Top 10 Albums 2020

December 28, 2020

From 2011 – March of 2020, I’ve worked 3 jobs, but they’ve all had this in common: A small team of 2-4 people sitting in an open office environment, working on computers all day. Due to a combination of my own obnoxiousness and others’ apathy, I normally end up determining what music everyone listens to all day. This is great (for me, at least) but it also comes with some responsibility to make sure people aren’t miserable. So, I listen to a lot things that everyone that I work with, who is generally within 10 years of my age one way or the other, find tolerable. For me this means a lot of 2000s era rap & indie-ish rock. Kanye West, Outkast, Girl Talk, The Strokes, The White Stripes, etc. And then I also listen to new things coming out that I think other people might be able to tolerate, to mixed results.

But what if I had the majority of the year to pick music just for me, without feeling the need to moderate my selections to please others? Thanks to a flexible job & a global pandemic, 2020 is the year we find out! If I want to listen to the same mopey album on repeat for 8 hours in a row, there’s no one to stop me. I know, because I did that a lot.

What a great year to be stuck at home picking your own music. 7 artists on this year’s list are new to my top 10 (2006-Present). This was an incredibly tough year to whittle down to 10. One of my favorite artists (The Mountain Goats) released two great albums this year, and neither made my Top 10. Another one of my my favorite artists (Sufjan Stevens) released two albums this year that I couldn’t get into, and it didn’t even bum me out.

You can get a general feel for what I was listening to on my Mix that features songs from 20-ish of my favorite releases this year. But let’s just move into the Top 10 (playlist link, but the albums are in no particular order):

10. Long Neck – World’s Strongest Dog

Listen on Spotify

Don’t know who this is or how they came into my life. Maybe it was a Spotify Release Radar. Maybe it was an artist I follow on Twitter. But, they have a cool name, and a great sound. 10 songs, 29 minutes. Short, catchy good rock songs.

9. Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners

Listen on Spotify

I know exactly how I got into Christian Lee Hutson. He’s apart of the Phoebe Bridgers Expanded Universe, which is where I spend a lot of time these days. He was involved in some way w/ both of Bridgers’ side-projects Boygenius & Better Oblivion Community Center, and also did work on her 2020 release Punisher. Bridgers produced this album.

Anyway, this album is noticeable on this list because it’s the only one with a guy who sings & plays guitar. Quiet songs about relationships & stuff. Kind of got some Carrie & Lowell vibes, but I don’t think it’s about his parents or Jesus. There’s also a real banger called “Get the Old Band Back Together”

8. Beach Bunny – Honeymoon

Listen on Spotify

California pop rock, via a Chicago band. Short songs (7/9 less than 3 minutes), short album, big hooks. Fun summer music for everyone. This band has released a lot of great EPs but this is their full length debut.

7. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Listen on Spotify

A lot of people I know LOVED this album, and I just think it’s great. Waxahatchee has been around & critically acclaimed for awhile, and has been appearing frequently on Spotify’s infinite playlists for years, but this is the first album I was able to get into. Great voice, melodies, guitars, etc.

6. HAIM – Women in Music Part III

Listen on Spotify

Of the ~6 people who read this list every year, I’m on a group chat w/ two of them who love HAIM (Hi, Joel & Collin) but for some reason I hadn’t found a way to really connect with their first two albums (Sorry, everyone). This one really got me though, from the first listen. Bops from the first track to the last. (Aside: Albums that release, at launch with only one version that includes “Bonus Tracks” are confusing/annoying to me, because I don’t actually know where this album ends, but the bonus tracks are also bops, so I will allow it.)

5. Frances Quinlan – Likewise

Listen on Spotify

Frances Quinlan released two worthwhile projects this year: This one, her first (On Spotify at least) titular release and “Freshman Year” a re-release of her first album using the “Hop Along” name that would bring her to indie darling status. Hop Along’s “Bark Your Head Off, Dog” was my favorite album of 2018 and remains in heavy rotation as one of 2 CDs in my car.

Likewise is a much sparser project than Bark Your Head Off, Dog, which means it highlights her voice & songwriting, both of which are delightful. The first track, Piltdown Man, is an exemplary example of Quinlan’s strengths as a songwriter. A simple childhood memory, vivid & relatable, perhaps framing a larger issue, perhaps not. Other favorites of mine are “Went to LA” (the last minute, that voice, my goodness) and the closer “Carry the Zero” a great take on a Built to Spill classic.

4. Liza Anne – Bad Vacation

Listen on Spotify

My top 3 albums on this list are pretty widely regarded as some of the best of the year (#6, #1, #4 according to MetaCritic) but this one which almost cracked the top 3 really flew under the radar. Another mystery on how they showed up on my radar, but it was probably a recommendation someone in the Phoebe Bridgers Expanded Universe, as three of them (Phoebe, Lucy & Christian) follow her on Twitter. A catchy upbeat album about depression, substance abuse, etc. My jam! Big Saint Vincent-esque guitars at times.

3. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Listen on Spotify

Miller Mike & El-P are back, and they aren’t disappointing because they are heroes & masters of their craft. This isn’t my favorite Run the Jewels album (RTJ2) but, it probably takes the #2 spot. Best beat: Oh La La. Best lyrics, maybe song of the year: Walking in Snow.

2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Listen on Spotify

In April, a couple weeks after this album came out, if you had told me it wouldn’t be my favorite album of the year, I would have said you were crazy. Perhaps too much has already been said about the nature of this art made by someone who had more or less locked themselves in their home for years, coming out as we were slowly realizing we’d be more or less locked in our homes for a year. This album has an incredible energy to it that I think will prove to be timeless and came out at the time it was most needed.

1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Listen on Spotify

So, what could be better than that? Phoebe Fucking Bridgers, who has had a prolific and nearly perfect three year run, with 4 releases with 3 different groups: 2 solo albums, 1 perfect supergroup EP (Boygenius) and a full-length with one of her childhood idols, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes with Better Oblivion Community Center. Punisher (the song) is about a different one of her childhood idols, Elliot Smith, who I have never gotten into (sorry!).

Her debut album, Stranger in the Alps might have been my favorite album of 2017… but I didn’t listen to it until 2018, so it didn’t make my list. Punisher is bigger and better in every way. Bridgers musical palette expands wildly here, and her lyricism grows with it. So many beautiful songs about so many different kinds of sadness. She also is really funny & self-aware, in her music and especially on Twitter.

Stuff I really liked that didn’t make the cut:

Ohmme – Fantasize Your Ghost
Sad13 – Haunted Painting
Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was
The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chauvin
The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives
The Magnetic Fields – Quickies
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind

Cool Re-issues & Live Albums & EPs & Other Stuff:

Rilo Kiley – Rilo Kiley
Hop Along, Queen Anslies – Freshman Year
The Mountain Goats – Jordan Lake Sessions
Belle & Sebastian – What to Look For In Summer
Phoebe Bridgers – Copycat Killer EP
Nick Lutsko – Songs On The Computer

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