Just for Fun – 2020 Top New Music Plays
a 10-minute read, but many hours of fun if you choose …
Happy New Year! Hope you are having a meaningful holiday season and are looking forward to 2021.
Welcome to my 2020 top new music plays letter. I prepare this every year to connect with friends.
While all art forms are ultimately different expressions of similar human experiences, I especially like to follow new music. It helps me stay current with evolving perspectives and trends … and it is so much fun!
There is too much new music released every year for anyone to hear it all, so I enjoy sharing my music “finds” with others who might appreciate them. I am not a musician and certainly not an artful music critic. I am just someone who likes what he likes and respects that others may feel differently.
There are two lists below for you to enjoy, one list of top new music albums for 2020 and a second list of new artists to track in 2021. My bias is generally toward new artists and music I find interesting and enjoyable enough to listen many times. I do not like working hard to listen to music, so I hope you might find the artists listed below interesting, even if they are outside your usual listening habits.
The issues of the day are reflected in the art and music of 2020, including the pandemic, social reckoning, economic inequality and political conflicts. The themes of the year carry through much of the music below.
As art typically does, much of this year’s music reflects the angst of the times. While there is some great art in the anger, I just don’t dwell there with repeat listens.
I sense I have been a more patient and open listener during the slowdown this year more than before. My appreciation of R&B and more deliberate story telling has grown. Still, my lists leave out much of the extreme anger as I do not enjoy it repeatedly.
There was much less new music in 2020 than typical. Many artists postponed their new music releases during 2020 because they couldn’t tour behind them or didn’t want their music to get lost among everything else. There will be a great rush of new music and creativity as we move beyond the pandemic. Even so, some artists took the opposite view in 2020 and embraced the year with new music and changes in artistic direction. My #1 and #2 artists below represent four amazing albums released in 2020!
With respect to recurring critics’ top picks such as Phoebe Bridgers, Lil Uzi Vert, The Weeknd, Bad Bunny and others not listed here … I simply found myself coming back to the albums listed below instead.
So, here we go. If you find the time, open your heart, your mind, your attention and give ‘em a listen. Music touches people differently. You may not like it all, but hopefully, you discover some music you had not enjoyed previously.
You can easily sample all the artists on the two Spotify playlists (>5 hours of fun) or otherwise direct your attention to specific artists listed below.
Scott's 2020 Top New Music (65 songs from 25 artists)
Scott's 2021 Artists to Watch (32 songs from 11 artists)
Please let me know what you think! If I missed some new music that you liked during 2020, please drop me a note. I enjoy checking out your “finds” too.
Best wishes throughout 2021. We are blessed in so many ways.
Top New Music of 2020
25. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”
This is the American singer/songwriter’s first album in eight years. If art is about connecting with oneself emotionally and finding ways to express your growth and liberation, then this is Exhibit A of greatness. "So, I guess the message in the whole record is just: Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation you’re in, whatever it is that you don’t like. Even if you can’t do it physically." This album is number one on so many lists, but it is a difficult listen for me. So, we can start the countdown with greatness. Listen toFetch on Spotify or Fetch on Apple.
24. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Reunions”
Alabaman Jason Isbell has had a storied career, first known as a member of Drive-By Truckers, and since then a mix of seven albums of highly decorated Americana as soloist and with his Muscle Shoals-based band the 400 Unit. In an earlier era, much of this material would climb the charts. Isbell is a songwriter at the peak of his craft right now. Listen toReunions on Spotify or Reunions on Apple.
23. Rose City Band, “Summerlong”
Psychedelic country folk. Yes, that is a great description of this collective led by Portland, Oregon native Ripley Johnson. This is their second album which move closer to country than the first, but feels like a mellow mix of 70’s style country and Grateful Dead-inspired jamming. The songs move from commanding attention to providing more of a background vibe. Listen to Summerlong on Spotify or Summerlong on Apple.
22. IDLES, “Ultra Mono”
Idles is a British punk band from Bristol. Their third album blends driving riffs, brawny choruses and a mix of earnestness and anger. In short, it’s great energy and attitude in a surprising listenable punk bundle. I am certain they sound even better with a bouncy, sweaty crowd. Listen toUltra Mono on Spotify or Ultra Mono on Apple.
21. Brent Cobb, “Keep ‘Em on They Toes”
This is the 4th album for the artist from Georgia in the US. He calls his music “country music for grown folks.” It is a smooth set espousing simple wisdom, following your heart and not sweating the small stuff. Easy like a Sunday morning. Listen to Keep 'Em on Spotify or Keep 'Em on Apple.
20. Yungblud, “Weird”
Dominic Harrison is a 23-year-old British singer, songwriter and actor, already established with 9million monthly listeners on Spotify. He has been referred as the new sound of punk, taking on varied topics such as sexual assault, guns and mental health. He says, “I never want to be predictable. If people know what I'm going to do next, then I'm completely shafted.” I like this second album and its energy. Listen toWeird on Spotify or Weird on Apple.
19. Beach Bunny, “Honeymoon”
The debut album from the Chicago pop quartet led by 23-year-old Lili Trifilio has short and crisp blasts for songs. It was a pre-pandemic release in 2020, but it will be fun to come back to the spirit in public settings when we all start moving around together again. It’s just joyful at its core. Listen toHoneymoon on Spotify or Honeymoon on Apple.
18. Jawny, “For Abby”
This is the major label debut “mixtape” by the LA-based artist formerly known as Johnny Utah (real name Jacob Sullenger). Think lo-fi slacker rock beats and indie-pop anthems completed with amidst the lockdown. If FIDLAR were more relaxed, they might sound like Jawny. Eclectic. Witty. Fun. Listen to For Abby on Spotify or For Abby on Apple.
17. Laura Marling, “Song for Our Daughter”
The British folk rock singer’s 7th album is addressed to an imaginary daughter about what it is to be a woman in this society. She offers affirmations, insights and warnings based on her own experiences. The music flows easily and fits with the entire flow. Easier listening than it may seem. Listen toSong for Our Daughter on Spotify or Song for Our Daughter on Apple.
16. Margo Price, “That’s How Rumors Get Started”
This is the 3rd studio album by the Nashville singer/songwriter was produced by Sturgill Simpson. They are both outside the usual country scene, though Margo has plenty of personal material having through prison, homelessness and drug epiphanies. Listen to Rumors on Spotify or Rumors on Apple.
15. Jordan Mackampa, “Foreigner”
London-based Congolese indie singer-songwriter’s debut album is a soulful and introspective collection of songs. It is a timeless pop sound with tinges of gospel and strings. Listen to Foreigner on Spotify or Foreigner on Apple.
14. Kygo, “Golden Hour”
Kyrre Gøvell-Dahll is a 29-year-old Norwegian DJ, writer and producer who performs as Kygo. He has billions of streams on Spotify and this is just his third complete album. It was our 2020 summer soundtrack at the lake and fire pit, though it seems to be working into the winter too. Listen to Golden Hour on Spotify or Golden Hour on Apple.
13. Alex the Astronaut, “The Theory of Absolutely Nothing”
Debut album by Alexandra Lynn, 25-year-old singer/songwriter from Sydney. Her music has been described as folk-pop and “folktronica”. There is generally an upbeat sound, though some of the songs tell darker stories than the melodies, such as “I like to Dance.” Listen to The Theory on Spotify or The Theory on Apple.
12. Miiesha, “Nyaaringu”
This is an amazing and timely debut release by an Aboriginal singer/songwriter from Central Queensland in Australia. The title ‘Nyaaringu’ is a phrase meaning “what happened” in the Pitjantjatjara language. Miiesha provides spoken-word introductions with clear intent on meanings of her songs and spirit, “I think for we who’ve been trodden on, not given a lot of freedom, you’ve got to believe in yourself.” In all, a very clear statement and yet empowering approach for the times, expressed through a great voice and music. Listen toNyaaringu on Spotify or Nyaaringu on Apple.
11. Bartees Strange, “Live Forever”
This is the debut studio album for the 31-year-old Oklahoman, now based Washington DC. He is a rock guitarist and fan of the National, so you will get the vibe. It gets better as you go deeper into the album. So great to hear guitar. Listen to Live Forever on Spotify or Live Forever on Apple.
10. Holly Humberstone, “Falling Asleep at the Wheel (EP)”
OK, she doesn’t have an album yet, but I qualified her for the list because we played her EP a lot. The 21-year-old artist from Lincolnshire England has a dark and emotive singing style that sounds as good live as recorded. She has already toured with Lewis Capaldi and played at Glastonbury. There will be much more ahead from her. Listen to Falling Asleep at the Wheel on Spotify or Falling Asleep at the Wheel on Apple.
9. Rina Sawayama, “Sawayama”
The 20-year-old British-Japanese artist’s debut album explodes genres, mixing R&B, nu-metal and synths. The sound and pace of the tracks vary greatly, and it is all good. The lyrics are also well done. First time through I was reminded of Sleigh Bells, in how it was so different than anything else at the time. Listen to Sawayama on Spotify orSawayama on Apple
8. Haim, “Women in Music Pt. III”
The LA-based pop rock trio of sisters just keeps releasing great music. The sound tends to be sunny, but the words on this album are more direct and personal. If you get a chance to see them, do. Listen to Women in Music on Spotify orWomen in Music on Apple.
7. Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia”
The 25-year-old singer/songwriter went “all-in” this year by releasing an upbeat and audacious album of pop tunes in the middle of the pandemic. Based on the lyrics, she has one thing on her mind, and it is not reading book! It is all great fun. She followed the initial album with a remixed club version of all the songs, and further remixes of many of the songs by popular DJs (see Hallucinate - Tensnake remix). It is all great fun and bodes well for an artist getting better and better. Listen to Future Nostalgia on Spotify or Future Nostalgia on Apple.
6. Quinn XCII, “A Letter to My Younger Self”
Mikael Temrowski, known by his stage name Quinn XCII, is a singer/songwriter from Detroit. The “Quinn” in “Quinn XCII” is actually an acronym that stands for “Quit Unless your Instincts are Never Neglected.” He was born in 1992, thus the XCII. I always ensure to include a band from my hometown, and he makes this list two years in a row. Back to the music. The album crosses pop, hip hop and EDM and carries a positive outlook, which we all need this year. Listen to Letter on Spotify or Letter on Apple.
5. Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud”
The 5th album from Alabama native Katie Crutchfield is her best. It’s country. It’s folk. It’s personal. The song titles Cloud” are stark and blunt: “War,” “Hell,” “Fire,” “Witches,” “Oxbow,” but there is an optimism and even a calmness that pervades them for me. Listen to Saint Cloud on Spotify or Saint Cloud on Apple.
4. Lime Cordiale, “14 Steps to a Better You”
Their 2nd album has popped through for the Australian pop rock duo from Sydney. They have a laidback sound that seems to mix 60’s pop, funk, surf rock and reggae with today’s pop. They remind me sometimes of Saint Motel or lovelytheband and are certain to be popular on the festival circuit when it returns. Listen to 14 Steps on Spotify or 14 Steps on Apple.
3. Run the Jewels, “RTJ4”
Killer Mike and El-P are the American rap duo that see themselves more as a rap version of a continuing band, such as Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. The group is creating anthems for social and political change in pursuit of respect, acceptance and unity. Their 4th album is perfect for 2020. This is emotionally charged, lyrically dense and awesome in production. Many, many spins for me this year. Listen to RTJ4 on Spotify or RTJ4 on Apple.
2. Sault, “Untitled (Rise)” and “Untitled (Black Is)”
This British mystery music collective mixes rhythm and blues, house, funk, disco and a little reggae. Despite critical acclaim, they avoid the media and have not even released even the names of the band members. They released their 3rd and 4thalbums in 2020. Both albums are highly rated by critics, and deservedly so. “Rise” really speaks to me with optimism and urgency. Both albums draw you in with incredible music and then hit you with direct, uncompromising lyrics. This is music that will live well beyond 2020. Listen to Untitled (Black Is) on Spotify or Untitled (Black Is) on Apple. Listen to Untitled (Rise) on Spotify or Untitled (Rise) on Apple.
1. Taylor Swift, “Folklore” and “Evermore”
The pop star has moved to a quieter and more thought-provoking chapter of her varied catalog. Folklore is one of her most perfectly-produced projects, which is already an amazing standard. The songwriting, storytelling and melody swings is art worthy of continuing attention. It is just a masterful record that will endure beyond Swifties alone. Folklore is my clear favorite, though since Evermore was just recently released, we can see how that holds up in future listens too. Listen to Folklore on Spotify or Folklore on Apple. Listen to Evermore on Spotify or Evermore on Apple.
Artists to Watch in 2021
Some of these artists have albums, but most are a series of singles or EP’s. You can hear songs from all of them atScott's 2021 Artists to Watch or search their names on your preferred music platform or YouTube. See also last year’s list as most delayed new music until 2021 too.
· Jensen McCrae. LA-based singer/songwriter with an emotive voice and connection. Influences include Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Alicia Keys, and James Taylor.
· SAINt JHN. Brooklyn rapper is gaining attention with his debut album “While the World Was Burning” and various collaborations such as Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert and Future.
· Addison Grace. 19-year-old singer/songwriter from Utah brings jubilance with her happy-go-lucky ukulele melodies, uplifting lyrics and great vocals.
· Alfie Templman. 17-year-old English singer/songwriter plays easy and breezy pop.
· Stellar. Boston-based hip-hop and pop artist. A couple big songs already, with influences such as J. Cole, Juice WRLD, and XXXTENTACION.
· Almost Monday. American indie pop trio based in San Diego. EP “Don’t Say You’re Ordinary.”
· Griff. 19-year-old Sarah Faith Griffiths is an English singer, songwriter, producer and designer who makes her own clothes. She has style, attitude and a big voice.
· Alice Ivy. Australian electronic musician and producer, finally getting some attention outside her homeland with her 2020 album “Don’t Sleep.”
· The Lathums. English indie rock quartet full of youthful vigor and witty lyrics, comparable to the Smiths and Kooks. They sold out their tour pre-pandemic and will be ready to go in 2021.
· KennyHoopla. Milwaukeean Kenneth La’Ron moved to Los Angeles to build his career and describes himself as new wave nostalgia. An EP “How can I rest in peace if I am buried by a highway?//” shows promise.
· Girl in Red. Norwegian lo-fi artist Marie Ulven scored a viral hit with her first ever song, I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend, which has since been played 134 million times on Spotify. Her stage name was inspired by the first girl who broke her heart – who will forever remain unaware of the tribute. She has a huge voice and a lot to say.
The pandemic has also slowed the release of new artists from last year too. Check them out again at 2020 Artists to Watch Sampler