My Favorite Albums from 2020
While 2020 stumbles toward the finish line like a drunk sorority sister, we have a little time to look back on the blessings of the year. There aren’t many.
Live music was absent for most of it, unless you count all the livestreams as live. I guess they technically were, but they sure didn’t feel real. No more than porn is sex.
There were, however, a lot of great albums released during the pandemic. Millions of pixels have already been spilled in the annual rite of quantifying just how good all these albums and songs were. Also, many more in the twittersphere complaining about dudes who just can’t stop rank ordering things.
While I’m not one of those dudes, I recognize that the 3 people who come here regularly might be curious what I enjoyed this year. So to sum up, here are 25 albums I really enjoyed, roughly in order of their enjoyment.
To be clear, I’m not saying these are necessarily the best albums of the year—all the other sites are probably right on the consensus that Fiona Apple released it. And while I appreciate that album in its entirety, I didn’t spend much time with it this year. These are the ones that stuck.
The New Abnormal by The Strokes
Earlier this year, a friend of mine posted how much he loves this album and that unlike many others out there he didn’t get to the Strokes until well after that first album we’re all hung up on. Seeing myself in the mirror he was holding up, I gave them another shot and listened to them as though This Is It never existed. It was a lot better than I thought it was on first listen and I’ve come back to it many times since. I’m no Billie Eilish level stan, but a bigger fan than I thought I was.
Sixteen Oceans by Four Tet
Kieran Hebdan has become prolific. In this first of two albums released in 2020, he further develops the electronic pastiche that underlines most of his work. Four Tet albums are always a treat, and this is no exception. Great for those long pensive walks we all took to get out of the house this year.
HiRUDiN by Austra
Austra’s operatic vocals delivered over glitchy club tracks might be custom made for television soundtracks. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often—it’s propulsive dance once moment, introspective pop the next. An album replete with harps, strings, 808s, and synths can be hard to pin down but the common instrument belongs to Katie Stelmanis whose vibrato could dissipate fog.
Every Bad by Porridge Radio
Toward the end of 2019, Porridge Radio released the single and video for Lilac. The end of that song—a refrain of I don’t want to get bitter, I want us to get better, I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other—hit at the exact right moment. A year later it still resonates: a crescendo of frustration and hope washing on the shores of 2021. This band is off to an auspicious start.
Flower of Devotion by Dehd
If I’m totally honest, I have no idea why this album hits as hard for me as it does. On top of being just really good, it keeps getting better each time I listen. It’s jangly rock, throwback early 2000s indie, with some love and rockets mixed with 50’s surf rock thrown in for good measure. It’s at once familiar and new. It gets its long spindly fingers into your mind and won’t let go.
Girlhood by Girlhood
That’s all right. The first words you hear when you hit play on this album are reassuring, comforting. The delivery is part of the magic—gentle r&b harmonies over snipped samples and glitchy rhythms. The space inside these songs conveys confidence and makes them better than they have any right to be. This year needed more uplift—girlhood delivered.
Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens
This ice cold dip in the waters of this Welsh electronic musician’s mind is a spot to revisit as often as you can. Tracks build slowly, patiently. Instruments, vocals, dreams invade and retreat, return. Flourishes add texture over synthetic chords while bubbling beats structure the endeavor, accountable to complex polyrhythms and simple 4 on the floor big beats.
We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches
With only 3 albums spanning a career of 20 years, the Avalanches aren’t in any hurry. Neither is this album. Inspired by love, the universe, and the permanence of moments, it’s 72 minutes of their signature cut and paste musicianship with more featured artists than you’ll hear anywhere else this year.
Sugaregg by Bully
When I heard Bully was releasing something in 2020, I started checking for tour dates in DC. I may be one of the few people who felt like her second album was more enjoyable than the first, but I just knew that the third one was going to break big in a way the other two hadn’t. Then came quarantines and no real concerts. This collection is delivered in the usual Bully fashion—guitar forward rock, heart on your sleeve melodies, and Alicia’s perfect yell-in-your-face delivery.
The Universal Want by Doves
In Don’t Call it a Comeback, I went deep on this album and how much I love it. Doves have returned to new music lists in 2020 and I can’t wait to catch them again live whenever that’s legal again. It’s a standout addition to their already impressive catalog of releases, and one of this year’s finest.
Shore by Fleet Foxes
The detailed and rich orchestrations undergirding the wistful vocal harmonies that typify a Fleet Foxes album were all but missing in their last release, crack up. While I appreciate artists’ need to evolve, expand, explore, crack up never stuck the landing. Shore does. Not exactly a return to form, Shore learns from crack up and makes a Fleet Foxes album that’s a better fit with their earliest work yet still sounds modern and forward looking. It’s the sound of spring shaking off the last vestiges of winter.
No Dream by Jeff Rosenstock
Is it punk if it’s this accessible? Sure. Rosenstock has the delivery down, the noise just right, the guitar tone perfect, the lyrics spot on. Also, the fuck-you-I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. On top of all of this, No Dream may be the perfect love letter to this year’s dumpster fire. This album was played right after (far too) many of my zoom meetings this year and provided the catharsis I needed.
Thin Mind by Wolf Parade
Even an average Wolf Parade album is a great record. Because it came out before the pandemic, it feels like maybe it didn’t come out this year. This was also the last concert I saw this year before the music died. Their dark synths, yelping vocals, and straight-up rock structures still work for me 15 years later.
Something to Say to You by Jordana
One of the few pop albums to make the list this year, Something to Say is a gem of handclaps, pop-rock, and glitchy indie sensibilities. Jordana may be known for her over it track fuck you, but songs like I Guess This is Life, Big, Forgetter, and Reason all show so much promise you know that Jordana is only going to get bigger.
Deleter by Holy Fuck
Holy Fuck write the kind of dance punk that’s made LCD Soundsystem and !!! household names, they’re just not as in your face with it. On a spectrum, LCD is at one end, and Holy Fuck is at the other. You can get your groove on, but you won’t be singing the lyrics at the top of your lungs with the convertible top down. This is more about texture, beat, and atmosphere and all the better for it.
Song for Our Daughter by Laura Marling
On my list of to-dos for 2021 is to dig deeper into Laura Marling’s back catalog. I was shocked to discover that this is her seventh solo album. Not because it sounds like a debut (it doesn’t) but because I couldn’t understand how I’d been alive for the last 12 years and not heard a single song until 2020. You’d remember her voice even if you didn’t mistake it for Joni Mitchell at first blush. This is the sound of an accomplished artist at her peak, inspired by life’s moments big and small.
Untitled (rise) by SAULT
SAULT were everywhere and nowhere this year. Untitled (rise) was the second of two full length albums released by the mysterious British collective in 2020 and arguably the stronger of the two. Dropping house albums that sound like disco r&b with message forward songs like You Know it Ain’t and The Beginning & The End might have been the most on the nose move by anyone in 2020. But it was so damn good, you couldn’t help but dance along.
Free Love by Sylvan Esso
In hindsight, it was going to be almost impossible to top What Now, the Durham, NC duo’s second album. That album was in heavy rotation all year long and built Sylvan Esso into a force. Free Love is, in comparison, a smaller, happier, shorter enterprise. Nick Sanborn’s familiar glitchy backing tracks are back for more and Amelia Meath’s delivery sounds more confident than ever before. What’s not to love?
Jump Rope Gazers by The Beths
In my head, The Beths are the biggest band in New Zealand. I mean, Lorde is huge, but we’re in my head here, and if there were any justice in the world, everyone would have at least one Beths album in their collection. I don’t even know how to describe them. The most delightful pop-rock band to make music in the last 5 years might be close. One of the reasons we briefly considered moving to New Zealand might be another. Just don’t ask me what a jump rope gazer is—I have no idea.
Melee by Dogleg
I’ve sworn that the first concert I go to post-pandemic will be Dogleg. I don’t know whether this will be true or not, but it feels true. Lead single, Fox, was the song I needed throughout these last 9 months and the rest of the album was no slouch. Kawasaki Backflip kicks ass and I can’t imagine meeting the new year with anything less than this level of energy and catharsis. Fuck this year.
Sideways to New Italy by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Rolling Blackouts CF announced their new album by dropping the single, Cars in Space, in February, just as we were starting to think there just might be something to worry about. This song was the polar opposite of that concern—one of the last pre-pandemic anthems of the year, it’s a celebration of summer, youth, and spending time alone with new love.
The rest of the album may not live up to the promise of the single, but no album can. The one-two punch of Cars in Space and Cameo may be the best opening for a side B of an record in recent memory and evolve the band’s sound past the crunchy, jangly guitar rock of their first album and early EPs. Easily a top album of the year, I can’t wait to hear what these guys cook up next.
Introduction, Presence by Nation of Language
The 80s are a weird decade. There’s a certain vibe certain music from those ten years had when all sorts of creative forces converged on a visual and musical aesthetic. Think John Hughes, feathered hair, synthesizers, hyper-earnest lyrics, and baritone vocals processed with maple syrup.
Nation of Language mines this aesthetic without coming across as a revival act. It’s tricky, and I’m not 100% sure how they achieve it. They’re all the things I listed and yet modern. Well, maybe not the feathered hair or John Hughes, but I would understand if someone who hadn’t grown up in the 80s might think this is the genuine thing.
Maybe this is the evolved sound of 80s new wave if hair metal and grunge never happened. What a glorious thought that is.
Standout tracks The Wall & I, On Division Street, Automobile, and Rush & Fever explore the sonic palette in different ways while contributing to a singular sound that’s unmistakably Nation of Language. One of my favorite new-band finds this year and something I’m still listening to months later.
Women in Music Part III by Haim
Haim, I thought I knew you. We had such a great time with that first album.
When I first heard The Wire, it was love at first listen. I bought your record and listened the grooves out of it. I thought I knew you.
Then you came back with Something to Tell You. I mean, even the title felt like you weren’t really interested in this relationship. Sure, Little of Your Love felt like home, but the rest of it… let’s just say it, it was disappointing. Like you were letting me down easy. I get it. I’m not the most exciting fan.
But really, I thought you were being coy. Trying on someone else’s clothes. Too much eyeliner. I liked who you were when you were you.
Late last year, you released a few singles that piqued my interest again. I expected to be disappointed in the album, but the individual songs were good. They felt like you—like our old times, but a grown up version of you.
When you released Women in Music III, I listened at first with low expectations, but as the album progressed and I found myself enjoying nearly every single song, I realized something important: it was never you—it was always me.
See, you were evolving, and I didn’t like it. You needed to grow and explore and try new things. I’m so happy you did because you ended up with an album that has more plays in my house this year than any other. And I learned something about myself—I’m not very patient and super critical when it comes to the bands I love.
I hope you can forgive me.
Suddenly by Caribou
I’m still holding onto the Caribou ticket for the 9:30 club show that was canceled earlier this year. I’m not giving it back.
Once upon a time Caribou was known as Manitoba and I was a big fan. The glitchy percussive ecstasy of those early recordings should have been enough to get me to a concert but strangely it never was.
Earlier this year I wrote up a piece on my love for Caribou and expected to follow it up with a longer piece on this album. I never got around to it—early March was a messed up time for all of us.
Because the release of this record happened right before the US lockdown, this was the soundtrack of the switch to homeschooling and setting up a home office.
Like most Caribou albums, it gets better the more you listen to it. Bridging dance, electronic, and pop, Dan Snaith wrote a cohesive collection of songs that explore samples of the past while presenting a unique vision of the present.
Lead single, Home, samples it best, “Baby I’m home, I’m home, I’m home.”
Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee
I’ve already written a love letter to this record. Nothing’s changed. It’s phenomenal. If anything, I love it more now than I did when I first wrote about it.
Saint Cloud is that rare album that comes out of left field from an artist and deepens your appreciation for them. It has all the hallmarks of a Waxahatchee album without actually sounding anything like any of their other albums.
When I was in art school were expected to develop the classic skills before we set about finding our own voice. That meant mastering draftsmanship, color theory, typography, composition, 2 and 3 dimensional design basics. Once we mastered the foundation, we were free to explore our voice and build upon a shared background and understanding of aesthetics.
I expect the same is true for music. And if I could extend this metaphor just a little further, this album is like Picasso deciding that after 5 gallery shows of cubism he was going to do an entire show of representational renaissance paintings—and nailing it.
This is one of the few consensus picks I have on my list which should make you feel pretty good about going about listening to this album if you haven’t already. Heck, I bought a copy for my mom and even my 10 year old loves it.
It’s just about the only thing we can all agree upon this year.