Welcome to my annual list of favorite albums. 2020 was, of course, a terrible year. Live music has been shut down for about 10 months with no indication for when it will be safe to have shows again. That doesn’t mean it was a wholly bad year though. This list covers everything from albums released in normal circumstances in January and February, to albums written before the quarantine and released during it, to ones at the end of the year that were actually written during the pandemic. One good thing about 2020, and there weren’t many, was the extra time at home gave me extra time for listening to music. I obliterated my records for tracks listened to in a year according to last.fm (yes, I still use it). So after cutting last year’s list down to 20 this year’s is expanded to 30. So prepare to judge me harshly, here we go…
30. Atlas Vending by Metz
Metz ever so slightly smooth some of the abrasion of their sound on their fourth album. The last song “A Boat to Drown In” is my favorite the band has done and maybe hints at what direction their sound could go in the future.
29. Free Love by Sylvan Esso
For a totally opposite mood from Metz try the new Sylvan Esso. This one is their most low key album, many of the songs have subtle arrangements with Amelia Meath’s voice and melodies the focus. There are no big songs like “Play It Right” or “Parade” here but the soothing tracks were perfect for this garbage year.
28. Lament by Touche Amore
The followup to their album centering on frontman Jeremy Bolm’s mother’s death Lament almost has to be more upbeat by default. But this is still Touche Amore so the songs are still anxious and emotional. They continue to evolve adding in new touches like a steel guitar which actually works really well with their sound. The entire band Manchester Orchestra gets a feature credit on the song “Limelight” and it’s one of the highlights of the album.
27. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress by Gulch
One of the best hardcore releases I’ve heard in quite a while. There was plenty of need for calming music in 2020 but also a big big need for something angry. This files by in a mere 16 minutes leaving you wanting more after the last song, a cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Sin in My Heart.” I’ve got to deduct points and put it at number 27 for being so short but I feel like this is one I’ll definitely return to in the future.
26. Reunions by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
I am ‘I enjoy the new Jason Isbell album years old.’
25. Self Worth by Mourn
All Mourn does is consistently put out solid rock albums, more people should talk about them.
24. It Is What It Is by Thundercat
This album literally has a song called Dragonball Durag about how sexy Thundercat looks in his (presumably Dragonball Z branded) durag. Also Thundercat is incredibly good at playing bass.
23. Waterfall II by My Morning Jacket
If you happen to have an album’s worth of songs this good just sitting around in your archives this was the right time to release it.
22. As Long As You Are by Future Islands
This band is always good and every once in a while they hit it out of the park on a song like “Thrill.”
21. Hirundin by Austra
Austra is the only Canadian electro-pop werido you ever needed.
20. Ohms by Deftones
Deftones are still releasing great music 20 years after they released my album of the year 2000 and my favorite album from high school. I have always been a list making nerd. Give me the cool points for White Pony and don’t ask what else I was listening to at the time, thanks.
19. Songs by Adrianne Lenker
The least surprising surprise release of all time. As prolific as Adrianne Lenker is I would have been utterly shocked if she didn’t record an album during her quarantine. She also released another instrumental album for good measure. This is of course after releasing the best album of 2019 and also the second best album of 2019 with her band.
18. Swimmer by Tennis
Before covid devoured our world I tried doing some radio show like podcasts on here. I learned there is only so much free storage available but I had a lot of fun playing the new Tennis songs. Maybe some day I’ll figure out how to upload more, I’ve just been so busy you know, with all the stuff and things and lack of free time?
17. May Our Chambers Be Full by Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou
This sounds exactly like Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou songs smashed together which is exactly what I wanted when I preordered it without ever hearing a song first. No way this wasn’t going to be awesome.
16. Welcome to Conceptual Beach by Young Jesus
With all the time at home this was a great year to randomly check out bands. What does a band called Young Jesus sound like? Turns out pretty damn good.
15. Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee
I know you’ve been on the fence, sure every single year end list you’ve read has the Waxahatchee album on it but what does Entreaty.Net think, you’ve been dying to know.
14. Sideways to New Italy by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Look at that, their band name is so long they didn’t even write the whole thing out on their album cover.
13. Likewise by Frances Quinlan
Hop Along’s Painted Shut was my album of the decade. So I’m a big fan of Frances Quinlan. She extracts melodies out of phrases where it wouldn’t be possible for mere mortals and still has the not so secret weapon in her raspy throat she can kick into overdrive. She deploys that exactly one time on this album but does she ever pick her spot, accenting “Went to LA” on the standout line “heaven is a second chance.”
12. Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens
Beginning your album with an instrumental Radiohead cover looks like a bad idea on paper but Kelly Lee Owens turns “Arpeggi” into something that sounds like it came off the Stranger Things soundtrack. The next two tracks “On” and “Melt” immediately show the diversity of her sound and the albums keeps and holds your attention to the end. The Radiohead song ends up being a minor detail, just the start of something great.
11. Shore by Fleet Foxes
Released the exact second it turned fall this year, Robin Pecknold knows his niche and gave us a gorgeous, calming album exactly when we needed it most, during a year long panic attack. This is as good as anything he’s ever released.
10. Live Forever by Bartees Strange
Bartees Stange’s debut album shows off an incredible range of talent. He’s got rock songs, R&B, jazz and hip hop elements, and songs that sound like great outtakes from For Emma Forever Ago. It will be exciting to see where his career takes him because as eclectic as this first album is he could succeed with any sound it seems.
9. Inlet by Hum
Hum, a band whose 90s song “Stars” was a hit for people who watched too much MTV2 returned with their first new music in over two decades and … it was actually really good! New music by reunited bands is rarely good and dare I say this is better than their 90s material. For whatever reason I love putting this on while driving (to go hiking alone, my only activity that doesn’t take place in my apartment).
8. Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
The followup to her incredible debut doesn’t disappoint. She seems to have been on every single TV show in existence performing these songs or doing interviews but there’s a reason Phoebe is so popular. When you listen to songs like “Chinese Satellite”, “I See You”, or “Punisher” her talent is obvious.
7. Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple doesn’t release new music often but when she does it’s always amazing. This is yet another example of how she is one of the best lyricist in the world. Remember that time everyone made fun of her for saying the world was bullshit at some award show? She was right, then and now. Go listen to Tidal, it’s great, so is everything else she’s done. If you haven’t already granted her legend status do it now.
6. Don’t Shy Away by Loma
Just two years after what seemed like a one off side project album from members of Shearwater and Cross Record was released, and was my album of the year 2018, Loma has thankfully returned and done it again. Emily Cross’s voice is perfect. Jonathan Meiburg enlisted more collaborators making Loma more of a full band and created another album of fascinating songs to de-stress to. Something we all could use these days.
5. That’s How Rumors Get Started by Margo Price
Certified country badass Margo Price decided to make a rock album and it’s her best yet. She’s honed her songwriting skills for years in the Nashville underground and her huge voice sounds great with this style.
4. Silver Tongue by Torres
All year long I’ve come back to this criminally underrated pre-pandemic album. There are a lot of acts that are just one person singing with a guitar and programmed drums. This can easily get boring but Torres is the best at it, the music just right to highlight her voice and lyrics. If there were still shows I’d tell you to go see her before everyone else figures it out because sooner or later they will.
3. Sugaregg by Bully
Speaking of deserved acclaimed 2020 was the year Nashville’s Bully broke through to a bigger audience. Alicia Bognanno crafts the best alternative rock you’ll find in this decade and manages to top her already excellent output.
2. Sorceress by Jess Williamson
Jess Williamson follows up her excellent 2018 album Cosmic Wink with an even stronger work. Singles “Infinite Scroll” and “Wind on Tin” are two of the absolute best songs of the year. Other tracks like “Smoke”, “Love’s Not Hard to Find”, and the PJ Harvey-esqse “How Ya Lonesome” shine through. “Rosaries at the Border” references the immigration crisis (remember that, about 1,000 scandals ago) and on the title track she admits “yes, there’s a little magic in my hat.” That explains how she’s written another album this good.
1. RTJ4 by Run The Jewels
There is really only one choice for album of the year that was 2020 though. A pandemic was made far worse by an incompetent government and stopped life as we know it until half the people decided they just didn’t give a shit anymore as other people got sick and died. The president did everything possible to slow the vote count in the election he lost and then claimed the winner cheated because the vote count was slow while the media yawned. And of course 2020 will be remembered for protests that occurred after police murdered George Floyd on video for all to vividly see.
There are a very small handful of songs that are so good I can remember the feelings I felt the first time I heard them. They moved me, connected me to something, or maybe showed me a new kind of music. “Walking in the Snow” by Run The Jewels is one of those songs. Of course George Floyd was not the first black man murdered by police on video, he wasn’t even the first black man choked to death by police on video. So the song that was written referencing Eric Garner’s murder was eerie, powerful, and heartbreaking when Run The Jewels pushed up the release of RTJ4 after Floyd’s murder. I won’t pick a line out for an example because you should hear the whole thing, especially Killer Mike’s first verse. It is the defining song of 2020. And it’s surrounded by great tracks that El-P has sequenced perfectly like a playlist that flows expertly. Before I go further I’ll address the obvious, I rarely listen to hip hop. I am not qualified to dissect it and there are probably numerous great hip hop albums I’ve missed. This got on my radar and is number one on my list because Run The Jewels do something more punk than most punk bands would ever do, they give away their music totally for free. If you let me check out your album for free I will and this one I really liked. They start off their goofball selves on “Yankee and the Brave” setting up a old detective cop buddy theme. They enlist guest appearances from Gangsta Boo, DJ Premier, Pharrell Williams, Zach De La Rocha, 2 Chainz, and one song that has both Mavis Staples and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. The funny stuff is great but this is number one because of the serious songs, in addition to “Walking in the Snow” there’s “Just”, “Pulling The Pin”, and the moving last song “A Few Words for The Firing Squad.” I mentioned albums we needed a lot in this list and it’s true we needed them all but this one we needed the most for it’s seriousness and it’s humor.
Thanks for reading, here’s a playlist with a song from each of these albums plus many more songs I loved this year.