Before we get to the best albums of 2020, I want to highlight the most unexpectedly delightful song of the year, “I Wonder What’s Inside Your Butthole.” Lisa Rieffel dropped her daughter Jolee's inspired, inquisitive song about the mysteries of the human digestive system in May 2020, at a time when many people had just started to process the fact that the pandemic was going to disrupt life for much more than a few months. It was a welcome bit of surreal levity, and a spark of connection for many, spawning a series of covers (I'm partial to this one). Jolee ended up recording her own rock version, as well as a hip-hop remix which almost sounds like a long-lost M.I.A. demo. There's a lot of 2020 ephemera and memes which have already been lost to the miasma of this strange year, but this was one of the few that continues to bring a smile to my face.
On to the honorable mentions, because while the memes and the lip sync comedy videos were often not very good, there was so much great music out there to celebrate: if you are a fan of folk-leaning, acoustic singer/songwriter music, you do not want to miss out on Courtney Marie Andrews' warbling Old Flowers or Angel Olsen's stripped down A Whole New Mess; also along those lines, Matt Berninger stepped out from The National for Serpentine Prison, Kevin Morby released another great album with Sundowner, and Jeff Tweedy released his best solo album yet with the lovely Love Is The Answer.
Leah Senior channeled Carole King with The Passing Scene, while Cut Worms conjured up the ghosts of George Harrison, The Byrds & The Band with their sprawling record Nobody Lives Here Anymore. Woods reflected on the death of collaborator David Berman with their best album yet, Strange To Explain. Fleet Foxes also mentioned Berman's passing on their gorgeous Shore. Nicole Atkins, whose songwriting spans alt-country, doo-wop and the Brill Building-era, added disco to her repertoire with the varied Italian Ice. And Kurt Vile made a gem of a country record with the Speed, Sound, Lonely KV EP, which included a duet with the late John Prine.
No Joy harnessed noise and trip-hop for the always surprising Motherhood; Chicago-based indie rockers Dehd combined their love of The Cure, Roy Orbison and post-punk on Flower Of Devotion. Khruangbin continued mining the psychedelic era of the late '60s and '70s on Mordechai. Shopping remain one of the best disco-punk groups on the planet with All Or Nothing. The Dirty Projectors released 5EPs, showcasing each of their different singers. Deerhoof, one of my all-time favorite live bands, got extra noisy for Future Teenage Cave Artist.
In terms of hip-hop, Run The Jewels knocked it out of the park with songs like "Just" and "Walking In The Snow" on RTJ4. Freddie Gibbs cemented his status as one of the best rappers alive on Alfredo, his collaboration with Alchemist. Jay Electronica dropped his long-awaited A Written Testimony, which was practically a collaborative album with Jay-Z. Megan Thee Stallion's "debut" album Good News was a victory lap after the heights of "Savage" and "WAP" earlier in the year. Singer and producer KeiyaA's debut Forever, Ya Girl was masterful R&B. Mac Miller's posthumous Circles was filled with production touches that were like sonic candy. Lil Uzi Vert unleashed Eternal Atake, which became the sound of hip-hop in 2020. Sometime collaborators Bad Bunny and J Balvin both released monster albums filled with hit and hit on YHLQMDLG and Colores. Speaking of hits, the best pure pop album of the year was courtesy of Dua Lipa, whose Future Nostalgia is the album you wish could be the soundtrack to your late night travels.
Kelly Lee Owens made one of the best electronic-based albums of the year with Inner Song; Gorillaz proved that they might be better when they are trying to make collaborative singles than albums with the compilation Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, which is full of bangers. Elvis Costello continued his hot streak of late period albums with Hey Clockface, which included three incredible songs (especially "No Flag") in which he played every instrument.
And lastly, it kills me that I couldn't find space on the list for U.S. Girls' Heavy Light, which features one of my favorite songs of 2020 ("4 American Dollars") as well as an "ode" to the nightmare Woodstock '99, and Soccer Mommy's Color Theory, the best album of '90s indie rock of 2020.
Below, you can listen to a Spotify playlist featuring a mix of some of our favorite songs of the year, then you'll find my 40 favorite albums of the year, plus a few brief words about why they mattered to me.
Disclaimer: best of lists are arbitrary constructs, there is no objective "best" in art, comparing albums between different genres is like comparing apples and oranges, etc. "This is just, like, your opinion, man." That's right: all lists and end-of-year roundups are just opinions. "This is a boring list, normie." Maybe so! These are the records that moved me, the songs that got stuck in my brain, the artists who helped me get through this year. Maybe you'll find something new to listen to; maybe you'll find something to argue about. The comments are wide open.
40. Yves Tumor-Heaven To A Tortured Mind
Sean Bowie took the experimental grandeur of 2018's Safe in the Hands of Love, sanded off some of the edges, and created a slightly more accessible epic with Heaven To A Tortured Mind, his best and more expansive album yet. "Gospel For A New Century" is a swaggering statement of intent, but don't miss out on the psychedelic slow burner "Kerosene!" and my favorite, "Super Stars," which is Prince by way of TV On The Radio.
39. Beatrice Dillon-Workaround
London DJ and electronic composer Beatrice Dillon's Workaround is an experimental, rhythmic delight, filled with "gated" clipped percussion and synth bursts that play with space and texture in every track. Almost every song is set at 150 BPM, it's largely instrumental—one of the rare vocal tracks, "Workaround Two," brings shades of Laurie Anderson—and it's an ideal album for headphone listening.
38. Thundercat-It Is What It Is
Thundercat has always been exceptional at bridging the worlds of jazz-funk, soft rock and hip-hop, and he makes it look easy—and sound so groovy—on the complex, playful It Is What It Is. Coproduced by none other than Flying Lotus, the album is filled with bubbly lead bass lines ("Black Qualls"), ridiculously catchy hooks ("Dragonball Durag"), reverb-drenched vocal harmonies ("King Of The Hill") and the occasional melancholic acoustic guitar piece ("Fair Chance," featuring Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B).
37. The Weeknd-After Hours
The Weeknd will play the Super Bowl halftime show in 2021, which is just further confirmation of his status as one of the biggest pop/R&B stars in the world. And it is well deserved: despite being snubbed by the Grammys, After Hours is a masterful album of late night synth-pop. On highlights such as "In Your Eyes" and "Save Your Tears," there is an added new wave edge; on "Hardest To Love," he sounds like he's channeling the '80 heartland motorik of The War On Drugs; "Sacred To Love" is a synth power ballad at its best; and "Blinding Lights" and "Heartless" were well-deserved, inescapable monster hits.
36. AAL (Against All Logic)-2017-2019
Nicolas Jaar, the Chilean-American recording artist based in NYC, has become known for his collage-like, ever-shifting electronic compositions, which can range from extremely minimalistic art projects to "dystopian techno-punk." Back in 2018, he released the first AAL (Against All Logic) album, which was an unapologetically joyous dance record. This followup is a darker affair, trading warm soul and funk samples for glitchy, distorted beats—but despite being more challenging material, it was just as rewarding, with highlights like "Fantasy"(which flips some Beyoncé lines from "Baby Boy") and "If Loving You Is Wrong."
35. Jessie Ware-What's Your Pleasure
If you're looking for great dance music, this is the album you need in your life going into 2021. Disco hi-hats, arpeggiated synths, and breathy vocals combine for an infectious collection of songs that brings to mind the likes of Robyn and Madonna. "Spotlight" is the song that hooked me onto Ware, a perfectly produced piece of europop, but you don't want to miss out on the catchiest songs, including the title track, "Read My Lips," "Ooh La La" and "Save A Kiss."
34. R.A.P. Ferreira-Purple Moonlight Papers
On his first album as R.A.P. Ferreira, the artist formerly known as milo is able to boil down the minutiae of everyday life into insightful and hilarious vignettes, like this one from "Laundry:" "Another day, another load of laundry/Soon as I woke up, that feeling was hauntin' me/Another dad with a hamper/I wonder if Chance the Rapper do his own laundry/Who cares?" Pared with off-kilter jazz samples and dizzying rhyme schemes, this was one of the best rap albums of the year.
33. The Strokes-The New Abnormal
A lot of strange things happened in 2020: murder hornets, Quibi, UFO videos, Borat & Rudy Giuliani, Trump kept threatening to ban TikTok, and The Strokes made an honest-to-goodness great record. Besides capturing the mood of the nation with its title, The New Abnormal was the best Strokes album since Room On Fire, and actually sounded like the byproduct of a band who wanted to make music together again.
32. Kate NV-Room For The Moon
Russian avant-pop artist Kate NV created this record during “the loneliest period” of her life, but you wouldn't necessarily know that from the sound of the thing. The album is ebullient and slightly cartoonish, filled with bouncy synths, woodwinds, marimbas, brass instruments and other colorful elements; every song feels like visiting a fantasy world, especially on highlights like "Not Not Not," "Plans" and "Du Na." And the vocal melodies, which are sung in Russian, French and English, call to mind Kate Bush at points.
31. King Krule-Man Alive!
Few people have voices like Archy Marshall, better known as King Krule—when he first emerged in the early '10s as a young teen with that gruff, world-weary howl, it seemed like an uncanny juxtaposition. Now he's aged a bit into that incredible, otherworldly voice, and the music he's making is even more harrowing, desperate, and glimmering in rot. There are blasts of punk and post-punk that add some catchy moments ("Cellular," "Comet Face," "Stoned Again"), but it's the colder, jazz-infused weird tracks like "Underclass," "Alone, Omen 3" and "Perfecto Miserable" that make up the heart of the album.
30. Porridge Radio-Every Bad
Brighton indie rock group Porridge Radio's sophomore album is an powder keg of emotions and instruments, using repetitive phrases to create a hypnotic mood while unleashing raw tension in short swift bursts. This is encapsulated on breakout song "Sweet," a hurricane of a song about a narrator who “bites her nails right down to the flesh.” And then there's the indie rock perfection of "Give/Take," a gem which they throw out casually like they have a hundred more of these in the bank.
29. Jessy Lanza-All The Time
If you love airy synths that wind and grind around slightly askew click-clack pop beats, you don't want to skip of Jessy Lanza's All The Time. There are elements of R&B, House, electronica, and disco, but everything is filtered through a playful, inventive, anything-goes lens. Vocals skip back and forth across the spectrum, sounds emerge then percolate under the surface—the whole thing sounds like pink bubble gum personified.
28. Bartees Strange-Live Forever
If Bartees Strange had only released a strange, deconstructed collection of covers of songs by The National in 2020, it would have been enough to garner attention for a list like this. But his debut album, Live Forever, was even more compelling, catchy and vulnerable, combining the bombast of '00s-era indie bands with hip-hop beats and punk energy—you listen to "Mustang" and "Boomer" and it feels like an artist born fully-formed. He explained his ethos on "Mossblerd," when he slur-raps, "Genres keep us in our boxes."
Tennis have been around for what feels like forever creating pleasant-enough indie pop, but I never really connected with them until their last album, 2017's Yours Conditionally. The husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley greatly expanded their sonic palette on this year's superlative Swimmer, hitting the tricky rhythm changes of "Need Your Love," Beach House disco on "Runner," and synthpop on "How To Forgive." On top of that, they threw in one of the best faux-Strokes songs ever on "Tender As A Tomb."
26. Perfume Genius-Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas worked on a collaborative show with choreographer Kate Wallich and The YC dance company before starting Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, and the sense of movement and dance informs the gorgeous baroque pop of the record. It starts with just a woozy organ and his voice singing, "half of my whole life is gone," but soon grows large enough to encompass the country/distortion melding of "Describe," the delicate relationship drama of "Jason," the rock underpinnings of "Nothing At All," and best of all, "On The Floor," the best Madonna song not by Madonna.
25. Blake Mills-Mutable Set
You may have never heard of Blake Mills, but you've heard Blake Mills. His intricate guitar playing and production could be found on the new albums from Bob Dylan and Perfume Genius this year, as well as previous collaborations with the likes of Fiona Apple, Laura Marling, Cass McCombs and more. He's a musician's musician, but the ultimate behind-the-scenes guy happened to release a beautiful solo record this year too, one that combines his McCombs-like voice with Jim O'Rourke-worthy guitar experiments.
24. Laura Marling-Song For Our Daughter
Laura Marling has been one of the best songwriters of the last decade, and her latest, Song For Our Daughter, is an intriguing concept—a series of songs directed toward an imaginary child, but one whose wisdom about femininity, aging, and relationships carries meaning for all. "Alexandra" is an inspired take off of a Leonard Cohen song, "Strange Girl" is the playful center, and "Held Down" is one of her all-time greatest songs, channelling the early '70s Laurel Canyon period with gorgeous harmonies.
23. Hamilton Leithauser-The Loves Of Your Life
The former Walkmen frontman has developed an equally great solo career over the last decade, applying his unforgettable rasp to more stripped down arrangements. The Loves Of Your Life conjures the spirit of Harry Nilsson in a set of finely-written story songs set around various larger-than-life characters in NYC, from the trust-fund kid of "Isabella" to the guy avoiding his problems by watching movies in "Here They Come" and the sad-sack day trader of "Don't Check The Score."
22. Bruce Springsteen-Letter To You
Bruce Springsteen reunited with the E-Street Band for Letter To You, their first full-length album of new material in about a decade—on top of that, the band recorded everything live together, eschewing some of the overproduction of Springsteen's post-'00s albums. Like most of Springsteen's work in recent years, it is a work of a man reflecting on his wild and innocent youth ("Last Man Standing"), the friends who haven't survived ("Ghosts"), and the audience which has traveled with him all these years ("Letter To You"). On top of that, the band also revived three never-released early '70s Bruce songs that are electrifying: "Song For Orphans," "If I Was The Priest," and best of all, "Janey Needs A Shooter."
21. Peel Dream Magazine-Agitprop Alterna
The spirit of mid-'90s Stereolab lives on with Peel Dream Magazine, a Brooklyn-based band who skirts the line between noise rock and indie pop in the best possible way. If you like Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo and similar groups, you don't want to miss out on the likes of "Pill" and "Emotional Devotion Creator," some of my favorite of the year.
20. The Avalanches-We Will Always Love You
It already felt somewhat miraculous that The Avalanches were able to followup their classic debut Since I've Been You over a decade later with the zany, festival-worthy Wildflowers in 2016. Less than five years later, after more stops-and-starts including a stint in rehab, the now two-man group assembled a murderer's row of collaborators (including Johnny Marr, Rivers Cuomo, Blood Orange, Leon Bridges, Mick Jones, Jamie xx, Kurt Vile, Cornelius, MGMT, Tricky, Pink Sifu and so many more) for We Will Always Love You, a concept album about the romance of Carl Sagan and cover star Ann Druyan. While the group used to go crate digging for their sounds, they now treat their collaborators' original contributions like long-lost samples, and create a patchwork quilt of life-affirming music about love and the cosmos.
19. Jeff Parker-Suite For Max Brown
Way back in January, guitarist and composer Jeff Parker dropped the most unusual, remarkable jazz-fusion record of the year, filled with off-kilter time signatures ("Fusion Swirl"), bursting guitar solos ("Build A Nest"), Dilla-worthy snippets ("C'mon Now"), gorgeous guitar texture ("After The Rain"), and soulful grooves ("Gnarcriss"). Best of all, there's the polyrhythmic "Go Away," a thrilling track which sounds like it's teetering on the brink of spiraling out of control at any second.
18. Moses Sumney-græ
Moses Sumney has one of the most beautiful voices that I've heard in years, but it took until his sophomore album græ for his songwriting to seem as extraordinary as his words. It's a big old double album, bursting with inspired and unlikely moments, from the primal, vicious noise of "Virile" to the deconstructed Motown of "Cut Me." I think the first half is basically perfect, from the technicolor saxophones of "Colouour" to the intimate, bruised "Polly." The second half took a little longer to grow on me, but "Me In 20 Years" and "Lucky Me" are among the best songs here.
17. Four Tet-Sixteen Oceans
A lot of artists got extra time to work on new music because they weren't on the road in 2020, but few took as much advantage of that as Four Tet, who released tons of material throughout the pandemic via his various streams and social media feeds. He dropped two albums of material at the end of December alone (including the excellent Parallel, check it out). But Sixteen Oceans is among his best work ever, a blend of glitchy, uptempo material ("School," "Insect Near Piha Beach"), gorgeous ambient-influenced soundscapes ("4T Recordings," "Harpsichord") and some of the catchiest singles of the year ("Teenage Birdsong," "Baby").
16. Tame Impala-The Slow Rush
The Slow Rush, Tame Impala's first album in five years, should have been the biggest album of the festival circuit last summer, the ultimate merging of classic rock sensibilities and House music production. In a year in which live music disappeared, it was an odd fit, and became something of a victim of bad timing. But it was, like Currents before it, a pure pleasure pop album whose production was like pure ear candy on tracks like "Breathe Deeper" and "Is It True." The yearning "One More Year" is scarily prescient to this strange year, about uneasily grappling with the march of time.
15. Frances Quinlan-Likewise
The frontwoman of Philly indie rock band Hop Along released her solo debut this year, and stripping down the indie/pop-punk arrangements of her band was a breath of fresh air for her verbose songwriting. I always liked Hop Along; I fell in love with Likewise, which jumps from speakers with Joni Mitchell-worthy melodies ("Your Reply," "Pilitdown Man"). Most of the album is based around acoustic guitar, Rhodes/electric keys and Quinlan's inimitable, expressive voice—and the one appearance from Hop Along is on electropop highlight "Rare Thing."
14. Westerman-Your Hero Is Not Dead
Westerman seemingly came out of nowhere to release a series of unbelievably great moody, reverb-drenched singles in 2018. His collaborator, producer Bullion (who also released two great solo EPs, We Had A Good Time & Heaven Is Over, this year), helped marry Westerman's intricate acoustic songwriting with dark, synth-heavy textures somewhat reminiscent of Arthur Russell's work. This year, we finally got to hear Westerman's debut album, which is a wholly satisfying culmination of that melancholic sound. It includes a revamped version of his breakout song "Confirmation," as well as gems such as "Think I'll Stay," "Blue Commanche," and "The Line."
13. Phoebe Bridgers-Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers donned a skeleton outfit and sang her way into America's heart in 2020 in a series of intimate late night TV performances. She was already beloved by the indie crowd for her debut Stranger In The Alps, but her sophomore album Punisher was a level up in every way—more killer one-liners that can break your heart and make you laugh one after the other, more intricate arrangements for melodies that refuse to leave your brain. "Kyoto," "Garden Song," "Savior Complex," "Graceland Too" and "ICU" are among the best songs of the year—and they were all topped by "I Know The End," the apocalyptic final song whose cathartic scream summed up 2020 for so many.
12. Guided By Voices-Styles We Paid For/Mirrored Aztec/Surrender Your Poppy Field
Another year, another three fantastic albums of pop, psych, prog and punk from the most under-appreciated rock band in history. 2020 started with Surrender Your Poppy Field, the most lo-fi/sonically-varied of this year's batch; "Volcano" is like mid-'90s Breeders in the best way, "Arthur Has Business Elsewhere" has an organ-led circus vibe, and "Man Called Blunder" and "Physician" are two slabs of heavy arena rock. Mirrored Aztec is the most upbeat of the three albums, a creamy album of hi-fi GBV with a remake of one of Robert Pollard's all-time great songs, "Bunco Men;" it also includes soaring feats of melodic songwriting like "To Keep An Area," "Easier Not Charming," "Show Of Hands" and Jane Fonda ode "Thank You Jane." As great as that album is, Styles We Paid For may be even better, the first GBV album of the pandemic era (the rest were recorded pre-COVID). There's technophobic wonder "Electronic Windows To Nowhere," dignified ballad "In Calculus Strategem," classic rock riff rocker "Mr. Child," and several R.E.M.-worthy janglers ("Crash At Lake Placebo," "Never Abandon Ship," "Stops"). And the album culminates with a self-aware wink at the pandemic in "When Growing Was Simple:" "Don't drink and drive/stay at home and eat."
11. Stephen Malkmus-Traditional Techniques
Malkmus has been on a fascinating mid-career tear, releasing three incredibly different albums over the last three years. First came Sparkle Hard, a charming rock album with his longtime backing band The Jicks in 2018; last year, he explored electronic post-punk textures on the experimental Groove Denied. And this year, he assembled a motley group of collaborators (including guitarist Matt Sweeney) for the all-acoustic Traditional Techniques, which combined '60s psych folk with Malkmus' typically witty, effortlessly melodic style. It's one of the most relaxing albums I've listened to all year, with highlights including the Velvet Underground-worthy "Cash Out," the Twitterspeak of "Shadowbanned," the fluttering flutes of "What Kind Of Person," and brilliant "The Greatest Own In Legal History"
10. HAIM-Women In Music Pt. III
HAIM were a really, really good band right out of the gate with their debut Days Are Gone, nailing a sound that seemed to combine elements of Fleetwood Mac, The Strokes, Wilson Phillips and the entire history of California rock bands...but played faster. Their third album, Women In Music Pt. III, is leaps and bounds better—it's arguably the best rock album of the year, except that it's too expansive to fall into one category like that. The lyrics are more mature, the songwriting is sharper, the playing is more varied, and the production is textured and filled with sonic treats. The band sings about misogyny they've faced in the industry via a Joni Mitchell-worthy melody on "Man From The Magazine;" depression is the subject of the off-kilter synthpop of "I Know Alone" and roots rock of "I've Been Down;" there's also humor on the likes of booty call anthem "3 AM" and "Up From The Dream." And of course, they write wonderful songs about the phases and shapes of relationships, from the Lindsey Buckingham-isms of "Leaning On You" to the supreme pop of "The Steps" and "Now I'm In It."
9. Destroyer-Have We Met
Dan Bejar, poet laureate of rakish aesthetes, has never met an image he couldn't twist into an unforgettable, singable phrase. Have We Met, Destroyer's twelfth album and best by far since the sax-drenched art rock of Kaputt, is filled with elusive, inexplicably catchy songs with fascinating meta-narratives about aging, writing, and the connection between the two. "Just look at the world around you...actually no, don't look," he sings on "The Raven." It sounds like Bejar surprises himself with what comes out of his mouth at least half the time, which is why there is such a rush of excitement hearing him stumble into epiphany. As he sings on "Crimson Tide:" "I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back/I was more like an ocean stuck inside hospital corridors."
8. SAULT-Untitled (Black Is)/Untitled (Rise)
SAULT, a mysterious funk/soul band from England who have gone out of their way to hide their identities, are the most prolific band this side of Guided By Voices—they released their first two albums in 2019, and two even more impressive ones in 2020. Their music, which combines elements of afropop, '70s funk, modern hiphop, disco and more, risks losing its personality with such mystery—instead, it is some of the most compelling, vibrant protest music of the year, capturing the frustrations and passion of Black people in a year of crisis. I prefer Untitled (Black Is) slightly more than Untitled (Rise), but there are masterful songs on both, including "Wildfires," "Bow," and "Stop Dem" on the former, and "Fearless," "Free" and "I Just Want To Dance" on the latter.
7. Adrianne Lenker-Songs/Instrumentals
Big Thief dropped a pair of great albums in 2019 with UFOF and Two Hands, so the last thing I was expecting was that lead singer Adrianne Lenker would drop two of her own albums this year as well. But I am so happy she did. If you were a fan of the band's work, songs is filled with stripped down versions of the same type of tender, carefully-crated, raw folk songs—just with even more found sounds to add to the intimacy. There are few love songs that touched me more than "anything" this year, which walks the tightrope between specificity and universality brilliantly: "Grocery store list, now you get pissed/Unchecked calls and messages/I don’t wanna be the owner of your fantasy/I just wanna be a part of your family." And on top of that, there's instrumentals, two ambient acoustic pieces filled with creaking wood, wind chimes, birds chirping and finger-picking.
No one is able to wring more emotions out of chilly electronic soundscapes than Dan Snaith. Suddenly fits in with the arc of his previous records Andorra, Swim, and Our Love, all albums I happily revisit very regularly. But Suddenly may top all of them thanks to a nifty trick Snaith has pulled off here: he combines his vulnerable voice, and lyrics about family and grief, with ecstatic soul samples ("Home"), chopped up clips ("New Jade"), and warm House music ("Never Come Back," "Ravi") to an uncanny effect. The songs are dense with ideas and emotions, but never feel cluttered.
5. Andy Shauf-The Neon Skyline
Every generation gets the Paul Simon they deserve. Next to the number one album on this list, I don't think there was any album I listened to more this year than Andy Shauf's The Neon Skyline, a loose concept album that tells the story of a single night in the life of Shauf's narrator, which is mostly about him reflecting on a breakup with an ex he runs into at his local bar. It's not a huge concept, which is part of the charm of it. The music, which is all recorded by Shauf, is a cozy blend of acoustic guitars and Shauf's Simon-esque vocals, but there is an ineffable atmosphere that draws you in. And the writing is remarkable and novelistic, without a wasted word. It's scenes like this one from "Try Again" that have made me return again and again:
"Somewhere between drunkenness and charity
She puts her hand on the sleeve of my coat
She says 'I've missed this'
I say, 'I know, I've missed you, too'
She says 'I was actually talking about your coat'"
4. Waxahatchee-St. Cloud
Katie Crutchfield has been making great albums as Waxahatchee for a decade now, but as good as albums like Out In The Storm were, nothing prepared me for the leap she makes on St. Cloud, which sounds like Lucinda Williams and '70s country music and Americana and Liz Phair and wide open skies over an empty highway in the middle of nowhere all at once. Her lyrics touch on addiction and becoming sober, leaving love behind and finding new romance, trauma and a newfound hopefulness. There isn't a single wasted melody or lyric on the album, but "Can't Do Much," "Lilacs," "Fire," "The Eye," and "Witches" are among the best.
3. Bob Dylan-Rough And Rowdy Ways
All those years of singing Frank Sinatra covers has really paid off—Bob Dylan's vocal control is the best it's been since maybe the mid-'70s on Rough And Rowdy Ways, a late-period masterpiece through and through. The songs are split almost evenly between ballads in which the words—often about death, often involving history lessons—emerge like sleds down a snowy hill ("I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You," "Black Rider," "Mother Of Muses") and fun bluesy rockers ("False Prophet," "Goodbye Jimmy Reed," "Crossing The Rubicon"). There are three important standouts that are the most dense, confounding, inspiring, reference-laden pieces here, and all of which deserve to be considered among his greatest songs: the charming "I Contain Multitudes" ("I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods...I contain multitudes"), the yearning and elusive "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)," and "Murder Most Foul," the 17 minute first single (?!) that is the aural equivalent of a Joycean epiphany.
2. Bill Callahan-Gold Record
Last year, Bill Callahan returned after a six year hiatus with Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, a wonderful, unambiguously personal album that touched on domestic romanticism, the revival of his creative spirit, and the tender embrace of mortality. I never in a million years expected we'd get a followup album a year later (let alone his ongoing covers project with Bonnie "Prince" Billy—don't sleep on their cover of "Deacon Blues"). Usually when an artist suddenly releases a followup record very quickly, it suggests leftovers being given a polish. Not so with Gold Record; where Shepherd was all internal reflections, this album gives Callahan the chance to look outward. He inhabits or narrates stories about a set of characters like a wedding limo driver ("Pigeons"), someone disconnected from literature ("35"), and a surreal tale about family and belonging ("The Mackenzies"). His songs are short stories worthy of Raymond Carver. As he sings in "As I Wander:" "I travel, I sing, I notice when people notice things."
1. Fiona Apple-Fetch The Bolt Cutters
I got the strangest feeling of deja vu when I first listened to Fetch The Bolt Cutters when it came out back in April. It took me a minute to realize that I had heard the first song, "I Want You To Love Me," before—it was way back in 2013, when she played it (as well as fellow album track "Ladies") at the Beacon Theater the last time she played live in NYC. Clearly this album was at least seven years in the making, the culmination of a long period of recording, re-recording, deconstructing and reassembling the songs.
And yet, there was no album that better captured the mood of the year, that was more of a salve, than this one. Apple has always been a genius songwriter, but the amount of attention paid to this record takes it to a new level—the timing is just kismet. The clattering of unexpected percussive devices and found sound objects (as well as dog barks) give it a homespun edge; her piano playing sweeps through with enormity. And her generous melodies and incisive, raw lyrics about the abuse women must bare makes it unmistakably personal and universal all at once. This was the album of 2020; long after 2020 is over, it will still be one of greats of this era.