best-albums-of-2020

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.

60. Thin Lear – Wooden Cave [EggHunt Records]

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Queens-based singer-songwriter Matt Longo, who records under the moniker Thin Lear, may only be in his mid-30s, but he’s an old soul – musically, at least. His latest album is chock full of highly sophisticated influences. Throughout the album’s 11 songs, one can hear the wit of Randy Newman, the lush arrangements of Harry Nilsson, and the poetic flair of Leonard Cohen. His gorgeous chamber pop is intertwined with stories of loners, death, and alienation, and the instrumentation, which includes everything from Mellotron to Fender Rhodes to upright bass to Wurlitzer, is simultaneously fresh and timeless.

Like most of the best artists, Longo is adept at shifting musical styles – there’s sparse folk/jazz (“I Thought I Was Alone”) power-pop (“Behold You Now”), gospel-tinged ballads (“A Simple Phrase”) and alt-country (“93 Heap”). Wooden Cave is the best kind of album: it’s a winning combination of eclectic songs that are admirable on a technical level but also contain plenty of hooks to make it a sheer joy to experience. Matt Longo isn’t immune to the horrors of the world, but he knows how to wrap them up in gorgeous, lush, sophisticated songs. — Chris Ingalls

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59. Waylon Payne – Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, the Pusher & Me [Carnival Recording Company/Empire]

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Well, this is probably the most exquisite bummer you’re likely to hear all year. Sixteen years and a whole lot of rough living separate Waylon Payne’s debut album and this year’s Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me. As Payne, the son of country singer Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne has noted in essays and interviews, his life took some wild twists and turns in between the two albums. Blue Eyes… is an eloquent document of those years.

Lyrically, the album touches on addiction, friendship, fatherhood, family, and redemption. Musically, the album opens with the raucous “Sins of the Father” and closes with the elegiac “Old Blue Eyes”. The songs in between may lean toward quiet and reflect but Payne clearly knows how to rock when the situation warrants rocking.

The heart of the album can be found near the end, with four deeply soulful ballads that reflect on the redemption that Payne has found in recent years. While the details in these songs are autobiographical, the emotional resonance they project is universal. — Rich Wilhelm

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58. Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers [Heavenly Recordings]

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Baxter Dury’s sixth album, The Night Chancers, has the best opening line of any album this year: “I’m not your fucking friend.” It also has the best opening track of the year in “I’m Not Your Dog”, which just happens to be a contender for best single. That is all down to its wonderfully gruff and grumpy narrator and a noirish synth sound, strikingly reminiscent of early ’80s Ultravox or Visage, with a moody, French, female-sung chorus to match.

You might think it would be difficult for the rest of the album to live up to such an opening. But Dury is utterly compelling as the various desperate characters who talk their way through this sleazy and expletive-heavy collection of songs, riddled as they are with relationship issues and dating anxieties. He recalls the Streets with his semi-spoken rap skills while possessing the voyeuristic eye of Jarvis Cocker, and the sharp-tongued thuggery of his dad, Ian. But he takes these qualities to a more sinister level with his languid growl and his hip-hop beats that contrast dramatically with airy refrains and strings.

On the brilliant “Carla’s Got a Boyfriend”, he’s an Instagram-enabled stalker who contemplates “taking care of” (beating up) his ex’s new man. And on the warped title track, he calls out to a woman who’s abandoned him in a seedy hotel room in the early hours: “You left me with the crumbs of my spare thoughts / You left me with the noise of the night chancers!” Not for the faint-hearted. — Adam Mason

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57. NNAMDÏ – BRAT [Sooper]

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If you began a therapy session the way NNAMDÏ begins BRAT—”Pick my naps in public, I’m a happy tree / I’m a Ross-painted pretty bitch, shout out Lil B…. I don’t know what this feeling means, my reflection screams / ‘I don’t like you, uninvite you, you’re my allergy’/ Achoo!”—you’d probably get a concerned look, as would any honest therapy-goer in 2020. The song’s title, “Flowers to My Demons”, mirrors Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House”, which advises to accept gratefully every part of yourself, even the darkest ones. The song’s mantra—”I need you, need something new”—is a recurring motif of Brat that typifies the album’s central paradox, one of change and acceptance.

On BRAT, jittery math pop meets cool crooner rap/R&B, often in pitched-up baby-boy falsetto (see cover). Throughout, the artist wrestles with identification and alienation from the self and the other—both, a faceless figure NNAMDÏ calls “you”. While the album’s mellow vibes merely soften the squirming discomfort within, at BRAT’s core can be found a deep and unshakeable okay-ness. The penultimate track, “It’s OK” rides another mantra, itself a core therapeutic tenet: “There’s no need to pretend / you’re okay if you’re not.” It’s a self-care anthem as potent as Ariana Grande’s “Breathin”.

Closer “Salut” begins as a surrender to the forces of nature but soon becomes a third mantra: “If it’s meant to be, then it will be / So why won’t you visit me.” I accept this, but I don’t accept this, ad nauseam. Of course, there’s no happy resolution for the millennial. As with this year, we find ourselves left in the same bind we began in. — A Noa Harrison

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56. TORRES – Silver Tongue [Merge]

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After the release of Three Futures in 2017—and an unceremonious record-deal termination shortly thereafter (4AD Records)—Mackenzie Scott (TORRES) nearly quit music. Calling the act of chasing commercial success a “delusional pursuit”, she took three years to read, work, and otherwise climb her way “out of a tunnel”, all the while reflecting on the future’s veiled designs. The result of Scott’s reflections is Silver Tongue, a new, self-produced work out now from Merge Records. The album—Scott’s cleanest, most mature release to date—marks a new level of conviction for the entire TORRES project. Its nine songs, all evocative and transporting, strive toward a new vocabulary for connection, confidence, and queer love.

Lyrically, Silver Tongue traces the difficulties (and rewards) of trying to create a future tense with a new partner. In effect, it explores a geography of intimacy that many American 20-somethings are themselves trying to navigate. “Are you planning to love me through the bars of a golden cage?” she asks on the album’s opener, “Good Scare”. “You make me want to write the country song folks here in New York get a kick out of” (“Good Scare.”) “I’ve saved records of your tenderness that you say don’t exist.” (“Records of Your Tenderness”, a rhythmically intricate song that rhymes, subtly, with Björk’s “History of Touches”.) — Jonathan Leal

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55. Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open [Matador]

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Making a Door Less Open invests in the psychic thickness of life’s tiny, everyday moments. Think Proust’s madeleine chased with light drugs and distortion pedals. Using stark compositional contrasts to explore the twin faces of joy and sadness, the project marks a notable shift away from the lo-fi net grunge Toledo pursued on Car Seat Headrest’s numbered albums in the early 2010s and toward a new set of genre-bending experiments with future funk and electropop.

Lyrically, the record’s ten songs—discrete episodes exploring everything from style biters to Hollywood superficialities—all add up to a sense of where inner life and the outer world meet. Through daydreams, interior monologues, and unanswered addresses, the band explore the frequent (and often unacknowledged) commingling of despair and silliness; so too do they focus on the ways that the surreal and the fantastic are increasingly structuring the contemporary mundane. — Jonathan Leal

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54. Matthew Shipp – The Piano Equation [Tao Forms]

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Pianist Matthew Shipp has performed improvised solo piano often in a storied career. And, although Shipp is often heard as a knotty and “out” downtown player, The Piano Equation finds him celebrating his 60th birthday with logical grace. Performing 11 freely improvised pieces, he nonetheless has produced a recording of great beauty and logic, creating distinct performances that are simultaneously shocking and beautiful, equally classic and daring.

First, Shipp is playing here with a technical precision and brilliance that are unassailable. Before digging into questions of melody or harmonic invention, this recording demonstrates mastery of the piano itself. Shipp’s lines ripple with precision when he needed them to, and they slur like saxophone licks as required. They thunder and ring, strum and strut. He elicits overtones from the instrument to make the performances more orchestral, and he uses the piano pedals to create startling effects. His ability to shift from loud to soft or from rumbling distortion to chiming bell-like thrill is a pure thrill.

What Matthew Shipp has done on The Piano Equation is a profound achievement. He has distilled his piano style into something sharp and distinct—very possibly the most concise and cogent statement of his pianistic sensibility. Shipp has demonstrated how free improvisation can produce results that get right to the essence without almost any wasted notes. — Will Layman

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53. The Soft Pink Truth – Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? [Thrill Jockey]

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The Soft Pink Truth’s Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? comes a bit out of nowhere and is surely the most impactful release Drew Daniel has ever made, Matmos included. Daniel’s evolution goes beyond the introduction of thematic weight into his craft; he realized the entire aesthetic had to change to meet the new demands. Where once existed comical 4/4 dance beats is now subtlety in pace. Big DFA Records-style drumming is replaced by percussion that is always carefully-considered before being used. Brazen vocal samples are cast aside for an angelic chorus of Colin Self, Angel Deradoorian, and Jana Hunter throughout the album. The danger in throwing out your old clothes, so to speak, is that your new clothes might not fit right. Instead, the new garb of spiritual ambient techno illuminates Daniel’s artistic style to its fullest extent.

The album came about as Daniels questioned what type of music felt right for this moment. The Trump presidency has startled many into self-reflection and activism, and this has come through often in protest music. The associative emotion with protest music is what Daniels pondered on, and he went against rage – not altogether but just from his viewpoint as a white male. Shall We Go on Sinning then becomes an album of anti-rage – not necessarily peace but a recognition of turmoil and finding solace in what is still left to find joy in: community and music. May it keep going on. — Andrew Cox

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52. Les Amazones d’Afrique – Amazones Power [Real World]

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Les Amazones d’Afrique’s Amazones Power is a heavily electronic installment anchored in a powerful low end of bass and percussion throughout. It fits the weighty themes that abound as Les Amazones speak out in favor of equality, especially where women are concerned. Songs of contemporarily relevant issues like female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, and global disconnect invoke the old: folklore, Yoruba deities, ancestors. Past and present thus fit together seamlessly in Les Amazones’ messages for creating a better future for women across the world, with the sounds here as reflective of the group’s progressive mindset as verses and choruses.

A fitting end to the album, “Power” features not just the members of Les Amazones already present on the album, but a number of women from Africa, Europe, and South America joining in to summarize the album’s core cause: “We want to be free!” It’s the perfect culmination of the collective’s messaging, a straightforward and poignant anthem with the simplest of desires – universal equality – at its heart. Once again, Les Amazones d’Afrique are essential voices bringing bold truths and much-needed perspectives to the world. — Adriane Pontecorvo

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51. Jehnny Beth – To Love Is to Live [Caroline]

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Jehnny Beth’s (Savages) solo debut feels like a really good book. Each track gives you a deeper dive into a complex and multifaceted, destructive character. The conflict between the cranial and physical lays out a gripping melodrama as the two vie for control. Beth’s narrative and sentiment echo that of Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s The Dubliners , who “[…] lived a short distance from his body”. The separation of thoughts and urges, need and want, mind and body is a thick and troublesome vein at the center of To Love Is to Live.

If To Love Is to Live had to be described by a single word, it would be ‘oxymoron’. Beth’s very human conflict is tackled in a truly Shakespearean fashion. Shakespeare famously had a passion for the oxymoronic. When Romeo cries out “Oh Loving Hate!”, or when Lennox acknowledges MacBeth’s actions in “pious rage”, or the “joyful trouble” that MacDuff inhibits when hosting King Duncan, each points toward a confused but amplified truth. These paradoxes show the duality of our emotions and actions. Beth’s oxymoronic musings are on innocent sex, natural luxury, and fragile strength. — B. Sassons

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