It was an awful year in most respects, but 2020 produced some outstanding music. If these artists are able to tour these works next summer, it’ll be a concert season for the ages.
1. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately Mike Hadreas has given the best album of his career, the best album of this year and probably one of the best albums of this young decade with this genre-hopping masterwork.
2. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher Heartrending and sonically lush, Punisher is a layer cake we’ll be enjoying for years to come. “Kyoto,” with its anthemic chorus smartly punctuated by horns, is worth a 33 1/3 volume all by itself.
3. GoGo Penguin, GoGo Penguin The cult favorite jazz trio wows again with its fifth LP of complex instrumentals that could be Aphex Twin tracks, but for the fact they’re all performed non-electronically.
4. Moses Sumney, græ Sumney’s future-soul opus soars even in its quietest moments. “Virile,” “Me in 20 Years” and “Polly” are too big, passionate and restless to be contained by headphones.
5. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud Katie Crutchfield got sober before writing this material, and you can feel her clarity, optimism and sense of purpose; there’s a humanity and warmth to these 11 folky songs that permeates down to the bone.
6. Gorillaz, Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez Damon Albarn recently made the wise decision to change Gorillaz from an albums band to a songs band. The result is this terrific collection of one-offs, featuring Robert Smith, 6lack, St. Vincent, Beck, Slaves and more.
7. Run the Jewels, RTJ4 “You watch the cops choke out a man like me … You’ve been robbed of your empathy,” Killer Mike raps on “Walking in the Snow.” RTJ4 is a propulsive, relentless exhortation to unplug from Twitter and do something.
8. Haim, Women in Music Part III Equal parts breezy, beachy pop-rock and peak Laurel Canyon-like lyrical meditations, Haim’s third album is ready-made for radio play—while also being way too good for it.
9. Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind A blast of woozy, sexy, soulful, rump-shaking, fist-pumping rock-and-soul that feels like it traveled in time, from an era when rock was something parents feared their kids might get into.
10. The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You Though they’ve largely abandoned the plunderphonic approach of Since I Left You and Wildflower, the perfectionist Australian group’s third LP is every bit is as sweet and uplifting as those modern classics.
In an unfamiliar year, I leaned heavily on familiar music. Most of my favorite albums were ones I saw coming, and looking back, it’s comforting to know something in 2020 went according to plan.
1. Touché Amore, Lament Contemplate, cry, marvel and mosh all at once. Famed producer Ross Robinson helps bring the most creative and complete set of songs out of a band now solidified as one of the best melodic hardcore acts of all time.
2. Hum, Inlet Armed with modern recording technology and the freedom of a self-release, the spacey ’90s alternative pioneers’ riffs stretch further than ever on a surprise return after 22 years of silence.
3. Run the Jewels, RTJ4 In a career built by sounding equal parts profound and incendiary, Killer Mike and El-P have never been more profound and incendiary than on this album released amid the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.
4. Deftones, Ohms Many veteran bands fail when they try to make a smorgasbord of an album drawing from the best parts of a long, disparate discography. But Deftones never fail.
5. Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s DeathOn the antithesis to last year’s debut Dogrel, the Irish punks show their range by trading in outwardly blasts of aggression for more measured, brooding introspection.
6. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters A pre-shaken bottle rocket of catharsis, ready to lift off at a moment’s notice before returning to the launching pad and self-igniting all over again.
7. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher Poignant, riveting and wry, one of the best millennial songwriters has carved her niche and somehow keeps getting a little better across a steady stream of releases through multiple projects.
8. Ecostrike, A Truth We Still Believe A no-frills, all-thrills love letter to straight-edge hardcore, with nods to the genre’s greats laced throughout, including a presumably inadvertent but no less thrilling reference to Vegas legends Faded Grey.
9. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Reunions It’s easy to take an artist who releases consistently great but similar-sounding records for granted. These often-perfect alt-country songs should make it impossible to do so with Isbell.
10. Today Is the Day, No Good to Anyone Misery wrapped in existential dread and inevitable Armageddon. It’s as if longtime noise merchant Steve Austin knew what was coming when he released his metal project’s 11th album during the final week of February.
My 2020 listening habits were informed, of course, by the year’s brutal backdrop, which means more than ever, my year-end list reflects a desire to escape through music. Maybe you’ll find something here to help you through tough times, too.
1. Gunn-Truscinski Duo, Soundkeeper These spacey, droning tones—steeped in organic, folky flavors—never failed to calm my nerves after a long, stressful day or during an especially restless night.
2. Guided By Voices, Surrender Your Poppy Field/Mirrored Aztec/Styles We Paid For Cheating? Maybe. But choosing just one of GBV’s three superb albums would shortchange the extent to which Robert Pollard further lengthened his songwriting legacy in 2020.
3. Okuden Quartet, Every Dog Has Its Day but It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter Free-spirited jazz masters Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums and percussion) mesh beautifully with Polish woodwind hotshot Mat Walerian on a two-hour romp that gets pretty far out without losing its footing.
4. Anna Högberg Attack, Lena Another wondrous jazz adventure, from a Swedish sextet that continues exploring fearlessly on its second group project.
5. Fleet Foxes, Shore The aural equivalent of comfort food, in a time of much discomfort.
6. The Necks, Three More gorgeous mood music from a longtime Australian trio dedicated to making every outing count.
7. Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Artlessly Falling With Amirtha Kidambi already dazzling in the vocal seat, the addition of prog-rock hero Robert Wyatt seemed unnecessary—but his three-track guest spot actually ups the mystique of composer/guitarist/leader Halvorson’s imaginative ensemble.
8. The Weeknd, After Hours The joy at first hearing this album seems so far away now, considering what has happened to the world since, but put it on while prepping dinner, and you’ll get your household dancing anyway.
9. Mary Lattimore, Silver Ladders The harpist enlists Slowdive’s Neil Halstead to guest and produce, and the results are as hypnotic as that would portend.
10. Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind Funky and forceful, this wellspring of psychedelic soul commands me to hit repeat every time I spin it.
1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters A record about preserving one’s sense of self, calling out injustice and breaking free from that which holds us back.
2. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately Michael Alden Hadreas creates bountiful atmospheres soaked with emotion, painting intimate pictures of lovers past and present.
3. Moses Sumney, græ One of the most beautiful albums of 2020 delves wholeheartedly into the experience of being an outsider, tapping into the loneliness felt by all of us during the pandemic.
4. Chloe X Halle, Ungodly Hour Beyoncé recently presented sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey with Billboard’s Rising Star, and Ungodly Hour reflects all the soul and power you’d expect from a Beyoncé-vetted act.
5. Dehd, Flower of Devotion The Chicago three-piece channels jangly, rom com-fueled power pop with howling, lo-fi post-punk on a record that feels as and new as it does classically familiar.
6. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud Katie Crutchfield has come a long way since the indie/emo early days, and if any album in her catalog signifies a more mature, well-rounded direction, it’s this one.
7. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene What Claire Elise Boucher lacks in child-naming skills she more than makes up for in decadent, ethereal electro-pop.
8. Destroyer, Have We Met DanBejar’s January release marked a darker departure, and its themes of loss now feel like a premonition of 2020.
9. Wolf Parade, Thin Mind The Montrealers’ fifth album doesn’t quite pack the punch of its earlier work, but the trio’s keyboard-laden indie rock remains vibrant especially on single “Julia Take Your Man Home.”
10. Mac Miller, Circles This posthumous album reveals just how troubled—and hopeful—the young rapper was.