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]
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
59. Waylon Payne - Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, the Pusher & Me [Carnival Recording Company/Empire]
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
58. Baxter Dury - The Night Chancers [Heavenly Recordings]
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
57. NNAMDÏ - BRAT [Sooper]
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
56. TORRES - Silver Tongue [Merge]
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
55. Car Seat Headrest - Making a Door Less Open [Matador]
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
54. Matthew Shipp - The Piano Equation [Tao Forms]
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
53. The Soft Pink Truth - Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? [Thrill Jockey]
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
52. Les Amazones d'Afrique - Amazones Power [Real World]
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
51. Jehnny Beth - To Love Is to Live [Caroline]
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
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".
40. Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela - We've Landed [World Circuit]
In 2010, legendary drummer and Afrobeat co-founder Tony Allen and legendary trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist Hugh Masekela crossed paths in London and sat down to record together for the first and last time under the supervision of World Circuit's Nick Gold. The resulting session, supplemented by recordings done after Masekela's 2018 death, exists in the form of the aptly-titled Rejoice! At the time of Tony Allen's death in April of this year, the two artists had over a century of professional music-making between them; now, their single documented encounter is a sonic celebration of both artists' careers.
Allen's signature polyrhythms meet the golden warmth of Masekela's jazzy horns in a glorious blend of their respective well-honed skills on eight fluid jam sessions crafted carefully into cohesive tracks. It's hard to imagine a cooler, more impactful pair, just as it's hard to imagine a world without the two consistently making cameo appearances on other artists' albums in between solo work – but their partnership here proves their individual legacies. There can be no finer tribute to both than what they've given each other as one-time collaborators on Rejoice! -- Adriane Pontecorvo
39. Doves - The Universal Want [Rough Trade]
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Doves' "Broken Eyes" was one of the British indie band's classic singles from the noughties, holding up as it does against the likes of "Pounding", "There Goes the Fear" and "Black and White Town". But it's actually one of many excellent tracks on their fifth album, The Universal Want, released an incredible ten years after the promotional hubbub of their last effort, Kingdom of Rust. A decade in the solo-project wilderness has clearly not diminished the power of this three-piece to create epic, lush and melodic music of the highest order, particularly their ability to come up with a compelling guitar riff, an all-conquering chorus, and lyrical content that is deeply affecting.
If anything's changed, it's that singer Jimi Goodwin sounds even more downcast and world-weary on this collection of songs than ever before. Yes, he's now 50, but he's also talked lately of "a lot of casualties in my past" and how "we shouldn't be afraid to reference the damage that life can do." He certainly does this on "Broken Eyes", where he sings plaintively of love turned sour: "I can't help it if you don't feel satisfied." He does it on the acoustically driven and urgent "Prisoners", too, where he laments: "We're just prisoners of this life." But don't think there's any slack in the musical ambition as a result. "Carousels", for one, builds from a drum sample of Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen into a densely layered and atmospheric piece with growling basslines and electronics to reflect the scary experience of going to a fair as a kid. Few bands have ever come back from a lengthy hiatus sounding as magnificent as this. -- Adam Mason
38. The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form [Polydor]
The initial reviews for the 1975's Notes on a Conditional Form presented damning arguments: the band's pretentiousness had consumed them, there were no major hits, and the album was just simply too long and unfocused. However, this album being a flop was always too tidy of a narrative from a band that is hellbent on exceeding expectations. Starting with a somber plea to fight climate change from activist Greta Thunberg, Notes on a Conditional Form is proud to be a grandiose slab of thoughtful, oft-impenetrable pop music.
Now it's been true for a while, but the 1975 really are the best-produced act going; it's best displayed on the polarizing instrumentals and the IDM-influenced tracks like "Yeah I Know." Pick any track here and there are multiple technical flourishes that'll make any sound engineer jealous. A song like "Shiny Collarbone" sounds more like Jamie xx than your standard alt-pop act they're often compared with. Critics of the 1975 mostly need to accept the band's ambitions as justifiable – yes, they shoot for the moon, but they put in the work behind the scenes to actually get there. -- Andrew Cox
37. The Microphones - The Microphones in 2020 [P. W. Elverum & Sun]
It's especially easy in 2020 to feel a sense of shame when our problems come from "overthinking" rather than "the real world"—a notion Phil Elverum describes here as "this luxurious privilege to sit around, frowning and wondering what it means…. set apart from this life where people wake and work and don't self-uproot each day". But the feelings he puts to words are universal, every bit as real and intense as the relentlessly rising sun.
In the late '90s, Elverum began recording lo-fi folk as The Microphones. In 2002, he abandoned the moniker to embark on his solo project, Mount Eerie, whose recent work has polarized audiences with its raw expressions of grief. Elverum has now exhumed The Microphones with the 44:44 opus Microphones in 2020—a title that sounds more like a think piece about the album than the album itself. The artist's in on the joke, and it's perhaps the only one he tells.
Elverum has always grappled with time and existence, but as he enters midlife, he accepts the void with more grace than ever before. The loneliness has softened. Even crushing lines like "I probably won't find shelter in the arms of any other person" come across as more empty than dark. Elverum employs poetic turns of phrase in service of greater truth, but just as often, his words come out disarmingly literal, cutting deeper than metaphor could.
Musically, very little happens. The song rides a single, churning guitar line—briefly tinged by black metal riffs, off-key piano and lush organ—then wanders into a tundra of drone, and melts into its softest moments. Crucially, it's set to a lyric video / hand-operated slideshow-autobiography, in which Elverum drops photograph after photograph to the beat in a stream of nows 800 strong. The emergent web of detail and self-reference makes the audiovisual experience almost essential.
There's no way of knowing whether Microphones in 2020 will evoke despair, warmth or nothing at all. So soft and slow, you get the feeling that if you look away, you may never find it again. The song ends: "Anyway, every song I've ever sung is about the same thing…. And if there have to be words, they could just be: 'Now only' and 'There's no end'." In this slippery ouroboros of eternity, all we ever have is this momentary view from our window. -- A Noa Harrison
36. Mourning [A] BLKstar - The Cycle [Don Giovanni]
The Cycle is the latest from Mourning [A] BLKstar, an Ohio-based collective boasting three lead singers, horns, and insistent, portending grooves, There's no way not to recognize this band's roots in Afrofuturism; it's also impossible to hear them as anything other than starkly original. And for anyone who's kept up with them since their debut, the mood has gotten noticeably darker, something The Cycle makes clear.
This album's spring 2020 release exposes music that can't help but seem like a reaction to the current moment. It demands an end to systemic racism and its representative monuments, alongside the inequalities brought to center stage by COVID-19, render this country once and for all as a nation forced to finally take a look at the rotten stench of economic and racial apartheid. Part of The Cycle's in-the-moment feel also comes from the fact that this is largely a live-to-tape record, capturing the buzz and hum of their Cleveland, Ohio studio and using that undercurrent to fantastic, vibrating effect. The Cycle is necessary, secular gospel for the healing of a truly damaged nation. -- Brice Miller
35. Roísín Murphy - Roísín Machine [Skint/BMG]
While 2015's Hairless Toys and 2016's Take Her Up to Monto were attracting plenty of critical praise, Roísín Murphy had something percolating in the background that took years to complete, but the end result would end up being the best work of her career so far. Murphy's longtime creative partnership with Richard Barratt yielded the stellar dance single "Simulation" in 2012 followed by the equally great "Jealousy" in 2015, and the two kept collaborating over the next few years crafting what would become a masterful mix of disco, house, funk, dub, and electropop, all anchored by the Irish singer's distinct, husky voice.
Roísín Machine is a spellbinding, non-stop dance journey that carries on for nearly an hour, her impassioned singing matched step for step by Barratt's eclectic yet tasteful arrangements. Going back to 2007's wonderful Overpowered, not to mention her days as part of Moloko, Murphy has always been an extraordinary talent, but when we hear her commanding presence on "Kingdom of Ends", "Something More", and "Murphy's Law", she sounds truly iconic. This is an instant dance classic. -- Adrien Begrand
34. Jessie Reyez - BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US [FMLY/Island]
If BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US is any indication, Jessie Reyez gets out of bed in the morning and immediately dials every emotional dial in her brain up to 11. We should all be so lucky. This kind of deeply vulnerable goth-pop intensity is what made Reyez such a captivating songwriter on her previous releases, but on her debut album, it comes across as a concerted act of defiance. BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US is a devastating testament to the wreckage left behind when love falls apart, an acutely painful exploration of losing and rescuing yourself in the storm of a toxic relationship. It might be an unsubtle album, but Reyez is more willing to admit than many songwriters that heartbreak and the rage that comes with it are unsubtle things.
It doesn't hurt that Reyez's ability to whiplash between genres and sounds, from her imperious swagger on "DEAF (who are you)" and "DOPE" to the tragic balladry of the title track, marks her as one of the more deliriously entertaining performers currently working. Her bullseye lyricism and her singularly wrenching voice dig out ample room for the most jagged feelings she can muster, resulting in a surprisingly gentle and nuanced portrait of healing, as the flawed and gorgeous process it truly is. -- Matthew Apadula
33. Empress Of - I'm Your Empress Of [Terrible/XL]
Lorely Rodriguez's albums surprise with every listen as one appreciates the flutter of her voice or gets sucked into one of her hooks. I'm Your Empress Of arrived at the start of the US shutdown and stayed a reflection of the time throughout: impatient, restless, regretful – I don't want to take it easy/ Take my mind on the road." Lorely Rodriguez spins pain into gold – the unaffected way she chants "Give me another chance" sounds nothing like begging and everything like magic, conjured by some beautifully held notes.
Even for her, struggles seem much less tiresome and more dramatic – she admits to a hollowness on "Void", but she sings as if it's made her weightless. There, too, is an emptiness to a song like "What's the Point", where barren moments in the beat become points for Rodriguez to cut through with frank admissions: "It's confusing the way you touch me." She reveals bits of herself the way her music reveals its many facets with each listen. But unlike most rulers, with every side she reveals, Empress Of grows more powerful. -- Mick Jacobs
32. Porridge Radio - Every Bad [Secretly Canadian]
The vulnerability of struggling to know yourself and others is a key theme throughout (the Mercury Prize-nominated) Every Bad. But more than just a piece of "sadcore sadfishing", this album feels much more like a concept album. Each song is a three-minute chapter building a rich and alluring character profile. There is a gravity to each of these 11 songs. While you listen and piece together the profile of the lost misanthrope and their various ills, you cannot help but be drawn in. You want to know the narrator of each song; you want to befriend and know them. They are damaged, but they are desirable. Like a siren, they call you to the rocks, forcing you to acknowledge your destructive insatiable desire. Every Bad is fragile and robust, confidently flawed, and above all evidence that Porridge Radio is in their ascendancy. They are a real force to be reckoned with. – B. Sassons
31. Georgia - Seeking Thrills [Domino]
Inclusivity, love, unity, and, most importantly, having a bloody good time. They're the things that lure us back to the dancefloor time and time again. At its all-embracing, life-defining peak, the clubbing experience should be a euphoric, coming together of like-minded souls under dazzling strobe lights. On her second album, British producer Georgia has bottled that feeling as she joyously celebrates the dancefloor and all who inhabit it.
Musically on Seeking Thrills, Georgia distills her various influences, pulling in synthpop, disco, Chicago House, and 1980s Detroit techno with sprinklings of UK garage, dancehall, and even post-punk. It's a heady, energetic fusion of sounds with Georgia taking things back to basics as she constructs sounds from analogue synths and simple drum machine beats. The whole thing is designed to take you back to the comforting, sticky floors of the dancefloor, where the only thing that matters is you and the music. -- Paul Carr
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
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
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
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