After posting my favorite songs of 2020, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums of the year. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each (except where noted).
20. Anjimile – Giver Taker (“Baby No More”)
19. Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom (“Glenfern”)
18. Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (“Ooh LA LA”)
17. Bartees Strange – Live Forever (“Stone Meadows”)
16. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush (“Posthumous Forgiveness”)
15. Square Loop – Mom Come Pick Me Up (Full Album)
14. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (“Murder Most Foul”)
13. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (“Letter to You”)
12. Bully – SUGAREGG (“Prism”)
11. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways to New Italy (“Cameo”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2020:
10. beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
Everything about beabadoobee, the stage name of London-based guitarist Bea Kristi, screams the sound, aesthetic and feel of a decade she missed being alive in by about 6 months. Her debut, the highly-anticipated Fake It Flowers, culls from the best of women-driven ‘90s alt-rock. Songs like lead single “Care”, frantic rockers “Worth It” and “Together” and dreamy jams “Further Away” and “Horen Sarrison” show the songwriting range she’s acquired already. Kristi’s also branched out beyond her main influence, as shown on lo-fi acoustic wonder “How Was Your Day?”, recalling Kimya Dawson’s iconic Juno soundtrack. She’s the latest in an incredible group of young women artists with great years ahead.
9. Soccer Mommy – color theory
Sophie Allison’s arc to date as the leader of Soccer Mommy has shown nothing but promise. Clean, my 5th-favorite album of 2018, displayed her budding talent as a lyricist and guitarist within the constructs of poppy alternative rock. But color theory, her sophomore effort, is more polished, more mature, more comfortable and more accomplished. Thoughtful jams like “night swimming,” “crawling in my skin,” “lucy” and “circle the drain” show Allison’s natural progression in all things, including a really fun melodic guitar sound throughout. Released in February, color theory was poised to push Soccer Mommy into a massive year before touring stopped. I hope for better success for Allison and her bandmates in 2021 and beyond.
8. Barely Civil – I’ll Figure This Out
On their second full-length album, the four young dudes in Milwaukee-based emo outfit Barely Civil manage to sound both exuberantly youthful and wise beyond their years. Led by the throaty wails of singer Connor Erickson, the band hits new highs thanks to standout tracks like the intricate “North Newhall,” all-out rocker “I Woke Up Laughing”, and near-perfect post-punk rager “Box For My Organs.” It’s the kind of stuff that most successful bands can build upon for big followings in this genre. The guys in Barely Civil are the kind who’ll need live music to come back to really have a chance to grow: here’s hoping I’ll Figure This Out is just the start of a positive trajectory.
7. Haim – Women In Music, Pt. III
On the cover of Women in Music Pt. III, the Haim sisters find themselves flanked on all sides by dozens of dangling pieces of phallic-shaped meat. Yes, it’s a metaphor, and not a terribly subtle one. But on their third album, the lack of subtlety is a feature and not a bug. The best thing about Women in Music Pt. III is that it isn’t just one thing; it finds Haim branching off in unique ways at a level of completeness they hadn’t reached before. There’s breezy ‘70s Laurel Canyon canon, ‘90s-style hip hop/R&B stuff I’m sure they grew up listening to, dancy rhythms and, on the seminal “The Steps” everything in one. There’s no need for subtlety when you’re as good as Haim, and I know they can keep getting better.
6. Taylor Swift – folklore
Taylor Swift has proven herself well beyond that of a crossover pop star, but a genius-level artist. This was punctuated in 2020 by the arrival of her surprise 8th album, folklore, recorded in quarantine. Of particular interest to me: roughly half the songs on the album are produced and co-written by Aaron Dessner, who happens to be a musical force behind one of the most important bands of my life. The result is a work of astounding beauty, quiet grace and emotional resonance. Late-album wonder “betty” is the best thing, in my estimation, Swift has ever done, a story song about a teenager trying to win back his love. The key-change/transition at around the 4-minute mark of “betty” is as close to perfection as music can come. As of this writing, I’m devouring evermore, her surprise follow-up to this surprise album. What Swift is doing now is bigger than making two excellent albums in a year. She’s a singer-songwriter with a prominent place in the folklore of popular music. She’s not Joni. She’s not Carole. She’s Taylor. And that matters.
5. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
It’s been 23 years since Fiona Apple got up on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards and declared that the world was bullshit. All these years later, the world sadly is still bullshit. On the bright side, Apple’s become one of the most important, uncompromising and influential of her or any era, and when she makes a statement, people listen. They certainly did this year with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album that lives up to its sky-high critical hype. Recalling Tom Waits at his most experimental, Apple goes in wildly innovative directions, ones you can’t predict. You’ve seen the same adjectives all year to describe this record: visceral, raw, uninhibited. I’m here to tell you none of them really work. It’s almost like Fetch the Bolt Cutters needs its own language. I’m not sure what you can really say for things like the primary refrain in “For Her” (“You raped me in the same bed / That your daughter was born in”), the reliance on found objects for percussion, how her voice cracks at the end of “I Want You to Love Me”, how she emphasizes the curse when she sings “I resent you presenting your life / Like a fucking propaganda brochure” on “Relay.” You have to really listen to it to understand. And you should.
4. Dogleg – Melee
No band got more screwed by the pandemic than Dogleg. The Detroit hardcore group sat on their debut album, Melee, for most of 2019, and planned to release it alongside an anticipated performance at SXSW in March. That turned out to be the first thing canceled in 2020, and Dogleg lost out on sharing their huge emo-inspired post-punk sound with a bigger audience. But no misfortune diminishes Melee’s power. In league with Celebration Rock, it goes so fucking hard from the first minute. It’s raw and organized at the same time, with heart-on-your-sleeve precision that defies their years. (They also parodied Clerks in the “Wartortle” video, another sure way to win me over.) Their polish allows lead singer and guitarist Alex Stoitsiadis to yell lyrics like “Will you be the fire or the wind?”, “I’m so tired of waiting around / To find something I’ve already got,” and “If I remember everything / Just to lose another day / No way, this to you I pray,” and have it all feel completely earned and without irony. It’s even so right for the album’s superlative closer “Ender” to finish on a string quartet and not feel out of place. Hopefully these ensuing years are better for Dogleg, because Melee is as promising a start as any band could have.
3. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
After the release of Jeff Rosenstock’s fourth full-length solo album, NO DREAM, in May, I became a Rosenstock believer. His hyper-self aware style, brash singing voice, and hard-charging guitars over a bevy of punkish hooks at different speeds make him stand out in a year of standouts. My very first thought going through my initial listen of NO DREAM: “I wish this was what Weezer and Green Day were actually trying to sound like in 2020.” Despite a sound consistent with the last 40 years of punk rock, NO DREAM is a thought-provoking look at the world from Rosenstock’s unique perspective, asking big questions about life and the world in 2020. These include songs that express anger at the absurdity of our politics in “Scram!”, that go HAM on immigration critics in the title track, that make us crack up in the too-funny-to-make-up “AIRBNB,” and that describe how hard it can be to change on several songs including “Old Crap.” It all comes to a head on the superb finale “Ohio Tpke,” ostensibly a song about being on the road, but with so much more underneath. It goes in several distinct movements covering all the musical avenues Rosenstock explores on the record. The refrain at the end highlights conflicting, familiar feelings: “I miss coming home to you / I hate coming home / I hate leaving home,” before concluding with some solo piano lines, a beautiful, poignant ending to a great record. NO DREAM is a celebration, the kind that was there whenever needed this year.
2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Coming into 2020, the music world knew a lot about Phoebe Bridgers. Her debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, was a solid folk-inspired, pop-tinged outing. High-profile collaborations followed, including with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in Boygenuis, as well as Conor Oberst in Better Oblivion Community Center, among many others. She was supposed to open for the 1975 this summer. Then, 2020 happened, which sucked for basically everyone except Phoebe Bridgers, who thanks to numerous things seemingly overnight went from quirky indie music star to full-fledged Internet celebrity. Truthfully none of it would have happened without this year’s Punisher being a great album. And, it is, showcasing all her talents in an amazing transformation from Stranger. Most of these songs are sonically quiet, but pack every ounce of emotional wallop in a genre she seems to have created out of whole cloth. She’s on another planet as a lyricist right now; Bridgers maintains an otherworldly knack of writing songs that sound like she’s just having a conversation with you while signing in her near-perfect voice. Her band is totally in tune with the intimate, ethereal nature of what she’s going for throughout Punisher. There’s her imagined conversation with Elliott Smith’s on the title track, her breezy tour diary on “Kyoto,” the overarching guitar and strings combos of “Chinese Satellite”, the frantic rushes of “I See You” and the glorious folksy Boygenuis reunion of “Graceland Too.” It ends with my favorite song of 2020, “I Know the End”, a cacophony of apocalypse in a year that always felt like one. The end may be here for 2020, but Phoebe Bridgers is just getting started.
1. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
It’s been such a rewarding journey to watch Katie Crutchfield go from virtual unknown in the crowded early 2010s indie rock scene to what she finally became in 2020: a beloved artist, with the widespread respect she’s always deserved. When I ranked Waxahatchee’s knockout Out in the Storm my 4th-favorite album of 2017, I wrote: “Perhaps my favorite development in indie rock these last few years has been watching Katie Crutchfield grow into an elite songwriter.” It’s little surprise, then, that Crutchfield would kick off a new decade with the best album in a wildly stacked year for new music with Saint Cloud. Her opus arrived on March 27, right when we were making sense of our new normal. From that moment, and through all the moments since, Saint Cloud has been a salve for the many wounds of 2020. It’s a confessional statement, one that leaves behind most of Crutchfield’s grungy guitar past for soft, folksy Americana recalling Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and the late, great John Prine. Crutchfield did, after all, name her act after the creek in Alabama near where she grew up. Saint Cloud’s songs aren’t necessarily about her hometown: it’s about her choice to get sober, and all that comes along with it. It’s a nakedly honest record, with songs like “War” showing her internal struggle (“I’m in a war with myself / It’s got nothing to do with you”), or grappling with mortality on “Ruby Falls” and the title track, or trying to be healed on “Fire”, or my favorite, “Can’t Do Much,” a straightforward ditty about the hopefulness and hopelessness of love. All along, Crutchfield and her bandmates perfectly command the tender yet powerful sound they’ve cultivated. It’s beyond special to see an artist, especially one you’ve admired for years, put it all together. That’s what I got in Saint Cloud.