AF 2020 IN REVIEW: Our Favorite Albums & Singles of The Year

In a year that’s been like no other for the music industry, it feels a bit weird to make a best of 2020 list – there have been no tours, venues and clubs across the globe are in danger of closing their doors for good, release schedules were shuffled beyond recognition, and musicians have had to find other ways to make ends meet while those in the U.S. await the next round of paltry stimulus checks. With a situation so dire, the metrics have changed – should we ascribe arbitrary value to the skill of producers, songwriters, performers, and the execution of their finished projects, or simply celebrate records that made us feel like the whole world wasn’t crumbling?

Definitively ranking releases has never been the Audiofemme model for looking back on the year in music. Instead, our writers each share a short list of what moved them most, in the hopes that our readers will find something that moves them, too. Whether you spent the lockdown voraciously listening to more new music this year than ever before, or fell back on comforting favorites, or didn’t have the headspace to absorb the wealth of music inspired by the pandemic, the variety here emphasizes how truly essential music can be to our well-being. If you’re in the position to do so, support your favorite artists and venues by buying merch, and check out the National Independent Venue Association to stay updated on what’s happening with the Save Our Stages act. Here’s to a brighter 2021.

EDITOR LISTS

  • Marianne White (Executive Director)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders
      2) the Microphones – Microphones in 2020
      3) Soccer Mommy – Color Theory
      4) Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
      5) Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
      6) Amaarae – The Angel You Don’t Know
      7) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
      8) Adrianne Lenker – songs/instrumentals
      9) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
      10) Lomelda – Hannah
    • Top 5 Singles:
      1) Kinlaw – “Permissions”
      2) Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
      3) Little Dragon & Moses Sumney – “The Other Lover”
      4) Yves Tumor – “Kerosene!”
      5) Megan Thee Stallion – “Shots Fired”

  • Lindsey Rhoades (Editor-in-Chief)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Land of Talk – Indistinct Conversations
      2) Dehd – Flower of Devotion
      3) SAULT – Untitled (Black Is)/Untitled (Rise)
      4) Public Practice – Gentle Grip
      5) Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity
      6) Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
      7) Benny Yurco – You Are My Dreams
      8) Eve Owen – Don’t Let the Ink Dry
      9) Porridge Radio – Every Bad
      10) Jess Cornelius – Distance
    • Top 10 Singles:
      1) Little Hag – “Tetris”
      2) Elizabeth Moen – “Creature of Habit”
      3) Yo La Tengo – “Bleeding”
      4) Caribou – “Home”
      5) Jess Williamson – “Pictures of Flowers”
      6) Adrianne Lenker – “anything”
      7) Nicolás Jaar – “Mud”
      8) Soccer Mommy – “Circle the Drain”
      9) New Fries – “Ploce”
      10) El Perro Del Mar – “The Bells”

STAFF LISTS

  • Alexa Peters (Playing Seattle)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Deep Sea Diver – Impossible Weight
      2) Blimes and Gab – Talk About It
      3) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
      4) Tomo Nakayama – Melonday
      5) Matt Gold – Imagined Sky
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Stevie Wonder – “Can’t Put it in the Hands of Fate”
      2) Tomo Nakayama – “Get To Know You”
      3) Ariana Grande – “Positions”

  • Amanda Silberling (Playing Philly)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Frances Quinlan – Likewise
      2) Bartees Strange – Live Forever
      3) Told Slant – Point the Flashlight and Walk
      4) Diet Cig – Do You Wonder About Me?
      5) Shamir – Shamir
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Kississippi – “Around Your Room”
      2) Sad13 – “Hysterical”
      3) The Garages – “Mike Townsend (Is a Disappointment)”

  • Ashley Prillaman (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
      2) Lasse Passage – Sunwards
      3) Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
      4) Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
      5) Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Megan Thee Stallion – “B.I.T.C.H.”
      2) Perfume Genius – “On the Floor”
      3) SG Lewis & Robyn – “Impact” (feat. Robyn & Channel Tres)

  • Cat Woods (Playing Melbourne)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Jarvis Cocker – Beyond the Pale
      2) Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
      3) Run the Jewels – RTJ4
      4) Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – Crossover
      5) Various Artists – Deadly Hearts: Walking Together
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – “Mob March”
      2) Laura Veirs – “Freedom Feeling”
      3) Miley Cyrus – “Never Be Me”

  • Chaka V. Grier (Playing Toronto)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
      2) Joya Mooi – Blossom Carefully
      3) Lady Gaga – Chromatica
      4) Witch Prophet – DNA Activation
      5) Tremendum – Winter
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Lianne La Havas – “Green Papaya”
      2) Lady Gaga – “Free Woman”
      3) Allie X – “Susie Save Your Love”

  • Cillea Houghton (Playing Nashville)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Chris Stapleton  – Starting Over
      2) Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
      3) Little Big Town – Nightfall
      4) Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
      5) Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights”
      2) Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
      3) Remi Wolf  – “Hello Hello Hello”

  • Eleanor Forrest (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
      2) Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
      3) Allie X – Cape Cod
      4) LEXXE – Meet Me in the Shadows
      5) Gustavo Santaolalla, Mac Quayle – The Last of Us Part II (Original Soundtrack)
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) CL – “+5 STAR+”
      2) Yves Tumor & Kelsey Lu – “let all the poisons that lurk in the mud seep out”
      3)  Stephan Moccio – “Freddie’s Theme”

  • Gillian G. Gaar (Musique Boutique)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Dust Bowl Faeries – Plague Garden
      2) Ganser – Just Look At That Sky
      3) Oceanator – Things I Never Said
      4) Loma – Don’t Shy Away
      5) Maggie Herron – Your Refrain
      6) Pretenders – Hate for Sale
      7) The Bird and the Bee – Put up the Lights
      8) Partner – Never Give Up
      9) Bully – Sugaregg
      10) Olivia Awbrey – Dishonorable Harvest

  • Jason Scott (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Mickey Guyton – Bridges EP
      2) Katie Pruitt – Expectations
      3) Mandy Moore – Silver Landings
      4) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
      5) Cf Watkins – Babygirl
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Mickey Guyton – “Black Like Me”
      2) Ashley McBryde – “Stone”
      3) Lori McKenna feat. Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose – “When You’re My Age”

  • Jamila Aboushaca (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
      2) Khruangbin – Mordechai
      3) Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
      4) Tycho – Simulcast
      5) Run the Jewels – RTJ4
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Tame Impala – “Lost In Yesterday”
      2) Phoebe Bridgers – “Kyoto”
      3) Halsey – “You should be sad”

  • Liz Ohanesian (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
      2) Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
      3) Phenomenal Handclap Band – PHB
      4) Khruangbin – Mordechai
      5) TootArd – Migrant Birds
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Anoraak – “Gang” 
      2) Kylie Minogue – “Magic”
      3) Horsemeat Disco feat. Phenomenal Handclap Band – “Sanctuary”  

  • Michelle Rose (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
      2) Taylor Swift – folklore
      3) Shamir – Shamir
      4) Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
      5) HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Porches – “I Miss That” 
      2) Annabel Jones – “Spiritual Violence”
      3) Wolf – “High Waist Jeans”  

  • Sara Barron (Playing Detroit)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Summer Walker – Over It
      2) Yaeji – WHAT WE DREW
      3) Liv.e – Couldn’t Wait to Tell You
      4) Ojerime – B4 I Breakdown
      5) KeiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Yves Tumor – “Kerosene!”
      2) Kali Uchis, Jhay Cortez – “la luz (fin)”
      3) fleet.dreams – “Selph Love”

  • Sophia Vaccaro (Playing the Bay)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
      2) The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames
      3) Zheani – Zheani Sparkes EP
      4) Various Artists – Save Stereogum: A ’00s Covers Comp
      5) Halsey – Manic
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Charli XCX – “forever”
      2) Doja Cat – “Boss Bitch”
      3) Wolf – “Hoops”

  • Suzannah Weiss (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Galantis – Church
      2) Best Coast – Always Tomorrow
      3) Overcoats – The Fight
      4) Holy Motors – Horse
      5) Suzanne Vallie – Love Lives Where Rules Die
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) CAMÍNA – “Cinnamon”
      2) Naïka – “African Sun”
      3) Edoheart – “Original Sufferhead”

  • Tarra Thiessen (RSVP Here, Check the Spreadsheet)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network – Ballet of Apes
      2) Ganser – Just Look At That Sky
      3) Death Valley Girls – Under The Spell of Joy
      4) The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominiques Nosebleed
      5) Ghost Funk Orchestra – An Ode To Escapism
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Miss Eaves – “Belly Bounce”
      2) Purple Witch of Culver – “Trig”
      3) Shilpa Ray – “Heteronormative Horseshit Blues”

  • Victoria Moorwood (Playing Cincy)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Lil Baby – My Turn
      2) A$AP Ferg – Floor Seats II
      3) Polo G – The Goat
      4) The Weeknd – After Hours
      5) Teyana Taylor – The Album
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion – “WAP”
      2) Roddy Ricch  – “The Box”
      3) Big Sean & Nipsey Hussle – “Deep Reverence”

How Lady Gaga (and other Pop Heroes) Came to Our Rescue in 2020

In the 1930s, as the world sunk into an unprecedented economic depression, Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen’s song “Get Happy” prompted the American public to “forget your troubles,” “shout Hallelujah” and “chase all your cares away.” The simplicity of the song, with little in the way of instrumentation and barely any dynamic range, gave it earworm quality. Once heard, it stuck, and became a balm for the troubled minds of people losing their life savings, their jobs, their homes and their hope. The same happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones provided anthems for everyone from school children to their grandparents, escapism from relentless news about war and economic decline.

This year, we’ve faced the biggest health and economic disaster of our lives – one that has left many without work, their relationships strained or broken, and proven a major burden on our collective mental health. Pop music once again responded to the call to keep the human spirit afloat – whether we trepidatiously return to work in less-than-ideal conditions, or remain consigned to our homes, allowed only to walk our dogs and shop for toilet paper. Specifically Lady Gaga came to our rescue with her buoyant Chromatica album, which dropped in May along with videos and imagery in which the singer is depicted as an ethereal pink-haired, sci-fi heroine. Make no mistake. This is not a woman who has been eating microwave nachos and signing up to a bunch of language courses she’s never going to start. Lady Gaga gave us a hero right when we need one.

Gaga’s sixth album is a dance-synth-cyber-pop experience. More than a musical project, it encompasses a whole aesthetic – Gaga’s futuristic cyborg-self dancing fearlessly in the desert (“Rain On Me”) was the exact energy we wanted to channel in our own imagination.

The album’s title refers to a dystopian planet – a setting that felt all too real on Earth this year. For all its glitz, glamour and big beats, the themes of trauma, heartbreak, overcoming internal and external obstacles and seeking a sense of being worthy of a good, fulfilling life all made this one of Gaga’s most vulnerable, powerful works of songwriting.

It’s hard to know how the pandemic will shape music made during this period and released in the months or years to come, but in the past few months we’ve had some truly epic pop albums from Dua Lipa, Jarvis Cocker, The 1975, Róisín Murphy, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Many musicians who were due to release albums in this spring and summer (right before touring globally, under normal circumstances) changed their plans to prevent the potential loss-making risk of not leveraging the album popularity to sell tour tickets. Others saw the immense opportunity. All these people sitting at home, biting their nails, desperate for entertainment and reassurance from pop culture (since our governments have been unreliable sources of comfort) would surely pay good money for albums and merchandise? After all, music fans had engaged en masse with Instagram DJs and live streams from musicians’ loungerooms – and even drive-in concerts, like Keith Urban, Bush, Phoenix and Groove Armada, offered in the US and UK.

Perhaps there was something of a premonition amongst certain artists. Even the glumly witty Jarvis Cocker had recorded and prepared a pop album full of house music tracks designed for dancing. Prior to its release, his livestreamed Domestic Disco on Instagram attracted millions to watch him DJ from his rural UK lockdown, potted plants and stuffed toys included. JARV IS, the collaboration between Cocker and his live band, released Beyond The Pale, a brilliant throw-back to 90s British post-punk, rave culture and art school dropouts. “Must I Evolve?” delivered the eternal question of anyone over 35 who has become stuck in their personal, professional and creative patterns of thinking and living. The answer, in a nutshell, is yes.

Meanwhile, Dua Lipa’s album Future Nostalgia has heavy 1980s synth-pop vibes that recall Olivia Newton John and Pat Benatar. When it came out, Future Nostalgia debuted at number four on the US Billboard charts (inclusive of downloads). At just under 40 minutes, the music felt like a lump of sherbet melting in the mouth. Intense, sugary, sweet and thrilling, then gone. Tracks like “Don’t Start Now,” “Levitating” and “Physical” kept the momentum high and the melodies relentless. People were craving pure pop music, but not just any pop – nostalgia inducing pop that transported them to better times.

It’s not purely my own speculation and opinion that Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Jarvis Cocker and other pop purveyors were the fuel that kept us going in 2020. A 2010-2013 study at the University of London, part of the Earworm Project, surveyed 3000 people to ascertain the most commonly cited catchy choruses, or earworms. In a list of the top 10 songs, Lady Gaga took the gong with three of her songs listed, including the number one, “Bad Romance” (the others were “Poker Face” and “Alejandro”).

Pop music is powerful – it becomes trapped in our psyches.  Where it is nostalgic, which Lady Gaga does brilliantly in sounding a lot like Madonna-meets-Aretha Franklin, it provides comfort to suffering souls. Nostalgia – both in Gaga’s comic-book stylings and music – has the ability to rouse feelings of confidence and optimism. Most importantly, it is a reminder of our unity and connectedness as human beings. “Let It Rain” and “Free Woman” are the sonic equivalent of putting on lipstick after months of only brushing crumbs off our lips, of actually putting pants on rather than traipsing the house in an oversized t-shirt and tracky dacks. With the musical bounty 2020 has provided, we can conjure up some sense of being part of a larger contingent of a pop-music-loving public, all traipsing off dutifully vaccinated to restart the economy and save the world in 2021.

ONLY NOISE: Goodbye Sunday

In the two brief periods I lived in London, I developed a new relationship with Sundays. For 15 plus years of my life, Sunday was directly associated with Monday, and therefore brought about a rash of panic as the unfinished homework piled up and the unknown week stretched like a canyon before me. In college, there was no Sunday freedom. The sewing studios at FIT were open seven days a week until 2am. I would work on my projects incessantly, catching the train back to Brooklyn in the wee hours and sometimes heading straight to the Pratt campus, where the studios were open 24/7 and I had a handful of pals to work alongside. New York Sundays was never a time of leisure.

When I moved to London to study abroad at Central Saint Martins, I was shocked to find that despite the fashion department’s reputation for maniacal workloads, their studios were only opened Monday through Saturday until 10pm. This was a frightening realization, as my routine 85-hour workweek was about to be sliced in half. At first I was reluctant, but in time I learned to relax. Powerless to sew sleeves on the jacket I was making at school, I was obligated to go outside, I guess. A routine was born. Every Sunday I would pull myself out of my twin dorm bed, throw on a raincoat, and walk 15 minutes to East London’s Brick Lane market. The market could be hectic, and was clogged with overpriced vintage booths, but since I wasn’t there to shop it didn’t matter. I was simply there to wander.

Before I got to hip Brick Lane I would take a detour through cheaper junk markets that were sprinkled around town. These were proper flea markets with heaps of scrap and isolated parts only pack rats would find valuable. Fortunately, I am a pack rat, and I appreciated that these markets were meritocracies, paying off for the patient and diligent diggers who took the time to rummage through an entire bin of garden hose valves to find one silver pendant studded with semi precious stones. After the junk market I’d wind through the Sunday crowds and procure the spiciest curry I could find along with a cup of tea. Then I would sit on the street, roll a cigarette, and watch the people, who were as diverse in age and dress as they were in nationality. I’d position myself across the street from the resident group of drunken old geezers, who sat playing mahjong for hours.

This Sunday ritual became invaluable during my three months in London. When it was gray and cold (which, let’s face it, was most of the time) the tingling curry spices would radiate throughout my gut and warm me. The fact that I could sit on the street and eat without falling victim to judgmental glances for doing so was an added bonus. This was the kind of Sunday I’d always heard existed, but I never believed that they did. Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” used to propose a frightening alternate reality, but ever since I made my market stroll the highlight of my week, I welcomed the possibility of every day being Sunday with open arms.

My relaxed attitude toward Sundays shattered like tempered glass when I returned to New York, where peace and leisure seem like auction items for the rich. The Sunday fear came back. There was no junk market, no budget curry, and certainly no allowance to plop on the street and drink tea without getting scowled at, or trampled by a swarm of rats. Sunday again meant Monday. Sunday night ushered in short breaths and rapid fire concerns. Sundays didn’t return until I returned to England, and though they took a different shape, it was like they’d been waiting for me to come back. These Sundays were tethered to Clapton Pond in London’s northeast reaches of Hackney. It was summer, which doesn’t mean all that much for temperate England, but it was warm and sunny enough to spend all day in the nearby park. This was 2013, the summer I learned to ride a bike in Hackney Marsh at age 23. It was a glorious time, when I had no idea where life would take me.

In the afternoons I’d linger in the kitchen of my friend Alice’s flat, where I was staying for free. After flipping on the electric kettle switch I’d twist on Alice’s radio, which was permanently dialed to BBC 6 Music. The radio was something I turned on everyday. At 6 or 7am Monday through Friday, and at 10am on Saturday. But on Sunday, the afternoon airwaves were for Jarvis Cocker.

Since January 2010, Pulp’s illustrious frontman has hypnotized listeners with his Sunday Service, an afternoon program on BBC 6. While DJs only have one job to fulfill – playing music – Cocker took his title to the next level, acquiring the mantle of a seasoned storyteller. His sets are filled not only with odd and obscure music, but swatches of found sound from the BBC archives, Cocker’s own field recordings, and the joyful noises summoned from the studio switchboard. Jarvis’ playfulness at the mixer accompanied his rich storytelling. It was not uncommon for a classical opus to follow a punk number, or a piece of poetry to precede one of Cocker’s philosophical ramblings. His deep, hushed voice seemed built for the radio, or perhaps a bedtime story.

I am thinking of all of this – of Sunday rituals and this fabulous radio show, because after seven years it is again time for a new tradition. On Sunday, December 31st, Jarvis Cocker will deliver his final Sunday Service. This news came to me earlier this month, when a cheeky Guardian headline decreed: “Jarvis Cocker Pulps his BBC radio show.” The information cut deep. Even though Cocker is known for taking breaks from the program (and getting killer fill-in hosts such as Cillian Murphy and Russell Crowe), his northern whisper and eclectic programming had become integral to my Sunday listening. Cocker has calmed my pre-Monday nerves for so long that I shudder to think what could take the place of Sunday Service.

It’s not solely my Sunday at stake here. Of the many friends I’ve recommended 6 Music to, most of them have admitted that the Sunday Service was their favorite program. One 6 Music convert was merely an acquaintance who took my recommendation to heart. The next time I saw him he looked stupefied. “I’ve been listening to 6 Music!” he exclaimed. When he spoke of Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, he did so as if he’d struck gold.

That’s probably the most accurate descriptor I can find for Sunday Service: a goldmine of songs and sounds and interviews. On his most recent episode, which aired on Christmas Eve, Cocker dug into his own program archives to play bits of conversation with the likes of John Hurt, David Attenborough, and Monty Python’s Michael Palin, among a wealth of fantastic music. His first track for the set was the suspenseful “Snowed In” by Tim Rose, which happens to be the first song ever that Cocker ever played on the Sunday Service. Looking out the window at my parent’s home in Washington this morning, I listened to Cocker’s set and noted that there was indeed snow on the ground.

There may only be one official Sunday Service left, but so long as I can reach into the BBC 6 Music Archives for a bit of Jarvis Cocker’s wisdom and wit, everyday will be like Sunday. And as Cocker recently assured us, “It’s not goodbye, it’s just farewell.”

TRACK OF THE WEEK 01/13: “Falling From the Sun” off Everything Is New

MARRAM 3

There are multiple layers in which to delve with this track.  First, “Falling From The Sun” is a product of Edinburgh band Marram, however it features Margaret Bennett and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker.  The song will be part of a collection of collaborative tracks on Sun Choir, which is half of a two-album compilation entitled Everything Is NewThe compilation will be released by the Scottish art cooperative known as Transgressive North.  Are you with me so far?

Transgressive North has fused a pack of contemporary artists featuring the likes of Dan Deacon, Owen Pallet, Four Tet, and numerous others, with the voices of the Light of Love Children’s Choir to create a generous collaboration.  Proceeds from the record sales will go directly to the Scottish Love in Action Charity and will benefit destitute children in South East India, particularly those within the Light of Love Home and School.

The first installment of Everything Is New drops January 20th.  Here is a peek at “Falling From The Sun.”

The track suits the intention of this entire project with its brightness and sonic optimism. It opens with minimal synth chirps before building up with nasal-heavy vocals and flitting major chords.  Around 1:46 the Light of Love Children’s Choir pipes in and the song becomes a sweeping rapture; part dance track, part playground sing-a-long.

Jarvis Cocker comes in around 3:40 with his signature talk-signing that trails to the end of the song, when all of its elements fuse into a unified anthem.

Here is a video outlining the mission of Transgressive North’s Everything Is New Project:

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