This year’s Top Ten lists will be different. How could they not be, in this most different of years? 2020 was when live music stopped, and recordings suddenly regained their primacy. Any list of the best recordings doubles as a sonic life raft: here is the music that sustained the listener during the plague. My own list skips around within, and sometimes across, genres, because that’s my job. At WNYC, the public radio station in New York, I present daily gig alerts and weekly music roundups to a general news-consuming audience; then, at night, on the long-running “New Sounds” show, I offer contemporary classical works and genre-blind global music to a smaller group of music fans. Those two roles require constant listening, from Taylor Swift’s collaboration with the brooding indie-rockers the National to an omnivorous “mono-opera” on the Black experience by the composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Do that long enough and you begin to hear less the differences between styles and more the constants that make music work—that make it affect us—whatever the genre.
Here are the records that got me through the year.
10. Future Islands, “For Sure”
This single from the Baltimore band’s album “As Long As You Are” marries the instrumental sound of eighties electronic dance pop with the extraordinary, expressive vocals of Samuel T. Herring. The track also has one of the very best videos of the year.
9. Jake Blount, “Spider Tales”
Blount is a queer Black fiddler, banjo player, and singer for whom bluegrass is way too modern. Instead, he mines a deep, underexplored vein of Black and indigenous roots music, presenting new, often haunted versions of field hollers, murder ballads, and more. Maybe start with the familiar “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” but don’t stop there.
8. Lanterns on the Lake, “When It All Comes True”
In the long term, climate change will be a bigger threat than COVID-19. Hazel Wilde, the lead singer of this northern English band, paints a picture of a world after an environmental disaster, with stark lyrics backed by soaring, post-rock guitars. The album title, “Spook the Herd,” comes from a line in this song and refers to how autocrats manage to stay in power—another threat the world will continue to face after COVID-19 becomes history.
7. Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”
I suppose I should put the whole album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” here. . . . But, really, this seventeen-minute-long opus is practically an album in itself. A “love it or hate it” excursion into American culture triggered by the images of the Kennedy assassination, the track begins with some pretty obvious, even clunky, rhymes. I hated it at first. But, by the end, Dylan’s hypnotic, droning music and his fun-house-mirror journey through literature, movies, and musical history casts a most effective spell.
6. Polo G, “Wishing for a Hero”
This young Chicago rapper had a big year. His album, “THE GOAT,” was a hit, thanks at least in part to this song. Like Tupac’s “Changes,” “Wishing for a Hero” is based on Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s hit “The Way It Is,” from 1986, but Polo G adds gospel harmonies to buttress his brilliant social commentary. It would be hard to find a better lyric in 2020 than “They killed Martin for dreamin’ and now I can’t sleep.”