30. Keleketla! – Keleketla! [Ahead of Our Time]
Collaborations begat collaborations in the story of Keleketla!, a project brought into being by Johannesburg-based community media center Keleketla! Library and the UK-based non-profit In Place of War, bringing British electronic duo Coldcut to South Africa to work with local artists like Sibusile Xaba, Yugen Blakrok, the Soundz of the South Collective, and Mushroom Hour Half Hour label affiliates. Further expanding their circle are guest artists from elsewhere: Tony Allen, Afla Sackey, Antibalas, and the Watts Prophets, among others. But this is hardly a case of too many cooks; on the contrary, the range comes through in a dynamic set of tracks that encourage both inward growth and social progress.
Opening track “Future Toyi-Toyi” alludes to the stomped dance form used as a form of protest against apartheid, while later in the album, “Papua Merdeka” is, as the title suggests, a call for Papuan independence led by the Lani Singers, a family duo imprisoned and exiled by the Indonesian government nearly 20 years ago. A sense of urgency permeates these and other tracks all the way until grand finale “Swift Gathering”, a hopeful instrumental piece that makes for a gentle ending to an otherwise high-energy piece. Keleketla! is an album in which nothing is more important than the creative capacity found in new connections. — Adriane Pontecorvo
29. Gorillaz – Sound Machine Season One [Warner/Parlophone]
Everyone’s favorite simian postmodern quartet couldn’t have picked a better time for a comeback. Though Gorillaz’ Song Machine project got a pre-COVID start, its collaborative energy increased in poignancy as the year went on. A series of strong, wonderfully eclectic singles culminated in the Season One album, which collected those singles and added more, overflowing onto a second disc for the deluxe version. Crucially, the band’s collaborations reached across generations and continents, taking in old-school royalty (Elton John), post-punk legends (Robert Smith, Peter Hook), indie heroes (Beck, St. Vincent), British and American rappers (Octavian, 6lack), and Malian luminary Fatoumata Diawara. Also crucially, the songs themselves were just as impressive as the names next to them, with 2D and the band providing emotional depth and an artistic center. In a year when separation was both mandatory and widespread, Song Machine Season One was a super-groovy celebration of the shared experience of great music. — John Bergstrom
28. Caribou – Suddenly [Merge]
Life, by its very nature, is unpredictable. We all try to draw up the best map we can to guide us through the day, but there will always be routes and paths that can’t possibly be anticipated. For Daniel Snaith, the man behind Caribou, the five years that separated the critically acclaimed Our Love and new album Suddenly were characterised by unforeseeable changes as his closest, most intimate relationships evolved and reformed. It’s this idea that lies at the heart of both his most wildly experimental and yet touchingly heartfelt album to date.
There is a strange dichotomy at the heart of Suddenly. While it’s probably his most willfully experimental album to date, his soft, distinctive vocals flow through every track, binding the whole thing together. Shifting from clattering samples to lush electronics to moments of soul-stirring beauty tracks never stay in the same sonic space for long. Just like life, the joy comes from the sheer unpredictability of it all. — Paul Carr
27. Low Cut Connie – Private Lives [Contender]
Low Cut Connie offer empathy and hope on its double-CD Private Lives. Although it was recorded in different studios before the pandemic while touring across the country, this has the feel of a live record. Front man / songwriter Adam Weiner has a generous spirit that expresses itself in unfiltered ways. He invites those in need to “Stay As Long As You Like” in a firm but gentle voice. When he asks someone for assistance on “Help Me”, it’s so he can “be a good man” and to be kinder to others.
On the title cut “Private Lives”, he admits that he depends on the emotional support of his fans to survive. He knows it’s cheesy to say that out loud but being undignified doesn’t stop him from acknowledging his own needs. Weiner puts his emotions right in the forefront. He’s the James Dean of our time, rebelling against the societal constraints that limit our connections to our feelings and to others. Since the COVID outbreak, he and bandmate/guitar maestro Will Donnelly have created the acclaimed live stream Tough Cookies, a brilliant mix of chutzpah and songs in a glorious stew that offers musical solace to help us do more than just survive. — Steve Horowitz
26. Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song [Smalltown Supersound]
The Welsh electronic auteur Kelly Lee Owens came of age on her on-point and emphatic second long-player, a trippily euphoric record which adroitly joined the dots between club-ready pop bangers, chilly synths and meditative introspection. From the creepy, Boards of Canada-like haze of her take on Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” through to the Steve Reich gone Aphex Twin head-banging of “Jeanette” and the strings- festooned and angelic lullaby that is “Wake-Up”, Inner Song seeks to transport the listener to a mental space of serenity, healing and acceptance. The punchy “Melt!” provides the record’s purest dancefloor moment, whilst the mournful ambient ballad, “Corner of My Sky”, is decorated by John Cale’s distinctive pipes. Inner Song proved important in 2020 because it signifies its creator’s growing assurance as both singer and producer, breathing new life into electronic pop whilst alchemising promise into weighty and refined artistry. — Michael Sumsion
25. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions [Southeastern]
Jason Isbell has matured into such a consistently great songwriter that even an album like Reunions, which finds Isbell and the 400 Unit venturing into some previously unexplored musical nooks and crannies, still manages to turn out excellent. Opener “What’ve I Done to Help” rolls on for nearly seven minutes without ever feeling wayward or meandering. “Running With Our Eyes Closed” is a perfect ’80s blues-rock pastiche, while “River” places a story of a man with a long history of bad deeds into a lovely piano-based folk-rock ballad. Meanwhile, rockers “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier” effectively take on crises of self-confidence and continued recovery from alcoholism, respectively. And tear jerking acoustic closer “Letting You Go” manages to reflect on and extrapolate into the future his young daughter’s life in a tight three minutes. — Chris Conaton
24. Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels [Thirty Tigers]
With Good Souls Better Angels, Lucinda Williams brings her multifaceted experience into a singular focus. Her anger leads the album; the consistent anger drives a punk side to her delivery, and the band matches her. The record never approaches single-noted repetition, though, as Williams can turn from loosely topical to deeply personal. The songs shift from country to blues, from hard rockers to ballads without losing any of the album’s relentless energy. Williams’ furious view of the world also contains hope for relief.
She closes the album with “Good Souls”, essentially a prayer to find not transcendental release but support from her community, asking for people who help her “stay strong” in crisis. Even before 2020 became an ongoing tragedy, Williams didn’t lack targets for her bile. Fortunately, neither did she lack the vigor to take them all on. Good Souls Better Angels provides a rallying trumpet, a revelation of evil, and a sympathetic shoulder all at once. It might not be exactly cherubic, but it sure does sainted work. – Justin Cober-Lake
23. Fleet Foxes – Shore [Anti-]
On this record, the Fleet Foxes consists mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold, although he’s joined by several guest musicians, including alternative rockers Kevin Morby and Hamilton Leithauser. As its title suggest, Shore is a beach record that evokes the constant ebb and flow of the tides. The music is meant for listening in a reflective mood. The songs themselves tend to look backward, like the nostalgic “A Long Way Past the Past”, where Pecknold declares, “And my worst old times look fine from here.” That’s a heavy line delivered with a cooing air as if a person naturally would feel that way. And if one can accept the worst about one’s past, then surely the present can’t be that bad—or maybe even be good. In our weird world with a global pandemic, radical negative climate change, and political demagoguery, that’s a bold attitude to have. Parkinson knows about global problems, but he also acknowledges this is the only world we have. It has its beauty. We can still enjoy what’s here. We only have to pay attention. — Steve Horowitz
22. Beatrice Dillon – Workaround [PAN]
Every click and cut is pasted in the right place on Beatrice Dillon’s wonderful Workaround. The drums are so sharp they sound like they’ve been individually sterilized, reverb is completely absent, and melodies are tiny swimming fish rather than hooks. Yet somehow, all these sounds generate a terrific sense of motion—not the linear propulsion of great dance music, but a tactile 3D quality, as if the music is expanding and contracting before our eyes.
Dillon composed the album at 150 BPM, a tricky tempo not commonly used in electronic music, and then let her collaborators improvise at will over them. Most hotshot producers putting out their debut would dial up big names, but Dillon is more interested in introducing her audiences to new ones, like Senegalese griot Kadialy Kouyaté or jazz pedal steel player Jonny Lam. The sound of Kouyaté’s kora or Kuljit Bhamra’s tabla brings bright splashes into this monochrome world, making this the rare electronic album as joyful as it is pinpoint precise. — Daniel Bromfield
21. The Chicks – Gaslighter [Columbia Records]
It’s not a comeback album. It’s certainly not a reinvention album. Gaslighter, by the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), is an album capturing a breaking point. After listening to the Black Lives Matter movement, the group dropped ‘Dixie’ from their name to disassociate from the antebellum south’s racist ideology. In this way, the Chicks centralizes their agency as musicians, individuals, and members of society. Musically, the album reveals notes of R&B, gospel, and indie rock. The vocal harmonies throughout Gaslighter are explosive, situating the Chicks as tender and furious yet decidedly self-assured.
Thankfully, the Chicks reject silencing as Gaslighter reestablishes their penchant for vocalizing raw truths. In many ways, the album is an open letter to their audience, delivering the call to end the silence enshrouding toxicity and oppression. They acknowledge abuse at both the individual and societal level and are adamant in dismantling oppressive silences while restoring agency. Gaslighter is bold and incendiary, finding the Chicks reclaiming their prominent cultural space. — Elisabeth Woronzoff