Ten musicians who helped us pass the time in an interminable year
It seems contradictory to even place those two words within earshot of each other: “Best” and “2020.” The fight for racial justice hit a painful cultural flashpoint, we sweated out presidential election results for ̶d̶a̶y̶s̶,̶ ̶w̶e̶e̶k̶s̶,̶ months, and the entire planet holed up during a pandemic. Toilet paper became woeful currency. So much of 2020 felt like looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves at our disheveled worst — work from home hair, mask breath, or the hollow-eyed expression of a 3rd-grade substitute teacher drafted into emergency service. But music, as it always does, made things a little better.
In a thin year when most artists paused to seek shelter from the storm, there was a distinct silver living; music demographics were incredibly diverse. Blake Mills (the only artist on this list who fits indie music’s traditional profile: young, white, straight, and male) was more notable for contributions he made to his peers than his own album. Fittingly, the most authentic music came from artists who have been historically marginalized — women, racial minorities, LGBTQ, and the aged. In the most desolate of growing seasons, the crops that flourish are those who have learned resiliency.
10–6 | 5–1
10. Blake Mills
As sought-after session guitarist and ace producer, 34-year old Blake Mills spent the 2010’s building street cred with some of the most notable (and hardest to please) musicians of 2020 — whether it was touring with Fiona Apple or laying down alchemic chords for Bob Dylan’s latest modern opus. His playing tone is enviable, his ear exquisite. Each album he’s touched, from Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color to Perfume Genius’ Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, pours out of the speakers like liquid gold.
Those magic fingerprints are all over his finespun, cerebral solo album Mutable Twin, but as the video for centerpiece “Vanishing Twin” reveals, their owner is nowhere to be found. The sounds seem to simply exist — the product of clattering blocks and dithered strings, rattling wood and vibrating steel. Mills’ only presence is a disembodied voice whose spidery wisps recall the spectre of Elliott Smith had it haunted the uncanny chambers of Radiohead’s Amnesiac: “The walls are thin/ I hear a pin drop.” “Vanishing Twin” is the latest longingly penned letter in Blake Mills’ ongoing love affair with sound.
The song’s slow rising spiral melody is immaculate and utilitarian, yet not devoid of sentiment. With the curve of each verse, instruments gently stack until a vacancy is inexorably filled; by song’s conclusion, fractal guitar peals and orchestral strings swell to a climax that feels corporeal. Pupils dilate, goose flesh stands at attention, and a warmth spreads within your chest cavity — until the noise evaporates into trembling silence. “Vanishing Twin” captures the aesthetic beauty inherent in physical objects and the graceful, tumbling sensation of impermanence. It’s a ghost in the machine whose ventricles pump warm crimson.
Blake Mills — “Vanishing Twin”
9. Yves Tumor
Heaven to a Tortured Mind
When groundbreaking Black artists like Yves Tumor explore rock music motifs, it’s often in service of other musical forms — for Prince that was R&B, for D’Angelo and the Vanguard soul, for Outkast rap. Heaven to a Tortured Mind echoes all of these voices and none of them. It is a kaleidoscopic amalgamation in service of Yves Tumor themselves — their art and artifice, their joy and torment; it is music without boundaries or subterfuge; it is experimental rock built not on dance rhythms and celebration, but from struggle.
“Gospel For a New Century” is furnace blast guitars, brass swagger, and cyclopean groove. “Kerosene!” sounds like a coming out party for non-binary Sean Bowie as stadium rock star — their Purple Rain moment from another dimension. Compared to the noise, grind, and tape loops of 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, Heaven to a Tortured Mind hits like mainstream pop. Yves Tumor is adept at the art of anchoring; they present sounds so extreme that gentler experiments, however alien, feel terrestrial by comparison.
All of this is to say that Heaven to a Tortured Mind is both unclassifiable and intuitively known. It reminds, not in its style but sentiment, that Rock was born of the Blues — the ancestral form of Black music in America. And what began as an expression of slavery’s suffering can be hijacked by any soul who has experienced their share of being done dirty by life’s discontent. Heaven to Tortured Mind speaks of agency of the individual and a right to resist characterization, escape bondage, and overturn abuse. It speaks of freedom.
Yves Tumor — “Kerosene!”
Have We Met
Listening to Destroyer’s Have We Met is like experiencing wordnesia — that disquieting sensation of looking at a word you’ve read a thousand times, but for some reason, on this day, it’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen. Not just misspelled, but utterly foreign, as if your brain had glitched and forgotten the shapes were actually letters that meant something when placed in order. Like the word “said.” Read it slowly, devoid of context. Said, said, said, said, said, said, said, said, said… You see? After a while, it just becomes weird.
Dan Bejar writes songs that sound this way; it’s your parents’ pop music abducted by apocalypse-heralding aliens. “Crimson Tide” and “University Hill” blossom in plumes of yacht rock grandeur—soft, silky, and synth-packed — with bucolic textures and deja-vu melodies that register on a cellular level. They are the misplaced memories of 1980, sunkissed, innocent, and insipid. But then Bejar sing-speaks something sinister, with that twisty, garotted delivery of his: “I was like the laziest river/ A vulture predisposed to eating off floors,” and the whole dream grins back at you with pearly rows of piranha teeth.
Between familiarity and surrealism exists the duality of nostalgia and terror. “Just look at the world around you” Bejar entices on “The Raven” before having second thoughts. “Actually, no, don’t look.” You’ll see a lavish city of dying embers, an alley haunted by the Boston Strangler, a clear vantage point to oblivion. Bejar cues up synthesizers and drops vintage Casio drum beats. A chorus unspools, and your amygdala goes on autopilot; you experience a momentary collapse of semantics and the not unpleasant feeling that you’re inhabiting a song, a place, an emotion for the very first time…again. Proceed with caution. Destroyer’s twelfth album imparts both an easing of the senses and a gorgeous sense of unease. Have we met, Bejar inquires? Yes. But not really. It’s weird.
Destroyer — “Crimson Tide”
Women in Music Part III
Women in Music pt. III sounded effortless and wasn’t. In that way, it reminded us of simple luxuries we had taken for granted; hanging with friends, Bumble dating binges, garment-shedding walks through downtown L.A. (so many walks!), and, most of all, carefree times. Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim widened their So-Cal soft rock lens into unchartered yet familiar territories, making their boldest album in the process. “Summer Girl” made love to Lou Reed. Dub-inflected “Another Try” flowed like poolside Bacardi Breezers. “I Know Alone” buzzed and bleeped with Aphex Twin pop futurism. “Hallelujah” was a reverent country hymn.
None of it felt like a stretch, just the best work of crack songwriters fed up with a condescending, male-driven industry that could barely keep up with them. “Every day I wake up and I make money for myself/ And though I share a bed with you/ You know that I don’t need your help” scoffed Danielle on “The Steps.” WIMP III indeed. When you can pen an R&B slow jam from “hey you up?” calls (“3AM”) as adeptly as a Laurel Canyon folk tune that drops the c-word on misogynistic critics (“Man From The Magazine”), you are a master of your craft.
Male rock stars have used driving cars as metaphor for getting laid since Chuck Berry, but Haim switched positions on “Gasoline,” the smartest, sexiest pop song of the year. “You needed ass, well, what wrong with that?” Danielle Haim purrs without apology “Go and kick off your boots in the passenger seat.” Empowerment means many things including never having to say you’re sorry for wanting to get some. Haim’s escapism offered sapiophiles what they sorely lacked — a Pacific theme for driving ‘round all summer with the top down. Masked up, of course.
HAIM — “Gasoline”
6. Pefume Genius
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Bodily movement and queer identity have always been vital organs in Perfume Genius songs (anthemic romp “Queen” oozed physicality), but rarely has Mike Hadreas’ amorous need felt so palpable and personally relatable. How to describe lead single “Describe”? It’s a beast of a shoegaze ballad, muscles rippling, intellect brooding — picture a one-night stand between Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. “No bells anymore/ Just my stomach rumbling” groans Hadreas, renouncing his Pavlovian urges over gurgling guitars. Now he’s just hungry for the fuck of it.
On fifth album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius does just that, immolating barriers between body and emotion. It benefits from sound smithy Blake Mills’ spatious production; the double-tracked vocals and chiming guitars on “Without You” radiate a fanciful, Lindsay Buckinghamesqe glow. “On the Floor” undulates like Cyndi Lauper’s freak flag planted firmly into the earthy funk of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” In a self-directed video, Hadreas rolls in the dirt, his lover’s embrace foresworn: “I cross out his name on the page.” Moments later he capitulates and is (literally) entangled with his other half: “I just want him in my arms.” Hadreas traverses those opposing poles of satiation and desire to reveal their magnetism is not so different after all.
Perfume Genius — “Describe”
10–6 | 5–1