Presenting, in its entirety, Across The Margin’s Top 50 Albums of 2020…
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 then 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 pronged 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and 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.”
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 a series of jovial psychedelic folk rockers that altogether coalesce into an album that is an attention grabbing leap forward for the band.
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’s 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’s 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.
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.
30. Perfume Genius — Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius’ latest album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is dripping with raw and uncensored emotion. It’s a powerful album to behold and hauntingly beautiful in its scope and execution, from the microscopic to the meta. Singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas has gifted us another sublime encapsulation of his continuing transformation as an artist on this latest album, and arguably presents his strongest work so far. The listener, set adrift on a roiling sea of swirling emotion, whispered confessions, dreamy instrumentals and energy-flecked lyrical currents is sure to be moved by this lofty amalgamation of songs. There’s a sprawling inner palette to be found here on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, from joyous celebration to the healing power of love to the burdens of the corporeal form, and what is gained by listening is a truer understanding of the human condition, told from the perspective of someone who has experienced it more than most.
29. Yves Tumor — Heaven To a Tortured Mind
The fourth studio release from Yves Tumor (Sean Bowie), Heaven To a Tortured Mind, is brimming with emotion. Beyond that, it is rife with gooey, thick funk and all-embracing soundscapes that aren’t always easily described. The reason for that is Tumor’s musical stylings are persistently experimental, a fusing of cerebral soundscapes that invoke feelings and emotions on an extremely visceral level. In Heaven To a Tortured Mind, Tumor lays his soul and spirit bare across musical landscapes that often fell familiar, yet are also paving the way into the future for soul, rock, and funk music. While that might appear to be a bold claim, it is visionary artists such as Tumor that are forging music onward as displayed across the twelve absorbing tracks on Heaven To a Tortured Mind, one of the most innovative albums of 2020.
28. Chris Forsyth — Peoples Motel Band
It is extremely infrequent when we include an EP or a live release on our year end countdown, as the inclusion of these heightens the already stout bounty of releases found in any given year…but exceptions must be made. This year, that honor is awarded to guitarist extraordinaire Chris Forsyth’s live album Peoples Motel Band. Recorded on September 14, 2019 before an enthusiastic hometown crowd at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, Peoples Motel Band captures Chris Forsyth playing with Garcia Peoples (#33 on this countdown) as well as the tremendously talented drummer Ryan Jewell re-imagining songs from his excellent studio albums with a fiery zest. While the entirety of this release is captivating and exemplifying to the talents of all the extraordinary artists teemed onstage that evening, we cannot help but point you directly towards the pedal to the metal, driving rocker that is “Dreaming in the Non Dream,” an absolute scorcher of a rendition.
27. Porridge Radio — Every Bad
Porridge Radio, the British indie rock band formed in Brighton in 2015, is our latest obsession. The pointed angst and fierce passion that radiates from each and every track off their latest album, Every Bad, is a cathartic, intoxicating shot in the arm. Porridge Radio is fronted by vocalist, songwriter and lead guitarist Dana Margolin, and the band is rounded out by keyboardist Georgie Stott, bassist guitarist Maddie Ryall and drummer Sam Yardley. Every Bad is a mammoth step forward for Porridge Radio sonically, where their once minimal sound has been dramatically impassioned. Every Bad is also deeply contemplative as exemplified by the opening track “Born Confused,” where Margolin asks “What is going on with me? / And maybe I was born confused / And baby, I was born confused / So I don’t know what’s going on,” and then further in the album within the dreamlike “Pop Song” where she croons “And where was home to you? / And where did you feel safe? / And where was home to you? / What kind of place?” While uncertainty and a searching for oneself, for home, persist at the heart of the album, Every Bad is a confident album, one displaying a band who are finding their foothold in a sound, and of a might, of a band who will continually soar to new heights.
26. North Americans — Roped In
Easily the softest, and most melodic, entry into the countdown, the instrumental duo of guitarist Patrick McDermott and pedal steel player Barry Walker latest release under the moniker North Americans, Roped In, is a dazzling work of art that is settling and altogether cleansing. While often sparse, the ambient sonics and gentle picking coalesce into hypnotic complex webs of melodiousness. The album features contributions from William Tyler on guitar and Mary Lattimore on harp and while haunting at times, and entirely gorgeous through and through, we have yet to find a better album this year to set the tone while relaxing, cup of coffee and book in hand, on a lazy Sunday morning.
25. Gunn-Truscinski Duo – Soundkeeper
Listening to the fourth album from the Gunn-Truscinski Duo entitled Soundkeeper is akin to a religious experience. For to get lost in Brooklyn-based guitarist Steve Gunn and drummer phenom John Truscinski’s latest is satiating to the soul and inner spirit. Throughout the 72 minute album, each song flows wondrously into the next, cascading like a river that weaves through psychedelic open aired landscapes. Soundkeeper was recorded between 2018 and early 2020 in Brooklyn, NY and Western Massachusetts, and is an album that invokes deep feelings born of gentle ambience and of patience. Soundkeeper is as calming and warm of an experience you can find in album form, and even in moments where the intensity is turned up (“Gam,” “Pyramid Merchandise,”) there is a steadiness and beauty that we just cannot get enough of.
24. Fontaines D.C. — A Hero’s Death
The Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C.’s latest album, A Hero’s Death, has been rightly nominated for a 2020 Grammy for Best Rock Album, as they continue to be the most talked about UK band of recent years. Coming a year and a half after the release of their critically acclaimed album Dogrel, their sophomore effort is a master collection of slow and forceful rockers, capturing rather manically, and at times lovingly, the excitement of being young and wild. On the song’s opening track “I Don’t Belong,” lead singer Grian Chatten repeatedly sings “I don’t belong to anyone / I don’t wanna belong to anyone.” The words act as a mantra to the album, lulling the listener into pondering their own significance in the world. The heady and introverted “A Lucid Dream,” a dizzying and dream-like anthem, pulls the listener in with its intoxicating flow, offering up a delightfully sonic representation of the angst and self-destructive tendencies of youth. On “A Hero’s Death,” a fast-paced rocker masquerading as a series of life lessons, Chatten sings repeatedly “life ain’t always empty” between bursts of unique lyrical perspectives. “Don’t get stuck in the past,” and “Sit beneath a light that suits ya” and “Sink as far down as you can be pulled up” are amongst a few of the songs well crafted observations. Taken as a whole, A Hero’s Death is a striking and triumphant album and reads like an instruction manual to surviving adolescence, yet way more deep and inward looking than you would expect from such a talented group of young musicians. The album flirts with psychedelic and dreamlike intervals mixed with periods of intensity and angst. In the world of A Hero’s Death first you’re high and then you’re low, you’re blue and then you’re gray, you’re on the ground, flailing in the mud and then you’re tripping from trail to tribulation, full-on with the knowledge that the anchors of adulthood are always there ready to take hold.
23. Fleet Foxes — Shore
On their latest album, Shore, indie folk band Fleet Foxes have forged a work of art that is warm, bright, and inviting, beckoning the adventurous listener to come along with them on a journey filled with gratitude, happiness, and celebration. Kicking off the album is the song “Sunblind,” a truly magical example of indie folk taken to its zenith, dazzling the listener with its jubilant celebration of life and the role art has to play in its affirmation. Delightfully, the warm and pleasant vibe keeps expanding on Shore, rolling across the album like an undulating wave. For anyone struggling with the pitfalls of a life lived in quarantine, this album is a refreshing response to these dark times, splashing around imagery, tones and harmonies that serve to satisfy even the most fatigued of souls. There’s the soaring vibrancy of “Can I Believe You,” or the poetic imagery within songs like “Featherweight” and “Maestranza,” which play well with the album’s title and further indulge its nature-flecked vibrancy. Shore isn’t all happiness and joy however, for it does possess darker themes. There are subtle acknowledgements of our mortality to be found within its fold, with lyrics like “one more day is all I really need,” and “Oh devil walk by / I never want to die” sprinkled throughout. But what Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold teaches us about life and death on Shore is that we should not shy away from such distresses, and instead understand that there is a certain freedom to be gained by an acceptance of our fate. These rhythms are only natural, like calm cool waters lapping at the edges of a sunlit ‘shore’.
22. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist — Alfredo
In hindsight, it was only a matter of time that Gary, Indiana native and rapper Freddie Gibbs received a Grammy nomination as he did this year for his work on the album Alfredo. Freddie has been consistently releasing jaw-dropping albums at a steady clip since his debut album ESGN in 2013. This year found Gibbs, lauded for his work with the legendary producer Madlib, working yet again with another seasoned and extremely talented producer in The Alchemist (known for his work with Mobb Deep and Dilated Peoples), and the pairing manifested itself unsurprisingly a match made in hip-hop heaven. Alchemist’s beats are fantastically diverse, bouncing from straight boom-bap thumpos to airy, psychedelic reverberations and beyond, yet always fitting to Gibb’s powerful lyricism. On Alfredo, Gibbs puts on a master class in rap, spitting fire alongside fellow rappers such as Rick Ross, Benny the Butcher, Tyler, the Creator, and Conway the Machine. Freddie is, simply put, one of those best rappers doing it, and Alfredo is another hard-hitting classic that now resides in Gibb’s phenomenal and stout catalog of terrific albums.
21. Nels Cline — Share The Wealth
Legendary NEw York jazz and rock guitarist Nels Cline, now a full fledged member of Wilco, released his third album with Blue Note Records this year. That album, Share the Wealth, is his edgiest and most adventurous offering on the famed record label yet, one rife with mesmerizing sonic escapades. The dynamic double album features ten vitalizing and unique songs including the impressive single “Beam/Spiral” and a remarkable version of Caetano Veloso’s “Segunda.” Nels Cline is hands down one of the most gifted guitarists we have ever beheld, with an ability to shred with the ferocity not meant for mere mortals. On Share The Wealth, those talents stand front and center and are bolstered by an expanded edition of his long-running project The Nels Cline Singers featuring saxophonist and punk-jazz iconoclast Skerik, keyboard marvel Brian Marsella, bass powerhouse Trevor Dunn, longtime collaborator and drummer Scott Amendola, and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Capturing why Nels Cline is so special is something that isn’t easily done in the studio, yet Share The Wealth flaunts Cline’s genius tremendously.
20 . Mac Miller — Circles
The release of a Mac Miller’s remarkable posthumous album, Circles, was the definition of bittersweet. New music from the gifted emcee was spectacularly welcome, yet once again served as a reminder of the momentous talent and spirit lost by his passing. Produced by legendary super producer and composer Jon Brion, Circles is an album that is both feelgood and hauntingly heartbreaking — but such is Mac Miller, a truly multifaceted and complex human being and artist. “Good News,” the celebrated first single, is a clapback to those who don’t want to hear about the hardships we all face (“No, they don’t like it when I’m down, But when I’m flying, oh, it make ’em so uncomfortable”), and the song persists as the epitome of who Mac was, a forthright human who always wore his heart on hs sleeve. Mac’s mental health struggles are overtly and affectingly peppered throughout the album and while this battle surely contributed to his passing, it is his honesty and profound relatability that made him so very special. Circles is a fitting celebration of Mac’s music in the wake of his passing, and a worthy epilogue to the life of a singular talent that will be perpetually missed.
19. Woods — Strange To Explain
Since the release of 2017’s wonderfully captivating Love is Love, a response to the distressing electoral events of 2016 that led America into its current nightmare, all has been quiet from the Wood’s camp. But the fifteen year old rock outfit helmed by Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere are back at it, releasing an album entitled Strange To Explain. The album is full of light, love, hypnotic melodies, and sonic dreamscapes that delight the senses and are blissful to get lost in. A fine example of the wondrous journeys and evocative imagery found throughout Strange To Explain is “Where Do You Go When You Dream,” an enchanting song that places listeners in gardens simply to watch them grow, and amid a new dawn as birds sing adjacent to an “old friend you left outside” that is “a burn pile you’ll light in spring.”
18. Busta Rhymes — Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God
2020 marked the triumphant return of legendary rapper Busta Rhymes with the album Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, his first studio album since 2012’s Year of the Dragon, a sequel to 1998’s blockbuster E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front. Remarkably, not a hint of rust can be found in the impassioned emcee’s dynamic lyricism. Nor is his always fiery delivery dampened in any way across the album’s hulking twenty-two tracks. The return of Busta was a cause for grand celebration, and this party was jam-packed as Extinction Level Event 2 features guest appearances from Kendrick Lamar, Mariah Carey, Anderson .Paak, Q-Tip, Rick Ross, Mary J. Blige, Rapsody, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Rakim, Pete Rock, Vybz Kartel, Bell Biv DeVoe, M.O.P., Nikki Grier, Chris Rock, and Louis Farrakhan. On top of those features, Extinction showcases production from Swizz Beats, J Dilla, Rockwilder, DJ Scratch, DJ Premiere, Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, and Terrance Martin. Needless to say, Busta aimed to make a splash upon his return. He leaned into Extinction with all he had, and it can surely be argued that the 48 year old rapper has never sounded so impassioned, and his intricate rhyme schemes have never manifested themselves so thrilling.
17. Tame Impala — The Slow Rush
If there’s a prevalent theme in Kevin Parker’s project’s latest album, The Slow Rush, then it’s the passage of time. We might not all be able to relate to what such a short amount of time meant to Parker in terms of his exploding celebrity, but we can no doubt all relate to how our perceptions of the passage of time changes dramatically as we all grow older, reminiscing about the past while wondering about the future, always struggling to stay present in the moment. Whether you were taking in the lyrics and picking them apart for their underlying meaning, or just riding along with melodies from the twelve tracks that climb to upbeat funk, house, and psychedelia, and then dip to more downtempo R&B, folk, and chillwave, if nothing else this album will make you reflect on how even though we don’t quite have the grasp on time that we think we do, the exploration of this motif in The Slow Rush is a journey you will gladly go along on.
16. Rose City Band — Summerlong
Erik “Ripley” Johnson of the experimental psychedelic rock band Wooden Shjips, as well as one half of the tremendous act Moon Duo, has once again stunned us with his latest project, Rose City Band. Their latest album, Summerlong, an ode to the sun-soaked season, is more sparse and encompassing of euphoric soundscapes than Johnson’s previous output, and this welcome departure manifests itself as a soothing reprieve in these tumultuous times. “Only Lonely,” the first single off the album is brimming with soothing, frolocking (Grateful Dead-ish!) rhythmic vibes that evoke pleasant feelings of sunshine, daydreams, walking in the tall grass, and going where the wind goes. The remainder of the album, too, drifts and dances like a leaf on a breeze. To us, what was the soundtrack to the summer now pacifies us as winter descends, a reminder that the warmth and carefree feelings of summer await us once again on the other side.
15. Phish — Sigma Oasis
Extraordinarily, thirty seven years into their career, the Vermont-based psych-rock jam heroes that are Phish aren’t simply still putting on extraordinary live performances (pandemic excluded of course), but are steadily writing inspired works and cranking out new songs continuously. This year, as the pandemic swelled in scope and impact, Phish gifted their fanbase with a surprise album which they announced on March 31st prior to one of their “Dinner and A Movie” webstreams. Less than twenty four later they shared the album via a virtual “listening party” in which fans were able to get lost in their latest album, Sigma Oasis, simultaneously. What they beheld was an album that was recorded via a series of jam sessions at the “Barn” — the band’s recording studio outside of Burlington, VT — and one rife with tour-tested songs that had been awaiting their turn to receive the studio treatment. Eliciting aid from six time Grammy winning recording/mixing engineer and record producer Vance Powell, Sigma Oasis feels lovingly crafted, full of strings and graceful backup vocals throughout. Encompassing all that makes Phish so special and then some, the band’s fifteenth studio album brandishes alluring ballads (“Shade,” “A Life Beyond The Dream”), long form jamming, (“Everything’s Right,” “Thread“), and some of the most innovative songwriting to come out of Phish’s camp in years.
14. Taylor Swift — folklore
Taylor Swift’s 2020 indie-folk album folklore was a surprise release for the talented and successful pop artist. Delivered without any fanfare, the album features deft production by The National’s Aaron Dessner and singer-songwriter-producer phenom Jack Antonoff. This latest album marks a grand departure for the artist in terms of her sound and songwriting approach compared her her previous releases. folklore swaps out Swift’s well-crafted pop sound for comforting and mellow ballads which lean heavily on piano and guitar to craft an alluring and inviting work of art. An album that is rife with storytelling, folklore presents vivid, third-person vignettes centering around themes of escapism, looking inward, and a nostalgia for the past. On folklore’s magnetic first track, “the 1,” Swift kicks off the album by singing “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit,” as if declaring from the very onset that what’s to be found within is not what has come before, and that’s something she is proud of. The album has a cottage-core aesthetic to it, both in its associated imagery, promotion, album design, poetic lyrics, and songs, all hinting at an idealized version of a rural life much popularized by countless Gen Z Instagram accounts. Written during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the world found itself shutting down, and with the global nature to modern society regressing to smaller and smaller forms, folklore’s nods to a romanticized simpler life with its its relaxed atmosphere, and warm and inviting rhythms all hint to themes of escapism, something a lot of the world continues to take comfort in. Swift stepping out of her comfort zone to embrace genres unfamiliar to her in order to craft folklore speaks to her continuing maturation as an artist, and her shift from autobiographical songwriting to fictional storytelling further exemplify’s her creativity and passion for bold experimentation. Folklore became the top selling album of 2020 and has been nominated for multiple Grammys including Album of the Year and Song of the Year. The poetic wisdom in each and every song, where whiskey bottles, disco balls and cardigans orbit in perfect unison with lofi sounds and sugar sweet sung lyrics, is powerful and moving to behold. We may be on the verge of a cure for Covid-19, but folklore’s been the daily medicine we’ve been taking to get us through these chaotic and uncertain times.
13. Matt Berninger — Serpentine Prison
This year, The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger released his debut solo album, Serpentine Prison. Produced by legendary multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, record producer, and arranger Booker T. Jones, the album was released on Book Records, a new imprint of Concord Records formed by Berninger and Jones. Prior to listening to Berninger’s album, we felt we might miss the rich tapestry of The National’s sonic swells that would normally provide the backdrop to his profound barotonic introspections. Yet, the sparse, stripped down soundscapes that often define Serpentine Prison’s aesthetic are enchanting and engaging in a more intimate way. “If the National is like an ocean and El Vey is like a raging river, Serpentine Prison is like a summer pond,” Berninger described in an interview, explaining the vibe of this solo effort. Serpentine Prison is a deeply personal album, one where Berninger welcomes you into his heart, his hurt, and his sensibilities. “Haven’t talked to no one / I don’t know in how long / Don’t get near me / Paralysis has me,” Berninger sings on “Oh Dearie,” a taste of the vulnerability from easily the most honest and candid songwriting we’ve seen from him yet. What was originally slated to be an album of all covers, but was eventually accompanied by a slew of musicians such as David Bowie bassist and collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey (most notably featured on “Silver Spring”), turned out to be some of the most compelling work from one of rock’s most gifted poets.
12. Benny The Butcher — Burden of Proof
Buffalo, New York rapper Benny Butcher (Jeremie Damon Pennick), part of the jaw-droppingly prolific hip-hop group Griselda, with frequent collaborators and first-cousins Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine, released a stunning album this year. That release, Burden of Proof, features a stellar cast of featured artist, including Freddie Gibbs, Lil’ Wayne, Big Sean, Black Thought, and Rick Ross, but even considering those gifted emcees it is Benny’s talent and dynamic lyricism that shines throughout his second studio release. Produced by Chauncey “Hit-Boy” Hollis, who this year also worked on Nas’s album King’s Disease, Burden of Proof is a soulful album and while surely gritty and packed with hard-hitting bars upon bars, it’s an emotional album, one where Benny takes a step back and paints a vivid picture of who he is and where he is from. Buffalo emcees are making waves in the hip-hop game, and none have our attention the way Benny The Butcher does. To us, Burden of Proof is a masterpiece, an album with certain nods to the golden age of hip-hop yet burning with the intensity of a hungry modern emcee, and holds within it some of the best rapping we have heard in all of 2020.
11. Kevin Morby — Sundowner
Sundowner is the sixth studio album from indie rock musician Kevin Morby. His albums often speak to his love affair with locations, places he has lived and the inspiration he has found in the rhythms to the people, places, and souls which inhabit those locales. On his phenomenal 2016 album Singing Saw, Morby sang about the state of California, and crafted songs which spoke to the more elemental nature to its lands. On both 2013’s Harlem River, his first solo album, and 2017’s City Music, Morby wrote songs about New York City, singing about his love affair with the teeming metropolis and an optimism of his wandering heart. Now, on 2020’s Sundowner, Morby is once again singing the praises of the places he has lived. This time it’s his hometown of Kansas City, a city where he grew up and to which he recently returned after a long stint living on the West Coast. Sundowner finds Morby returning to his literal roots to craft an album that functions as an ode to an imagined Midwest, one where small-town sheriffs, campfires in the valley, infinite starry nights, and fictional characters with names like Jamie (who died at 25) and Desi (who became a mermaid) and Jessie (who has a beautiful voice) and Ray Ray (who’s out in the canyon up late again) exist within this dreamy retro-western wonderland. Morby’s songs are shadowy and sweet, and soothing yet expansive, with his creativity often revealing entire worlds existing in the unnoticed minutiae. His songs draw you in with poetic imagery, a sentimental nostalgia for imagined pasts and lush, tranquil notes. Sundowner is a wonderous offering from an artist who’s wise-beyond-his-years voice effortlessly channels 60’s legends Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, while his sparse yet precise guitar playing and ability to stitch together charming narratives draws you deeper into his vivid imagination and romantic wanderer of a soul.
10. Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Kamasi Washington — Dinner Party
On paper, the teaming of musician, rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer Terrace Martin with pianist, producer, composer Robert Glasper, famed producer 9th Wonder, and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, had our attention immediately. This quartet, each in their own way, has been responsible for progressing the genres of jazz, hip-houl, and soul forward in astonishing directions. This alliance, it must be noted, is not from out of nowhere, as Martin and Washington were high school classmates, Terrance, Washington, and Glasper all lended a hand in the birthing of the monumental Kendrick Lamar album To Pimp a Butterfly, and Martin and Glasper were both in the music collective R+R Now. This supergroup convened this year with the release of Dinner Party, a tight, seven song album which exhibits the quartet’s extreme talents and a fascinating intersection of genres. Chicago vocalist Phoelix joins the party for four tracks, including the weighty single “Freeze Tag,” which might just be the cream of the outstanding crop (The remix with Cordae and Snoop Dog is a must hear, found on the companion album Dinner Party: Dessert). Beyond the tracks with Phoelix, Dinner Party boasts a set of instrumentals that exhibit what is possible when four brilliant minds coalesce to passionately craft an affecting and entrancing work of art.
9. Sault — Untitled (Black Is), Untitled (Rise)
Over the course of four albums in just two short years, Sault has managed to keep a very low profile, existing mostly behind the scenes of their artistic output. This is an admirable feat in our age of hyperconnectivity. In fact, the individuals behind this British musical project, which has been referred to as a “mystery collective,” have managed to fade so far into the background that the anonymity they strive for actually emphasizes the poignancy and heavy emotion of their musical acumen. Sault, helmed by vocalist Laurette Josiah, producer Inflo, and singer Michael Kiwanuka, prefer to let their artform do the talking just as these days it seems as if so many musicians are fostering strong social media presences at the expense of honing and further-developing their craft.
This year Sault put out two albums in quick succession, Untitled (Black Is), released on Juneteenth, and Untitled (Rise), released on September 18th. Following last year’s release of a duo of cryptically-titled debut albums 5 and 7, Sault’s new albums come at a time of great civil unrest, when Black people are being repeatedly killed by police and the Black Lives Matter Movement is standing firmly to face down oppression and racial injustice. Although listeners will hear songs that will at times seem whimsical and dream-like, these two albums are charged with a sense of urgency and ardor, often characterized by intense feelings of grief, outrage, righteous indignation, and hopelessness. But on the other side of that is perseverance, healing, affirmation, pride, self-love, and black empowerment. Sault’s cries for justice are prevalent and consistent throughout both albums, spanning thirty-five songs total. Listeners may be taking in Sault for the versatile blending of disco, house, R&B, soul, jazz, string orchestra, gospel, reggae, trip-hop, and spoken word, but they aren’t going to get through Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) without truly hearing the ensemble’s message to the world. And this message is — when collective strength and determination aren’t at the forefront of the lyrics — a grim one in these racially charged times, perhaps best represented as a vignette in Untitled (Rise)’s track “Uncomfortable”: Maybe you’re uncomfortable / with the fact we’re waking up / How do you turn hate to love? / How do you turn hate to love? / Maybe you’re uncomfortable / with the fact we’re waking up / Why do you keep shooting us? / Why do you keep shooting us?”
8. Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman
Supergroups come in all shapes and sizes (as exhibited by the aforementioned Dinner Party). One, a fascinating trio composed of three indie rock folk phenoms who call themselves Bonnie Light Horseman, has our full attention. They have released one of the best albums we have heard all year, the self-titled Bonny Light Horseman. Composed of Anais Mitchell (the mastermind behind the album Hadestown, which blossomed into the tremendous Broadway play), Josh Kaufman (multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, composer, arranger, engineer, you name it) and Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson, they are a rare group of musicians that combined feel as if they were destined to play together. “Deep in Love” is a perfect example of the affectivity of their combined talents, invoking traditional American folk and a haunting beauty that is both bewitching and invigorating. The deeply alluring song “The Roving,” which prominently features Mitchell’s stunning yet captivating vocal talents, is too indicative of the brilliance of the album. We are eagerly anticipating what’s next from this enchanting trio, and in the meantime are relishing in their periodic releases, such as their recent cover of Elliot Smith’s “Clementine,” or this little gorgeous ditty entitled “Green Rocky Road.” It really does feel like just the beginning for this recently Grammy nominated trio of extraordinary talents.
7. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit — Reunions
It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite song off of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s recent album Reunions, because the entire album is a masterpiece front to back. With that said, our go-to off the Alabama native and former Drive By Truckers guitarist latest is “Only Children,” a song steeped in adolescent nostalgia and evoking memories of those youthful days, roaming the streets at night in cutoff jeans “doing what broken people do.” Or maybe, our favorite is “What’ve I Done To Help,” where Isbell scoffs at the ridiculous idea of sending “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of real life horrors and earnestly contemplates what we are all really giving back to the greater good. Maybe, just maybe, it’s “Dreamsicle,” a song overflowing with nostalgia for cherished days past and hurt from love lost. We can go on and on, as each song throughout Reunions is a journey, where vivid stories are brought to potent life by one of today’s greatest singer-songwriters. Before delving into Reunions in aggregate though, a word of advice: have some tissues at hand. Isbell’s brand of storytelling aims for the heart, and he never misses its mark.
6. Run The Jewels — RTJ4
We are still attempting to get our head fully around the splendor of Run The Jewels. How is it that the bombastic hip-hop duo, composed of Brooklyn rapper / producer El-P and Atlanta rapper / activist Killer Mike, can flawlessly combine pointed and profound political and social commentary with whimsical, braggadocio shit talking? How can two emcees with such unique and varying styles exchange verses and bars so seamlessly and in a manner that compliments one another so effortlessly? How is every song, and each ensuing album, an impressive progression from what came before? We remain in awe. For Jewel Runners, the legions of ardent RTJ fans, excitement was building to a fever pitch the first half of 2020. The reason, RTJ’s fourth album, RTJ 4, was on the cusp of being released, a fact confirmed once El-P announced a summer drop. On June 5th, in a build up to RTJ4’s release that eventually sent shock waves through the hip-hop world, the duo released two stunners: “The Yankee and The Brave,” and “ooh la la.” “Ooh la la” features Nice & Smooth’s Greg Nice (whose verse on the 1992 Gang Starr classic “DWYCK” provides the core sample of “ooh la la”) and renowned producer DJ Premier, who cuts on the track. The song is a brazen “Fuck You” to the American systems built on greed and inequality, thus highlighting the rap duo’s unfathomable lyrical prowess and fuck-the-man ethos. In time, the entirety of the album was before us, with a stunner featuring Zach de la Rocha and Pharrell Williams (“JU$T”), another with 2 Chains (“out of sight”), and even a song with Josh Homme (from Queens of the Stone Age) and Mavis Staples (“pulling the pin”). RTJ 4 is another confirmation of the inexplicable brilliance of El and Mike, and now the wait begins for installment five, which we have no doubt will leave us dumbfounded once again.
5. Laura Marling — Song for Our Daughter
It’s hard not to fall in love with the warm and inviting music Laura Marling crafts. Her voice is so alluring, so seemingly effortless in its beauty and infinite in its grandeur that one can’t help but tumble deeply into it. There’s never a wrong time to put on one of her albums or fire up a few of her songs. Across Song For Our Daughter, the seventh studio album from the British singer-songwriter, Marling speaks to a fictional daughter, in a stripped down and intimate way, backed by lush harmonies and exquisite guitar playing. According to Marling, the album was in part inspired by Maya Angelou’s book Letter To My Daughter, which the artist read a few years before the album was released. By writing an album that acts as a message to an imaginary child, Marling states that it allowed her to communicate to this person “all the confidences and affirmations I found so difficult to provide myself.” This is a beautiful concept for an album, and it becomes immediately apparent while experiencing Song For Our Daughter’s ten’s fragile-sounding yet magnificent tracks that her growing maturity, emotional insight, and pure like water voice have come together in a way that few artists ever attain. For a great specimen of what Marling has crafted on this album, dive into “Held Down,” a song that delights the senses, flirts with echoes of Joni Mitchell, and draws you in like a moth to flame with its delicate harmonies, swirling guitar and sensuous vocals. The album has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album of 2020 and we’d be surprised if she didn’t pull off the win.
4. Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers (notably a member of two incredible supergroups, boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center) released her highly anticipated album, Punisher, earlier than scheduled this year. Announcing the news on Twitter, Bridgers respectfully and impressively stated “I’m not pushing the record until things go back to “normal” because I don’t think they should. Here it is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you like it.” We do like it, profoundly. Haunting melodies and gorgeous soundscapes are scattered throughout Punisher, sonic moments that draw you into flashes of Bridgers’ life and her reflections. “I See You,” a heartfelt number about a breakup that, in true Bridgers’ fashion, seems to also nod to hurt beyond the personal, the collective discomfort abounding in these uncertain times. “Garden Song,” walks listeners into a recurring nightmare Bridgers repeatedly had while on tour, and paints a portrait of an idealistic homestead from her childhood that succumbs to flames. “Graceland Too” tells the story of a soul searcher who hits the road to wherever it may take her, a girl who “Doesn’t know what she wants / Or what she’s gonna do / A rebel without a clue.” Journey where you may with Bridgers on Punisher, yet along that journey be prepared to be all-consumed by sensation, as her imagery is so stark, and the narratives so specific, that they become entirely moving. While the devil is in the details when it comes to Bridger’s lyrical prowess, where little moments in life and feelings are examined with delicacy, Punisher is abounding with feeling. It hits most spiritually in the charging energy of “Kyoto,” or the pulsating swells of “ICU” and the album’s potent culmination found on the closing track “I Know The End.” These are songs whose mood and energy help define a creamy ebb and flow to the album, embraced on either sides by more gentler, soothing melodies. Bridgers is a star on the rise who recently launched her own label imprint called Saddest Factory. According to a press release, it will “provide a home to Bridgers’ own signings. The vision of the label is simple: good songs, regardless of genre.” Good songs are something Bridgers is well in tune with as displayed throughout the exquisite Punisher, an album that has lingered with us since our first encounter, like a tranquil dream we awoke from too soon, and we just want to return and live in that to that mesmerizing utopia forever.
3. Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple returned to releasing music this year, after an almost eight year hiatus, with an album entitled Fetch The Bolt Cutters that has been described as perfect (exemplified by a Pitchfork rating of a perfect 10!). Fetch The Bolt Cutters features novel soundscapes like nothing we have ever encountered and is an album that decidedly speaks to the times. The song “Heavy Balloon,” driven by a heavy percussion-based relentless groove, is robust, invigorating, and demanding of respect. In it, an always poetic Apple growls with might “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m bursting at the seams” which manifests itself as a lyrical call to action. In “Under The Table,” she proclaims with inspiring confidence, “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up / I won’t shut up.” Fetch The Bolt Cutters is so brimming with unbridled passion that it feels like the themes present throughout the album, including sexual assault, bullies, insecurities and self doubt, finding your voice and standing up for oneself and what you believe in, have been rising to a boil within Apple for years, finally unleashed across one of the most inspired works of art she has ever created. It’s a daring album, bold and experimental in a myriad of ways, and absolutely arresting, invigorating, and entirely liberating because of it. Fiona Apple’s latest masterpiece has been showered with multitudes of praise since its release, and we are thrilled to throw our hat in that appreciation ring, as Fetch The Bolt Cutters is one of the best, most wildly unique and satisfying albums we’ve heard this or any other year.
2. Sa-Roc — The Sharecropper’s Daughter
Atlanta via DC rapper Sa-Roc released her debut album this year which was a welcome sigh of relief for those who have been waiting for the tremendously gifted emcee to flaunt her astounding skillset in album form after signing with Rhymesayers in 2015. That album, The Sharecropper’s Daughter, was produced by veteran Atlanta producer Sol Messiah, with the exception of “Deliverance” produced by Evidence and co-produced by Al B Smoov. When explaining the meaning of the album’s title Sa-Roc states, “The Sharecropper’s Daughter speaks to my father’s actual beginnings on a Virginia tobacco farm where his family sharecropped. The title is meant to signify that both my father’s and my upbringing, though so different, are linked by a shared history that informs the way I move through the world. Although his formative years were spent in the Jim Crow era of the south, where he suffered through poverty and racial oppression, and mine were shaped in the heart of DC, amidst the war on drugs and the effects of its fallout, the album finds points of connection in two very different yet tragically familiar stories of Blackness in America.” There is a bite in Sa-Roc’s rhymes, and appropriately so, as explained in the track “r(E)volution,” “Look, ‘scuse the venom in my rap tone / ‘Cause more often than sweet, life served vinegar in Black homes / More specifically where fire lit them crack stones / War on drugs turned a fiend to felon in a snap, gone.” Sa-Roc holds America to task throughout The Sharecropper’s Daughter, for crimes past and present. Sa-Roc also makes it known across the album that she is not one to be trifled with, spitting on “Hand of God, ”My dude, I’m magic, my gang is goddess, my mood is savage / that’s Genghis Khan, these bars moving mountains, my range astonishing.” We are in awe of Sa-Roc’s talents, those mountain moving bars, and of The Sharecropper’s Daughter front to back flow. It’s an album that features a meditative introduction from legendary slam poet Saul Williams, is encompassing of a selection of choice guests artists (Styles P, Black Thought, Ledisi, and Chronixx), and flaunting of the most passionate and dexterous rhyming we’ve heard all year, on what is our favorite hip-hop album of 2020.
1. Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud
Waxahatchee, a marvelous indie music project begun in 2010 by singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, has released her most accomplished album yet with Saint Cloud. It should come as no surprise to those who are familiar with her warm and inviting music that she is positioned atop our Top 50 Albums of 2020 list. For those unfamiliar with Crutchfield’s work as Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud is an excellent place to gain familiarity, as she has crafted the most captivating and enchanting album we encountered all year, filled with softness, confidence, and a delightful assortment of unrestrained indie folk. It also helps that Saint Cloud was released at a key juncture in 2020. On March 27th, when the scope of Covid-19’s hold in the U.S. was fully becoming realized, and the nerves of the country’s collective emotional capacity were on edge, Saint Cloud’s cathartic embrace was there. When huge pop stars and musical acts were pushing their album releases to maximize profit down the road, Crutchfield gifted music lovers worldwide a warm musical embrace and the most needed of lyrical affection in the form of Saint Cloud. It’s a Waxahatchee album that will forever be looked upon as the one where Crutchfield’s potential as a singer-songwriter was emphatically realised and her take on modern Americana distilled to a bewitching elixir that we will drink from repeatedly for years to come. For a sense of the impregnable beauty found within Saint Cloud, look no further than the short yet quintessential track “Fire.” It’s a lush and exquisite song that shows the full grandeur of an artist approaching perfection. Every note hits perfectly as Crutchfield’s command of the song’s lyrics soar and fall around the listener, beaconing them into a world where she is wide-eyed, confidently singing that she’s now “wiser, slow, and attuned.”