In the endless year-end debate about to rank or not-to-rank, I generally fall on the to-rank side. Putting some albums on and not others is already subjective, so why not go full bore? But I do find that things get increasingly arbitrary the further down the list you go. There is a difference in my mind between #2 and #3. But between #22 and #23? No, not really.
So this year I’m wimping out and doing a compromise: 30 albums, #11-30 unranked, and then the ranked Top Ten at the bottom. A method sure to satisfy no one! Seems appropriate for 2020.
Amelia Devoid – Puddle
If the photo on the album cover isn’t enough of a clue on what format this electronic mix should best be enjoyed, the two track names should give you a hint: “side a” and “side b.” Sure enough, a cassette is available for $6 on her Bandcamp. But even for those of who have not jumped aboard the tape revival train, this ambient reverie is worth immersing yourself in.
Anachronist – Stay Late
Shades of Uncle Tupelo dot this roots-rock quintet’s Stay Late. More than shades at times. Like their alt-country forebearers, Anachronist mostly keep it loose and relaxed, but can get loud when necessary.
Barishi – Old Smoke
I’m pretty sure the opening line of Barishi’s ten-minute song “Blood Aurora” is “Lord of the darkness,” but singer Graham Brooks growls so ferociously I can’t quite make it out. Does that sentence offer enough clues what genre we’re talking about? For their first album in four years, the Vermont metal titans worked with Inter Arma producer Mikey Allred. Though hardly easy- or even medium-listening, Old Smoke has enough going on to potentially sell non-metalheads (present company included) while providing plenty for the death metal kids to thrash to.
Benjamin Lerner – Clean
Clean is, at times, a harrowing listen. Writing a rap autobiography that recalls Eminem’s Recovery with less Rihanna and more piano (but better than Em’s collab with Elton), Benjamin Lerner – Irving Berlin’s great-grandson, working in a very different genre – pulls no punches detailing his experiences with addiction and recovery. It’s a powerful and moving listen. Even when he dips into metaphor, as on the epic “Dan and Dave,” he makes his message crystal clear by the end, in lines that double as a mission statement for the entire album: “If you ain’t figure it out, my friend is Dan and I’m Dave / Story’s as true as it could be, only the names have been changed / I don’t do this to embarrass or disgracefully shame / A former friend of mine and point out the mistakes that he made / I do this so other addicts who are escaping their pain / Don’t end up rotting in a cell or being a name on a grave.”
Bleach Day – As If Always
If you follow certain music writers on Twitter, “indie jam” was all the rage last year. Vampire Weekend got real noodly on their latest album, and trippy acts like Chris Forsyth and Cass McCombs managed to get weird while still attracting as many hipsters as hippies. Bleach Day’s debut album As If Always continued the trend. They’re not a jam band by any stretch, but they’re psychedelic enough you could imagine them blissing out on these songs for ten minutes live.
A Box of Stars – Museum of Light
A Box of Stars’ tracks sound so fragile that a stiff breeze might knock them over. Whispered vocals and just-so layers of guitars and synths create sonic Fabergé eggs you get more out of every time you listen.
Brand New Luddites – Terms and Conditions
One song on Brand New Luddites’ album features the sound of a cannon, like AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock.” The title of their song includes “Rock” too – except, in this case, the “Rock” refers to a game of rock paper scissors. That’s kind of Brand New Luddites’ vibe in a nutshell, loud brawny rock about ridiculous subjects. There’s a complicated backstory about them being an “anti-robot” band fighting with their “archenemy” robot band The Tsunamibots (who also release albums), but you don’t need to follow all that to pump your fist. Just don’t let that fist get covered by paper.
Eric George – Lily Died for Love
Lily Died for Love is a concept record about the Harry Potter series. If you’re a superfan, I’m sure you’ll get tons of references. But I’m not, and it doesn’t matter (“Lily” is Harry’s mother, I remember that much). Eric George presents ten engaging folk-rock songs packed with hooks. If you want to listen while fighting a basilisk, be my guest. Yes, I had to Google that.
Guest Policy – Four Year Bend
On Four Year Bend, Guest Policy pull from a wide array of genres from indie-rock (“Bend”) to funk (“Shake It (Till You’re Crazy)”) to R&B (“Gonna Go Find It”). That may sound disjointed, but the duo hold the entire sonic array together with gorgeous lilting vocals and tight production. Practically every song indicates a different genre they could pursue exclusively, but I hope they keep exploring them all at once.
The Leatherbound Books – These Were the Days
Mumford and Sons went radio-rock. Of Monsters and Men went electro-pop. I don’t know what The Lumineers are up to. For anyone missing that brief movement of insanely catchy folk-rock dominating pop music, The Leatherbound Books have you covered. Foot-stompin’ hootenanny pop songs aren’t the only sonic tool in their arsenal, but a song like “Long Road Home” makes you wanna “Ho!” and “Hey!” one more time.
Madaila – Madaila
Mark Daly originally planned to release four EPs this year, based on the cardinal directions. The first one, West, made my Best EPs of 2020 list. The second was supposed to be sunny pop, which Daly said didn’t feel right after the George Floyd murder and subsequent upheaval. So he pivoted to this self-titled album. That backstory probably makes it sound heavy and dark. It’s not. Political concerns crop up in the lyrics, but the music finds him embracing his upbeat dance-pop side. It’s his “Dancing in the Dark”; super poppy on the outside, darker when you look below the surface.
Oldboys – Moon Music
The instrumentation is bluegrass, but the vibe is ’90s slacker-rock, from Pavement to Smashing Pumpkins (some versions of the album even feature a cover of Nirvana’s “Breed”). The vibe comes through not just in the lyrics – I don’t know how old these people are, but the apathy feels very Gen X – but the music. A melody like “Cockeyed Suzie” sounds like it could come from an early Beck album – if Beck played with fiddles and mandolins.
Quiltro – Quiltro
I didn’t get a chance to write about Quiltro’s album earlier, so I’ll use what the band’s Mike McKinley told me here when I asked him to tell me more about this instrumental album blending post-rock and electronics and jazz: “I remember interviewing Ray Paczkowski many years ago, and while I was trying to uncover where his (mostly) instrumental trio Vorcza fit on the music spectrum, e.g. how does this fall into the jazz world? What kind of scene digs this music? He kept coming back to a very humble, ‘I don’t know, man, it’s just our music. I don’t really know how else to describe it or explain where it fits in.’ At that time, I sort of understood what he was saying. But now I fully understand it having this experience with Quiltro. It’s chemistry that makes it work. Since it is instrumental music, it lends itself to having a heavy visual component. And at times it [feels]l like a soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi film, navigating the darkness while looking out for hope.”
The Röse Parade – Hyena Dream Machine
Hyena Dream Machine sounds like all the Prince albums smashed together. And not just the classic ones either. The weird ’90s genre experiments? The girl groups? His band with all the members of The Time not named Morris Day? They’re all here. Even the band name – that umlaut feels very Prince. That’s not to indicate that this is some mere pastiche (he does spell out “you” in the song titles, after all). Prince made all these different sounds over the course of decades; even he never had the audacity to draw from them all at once.
Rough Francis – Urgent Care
The seven songs on Rough Francis’ Urgent Care blast by in an unrelenting 19 minutes. The long-reigning Vermont punk band brings in heavy doses of Nuggets-era garage rock, delivering some of the catchiest songs of their career without taking their foot off the gas for a second.
Seamus Egan – Welcome to Orwell
Veteran Irish musician Seamus Egan, best known for leading the band Solas, recently moved to Orwell, Vermont. “Welcome to Orwell” forms a centerpiece of his first solo album in 20 years, Early Bright. If you like Irish music, he’s an expert purveyor of it, bringing original songs to old sounds. But if you don’t know a damn thing about Irish music, that doesn’t matter; Early Bright never feels like you need to do homework to understand its easy charms.
Steve Davie – Come See Me On The Moon
Many albums, even good ones, don’t have strong narrative hooks. For the average listener, that doesn’t matter, but as a writer it makes things tricky. “Good songs recorded well” doesn’t make for much of a headline. But occasionally a gift drops in your lap. And how’s this to grab you: “If Pete Seeger sang only about outer space.” Veteran folk musician Steve Davie recorded an entire album about the moon, getting extremely specific about what life might be like for a colony out there. It’s a bonkers concept, but expressed via supremely mellow and inviting music.
Western Terrestrials – Back in the Saddle of a Fever Dream
Western Terrestrial’s album has country music in its DNA. That’s not just a metaphor; Roger Miller’s son produced it and George Jones’ daughter sings on it. They even cover Billy Lee Riley’s Sun Records classic “Flying Saucer Rock n Roll.” It’s country music through a classic-rock filter though; I hear as much Warren Zevon as Waylon Jennings. Plus there’s a very prog-rock lyrical theme of outer space running throughout (hence that “Flying Saucer” cover).
The Wormdogs – Hey Thanks
You know freak-folk? How about freak-bluegrass! On Hey Thanks, The Wormdogs get weird and wooly with traditional banjo-and-fiddle music, living inside the tradition while gently poking fun at it. In “Old Time Song,” they send up the traditionalists – and their own lack of bluegrass bona fides – with verses like, “Don’t get me started on the Blue Ridge Mountains / I’ve never been there / I’m from Vermont / And I don’t leave the state all that often.”
Wren Kitz – Early Worm
One hates to crib directly from the promo materials, but, to be honest, the record label’s Bandcamp description kind of nails it: “Moon-waxin’ full-length of spacial guitar action, molten fuzz-folk, feedback ballads, patient psychedelia, and other adjacent territories.” The strange and warped Early Worm touches on all of that, sometimes in the space of a single song.
The Top Ten
10. Community Garden – Don’t Sweat It
Post-punk is not known for being cheery. The chorus of what might be post-punk’s most iconic song sings about being crushed by a double-decker bus. But Vermont trio Community Garden deliver the most unlikely of combinations: upbeat post-punk. “Don’t Sweat It,” says the title track. “Brush It Off,” another encouraging title. Or how about “Be Honest” – that’s just good advice! Don’t Sweat It offers a rare post-punk album that’s made more for celebrating with friends than sitting in a dark room alone. Though, as this year would indicate, it works for sitting alone too.
9. The Beerworth Sisters – Another Year
The Beerworth Sisters are not, actually, sisters. They’re in-laws, but The Beerworth Sisters-in-Law doesn’t really roll off the tongue. No matter, from Brothers Everly to Gallagher, being a band with your actual sibling doesn’t usually work out (though maybe it’s just brothers that are the problem). Another Year, the wonderful new album from the “Sisters,” draws on old folk traditions without sounding dusty and dated. “Lord Take My Sorrow” or “Mourning Dove” sound like pieces that’ve been kicking around the American songbook for decades, but are, in fact, originals.
8. Eastern Mountain Time – Seven
There are seven songs on Eastern Mountain Time’s new album, just pushing it over the cusp of our six-songs-is-an-EP definition. He even typed it Seven, as if to rub in delivering the bare numerical minimum to jump lists. But sometimes less is more, as he surrounds earlier single “Darker Now” – one of my favorite songs of 2018 – with a collection of slow and raw Americana ballads. The vibe channels Neil Young’s ditch era, with some of the most expressive and wounded singing of the year. He also put out a rarities and outtakes collection this year which, while it would really be pushing the limit to call it an “album,” is worth checking out too (and not just because he recorded a Dire Straits cover for my other site).
7. Ben Patton – The Swan, For Instance
Song for song, there are few writers working today better than Ben Patton. Writing across rock, pop, and what, for lack of a better genre, I’ll call old-timey showtune, he writes songs that sound so classic you have to Google to make sure they’re not covers of something from the ’50s or ’60s. He went full-Broadway on his last album, but returns to a typically eclectic mix on The Swan, For Instance, bringing in humor on the self-deprecating “What a Shame About Benjamin” and a true songwriter’s sign of romance on “I Wanna Buy a Piano with You” (sample lyric: “A diamond wedding ring’s just a rock / And wedding vows are only talk / His and hers towels, what does that prove? / But pianos are heavy and a bitch to move.”)
6. The Bubs – Cause a Fuss
Here are a few samples from the lyric sheet for Cause a Fuss: “Intro with pirate vocals.” “Weird oohs section.” “Whyyyy???!!!” The Bubs’ songs do have lyrics, sure, but the full-throated yells that pepper most of them best embody the supersized band’s chaotic-good energy. The vibe is The Polyphonic Spree after a dozen Red Bulls. They’ve long had one hell of a live show, and, against the odds, bandleader Ethan Tapper managed to harness that frenetic insanity in recorded form. The songs are every bit as loud and fast and holler-along-with-able as they would be in concert, but his songwriting helps them stand up even without the spectacle of ten people hurling themselves about the stage. (That being said, do yourself a favor and watch a live video).
5. Francesca Blanchard – Make It Better
One of many difficult questions musicians faced in 2020: Do you release your new album, even if you can’t tour it? Francesca Blanchard had begun dropping singles from Make It Better way back in 2017, so eventually she decided, the hell with it, and put it out. The album was recorded before any of our current problems, but the breezy electro-pop seemed to fit the mood of lockdown. Or maybe I should say moods. If you focus on the music, it might lift you away from your current problems. If you focus on the words, you can sit and luxuriate in sadness.
4. A2VT – Twenty Infinity
“African refugees in Vermont” is the elevator pitch, but their music offers so much more than just a human interest story. A duo of singers and rappers who go by Jilib and Pogi, augmented by a rotating cast of friends, they sing in English, Swahili, Maay Maay and a combination they refer to as “Swahenglish” (their longtime producer quipped that when he first met them they were “between languages”). Their collaborators from Vermont’s refugee community hail from Burundi, Mozambique, Congo, Nigeria, and beyond. The music is informed by the musicians’ story, but isn’t subservient to it. Other than occasional Vermont reference, Twenty Infinity could easily be something you’d find at a street stall in Lagos. “Hilamia” delivers a bumping electronic song written to fill wedding dance floors, while “You Ma Numba 1” delivers a love letter to both a woman and a continent (its music video also does a decent job making Vermont settings pass as Africa). “Wave Your Flag,” one of of our favorite singles of 2019, delivers a feel-good anthem in the vein of their fellow African refugee K’naan’s hit of a similar name.
3. Lily Wade – 5teen
The indie-rock songwriter’s chops bely her age (15 when the album came out, hence the title – even Adele didn’t start until 19). She writes short and snappy songs, filled with hooks and wit and pop smarts, even as the subject matter reflects her own life experiences: high school crushes, grade-grubbing schoolmates, a summer you wish would last forever, etc. If the lyrics reflect her present moment, though, her influences look a couple decades further back. Wade gushes about Sonic Youth and Pavement, even covering “I Want to Be Stephen Malkmus” live, a song by beabadoobee, another young woman in thrall to indie-rock made before she was born. Hope she’ll do a sequel about life as a 16-year old in lockdown.
2. Couchsleepers – Only When It’s Dark
Harrison Hsiang wrote, produced, recorded, and mixed his band Couchsleepers’ debut album Only When It’s Dark in his bedroom. These days, that’s not unusual. But he takes it one step further. It’s a bedroom album about that very bedroom. But, for an album about sleep, Only When It’s Dark probably isn’t very conducive to it. A layered, dense production, these nine tracks frame Hsiang’s lyrics with horns, strings, backing vocals, and much more. He alone plays seven instruments, and brings in a dozen-plus friends to do the rest. Grizzly Bear and The National offer obvious sonic touchstones, but, spiritually, this is the indie-rock successor to Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
1. Wolfhand – The Devil Arrives
“Spaghetti western doom metal” is how the band Wolfhand labels itself, and few zany genre tags are so dead-on accurate. Both components are equally present on this quintet’s debut, and they go together so well you wonder why it’s not a more common sound. The concept album follows a classic hero’s journey, in which a gunslinger takes on the titular Devil in a small western town. Now, this is a narrative you will have to imagine a bit for yourself; in true spaghetti western tradition, Wolfhand’s music is all instrumental. The difference is, it’s also heavy as hell. They should have called themselves Mörricöne.