Across the Margin commences its rollout of the Best Albums of 2020 with albums 50 – 41…
Throughout this tumultuous year that was 2020, there was no warmer blanket for us, no port in the storm or rock to hide under which helped get us through all the chaos and uncertainty than music. Finding escape in the abundant offerings of musical wonderment was entirely cathartic and the prolificness of the output across all genres was absolutely awe-inspiring. From hard-hitting hip-hop to protest music, from enchanting indie rock with profound, affecting lyricism to psych rock madness, we found ourselves immersed like never before. As is always the case when we annually celebrate our Top 50 Albums at Across the Margin, what we are proud to present here is simply the albums we are most grateful for in any given year. Those which received the greatest play, moved us with the deepest emotion, and settled most soundly in our souls. So, without further delay, let’s step in and drop the needle…
50. Neil Young — Homegrown
The 40th studio album from legendary rocker Neil Young, Homegrown, is an album 35 years in the making. Recorded between 1974 and 1975, and written during his protracted breakup with the late actress Carrie Snokgrass, the mother of his child Zeke, Young’s great “lost” album Homegrown has finally found its home in 2020. It’s an album that Young aptly describes as “the unheard bridge between Harvest and Comes a Time,” and is one so personal and painfully revealing that he chose to scrap its release all those years ago rather than share it with the world. Dancing across such themes as lost love, life on the road, and the ups and downs of drug use, Homegrown is an album filled with a lightness and elegance, featuring stripped-down tracks that expose Young’s humbleness and insight yet portrays him as an artist at the high point of his career. Across Homegrown twelve remarkable tracks, we find a man who is capable of conveying insight and illuminations in the simple machinations of everyday life. A dogged anti-hero who gladly shares via soothing confessionals his many sins while highlighting his love for a life on the open road, in the hopes that it may, rightly, inform and inspire those who will come after him.
49. Jay Electronica — A Written Testimony
It finally happened. New Orlean’s native Jay Electronica no longer has the unique pleasure of holding the title of ‘Best Emcee Without A Debut Record’ ((Jay Electronica’s only other official release was the 2007 mixtape Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge))). Well over a decade after Electronica emphatically caught the attention of hip hop heads far and wide, his debut album A Written Testimony was released this year. This delightful surprise was paired with another, in that Brooklyn’s Finest, Jay Z, is prominently featured on the album, so much so that he can be found trading bars with Electronica on the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and tenth songs. The entire album is dramatically worth your time, but a good jumping off point is the first proper release, “Ghosts of Soulja Slim.” The song makes it clear right off the bat that this long awaited debut from a 43-year-old enigmatic and ridiculous talented rapper has been well worth the wait. Beyond HOV, A Written Testimony features contributions from James Blake, Travis Scott, Khruangbin, and The-Dream, and smart production by Swizz Beatz, Hit-Boy, The Alchemist, No I.D., Young Guru, and AraabMuzik. A Written Testimony is an album that, against all odds and time, was well beyond worth the prolonged wait.
48. My Morning Jacket — The Waterfall II
My Morning Jacket’s surprise 2020 release, The Waterfall II, is a gorgeously lush extension to their 2015 acclaimed psychedelic pop album The Waterfall. Both albums take their source material from recordings made by the band in 2013, and the vibes present on The Waterfall II nicely complement what they released in 2015. On The Waterfall II the long, slow grooves that have come to define MMJ wash over the listener in deep-colored waves, and the effortlessness to their delivery are only upstaged by the weightlessness to their jams. This is especially evident on the R&B ballad “Feel You,” easily an album standout, where an addictive guitar arpeggio repeatedly lifts the listener to dreamy levels of appreciation and pleasing lyrics like “makin’ time, to waste time, to feel time,” and “watching you, watching me / Reaching out between the worlds,” compliment the songs retro 70s vibe. On the dreamy ballad “Spinning My Wheels,” the song’s lyrics nicely mirror the reflective mindset of MMJ frontman Jim James, where he sings about being “Hypnotized from doing the same old thing.” There’s a building sense across the album that the contemplative mood of 2015’s The Waterfall is present on The Waterfall II, if not more deeply so, yet intermixed with a current of healing. It’s also an album perfectly crafted for these contemporary and chaotic times. With each and every track the listener is drawn deeper into a world crafted from James’s trademark falsettos, smart and soothing arrangements, delightful slow jams and contemplative lyrics. On the album closer, “The First Time,” James softly sings “I wonder where the time went.” For all of us grappling with the strange realities of Covid-19 and the struggles of a life lived in quarantine, the song’s lyrics take on a deeper, more poignant meaning, and what is gained after listening to The Waterfall II’s ten superb tracks are a few moments of much-needed tranquility.
47. TeaMarrr — Before I Spill Myself
TeaMarrr, the Haitain American R & B and hip-hop songstress, latest album Before I Spill Myself is as pacifying as it is gorgeous, and therein appears to be the point. “I want people to heal themselves with my sound,” TeaMarrr commented in a press release. “I hope they walk away thinking, ‘TeaMarrr is my new musical pharmacist.’ My catalog will heal whatever mood you’re in, if you’re in a lovey-dovey vibe put on “Kinda Love.” If you’re angry at your ex and don’t understand why he couldn’t have done the one thing you asked him to, I definitely have a song for that too. Think of me as the sonic doctor prescribing music as medicine to help you heal.” Sonic Doctor as a descriptor for TeaMarrr is a title that could not ring truer, as Before I Spill Myself takes listeners on a musical journey that is rife with stories about relationships that fashion themselves as deeply personal, but also profoundly relatable. It’s the Los Angeles-based singers’ first project since 2017’s Thanks for the Chapstick and features guest appearances from such artists as SiR, Rapsody, and D Smoke, and while the album is captivating on its own, it has us entirely excited to watch this young phenom take the music world by storm in years to come.
46. Bishop Nehru — Nehruvia: My Disregarded Thoughts
New York-based emcee Bishop Nehru (Markel Scott) released his eighth studio album this year entitled Nehruvia: My Disregarded Thoughts, a remarkable feat considering Nehru is only 23 years old. Clocking in at around 50 minutes, the album 13-tracks include only one guest feature, frequent collaborator and mentor MF DOOM. DJ Premier, it must be noted, can be found lending a hand with production on the tracks “Colder” and “Too Lost.” “Too Lost,” the cream of the albums impressive crop, is a piano driven throwback boom-bap masterpiece exhibiting the full lyrical talents of one of the most impressive young rappers in all of hip hop, anchoring an album that is flush with party bangers yet persists as a thought provoking and lyrically dynamic composition.
45. Soccer Mommy — color theory
Soccer Mommy’s (Sophia Regina Allison) latest album, color theory, cuts deep. In it Allison confronts head-on her ongoing mental health concerns as well as the family divides that have troubled her since her teens. Color theory explores three central themes: blue, representing sadness and depression; yellow, symbolizing physical and emotional illness; and gray, representing darkness, emptiness and loss. One standout tack, emblematic of the depth present within the album, is “circle in the drain,” a song entirely representative of what is so unique and alluring about Allison’s work. It’s gorgeous, plucks at the heartstrings, and speaks to relatable struggles that so many of us deal with (“Things feel that low sometimes / Even when everything is fine”).
44. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — K.G.
Maybe one year, the Australian psych rock gods that are King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard will fail to secure a spot on our Top 50 countdown. In all honestly though…we doubt it. Year after year this band of musician’s output isn’t just jaw-droppingly prolific, but mind-blowingly impressive. Their latest, K.G., released on the same day they dropped a live album recorded in San Francisco in 2016, is as fierce and hypnagogic as anything they have ever put forth. With an overt influence of traditional Turkish and Arabic music paired with the innate energy that always permeates through King Gizzard’s fiery brand of rock, K.G. is an album both inspired by differentiating global soundscapes and a healthy dose of Black Sabbath. It’s another absolutely stunning offering in a long, long line of greats from one of the best rock n’ roll bands on the planet.
43. Khruangbin- Mordechai
Laura Lee, Mark Spear, and DJ Johnson have returned with Khruangbin’s third studio album, Mordechai, a ten song collection that builds on the momentum the band established with its predecessors by expanding the band’s eclectic genre-bending and ambitious scope. Once again listeners are treated to songs that are carried on waves of the Houston trio’s distinctive and soulful crooning, but this time around the singing is delivered in the form of full verses of engaging lyrics, both English and Spanish, something that we’ve only received in sparse and sporadic doses since the band’s 2015 debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You. It’s easy to identify Khruangbin’s influences but impossible to pigeonhole them, and with Mordechai there is still the apparent paying of respects to their intercontinental inspirations — Latin, West African, Asian, Caribbean — while the result of this mashup is a sound that distinguishes itself from any one of its global cultural forebears. Not to mention that, with Mordechai, the band continues to dabble in era-spanning theme blending that makes it apparent that Lee, Spear, and Johnson are students of music from not only a multitude of different genres and cultures, but also from various musical epochs. In his Pitchfork review of Mordechai, contributing editor Andy Cush elaborates on why the band’s third outing sounds so musically versatile: “Mordechai is distant and murky in its production, heavy with nostalgia for a nonspecific time and locale. It sounds as if it’s already been plucked from a dollar bin, fawned over by an exclusive cult of collectors, uploaded to YouTube, and eventually reissued, before it was ever released in the first place.”
42. Billy Martin — G U I L T Y
Best known as a member of the avant-garde jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, American composer, percussionist, visual artist, educator and record producer Billy Martin released an album this year, entitled G U I L T Y, displaying a wide array of his dynamic talents. Co-produced by Rob Reinfurt (a.k.a. Night Marcher), G U I L T Y finds Martin playing his own bass riffs for the very first time and features outstanding contributions from such musical savants such as Marc Ribot (guitar), Alexandria Smith (trumpet), Jen Liu (electric harp), John Medeski (keyboard), and Martin Dosh (electronics). G U I L T Y was funded mostly through a Kickstarter campaign that rewarded its donors with one-of-kind pieces of art, and is singular in its own right, highlighting the expansive musical capabilities of one of the greatest drummers in the world.
41. IDLES — Ultra Mono
IDLES, the British rock outfit hailing from Bristol, released their third album this year, Ultra Momo, and it’s an absolute flame thrower. Leaving no stone unturned in contemplation of the world around them, Ultra Momo leans into issues of mental health, class warfare, the modern socio-political climate, toxic masculinity, the ills of celebrity and fame, and the disconcerting feeling of losing control. Ultra Mono is powerful and ferocious, while managing to instill in the listener a sense of joyful invigorating. This unrelenting album is most definitely the IDLES album we all needed in 2020, cathartic in its directness and crass, and absolutely demanding of attention across each and every well-crafted track.
TO BE CONTINUED…