The Year In Music 2020: Spencer’s Picks

By Spencer Davis. My wife likes to joke with her co-workers that the pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. That’s because working from home is pretty much my dream come true. That said, it has fundamentally transformed how I listen to music. In the past, my commute was my music space, and I could usually knock out a full album each way, giving me a lot of time to explore new music. I listened on earbuds, putting me in a sonic environment where (other than the occasional obnoxious train passenger) I could focus on the music and nothing else.

Now, all of that has basically reversed. I listen to music while I work and write in my home office or on my couch. Headphones have been exchanged for stereo speakers, where I fear I miss out on some of the more intricate production details—but rather than being immersed in a sonic space of artificial separation, the music and the outside world now blend together in ways that can make the music feel more natural.

And while I certainly listen to a lot of new music, I am no longer restrained by the built-in time limits of my commute—and I find myself using the freedom afforded by this almost limitless amount of listening time to do “deep dives “into the catalogues of a lot of older artists I’ve previously failed to fully explore. So while the albums below represent the highlights of 2020’s new music, the music I will most remember from 2020 came from the likes of John Prine, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Pet Shop Boys, The Replacements, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Depeche Mode, The Clash, Elton John, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nat King Cole, Heatmiser, Rush, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and R.E.M.

Which seems fitting—in a year that otherwise felt like it was somehow forcibly plucked out of the ordinary timestream, maybe the soundtrack needed to feel timeless.

1. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions
2. Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman
3. Nation Of Language – Introduction, Please
4. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
5. The 1975 – Notes On A Conditional Form
6. Fleet Foxes – Shore
7. Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
8. HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III
9. Melody Gardot – Sunset In The Blue
10. Doves – The Universal Want

In all the years I’ve been making these lists, I don’t think I’ve seen a closer race between my top three. You could really put any of them at #1 and not go wrong—but I’m giving the edge to Jason Isbell for two reasons: he brought guitar solos back (and there are some fucking sweet ones on this album), and he managed to write lyrics that got the attention of even a notorious non-lyrics guy like me. Just incredibly smart song-writing.

Even before the pandemic, Bonny Light Horseman was essential listening, and in those later days of stifling breakdown, it was a much-needed sonic callback to simpler times. As for Nation Of Language, the only negative thing I can say about this band is that if their vocal stylings were going to ape The National this distinctly, the least they could’ve done was come up with a name that didn’t include the word “nation.” Instrumentally and production-wise, though, it’s probably my favorite listen of the year.

Phoebe Bridgers is turning into the voice of a generation, and it’s nice to see she’s got a sense of humor about it too. Just a really interesting, likeable person who writes devastating songs.

Really love The 1975’s new one far more than the pretentious pile of garbage they gave us last time. Not that this isn’t pretentious as hell, too, but getting rid of all the autotune does so much to let their music shine. They’ll never be anything close to a Radiohead, but I love that they have the audacity to even try.

I’ve typically had only a fleeting interest in Fleet Foxes, but the new one is simply gorgeous—like autumn turned into sound. Still digesting the new Chris Stapleton, but he’s an artist who surprises me with his ability to continue to surprise me. HAIM is reliable as ever and, to my ear, is actually starting to mature; I’m going to love hearing what they do next. Melody Gardot sounds more lush and elegant than ever before—another album where the production takes it from B into A territory.

And I was really pleasantly surprised, after all this time, to find that Doves can still deliver. Seems like most bands who have been away that long come back and sound like empty shells going through the motions. (Ahem, Travis. Ahem, ahem, Smashing Pumpkins). This one isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s highly listenable and taps into some of their familiar sounds without sounding like a tired rehash.

Honorable Mention:
Blake Mills – Mutable Set
Chad Lawson – You Finally Knew
EOB – Earth
John Craigie – Asterisk The Universe
John Moreland – LP5
J.S. Ondara – Folk n’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales Of Isolation
Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
Owen – The Avalanche
Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela – Rejoice
Thomas Bartlett – Shelter
Westerman – Your Hero Is Not Dead
Zachary Cale – False Spring

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