Gray Days and Gold: Best of 2020
Hello, friends. I may be one of the few music nerds who isn’t much into ranking and rating, which is why I’ve eschewed a numbered list. Especially in a year when everyone who dropped new music deserves a participation trophy just for showing up under the worst circumstances, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of these records is ten or twenty times better than another. (And there are surely many worthy releases which have simply escaped my attention or I haven’t had the time or mental bandwidth to accommodate. It’s always a game of catch-up.)
But I’ve selected 25 releases from this past year which represent why I launched Gray Days and Gold in the first place: remarkable artists whose work is—with the exception of probably two items here—being overlooked by the music press powers that be (whose own “best of” lists are noteworthy mostly for their homogeneity).
Please enjoy this Spotify mix of the best of 2020 (minus a couple of items missing from their library). If you like what you hear, there’s all of this and more in the archives—including newly-created (if, QED, slightly incomplete) Spotify playlists of each episode.
But more importantly, please consider supporting these deserving artists whose business model—precarious as it already was—has been completely upended. If you like to make purchases on Bandcamp Fridays (when the platform waives its fees so that artists receive more money), there are already four slated through Spring 2021:
- February 5
- March 5
- April 2
- May 7
That said, there’s no need to wait; every day’s a good day to buy music.
Gray Days and Gold: Best of 2020
George Ogilvie — White Out • BUY
This debut album from the Brighton, UK songwriter is the height of melagance (melancholy elegance). Warm, spacious arrangements and singing that’s understated but full of yearning.
A Girl Called Eddy — Been Around • BUY
After a sixteen year absence, Erin Moran returned with an album of timeless Bacharach/Nyro/McAloon–style singer-songwriter pop which combines the aching melancholy of her magnificent self-titled 2004 debut with more brightness and joy.
The Magic Lantern — The Life That I Have EP • BUY
Only 24 minutes, but every moment is beautiful and deliberate, full of unexpected sounds and textures. Jamie Doe’s soft-edged voice floats above it all like a feather on a breeze.
Odessey & Oracle — Crocorama • BUY
French-language chamber psychedelia. Melodic, kinetic and colorful, reveling in a broad palette of organic, analog sounds.
The Cleaners from Venus — Dolly Birds & Spies • BUY
Already relentlessly productive, lockdown gave Martin Newell an excuse to record one LP and two EPs in 2020 (not to mention the additional release of a 2018 performance with indie-folk collaborators The Hosepipe Band). His resolutely low-fi, no-fuss approach means that a bare minimum of guitar and drum-machine sounds are doing most of the work here, but his wordsmithery is top-notch and he’s still turning out songs that are by turns sharp, charming, haunting, and—as in “Call Me Aspie,” an ode to his late-life Aspergers diagnosis which finally shed light on a lifetime of feeling misunderstood—touching.
The Carmelittles — Wreath • BUY
One-man wonder Henri Poilevey’s debut album is a superbly-crafted cornucopia of orchestral indie pop, bursting with ideas and dynamism. Not just an album, but a journey.
This Is the Kit — Off Off On • BUY
Kate Stables’s voice is the balm that soothed 2020, so we were fortunate to have a double-dose: both here and on the Cabane album (below). The tension and anxiety in the lyrics are perfectly balanced by the cozy, enveloping instrumentation.
Ryan Power — Mind the Neighbors • BUY
The album wafts by so gently—and at less than 32 minutes, quickly—that one might not immediately notice the intricate harmonies, unexpected chord changes, subtly gorgeous string and horn arrangements (by Simon Hanes) and dark humor in the lyrics. (Since the album’s not streaming outside of Bandcamp, here’s an unofficial video for the track I would have included in my playlist, “The Slime”.)
Owen Pallett — Island • BUY
Whether or not you quite follow the songs’ storyline of the character Lewis (and his relationship with his godlike creator, Owen), the record—recorded with the London Contemporary Orchestra—is stirring and evocative.
Farmer — Winter EP • BUY
The debut solo EP by Michael Farmer (Cold Spells) is an exuberantly orchestrated melding of pop and classical sensibilities, full of motifs that—like the cover illustration—weave and recombine in numerous ways, creating a seamless song suite that rewards repeat listening.
Kevin Godley — Muscle Memory • BUY
Apart from its interesting origin story—compositions were solicited from strangers—this long-awaited return from the former 10cc/Godley & Creme member shows that his lyrical ideas (a bit dark and despairing they may be), melodic sense and vocal abilities are as sharp as ever.
Fleet Foxes — Shore • BUY
I’ll admit to being a new convert; their early indie-folk wasn’t my thing, but this is a powerhouse of rich harmonies, textures and atmospherics.
Moses Sumney — Grae • BUY
I’ve compared him to Kate Bush—fearlessly, innately individualistic, making music that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of genres, tropes or fashions. Pure expression on a different playing field from everyone else.
Chloë March — Starlings & Crows • BUY
A stunningly lovely blend of electronic and orchestral jewel tones, sensitive vocals and diaphanous compositions, this record envelops and holds you to its chest where you can feel its beating heart.
Momus — Vivid • BUY
Keenly observant globe-trotter Momus is generally first out of the gate to write a song about any significant cultural or sociopolitical moment, so it’s no surprise that his initial musical response to lockdown (the song “Working from Home”) appeared before the end of March. What’s impressive about his COVID-centric album isn’t so much his speed as that he’s so deft at distilling a cultural moment—while it’s still happening—with such insight, humor, vulnerability, and musical originality.
Tunng Presents…DEAD CLUB • BUY
The UK group had already begun their exploration of different cultural practices and beliefs surrounding death before 2020 arrived, making this album unexpectedly prescient for a year with a high body count. Thoughtful, enlightening and, dare I say, uplifting.
It’s Immaterial — House for Sale • BUY
Thirty years on from their previous album, the Liverpool duo finally completed work on a project begun in 1993 without betraying a hint of age. Timelessly elegant and sophisticated, this is highly recommended for fans of The Blue Nile. (Again, since the album’s not on any of the usual streaming platforms, here’s an unofficial video for the track “Just North of Here,” which first surfaced a decade ago.)
Alex Pester — Seasons • BUY
Heartfelt expressions of love rendered with a breezy, pastoral, acoustic palette. Between the sincere, easygoing kindness of the songs and the warm, woody tones of the stringed instruments and Pester’s voice, this record is exactly what the cover depicts—a musical hug.
Orwell — Parcelle Brillante • BUY
Jérôme Didelot’s first album in five years, doing what he does best: lush, lightly-psychedelic, swoon-worthy baroque pop.
Cabane — Grande Est La Maison • BUY
Probably the most beautiful album you’ll hear all year. Belgian Thomas Jean Henri, with assistance from a global array of contributors (Kate Stables, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Sean O’Hagan being the most recognizable names), has created a masterpiece of understatement.
Alex Rand — Alex Rand • BUY
This young Montreal artist has little to say about these brief nine tracks; only that they were recorded a few years ago during his late teens/early 20s. But theres no naïveté here—it’s a master class in deconstruction and reinvention of the pop song format, melodically and sonically rich and unexpected at every turn.
Andrew Wasylyk — Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation • BUY
An instrumental album inspired by the region around the artist’s home of Dundee Scotland, this is a full-bodied collection of memorable, evocative melodies painted in varied hues—hints of jazz orchestra, gauzy nostalgia, classical textures, groovy soundtrack, and much more. Wonderful.
Louis Philippe & The Night Mail — Thunderclouds • BUY
The overdue return of one of the finest tunesmiths of the past half-century. Setting aside his past tendency toward Brian Wilson–esque studio craft for a faster and freer collaborative effort, Philippe and UK trio The Night Mail have unsurprisingly produced a subtle, sophisticated album full of emotional heft.
Thanya Iyer — Kind • BUY
The Montreal group ruminates on issues of self-care, identity and connection, in a comforting sonic space that includes playful experimentation with rhythms, textures and harmonies.
Brendan Eder Ensemble — To Mix With Time • BUY
The truest and best possible manifestation of ‘chamber pop’—instrumental chamber music with a pop music sensibility. Lilting and propulsive like the flight path of a butterfly, with flutes and oboes where the guitars would normally be, this Los Angeles composer’s masterful and charming album walked out of my dreams and into my arms.
Happy new year, and I look forward to more music discoveries with you in 2021. If you have questions, suggestions, opinions, etc. please feel free to contact me. And if you’d like to receive these posts via email, you can sign up for my newsletter here.