2020 in Music

by Felix Rodriguez

Well. This year has been shit. I know this, you know this. The past 12 months have been so stressful that I literally forgot I released an album in May. As with all writing on art, there is nothing definitive here other than lived experiences. Between the week-long disassociating spells and doom scrolling through the slow moving apocalypse, these albums acted as an anchor. 

10. Animal Crossing New Horizons – Original Music

Animal Crossing could not have released at a better time;  at the onset of the pandemic. A power fantasy at heart, Animal Crossing indulges the player in the laughable idea that our generation will ever be able to own a home and pay off debts with no interest. Collectively, my partner and I have listened to the midi infused bops in this strange game for roughly 150 hours. Muzak is alive and well in 2020 if you know where to find it. – Listen on Spotify

Essential Tracks: K.K. Bossa, Hazure02, New Horizons Theme

9. Dinner Party (Terrance Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, & Kamasi Washington) – Dinner Party

The last concert I managed to attend before shelter-in-place/societal collapse began was Kamasi Washington. My partner and I watched breathlessly as our non-American friends began their own quarantines. We sounded like paranoid preppers to any friends or family that would listen to us and I wish we had been wrong. The concert itself brought me to tears, in part from the knowledge that we were watching the greatest living Saxophonist in person, and also from realizing I would probably not be in another room that crowded for at least a year. Thankfully the pandemic did not slow down Mr. Washington and company from releasing 7 tightly written songs. Counter to the blistering virtuosity Kamasi became famous for, the songs on Dinner Party are restrained, as if they were performed on a couch.

Essential Tracks:

  • Love You Bad (feat. Phoelix)
  • Freeze Tag (feat. Phoelix)
  • LUV U

8. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

I have gone on record saying that Rina Sawayama should be an opener for My Chemical Romance so take that as all the praise or damnation you need to form an opinion on this album, this writer, and the write up itself. It’s gaudy and self aggrandizing. I don’t know where on the irony/post-irony mobius strip we’re at right now but either way this album is an immaculate love letter for music made between 1998 and 2004. It’s got elements of all your regrettable Bush-era favorites. “Dynasty” might as well be a cover of that Evanescence song with an achingly beautiful guitar solo thrown in for good measure. “Paradisin’” sounds like an arcade racer’s happy-hardcore soundtrack. “Bad Friend” is an anthem for the chronic “sorry for the late response” people in your life (me, it’s an anthem for me). There have been few things that have made me cackle out loud but Sawayama succeeded in snapping me out of a dark moment through the sheer audacity of its existence.

Essential Tracks:

  • Dynasty
  • XS
  • Bad Friend

7. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

Thundercat is one of those artists that are impossible to write about. You can try to take everything at face value and write about how Thundercat is arguably the most gifted bass player since Jaco Pastorius. Or you can try to talk about the fact that he is a deeply funny musician who uses his skill as a punchline for whatever joke his lyrics setup. Either way you miss the magical in-between space that Thundercat sits in so comfortably. “Dragonball Durag”is simultaneously the best funk song since “Outstanding”by The Gap Band and a song about how the durag stays ON during sex. It is an airy and playful dance oscillating between technicality, sincerity, and stupidity. In a way Thundercat understands the present moment better than any of us. Hopefully he’ll let us in on the joke for many years to come.

Essential Tracks: Innerstellar Love, Dragonball Durag, Unrequited Love

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6. Caribou – Suddenly

I always find myself drawn to Caribou in the winter months. There’s something about the way life slows down and you are forced to contemplate the future. I listened to this album a comical amount of times at the beginning of the year and put it away along with my insulated jacket. Caribou is always unapologetically introspective and reflective. He blends the cold sounds of synthesized melodies with organic tape manipulation on “Sunny’s Time”. Even at its most raucous moments like “Home” or “Never Come Back”  Caribou weaves in soothing vocal melodies that a lesser artist would put on top of a completely different instrumentation. Throughout Suddenly, you feel the yearning to move stifled by the weight of things anchoring. We just had our first snow of the season recently and I fished my jacket out of storage and put on Like I Loved You and went for a walk. Cold and familiar.

Essential Tracks: Sunny’s Theme, Home, Like I Loved You

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5. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

I miss dancing so much. I miss being in a sweaty club selling [REDACTED] and micro dosing [PARODY]. I’d give hundreds of dollars to dawn my body glitter once again and have existential crises in a bathroom mirror while “Spotlight”booms through a PA. What’s Your Pleasure? is the best dance pop record in years and, in some ways, it’s the album that is most out of place in 2020. If you told me it was a lost album by the great Nu Shooz I wouldn’t even bat an eye. We can’t go out dancing till we sweat through our clothes anytime soon but I know Jessie Ware will be the architect to any and all mischief. 

Essential Tracks: Spotlight, Read My Lips, Remember Where You Are

4. Sango – Da Rocinha 4

From the outset, Da Rocinha 4 announces it’s intentions clearly. The percussive rhythmic motif that starts as an acapella morphs into the backbone of nearly every song on the album. It’s a truly ingenious trick that has me constantly grinning when listening for it. You hear it sped up or slowed down, as a snare or kick drum. It’s such an effective songwriting technique that I find myself constantly beatboxing it while not listening to it. Da Rocinha 4 is unabashedly a love letter to Brazil and you’d have to be pretty callous not to feel the same way once you make it through the album. Full disclosure: I don’t speak a lick of the language but maybe one day I will finally learn Protugese, if only to rap along on “Camisa do Senegal Freestyle”

Essential Tracks: Kalimba Funk, Camisa do Senegal Freestyle, Eu Vou Passando (feat. Jé Santiago)

3. Sault – Untitled (Rise)

We will never get another Curtis Mayfield but no other act working right now gets as close to that feeling as Sault on their latest album Untitled (Rise). Sault performs a masterclass of traditional R&B instrumentation laced with driving percussion and biting lyrics. The album is part celebration, part lament for the lived experience of people of color. For every drumline break in the middle of a song like “I Just Want To Dance”,  there is a lullaby about police violence a la album closer “Little Boy”. A candidate for motto of the year, “You Know It Ain’t” is a screed on the faultiness white allyship that never fails to make me laugh and shake my head in memory of white people really “tweeting through it”. In a year that often felt hopeless I kept coming back to Sault to bask in excellence.

Essential Tracks: I Just Want to Dance, Son Shine, You Know It Ain’t

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2. Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG

“Yo hago lo que me da la gana” (I Do Whatever I Want) came out in a different world. For two glorious weeks in March, the world pretended everything was going to be fine, the pandemic was going to be done and long gone after a couple of shelter-in-place orders. The album is a sauntering shot across the bow. Mr Custom Crocs has been running the Latin music world for awhile now and decided to make it obvious to the rest of us. “Si Veo a Tu Mamå” is a coy flip of “The Girl From Ipanema”, taking the melancholic bossa nova classic and turning it into a victorious anthem. No one else on the island is making music to piss off my old school Puerto Rican dad like Bad Bunny right now and that is worth celebrating. Which is why Yo Perreo Sola and P FKN R has been on repeat for me this year. Despite the albums’ many high moments, for me, its zenith comes in with the penultimate track; “Hablamos Mañana” is cut through with raw energy and potential. One of the great tragedies of our modern times is that I never got to hear a Lil Peep and Bad Bunny collaboration. We are so far from the world in which this album came out, but imagining a future where I can throw ass at a live performance of this album has kept me going more than anything my country’s government has done. 

Essential Tracks: Si Veo a Tu Mamå, 25/8, Hablamos Mañana

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1. Yves Tumor – Heaven to A Tortured Mind

I first heard Heaven to A Tortured Mind on the Fourth of July. America’s hegemonic birthday has never been a day for celebration, but this year felt especially egregious. As the local casino was shooting off fireworks, ambulance sirens droned while ferrying victims of the pandemic to the few open hospital beds. A cacophonous song that lasted for hours. I felt such a profound anger with no outlet. Enter opening track “Gospel for a New Century” with its chopped orchestral stabs and dead-ahead drums that would feel at home on an MF DOOM record. As the song transitions into a luscious verse structure, you are lulled into something like tranquillity then smacked upside the head by a chorus powerful enough to drown out the sirens wailing beyond the walls. “How much longer till December?!?! Say what you really mean!” Yves Tumor bellows over a sonic immolation. The album oscillates constantly between delicate and destructive. From post-hardcore anthems like “Medicine Burn” to delicate love ballads like “Kerosene!”, no other collection of music captures the raw emotion 2020 has demanded, cultivated, and extracted from all of us. 

Essential Tracks: Gospel for a New Century, Kerosene!, Romanticist/Dream Palette

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Felix Rodriguez is an Oklahoma musician and concert booker that spends more time thinking about music than not. He makes music under the moniker Open/Honest.

Here is a playlist featuring all of the essential tracks:

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