December 18, 2020

Albums of 2020

Eddie Van Halen once said, "I don't love bands, I love songs." That stuck with me earlier this year after he passed and I thought a lot about the ways I process and discover music. I don't share the same sentiment as Eddie. I do love bands, but I also love songs. However, what I really love are albums. If 2020 gave us anything, it was the gift of time which has felt slow, rushed, and also suspended. However if anything, we certainly had a lot of it and I loved to spend the newfound time listening to albums. Still my favorite format of music, I love sitting down and listening to a work of art. This year I listened to over 100 new albums from 2020 alone, a lot of old Jazz (I listened to Coltrane's entire studio album discography in chronological order back in the early days of the pandemic), and finally understood Yo La Tengo. This year allowed me to push myself and make so many new musical discoveries, but I hope there is something here for everyone. The new standards in jazz from Jyoti, Nubya Garcia, Jeff Parker, and Moses Boyd, the rising hip-hop of Ka, Shabazz Palacs, and Freddie Gibbs, the return to rock of Bully, Gum Country, and Country Westerns, and the overall dominance from our reigning queens Phoebe Bridgers, Haim, Waxahatcee, and of course Fiona's modern day masterpiece. The commitment of sitting down and listening to an album is something I strive to do daily and gives me a comfort like no other. This year, that felt extra special. These are my favorite records from 2020.

50.  NAP EYES | Snapshot of a Beginner
49.  JESSIE WARE | What's Your Pleasure?
48.  NO JOY | Motherhood
47.  SHABAKA AND THE ANCESTORS | We Are Sent Here By History
46.  BARTEES STRANGE | Live Forever
45.  GUM COUNTRY | Somewhere
44.  BOB DYLAN | Rough and Rowdy Ways
43.  ANDY SHAUF | Neon Skyline
42.  JYOTI | Mama, You Can Bet!
41.  NOTHING | The Great Dismal

40.  JEFF TWEEDY | Love is the King
39.  SAULT | Untitled (Rise)
38.  DEHD | Flower of Devotion
37.  YAEJI | What We Drew
36.  AGAINST ALL LOGIC | 2017-2019
35.  THE BETHS | Jump Rope Gazers
34.  MOSES BOYD | Dark Matter
33.  THE WEEKND | After Hours
32.  HUM | Inlet
31.  MY MORNING JACKET | Waterfall II

30.  TAME IMPALA | The Slow Rush
29.  NUBYA GARCIA | Source
28.  BULLY | Sugaregg
26.  TRACE MOUNTAINS | Lost in the Country
25.  THE MICROPHONES | Microphones in 2020
24.  U.S. GIRLS | Heavy Light
23.  COUNTRY WESTERNS | Country Westerns
22.  PEEL DREAM MAGAZINE | Agitprop Alterna
21.  BILL CALLAHAN | Gold Record

20.  WIDOWSPEAK | Plum
19.  JULIANNA BARWICK | Healing is a Miracle
17.  KA | Descendants of Cain
16.  I BREAK HORSES | Warning
15.  KELLY LEE OWENS | Inner Song
14.  YVES TUMOR | Heaven to a Tortured Mind
13.  SOCCER MOMMY | Color Theory
12.  CARIBOU | Suddenly
11.  SHABAZZ PALACES | The Don of Diamond Dreams

10.  JEFF PARKER | Suite for Max Brown

These days, the mention of post-rock will most likely conjure up the names Explosions in the Sky or Sigur Rós for some music fans and names like Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor for even fewer devotees. Some nerds, however, are entrenched enough in the scene to be into Slint and others will talk about Tortoise. In the 90s, Tortoise combined indie, jazz, electronic, and krautrock into something avant-guard and unique. Dubbed post-rock due to their traditional arrangement of guitar, bass, and drums that played anything other than your traditional rock music, they were a groove all their own. Jazz was a major part of Tortoise’s sound and in 2020, the band's guitarist Jeff Parker released his most definitive solo statement to date. Suite for Max Brown is a collection of songs that sets a new watershed mark for modern jazz and two and a half decades after his long-time band's biggest success, proves he still has new ground to cover. Anyone expecting wind or brass to take charge here is in for a surprise, however, as Parker’s guitar is front and center on this one. There are other electric components which give it that much more of a modern, new-age feel, but it’s a jazz album through and through. So long into his career, Parker continues to push the envelope and combine his interests to create a sound that captures a multitude of thoughts. Parkers splits time between LA and Chicago and the styles of the album give off the vibes of a chill LA coffeeshop as well as the underground club aesthetics of the Windy City. In fact, it was during a DJ set in Chicago where he married a Coltrane record with an electronic beat when he spawned the idea and direction of the album (it should be no surprise a Coltrane cover found its way onto the album too). He uses his guitar skills to lead his compositions and make a kaleidoscope of sounds and styles that translate directly into brilliant tunes, ignoring any rules or reason and defying logic. “That’s what I was going for,” he said on the record’s created. “Man vs machine.”

09.  WESTERMAN | Your Hero is Not Dead

At the onset of 2020, Westerman was set to release my most anticipated debut album of the year. Following two years of excellent singles, the hype was mounting and it was clear on first listen that this record absolutely delivered. A crooning voice over icy synths, electric drums, and processed guitar licks was a recipe for 80s nostalgia and Westerman hit the nail on the head, all the while making it feel like anything but a retread of old thoughts. Perfectly sequenced, each track finds a groove that compliments its predecessor and steers towards what will come next. Even with several preceding singles, hearing them all together on the record reveals new components to each and adds to their depth. The contemporary flourishes are poignant and well executed, nothing on here feels trite, but rather delicately workshopped until a perfect balance was struck between sentimental charm and of the moment spark. Wrapped up in a wonderful dream-pop spell, Westerman transports listeners to another level of meditative consciousness. Listening to this record is like being inside a dream from the 80s where someone has accurately predicted the future of music. Like A-ha’s classic “Take On Me” video, to experience this album is like watching bold-lined sketches come to life with splashes of watercolor, it oozes beauty in remarkable, profound ways. Beats hum and there is a layer of fuzz on here that gives the album a wonderful texture, even with polished synths reigning supreme. Just before the year ended, Westerman released an unaccompanied piano version of the album’s title and closing track giving a sense of what each track may have sounded like in early iterations. As stunning and spacious as the stand alone is, it also points to just how much subtle detail fills the album and the amount of work that goes into making each song transform from sparse, gorgeous piano arrangements into sweeping, crystalline tracks that radiate with warm touchstones of elaborate synths and high-quality production values. This is sophisticated pop and a new sound for a new decade.


It was supposed to be another year of epic scale for everyone’s favorite rapping duo, Run the Jewels. El and Mike were set to open the much lauded Rage Against the Machine reunion tour and deliver their eagerly awaited fourth album. When the life on the road got put on indefinite hold, it felt like a major blow, but RTJ wouldn’t let their fans down. At what felt like the apex of a new Civil Rights Movement, they dropped their new record (a day early too) and once again asserted themselves as one of the biggest names in the game. Arriving right on cue, their lyrics were timely and altogether spooky, eerily describing events that had only occurred days before the album drop, yet which were written prior to 2020. Killer Mike and El-P were veterans before they ever teamed up as Run the Jewels, but since they decided to be the ultimate buddy-buddy rappin' twosome of the new millennium, they’ve seemed to only climb the hip-hop ladder to even further heights. El-P’s production is still sharp and furious, the perfect backdrop for Mike’s incendiary bars and advanced theory. Of course they don’t just bring out the best in each other, but their guests also take things to new heights when they work in such creative company. While the tour was put on hold, Rage frontman Zach de la Rocha returned for another memorable appearance on the album (you can imagine how this will play out when they finally get to hit the road together?) as does Pharell, Gangsta Boo, 2 Chaiz, Josh Homme, Mavis Staples and Gang of Four due to a splendid sample of their classic “Ether” which El slyly name drops when he comes in with the verse “born from the ether.” Run the Jewels always seem to drop back in right when we need them the most, arriving with impeccable timing both lyrically and musically, delivering a message that is both timely as well as, unfortunately, evergreen. Their political prowess makes them appear as the vanguards of truth and they live up to their word time and time again. What may have felt like a flash in the pan success story at first has transformed from the perhaps pet/side project into one of the most dominant, well respected, and acclaimed groups (by both fans and critics) in recent time. “Hear what I say, we are the business today” El rapped on their third record and another one into their now illustrious run, business is better than ever.

07.  HAIM | Women in Music Pt III

The Haim sisters were raised on the classics and it shows. They write hooks that feel destined for arenas and massive festival crowds, choruses that will without question get stuck in your head, and ignite an instant change in mood for the better. Haim slowly teased out this album over several singles (three of which appear as bonus tracks on streaming services) and a good chunk already felt familiar upon its release. Channeling the rock heights of Fleetwood, the forever-cool styles of Lou Reed, and the production wizardry of Vampire Weekend, the sisters have advanced their sound even further for their strongest showing as of yet. While their debut was full of pop-rock smashes, Women in Music Pt III refined their scale without losing any of their spontaneous and infectious bliss. “Don’t Wanna” and “The Steps” conjure up their signature spells for hits, “Gasoline” into “3 AM” unveils new revelations in their songwriting tool belt, “Leaning on You” would’ve been a Lilith Fair smash, “Man from the Magazine” recalls Joni Mitchell folk circa Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and “I’ve Been Down” sounds like a lost relic of 90s alt-pop radio that could pass for a Sheryl Crow or Shania Twain number. All of that is meant with the utmost admiration. No one rocks quite like Haim. The album draws from an incredible amalgamation of influences where each track brings forth a different mood that is distinct and different. Slowly throughout the summer when I’d check-in with friends and eventually get around to asking “so what have you been listening to?” almost everyone would answer “Haim.” Even without me bringing it into the conversation, friends would share “I think Haim has gotta be my album of the year.” Another friend said to me "it's kinda like when you found out that everyone else was also listening to 'The Wire' when you thought it was just you, and now it's this album, and then you just realize, oh Haim's that popular!" One of the best things about music is experiencing it with other people. Whether that’s listening in someone’s living room, their backyard, on a commute, or at a concert, there’s nothing that can replicate that feeling of unity. For a brief moment this summer, it felt like Haim brought a collective together and there was once again a shared experience of music. Despite a direct, massive single, the band has made their best front to back album and made their way to the upper echelon of current rock acts.

06.  SAULT | Untitled (Black Is)

Just as summer in the U.S. was set to kick-off on the weekend of Juneteenth, the mysterious and virtually unknown London collective that goes by the name Sault released their innovative and inspirational debut full-length record. In only a few more months, they’d release a second (a popular trend in 2020) record also of significant stature, however it’s the first record, Untitled (Black Is), that stands out as a new standard for neo-soul, jazz, r&b, afro-beat, and soul. The record is a journey that stretches out across a spectrum of music, but incorporating them all into something uniquely profound and developed. Their songs were immediately songs of the moment and transcended into songs of the movement. A voice with a clear and direct message that cannot be ignored. There is so much beauty to be absorbed in these tracks that each listen serves as not just a sense of motivation, but one of reflection and self-care as well. Initially appearing as simple songs propelled by strong messages and meaning, repeated listens reveal more complexity and invention in their song writing, defying boundaries and really executing on cosmic visions of truth. It’s a record that revels in celebration and pride as much as it does awareness and paths towards justice. Undoubtedly, it served as a soundtrack to a summer met with extreme violence from police on unprovoked and undeserving citizens, making its mark firmly planted in time. The world feels like an impossibly terrifying place right now, but “we will never show fear” they sing on “Wildfires.” It’s a message of hope and conviction. It’s one that firmly believes in a better road ahead. “Even through my tears / I will always care.” Even in the darkest time, the spark of hope can spread like wildfires and keep faith alive. We will always rise.

05.  ADRIANNE LENKER | songs and instrumentals

Big Thief were ready to ride a tidal wave of success into 2020. After dropping two of the best albums of the last year, the group were set to tour through the summer with Sheer Mag with the strong possibility of more up their sleeves. In the Spring they released an excellent stand alone single called “Love in Mine,” just a hint at what could've been. When COVID hit, the group pumped the brakes, but the creativity did not stop flowing. What followed was not an uncommon story. The lone singer-songwriter who is suffering from a break-up (in this case personal, not the band), heads to the woods to find and possibly reinvent themself, write and record an album that feels like the start of a new chapter, and produce a master work. On songs, Adrianne Lenker's intimate tracks relish in open wounds and we’re exposed to some of the most direct lyrics of her already well-established songwriting repertoire. “Dragon Eyes” and “Zombie Girl” help anchor the album as two of the most straightforward pop songs that you could imagine actually playing for a group of people in a somewhat upbeat setting and “Anything” once again certifies Lenker’s talent of writing a defining song of the year. Paired with a lengthy, two-track sister record, the also appropriately named and sonically stretched out instrumentals, this double album is the third and fourth offering from the singer in under two years. Even with instrumentals being precisely what it’s named for, the majestic qualities are not diminished. On the second disc, nature acts as such an organic backing band for the sparse acoustics and chimes, that there were often moments when I had to turn down the music to check and see if there was actually rain hitting the windows of my apartment or if this was indeed part of the song. The consistency of Lenker’s work is astounding and we’re lucky to have an artist hitting her stride and being so willing and open to share her raw emotions in such rapid succession. Songs and instrumentals are one for the history books or, perhaps, a different kind of folklore.

04.  PHOEBE BRIDGERS | Punisher

Every year since Phoebe Bridgers dropped her debut record in 2017 has felt like a milestone year in her career. In 2018, she teamed up with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker to record and tour as boygenius and last year she paired with Conor Oberst to do the same as Better Oblivion Community Center. Even after all of those stunning achievements, 2020 should be remembered as the year she put out her best work to date. Punisher is an exquisite collection of folk/pop songs and puts Phoebe’s career onto a new level; one of the best lyricists of her generation. Sung over wonderfully crafted melodies, her words continue to inspire and tell remarkable stories. She is deeply open and honest, confronting past trauma head-on. “I hate your mom / I hate it when she opens her mouth / It’s amazing to me how much you can say when you don’t know what you’re talking about” she boldly and confidently decries over a slow building melody. Her writing is uniquely her own, never catering to other pop tendencies like massive hooks or earworm style choruses. In fact, it’s a rare record where the lyrics are so dominant that it takes several listens to also recognize the arrangements are remarkable as well. An introspective marvel, hearing the record while in isolation really allowed the lyrics to connect with the setting, while still giving in to moments that will only be propelled once we’re finally allowed to have group settings. Singles like “Kyoto,” “Garden Song,” and “ICU” all register as pillars of the record, but the finale is really where everything comes together for this generation’s version of the Beatles’ “Day In The Life.” A cathartic scream to signify the end of the world couldn’t have felt more appropriate or needed here and it was the most engaging moment of music all year. It begged for participation and provided the single most unifying moment on record in 2020. Phoebe rode the wave of her debut and brilliantly partnered with other significant songwriters along the way to slowly build her craft. She not only continues to produce mesmerizing work, she does it with such sophistication and poise. An artist that has not only found their voice, but mastered it as well.

03.  FLEET FOXES | Shore

Hitting us on the autumn equinox, Robin Pecknold revived Fleet Foxes seemingly out of nowhere and delivered a surprise record full of tracks recorded with select musicians in upstate New York with the hint of more to follow with the other members of the band. Shore isn’t a solo record per se, the record actually kicks-off with a song sung by a new voice and not Robin’s signature croon (something that was a bit startling on first listen, but now really sets the stage for all that follows), but this music is the true vision of Pecknold and no one else. Following the psych patterns of Crack-Up, Shore steers away from the more progressive structures of its predecessor and heads more towards the dream-folk styles of their earlier sound. The attention to detail is as pristine as ever, the multidimensional arrangements still reaching towards the edge of the ocean, getting rapped in gale-force winds.. The guitars slash like knives on standout “Can I Believe You?” creating unexpected and enthralling moments only embellished by Chris Bear’s profound drumming. The song is a gentle rush that embraces a mood and sets forth the energy for all that follows. “I’m Not My Season” is a graceful ballad that evokes golden hour imagery of the most epic proportions. Pecknold’s talent of writing prism-tinged psych-folk is still unquestionable on album number four and while their best work still remains their first two albums, there is no doubt that the band sounds as strong as ever. It’s not uncommon to wish a band to return to their old sounds if their latest isn’t up to par, but for Fleet Foxes, while they may not have reached the heights of their early sound on Shore, the triumphant creativity of their songwriting suggests that perhaps their best work could actually still be ahead.

02.  WAXAHATCHEE | Saint Cloud

The fifth record from Katie Crutchfield is without a doubt her strongest and best. It’s a record that feels immediately worn-in and treasured, its grooves perfectly broken-in, an instant classic and perhaps the first chapter of the Great American Songbook for the new decade. Her voice is soft like velvet with a twang that seems to shimmer from a sunset off in the distance. It’s warm and welcoming and provides the same feeling of comfort as so many other familiar country sounds. The creak of a wooden door, a rocking chair on a porch, or the crunch of gravel under tires, it immediately recalls a sense of familiarity and ease, a defining record and an artist’s true peak. The album kicks off with this sort-of psychedelic cymbal crash that puts forth a dream-like mood and the rest of the album continues on this course. An unbelievable journey that feels wrapped in golden sunlight, like sitting in the back of a pick-up truck and feeling the wind in your hair. Although this record stands out as a whole, there are many small moments throughout that add more character to the entire body of work, Easter Egg like discoveries that enhance the listen. The way she sings “lit up” in “The Eyes” is easily one of the most sensational moments of music in the entire year and the one I look forward to the most on every listen, for example. The songs are about struggles and addiction and the pain that comes with recovery, but the delivery is in the format of blushing country-pop that makes it easy to digest and almost celebrate. It’s a cleanse and rebirth. “If I’m a broken record write it in the dust, babe / I fill myself back up like I used to do / And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you” she sings on “Lilacs.” We all need some love too.

01.  FIONA APPLE | Fetch the Bolt Cutters

On the day of its release, I wrote “Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an astounding triumph of a record and a crowning achievement in her already illustrious career.” Now, after repeated listens (I think I listened to it daily for at least the first month of its existence), it is clear to me that Fiona Apple didn’t only release the album of the year, but one of the most astounding and important records of the past two decades. It’s not just a career defining statement, but one of the most important records, period. Met with immaculate reception upon release, it has yet to grow stale in any fashion and only continues to grow in legend. Listen after listen reveals more nuance and gifts of remarkable proportions. It felt like the album of quarantine despite being written for years before the world retreated inside. Still, even with the circumstances of the planet surrounding this record and the way in which it was absorbed by the world, there is no question that this album transcends time and its relevance will continue to live on and only grow in stature. No record has sounded quite like this before and it’s hard to imagine anything else feeling this inventive and exotic in nature any time soon. Fiona has never shied away from sharing her feelings and opinions and that is what her fans treasure about her the most. Her raw vulnerability continues to be her driving force and on Bolt Cutters she makes it more apparent than ever (and that's saying something!). “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up!” she declares on one song and it would be remiss for me to not try and think about how often I found myself putting “Drumset” on loop just to be able to scream along to “Why did you take it all away / why did you not want to try” which felt like an exorcism for some many painful moments in the year. In the same way Frank Ocean delivered such a singular record with his career-defining Blonde, Apple has done something similar, working outside the constraints of any typical pop format, creating something resoundingly her own. A masterpiece.

1 comment:

mick yates said...

Marc, hope all is well.

I think your top ten is not too dissimilar to mine :)

Top Albums of 2020