The 60 Best Albums of 2020

Despite a global pandemic, an economic crash, and the shut-down of international touring, 2020 bestowed an embarrassment of musical riches upon us.

50. Nicolás Jaar – Cenizas [Other People]


On Nicolás Jaar’s Cenizas, his “groundedness” is more literal than it’s ever been. The album’s title, Cenizas, is Spanish for “ashes” or “cinders”. There’s a track called “Rubble”, where, on top of a sax solo, we hear the sound of actual rubble falling. There’s another entitled “Mud”, where Jaar sings, “And no one could hear / The cry from the ground”, followed by a three-fold repetition of “There’s something in the mud”. His singing, here, bears a submerged quality, like his voice is struggling up from under the instrumentation, or underground. This phenomenon crops up often on Cenizas. It makes for a more subdued listen than most of his recent music.

But don’t be mistaken: Cenizas may not go harder than Jaar’s previous records, but it does go deeper. This is a somber, murky record, for late-night car rides rather than the club. It’s less immediate, less punchy than albums like Sirens and Space Is Only Noise. There are no dancefloor bangers, in the manner of Jaar’s recent work as Against All Logic (his other alias). Only two tracks are what you’d call beat-driven: “Mud” and “Faith Made of Silk” (and those two are hardly what you’d call “clubby”). Cenizas is an album that prefers to hover on the fringe of things, woozy and ambient, dangling us over an abyss but never quite dropping us in. — Parker Desautell


49. Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross [New West]


Jaime Wyatt mostly gets lumped in the category of “Outlaw Country” and for good reason. For one, the songs on Neon Cross are more likely to showcase a nasty guitar lead than a string section. Here’s another thing: If outlaw country is supposed to be about ‘hard-living’, well Jaime Wyatt has lived it and she’s not afraid to tell you about it. “Cigarettes and time, Ketamine and wine,” is how she starts “By Your Side”, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s this gem from the title track: “So sad. goddamn… dark glasses, gold liquor, and alligator shoes.”

All good music rises above genre though, and Wyatt’s songs do just that here. Because, in the end songs like the title track and the rollicking “Goodbye Queen” aren’t really about being an outlaw as a costume, but about being who you are with a dose of confidence. Wyatt has a tender heart under all that grit, and we’ll take some more of that later. — Christopher Laird


48. Ambrose Akinmusire – on the tender spot of every calloused moment [Blue Note]


Ambrose Akinmusire seems particularly mature as an artist and particularly within the “jazz” tradition because his work, daring and modern and moving easily across boundaries, is still grounded in some of the core jazz values. Those are the primacy of blues playing, the vitality of distinctive and individual sound, and healthy and creative engagement within the popular music of the time, and engagement with his culture, socially politically. He is individual enough to evade facile comparisons to his predecessors. Still, in how he stands as part of this tradition, he is reminiscent of folks like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, as well as Cecil Taylor or Julius Hemphill. He had inherited much, and work like on the tender spot of every calloused moment if giving a great deal back as well. — Will Layman


47. Max Richter – VOICES [Decca]


From the Balkan Wars to the Iraq conflict and London’s 7/7 terrorist attacks, the electro-ambient-classical composer Max Richter has never eluded socio-political and humanitarian concerns in his decorous, heart-swelling and yearning brand of post-minimalist contemporary classical alchemy. His latest outpouring, some ten years in the making and arriving five years after the shape-shifting experiment that was Sleep, is directly inspired by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a blueprint for a better world. It builds its velvety shimmer, post-Glassian circling phrases, and paradisal vocals around recited chunks of the document read by the actress Kiki Layne and a coterie of anonymous, crowdfunded voices from around the globe.

The author of The Blue Notebooks experiments with narrators and musical formation, yet his characteristic style shines like a beacon: passages of ambient murk, gently vibrating strings and somnolent stretches of piano. The readings are employed as mini-dramas, and the supreme, wordless vocals float angelically like birds swooping over woods. — Michael Sumsion


46. Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans [Text]


While Sixteen Oceans at first appears accessible to the point of being a little bit bland and formulaic as if Four Tet is leaning into his modus operandi, repeated and sustained attention reveals that there is a subtlety here, belying the initial immediacy of some of the music. The first two tracks, “School” and “Baby” come out of the traps with some straight-ahead dancefloor tropes before we transition to something more meditative with the rather nominatively determined “Harpsichord”, which glides into “Teenage Birdsong”. This appears to be where we get the first sign of something slightly tired and belated, as the fluted melody feels somewhat trite and facile, perhaps exposing the possibility that Kieran Hebden’s previously richly upholstered bag of tricks might, after all, be getting a little bit threadbare.

However, the following “Romantics” offers what seems to be a blend of the two preceding tracks, offering pizzicato and simple melody over a simple and subdued beat. It synthesizes the ambience of “Harpsichord” and the pop sensibility of “Teenage Birdsong”, as if he is showing us his workings and the possibilities of musical intertextuality within a mini-suite of three songs. What first appeared obvious and facile and, frankly, kind of disappointing, suddenly seems to be more interesting and mysterious, as if we have been seduced by the trap of aural immediacy when what lies beneath is as textured and sophisticated, while also just as accessible, as you might expect based on Hebden’s previous output. — Rod Waterman


45. Field Works – Ultrasonic [Temporary Residence]


Ultrasonic begins before the beginning. Musician Stuart Hyatt (best known for his Field Works project) discovered the wonders of hearing bats’ echolocation. Using funding that included a grant from the National Geographic Society, he made recordings of the sounds of the endangered Indiana bat, and then commissioned a series of inventive artists to produce pieces from that raw material. The resulting album, even aside from its back story, remains a wonder. Eluvium’s opening “Dusk Tempi” sets a broad excitement to start the evening.

The album passes through the night, combining environment with time. Artists like Kelly Moran and Chihei Hatakeyama create otherworldly pieces that Hyatt fits into an almost linear progression, rising to flight, traversing forest and field, and finally returning to rest. The enchantment lingers, the mix of ecology, concept, composition, and sequencing developing a nocturnal world of its own. Given the music of this night, it makes sense to stay up all night and not rush the dawn. – Justin Cober-Lake


44. clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned [Sub Pop]


Released a week before Halloween, Visions of Bodies Being Burned delivers frights both campy and bleak. The album and its 2019 predecessor, There Existed an Addiction to Blood, were brewed from a single pool of recordings, and each of which wears its witchy worship on its sleeve—depicting tooth and nail, respectively. Even for horrorcore hip-hop, these albums are packed to the gills with horror film references.

It’s no secret rapper Daveed Diggs has a flair for the theatrical. “96 Neve Campbell”, named for the star of slasher flick Scream, explores the trope of the “final girl”, who the killer saves for last but ultimately falls victim to. The chilling “Pain Everyday” samples ENV recordings, supposed voices of ghosts captured electronically. But while the record is hardly a gritty portrait of real life, a more pedestrian horror underpins the cinematic. Sauntering lead single “Say the Name”, inspired by 1992’s Candyman, becomes a brutal examination of an unplanned pregnancy. Its burly hook interpolates a line from Geto Boys’ ’91 classic, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”: “Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned”—paranoia of our narrator in the throes of gangsta life. The heady and addictive “Enlacing” is an ode to MDMA in the way Kendrick’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is an ode to liquor, its voice riddled by contradiction.

The trio’s latest makes for challenging listen. Despite his precise flow and pun-laden verses, Diggs keeps it ice cold, pacing himself with an eerie calm. Meanwhile, writer-producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes build unbearable suspense with bone-rattling bass and palpitation-inducing noise. But fear not. Visions of Bodies Being Burned will blow your mind (out) and totally consume it. — Noa Harrison


43. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory [Loma Vista Recordings]


A load of text has been spilled about Soccer Mommy’s 1990s alternative obsession on color theory and it’s hard to honestly fight this description. It’s in the DNA of these tunes to be sure. Listen to the swirly guitar on “bloodstream” and say it doesn’t evoke that one Meat Puppets hit most of us know. Then you have the freakout at the end of “bloodstream”, which is classic Pavement at their weirdest. The intro to “royal screw up” evokes a certain Hole vibe so hard it’s a little ridiculous. Cue the video with the fish eye lens and inexplicable baby dolls everywhere.

This all is not to be reductive though, because it doesn’t matter the influence of color theory. Influence is in all music. What matters are the tunes, and these tunes hold up. “yellow” is a better Bends-ea Radiohead song than Radiohead ever made. If rock radio was still a huge, world-conquering thing, we would all be tired of “circle the drain” by now. And that song I said sounded like Hole? It’s many people’s favorite track on the album. Soccer Mommy can pick any decade she wants if the songs are this good. — Christopher Laird


42. HC McEntire – Eno Axis [Merge]


Eno Axis is the second solo album from the Mount Moriah alumna, and it’s a long, slow, drawling burn of an experience. Ancient and elemental, this is a work of art created with absolute confidence and entirely without pretense. While there is fire everywhere here (even time itself is on fire), we always know that the river (the Eno River in North Carolina, from which the album takes its name) is close by to quench and douse and cool us as and when we need it, and so the album pivots from one element to the other, effortlessly but deliberately. McEntire’s growth from Mount Moriah to Lionheart to this is extraordinary and, in hindsight, also quite unsurprising.

Album opener “Hands for the Harvest” sets an early tone with “Early rise / Start the fire”, and has faint echoes of another torch singer in the form of Dusty Springfield’s “No Easy Way Down” from the epic blue-eyed soul of Dusty in Memphis. This music is inherent, like Shelley’s Mont Blanc, embodying the natural sublime, ineffable, immovable, awesome in the truest sense. Faulknerian and dusty, Eno Axis starts fires everywhere, while simultaneously seeking to quench a significant thirst in the rivers of sacred and secular song. “River’s Jaw”, with echoes of both Motown and the Jesus and Mary Chain, is chilling and sweltering at the same time, like a fever dream with a biblical kind of yearning.

“Final Bow” is another true standout, kindling sparked into flame with piercing vocals, acutely incisive lyrics, and searing guitar. This is a stoned love, and the closing cover of Houses of the Holy, a surprisingly apposite album closer, enacts this as the unconscious and intermittently satisfying desires of what went before are fully unleashed in an almost cleansing closing ritual when Eros finally comes to the Eno. But McEntire’s handling of Robert Plant’s lyric returns walks the fine line between sacred and secular with great aplomb and a good deal more subtlety than the original.

There is no fat here at all. The album is taut, lean, muscular, and yet teeming with riches, superego surrendering to id, exploring the recesses of what we want but can’t quite name, a thrilling contrapuntal energy that swings woozily between requited and unrequited desire from beginning to end. This is the real folklore of 2020, and you should accept no substitutes. — Rod Waterman


41. Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet [SomeOthaShipConnect]


Jyoti’s (aka Georgia Anne Muldrow) Mama, You Can Bet! is a revelation — of time, of rhythm, of sound. It takes the free-ranging jazz sensibilities of her previous outings under the Jyoti moniker (follows 2013’s Denderah and 2010’s Ocotea) and gives them a next-level boost. The legendary Alice Coltrane gave her this nickname, and Muldrow certainly puts all of her musical wisdom and power behind it.

This time, she adds depth through what is perhaps her best instrument, her voice. This acts as a contrast to what we’ve been fortunate and accustomed to hearing from her in the realm of R&B, hip-hop, and spacey funk. Is there a “post-funk” label we could apply here? If so, maybe we should.

Artistically, the real soul of this album, and the key to its conceptual underpinnings, rests with Muldrow’s nimble retooling of two Charles Mingus compositions. Take the seductive wail and brassy sway of Mingus’ “Bemoanable Lady” and then listen to Muldrow’s “gee mix” in which she snips it, chops it, and flips it, adding crisp percussion along with a haunting and swirling shriek. Pianist Jason Moran, of Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, recruited Muldrow for a live set dubbed “Muldrow Meets Mingus”. Well, this is Mingus meets Funkadelic. Transformed into loops, “The Revolution” has been digitized, undulating, and cyclical, so that “now” is intertwined with “then”. The result asks us to reconfigure our conceptions of “time”.