Ten music albums for an end-of-year playlist

Most of us would like to delete many memories of 2020 as the year draws to a close. But for music lovers, this past year has been remarkably good. Forced closures, quarantines and social distancing meant there were no tours or gigs. This hit musicians’ livelihoods hard and left fans disappointed. Yet it has also led to more musicians heading to studios to create new songs, albums and EPs, many of which have been brilliant.

It’s that time of year that music publications release their annual lists of top albums, EPs, and songs. Many such lists have already been published. But what if you were to compile a list of 10 of this year’s albums, drawn from different genres and, perhaps, representative of the kind of creative resurgence the year of Covid has witnessed? Which would you choose? Well, here’s what I’d like to ring the year with.

Khruangbin’s psychedelic music draws inspiration from all over the world. The Texas-based band released a new album this year titled Mordecai. But they also published Late Night Tales: Khruangbin, a curation of the trio of 15 tracks to listen to at night. They come from artists as diverse as Carlos Santana and Alice Coltrane; Nazia Hassan, the Pakistani pop singer (popularly known as the Queen of South Asian Pop) who died in 2000 at the age of 35; Nigerian reggae superstar, the late Maxwell Udoh; and Ethiopia’s Roha Band, which enchantingly fuses modern and traditional music. Play the album at night and prepare to be transported.

The powerhouse of Canadian band Destroyer is vocalist and frontman Dan Bejar, who makes records that are always distinctly different from each other. On the new album, Have we met, the only conventional instruments are an electric guitar and a bass. Everything else is electronic. But you will have trouble realizing it as the sound is alive. The lyrics are enigmatic yet thoughtful, and the synth-pop sound surprisingly enjoyable. If you want to reverse the lows of 2020, spin it.

If you haven’t heard Porridge Radio, the indie rock band from Brighton, try their latest, Every bad. This group has everything to please: the DIY spirit of their recordings, the dynamism of singer Dana Margolin (she whispers, she shouts, she growls but can also be tender), the lyrics (born confused starts with I’m bored to death, let’s talk), all. Their words question and contradict; their music is messy but the production is smooth; and their attitude is in your face. Why not love an album that has it all and is also on this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist?

Even if hip hop isn’t your scene, you won’t regret trying Riz Ahmed The long goodbye. The British-born actor and activist’s second album focuses on the rise of racism in the wake of Brexit and the alienation faced by Britons in South Asia. There are samples of Indian and Pakistani music and references to the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. If you don’t like rap, listen to Ahmed in Where do you come from: Skinheads meant I never really liked the British flag/ And I only got shit when I went back to Pak/ And my Indian ancestors, but India wasn’t for us/ My people got built the West, we even gave skinheads swastikas/ Now everybody everywhere want to get their country back.

You will probably listen to the rest of The long goodbye. In rehearsal.

Not long ago, this column featured the new Fleet Foxes album, Bank, a set of 15 immediately sympathetic songs that act as a welcome balm in these troubled times. With tracks that include a nostalgic tribute to musicians who died this year and before, and other songs that are a soothing mix of melancholy and happiness, Bankcreated by frontman Robin Pecknold during a long period of confinement, could find an essential place in a playlist to end this year.

Rina Sawayama was born in Japan but raised in Britain. A graduate of Cambridge University, she began her career as a singer in a hip hop group, but her studio debut, SAWAYAMAis an unlikely amalgamation of crisp guitar riffs and R&B-style pop vocals. SAWAYAMA is an ambitious and audacious album. His unique sound and unusual (for pop) lyrics (in Akasaka Sadshe sings: Hotel hallway, rear window blacked out/ Crawling under my skin/ I flew here to escape, but I feel the same/ Jet lag makes me skinny) make it an avant-pop album that we would like to explore.

Damon Albarn’s favorite project, virtual band Gorillaz, is never afraid to push the boundaries or break the rules. Their new album, Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez, is part of a project that includes singles and videos. On the album, Gorillaz collaborates with guest musicians including Robert Smith of The Cure, Elton John, Beck, Peter Hook (co-founder of Joy Division), ScHoolboy Q, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and many more. Phew! The list is so impressive and the music so diverse – name a genre and it’s there – that the album slips effortlessly into my list.

The seven albums listed above – in no particular order – are by no means an exhaustive list of the best of 2020. After all, the year also saw brilliant releases from many other musicians. But three of them have larger heads and shoulders than the others. And they belong to three all-time greats: Bob Dylan released his great masterpiece, Rough and rowdy manners; Neil Young dug into his (obviously bottomless) archives to give us Terroir, a bittersweet blast from the past that was recorded in the 1970s but remained unreleased for 46 years; and then, recently, a Jimi Hendrix album came out, Living in Mauirecordings from one of the guitar magician’s last concerts before his tragic death in 1970. These three albums make up the rest of this year’s playlist, bringing the total to 10.

The Lounge list of 5 albums to end your week

1. ‘Late Night Tales: Khruangbin’ hosted by Khruangbin

2. ‘Every Bad’ by Porridge Radio

3. “The Long Goodbye” by Riz Ahmed

4. ‘Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez’ by Gorillaz

5. ‘SAWAYAMA’ by Rina Sawayama

First Beat is a column about what’s new and groovy in the music world.


George L. Hernandez