2020 has been a real shitty year.
In the midst of a global pandemic, historic protests against crooked cops, the worst wildfires in the state’s history, the temporary closure of almost every venue, massive unemployment, the movement to liberate Black lives, a federal occupation by a tinpot dictator’s border squad, a gaslighting mayor, and (at the time of this writing) an ongoing carnivalesque coup attempt, Portland artists have nonetheless persevered and released a grand amount of albums. Attempts to whittle this down to a snappy 20 albums proved impossible.
What follows is a list of 50 albums I found to be great. They’re not ranked; there’s no “best” album. And this is by no means an exhaustive list—it’s just some personal preferences. I tried to include a number of genres, though it’s worth recognizing that Portland hip-hop was exceptionally great this year.
If you like any of these creations, please purchase them on Bandcamp. Streaming platforms can be fine for exploring new material and digging up the classics, but they’re no substitute for supporting your neighbors, who need your dollars more than ever.
ADAM SELZER: Slow Decay
Just a strong debut from a Portland artist who has worked on a number of other terrific projects. Straightforward Americana that sounds simply excellent.
Alison Self: Honky Tonk Haze
On its face, a country album about a drunk night, complete with interstitial skits, seems contrived. And though its material is somewhat standard fare for the genre, all together Honky Tonk Haze is a charming endeavor of solid songs and funny skits with lyrics like, “I’ll buy the Plan B, if you buy the whiskey,” and jokes like, “Can you even two step?” “Well, if I carry the one...” I mean, hell, I’ll take another round.
Aria Bare: Mimic
Aria Bare released three electronic albums this year, all of which are interesting, especially what we can do together, which features truly excellent song titles, like “rip the rich from their bunkers.” I’ve selected Mimic as my favorite due to its pulsing, squirming sounds that seemingly wriggled out of the damp earth and directly into my brain.
Aseitas: False Peace
Ferocious black metal with enough experimental elements to create a uniquely brutal version of the heavy genre.
A simple collection of folks songs perfect for a summer day or a winter evening.
bad snacks: Neat Tape 2
Riding the lo-fi hip-hop-beats-to-study-to wave, Bad Snacks grows on her second tape, proving that the genre isn’t just something to put on in the background by adding several standout electronic tracks that will get you dancing in your bedroom.
The Bedrooms: Passive Viewing
The first full-length album from The Bedrooms is expertly crafted new wave/post-punk, recorded with the perfect amount of crisp guitar riffs. I haven’t stopped listening to this album since I found it.
BRYSON, THE ALIEN: Keyboard Kid vs. Bryson the Alien
An EP that sounds like its cover art: getting high in a spaceship with space babes.
CANDACE: Ideal Corners
Ideal Corners is a wonderful new high mark for Candace, recorded at Jackpot! Recording Studio with Larry Crane. The band’s lush sounds have never sounded better, especially the thick, dreamy bass lines. I highly recommend getting this album on vinyl and enjoying it on a decent sound system.
CHRIS FUNK: The Painted Porch
The next soundtrack for your Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
COOL NUTZ: Father of Max
Portland’s rap godfather Cool Nutz proves why he’s still unbeatable with guest spots from the city’s best, including Dame D.O.L.L.A. and Mic Capes.
DEATHLIST: You won’t be here for long
Purposefully less cohesive than her previous releases, You won’t be here for long finds Jenny Logan musing about the darkness over synth improvisations and metronome-like drum tracks.
DONTE THOMAS: how you like them APPLES?
Donte Thomas continues to be one of Portland’s best rappers with a truly chill collection of songs that can be listened to any time of the day.
Grief opens with a message recorded by the artist’s father, checking in on his son, who is going through some things. The complex EP is dedicated to the loss of someone. I don’t want to press on who that someone is, but it clearly left a big hole. 2020 has been a near unbearable year for many. Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one recently, too. I have, and I think about him every day. I love you, Chris. And I miss you so much.
EMANCIPATOR: Mountain of Memory
Arguably the city’s best electronic/trip-hop artist, Emancipator released a beautiful album of sounds that never stays still or gets stale. It’s an album I know I’ll be returning to for years to come.
EYELIDS: THE ACCIDENTAL FALLS
Well-polished alternative rock from the Portland supergroup.
Floating Room: Tired and True
After years recording terrific bedroom pop under the Floating Room moniker, Maya Stoner comes into her own on Tired and True. Though exceptionally well done, I hesitate to call it a high water mark, if only because the album is a mere five songs, and after hearing them, you’re going to want more. I suspect the best is still yet to come from an artist who continues to get better and better.
FRANKIE SIMONE: Sensitive Creature
Hands down the best pop album to come out of Portland in 2020 and cemented as one of the best ever.
GAYTHEIST: How Long Have I Been On Fire?
After a few years hiatus, Gaytheist returns with their best album yet. A sharp, funny, roaring achievement that’s more technically complex with each new listen.
Grapefruit: Light Fronds
On his ninth album under the same name, Charlie Salas-Humara creates loopy guitar and synth soundscapes that rise above similarly conceived projects.
Hair Puller: Four Songs
No longer active, these four songs are the last tracks we’ll ever get from the sludge band. So it goes.
HANiF The Barber & TOPE: No Clout
Formerly Luck One, HANiF The Barber spent some time away and came back with two strong albums this year. No Clout is my favorite of the two, with hard, unrepentant lines like: “Look, Thomas Jefferson had slaves and got bread in a lotta ways—raped a young bitch, killed cops and he got his own holiday.”
Help’s noise punk is the correct level of angry one should be in 2020. It makes me want to take a hammer to every fancy car in view, but I’d probably smash my thumb.
Part two of a four part series of albums, the final two of which are hopefully coming soon. SMMR should please fans looking for Mac Miller/Acid Tape-era Chance The Rapper vibes, which showcase Illmac’s seemingly effortless flow.
J.S. Epperson: MMXX
More a collection of excerpts of previous material than a traditional album, J.S. Epperson creates “binaural beats” that are recommended to be listened to with headphones. The experience is certainly better, but even on speakers this collection opens up room in ways the best ambient music does—not so much as background noise, but slowly inviting you to recognize yourself and the space you are in.
Kazuma Matsui: Wind Under My Blouse
Kazuma Matsui creates wonderful electronic ambient music with no less than six collections out this year. Wind Under My Blouse is a personal favorite with its heavier use of string sounds, but each album is terrific.
KORGY & BASS: Agrocrag
A deeply engrossing album from the experimental jazz beat-making duo. Phenomenal work.
LAURA VEIRS: My Echo
A “divorce album” that’s raw and honest, reminiscent of Bjork’s Utopia in its frankness on the subject. Laura Veirs has spoken publicly about how the album came to be and the personal journey that eventually encapsulated its release. People change. Sometimes things don’t work out no matter what you do.
LITHICS: Tower of Age
Avant garde post-punk, most of which probably goes over my head, but I recognize the talent.
Load B Gang: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Load B Gang has released an impressive number of excellent EPs this year, but none hit as hard for me as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, inspired by the 1973 crime film of the same name. Good shit. The “Southern Man” chop on the opening track is choice.
Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore: Wanders: Astrology of The Nine
An expansive, heavy album clocking in at nearly two hours, this collaboration between two of black metal’s most acclaimed artists is everything you could hope for in such an ambitious project. Pre-order the vinyl while you can. It sold out before and likely will again.
Marisa Anderson and Jim White: The Quickening
An improvised album of instrumental tracks that builds rich, inspirational sounds using only guitar and drums.
MR. WRONG: Create A Place
Mr. Wrong is the greatest punk band in Portland. That is all.
Mt. Zena: ACCELERATION!
The band describes their sound as “bubblegum hardcore.” Either that appeals to you or it doesn’t, but this album is defiant and fucking great.
NATASHA KMETO: you’ve never danced alone
Like Laura Veirs' My Echo, you’ve never danced alone is a “divorce album” in many ways, but it doesn’t center itself on only that personal aspect. And though the album is less dance-driven than some of Natasha Kmeto's previous work, the new direction is a welcome sound for a hugely talented singer and producer, who will no doubt continue to evolve and refine her sound.
OLD GRAPE GOD: CATHARTRITIS
Portland’s most interesting art rapper released two projects this year, continuing the time traveler’s ever-expanding palette of skills. CATHARTRITIS is a kitchen-sink, stream of consciousness type of album, combining several styles and guests into an unforgettable journey through the chaos that has been 2020.
Omari Jazz: Dream Child
Omari Jazz is a true gem, who is rightfully starting to be recognized outside of our rainy city. Dream Child is excellent in and of itself, but it also hints at what’s to possibly come from an artist that is sure to be one of the most celebrated hip-hop creators in the world.
PHOSPHENE: Lotus Eaters
Shoegazing goodness from a band that takes its time to craft solid songs.
Rascal Miles: Songs For The Graveyard
A theme you may have noticed: Many of Portland’s best artists have released multiple projects this year. (Meanwhile, I’ve struggled to wear pants on a consistent basis.) Rascal Miles is no exception, having released the more expansive Space Cadet in February. However, I prefer Songs For The Graveyard, an EP’s worth of songs hurriedly created in October. Its earnest, simple compositions about spooky creatures are charming and haunting all at the same time.
RASHEED JAMAL: 22 Grams | iAMTHATiAM
Rasheed Jamal has put out an outstanding amount of material this year (18 tracks across three albums), and each is impressively produced, as if he has been working on the tracks for months, if not years, hoarding up a gold mine of material just to release all at once. 22 Grams | iAMTHATiAM is legitimately one of the best albums to ever come out of Portland, a semi-gospel album that dropped mere days before the historic protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd. How many more names will we have to scream in the streets before something changes?
ROSE CITY BAND: Summerlong
Sometimes I think what it must be like to be Ripley Johnson and have everything you touch turn to solid music gold. It’s almost unfair. Summerlong is the perfect driving around the mountains record in every way.
SCOTT THE HOOPLE: NEIL (Vol. 1)
A terrific cover album of some lesser known Neil Young songs from one of Portland’s most integral musicians. What’s not to love?
SECRET DRUM BAND: Chuva
Is Secret Drum Band the coolest music project in Portland? Yes. Yes, it is.
SIR NAI: Hermit Crab
Personally, I would recommend you purchase everything Sir Nai has made, but if you have to limit yourself to just one thing: Make it Hermit Crab, a welcoming instrumental EP of highly original hip-hop beats.
SOFT KILL: Dead Kids, R.I.P. City
What is it about Portland that creates so much excellent dark wave music? The rain? Yeah, probably the rain.
STFKR: Ambient 1
The band released a higher profile album this year called Future Past Life, and while it’s good, I’m just so impressed with the work of these ambient tunes. They’re terrific, near Eno-level work. Let’s hope the fact that its title contains “1” means more is on the way.
SUNBATHE: Somewhere In Between
I know I’ve called a few records on this list the career high of their respective artists, but it really does pertain to all of them and Somewhere In Between is no different. On the title track, Maggie Morris sings, “In the worst of the wettest winter, I’m keeping my shit together...“ And that’s about the best any of us can hope for.
THEORY HAZIT: ya’ll still ain’t washin’ y’all hands.
A master beat-maker, Theory Hazit raps deftly over his own production.
Walker Burgess: Walker Burgess EP
Sallie Ford has seen some commercial success over the years, perhaps hampered by the fact that she seems to change lineups too often to find steady mainstream appeal following the initial launch of The Sound Outside. That perceived scattered approach is the listener’s gain however, as her varied projects are always terrific. This EP was released at the same time as another new group she’s fronting—Talkin’ To Johnny, on which she actually sings. Many listeners may prefer that group, but I’m more partial to the instrumental duo of Walker Burgess, which is just straight-up good fucking rock and roll. Inject this shit into my veins.
WL returns with a deceptively simple album that continues to be felt even after the music is over.