Look, the last few years have been…tough. Nationally. Globally. Personally. It happens. And, as a result, sometimes one loses touch with some things. One of those things for me, and a very important one to me, was newer music. And this year I’ve determined to catch up! As part of this quest, I’m reviewing the critical consensus on the 20 best 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. If you’re curious, check out the latest editions 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.
First, a quick re-visit of 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’ve broken up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and will follow with a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here is our last block, 16-20:
Sawayama (Rina Sawayama, 8 votes)– Complex and well produced dance music is the impression from the first track. With energy, and lively musical (rock! Hip hop! ballads!) and vocal choices. This has both fiery attitude and vulnerable emotion, and picks up on some social and personal issues. The storytelling on some tracks is almost poetically visual, and things have that sophisticated international feel you often find on European dance music. I can definitely get behind the critics on this one!
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Perfume Genius, 7 votes)– Right off, I’m not sure if the combination of sonorous vocals and orchestral swirl on the opening track are working for me. The scene improved on track two with some good wall of distortion guitar work, although the vocals remained similarly languid. There was more of a dance beat on the third track, and the vocals here and elsewhere started to remind me of a certain era of Bowie/Bryan Ferry. It was a slow start, but I really liked many of the later more up-tempo tracks, and I do appreciate the lush same-sex romanticism found throughout. Overall, I’d say this is not consistent/well-structured enough to be a “best” album, but there’s certainly a lot that’s worthy here.
Shore (Fleet Foxes, 7 votes)– At this point, hearing the phrase “indie folk” tends to fill me with preemptive dread. This pleasantly surprised me, though! The music has a lot of dynamism, and the tracks have an independent identity, two things that often seem to get sacrificed to the sameness of indie folk approaches. The lyrics are also interesting, and combined with the music and the vocals, give everything a yearning, even elegiac feeling. It also, while feeling completely contemporary, transmits something of the spirit of 70s folk and singer/songwriters.
Women in Music pt. III (HAIM, 7 votes)– It’s a great start, smooth beats, multi-instrument pop and clever lyrics with clear, lucid vocals. After several songs that go through a kaleidoscope of musical styles, I realize that this, and I hope they will forgive me for saying so, reminds me of a Wilson Phillips with more musical sophistication and indie attitude. I actually think that’s the key to this for me- it’s a thoroughly pop sensibility and production, but one with a rawness and power behind it musically and lyrically. It’s high quality and a fun listen, and I can well imagine it being one of the best albums of the year.
YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny, 6 votes)– I mean, this seems like it’s very good, but it’s also entirely in Spanish, which prevents me from connecting with it lyrically. I will say on the musical and vocal side, it’s fun, interesting, and well-produced. Although it does have more than none of the autotuned style that is the order of the day, and which I just can’t get behind. Also, I’m not sure this needs to be over an hour long- generically, it takes something pretty special for me to sign off on an album doing that. Though, given the language aspect, there may be some structure or narrative line that justifies it here, but isn’t understandable by me. Reading about the production has clued me in to the whole world of Latin-Caribbean reggaeton and latin trap music though, which is fascinating!
And there we are, we’ve completed our review of the 20! Tune in next time for the final wrap-up, and a special announcement…