The best music of 2020 according to NOW critics

All our music listening habits changed this year, but a few trends still emerged: comfort food, realness and the return of disco

Richard Trapunski

1. Backxwash: God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It

In most years, there’s at least one musician I don’t have strong feelings about, then I’ll see them live and think “holy shit, this is my new favourite artist.” I didn’t get many chances this year, but Backxwash did it for me virtually. I had heard the Montreal-based artist here and there, but I gave this album some spins as part of my Polaris Prize jury duty and it quickly became all I listened to. It’s experimental hip-hop with the spirit of metal, very heavy and very captivating. I’ve heard rappers sample Black Sabbath before, but Backxwash (who was raised in a religious Christian household in Zambia) brought out the legitimately chilling occult energy like nothing before. I ended up voting for it as my top pick. Other jurors must have had the same reaction: she ended up winning.

2. U.S. Girls: Heavy Light

I actually did get to see U.S. Girls play live at the Paradise Theatre (my first time at the venue) shortly before everything shut down. It was a good show, emphasizing the joyful warmth that comes with all the layered powerhouse Toronto voices singing together on Heavy Light. Meg Remy infuses her songs with narrative and thematic depth, critiques of American culture (“you’ve got to have boots if you want to lift those bootstraps” is one of my favourite lyrics of the year) and, this time, rich autobiographical detail. And she has a song about watching Woodstock 99 on TV as a young teen, which is a personal experience I didn’t know I needed reflected back at me.

Get it here.

3. The Microphones: Microphones In 2020

On this release, Phil Elverum resurrected his Microphones project, a band name that has been dormant since 2003 when he switched to Mount Eerie. But it’s definitely not a cash-in. It’s a deconstruction of the whole idea of an indie band reunion (coincidentally at a time with no concerts), even of an album itself. It’s somewhere between a long, hypnotic folk drone, video art project and a deeply felt musical memoir – one 44-minute track played against a series of photos he took of the times he sings about. With plainspoken wisdom, he muses on what it would even mean to bring back a project so tied to a time and place and state of mind, while recreating it: a feeling of musical infinity with no beginning and no end, like the state of being itself. As pretentious as that sounds, it’s somehow really not. It will make you feel feelings.

Get it here.

4. Caribou: Suddenly

The feeling has now turned from panic to malaise (mostly), but the early days of the pandemic shutdown were really anxiety-inducing. The first week felt like a year, and the rest of the year has felt like a week. In those strange mid-March early days, this Caribou album felt like a balm. Dan Snaith’s electronic music has a soothing warmth to it, no matter which direction he leans in – even (or especially) on an album about emotional whiplash. For a couple of weeks there, this and his UK counterpart Four Tet’s album, Sixteen Oceans, were my constant soundtrack.

Get it here.

5. David Byrne’s American Utopia & Talking Heads’ whole discography

If I’m being totally honest, a lot of my 2020 listening was not about 2020 music. Like many people during the pandemic, I went back to a lot of old favourites. I always liked Talking Heads, but I got way more into them this year for a few reasons. I’ve been listening back through the quintessential art-rock band’s whole discography along with Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman on their podcast, U Talkin’ Talking Heads 2 My Talking Head. I also read drummer Chris Frantz’s new book Remain In Love, which brought some new shade to the band’s legacy (mostly shade thrown at band leader David Byrne). And I watched the Spike Lee-directed concert film of Byrne’s beautifully staged American Utopia show, which was heavy with Talking Heads songs. So, in the end, my most listened to song of the year was actually from 1980.

6. Poppy: I Disagree

I’ve predicted a nu-metal revival a few times now, but I don’t know if I was expecting it to come from the pop realm. Rina Sawayama flirted with it this year, but Poppy went full force. After starting as an eerie subversion of a YouTuber/influencer, she’s now doing a strange breakneck mix of bubblegum, rage and chunky drop-D chords. Definitely an acquired taste, but if you were a teenaged boy in the late 90s (see earlier: watching Woodstock on MuchMusic) it will reverberate somewhere in your subconscious that your higher brow music tastes might have tried to forget.

Listen here.

7. Grimes: Miss Anthropocene

This one got a bit overlooked this year, and I get it. There are a lot of reasons people don’t want to fuck with Grimes. There’s her union-busting-adjacent marriage to Elon Musk, her We Appreciate Power welcoming of our robot overlords, her adversarial relationship with the media. Sometimes it feels like she’s actively trying to troll us, like with her baby name or her official artist bio, which plays right into the “class traitor” criticisms by claiming she used to live in a “crack den” in Montreal and that she got “experimental eye surgery only available to the upper class.” But, being honest, her skewed, Napster-addled take on pop music (via Nine Inch Nails, Sheryl Crow and J-pop) still hits like it used to. And, with hyperpop the cool genre of the moment, her influence is growing.

Get it here.

8. The Weeknd: After Hours

I’m a big fan of The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons era and helped make the decision to put it number one on our best Toronto albums of the 2010s list last year, but, to me, nothing he’s done since can compare. After Hours is the closest he’s come, and it’s propelled him to even higher pop star heights. He’s best when sustaining a consistent vibe from beginning to end, and this newfound love of 80s pop, with all its overdramatic Phil Collins decadence, suits him surprisingly well. He didn’t get to turn it into a big-budget stage show, but I bet his Super Bowl halftime show is going to be a serious spectacle.

Get it here

9. Vivek Shraya: How To Fail As A Popstar and The Subtweet

I’m cheating again because neither of these is an album, but Vivek Shraya made some of my favourite music-adjacent work of the year. Her solo show, How To Fail As A Popstar, played at Canadian Stage in February, and it blew me away. An introspective storytelling piece about Shraya’s years trying to “make it” as a musician, it was vulnerable, powerful and brutally honest about what it means to fail – avoiding clichés about not really failing if you found a different path. After years through the music industry ringer, she understands something fundamental about what it means to make music, especially as a trans and racialized artist in Canada. That all informs her 2020 novel, The Subtweet, too – a book about professional jealousy, “authenticity” and what happens when you perform your identity for different audiences. It even comes with a soundtrack.

Get The Subtweet here.

10. Square Garden Music Festival

I watched a lot of livestream concerts this year, and a lot of them didn’t do it for me. But I’m not ready to give up on the concept yet. PUP, for instance, hit the right notes by leaning into the hilarious strangeness of playing fist-pumping pop-punk at Sneaky Dee’s for no fans. But in the same year that saw me rekindling my old love affair with video games, this music festival within Minecraft headlined by 100 gecs really felt like the winner. It felt like an actual gathering, like I actually “went” to a concert. It wasn’t the only concert within a video game this year, but it’s the one that stuck with me.

Kelsey Adams

1. Bbymutha: Muthaland

Bbymutha is a raw, spitting rapper repping Chattanooga, Tennessee, who is one of the cleverest lyricists out right now. Muthaland is a universe where Bbymutha’s unbridled candidness shines. She flits between tracks about mental health, surviving trauma, the occult, petty grievances, misogynoir and getting trashed with the girls with her sweet Southern drawl. The production is macabre, booming with bass, hard-hitting percussion and unrelenting industrial energy. She’s a storyteller in the Southern hip-hop tradition, rapping about raising her four kids with her ain’t-shit baby daddy, sexual exploration and regret. Skits featuring the voices of her children place the songs in the context of her everyday life as a mom.

She rapped on 2018’s BBC that she wouldn’t “switch up my persona for no white folks,” and that comes through again on Not For Caucasians. She’s a Black woman from the hood, she doesn’t play the game of respectability politics. On the album, more than once, she stresses that she lives everything she raps about. When she says: “I’ma eat your soul, I’ma shit it out,” I believe her. 

2. Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?

In my mind, Jessie Ware’s album takes place in a club out of time: hot, sweaty and hedonistic in a way that could only exist before smartphones documented our every move – when people really danced unabashedly, raw and sensual. The disco and 80s funk influences are authentic, not gimmicky in the slightest. I get wistful and melancholic when I think about the next time I’ll get to let it all out, in a packed club full of strangers. What’s Your Pleasure? has been nursing that malaise since the summer. My favourite song switches every week, but going into 2021 it’s Soul Control. With the sweeping vocals the British songstress is known for and the syncopated synth of Erotic City-era Prince, it never fails to get me off my ass. 

3. Moses Sumney: grae

Moses Sumney has a defiant voice. He’s wholly uncertain and completely comfortable in that uncertainty. His clear falsetto cuts above it all – he’s always been an artist who could solely rely on his vocal talent but chooses fascinating arrangements that challenge the listener to keep up. With assists from Oneohtrix Point Never, Jill Scott, James Blake and Michaela Coel, it’s impossible to place this album in one box. By eschewing traditional masculinity, gender identity or typical romantic relationships, Sumney finds himself in limbo. It’s a place he feels is most real. On Neither/Nor he sings “I fell in love with the in-between, colouring in the margins.” All of 2020 felt like living in the in-between. 

Get it here.

4. Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia

Even though I don’t think Dua Lipa’s disco revival hits as hard as Ware’s, this album got me through the first lockdown. When it was leaked in April, Lipa made the tough decision to release it even though she wouldn’t be able to tour. I’m thrilled she did. It’s pure pop joy. Future Nostalgia feels like what she’s been working toward since 2017 on her self-titled first album. She’s settled into her voice, a throaty and forceful belt. It’s groovier and less self-serious. The Madonna and Olivia Newton-John influences are clear, but Lipa makes the sound all her own. 

Get it here.

5. Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour

You can’t go on Twitter these days without seeing a fancam of Chloe and Halle Bailey. The young sisters were scooped up by Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment after going viral on YouTube, and now they’ve grown up. They weave stories of being the other woman, drunken booty calls and wild nights out with the gang, all set to Chloe’s layered pop production. And of course, these girls can sing. Their harmonies are a form of magic. Their voices soar around each other, playing a heavenly game of cat and mouse.

Get it here

6. Gabriel Garzón-Montano: Agüita 

Gabriel Garzón-Montano has always been doing his own thing, out in left field. Other than that one time Drake sampled him on Jungle, the singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist keeps a low profile. On his third album, he brings together all the aspects of himself, from cold swagger on the title track to concerned hesitation on Tombs and contemplative optimism on Blue Dot. He effortlessly switches languages, from English to Spanish, and sonic landscapes, from reggaeton to soul, R&B and experimental electronic. The album is filled with twists and turns.  

Get it here.

7. Popcaan: Fixtape

Popcaan has been a dancehall mainstay for a decade. Fixtape may be his official “crossover” album but it incorporates all the elements that make him authentically Popcaan. Street tales, chatting shit, odes to the female form, blessings on blessings – all the classics. He’s still Portmore’s finest. The Drake and PARTYNEXTDOOR-featuring Twist & Turn is smooth and radio-friendly, but songs like but Mamakita, Canary and Fresh Polo are more like what you would hear on road, with the girls in skin out shorts, jerk pork smoking in the distance and booming sound systems towering. 

Listen here.

8. Pa Salieu: Send Them to Coventry

Pa Salieu came out of nowhere. His guttural UK drill delivery hits like a punch to the face. I would rate this album on the strength of singles Frontline and My Family alone, but the entire thing is sublime. The 22-year-old Gambian-British rapper is melding elements from the diaspora with a bashment, grime, trap, Afrobeats and dancehall hybrid all his own. He raps about block life, the kind of environment you learn to navigate so you can survive.

Listen here.

9. Backxwash: God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It

Horrorcore is not a genre I lean towards very often so I need to thank the Polaris Prize. If I wasn’t on the jury it’s unlikely I would have discovered Backxwash. The first time I heard this album felt like being submerged in freezing cold water. It exhilarated all of my senses. I played it back three times, taken by her vulnerability in sharing her strained relationship with Christianity and her family and life as a Black trans woman. The self-produced tracks include preacher sermons, gospel choirs and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin samples. It’s an onslaught, but a welcome one. 

10. Ian Isiah: AUNTIE

Ian Isiah is a frequent collaborator of Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) and is usually the standout voice whenever they link up. His latest project is all drama and sass. On the cover, he’s adorned in a lacy pillow box hat, a costume that recalls all the church aunties with their over the top looks, oversized hats and sickly sweet perfume. Isaiah, who was raised Pentecostal, has that soulful kind of church voice, saintly and soaring. Bring in production from Canadian funk lords Chromeo and it’s a match made in heaven. 

Get it here.

Kevin Ritchie

1. Róisín Murphy: Róisín Machine

Escapist dance and pop were everywhere this year, but Róisín Murphy hit the dancefloor while reliably keeping it real. Her fifth solo album seamlessly stitches together several of her already-classic disco-house singles with pounding bass lines with ravey HI-NRG newer tracks. The album filters the last 30-odd years of club music through her cunning wit, high-camp attitude and just the right amount of existential anxiety. Something for everyone.

2. Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?

Jessie Ware seemed to settle down on her last two albums, but her fourth LP sends her back to the club with a vengeance. These are songs about falling in love while also maintaining high standards and the music sets an equally lofty dance-pop bar: spacey disco synths and tumbling house rhythms hit with the just right amount of grit, creating the perfect tension with her signature pristine vocals. The soundtrack to locking eyes on the dancefloor (when we can do that again).

3. Haim: Women In Music Pt. III

The Haim sisters are big enough that you’d think they’d have lost touch with reality by now. But Women In Music Pt. III reminds us that successful musicians can be messy, selfish, scathing and self-aware just like everyone else. The music, of course, is perfectly produced and keeps a brisk pace even in the pared-back moments built around the trio’s heavenly three-part harmonies. Also: not mad at the Sheryl Crow-esque moments.

Listen here.

4. Perfume Genius: Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Mike Hadreas both brings and refines the drama on his most epic album yet. And he’s having it both ways: Perfume Genius grows ever poppier in the most classic sense while distilling 90s alt and 00s post-rock influences into atmospheric flourishes that never veer into overkill. Fanciful pop never sounded so tough.

Get it here.

5. WiFiGawd & Tony Seltzer: Heat Check Vol. 2

The DMV continues to produce some of hip-hop’s most sonically adventurous talents, but Heat Check Vol. 2 mixtape feels like the most succinct sonic statement yet from rapper WiFiGawd and producer Tony Seltzer. Its melodic and cascading flows and huge bass feel calibrated for either a booming mosh pit or a solo stoner moment. 2020 is all about the ability to pivot.

6. Shygirl: Alias EP

Raunchy women ruled in 2020 but the South London MC also gives you everything that happens before and after the bedroom. The songs on this seven-track EP make a short trip from terrifying to glamorous, but whatever the vibe, Shygirl goes big, loud and aggressive, reconfiguring low-brow Euro-pop and nerdy idiosyncratic techno from one minute to the next. One of the most singular artists of the year.

Get it here.

7. Il Quadro di Troisi: self-titled

Producer Donato Dozzy and producer/vocalist Eva Geist pay homage to Italian pop and disco with this coolly precise and delicate record. The synths are all slow-burn melodrama, accented by theatrical piano and Geist’s airy vocals. It’s a thoughtful record, with each element of the music layering in ways that feel attuned to a most careful – and relaxed – of listeners. 

Get it here.

8. Yves Tumor: Heaven To A Tortured Mind

The American pop iconoclast tightens up their experimental sound without exactly cleaning it up. Heaven To A Tortured Mind is full of flights into unexpected sonic directions, adding a pleasant level of chaos to their most clear, heartfelt and showy vocals to date. It feels like a grand coming out, as the flashes of pop genius in their previous outings crystallize into one of the year’s most dramatic records.

Get it here.

9. Kraków Loves Adana: Darkest Dreams

Hamburg-based pop duo Deniz Çiçek and Robert Heitmann deliver an intensely satisfying dream-pop record, cranking up the reverb, elongating detached vocal lines (with overdoing it) and leaning hard into big melodic flourishes. It’s like bright red lips blowing smoke in your face.

Get it here.

10. Andy Butler: Love Keep Me Though The Waves Retreat Selected Ambient Pieces #1

The Hercules and Love Affair main man released this straight-to-Bandcamp nine-track collection late in the year, and it provides a nice ambient comedown to the chaos, dance-pop and sonic drama of 2020. Each track is made with a single synth – a Korg Polysix, Roland Juno 106 and Ensonic ESQ 1, specifically – yet strikes a nice calming balance between richness and minimalism. Well played on multiple levels.

Get it here.


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