The Top 10 Albums of 2020

In a year where there wasn’t much else to do other than listen to new music, especially over the second quarter when there weren’t any sports to watch, one thing that 2020 actually did right was deliver some great records. It was a year defined by familiar artists creating career best offerings; our entire top five consists of records beyond sophomore efforts that earned higher scores than any previous work. Another trend worth mentioning is the continued domination by women, as for the second straight year, more than half of our top ten is comprised of female artists. But before we get to those, here are a few albums that were to good not to mention on some level:

HONORABLE MENTION:

Bob Dylan/ Rough and Rowdy Ways

The surprising return to form for the 79 year-old legend is his first new music since 2012 and his best effort in over two decades. The foot-stomping blues twang of songs like “False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” are honest to goodness instant classics, but there are moments here that enter new territory even for Dylan. Ever the poet, the nearly 17-minute closer “Murder Most Foul” both examines and eulogizes the Kennedy assassination over its softly orchestrated strings and piano, never seeming overlong, while the album begins on an equally downtempo note with the lovely, understated ballad “I Contain Multitudes.”

Run The Jewels/ RTJ 4

Very of the moment and pertinent to the times, the year’s best rap album served as a stunning backdrop to the racial injustice, widespread anger and riots that reached a boiling point in 2020. It’s hard not to gasp when Killer Mike utters the lyric “I can’t breathe” over the ferocious “Walking In The Snow” in a truly chilling prognostication of George Floyd’s murder. Elsewhere, the head spinning tradeoff lyrics over an addictive beat sample on “Out Of Sight” is vintage RTJ, while the duo continues to bring it across the entire record, especially while paying homage to some of rap’s greats on “Ooh La La” and while joined for an unforgettable performance from Zach de la Rocha on “JU$T.”

Moses Sumney/ grae

On his sweeping and ambitious double album, Sumney alternates between his other-worldly falsetto and a deeper, confident vocal backed by string arrangements on the stunning “Virile”, while a simple horn line carries the sparse, bare and restrained “Cut Me.” There’s an indie folk element to the sprawling “Neither/Nor”, which builds like a Grizzly Bear song behind its wide-open acoustic guitar jangle, contrasting with the simpler lullaby Disc 1 closer “Polly.” At times grae can feel like long listen overall, but the vocal build alone on songs like “Me In 20 Years” solidified this as one of 2020’s most complex albums.

Adrianne Lenker/ songs

The Big Thief lead singer constructed this delicate acoustic album in a Massachusetts cabin in the woods after the cancellation of a year’s worth of live performances, and what resulted is an affecting conveyance of warm solitude. On the impossibly beautiful “not a lot just forever”, Lenker sings with a nonchalant irony over hollow squeaks of acoustic guitar, practically gasping for air over lines like “I want to be your wife/ So I hold you to my knife.” Highlight “anything” is lovely in its simplicity, a folky ballad of intimate whispers and melodic fingerpicking. There’s so much subtle beauty to be discovered tracks like opener “two reverse”, while things turn darker on the sharp, concise “half return”, as Lenker’s high octave vocal strains add diversity to this thoroughly enjoyable listen.

Phoebe Bridgers/ Punisher

Described by some as a musical visionary in the vein of Joni Mitchell, Bridgers demonstrates the multi-dimensional ability to show restraint and vivid lyricism on the understated “Garden Song” as well as an intense attention to build and release on the crescendo to the stunning closer “I Know The End.” Horns explode, drums crash, Bridgers howls and screams; it’s an astonishing contrast to everything that comes before it, as the album is remarkably soft and subdued across its midsection. In between those bookends, tracks like the gorgeous “Graceland Too” and more upbeat banger “Kyoto” showcase impressive orchestration with their respective string and horn arrangements.

Caribou/ Suddenly

The year’s best electronic album saw Dan Snaith resort to more reliance on melody and an increased vocal presence. “You And I” is a fantastic juxtaposition of melancholy vocals and bright synths, as Snaith’s first record in five years peaks on a track that examines death and loss early on in a year that had plenty of both, relying on a nifty bridge and ghostly vocal manipulations to keep things exciting. The keyboard hook-laden dance track “Never Come Back” harkens back to his house roots, complete with stampeding percussion and a cowbell, while “Like I Loved You” glides along its steady synthesizer behind Snaith’s vulnerable, high pitched vocal strain. The soul sample and violin elements on the joyous “Home” provide some additional diversity of sound.

#10: Haim/ Women In Music Pt. III

The engaging opening track “Los Angeles” immediately signifies a new direction for this band of three sisters, as lead singer Danielle Haim sings wistfully about moving on from her hometown above a punchy saxophone and jazzy Motown backing vocals. Melodic and diverse to a notable degree relative to their prior work, there isn’t a weak moment to be found here over thirteen proper tracks and three bonus tracks. “The Steps” is pure, effortless American rock, with its squealing guitar riff, steady percussion and addictive melody over the simple lyrics of its chorus, “I can’t understand why/ You don’t understand me, baby.” You can practically smell the sex dripping off of the syncopated road-trip groove “Gasoline”, while the heavy bassline of “I Know Alone” helped serve as an anthem for the widespread solitude inherent to 2020 itself. There are familiar, more formulaic moments of pure pop rock on “Don’t Wanna” as well as country influences on “I’ve Been Down”, but the band is more exciting when frequently stepping out of the box on Women In Music Pt. III. The slithery basslines and whispered verses on the lovesick “Now I’m In It” are a surefire highlight, while closer “Summer Girl” provides symmetry with the opener both musically and thematically, full of saxophone, do-wops and bouncy percussion, and more reflections on the city she loves.

#9: Destroyer/ Have We Met

Nearing the age of 50, Dan Bejar seems more focused on themes of disillusionment and mortality on what may be his greatest album to date as Destroyer, creating soundscapes for the listener to crawl into and find comfort within. On highlight “Cue Synthesizer”, Bejar’s patented spoken-word style of singing serves to showcase and direct a bevy of musical elements- swanky bass, real and fake drums, electric guitar and, of course, a synthesizer- into a massively enjoyable groove, at once endearing in its simplicity and unsettling in its cynicism. A spacious, ghostly piano riff picks up a howling electric guitar beneath upbeat percussion and sets the tone early on the sweeping opener “Crimson Tide”, while “It Doesn’t Just Happen” moves in a similar vein, with its punching synths and melodic hook. Even more impactful, though, are songs like the stunning “Kinda Dark”, which brings the tempo down a notch beneath Bejar’s gentle, apocalyptic whispers before exploding into electric guitar distortion. Similarly, the gentle beauty of “The Raven” makes lyrics as hopeless as “Just look at the world around you, actually no, don’t look” and “The grand ole opry of death is breathless” feel oddly warm and inhabitable. Themes of death don’t stop there, as the haunting ambience of “The Television Music Supervisor” describes a man’s last reflections and regrets before leaving this life, and “University Hill” contains references to genocide. Moving well beyond making relaxing beach music for his white linen suits, Have We Met may go down as Bejar’s most essential record, combining such a grim long-term outlook with such joyous sounds of short-term optimism; the guitar that rings out on closer “foolsong” seems to convey a hope and belief that everything might indeed end up okay. As Bejar said in an interview, “Even if I describe a world that’s a sack of shit, you can tell that I really enjoy the description.”

#8: Grimes/ Miss Anthropocene

Written as a concept album regarding the themes of the destruction of the Earth and the demolition of the human race by artificial intelligence, Miss Anthropocene took on a different but equally dark meaning as the year wore on following its February release. The range, scope and diversity of the songwriting is what really stands out here upon repeated listens as Grimes continues to solidify herself as one of our greatest current musical minds. No song better foreshadowed or encapsulated the impending doom of the first year of the new decade than the apocalyptic “My Name Is Dark”, dropping before Covid-19 and nation-wide riots set our collective worlds ablaze. Everything about it is both vintage and peak Grimes, from the juxtaposition of elfish, childlike vocals with demonic screams, screeches and wails set above propulsive electronic beats to its foreboding hook and paranoia-inducing lyrics. Leave it Grimes to sign off in the aforementioned childlike vocal style by sneaking in a haunting extra combination of feminism and cynicism in jarring fashion, “The angel of death, she said to God, unfuck the world, unfuck the work, you stupid girl.” On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is the equally stunning “Delete Forever”, a heartfelt examination of the opiate crisis in all of its delicately gorgeous and crushing simplicity, sung over a gently strummed banjo. In between, there are moments of pure pop perfection on tracks like “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around”, more dark synth on “Violence”, a rave banger for the end of the world with “4 AM”, and the epic finale that is “Idoru.” Even with some weaker, head-scratching moments interspersed among the highlights, there is plenty for everyone on this offering.

#7: Fleet Foxes/ Shore

The fourth record from folk rock mastermind Robin Pecknold signals a return to form following 2017’s more experimental and melancholy Crack-Up, as these sprawling 15 tracks feel far sunnier, more cohesive as a unit and exude a certain confidence and effortlessness that harken back to 2008’s landmark self-titled release. Early on, the joyous “Sunblind” and the bright, swelling, major-key laden “Can I Believe You” set the tone as Pecknold’s voice soars over warm, sun-baked melodies. “Jara” fits the mold of the open-road, motion-heavy guitar in the vein of previous tracks like “Ragged Wood”, while the rollicking “Maestranza” and the carefree jubilation of “Young Man’s Game” will bring a smile to any long time Fleet Foxes fan. The remarkable “A Long Way Past The Past” shifts from Pecknold’s falsetto to a bass-laden bridge that makes an honest, thoughtful examination of the regrets of his past where a lesser artist may have fallen into the trap of sentimental corniness. There are plenty of softer moments intermittently here that are executed with an enviable grace and precision that feels perfectly placed and prevent this effort from feeling overlong. The lovely closing title track pays homage to the late David Berman as Pecknold reflects on the day of his death, ending the album as softly and simply as can be by repeating “Now the quarter moon is out,” while the most exciting and innovative new moments come on the penultimate “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman”, as an off-tempo time signature carries a more ominous melody that swells and expands like a tidal wave.

#6: Dehd/ Devotion

There wasn’t a much more raw and energetic rock debut this year than from this Chicago three-piece. From the opening guitar riff of “Desire”, lead singer Emily Knepf’s husky vocal screams of “Baby!/ I love ya/ Always thinking of ya” are immediately engaging right off the bat. There’s an atmospheric synth element to the guitar work throughout a record that is endearing in its simplicity. Take “Apart”, the first song sung and written for the band by drummer Eric McGrady, whose voice is far from perfect but works wonderfully here in its relatable vulnerability communicated over an easy riff ending in less than two and half minutes. On highlight “Loner”, an anthemic battle cry for an entire generation of singles confined to their homes in 2020 due to quarantine orders, Kempf’s voice howls and cracks above beach party guitar riffs in defiance to the idea that she’d want it any other way. The defining rough garage twang rings out especially as guitarist Jason Balla leads vocals on the catchy “Disappear”, while “No Time” blends post-punk and pop elements behind perhaps the album’s most memorable guitar riff. Centerpiece “Letter” builds into a truly awesome moment of culmination as Knepf belts out” baaaaybaaaay” around the 2:30 minute mark. It’s the effortless collaboration between these two and this sort of climactic execution that makes Devotion such an enjoyable listen, and places Dehd high on the list of live acts I am looking forward to seeing, whenever seeing bands live eventually becomes a thing again.

#5: Fiona Apple/ Fetch The Bolt Cutters

It may seem sacrilegious to some to have this record placed anywhere besides at number one, but pretending that this is some kind of a “perfect” record ignores the fact that its beauty lies completely in its utter lack of perfection, its lack of cohesion, its reliance on improvisations, incongruence and complete lack of giving a fuck. Fiona Apple’s fifth studio album and first since 2012’s The Idler Wheel is a career pinnacle and indeed an unconventional marvel, containing a unique combination of rawness and energy that taken as a whole seems greater than the sum of its parts. The piano remains the core instrument of choice to carry these melodies and provides a propulsive riff that alternates as percussion early on with highlight “Shameika” which describes a turning point in Apple’s life when she realized her potential after being complimented by a classmate. However, Fetch The Bolt Cutters also contains innovative and sparse clap beats and other makeshift percussion elements that add a daring focus and restraint throughout; there isn’t any harmonic instrumentation whatsoever to be had on the tribal beats of “Relay”, the chaotic closer “On I Go” or on the standard time-signature defying “Newspaper.” As such, there’s a tremendous reliance on vocals, and from that standpoint, there are staggering moments where she shifts from a soft, delicate delivery to a monstrous growl, notably at the end of highlight “Cosmonauts” and over the chorus of the rage-ridden “Heavy Balloon.” There’s other moments of legitimate anger on tracks like “For Her”, where Apple belts out the startling line “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”, but the album doesn’t come off as overtly full of hatred towards men as much as it seems to challenge the very idea of masculinity itself. “Under The Table” is a playful highlight in this vein that truly demonstrates her lyrical acumen, as Apple refuses to be silenced by her date at a dinner party, opining that “I would beg to disagree/ But begging disagrees with me” before bellowing lines like “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you shush me!” all over a constantly evolving piano riff backed by heavy bass. From the gorgeous piano line and trembling vocal delivery that begins the record on “I Want You To Love Me” to subdued power of the of the title track all the way through the jazzy slow burn of “Ladies”, there’s enough variation and innovation here to make your head spin.

#4: Perfume Genius/ Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Mike Hadreas comes of age on his most mature, honest and outstanding record to date, a thrilling mix between jubilation and darkness that explores mortality, desire and dreams. The scaled vocals on the chilling opener “Whole Life” pick up gorgeous violin lines and piano keys as it swells, expands and finally contracts; this is quite the way to start an album. The rollicking centerpiece and bouncy dance track “On The Floor” isn’t too subtle in its sugar-coated sweetness, but balances it out with a funky bassline over lyrics that communicate a relatable sense of sentimental longing and infatuation that feels far more joyous than it does melancholy. The addictive background vocals that drape the chorus provide their own dash of ear candy.  Swirling guitar distortion dominates “Describe” and provides a stark contrast as a highlight here with its discordant melody, while the lovely guitar reverb on the bittersweet “Without You” creates an enthralling submersion effect, both carrying elements of twang that suggest country influences. There’s an intense focus on physicality and sexuality across the record, from the prowess and power of the ominous violin and battle march percussion on the cascading “Your Body Changes Everything” to the patient, stripped down “Jason”, which is as intimate as anything Hadreas has ever written, telling a tale as basic as a sexual encounter gone awry behind more elaborate string arrangements and a harpsichord riff. The impressive vocal range Hadreas showcases throughout, especially towards the end on tracks like the spacious “Just A Touch” and the shapeshifting balladry of “Some Dream”, adds intrigue to this diverse and utterly captivating record.

#3: Waxahatchee/ Saint Cloud

Saint Cloud was the best pure rock record of 2020, as Alabama native Katie Crutchfield molded an album laden with rich, comforting and graceful melodies permeated by an effortless and folksy Americana twang. Standout track “Lilacs” carries a certain familiarity and warmth as she reflects on a past filled with memories both simple and complex, capturing a sense of resolve and in the singer’s own words, the light at the end of the tunnel. A healthy and readily needed dose of self-awareness and optimism badly needed in 2020, “Lilacs” gains extra traction as Crutchfield switches to an emotive falsetto that hangs on the last word of its fantastic chorus, “And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you / I need your love too.” Bright and vibrant moments resonate here, from the steady, sun-drenched “Don’t Know Much” and the honesty of the foot-stomping “Hell,” where Crutchfield finds a particular strength in terms of her lyricism, with lines like “And I hover above like a deity/But you don’t worship me/You don’t worship me/Yeah you strip the illusion/you did it well/I’ll put you through hell.” The bluesy guitar chords that ring out on “Witches” and “War” are tailor-made for the open road, while the tempo slows down considerably on the restrained “The Eye” and the lovely, heartbreaking penultimate track “Ruby Falls.” Ambient organ notes open the stunning “Fire” as Crutchfield’s voice peaks and flutters between octaves, a technique she uses to great effect throughout the record’s entirety. On her first album since deciding to go sober in 2018, she finds a new sense of clarity and purpose.

#2: Jessie Ware/ What’s Your Pleasure

The fourth studio album from the British crooner is a massive step up in quality from any of her previous work, adhering to a strict disco theme over twelve immaculately orchestrated dance tracks. Described by Ware as “an album to have to sex to”, the remarkable production quality defines what was an upbeat album to escape to during a year that sorely needed it. The bracing lead single and opener “Spotlight” kicks off the album with an understated violin intro that bursts into an underbelly of heavy bass and swirling synth beats behind Ware’s seductive whispers. The first four songs are an unrelenting onslaught, as the title track glides over its confident, woozy synth melody, while the punching bass lines on “Ooh La La” and “Soul Control” are as dance-floor ready as anything in her entire catalog, delivered with a relaxed and carefree nonchalance. Elsewhere, the slow-burning “Save A Kiss” builds into a massive crescendo like a great Robyn track as Ware’s voice soars, while the delicate centerpiece “Adore You” slows down the tempo for a stunning bare-bones moment where the chiming beat drops out entirely as Ware purrs “Lean in, move slow, don’t go”, and the darker “In Your Eyes” carries a sultry jazz vibe. The elaborate yet impeccable use of string arrangements may indeed be the defining quality of this record, and no song benefits more from it than “Step Into My Life” with its funky bursts of violin across its chorus. The sweeping theatrical closer “Remember Where You Are” bursts with optimism, combining chamber pop and soul elements behind smart, concise and constantly moving string and percussion arrangements. It is not only the most stunning climax to any album in 2020, it is also a perfect, vital pop song to conclude this career-topping effort.

#1: Yves Tumor/ Heaven For A Tortured Mind

In 2020, the avant-garde and enigmatic artist Yves Tumor took another step forward from what was already a quantum leap on 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, combining futuristic elements of soul, R & B, electronica, acid jazz and psychedelic rock infused with a demonic Prince vibe that carom off of one another with force and result in the year’s most fascinating album. A throbbing bassline and distorted horn blasts kick off opening track “Gospel For A New Century” and anchor its chaotic chorus, while the verses glide along settling into a more gentle groove as Tumor shifts between the two with an intensity that makes its catharsis ever more enthralling. Discordant, ghoulish samples carry the anxiety-inducing “Medicine Burn” and combine with off-kilter but propulsive percussion in perhaps the album’s most shocking and experimental moment, but there’s plenty beyond that communicates intensity through a different medium. The glorious highlight “Kerosene” is carried by its atmopsheric space-rock along with the soaring vocals of guest vocalist Diana Gordon, building into an earth-shattering guitar solo that stands as the record’s most impressive single moment. Then there’s the two part suite “Romanticist/ Dream Palette”, the catchy jazziness of the former melting seamlessly into the latter with layers of ominous synth, then exploding into hard dance beats; it’s the exploration and proximity of these style contrasts that make this record such a consistently exciting listen. The arena pop on “Super Stars” showcases a heavy falsetto over its verses that bursts into a powerful vocal across its chorus, all above another strong guitar riff. Hypnotic closer “A Greater Love” integrates softer percussion with electric guitars that carry an underwater nuance brimming with mystery, a perfect send-off for a record that left us curious as to what on Earth will come next from an artist that is clearly way ahead of the times.

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