And here we are in the nick of time, before the closing hours of 2020, to present you with the highly-subjective lists of our favourite albums of the year. We won’t pretend that 2020 wasn’t an especially horrible year for many people, but we can highlight that excellent artistry may arise despite tragedy (and it has been argued that the finest artistry emerges from tragedy necessarily). We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading and to wish all of our readers a very happy New Year, full of love, peace and joy.
Elijah & Greg
10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Full disclosure: 2012’s The Idler Wheel… passed me by. In fact, I haven’t given Fiona Apple much of a listen since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which I found relatively underwhelming. I am grateful for venturing back into Apple territory for this record, which is the first of her five records (a slim catalogue over a 25-year career) in which she oversaw all of her own production. Without Jon Brion’s instrumental settings, Apple has produced something more primal. The title of the record comes from the television programme The Fall. In the scene in question, Gillian Anderson’s detective protagonist Stella Gibson is seeking to reach a torture victim through a locked door.
Without wanting to belabour the parallel, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an expression of artistic liberation: ‘Fetch the bolt cutters… I’ve been in here too long’ (from the title track). Additional percussion is provided by the bashing of walls and floor of her Los Angeles home. These are accompanied by barking dogs (à la Brian Wilson), and, apparently, her deceased dog’s bones. Perhaps she is musing on her prodigal beginnings as a seventeen-year-old pop star when she sings ‘I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill’. Whatever artistic journey she has been on, she has rediscovered a particular artistic freedom with this album.
9. Women in music Pt. III
HAIM is comprised of the three Haim sisters: Este, Danielle and Alana. Women in Music Pt III is their third studio album and explores various personal challenges faced by the sisters as well as the sexism faced by women in the music industry (especially in the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘Man from the Magazine’). (A geeky side-note is the fact that the album cover was photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson [one of my favourite directors] at the famous Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Anderson also directed the several music videos from the album singles.) In addition to the deeply personal lyrical content of WIMPIII (each of the three Haim sisters have expressed personal traumas faced in the period leading up to the recording of the album), this record is notable for its employment of a wide variety of musical genres. Even with (though not necessarily in opposition to) the sometimes depressive content, WIMPIII is full of momentum, harnessing the energy of 1990s West Coast pop rock.
8. The Slow Rush
When Greg first introduced me to Tame Impala over a decade ago, I was enamoured with the ‘band’s’ sound. Neo-psychedelic rock soundscapes with heavily-effected drums and vocals. There was something simultaneously classic and contemporary about the sound and I couldn’t get enough of it. When I discovered that the band was actually just Kevin Parker, my mind was well and truly blown. Since 2010’s InnerSpeaker, every Tame Impala record has scratched its way into my top ten lists.
When I first heard this record, I didn’t know whether The Slow Rush would buck the trend or not. It is both very Tame Impala and very much a departure. The psychedelic and effected elements remain, but The Slow Rush, in keeping with its name, features a distinctly softer sound than previous Tame Impala records while keeping time with punchy disco beats. In the opening track, Parker sings ‘Not caring if we do the same thing every week / of living like I’m only living for me / of never talking about where we’re gonna be / of living like the free spirit I wanna be.’ As an admitted superfan of the more distorted guitar-driven, gravelly Tame Impala sound, I remain entranced with the intimate interlude that is The Slow Rush.
7. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Michael Alden Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius has continued the trend of exploring embodied existence through song in his fifth album. Somewhat familiar narratives remain, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately picks up on Hadreas’ decade-long musical journey from the art rock industrial ballads of his early releases, through the land of the flamboyant showman and to this amalgamation of a considerable number of musical styles and influences spanning the last sixty years of pop music. And while Hadreas persists in his exquisite lyrical poeticism, he also leaves the sonic soundscapes to complete the picture, to express the verbally inexpressible. The tone of the whole of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is one of more confidence and earthiness (as opposed to the equally-valuable frailty and dreaminess of his previous releases).
6. songs / instrumentals
Since the release of Masterpiece in 2016, Big Thief has been one of my favourite bands of the last decade. This has been due primarily to the contribution of lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker. In both songwriting and musicianship, Lenker has been a pleasure to explore. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, she has been writing and releasing music for the last 16 years.) Having released two excellent records last year (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands), Big Thief was set to embark on a European tour when, due to the pandemic, it was cancelled (boo…). As a result, Lenker saw an opportunity to take a break from the demands of recording and touring (as well as to work through a recent break-up), staying in a small cabin in Western Massachusetts to be near to her sister. It may come as no surprise that with a creative force such as Lenker, these circumstances proved ideal for the gestation of new material.
While Lenker’s previous material is known for its lyrical honesty, Songs in particular is a further journey into her feelings, borne, was The Independent’s Roisin O’Connor puts it, ‘with complete abandon.’ The opening track, ‘two reverse’ indicates this complete abandon: ‘Lay me down so to let you leave. / Tell me lies, I wanna see your eyes. / Is it a crime to say I still need you? / Crime, wanna feed you.’
In the midst of this vulnerable outpouring of emotion, Lenker continues to demonstrate her musical confidence, albeit stripped down to mostly her guitar and vocals (and the occasional sound of falling rain). This doesn’t feel like a Big Thief album, but perhaps something better, or at the very least, something more intimate.
It is perhaps a testimony to my own musical ignorance (rather than the opposite) that I don’t often hear an album and feel as if it is unlike anything I have ever heard before. Even albums that may catch me off-guard tend to also harbour a strong relationship to my other musical interests. Without a doubt, Moses Sumney’s græ bears little resemblance to other music with which I am familiar. This is not to say that Sumney’s influences are unrecognisable, but instead that the composition of græ is a wholly unique expressive force. In addition to the experimental melding of genres including jazz, classical, folk, art pop/rock and spoken word, græ is also an exceptionally personal record. With confidence and skill, Sumney approaches various issues close to home including immigration (Sunmey was born in California to Ghanaian immigrants and spent a number of years in Ghana as a child), race, gender and queer culture. While these genres and concepts might appear ham-fisted or pretentious on any other record, the pacing and tone of græ facilitates natural expression and is a triumph of contemporary music.
Run the Jewels
I have been a fan of El-P since 2002’s Fantastic Damage. I even loved the electronic jazz fusion of High Water (recorded with The Blue Series Continuum in 2004). When he partnered with Killer Mike for 2013’s Run the Jewels, El-P went from strength to strength. Every subsequent RTJ record has continued to impress (albeit, peppered with humour on the level of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] programming), but none so significantly as this latest release.
RTJ4 is the quintessential 2020 record. Pandemics, although horrific in their destruction of human life, come and go. Police brutality/racism is the more enduring illness in the United States. The opening track, ‘Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)’ heralds the tone of the record, closing with the words, ‘Yankee and The Brave are here / everybody hit the deck / we don’t mean no harm / but we truly mean all the disrespect.’ Run the Jewels have always exercised pointed social commentary, but RTJ4 is a step up in terms of agitation and clarity of thought. The lyrics express the reality of black Americans resisting systematic racism as well as the solidary in this struggle that can be expressed by allies of the black community. In a sense, Killer Mike and El-P are a shining example of what a unified, pragmatic and socially-conscious America can be, all bolstered by the superb production for which El-P has become legendary in the field of experimental hip-hop.
Hannah is Lomelda’s fourth studio album (although ‘Lomelda’ is Texas songwriter Hannah Read, who has been releasing music for nearly a decade, in one form or another). Last year’s release, M for Empathy passed me by. Approaching Hannah with a tabula rasa was probably the best way in for me. As it turns out, whether by nature or design, Hannah Read is one of the most unassuming contemporary musicians I have encountered. There is a profound modesty in her songwriting, paralleled by the gentleness and unmilled tone of her singing voice. Hannah feels like a series of letters that Read has written to herself (as opposed to the convention of most self-titled records). It is almost as if Read is not interested in performing, per se, but rather, expressing herself in the most natural way possible – almost as if she is singing in the privacy of her bedroom. This openness disarms the listener and draws them in to Read’s narrative. She unveils grace and beauty in the mundane and ordinary, and through this, the listener is absorbed into that transcendence.
2. THE ASCENSION
I resisted. I promise that I resisted. When the album’s first single, ‘America’ was released in July, I had assumed it was a one-off, perhaps a comment on the state of play in the United States, what with the ongoing pandemic and the circus of a presidential election on the horizon. (In reality, Stevens penned ‘America’ during the Carrie & Lowell sessions.) Then August brought the second single, ‘Video Game’. As soon as it was released, I listened with measured anticipation. Was this to be the sound of The Ascension? I wondered, ‘Maybe this won’t be my cup of tea…’ ‘Video Game’ was followed by ‘Sugar’ in September and then the release of the album in full. I had placed a pre-order as soon as the album was announced, but I was beginning to think that its addition to my collection would be a matter of mere Sufjan Stevens ‘completism’, rather than a treasure to be cherished.
In part, I was relieved when I didn’t fall in love with The Ascension after hearing it for the first time. In the past, every time had Sufjan Stevens released an album of new material, it always seemed to climb its way to the top of my ‘best of’ list. To be sure, I am under no impression that my end of the year lists are anything more than subjective rambles about music that I—an ignoramus—enjoy. Yet, the more I listened, the more I realised that this was a true grower. Stevens has grown tired of folk music convention (he tends to dip in and out of love with this form) and songwriting in The Ascension exercises more force and certainty (even while expressing uncertainty) than ever before. In an interview with Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic, Stevens admits that this album is ‘bossy and bitchy’. In a sense, The Ascension is less dynamic than most of Stevens’ previous releases, but when that dynamism appears, it really pays off. The Purple Rain-era-Prince-sounding ‘Death Star’ stands out especially — I could not have guessed that jingle bells would give me the chills time and time again.
1. Rough and Rowdy Ways
Here are several potentially controversial statements: This is easily Dylan’s finest original work since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This might well be his finest release since 1975’s Desire (or, when the notion takes me, 1989’s Oh Mercy). For all of the strengths of 2001’s “Love and Theft”, 2006’s Modern Times and 2012’s Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways showcases Dylan’s Nobel-prize winning, transcendent and perhaps, unparalleled songwriting prowess better than anything he has produced in the last two decades.
I find only two weaknesses in Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first is a single phrase in ‘I Contain Multitudes’. In the midst of throwing out seemingly-pithy pop-culture references intermixed with more profound figures among the ‘multitudes’ he ‘contains’, Dylan offers up this cringe-worthy line: ‘And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones’. At 79, I can accept Dylan’s characterisation of the The Rolling Stones here—who were beginning to favour of edgier rock-n-roll cuts like ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Paint It Black’ when Dylan was making his own transition to the electric guitar—but referring to them as ‘British bad boys’… I shudder even as I type the expression. My second grievance is with Dylan’s occasional dependence on cookie-cutter blues rock arrangements. Yet, even within the likes of ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, his exceptional songwriting genius shines through. Thanks, Bob, for reminding me why you’re my favourite artist of all time.
Shore Fleet Foxes
Fountain Lyra Pramuk
Mystic Familiar Dan Deacon
Flower of Devotion Dehd
Microphones in 2020 The Microphones
Healing is a Miracle Julianna Barwick
SHall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? The Soft Pink Truth
Whole New Mess Angel Olsen
Fear of Death Tim Heidecker
Live Forever Bartees Strange
10. SURVIVORS EP
I had originally slotted the new Car Seat Headrest album into this tenth slot, but then I realized that… I honestly REALLY only like about 3 songs on it. And so I came to the conclusion that I should instead honor this 5 song EP from my last year’s top album artist, Canadian troubadour Tim Baker. The song “Survivors” was MY ANTHEM for this year, so here’s to you Tim, for helping me to get through the lousiest year on record. You spin gold out of tragedy…
9. Born again
Her voice is hard to distinguish from another dreamy bedroom pop singer named Clairo, but there’s something deeper in her deconversion narrative that keep this album from turning into another collection of broken heart stories. The lyrics aren’t too profound, but they’re honest, like a gauzy reflection on a #metoo world from the evangelical subculture with smashing cymbals and guitars on overdrive. I guess I’m just a sucker for a song that starts “Lately I have been romanticizing shit…” (“Embarrassing”).
8. Color Theory
To be honest, a lot of the songs on this album sound the same to me… but the thing is, it’s such a great sound that she’s mastered. 90’s atmospheric rock with a girl-ish wistfulness (“I’m the princess of screwing up”) beneath which lies trenchant insights pulled from the wreckage of self-doubt, depression, loss, and splintered relationships. She’s like the prettiest, smartest, saddest, and angriest girl in the world at the same time, standing at the mic with a Fender Strat wrapped around her shoulders.
For the first time ever, I have an album on my top ten that MY DAUGHTER Katrina turned me onto. This Gen Z wunderkind, whom his parents named Robin Skinner, wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments on the record in his major label debut and he is the most earnest of bedroom indie heroes imaginable, singing about how he hates the way he looks as an adult (“Snail”), wanting someone to tell him that they like him after he confesses his own affection (“Sweet Tooth”), and recounting how he almost killing himself at age 13 (“Empty Bed”). His double tracked vocals are charmingly lovely, he strums the acoustic minimally or grinds the electric Weezer-ly in just the right amount of accompaniment. It gives me hope for the future.
6. The Slow Rush
This album had to grow on me. The dance-y vibe didn’t originally capture me as much as the sonic homages of Kevin Parker’s previous work (Beatles, 60’s psychedelic, 80’s pop, etc.), probably because I’ve never been a fan of songs that repeat a theme over and over, building and dropping out again and again. But, in the end, I had to give into the groove that this kid laid down. He’s a genius, this one.
5. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
This is a triumphant come back after 2011’s The People’s Key, which I found almost unlistenable. Conor Oberst may have been reinvigorated by his new muse (hint: see my #1 album) after creating the masterful collaboration Better Oblivion Community Center with her last year. His lyrics, songwriting, arrangements, and instrumentation are all back to the highest level of some of his best previous work with his long-time band. He touches on some deep wounds and finds cathartic creative power amidst the pain. Let’s hope that he stays this inspired for some time to come!
4. The New Abnormal
You know, I’ve never actually owned an album by The Strokes before. I mean, I knew and liked the songs that everyone did, but I would not have considered myself a fan. Perhaps I should have listened more closely. When I put this record on, I immediately connected with the catchy post-punk melodies and weary nostalgia that they were peddling. I even found myself cracking up at the melodic thievery (Psychedelic Furs in “Eternal Summer”), inside jokes (“Drums please, Fab” and “I was just bored, playing the guitar / Learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard” in “Ode to the Mets”), and the bands coming to terms with being the old guard at this point in their career. This album brought me a lot of joy in this joyless crapheap of a year, so I thank them for that.
This was the album that made me feel like everything would be okay again one day. Robin Peckhold et al were a bit obscure (though still brilliant) on 2017’s Crack-up, but it was like he was now inviting us to explore “land / Overgrown / No words, no false, no true / Water stands / Waves just pass through it / Like something moves through you.” That’s what listening to this album feels like… just the thing that I needed so much.
2. The Ascension
I had a listening party for this album on the night that it was released. For the first few songs, I was dialed in, willing to follow Suf wherever he wanted to take us. But then, beginning with “Die Happy” I became pretty… unhappy. Song after song began to revel in discordance, melodically and lyrically. I felt like it was a repudiation of the old Sufjan that I loved so much—his faith (“I want to be my own redeemer” and “I was acting like a believer when I was just angry and depressed”), his love of his country—though this somewhat understandable—in “America,” and his musical aesthetic (it was hard to make out any discernible natural instrument on the album—even Age of Adz allowed for the occasional acoustic guitar or orchestral part! It’s funny that the “America” B-side “My Rajneesh” was the EXACT Sufjan sound that I wanted!!). But then… I just decided to let Sufjan do what he needed to do, to say what he needed to say. And I once again recognized his genius and began to appreciate the album more and more. I may not love it as much as previous albums (I’d rank his oeuvre as follows: Illinois, Carrie & Lowell, Age of Adz, Michigan, The Ascension, Planetarium, A Sun Came, Seven Swans, Aporia, Enjoy Your Rabbit), but I will stand behind my artistic apotheosis whatever path he takes.
I’ve seen the Phoebe Bridgers backlash. It’s a real thing. And it’s not pretty. But to my ears, this is it. This is the best that this damnable year had to offer. She kept at it too, releasing the orchestral re-mix EP Copycat Killer and a melancholovely Christmas EP as well. I won’t say any more other than to say, “Take up and listen.” (PS. Katrina loves it too!! She dressed up as Phoebes for Halloween, which is meta, cause it’s one of the song titles on the album.)
folklore Taylor Swift (my beautiful youngest daughter is looking over my shoulder right now to make sure that I included this album on my list… heh heh)