20. Deftones – Ohms [Warner]
Just when people waxed nostalgic about the 20th anniversary of the Deftones‘ landmark White Pony album, the band returned with their strongest effort since that career-defining record. Granted, they were already experiencing a strong creative upswing over the past decade, but Ohms displays a level of focus that separates it from such otherwise gorgeous records as Saturday Night Wrist and Koi No Yokan. The Deftones’ entire aesthetic has always cantered on the push and pull between crushing heaviness and tender beauty, and that balance is sublime on such tracks as “Ceremony”, “Error”, and the title track.
As great as the band is at crafting tracks that seem to glide as much as they pummel, it’s refreshing to hear a little more urgency from time to time, as tracks like “Error” and “Urania” revisit the band’s late ’90s sound, boasting massive riffs that rival Tool. All the while, singer Chino Moreno is in impressive form; often guilty of singing in a directionless manner, he reins his vocals in enough to pull off his catchiest melodies in ages. The Deftones have become so reliable that we’ve all come to expect consistently good music from them, but Ohms makes the leap from “good” to “great” in a way that caught a lot of us off guard. — Adrien Begrand
19. Adrianne Lenker – Songs/Instrumentals [4AD]
The Big Thief bandleader was already one of the most purely talented singer-songwriters in indie rock when she decamped to a Western Massachusetts cabin to record these two companion albums. This is the first time she’s written personal songs, and purple prose bumps elbows with pop-simple sentiment like “I don’t wanna talk about anyone.” Yes, it’s a breakup album made in the woods. We’ve seen that before, infamously. But these 11 songs and two instrumentals aren’t about how one’s problems are the end of the world. There are love songs, songs with nothing to do with relationships, and stunning New Age pieces with no words at all.
What this music is really about is process of dealing with pain, in part by being in the very woods whose distant tree-rustles and bird-chirps she and producer Phil Weinrobe take great pains to capture. There’s a moment when those birds abruptly fade into the sound of rain as the tracks transition, and we realize we’re hearing a chronology, a travelogue; the gap between the two tracks is like that between the dates of two diary entries. This is an album about being at a specific place at a specific time—one that, in this case, happens to coincide with the full flowering of its creator’s gifts. — Daniel Bromfield
18. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately [Matador]
With his third great album in a row, Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) has affirmed his status as the most spellbinding art pop act of his time, but it would be unwise to simply group Set My Heart on Fire Immediately with his previous work. This album flows majestically with a confidently leisure pace and is not as readily accessible as much of No Shape or Too Bright. Listeners who always need a drumbeat to stay tuned in have to go into this album looking for something else, but if not, there’s always “On the Floor” and “Without You” to enjoy.
Each song is crafted in a mellow velvety sheen that enthralls through subtle shifts rather than the jolts in previous album singles like “Grid” and “Slip Away”. The aesthetic shift can be possibly attributed to the refined narrative intentions of songs like “Jason” and “Just a Touch” where Hadreas explores the complexities of queer love through personal stories of awkward romance and broader historical readings where it’s passionate yet fleeting. Honest love still often remains a secret – an immense burden placed upon the few. Hadreas has always carried it with a sashay but now the approach is more austere creating an album that exudes impassioned wisdom at every turn. — Andrew Cox
17. Taylor Swift – folklore [Republic]
Taylor Swift‘s eighth, ruminative and minor-key album caught me off guard. Fashioned within the imprint of the National‘s Aaron Dessner, Folklore arrived in the sticky heat of the strangest summer in decades and served up an unshackled, liberated and purposeful reinvention that never felt calculated. Quickly ensconced as a key text of 2020, the startling, mesmerising and momentous ‘Folklore’ pushed the pop starlet’s sound into increasingly ambitious and contemplative territory welded to a new palette and demographic: chamber-pop’s weeping strings and plangent keyboards, alt-folk’s wistful melodies and indie rock’s pensive introspection. The combination of her trademark raw, candid storytelling and a wintry log-cabin milieu garnered her a ‘Songwriter Of The Year’ gong at the Apple Music Awards, and deservedly so. — Michael Sumsion
16. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways [Columbia]
In troubling times people can’t help but instinctively turn to their cultural heroes for, if not an explanation, but some eloquence. Some grace, some poetry. After three lovely albums that saw him interpreting American standards, Bob Dylan returned in eerily timely manner in 2020 with his most fascinating collection of original material since 2001’s Love and Theft. The man is as enigmatic as ever throughout these ten sprawling tracks, but when he spits out lines that reflect this past year, arguably the most tumultuous year since 1968, one can’t help but wonder if his playful declaration “I ain’t no false prophet” is actually serious.
Older Dylan clearly gets a real kick out of playing the trickster, right down to the music: his band is having as much fun as their leader is, masterfully weaving from blues, to country, to folk, to more abstract tones as heard on “I Contain Multitudes”. The first nine tracks would have sufficed just fine, but Dylan made collective jaws drop in early 2020 with the stunning 17-minute “Murder Most Foul”, a rambling, stream of consciousness ramble about the Kennedy assassination and the culture that was shaped by it a half-century later. This year needed a major statement from someone like Dylan, and he delivered, in haunting fashion. — Adrien Begrand
15. Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG [Rimas]
When did you realize that Bad Bunny belongs in the conversation for being the most important and exciting pop act going? Was it after his 2018 classic X 100PRE? His 2020 Super Bowl performance appearance? At some point this year when he had three albums all dominate the streaming charts? YHLQMDLG, the highest-charting all-Spanish album to-date, flipped the switch for this writer. Listen to the heartbreak in his voice on songs like “Si Veo a Tu Mamá” and “La Santa” or that husky drawl on songs like “Bichiyal” and “25/8.” Then there’s “Safaera” which is an overwhelming barrage of pace changes and choruses that results in one of the most impressive pop hits in quite some time.
YHLQMDLG is possibly the greatest collection of Latin trap hits ever because Bad Bunny can succeed in a litany of different facets. He can morph his style into whatever each of these magnificent beats requires, much like a former child actor from Toronto was able to do. One would hope that this album solidifies Bad Bunny’s icon status much like Take Care did for Drake back in 2011. On both albums, a young star throws everything at the wall, and it all sticks. — Andrew Cox
14. Childish Gambino – 15.3.20 [RCA]
The true pleasure in watching Donald Glover evolve as an actor, musician, and cultural critic is anticipating his disruption of expectations. In each manifestation, and with each cultural contribution, Glover deliberately defies intention and probability. As Childish Gambino, the recent release 3.15.20 is an astute cultural examination of the current political and social situation while also avowing love and humanity. The rollout of 3.15.20 was a little clunky, first appearing on donaldgloverpresents.com then disappearing only to have a few tracks stream continuously. Regardless of whether this was a tactic to score more attention, the result is perfectly timed.
As COVID-19 forces individuals into accepting the digital connection and subsequent social disconnect, society is ensconced in the digital realm more than ever. Glover wasn’t exactly predicting social distancing, but 3.15.20 is prophetic in its criticism of the exceedingly blurred overlap between humanity and the digital. A disconnect Glover defines as exasperated by the current health crisis and the underlying oppressive social norms. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
13. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony [Roc Nation]
There’s something dreamlike about A Written Testimony, but not in the way we as listeners find comfort in dreams. Dreamlike in the way we look for clarity the bruising mess of life, only to wake up reaching for something we have no words for. Jay Electronica’s debut studio album, released after a bated thirteen-year wait, is at once a sprawling and intensely personal document, a struggle between sacred and profane imbued with the eclectic explosiveness of his pen and the bob-and-weave flexibility of the production. An elegaic Alchemist beat, splintered samples of Rihanna’s “Higher” and Fripp & Eno’s “Eversong”, ghostly James Blake vocals, and a nearly omnipresent Jay-Z weave around Jay Electronica as he contends with the lure of material success and the call of God’s voice in a cruel wilderness.
In a refreshing change from most music that grapples with the divine, A Written Testimony has less to do with a crisis of faith than the crisis that faith is meant to respond to. Jay Electronica spends the album seeking to reconcile American violence and decades of black Islamic liberation politic with the smaller, more intimate violence of his own demons—and comes up with no easy answers. But maybe this album asks us to understand something far more simple and elemental than the world it reflects. Jay Electronica knows there’s something holy in choosing to raise imperfect hands to heaven in an imperfect world. That’s everything a prayer is for, and A Written Testimony becomes one unto itself. — Matthew Apadula
12. Thundercat – It Is What It Is [Brainfeeder]
Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner has always been poised as the modern era’s answer to Jaco Pastorius. For better or worse, though, Bruner’s prodigious chops, flashy technique and apparent hunger to express himself across a vast range of styles have always taken a backseat to the zany personality his records exude. With It Is What It Is, both Bruner’s bid for bass-icon status and the eccentricity of his presentation become subordinate to the unabashed loveliness of the songs. For the first time, Bruner wrangles a sense of flow out of his reflex to throw everything and the kitchen-sink into his music. Moreover, It Is What It Is honors the legacy of classic R&B/soul. But, where so many others are content to just mimic the production aesthetic that made classic soul records from the ’60s and ’70s so vibrant, Bruner keeps one foot anchored in the present. Remarkably, Bruner has managed to breathe new life and color into one of the most fertile musical traditions one can draw from.—Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
11. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia [Warner]
The lines “I don’t wanna live another life / ‘Cause this one’s pretty nice” were most certainly written before the arrival of a certain global pandemic, but Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia nonetheless became a shining beacon of hope for countless listeners during an immensely dark time. Released a week early following an unexpected leak, the album arrived quite literally during the worst of an unprecedented health crisis and was suddenly tasked with providing a space to dance the tears away—and it more than delivered.
Described by Lipa as a “future of infinite possibilities while tapping into the sound and mood of some older music”, the singer managed to create a flawless postmodern pop masterpiece that not only brought nu-disco to the forefront of 2020 but also captures our current era’s perceptions of girl power and patriarchal misogyny, heard best on songs like the title track and “Boys Will Be Boys”. Perfect in length and timelessly cohesive in structure, Future Nostalgia will likely go down as just that a few decades from now. — Jeffrey Davies