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Top 50 Albums of 2020

on December 01, 2020, 10:30am
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10. Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Pearl Jam - Gigaton

Origin: Seattle, Washington

The Gist: For years, Pearl Jam teased a follow-up to 2013’s Lighting Bolt, and really, the fans were totally OK waiting. Reason being, the Seattle rockers know how to make the wait feel great. As long as they hit the road and do their thing on stage, Eddie Vedder could take as long as he wants to write a new album. That’s why every delay was ultimately met with a shrug, quickly followed by a search for “Pearl Jam new tour dates” on Google. Again, no biggie.

Why It Rules: Without sounding too negative, Lightning Bolt was a major letdown, a blemish in an otherwise rosy discography, chock-full of duds and maybe one gem (see: “Sirens”). Gigaton is a complete 180, a rock ‘n’ roll renewal for the gang as they embrace sugary hooks again. Not hyperbole: There are earworms and melodies in nearly every song on Gigaton — did anyone think they had “Superblood Wolfmoon” in ’em still? — and now the joke’s on us: They can’t tour … at least not for a little while longer. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “Superblood Wolfmoon”, “Dance of the Clairvoyants”, and “Who Ever Said”

Pick up the album here.

09. Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist – Alfredo

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist Alfredo Top 50 Albums of 2020

Origin: Gary, Indiana, and Beverly Hills, California

The Gist: It was just a short year ago that Freddie Gibbs found himself riding high off Bandana, his second major collaboration with producer Madlib and arguably his finest output yet. Less than a calendar year later, he threatens to top that masterpiece with yet another, this time teaming up with The Alchemist, whom Gibbs partnered with on Fetti, a 2018 split album with Curren$y.

Why It Rules: In a year where a lot of hip-hop headlines have chased names like Eminem, Run the Jewels, Jay Electronica, and even a late Mac Miller (R.I.P.) — and not without good reason — it’s important to remember that workmanlike names like Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist keep doing what they do with or without the fanfare. Alfredo finds Gibbs bruising over ominous beats (“God Is Perfect”) and more soulful arrangements (“Something to Rap About”) alike, flexing his many muscles as an emcee while occasionally swapping verses with names like Tyler, The Creator, Rick Ross, and Benny the Butcher. While Gibbs and The Alchemist may not get the same ink as others, the quality they inject into track after track continues to outshine flashier contemporaries. –Matt Melis 

Essential Tracks: “Something to Rap About”, “God Is Perfect”, and “Scottie Beam”

Pick up the album here.

08. Lady Gaga – Chromatica

Lady Gaga - Chromatica

Origin: New York, New York

The Gist: Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) is back with her first pop-centric album since 2013, and it lives up to the long-awaited hype. There’s not much to say about Gaga that isn’t already known to the public, but she took some time off pop music to try a bit of country twang on Joanne in 2016, made a little, not-popular-at-all movie that you’ve definitely never heard of called A Star Is Born, had a full-blown Las Vegas residency … she’s been busy. But she’s back to her roots, and that’s all that matters.

Why It Rules: Maybe it’s the pandemic and how it’s made us all feel, well, some type of way, but this might have been the best time in history for Gaga to re-emerge and reclaim her throne as the Pop Queen. The world is burning down, so, in the words of Bowie, let’s dance. Lady Gaga proved to us back in 2008 with her debut, The Fame, that she was a force to be reckoned with, and now, more than a decade later she’s reminding us that not only is she still that same 5’2” force, but now she can do it on a lengthy concept album that, from start to finish, is just banger after banger with a few dramatic transitions. She uses her resources wisely on Chromatica, between enlisting other pop gurus like Ariana Grande and freakin’ Sir Elton John to guest on tracks, highlighting the singles with already-iconic music videos, and even adding some K-pop flair with a BLACKPINK feature. This album toes the line into house music territory, which is new for Gaga, but as with the vast majority of what she does, she does it with extreme success. –Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “Stupid Love”, “Sour Candy”, and “Rain on Me”

Pick up the album here.

07. Deftones – Ohms

Deftones Ohms - album artwork

Origin: Sacramento, California

The Gist: Sacramento alt-metallers Deftones tend to transform at the turns of decades. In 2000, they released their conceptual high-water mark White Pony while 2010’s Diamond Eyes is a stellar collection of catchy-but-clever skate rock tracks. On the other hand, 2020’s Ohms isn’t a radical reinvention, but it’s a solid addition to their legacy — a surprisingly heavy one, at that.

Why It Rules: Deftones have only ever produced good albums, but they’ve also spent the decade since Diamond Eyes exploring textures and soundscapes, sometimes at the expense of songcraft. Ohms breaks that trend, with more focused songs, and a renewed love of hard-rocking guitar riffs that may rekindle the band’s relationship with fans that jumped ship after White Pony. It’s a record that hints at a purified blend of their contrasting influences in its finest moments, like the ecstatic crescendo in “Error”, the hyperactive, fuzzed-out bass riff that anchors “Radiant City”, the melodic glory of the title track, and every single second of “The Spell of Mathematics”. But as revitalized as Deftones sound in 2020, it’s tempting to imagine their next album building off of these ideas and taking a few more risks along the way. –Joseph Schafer

Essential Tracks: “Ceremony”, “Error”, and “The Spell of Mathematics”

Pick up the album here.

06. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud

Origin: Birmingham, Alabama

The Gist: Katie Crutchfield has spent the better part of the last decade touring. Whether with her twin sister, Allison, as P.S. Eliot (or the lesser known Ackleys) or as solo project Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s early, anxiety-ridden music takes you on a lo-fi, reverb-soaked journey through both her fluctuating life and psyche. Tracks on American Weekend and Cerulean Salt are fuzzy vignettes of getting high and routinely getting left in the wind. Later records Ivy Tripp and Out in the Storm find Crutchfield backed by a full band with tighter and more dynamic production. But she’s still fatigued — both physically and mentally. Yet, with new record, Saint Cloud, she’s looking at the world with stars in her eyes. After sobering up and moving to Kansas City with partner Kevin Morby, she sings with a newfound conviction and just outright optimism. Ditching grunge for the Americana country twang she grew up with in Birmingham, Alabama, she delivers some of the most impressive songwriting in her catalog.

Why It Rules: One must assume that with sobriety comes a sense of clarity. But for Crutchfield it wasn’t an immediate discovery. At first, her writing initially felt blurred. But for this reason, the songs feel all the more tender, as if each line was delicately molded into place. It’s Saint Cloud’s genuine storytelling about traveling across the world and making repeated mistakes that allows you to easily view all the crosses she’s removed, reexamined, and replaced. It’s soft and sunny, without being deceitfully utopian. But more importantly, it’s a replanting of Crutchfield’s roots. She’s removed all the weeds and decided to let herself bloom. With a folksy, gentle backbeat, Saint Cloud becomes the soundtrack for new beginnings. –Samantha Small

Essential Tracks: “Can’t Do Much”, “Fire”, and “Lilacs”

Pick up the album here.

05. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

Origin: London, England

The Gist: After releasing her 2017 self-titled debut, Dua Lipa dove head first into the sounds of nostalgic, classic dance-pop, borrowing a page from legends like Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Olivia Newton-John. Between that reference point and her collaborations with producers who built their careers on such retro palettes (Mark Ronson), Future Nostalgia was bound to be an explosive marrying of the best of the past, present, and future.

Why It Rules: Lipa wanted her sophomore album to “feel like a dancercise class,” and that’s exactly what she accomplished. From start to finish, each track pulses and sweats with both fun and purpose — especially as it powers through clubby waves of disco, house, new wave, and funk. Hell, there’s even a bit of ABBA’s pristine Europop in there, too. What holds everything together at the end of the day is Lipa herself; she’s a cool, confident presence that moves with the choreography and spirit of the music, rather than over it. That’s restraint at work, but she also knows she doesn’t need to try all that hard: “No matter what you do, I’m gonna get it without ya/ I know you ain’t used to a female alpha,” she sings on the title track. –Lake Schatz

Essential Tracks: “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical”, and “Future Nostalgia”

Pick up the album here.

04. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

perfume genius set my heart fire album cover art Top 50 Albums of 2020

Origin: Seattle, Washington

The Gist: Just three years ago, Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) wanted nothing more than to be rid of his corporeal flesh prison once and for all. “Burn off every trace/ I wanna hover with no shape,” he declared. The ethos evidenced by the first half of this lyric — one of urgency, of radical change by immolation — hasn’t gone anywhere. Hadreas’ longing for freedom from physicality, however, has given way to a full-body feeling resonant with the grounding power that comes with actively living in every corner of one’s body. At the center of this shift lies The Sun Still Burns Here, Hadreas’ collaboration with choreographer Kate Wallich and the YC dance company. Working in a direction inspired by a new connectedness with his body, an accomplished cast of musicians, along with No Shape producer Blake Mills, joined Hadreas in the studio.

Why It Rules: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately builds on No Shape’s alt-pop foundation while pushing further in every single direction: baroque harpsichord flourishes on “Jason”, the outright synth-pop of “On the Floor”, “Describe”’s chunky guitar tone, and the agonizingly spare creep of “Moonbend”. Meanwhile, Hadreas’ voice explores new, grating lows alongside familiar gossamer highs. The way he routinely and naturally raises the bar from record to record makes you wonder whether he already knows where he’s going next. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t, but as long as he keeps burning, we’ll watch in awe, reflections of the flames dancing in our eyes. –Sean Lang

Essential Tracks: “Jason”, “On the Floor”, and “Some Dream”

Pick up the album here.

03. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

phoebe bridgers punisher album artwork cover Top 50 Albums of 2020

Origin: Los Angeles, California

The Gist: With a debut as phenomenal as Stranger in the Alps, plenty of artists would be content sitting back for a few years and riding its waive of critical acclaim, but not Phoebe Bridgers. In the three years between her debut and her new record, Punisher, the Los Angeles native joined Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker to form indie supergroup boygenius and wrote and released a folk-rock album with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst under the name Better Oblivion Community Center. Bridgers is one of the more unique artists currently releasing music, so it’s no surprise at all that Punisher lands high on this list.

Why It Rules: Bridgers is a master of curating her innermost thoughts into clever, and at times devastating, one-liners, and Punisher is full of them. The songs are specific, sometimes incredibly specific (See: “We fought about John Lennon/ Until I cried/ And then went to bed upset” on “Moon Song”), and yet every song’s meaning stands solid outside of its individual story. Punisher is so many things; it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s dreamy and reflective, and yet remains rooted in Bridgers’ experience as someone in her twenties with insight beyond her years. Punisher broke the curse of the sophomore slump and cemented Bridgers’ place as the indie-rock poet for twentysomethings who continue to date people they don’t actually like. –Jennifer Irving

Essential Tracks: “Kyoto”, “I Know the End”, and “Chinese Satellite”

Pick up the album here.

02. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

run the jewels 4 rtj4 album cover artwork

Origin: Atlanta, Georgia, and New York, New York

The Gist: Two years after it was initially announced, Run the Jewels delivered RTJ4 right when the world needed it most. That meant dropping it for free (as they’ve done with all their albums) two days before it was officially scheduled for release. Packed with tracks that work equally as bangers and raw eviscerations of America’s sociopolitical landscape, it quickly became the hip-hop album of the year.

Why It Rules: Sometimes an album meets a moment, and sometimes the moment meets the album. With RTJ4, it was both. “walking in the snow” and “JU$T” would have lost none of their righteousness had the Black Lives Matter movement not resurged, but fate has made their prescience that much more urgent. This is the same acid-tongued scrutiny Run the Jewels have been supplying from the start, spit with a dexterous fury that makes it a merciless score for the revolution. Yet, listen to the passion of “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”, the ungodly collaboration with Josh Homme and Mavis Staples (who does that?!) on “pulling the pin”, or the Greg Nice- and DJ Premier-featuring smash “ooh la la”, and somehow RTJ4 even transcends its inextricable moment. Killer Mike and El-P long ago cemented themselves among hip-hop’s hardest lyrical combos, with the latter a maestro of hardcore sci-fi punk production; this time around, the fist and gun have become carved into history. –Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “ooh la la”, “walking in the snow”, and “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”

Pick up the album here.

01. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Origin: Los Angeles, California

The Gist: Eight years after Fiona Apple’s last full-length, Fetch the Bolt Cutters arrived just as the pandemic lockdown was really sinking in. Perhaps overmuch documented as a “recluse,” Apple had recorded most of the LP in her own Venice Beach home, before the “self-isolated album” was vogue. As we sat wrestling with our newly restricted freedom, here came an artist with a furious, funny, frank cry of liberation from every last creative and personal fuck.

Why It Rules: It’s rare, but it happens: A work of art arrives that is so universally acknowledged as a masterpiece that there is barely need for debate, only praise. Last year, it was Parasite; this year it’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It’s raw with snarls, whispers, harmonies, and dog barks; ragged with found percussive instruments and GarageBand recordings; withering with impassioned lyrics about bullies, women, depression, relationships, rape … a list that actually stretches well beyond its 13 tracks. Best of all, Apple no longer sounds consumed by insecurities — she’s cut the bolts, you see — which makes her confrontations here acts of amelioration more than agony. In a time where everything is chaos, that’s the sort of shoulder-shaking we need. Apple has always created on a different level, so it’s not all that surprising she was able to deliver another captivating opus. We’re just glad she “won’t shut up.” –Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “Under the Table”, “Shameika”, and “Heavy Balloon”

Pick up the album here.

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