The Top Albums of 2020, Albums 20 — 11

Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2020 with albums 20 — 11…

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

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.

Essential Tracks: “Circles,” “Good News,” “Everybody,” “Blue World,” “Woods.”

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.”

Essential Tracks: “Where Do You Go When You Dream,” “Be There Still,” “Can’t Get Out.”

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.

Essential tracks: “Look Over Your Shoulders (feat Kendrick Lamar),” “The Don and The Boss (feat Vybz Kartel),” “Best I Can (feat Rapsody).”

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.

Essential Tracks: “Instant Destiny,” “Breathe Deeper,” “Tomorrow’s Dust.”

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.

Essential Tracks: Only Lonely,” “Floating Out,” “Wildflowers.”

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.

Essential Tracks: “Leaves,” “Shade,” “Thread.”

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 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.

Essential Tracks: “invisible string,” “the last great american dynasty,” “cardigan,” “exile (feat Bon Iver).”

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.

Essential tracks: “One More Second,” “Distant Axis”, “My Eyes Are T-Shirts,” “Serpentine Prison.”

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.

Essential Tracks: “One Way Flight (feat Freddie Gibbs),” “New Streets,” “Timeless (feat Lil Wayne and Big Sean).”

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. 

Essential Tracks: “Valley,” “Campfire,” “Sundowner,” “A Night At The Little Los Angeles.”

TO BE CONCLUDED…

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