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Top 50 Albums of 2020

on December 01, 2020, 10:30am
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30. Future Islands – As Long as You Are

Future Islands As Long As you Are album cover artwork track by track

Origin: Baltimore, Maryland

The Gist: When you’ve built your career on underground passion over four albums, sudden success can pose an challenging proposition: What now? Future Islands remained solid on 2017’s The Far Field, the follow-up to 2014’s Singles breakthrough, but also pressured to maintain their momentum. Skip ahead another three years, the buzz has settled, and touring drummer Michael Lowry has been promoted to a full-time member. Perhaps both factored into the revitalized sound of As Long as You Are, as it finds the now-four-piece in top form once more.

Why It Rules: Everything that made Singles such an intriguing late-stage introduction is stronger on the band’s sixth full-length. Gerrit Welmers’ programming — as much a Future Island hallmark as Samuel T. Herring’s divine growl — shines brighter than ever as the centerpiece of the group’s crystalline soundscapes. It’s a buoyant backdrop for Herring as he contemplates love, self, and the existential struggles of simply existing. Familiar territory for the expressive songwriter, to be sure, but his intangibles imbue the poetics with such heartfelt truth that they transcend. “Hit the Coast” would be a bloodless escapist fantasy coming from anyone else. Few could layer “Plastic Beach”, a rare male examination of body dysmorphia, with such earnest love of self and other. It’s possible no one has ever tackled toxic masculinity with the compassion of “Born in a War”. Elevated to the surface by his impeccable band, Herring is constantly mining beauty out of sorrowful depths, something that was sorely needed during this pit of a year. —Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “For Sure”, “Born in a War”, and “Waking”

Pick up the album here.

29. Princess Nokia – Everything Is Beautiful

Princess Nokia Everything Is Beautiful Album Artwork

Origin: New York, New York

The Gist: It’s hard for a single album to capture the entirety of some artists, even if it stretches into the 20-track range. In searching for new ways to express all sides of her admittedly “weird” identity, Princess Nokia’s solution was to release two records simultaneously: Everything Sucks and Everything Is Beautiful. The former is the “brash, ruthless” counterpart to the “sensitive, feminine side” of the latter. While it’s almost unfair, then, to consider the projects separately, the world itself is defined by this dichotomy; it’s usually best when we focus on the beautiful, and it’s no different here.

Why It Rules: Which isn’t to say Everything Is Beautiful is in any way one-dimensional. Princess Nokia battles insecurities on “Heart” and expresses their willingness to throw down (“on racists, bigots, and scum”) on the funky gospel of “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”. While they explore the hallmark warmth of the modern independent hip-hop scene throughout, throwback flows like “Gemini” align them astrologically with artists like André 3000, Tupac, and Anne Frank. Whatever style they adopt, Princess Nokia finds ways to elevate above the harsher realities of Everything Sucks. It all comes to a clear-cut, well, conclusion on the contemplative closer “The Conclusion”: “Hi, my name is Destiny, and I’m a good person/ I see that you’re mean to me, and I did not deserve it/ I survived from trauma, and I’m living out my purpose/ And I’m sure you are, too, we’re really not that different.” We should all be able to embrace our multitudes with Princess Nokia’s candor. —Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”, “Wash & Sets”, and “Gemini”

Pick up the album here.

28. Caribou – Suddenly

caribou suddenly album artwork cover Top 50 Albums of 2020

Origin: Dundas, Hamilton, Canada

The Gist: Caribou, aka Dan Snaith, has been on the electronic music radar for the vast majority of the last two decades, but it had been about five years since we’d heard from him last. The Merge Records mainstay dropped Suddenly at the end of February, and well, suddenly, Caribou is right at the front of our brains again.

Why It Rules: Caribou’s Suddenly starts out slowly and eerily, almost Sufjan Stevens-like in the vocals, but quickly ramps up with the second track, “You and I”, which, oddly enough, might have been a good fit on Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories. From then on, the album takes a dive into pure electronic groove with unexpected, delightful instrumentals and samples, like the piano on “Sunny’s Time” and the use of Gloria Barnes’ 1973 hit “Home” on Caribou’s track sharing the same name. It’s impossible to listen to this record and stay still at the same time, so good luck if you decide to give it a try. —Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “You and I”, “Never Come Back”, and “Ravi”

Pick up the album here.

27. Taylor Swift – folklore

Taylor Swift folklore

Origin: Nashville, Tennessee

The Gist: Born of isolation, Taylor Swift’s eighth album, folklore, interrogates the pop star’s self-mythologizing and turns her gaze outward. Created during the ongoing pandemic, Swift collaborated remotely on 11 songs with Aaron Dessner of The National, who shared orchestrations composed inside his own quarantine. The results lean toward modern folk and glitchy experimentation, abandoning pop bombast but not the drama of swelling strings or anxious percussion. The accompanying visuals depict a gloomy summer, and listeners can imagine Swift watching storms barrel across the Atlantic horizon and wandering old-growth forests in half-done braids, alone or with a companion socially distanced beyond the frame. Dropped on 24 hours’ notice without her typically painstaking roll-out, the 16 moody songs delve into “fantasy, history, memory” and find Swift roaming her past loves with fresh, if tired, eyes — but also writing complex fictional scenes beyond her own experience. From a lyrical standpoint, it’s arguably Swift’s most contemplative, ambivalent, and expansive work yet.

Why It Rules: On folklore, Swift has come of age, emotionally and sonically, and proven herself — not that she needed to — as not only an exceptionally autonomous auteur but a nimble collaborator with an ever-broadening palate. We live in an era when Americans are examining and dismantling national myths on a grand scale. Swift, too, is expanding her perspective yet starting at home, evaluating ongoing struggles, failures, and choices, weaving larger themes into her well-worn tapestries of bittersweet, young love. The songs of folklore show Swift piercing holes in her own narrative and persona and seem to ask: What’s the account we give to ourselves and to others? Can we look more closely? Can we change the story and survive? –Katie Moulton

Essential Tracks: “cardigan”, “mirrorball”, and “invisible string”

Pick up the album here.

26. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days

Pallbearer - Forgotten Days

Origin: Little Rock, Arkansas

The Gist: Pallbearer have ascended the arduous music industry ladder like many metal bands before them. They released a strong demo in 2010, got indie label attention, and released a string of successful underground doom albums. Now, the band is freshly signed to storied metal label Nuclear Blast Records for their fourth studio LP, Forgotten Days. The album marks that proverbial turning point in their career. There are expectations from thousands of fans the band has built over a decade of touring and releasing music — much of it among the finest doom metal money can buy. Not to mention Forgotten Days arrives amidst a global pandemic that delayed the album’s release for months and renders it currently un-tourable. As Pallbearer bassist Joseph D. Roland told Heavy Consequence, a world without new music is bleak indeed, and new Pallbearer seem like just the cure for dark days. Despite the sense that there was added pressure on the band surrounding their fourth album and Nuclear Blast debut, you can’t tell from hearing it.

Why It Rules: Forgotten Days is arguably the best doom metal album of 2020 and an impressive label debut. Thanks to Dunn’s minimalist production, the album is a sonic pleasure, and it’s instantly more listenable and accessible than Heartless. The new songs have that soaring emotional quality that’s patently Pallbearer, and the band sounds unfazed by any new distractions or expectations introduced by the increased exposure of being a successful band. Most importantly, the album offers 53-minutes of reprieve for a deprived fan base that can only watch, listen, and wait as the pandemic tragically keeps bands like Pallbearer off the live stage. –Jon Hadusek

Essential Tracks: “Forgotten Days”, “Riverbed”, and “Rite of Passage”

Pick up the album here.

25. IDLES – Ultra Mono

idles ultra mono album cover artwork Top 50 Albums of 2020

Origin: Bristol, England

The Gist: Boy, wouldn’t it have been weird if 2020 came and went without an IDLES record? The Bristol punks thrashed their way to the front of the zeitgeist’s latest march towards socio-political justice with their previous two records. With the world in the grips of protests and uprisings, it would have been a complete denial of their own passion had they not put out an album this year. Unfortunately, the flip of that activism coin is that the five-piece is also now a well-regarded band, which carries with it the weight of critics. Ultra Mono faced the tough task of sustaining their rallying cry while also muting the smears.

Why It Rules: Ultra Mono handles the scene by bringing in backup: Kenny Beats sharpens the menace with his programming while Savages’ Jehnny Beth, The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, and The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis amplify Joe Talbot’s barking defiance with their own vocals. As for the politics of it all, the trick is IDLES didn’t have as much to prove as everyone wanted them to. They’ve stated their case furiously enough, and requiring them to continuously validate themselves in absolute artistic eloquence is, frankly, not worth their time. “Fuck you, I’m a lover,” Talbot states bluntly. The lines have already been well drawn, and heels were dug in painfully deep in 2020. We didn’t need another call to arms: We needed a cathartic release. IDLES still let the bigots and the classists and the predators have it with both barrels, but sustained resistance is allowed moments to self-motivate. It needs a chance to sneer sarcastically at the haters or dance in a safe space before taking back the streets. Even when it’s indulgent, it’s necessary. IDLES unapologetically take that time on Ultra Mono. —Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “War”, “Model Village”, and “Grounds”

Pick up the album here.

24. Frances Quinlan – Likewise

Likewise by Frances Quinlan solo album artwork

Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Gist: Frances Quinlan is a name you might not know right off the bat, but you probably know her band, Hop Along. Likewise is her first release under her own name, released by Saddle Creek Records at the end of January.

Why It Rules: Quinlan strips it all down for us on Likewise. The album as a whole is earnest, raw, and absolutely sparkling with sincerity as we hear Frances sing in her signature, inimitable rasp over beautiful instrumentals. While the standout track on the album is “Rare Thing”, a song that features Hop Along as backup, that doesn’t mean Quinlan needs her usual crew of boys with her to make a great album. Quinlan does it all on her own, right down to the album cover, which is a work of art in itself. —Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “Rare Thing”, “A Secret”, and “Went to LA”

Pick up the album here.

23. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers

Fake It Flowers by beabadoobee album artwork cover art

Origin: London, England

The Gist: The first song beabadoobee ever learned on guitar was Sixpence None the Richer’s 1997 hit “Kiss Me”. From there, the young Filipino-British songwriter diligently studied the decade from front to back, resulting in the precise ‘90s time capsule-like nostalgia felt throughout debut album Fake It Flowers.

Why It Rules: Prior to becoming a TikTok sensation, Bea Kristi helmed lo-fi bedroom pop musings inspired by Pavement and The Moldy Peaches (see her smash hit “Coffee”, Space Cadet and Loveworm EPs). Her music has since evolved to be more era-inclusive, with numerous Fake It Flowers tracks nodding to the grunge and alternative rock distortion of early Smashing Pumpkins and even Nirvana. Both dream pop and power pop also make their way into the beabadoobee sound palette, at times closely recalling Mazzy Star and The Cardigans, as well as Avril Lavigne — one of her beloved favorites. An obsession with yesteryear doesn’t always work for an artist for one reason or another, but for beabadoobee, it’s a vehicle for refining her sound and finding her voice. And we’d be straight-up lying if we said it hasn’t been a fun ride witnessing her growth. –Lake Schatz

Essential Tracks: “Care” and “Dye It Red”

Pick up the album here.

22. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony

Origin: New Orleans, Louisiana

The Gist: For some, 13 is an unlucky number, but not for Jay Electronica, aka Elpadaro F. Electronica Allah. Who knew it would take that many years for the MC to follow up his 2007 diamond mixtape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)? Certainly not him, nor his fans, nor Jay-Z, who signed him to Roc Nation way, way back in 2010. Alas, A Written Testimony finally arrived in Spring 2020 after 40 days of recording, a biblical number made all the more prescient amid our end times.

Why It Rules: All too often, we’re justified in not believing the hype, but we’d be so wrong to doubt Jay Electronica. A Written Testimony is exactly as the title implies, a sacred document in the Electronica mythos with page after page of ingenuity. At a brilliantly lean 40 minutes, Jay brings everything to the mic — his anxieties, his beliefs, his philosophies — over landscapes that prove he hasn’t lost his cinematic touch. Even better, he resurrects Hova in the process. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “The Neverending Story”, “The Blinding”, and “Ghost of Soulja Slim”

Pick up the album here.

21. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor

Origin: Meridian, Mississippi

The Gist: Everyone needs a break, particularly Hayley Williams. After touring aggressively behind Paramore’s 2017 fifth studio album, After Laughter — an effort literally born out of exhaustion — the singer-songwriter walked away even more exhausted. Rather wisely, she closed the door behind her and ventured into the dark to find some inner peace. It’s here she created Petals for Armor, her debut solo album that finds her exhaling with self-assurance and grace.

Why It Rules: The great thing about being a vocalist is trying on new clothes. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Petals for Armor, the silky alternative beats nurture Williams’ vocals. There’s a post-modern wash to her cadence that builds upon the new wave synth pop that fueled After Laughter. She’s always been a vulnerable songwriter, but by her lonesome, Williams is stripped of any of the pretense that comes with being in a band for over 10 years. No, Petals… is an intrepid effort for an artist who continues to write new chapters for herself, and the beauty is the feeling that there’s no end in sight. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “Simmer”, “Dead Horse”, and “Watch Me While I Bloom”

Pick up the album here.

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