Noise Floor’s Best of 2020

The 1975 at Agganis Arena, May 2019

Another year-end list! Who cares!

Normally, this time of year finds me putting together a giant retrospective list of my favorite gigs and photos of the past twelve months, with an albums list sometimes tacked on at the end. As 2020 draws to a close, the idea of recapping 2.3 months of shows at all my favorite closed-forever venues feels too depressing to bear, so I will not be doing it. Julian Casablancas singing at these cops was the live music moment of the year and we will leave it at that.

That said, I guess I did put a little more thought/effort/agonizing into my year-end albums list this time around, just to feel something. I always try to approach year-end ranking as more of snapshot of my taste at the time than any sort of objective truth – both because I tend to disagree with my own lists shortly after finalizing them and because no one should take lists that seriously – but that feels especially true this year. I’ve listened to something like 350 new records since January, and in narrowing them down, themes emerged. Whether via Jeff Rosenstock’s earworm vignettes of hyper-modern anxiety, Touché Amoré’s cathartic hymns to inner turmoil or Phil Elverum’s expansive autobiographical opus, the records that most moved me this year grappled explicitly with the baffling ordeal of simply existing.

It was Elverum’s Microphones in 2020, his first under that moniker since 2003, that wound up topping the year for me. We covered some extensive analysis on that record here back in August, and four months later I still haven’t heard another project that approaches its scope and emotional heft. The record’s single 44-minute song is part resurrection, part oral history and part evolution – an application of the increasingly diaristic lens Elverum has favored in recent years as Mount Eerie to the story of his early creative life that’s as much about those Microphones records and Elverum’s youth as it is about the drive to create in the face of a confounding and unfeeling world – an embrace of “admitting that each moment is a new collapsing building” but pushing forward with whatever you’re doing anyway. What more can you do?

Elsewhere, the weighted-blanket guitars of Hum’s surprise comeback, Sufjan’s feel-bad electo-epic and the 51 minutes of raw nerve that was Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters offered comfort in times that were rarely anything less than trying. I also loved the new 1975 record, for very different reasons. In a totally miserable year that lent itself to music that engaged in misery, the kaleidoscopic fourth record from Matty Healy & co. overflowed with genre agnosticism and sunny hooks that miraculously made things feel sort of normal on sunny weekend drives.

The Dogleg record is a total rager; as good as everyone says it is. Oranssi Pazuzu solidified themselves as one of the most forward-thinking and purely out-there acts in all of metal with Mestarin kynsi. Joseph D’Agostino’s post-Cymbals Eat Guitars debut as Empty Country landed as resonantly as his old band’s best work. Nicolas Jaar had a wildly underappreciated year. Cut Worms’ sophomore double LP was a stunner that went tragically overlooked. Fontaines D.C. impressed by following up last year’s punchy debut with a thoughtful step forward in a flash. Higher Power’s 27 Miles Underwater deserves all the credit in the world for powering me through many miles of running this summer. The Avalanches got a competitive list spot in just under the wire (Whole Lotta Red‘s Christmas Day drop is still sinking in). The New Abnormal presented a gracefully aging Strokes effectively enough to have me caring about new Strokes material for the first time in years. NIN’s double-dose of dark ambient LPs cultivated a timely headspace. Krill (sort of) came back! And even though it takes til the 25th spot on this list to get to any death metal, there was a pretty good slate of imposing madness in that genre this year between the Ulcerate, Voidceremony, Black Curse and Necrot LPs.

An interlude for a few miscellaneous superlatives:

  • Best artwork for a Blue Note record I listened to for the first time this year – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Indestructible

I feel like I might’ve written something here about never starting a Substack over the summer, or maybe I just thought it forcefully and imagined writing it. I don’t think newsletters are a bad thing (I’ve enjoyed many this year – Larry Fitzmaurice’s “Last Donut of the Night” and Zachary Lipez’s “Abundant Living” among my favorites), but something about the increasingly old-fashioned blog format still feels like The Way to me. That, and I feel a tad resentful of folks who were able to make something of 2020, career-wise. At the end of the weirdest year of my life in “”media,”” I have no idea where I’ll stand when things return to whatever version of normal there’ll be post-vaccine. I barely freelanced in any form in 2020, and didn’t write a word for a publication other than this one after March. Some of this was unavoidable for someone whose work revolves almost entirely around live music, some attributable to the ever-crumbling media landscape in Boston and beyond, and another chunk of it probably rooted in self-sabotage. Point being – with full awareness that I’m among the lucky in the grand scheme of the COVID nightmare – this year was really hard. Music absolutely got me through it – all the records mentioned here, a campaign to finally get into jazz, fully embracing 100 gecs – but engaging with it creatively or journalistically was a constant uphill battle (which, mercifully, summer contributors including my good friends Terence Cawley, Nick Calvino and Mike Doub valiantly helped me to fight).

Even listening felt harder this year! Absent the rhythms of commuting and showgoing and otherwise leaving the house, a seemingly endless series of identical days knocked the new album experience loose from the contexts that help form connections and solidify future favorites. Fully forgetting a record I just heard has never been easier, which…hasn’t felt great.

My sincere hope is for a 2021 that’s not like this; for a spring that lets us gather and drink and hear music and feel like human beings again; for a renewed appreciation in late door times and $6 tallboys and mediocre opening sets; for never having to pretend that a glitchy Zoom performance is a valid stand-in for a show ever again; and for all those things to re-spark some of the passion for writing and shooting and playing that this cloud of isolated misery has stifled for so many of us.

No grand thesis here, I’m just burnt out on collective trauma and going-out-of-business announcements and staring at my laptop like everyone else. Bad year!

Anyway, here is the ranked top 50 I cobbled together for 2020, plus another chunk of alphabetical honorable mentions comprised of things I liked but definitely didn’t spend enough time with, with apologies to whatever stuff I forgot. And yet another playlist.

  1. The Microphones, Microphones in 2020
  2. Jeff Rosenstock, NO DREAM
  3. The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
  4. Touché Amoré, Lament
  5. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
  6. Hum, Inlet
  7. Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension
  8. Oranssi Pazuzu, Mestarin kynsi
  9. Nicolas Jaar, Telas
  10. Dogleg, Melee
  11. Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind
  12. Cut Worms, Nobody Lives Here Anymore
  13. Empty Country, Empty Country
  14. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
  15. Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today
  16. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
  17. Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death
  18. Higher Power, 27 Miles Underwater
  19. Destroyer, Have We Met
  20. The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You
  21. Against All Logic, 2017-2019
  22. Spanish Love Songs, Brave Faces Everyone
  23. Horse Lords, The Common Task
  24. Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts VI / Ghosts V
  25. Ulcerate, Stare Into Death and Be Still
  26. Young Jesus, Welcome to Conceptual Beach
  27. Shabaka and the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here by History
  28. Adrianne Lenker, songs / instrumentals
  29. The Strokes, The New Abnormal
  30. Porridge Radio, Every Bad
  31. Vile Creature, Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
  32. Special Interest, The Passion Of
  33. Knot, Knot
  34. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
  35. Voidceremony, Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel
  37. Stephen Malkmus, Traditional Techniques
  38. Black Curse, Endless Wound
  39. Chubby and the Gang, Speed Kills
  40. Freddie Gibbs / The Alchemist, Alfredo
  41. Bill Callahan, Gold Record
  42. Spirit Adrift, Enlightened in Eternity
  43. Fleet Foxes, Shore
  44. Rico Nasty, Nightmare Vacation
  45. Drouth, Excerpts from a Dread Liturgy
  46. Necrot, Mortal
  47. Sweeping Promises, Hunger for a Way Out
  48. Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was
  49. Drakeo the Ruler, Thank You For Using GTL
  50. Boris, NO
    • 21 Savage / Metro Boomin, Savage Mode 2
    • Adulkt Life, Book of Curses
    • Armand Hammer, Shrines
    • Bambara, Stray
    • Bartees Strange, Live Forever
    • Boldy James / The Alchemist, The Price of Tea in China
    • Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman
    • Boris / Merzbow, 2R0I2P0
    • Nels Cline Singers, Share the Wealth
    • Deftones, Ohms
    • Gorephilia, In the Eye of Nothing
    • Gulch, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
    • Christian Lee Hutson, Beginners
    • Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You?
    • Lamp of Murmurr, Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism 
    • Liturgy, Origin of the Alimonies
    • Thurston Moore, By the Fire
    • The Mountain Goats, Songs for Pierre Chuvin
    • Mr. Bungle, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny
    • Muzz, Muzz
    • Bill Nace, Both
    • Nap Eyes, Snapshot of a Beginner
    • Oceanator, Things I Never Said
    • Oneohtrix Point Never, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
    • Open Mike Eagle, Anime, Trauma and Divorce
    • Osees, Protean Threat
    • Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song
    • Pallbearer, Forgotten Days
    • Owen Pallett, Island
    • Pink Siifu, NEGRO
    • Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
    • Polo G, The Goat
    • Ratboys, Printer’s Devil
    • Retirement Party, Runaway Dog
    • REZN, Chaotic Divine
    • Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Sideways to New Italy
    • Emma Ruth Rundle / Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full
    • Sad13, Haunted Painting
    • SAULT, Untitled (Rise)
    • Soccer Mommy, color theory
    • Sprain, As Lost Through Collision
    • Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You
    • Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling
    • Taylor Swift, folklore
    • Woods, Strange to Explain