Last year was rough.

Incredible understatement out of the way, the quarantine proved rather detrimental to my mental health. As both of my parents are at high risk of complications from COVID-19, I spent much of the year at home, strictly limiting my contact with others for their sake. Needless to say, I consumed a lot of media, and I largely split my time between video games and music. While my previous entry focused on a game that occupied a good chunk of time last year, this time I’d like to discuss some of the music that I didn’t stop playing throughout the year.

To specify my parameters, please be clear that I am not attempting to rank the best music of last year, although these three albums were my personal favorites. There is no specific order to these albums; although I put more time into one than the others, I appreciated them all similarly.

  1. Gorillaz- Song Machine, Season 1

Over the course of last year, the digital band led by Damon Albarn released songs through a drip-feed process, a new song coming roughly every month. These songs were part of an experimental suite known as “Song Machine,” which were finally compiled at the end of the year. Following a rather-rough decade for the band, Song Machine continues the legacy of Demon Days and Plastic Beach, albums widely considered the best the band have ever produced. Whereas the previous two albums were serviceable, they missed the improvisational, animated spark that has made the alternative hip-hop band so loved. Albarn and company are at their best when they are collaborating with other artists, and Song Machine provides a wide roster of guest musicians. Among them are the late Afrobeat legend Tony Allen on my favorite track of the album, “How Far?”, Beck on “The Valley of the Pagans”, and rappers such as ScHoolboy Q on the funky, cartoonish “Pac-Man.”

Song Machine, Volume One is practically dripping with character; every song is a clear reflection on the artists featured within, though they all manage to meld together into an album with a wonderful sort of flow. I’ve always loved Albarn’s croon, and the soundscape of the album seems tailor-made to support it. The album utilizes a broad instrumentation and almost seems like a “best of” of Gorillaz’ work. Although many bands would not be able to balance the sheer number of features without losing their identity, Gorillaz has in fact thrived on it, creating a funky, oft-psychedelic album that has a song for every mood.

  1. Days’N’Daze- Show Me The Blueprints

I have preached from the rooftops my love for the folk-punk outfit Days N Daze, though I’ve always hesitated to recommend them to friends with more, dare I say, conventional tastes. However, their 2020 album knocked my expectations out of the park, mixing catchy instrumentations with deep, existential lyrics. In sharp contrast to the previous album, Show Me The Blueprints has limited instrumentation, including guitars, trumpet, banjo, and even washboard. This limitation, if anything, helps to show the band’s skill with their sound. In spite of this, every song has a unique feel that is bolstered by the lyrics. I’ve always said that Days’N’Daze has the feeling of a burnt-out friend telling you a story while they crash on your couch, and songs like “Saboteurs” and “Addvice” manage to tell compelling stories alongside interesting and downright catchy melodies.

Days’N’Daze as a band have never been subtle about their members’ histories with drug abuse and depression, though they manage to confront these topics with an intensity befitting them. Rather than being lauded as tools of enjoyment, the band acknowledges drug abuse as an attempt to mitigate the intense, existential dread of the modern era, and confront it alongside mental illness; in some ways Show Me The Blueprints may be a perfect look for those unaware of exactly how depression feels. The lyricism of Jesse Sendejas and Whitney Flynn proves as witty as it does blunt, and the album includes multiple lines worthy of repetitious quoting. The final song on the album, “Goodbye Lulu, Pt. 2” has enough of an emotional payoff that I will definitely say that I want it played at my funeral, with a farewell message that is as warm as it is longing.

  1. Peach Pit- You and Your Friends

No band is able to capture the odd, conflicting feelings that I and many others have for those years at the end of high school quite like Peach Pit. Telling somewhat simple stories of immaturity, drug use, and young love, Peach Pit intermingles the nostalgic longing that many of us have for those “good old days” with the bittersweet reality of those times. For the simplicity in hindsight, the issues that one faces in their adolescent years are at the time world-ending and catastrophic. The Vancouver band tells relatable stories of what it means to be young, what it means to make mistakes. The soft vocals create an enjoyable dissonance with the oft-fuzzy guitars and catchy beats that stick in your head long after you’ve finished the album.

I’d like to specify that the Deluxe Edition of this album is even better than the original, specifically because it adds three songs that sharpen the album considerably, especially the song “Denny’s Garage.” Other songs that resonated with me sharply include the single “Black Licorice,” a song about isolation and distance, and the emotional core of the album “Shampoo Bottles,” telling the story of a relationship whose loss feels unreal to the narrator. You and Your Friends as an album speaks to Peach Pit’s growth as a band, with their soundscape only broadening with surf-rock influences intermingling with their indie-pop roots.