I do enjoy the ritual of looking back over the year’s best listening. Of the year-end list categories (of which I basically know two: the representative, comprehensive selection vs the reflection of personal listening habits)– this is definitely the latter. As a music scholar, I sometimes have really weird or unbalanced listening habits. For what it’s worth, these are the albums from 2020 that have been speaking to me.
|10. Run the Jewels, RTJ4|
It’s aggressive, sharply political, inventively produced hip hop in a classic mold. I have been late to Run the Jewels, but I’m glad I came in on this album, which is really coherent and sharp. What I want is for Killer Mike and Soccer Mommy to headline a Bernie Sanders campaign rally concert together, or a compilation.
|9. Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal|
For me, this album is all about timbre, about the ways that Alcorn’s pedal steel, Mary Halvorson’s singular guitar, and Mark Feldman’s violin intermingle in space. A great album for the sounds alone.
|8. Chord Four, Bigger Smaller Nows|
Friends of mine, the thing that I’ve always loved about this band is its collective voice: utterly unique, this sound emerges from a synthesis that is greater than the sum of its parts, and which comes together through the indispensable roles that each player contributes to the arrangements. No matter what is happening, from free improvisations to understated, elegant voice-leading, every moment of this album is built through thoughtful, musical support. An album that is as fun to listen to as it is smart.
|7. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory|
I’ve been thinking about Soccer Mommy and other feminist/queer/non-binary indie bands for a couple of years now. I’m almost ready to try to say something about why I find this music so compelling, but not here and not now. What I am ready to say here is that Sophie Allison crafts some of the strongest melodies in the game, and when combined with the 90s-inflected timbres you hear on Color Theory, she has the key to my musical heart. “circle the drain” if you need to feel depressed or an articulation of your isolation; “lucy” if you want to hear them build something; “bloodstream” if you need a place to start.
|6. Dirty Projectors, 5 EPS|
After the actually not overrated Bitte Orca, I lost this band for a long time. The experiments they employed with digital instruments and sampling felt forced, and not easily fitted to the idiosyncrasies of the project. Plus I was distantly aware of personnel changes, and other factors that seemed to prevent the band from to meeting the promise of what they started. On this sprawling album, I hear a paradoxical coherence for the first time since, an effortless blend of paired-down, Jobim-inspired guitar songs (“Holy Mackerel”), elaborate string orchestrations (“There I Said It”), and weird electronic sounds (“Bird’s Eye”, “Empty Vessel”, “Inner World”). For all that’s terribly interesting here, it’s also catchy, strong songwriting. Honestly, an album this long feels exactly right.
|5. Mac Miller, Circles|
I wrote about this album here, so I won’t repeat myself. I think you are obligated to give it a chance, not only because of Miller’s tragedy, but also because there’s no other album that bears on 2020 quite the that this one does. The first four tracks are my favorite.
|4. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately|
Play the first sixty seconds of the first track and you’ll hear the full ambition of the album contained like a seed. Audacious in scope, capacious in sound, and tenderly orchestrated throughout. A statement.
|3. Gregory Uhlmann, Neighborhood Watch|
Greg plays guitar for Perfume Genius, and is a friend of mine. I can’t say enough about his music, whether this album, or the previous one, or his work with Fell Runner, or Typical Sisters. Start with “Coupon”, watch the video, and read the lyrics, how they move from innocuous everyday life to the biggest questions that people face, to specific intimate memories via the poetic leap, easy and therefore deeply moving. Not one song has more consistently made me misty this year, and for 2020, that’s something.
|2. Pheobe Bridgers, Punisher|
One of those albums I touch so cautiously, because you can’t halfway engage it. Heavy on your chest. A devastating, fully-formed vision of everyday pain. If repeated listening wears away some of the magic of those first, bewildered hearings, I will be dipping my toe in here cautiously, as slowly as possible. “Kyoto” feels like it was written just for me. “I Know The End” captures something of the magic that Sufjan Stevens performed on Illinois, where heartbreak sounds anthemic. Like Fetch the Bolt Cutters, it’s one of the year’s best by any measure.
|1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters|
If this album isn’t on your year-end list, you’re doing it wrong. Apple has been a singular, wildly compelling musician since her debut, and every other album of hers has been in my permanent “classic” category. Extraordinary Machine is basically perfect, for example, but for very different reasons than Fetch the Bolt Cutters is (and it is too). Much has been written about this timely, home-recorded masterpiece, which re-defines rawness and intimacy and emotional honesty for the next decade. I also (sort of) wrote about this album earlier in the year, and I’m afraid the things I was thinking and feeling at the time are still with me, just as urgently.
Other things I’ve loved over the year (but which are not necessarily from 2020):
- A.D. Carson, I Used to Love to Dream
- Doja Cat, Hot Pink
- Taylor Swift, folklore
- Fazerdaze, Morningside
- Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B
- Land of Talk, Indistinct Conversations
- Beach Bunny, Honeymoon
- beabadoobee, Fake it Flowers
- Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver, What Is to Be Done
Finally, remember that spotify is convenient and basically awful. Use bandcamp, buy albums when you can. Be well.