Published on January 7th, 2021 | by Dave Scaddan0
The Top 20 Albums of 2020
This year’s Top 20 albums has many names you’ve seen here, but it also speaks of the changes and weird lives we lived in 2020.
Even though I spent a lot of my available listening hours in 2020 going back to old faves, battling the psychic miasma that was our collective reality, there was still a lot of good new music to listen to. I used music differently this year, watching lots of old concert footage to stave off the disconnects of isolated living, avoiding anything that sounded downcast or introspective, seeking buoyancy and pep from my speakers and headphones.
2020’s social distancing practices meant that music could be on almost all the time, since it was rare for anyone to be in earshot of whatever I wanted to play. Though it was a tough year for musicians to connect with audiences, I think that audiences connected with music more deeply than we might’ve if we’d been free to pursue our sounds as we always have.
Four bands releasing their first albums made my top 20 list this year. Three artists who’ve topped this list in the past have returned with quality follow-ups. One rap crew I’d all but given up on made me believe in hip hop again. And at the top of the top 20 sits an artist who I discovered for the first time in January whom I hope will have a long career.
20) Boris – No
‘No’ might not be Boris’ best record, but it’s their finest in quite a while. With little left to try in terms of achieving heaviness, several of these tracks try using speed instead of sheer volume to add to the intensity, and it really works for me. I usually turn to Boris when I’m in the mood for blisteringly heavy doom insanity, favouring the albums ‘Pink’, ‘Smile’, and ‘Live at Wolf Creek’. I’ve added ‘No’ to that group, and done so long after I figured this trio had little left to add to their legacy of amplifier assault.
19) The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You
Seems like The Avalanches could be a lasting entity, now releasing their second album in four years after ‘Wildflower’ ended a fifteen-year hiatus. Even though ‘Since I Left You’ will always be the sentimental favourite, really, all three Avalanches albums are great in the same way. They all ride along super-smooth despite the fact that they’re always shifting gears, and any group with that ear for fluidity has a shot at remaining interesting.
Their records now offer another cool feature: the guest lists are rad. The Avalanches can put Jennifer Herrema and Biz Markie on the same album. This time, it’s Johnny Marr and Tricky. The Avalanches are practically a K-Tel-level variety showcase. Who would’ve seen this coming fifteen years ago when this band was practically disintegrated?
18) Thelonius Monk – Palo Alto
This is a great album with an even greater story. The fast version is that in 1968, The Thelonius Monk Quartet were booked to play at a high school and they actually showed up and played and their performance was recorded. In 2020, that recording was released for the first time. It’s an incredibly cool 45 minutes of listening, with Monk leaning into the piano in his unmistakably off-kilter way. This album finds him sitting with a band that was on the verge of splitting up because they weren’t making it, even though they still played together like they loved what they could do as a group.
17) Khruangbin – Mordechai
Bringing more lyrical work into the mix after their tour/EP with Leon Bridges, the Texas psych/funk trio are extending a quality run. That a band named Khruangbin actually charted a single in 2020 is pretty amazing, and they didn’t exactly conform to the styles of the time to make it happen. ‘Time (You and I)’ is a can’t-sit-still funk anthem that carries no signifiers of the year it was made.
16) Public Enemy – What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?
It pleases me to no end to be able to include a PE record on this list at this late date in the game for one of my most beloved crews. Much was stacked against this ever happening. In my record collection, few spines call to me like those of Public Enemy‘s first four albums, released between 1987 and 1991. The early 90s are a long way away though – for PE those times are now ten albums away – and I first listened to ‘What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down’ the way I might sip a drink from a bartender who’d missed the mix many times before. I don’t want to dwell on the disappointment that has been the last 30 years of Public Enemy fandom, but it seems necessary to set up the great resurgence that is ‘Grid’.
Really, other than a brief glimmer that emerged while soundtracking Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’, Public Enemy haven’t shone very brightly in the studio since ‘Apocalypse ’91 – The Enemy Strikes Black’. Flavor Flav became the kind of embarrassment that reality TV feeds on, Chuck D tried to tweet his way back to vitality only to lose the lucidity of his spoken words, and teaming with B-Real and Rage Against the Machine to form Prophets of Rage four years ago made Chuck seem as old and out-of-touch as ever. Even in early 2020, Public Enemy Radio released a track called ‘Food As a Machine Gun’ that’s so bad I can’t even bring myself to link you to it as evidence of their resilience.
PE have remained a vital live act all this time. One of my favourite concert memories is still seeing my friend (and TFS founder) Craig Silliphant locking fists in a bro-shake with Chuck D for a lengthy string of bars in 2010. So I’ve turned the other cheek many times with this crew, though each new release would make it seem more and more certain that a return to full force would never come. ‘When the Grid Goes Down’ works because it embraces the roots of PE, their debut album ‘Yo, Bum Rush the Show’, which they proudly repeat bars like they’re covering themselves. DJ Lord gets a huge amount of the credit for making this a throwback that doesn’t feel like a throwback. If you’ve stopped paying attention to new PE releases but kept a place in your heart for Chuck and Flav, ‘Grid’ is the best place to jump back in.
15) Soakie – Soakie
‘Soakie’ is a pure punk, screamed-vocals, hammered-snare delight. Through seven tracks, fourteen minutes, no quarter is given to the phoney, the tame, or the subtle. Enjoy the power sander to the temporal lobe that is ‘Power Tool’.
14) Dogleg – Melee
In a year when loud, young bands couldn’t scream and spray their droplets at you from a live stage, this loud, young band broke through anyway. ‘Melee’ is an in-the-red ride that feels like it could leave the rails at any turn. Dogleg also seem to have had their ears into 90s loudness from the likes of Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth. Not a bad place to get yr loudness from.
13) Kruder and Dorfmeister – 1995
This duo was my favourite re-emergence of 2020. This Austrian production duo have not released music under this moniker since the 90s, and their new (long-awaited) album misses nary a single beat. This record was actually completed in the year 1995, stashed in a box of DAT tapes and shelved before their ‘DJ Kicks’ album shot them to the heights of 90s ambient dance music. As a musical time capsule, it is perfection.
Calling them “trip-hop” (as many do) does not really do their sound justice. While their work does sound like instrumental hip-hop, I personally find it less “trippy” than “slick”. Keeping the production understated, they still manage to make just the right sonic moves on every track, and ‘1995’ would be the best record of the year to put on randomly and make people inquire, “who is this?” Can we call their music slick-hop? I didn’t think so.
12) Fleet Foxes – Shore
Ever since I was lucky enough to see Fleet Foxes playing live in Massey Hall a few years ago, I’ve had an inclination about how their sound might evolve through the 20s. Playing live – concurrent with the release of ‘Crack-Up’ – I fully realized how much expert musicianship could flow out of their six-man lineup. Sure, their first two records were obviously special, and it took a great deal of musical talent to make them, but it was always Robin Pecknold’s voice (and his songwriting) that stood out to me hearing their studio work. Live, it was impossible to ignore how effectively they filled the space of that hall with dazzling instrumentation, and it made me wonder if the evolution of their sound might need to push limits and conventions (the way Sturgill Simpson or Brittany Murphy have done) to develop this band beyond simple beauty.
I still imagine that Fleet Foxes’ future might include an attempt at their ‘Sgt. Pepper’ or ‘Sign O the Times’ – an ambitious record that throws the band (and the listeners) all kinds of musical curveballs and surprises. ‘Shore’ is not that album, though. Rather, it’s a comforting and reassuring semblance of what this band has already done well many times before. ‘Shore’ is powerful in its softness, striking in its gentle approach, and understated without being dull.
Pecknold’s lyrics this time around might be the one major evolution – at age 34, his perspectives seem wiser, more settled, and a little less idealistic. He sings about things he could do, but might not be able to pull off anymore. It’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll attitude, but it’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll album. It’s more of a majestic flight of reflection, making it fit right into the Fleet Foxes catalogue like a disc into a roomy sleeve.
11) Tom Misch and Yusef Dayes – What Kinda Music
I really got into drummers in 2020. Usually when I listen to new music, it’s the vocals, and more specifically the lyrics, that catch my attention first. This year, I didn’t always feel like paying attention to the parts of my brain that lyrics ignite. The parts of my brain that can be ignited by beats, however, those I was cool with paying attention to. So the drumstick skills of Ben Riley, Kassa Overall, Donald Johnson (Khruangbin) Sam Jones, and Austin of the punk band Soakie, along with the drum programming of El-P (Run the Jewels) and DJ Lord (Public Enemy) kept me going through the times when I needed to switch on a less analytical part of my brain. These drummers and their beats helped me to just be, and so did Yusef Dayes on these songs he did with Tom Misch.
‘What Kinda Music’ has already been reviewed by lots of writers who praise its potential, but find it somehow mediocre. I can’t explain this. I think it’s the absolute shit. This is mellow funk with a purple-tinged filter that absolutely soothes. Tom Misch is equally comfy pressing into jazz, soul and electronica, and he seems like a young talent well worth keeping an eye on.
10) Nubya Garcia – SOURCE
Nubya Garcia is a tenor sax player with a fine band to join her on this jazz venture riddled with African and Latin touches. In a year where I had to stay still a lot, this album was an essential aural journey that eased the dearth of travel, interaction and discovery that 2020 wrought.
9) Jaga Jazzist – Pyramid
For three of its four lengthy tracks, this record sounds like if Quincy Jones and Frank Zappa had collaborated in the early seventies. The melodies are quirked-out and reach unfamiliar caverns of the ear. Then, on ‘Apex’, this Scandavian jazz combo who’ve been playing together for 25 years bust out a Tangerine Dream-tinged finale that sounds like Georgio Moroder worked it over – it’s one of my favourite tracks of the year, and when I listen to this record, I spend the entire listen in anticipation of it coming on.
8) Dan Deacon – Mystic Familiar
Baltimore’s favourite electronic noise manipulator and composer is back after topping this list in 2015. Using an intricate set-up of synths, cables and pedals, he can accomplish almost any sonic feat, even if it involves marrying a bagpipe flavour with that of a synthetic didgeridoo, like he does on ‘Hypnagogic’. Deacon is leaning really hard into his new agey, meditative side (just as the album art would suggest) and he’s doing it with his trance-inducing compositions as much as he is with his vocals and lyrics. I really don’t think that “underrated genius” is an overstatement of what Deacon’s developed into. He’s crafting a sound that’s very much his own without truly seeming part of any established genre.
7) Boldy James & Sterling Toles – Manger on McNichols
It’s pretty rare for me to check out a new rap record and finish it out wishing it was longer. Most hip hop LPs these days come off either too long or too inconsistent to have that effect. This record features decade-old verses immaculately scored by Sterling Toles, who doesn’t really program beats like others have done to cushion Boldy’s voice – Toles plays bass and hammers these tracks with horns, strings and synths, with few loops and plenty of expansive jaunts into free-jazz space. The lyrics are hard-edged with Detroit-proud crime stories, but they nod to the worlds of Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket also, keeping the listener guessing with the bars as much as the tracks do with their Ornetted free-falling.
6) King Krule – Man Alive
The man who topped this list two years back is still vital listening, loping out snoozers and putting a jumpy hitch into the mix from time to time. Even as an established music scene presence, Archy Marshall still gets odd as fuck, showing glimmers of downright Doolittlesque direction, then making your head feel like you overdid it on a sedative.
5) 2nd Grade – Hit to Hit
‘Hit to Hit’ was a real burst of simple, positive energy in 2020. I would categorize this record as “no frills” songwriting, although its twenty-plus songs traverse a fairly wide range of styles and genres. The lyrics and melodies on this album all feel effortless without seeming tossed-off or urgent, even though the tracks rarely take more than two minutes from start to finish. Simplicity of presentation always exposes the best and worst that a piece of art has to offer, and by stripping everything down to the essentials, 2nd Grade are exposing what they’re best at: fun, effective pop songs that you can easily sing along to on the second listen. ‘Hit to Hit’ is a ride that lives up to its name – this is a great record to experience in sequence, but it’s also killer ammo for the shuffle-play.
4) Skeleton – Skeleton
This one was my favourite debut album of 2020. While rooted in the darkness of black metal, this Texas outfit still finds ways to let their allegiances to bands like Priest and Maiden show. It’s a satisfying mix: noise and brutality combined with flourishes of riffage and rhythmic headbanger pulsation. Skeleton perform like they are celebrating the great view they know they’ll have of the end of the world.
3) Run the Jewels – RTJ4
I’ve heard it said (and felt myself) that this record, while great, was tough to listen to amidst the gloom of 2020 because it’s just so goddamned heavy. RTJ4 is full of grim reminders, and yeah, it doesn’t spare much consideration for optimism.
Consider this though: RTJ4 is the record someone needed to make this year, and this year was the time we needed Run the Jewels more than ever. Someone has to call the fouls with eloquence – instead of just with anger or apathy like most of us do it – and that’s what Mike and El-P do. There were a lot of fouls to call this year, and even though RTJ4 came out before many of them were committed, the calls still stick. This record was released digitally in early June, and shit got truer each week it aged.
Editor’s Note: Dave also wrote a great piece on RTJ4 earlier this year, which also links to our album review.
2) Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass
You can check out Craig’s review of this one, written before the Volume 2 – The Cowboy Arms Sessions arrived, which basically says it all. I’ll treat these two releases as one, which you should also, though either volume on its own is good enough to hold down this spot. What we’re dealing with here is one of 21st century country music’s greatest singer/songwriters, and he’s playing his songs in a breakneck bluegrass bust-out. As long as I still have Sturgill’s first three albums as a record of the country/rock perfection they represent, I don’t care if he never relinquishes this Appalachian ascent. It quite simply sounds like what he was meant to do.
1) Kassa Overall – I Think I’m Good
One of my favourite eras in hip hop is the period in the 90s when jazz influence was probably felt the most. This record is like the other side of that exchange, a jazz record that feels a lot of hip hop influence, though it feels a lot of other things too.
Despite the fact that Kassa Overall’s musical CV starts with his work as a jazz drummer, ‘I Think I’m Good’ presents him as that and much more. Kassa is a soothing vocalist, a nuanced producer, and he has a gift for cultivating and collaborating with other talented artists. His drumming on this record holds together a rich network of voices, instruments, samples and styles. Though it never totally departs from jazz roots, ‘I Think I’m Good’ plays around in hip-hop, bedroom pop, spoken word and soul.
Even though these songs lean heavily on their creator’s darkest experiences, (nightmares, panic attacks, living in an institution, the pitfalls of medication) it manages to be sad, beautiful and hopeful at the same time. It is fitting that the record often pulls positivity from the compassion of others, since so much of its artistry comes from the guest work that Kassa weaves into this one-of-a-kind musical masterpiece. But no other producer could take all those artists and elements and churn them into anything like ‘I Think I’m Good’. Kassa’s 2019 album ‘Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz’ – a record I got into after hearing his latest and clawing backward – is the only other thing I’ve heard that sounds anything like this. This is a record that offers something new, true, and vital.