Top 20 Albums of 2020
2020 brought a lot of bad things, but one of the highlights, not just of this year, but of any year, was the amount of new recorded music released. Out of the thousands of albums released this crazy year, I've narrowed it down to 20 in the vein of rock, pop, underground, and mainstream, counting down to what I think was the best album released this year.
20: Tame Impala - The Slow Rush
After a 5 year break following the mass commercial success of Currents, Kevin Parker AKA Tame Impala is back with his 4th major effort The Slow Rush, falling no where near short but a worthy follow up to Currents. Lush keys once again rule this release, but in a more soothing manor. The DJ sets Parker had been performing live the last few years are a obvious influence with fun loops, dance beats, and intense vocal and instrumental effects. Pop, in one word, is vague enough and descriptive enough to sum up the albums sound. The album starts and ends in a swirl, leaving the listener nothing but curious to start the album over and pick up on more.
19: Andy Shauf - The Neon Skyline
Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf picks up right where he left off with his fourth studio album, The Neon Skyline: a possible play on Dylan's Nashville Skyline in sound and style. Shauf is fairly active as a musician, putting out a record every two years or less under his name or the super group band, Foxwarren. Sound wise, Neon Skyline matches up perfectly with 2016's The Party with layered mid-tempo story songs with Shauf's main instrument, the clarinet, making an appearance on almost every track. Shauf evermore grooves in his own style and only seems to add to his world of songs with his unique and distinctive vocals.
18: The Garden - Kiss My Super Bowl Ring
A new band for me this year is the Garden, but hardly a band to be forgotten with a very loud and energetic sound. While I'm fairly unfamiliar with their whole discography, I do believe that this record stands alone. The powerful lyrics and odd hard-core breakdowns lead the record with each track keeping the energy. Wyatt and Fletcher Shears are identical twins and the groups only two members, leaving them to get creative in the studio, and especially creative at the live shows. The punk and emo roots shine through in all the right places, along with some dark humor. Surely a upcoming band waiting to explode with a fresh start with Epitaph records.
17: Gorillaz - Song Machine
Being a long time fan of 90's Brit-Pop band Blur, I was bound to eventually find myself listening to front man Damon Albarn's American collaboration/animation project, Gorillaz. This album especially spoke to me with features from Robert Smith, Beck, Elton John, and a plethora or rappers. The sound is hip and can combat, if not beat out, modern pop music. Another interesting part of this album is the eight part video series of trippy and surreal music videos that paired with a few singles to make the track listing of this album. It seems as though this series is but half over with Song Machine, Season Two slated for 2021. Albarn channels his inner David Bowie in sound and style for many of this albums tracks. Albarn further proves that he can succeed at almost any genre, making the sound of many sound like one tight unit.
16: Tim Heidecker - Fear of Death
A triumph for actor, comedian, and musician Tim Heidecker that will go down as one of his biggest achievements is his new album Fear of Death. The album is surprising dark and ponderous in lyric form with Heidecker turning 40 recently and going through some what of a mid-life crisis. The album's sound is light and bubbly with a country rock presence ruling as a back drop for all the songs. Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood, Jonathan Rado of Foxygen, and the Lemon Twigs are among some of the notable collaborators that make this album's sound.
15: Old 97's - Twelfth
A twelfth studio album for a band that's been ruling as the distinctive sound of country rock from Texas for over 25 years. What may be more incredible than the longevity of the Old 97's is that the line up has yet to change and that each album fits so well with each other that it's hard to pick out exactly when they recorded it. With Twelfth, front man Rhett Miller touches on the topic of sobriety, a new found triumph for the prolific Miller, who broke out of his addiction chains after 2014's Most Messed Up. Sound wise, this album carries what the fans want while still delivering awesome production. Shiny guitars, strong songwriting, and a bit of humor encases this release. A strong theme here is reflection on when the band first started: eating noodles every night and sleeping on a hard wood floor from gig to gig. Perhaps the most haunting part of the album and band's discography is the final track "Why Don't We Ever Say Were Sorry", a song by bassist Murry Hammond. This track has vocals and guitar from Hammond, and accordion from lead guitarist Ken Bertha.
14: Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders
Another new artist and album for me this year is Mary Lattimore's Silver Ladders, a sonic landscape of tremendous harp, guitars, and loops. This all instrumental album speaks so much emotion through it's musical terrain that, in a odd way, gives comfort to the listener. I first checked out this album based on the avant-garde cover, only to find the cover perfectly matches the music. With so much popular music and mainstream rock taking peoples ears, music like Lattimore's falls under the radar in a very unfortunate way. Real musicianship of a nine day recording process leading to such open but planned pieces is rare by 2020 standards.
13: Thee Oh Sees - Protean Threat
Guitarist John Dwyer strikes again with his 23rd studio album Protean Threat by Thee Oh Sees, OCS, OSees, or Oh Sees. Whatever you call them, You should know the name John Dwyer, a hard working musician who runs California record label Castle Face Records, and started this project almost 20 years ago as a outlet to put out his demos: this later morphed into a full on band with a revolving line up. When he's not wearing his signature clear Gibson SG up to his neck, drenched in sweat, running back between notes to play keyboard, or doing a quick vomit, Dwyer releases one to three albums every year and seems to have no interest in stopping. While this new album doesn't quiet match the sounds of the cult classic albums Drop, Floating Coffin, or Mutilator Defeated at Last, it goes into a a heavy sound, a sound that works great with the new line up of two drummers. The signature sounds of fuzz guitars and reverbed yelps are still present. Dwyer has done so much now that he makes albums at a whim and his loyal fan base usually has nothing but praise for the garage punk rocker. I have yet to hear a bad thing from Thee Oh Sees and look forward to their next two albums they put out this year.
12: Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM
After playing in punk-ska bands for almost 20 years, DIY spokesman Jeff Rosenstock officially broke solo with 2015's We Cool? after fronting the band Bomb the Music Industry for six years. This was huge step in further making a name for himself, a step that proved to be extremely helpful with Rosenstock breaking more into the mainstream with late night TV appearances. Each solo record has progressively done better than the last with 2016's Worry fully solidifying Rosenstock's signature sound with screamy vocals, floating synths, driving guitars, and anti-establishment lyrics. With 2020's No Dream we see more the heavy side of Rosenstock with his hardcore breakdowns and punk drums. Songs like "Nikes" and "Leave It To The Sun" are instant classics that stay in the head with other Rosenstock "hits". While some of the songs topics are very dark, the records high energy prevails with little to no low point to cause the listener to lose interest.
11: Idles - Ultra Mono
Yet again another new band for me this year is Idles. A heavy, loud rock band from Britain that is at number one right now with their new and third album Ultra Mono. Idles sound reminds me of the Minutemen but on steroids in sound and lyrical content. This is a band that's in your face enough that I believe they will continue to be spokesmen for their own country and others as the new decade unfolds. The 90's had Rage Against the Machine, we now have Idles, and at their third record, have yet to do anything wrong.
10: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways
The prolific American folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, now 79 years old, releases his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways. It appears this may be the last with a recent sale of his entire discography to Universal Music for what some think was a few hundred million dollar sale. This would be a fitting ending if it is to be one with the new album as a double album with all the Dylan staples. The music is soothing and light with what years of smoking has left Dylan's voice, like Kermit the Frog. Now if you can get past this, this really is a good album. Beautiful ballads, blues standards, clever lyrics, and as many pop culture references as you can think of. And if that's not enough, Fiona Apple plays piano on the JFK inspired single "Murder most Foul". I think it would be impossible for Dylan to ever triumph his 1960's run of albums that made his sound, but Rough and Rowdy Ways is somewhat of a come back album in style, and would make a fine farewell if this is the last we see of the folk legend, who has a top 40 album in every decade since the 1960's.
9: The Strokes - The New Abnormal
Indie rock kings that ruled the early 2000's are back with a fitting album title for their 2020 release The New Abnormal, for surely that's what this year has brought. A seven year gap between albums was highly worth it for an album that sounds as crisp as their 2001 debut Is This It? Rock producer Rick Rubin helped make the album's sound, as it was put together over four years, and the cover, which I saw as a classic Strokes creation, is actually a 1981 painting from Jean-Michel Basquiat. The album's sound is somewhat atypical of the band and speaks for it's self, but If you've liked any other Strokes album, this is sure to be a gem in their short but strong discography.
8: Stephen Malkmus - Traditional Techniques
Underground 90's band Pavement made waves in what was socially acceptable in songs with the band not giving a care, yet still selling thousands of albums. It was this high energy and unique vocals that lead many to the band, singing songs about whatever they want. After the band dissolved at the beginning of the 2000's, front man and primary songwriter Stephen Malkmus broke solo in a very Pavement fashion to start, but as time went on, he slowly went more to his own sound and experimentations. This is evident on last years electronic album Malkmus released: Groove Denied. With 2020's Traditional Techniques, Malkmus finds a softer acoustic sound to air out what I think are strong songs. Songs that stand alone and perhaps have a close touch to Malkmus' personal life. If Pavement didn't make enough of his own sound for himself, Malkmus has surely done it with his nine solo/Jicks records.
7: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard - Self Titled
Australian prog/psych/kraut rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard celebrated 10 years as a band in 2020. This year marked the release of their first self-titled album (KG) as their 16th full length studio effort, a huge milestone for a band that's hardly had time to catch their breath between albums and tours. As if they needed a reason to prove themselves as a band, they surely did in 2017 with a monster year of five studio album releases, each with a different sound. That being said, it is a bit odd we didn't see more than one album by the prolific band this year, but KG surely is enough to tide us over for 2021. KG finds a very weird center point between the varying sounds of the Gizzverse, some songs sound microtonal and light, others heavier and synth driven, yet somehow the record flows and fits perfectly. Maybe it's the clavinet that ties it all together. Regardless, this album marks another strong chapter in the band's timeline, fully embracing everything that is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.
6: The Lemon Twigs-Songs for the General Public
Third official album by the up and coming pop rock kings of the new era, The Lemon Twigs' Songs for the General Public. That's surely what this record brings with so much classic rock influence evident in songs of the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Every record the Twigs make gets better and better, especially after the help of big brother band Foxygen helping them find more of their own sound with 2016's debut Do Hollywood. Most of the record, like the others, are done by the bands two brothers Michael and Brian D'Addario. Both brothers are younger than 24 and seem to have only begun their fame gilded career. On top of their new record this year, the Twigs routinely play live and on the record with Weyes Blood, and helped comedian Tim Heidecker with his most recent album Fear of Death this year. As clear on the cover, glam rock seems to be a big influence with most of their albums, something that is due to make a comeback 50 years after it's first wave in the 70s. I will give a tops off to the Lemon Twigs for making what I think is the anthem of the year "Hell On Wheels", a song that kicks off this honest and strong third album.
5: Jeff Tweedy - Love is the King
As if he hasn't done enough with his 30 plus years in the music business, singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) continues to add to the list of really strong albums with 2020's Love is the King. A small hiatus from Wilco in 2018 made Tweedy make his set of two solo albums Warm and Warmer, then a reforming of Wilco in 2019 for their 11th studio album Ode to Joy, followed by a world tour that got canceled quickly by Covid-19. This lead Tweedy to get back in the studio with not only his son Spencer, who usually plays drums with his dad at live shows and on the record, but Tweedy's son Sammy, to help as well in the vocal department. The title says it all with a album made by family, at the end of day Love is the King. Tweedy's signature folk sound is amplified even more with this record with songs like "Opaline" and a "A Robin of a Wren" leaning on a country sound. Tweedy seems to not hide behind his subject matter of the songs with his solo work, making some of the song's meanings transparent upon first listen. If you like anything Wilco or Tweedy, this is certainly no low point in the 53 year old's enduring career.
4: Thundercat - It Is What It Is
Hip-hop soul hit maker Thundercat does it again with It Is What It Is, his fourth studio album and not only compliments but expands on the 2017 masterpiece Drunk. The album features drummer Louis Cole, Childish Gambino, Kamasi Washington, BADBADNOTGOOD and so many great rappers. Songs like "Black Qualls" and "Dragonball Durag" are instant classic with Thundercats unique bass playing and high falsetto vocals. I see no stop in Thundercats legacy with the countless tracks he gets involved outside of his own and surplus of public appearances. Surely this record will go down as one of his best.
3: Paul McCartney - McCartney III
Fittingly at number three is McCartney III, the newest studio album by Beatle Paul McCartney and third of his self-titled series. The first was released in 1970, the second in 1980, and now 40 years after, number three. The idea behind these albums was that McCartney would write and play everything himself, a big feat for someone who's almost 80 years old. Sound wise, III surpasses the last two McCartney albums Egypt Station and NEW. With III, modern day sounds and effects are used where needed with music taking the real helm of this release, the most rock and original thing McCartney has done this era.
2: The Flaming Lips - American Head
Back from space to sing you songs of their homeland, The Flaming Lips deliver American Head. Leave it to a pandemic for us to get a rival of the classic Flaming Lips sound like on the records The Soft Bulletin and Yoshmi Battles the Pink Robots. Unlike these records, which maybe had some insight of hope and happiness, American Head leaves the listener a bit sad and confused. Heavy topics rule the lyrics through singer Wayne Coyne's childhood he spent in rural Oklahoma. The music it's self is very masterful and flows non-stop, leaving little to no break in between the songs. Every dawn of a decade the lips seem to set a bar of what their new sound will be for the time, this is the just the start.
1: Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Another new artist for me this year is Fiona Apple, the name I heard many times but never bothered to check her out, until now. There hasn't been many instances where I check out a brand new album by an artist I'm unfamiliar with and it is this good. Nothing rings so well in unison with 2020 like Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Apple stays prolific by only releasing an album every blue moon, making her whole career a treat. It may have taken 25 years of making music and playing shows, but at 43 years old, Fiona Apple has made a masterpiece with her 5th album that will surpass not only this year, but the decade. The lyrics grab your ears on each track and the music is so thoughtfully put together that it's hard not to appreciate the instruments and compositions of each song. Perhaps the most amazing part of this record is that Apple tried to record in a studio but found it unproductive as she moved to her home to record the record with a free music software, leaving many of the vocals unedited in raw form. The vocals themselves lead much of this record. With Apple up for a Grammy in multiple categories, I see nothing but success in her future.