Calling it the worst year ever, as many have taken to doing, feels rather self-centered. The black plague, anyone? Still, it certainly feels collectively like the worst year in our lifetimes.
Hey, we survived it.
Starting Beats Per Minute back up, along with many talented writers, and the (far more than I) steadfast Rob Hakimian at my side has been something of an anchor, a genuine pleasure among the depressing mess that the year has been otherwise.
Thank you ever so much for reading, and I hope you’ve found music that’s meant something to you.
For my personal list, I’ve chosen to reflect on a mix of albums, old and new. After all, despite our collective obsession with list-making, we’re always listening to a mishmash of whatever beckons us (unless, of course, you’re Rob, who impressively focused purely on 2020’s music this year [save for me practically forcing him to finally hear August & Everything After]. Phew!).
Here goes a little rundown of the things that mattered to me most in 2020.
Boldy James & The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China
No other album was more often by my side in 2020. Whether for bemasked subway treks to and from work, a glass of wine after a long day of said work, or waking up in moody gloom during months of quarantine in South Korea, it just suited the (forgive me) ‘vibe’. As much as I feel Guru can never truly be replaced, James’ sense of timing and simplicity disguising absolute mastery of craft greatly remind of the late Gang Starr great. The Alchemist has perhaps never, aside from Prodigy, had a partner better matched to his sense of production, and the two topped their former collaboration in every conceivable way here. An absolute claustrophobic masterpiece.
Organized Konfusion – Stress: The Extinction Agenda
Why did I not love this album the way I do now before 2020? It boggles the mind. Gang Starr stand tall as my favorite rapper-producer duo of all time, so it’s painfully obvious just how up my alley this is, and I’ve often enjoyed it, but this year proved to be the year it emerged as a true all time favorite. It’s never too late to realize just how sorely lacking your canonized favorites are. The concept, the production, the rapping, this is just a pure damn stunner.
IU – Modern Times
The sound of a young artist finding herself. To call Modern Times a joy just doesn’t cut it. Having labored (and, frankly, suffered) as an incredibly young artist in the monochromatic K-pop machine, Lee Ji-Eun, better known as IU, had been told time and again that she was too far removed from the model. She was too fat, the songs she herself wrote and believed in were too dark, you name it, they threw all the stumbling blocks possible in her path. With Modern Times, something unlikely began. She came of age and was self-possessed enough to shake all that off and say, simply, “No.” The rare artist who managed to spit in the face of K-pop and turn the industry on its head to suit her, IU is a precious anomaly. You can genuinely hear the breath of fresh air that this album was for her, as she tries on just about everything for size. Seriously, it jumps between balladry, bossa nova, Latin influences, electronic, acoustic jams, you name it. It manages to not only avoid being an inspired mess, it manages to feel cohesive, purely through IU’s joy of discovery and inherent adventurousness. Forever an all time favorite. I’ll never forget the day I first bought it, practically on a whim, playing it for myself and Reviews Editor Rob Hakimian the next morning. Then I played it again. And again. I’ve never never looked back.
Half Waif – The Caretaker
A salve. When Half Waif delivered Lavender – one of my favorite albums of the last decade – I scarcely could imagine how she’d match it. She did so, perhaps even outdid so, by turning even further inward. Where its predecessor was grand The Caretaker is intimate; existential despair (and hope!) blended with the sweetest, most sumptuous art pop she’s yet crafted. It can mellow, even sparse, and begs patience and understanding of its listener, but rewards in far greater measure. Truly the definition of a ‘grower’. My most played album in 2020.
David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie will probably forever remain my favorite artist. Given the absolute sense of global loss in 2020, Blackstar resonated harder than it has since, well, his passing. The absolute mastery on display, the willingness to look his mortality directly in its face, across a damn record, feels as divinely, inhumanly focused as ever. “I Can’t Give Everything Away”: he can’t spoil everything, he can’t share all his worldly possessions, as a human he’s literally incapable of quite sharing all the feelings he wants to…the levels, dude. (Please read this last bit in the voice of Lebowski.)
Mobb Deep – Murda Muzik
There are some losses you just don’t move past. I’ll be blunt: Prodigy is my all time favorite rapper. His sense of timing, his blunt instrument of a snarling voice, the way he conjures complexity out of absolute simplicity. For all the attention given his more sinister triumphs, he could master genuine poetry at the drop of a hat. Just see this aside amidst his salvo on opening track “Streets Raised Me” here: “The sun set looks beautiful over the projects / What a shame, its ain’t the same where we stand at.” Grim-natured enough to speak on suicides in the same breath he mourns just what they’re missing out on in the streets, the rare rapper thoughtful enough to see both sides with moments of lucidity. His loss, the result of cruel negligence and a disease that hasn’t seen serious attention as it largely affects the African-American community specifically, will always sting sharpy. Always. Each year since his death I’ve found a different moment in his career to cling to. This year it was Murda Muzik. Thank you for the brilliance.
(For the record, Havoc didn’t come to play here, either. He offered up some of the very best beats of his career. It also boasts an early-career The Alchemist on two cuts, his first instance of working with a pair with whom he’d grow to be synonymous.)
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce
Truthfully, there isn’t much I could say about this wonderful, unique, and rare gem of an album I didn’t already say in my writing about it as our #1 Album of the Year in our 2020 list, but I encourage you to check out that list, I hope you find something new to listen to and enjoy the hard work and great writing from our staff.
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet
The Rolling Stones have always been one of those bands, my entire life. Those ‘do it later’ bands. Don’t get the wrong idea, I’d obviously heard their unavoidable classic albums, time and time again, but I’d never really taken the time to become properly familiar, had never done a crawl through their entire body of work, as I tend to do with revered acts. 2020 was the year I finally changed that. As tiring as the cult of worship may be, needless to say, these guys are pretty damn great. My personal favorite album? I bet you can guess. Some other albums may have higher highs, and of course this is an entirely personal choice, but there’s just something about Beggars Banquet. Naturally, it has the massive songs (“Sympathy for the Devil”, “Street Fighting Man”), but some of the ‘smaller’ moments hit just as well, if not even better. Just see “No Expectations”. I’m glad I finally gave these guys the time deserved.
ZOMBIE-CHANG – Take Me Away from Tokyo
No other ‘discovery’ in 2020 excited me more, nor brought me more fun. Alright, so I’d heard Gold Trance in 2019, but it took Take Me Away from Tokyo cement her status as a true favorite. Exploring her past discography, her evolution and ever-changing sense of musical styling (and genres) is truly impressive, even shocking. Beginning her career with an unusual brand of folk through a series of EPs, she shifted into a sort of synth-pop with her debut LP, only to evolve once more with this year’s album, an intoxicating mixture of electronic, J-pop, and even art pop. It’ll certainly bring Marie Davidson to mind, but it’s stemming from a universe all its own. Chang’s attitude is eternally amusing and entertaining, confrontational and bitingly intimate by turns. A perfect, adventurous quarantine companion.
Harold Budd – The Room
This may not have made my list had it not been for his passing, but it was in my top 10 most played albums for the year nonetheless (so my Last.fm tells me). I’m not surprised, it’s the perfect companion for quiet nights and restless mornings alike. Budd was a true master at his craft, a cruel casualty of COVID19, and he will be deeply missed. We’re lucky he left so many masterstrokes in his wake, and for me personally, this low key album stands among the best of them.
Read Chase McMullen’s BPM posts here and follow him on Twitter.