Best Albums of 2020

Given the pending holiday season, efforts associated with moving into a new house over the next few weeks, and the fact that I’m not able to readily download and spin new music right now due to technical transitions, I deem it timely for me to post my 2020 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 29th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition at this juncture in my life.

I usually post the report in late November or early December, figuring that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a year. I then do an update or supplement in January if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slipped in after that. This is a little bit earlier than my usual annual article accordingly, but the list is not likely to change in the next two weeks, so it feels safe and apt to post it now.

To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years, here is the complete reckoning of my published Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2019. (I had yearly favorites before then, obviously, I just didn’t hang them out for others to look at). I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some years, retrospectively, but I made my choices in public and I stick with them as a point of principle:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies
  • 2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins
  • 2019: Lingua Ignota, Caligula

As I normally do when I post “best of” lists like this one, I make two notes up front before getting to the good stuff. First, this is all subjective, and it’s all my opinion. But of course it is. If music criticism were objective, we’d all end up with one mutually-agreed upon list at year’s end, and what would be the fun in that? Second, I can only rank and review what I actually hear in a given year, so that’s limited by (a) what I like to listen to, and (b) what I actually acquire to spin. So I’m sorry if I missed your favorite traditional Cape Verdean skronk-jazz-style tabanka album recorded entirely on 19th Century double-reed woodwinds, though I’ll happily read about it on your own list, and would likely enjoy hearing it. Please feel free to share that list with me after you post it, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it because I neglected your niche. It wasn’t personal. Honest.

With that behind us, let’s get to the final countdown, from my #32 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2020. (Why 32 albums? That was just in case I decided to do this thing head-to-head, knock-out tournament style, but the ranking and writing came quickly and naturally this year, and that paired approach ended up not being necessary, though I kept the list I’d developed for it). You might want to buckle up for the wild ride ahead. There’s going to be a lot of abrupt and juddering swings back and forth between various genres, styles, and techniques, some calm, some extreme, some inspirational, some soul-crushing, some wobbling at the very cusp of explainability. But that’s what makes for a memorable journey, right? I certainly think so.

#32. Dark Sky Burial, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est: Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury is one of the busiest men in rock, and it’s a rare year that he doesn’t appear on multiple hard metal albums. This record, though, is a bit of a departure for him: working with longtime Napalm producer Russ Russell, Dark Sky Burial finds Embury mining evocative ambient and electronic lodes, turning up plentiful cool gems in the process.

#31. Sightless Pit, Grave of a Dog: Kristin Hayter won my 2019 Album of the Year title under her Lingua Ignota nom de rock for her soul-crushing Caligula. Lee Buford placed high on my 2016 and 2018 lists for his work with The Body. Hayter, Buford and Dylan Walker (Full of Hell) teamed up for Sightless Pit’s debut disc this year, and their work is potent and powerful, an electro-organic scream from the depths of musical darkness.

#30: X, Alphabetland: The first concert Marcia and I saw after moving to Chicago was by X, with founders Exene Cervenka, John Doe and D.J. Bonebreak playing with a guest guitarist, as Billy Zoom was in treatment for cancer. It was a fun show, though it felt a bit like a nostalgia review. That makes the great Alphabetland, with Zoom back, a truly special treat, 35 years since the SoCal punk pioneers last released new tunes together.

#29: Wire, 10:20: Wire have appeared on lots of my year-end lists. I thought their streak was over after January’s Mind Hive, the first Wire record since 1990’s Manscape to leave me cold. But then came 10:20 in June, and it did the job for me. Like some prior great Wire records (e.g. IBTABA, The Drill), this one takes old studio songs, then reinvents them around live arrangements. A nice blend of the strange and the familiar.

#28. Duma, Duma: The first of several African releases on this year’s list, Duma are a duo from Nairobi, Kenya; their name means “Darkness” in Kikuyu. Their self-titled debut is a brutal slab of electronic noise, trans-metal riffery, and monstrous, guttural, and/or choked vocals. It’s ugly music, beautifully rendered. Duma also win the prize for best album cover photo of the year, a true gut-punch classic. Click the link to see it.

#27. Metal Preyers, Metal Preyers: As with Duma above, Metal Preyers was issued by Nyege Nyege Tapes, “a Kampala-based label exploring, producing and releasing outsider music from around the region” (per their website). This multi-national collaboration brings noise mavens from London, Chicago and Uganda together to crush skulls and take names later, using both electronic and organic sonic tools.

#26. The Residents, Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog: This is the first Residents project since the death of Hardy Fox, who was officially just part of their management company, but was in reality also their primary composer. Props to the remaining crew and new recruits for holding up the side with this collection of dark songs allegedly first recorded by lost albino bluesman Alvin “Dyin’ Dog” Snow. Uh huh.

#25. Hazel English, Wake UP!: Smart art-pop with gorgeous arrangements from a native Australian now working in California. My Best Albums lists for the past two years have prominently featured a variety of up-and-coming female solo artists offering nominally similar fare (e.g. Alice Merton, Sasami, Caroline Rose, etc.), but I didn’t find as much to love in that vein in 2020, alas. It’s probably me, not you.

#24. Hailu Mergia, Yene Mircha: Hailu Mergia was the keyboardist and composer for the Walias, arguably the greatest instrumental jazz-funk band in Ethiopia in the ’70s. Mergia fled his home country’s repressive Derg regime in 1981, working as a cab-driver in Washington, DC for decades. In 2018, he re-emerged with the stellar Lala Belu, and two years later, Yene Mircha continues his late-career hot streak. Lucky us!

#23: Petbrick and Deafkids, Deafbrick: This disc is a fascinating and pummeling collaboration between Brazil’s Deafkids (featuring founding Septultura drummer Iggor Cavalera) and England’s Petbrick. Deafbrick runs a sonic gamut from pummeling tribal to pummeling electronica, with some surprisingly melodic earworms embedded atop the beats as shiny icing on the noisy, dirty cake. Play loud. It helps with the pummeling.

#22. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles In Allem: This is the German industrial pioneers’ first major studio project since 2014’s World War I Centennial inspired Lament. While their signature metal-work percussion and shrieking vocals from front-man Blixa Bargeld feature regularly in the mix, they’re deployed in some of the most beautiful, melodic music in the group’s long, inspirational career. A truly welcome return.

#21. Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project: Sadly, I only learned of this album after reading that Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman (also ex-The Swingers) had died of cancer. His final work was brilliant, as the Oils re-emerged from long semi-retirement with a fine album dedicated to celebrating indigenous Australian culture, alongside a great cast of collaborators. Inspirational fare from a band of truly good, decent people.

#20. AC/DC, Power Up: Australia again! After the wheels seemed to have finally fallen off the Acca Dacca machine a few years back, the post-1980 classic line-up of Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, with Stevie Young depping for his late uncle Malcolm, unexpectedly re-united to release their best work since 1990’s The Razor’s Edge. They do what they do, and they do it well. Rock on! And on and on!

#19. Bongeziwe Mabandla, iimini: This is one of the most beautiful records I heard this year, by a South African singer-songwriter blessed with a perfectly pure near-counter-tenor voice, and great skill with lean, natural arrangements that deploy ambient background sounds as a key mix element. The lyrics are mostly in Xhosa, but the soulful sentiments expressed transcend language, so very moving are the emotions expressed.

#18. Hyperlacrimae, Yoga Darśana: I’m realizing as I write this that there are a lot of noisy duos in this year’s roster of greatness, with Hyperlacrimae representing that idiom from their home country of Italy. This one is very beat-heavy, with some killer tribal vibes, vaguely Mediterranean to Middle Eastern filigree, and world-weary English vocals buried deep in the mix, deftly drawing you into their dark fugue fatigue.

#17. Mowgan, Soya LP: Mowgan is a French producer who has specialized in recent years by infusing his house music affinities with authentic African artistry and instrumentation. His primary collaborator on this disc is Solo Sanou, a percussionist from Burkina Faso who lives and works in Toulouse. The fruits of their collaboration are joyful and juicy, uplifting the spirit while making the hips swivel of their own accord.

#16. Rymden, Space Sailors: Magnus Öström (drums) and Dan Berglund (bass) were the rhythm section for the highly-acclaimed Esbjörn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.) until the tragic scuba-diving death of keyboardist Svensson in 2008. Rymden has the duo working with Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft on a wild, genre-bending disc, anchored in the e.s.t. legacy, but then stretching its chains to their breaking points and beyond.

#15. Gordon Koang, Unity: This is Gordon Koang’s 11th full-length album, but the first since fleeing his South Sudan home in 2013, seeking asylum in Australia. Koang’s official bio opens by noting that the artist, blind since birth, is “a fountain of warmth and joy,” and that’s quite obvious in his music and lyrics. Koang is also a master of the thom, a traditional stringed instrument of the Nuer people. Very unique. Very cool.

#14. Rose City Band, Summerlong: As I write this blurb, I realize that I know absolutely nothing about this band. I saw a review of the album, sampled and loved it, play it all the time, but never went back to see who, exactly, created this beautiful blend of Flying Burrito Brothers and late-Velvet Underground flavored music. So, who is it? Huh! Turns out to be Ripley Johnson of psych-freaks Wooden Shjips! Didn’t expect that!

#13. Pottery, Welcome To Bobby’s Motel: Pottery are a Canadian quintet, but they’ve somehow made one of the most oddly USA-feeling albums I’ve heard in ages, magically blending Tejano tall tales, Talking Heads-type surrealist funk, and Devo-deconstructed angularity, with dashes of Memphis and Philly Soul atop the pile, like salsa and sour cream. This video was my intro to their wild and wonderful world. See what I mean?

#12. Public Enemy, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?: As with AC/DC above, it seemed like Public Enemy had lurched into oblivion a couple of years ago, making both acts’ returns delightfully surprising. Also similar: this is a killer album, I’d say PE’s finest since Apocalypse ’91: The Empire Strikes Black. 2020 has been such a shit year, so it’s truly great to have Chuck, Flav and crew back when we need them most.

#11. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20: Donald Glover is a stone-cold creative genius, and I will eagerly investigate anything he makes, in any of the idioms within which he works. We saw what was billed as a farewell tour for his Childish Gambino persona in 2019, so I was as surprised as anyone when a new album under that name emerged in 2020. Even better: I’d say this is his most completely rewarding record yet, every track a gem.

#10. Shriekback, Some Kinds of Light: Shriekback’s 15th album may technically be a very, very late 2019 release, but it didn’t reach the States until January 2020, so I’m counting it. Core members Barry Andrews, Carl Marsh and Martyn Barker have made their most organic album in ages, filled with strong playing, brilliantly weird lyrics, and ear-worm hooks to die for. Best since their legendary Oil and Gold (1985), I’d say.

#9. Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip: It sort of boggles the mind to consider just how long and prolifically Ron and Russell Mael have been pursuing their weird pop visions: they debuted in 1971, and this is their 25th studio release. Luckily for us, they’ve experienced a grand creative surge of late, and this album is one of their finest, offering the usual wry songs and stories, plus some great pokes into trenchant, topical themes.

#8. Moses Sumney, Grӕ: Moses Sumney immigrated to California from Ghana, and quickly earned a name (circa 2013) around Los Angeles, where various execs wanted to pigeon-hole him as a stereotypical “hottie” R&B singer. He was having none of that, and relocated to North Carolina to write this brilliant double-album of “experimental soul.” Sumney’s the real deal, and this disc proves the acumen of his creative career choices.

#7. Sepultura, Quadra: This is the best record of Sepultura’s Derrick Green era, and arguably the best thing they have done since the unbeatable Roots (1996). Quadra is framed in four sections, exploring various facets of the group’s sound, but it feels seamless and perfect. While some may pine for a “classic lineup” reunion, having Sepultura, Soulfly and Deafkids making great music in parallel seems like a win to me.

#6. Myrkur, Folkesange: Denmark’s Amalie Bruun is an accomplished singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who has released music under her own name, with the band Ex-Cops, and as Myrkur. The self-professed “black metal girl” eschews her heavier stylings on Folkesange, which is dedicated to traditional Scandinavian music and acoustic originals. It is haunting and beautiful, however you label it. Especially “Vinter.”

A Brief Note Before the Top of the Pile: Over the course of the year, the remaining five albums were ones that I seriously considered as Album of the Year candidates at various times and for various reasons. In some years, the top of the pile is an obvious choice. Take 2016, for example, when David Bowie issued an amazing album in January, then passed away. For all intents and purposes, that year’s contest was over by February. In other years, though, it’s a tough choice between many contenders. Last year was like that, and when faced with such decisions, I tend to consider how an Album of the Year fits within the spirit of the age in which it was released. So with 2019 having been the year of the #MeToo movement, Lingua Ignota’s Caligula, anchored as it was in Kristin Hayter’s experiences with sexual discrimination and abuse, took the top spot ahead of a large list of other possible contenders. It just fit the times best, and that felt right and good. Viewing my 2020 finalists through such a lens, I emerged with two particularly strong contenders, then selected the one that felt like it spoke the greatest current truth through the most accomplished creative acts. Again, it feels right and good. Here’s how it falls out . . .

#5. Napalm Death, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism: Napalm Death have had a tough run since 2015’s epic Apex Predator — Easy Meat. Long-time guitarist-singer Mitch Harris left active service, Shane Embury (mentioned above) missed a tour, and singer Mark “Barney” Greenway noted difficulties in writing and recording his vocals. That made the gap between albums the longest of their career, but as it turns out, it was all worth the wait and worry. Harris appears on Throes of Joy, but Embury went into multi-man mode anyway, offering bass, percussion, guitar and vocals, all brilliantly. Stalwart producer Russ Russell works his usual magic here, making everything sound powerful throughout, and Danny Herrera is thunderous as ever on the drums. “Amoral” is one of their best songs, and surprisingly accessible. Try it! At the opposite end of the spectrum, “A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen” is horrific and heart-breaking, a perfect example of how Napalm make the political personal, to everybody’s benefit.

#4. Etuk Ubong, Africa Today: Etuk Ubong is a Nigerian trumpeter, composer, singer and band-leader, offering an eclectic blend of Afrobeat, jazz, highlife and ritual drumming he calls “Earth Music.” Africa Today features six of his compositions recorded live in the studio with an 11-person band of players from Nigeria, the UK, and the Netherlands. The music is fiery, rhythmic and melodic, each song built around killer grooves that never wear out their welcomes. The lyrics are also incredible, offering a “you are there” peek at the troubles and travails of common folk in Nigeria and beyond, as their leaders engage in grift, racism, oppression, mismanagement and corporate cronyism. Hmm. Wonder why that resonates here? Comparisons to the legendary Fela Kuti are inevitable, given the styles offered and topics addressed, but Etuk Ubong more than holds his own, sounding fresh, not derivative, offering his own takes on the sadly intractable problems that seem to plague his nation. And equally sadly, ours.

#3. Theophilus London, Bebey: Theophilus London is a native Trinidadian who now lives and works in New York. Bebey is his third full-length album, released six years after his sophomore disc, Vibes. Around our household, this album played more than any other in 2020, getting placed on our various music-playing devices in January, and never leaving, as we never grew tired of any of it. Unlike my other four finalists this year, the politics of Bebey are mostly interpersonal, not international, with fresh jam after fresh jam raising the spirits and singalong voices, as toes tap, and hips wiggle. London self-released his latest album, and he’s filled it with just glorious, warm, engaging songs that evoke the sunniness of his native island, both thematically and musically. Guest appearances from Raekwon, Tame Impala, Ariel Pink, Lil Yachty and others add value in every case, rather than just feeling like promo verses tacked on by marketeers. In a dark year, this bright, fun record made us feel good. That’s enough.

#2. Snog, Lullabies for the Lithium Age: Snog’s David Thrussell is a conceptualist. As with The Residents (see entry above), most of his albums are released with narrative framing explanations, which often get picked up and reported by less skeptical media outlets as fact, even though they rarely are. Some notable earlier Thrussell releases have found him claiming to have written an album while living on a diet of human flesh, or having gone through gender transition, or while working on commission for the NXIVM cult. This one finds Thrussell (allegedly) working with a famed psychotherapist after six years of semi-retirement, including one year in a near-catatonic state. Take all that for what it’s worth, then listen to the music, which sounds pretty much exactly like what you would expect from an artist after such an experience, “real” or not. The senses of anomie, ennui, acedia, nihilism and despair that these times beat into us deserve a soundtrack, and David Thrussell has delivered it, with finesse and flair.

#1, THE ALBUM OF THE YEAR FOR 2020: Run the Jewels, RTJ4: George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, the video recording of his cruel and needless death sparking massive national outrage and protests. Run the Jewels issued their fourth album just over a week later, and its lyrical content and music could not have been better planned or more attuned to soundtrack the cultural convulsions of the Summer of 2020. That’s actually a sad testament to the pervasive nature of the concerns raised in Minneapolis and elsewhere, since obviously Killer Mike and El-P didn’t write this album specifically about the George Floyd killing, but the details and stories and backdrops and backgrounds that they did evoke and invoke nailed it to a T. The recurring themes of social injustice and political inequity are presented with genius-level insight and creativity, delivered via crazy rhymes, flows, toasts and stories, atop some of the finest beats and rhythms to ever grace a hip-hop inflected album. Toss in ace cameos from the likes of Mavis Staples, Zack de la Rocha, Pharrell Williams, Josh Homme and others, and you just kick things another few branches up the brilliance tree. RTJ4 is an objectively fine album that could have been a contender for Album of the Year whenever it had been released, but for 2020, it moves beyond contender and into champion stature, so perfect is it for its time, place, and audience. When great music speaks great truth, people listen. Maybe not enough people to change things, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and with a soundtrack like this one, people are going to want to march along, hopefully toward a better place. Well done, them. A worthy new entry in my long list of Albums of the Year.

3 thoughts on “Best Albums of 2020

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