As part of my quest to get re-connected to new music after several busy (if not sometimes downright difficult) years, I’m reviewing the critical consensus on the best 20 albums of 2020. If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my review of the critics choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my monthly search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
To quickly recap my methodology, I took year-end “best album” lists from 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 these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and then doing a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here are 11-15:
Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers, 10 votes)– The kick-off with strings and disembodied keyboard notes had me concerned. From there it becomes well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun. It also ends up feeling unbalanced. Everything here is high quality, but I don’t see it coherently adding up to a “Best of the Year” album. Which apparently I’m in the minority on!
Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 8 votes)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan, 7 votes)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.
RTJ4 (Run the Jewels, 12 votes)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!
Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee, 6 votes)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!
We’ve now reviewed 15 of the top 20 critic’s choices for best albums of 2020. Tune in next time for the final five!