Words by Quillen
Quillen is a friend, husband, dog dad, and lover of baseball, Twin Peaks (the tv show, not the band), and Final Fantasy VII through X. He has played drums since the mid-90s, most recently in bands called Lawnmower, Congress, and Natural Monuments. He is a co-host of the Tell Me All Your Thoughts on Pod podcast, where he gets to wax nostalgic about the music he grew up listening to with two of his absolute greatest buds.
10. KeiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl (self-released)
KeiyaA is an impeccably talented singer, musician, and producer who lives in Chicago. This, her largely self-produced debut full-length (that also features some production from DJ Blackpower, who may or may not be mentioned later on this list), sounds airy and relaxed. But, it’s actually quite focused and poignant R&B with DIY spirit and a lo-fi haze. These 16 tracks go by almost too quickly.
I don’t even know how to begin to describe Kate NV’s sound. There’s a little post-punk, some synth pop, some David Bowie-esque sax-driven art pop. There are even some songs that sound like PS1-era video game work (“Sayonara” in particular reminds me of “Martial Law” from the Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack). Room for the Moon is the closest a 2020 album came to sounding like last year’s amazing Cate Le Bon record, Reward. This is so much weirder than that, though.
Rory Allen Philip Ferreira, the artist formerly known as Milo, came out of nowhere for me to release one of the most stunning albums of the year, in all its psychedelic hip hop jam session glory. Purple Moonlight Pages is the definition of musical poetry, and it is a pure joy to listen to front to back. Hip hop hasn’t sounded this gorgeous to me since To Pimp a Butterfly.
After messing around in the chillwave zone in the early 2010s under their Teams moniker, Sean Bowie switched things up in 2015 by crafting dark, challenging, sparse and haunting sample-based experimental tunes. For me, 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love is peak Yves, but the hard turn they made for Heaven to a Tortured Mind is nothing to scoff at. Bowie has added a band behind them, and they’re now playing twisted, sexy, arty rock’n’roll with a funk and R&B hue. I hear references to Prince, the other Bowie (David), and even some Zeppelin, yet it is all unquestionably Yves.
Have We Met was my first favorite 2020 album early on in the year before the earth was torn asunder by COVID-19. Dan Bejar has been on an absolute tear since 2011’s Kaputt, and this is his best since then. It’s perhaps a little less diverse in sound compared to Poison Season (2015) and Ken (2017), but I really love when he visits this smoky, seedy underground nightclub realm.
I’ve been a fan of Zack Schwartz since his days in emo/punk/indie rock group Glocca Morra and really enjoy his more recent chaotic dream pop band The Spirit of the Beehive. 2020 saw the release of his debut album/mixtape as Draag Me, which is both a dissection and extension of his previous works, while being so much more. The kaleidoscopic, genre-shifting nature of I Am Gambling With My Life, which combines electro-pop, chillwave, hip hop, dream pop, punk, and club music, is the main selling point. And, then you put in the work to find all the melodicism buried within. What a beautiful mess of a record.
When Jay Electronica essentially surprise-released A Written Testimony back in March, I had seen his name before, but knew virtually nothing about him. On a whim I checked it out and was floored, and for the first half of 2020 it was my favorite hip hop album. The lush production is absolutely the highlight for me, but the trading off of verses between Electronica and Jay-Z are equally as special. “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and “A.P.I.D.T.A.” make for one of the best album endings of the year but the run from “The Blinding” through “Universal Soldier” is unstoppable in its own right.
It’s a toss up between Yves Tumor and King Krule for my favorite artist of the past five years. Good thing it doesn’t matter – they both rule. I rarely want to leave Archy Marshall’s murky Red Room/Black Lodge soundscapes. While Man Alive! doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2017’s The Ooz, he continues to be one of modern music’s most forward thinking and absolute greatest composers and producers. Also, I could listen to him mumble nonsense while banging out those jazz guitar chords all day.
Haim’s 2013 debut, Days Are Gone, was a fantastic introduction to the band, and I feel like they hit their stride on 2017’s somehow underrated Something to Tell You. However, on their latest, Women in Music Pt. III, the Haim sisters present the best version of themselves, thus far, at least. They extend their Fleetwood Mac worship and throw in homages to Sheryl Crow, Prince, and 90s R&B. There are a wide array of sounds here, and they all happen to work wonderfully. If it wasn’t for a certain rapper and producer that I’ve become completely obsessed with over the past couple years, this would have been my favorite album of 2020.
1. MIKE – Weight of the World (10K)
I have become such a sucker for the current underground hip hop sound. It is so easy for me to get lost in the chopped and screwed, warped and slowed down or sped up sample work. The DIY aspect of it is really attractive to me as well. Hailing from NYC, MC and producer MIKE (his producer alias is DJ Blackpower) is at the forefront of this sound, and for good reason. His nonchalant and emotional flow can be both devastating and comforting, and his choice in samples hits all my funk and soul sweetspots. 2019’s Tears of Joy was near perfect, but MIKE has taken things to the next level here.
Fun fact: my #10 entry, Keiya, actually produced a couple of the songs on Weight of the World, most notably my favorite song, “Get Rich Quick Scheme.”