At least we had good music: Best albums of 2020

COVID-19 may still be around but maybe these bops can help us forget about that for an hour or two

Some of this year's best albums

By: Winona Young, Peak Associate, Emma Jean, Staff Writer, Kim Regala, Peak Associate, Madeleine Chan, Opinions Editor, Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor

Peaceful as Hell by Black Dresses

Courtesy of Blacksquares Records

How do you find peace in a destructive world? In the case of Toronto-based artists Devi McCallion and Ada Rook, you find peace by creating techno music that is disorienting, discordant, and vulnerable. Ever since the pair began making music in 2017, the PC music scene has never been the same. Sonically, it’s clear that McCallion and Rook draw from a wide variety of musical influences — Auto-Tune, pop, glitch-pop, techno, screamo, indie, emo, and guttural anguish. But what stands out most about Black Dresses is that they are not afraid to make music that is more noise than harmony, and that they are living proof that trans women can stand at the forefront of cutting edge music. Peaceful as Hell is the duo’s third and final album, and it is as menacing as it is catchy and painfully honest. It ruminates on yearning, love,  being hopeful and hopeless, deep-seated fear, isolation, self-destruction, and of course, wanting to be cute and well-adjusted. Peaceful as Hell stands out as an album from 2020 that won’t fade out in music history. — Winona Young

You and Your Friends by Peach Pit

Courtesy of Columbia Records

If you’ve had even the slightest exposure to Vancouver’s local music scene, then you have definitely heard of Peach Pit. Some fan favourites include “Tommy’s Party” from their 2018 release of Being So Normal, and their hit single “Seventeen.” I had heard about the band plenty, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally got into them. In April, they released You and Your Friends, a collection of post-break up tunes so perfectly and conveniently timed (I’m looking at you, broken-up couples lost to the hot-iron strike of the pandemic). I remember listening to “Shampoo Bottles” for the first time, a song that alludes to the physical aftermath of a relationship that has ended. Despite never having lived with a significant other, I could resonate with the sentiments of reminiscing through mundane objects that hold remnants of your past together. Peach Pit takes you through the many perspectives of post-romance, yet does so in less-heartbreaking ways through their soft and vibrant surf rock sound. This album was my much needed pastel-coloured escape all throughout the summer, and for that it definitely deserves all the recognition. — Kim Regala

Show Pony by Orville Peck

Courtesy of Royal Mountain Records

With the deep warble of a 1950s cowboy, the instrumentation of an alt-rocker, and an undefeated aesthetic that combines queer camp with the Wild West, Orville Peck is a throwback to the folk storytelling tradition of country music; a refreshing antidote to the girls-beer-trucks-fest that constitutes most radio-friendly country today. 

The Canadian country-crossover artist hit the scene with his 2019 debut Pony and this six-track follow-up album builds on his repertoire. Each track encapsulates a different sound: “No Glory in the West” is a cryptic meditation where Peck’s low, buttery voice shines; “Legends Never Die” enlists Shania Twain as the album gets its closest to pop-country; “Summertime” brings gorgeous ambient instrumentation and a melody that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Lana Del Rey album. 

A stand-out from the album is a country staple cover performed through a queer lens, giving it a goosebump-inducing reinvention. “Fancy,” previously performed by the likes of Reba McEntire and told from the perspective of a young sex worker, brings a bolder, rawer side to Peck’s voice paired with spell-binding, slow burn instrumentation. 

Orville Peck’s boundary-pushing music is like little else on the music landscape today; get excited to giddy-up and see where this cowboy takes things next. — Emma Jean

Rainbow Boy by Keiynan Lonsdale

Independent artist and actor Keiynan Lonsdale released their first album this past May, and I cannot praise it enough. 14 tracks and a rich 49 minutes, it’s wonderfully expressive and feels like a slow unfurling of a cocoon. Some of my favourite bops include “Gay Street Fighter,” a queer anthem, “Rhythm & Music,” which is infectiously danceable, and “Rainbow Dragon.” The latter offers a scathing critique of the world’s injustices and the actor’s public perception with enraged lyrics like “This world’s on fire / But your desires make you think it’s fine.” In the penultimate interlude “One Man,” they sing an impassioned plea, tackling western individualism with the words: “If this world could just look in the mirror / It would see there’s a bigger plan / We’re so much more than one man.” 

The songs simultaneously have such a seething “fuck you, this is me” vibe and a wholesome “love yourself and the world around you” vibe. I would generally call its genre alt pop, containing elements of rap, doo-wop, and “spiritual” sounding instruments like chimes and harps. It hits emotional and rhythmic highs and lows and ends with an explosion of self-love and acceptance that you can hear through your speakers, and feel in your heart. — Madeleine Chan

Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple

Courtesy of Epic Records

Piano, screaming, dogs. Fiona Apple’s newest album has all this and more. I started listening out of skepticism after Pitchfork gave it a perfect rating but I was soon captivated. There’s an unbridled energy and a fuck-you edge to many of the songs. Apple plays around with tempos, beats, and sounds — literally banging on pots and pans or recording her dogs barking. It’s undeniable that Apple can sing but she is not trying for a polished, refined sound on the album, going between deep, growling vocals to ethereal ones, quiet to loud, adding in shaky breathing, spoken word, and chanting lyrics like mantras: “I need to run up that hill / I will I will I will.”

On “Heavy Balloon” Apple sings, “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / that I’m bursting at the seams.” Apple refuses to be held back and this album shows it. It’s experimental, raw, electrifying, flowing and explosive. It’s the perfect feminist rage album and Apple is making no apologies for it. She is “pissed off, funny, and warm” and I am here for it. — Meera Eragoda

Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

Courtesy of Dead Oceans

So far, 2020 has forced us to stare down the unblinking abyss of life. But singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers stared right back at the abyss, wide-eyed, and screamed herself hoarse for good measure in her album outro. Punisher stands as a testament to how unflinching Bridgers is in the face of pain, heart-ache, and peace. This album is her second release and proves she is a strong force in indie music who is not planning on stopping. Bridgers returned to music with her trademark ghostly vocals; she sounds almost hoarse and paper thin at times but proves to have incredible depth. Paired with her heart-wrenching lyrics (“I’m gonna kill you/ if you don’t beat me to it”), Bridgers accomplished what so few can do: she created compelling and distinct songs about sadness with varying shades of complex emotion that pair with each song. From disappointment about well-meaning but destructive lovers (“Moon Song”), or resenting an absentee father who beg for forgiveness (“Kyoto”), or even the slow resignation about the end of humankind altogether (“I Know the End”), Bridgers writes poignant and rich songs which speak not only to her vulnerability as a songwriter but how powerful she is at her craft. — Winona Young