Across the Margin concludes its rollout of the Best Albums of 2020 with the Top 10 Albums of 2020…
The Top 50 Albums of 2020, Albums 50 — 41
The Top 50 Albums of 2020, Albums 40 — 31
The Top 50 Albums of 2020, Albums 30 — 21
The Top 50 Albums of 2020, Albums 20 — 11
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.
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.
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.”