The relationship you have music is one of the most personal you will ever hold. It can enhance your mood, whatever frame of mind you’re in, and it can act as an evocative pathway to recall some of the life events you cherish the most. It can build relationships, create lifelong friendships and offer a sense of community that feels like no other. It feeds life.
At this time of year, it is customary for publications to publish their end of year list. They will to tell you what the best records of the year are, and rank them in the order they deem signifies their quality. It is a concept that has existed as long as people have been buying music. This arbitrary listing of music, while providing the fodder for endless pub arguments (or Zoom arguments, it is 2020 after all!), dispels the personal and tries to quantify the unquantifiable.
At Secret Meeting, we celebrate the music we love. Given our wide range of contributors, it would be wrong for us to try and create a list of albums that we feel is definitive. It never will be. So, instead, we have given our writers – as well as some of the artists we love – the chance to explain why they hold the affection they do for some their favourite music from 2020.
Chris Hatch (writer)
When Destroyer ushered in the start of 2020 with Have We Met?, it should have been enough to warn us of the crazy year that was about to come. Opening up a Pandora’s box of synths, modulators, and drum machines, the record had the feel of some futuristic, dystopian soundscape, meanwhile, Dan Bejar sounded like the poet laureate of binary code – his lyrics warning us of an impending societal doom, and declaring that ‘the idea of the world is no good’.
Likewise, Working Men’s Club’s much anticipated debut also dealt with an electronic gloom – but in contrast to the Destroyer record, lead singer, Syd Minsky-Sargeant, wrestles with more personal themes of isolation and anxiety over danceable beats that borrowed from acid house and industrial dance music to create one of the best debut records of recent years.
Sandwiched in between these two releases was the second full-length from Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To New Italy. A record that saw pop hooks and shimmering blasts of catchiness burst forth through a new layer of complexity in their songwriting – in a year clouded with uncertainty and change, Sideways To New Italy has been the perfect tonic.
New album, SISTER, available now on 37d03d
Well, they happen to be on 37d03d too, but I have been playing the Bonny Light Horseman record almost every day since it came out. I just love the space it creates in me every time I play this music. I feel peaceful and rested. Also, I am pretty mesmerised by Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief – songs shows her to be the hidden daughter of Bill Callahan and Beth Gibbons. And my friend Thousand’s music. His last album, Au Paradis, is marvellous.
Craig Howieson (writer)
As seems to happen most years, I find myself becoming re-obsessed with an old favourite. 2020, for me, was largely characterised by a deep dive into the back catalogue of Guided By Voices. So when I first heard the 2nd Grade record, Hit To Hit, who cite GBV as a major influence, I was immediately hooked. Packed with 24 tracks that rarely break the 90 second mark, it shares the same freewheeling disregard for genre as their idols – melding the surreal with the sublime and ending up sounding like Weezer covering the Beach Boys – a feel good triumph of a record.
Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers was far and away the most comforting album for me this year: a meticulously measured document of hope and heartbreak, she remains one of the most exciting voices in country.
Finally, Lomelda’s Hannah is perhaps the record that I have listened to most. A huge surge forward in scope and ambition from an artist who already has a number of great records to her name, Hannah‘s disintegrated indie pop acts like a calming mirror, reflecting back a positive message that things will work out eventually.
Phillip Jon Taylor
Essential Maintenance for Human Happiness is available now through Bandcamp
The Phoebe Bridgers’ record, Punisher, has been on a lot when I’m out and about on walks. Bill Callahan’s new album, Gold Record, too. My favourite album so far from this year, though, is the new Bright Eyes, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was. It’s provided some very overdue familiarity in feeling energised by new music. It’s been a while for me that I’ve been excited to hear new work from a group that I’ve always felt my heart responding to like that. Really great record.
Phil Scarisbrick (writer)
In a year that has seen the world have so much joy ceaselessly sapped from its inhabitants, those little victories of hearing a brilliant new record for the first time have become more important than ever. The way it hooks you in, hypnotises you and makes you forget the vacuum that existed before its presence truly is a gift. Eve Owen’s debut, Don’t Let The Ink Dry, caught me totally off guard to sucker punch me with its glorious brilliance.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher had a similar effect, with both providing the emotional pathos that helped cement the human connection many of us had missed this year.
Owen’s 37d03d label-mate, Mina Tindle, returned in October with a record in SISTER that hit home the importance of living in the moment, and was barely off my turntable for weeks.
Copies of Issue 7 of the Secret Meeting zine – featuring Hovvdy on the cover – are available here
Charlie – Gia Margaret’s Mia Gargaret is on every day at my house. I really love it. There’s also this artist out of Denton, used to go by William Austin Clay, but he has a new alias Yalc 123. It’s like the music of the future. He’s a producer and elementary school teacher and we’ve been playing shows with him since we were all in college. A completely brilliant performer and highly underrated. The new Lomelda record, Hannah, too – she’s a good friend.
Will – Dijon’s How do you feel about getting married? is a little EP he put out this year and there’s just so much to say about it. It feels like every song is about to blow up then it doesn’t so you just listen to it again.
Stewart Cheetham (writer)
Julianna Barwick’s Healing Is a Miracle has been a weekly regular on my turntable since its release back in July. The ambient record is beautiful, engrossing, spacious and – at times – verges on the overwhelming. It offers layer upon layer of looped vocals, bass synth and choral arrangements to slowly lose yourself in.
Canadian singer-songwriter, Andy Shauf, delivered my most played album of this year with Neon Skyline. The whole record takes place one night at a bar where he hears his ex is back in town; its brilliantly witty and dry humoured writing is delivered in Shauf’s unmistakably unique Saskatchewan twang making it a really easy but captivating listen.
The ever-consistent Bill Callahan returned this year with Gold Record – there is less of an overarching flow compared to the album that preceded it, as this is more a collection of snapshots where Callahan navigates the American landscape through his songwriting. The 54-year-old casts his lens over mundane themes – avoiding the neighbours, watching TV and making breakfast, and on opening track, Pigeons, he assumes the role of a limousine chauffeur – driving a pair of newlyweds over the border to their honeymoon in Mexico; it really does have to be one of my all-time favourite Callahan tracks.
Francis of Delirium
I feel the need to put a disclaimer that it was painfully difficult for me to choose just three, as I’m sure it was for everyone. Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now: The songs on here have so much energy and make you want to breathe fire, they’re just great to move around to. There have been times where I’d go on a run and only listen to Pink Diamond for 30 mins straight.
Adrianne Lenker – songs: Adrianne manages to capture infinite space and feeling in such delicate and intimate recordings. Nothing makes me feel closer to the earth than her music.
HAIM – Women In Music pt.III: I’ve always had a complicated relationship with saxophones because there were always 1000 saxophones in band in high school and they were always loud and out of tune, but the saxophone on here is so beautiful and tasteful. There’s not a song I skip on the tracklist, and there’s very little fat anywhere on the album and every song has such a sticky hook. WIM pt.III is also a perfect album to drive to, which in quarantine feels necessary.
Philip Moss (writer)
During the early part of this year, Damien Jurado’s What’s New, Tomboy? was a constant on the turntable, and the lead single, Birds Tricked Into the Trees, was definitely my ‘go to’ running song during the first lockdown – always helping me over the line whenever I needed that extra kick during the final kilometre.
Over the last few weeks, though, there’s been two records, in particular, that I have kept going back to. The first is Don’t Shy Away – the stunning new LP from Loma, which is on another sonic level to their debut. Yes, the experimentations are scaled back from last year’s Cross Record, but it is as melodic as it is mediative – and one to really lose yourself in: think the ambience of Talk Talk meets the rhythmic rumbles of Talking Heads.
And the other is The Microphones in 2020. It really has been quite the four years for Phil Elverum. Having lost his wife in July 2016, the resulting album, A Crow Looked at Me, garnered the best critical acclaim of his career – only to be quickly followed by the brilliant Now Only, and Lost Wisdom 2 – one of the strongest collections of songs from his sprawling back catalogue. But where these three records looked back over the recent past, The Microphones in 2020, digs deeper into the archive of self. Just one long song, over a rambling 40 minutes, it grows from brash acoustic beginnings into sections of outright noise, and is everything I love about Phil Elverum’s career encapsulated across one record. I wouldn’t normally recommend a latest release as a starting point in an artist’s career, but if his work has evaded you, thus far, this would actually mark a great place to dive in.
New EP, Projections, is out now on Saddle Creek
Katie Day – My Data
Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope
Paddy Kinsella (writer)
Like many of us, music has been the thing that got me through 2020. It’s a fact that wrangles particularly uncomfortably knowing that, here at least, musicians were one of the first to be thrown on the scrapheap. Sitting in front of my record player has accounted for many of my most precious moments this year. Fiona Apple questioned the boundaries of music; turning the walls, the ground, and her body into instruments for one of the most innovative and percussive records of all-time on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. And I danced joyously / maniacally as the record rotated.
Adrianne Lenker invited us into the one-room cabin she built in the woods of Massachusetts and let the sounds of nature – the river running, the rain pounding, the birds chirping – coalesce with her frankly perfect new LP, songs. And I lifted the needle when Zombie Girl finished and put it back to the start, so I could fight back the tears all over again.
Courtney Marie Andrews looked back on a ten-year relationship with incredible dignity and maturity on Old Flowers. Concluding the record with the words, ‘I send you love / and nothing more’. And from my chair set in front of my record player, I admired her honesty greatly. As so much of the world has fallen apart this year, that seat in-front of my record player has represented something of a safe haven. A huge thank you to musicians for again getting us through another hard time. I only hope governments across the world start to appreciate how important your work is for the mind and spirit as we do.
Peter Gill (2nd Grade)
Peter Gill (2nd Grade)
2nd Grade’s sophomore album, Hit To Hit, is out now on Double Double Whammy
Personalia by Locate S,1 was a key record for me this year. Christina Schneider’s songwriting has always been a truly special force, marked by such humor & intelligence as it impossibly bridges the gap between pop’s pasts & futures. This time around, it’s a thrill to hear her applying herself to what I consider a big-statement pop record – the kind that is full of huge hooks & full-blown pop production & offers real perspective on the big picture of the mess we’re in.
Another record that really did it for me this year is Hannah by Lomelda. Like fellow Texas native, Townes Van Zandt, Lomelda, for me, has a way of getting to the heart of what’s real in a way that is so brave, serious, merciful, deceptively simple, and utterly unique. Music in touch with the mystery.
One more record I want to spotlight is God Bless Bob Ross by Shormey. This compilation of her lo-fi recordings from the last five years is warm, fun, & chaotic, bursting with ideas & frenetically paced in a way that reminds me of my favourite Guided By Voices records. It’s the sound of a superbly talented pop experimenter who won’t sit still.
Dave Bertram (writer)
As ever, it’s the records you keep turning back to. Mark (Jackson, writer) described Laura Marling perfectly as being one of the pre-eminent leads in modern songwriting in reviewing her seventh record, Song For Our Daughter; the songwriter that can deliver the pop-folk brilliance of Strange Girl alongside the heart breaking piano ballad Blow by Blow like no other.
In hot pursuit, self-titled Bonny Light Horseman debut has stayed at the top of the tree since January – Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman creating ‘a wonderful re-construction of traditional folk songs, fused cleverly with their own musical imaginings.’
And then Julianna Barwick’s Healing is a Miracle, an ambitious and outward-looking record which should be top of the list for any lover of ambience.
Helena, Herbal Tea
Herbal Tea recently released the cassette and digital EP, unwrap, via Bancamp
I absolutely adore Mia Gargaret by Gia Margaret – it’s so serene and soothing, which was so important during this year’s current circumstances. Just take a bath or watch the sunset and put this record on; you won’t regret it!
I also listened to Happyness’ new album, Floatr, a lot this year too – it has lots of fuzzy, dreamy quirks and things of beauty snuck in between just really great rock songs. My favourite track is piano ballad When I’m Far Away (From You).
I also really liked the new Sufjan Stevens’ record – The Ascension. I know others were on the fence, but I love electronic Sufjan, even if it is no Age of Adz. The writing and production has an obviously serious undertone and worry for the future of humanity, and while I know music is supposed to be a relief from those worries, they’re ones we can all relate to and makes me feel less alone.
Tobi Moore (writer)
Possessing an ability to weave intense, personal vulnerability into an album that feels such a collective, and, at points, humorous experience, Beginners is nothing short of a masterclass in songwriting. I remember speaking to Christian around the time of its release, and he discussed the effect that working with close friend, Phoebe Bridgers, had when creating this album and her advice is evident for all to see. Encouraging him to stick true to his gut and, rather than overcomplicate his work, the end result is simplicity that’s ever so endearing. Often stripped back to simply guitar and voice, but then jumping fearlessly straight into fanfare, Beginners has an adaptability to fit to just whatever you want of it. It’s the one album that has remained consistently ever-present within my year and one I couldn’t be without. And to think, all this from an aptly named debut LP.
My soundtrack to Autumn was an album by the masters of seasonal transition. Shore, for sure, was the album nobody expected, but for me was most needed. Possessing all the signature vocal allure of Robin Pecknold, but against a tapestry refreshingly different to previous works, Fleet Foxes have provided themselves with room to reinvent their creative direction while still maintaining the identity that we know and love them for. I think this album is one that may go missing amongst the ocean of brilliant releases this year, but when you look at it, maybe that’s the point. Its flash emergence was never about reaching the masses, but its significance lies on a much more personal level. Shore’s reinvigorated sound shows an ability to adapt from the Seattle formed group and has allowed for them to not only please the preexisting cult-like following, but introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of Fleet Foxes.
My third and final album is one that could have gone to a multitude of artists, but, for me, it has to go to Tenci’s My Heart Is An Open Field. Yet another breathtaking debut, Shoman’s vocals are unparalleled in style, as she holds clear talent in painting such vivid landscapes, and crafts a warmth within her storytelling that feels as old as time. It won me over with its distinctive character and bravery in being bold, and I feel in Tenci we have the new face of modern Americana.
Tallulah Webb (Sad Club Records)
Sad Club Records releases can all be found here
The Beths are the ultimate festival band and Jump Rope Gazers almost managed to take the lack-of-festival-blues away with their beautiful indie goodness. This is b-2-b bangers. TOPS’ I Feel Alive is groovy indie rock at its finest.While Katy J Pearson’s Return was added as a really late but strong addition. She has nailed the blend of country and pop music, and it’s all hits. Everything is ALWAYS amazing with Katy J Pearson.
Adam Goldsmith (writer)
Over this dreary past year, I’ve drawn comfort from artists who are able to take command of their own anxieties through their music. Coming to terms with the new socially-distanced reality in the summer, there was something immediately arresting about Phoebe Bridgers’ second album Punisher. Dismantling traditional indie-folk genre lines with a smirk, Bridgers cemented her position as a master of her craft. Indeed, with everyday life at a standstill, it’s been the discovery of new artists like Bridgers and Happyness which has provided much-needed movement.
The latter’s release Floatr – a musical documentation of the glowing metamorphosis of drummer Ash Kenazi – felt like the perfect time to become familiar with the now-duo. The band’s dreamy slacker rock was a haze of positivity in the grey.
Then came Deep Down Happy. Sports Team’s fierce dedication to a mantra of taking absolutely nothing seriously provided welcome comic relief. It wasn’t just a laugh, though. Themes of middle-England disenfranchisement felt keenly topical, perfectly timed for the Rose Garden era of political chaos.
John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)
Getting Into Knives is out now on Merge Records
Rebel Wizard – Magical Mystikal Indifference
My Dying Bride – Ghost of Orion
Stephen Malkmus – Traditional techniques
Mia Hughes (writer)
With all of the strangeness of this year, I’ve found that it’s been tough for new music to take a hold on me. I’ve been much more inclined to retreat to the familiarity of old favourites than to give something new the time to really sink in. It took something truly exciting, refreshing and instantly recognisable as special to break through that and wake me up to the joy of new music discovery again; that being Live Forever by Bartees Strange. It’s an absolutely electrifying album, shifting constantly between sounds and moods in a way that demonstrates Strange’s sheer passion and joy for the music he makes. I think most everyone is in agreement that he’s the year’s most exciting breakthrough artist, and Live Forever is an easy choice for album of the year.
In second place is Petals for Armor by Hayley Williams. Paramore is my all-time favourite band, and I’ve long been interested in hearing a Williams solo album, so its placement isn’t all that surprising; still, the album took nothing for granted, reintroducing Williams as an artist completely with experimental and eclectic takes on pop music that we’ve never before heard her explore. Similar to Live Forever, there’s a palpable freedom to it that’s really exciting.
Finally, I’m choosing Making A Door Less Open by Car Seat Headrest for third place. This is another long-time favourite band of mine, yet with an expanded vision that marks a promising progression. Will Toledo has always been a brilliant songwriter, and that’s at the root of this record. But here it’s augmented with electronic elements and inventive production, creating something truly great that suggests a band pushing themselves beyond their boundaries.
The Sharon Van Etten approved songwriter’s EP, Our Heaviness, is out now
My favourite albums often grow on me over time, but Song for our Daughter had me hooked from the first listen. I’m a lifetime Laura Marling fan, so needed no convincing of her genius. Over the years, Marling has explored womanhood and femininity at length in her songwriting, but it has never moved me as much as in this album. These songs are simple, yet their simplicity only emphasises how expertly crafted they are.
An impressive sophomore album, the production on Punisher is beautiful and it contains as many lyrical zingers as you’d hope from a Phoebe Bridgers record. It’s place in my top albums of year was clinched, however, by the way these songs have become synonymous with the wild ride that has been 2020. The whole album has a feeling of isolation, introversion and acceptance; three things that certainly sum up my year. Plus, if you haven’t screamed along to the closing track of this album in your car then I think you just found a life changing addition to your self-care routine.
I must now publicly repent of the fact that I used to be a Taylor Swift hater. Not one of the ones harassing her online, just a standard issue indie kid who felt like dismissing a blond woman singing pop was a way of proving my superior tastes. Yet, Swift doesn’t need to prove herself as a songwriter; she’s hopped between genres with ease and received rave reviews every time. There’s some razor-sharp lyricism on Folklore; from the scathing takedown of gender expectations in Mad Woman to the moving depiction of loss and service in Epiphany. In this year where we’ve all had knocks to our livelihoods, confidence, maybe even identity, I found it strangely affecting to hear one of the world’s most successful musicians sing ‘I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try’.
Mark Jackson (writer)
To describe 2020 as a challenging year would be perhaps as monumental an understatement as the assertion itself rests true. Social isolation, employment instability, financial uncertainty, housing insecurity, and reduced access to physical and mental health services, have been catalysts to aggravate the mental health of people around the world. More so, the Covid-19 pandemic has diminished many of the mechanisms that people typically use to cope with stress. For me, like many, solace has been found in the sounds of my favourite records – many of which have had new life and meaning thrust upon them, while new records have become quite literally lifelines to channel emotions and avert crisis. In short, new music and those that bless us with it have become perhaps more important than ever before.
Just three weeks into the UK’s first full lockdown, the intriguingly unique and wonderfully talented Laura Marling released the unimaginably beautiful Song for Our Daughter. It is an album that tears up the blueprints of an already exquisite back catalogue of work and helps define Marling, at just 30, as one of the most creative and pre-eminent leads in modern songwriting.
With their self-titled Bonny Light Horseman release, Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson, and Josh Kaufman have achieved a beautiful songscape that has demanded attention since its January release. It’s an album that has rarely been off the turntable. Their wonderful re-construction of traditional folk songs, fused cleverly with their own musical imaginings, envelops a hypnotic charm and majestic brush of contemporary and sensual astral folk that I recommend to folk fans as essential listening.
Nadia Reid’s Out of My Province is arguably her best and most immediate record to date. A bright, expansive and goosebump inducing album that arouses the senses with the same warmth and embrace of time spent with loved ones that has been largely impossible, although much needed for us all throughout the year.
Laura’s debut album is released this Friday on Balloon Machine Records
At this point, it’s unnecessary to state what a surreal and unprecedented year 2020 has been – and continues to be. Now, approaching the end of it and looking back to its start, I’m able to identify some of the records that really helped carry me through. Released during lockdown, my album of the year has to be Laura Marling’s Song For Our Daughter. It was the measured, gentle voice of wisdom that I didn’t know I needed, but nonetheless subsequently had on repeat. Marling said she wanted to impart ‘all of the confidences and affirmations I found so difficult to provide myself’ to the imaginary daughter to whom the songs are written. This concept resonated deeply with me, intimately capturing the longing to go back to our younger selves and protect and pre-warn them, balanced against the knowledge that the suffering in between is the sole reason for the maturity and wisdom on the other side. The string arrangements on the album’s title track, and Fortune, are pure genius, full of sweeping sadness, and nostalgic lament. I also particularly enjoyed hearing Marling’s backing vocals – a rare occurrence on her previous records – with intricate, multi-layered harmonies echoing the idea of Marling directing the words to a past self. Also, Ethan Johns may well be my new favourite drummer – just saying.
Joseph Purcell (writer)
As is always the way, each year starts with a great sense of excitement for the musical delights ahead. Artists old and new have helped get many of us through a really difficult period and helped bring a smile to the face during the grind of the past eight months – sound tracking morning walks, as well as providing a refreshing interlude on the moments between relentless video calls. The album that provided this for me in the early part of the year, and in fact continued throughout, is the stunning St Cloud by Waxahatchee – a voyage of note perfect Americana through the eyes of Katie Crutchfield, as she wrestled with sobriety and love. I wasn’t really much of a fan of her earlier records, but this has been on the record player all year.
My second record comes from an artist who I hadn’t heard of until it was recommended to me by a friend earlier this year, that record is the magnificent Lost in the Country by Trace Mountains. The way in which Dave Benton talks about his insecurities and fragility, yet meets them head on with a message of perseverance – all to the brisk alt soundscapes – made this a treasured long player that I have returned to almost daily.
Finally, my third selection is Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was by Bright Eyes. Having been a big fan of Conor Oberst in whichever musical form he wishes to take, I was delighted when the announcement came for new material in 2020, and it felt like it arrived at the perfect moment. An album full of layers of sound – melting effortlessly with Oberst’s signature delivery – was a definitive highlight of the year for me.
Nich Sullivan (writer)
If Yves Tumour’s 2018’s Safe In The Hands Of Love was a dystopian ode to companionship, then Heaven To A Tortured Mind could perhaps be seen as a thesis on love in retrograde. Throughout the cycle are disruptive blastbeats, grooving syncopations, big beat horns, and relatable treatises on the tragic beauty of romantic love vis-à-vis the many disguises it wears. Sean Bowie’s uncanny ability to become a stylistic chameleon while dressing in the clothes of Yves Tumor is a major part of the draw, but altogether his version of ‘heaven’ comes across much more as heavenly than it does as tortured, which makes this easily his most cohesive and accessible LP to date.
In a year that saw many of us reaching for the bottle and even more of us aching for the simple pleasures of being social, Katie Crutchfield saw the need for a campfire album to help listeners mentally project themselves into the woods in an elegy for the memories of the before times – the resulting LP is as much that as it is an anticipatory aural songbook for the new version of the world to come. Cathartic and near-cataclysmic turns of phrase abound on Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud. Some find our heroine giving up on her superiority complex (‘I hover above like a deity / but you don’t worship me’) and others find her digging deep into the everyday for solace (‘We try to give it all meaning / glorify the grain of the wood’), but even these larger-picture meanderings only serve to emphasiSe the one thing that has always been true: our humanity is our saving grace.
Drew Daniel (The Soft Pink Truth) has crafted something here that proudly defies many of the labels it might have been saddled with. Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? is an absolute tour de force that fits comfortably inside the realms of experimental house, field recording, collagic ambient, and indie-electronic. But don’t be fooled by labels: what is presented here is a sonic amusement park that takes its pleasure in riding gentle waves of noise and watching them evolve into glorious melodies or finding the perfect balance of white noise over their admittedly glacial runtimes. Daniel has crafted a thinking person’s ambient record that rewards multiple listens with muted strands of pleasure. Not bad for an act that began in response to a dare.
Check out music from all of our selections on our Spotify playlist here:
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