joe Lally. Stripped down, more angular and for the most part less aggressive than the output from their associated bands, I enjoyed the entire debut's quirky, minimalist vibe, and if you like Clean Kill, I think you will, too.
14. Kyoto - Phoebe Bridgers: Harkening back to some of the most exciting mid-aughts work of Sufjan Stevens and Bright Eyes, my favorite cut from LA-singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers' critical juggernaut Punisher (Solid Recommend here, but #2 in the year-end critical aggregates) warps a recurrent feeling of personal disassociation Bridgers experienced while touring Japan into a surging, richly arranged crescendo of ambiguous emotions. And while much of the remainder of the Punisher operates at Bridgers' more common delicate/acoustic level, the album is without question one of 2020's must hears.
15. Cue Synthesizer - Destroyer: I wasn't as high on Dan Bejar's latest effort as Destroyer Have We Met (Mild Recommend) as I have been on many of his previous releases, finding his bored, late-night shtick pushed so far this time that some of the music felt boring as well. But the album's best songs, the instrumental title track, opener Crimson Tide, and the very Bryan Ferry-ish Cue Synthesizer here, were still top-tier stuff.
16. Realize - AC/DC: From sophisticated new-wave anti-romanticism to a very different enduring 80s vibe. AC/DC, after experiencing numerous setbacks and departures over that last half-decade that would have easily destroy less-committed bands (including the death of founding rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young), finally reunited the remaining Back In Black crew for what is likely to be die-hard fans favorite offering from the band in 20 years, 2020's Power Up (Solid Recommend). We're going with Realize as representative track here, but really, any of the album's twelve three-minute shredders would do.
17. My Own Soul's Warning - The Killers: We'll be featuring a song from Bruce's latest later, but make no mistake, the most exciting Springsteen/E Street Band-styled song of 2020, My Own Soul's Warning, came not out of New Jersey, but Las Vegas, from native son Brandon Flowers and the Killer's latest full-length Imploding The Mirage.
18. What's Your Pleasure? - Jessie Ware: One of 2020's very best (even though parts of it have been recorded and released piece meal over the last several years), Jessie Ware's What's Your Pleasure? the album (Highest Recommend) is arthouse disco at its most sophisticated. As an artist, Ware is often compared to Sade, and the comparison is apt, but it's the sly splashes of old-school Bowie, Roxy Music and Radiohead textures dripped throughout mix that make What's Your Pleasure every bit as well suited to a solitary headphone listen as it is to the dance floor.
19. Alexandra - Laura Marling: After experimenting with faster tempos and more fleshed-out arrangements over her last few efforts, Brit indie-folk powerhouse Marling stripped things back down to her acoustic core on Song For Our Daughter (Strong Recommend), and the end result was all the better for it. The album, inspired by Maya Angelou's Letter To My Daughter, is intended as a confidant and confidence builder for the 30-year-old Marling's yet-to-be-conceived future daughter, and contains a number of excellent songs focused on promoting self-acceptance (Strange Girl), appreciation for those that have sacrificed on your behalf, including Marling's own mother (Fortune), and in the fine song featured here, Alexandra, following one's own heart no matter how strong the pull from others. A play on Leonard Cohen's song Alexandra Leaving, it ponders not the impact of Alexandra's departure on the individual left behind, as does Cohen's, but the mysterious sense of power inherent to a self-determined life.
20. STFU! - Rina Sawayama: A striking, in-demand model makes a career move into dance music and contemporary pop, and at first plays it conventionally, but before long unleashes the innate, freakiness that lies within her - it's hard not to speculate that Japanese Brit Rina Sawayama may emerge as this generation's Grace Jones. But whatever path her career ultimately takes, my favorite thing about her major studio debut SAWAYAMA (Solid Recommend), is how unlike any of her contemporary pop peers, Rina is perfectly okay with blending the hard edges of our most aggressive, jarring male-dominated genres like metal, punk, prog and emo into her dance-pop stylings, a tendency well displayed on hit STFU! here.
21. Jara - Fleet Foxes: Continuing the sharp structural experimentation of third album Crack-Up, but this time bathing the tricky dynamic shifts in the warmest of textures, Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes' fourth full-length release Shore (Solid Recommend) is imho their best album since their 2006 self-titled debut. Boasting a quartet of fantastic songs around which the remaining ever-evolving material is anchored, I could have easily gone with the role call of passed inspirations Sunblind, the multi-facated Maestranza, or the national-park-celebrating Going-To-The-Sun Road to represent, but in the end, I just couldn't get Meara O'Reilly's wondrous supporting vocals on this tribute to murdered Chilean protest-singer Victor Jara out of my head.
22. goonies vs. E.T. - Run The Jewels: If not 2020's best hip-hop album, then without question the year's most impassioned, El-P and Killer Mike were months away from dropping RTJ4 (Solid Recommend) when the George Floyd killing overtook America and the two decided musical perfection was not the need of the moment. Lyrics were changed, mixing and finishing was accelerated, artists and producers worked around the clock, and just ten days after Floyd's death, RTJ4 was in national release. Given the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that RTJ4 is not the act's finest effort musically - both RTJ2 and RTJ3 offer superior beats - but as a blunt instrument of political protest it hits with a force no other 2020 album can match. That said, I do find myself favoring music over message on our representative track here, championing my favorite beat and closing rap from the album on goonies vs E.T. as opposed to selecting one of RTJ4's more supercharged protest numbers like JU$T or Walking In The Snow.
23. Water & Wine - X: The mere fact that LA punk legend X released their first studio album in 27 years (and the first with their original lineup in 35), is cause for celebration. That many of Alphabetland's (Solid Recommend) songs were every bit as good as the best tracks on their highly influential early releases, like the playful Water & Wine here, is a huge bonus.
24. Lilacs - Waxahatchee: Moving away from the lo-fi Liz Phair spikiness of her earlier albums towards an increasingly cozy country-rock sound, Katie Crutchfield's (aka Waxahatchee's) St. Cloud (Solid Recommend) is her most consistent and melodically appealing album to date, though the constant whiff of instrumental genericism lurking in the arrangements prevents me from rating the album quite as highly as most critics did (it ended as the #7 album of 2020 in the year-end aggregates). That quibble aside, there's much to love about St. Cloud, starting with this magnificent soft rocker here.
25. Televised Mind - Fontaines D.C.: Steering away from the R.E.M.-ish and garage-punk-flavors of their brilliant 2019 debut Dogrel for a denser, almost shoegaze-oriented post-punk sound, Dubliners Fontaines D.C.'s second outing A Hero's Death (Mild Recommend) wasn't close to as successful overall, but it did significantly broaden the band's instrumental attack, and I did love its two best songs, the title track, and the monolithic drone-fest Televised Mind included here.
26 & 27. Wee Hours > Wildflowers - Rose City Band: Another of 2020's most relaxing listens, the latest alter-ego Rose City Band offering from psych-rock vet and Wooden Ships/Moon Duo lead vocalist/ guitarist Ripley Johnson Summerlong (Strong Recommend) serves up eight delightfully unassuming country-rock jams. Fans of Phish, The Grateful Dead or The War On Drugs will want to check this one out post-haste.
28. We Got Together - Roisin Murphy: The third masterful dance album of 2020 was almost a decade in the making. Irish art-pop queen Murphy's inspired love letter to the 12" disco single, Roisin Machine (Strong Recommend), like Jessie Ware's For Your Pleasure, was assembled bit by bit, collecting her various standalone electro-pop singles of the last decade (2012's Simulation, 2015's Jealousy, and 2019's fantastic Incapable) and surrounding them with a new batch of even more trance-like, badass gems. Amazingly cohesive given the fractured nature of how it was assembled, Roisin Machine often feels like a dangerous, cultish ritual of groove, with Murphy presiding over the whole affair like a pagan high-priestess of dance (as representative cut We Got Together here perfectly conveys). A touch overlong as club-oriented albums like this often are, but otherwise, great stuff.
29. circle the drain - Soccer Mommy: The second studio release from Nashville singer/songwriter Sophia Regina Allison (aka Soccer Mommy), color theory (Solid Recommend) is a thematically heavy, color-coded song-cycle evoking three states of emotional being (blue/sadness, yellow/physical & mental illness, gray/darkness) Allison witnessed and experienced while caring for her terminally ill mother. Going with the album's clear standout circle the drain here, but there are several other outstanding, thoughtful numbers to be found on color theory for those willing to take on the album's difficult themes.
30. Siberian Butterfly - Bob Mould: Bob Mould doesn't get enough credit for how damn solid he has been as a recording artist in his later years. I might even go so far as to say outside of Nick Cave, and maybe Dylan and Springsteen, no rock artist who first broke by 1980 has been more vital over the last ten years. Siberian Butterfly, from 2020's Blue Hearts (Solid Recommend) will appeal to any fan of Mould's early 90s days fronting his second band Sugar.
31. Helicopter - J Hus: One of 2020's most underrated records, British rapper J Hus's second release Big Conspiracy (Solid Recommend) is as relaxing a listen as one finds in contemporary hip hop. Lyrically topical but as chill as it gets, the album feels fully immersed in and furthers recent international production trends brought forward by the likes Nigerian Burma Boy and reggaeton stalwarts Bad Bunny and J Balvin. The 2020 poolside record for the rum-soaked hip hop fan.
32. John Cooper Clarke - Working Men's Club: The eponymous good-not-great debut from Yorkshire hipster synth-rockers Working Men's Club (Solid Recommend) won't make you forget the likes of Kasabian, !!!, or LCD Soundsystem, but it will definitely wet a dance-rock thirst that has been significantly underserved the last few years.
33. Bone Of Contention - Lucinda Williams: It is only fitting the the angriest album of Lucinda William's career Good Souls Better Angels (Solid Recommend) is her 13th release. With almost all her considerable vitriol aimed exclusively at one orange-hued public figure we've all come to love or hate, I'll leave it up to future generations to decide if this very direct sixty-minute screed of vicious, liberal echo-chamber name-calling represents a peak or valley in Lucinda's lyrical canon, but one thing is thrillingly certain, she's rarely rocked this hard before.
34. Kerosene! - Yves Tumor: An artist who seems to embrace a different genre each time out, after tackling noise and ambience in 2016's When Man Fails You and Prince-like R&B in 2018's Safe In The Hands Of Love, French experimentalist Tumor now takes on the persona of the rock-and-roll seducer in the trippily fluid, psychedelic (and on several occasions simply great) Heaven To A Tortured Mind (Strong Recommend). On Kerosene!, for my money a top ten song in 2020, he slow burns his way towards an ecstatic guitar solo and an amazing supporting vocal turn from collaborator Diana Gordon.
35. Seven - Taylor Swift: Forever onward to be known, as Pitchfork rightly pointed out, as Taylor Swift's "indie" album, I found Swift's Folklore (Strong Recommend), her remote collaboration with The National's guitarist/songwriter/producer Aaron Dessner, to even more be a natural (and superior) extension of The National's own experiment in collaboration with female artists, 2019's I Am Easy To Find. Bottomline, lifelong Swifties and inveterate yacht rockers alike will find an abundance of material to love in this very mellow and well-crafted surprise pandemic release. A half-dozen songs I could have gone with from this one, but in the end, I just felt Seven was the prettiest.
36. On The Floor - Perfume Genius: Having collaborated recently with choreographer Kate Wallich on a dance performance, and also a longtime sufferer of Chron's disease, Seattle's Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) set out to write a cycle of songs in which matters of the body, mind, and heart were treated as naturally interconnected rather than intellectually compartmentalized. The result, fifth album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (Solid Recommend) is one of his finest efforts yet, an eclectic collection of uniformly excellent songs and arguably the best produced album of 2020. Going with the accessible dance-oriented cut On The Floor as representative track, but no one song can come close to capturing the full breadth of sounds and styles in play on the album. Strangely though, it is that broad, confidant eclecticism that is also the album's one weakness, as the sequencing never quite settles into an effortlessly connected flow, and the only reason I'm not giving Set My Heart On Fire Immediately a Strong Recommend, because based solely on song strength, the album deserves it.
37. Please Don't Fuck Up My World - Sparks: A children's choir begging the adults of the world to deal with climate change now rather than leaving it for future generations to address. It's a concept so obvious we should have heard a tune like this a decade ago, but leave it to LA art-pop legends Sparks to come up with the song thousands should have written, but only they in their own inimitable style could. From their entertaining latest release A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip...(Solid Recommend). If it weren't for the swearing, it's hard to imagine this song not becoming Greta Thuneberg's defacto play-in anthem.
38. Went To LA - Frances Quinlan: One has to see Frances Quinlan live to understand how unique she is. Where most vocalists train lifetimes to develop the fierce, full-throated register she musters effortlessly, the Hop Along siren's natural vocal state is so frighteningly explosive, her process has clearly been the opposite: developing all manner of whispery, muted delivery tricks to protect her fans eardrums enough that they are able to return for future shows. On her first solo effort outside of Hop Along, Likewise (Mild Recommend), Quinlan seems intent on exploring what it would be like to apply that same tension of restraint as much to her instrumental arrangements as her voice, delivering, in this instance, one of my favorite ballads of 2020.
39. Mirian - Empty Country: Another artist to step out on his own for the first time, former Cymbals Eat Guitars' bandleader Joseph D'Agostino's first outing as Empty Country (Solid Recommend) shows his penchant for penning inscrutable but captivating alt-rock tunes hasn't diminished in the slightest.
40. Wildfires - SAULT: Run The Jewels RTJ4 may have given better voice to society's anger in the wake of the George Floyd killing, but no song better captured the black community's weary, aching resolve to forge on despite experiencing horror after horror than this weeping but resilient trip-hop number from Untitled (Black Is) (Solid Recommend).
41. Drumset - Fiona Apple: The one indisputable classic 2020 produced, they'll still be talking about Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Highest Recommend) decades from now, but at the same time, the album couldn't have felt more right right now. As free-spirited, unguarded and spontaneous as album's come, most of the music was recorded in Apple's own home, with walls, counters, deceased-pet sarcophagi and kitchen utensils often substituted for more traditional percussive elements, and many of the recording "mistakes" and the surrounding neighborhood's natural ambience left in (five individually credited barking dogs even make the liner notes). As is usually the case with Apple's work, men do not fare well in the lyrical attack, but more than her words, it's Apple's instinctive and imaginatively applied vocal overdubs that really launch this one-of-a-kind recording into the stratosphere. Several future classics on this one, the depression-themed Heavy Balloon, I Want You To Love Me, Shameika (oh how much one kind word can inspire), Under The Table, the Cavanuagh-hearing-referencing For Her, but going with personal fav Drumset to represent. A bit of a cheat as it's this fearless album's most accessible track, but the song is just so damn catchy.
42. If I Were A Priest - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Changing things up from his usual labored, exacting recording process, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's Letter for You (Solid Recommend) was recorded live in the studio in just five days. A far-better-than-average but not spectacular addition to Springsteen's 21st-century catalog, there's a part of me that still wishes he had hung it up Jim Brown-style after last year's fantastic orchestral walk into the sunset Western Stars, but the man is an unrepentant lifer, there are still plenty of fine songs here for devoted fans, and a bit of Boss-led uplift felt like just the right call for the tail end of this mix, hence fav track If I Were A Priest here.
43. Lilac - Porridge Radio: To close, we go with my vote for best song of 2020, which may seem an odd choice at first given how uncertainly this angsty-goth/post-punk anthem crawls out of the gate, but no lyric echoed in my head more as we passed through this tumultuous year than Lilac's closing refrain of "I don't want us to get bitter / I want us to get better / I want us to be kinder to ourselves and too each other," repeated ad nauseam over the song's spectacular final three minutes. The Brighton four-piece band's Secretly Canadian debut, Every Bad (Strong Recommend) is an at times merciless exercise in self-examination, but several of its songs are incendiary, led by phenomenal lead-vocalist Dana Margolin and her instinctive ability to craft unshakable catch phrases, that she then tags over and over with shifting nuance until the cup spills over with a depth of emotional meaning.