Once upon a time, we set out in search of the 20 best albums of 2020.
In pursuit of this goal, 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 were consulted. For every album one or more of these sources listed, votes that the album got between all of them were tallied up, resulting in the highest scoring twenty albums. Reviews of these were broken up into four blocks of five each:
Then, there was a wrap-up. But it turned out that only twelve of the critic’s choices made my “yes” list. So I figured I was due another eight albums. It was time for an Elimination Deathmatch!
The “how” was fairly easy. The top 20 albums had all gotten six votes or more from the combined lists. So I bumped it down a bracket and listened to the fifteen albums that had gotten five votes total. This netted me seven more “yeses”. I still needed one more, so then I listened to the eleven albums in the four votes bracket. Which got me another five “yesses”. Whoops!
We’ll deal with that at the end, but first let’s review what I found…
Sometimes the critics and I were not on the same page:
- Good News (Megan Thee Stallion)– I’d heard of this stallion named Megan for a few years, but didn’t really know much about her. Turns out she’s a hip-hop artist! The thing is, the same things I generally don’t care for when I run across them in male-led hip-hop- pussy obsession, “bitch” left and right, and all bragging at the expense of substance, are what’s on display here. The gender inversion of it is something, perhaps even something worthy, but it isn’t for me.
- Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas)– Gorgeous, heartfelt vocals that work well with the sparkling jazz/soul sound and emotional lyrics. While it is consistently well-done, it’s all too mellow and one tone for me to truly stand out as a year’s “best”.
- Map of the Soul: 7 (BTS)– Hey, it’s a K-pop group! I guess it was inevitable we would run across a K-pop group eventually if we kept going. It’s actually really good, and seems to be doing some interesting thematic stuff as well, but, well, it’s mostly in Korean. For someone like me who’s big on lyrics, that makes it a little challenging.
- Mordechai (Khruangbin)– This is undoubtedly musically skillful and well produced. But this kind of “jazz-fusion world music in a mellow vibe” has never been my cup of tea. It would be a great album for someone who’s cup of tea that is, though!
- SOURCE (Nubya Garcia)– I mean, yeah, it’s a fine mellow jazz album. Except when it goes crazy with instrumentation and notes. It’s not bad, in fact I think it’s probably pretty good, but it doesn’t rank above any twenty other good albums from the year for me.
- The Slow Rush (Tame Impala)– I keep trying to like Tame Impala, and I keep failing. I listened to Currents for my 2010 blog series, and had the same reaction I’m having here. I think what gets me is that there is really interesting psychedelia-flavored material, and nuanced lyrics. But the vocals are so low key and the musical approach is sometimes so “fade to background” that it all just kind of blends together. I do still have Lonerism to go for that other list, so we’ll see…
- Ultra Mono (IDLES)– The literally rocking start had my head bopping from the first second. The music doesn’t disappoint, the lyrics are interesting and worthy, but I am wondering about the shouted monotone vocals. Did they learn this from Sleaford Mods? It got to be too much for me after three or four tracks, which is a shame, because there’s a lot else here that’s going really well.
- What’s Your Pleasure? (Jessie Ware)– There’s a nice steady cosmopolitan groove on the opening track. Unfortunately the second track followed suit, which slowed things down until we got to the more dynamic third and fourth tracks. And so on back and forth throughout. There’s plenty of really great songs here, I just never got the feeling it added up to an album.
In other cases, I could certainly see some of what the critics were talking about, but wasn’t sure it added up to year’s best for one reason or another:
- Alfredo (Freddie Gibbs & the Alchemist)– For my 2021 list I’d listened to an album that the Alchemist co-produced and really liked it, so I was well disposed in advance here. That faith was justified. The production is sterling, musical samples are rich and evocative, and the vocal styling and lyrics are high impact. There’s also a narrative through-line here, which really helps an album come together. There’s a little much misogyny and glorification of violence for my taste, so it’s a very strong maybe instead of an automatic yes, but still pretty darn worthy.
- Chromatica (Lady Gaga)– I mean, it’s not like I thought Lady Gaga was going to put out something bad. And for that very reason, I maybe have a steeper grading curve for her than I might for a relative newcomer. I’m measuring her against The Fame/The Fame Monster, which is a heck of a thing to do to someone. There is certainly material here that is that good, and there isn’t anything here that’s bad, but I never quite got the feeling it organically comes together as an album.
- Fake It Flowers (Beabadoobee)– A pretty and lively indie rock album with a pop flavor and emotionally sophisticated lyrics from a Filipino-British singer-songwriter. I enjoyed it, especially on its rockier side, and it’s definitely not bad considering she was only 20 when it came out, and 19 when a lot of it was recorded. I can readily believe it might have been one of the better albums of the year, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find some others that come before it to round out my top 20.
- Inner Song (Kelly Lee Owens)– She, apparently, is a Welsh electronic musician. I did love her drifting ghostly vocals, and they fit well with the pulsing music in the background. The music is also affecting in its simplicity. It’s at its best, best of the year material even, when her vocals and lyrics are there, which they are about half the time, but it fades into the background on the purely instrumental tracks.
- Ohms (Deftones)– Metal! Alternative metal. Arty intellectual metal. There’s even a song titled “The Spell of Mathematics”. I’m incapable of NOT loving this. That being said, while I like the content a lot, I’m not getting the feeling it totally comes together as an album. At least not in a top 20 “best of year” kind of way. That’s a pretty high bar, though, there’s no shame in not hitting it!
- Ungodly Hour (Chloe x Halle)– A solid album from an R&B duo made up of two sisters. It was smart, energetic, and really fun, and not a track went awry. Kind of like the preceding, I could definitely see that it could well have been one of the year’s better albums, but I didn’t get that “home run” feeling that would tell me I’m not going to hear anything else that bumps it off.
And then there are twelve albums that I can entirely believe could be among the best of the year:
A Hero’s Death (Fontaines D.C.)– There are certain phrases that are guaranteed to positively pre-dispose me, and “Dublin-based post-punk revival band” is certainly one. Following up on that promise, this album is musically spare, vocally haunting, and lyrically slightly glowering in ways that favorably bring, say, Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Magazine, to mind. In theory, this could get a little too bleary and “one tone”, but what’s going on here has enough dynamism and power that it carried me the whole way through. It’s a yes for me!
A Written Testimony (Jay Electronica)– The album by Jay Electronica, one of the artists on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label, has everything you might expect based on that- sterling production, interesting musical sampling, sure grooves and strong beats, and guest appearances by Jay-Z. Jay Electronica brings to this mix personal material, social commentary, a kaleidoscope of cultural references, and spirituality via his faith in the Nation of Islam. That last can, of course, come with issues, but here it’s the empowerment part of that message that contributes positively to the whole. I can see how this got on so many lists.
Every Bad (Porridge Radio)– The darkly rocking, melodic, and emotional lyrics immediately started winning me over. Throughout, the songs by frontwoman Dana Margolin have a bitter, ragged, and even genuinely desperate edge at times, but without abandoning melody. Sometimes the lyrical repetition in songs bugged me, but ultimately it has a surging hypnotic payoff. A yes for me!
Good Souls Better Angels (Lucinda Williams)– Lucinda Williams made one of the hidden jewels of the 80s (Lucinda Williams), did one of my favorite albums from the 90s (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), and is one of the primary exhibits of my thesis that some of the best music of the 00s was country music, even though you won’t hear it on country radio. She’s in great form here. The musical side of it is muscular and electric, leaning toward blues and rock. The subject matter is darkly textured, and her voice gloriously ragged as she closes in on 70. This is a great example of an artist getting more powerful as they age.
grae (Moses Sumney)– The classic soul feeling on the first track wowed me (think Motown, Sam Cooke, etc.). In other places you’ll hear 80s slow jams, electronica, indie folk, and more than a trace lyrically and vocally of Prince. There are really unusual and striking musical production choices as well, high level social commentary, internal psychological exploration, and also interesting gender role material. Honestly, it’s kind of a sprawling mess, but there isn’t a track here that isn’t interesting and complex, and it got there through towering artistic ambition. I have a definite soft spot for ambitious messes over smooth and polished blahs, so this is going on my list.
Heaven To a Tortured Mind (Yves Tumor)– As soon as I saw the description “experimental electronic artist” I suspected this wouldn’t be a top choice for me. So it’s a measure of how good it is that it overcame that not just to a “it’s actually okay” level, but all the way to “it’s great!”. The songs are a wild kaleidoscope of styles. They don’t all sound the same, and work as individual songs lyrically and in terms of song structure while still being loaded with surprising and disruptive choices. It’s almost a kind of punk approach to electronica.
how i’m feeling now (Charli XCX)– Dance music from an English singer/songwriter, well mixed, with some noisy rock edges. It’s really clever and fun too, and surprisingly emotionally vulnerable as well. So much fun I didn’t even mind the autotuned touches.
Miss Anthropocene (Grimes)– Ethereal dance music? Weird indie neo-psychedelia? Arty heavy concept-heavy prog rock? Yes, all of that plus an acoustic number and some cosmic DC Comics references. It’s like the soundtrack for the international online gaming community, which is to say there couldn’t be a more 2020 kind of sound. And what it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for with eclectic excellence.
Suddenly (Caribou)– If nothing else, props for naming your 10th album “Suddenly” (Caribou is the vehicle of Canadian musician/Math PhD Daniel Snaith, and is the tenth he’s released under various recording names). This is an electronic album that, in its mix of styles and verve, reminds me of the 90s heyday of this kind of music. The beats are lively, the arrangements and sampling from other sources is dynamic, and the lyrics are interesting. Even if the original vocals tend a little toward the low-key (it’s the most 2000s indie thing about it), in this mix of things it works.
That’s How Rumors Get Started (Margo Price)– When he heard I was doing this project, my friend Stuart, a confirmed audiophile who’s musical opinions I have a lot of respect for, enthusiastically mentioned this album. He was not wrong! This is musically and vocally lush but a legitimate country feeling still comes through. As well as a great variety of song styles. She’s a solid song-writer, knows how to work her chord changes, and there’s some great classic rock, 90s rock, and gospel influence scattered around too. If the lyrics do sometimes go a little for cliché, she never seems insincere and her charm totally carries it through.
Untitled (Black is) (Sault)– An anonymous British neo-soul collective? Well-sure! And what they deliver here is an electronica/house DJ sound informed by 70s soul, 90s R&B, African music, funk, gospel, and spoken word. All of it marshaled in support of Black identity and liberation. Musically delightful, meaningful, and full of heart the whole way through.
Untitled (Rise) (Sault)– This was released a few months after Untitled (Black is). It takes a similarly eclectic musical approach to that earlier album but, as the name implies, this is a more buoyant outing. Along the way, it loses none of the heart of the previous album, but is deliberately sunny, and the spoken word here is lighter on identity and power (though still has generous servings of those topics in places) and instead focuses on celebration. Accordingly, the music has more disco and smooth R&B grooves too! So, a different feeling from the previous outing, but just as delightful.
So there we are, the good, the bad, and the excellent of the Elimination Deathmatch Overdrive. If you’ve been following along at home with your calculator, you know that we went in to this with twelve albums from the critic’s top twenty that I thought were indeed “best of the year” material. I then listened to another 26 albums in search of something to round out a twenty for me, and accidentally overshot and got another twelve. 12+12=24, and 24>20. What to do?
I made the following four cuts, with all due brutality:
- Sault has two albums on the list, and of the two I like Rise better than Black Is. It’s musically stronger, without losing any of the import.
- I did have a hint of hesitation about Jay Electronica’s album, and there are several other excellent hip-hop choices, so out he goes.
- The Fontaines D album was solid, but not something new or original, musically.
- Similarly, the Lucinda Williams album wasn’t up to her strongest work (as opposed to say, the Springsteen and Dylan albums) and didn’t bring something new or challenging to the mix. (Please don’t tell her I said this!)
These are all kind of along the lines “what really great thing is slightly less great than these other great things?” But choices must be made! Here, then, are my picks from the critic’s picks for the twenty best albums of 2020:
- Every Bad (Porridge Radio)
- Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)
- folklore (Taylor Swift)
- Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa)
- grae (Moses Sumney)
- Heaven To a Tortured Mind (Yves Tumor)
- Heavy Light (U.S. Girls)
- how i’m feeling now (Charli XCX)
- Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen)
- Live Forever (Bartees Strange)
- Miss Anthropocene (Grimes)
- Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit)
- Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)
- RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)
- Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee)
- Sawayama (Rina Sawayama)
- Suddenly (Caribou)
- That’s How Rumors Get Started (Margo Price)
- Untitled (Rise) (Sault)
- Women in Music pt. III (HAIM)
And so our review of the 20 best albums (?) of 2020 has drawn to a close. Fear not though, friends! We found some great music along the way, and we’re still reviewing the 2010s, and searching for the 21 best albums of 2021. More to come!