If 2020 were a mixtape, it would be a little bit... well, chaotic. But eclecticism is a virtue, and considering how tumultuous the last nine months have been, hopping around between disparate genres, tones and styles was a coping mechanism unto itself.
Since most of us haven't experienced live music since at least the spring, we've disappeared into albums both new and old to fill the void. And since 2020 was a weird one, we decided to do something a little bit different and cull our individual picks for the year's best into a single list of 10 titles, with an extra hat tip to a classic artist we discovered mid-quarantine.
FIONA APPLE, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
The definitive 2020 album, the long-awaited comeback from a reclusive pop genius that grappled with timely themes of alienation and isolation and was filled with the ambient sounds of being stuck inside — weird echoes, doors slamming, floorboards creaking, dogs barking. And yet Fetch the Bolt Cutters is as lively and unruly a record as Fiona Apple has ever produced, and its central thesis is one of breaking free from captivities both literal and figurative, societal and self-imposed. The songs swoop and lunge between time signatures, cluttered with squeals and yowls and meows. The lyrics tumble out at us, as if they can't be contained by the speakers. But as atonal and angular as it sometimes is, it invites you into its secrets the more time you spend with it, revealing perfectly accessible, deceptively catchy songcraft. "Kick me under the table all you want," Apple taunts. "I won't shut up." Here's hoping. (NATHAN WEINBENDER)
X's latest, the first set by the band's original lineup in 35 years, won't win Grammys or sell millions of copies. Being commercially underappreciated is incredibly on-brand for these Los Angeles-bred punk and roots-rock legends, so why should that change now? But in a year when so many of us resorted to comfort listening to help get through our physical and emotional lockdowns, hearing an old favorite come roaring back to life and sounding as great as ever was a true gift. The off-kilter harmonies of co-vocalists John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the rockabilly riffs of prodigal guitarist Billy Zoom, the complex rhythmic drive of DJ Bonebrake — it all comes together on songs like "Water & Wine," "Free" and "Angel on the Road." For an album that sounds like one of their classics, the lyrics are rooted in the Right Now. (DAN NAILEN)
DUA LIPA, Future Nostalgia
It's fitting that, in a year as unforgiving as 2020, the best dance record in ages would be released mere weeks after dance clubs everywhere closed down. Its title is fitting, too, because Dua Lipa and her team of producers are pushing the boundaries of contemporary Top 40 by way of golden-era disco and the plastic Euro-pop of the '90s, and even a stick in the mud like me couldn't resist it. Future Nostalgia is an 11-song sugar rush, delivering one monster hook after another, while somehow taking the time to say something serious and cogent about the social norms of our era. (NW)
WAXAHATCHEE, Saint Cloud
I've certainly enjoyed past albums by Katie Crutchfield, delivered under her Waxahatchee nom de plume, but none struck me as immediately with the force of Saint Cloud. It's not because the songs got louder or more abrasive; if anything, this slice of sparse Americana is a smooth trip. Lyrically, though, she's as expansive as ever on songs like "Ruby Falls" and "Oxbow." Much has been made of Crutchfield getting sober before this album — in that sense, it reminds me of Jason Isbell's Southeastern — and Saint Cloud is the sound of an already fine artist finding new purpose and clarity. It's her best work to date. (DN)
RUN THE JEWELS, RTJ4
Released when the summer's Black Lives Matter protests had reached their fever pitch, the fourth collab between Killer Mike and El-P is boiling over with righteous anger and frustration, all while the production pushes the swirling beats and thudding bass to a breaking point. The two MCs seem to always be circling each other, their verses loaded with double entendres and sly pop culture references, and they pay tribute to their forebears by way of cameos from Greg Nice, DJ Premier and Mavis Staples. (NW)
FANTASTIC NEGRITO, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
Seems like at least once a year I fall in love with a new (or new to me) soul project, and Fantastic Negrito's latest release is my 2020 crush. Not that you can simply label it soul, though: This fellow sprawls into blues, rock, hip-hop, funk and R&B as well. Songs like "Chocolate Samurai" and "Justice in America" veer from stunningly sexy to politically savvy, and Negrito is a remarkably dextrous frontman on this joyful release that will make you think while you shake your ass. (DN)
PHOEBE BRIDGERS, Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers' sophomore LP is such a grower, and one that I keep returning to because it unfolds almost like a great anthology of short stories. It has so many quirky supporting characters, clever turns of phrase and hyper specific details in it — Bridgers wandering around Elliott Smith's old neighborhood, hanging out in the Goodwill parking lot with her brother, watching her friend eating saltines on the floor while rolling on MDMA — all of which are shoehorned ever-so-casually into lush folk-adjacent ballads. (NW)
BOB MOULD, Blue Hearts
I didn't expect this after Mould's shimmering, bright 2019 release Sunshine Rock, but 2020 gave all of us ample reason to be angry. Mould embraces the rage familiar to fans of his Hüsker Dü days for Blue Hearts, a viciously loud assault on President Trump, homophobia, evangelicals, climate change deniers, etc. Some four decades into a career that's seen him explore punk, pop, folk, even electronic music, the best Bob is still the Raging Guitar Bob, and he's fully present on his 14th solo album. (DN)
PERFUME GENIUS, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
As Perfume Genius, Michael Hadreas has often mined queer identity and the toll of physical pain for heartbreaking beauty and introspection, and this fifth studio album is his best and most diverse collection yet. It's an extension of Hadreas' love of interpretive dance, and it pirouettes from the glittery dance-pop of "On the Floor" to the darkly pulsating "Nothing at All" to the gentle falsetto of "Jason," a bittersweet snapshot of a one-night stand. (NW)
LILLY HIATT, Walking Proof
Hiatt's 2017 album Trinity Lane was a revelation, the daughter of John Hiatt coming into her own as an Americana powerhouse with deeply personal songs. On her fourth album, Hiatt's worldview and sonic approach both expand greatly, and the result is an insistent collection of songs easy to imagine her delivering in a big room as much as in a tiny dive. Her lyrical focus expanded to include characters from around Nashville, and the songs are slathered in fiddles, pedal-steel and big rock guitars. It's an assured next step in an exciting young career. (DN) ♦
This year I really got into...
This pandemic year made me treasure new releases even more, and had me seeking comfort in old favorites. But my musical horizons expanded in unexpected directions despite my physical self being pretty much stuck inside my house, and one of those was classic soul music. I've always dabbled in Aretha, James Brown and the like, but this year I became obsessed with the "king of soul" Sam Cooke, and specifically the collection 30 Greatest Hits: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964. Cooke's biographer Peter Guralnick called this set "a guide to Sam at his very best," and there's no arguing that. He had 30 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964 and most are included, along with some of his gospel tunes from when he led the Soul Stirrers. I'd certainly heard most of these songs — "Twistin' the Night Away," "Cupid," "Bring It on Home to Me" — but listening to this entire set repeatedly through 2020 has given me an entirely new appreciation for Cooke's voice, songwriting and serious soul.
— DAN NAILEN
This year I really got into...
I had only a cursory knowledge of Emitt Rhodes' work before the singer-songwriter died earlier this year, but all the rock critic retrospectives and obits inspired me to finally give a listen to The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969-1973). And man, what a revelation. Rhodes first gained prominence as vocalist and songwriter for the chamber-pop band the Merry-Go-Round, and he later recorded a quartet of well-received but commercially ignored solo albums in the early '70s. The impossible demands of a contract with ABC Records reportedly inspired him to bow out of the spotlight, working mostly as an engineer before dropping one final LP in 2016, 43 years after his previous release. His impeccable pop songcraft certainly deserves more recognition, and you can draw a straight line from Rhodes to Todd Rundgren and Big Star, and on to the Bangles, Matthew Sweet and Mac DeMarco. The aforementioned Rhino collection includes all of Rhodes' gorgeous '70s albums, and his swan song Rainbow Ends is also available digitally.
— NATHAN WEINBENDER