Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My top albums of 2020

Music was more necessary than ever in 2020, and some albums were prescient, while others were created because musicians were stuck at home and couldn't help but create. I listened to more new releases than ever before, as I was home at my computer constantly. As always, the rankings are looser as the numbers get bigger. Because I listened to so much stuff, I went all the way to 60 albums on this list, and there are at least 20 or 30 that could have made the list had I made it at some other time.

1. Bob DylanRough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia): Much as Dylan’s 2001 album Love & Theft was a salve in the wake of 9/11 (the album came out on that tragic day), this album is just right for 2020. Part of it is because like its 2001 predecessor, this is an album where Dylan hits on a mix of blues, folk, and standards, with a relaxed presence, showing off his sense of humor in spots, and on the powerful “A Murder Most Foul”, an epic sweep that confirms that his artistic powers can still reach the highest heights. This is enduring, classic music, full of feeling, ideas, and empathy.
2. Rina SawayamaSAWAYAMA (Dirty Hit): After a strong EP, this Japanese-British singer hit a whole other level on this superb pop album. Critics took note of the strong ‘90s vibes, from the propulsive pop blended, at times, with metallic guitars. The songs slam and Sawayama is a really strong singer. What really elevates these catchy numbers are Sawayama’s smart, direct lyrics, with her commentaries on racism, community, consumerism, and other topics, consistently sharp on every song.
3. Songhoy BluesOptimisme (Fat Possum): This quartet from Mali is simply explosive, and their third album shows them crossing over into nearly straight ahead rock more than ever. There’s plenty of their blend of sub-Saharan desert blues and Afropop, with a few songs having some straight ahead rock riffing. As the album title indicates, these are songs of hope. The songs move, the performances are passionate, and Garba Touré is a true guitar hero for this age.
4. Nadia ReidOut of my Province (Spacebomb): The third album from this Kiwi singer-songwriter finds her honing her superb music. There’s nothing unfamiliar about Reid’s sound, it’s just that she does it so well, with strong melodies and intelligent, concise lyrics that cut to the heart of the matters she sings about. Fans of folks like Laura Marling, Ron Sexsmith, and Judee Sill might find something to like in this record. There’s nothing showy about Reid’s music, as she doesn’t need flash to be utterly captivating.
5. Laura MarlingSongs for our Daughter (Partisan): Over recent years, Marling has looked to different ways to challenge herself and keep from making the same record again and again. Moreover, she’s made some pretty intense material. However, this album is just about making warm, empathetic songs, which is just what 2020 required. The mix of folk, Joni Mitchell, and other Laurel Canyon-type sounds is so natural, and some songs even have a hint of acoustic Beatles in them. Relaxation becomes Marling.

6. Lianne La HavasLianne La Havas (Nonesuch): This record was a good companion to the Laura Marling, with La Havas finding a middle ground between the more standard singer-songwriter approach of her debut with the R & B/soul orientation of her second album. And this space really shows off La Havas’ many gifts, from her guitar playing to her melodic skills to her wonderful vocals. The album is both warm and intimate, yet has larger aspect that will really come to the fore when she can play these songs in concert halls in front of audiences again.

7. SAULTUntitled (Rise)(Forever Living Originals): I would also include the group’s Untitled (Black Is) as part of this entry, as it’s really a double album that was released in two parts. The titles of the albums show a political consciousness that permeates these modern R & B songs masterminded by producer Inflo. The songs have hypnotic grooves that touch a bit on African music, trip hop, and other British electronic genres at times, but with roots in soul, aided primarily by the singing of Cleo Sol. These albums are transmissions of music that is cool and sleek with an underlying burning passion.

8. Sunshine BoysWork and Love (Pravda): I read an interview with singer-guitarist Dag Juhlin some time after this album was released, and he talked about how much he enjoys playing with bass player Jacqueline Schimmel and drummer Freda Love Smith, and it’s something that comes out of the speakers. Juhlin’s articulate songs mix an ‘80s American indie feel (which must be why some people compare them to R.E.M.) with aspects of groups like The Who, XTC, and The Jam, among others. The songs are always smart and the politically slanted ones have both musical and lyrical bite.

9. SparksA Steady, Drip, Drip, Drip (BMG): A worthy follow up to 2017's Hippopotamus, with Ron and Russell Mael continuing a mix of arch art-pop constructions with forays into pure silliness (“Lawnmower”) and simple, emotion-driven sing-a-longs (“All That”). Ron Mael’s melodic magic is in full effect and he manages to whip up songs premised on some of the strangest lyrical foundations (“Stravinsky’s Biggest Hit” and “Left Out in the Cold”). This is the longest stretch of above-average albums in the brothers’ long career as Sparks.

10. Resistance Revival ChorusThis Joy (Righteous Babe):  A project that could have been unwieldy and/or overwrought, is instead an overwhelming success. Over 70 women and non-binary singers who met at a Women’s March reconnect soul to its gospel roots, along with some old-fashioned folk protest music, combining stirring originals with well-chosen covers, augmented by great guest features (such as Rhiannon Giddens and Valerie June). That they pulled this off during the pandemic makes it all the more special.

11. Gil Scott-Heron / Makaya McCravenWe’re New Again: A Reimagining By Makaya McCraven (XL): A great concept to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the final album from the legendary Scott-Heron: strip the electronic backing (courtesy of producer/XL head Richard Russell) from Gil’s vocals and let the creative Chicago jazzman McCraven create new backing. It’s a tribute to the songs that were crafted and McCraven’s invention that if you hadn’t heard the original album, you would know anything had been switched. McCraven finds new ways to accentuate the strength of Scott-Heron’s words and vocals. A real triumph.

12. Kylie MinogueDisco (BMG): Minogue did most of the work on this throwback album at home, so this club friendly album was apparently recorded in a living room or kitchen. The album is steeped in ‘70s sounds, but with modern technology, creating a best of both worlds. Of course, Minogue has always been a dance music queen, so this deep dive into nostalgia suits her, making for a great party platter.

13. XAlphabetland (Fat Possum): X has been playing gigs with the original line up for years, with no indication that they were working on new material. So this album was a wonderful surprise. The live work clearly informed the proceedings, as the band effortlessly taps into the clangorous sounds of their first two albums. Everything gallops at a breathless pace, as that patented John Doe/Exene Cervenka vocal combination works its magic, and Billy Zoom smokes as always. A few songs date back to their early years, but the new ones are so good, it’s hard to tell which are which.

14. (Liv).eCouldn’t Wait to Tell You... (In Real Life): This L.A-based (originally from Dallas) singer plays a modern, trippy form of R & B. One of the clear comparisons is Erykah Badu, and wouldn’t you know it, Badu has given props to (Liv).e as taking her ideas and moving them forward. The songs are sometimes fragmentary, with out-of-nowhere production choices, while the melodies are in line with SZA and Frank Ocean. This is one of those records that rewards further listens with new details.

15. John AndersonYears (Easy Eye Sound): The ‘80s country star never stopped recording and playing live, but had receded into the background. Enter Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who is one of the best producers of roots music, with an amazing ability to tap into the essence of an artist. Here, Auerbach helps put together a great set of songs that accentuate Anderson’s still superb singing. This may be the best album of Anderson’s career.

16. Beach BunnyHoneymoon (Mom + Pop): The Chicago band’s debut LP came at the perfect time, after achieving Tik Tok success with the song “Prom Queen”. This unit has come together to provide punchy, punky-poppy backing to the succinct, hooky songs of frontwoman Lili Trifilio. This is matched by fantastic production, as the record explodes out of the speakers, while Trifilio’s voice has the power to equal the loud guitars.

17. Justin RobertsWild Life (Carpet Square): Roberts earned another Grammy-nomination in the Best Children’s Album category (yet again) for this effort, but this is the chronicle of a new dad singing to and about his new child. So, yeah, it’s autobiographical. Roberts expertly chronicles the feelings and emotions about this big life change, with gentle, melodic songs that resonate.

18. RumerNashville Tears (Cooking Vinyl): The British-Pakistani singer recorded this album in Nashville, taking on the songs of Hugh Prestwood, who wrote his share of Music City hits, but also has some more contemplative songs. This isn’t a straight-ahead country record, but more of a meld of country, folk, and pop. Many of these songs are rooted in nature, making them a perfect fit for the hippie-ish Rumer, who inhabits the material.

19. Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding Last Flight Out (Kernel): The second Funeral Bonsai Wedding album has Dawson again working with top flight Chicago jazz musicians. Dawson’s songs are so well-written that the musicians can stretch them out or simply find ways to ornament them with their great playing. This isn’t as audacious as the first FBW outing, but this follow up proves it was no fluke, and this combination creates something that’s not quite folk, or Americana, or jazz, making for something really fresh. 

20. ProtomartyrUltimate Success Today (Domino):  From the first time I heard them, I dug Protomartyr’s music. It’s a great take on post-punk music, with some aspects that remind me of The Fall and Girls Against Boys, but nothing that comes close to aping. Their albums are must-buy affairs. But none have hit me like this one – this may be a case where the songs and performances are just a little bit better than on prior albums. Or it could be that something about this year made me particularly needing to hear the band’s powerful, controlled seething rage. 

21. AnjimileGiver Taker (Father/Daughter): A winning debut from singer-songwriter Anjimile Chithambo, who wrote songs while undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, while also adjusting to life as a trans non-binary person. Their songs are sensitive and evocative, with warm guitars and Anjimile’s wonderful singing, which sometimes brings to mind a quieter Joan Armatrading. 

22. Lydia LovelessDaughter (Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late): This is Loveless’s divorce album, and her lyrics and singing convey many emotions, with strong performances throughout the album. One by-product of this inspiration is that the music flows in a way it hasn’t on other recent albums. The feelings in the lyrics mesh so well with the music for each particular song. It makes for a powerful listen.

23. Kali UchisSin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)(Interscope/Virgin EMI): Uchis’s first Spanish-language album shows her increasing her musical vocabulary even more. There’s plenty of R & B sounds, and Latin music figures in, but many other interesting things are going on. There’s one song that is definitely like early Portishead. I don’t think this had as many killer songs as her last album, but this LP leaves me certain the best is yet to come from her.

24. Moses SumneyGræ (Jagjaguwar): This is a mood album, and when it first came out, Sumney’s vocals combined with the spare modern R & B musical settings really drew me in. I found that over time, there’s a decent amount that could have been cut from the album, but there’s enough stunning tracks on here that it remains a favorite.

25. Doves The Universal Want (Heavenly/Virgin): The first Doves album in ten years shows that they still write Doves songs, which exist in some netherworld between post-Radiohead music like Elbow, certain sort-of-shoegazers like Swervedriver, and dance music, creating something anthemic, but never over the top, thanks in part to singer Jimi Goodwin’s vulnerable vocals. Goodwin’s voice is a bit weathered, and the band manages to scale down a little bit, without sacrificing everything that makes it special. 

26. KeiyaAForever, Ya Girl (self-released): This Chicago-born singer is now based in New York, and she made the R & B equivalent of a mid-fi R & B record. Everything is hazy and haunted, but not sloppy – KeiyaA has a firm handle on the sound and the moods and feelings it evokes. She pulls off a great cover of a Prince deep cut, and her songwriting isn’t quite up to the standard of her production, but there are some gems on here.

27. Star Feminine BandStar Feminine Band (Born Bad): Musician André Balaguemon put out an offer in 2016 to teach young girls in the African nation of Benin how to play instruments and learn local music. Seven were chosen, and inspired by Benin’s biggest music star, the great Angelique Kidjo, the girls, who had no prior experience, quickly took their instruments. Within two years, they began performing live, and now, aged 10 to 17, they debuted with this spirited, fun Afropop effort. The songs are good, as is the playing, and rarely have I heard music more joyful.

28. The Cool GreenhouseThe Cool Greenhouse (Melodic): Very British repetitious post-punk, primarily inspired by The Fall, with perhaps some undertones of Pavement and Art Brut. The band locks into riffs and grooves, and singer Tom Greenhouse engages in wordplay, sometimes witty, sometimes sarcastic. The music never plods and Greenhouse never gets to snarky or condescending. The best song on here is about how the band will clean your glasses at their shows – eyeglasses or drinking glasses. That’s encouraging.

29. Thao & The Get Down Stay DownTemple (Ribbon): Thao Nguyen co-produces with a bandmate after two albums with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards behind the board. Nguyen takes some lessons from that, and there are some rhythmically creative numbers on par with those on her prior two releases. But there are more straightforward folkie songs, akin to her earlier work. This makes for a nice balance, and yet another quality LP.

30. Nicole AtkinsItalian Ice (Single Lock): As long as Atkins throws a few swoony, retro (think ‘50s/early ‘60s) numbers on an album, it will always be worthwhile. That box is ticked. She also continues forays into R & B/soul-inspired numbers, and with her powerhouse voice, that’s going to work. There are a few other sounds explored here, and the only thing that’s not stellar on this album is the overall material, as there aren’t as many flat out great songs as on her best LPs.

31. International Teachers of PopPop Gossip (Desolate Spools): Now a quartet, this co-ed group continues to survey retro electronic sounds from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, armed with pop smarts and a great sense of humor. The guest appearance by Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods on “I Stole Yer Plimsolls” is a highlight. Some of the songs are really geared toward the club, with enough pop numbers to get the balance right, including a Pink Floyd cover. In German.

32. OhmmeFantasize Your Ghost (Joyful Noise): This duo is very confident and bursting with ideas. The ability to go from ethereal beauty to skronky art-rock guitar noise, possibly within the same song is alluring. This fulfills the promise of the group’s debut, as the songs are getting stronger, and the music is full of life. Subsequent singles indicate they are improving at a ridiculous rate.

33. Dua LipaFuture Nostalgia (Warner): This British pop star with the full, commanding voice works with a bevy of talented producers and writers and comes up with club friendly album of terrific modern pop. There are hooks a plenty on this album, riding catchy beats. And Lipa is so appealing, exuding personality that tops off every song.

34. Shabaka and the AncestorsWe Are Sent Here By History (Impulse!): Shabaka Hutchings’ first album with the group of South African musicians who comprise the Ancestors was done in a single day. The follow up is more considered, and jazz and African music mix with further influences, including Latin music, to make for another fascinating outing. This is challenging, but like most of what Hutchings does, it’s never inaccessible.

35. Denise Chaila Go Bravely (Narolane): Chaila is an Afro-Irish poet and rapper, and this is a fun, immediate slice of hip hop. She has a distinctive flow and puts her personality across, while, as her poetry background might indicate, she has a real way with the words. The music is playful and bright, making this a smart, fun record. 

36. Joe Pernice Richard (Ashmont): Most Pernice Brothers records find a certain stylistic entry point (‘60s baroque pop, ‘80s British indie, etc.) and work that for a cohesive LP. On this album, Pernice, with minimal assistance from outside musicians, goes the solo acoustic route. As polished as some Pernice Brothers albums can be, when you get down to it, Pernice writes wonderful songs, so even in spare format, the mix of great melodies and biting lyrics are great as usual.

37. KAYE Conscious Control (Red Lily): This is Charlene Kaye’s first solo album since she left the band San Fermin. She writes and produces songs that incorporate modern pop styles, and would fit in a playlist with artists like Charli XCX, Dua Lipa, and Rina Sawayama. And there are a few songs that would be hits in an alternate universe where such punchy pop songs were married with lyrics that take on more adult concerns and thoughts. 

38. CorikyCoriky (Dischord): A really good debut from Ian Mackaye and Joe Lally of Fugazi, joined by Amy Farina of The Evens. There’s nothing too off-the-wall here – this is simply well done post-punk, by folks who know how to write a memorable song, add some smart lyrics, and play them with skill and passion. This album met expectations and was a good soundtrack for controlled anger against the system this year.

39. Jackie LynnJacqueline (Drag City): Part two from this conceptual alter ego of Haley Fohr, the woman behind Circuit des Yeux, who matches the decadence of some of the lyrics by exploring the electronic pop sounds of the ‘70s. So there are hints of Giorgio Moroder and Roxy Music, among others, with one of the best songs sounding like Fleetwood Mac in 1976 if St. Vincent was part of the band. 

40. Half Gringa Force to Reckon (self-released): The second Half Gringa album finds Izzy Olive maturing as a songwriter on a collection of well-rendered acoustic guitar numbers that are sometimes augmented by strings and steel guitars. Not everything is high and lonesome, but her strength is definitely Americana numbers that are best heard under the stars on a moonlight night.

41. Dead Famous PeopleHarry (Fire): The first album in 18 years from veteran Kiwi band lead by Dons Savage, this is old school jangle pop.

42. OnipaWe Be No Machine (Strut): Afro-pop from group based in London, mixing in some dance music sounds. 

43. Cheer-Accident Chicago XX (Cuneiform): Another terrific mix of arty rock (think King Crimson and like-minded progsters) with a pop sense that takes in The Beach Boys and Chicago, among others. 

44. Ultimate FakebookThe Preserving Machine (Sonic Ritual): A great reunion album by this clever, fun pop-punk band from Kansas. 

45. GanserJust Look at That Sky (Felte): No sophomore slump for this Chicago post-punk band that is bursting with ideas and jagged riffs.

46. Ego Ella MayHoney for Wounds (Upperroom): May’s jazz background melds perfectly with these nocturnal R & B songs on a winning debut. 

47. Pet Shop BoysHotspot (X2): A good, not great, PSB album, but there are few songs that join the ranks of their very best, as the ability of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to incorporate modern dance trends in their synth-pop is impressive.

48. CornershopEngland Is a Garden (Ample Play): At this point, the duo is a venerable institution, mixing The Velvet Underground, Indian music, and Britpop into distinctive, memorable pop rock. 

49. The Vapors Together (Manmade Soul/The Vapors Own): A terrific reunion that, but for David Fenton’s voice being a bit weathered (not to the detriment of the songs), pretty picks up where they left off in the ‘80s, with pithy, new wavey guitar rock songs.

50. Sweet CrudeOfficiel//Artificiel (Nonesuch): A Louisiana band that sings in a hybrid of French and English native to their part of the state, they fit somewhere in the realm of Talking Heads and early Arcade Fire, and may become big someday.

51. Bethany ThomasBT/She/Her (self-released): Impressive solo album from Chicago actress and singer. She has a powerful voice and plays songs that touch on rock, soul, and blues in creative ways.

52. Mamalarky Mamalarky (Fire Talk): This is arty pop that reminds me a bit of bands like Lilys and Pretty & Nice, so it’s my kind of quirk.

53. No JoyMotherhood (Hand Drawn Dracula/Joyful Noise): I enjoyed No Joy’s approach to shoegazer noise, but this album goes in a keyboard-dominated, electronic direction, and after I got over the shock, I think I like this direction even better.

54. Public PracticeGentle Grip (Wharf Cat): At times sounding like a cross between Gang of Four and Blondie, this is stylized, dance-y post-punk, with plenty of hooks. 

55. DehdFlower of Devotion (Fire Talk): Take twangy late ‘50's/early ‘60s rock, throw in some Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain, with some big, gorgeous melodies, and you have a darned good album. Very cool. 

56. The Well WishersShelf Life (self-released): Jeff Shelton is one of the most reliable writer-performers in power pop. Imagine The Posies and Tommy Keene spiked with post-punk influences.

57. The ChicksGaslighter (Columbia): Too many slow numbers, but the best songs on here are great country pop, often with a message.

58. Maria McKeeLa Vita Nuova (Fire): A brave album of swooping ballads that show McKee is still one of the best singers out there.

59. Close Lobsters Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols (Shelflife): A ballsier take on smart, jangly British indie pop they played back in the ‘80s.

60. Alice BagSister Dynamite (In the Red): Probably the punchiest and straight ahead rocking album of Bag’s solo career, and I actually missed the greater variety of the first two albums, but otherwise, it’s more swell, smart punk rock from a legend.

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