Rob Hakimian’s 20 Albums and 20 Performances that made 2020 manageable
It’s been a long year, but I’m actually perfectly happy being a hermit. It just meant more time to ingest more music, TV, film and all the other ‘content’. I’ve started with the classic Top 20 Albums, but below I’ve chosen 20 ‘performances’.
Rob’s Top 20 Albums of 2020
20. Empty Country – Empty Country
Back in the original incarnation of BPM, when it was still called One Thirty BPM, we had a close relationship with Cymbals Eat Guitars – in fact, they were the band whom we filmed performing “Keep Me Waiting” for our one and only piece of original video content, Studio Lurk. We’ve remained fans of them all these years, so it was obviously heartbreaking to learn of their disbandment – but heartening that Joe D’Agostino would continue to work on a new project. It therefore made a nice piece of poetic continuity that Empty Country was the first album I reviewed for BPM post-reboot, and, just like all of his work it has stuck with me, with ever more layers revealing themselves on subsequent listens.
19. Lomelda – Hannah
I’ve been a fan of Lomelda since I was sucker punched by Thx a couple of years ago. Last year’s M For Empathy was nice, if brief, but didn’t seem to be any great progression, however this year Hannah is that artistic leap I’d hoped Hannah Read would make. It’s so excellently crafted, and yet so homespun, with never more than a few elements (mostly played by Read herself), which perfectly support these personal missives that revolve around daily existence – even at its mundane. So earnest that it’s practically twee, but so perfectly judged that it’s essential, Lomelda’s work is some of the most impressive to me this year.
18. Jessy Lanza – All The Time
Having been into Jessy Lanza’s previous work, though never loving it, I was instantly mesmerized when “Face” dropped as the lead single of All The Time. The rest of the album did not disappoint, with 10 future pop pearls each as captivating as the next. My love for the record only deepened when I got to speak to Lanza herself, all of her Canadian charm fully shining through in our lovely chat. I was so inspired that I ended up writing BPM’s review of the album when the other writer suddenly had to give it up.
17. Sprain – As Lost Through Collision
When I heard “Worship House” for the first time, my hairs stood on end and I probably listened to it about 10 times in succession. The rest of As Lost Through Collision was a lot less immediate, but probably just because of how fucking scary and stark it is. It can be tryng to hear Alex Kent screaming his worthless guts out continually, but the way that Sprain frame and elevate his guttural ejaculations is incendiary. It wasn’t long before I was obsessed with this record, and I got to speak to Kent and bandmate April Gerloff all about it. Here’s hoping we’ll see them on tour in the new year – even better if they make it over here to London!
16. Ichiko Aoba – Windswept Adan
A late arrival in the year, but one that was an immediate favourite. I had enjoyed qp but forgotten about it, but as soon as I heard the lead single from Windswept Adan, “Porcelain”, I was in. Listening to the album in full for the first time was like diving into the perfectly blue waters on the shore of a forgotten island – one that I wanted to revisit many times (and have done so).
So far BPM seems to be one of the only publications in the west giving Windswept Adan its due, but if we have in any small way contributed to her being heard in places she wouldn’t have otherwise, that’s another great reason to be proud of our work.
15. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Following on from Safe in the Hands of Love I was at first a little bemused by the more pop-leaning turn Yves had taken, judging just from the lead singles. However, once in situ on the exquisite Heaven To A Tortured Mind, it all fell perfectly into place and formed the most complete picture of Yves as an artist so far – and an extremely intriguing one at that.
14. Pinegrove – Marigold
An album that you can see as either Evan Stephens Hall commenting on his indiscretions and trials, or simply a straight ahead album full of lovelorn soft-rockers. Regardless, there’s no way to deny the warm, vulnerable and open heart that is the lifeblood of this record. It’s the reason to keep returning, to feel his personal poetry and the way it connects to things we all experience in daily life. Pinegrove’s gorgeously countrified indie-emo is the perfect vessel for these meditative and confessional grooves, and they are the best band at opening up a single emotional moment and examining it through resplendent aural cross section.
13. Owen Pallett – Island
Dropped at sudden notice, I was fortunate enough to find out about Island’s imminent release a week ahead of time, and even got to speak to Owen Pallett all about it in that interim. My conversation with them is probably one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had – with anyone – they are so charming, funny and interesting – and there’s just so much about Island and Pallett’s world to be discussed and discovered, we could have gone on for hours. That conversation gave me loads of insight, but so much of Island’s brilliance has to be discovered for oneself through experiencing it – and their expertly measured implementation of the London Contemporary Orchestra is truly breathtaking.
Many thanks to Andy Johnston for being my sounding board and co-conspirator in researching and writing my Owen Pallett interview. I basically piggy backed on his expert knowledge, if I’m being honest.
12. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
I was head over heels for Jeff’s last album, POST-, and seeing him and his crew play live is truly one of the most joyous things I’ve ever experienced. So, when NO DREAM dropped, I was initially quite perturbed by the barrage of noise, anger and anxiety on full display – it didn’t seem very amenable in a year when I was looking for comfort. I’m not sure exactly when it clicked, but I stuck with it, and eventually the album’s pulverising opening run of tracks stopped feeling like body blows and started feeling like hits of dopamine dumped straight into the bloodstream. Needless to say, I listened to it many more times after that, fist punching and screaming along through the whole thing.
11. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
So much has been said about this record, it’s pretty much universally agreed as the album of 2020 among music publications, and it’s pretty hard to disagree. This album should probably be higher on my own personal list, if it weren’t so loved elsewhere. It’s easy to say now, but I remember my first listen to Bolt Cutters, and knowing it was going to be a landmark – I’d never heard anything like it before. Lying in bed in the dark, listening to it, I was transported to Fiona Apple’s lockdown brain – and a wild and kaleidoscopic place it is too, but one that is hospitable despite the barrage of ingenuity that never lets up throughout its 50 minutes.
10. Jerskin Fendrix – Winterreise
I had never heard of Jerskin Fendrix at the turn of the year, but I heard “Black Hair” dropped by the DJ at a party and immediately had to find out what it was (thanks Shazam). From there I quickly became obsessesed with his batshit music and videos, got my hands on a stream of his album and even managed to interview the idiosyncratic auteur, which was another great conversation. Having thought I’d figured out all of Winterreise’s surprises, when I managed to pick up a copy on vinyl and digest it again, I was knocked out by the emotional heft of the record – which I hadn’t entirely appreciated before. True vulnerability and narrative, attached to a vision of maximalist pop that is entirely unique, it’s hard not to see this as one of the records of the year in my opinion.
9. Adrianne Lenker – songs and instrumentals
My love of all things Big Thief and Adrianne Lenker is well documented at this point, having written effusive reviews of the band’s last three records and now Lenker’s last two, where I always think I’ll run out of ways to talk about how magical her songwriting is – and yet her music is so inspired that it in turn inspires me. This one took surprisingly longer to captivate me than most of her work, but once I fully inhabited that cabin and that heartbreak with her, there was no turning around.
8. Fleet Foxes – Shore
Few artists make music as life-affirming as Fleet Foxes, and that was when Robin Pecknold was trying to be a bit more obtuse in his approach. When he decided to just be straightforward and thankful on Shore, the radiance of his music multiplied by several fold. Dropped just as we were heading into autumn, it was a gorgeous cap on a strange summer which had seen us tentatively try to reconnect and salvage something from this lost year. Pecknold’s writing wasn’t intended to chime so well with 2020, but it did, largely because he’s written the most universal songs of his career – and we just needed a jolt of pure pleasance, especially when it’s recorded this resplendently.
7. Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today
One of my favourite bands currently going, Protomartyr are turning into The National of post-punk – so consistently great that they’re easy to take for granted. But then you listen to them and they unload walls of sonic acidity on you, you have to give them their due. Joe Casey’s words are perfectly fearful and fear mongering, while Greg Ahee and co’s soundscapes are the perfect backdrop of chemically-hazed wastelands, in combination it’s a chilling vision of a dystopian future – but you can’t stop listening.
6. Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics
I came into this year knowing of Crack Cloud as a much hyped collective, especially among people a little younger than me, and I wasn’t expecting for them to become one of my favourite new bands. And yet, one listen to Pain Olympics immediately made it so. I can’t think of any other acts making music that is so obviously haggard and fetid – and yet is so unbelievably beautiful. Theatrical and melodramatic, no doubt, but truthful, hopeful and caring too – a bunch of potent emotions swirled together with group belief, Crack Cloud are truly a sliver of promise for the future.
5. Kate NV – Room For The Moon
I listened to Kate NV’s previous album a bit, but soon forgot about it. What recaptured me this time around wasn’t her music to begin with, but her weird and cartoony character that came to the fore in her press shots and videos. That she carried this through to Room For The Moon’s music was even more special. With the help of some great collaborators, she has created a series of futuristic yet global art-pop spectacles, which all fly around the album like glitter in a snow globe – precious and hypnotic.
4. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Whereas No Shape was basically art-pop banger after art-pop banger, so consistently smashing that it was an immediate home run, Perfume Genius’ fifth album took a little longer to reach – and eventually surpass – those heights for me. Perhaps because there are just so many different approaches taken throughout Set My Heart On Fire Immediately that it’s not as easy to settle into a ‘vibe’, but I found myself appreciating different songs at different times. It was only once I bought it on vinyl and settled myself in for The Experience that it hit me like a sleigh full of iPads – bonkers, truthful, expressionistic and wholly vital. The way that Mike Hadreas continues to outdo himself on each new release is special – that he does it without repeating himself is phenomenal.
3. Young Jesus – Welcome to Conceptual Beach
I had enjoyed Young Jesus’ previous album The Whole Thing Is Just There, but only enough to have a passing interest in their follow-up when it was announced. Perhaps this worked in Welcome to Conceptual Beach’s favour, as I went in without expecting to be bowled over – and I wasn’t immediately, but I knew I wanted to revisit it plenty more times. Soon I found myself escaping to the shores of Conceptual Beach time and time again, to hear John Rossiter’s voice, to hear the earworm piano melodies, or just to hear the sheer joy of improvisation that they’ve captured. That the themes of self-acceptance and spirituality are rendered so imaginatively by the band deepens the experience further, and even now, having heard the album more times than I ever thought I would, I still feel like there’s tons more to discover.
2. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
I’ve been a Waxahatchee fan for a long time, and have spent significant periods obsessed with both Cerulean Salt and Ivy Tripp. For whatever reason, Out In The Storm didn’t quite click with me in the same way, so my excitement for Saint Cloud was not as high as it might once have been. Hearing Katie Crutchfield’s clear and powerful voice and clean country production for the first time was astonishing, and it definitely took a couple of listens to re-adjust, but re-adjust I knew I must, because there is a timelessness to Crutchfield’s writing here, something so true and resonant. It has become a record that I’ve continued to reach for throughout 2020 – no matter the weather, my mood, or any other factors, it transcends them all.
1. The Microphones – Microphones in 2020
Phil Elverum’s music has come to be some of the most important art in my life. His 2017 album A Crow Looked At Me was not only my album of the year, but my album of the decade, as it was such a fearless examination of the brutal and tiring loss of a loved one to cancer – something I was going through with my mother at exactly the time it came out. Microphones in 2020 does away with Elverum’s diving into these more recent trials and instead finds him re-examining his own youth and artistic development, simultaneously commenting on artistic expression and fan expectation – all in one 45-minute long song.
While some may have been disappointed that the revert to The Microphones moniker did not mean a shift back to old sounds, those people completely misunderstand who Elverum is and why he makes music. If they truly engage with Microphones in 2020, however, they will know exactly who he is. He is an artist in the truest sense. He is connected to the natural world. He is also deeply human. That he manages to balance all of these facets of his personality, while simultaneously make an epic piece of music that at once harks back to his origins and pushes his sound forward, is a royally impressive feat. That this work is so deeply personal, yet in a way that is completely different to his other recent personal works, is phenomenal. That it manages to do all this and still tell us all something about our own humanity and personal development seems practically impossible. And yet he does it.
Rob’s Top 20 Performances of 2020
I would have liked to have filled this list with all the great gigs I’d been to, but sadly that wasn’t possible. I was still fortunate enough to attend 12 live gigs between January and March, and I’ve highlighted the best of those in my list. Aside from that, ‘performances’ on live streams, film, TV, and in other ways, fill out the rest of the 20.
Black Country, New Road at Village Underground, London, February 4
Their last headline gig before lock-down and a true ‘we have arrived’ moment. Made me from a big fan into a believer they’ll be one of the main forces to carry post-punk into its next evolution. Just wait until you hear the album.
Los Campesinos! play Romance is Boring at Islington Assembly Hall, London, February 14-15
Two nights of lung-bursting fun, with one of my all-time favourite bands playing one of my all-time favourite albums in full. Of course I went both nights.
Nadine Shah at MOTH Club, London, February 24
Nadine seemed set to have an even bigger break out year on the back off the back of her new album Kitchen Sink. I was lucky enough to see her and her excellent band at the intimate MOTH Club, a warm-up to a tour that never happened. A real treat to see her in this kind of venue at any time – even moreso given gigs became extinct shortly after!
Big Thief at Hammersmith Apollo, London, February 27
The fourth or fifth time I’ve seen Big Thief, but by far the biggest venue. I was really impressed that their bare-bones approach to live performance, where they’re basically trying to make it feel like the audience is watching a practice, really translated to a 5000-cap venue. It’s just their sheer charm and musicianship that does it. Hard to believe that Adrianne was off in Massachusetts, heartbroken and recording songs and instrumentals, merely weeks later – she seemed so happy that night!
Dry Cleaning at Village Underground, London, March 3
Another hyped band who outdid the anticipation with their cavorting and downright cool set. Their post-punk grind is endlessly teasing, while Florence Shaw’s vocal style is so engrossing. They manage to bring that all to their live show – no wonder they’ve been signed to 4AD for their debut album.
Caroline Polachek at Heaven, London, March 11
The last show I saw before lockdown – and still the last show I’ve seen live at this point in time. We all knew it was going to get shut down any day, and Caroline even said something along the lines of “this going to be the last show we’re all at for a long time – let’s make it count.” And we certainly did – the perfect party for the end of the world.
Katie Crutchfield and Kevin Morby free Instagram lives
In the early days of lockdown I found myself staying up until 2am UK time to watch Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby’s Instagram live performances, which they did weekly for a while. It was such a nice way to feel connected to people at a time when that had become difficult – not to mention the fact they’re two superb musicians and songwriters. It gave a real glimpse into their life and chemistry together, with shows to celebrate the release of Saint Cloud and for Kevin’s birthday, among other events. They played a lot of covers, and their one of The Mountain Goats’ “We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing” lives long in my heart. I also got to talk to Katie all about it.
Laura Marling at Union Chapel, London, June 6 [Livestream]
I was very sceptical about the idea of a ‘ticketed live stream’, but if anyone was going to make it work, it was the unimpeachable Laura Marling. Playing entirely solo in a deserted (but still beautiful) Union Chapel, she played and sung her heart out, just as captivatingly as if we were there in person. It truly was the perfect version of this medium.
Perfume Genius at Palace Theatre, Los Angeles, September 19 [Livestream]
It’s a great shame that Mike Hadreas hasn’t been able to take his spectacular live show out on tour to celebrate the release of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately – probably his best album yet. Nonetheless, when he did get the chance to show off his and his band’s prowess in playing the new songs, he did not half arse it (as if that was ever going to happen). Obviously not as overwhelming as it would have been in person, Perfume Genius’ performance from Los Angeles’ Palace Theater was still charged, intense and rapturous.
Ichiko Aoba, December 4 [Livestream]
On the release day of her new album, Windswept Adan, Japanese star Ichiko Aoba did a pretty special solo performance in celebration. It being the morning UK time when it was on, it was certainly an unusual experience watching it in the middle of the day while simultaneously trying to work. At first I thought I’d just have it on in the background – but I couldn’t turn away. Not just was her performance captivating as expected, but the show took place in what looked like a submerged greenhouse, with a tree draped over her, and a window which she would sit by and stare out into the deep blue outside plaintively as she sang. It added even more of a fairytale sheen to her already magical music.
Bandcamp propping up the music industry
In a year when independent artists have been really hit right in the purse, it needed someone to come up with a novel idea to help out. While governments and labels dilly dallied, it was the sensational Bandcamp who stepped in with their industry-saving ‘Bandcamp Fridays’, where, once a month, all sales made on that day would go 100% to the artists. Not only did this do unquantifiable good for thousands of artists, but it shed light on Bandcamp as a platform and how much better it is for artists than any other streaming platform. This Tweet from Om Unit basically sums it up.
Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You
Seriously impossible to take your eyes of her, no matter what horrible thing she was going through or haughty place she reached. A stunning portrait of an artist, which she also created. A talent that was already established really came into its own here.
Antony Starr as Homelander in The Boys
Truly the most terrifying villain I have seen in TV or film for a long time, seeing him week after week and having no idea what he might do had me on edge the whole time. The pathos that Starr brings to the performance is a big part of that.
Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones in Small Axe: Mangrove
She’s no longer just ‘Black Panther’s Little Sister’, Wright’s turn as the real life Black Panther leader was so perfectly judged that I cried, raged and triumphed with her throughout this film.
Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse dancing to “Rapper’s Delight” on Strictly Come Dancing
Yes, lockdown and domestic life has turned me into something I never would have expected: a Stricty Come Dancing devotee. It is just endless joy. Bill Bailey’s performances with Oti this year have been a sheer ray of sunlight, and I could have picked any, but this will probably be his defining moment. Even Sugar Hill Gang themselves got in touch to say how honoured they were!
Bukky Bakray as Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso in Rocks
I can’t remember a performance from an unknown that was just so true and utterly heartbreaking. The filmmakers’ decision to collaborate with their cast really shows, as there were so many observations and subtle things that really deepened how her experience was portrayed, and it was real heart-in-throat stuff. It’s on Netflix (in the UK at least) – please watch it.
Bukayo Saka for Arsenal
The 19-year-old is pretty much the only player currently in the Arsenal squad who can hold his head high during this shambolic period. A real bright spot in a world of shit.
Jimmy Butler in the NBA Playoffs
Having been a quite casual NBA fan for a few years, I found myself glued to the Playoffs this summer with little else to watch, staying up until 5-6am to catch the action. Once my own team, the LA Clippers, limped to their sorry defeat, I found solace in watching Jimmy Butler’s flamboyant performances carrying the Heat all the way to the final.
Marcus Rashford filling in for the government’s lacking conscience
Let be the millionth person to (rightfully) doff my cap to the young footballer for stepping in where the government abjectly failed and saving a lot of disadvantaged kids from going hungry.
Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer and the whole CNN team during Election week
The Presidential Election was truly four days of high-tension that had the world gripped. I chose CNN as my outlet of choice to follow the developments, and I swear these ladies and gentlemen did not go home for days. They must have slept in rotation in cots nextdoor or something, but they didn’t show it, always looking immaculate and just absolutely buzzing to be covering this historic event. It’s not easy to make percentages and endless figures compelling, but their graphics and their passion had me watching non-stop, as if it was the latest binge watch addiction.
And lastly, here’s a playlist of my Top 30 Songs of 2020: