2020… the never ending nightmare of a year. This year was like watching a beautiful trainwreck that just kept piling up. Off to the side of the tracks, was many of us putting our headphones in and drowning out the world. Lucky for us, 2020 spawned some of the best music in years. Without concerts, local shows, and virtually no social schedules, 2020 allowed time for the music lovers to sink in their seats at home and listen to some incredible albums.
For me, there is no better way of spending an evening than listening to a new album and maybe having a drink. It allows for you to fully submerge yourself into the music and for many albums this year, that was its intended purpose.
When I started making my 2020 best album list, naturally I thought to just make it the top 20 albums of 2020. However, I, like many of you, have felt as though this year was twice as long as any other year in my life. I found it only fitting to then make this list the 40 albums of 2020, a representation of the quality of music put out this year.
We all had so much more time to listen to music this year and it felt as though I’d be doing an disevise not trying to appreciate as many albums as possible. Many of those albums helped get us through this nightmare of a year.
2020 brought back a resurgence in Classic Rock music that feels genuine, new, and desired by the listeners. From Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” flooding our social media accounts with the cranberry juice, longboarder creating the vibe of 2020 for most music lovers. To Miley Cyrus, doing her best Stevie Nicks and Debbie Harry impression and succeeding while still sounding new and fresh. Or bands like the Lemon Twigs, achieving what Greta Van Fleet has tried to do, which is to recreate a 70’s rock album with all of the glam, male machismo, and earnestness that made it so loved.
Disco is back, and it’s good. Personally, I like many millennials have found a deep appreciation for Disco and its place in Pop music. However, for those who may despise the 70’s dance club music, may I suggest Dua Lipa.
If one fact is apparent though from 2020, the singer-songwriter is the ever enduring artist that can survive and thrive during any point in our history. With artists like Phoebe Bridgers delivering the bedroom rock album of the year, to the triumphant return of Fiona Apple, to Bob Dylan once again solidifying his legendary status.
Here are the 40 best Albums of 2020…
40. Tyler Childers - Long Violent History
Tyler Childers, who before the pandemic, had just played a sold out Rupp Arena opening for Sturgill Simpson, delivered one of 2020’s biggest surprise albums with Long Violent History. An album entirely dedicated to bluegrass and the fiddle. In almost Lou Reedesc fashion, Childers at the height of his early success, released an almost entirely instrumental album that was sure to deter some of his more fair weathered fans. With a new found clarity in sobriety, Childers delivers arguably the most powerful and haunting project of 2020. Accompanied by a video explaining the album’s inspiration, so that many of his fans in the country world would not to confuse the title and purpose of the album. Childers gave a sobering, stern examination of the cultural divide between rural and urban areas, while encouraging those who he grew up with in Appalachia to put themselves in the shoes of those like Breona Taylor’s family. Although the record came and went through the vicious news cycle, we will look back at this record as a turning point in Country Music. When the artist stopped hiding behind the lyrics, no longer leaving the listener to be confused by its meaning.
39. Khruangbin (Crung-Bin?) - Mordechai
The Houston, TX funk, indie, jam trio grooved through 2020 with their chill and incredibly accessible instrumental music. However, on Mordechai, we become much more acquainted with Laura Lee (Bass) the front woman. Although she still sort of meanders through songs using her lyrics as almost another part of the rhythm section, this could be the beginning of hearing more from Lee as a singer and not just the driving force behind the band’s sound with her undeniable bass. Khruangbin began to get the big rock band treatment, having their songs “Pelota,” and “Time (You and I),” appearing on beer and car commercials. Haters say what you will, but isn’t calling a band sell-outs lame at this point? It clearly comes from someone who’s never tried to make a living out of music. Nevertheless, the importance of a band like Khruangbin bringing latino music and international sounds to the mainstream should be celebrated.
38. Miley Cyrus - Plastic Hearts
The ups and downs of Miley Cyrus’ career, entertaining? Yes. However, it has not always produced the best music, or at least what she is capable of. Like any great rock star though she has tried on many masks, and it seems as though rock music may be the one that fits just right. At the end of 2020, Cyrus released her most ambitious album to date, Plastic Hearts. A sprawling ode to artists like Debbie Harry of Blondie, Stevie Nicks, and even Courtney Love. With snarling screams and a punch you in your face delivery, Cyrus sounds like she has found the right vehicle to deliver her music and has the pedal to the floor.
37. The War on Drugs - Live Drugs
The War on Drugs, personally could be one of my favorite artists currently making music. However, I don’t think sticking them at the top of this list would make sense for a live album that almost serves as a studio album. In November, Adam Granduciel and company released a live compilation of songs from shows since the release of their 2017 album A Deeper Understanding. A risky move for live music listeners and fans, since the entire essence of the live album is to document a moment in time. But, as they have with everything they’ve put out, Live Drugs, is an immaculate sounding record that truly encapsulates the beauty and grandiose music of the band. The album sounds like an ocean flowing in and out of the bands best songs thus far.
36. Jessie Ware - What’s Your Pleasure
Similarly to Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware is clearly a student of dance music and the best aspects of what can be seen as a club album. What’s Your Pleasure, doesn’t have the hits that most albums set out to produce in this genre of pop, but instead Ware creates an entire party within 12 tracks. Taking from disco’s best attributes and throwing in the incredible beats from Factory Records, New Wave and Rave eras, Jessie Ware establishes herself as a club essential.
35. beabadoobee - Fake it Flowers
20-year-old, British singer-songwriter beabadoobee, clearly sits at the altar of the Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and Pavement. However, there are hooks in her music that come from all aspects of rock. She joins a growing group of female singer-songwriters who are making the best rock music on streaming services. For fans of 90’s alternative rock, put down that new Smashing Pumpkins record and listen to Fake it Flowers, I guarantee you it will put you right back in your bedroom listening to artists like Alanis Morissette or your favorite shoegaze record.
34. David Nance - Staunch Honey
Classic Rock fans rejoice, Nebraska guitarist and singer-songwriter David Nance is your newest way of showing those kids you’re still cool and hip. Fuzz Folk-like singing, with a twist of the raw guitar playing of Neil Young and the Grateful Dead. Nance, although a midwesterner, recreates the sounds of psychedelic 60’s rock, but not necessarily the prettier side of it. If you like listening to Stills vs. Young guitars in Buffalo Springfield, or those contemplative jams of the Avant-garde days of the Dead in the 60’s, then Staunch Honey is for you.
33. Dogleg - Melee
Dogleg… a true victim of 2020. For what should’ve been the break-out summer of Detroit emo-rockers Dogleg, has tamed any hopes of seeing them on stage for the foreseeable future. The reason that is such tragedy is because this band is clearly a live act first, the energy they are able to convey in their album Melee, is the best representation of emo, hardcore, and anthemic indie rock we have seen or heard since Japandroids or Titus Antronicus. A small act like them could risk being left behind, so I encourage all my readers to start contributing to BandCamp Fridays and supporting amazing artists like Dogleg.
32. Westerman - Your Hero Is Not Dead
“I wanted to make something that’s eventually uplifting,” said Will Westerman when asked about his debut album Your Hero Is Not Dead. I cannot speak for everyone else, but personally “Confirmation (SSBD)” has made me happier than any other song I’ve listened to this year. The soft art-pop beauty of this album harkens back to the early days of Peter Gabriel, or the mature pop sensibility of Prefab Sprout. Pitchfork referred to Westerman as “Graceful” and frankly there is no better explanation of the music on this album.
31. The Weeknd - After Hours
If anyone was having a good 2020, it would’ve been the Weekend. A return to form with After Hours, brought the Canadian pop-artist critical acclaim with fans eager to see him live this summer at music festivals. On top of that, the Weekend was garnering praise for his short performance in the Sadie Brother’s 2019 film Uncut Gems. However, 2020 has gotten to all of us in some way and the Grammy’s per-usual snubbed one of the most popular records of the year. Oh well, at least we the normal people can appreciate The Weekend doing what he does best, which is singing in that falsetto and giving us some more shower songs to belt out.
30. Jeff Parker - Suite for Max Brown
Suite for Max Brown, was my introduction to jazz guitarists and composer Jeff Parker. His precise, yet experimental approach to music offered up one of the year's best headphone albums. Although I’ve listened to this album everywhere since then, in the car, in my house, even falling asleep. Parker takes you on a journey throughout the album and it is a beautiful and satisfying one. One that all hip-hop, jazz, experimental fans can appreciate. Parker dedicated the album to his mother Maxine, and who doesn’t love that? Test out those new headphones you get for the holidays with Suite for Max Brown, and you’ll be able to tell if you got your money’s worth.
29. Soccer Mommy - color theory
Living up to 2018’s Clean, was not going to be an easy task for 21-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter Sophie Alison, A.K.A Soccer Mommy. However, with color theory, Soccer Mommy may have released a sophomore album that could compete with Clean, or at least offer up her best single to date, “Circle the Drain.” The album is golden hour music at its finest. Probably why she has toured with artists like Kasey Musgraves as well. Who knew Sheryl Crow would have such a lasting effect on pop music? Either way, the carefree sound of the album is once again accompanied by Alison’s heartbreaking lyrics that tackle the familial trauma and anxiety that so many millennials and gen-zer’s can get behind. Roll your windows down at golden hour and let the warm wave of Soccer Mommy’s color theory, wash over you.
28. Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison
Anyone who knows me knows my love for The National runs deep. They’re the band that helped me transition from being an anxious college student to an anxious adult. I will forever look at the National’s work, good or bad, as masterpieces of indie rock. Having said that, Matt Berninger’s first attempt at a solo project, that isn’t the amazing EL VY, is pretty predictable. It’s Berninger’s ode to his love of writers like Lenard Cohen, Springsteen, and Lou Reed, and as predictable as the album is at points, it’s still one of my favorite records of the year. Serpentine Prison, for us here in Cincinnati, it’s clearly another reference to Berninger’s home and although we don’t get the constant references throughout the album like Return to the Moon, we do get the brooding baritone of Berninger, with an interesting pop twist on songs like “One More Second.”
27. The Lemon Twigs - Songs for the General Public
Now in my introduction, I took a jab at Greta Van Fleet, a band I so desperately want to like but results are still inconclusive there. However, it does not bode well for GVF, when bands like the Lemon Twigs are making incredible 70’s influenced indie music and now with Songs for the General Public, they’ve achieved an amazing ode to 70’s rock and roll. For fans of rock music and indie music, you must approach this album with a light-hearted appreciation for the absurd. The outfits that Brian and Michael D’Addario rock are straight out of the glam rock section of the thrift store, and with their slender appearances you could mistake them for a 70’s rock star. But more importantly the album produces amazing power-pop that their father Ronnie D’Addario would be very proud of. I’m going to go ahead and crown this album the most fun rock album of the year. Not to mention they shot their music video for “The One,” right here in Cincinnati.
26. Dougie Poole - The Freelancer’s Blues
Brooklynite, Soprano’s obsessed, with an auteur’s ability to highlight the never ending hussle of making it in a big city as an artist, sounds like the concoction for this year's best cosmic country album. Brooklyn, singer-songwriter Dougie Poole has been proving that country music is truly an American genre that has no regional limitations. On The Freelancer’s Blues, Poole creates a country western oasis from the confinements of his apartment in New York. Telling stories of having the “computer blues,” and the everyday experience of the millennial heartbreak and struggle. With humour sprinkled throughout, it’s hard not to relate to Poole’s down to earth approach to country music. The album stays true to much of its influences, like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and the Bakersfield sound, while introducing new ideas to the genre. Merging the sounds of lo-fi and psychedelic Southern California rock with the laid back sounds of country, what’s not to like?
25. Dehd - Flower of Devotion
Maybe one of the most exciting bands out of the flourishing Chicago scene, Dehd delivers contrasting follow up to 2019’s Water with Flower of Devotion. This time around co-singer and songwriter Emily Kempf makes the proclamation, “I want nothing more than to be a loner,” on the second track “Loner.” Compared to their first album that was rooted in Kempf’s desire to be loved and have companionship. The Post-punk trio, although may not stick out from the crowd of very talented bands in this genre, do make the strongest argument for being the future of this sound and the Chicago scene in general. The melancholic sound of Dehd, made them one of this summer’s most necessary bands, and had it not been for the pandemic, all festival goers would’ve known the name of this band and their incredible album by this time.
24. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II
As promised, Jim James’ and company followed up their 2015 critically acclaimed album, The Waterfall, with its counterpart that pairs, as well as, wine and cheese. Written and recorded mostly during the process of making part one of the album, these tracks offer a wonderful expansion on this world MMJ has created. If the more epic and grandiose sound of The Waterfall is the Yin, the Yang is the sweet, pretty sounds and almost Beatles Esc hooks of its sequel. Much like wine as well, MMJ only gets better with time, and for fans of the band James has said there will be a new MMJ album on the horizon of 2020.
23. The Killers - Imploding the Mirage
Ah The Killers, one of the biggest acts of the 00’s, who’s enduring “Mr. Brightside,” was named their generation’s “Stairway to Heaven,” by Noisey and will forever live in our hearts and minds as undeniably fun. However, as their albums have aged, Brandon Flower’s lyrics are often scrutinized as goofy and often made no sense. So when I heard about their new album, I was ok to leave the Killers where they were in my mind and love them for their catchy hooks and Springsteen Esc aspirations. However, after reading a few contrarian previews of the album I was intrigued at least to give this album a chance. By the end of the album, I couldn’t help but laugh, over 15 years into their career and the Killers had made their best album to date. Imploding the Mirage, is essentially a duo project at this point with only Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci serving as the remaining members. But after teaming up with The War on Drugs producer Shawn Everett and Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, the Killers finally made a Heartland Synth Rock epic, that isn’t just a top heavy A-side record. Admittedly, this album resembles much of my favorite acts making music right now, however, it is a full fledged Killer’s album. With epic choruses that compete with some of their greatest hits, and the unabashed confidence of Flowers at the helm it is unmistakable. I mean, the album is called “Imploding the Mirage,” it doesn’t get much more Killer’s than that.
22. Chubby & The Gang - Speed Kills
British punk hooligans, Chubby & The Gang came to punch 2020 in the face and offer up one of this year’s best punk albums. Almost serving as a concept album, Speed Kills, tells the actual story of a British gang that goes around causing havoc throughout London. Harkening back to bands like Motorhead or Bad Brains, Chubby & The Gang go for the speed of sound cramming 13 tracks in just under 29-minutes. Joining a legion of punks keeping the genre alive and well over on the other side of the pond. Chubby & The Gang don’t tackle social issues like Idles, or make you think like Fontaine’s D.C., both bands who I loved this year but don’t offer the fun that Chubby & The Gang do. I have plenty of reasons to be stressed, I want my punk music to release that for me, so go smash some stuff and listen to Speed Kills.
21. Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin’ the Grass Vol. 1 & 2
I suppose you could say this is the top 41 albums of 2020, but Sturgill Simpson’s, Cuttin’ The Grass Vol. 1 & 2, offers a reimagining of what 75 percent of Simpson’s catalog could be and mostly like was, at one point in time. “This is in my blood, this is what these songs were meant to be,” said Simpson at his live stream event at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this summer where he first debuted these songs. The 32-track rearrangements of Simpson’s tunes feel as though they are brand new. At least the way they are played sounds like Simpson is having fun, and as much as I love the dystopian Sound & Fury, it was a departure from what made his music so enjoyable, fresh, and earnest. If you want to talk about making the best out of bad situation look no further than Simpson, who too was headlining arguably the biggest American tour for any artist, selling out arenas around the country to then getting COVID-19. However frustrating that must’ve been, Simpson turns around and creates the best Bluegrass album(s) of the year.
20. Run The Jewels - RTJ4
Like heroes in a movie, Run The Jewels returned just in time. As the lockdown extended into the summer, the horrific and tragic murders of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, and Amhad Aubrey resulted in a wave of activism in the streets around the world. Calls for racial equality and a stop to police brutality had a soundtrack, and the anthem was “ooh la la.” The abrasive and brutal lyrics of Killer Mike and El P are maybe best exemplified on RTJ4. Like a sledgehammer to a brick wall El P’s relenting production style is as necessary as Eddie Van Halen’s guitar riffs on a Van Halen track, without it it would be unrecognizable. Every generation has a Run The Jewels, a Public Enemy, a Rage Against the Machine, however the consistency of RTJ on their first four albums are unmatched by many artists.
19. Thundercat - It Is What It Is
Bass virtuoso and cat lover, Thundercat returned for his fourth studio album, It Is What It Is. The GRAMMY Award winning artist has been in high demand over the past few years and continues to garner attention from hip-hop, R&B, psych rock, and pop fans. On It Is What It Is, Stephen Bruner (Thundercat) delivers one of the year’s best Progressive R&B and Rock albums, with his soulful falsetto, unrelenting basslines, and incredible hooks. The droned out, “I just want to party with you,” on “Funny Thing,” became a TikTok staple but it’s intimate call to action felt so fitting for being stuck in your home and being filled with dread, and wanting to escape that feeling. The album is maybe the artist’s most subdued album but we still get the humour of Thundercat’s nerdy aesthetic and unique fashion style with “Dragonball Durag,” an ode to his favorite fashion piece.
18. Freddie Gibbs/ The Alchemist - Alfredo
Rap music has always shared an affinity towards the rags to riches story of gangsters, like Scarface and the stories of America’s Italian Mafia. The often dark and dusty, urban settings of those stories correlate to the roots of Hip-hop and the aspirations of making it in the world of crime. While Freddie Gibbs and producer the Alchemist, highlight the cultural influence of that world, they also acknowledge the inherent racism within the Italian Mafia and the horrific acts they put black communities through. For Gibbs, he instead evokes his love of figures like Harlem Mobster Frank Lucas, who too plagued the black community of New York, but gave back to his community in the same turn. Accompanied by the smooth, dark, jazz beats created by the Alchemist, Alfredo, is personally my favorite rap record of the year.
17. Cut Worms - Nobody Lives Here Anymore
The influences of the Laurel Canyon folk scene from the late 60’s has persisted throughout rock music for over 50 years. It arguably gave birth to rock’s greatest singer-songwriters and the magic of that area in California is still used by artists like Lana Del Rey, Vampire Weekend, and Hiam. However, Max Clarke’s Cut Worms may be the best representation of the influences from those artists. A student of artists like Neil Young, Guy Clark, The Byrds country era, and more are all found in Cut Worms’ sophomore album, Nobody Lives Here Anymore. The Brooklyn singer-songwriter worked in Memphis to create the albums Southern Rock sound and feel. Paired with his innate ability to create melodies Clarke makes the album feel as though it's a lucky find from the 60’s in the record bin at Shake It Records.
16. Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM
“Surprisingly, I want to be an optimist,” Jeff Rosenstock told Anthony Fantano when being interviewed about his new album, NO DREAM. The surprise album from the punk singer-songwriter dropped in May, and felt as cathartic as his work has been up and till this point. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this record from Rosenstock, being a huge fan of both POST, and Worry, his two prior albums. But as I got into the top 20 albums on this list the one aspect I wanted to factor in was, how often I played the record throughout 2020. For me Rosenstock’s lyrics and motivation behind his albums often take longer than others for me to fully appreciate. There is just so much thought met by raw emotion with Rosenstock’s music that he requires you to listen over and over to understand. After listening to NO DREAM, throughout the summer I couldn’t help but feel that Rosenstock was speaking to so many of our insecurities, anxieties, and emotions more than he ever has before. As Rosenstock went into quarantine, he began to reflect on his own flaws of consumerism with tracks like, “Nikes (Alt)” or the crumbling of modern society around him, all while still trying to be an optimist. On his two previous albums Rosenstock predicted much of what we are seeing as a society today with inequality, consumerism, and polarizing tensions rising, it’s hard to not listen to what he has to say seeing as he’s been right so far. Hopefully the optimism from this record pours out to those who listen.
15. Fleet Foxes - Shore
Did anyone tell Robin Pecknold you weren’t supposed to be happy in 2020? Well if not, good, because on his fourth album the Northwest singer-songwriter fully takes the reins of Fleet Foxes and becomes the unquestioned auteur of their sound. In contrast to 2017’s Crack Up, arguably Pecknold’s darkest and most sparse sounds, Shore creates a majestic, spacious new approach to Fleet Foxes sound. While still maintaining their masterfully created folk rock, Pecknold moves into new horizons for the band. Fleet Foxes, are arguably the most influential folk rock act to have come along since Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and because of their success, many carbon copy acts followed a similar formula, that personally I also enjoy, but there’s nothing like the real thing. It will be interesting to see who once again follows in the footsteps of Pecknold, but one thing is becoming more apparent on each album, Fleet Foxes will be a band that ages graciously with time and will stay here for years to come.
14. Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan… what more can you say.
Six decades since Dylan introduced us to his revolutionary lyrics, sound, and influence. Six decades Dylan has challenged the idea of what it means to be an artist and how they can evolve. Six decades of recreating himself. Six decades of being the only artist to chart on the top 40 albums in each of those decades. You cannot measure the importance of someone like Bob Dylan, he has become something greater than anyone of his songs, he’s won Nobel Prizes for his work and his career itself bookmarks history throughout the last 60 years. With Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan creates one of his most important records of his career, a sprawling self analysis of him as an artist and the mark his career has left on pop culture. On the opening track, “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan reflects on his career and professes to the listeners to see him more than just a musician, but to see him as a poet, a painter, a relentless force in our daily lives. No album has served as living time capsule quiet Rough and Rowdy Ways, where Dylan compares himself to the likes of Anne Frank and Indiana Jones, and rightfully so. Dylan is aware of his iconic status and as much as he’s fought it for the past six decades he seems to have come to terms with it.
13. The Strokes - The New Abnormal
Another album that took me a while to come around on, that now I cannot stop listening to. The Strokes sixth studio album, The New Abnormal,is not a return to form or a return to Is This It, and the sooner people realize that, they’ll be able to enjoy what The Strokes are now. In 2001, The Strokes were the definition of cool, they defined what to wear, the sound of a revitalization in indie rock, and what a rock band could be in the turn of the century. However, that was then and this is now, Julian Casablancas is no longer just the frontman of The Strokes he has another band, The Voidz who has a cult like following and frankly puts out just as good of records as The Strokes have in the past ten years. Albert Hammond Jr. could continue his respectful solo career, and the rest of the band each have side projects they seem content in. With lowered expectations from fans and the press, The Strokes could’ve easily coasted into becoming a legacy act. Headline a few festivals every few years and make enough money to pursue other projects. However, in their first full length LP in seven years The Strokes take all of their work from other projects and create an entirely new sound that is intriguing and frankly fun. With odes to their love of 80’s synth pop, The Strokes leave behind the sounds of Guided By Voices and Lou Reed and become something unique and solely themselves.
12. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions
One of my favorite critics changed my entire perspective on Jason Isbell's most recent works. That’s not to say I haven’t liked his last few records, actually it’s the contrary I’ve really enjoyed them. However, I have been left feeling like it’s hard to call Jason Isbell just an Americana or Country artist. So when I heard someone compare him to the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and other solo classic rock artists who make amazing heartland rock, my perspective was changed completely. Isbell is truly the continuation of those artists, he’s Dad rock for sure, but at the same time tells these heartbreaking stories and gives the perspective of the average American. For Isbell his sobriety and the honesty required of recovery is clearly worn on his sleeve when it comes to his lyrics. However, much likeThe River, highlights The E Street Band’s importance in Springsteen’s sound, Reunions, feels like that album for The 400 Unit. Instead of serving as his backing band The 400 Unit becomes as much a part of Isbell’s sound as his lyrics and guitar do. This is maybe Isbell’s strongest record with the 400 Unit and doing what he does best.
11. Spun Out - Touch the Sound
On their debut album, Chicago based psych rockers Spun Out show that you can create lush, vast sounds while still incorporating melody and structure. Over the 43 minutes of Touch the Sound, Spun Out creates danceable grooves along with spacey instrumentals and a clear devotion to 90’s alternative rock. Bands like Jane’s Addiction can be heard on the first track, “Another House,” where on others you hear the lush sounds of Siamese Dream, from Smashing Pumpkins. Spun Out to me made one of this years most accessible and enjoyable rock records, and again became victim to not being able to tour around the country playing clubs and small stages at festivals. This album was on repeat for me throughout the summer, a perfect album for long drives at sunset or sitting outside and enjoying the weather, the record can soundtrack anything.
10. Andy Shauf - The Neon Skyline
It was tough to not put this album higher on my list, especially since the title track may have been one of my favorite tracks of the year. Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf, made one of this year's best albums to stay inside and listen to, well before the shutdowns caused by COVID. A beautiful narrative driven album that tells the story of a man, from the perspective of Shauf going to his local neighborhood bar for another regular night, and running into an old ex and the rush of emotions that come along with that. Shauf perfectly creates a scene that resembles the storytelling ability of Randy Newman or Tom Wait’s first record. When you listen to this album you feel as though you’ve stepped into the 70's and are at the most lovely dive bar. Shauf puts you right at the barstool at the Neon Skyline, and serenades you with his soft rock with all the wistful humor and heartbreak that made Newman so successful in the 70’s.
9. Bartees Strange - Live Forever
Live Forever, may be the most interesting album of 2020. On his debut, D.C. rocker? Singer-songwriter? Hip-hop artist? It’s hard to pin down exactly what Bartees Strange is as an artist and that’s the point. Strange refused to be cornered on this album where he bounces from arena-rock, to folk, to hip-hop, to almost a Frank Ocean style of crooning, to even shades of emo. On tracks like, “Mustang,” Strange’s bellowing chorus develops to clearly emo influenced screams that harken back to Celebration Rock, by Japandroids. However, on the next track “Boomer,” Strange begins to almost rap over a pop-punk progression, which has become a very popular style of music, however it’s met with this blaring, invigorating chorus. Strange came on to the scene with an EP of the National covers, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, so clearly I would be a sucker for whatever he made but what came was arguably the most inventive rock album in years. Not to mention, that for many rock fans this is the future, a culmination of all genres and it’s for the best.
8. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
Has anyone had a bigger year than Dua Lipa? She is everywhere, becoming a mainstay of the late night media cycle, having one of the biggest singles of the year in, “Don’t Start Now,” and now along with Billie Eilish she has created an entire new way of live music performance. However, the biggest innovation Dua Lipa has offered with her aptly named album, Future Nostalgia, is the clear influences of Disco, R&B, and 90’s club music. This album is stacked with danceable hits, with “Levitating,” “Physical,” and “Break My Heart,” Lipa creates this ode to the best aspects of dance club music spanning over 40 years, while creating something entirely new. When one thinks of a great pop record, it must be filled from top to bottom with incredible hooks, beats, and ask participation of its listeners, that is exactly what Future Nostalgia, offers to its audience. To go along with the strong songs, Lipa has created a unique aesthetic that introduces a new generation to the overwhelming success of the 70’s Disco craze. With ideas like “Studio 2054,” Lipa reimagines a club scene from our homes in the future, it’s almost dystopian but masked by the galactic glitter of it all.
7. Young Jesus - Welcome to Conceptual Beach
L.A. post-rock group, Young Jesus, has gone from an almost experimental emo sound in their early years to becoming one of indie rock’s most intelligent and exciting acts. Few records this year did I continue to listen to over and over, completely encapsulated by what the artists were doing the way I was by Young Jesus on Welcome to Conceptual Beach. Expansive jamming and experimentation, create this Radiohead-like epic, however without the strength of Thom Yorke’s lyrics, Young Jesus make room for incredibly inventive improvisation and flex their instrumentation. On songs like “Pattern Doubt,” lead-singer and guitarist John Rossiter leans into influences like Pink Floyd and even Dave Matthews Band’s live spacey moments. This acid-laced freeform indie masterpiece is best exemplified on the final 10 minute track “Magicians,” where Rossiter draws from clear influences like Neutral Milk Hotel’s dream influenced lyrics, to the mathier sounds of Sigur Ros, to the playful moments of the Grateful Dead. If all of these influences intrigue you at the same time as they frighten you then you are the perfect candidate to listen to Welcome to Conceptual Beach.
6. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush
What should’ve been the biggest tour of the summer for the world’s biggest rock band, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker unknowingly made their most headphone centric album thus far. Of course The Slow Rush, would’ve fit in perfectly with a live Tame Impala set, however on this go around Parker leans into his most danceable influences. 2015’s Currents, would be most likely the last time we heard Tame Impala truly make a rock record, from here on out we can clearly see the trajectory of Parker’s love of hip-hop and break beats take over his desire to stay stagnant with his original Beatles-esc psych-rock. Taking from his new environment of L.A., Parker uses sounds that are reminiscent of the most indulgent part of 70’s L.A. rock, Yacht Rock. Leaning on synths, and R&B beats, Parker creates his best interpretation of a modern club rock hit in “Borderline.” Much like the artists of that era you get this party feel, that is reminiscent of the Doobie Brothers Micheal McDonald era, to even Toto’s “Georgy Porgy.” Parker’s production ability has never been in question but on The Slow Rush, we can see Parker coming forward as the sole creative mind behind Tame Impala and it may be his strongest showcase of his production ability.
5. Adrianne Lenker - songs / instrumentals
Leading one of indie rock’s best acts Big Thief, folk singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker has prolific writing qualities similar to that of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or John Prine. She is constantly writing and as she went into quarantine she found more influence in her isolation and clarity. From what it looks like, Lenker is traveling around the country in a small vintage camper with her dog, continuously creating these peaceful, fragile songs that are perfectly matched by her soft vocals. Accompanied by an instrumental album, titled instrumentals, Lenker gives listeners arguably the most calming records of the year. On the instrumentals album, Lenker features two 20-minute tracks both of which predominantly feature wind chimes and soft guitar. These albums, as calming as they can be at times, do not shy away from Lenker’s haunting lyrics that reflect upon regret and solitude, as much as they do clarity. The work is truly a time-capsule of one’s time spent in quarantine, in reflection.
4. Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters
After 8 years, Fiona Apple returned with an album I will never forget hearing for the first time. The singer-songwriter punches you in the face with her aggressive jazz piano, brutal lyrics of reflection on her life in music for the last 20 years, and completely unique sound. The album stands alone as an instant classic and solidifies the artist's place in music history. I’ve never heard anything quite like Fetch the Bolt Cutters, however it stays so true to what has made Apple such an interesting artist over the years. The intimate lyrics are met by these raw percussive sounds that apparently came from Apple’s home in Venice Beach, where we hear claps, slams, pots and pans banging and dogs barking. All these raw sounds create the jazz-like rhythms we are used to with Apple, however it gives the album a rough quality that feels urgent and present, as if she is having a fight with herself in her home. What best exemplifies Apple’s persistence to be heard is on, “Under the Table,” where she tackles the music industry elites and the men that have ruled the media for the last 20 years. Apple definitely repeats, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” on the track and that is only followed by the roots influenced anthem, “Relay.” Apple pounds, “Evil is the relay sport, when the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch,” an indictment on our elitist rat-race culture that elevates the worst qualities in us. It was incredibly hard for me to not put this record at number one, I think this album is perfect in almost every way.
3. Haim - Women in Music Part III.
Along with Tame Impala, Haim is undeniably one of the biggest rock acts touring right now. With catchy hooks in their songs, clear influences from acts like Fleetwood Mac to Prince, and the empowering themes behind the three sister’s lyrics, makes for them to be one of rock's most popular groups right now. So when singles began releasing for, Women in Music Part III. last summer, you just knew that Haim was working on maybe their most fulfilling album to date. From the get go you had tracks like, “Summer Girl,” a wink at Lou Reed’s early solo work, and “Now I’m In It,” offering the catchy singles we’ve come to expect from the Haim sisters. It seemed almost effortless at this point, so I expected several great hits on an otherwise solid album. However, what we got was possibly the peak of the trio's ability to create amazing pop-centric music, while continuing to evolve as a band. Featuring this hovering saxophone throughout the album, Haim approaches their sound with a smooth confidence, they’ve created an ode to the coolness of L.A., that puts you on the streets strutting around their home city. On the opening track “Los Angeles,” you feel like you’re in a movie entirely dedicated to the city. Almost like the opening scene for Manhattan, but instead for its west coast counterpart. Then you are put in the shoes of the Haim sisters in songs like, “The Steps,” where they take ownership of their career and defies anyone to stop them from pursuing success. The rhythm section on this record is really put on display with songs like, “3 AM,” highlighting Esty and Daniel Haim’s ability to connect on the drums and bass, along with the three sisters highlighting their harmonies that resemble that of Destiny Child’s. As far as albums go in 2020 WIM III, is as good as it gets. It's a culmination of the talents of all three sisters and their love of pop music.
2. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
For almost every other artist, the pandemic has curbed any aspirations for a big album cycle, that would be met with a tour, big appearances on late night, and playing festivals. However, for Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, there may not be a better album to quarantine to and wallow in self pity with. The highly anticipated sophomore album from L.A. singer-songwriter, could’ve been a huge flop, with so much buzz centered around Bridgers’ side projects over the past few years, many fans and critics expected a lot out of her. But to succeed the way she has is a true testament to her songwriting abilities, along with her incredible feel for a hook that she doesn’t lean on in every song. I wrote about Bridgers and Connor Oberst’s album last year under the band name Better Oblivion Community Center, and really enjoyed Bridger’s ability to create these Robert Smith like pop songs. They’re filled with emotion, anxiety, and yet she is able to create this light and almost self deprecating fun songs, and no song better exemplifies that than, “Kyoto.” Bridgers’ only “rock” song on the album but the melodies are undeniable and you find yourself singing along throughout, even though the lyrics are so clearly personal and about a love gone wrong. Even with all the setbacks that came for musicians, Bridgers has dominated social media, late night at home performances, and interviews from her bedroom. It really seems like Bridgers’ success was almost benefitted by people staying inside. However, is there a better example of an album that really encapsulates the emotions of so many at a time where we are filled with anxiety, sadness, and self-doubt. Punisher, is that friend who knows just what to say when you’re down, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it's the giant bear hug we all need right now.
1. Waxahatchee - St. Cloud
Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfeild, has been one of the better singer-songwriters in the folk scene. However, like many of her peers her earlier work leaned into that fall dreary aesthetic and sound. On St. Cloud, Crutchfeild, emerges like a butterfly from her cocoon and creates the best album of 2020. A complete shift in sound that brings hope, bubbly disposition, and offers these heartfelt love songs. Leaning on her Alabama roots, the album serves as a modern southern rock and folk classic. The levity she approaches each song with harkens back to Lorretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, and even Sherly Crow. A no point does the album overthink its approach to this warm and welcoming sound, it just moves along at this comforting pace. You could almost dance to every song and at the same time do absolutely nothing and just enjoy the relaxed feel of the entire album. There is no better album that captures the feel of the spring and the emotions that come from the change in weather, you shake the frost off your bones and have this feeling of optimism. And although this album came out in the chaos of the lockdown, the album prevailed for me and served as an almost therapeutic experience to just sink into. It clearly served as a therapeutic experience for Crutchfeild as well, newly sober, we experience St. Cloud, with her as she becomes a little older, a little wiser, and a little more hopeful. This album was a necessity for me this year and thus it sits at the very top of my list.