1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple’s records are always reasons to turn your head, but it’s hard to think that any of her records challenged the perception of how to interpret recorded sound, until now. Quite simply, I’ve never heard anything like it. I think about the percussion. I think about the lyrical web she weaves, and mostly, I think of the dogs barking. There’s something hypnotic about hearing those dogs bark in rhythm. It, like everything else on this record, feels like the sound of life.
2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Technically, Punisher is Bridgers second album but she’s been present in a big way since her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. Whether it’s through her work with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in boygenius or with Conor Oberst in Better Oblivion Community Center, she has been able to leverage her tectonic songwriting chops any where she chooses. It’s purely a great collection of songs from an artist who can spin them effortlessly. Literally any of these songs could functionally be her signature song, any one of them another artist would be glad to write one of in their career. She has dozens.
3. Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You
In a year when we’re all acutely aware of our mortality, Bruce and the E Street Band seem to be heading it down directly. The band is mostly in their seventies, and Bruce is well aware of knowing he has more years behind him than ahead of him. Decamping with the E Street Band last winter, the band cut most of this album live in the studio, including recording three songs he wrote in the 1970’s. This approach to recording gave birth to the most effortless, least-fussy sounding recording since The River. It’s the sound of old friends forging a future together, however long, knowing at some point they’ll be memories themselves, encased in amber for all time. It’s one thing to look back on all you’ve done and think of all of the ‘could haves’. It’s another to do it with an incredible, resounding triumph that could very well be an elegy. How can you have anything else other than gratitude for that?
4. Taylor Swift – folklore
My son was born three months early this summer, and my wife and I made 80 mile round trips every day to see him in the NICU. We’d play this album exclusively on most of the drives. Swift’s turn into homespun folk both here and on the recent follow up, evermore is some of her best songwriting to date. However, folklore, with its cool tones and lush melodies, will forever be the balm that helped soothe us during our toughest moments.
5. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose – that’s what comes to mind listening to this instant classic. Katie Crutchfield gave 2020 its first great album, a jaw dropping set off songs from a songwriter who was already writing unforgettable ones. Crutchfield’s decision to get sober has been well documented in the run up to this album, but long after that narrative fades, what will exist are these perfect, breezy songs. Writing with a country verve more than ever, it’s a record for today tomorrow, a few years from now – all while using sounds from yesterday. It’s essential listening.
6. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4
With 2020 being a club sandwich of cataclysmic moments, it only felt right that Run the Jewels would emerge with the soundtrack to our furious, fucked up times. Run the Jewels 3 felt like the duo might be missing a step but with its follow up they doubled down, creating an unrelenting set of songs that burn in your psyche, much like the events of the year where it felt like everything was on fire.
7. Young Jesus – Welcome to Conceptual Beach
No rock record this year gave a better glimpse and exciting look into what could be the future of the genre than this gem from this Los Angeles based group. Part post-rock, part jazz, part jam, ALL beautiful. It’s expansive, emotional music that takes form, dissolves, atomizes and then reconstitutes as something just as breathtaking. Just when the album ends, you can’t help but wonder what comes next from them.
8. Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream
A breathless blast by one of the best songwriters working today. His albums are always essential listening, always finding ways to push forward, always sounding effortless but still tightly constructed, always feeling of the moment but still living outside of it. There are always moments that stop you in your tracks when listening to his records. This one has, like, AT LEAST seven of them.
9. Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling
The DBT’s often try to meet the moment with their songs, and they only seem to get more political the longer their career goes. That said, sometimes they don’t always hit the mark, like 2016’s American Band, lyrically dense, but short on dynamic songs. Here it’s, just the opposite. On the first of their two 2020 albums, DBT documents what felt like a democracy in full collapse, before the pandemic changed life as we know it. They’re a band that’s often great when they’re pissed off. This is a collection of those kinds of songs. It’s a document of the time before everything changed, and hopefully, as the year comes to a close, changes again, this time, for the better.
10. The Killers – Imploding the Mirage
The year’s biggest surprise comes from The Killers, who 16 years after their blockbuster debut, Hot Fuss, have made an album with a sound that finally matches the broad and lofty ambitions they’ve literally been trying (and failing) since their first record. It’s open hearted, big, bright synth-pop rock without a trace of being self-conscious, and that’s exactly why it works so well.
11. Taylor Swift – evermore
12. Dogleg – Melee
13. The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin
14. Gil Scot Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again (A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven)
15. Paul McCartney – McCartney III
16. Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
17. HAIM – Women in Music, Pt. III
18. Bartees Strange – Live Forever
19. Lawrence Arms – Skeleton Coast
20. The Strokes – The New Abnormal