In a year dripping with tragedy, quarantine, and financial ruin, there was no reason to anticipate musicians even rising to the specific occasion, let alone going above and beyond a typical year. But by the fourth quarter, many musicians were rushing out special live sets recorded before the pandemic hit, while others (Drive By Truckers, Taylor Swift, Mountain Goats, and of course Guided by Voices) opted for more than one release in a year. For once, the economics favored a return to recorded music. In the past decade, musicians had realized the bulk of their profits from live performances, but with that option closed, a push for more recordings, and more physical instantiations of recordings, simply made sense (OK, there were a few streaming-only albums like Childish Gambino, but you get the picture). Even as vaccines arrive and the pandemic eases, we can’t necessarily expect a return to normalcy. It still seems as though musicians might experience a year of creative burnout soon. But for now, bask in the greatness, and do your best to support your local independent musician or record store, because after a year like this one, everyone is struggling.
With the exception of the live performances noted, the “Specials” category, as well as singles/EPs, seemed to be sparse. The good old 40- to 80-minute album format is alive and well.
Covid cost us some fine musicians, notably singer-songwriter John Prine and Fountains of Wayne founder Adam Schlesinger . We also lost troubadour Justin Townes Earle, Rush drummer Neil Peart, reggae crooner Johnny Nash, roots rock and roller Little Richard, Gang of 4 founder Andy Gill, experimental jazz bassist Gary Peacock, guitar god Eddie Van Halen (as well as Van Halen bassist Mark Stone), Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, folkie Trini Lopez, country mogul Kenny Rogers, early pop-feminist Helen Reddy, Slash magazine founder Bob Biggs, Chad Stuart of Chad & Jeremy, jazz pianists McCoy Tyner and Keith Tippett, country rebel Billy Joe Shaver, Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, America’s redneck Charlie Daniels, ambient instrumentalist Harold Budd, Leslie West of Mountain, Paul Chapman of UFO, Wynton and Bradford’s dad Ellis Marsalis, filmmaker and Patti Smith Group member Ivan Kral, Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, “69 Love Songs” co-author and co-creator L.D. Beightol, country crooner Charley Pride, bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice, Buddy Cage of NRPS, Brit-rocker Spencer Davis and country crooner Mac Davis, occasional King Crimson member Gordon Haskell, soul man Bill Withers, country singer Hal Ketchum, Love as Laughter founder Sam Jayne, saxophonist Lee Konig, power-popper Alan Merrill, Bonnie Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, Steve Priest of The Sweet, country singer K.T. Oslin, songwriter Emmitt Rhodes, Jorge Santana of Malo, and Americana originals Jerry Jeff Walker and Eric Weissberg. (And MF Doom died on Halloween, though it wasn't revealed until Dec. 31.) I’m too hoarse to say “Bring out your dead,” so RIP to you all.
Regular Studio Albums, 2020
1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters– I know, you’re sick of hearing the references, but in the height of the lockdown, Apple came through with her first work in years, and it was mind-bogglingly great in every possible way.
2. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways – Speaking of unexpected moves in lockdown, Dylan offered up the sprawling “Murder Most Foul” single, of a style he used to do in 1965, and followed it up with a double disc that brought Blonde On Blonde to mind. What’s not to like?
3. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher—The album Phoebe always was destined to make, with fine arrangements and help from her boygenius and Better Oblivion pals.
4. Taylor Swift, folklore – Go ahead and call this opportunistic, this is the path Swift should have taken in the first place, and if the early streamed songs don’t convince you, the track “The Lakes” should.
5. Taylor Swift, evermore (Tie with #4)– Yeah, she did it twice, with the same musicians, and no, the second one was not outtakes, far from it. That “Champagne Problems” track is such a perfect weepy ballad….
6. Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today – In which Joe Casey and his Detroit sullen punks get together with free-jazz musicians, and madness ensues.
7. Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You – At last the rumored E Street return shows up, hovering somewhere between Born In the USA and Lucky Town. I find it puzzling more don’t have this in their Top Ten, as it really is one of The Boss’s best.
8. Xanthe Alexis, The Offering – After a year of tweaking, the perfect haunting album arrives from everyone’s favorite earth mother, with midwifery and tomfoolery from the Bourgal brothers.
9. Frances Quinlan, Likewise – The lead singer and guitarist of Hop Along pulls off a stunning solo album with unique folk-rock stylings.
10. Jeremy Facknitz, From Those Sweet Ashes – The next instantiation of Nick Lowe and other power-pop barons already exists, and this is his defining work to date.
11. Guided by Voices, Styles We Paid For – Some Guided by Voices albums take a while to sink in – this one, the last of three released in 2020, grabs the neurons and emotions and won’t let go.
12. Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open – Anyone who thought this album was a disappointment obviously didn’t hear the five different mixes Will Toledo created for different physical media. A jaw-dropping work.
13. Juice WRLD, Legends Never Die – I approach posthumous albums with a little trepidation, but this double-length stunner (and the promise of another album to come) suggests Juice after his untimely 2019 demise could out-Tupac Tupac.
14. Skylar Gudasz, Cinema – The woman behind Chris Stamey and so many other Carolina indies quietly releases her second solo album, and it’s a stunner.
15. Run the Jewels, RTJ4 – Political hip-hop as only RtJ could offer it, bearing more weight than Rich, Drake, DaBaby, or most contenders.
16. Paul McCartney, McCartney III – The third all-solo album from Macca in his career, and, as with Dylan, dazzling work from a geezer - as remarkable in its own way as the last full-band studio album, Egypt Station.
17. Shabaka and the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here by History – British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, a mainstay of The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet, shows in this solo work that the UK is in the forefront of free jazz.
18. Lady Gaga, Chromatica – Sure, she’s obviously angling for a post-pandemic dancehall scene, but her dance arrangements are more exciting than the 2020 disco-revival offerings of Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue, or Roisin Murphy.
19. Waxahatchee, St. Cloud – Katie released this understated masterpiece at the very beginning of lockdown, and it slipped by many people. Now that she’s in an artistic and emotional bond with Kevin Morby, we can expect some pretty interesting experiments to emerge.
20. Halsey, Mania – Speaking of edge of pandemic, this January release spotlighting the breadth of Halsey’s brilliance seems like it came out years and years ago. But what a monster.
21. Elvis Costello, Hey Clockface – Don’t believe those that say Elvis’s reunion with The Impostors was his renaissance. This new three-city sessions album is his best in decades.
22. Blue Oyster Cult, The Symbol Remains – What?! BOC hits 50, and 20 years from their last studio album, with the Krugman and Pearlman Svengalis dead, and the album is actually a lively, funny tour de force? Thank sci-fi writer John Shirley, Richard Meltzer, and the kids of Bloom and Roeser for providing lyrics, while the band provides the ace arrangements. More cowbell, you say? More tyranny and mutation!
23. The Weeknd, After Hours – Let me be clear in saying the snubbing by the Grammy Awards was ridiculous. Even if the bloodied-bandage stage makeup is annoying, this album is a knockout.
24. Shopping, All Or Nothing – Be glad Shopping is consistently holding up DeBordian visions of Spectacle pre- and post-Trump, pre- and post-pandemic, because Parquet Courts and Bodega seemed to keep fairly silent this year.
25. Lydia Loveless, Daughter – Lydia’s back! Her first since divorce from Ben Lamb, full of wistful and tearful observations, and that’s really all you need to know.
26. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory – A fine follow-up for Sophie Allison, demonstrating bigger breadth in her songwriting.
27. Wire, Mind Hive – One of the better of the recent Wire releases, these songs will forever be associated with the tour at the beginning of lockdown, when everyone was afraid to go hear these songs.
28. Magnetic Fields, Quickies – It isn’t so much that the idea of super-short silly pop tunes is that original, it’s that Stephin Merritt lets Claudia Gonson run much of this show, which makes it a keeper.
29. Torres, Silver Tongue – A very personal, quieter album, with the kind of unique production Torres is always famous for – but the songs gain more of an edge in the live album she released from Berlin, just as Europe was closing down in March.
30. Throwing Muses, Sun Racket – Hooray for the return of Throwing Muses, in which Kristin Hersh reclaims the band’s glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
31. Moses Sumney, Grae – Sumney has a way of turning out sprawling, majestic psychedelic-soul masterpieces, though the punch on impact may not be as serious as someone The Weeknd.
32. Sylvan Esso, Free Love – An informal, loving studio session from Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, proving they can be pandemic-level serious and dance at the same time.
33. Okay Kaya, Watch the Liquid Pour – Just when you think there are dozens of great women in experimental music these days, along come a few more like Kaya and Katie Gately to explode the field further.
34. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20 – Seemingly designed to address the pandemic that was just breaking, this astonishing last release under the CG name by Donald Glover still has not gotten a physical CD or LP release. And Tyler the Creator was right, people have been largely ignoring an astonishing release.
35. Guided by Voices, Mirrored Aztec – As often happens with GbV, this seemed in September that it was bound to be the best of the band’s work during pandemic, until Styles came out in December and blew us all away.
36. The Airborne Toxic Event, Hollywood Park – Mikel Jollett’s autobiography of the same name, about growing up in the Synanon cult, has become a best-seller. The album addresses the same topic with a Springsteen sense of gravity.
37. Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter – The album launch and global tour was set for late March/early April, which sort of let the air out on this one. A fine Marling statement, though still not at the Once I Was An Eagle level of production.
38. Drive By Truckers, The Unraveling – Chances are, Patton Hood never figured the year would be profound enough to warrant two studio releases, but this earlier one carries all kinds of political power, particularly in “Thoughts and Prayers.” But the second 2020 release, The New OK, is equally important.
39. The Mountain Goats, Song for Pierre Chauvin – As heavily produced as the official Knives album is, this acoustic album from lockdown carries a bigger wallop.
40. Bonny Light Horseman, s/t – An intriguing new folk trio featuring Anais Mitchell, and the first we’ve heard from her since becoming a Broadway star.
41. Psychedelic Furs, Made of Rain – Wow, Richard Butler and band return with an album that is far more than a nostalgia trip.
42. The Beths, Jumping Rope Gazers – Some think of the New Zealand power pop band’s sophomore album as a letdown, I think they dazzle with equal fervor to the debut.
43. Deep Sea Diver, Impossible Weight – When will people start paying attention to the marvelous Jessica Dobson, guitarist for Beck and The Shins? Maybe the addition of Sharon Van Etten to these sessions will focus more outside attention.
44. Idles, Ultra Mono – Joe Talbot wanted this considered the best punk album ever. The critics’ middling reviews no doubt convinced him he’s understood by no one, but my real quibble is almost a political one: when you define the ultimate revolutionary step in libertarian terms, with a slight Ayn Rand edge, getting people to “come together” is almost a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, an important work.
45. Smoke Fairies, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home – So good to have Smoke Fairies back! This is one of those very-early 2020 albums that arrived before we all began living in fear.
46. US Girls, Heavy Eyes – It’s hard to remember when Meg Remy was considered an experimental artist, because she’s turned her US Girls project into a melodic-pop force of nature.
47. Fleet Foxes, Shore – This might be ranked a little low since it will be streaming-only until February. This is largely Robin Pecknold with backup support, but the crafting of the album makes it better than Crack-Up.
48. Roddy Rich, Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial – Hearing many tracks in isolation on pop radio might lead you to believe Rich is hip-hop’s savior. The only limitation is that on the full-length, he tries too hard to follow older styles of Drake and O.G. gangsta rappers. That will change over time.
49. Bully, Sugaregg – Many will tell you Alicia Bognanno has crafted the defining album of her Bully career. I’m not convinced of that, but this album is nonetheless great.
50. Laura Veirs, My Echo – Divorce albums are tough things in any event, and a divorce album in pandemic is a boatload of pain. But Veirs manages to rise above in a manner that could provide lessons for everyone from Suzanne Vega to Ariana Grande.
51. Dream Wife, So When You Gonna…. – Don’t let this trio fool you. They had a mind to redefine punk in the first album, but there’s a lot more power-pop here than they might let on.
52. Mandy Moore, Silver Landings – Now that she’s cocooning with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and about to have a baby, it’s easy to forget Moore gave us some tough minor-key pop tunes reminiscent of Buck-Nicks Fleetwood Mac during the height of lockdown, addressing her breakup with Ryan Adams. Note that as good as the new Dawes album is, Mandy’s solo ranks higher.
53. The Strokes, The New Abnormal – Julian Casablancas and the gang wanted to avoid another “phone it in” album, and the appearance on SNL shows that these songs will translate well in live performance, if and when. Is this an echo of Strokes circa 2000? Maybe not, but it’s damned good.
54. Jehnny Beth, To Live is To Love – The Savages’ lead singer wanted to give the world some spoken and sung art, maybe a bit pretentious in spots, but impressive overall.
55. Destroyer, Have We Met? – Some fans think this is Dan Bejar’s crowning glory in the Destroyer band. It is certainly one of the more sophisticated releases, though it’s hard for me to rank-order his work.
56. The Harmed Brothers, Across the Waves – Something is incredibly compelling about this Americana album, more so than the new Jason Isbell, in fact.
57. Sarah Harmer, Are You Gone? – Both of the Canadian songbirds who have vanished for a decade have unexpectedly returned! Kathleen Edwards rocks a little harder, but Harmer’s song crafting edges her out ever so slightly.
58. Diane Cluck, Common Wealth – The queen of the early millennium freak-folk movement is back from her rural Virginia hiding place, offering earth-mother wisdom in challenging times.
59. Kesha, High Road – Kesha’s latest was in 2020? Seems like a decade ago. At any rate, she’s turning into sort of a pop-country hybrid, which is cool.
60. Katie Gately, Loom – An impressive experimental album on loss and change, perfect for pandemic times.
61. Guided by Voices, Surrender Your Poppy Field – Another in a long line of stunners from Robert Pollard and the Dayton gang. He makes it look so easy, we get spoiled.
62. SAULT, (Black Is/Rise) – A British Black-consciousness work that recalls the gospel side of Algiers. Should be two separate rankings reflecting two releases, I suppose.
63. Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom – As with Sarah Harmer, how wonderful to have the missing Canadian songbirds back. Several tunes on this album will remind you of why a tough guitar lick in a minor key, and admissions of resignation and defiance, can have us crying in our beer.
64. The Mountain Goats, Getting Into Knives – Some fine horn-backed sessions from pre-crackdown, with very polished Darnielle observations, but maybe too polished in places.
65. Haim, Women in Music III – A fine third outing, and with more diversity than the sophomore album, though maybe some punches are pulled here and there.
66. Suzzy Roche and Lucinda Wainwright Roche, I Can Still Hear You – Sad but hopeful music for grim times, the equal if not the better to anything The Roches ever put out.
67. Algiers, There is No Year – Perhaps the most explicit political statement from Algiers, though since this was released in January, the world has changed several times over.
68. Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels – The same rules apply as with Algiers above – this is Williams’ most angry political work, though how this fits in a post-Trump, post-pandemic world remains to be seen.
69. Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was – Conor Oberst and his band brought all their best tricks to the Bright Eyes reunion, though after Oberst’s work with Phoebe Bridgers and Better Oblivion, a Bright Eyes reunion means less than it once might have meant.
70. Hinds, The Prettiest Curse – Spain’s riot grrl contenders with the Velvet Underground buzzy sound opt for greater production and a stronger set of tunes.
71. Megan Thee Stallion, Good News – OK, Megan may have opted for a little bit of payback after being shot in the feet, but the bulk of this album is about the power of Black women and about using one’s sexual power.
72. Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started – There was careful song-crafting, production by Sturgill Simpson, and multiple special vinyl editions, but somehow I wasn’t feeling this one as much as her two previous albums.
73. Adrienne Lenker, Songs/Instrumentals – Big Thief’s lead guitarist and lyricist gives us two discs of her own impressive work.
74. Darlingside, Fish Pond Fish – No one does CSNY-style harmonies like Boston’s Darlingside (not Fleet Foxes any more), but this studio release didn’t carry quite the lyrical punch of Extralife.
75. Blitzen Trapper, Holy Smokes Future Jokes – Why the hell did this album get so little publicity? Eric Earley offers some of his best vocal harmonies here, for songs about the bardo and life transitions.
76. Chicks (Dixie Chicks), Gaslighter – Here’s to the trio that makes their politics even more explicit than back in Iraq War days when they got in such trouble. And the Barbie doll cover art is fiercely tongue in cheek. In your face, America.
77. Dawes, Good Luck with Whatever – Taylor Goldsmith pulled out the stops to make this a notable Dawes outing, though wife Mandy Moore still beat him with a better album.
78. The Jayhawks, XOXO – After more than 30 years in mid-continent Americana, The Jayhawks still turn out incredible and relevant works.
79. Esme Patterson, There Will Come Soft Rains – The former Paper Bird singer is back for her fourth solo outing, though the songs here sound better performed live – which we may not get again for a while.
80. Jason Isbell, Reunions – The Margo Price rule applies here. Isbell put a lot of effort into the production side, but the songs didn’t carry the weight of his last few albums.
81. X, Alphabetcity – Hey, I’m just happy Billy Zoom and Exene Cervenka have come back from their weird spiritual wildernesses, and that the foursome can still crank out a good punk tune. Equal to early ‘80s X? Nah, but I didn’t have my expectations set that high. Cool stuff nonetheless.
82. Pearl Jam, Gigatron – I genuinely feel sorry for Eddie Vedder, going to great lengths to insure Pearl Jam remains relevant, coming out with a set of great tunes, only to have them launched in the grimmest part of pandemic. Let’s not forget this was here.
83. A.J. Scheiber, Town Boy – The bard of Minneapolis finally gets his first solo work separate from Wilkinson James. Serious and droll and silly at turns, and wonderful.
84. Steve Earle, Ghosts of West Virginia – A powerful, political testament to a mining disaster 20 years ago.
85. The Killers, Implode the Mirage – The same rule of neglect applies to Brandon Flowers. Sure, his attempts to add Bon Iver-style tweakings are a bit silly, but he calls upon Weyes Blood and k.d. lang to add to works that have the Springsteen-style sound of The Killers’ Sam’s Town. Credit where credit is due.
86. The Claudettes, High Times in the Dark – Its’ maddening when the ultimate juke-joint band keeps cranking out great tunes when there are no juke joints in existence.
87. Kylie Minogue, Disco – The pandemic rule applies to fancy disco dance floors. Kylie returns to throw her hat into the disco revival, and even if her voice and presentation is middling, I find her songs more original than those from Jessie Ware or Roisin Murphy – though maybe not up to Lady Gaga.
88. Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension – He calls this work his most political and most personal in years, but I could do with a little less of the EDM style and more of the banjo with chorus sound from the Michigan and Illinois albums.
89. Brian Eno & Roger Eno, Mixing Colours – A return to the ambient greatness of both brothers.
90. Jess Cornelius, Distance – I love it when a new unassuming singer-songwriter comes around and you just say “Oh yes.” Oh yes.
91. Califone, Echo Mine – If Califone was going to suddenly reappear after a period of silence, what better way than with a strange soundtrack?
92. Future Islands, As Long As You Are – I have to admit to a prejudice – I think that when you put Sam Herring’s histrionic voice together with Depeche/OMD-style synthesizers, the end result is a little melodramatic. But I like these songs in spite of that bias.
93. Joan of Arc, Tim Melina Theo Bobby – Allegedly the last official Joan of Arc album, this Chicago band is so difficult to characterize, it’s no surprise they left us with an understated sampler rather than anything majestic.
94. Norah Jones, Pick Me Up Off the Floor – This album lets Jones explore her smoky nightclub side, without trying so hard to prove her indie cred, and it definitely works for me.
95. Peter Himmelman, Press On – It’s great to hear Himmelman back with songs that recall some of his early-1990s best.
96. Magik Markers, 2020 – Wow, when Elisa Ambrogio isn’t trying so hard to be the queen of noise, she has an outstanding voice! Magik Markers go melodic.
97. Drive By Truckers, The New OK – A fitting postscript to the blistering testament from early in the year, with a side of sadness and preaching.
98. Luke Haines and Peter Buck, Beat Poetry for Survivalists – An intriguing album that has its moments, though the idea of a Haines-Buck collaboration may be cooler than the reality.
99. Nels Cline Singers, Share the Wealth – A massive and sprawling work with some of the singers’ more out-there compositions.
100. Sarah Jarosz, World On the Ground – Her first attempt at storytelling through the eyes of others, and a wonderful effort, though the arrangements aren’t as wild as the last couple albums.
101. Bonnie Whitmore, Last Will & Testament – Some full-throated Americana with big band going on right here, and some great songwriting as well.
102. Sad13, Haunted Painting – The second solo work from Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, in which far more serious subject matter is handled with fun hooks and luscious pop arrangements.
103. The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form – The 1975 have a way of telling you it’s time for profundity or majesty, but much gets lost in translation.
104. Tanya Donelly and the Parkington Sisters, s/t – I relish any excuse to hear the beautiful voice of the lead singer of Belly and Throwing Muses, and here she joins the folkie-oriented Parkington Sisters for some Americana covers.
105. CocoRosie, Put the Shine On – I’m so glad the Casady sisters remain weird in these uncertain times. And I mean that sincerely.
106. Lapsley, Through Water – Even more ethereal and mysterious than her earlier work.
107. Ohme, Fantasize Your Ghost – Well, now, here’s an interesting duo. My first introduction, I want to hear more.
108. Nap Eyes, Snapshot of a Beginner – One of those great pop albums that came just as the world turned dark in late March, saving us from spending time without smiles.
109. Wolf Parade, Thin Mind – This is actually one of Wolf Parade’s best works, but one of those albums destined to be forgotten due to its mid-lockdown release.
110. Gordi, Our Two Skins – A quiet, minimal and wonderful work.
111. Tobin Sprout, Empty Horses – An intriguing album, as the former GbV guitarist shifts more toward a country/Americana sound.
112. Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip – The mere fact that the Mael brothers are still making relevant music is a minor miracle. Treasure them while they’re still in the studio.
113. Jules Shear, Slower – Nice contemplative tunes from Shear for a stay-at-home year.
114. Caroline Rose, Superstar – Rose has made the full shift from folkie to dance-pop queen, though the new one didn’t have quite the biting edge of Loner.
115. San Fermin, Cormorant I & II – While I’ll always appreciate the composition talents of Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the power vocals of Charlene Kaye are missing here. San Fermin goes through lead vocalists at a fairly regular pace, which makes me wonder about stability….
116. Roisin Murphy, Roisin Machine – I like my disco with a side of weird, though Murphy can get lost in her psychedelia. I still find it preferable to the sophisticated chill sound of Khruangbin, which is favored by many out there.
117. Hamilton Leithauser, The Loves of Your Life – The former Walkmen lead singer must always be on guard to avoid drifting too far into smoky nightclub crooner territory, but this has some cool new songs, though the better 2020 Leithauser album was his live set, in the Specials section.
118. Angelica Garcia, Cha Cha Palace – Don’t imagine for a moment that the Richmond, VA songwriter’s talent is limited to novelty works like “Jicama.” Garcia is the real deal.
119. The Pretenders, Hate for Sale – Since Chrissie Hynde’s recent solo efforts have been disappointing, it’s good to see The Pretenders come back with such power.
120. Miley Cyrus, Plastic Hearts – No, this isn’t Miley’s “punk” album, too much 21st-century production here. But with guests ranging from Dua Lipa to Joan Jett to Billy Idol, it’s certainly her best selection of material since Hannah Montana days.
121. Field Music, Making a New World – If there was an award for “most prescient,” this might take the top slot. This concept album on the end of WW1 came out in early 2020, and its relevance, what with a coronavirus that mimicked the 1918 flu, was almost eerie. Still, the cryptic references made it difficult to tell what Field Music was trying to say here.
122. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia – Sure, the arrangements might be predictable, but it’s fun nonetheless, and in 2020, fun is good.
123. Phantogram, Ceremony – A cool release almost forgotten in a plague year.
124. The Aces, Under My Influence – Four Southern California women turn from guitar-heavy rock-pop to sparkly pop on their second album, and that’s perfectly all right with me.
125. Tame Impala, The Slow Rush – Yeah, you heard right, I was never a huge fan of this Australian psych project, and nothing I hear makes me place it much higher. At least it outranks Perfume Genius by a good deal.
126. Khruangbin, Mordechai – There’s nothing really wrong with this chill Atlanta side of the disco revival, it’s just that this somehow feels too top-shelf and class-conscious.
127. Allman-Betts Band, Bless Your Heart – The survivors and kin of the originals get credit for trying to recreate the sound, though they always have to be careful to be more than a tribute band.
128. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure – There is nothing wrong with this disco-revival album from the leading British dance diva, it’s just that it sounds for more polished and less innovative than Gaga, Minogue, or Murphy.
129. Matt Berninger, Serpentine Prison – Not bad for a solo album from The National’s lead singer, though I liked his duo work with EL VY much better – and his duets with Taylor Swift carry more wallop.
130. Glass Animals, Dreamland – An ambitious and interesting piece of pop-psych-soul, though it doesn’t stick with the listener.
131. Flying Lotus, Flamagra (Instrumentals) – More an accompaniment to last year’s album than a proper new release, but still beautiful.
132. Hala, Red Herring – Detroit’s yacht-rock revivalist comes back with an album of happy when happy is needed most.
133. Brian Eno, Film Music, 1976-2020
134. Brian Eno, Rams – Two solid chunks of ambient film scoring, necessary for the Eno fan, though it doesn’t add that much to overall ambient studies.
135. Best Coast, Always Tomorrow – An impressive collection of songs, though this turns more into a Bethany Cosentino solo effort with each album.
136. Microphones, Microphones 2020 – As much as I love Phil Elverum’s Mt. Eerie work, I should have given this more of a chance, but putting all the wonderful lyricism in one 40-minute piece was a challenge.
137. Mark Lanegan, Straight Songs of Sorrow – By all rights, I should have liked this more than most Lanegan releases, but maybe the year had too much sorrow already.
138. Dan Penn, Living on Mercy – A warm new set of originals from the author of “I’m Your Puppet” and “Dark End of the Street.”
139. Craig Finn, All These Perfect Crosses – This was a two-record set billed as a curated culling from three studio sessions, but it could have been a single album.
140. Angel Olsen, Whole New Mess – Since this was an acoustic reimagining of last year’s release, perhaps it should have been in the Specials section. Enchanting in its own way.
141. Happy Dead Man, Vines Between Eyes – Another spinoff of Sun City Girls members, and a decent album in its own right.
142. Bob Mould, Blue Hearts – The yang side of Sunshine Rock and a great album, but maybe I’m suffering a bit of Mould burnout.
143. Kevin Krauter, Full Head – A joyful re-spinning of a Rundgren mystique, circa 1973.
144. Cidny Bullens, Walkin’ Through – A fine testament to trans politics by the rocker with a long history as Cindy Bullens.
145. Heidi Newfield, The Barfly Sessions, Vol. 1 – The lead singer of Trick Pony is back with some dazzling new Americana blues-county anthems.
146. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene – I’ll admit to my prejudices and say this album should have been a lot higher, but I gave her demerit points for having a baby with Elon Musk and giving the kid such a weird name.
147. And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, X: Goddess Void – It really is good to have Trail of Dead back, and a fine album this is, though not breaking a whole lot of new ground.
148. Thurston Moore, By the Fire – A competent and inventive double album of material from the former Sonic Youth lead guitarist that shows his improvisation still is decent.
149. Beach Slang, The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City – This is all kinds of fun to listen to, but James Alex wishes he could make it a punk rock 1979 year just by snapping his fingers, and the revival doesn’t always take.
150. Deerhoof, Future Teenage Cave Artists – Their official release didn’t spark me as much as their online George Floyd memorial work, maybe because in comparison with the Deerhoof gets political effort, this seemed like Dadaism without a purpose.
151. Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now – A great dance mix from the British pop queen, but I wasn’t feeling it somehow.
152. Sweet Lizzy Project, Technicolor – A new and worthy Cuban export, worth your time to seek out.
153. Gasoline Lollipops, All the Misery Money Can Buy – Denver’s favorite grit-rockers make an album sounding like Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
154. Jeff Tweedy, Love is the King – Another year, another pleasant solo album from Wilco’s founder. OK, I suppose.
155. Six Organs of Admittance, Companion Rises – Hey, it’s Ben Chasny, it bears the mark of quality.
156. Pam Tillis, Looking for a Feeling – Of all the country singer revival albums out there, this one is best.
157. Lindstrom and Prins Thomas, III – Maybe the best of this duo’s EDM collaborations.
158. Nada Surf, Never Not Together – Doug Gillard is back with Nada Surf for another fine set of tunes, and that’s all you need to know.
159. Willie Nile, New York at Night – Given the total lockdown the city went into in March, this love song to the city ended up being a haunted tome.
160. Stephen Malkmus, Traditional Techniques – See Tweedy above. I’d rather hear Malkmus doing this than his EDM work.
161. Hackedepicciotto, The Current – Europe’s most intriguing experimental couple continues to mystify.
162. Rituals of Mine, Hype Nostalgia – Terra Lopez gives lessons in grief to help us survive a vicious 2020.
163. Robert Vincent, In This Town You’re Owned – Can a Liverpool songwriter compose convincing Americana? Damn right.
164. Louis Michot and Friends, Le String Noise – A star-studded odd collaboration of Cajun and experimental artists. Great fun.
165. Cut Copy, Freeze Melt – This one is more in the strict “Eno meets disco” category than recent CC works, but is enchanting nonetheless.
166. I Don’t Know How, But They Found Me, Razzmatazz -- When this duo spun from Panic at the Disco! played live sets back in the day, they emphasized comedy a la Spinal Tap. The first studio album is a little too polished, with some of the chuckle squeezed out.
167. Liar, flower, Geiger Counter – A strange and enchanting work from the lead singer of Daisy Chainsaw.
168. Pynkie, #37 – Lyndsie Radice is a very compelling singer and songwriter, with a style similar to Claudia Gonson.
169. Real Estate, The Main Thing – I’ve yet to hear a Real Estate work that ranks more than “pleasant” in the books, but at least this meets that moderate expectation.
170. Biddishop, Broken Love – Hypnotic beats, percussion, and singing from Bishop Kendrick of Tulsa via Colorado.
171. Ryan and Pony, Moshi Moshi – A sparkling and fun release from a duo with roots in Soul Asylum.
172. Rookie, s/t – An interesting indie-rock-as-classic-rock effort, worth following for the future.
173. Will Butler, Generations – A decent second (?) album from the other Butler brother of Arcade Fire.
174. Matt Wilson Orchestra, When I Was A Writer – A wistful collection of happy pop tunes that can be a good antidote for pandemic
175. Cults, Host – This album actually has more instrumental backing and more improvisational feel that any previous Cults album, so let’s give Madeline Follin her due for expanding the sound.
176. Cory Marin, Dockside Saints – The Colorado solo blues artist adds some Cajun backdrop to his work.
177. Rachel Brooke, The Loneliness In Me – Why pay attention to mainstream Nashville when there are women like Brooke and Whitney Rose around?
178. Vance Gilbert, Good Good Man – A folkie who’s been out of sight for a while, Gilbert offered one of 2020’s first albums, well before the lockdown changed everything.
179. Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation – A former Jayhawks member and his partner concoct intriguing music for hobbits.
180. The Mastersons, No Time for Love Songs – Always a pleasure to have these Steve Earle collaborators back, this time with a rather tense little declaration.
181. Tennis, Swimmer – Notice how I always criticize this Denver duo for their aristocratic detached demeanor, yet I always come back for more? Yeah, so did I.
182. The Struts, Strange Days – Luke Spiller figured two albums’ worth of trying to emulate NY Dolls or early Aerosmith could only go so far, so why not make an album to chronicle the pandemic? It hiccups in places, but at least The Struts aren’t standing still.
183. Badge Epoque Ensemble, Self-Help – An intriguing funk-jazz-electronic mix, with moments of pure passion.
184. Chris Stamey, Brand New Shade of Blue – After Stamey produced 20th Century Songs in 2019, he returned with a songbook effort featuring a roster of special guests. Should this be in the Specials category?
185. Will Sexton, Don’t Walk the Darkness – A fine selection of tunes from Charlie Sexton’s brother.
186. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately – I keep trying to figure out a reason why people think Michael Hadreas is such a genius as a composer. Everything I hear sounds mildly interesting but predictable, and this latest work is no exception.
187. James Elkington, Ever Roving Eye – Another Wilco-related Chicago project, Elkington has that roots-folk-blues sound that is instantly likeable.
188. Easy Love, Wander Feeler – Some good old-fashioned summertime pop love songs.
189. Bill Callahan, Gold Record – Many of Callahan’s recent studio works have been exceptional, but this diffuse and scattered effort carries the hint that maybe, just maybe, rural bliss is turning him into a bit of a redneck.
190. Badly Drawn Boy, Banana Skin Shoes – Damon Gough is as eclectic and enchanting as ever, though the childlike delivery (without being a children’s album) is off-putting at times.
191. Chris Maxwell, New Store No. 2 – A sold songwriter’s Americana album.
192. Avett Brothers, Third Gleam – Let’s give the Avett Brothers some credit for treating their fans to works closer to improvisational than over-planned. Still, the band’s over-sincerity can trip them up at times.
193. Ela Minus, Acts of Rebellion – Some good, beat-heavy EDM from Colombia, with a few definite keepers.
194. Junko Beat, Satinfunk -- One of the more interesting takes on the Great 2020 Disco Revival.
195. Isobel Campbell, There is No Other – Campbell adjusts to California life and a world separate from Mark Lanegan, but the former Belle & Sebastian singer still has some pretty breathy vocals.
196. Diana Krall, This Dream of You – An interesting combination of traditionals and newer numbers.
197. Whitney Rose, We Still Go To Rodeos – Another one of the alt-country unsung wonders who are much better than the typical Nashville fare.
198. Ariana Grande, Positions – Am I just mad at Grande because she carried the “piss on Pete Davidson” shtick a bit too far? I don’t think so. Many found this album both more ballad-oriented and more powerful, but I think she opted for the easy route.
199. Turning Jewels Into Water, Our Reflection – An enchanting work in small doses.
200. Devin B. Thompson, Tales of the Soul – A revival of classic Motown and Philadelphia sounds, but with new songs.
201. Samoa Wilson and Jim Kweskin, Horizontal – Any appearance of Jim Kweskin is cause for celebration, and this smoldering collaboration is interesting.
202. Michael Doucet, Lacher Prise – This year needed some good old fashioned Zydeco. Here it is.
203. Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Dirt and the Stars – Even if this is ranked low, I’m glad to see she’s still at it.
204. Chris Smither, More from the Levee – Another decent Smither collection that more people need to hear.
205. Loma, Don’t Shy Away – The second album by a side project of Shearwater, but more ethereal than Marburg’s main band.
206. Marshall Chapman, Songs I Can’t Live Without – An eclectic selection of tunes for her unique husky voice.
207. Alex Dixon, The Real McCoy – Willie Dixon’s son provides some new interpretations of dad’s blues.
208. Vanessa Carlton, Love Is An Art – Some find Carlton inexcusably poppy, but people once said that about Carly Rae Jepsen and Mandy Moore too. Carlton is definitely worth a listen.
209. Joey Molland, Be True to Yourself – A fun pop album from former Badfinger guitarist.
210. Tami Nielson, Chickaboom – The ghost of Wanda Jackson is back, saucier than ever.
211. Carla Olson, Have Harmony, Will Travel 2 – A wonderful collection of collaborations from the Textones guitarist.
212. Eels, Earth to Dora – I’d like to give Mark Everett some limited credit for trying to leave his slump, and the execution here is beautiful, but this is still an Eeels “ain’t it awful” album.
213. Bobby Rush, Rawer Than Raw – Two studio blues albums from Rush, two years in a row! We are blessed.
214. KLLO, Maybe We Could – An interesting and moody soul/chill-pop album.
215. Ellie Goulding, Brightest Blue – Definitely a growth in songwriting capacity, and the bonus version with Juice WRLD is interesting, but it’s still a long and drawn-out experience.
216. My Morning Jacket, Waterfall II – I suppose this is an OK follow-up to the first release, but it seems like Jim James has been treading water lately, while many of his compatriots are going for 100-meter sprints.
217. John Fusco, John the Revelator – Who says producers can’t make fine blues-rock albums?
218. Bibio, On the Wing – I understand the source of Bibio’s popularity in some realms of ambient and EDM, but he remains an ethereal puzzle to me, for the most part.
219. Olafur Arnalds, Some Kind of Peace – This got a lot of attraction as chill-mood electronica for a plague year, but it mostly served as a sleeping aid for me.
220. Flaming Lips, American Head – I will keep this on my list because Flaming Lips can always provide a few moments of levity, but honestly Wayne, do we still need to hear about Martians on drugs?
Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.) (Lots of last-minute live sets at the end of the year, and some special spoken-word and collaborative pieces, but the Specials category is dwindling a bit. I allowed all box sets in, though Neil Young and Gang of Four boxes were light on unreleased material. Remember, no greatest hits or re-released older albums qualify.)
1. Matmos, The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form – Wow, is this audacious in concept. Like an experimental-music version of 69 Love Songs. Matmos invites 99 musicians willing to work in a 99-beats-per-minute format to participate in a sort of phone-it-in jam session for quarantine times, three hours long!
2. Mary Halvorson and Code Girl, Artlessly Falling -- If the debut double-disc Code Girl album wasn’t ambitious enough, this album uses spoken-word poetry in the form of sestinas and pantoums to augment the jazz. Just wow. And some guest readings by Robert Wyatt, too!
3. Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1 1963-66 – The most essential of all the box sets this year, because this contains five discs of a very young Joni that most of us have never heard.
4. Heather Leigh, Glory Days – No dissonant pedal steel here, just a lovely voice and found sounds at home as she quarantined in Glasgow. The best of lockdown compositions.
5. Torres, Live in Berlin, March 11, 2020 – A haunting performance of selections from Silver Tongue and earlier works, as Torres performs in Germany on the eve of a global shutdown.
6. The Mountain Goats, Jordan Lake Sessions Parts 1 and 2 – A recording of two livestream performances from The Mountain Goats in October, covering Getting Into Knives and an extensive back catalog.
7. Deerhoof, To Be Surrounded Benefit – Deerhoof’s online benefit for George Floyd was better than the band’s studio release this year.
8. Patti Smith and Soundwalk Collective, Peradam – Maybe the best of the “poetic vision” trilogy of albums, with a very haunting Smith chanting, “I would not speak of the mountain.”
9. Billie Eilish, Live at Third Man Records – Quite honestly the best release to come out of the three Record Store Day drops this year, an intimate and warm performance by the megastar.
10. Game Theory, Across the Barrier of Sound – This is sort of a postscript album of unreleased material from 1988-89, when Scott Miller was touring with Michael Quercio, and was getting ready to re-form as The Loud Family. Some of us look forward to anything coming from Scott Miller, and this little gem has liner notes by Doug Gillard of Guided by Voices.
11. Richard and Linda Thompson, Hard Luck Stories – This box is full of unique outtakes from the late 1970s, but CD production problems made this collection very scarce and quite pricey.
12. John McCutcheon, Cabin Fever – A charming download-only album of songs composed in quarantine, complete with wry references to social distancing. Some day, this will be seen as a classic period piece of 2020.
13. Okkervil River, A Dream in the Dark – A four-LP compendium of two decades of Okkervil River performances, a good introduction to the music of Will Sheff, or a great addition for fans.
14. Nick Cave, Idiot Prayer: Alone at Alexandria Palace – Intended as a companion to a full-length film, this is Cave with a piano, similar to John Cale’s Fragments of a Rainy Season.
15. Margo Price, Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman – This live album is from her 2018 three-day residency at The Ryman, so it focuses more on her first two albums than her newest work.
16. Lana Del Rey, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass – Don’t let anyone tell you this is sophomoric beat poetry. It’s compassionate, direct readings with a Plath or Wakoski feel, with interesting minimal background music.
17. The War On Drugs, Live Drugs – Even if I’m a little lukewarm on Adam Granduciel, this is the first non-bootleg compilation of live tracks from the 2015-18 period, and worth a listen.
18. Various Artists, Going to Georgia – A benefit album for Georgia elections, featuring such Merge artists as Eric Bachmann, Will Butler, Torres, and Superchunk covering songs by Georgia artists.
19. Maggie Rogers, Notes from the Archive – Remastered songs from 2016 to 2019, prior to her first proper album – and many are quite good.
20. Sturgill Simpson, Cutting Grass #1 – The first of the Butcher Shoppe Sessions, harking from Simpson’s pre-country bluegrass days. Great fun.
21. Hamilton Leithauser, Live at Café Carlyle – A January 2020 performance with selections from his new album and older works.
22. Algiers, Cleveland 20/20 – A 50-minute benefit for Black Lives Matter, featuring a recitation of those killed by police 2012-20, recorded Sept. 2020.
23. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Live at the Bend – A physical LP to accompany another downloadable set, Live at Brooklyn Bowl, to help out musicians in a year without performances.
24. Don Flemons, Prospect Hill – Some great roots-music sessions from the Carolina Chocolate Drops founder.
25. Belle and Sebastian, What to Look for in Summer – B&S certainly have offered live sets before, but this particular collection focuses on newer material, and includes performances from their sea cruises.
26. Various Artists, Willie Nile Uncovered – An interesting collection of musicians cover Willie Nile’s songs, with some real gems in the collection.
27. Bobby Bare, Bare Sings Silverstein Plus – An 8-CD collection of Bobby Bare (Sr.) covering the works of Shel Silverstein. Eclectic, perhaps, but very cool.
28. Joan Shelley, Live at the Barmont – A very cool two-LP set focusing on some of her more recent work.
29. The Stooges, Live at Goose Lake – Released in August 2020 on the 50th anniversary of Iggy’s electric performance at the Goose Lake Festival in Michigan. Soundboard quality is surprisingly good, and you can tell why parents were scared.
30. The Monkees, The Mike and Micky Show Live – Oh, stop acting so snobby. This is a set from the 2019 performances from the two surviving Monkees, and it’s great.
31. Gang of Four, 1977-81 – This is great in combining LP versions of the first four albums with a cassette of a live performance from the time, but it’s overpriced.
32. Ruthie Foster, Live at the Paramount – Ruthie’s always been interested in roots music, but here she adds some standards like “Mack the Knife”. Cool stuff.
33. Arctic Monkeys, Live at Albert Hall – Like Belle & Sebastian, Arctic Monkeys have offered live sets before, but this one focuses on material from the Tranquility Base era.
34. Yo La Tengo, We Have Amnesia Sometimes – Somehow appropriate for a pandemic year, consisting of five drone pieces.
35. Sun City Girls, Live at the Sky Church – A 2004 recording to honor the great departed weirdos.
36. Sigur Ros, Odin’s Raven Magic – Sigur Ros hasn’t been heard from in a while, and this is a 2002 recording from an orchestral theatre performance in Iceland, so a little dated.
37. Alison Mosshart, Sound Wheel – Mosshart’s work with The Kills and Dead Weather has her pegged as one tough woman, and this album of poetry plays a little to that, but is worthwhile in its own right, consistently funny, and occasionally very self-disclosing.
38. NRBQ, infrequencies – Collector songs from the notorious NRBQ are always a cause for celebration.
39. Charli XCX, Live from Austin – One of the last live performances from the British diva before shutdown.
40. Pere Ubu, By Order of Mayor Pawlicki, Live in Jarocin – This might seem anti-climactic, given the band’s announced farewell last year, but this is a live album from Poland in 2017, where the band performs songs from the 1977-80 “Coed Jail” tour.
41. Father John Misty, Off-Key in Hamburg, Live – Again, Misty has a few live sets available, but this one is a benefit for Covid relief, from an August 2019 live set with orchestra in Hamburg, Germany.
42. Bill Kirchen, The Proper Years – Commander Cody’s legendary guitarist collects all his Proper recordings in one fun collection.
43. The Church, Last Call Live at the Music Box – A great reunion set from a nearly-forgotten 1960s pop legend.
44. Neil Young, Neil Young Archives Vol. 2 and Homegrown – As much as I love Neil, I’m putting this at the bottom because he’s been releasing a lot of overlapping material in the last couple years. Homegrown, Hitchhiker, Tuscaloosa, and Live at the Roxy are certainly critical elements from the “ditch period” of 1972-76, but the long-awaited second volume of the archives, with ten CDs, overlaps much of the material on the individual albums. And the box set is $150! Think I’ll take advantage of Neil offering free access to his archives online until the end of 2020.
Singles and EPs
1. Da Baby and Roddy Ricch, “Rockstar” – Not to be confused with the Post Malone single of the same name, which isn’t bad in its own right.
2. The Comet Is Coming, Imminent, -- Yes, they’re Record Store Day regulars, but how many mystical jazz ensembles relish in releasing EPs and special LPs?
3. Harry Pussy, Superstar – The long-rumored 1993 Rat Bastard sessions finally get an official 7” 45 rpm release. HP at its primal-scream best.
4. Adam Weiner, “Christmas Makes Me Cry” – The lead singer of Low Cut Connie gives us the ultimate 2020 holiday anthem.
5. Ramond and the Side Three Collective, “Can’t Breathe (Again)” – One of the best of the BLM and George Floyd-influenced musical works.
6. Dirty Projectors, Windows Open
7. Dirty Projectors, Flight Towers
8. Dirty Projectors, Super Joao
9. Dirty Projectors, Earth Crisis
10. Dirty Projectors, Ring Road – Since these 5 EPs were also released as the album 5EPs, a case could have been made for putting them in the standard studio releases for 2020. But David Longstreth always wanted them to be considered independently, since a different lead singer is featured for each EP. In any event, this was a great if confusing idea, and the songs display Dirty Projectors at its finest.
11. Fiery Furnaces, “Down at the So and So” – They’re back! ‘Nuf said.
12. Suuns, Fiction – A fascinating and ominous EP, featuring originals with single-word titles, and a closing cover of Frank Zappa’s “Trouble Every Day.”
13. The Dead C, Unknowns – Hey, it’s The Dead C, sounding more like Mogwai in this outing.
14. Jack Harlow, “What’s Poppin’,” – The full album may be a catalog of all that is bad in white-boy hip-hop, but that eerie nightmarish piano trill makes for a great single.
15. Wye Oak, No Horizon – There is never enough Jenn Wassner in the universe, but we’ll take what meager handouts we can get.
16. Forever, Close to the Flame – The artist June Moon records as Forever, and this EP is a sample of what we might expect.
17. Jumpstarted Plowhards, Round One – The latest project of Mike Watt and Todd Congeliere promised to have four EPs out in rapid succession, though the pandemic slowed them down. Still, a cool beginning.
18. Archers of Loaf, “Raleigh Days” and “Talking Over Talk” – Two teasers to what was to have been a 2020 reunion tour and album, here’s hoping more will be coming.
19. Brittany Howard, Live at Sound Emporium – Since this EP had live selections from her 2019 album, I expected it to exude more life. Good execution, but not as brash as Howard can get.
20. Connor Garvey, Chasing Horizons – Songs composed on a freighter bound for Iceland. Interesting.