Lynchian punk to Lady Gaga: the best music Guardian staff and writers discovered this year

Old or new, wildly popular or punishingly obscure: our critics share the best songs, albums and artists they found this year – and how they discovered them

Chat Pile – God’s Country

Chat Pile: Slaughterhouse – video

In search of absolution after realising that I had been streaming NTS Radio uninterrupted for a week, I took the most convenient route I know to finding something fresh to listen to: Pitchfork’s mailout of highest-rated new albums. In that week’s list was the debut album by Chat Pile. Emerging from the post-industrial wastes of Oklahoma City, the not-so-young four-piece channel that strain of American vitriol that made a punk-horror canon out of Dead Kennedys, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Slipknot.

Frontman Raygun Busch doesn’t so much sing his lines as inhabit them, method-acting characters in the throes of hallucinatory meltdown, as on the nine-minute epic grimace_smoking_weed.jpeg (they’re really good at titles). But he’s flat-sober on the album’s knock-out moment Why?, a sludge-metal protest against a society that has failed its most vulnerable. “Why do people have to live outside? I couldn’t survive,” he seethes, straight-faced as Zack de la Rocha. No other album this year has articulated modern malaise in such surreal, yet punishing terms. Chal Ravens

Handle – In Threes

Handle: Punctured Time – video

Earlier this year, I was in the car with some friends listening to SYN, Melbourne’s local student radio station. As we crawled through traffic, they started playing some ungodly racket – a frenetic, muffled song built around anxious, tribalistic percussion and a chintzy synth stab. Buried somewhere among the detritus was an arch, classically post-punk yowl, the sound of someone yelling “Bicycle wheel?” over and over.

For me, those elements equalled an instant Shazam: the song was Punctured Time, by the Manchester three-piece Handle, and, listening again at home, the song turned out to be even better, fading out into a kind of lo-fi Lynchian samba. The album Punctured Time comes from, In Threes, is one of the most wildly brilliant punk albums I’ve heard in years, noirish rock made with a dance producer’s sense of tension and an acerbic sense of humour. It’s kind of hard to find out anything about Handle – their Instagram is private, naturally – but I’ve heard they’re touring later this year and that there’s new music on the way, a glimmer of bizarre hope amid a sea of unrelenting normalcy. Shaad D’Souza

Izzie Walsh

Izzie Walsh: Take Me Back – video

I love the way music can come at you when you’re least expecting it. I was walking towards Newcastle Arena to review Tears for Fears recently when a haunting tune started emanating from a nearby pub, the Globe. It turned out to be young singer-songwriter Izzie Walsh, whose exquisitely yearning voice lured me in as effectively as the pied piper. Her band’s mix of country, bluegrass and Americana turned out to have been crafted not in the wilds of Mississippi or Arkansas, but, of all places, Manchester. A bit of internet digging told me that she has played festivals such as Greenbelt and the Tamworth country music festival and been described as “original and individual” by “Whispering” Bob Harris. I love her song Take Me Back, which is ostensibly a post-break-up apology song (“take me back, I’m only human”) but seems to speak to a wider longing and memories of happier times, and has a chorus to make anyone dance around the room. Dave Simpson

Lady Gaga – Chromatica

Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande: Rain on Me – video

Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, like many pop culture landmarks released in the long year that was 2020, initially passed me and my state of hermetic isolation by. Then came my birthday party this year, the first social event I had hosted since the pandemic. My early nerves were dissipated as the drinks began flowing, the dance floor filled up, and my laptop, perched next to a set of speakers, was quickly taken over by friends putting their favourites in the queue. I had prepared a playlist but quickly (re)learned that the secret to being a good host was knowing when to relinquish control. At 11pm, after a series of generationally beloved garage tracks that, apparently, defined British teen parties in the late 2000s – I didn’t grow up here, I wouldn’t know – came the sound: Gaga’s voice, brash, loud, sexy, set to ecstatic dance-pop beats. It was the perfect crescendo to an evening that made me remember why it felt so good to forget yourself in a sweaty crowd, filled with love, buoyed by the rhythm. Having missed out on cheaper tickets, I didn’t make it to the Chromatica Ball this year – instead, I danced to it alone in my kitchen. It was magnificent. Rebecca Liu

Ranking Ann

Ranking Ann: Immigration Plan – video

I stumbled upon Ranking Ann via YouTube as I was making my way through a dub wormhole. One of my favourite genres, I’d always regarded it as a boys’ club – my own listening tastes admittedly reflecting that perception. You can imagine my surprise upon finding a female deejay who wasn’t Sister Nancy. Though information on Ann is somewhat scarce, she seems to be a London vocalist of Jamaican heritage who found popularity from the late 70s through to the mid-80s.

Ann is a particularly charismatic vocalist – her toasting is rhythmic, free and ice-cool, as if leisurely freestyled on the spot. But what ensnared me most was her conscious messaging: Ann flies through topics of racial identity and womanhood with ease, turning two fingers up to chauvinism. The formidable Immigration Plan finds her rallying against incoming legislation of the time, her rapid-fire patois admonishing the government and wrapping up sentiments that could be mirrored by Black citizens today. I doubt I’ve ever heard an artist so good at a dressing-down, and her releases are welcome gems added to my collection – through Ann, I’ve gained a new arsenal of insults ready to be used in the face of racism, misogyny and male chauvinism. Christine Ochefu

Robert Chaney – Breath

Robert Chaney: Breath – video

Sharing songs can be one of the most intimate, entertaining and revealing ways to get to know another person, and earlier this year, in the flurry of a great song exchange, I was sent this track by London-based Floridian Robert Chaney. A songwriter with a guitar singing about a breakup is hardly new territory, and yet Breath stopped me in my tracks. It’s the tone of the guitar, it’s the twist of Chaney’s voice, but most of all this struck me as one of those rare, impeccably built songs. It’s lean, there’s not an ounce of fat upon it, and this bare-boned style meets its subject matter well. Chaney sings of a love turned cold, the end-of-relationship disentanglement of lives and belongings: the diamond ring, the photographs, the love-notes, the bed, the mattress. You can keep it all, he sings, “but just give me back the breath you took away”. Laura Barton

System of a Down – Sardarabad demo/Hangman

System of a Down: Sardarabad Demo/Hangman – video

When you stew on a band’s discography for long enough, you start to wonder about the act they could have been. I’d heard all System of a Down’s albums and B-sides long ago, as well as the early, unreleased stuff from before Rick Rubin streamlined their sound. But in a quest to find them at their heaviest and most feral, I came across Hangman. It’s actually a two-minute outro to PLUCK, which would be their first professionally recorded song in 1997. But they had made a demo version two years earlier: two minutes of lumbering sustains and quaking releases, the lyrics “hangman, hangman, guilty, guilty” nervily swinging like a loose pendulum. It’s System exploding with the kind of raw ferocity rarely seen from them, even among such an aggressive catalogue. I would have never heard a version of it quite like this if it wasn’t for a YouTuber who took it on themselves to restore the audio six years ago. Here’s to the archaeologists and archivists of every fandom. Tayyab Amin

Tom Brock – I Love You More and More

Tom Brock: I Love You More and More – video

You might reasonably assume that Barry White was in possession of a Midas touch in the 1970s, but apparently not. Like the albums he made with Gloria Scott, White Heat and Jimmy and Vella Cameron, the solitary album White produced for Tom Brock vanished into obscurity on release in 1974: I confess I’d never even heard of it or its author before it was re-released last year. Its commercial failure is no reflection of its quality: Brock sounds great, the songwriting is on point, the sound veers from proto-disco to high-drama orchestrated funk on If We Don’t Make It Nobody Can. But it’s the ballads on side one I keep coming back to: smooth, soft and sumptuously arranged (by White and the great Gene Page), music to lose yourself in when real life gets a bit much. Alexis Petridis


Chal Ravens, Shaad D'Souza, Dave Simpson, Rebecca Liu, Christine Ochefu, Laura Barton, Tayyab Amin and Alexis Petridis

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