50(ish) Favorite Albums 2020

As it was for many, 2020 was a challenging year for me. As it did for many, 2020 provided moments of joy that felt wrong in a year of global tragedy. As with many years prior, music served as a salve and a constant throughout it all. Making this list is not a critical enterprise for me. It rarely is. Instead, the following list is more an exercise in reflective journaling; each album accesses the moment(s) this year in which this music found me. Of course, to be real, most of these albums found me working from home–in moods varying from existential dread to general discomfort. This summer, however, albums like Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher provided a soothing soundtrack as I tended to a community garden here in Fairbanks, AK. “Everything’s growing in our garden,” she sang on Garden Song, concluding that couplet with the perfectly apt, “You don’t have to know that it’s haunted.” My tears could, then, help water the garden too. Conversely, Freddie Gibbs surprise team-up with The Alchemist, Alfredo, also soundtracked my gardening, replacing the tears with awkward head-bobbing and arm dancing. Still, all of these 50-or-so albums transported me into their own worlds, irregardless of the headspace in which they found me. Perhaps, there’s something in here that you might’ve missed which might transport you to a similar place, or maybe–without even knowing–we already met upon the waves of one of these albums. Here in this year of mass isolation. Here, let’s move forward by going back through. Listen along

The Top Ten

  1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters 
      • It only took a month of a quarantine for our greatest musical recluse to bless us with the album of the year. The music on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, though built on the percussive found sounds of Fiona Apple’s home, doesn’t sound like the soundtrack to isolation. On tracks like “Shameika” and “Ladies,” in fact, Apple reminisces on how a childhood classmate has empowered her and how she might further embolden other ladies, ladies, ladies. Apple’s storytelling may begin in her own psyche, but the true strength of this album is the empathy that bridges her to the characters in her periphery. How lucky, how freeing to be caught in that orbit.  
  2. Sault – Untitled (Black Is) & Untitled (Rise)
      • This summer, Sault seemed to emerge from the embers in order to give voice to the multitudes protesting racial injustice around the world. These two albums groove along a vast wavelength of black experience, moving between hip hop, soul, R&B, and funk. The lyrics are always pointed; the rhythms, always infectious. These albums are as much about the revolution as they are about uplifting the revolutionaries. We can fight; we can dance. Whoever is behind Sault, may they continue to beat their drum behind those marching in the streets. 
  3. Moses Sumney – Græ
      • Moses Sumney cannot be contained. Though lyrically introspective, these songs create a rich and varied sonic landscape, anchored by Sumney’s singular voice. Over the two sprawling parts that make up the ambitious whole, Sumney mixes eruptive anthems and downtempo ballads to encapsulate his identity and desires. His voice shifts and transforms constantly across the album’s twenty tracks with his falsetto serving as the show-stopping turn, soaring over the dense production. 
  4. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
      • Every song on Punisher has  several heart-breaking, gut-wrenching lines. Phoebe Bridgers deftly observes the decaying world around her, moving through it with a kind of grace that compels listeners forward even after she’s just ripped their heart out yet again. 
  5. Freddie Gibbs / The Alchemist – Alfredo
      • Lots of rappers brag about how easy their bars come to ’em, but only Freddie Gibbs raps with the ease to back that sentiment up. Opening track, “1985,” even builds its hook on a moment from the ESPN Documentary, The Last Dance, suggesting the verses on Alfredo may have emerged from the months in which many of us were just fucking around baking bread. The Alchemist’s production is as smooth and as confident as Gibbs. It’s easy to get lost in this album, and when it ends, it doesn’t even have to ask you start it over. You just gotta. 
  6. Armand Hammer – Shrines
      • billy woods and Euclid may be looking down on all of us, but god bless that they’ve teamed up to casually tear down our institutions. On their third album as Armand Hammer, the production is a little bit brighter and a little more playful than on the previous two, but the bars are just as incisive.  They crack jokes that sting, hitting too close to the existentially poisoned world we call home, and their poetic barbs explode like bombs over the spacious production. 
  7. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
      • Longing and discomforting intimacy have never sounded as catchy as on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. These songs straddle a line of warm embrace and icy distance. The production is clean and clear, and Mike Hadreas croons beautifully, singing tragic stories about ill-fated romantic and sexual encounters. Hadreas renders in agonizing detail the absurdity of human connection while still finding the humanity in these sultry songs. 
  8. Bartees Strange – Live Forever
      • I was destined to love Bartees Strange when emerged with a great album of reimagined covers of The National (which if you haven’t listened to, you should definitely check it out!); then, he released his debut album. Live Forever is a testament to the way genre labels ghettoize and pigeonhole musicians of color. On one song, Bartees Strange will wail over a cathartic indie rock jam, and on the next, he’ll rap over a bass-heavy lofi hip hop beat. All together, the songs on Live Forever create a compelling portrait of the many modes of expression capable of black creatives when labels aren’t stifling such freedom.   
  9. Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma, and Divorce
      • “It’s October, and I’m tired,” Open Mike Eagle raps on “Everything Ends Last Year. It’s December, and we’re all still tired. Gratefully, Open Mike’s darkly comedic, deeply personal Anime, Trauma, and Divorce is here to help us weather the fatigue. It’s a testament to his lyricism that Open Mike is able to make us laugh, even as he’s plunging the depths of his own, very real pain. And yet, his humor doesn’t feel diffusive on AT&D; instead, it feels attuned to the singular worldview of this studied, charismatic rapper. 
  10. Adrianne Lenker – Songs
      • Last year, Adrianne Lenker proved she is indie rock’s best songwriter with a pair of Big Thief albums that weaved their way around haunting melodies and ethereal characters. On Songs, however, she mines the depths of her own soul and memories, creating an album of even more vibrant and lovely songwriting. Listening to these songs, with their rich and full textures, it’s hard to imagine that she recorded them all in a one-room cabin, and yet it makes sense that all these sounds came from Lenker alone. In fact, Songs places you so close to Lenker and her guitar that you can hear her fingers sliding down the trees, the creaking of the planks in her wooden cabin, the rainfall pattering against the nearby window. 

The Rest (in no particular order)

(RIYL = Recommend If You Like…)

  • China Club – Ming + Zhizhi  (Buy: Here)
    • RIYL… dancing erratically while a Dreamcast glitches on a CRT TV. 
  • Evan Gordon – When Is Soon Enough? (Buy: Here)
    • RIYL… dissonant, catchy melodies that lodge their way into your head
  • Hey Cowboy! – Get in My Fanny Pack and Let’s Go (Buy: Here)
    • RIYL… an old black and white French film rescored with slinky basslines, haunting melodies, and atmospheric synths
  • Miyamoto is Black Enough – Burn/Build (Buy: Here)
    • RIYL… poetry slams & steel drums
  • Gil Scott-Heron / Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again – A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
    • RIYL… exhuming the corpse of a great poet for a coffee and conversation
  • Run the Jewels – RTJ4
    • Albums don’t get more timely than RTJ4. “Walking in the Snow” could read as an article describing the Black Lives Matter movement. Killer Mike and El-P revitalized the formula that made them hip-hops boldest duo, and they did so at a time when we needed them most.
  • Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin – FlySiifu’s
    • RIYL… chatting with the old heads at the record store
  • Record Setter – I Owe You Nothing
    • RIYL… stepping boldly into a house party you weren’t invited to then fucking up all the furniture
  • illuminati hotties – FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For
    • RIYL… being the black sheep of the family whose beloved by the delinquents downtown
  • Helena Deland – Someone New
    • Helena Deland sings with folk balladry over gnarly, low bass frequencies that sound like they’re from a cyberpunk club. Her lyrics are cryptic, her song structures shift unexpectedly, her pretty melodies are sometimes accompanied by ugly textures. Someone New is a compelling pop album that’s hard to summarize or pin down. 
  • Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
    • 2020’s cruelest trick was shutting down venues across the country before Jessie Ware could release an album that’s just begging a dancefloor. 
  • Yaeji – What We Drew
    • RIYL… listening to your neighbors lofi beats to study to through your adjoining wall
  • Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
    • This album is full of incredible songwriting and heart-wrenching melodies, but truly, the showstopper is the “Weird Fishes” cover which elevates the somber original into a soaring soul anthem. 
  • Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet!
    • RIYL… a spiritual journey through the history of black music
  • U.S. Girls – Heavy Light
    • 4 American Dollars is one 2020’s best songs and the rest of the album continues it’s warped Broadway-on-drugs storytelling. 
  • Special Interest – The Passion Of
    • RIYL… double booked punk rock and drum n’ bass shows battling it out in an abandoned hanger
  • Shamir – Shamir
    • RIYL… loneliness and anxiety rendered into infectious pop rock
  • Quelle Chris & Chris Keys – Innocent Country 2
    • It only makes sense that Tune-Yards Merill Gabrus would eventually be a vital part of a rap album, and Innocent Country 2 is the perfect album for her voice to reoccur on. Quelle Chris is the kind of intellectual funny guy, and Chris Keys gives him airy production on which he can flex his wit. 
  • Porridge Radio – Every Bad
    • RIYL… howling and snarling at anybody who comes near
  • Khruangbin – Mordechai
    • RIYL… traveling the world through music
  • HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III
    • RIYL… albums where every song is a banger
  • the Microphones – Microphones in 2020
    • RIYL… the Microphones or Phil Elverum’s subconscious 
  • Nubya Garcia – SOURCE
  • R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages
    • The rapper formerly known as Milo added live instrumentation to his repertoire and reinvigorated his heady, poetic bars. 
  • KeiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl
    • RIYL… singing in your bedroom late into the night, giving no fucks how anybody else feels about it
  • Touché  Amoré  – Lament
    • I recently heard an NPR interview in which a psychologist discussed how we should recontextualize how we perceive grief. Grief is not something we move through 5 stages in order to move past but instead something that fundamentally changes our very being. Touché  Amoré’s follow-up to the grieving Stage Four is a powerful testament to that idea.
  • Sylvan Esso – Free Love
    • RIYL… loving in the time of quarantine
  • Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
    • RIYL… Sufjan Stevens
  • Benny the Butcher – Burden of Proof
    • RIYL… straight hustlin’
  • Black Taffy – Opal Wand
    • RIYL… imagining a dystopic hip hop landscape
  • Fleet Foxes – Shore
    • RIYL… carefully riding the line between earnestness and pretension
  • Empress Of – I’m Your Empress Of
    • RIYL… beautifully sequenced albums
  • Boldy James / The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China
    • RIYL… 
  • Thundercat – It Is What It Is
    • RIYL… wearing a Dragonball durage
  • Mac Miller – Circles
    • We were fortunate to still get new music from Mac Miller. How bittersweet, though, to have this album which so carefully navigates how to live in a “Blue World” from his tragically passed voice. 
  • Knxwledge – 1988
    • RIYL… vignette’s in which Deckard from Blade Runner is reimagined as a black b-boy
  • Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
    • RIYL… softly whispered bedtime stories for grownups
  • Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
    • RIYL… big anthemic choruses but also making fun of big anthemic chorusses
  • Nick Hakim – WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD
    • RIYL… soundtracking your own home videos
  • Terrace Martin / Robert Glasper / 9th Wonder – Dinner Party
    • RIYL… a soiree at Cornel West’s joint
  • Nothing – The Great Dismal
    • RIYL… brutally heavy drums serenading your descent into the void
  • Emma Ruth Randle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
    • RIYL… if you wanted death metal vocals on Chelsea Wolfe’s doom metal albums
  • Anjimile – Giver Taker
    • RIYL… gently but resolutely dismantling binary constructs
  • Ambrose Akinmusire – on the tender spot of every calloused moment
    • RIYL… listening to Kind of Blue when you’re feeling really fucking blue
  • Girlhood – Girlhood
    • RIYL… the black women who’ve been carrying your sorry ass your whole damn life
  • Spillage Village – Spilligion
    • RIYL… crossovers more ambitious (and more hip) than Marvel’s Avengers 
  • Lomelda – Hannah
    • RIYL… imagining Gertrude Stein poems as folk ballads 
  • Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
    • RIYL… the ever-expanding galaxy inside your own mind

Misc. Favorite Songs

(singles, songs from EPs, or songs I loved from albums that just didn’t make the cut)

  • Frank Ocean – Dear April Cayendo 
  • Soccer Mommy – circle the drain
  • Kittiwake – On the Lips
  • Nilüfer Yanya – Crash
  • James Blake – Godspeed 
  • Medium Build – 99 Corolla 
  • Bon Iver – PDLIF
  • John Luther Adams – Become River
  • Tomberlin – Wasted
  • Upsetting – Donnie
  • Kid Cudi  – Lovin’ Me (ft. Phoebe Bridgers)
  • Masego – Mystery Lady (ft. Don Toliver)
  • Roomful of Teeth – The Ascendant 
  • Christine and the Queens – People I’ve Been Sad
  • Omar Apollo – Want U Around (ft. Ruel)
  • Dehd – Loner
  • serpentwithfeet- A Comma
  • NNAMDÏ – Flowers to My Demon 
  • Dirty Projectors – Lose Your Love
  • PUP – This Place Sucks Ass (all of it)
  • Women – Bullfight
  • Wye Oak – AEIOU