Welcome to the second of three musical blog series I’ll be doing this year! I’m determined to catch up on years-worth of missing new music as I was diving deep into the archives, and also being distracted by life in general. You may have already read the first installment of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
In this second series, I’m on the hunt for the best 20 albums of 2020. My methodology has been pretty straightforward. First, I took year-end “best album” lists from a dozen sources that all have something to recommend them: All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin.
For every album one or more of them listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them. It turns out that there were 18 albums that got between 6 and 12 votes (which would be a perfect score). So then I had to choose two more from the 4-5 vote bracket to round it out to 20. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums, and then doing a sum-up at the end. With that, let’s get started with the first five!
color theory (Soccer Mommy, 8 votes)– Solid pop-rock structure, beautiful clear vocals, introspective lyrics, the songs proceed along very pleasantly in a way that’s hard to find any fault with. All this could add up to something merely pleasant, but in each track there’s a surprising twist of one or more of music, lyrics or production somewhere in it. Some songs are more ornately arranged, some are stripped down, but none are bad. It’s not transcendent, but she was only 22 when she made this album. We could do a lot worse, and there is huge promise for the future here.
Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert, 6 votes)– I like hip-hop. A lot! In multiple genres, and all eras from the late 70s to the 2000’s. But there’s a kind of “autotune” school of recent hip-hop that I’m not super-keen on. This album has plenty of that and and the first few tracks are not dynamic musically. There’s some skit material framing things that’s clever, and there appears to be a first half and second half “dark side” and “light side” motiff that’s interesting. The “light side” is much better than the “dark side”, but by then I’m halfway gone. And the first half is thick with misogyny, apparently unironic/uncritical. There just aren’t that many moments that get beyond that until halfway through. This is unquestionably well-produced, but it’s kind of a “nah” for me.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple, 11 votes)– I expected this to be excellent, because it’s Fiona Apple. So the lyrical and vocal power wasn’t a surprise. What I was surprised by was the musical side of it- there’s a dizzying mix of flourishes from classical and musicals, sound samples (I recommend having a dog around when you play it for extra fun reactions), pop beats, the use of the piano as practically a percussion instrument. There’s enough variability in the first track alone to be a virtuoso performance. The tracks each sound different, but fit together, and that is THE trick to pulling off an album. There is a much more conventional (to her approach) version of this album that could have been produced, and it would in many ways be an easier/smoother listen. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and arresting.
folklore (Taylor Swift, 8 votes)– The title had me thinking this album might be somehow folky. It isn’t! What it is, is a fine showcase for Taylor Swift’s continued evolution as a songwriter. Musically, it explores a slower, more darkly textured side of pop than her previous outings. And lyrically, as she herself admits, on earlier albums she often wrote based on imagined feelings and life situations. That began to shift with 1989, a solid pop album that came more from direct experience. Not always profound experience, but real. Here, she sounds like what she actually is, someone hitting their 30s, and reflecting on youthful follies with a combination of wisdom and wistfulness. AKA, it’s kind of a review of the folklore of a life. Sometimes the songs are personal, sometimes they’re the kind of character storytelling you often find in country songs (she did start out in Nashville, after all). She’s always been a mechanically solid song-writer, and here there’s some real substance to back that up.
Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa, 8 votes)– In the opening track she says, “You know you like this beat” and darned if she isn’t right! Dance music has its place, and this is great dance music! The beats work, the lyrics and vocals are sultry, and it’s full of dynamic shifts and attitude. It just feels good to listen to this. I don’t often groove in the club these days (okay, I never often grooved in the club), but I do groove while writing blog posts in bed. And this is perfect for that!
Tune in next time for the next five albums!