In a year full of Orwellian/Atwoodian/Huxleyan stereotypes, I sought out music that was comforting, transcendent, or required me to think. The songs that piqued my interest both moved me and helped me to move past the challenges presented by 2020. As a result, here are the best and most important albums of the year (according to a recovering music addict).
1) Sault – Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)
- I Just Want to Dance
- Hard Life
What it sounds like: First on this list are two sister/brother albums from the mysterious and nearly unknown musical collective known as Sault, exploring an infusion of ’70s soul, funk, R&B, rock, neo-soul, hip-hop and Motown. The Untitled albums counterbalance conviction with celebration, encasing poignant storylines among dance floor ready jams and gospel sounds to create powerful protest anthems. Black Is and Rise are companion albums that combine to create a challenging and enlightening end-to-end experience, with a message that’s as strong as the music. This should be required listening for all Americans.
Why I love it: If there was an artist who captured the breadth of complexities related to racial injustice in 2020, it was Sault—at least that’s how I’ve interpreted their work coming from the perspective of an outsider, a privileged 30-something white male. No music challenged me more this year with deeply moving lyrics, tense poems, and critical prose addressing the dynamics of being black in America. From the tribulations (Black Is) to the triumphs (Rise), this music drove me to search deeper to try and understand the complicated issues related to racism in America, eventually leading me to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Two quotes from this book, told from the perspective of a father speaking directly to his black son, remind me of how Sault forced me to confront my own preconceived beliefs regarding racism in America.
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean.”
2) Mystery Jets – A Billion Heartbeats
- A Billion Heartbeats
- History Has Its Eyes On You
- Hospital Radio
What it sounds like: Blaine Harrison has an extraordinary cache of songs in the Mystery Jets back catalog but on A Billion Heartbeats, he and the Jets have perfected their powerful triad of rock/pop/prog to help escalate their socially conscious lyricism. Inventive drumming lays the groundwork for intricate guitars and carefully placed keys to create one of the best sounding/most important records to be unleashed into the 2020 zeitgeist.
Why I love it: A Billion Heartbeats is a helpful reminder that the issues we face as humans extend far beyond the limitations presented by our country’s borders. Realizing this concept as a truth enables us to better empathize with others around the world. The Jets cover a wide-range of humanitarian-charged topics, such as the rise of alt-right politics in the UK, global racism, and ineffable benefits of having a government-funded health system when you are seriously ill. As a long-time Mystery Jets listener I can recommend their entire discography, but please start here.
3) Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves of Your Life
- Here They Come
- Wack Jack
What it sounds like: Hamilton’s juke-joint delivery has a haunting nostalgia to it. The skilled frontman can howl, croon, and twist his vocals like a tornado tearing through a mid-western town—but there’s still plenty of his signature falsetto to comfort the listener throughout. Lest we forget the bombastic work by his band of musical masters including Jon Batiste (Prince, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder) and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel aficionado).
Why I love it: On his second solo album, The Walkmen leader has realized full potential of his writing abilities–talks of ferries, dancing, old movie theaters, and creaking floorboards help to create a wild, enlivening, dramatic, and fun record. Each of the songs on The Loves of Your Life transport you into a story about a different person from Leithauser’s past, but one could easily mistaken these experiences as tales from their own lives.
4) Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
- Rack of His
- Heavy Balloon
What it sounds like: This is the rawest, most playful, and outwardly wicked of Fiona’s records (if you can believe it). She’s pissed off, funny and warm, or at least that’s how Apple describes the character in the indelible track “Shemeika.” There’s something about the minimalist instrumentation that feels more Fiona than anything before, letting her explosive voice scream directly into your eardrums, sending your synapses into a firing frenzy.
Why I love it: The album title, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is a fantastic metaphor that paints a vivid scene. Interpret as you wish, but to me it’s a mantra for taking back control of the hellish year that was 2020 by figuring out what you need in order to cut yourself free from the binds of isolation, frustration, and fear. There’s a sharpness in Apple’s growl, a feeling that she’s on the brink of insanity at any moment, but always has the wherewithal and strength to stabilize her well-being.
5) Fleet Foxes – Shore
- Can I Believe You
What it sounds like: Fleet Foxes’ sound has been described many times, but probably most accurately as “harmony-drenched folk songs…folding in British folk traditions, baroque pop, and even Laurel Canyon’s ’70s sensibility.” On the surface, Shore is no different but deep down there’s a new positivity, a fusion of hopefulness that outweighs the heaviness heard in other Foxes releases. Massed vocal arrangements flutter around glittering guitars, incredible production, and near-perfect performances by the 20+ musicians who contributed to this release.
Why I love it: Shore caught me off guard this year. I expected another emotional rollercoaster from Robin Pecknold, who previously used his sharp-tongued wit to pummel piercing anguish at his listeners. Shore instead finds the Foxes frontman now capable of using his brilliant compositional mind to fill your soul with the warmth of a winter fire–like a shot of whiskey on an empty stomach–or the antidote needed to expel this year from your memory banks.
6) Phantom Planet – Devastator
- Waiting for the Lights to Change
- Dear Dead End
- Through the Trees
What it sounds like: The influences of The Zombie’s Odessey & Oracle, Fugazi, Ok Computer, Pet Sounds, and early Elvis Costello can’t be ignored. However, on Devastator there’s something buoyantly unique about how Phantom Planet deconstructed the sounds of their record collections to build an explosive array of songs that range from beautiful (“Time Moves On”) to devastating (“Torture Me”) and even, devouring (“BALISONG”).
Why I love it: Devastator still brings the heavy hooks they’re known for, but in the 12 years since their last release, Phantom Planet have learned how to articulate fury with fervor. This is a baroque-pop masterpiece in 2020 and one can only hope it influences generations of kids to pick up guitars, find a garage, and start a band.
7) Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
- Dance and Sing
- Mariana Trench
- Comet Song
What it sounds like: There’s a significant evolution and range in the work of Bright Eyes over the past 15 years—Wide Awake (2005) was a mostly acoustic-driven bombast of emotive ramshackleness, Digital Ash the more experimental electronic siamese twin released the same year, Cassadaga (2007) channeled Dylan and The Band, and The People’s Key (2011) introduced technical synth into their discography. Down in the Weeds combines the best of the Bright Eyes cannon with a heavy hand on the alt-country tinges of Wide Awake/Cassadaga.
Why I love it: It’s a bit weirder and frustrated than other Bright Eyes releases but somehow, Conor and co. seem to have gained a better understanding of what makes them really tick. Oberst’s ability to articulate the contradictions of life via song is more apparent than ever before (the highs/lows are more extreme, pleasure/pain hit harder, and life/death are around every turn). Here’s 2020 served in a can.
8) Washed Out – Purple Noon
- Face Up
What it sounds like: Purple Noon is a roaring headphone record that creates a lush blanket of comfort around your body, calming your mood with haunting melodic tones, gripping beats, and effusive vocals. This is Washed Out floating between misery and the mystical, giving us the soundtrack to your next late-night drive or existential crisis.
Why I love it: We’ve all needed something to take the edge off this year, whether to overcome the daily challenges of living through a global pandemic or working through the stresses caused by a tense political environment. This was my go-to record during summer outings on the lake, reading by the windowsill, or dancing in the dark late at night. Purple Noon is capable of sending you to cosmic dimensions for 40+ minutes.
9) Richard Edwards and the Velvet Ocean – The Soft Ache and the Moon
- Inchyra Blue
- Cruel and Uncomplicated
What it sounds like: Richard Edwards stretches his melodic muscles on The Soft Ache and the Moon, tugging at tension with surgical precision. You never really know if the songs will hit a big pop chorus or drop down into a tender moment of beautiful melancholy (lucky for the listener, you usually get both). Even so, the real gift is in Edwards’ heartbreaking language that hits you right where it counts.
Why I love it: Here’s a new career arch, especially thanks to the backing of a dream group of musicians. With drums by Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello), Dave Palmer on keys (Fiona Apple), and Mike Bloom on guitar (Jenny Lewis), here’s an album with the potential to influence musicians for years to come as a showcase in how great indie singer-songwriter rock is done right.
10) Yukon Blonde – Vindicator
- It’s What You Are
- Good Times
What it sounds like: There’s something for nearly everyone here as Vindicator fuses indie-rock and dance-pop, seemingly also drawing inspiration from ’90s hip-hop. Airy guitars and hazy vocals flow freely over a steady, forceful rhythm section.
Why I love it: The key to Yukon Blonde is their ability to make you feel like you’re gliding from song to song, letting you escape from reality into a heavy cloud of echo-drenched anthems. Vindicator delivers moody pop that’s easy to love from the start, but gets better as you realize just how astonishing the songs truly are.
About “The Best Albums of 2020” List:
The above list was developed to help readers find new music via the music service of their choice. I try to keep the commentary concise, only including the elements that I find most helpful when receiving a recommendation: brief list of my favorite songs, how each record compares to other artists/albums folks may know, and what’s unique (or what do I love) about these albums in particular. – Kenny Bringelson