I’ll spare the spiel because we all know this year sucks. We don’t need to be told how much this year sucks. But throughout the shittiness of the god forsaken year, there were some things to enjoy. Like Chase Elliott winning his first championship. Oh, and speaking of, LSU did win a championship in football this year. That happened!
Despite the pandemic and the death and fear it brought, massive unemployment (hello), and societal unrest, there were some things to enjoy this year, and today we’ll share the musical highlights of this deeply cursed year.
Album Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Sylvan Esso | Free Love; Drive-By Truckers | The Unraveling; Purity Ring | WOMB.
#10: La Roux | Supervision
La Roux has always had one foot firmly planted into the 80’s, but on Supervision she leaned into the sound heavily. The turn comes from a deep understanding that is strikingly apparant, as she is far from content to just slap a cheesy synth on everything and call it a day. La Roux isn’t an artist trying to ride the 80’s pop wave started by Carly Rae Jepsen, La Roux is an 80’s artist.
The sound of the record is uniform, almost to a fault, but La Roux knows her way around a hook well enough to keep you engaged for 40 minutes. But the first 20 minutes of this album are for my money the best 20 minutes of pop music this year and have really stuck with me. And that’s not to say the back end is lacking, the seven-minute sendoff ballad “Gullible Fool” snowballs beautifully from a simple piano riff and some bass hits into a full-blown power ballad with an unmistakable groove.
#9: HAIM | Women In Music Pt. III
After suffering from a bit of a sophomore slump with Something To Tell You, the sisters Haim came back with their most diverse project in their still-young career. And it’s diverse. The album opens and closes with groovy jazz rock songs. The second song “The Steps” sounds like something Sherly Crow would release if she were a 20-something in 2020. “I’ve Been Down” could easily be a Kacey Musgraves or any other Yeet Haw artists’ song and “I Know Alone” draws an obvious influence from the indietronica sound of The Postal Service while “3 AM” goes even heaver into the electronic sound.
But it’s not all new and experimental stuff, there are still songs that could have easily found homes on Days Are Gone or Something To Tell You: “Don’t Wanna”, “Now I’m In It”, and “Up From A Dream”. But what sets this album apart is that the trio of sisters have managed to successfully branch out while doing what they do best: tight, catchy pop rock.
#8: Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher
Whether or not it’s believable that a girl who wears a skeleton shirt and tweets incessantly about eating ass with the username “traitor joe” can deliver the most emotionally devastating album, it’s the truth.
Bridgers puts on a songwriting showcase on Punisher, landing gut punches line after line in increasingly devastating blows like empty threats to kill her absentee father unless he beats her to it, moving just so she can hide in plain sight, being upset that her and per partner can’t even pretend to be happy on Halloween, or compare herself to a dog bringing a dead bird to a doorstep to impress an disinterested lover. Or, more bluntly, “I’ve been playing dead my whole life/and I get this feeling whenever I feel good/it’ll be the last time.”
Phoebe’s songwriting skills are never more powerful than on “Garden Song”, where she flawlessly blends her various dreams and nightmares together, managing to take the good and bad, peace and horror all in the same stride. Or the finale “The End Is Here” where she builds a world with incredible detail that insert you into the narrative only to let you off with Phoebe no-selling a deadpan “yeah, I guess the end is here” before the musical flourish.
#7: Jeff Rosenstock | NO DREAM
After four albums, Jeff Rosenstock has his formula perfect. On NO DREAM he has yet again effectively blended punk tendencies with his acute ear for a catchy hook and paired that mixture with his biting lyrics. I honestly think NO DREAM is his worst solo record since his solo debut I Look Like Shit, but even at his worst Rosenstock lands on my top 10 list because that is just the level he’s operating on.
The best review of this album and Jeff Rosenstock’s solo discography I’ve heard comes from friend of the blog Nick Suss: “We Cool is when you’re 21 and you’re afraid everyone else knows how to grow up but you don’t, WORRY is when you’re 23 and you realize the world is broken and you think you can fix it, POST- is when you’re 24 and realize you’re not gonna be able to fix anything and NO DREAM is when you’re 26 and realize that figuring out how to be happy is the only way to make things better.”
#6: clipping. | Visions Of Bodies Being Burned
By now, you know what to expect from clipping.: not being able to expect anything at all.
A groundbreaking experimental hip hop debut led to…a space rap opera which in turn gave way to last year’s There Existed An Addiction To Blood¸ a horrorcore rap album inspired by John Carpenter soundtracks. Normal stuff, really.
So what did Daveed Diggs and the boys do this year? Well, a companion album to There Existed An Addiction To Blood. It’s a little less influenced by film scores, but they double down on the horror and gore theme. It’s not something they can permanently tie their sound to, but Diggs is in his bag throughout the album having the time of his life trying to scare listeners into submission. Like on “She Bad”, where Diggs creates a world not to dissimilar from The Blair With Project while in his own way celebrating female empowerment.
But my personal favorite rap moment comes on “’96 Neve Campbell” where female rappers Cam & China come on the track and properly murder it. Seriously, the pair on this song is nothing short of poetry in motion.
#5: Gorillaz | Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
Plastic Beach came out in 2010, now officially over a decade ago. The Gorillaz spent that decade wandering the musical wilderness before attempting to branch out artistically in 2017 and 2018, but outside of a few bangers failing for the most part.
In 2020 they used the lessons from those failings and incorporated their old blueprint for success of off-the-wall features, and what resulted was a few singles where they fit their songs to compliment the artist featured along with them. Those singles started to pile up, and eventually resulted in an album comprised entirely of features that reads like a fever dream: Robert Smith, Beck, ScHoolboy Q, St. Vincent, Elton John and 6LACK ON THE SAME TRACK SINGING A DUET, slowthai, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, JPEGMAFIA, Tony Allen and Skepta (also on the same song), and more.
As an album conceptually, well, there is no concept except “make the songs as good as possible”. And they are. Apart from the Elton John and 6LACK collaboration (2020!), each song feels like it came right off the featured artists’ last album where Gorillaz were the featured artists and not the other way around. It’s not like they have re-thought to the concept of an album by making an album comprised fully of singles, but it’s an off-the-wall approach that worked out well for the virtual primates.
#4: Jack Garratt | Love, Death & Dancing
“Why is it not enough to be fine?” Jack Garratt asks on the open of his sophomore album after a four-year hiatus.
Garratt’s debut Phase was a critical hit, but with the success of the album came pressure and expectations Garratt wasn’t quite ready to deal with, leading to his hiatus. His return is triumphant, manifesting itself into “Time”, the first track on the album where Garratt reassures and uplifts both himself and the listener with the assurance that an hourglass is just a glass with sand inside and looping “time in on your side” until there is a victorious break in the music led by a trombone section.
Love, Death & Dancing turned out to be the perfect album for 2020 in that Jack wrestles with his mental health by not being shy to take them on by the horns, and by hook or by crook comes out victorious. There are also love songs, but the love songs are not Starbucks love songs but somber and thankful reflections on what that love means to him as he goes through his life and troubles.
We don’t tend to think of music in terms of wholesomeness, but Garratt struck the perfect balance between wholesome and honest that 2020 required.
#3: St. South | Get Well Soon
This is the most personal entry on the list for me.
I started listening to St. South, West Australian singer-slash-songwriter-slash-every-instrumentalist Olivia Gavranich in 2015 when I came across “Get Good” on my Spotify Discover Weekly. And I have been hooked ever since, but the flow of music has been more of a drip than a deluge. She released a great EP Nervous Energy in 2016 and another in 17, but the supply was almost cut off after that.
Until this year when she released her debut album. It feels weird to say this about someone I have never met, have never seen play live, lives on the other corner of the planet, and even had less Twitter followers than I did, but I couldn’t help but feel proud when I heard this album for the first time.
It’s a snappy little electro soul album that is on the surface about being broken up with, but more so about the feeling of hopefulness of reclaiming your own life once the things are said and done, and songs like “A Little Alive”, “Not Angry Yet” and “If It’s Not You” represent emotions we’ve all felt before but don’t really see get represented often.
If there was a better debut record that came out this year, I haven’t heard of it.
#2: Mac Miller | Circles
It feels like forever ago now but in January producer Jon Brion announced that prior to his death in September, Mac Miller had been deep into the recording of a sister album to his Swimming record. Based off his conversations with Miller, Brion finished the album with his understanding of what Mac wanted the album to be.
We’ll never know how the record would have sounded were Mac around to see it through, but Brion delivered an album that is a perfect sendoff to Mac Miller and compliments his penultimate album well. Where Swimming feels like Mac is drowning and is facing the Sisyphean task of battling his depression and mental health, Circles celebrates the small victories in life a little more.
It’s still heartbreaking that we lost Mac just as he started to really reach his stride as an artist and reach peace with himself as a person, and while Circles isn’t a happy album in any stretch of the word it does bring us some closure and validates Mac’s battles at the end of his life. Rest in peace, Malcolm. Thank you.
#1 Run The Jewels | RTJ4
When RTJ4 was announced, we knew what we were in for: banger after banger after banger after banger. That’s what Run The Jewels does, it’s what they have done for three albums now and will probably continue to do moving forward.
And there are bangers. “yankee and the brave” serves as New York’s El-P (the Yankee) and Atlanta’s Killer Mike (the Brave) thesis statement when they link up, “ooh la la” is a classic boom bap slapper, and “out of sight” is just the two doing their high flying tag team routine with a guest feature from 2 Chainz, who fits in like a glove.
I could do that for the entire album. But what sets this album apart and kept RTJ4 from being a neat party trick is the fact that they decided to release the album early in the wake of the acts of racial injustice and the protests that rose from it. They were sitting on the right music for the moment and perfectly embody the anger many of us felt this spring and summer and they couldn’t wait to bring it into the world.
Killer Mike’s verse on “Walking In The Snow” says all that needs to be said:
The way I see it, you’re probably freest from the ages one to four
Around the age of five you’re shipped away for your body to be stored
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest
They coming for you the day after they comin’ for me
I’m readin’ Chomsky, I read Bukowski, I’m layin’ low for a week
I said somethin’ on behalf of my people and I popped up in Wikileaks
Thank God that I’m covered, the devil come smothered
And you know the evil don’t sleep
Dick Gregory told me a couple of secrets before he laid down in his grave
All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves
Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state
Best New Artist(s) Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: St. South, Oliver Tree
This has been a pretty hard year for a new artist to have a breakthrough debut given how there was only so much marketing and first impressions to be made. However, nobody capitalized on their momentum from before the lockdown more than the freshman rapper out of Louisville did. The white rapper has had a litany of EPs and mixtapes dating back to 2016, but his breakthrough came when he released his Sweet Action EP and “WHATS POPPIN” became a smash hit.
Harlow struck while the iron was hot, dropping a remix and another single named after Tyer Herro, eventually leading to his debut album That’s What They All Say. It’s a great debut record on it’s own, but Harlow’s track record of gradually improving over time makes him one of the promising acts in hip hop going into 2021. Like he said on the first track off 2019’s Confetti EP, “I know that we got it/I might even guarantee it.”
Artist(s) Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Gorillaz, HAIM
Let me put it this way: it was much harder to decide my honorable mentions than it was the actual winner. Swift wasn’t the only artist to release music created during quarantine, or even the first. Hell, she didn’t write and release songs about the quarantine like Charli XCX did. But few, if any, artists hold the sway Tay Tay does, and for her to release not one but two albums during this time in world history where there is a noticeable void in pop culture creates a vacuum where she can truly dominate.
And that’s to say nothing about the direction of the albums or the quality of them. Swift did what she wanted to do artistically, trading her glitter eye shadow and bubblegum pop sound for flannel and a folk indie sound, swapping out Ed Sheeran and Panic! At The Disco features for The National and Bon Iver, and even using curse words in the process! It varies in quality from obviously indie cosplay to some decently good tracks, but I will always support artists growing and branching out as they desire.
Song Of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Life Is Good | Drake, Future; WAP | Cardi B. Megan Thee Stallion
If It’s Not You (Ft. N.Y.C.K.) | St. South
Again, this year sucked. I could have chosen the very ironically titled “Life Is Good” from before things went deeply or I could have gone with “WAP”, which would have been the inescapable song of the summer if we were actually allowed to go out and enjoy things.
But in the end, I decided that anything that brought life and joy into our lives in 2020 deserved to be celebrated. I can’t remember there being a song I’ve fell in love with as instantaneously as I have with this one. It’s perfectly blissful on the musical end, almost so that you nearly don’t even recognize that she has painted a perfect understanding of an imperfect romantic arrangement: I’m reaching for pillows, breathing your name/And I’ve had enough/I’m not that hard to love/Don’t say sorry/You went cold in such a hurry/But I don’t want anybody/If it’s not you. It’s lyrical content might not be the happiest and most upbeat, but it served as a three minute and twenty second escape for me for half of the year, which is deeply appreciated.
Suck it, 2020!
This year was a series of punches to the nuts. There just wasn’t much good about it, as we were largely trapped at home, prevented from meaningful human contact. Music is meant to be experienced live, as it is something that brings us together, much like food.
Instead, we experienced the year in music by our lonesome, missing out on a key component of the experience of music or really, any pop culture: the community. I don’t remember who said it, but one critic said this was the perfect year for mellow tunes in order to get blazed to, and while I don’t want to stop anyone from smoking a blunt or twenty, I went the opposite direction.
I wanted music to rage against the dying light. While I get blindingly drunk. Your mileage may vary, but hey, without community, I didn’t have to care what anyone thought. So, this year was kind of a boon to us old guys. I didn’t even have to pretend to care about current trends and what is popular with The Kids. Like everyone, I retreated to my own comfort hole.
Now, ranking albums is inherently silly, but we’ll do it anyway because this is the best method we have of sharing stuff we like. I’ll try to include a music video, and then I’ll slap a spotify playlist at the end.
First, a good ol’ fashioned Topsters:
10. PORRIDGE RADIO Sweet
Man, I just adore the “country sleaze” sound. Get a woman who sounds like she hates your guts, and then have her drone over twangy distorted guitars and I’m yours. “She will love me when she meets me/ I am charming, I am…. sweet.” It sounds like a threat of every girl told to be sweet rather than interesting. She’s bringing a knife to this fight. ALSO SEE: Melkbelly, Snarls, Drive by Truckers.
9. ASHLEY RAY Pauline
Pauline is Ashley Ray’s middle name and her grandmother’s first name. Raised in Kansas, Ray moved to Nashville to pursue a career, but she keeps her feet grounded back home, frequently looking at her family and her childhood, and quoting her mother. She sings of the pride in her family, hitting the course of “I got your name/ I got your hand me down heart.” It’s not all puppies and rainbows, as the rock of family casts some and leaves plenty of darkness to discover, as “Just a House” explores the emptiness left after her father’s death. This was the best Americana album of the year by leaps and bounds. ALSO SEE: Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Waylon Payne, Jake Blount.
8. BARTEES STRANGE Live Forever
It’s hard to live up to the hype. Strange was already a pretty hot name before finally releases his much anticipated debut. As a kid, he used to tour with his family, singing in churches around the Midwest. A young man, he’s already used to the dynamic of a black entertainer dependent on maintaining a white audience. It’s not exactly a hip hop record, but its not indie rock either. It’s this nowhere place, which allows him to explore the nooks and crannies of our culture. And it’s fun as hell. On first listen, I thought it was a new TV on the Radio record. ALSO SEE: Car Seat Headrest, Frances Quinlan, Andy Shauf.
7. HAIM Women in Music Pt III
I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get Haim at first. They weren’t bad, but they didn’t really connect with me, and that’s cool. We don’t always connect with things and that’s why we have so many options out there. But Wimpiii, as it’s already come to be called, just made it all click. This is a band confident in itself and flexing its muscles like old pros. This sounds like a relic from the Lauren Canyon sound of the 70s, without having to put up with Glenn Frey. It’s my go-to put a smile on my face record this year. ALSO SEE: Ratboys, beabadoobee.
6. GREY MATTER Climbing Out
There is not a genre of music more widely dismissed and reviled as ska. I get some of that, but it’s also our idea that anything that is joyful cannot be serious, and that’s just… insane to me. Grey Matter isn’t precisely a ska band, but they are bringing the big horns back to the punk sound, and then telling you Love Yourself! Who we gonna be? OURSLEVES! ALSO SEE: X, Joyce Manor, IDLES, kennyhoopla.
The EP detour!
VIRGINITY Death to the Party/ ALKALINE TRIO e.p./ DENZEL CURRY Unlocked/ PUP This Place Sucks Ass
This as a banner year for EP’s. Bands just throwing together a few songs, not enough for a full album, and just unleashing them on the public. If it were a full length, Virginity had perhaps the best indie rock album of the year. Alkaline Trio went back to their old sound for a ride on the nostalgia train, which was a bit of perfect timing. Denzel Curry continues to flex as one of the most gifted lyricists in rap music. And capping it off, PUP made the perfect album for this piece of garbage year: This Place Sucks Ass. They are not wrong, but the tunes are pretty great.
5. MAN MAN Dreams Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between
Let me first declare my near unabiding love for Man Man, one of the weirdest bands in existence. Frontman Honus Honus got rid of almost the entire band and reformed the band under the old moniker. They released a series of online quarantine videos which struck the perfect chord of the confusing of the early lockdown. And the album? It’s pure Man Man, summed up by the Prettiest Song in the World: “I wanted to write you the prettiest song in the world/But I got distracted/ So I didn’t.” ALSO SEE: Disq, Nation of Language
4. MILEY CYRUS Plastic Hearts
Miley is sort of the female Kanye, a pop culture artist whose true medium isn’t music, but celebrity. Miley is only 28, but she’s already cycled through several life cycles in the public eye. And her last few years have been rough: a divorce, her house burned down, and lukewarm reception to her attempted Americana album (which should have been right in her wheelhouse). So what to do? Release a damn disco new wave album. Miley still traffics in image and artificiality, but she also picks at the scabs and finds real emotional truths about her life and career like a review of her Bangerz era with the line, “I did it all to make you love me and to feel alive.” Miley has always been keenly aware of our disapproval, but she’s finally moving into the don’t give a damn part of her life. She’s accepting the truth even if the world hasn’t caught up yet: Miley Cyrus is the greatest rock god alive today. She’s such a rock goddess that this record isn’t even rock album, yet every critic feels the need to call it her rock album anyway. In a just world, she’d be getting all of the media heat Taylor Swift is, but we don’t live in a just world. Still, we can deny it all we want, but the queen has ascended to her throne. She made a disco record, and we called in rock n roll. Eat your heart out, Blondie. ALSO SEE: Sawayama, Beach Bunny, the Chicks.
3. SPANISH LOVE SONGS Brave Faces Everyone
I’ll be honest, this is the record I have listened to the most. At the end of the day, these lists are exercises in artificiality. You can’t put a number or albums, particularly one stretching across multiple genres. But as the world seemingly fell apart, I turned my stereo up to 11, and screamed along with the sounds of defiance: “But I’m done dying on the inside/ Now that everything is dying outside.” At the end of the day, I want that joyful noise that comes from turning the amps up. Even when they tell you the truth: “They claim you’re a hero if you can make it off the couch/ You know the truth in what they say/ The world’s gonna kick you either way.” Yup, that was 2020. ALSO SEE: Catholic Action, Pearl Jam.
2. FIONA APPLE Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Pitchfork lacks the cultural cachet it once had, but it still holds enough juice that it giving out a perfect 10 is still news. And for the first time in its history, Pitchfork gave a female artist that rating. First, let’s point out it’s ridiculous it took that long for a woman to get a perfect 10. But it also shows that Fiona Apple has now ascended to the throne of Genius Artist Who Makes Difficult Albums. I’m not sure you can enjoy this record, but it was perfect for the pandemic, because it demanded that you study it. Fiona Apple is the artist for this profoundly messed up year. ALSO SEE: Slotface, Illumination Hotties.
1. RUN THE JEWELS RTJ4
Outside of the pandemic, the story which dominated this year was the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death. All across the nation, people left their homes, some for the first time, to protest racial injustice and police brutality. It’s nearly impossible to measure these things, but it is one of the largest and longest sustained protests in US history. It is estimated somewhere between 15 and 25 million people participated. And while that moment cannot be reduced to a song, and it’s silly to suggest it could, the protests were given voice in music. Heck, Killer Mike has a TV show, too. He’s a public face and a thoughtful mind, who also can spit a verse. And what sums up systemic and historic racism better than this?
“Mastered economics ‘cuz you took yourself from squalor
Mastered academics ‘cuz your grades say you a scholar
Mastered Instagram ’cuz you can instigate a follow…
Look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar”
It’s the music of the moment. They got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrug. And the songs, as the kids say, slap hard. “When we usher in chaos, just know that we did it smiling.” SEE ALSO: Chika, Spillage Village, Homeboy Sandman
It was the year to find what you love and just enjoy it. Lord knows we’ve earned the stuff that we enjoy. So whatever you loved, go listen to it now and feel some joy. Because that’s all we got.