2020 Music in Review: The 10 best albums of the year
From beginning to (almost) end, 2020 has been the most unconventional year in recent memory. And naturally, the music released this year has been strange. While those who released music at the beginning of the year largely finished recording before the pandemic began, many artists releasing albums at the tail-end have had to work around stay-at-home orders and general shutdowns. As always, art has found a way to overcome, and these 10 albums represent some of the best music released in this otherwise difficult year.
10. “Microphones in 2020” by The Microphones — Kicking off this list is “Microphones in 2020,” which is not really an album at all; it is one continuous 45 minute song. After 17 years of recording as Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum chose to revive his “The Microphones” moniker to create this deeply affecting portrait of his early years as a musician. Even though the lyrics relate to Elverum’s life, they contain universal themes of existentialism and nostalgia. The instrumental, while sparse and repetitive, creates a haunting and beautiful mood that endures for the song’s duration. “Microphones in 2020” is most rewarding for long time fans of Elverum’s previous work, but anyone who listens will find something moving.
Best Song: “Microphones in 2020”
9. “Shabrang” by Sevdaliza — Dutch-Iranian singer Sevdaliza delivered one of the year’s most compelling art-pop albums with “Shabrang,” an ornate and down-tempo reflection on topics ranging from religion to geopolitics. Sevdaliza’s unique combination of electronic trip-hop beats and classical instrumentation make for an exciting album despite, or because of, its slow-moving nature. Her distinctive voice and artsy R&B production invite comparisons to FKA Twigs, but ultimately Sevdaliza’s masterful use of quietude separates her from any other artist. Songs like “Darkest Hour” and “Oh My God’ exhibit her ability to create music that is simultaneously enjoyable and interesting from a critical perspective.
Best Song: “All Rivers at Once”
8. “RTJ4” by Run the Jewels — Rappers Killer Mike and El-P reunited this year for their fourth and best collaborative album under the Run the Jewels name. Released amid this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, “RTJ4” combines politically conscious lyrics with bombastic vocals and production to create a powerful protest album. On their fourth album together, Killer Mike and El-P have perfected their formula, trading verses seamlessly back and forth on each track. While they have always had chemistry, “RTJ4” showcases both artists operating at maximum efficiency. With a tight 40 minute run time, “RTJ4” refuses to overstay its welcome. For anyone seeking a shot of pure energy, “RTJ4” is the best place to look.
Best Song: “out of sight (Ft. 2 Chainz)”
7. “Women in Music Pt. III” by HAIM — After 2013’s fantastic “Days are Gone” and 2017’s decent “Something to Tell You,” the Haim sisters’ third album was one of 2020’s most anticipated. With “Women in Music Pt. III,” Alana, Danielle and Este Haim exceeded all expectations, experimenting with new ideas alongside their classic 1970s soft rock. Additionally, HAIM’s lyrics on this album are at their most poignant and observant. On “Los Angeles,” a love letter to their hometown, Danielle sings, “New York is cold/I tried the winter there once, nope/Clearly the greatest city in the world/But it was not my home.” While “Women in Music Pt. III” is not groundbreaking by any means, it features an infectious and irresistible charm that should win over any HAIM doubter.
Best Song: “The Steps”
6. “I Disagree” by Poppy — YouTube phenomenon Poppy proves that she is more than just a novelty act with “I Disagree,” a surprisingly effective combination of bubblegum pop and heavy metal. Somehow, Poppy’s childlike vocals and Beach Boys-style vocal harmonies mesh perfectly with relentless metal guitar riffs. Honestly, the effect is terrifying. For any skeptics, I recommend the title track, “I Disagree.” In the chorus, Poppy’s melodic delivery of the lyrics “Down, let it all burn down/Burn it to the ground/We’ll be safe and sound/When it all burns down” complements the crushing guitars astonishingly well. For anyone looking for a musical experience that is uniquely catchy and frightening, “I Disagree” delivers.
Best Song: “I Disagree”
5. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple — As someone whose favorite album of all time is Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…,” I was fairly excited for her next album. My anticipation was compounded by the fact that it took eight years for Apple to create and release this follow-up. When “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” finally came out in April of this year, it did not disappoint. On her latest album Apple dives deeper into the stripped-back, rhythmic sound that she began on “The Idler Wheel…,” experimenting with the use of found objects such as pots and pans as percussion. Apple’s lyrics also sound as sharp as ever, ranging from the hope of “Shameika” to the anger of “For Her.” However, a few forgettable tracks and a lack of replay value prevent “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” from reaching the same highs as “The Idler Wheel….” For anyone looking for an introduction to Apple’s sound, though, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” makes for a great start.
Best Song: “Cosmonauts”
4. “How I’m Feeling Now” by Charli XCX — After releasing the best album of 2019 last September, Charli XCX was not content to rest on her laurels for very long. For the extroverted Charli XCX, the boredom of stay-at-home orders felt torturous. As a result, she spent six weeks collaborating online with her fans to create “How I’m Feeling Now,” which expresses her loneliness and boredom. The penultimate track, “anthems,” is perhaps the best summation of COVID-19 quarantine released all year. Charli’s exclamation of “I’m so bored” at the beginning felt truly anthemic at the time. Ultimately, “How I’m Feeling Now” is both a great time capsule for early 2020 and a fantastic collection of songs.
Best Song: “forever”
3. “SAWAYAMA” by Rina Sawayama
Alternative pop star Rina Sawayama’s debut full-length album “SAWAYAMA” is the best pop album of 2020. On her 2017 mini-album “RINA,” Sawayama’s insightful lyrics and revival of early-2000s sounds won over many fans of alternative pop. As a follow-up, “SAWAYAMA” expands these same ideas into a fully fleshed-out album. From the dance beat of “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)” to the nu-metal of “STFU!,” Sawayama updates all of the best characteristics of Y2K-era pop to poignant modern music. While not every track on “SAWAYAMA” is as perfect as the tracks on “RINA,” “SAWAYAMA” makes for a fantastic full-length debut and marks Sawayama as an artist to watch for years to come.
Best Track: “XS”
2. “Alfredo” by Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist
On “Alfredo,” Freddie Gibbs proves once again that he is the best independent rapper in the game. Gibbs’ two collaborations with legendary producer Madlib, 2014’s “Piñata” and 2019’s “Bandana,” showcased Gibbs as a rapper at the height of his skills. “Alfredo” demonstrates that Gibbs’ quick but rhythmic flow works well with multiple producers, this time collaborating with The Alchemist. The Alchemist’s beats are subtle and understated, but their quiet nature and classic feel complement Gibbs’ rapping perfectly. Additionally, guest verses from Rick Ross and Tyler, the Creator are well-placed and add to the album without taking away from Gibbs’ or The Alchemist’s spotlight. From beginning to end, “Alfredo” is a fantastic album, and the best hip-hop album released all year.
Best Song: “Skinny Suge”
1. “Punisher” by Phoebe Bridgers
On the title track of “Punisher,” Phoebe Bridgers recounts her obsession with the late folk artist Elliott Smith. She describes herself as “A copycat killer with a chemical cut,” implying that she is “plagiarizing Elliott Smith” as she clarified later in a tweet. Bridgers is correct in that her music has the same energy as Smith’s; however, on “Punisher,” Bridgers forges a distinct identity through her introspective lyrics and achingly beautiful melodies. On “Garden Song,” Bridgers describes in embarrassing detail a recurring nightmare she has while on tour. On “Chinese Satellite,” she sings, “I want to believe/Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing,” describing her personal struggles with faith. On “Kyoto,” one of the few upbeat tracks on the album, she sings of her complicated relationship with her father, inviting listeners into her family drama. Bridgers’ ability to convey her emotions is second to none. Along with the bare, stripped-back folk instrumentation, Bridgers’ lyrics make “Punisher” a difficult but infinitely rewarding listen with unlimited replay value, and the best album released this year.
Best Song: “Kyoto”