10. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death [Partisan]
Fontaines D.C.’s A Hero’s Death feels a little bit more groovy than Dogrel at first, albeit that it’s a somewhat subdued groove, and less of a gauntlet is laid down than on the debut, although they’re no less defiant this time around. While this may be less visceral than Dogrel, it also sees a maturing of their craft, as they learn how to box rather than just brawl, even while they’re still not above a bare knuckle salvo here and there (for example on “Living in America” and “I Was Not Born”).
The second half of the album sees a certain dialing down of the energy, which opens up a world of potential for them. It also sounds gorgeous in every part (in particular on “Love Is The Main Thing”, “Oh Such a Spring and Sunny”), at once clean and dirty, sober and dissolute. Griann Chatten’s lyrics continue to be astonishing, in particular and for example on “Lucid Dream”, which is all but a prose poem. The Beach Boys influences touted during interviews that preceded its release don’t seem to be borne out to any noticeable extent here, for better or for worse.
Taken altogether, this sounds like a natural successor to Dogrel and it’s easy to see the continuum between the two, and even to try to identify counterparts of songs from the first album on the second, although that’s probably a fool’s errand ultimately. And while the album ends in a dying fall with the negating coda of “No”, it’s not as far from the Joycean “yes I said yes I will Yes” as the song’s title might lead you to believe. They could go anywhere from here. — Rod Waterman
9. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud [Merge]
I loved a lot of albums this year, but nothing struck me like Saint Cloud. From my first listen, I was entranced. Critics tend to use words like “challenging” and “experimental” to talk about the kinds of albums that top year-end lists, but Saint Cloud is decisively neither of those things — it’s immediate, inviting, catchy. “I feel like I’ve been so wordy in the past,” she told Pitchfork. “I’m trying to find ways to say a lot without using that many words.” That simple approach to songwriting doesn’t yield simple songs. Even now, almost nine months after I first heard it, I’m still surprised by the turns-of-phrase I’d previously missed. I’m still in awe by the way Crutchfield turns simple images into fully realized, gut-wrenching stories. More than anything, I’m amazed by the way that something that is so instantly gratifying can also be endlessly rewarding.
When I reviewed Saint Cloud back in March, I mostly focused on the fact that a country-rock record chockfull of harmonies was an unexpected left-turn for Crutchfield. That’s not insignificant, but it shouldn’t have been surprising. Songwriters like Crutchfield will never be satisfied with a single-mode — like her hero Lucinda Williams, I’m guessing Crutchfield will spend a long career keeping us guessing, trying on different sounds and perspectives to accomplish whatever she wants. I can’t wait. — Kevin Kearney
8. SAULT – Untitled (Black Is) [Forever Living Originals]
The first of two “Untitled” albums released this year by British trio Sault was announced to “mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives,” according to their Twitter feed. Member and producer Dean “Inflo” Wynton Josiah’s sparse production leave no note to waste for nearly an hour. In their Tweet announcing their album, Sault mentioned George Floyd, but (Black Is)’s reach is global, urging us to remember the lessons of Rwanda and Uganda. Repeated declarations of “rise up” reverberate throughout (Black Is).
The soothing voices heard throughout (Black Is) and inviting synth and percussion still reveal the wounded, bruised heart of the album. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought thousands of people to march not only in the United States, but around the world. While we are still waiting to see if meaningful change will come, (Black Is) serves as an inspiring, and essential documentation of a time when sitting on the sidelines no longer became an option. — Sean McCarthy
7. Ital Tek – Outland [Planet Mu]
While Ital Tek’s Bodied was written in snatched moments during periods working on other projects, the writing of new album Outland took place in self-imposed seclusion as he grappled with the joy and heightened anxiety of becoming a new parent. As such, Outland is a much more restless and jittery album, born from sleepless nights and overwhelming emotional fluctuations. While it broadly exists in a similarly rich and vividly constructed world as Bodied, the tracks on Outland see Ital Tek navigate much more extreme and unpredictable sonic terrain.
By delving deeper into the world he so distinctly rendered on Bodied, Ital Tek has made his most accessible album to date without compromising his unique musical vision. It’s an album of contrast and tension as tracks veer between extremes as if constantly searching for some kind of indefinable resolution. Ambitious and profound while remaining compelling unpredictable, it’s a constantly shape-shifting, all-encompassing musical experience. Outland is, quite simply, a masterpiece. — Paul Carr
6. Run the Jewels – RTJ4 [BMG]
RTJ4 finds Run the Jewels as sharp as ever, bookending the album this time out with “Yankee and the Brave”, which imagines the duo as the stars of an ’80s-style action TV show. In between, Killer Mike and El-P have words for the perpetrators of police brutality and racism, but just as many words for the laissez faire who complain about these incidents on the internet while moving on with their privileged lives. As always, El-P’s production and beats provide an ever-shifting, tension-filled bed for the duo to rap over.
From the weird modulating piano of “Ooh La La” to the grinding guitars and horror movie interludes of “Walking in the Snow” to the wailing saxophone on emotional closer “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)”, Run the Jewels keep things interesting. They even find a way to put Pharrell and Zac de la Rocha on the same song (“Ju$t”) and make it work, and do the same for Mavis Staples and Josh Homme (“Pulling the Pin”). In 2020, a year as strange as it was upsetting, RTJ4‘s anger and incisiveness feels like catharsis. — Chris Conaton
5. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind [Warp]
When you consider the idea of linear artistic development, you very rarely find a musician moving from idiosyncratic noise artist to more conventional rock star. However, on new album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind, genre-straddling, multi-instrumentalist Yves Tumor revels in the persona of full-blown rock god.
Nevertheless, as you would expect from an artist who came to prominence with the warped ambient collages of Serpent Music, this reinvention is anything but ordinary. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is just as dizzyingly inventive, but it’s also his most realized, song-driven album yet. Thankfully, that hasn’t come at the expense of his experimental, avant-garde sensibilities. Throughout the album, songs frequently shift from big rock numbers and soulful funk jams to paranoid freakouts as he assaults melodies and slashes at hooks.
On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor clearly relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Whereas on previous albums, he would obscure himself behind the music, here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars. — Paul Carr
4. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III [Columbia]
There are very few people who understand the contours of American music like Haim. The sisters first gained attention for 2013’s Days Are Gone, a record of earworms that existed somewhere between Laurel Canyon and The Writing’s on the Wall. This year’s Women in Music Pt. III further expands that amalgam, with sunny hooks and inspired production by Ariel Rechtshaid and Rostam Batmanglij, the architects of the most exciting pop music of the past decade.
The album’s eclecticism can sound illogical on the page, but it’s thrilling out loud. One minute the sisters channel Christine McVie (“The Steps”) and the next they’re riffing on Afrika Bambaataa (“I Know Alone”). They can pull off a Soulquarian groove (“3 A.M.”) just as well as a Petty-sneer (“I’ve Been Down”). Despite these wild shifts, the record never feels disjointed or derivative. Like countless American performers before them, the sisters steal freely from their heroes and manage to disassemble and reconstruct their sounds into something that sounds entirely unique. — Kevin Kearney
3. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure? [Interscope]
Disco, or as my sister called it “Tik Tok” music, saw resurgence at a time where it made sense. ’70s disco and ’80s new wave are due for revivals, and their brassy sheen serves a purpose in these days. It offers light but it also offers protection, a shield from the hangover of the day. In addition to being a perfect vessel for disco, Jessie Ware also fits well in the rush of the evening, anticipating the night’s wonders before the sun withers them away. Songs like “Spotlight” and “Save a Kiss” play out under a moonlit sky, the environment peaceful and hushed but the activities rushed and stimulated.
What’s Your Pleasure she asks, an inquiry reflected in the album’s contents. Her voice, soft yet assured, envelopes each song in a warm, approachable air too intoxicating to turn away from. When hushed, it draws you in even closer with sweet promises that linger in your ear. It helps that songs like “Step Into My Life” draw from like those of Rick James or Oliver Cheatham, where the instruments throb and exclaim just like the body does. When the escapades come to a close, she eases you into the day with “Remember Where You Are” guiding you towards a new dawn without diminishing the memories of the night before. — Mick Jacobs
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters [Epic]
There’s something about the way Fiona Apple thuds the piano chords in the chorus of “Shameika”, the second track off her fifth studio record Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Shameika said I had potential,” Apple calmly sings in between the staccato bursts of piano as she recalls some words of encouragement from her youth. The contrast between the hammered notes of the piano and the flat delivery of the chorus refrain is a microcosm of Apple’s songwriting on Bolt Cutters, an album chock full of dynamic percussion experiments.
This is music that plays out in hits, plunks, taps, and clangs. Closing number “On I Go” seems to throw every percussive instrument into the kitchen sink. Yet for all the aural calamity in Bolt Cutters‘ instrumentation, Apple’s voice anchors the music with clarity and verve. She has always been brilliant, but she has never sounded more in command than she does here. No matter how wild these songs get, she stands resolutely amidst the clamor, defiant and strong. Shameika’s prediction was not only right, but a massive understatement. — Brice Ezell
1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher [Dead Oceans]
Phoebe Bridger’s second solo release, Punisher, is her most accomplished album to date. A staple of the PopMatters’ end of the year lists, Bridgers has appeared with ensembles Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius and earning a mention as one of the Best New Musical Artists of 2017. Punisher finds Bridgers earning a top honor with an album defined by multi-dimensional instrumentation and cunning songwriting. Throughout, Bridgers creates an enriching musical tapestry with her appregiated guitar work underscored by a variety of instruments including a celesta, a Mellotron, and Optigan flutes.
Thematically, the album is dark, focusing on loss and grief. Bridgers’ anger is quiet, slowly churning as she grapples with her memories and experiences. Despite her apparent fury, it never detonates, suggesting a sustained state of rage. Bridgers’ penchant for storytelling is evident: she methodically adds details to the narrative to fully endow her imagery. When she sings on the title track, “The storybook tiles on the roof were too much / But from the window, it’s not a bad show / If your favorite thing’s Dianetics or stucco” she creates a full sensory experience. This is the maturation of her songwriting abilities, and the marker differentiating Punisher from her previous creative endeavors. — Elisabeth Woronzoff