Isn’t it crazy that not a single person on Earth’s life is exactly how it was a year ago? 2020 has taken a lot from us, all of us. Nobody is unscathed by this tsunami-sized, somehow-flaming-hot-and-ice-cold (much like a Hot Pocket), tipped-over-port-o-potty, disaster of a year.
I could wax unpoetically about how outrageously hard this year has sucked, how much awesome shit we’ve missed out on, and all the while, blame 4 digits for all of our collective despondency. But a decently crafted meme could probably wrap all of that up much more succinctly.
So how about for like 4, maybe 5 minutes, we close the door, pop the ol’ headphones on, and talk music? You know, that INCREDIBLY powerful and potent language we all speak? Maybe the only commonality we all share, all of us poor suckers on this planet. Remember tunes, jams, bangers, MUSIC?! Sometimes it’s the only bright spot in an extra terrestrially bleak existence.
And as far as bleak existences go, we’re lucky that 2020 has brought us a metric shit-ton of great music. Not just great music, but astronomically important music. The kind of music that soundtracks global movements, fights for freedom, searches for self, and the coping of the weight of living.
Music is much more than music. It’s everything and anything that gets us through this thing called life. It’s the rhythm of footsteps on pavement and self-reflection on long car rides. Maybe it’s the reason you got out of bed, maybe it’s the best part of being alive, maybe it’s the most essential need, behind food, water, & shelter. Maybe it’s just drums, guitar, bass, vocals, and synthesizers. But in a year like this, in a lifetime like ours, I have to believe it’s more.
So while we count down the remaining days in this dumpster fire of a year, let’s count down the 20 best albums of the year and think about the songs that got us through. Because we will get through, I promise.
20. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, specializes in a whacked out, acid-trip brand of ambient electronic music. A true auteur and master of sonics, he mixes genres, themes, eras, and develops songs that sound like nothing else you’ve ever heard. And isn’t that the whole idea of discovering new music? On Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, he plays old-school drive-time radio DJ on the most bizarre, extraterrestrial station you could ever imagine. This is not easy listening per se, it’s experimental as fuck. But that’s why I love it! Sometimes you need something so out of the box that it actually expands your horizons and beliefs on what that box should be. Maybe OPN’s music is that magic mushroom or that hit of psychedelics, that takes you to that place you never knew was there.
19. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Music is, at it’s very core, reflection of the soul, channeled through instruments. That alone is unfathomably difficult for just anyone to do. I couldn’t imagine trying to express the stories of my life through music, that’s why I listen to so much of it, to try and understand myself deeper. Rina Sawayama is an artist who does this so expertly, you instantly get captured in her world. And her world is absolutely badass! She takes pop music and does whatever the hell she wants to do to it. There’s heavy metal on this, there’s R&B, there’s K-pop influences. She just takes us on her ride, and it’s a thrill.
18. Bartees Strange – Live Forever
Long ago, a young Childish Gambino wrote ‘No live shows cause I can’t find sponsors/ For the only black kid at a Sufjan concert.’ This feeling of other, an outsider’s perspective, attempting to fit in while standing out, must have resonated with Bartees Strange growing up. Strange, who hails from Mustang, Oklahoma, must have felt like such an outsider everywhere his military family moved to during his formative years. Being black and writing indie-rock music, incorporating hip-hop, soul, to create something so powerful and singular- that is the result of years of feeling other your whole life, but not letting it make you jaded. Bartees Strange is writing his own formulas, mixing his own concoctions, and they sound amazing.
17. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Waxahatchee has spent the past 8 years creating beautiful, lush music that pairs perfectly with a roadtrip. Katie Crutchfield has this innate ability to summarize life around her in the most relatable, yet extraordinary ways. A drag from a cigarette, a passing glance, the feeling of letting yourself fall into someone’s arms, even if you both know it won’t last, she can conjure all these emotions like magic! On Saint Cloud, we get a taste of her childhood experiences, and in the process, we get a little taste of our own.
16. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
We only have one Fiona Apple, and she needs to be protected. Fuck that, she doesn’t need your protection! Apple is such a prolific songwriter, her lyrics filled with so much emotion, biting, snarling, seductive emotion, that when she does decide to release music (it’s been 8 years since her last release), we need to hear every feeling. We, as an audience, crave that, hanging on every word. Fetch the Bolt Cutters carries all that emotion, but it also features layers and layers of “get the hell out of the way” energy. Get out of the way of progress, get out of the way of women, and get out of the way of Fiona Apple when she’s in album mode, because she’ll use the bolt cutters on your ass.
15. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Kevin Parker is a genius. We all knew this already, yeah? But did we know that he was capable of writing about pain, sorrow, the disintegration of trust, all while creating psychedelic and sprawling electronic soundscapes? The Slow Rush has a lot of dark themes, but you wouldn’t know it just from the music. Parker, who plays every instrument (which on it’s own is insane) also plays with every vibe. There are songs for sunny days, cruising in the car, chilling with friends, as well as any other activity under the sun. The man is just a master, so when he drops a new Tame Impala project, we just sit back and enjoy the not-so-slow rush of endorphins.
14. Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Time
Gorillaz dropped an album with Elton John, Slowthai, Peter Hook, Beck, St. Vincent, and about 50 others, and did not get the respect they deserved! There are some golden tracks on this thing, not to mention, it’s the Gorillaz! Everything they’ve ever done has been cool. So of course when they put out an album where the essence is collaboration, I’m all the way signed up. You don’t get bad music from Damon Albarn and Co. and this project is no different. There are party tracks, chilled-out tracks, bangers, and everything in between. There’s nothing not to like about this thing!
13. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
Jeff Rosenstock is a DIY legend. Years and years ago, he formed Bomb the Music Industry! and became a favorite in dive bars and beer stained indie venues. Since then, he hasn’t let up even an inch. Amazing record after amazing record, seemingly getting better every time. His style of pop-punk is fun, loud, tongue-in-cheek, and hilarious. He’s always done what is needed for the community, and when we needed a little punk to blow the steam off this year, he delivered. Thank god for Jeff Rosenstock.
12. Mac Miller – Circles
This one hurt. This one hurt really bad. I went to summer camp with Mac (Emma Kaufmann Camp what’s poppin’!) I remember hearing “Knock Knock,” “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza,” “Best Day Ever,” for the first time and feeling instantly connected. This was my dude! Over the years, I loved everything he did. When he went druggy and dark on Watching Movies with the Sound Off, I watched in awe. When he found love on The Divine Feminine, I listened with tears of joy in my eyes. But when he passed away, far too soon, and at the top of his artistic game, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. I know I love this album because I listened to it a lot when it dropped, but I haven’t come back to it since. I want to, don’t get me wrong, there are so many amazing songs on this thing, “Blue World,” and “Good News,” are perfect songs. But I just can’t do it. I can’t. I got emotional just writing this. Let’s move on. Good news, really is all they wanna hear. RIP Mac. 1992 – Infinity.
11. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
We never quite know what we’re gonna get with a new Sufjan album. The dude has done it all! The weird, bugged-out electronica Age Of Adz, the delicate and hearbreaking Carrie and Lowell, and now we finally get to hear the social-commentary of one of our greatest indie-rock establishments. Sufjan gets very experimental on this one, which he is prone to do. He plays with the ideas of America, consumerism, loss of hope, and the rise of righteousness. There’s a lot to unpack, but all of it is worthy of repeat listens on some high quality headphones. The fact that he is able to orchestrate all these themes and motifs, while making stunning music, is amazing, and proves why Sufjan is perfect for these strange times we’re living in..
10. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
“Dragonball Durag” stands a chance to be song of the year. I don’t know yet. Because honestly, when I hear this song, and when I listen to Thundercat in general, I get transported to a yacht somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. I’m wearing linen, my Tommy Bahama shirt is completely open, I have a bottle of champagne in my hand, and life is sunny and beautiful.
But honestly, Thundercat just gets better and better throughout the years. His talent is virtuosic, his style is boundless, and he’s just a gem. He’s a gem and I’m glad to see him doing well. Although this album is about him dealing with the death of his close friend, Mac Miller. It’s about growth, people! Thundercat is growing, and I am proud of him.
9. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
The Boys are back baby! Alright, so, Editor’s note, The Strokes have been my favorite band since around 2010. They’ve gotten me through the hardest times. Their first 3 albums are perfect, in my opinion. Then, as all bands that are too good, and enjoy drugs and alcohol a lot, tend to do, they couldn’t bear that weight. To many critics, they dropped off, but I could never quit them. The guitars, bass, drums, are all perfectly timed and in sync. The best way to describe the Strokes are that they are like a Swiss wrist watch. Each piece is ticking perfectly aligned with the others. Like poetry in motion. When they get their engines going, they’re so so good. And I think we’re back to seeing them in fighting condition. They have a message, they have that edge to them, they’re ready for global domination again. And when I saw them perform songs from The New Abnormal on SNL, I saw that beautiful power. They are capable of moving mountains with their guitars.
8. Boldy James – The Price of Tea in China
Now that I’m 26, in my old age, I feel like my youth is quickly escaping me. I don’t quite understand the new wave generation, turning up to EDM or mumble rap. What I really like right now is hard-as-hell rappers, slick talking about selling drugs, riding around with guns, and shit-talking over ambient beats. Boldy James absolutely bodies minimal beats, often produced by folks like The Alchemist or Sterling Toles. He can rap about his life and it sounds like playing Grand Theft Auto. The Price of Tea in China feels like cruising around in the midnight silence, looking for trouble, with a whole bunch of felonies tucked in your waistband. None of that describes my reality, I’m a boring white kid from Kansas City, but when I listen to Boldy, I feel like a really cool dude, and I like that.
7. Caribou – Suddenly
There are certain artists who are establishments. Whenever they decide to drop an album, sometimes it’s every two years, sometimes they make you wait a while, but whenever that time comes, you know it’s gonna be good. Caribou is one of those artists. His style of beautifully layered ethereal, ambient electronic music, combined with incredible choice in samples and collaborators makes him one of the best in the game. When he returned this year with Suddenly, years after his last masterpiece, Our Love, in 2015, he turned in one of the most listenable albums of the year, but the rivers run deep on this thing. There are so many great jams, I just wish we had a normal summer to enjoy them in.
6. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III
HAIM are perfect. They haven’t really released a bad song since they came out in 2013. These sisters understand melodies, harmonies, and hits on levels I can’t even imagine. They’re obviously musically gifted, but I gravitate to their personalities, all of which they wear on their sleeves. They have this amazing bond that they can truly bear themselves on records. Women in Music Pt. III may be their most impressive release, which is saying something. “The Steps” might be the best song they’ve ever made, and I know that I listened to it over and over and over and over again throughout this nightmare of a year.
5. IDLES – Ultra Mono
Life is tough as is. But when you factor in the endless layers of oppression, cruelty, racism, hate, financial inequalities, and the sheer amount of assholes in the world, there’s almost too much to handle. That’s where IDLES comes in. The ferocious and fearless progressive UK punk band has been my go-to for unloading some of that pent up aggression. They are truly take that pain, that hurt, and channel it into something powerful. A weapon that anybody in the world, no matter who you are, can weild in the face of so much hate. The snarl you wear, the pressure in your fists, the thumping of your heart in overdrive, when you listen to this music, is why IDLES are quickly rising as one of my all time favorites. When things get rough, I put on IDLES and drown out all the bloodsucking politicians and mouth-breathing racists out there. They make me feel like I can run through the brick wall of injustice.
4. Fleet Foxes – Shore
We don’t get music from Robin Pecknold and his Fleet Foxes very often, but when we do, it’s the soundtrack of the season. Usually it’s fall/winter, when the leaves are starting to change and the time goes real still. Taking a walk in the park becomes an out of body experience. Getting lost in nature has never had a better soundtrack, and on this year’s surprise release, Shore, we get to enjoy the Autumnal Equinox in perfect fashion. The soothing harmonies, the lush orchestration, the sheer beauty of all of it, makes this one of the most stunning albums of the year.
3. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
I can’t think of many artists who can so expertly summarize the heartbreak of the human experience like Phoebe Bridgers. She so adeptly cuts to the core of some of life’s most universal and painful moments- pushing away a loved one, leaving your hometown for good, driving in a car and letting the miles and miles travel by, as that familiarity dissipates in the rear view. She can somehow summarize all of this in just one or two lines. Her pen is absolutely gifted, and whenever I’m sad, she’s usually what I put on, because I’m a masochist.
2. Roc Marciano – Mt. Marci
“My diamond chain is a climate changer. I’m playing with wеather. I got the HAARP machine in my dresser. I made it winter.”
This is a THROWAWAY lyric on Roc Marciano’s latest album, Mt. Marci. This dude, I don’t even understand how he can write shit like this. All of the lyrics on this album are so dense, the rhymes are so expertly layered, there are similes and metaphors that make my brain do acrobatics just to make sure I heard them right. Roc is a hard-nose NYC rapper, and he creates some of the coldest music imaginable. The beats on this album are so scarce and minimal, it’s like they’re not there, almost like Roc is rapping acapella. And that’s perfect, because it gives Roc all the room he needs to run lyrical laps around every other rapper in the game. Add ScHoolboy Q, Action Bronson, and Kool Keith to this madness, and you have a very serious situation. This album is a beast. Roc is the nicest in the game right now.
- Run the Jewels – RTJ4
If there was ever an essential album to soundtrack the resistance, it’s RTJ4. If there are two dudes to represent all of us: the tired, the hungry, the poor, the broken, the disregarded, it’s El-P and Killer Mike aka the all-powerful Run the Jewels. This album, it’s special. This is fist in the air music, this is power-in-numbers music, this is what standing up against inequality SOUNDS like. There’s really no other way around it. The stories these two cats have to tell, the emotions they can stir, the feelings of strength they channel, there’s not a better tag-team duo in the world. It’s like Rambo and Rocky in their primes teamed up to punch Donald Trump in the face for every cruelty he’s unleashed on us the past 4 years. On album closer “A Few Words to the Firing Squad” El and Mike rap furiously over a slow burner of a beat. Trembling bass thumps, louder and more chaotic by the second, as if something desperate is about to happen, as El-P pens his final bar: “The last words to the firing squad were FUCK YOU TOO.”
The same can be said to 2020.
Be safe, everyone. In the immortal words of the Greateful Dead, “We will get by.”
Let us know your favorite albums of the year in the comments!