The Top 50 Albums of 2020, Albums 40 — 31

Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2020 with albums 40 — 31…

The Top 50 Albums of 2020, Albums 50 — 41

40. Thundercat — It Is What It Is

Thundercat’s (Stephen Lee Brune) latest album, It Is What It Is, his fourth studio release, is thought-provoking, funky, rife with emotion, comical, and in true Thundercat form, cosmic. “Black Qualls,” the first single off the album, is buoyed by a gooey, driving bassline that persists as the foundation for Thundercat to get deep, artfully ruminating upon the black experience in America. Thundercat described “Black Qualls” as a meditation on what it means to be a young black American, explaining: “What it feels like to be in this position right now…the weird ins and outs, we’re talking about those feelings.” With assists from Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino, “Black Qualls” most certainly is a party starter, a socially conscious mind-expander, and another example of how special of an artist Thundercat is. Taking in the funky goodness and captivating bass playing spread throughout It Is What It Is, one can easily surmise that this album is Thundercat’s greatest achievement to date.

Essential Tracks: “Black Qualls,” “Funny Thing,” “Dragonball Durag.”

39. Statik Selektah —  Balancing Act 

These days you’ll hear a lot of nostalgic hip-hop heads lament the state of the artform as it stands in 2020, decrying what they feel is a sorry state of affairs for the culture. These same people might bemoan the fact that their golden age, the ‘90s, has come and gone, and there is nothing in today’s world of autotuned Instagram mumble rappers that can ever compare to the beats and rhymes that they grew up with. And their arguments wouldn’t necessarily be without merit. But these same people would also be wrong — they simply haven’t been paying close enough attention. Boom bap is alive and well, and safe in the hands of producers like Statik Selektah. Balancing Act is Statik Selektah’s ninth studio album, and while he and his frequent collaborators have given listeners plenty to take in and digest since 2017’s 8, (Mahalo, Still 1982, TrillStatik, Gran Turismo, 1982: The Quarantine), this album is the banger that fans have been waiting for for the last three years, a milestone in the talented producer’s lengthy and impressive body of work. True to form, a studio album from Statik is going to be jam-packed full of many of hip-hop’s most prolific emcees, and this album delivers in spades, including Havoc, Bun B, Evidence, Benny the Butcher, Styles P, Conway the Machine, Killer Mike, Black Thought, Termanology, and 2 Chainz, just to name a few. Much deference is paid to those who hip-hop has lost in recent years, and the mourning is profound. Balancing Act gets heads nodding from the first track, and there is a fluctuating flow to the album that works so well in the way it unfolds, with emcees putting down some of the most profound lyrics we’ve heard this year, both universal and topical, to Statik’s signature resonant beats. And for those who’ve only been looking back up until now, take a moment to consider how Statik endeavors to keep this beloved hip-hop culture going by bridging the gap between generations, as is evident in collaborations such as “Keep it Moving” (featuring Nas, Joey Bada$$, and Gary Clark, Jr.) and “Hard Living” (featuring Dave East and Method Man).

Essential Tracks: “Keep it Moving,” “Time,” “Watch Me,” “Way Up.”

38. Charlie Kaplan — Sunday

In the aftermath of his father’s death, New York-based musician and singer-songwriter Charlie Kaplan re-immersed himself in the art of songwriting, and specifically to crafting songs on guitar. “Each song was an exercise in conjuring light, warmth, insight, guidance, release — my life’s absent emotional palette,” Kaplan describes on his website. “I used music as a way to induce feelings that no longer occurred naturally.” Through this process, his debut album Sunday was born, a dreamy album chock full of vivid imagery and delightfully enchanting soundscapes full of wonder and joy. If unfamiliar, “Pete Williams,” the second single released off of Sunday, is a fine example of the offerings of the album, a song Kaplan sums up as “A cry for help, feeling lost, and looking for the way in a profoundly changed world.”

Essential Tracks: “Pete Williams,” “California Days,” “The Light of the Day,” “Snow Walk.”

37. Bright Eyes — Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was

This summer, the Conor Oberst led outfit Bright Eyes was set to venture out on a reunion tour, their first since they went on hiatus in 2011. The dreaded, unforgiving beast that is COVID-19 unfortunately put an end to that long-awaited return. Oberst has certainly had kept himself busy these last nine years and fans have been entertained with projects in the meantime, including solo albums, releases from his punk band Desaparecidos, and most recently, the Better Oblivion Community Center, which he formed with singer-songwriter phenom Phoebe Bridgers. However, the return of Bright Eyes with the album Down In The Weeds, Where the World Once Was, truly meant something to their legion of admirers, including ourselves, and especially those that grew into adulthood with their soulful music soundtracking that uncertain transition. Down In The Weeds is the first release for the indie rock trio since their 2011 album The People’s Key, and it features contributions from Jon Theodore and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea. While a profoundly introspective album, true to form to Conor’s lyrical stylings, it persists ever hopeful and flat out joyous — feelings dearly welcome in 2020. With lush soundscapes inspired by orchestral strings, gospel choir, and bossa nova drum, we continually are finding new and glorious moments breathing throughout another tremendous offering from one of indie rock’s most cherished acts.

Essential Tracks: “Persona Non Grata,” “Dance and Sing,” “Pan And Broom.”

36. Caribou – Suddenly

Dan Snaith’s latest album as Caribou, Suddenly, is an expert example of an artist’s craft honed to its sharpest point. There’s no wasted notes and no superfluous grandier for the sake of ego on his latest album, just a man, his drums, and hooks that hit for days. Snaith’s explorations of beat-making have clearly advanced from 2014’s knockout album Our Love, and his every drum beat now appears to be perfectly aimed for maximum effect. Add to the mix Snaith’s characteristic falsetto, songs that seem to effortlessly skip from jazz to R&B to psychedelia and then back again, and a kaleidoscope of effects, transitions and instruments that threaten to give the casual listener whip-lash, what’s been created on Suddenly is an album that is precise and clever in its intentions yet dizzying to behold. If you’re looking for a place on the album to get a taste of Snaith’s pop-electronica virtuosity then we recommend the tracks “Home,” or “Never Come Back.” But if you simply want to run Suddenly from front to back you certainly won’t be disappointed with the journey, Snaith’s laser-sharp focus on mastering his artform has made sure of that.

Essential Tracks: “Never Come Back,” “Home,” “Sister.”

35. Thurston Moore — By The Fire

Thurston Moore’s work with Sonic Youth forever solidified him as one of modern rock’s most acclaimed and innovative lead guitarists. Yet, all too often his solo work is unheralded and, we believe, underappreciated. His latest, By The Fire, might just be his best yet. His seventh solo release features musicians Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) on bass and backing vocals, Jon Leidecker aka ‘Wobbly’ (of Negativland) on electronics, James Sedwards on guitar, and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, as well as Jem Doulton, alternating on drums. With about half of the album void of vocals, and a heady air of psychedelia and exploration at the heart of the guitar driven album, By The Fire is a far-reaching musical journey, a notion exemplified by the fact that four tracks on the album are over ten minutes long. Daydream Library, the label that released the album said this about By The Fire, which we believe sums up the album beautifully: “By The Fire is music in flames. 2020 is our time for radical change and collective awareness and Thurston Moore has written nine songs of enlightenment, released to a world on fire. Taking a cue from Albert Ayler’s ‘music is the healing force of the universe,’ this recording offers songs as flames of rainbow energy, where the power of love becomes our call. These are love songs in a time where creativity is our dignity, our demonstration against the forces of oppression. By The Fire is a gathering, a party of peace — songs in the heat of the moment.”

Essential Tracks: “Hashish,” “Siren,” “Cantaloupe.” 

34. Bill Callahan — Gold Record

Last summer Bill Callahan returned from a multi-year hiatus to dazzle us with his stellar double-album Shepard In A Sheepskin Vest. Since then he seems more than ready to dive back into the kind of down-to-earth songwriting paired with astral creativity that has come to define his noteworthy career. Released as individual songs over a series of ten Mondays, Gold Record, Callahan’s seventh full-length solo-release, feels like a loose and casual collection of singles. However, found within each of the albums tracks are the familiar threads binding them to each other: dreamy instrumentals, captivating guitar riffs, quaint lyrics painting familiar pictures of Americana, and the Callahan-esque themes of life, love and death. Callahan of course puts his own sublime and otherworldly spins on the lyrical pictures he paints, and injects synths, drums and the occasional well-timed trumpet into the mix for added effect, but what he has forged on Gold Record is another low-key yet remarkable to behold gem.  

Essential Tracks: “Pigeons,” “Let’s Move To The Country,” “As I Wander.”

33. Garcia Peoples — Nightcap At Wits End

The New Jersey-based avant-jam band Garcia Peoples is potentially the best live band that you have never heard of, and this year they found a way to siphon a great deal of what they excel at on stage into an album. Nightcap At Wits End, the follow up to 2019’s experimental, jam-fueled One Step Behind, is a welcome turn, where, true to a form of band inspired by Americana psych rock royalty The Grateful Dead, many of the tracks journey to psychedelic crescendos booed by dual-guitar wizardry. But the excellence is found not just within the jams but in the savy song craftsmanship. Their fourth studio album is Garcia Peoples’ most pointed release to date, one that displays a band that can open things up and jam with the best of them, but also write jovial psychedelic folk rockers that altogether coalesce into an album that is an attention grabbing leap forward for the band.

Essential Tracks: “Gliding Through, “One at a Time,” “Altered Place.”

32. Stephen Malkmus — Traditional Techniques 

Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus continues to crank out phenomenal solo efforts. His latest album, Traditional Techniques, his third solo release (the ninth project in Malkmus’ career since Pavement disbanded, and the fourteenth album released in his career) features a song entitled “The Greatest Own In Legal History” that we simply cannot get enough of. Rife with the snark and wit that we cherish about Malkmus, “TGOILH” is a song written from the perspective of a lawyer convincing a young defendant that he’ll get him out of jail. It’s a delightful socially conscious and thoughtful song from the prolific Portland indie rock legend, and an example of the tremendous lyricism Malkmus is known for that is replete throughout the entire album. Malkmus’ heavy lean towards folk music is what makes Traditional Techniques stand out from his previous work on an album whose complexity and grandeur manifest themselves more overt with each and every delightful spin. 

Essential Tracks: “The Greatest Own In Legal History,” “Xian Man,” “Shadowbanned.”

31. Kari Faux — Lowkey Superstar

If you haven’t heard Little Rock, Alabama rapper/singer Kari Faux do her thing, drop everything. Her latest album, Lowkey Superstar (which she refers to herself as) is an impressive ode to taking the power back and to self love. Faux’s talents are vast and dynamic, and her rhymes are oftentimes smooth, other times cutting, and layered with grit. Her lyrics are honest, clever, and poetic. “While You Was Sleepin,” which leads off the album, not only kicks in the door to Lowkey Superstar, but is exemplifying of the confidence and might of the artist and of the album to come. The lyrics “Tried to FaceTime God / He declined, I said ‘Oh well’ / He hit me back with a text / And said ‘save yourself’” hint on the notion that we are on our own in this life, but it’s clear throughout the track, and the entirety of Lowkey Superstar, that Faux is going to be just fine even if God isn’t extending an olive branch.

Essential tracks: “While God Was Sleepin’,” “McGrady,” “Look at That.”

TO BE CONTINUED….

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