Tag Archives: best albums of 2020

The 20 Best Albums of 2020? (Part II)

Welcome to Part II of my review of the reputed 20 Best Albums of 2020. In case you missed Part I, you can find it here. This is one of three music blog series I’m doing this year as I seek to reacquaint myself with new music. You may also want to check out the most recent editions of the other two, in which I seek out the Best Albums of the 2010s, and search for the 21 Best Albums of 2021.

A quick reminder on the methodology for this series: 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. 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 my reviews of 6-10!

Heavy Light (U.S. Girls, 4 votes)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.

  

 It Is What It Is (Thundercat, 7 votes)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This seems to be a kind of jazz fusion sound, very mellow. It’s well done, but I can’t find a heart of anything that feels real or vital in most of it. It wasn’t until track four that I found the first song that really engaged me, and then not again for several more tracks. Really, critics?

Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen, 4 votes)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.    

Live Forever (Bartees Strange, 6 votes)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!

Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams, 7 votes)– This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. There’s a kind of simplicity of the music, which is belied by the complexity of the lyrics and surprises in her vocal delivery. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it is a consistently interesting high energy listen.  

So there we are, 10 down, 10 to go. Join me next time for 11-15!

The 20 Best Albums of 2020? (Part I)

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!