The 50 Best Albums Of 2020
At certain moments, 2020 felt like a year that might not ever come to an end. Now that it's mostly in our rear view, can a retrospective give a shape to that swarm of weeks and months? Can we make sense of layer upon layer of fear, anger, frustration, confusion, exhilaration and exhaustion that piled up like soil falling over our heads? Sometimes art breaks through. Better to think of the best music of 2020 as an urgent cacophony of distinct voices rather than a chorus with a single melody. Many voices, with many stories to tell. Here are the 50 best albums of a year unlike any we can remember.
how i'm feeling now
Our homes have become offices, churches, mutual aid hubs, child- and eldercare centers. Every inch of space has been claimed by a corner of life, worn from multi-purpose use, yet hopefully loved and lived in. But the home — even just one room strung with cheap lights — can also be a refuge to dance through your emotion. how i'm feeling now — an album whose title says everything, and whose music has a rave intimacy that reaches beyond quarantined walls — doesn't just capture the mood, but the modes of our survival. Charli XCX collaborated remotely with trusted producers (A. G. Cook, Danny L Harle) and new ones (BJ Burton, 100 gecs' Dylan Brady), to lean harder into the buzzing-yet-glam-blammed hyper-pop that she's explored in recent years. While the aural abrasion amplifies our collective WTF, turnt up on video chats and pining for reckless nights, the core of how i'm feeling now deepens around the loving bonds forged in close quarters. —Lars Gotrich
Don't Feed The Monster
Rappers don't age gracefully. Hell, many of them don't live to age at all. But Homeboy Sandman was pushing 40 while recording his tenth studio album Don't Feed The Monster, and it shows in the best ways. This is therapy. But instead of putting the medicine in the candy, as the proverbial saying goes, Homeboy Sandman — and Quelle Chris, who produced the album in full — found a way to put the candy in the medicine. As Sandman unearths the depths of childhood trauma, the unending stresses of life, the downsides of attachment and the doldrums of being unattached, a keen sense of humor threads together his existential musings. This is the kind of midlife crisis a convertible can't cure. Thank God for hip-hop. —Rodney Carmichael
There's creative genius coursing through Anjimile's debut album, but its real power comes from its maturity. Giver Taker is a collection of songs that, like their maker, found their identity while on a years-long journey through self-discovery. Anjimile wrote and released many of the songs while in treatment for substance abuse, and while the lyrics haven't changed, the versions on Giver Taker sound more confident and reflective — as if they've become wiser with age. Perhaps that's true; getting sober has been a transformative process for the Boston-based singer-songwriter — one that has helped them to demystify their relationship with their faith, as well as their trans and non-binary identity. The album versions of these songs were created with producers Justine Bowe and Gabe Goodman. The collaboration not only added depth and perspective; it also helped Anjimile to create a polished showpiece that celebrates the nuances of their journey through loss and personal growth. —Stacy Buchanan (GBH)
Plenty of musicians have faked a country drawl in order to lend weight to their singing style. Katie Crutchfield has a natural Southern accent, but, oddly enough, she spent years disguising it behind distorted guitars. After almost a decade playing in the New York and Philadelphia rock scenes, you could barely tell from her performances with Waxahatchee that she was born and raised in Alabama. But on her 2020 record, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield embraced her roots, her accent and a songwriting style that owes more to Lucinda Williams than the punk music of her youth. The collection of 11 songs isn't really rock, Americana or country. But it's arresting, as Crutchfield's voice sets scenes filled with lilacs in full bloom, fiery West Memphis sunsets and car wheels on Arkadelphia Road. —Jerad Walker (Oregon Public Broadcasting's)
some kind of peace
some kind of peace is the most impactful record I've heard this year. At the center of Ólafur Arnalds' music are his melodic piano sounds, which often capture not just the notes, but the atmosphere, the sound of the hammers and the guts of the instrument. It's packed with passion but generates an aura of calm. For this record, Arnalds enriches the sonic landscape by collaborating with other singers, including fellow Icelandic artists JFDR, JOSIN and Sandrayati Fay. This is music that works as background or foreground, rich in textures and perfect for headphone listening. —Bob Boilen
21 Savage / Metro Boomin
Savage Mode II
I'll admit, my hip-hop listening ears have been reprogrammed since March 2020. My personal playlists exclusively consisted of songs that I deemed substantial in my everyday life: music that hit different in the middle of multiple pandemics even if they weren't originally orchestrated for that purpose. Leave it to 21 Savage, Metro Boomin and Morgan Freeman to break me out of my shell and remind me that hip-hop is the ultimate tool for escapism. The sequel to 2016's Savage Mode is written, produced and sequenced better than any action film released (or delayed) in theaters this year. —Bobby Carter
If Willie Nelson penned the ultimate road song, Kathleen Edwards may have achieved the opposite with her first album in eight years. Total Freedom is an unself-conscious look at the act of home-building, from the quiet joy to be found in the stillness of an early morning ("Birds on a Feeder") to the way exorcising a failed partnership colors memories of ordinary objects ("Fool's Ride"). The new perspective arrived courtesy of a 2014 career change from professional musician to coffee shop owner. Standing in one place for the first time in more than a decade, Edwards captures the thread of love that ties a life together — meeting strangers in a cafe, dogs found on the side of the road and aging childhood friendships — with a straightforward lyricism and guitars that sing but don't outshine the well-earned wisdom of her voice. If life in constant motion can blur the edges of understanding, Total Freedom is a testament to knowledge found after escaping inertia. —Cyrena Touros
X Alfonso is a visionary. Back in 2001, his pioneering album Moré mashed up recordings of the king of Cuban crooners, Beny Moré, with the sound of turn-of-the-century hip-hop. Since then, Alfonso has explored the adaptability of Cuban music to his own interests in rock, soul, electronic and hip-hop. In September 2019, he announced his first album in eight years, which he revealed with monthly singles until the full Inside appeared like a puzzle assembled out of disparate pieces. A flawless statement about contemporary music in Cuba, equal parts electronic and Afro-Cuban influences, Inside drips with sonic deliciousness. Picking out a favorite single would be like trying to represent a book by a single chapter. The glory of Inside has to be absorbed as a whole to appreciate X Alfonso's creative force. —Felix Contreras
The experience of repetition as death
When cellist and composer Clarice Jensen recorded The experience of repetition as death in late 2018, little did she know how relevant it would feel two years later. The Juilliard graduate and founding member of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble had been caring for her cancer-stricken mother and took inspiration from the mundane routines-turned-mantras that so often chart terminal illness. The resulting album, recorded on solo cello and processed with the help of engineer Francesco Donadello, is hardly monotonous. Jensen's layered loops express the range of emotions that arise as death draws near, from the simple beauty of bookends "Daily" and "Final" to the humble awe of "Holy Mother." This collection of requiems for a dying mother ranks among the great ambient albums of the 21st century. —Otis Hart
Drakeo The Ruler
Thank You For Using GTL
Since the genre's inception, the voice in rap has been sped up, glitched out, chopped and screwed, slowed and reverbed, all to convey textures and feelings that language alone cannot. On Thank You For Using GTL, Drakeo The Ruler's was shrunk to fuzz, transmitted through a jail phone. The intent wasn't to create a mood, but to create something, to continue a career that was snatched away. At the time, Drakeo had spent most of the three years prior in Los Angeles' notorious Men's Central Jail, and nine of those months in solitary confinement, first battling a murder charge he'd be acquitted of, then a gang conspiracy charge that the prosecution built out of his lyrics and music videos. He was suddenly freed in November on a plea deal, days before L.A. county district attorney Jackie Lacey lost her seat to the more progressive George Gascón. His lawyer, John Hamasaki, told NPR that "if the case had been continued to January, it probably would have been dismissed by [Gascón's] office."
Even when transmitted across a scummy phone line, Drakeo's sneer cuts like a knife. Submerged in static and woven over JoogSZN's brooding instrumentals, his raps feel suspended in a constant denouement, transient and purgatorial, as he probes at the suits trying to end his life. "It might sound real, but it's fictional / I love that my imagination gets to you," he raps on the final track. What isn't fiction are the cruel and convoluted circumstances that shaped GTL, that cost its creators thousands of dollars to record while profiting a billion dollar telecom company, and that continue to take lifetimes away from Black men. —Mano Sundaresan
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