As we all know by now, 2020 has been a magnificent tire fire; one that will leave a stench we’ll be dealing with for years. We all know this. Like, really, really know this.
Ongoing calamities aside, this year has managed to produce some really good music that served as a much-needed distraction. There were a number of albums that were inspired by the pandemic and the politics of our time, but there were also some that were years in the making, others that seemingly materialized out of nowhere, and a few hidden gems that flew below most people’s radar.
I usually take some time to reflect on the records that really stood out whenever December rolls around and this year was no exception. However, I found myself taking certain things into consideration that I’d never really focused on before. After being thrust into this new reality, I was constantly on the hunt for sources of clarity and some peace of mind, so it was only natural that I found myself gravitating toward albums with a mellower vibe (although, as you’ll soon see, there were certainly some exceptions).
While most people aren’t going to look back too fondly on 2020, it wasn’t all bad, as there are ten particular albums to come out of it that will likely be in my rotation for a while after we finally put it behind us.
10. My Morning Jacket—The Waterfall II
Earlier this year, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James was out for a walk and found himself listening to “Spinning My Wheels,” a song that the band recorded a few years earlier while working on their last studio album, 2015’s The Waterfall.
The song’s lyrics spoke to him and led to him revisiting some of the tracks to come out of those recording sessions that failed to make the final cut, and in July, the group ended up releasing The Waterfall II. The album is something of a companion to the first, which isn’t really a surprise, but what is surprising is how tranquil and relaxed the follow-up is.
My Morning Jacket has had quieter moments on their albums in the past, but they were usually sandwiched in between bombastic Southern rock tunes. This time, the mellow side of the band took center stage and those lively tunes we’ve been accustomed to were largely relegated to a supporting role. In a year where sober moments of introspection were fairly common, The Waterfall II ended up being a particularly poignant source of them.
9. The Ghost of Paul Revere—Good At Losing Everything
The Ghost of Paul Revere’s 2017 album Monarch was one of those albums that makes a fan very excited for what might come next, as the holler-folk band beefed up their sound with the addition of drums and other new instrumentation. Good At Losing Everything is a worthy follow-up and is a wonderful display of a band evolving and getting their legs underneath them.
The songs on the album are full of the group’s trademark harmonies and intricate but ferocious guitar and banjo playing. However, what really shoves it across the finish line is the sweeping strings, well-placed horns, and a bevy of talented ringers chipping in on songs that effortlessly flow into one another. The sequencing and transitions from song to song make the album feel like one long track expertly divided up into sections as opposed to chopped up into different tunes.
Whereas their early albums sparked comparisons to Mumford and Sons, Good At Losing Everything is more likely to remind people of the likes of The Band and Van Morrison. Regardless, it’s a remarkably confident and mature album for an act that’s still coming into its own.
8. Chris Stapleton—Starting Over
My man Chris Stapleton has a song on Starting Over about the family dog and I’m not going to apologize for getting a little misty-eyed while listening to it. It’s worth a listen even if you aren’t a huge dog person, but anyone who knows what it’s like to have a loyal fountain of unconditional and undying love by your side should get some tissues ready before they throw it on.
There are also tunes like “Maggie’s Song” that highlight Stapleton’s story-telling abilities and paint him as a genuine, old-school country guy who graduated from Nashville’s songwriting school of hard knocks. This was his first album in three years and it also touches on him turning 40 (the struggle is real) and the growing pains that come with living in especially difficult times. As with his past works, the songs alternate between soft and reflective and hard and rocking. Stapleton and his band can deliver a solid sitting’-round-the-campfire tune just as well as they can unleash a screamin’-down-the-highway rocker, and on Starting Over, they give the people both.
While I’m more partial to Stapleton’s more electric tunes, I appreciate all of the different speeds he operates, and his somber, haunting songs about loss hit especially hard considering everything 2020 has thrown at us.
7. Fiona Apple—Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Apple started recording this album back in 2015, but it didn’t really take flight until she traded the recording studio for the confines of her house. Given the personal nature of the lyrics and the impressively off-the-wall vibe of the music, the move makes sense and absolutely paid off. You need to be comfortable to write and record an album like Fetch The Bolt Cutters and what better place to feel comfortable than where you call home?
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is a manic journey through Apple’s mind. She uses the piano like a weapon in her attempt to fight off her demons and break down the walls of polite society. It’s wonderfully percussive—a sort of art-rock drum circle—and after listing to it, I wanted nothing more than for her to hook up with Tune-Yards, which would be a match made in heaven.
6. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever—Sideways to New Italy
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s third album is a fun expansion of the Australian band’s unique sound; a layered and dense yet easy breezy take on early 90s alternative pop-rock. The songs move at a brisk pace as if the band was in a race to finish them and get onto the next one because all of them are just so damn fun to play.
Happening above that frantic sprint by the rhythm section is a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector proud. There are so many guitars that you could be forgiven for assuming there were more than three dudes playing them and the harmonies are absolutely massive.
In a dark and unforgiving year, the bright sunshine of Sideways to New Italy was invaluable when it came to powering through.
5. Drive-By Truckers—The Unraveling
Drive-By Truckers made it clear they weren’t exactly cool with the state of the United States with their 2016 album American Band and they decided to double down on the appropriately-titled The Unraveling, which is the product of a band with zero fucks left to give and plenty to say about why.
As a rock band with origins in the South, it’s safe to say some of their fans might not exactly be on board with the grievances they air but it’s obvious they do not give a single shit. Of course, they haven’t exactly exercised a ton of restraint since they burst on the scene with Southern Rock Opera but any filter they may have had has basically evaporated.
In a year where frustration reigned supreme, The Unraveling expertly captured the zeitgeist and likely will serve as a sort of time capsule when everything is said and done.
4. Dinner Party—Dinner Party
You could make the argument that it would be a stretch to call a project featuring seven songs that add up to a whopping 23 minutes a “real” album, but all the things that we used to know went out the window in 2020, and as a result, Dinner Party’s self-titled record qualifies as one.
This is especially true when a band makes the most of basically every single second, which is exactly what the neo-jazz/soul/R&B supergroup comprised of Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder does on this.
Musically, the album is relaxed and smooth with some easy-living grooves. Lyrically, things get taken up a notch—especially with a song like “Freeze Tag,” one of four tracks on Dinner Party that features Chicago’s Phoelix on vocals. It pointedly tackles police brutality and being black in America (which serves as a compelling contrast to the overarching sonic vibes), and based on how well the entire project came together, I can only hope we get more than seven songs if we’re treated to a follow-up.
3. Thundercat—It Is What It Is
It Is What It Is is a trip to listen to. It’s beautifully weird, intergalactic, and introspective jazz-infused funk that travels through your brain and soul hours after listening to it. It gets you in the heart, in the mind, in the feet, and in the muscles in your neck that get your head bobbing.
There are some similarities between It Is What It Is and Dinner Party, as they both strike a delicate balance between smile-inducing music peppered with thought-provoking lyrics. However, the real reason Thundercat’s fourth album is so exciting is because of how unique and inspired it feels and sounds; a musical adventure that is as entertaining as it challenging to listen to.
2. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit—Reunions
It’s been seven years since Jason Isbell was able to get sober, and since then, he’s been on an absolute tear. He’s released a couple of solid studio albums in addition to 2018’s Live from the Ryman and also found some time to get married and became a father.
All of these developments in his life are addressed on Reunions, a record where Isbell and his band (the 400 Unit) seemed to really find their footing. Reunion sees the group live up to the potential they showed with 2017’s The Nashville Sound and all of the songs are haunting and honest; a raw and direct look at what Isbell has had to confront throughout his life and continues to grapple with today.
On “Dreamsicle,” he takes a look back at his childhood on a song that becomes more somber and painfully reflective with every verse, and while you won’t find a track where he truly rocks out as he has in the past, “Be Afraid” comes pretty damn close.
A lot of people compared Isbell to Bruce Springsteen when he first started to make a name for himself, and while he certainly has some work to do when it comes to rivaling The Boss, an album like Reunions certainly helps bolster his reputation as one of the most formidable singers and songwriters of our time.
1. Run The Jewels—Run The Jewels 4
It’s hard to believe Run The Jewels has somehow managed to top itself with every album the dynamic duo of Killer Mike and El-P has pumped out. On their fourth self-titled record, the two don’t show any signs of slowing down or resting on their laurels. They don’t show weakness or demonstrate any semblance of going through the motions; they put their foot on the gas as soon as it kicks off and never let up over the course of the 39-minute ride.
Run The Jewels 4 dropped into the zeitgeist like an atomic bomb. The country was still reeling from the death of George Floyd and protests and demonstrations were everywhere. With things hitting a fever pitch, El-P hopped on Instagram to announce the group had decided to drop the album two days early, saying:
“Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love. With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime + Mike.”
For a project that had been recorded months earlier, RTJ4 sounded like it was put together a week before its release. Its topics and themes were on point and eerily prescient as songs pulled subject matter directly from the headlines. It was the soundtrack for a moment in time, but it’s fascinating because it had been written before that time actually happened.
“walking in the snow” is especially noteworthy because of its blunt assessment and critique of America heading into the summer of 2020. In the song, El-P and Killer Mike talk about a wide array of political issues that were at the forefront of the public discourse at the time and it was only fitting that they invited Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha to contribute some vocals given the decades he’s spent calling attention to some of the plights at the center of the track.
In a year defined by uncertainty, unrest, and widespread madness, no one did a better job capturing its essence than Run The Jewels.
2020 Albums That Just Missed The Cut
The first posthumous release from Mac Miller two years after his death provides a bittersweet glimpse into what the future had in store for the rapper as well as a slightly eerie look at where his mind was at prior to his shocking passing.
Gorillaz—Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
Damon Albarn’s mixed media art project keeps on keeping on with their latest release. The album was meted out in “episodes” throughout the year, with each one highlighting the band’s constantly changing style and ability to effectively utilize guest artists.
HAIM—Women In Music, Pt. III
The sisters that comprise HAIM might be one of the most interesting groups in rock music right now because they seem to be capable of almost anything—as evidenced by their latest album, which highlights their ever-evolving sound and wide range of influences.
Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist—Alfredo
Freddie Gibbs is one of the best rappers in the game right now and it was hard not to get excited when he teamed up with Alchemist, who knows a thing or two about how to bring out the best of the artists he works with thanks to his legendary production abilities. The result is everything you could want from this summit between two incredible creative minds, and the only real issue with the record is that its 35-minute runtime will make you crave a bigger helping than they ultimately served.
Taylor Swift walked into the woods during quarantine and emerged with two albums that signal she might be moving on from her pop music days and folklore has the edge here because it was the first sign she was headed towards something bigger (and potentially better) than what she’s given us so far.
Pearl Jam being Pearl Jam and doing Pearl Jam stuff and recording Pearl Jam albums will always be a good thing. Always.
Tame Impala—The Slow Rush
Kevin Parker’s latest Tame Impala album is a blissful dose of spaced out, California sunshine as he transitions the band from more of a rock sound to a booming dance vibe.
If albums aren’t your thing, here is a playlist of the best songs of 2020