Best albums of 2020

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on January 3, 2021

Happy Sunday…and happy 2021; after the year we went through, I think we can go without the tired retrospection that tempts us each January to romanticize the year we left behind.  Netflix recently released its Death to 2020 documentary, which gathered people from Hollywood’s A-list to remark on how terrible a year in which the country experienced undue turmoil while they tweeted from the security their wealth provides them.  We all experienced that horrible year firsthand, so instead of a look back on all the pain of 2020, I’d like to focus on one of the few bright spots of last year: music.

2020 was littered with great albums, but I’d hate to fall into the trap critical websites set for themselves every year.  No matter who makes the ranking, what do we all know about the best-albums-of-the-year lists created by PitchforkRolling Stone, or even NPR?  They always get it wrong.  It isn’t their fault, however, even the Grammys (who never get anything right) have the good sense to split their rankings by genre.  But even that is too limiting.

Instead, I’ve created my own list of categories with winners and nominees.  Some picks belong in multiple awards, but in order to give every album a chance to make it onto your playlist, I’ll limit each to one nomination.

Albums to expand your music palate:

No matter where your tastes normally lie, last year was replete with opportunities to expand your horizons.  These were the records everyone should listen to from 2020 to get more acquainted with other genres

  • Winner: Apolonio by Omar Apollo
    • One of my personal favorites of the year (longer reviewer here). Omar Apollo is one of the next big artists in pop music and his blend of indie themes, bedroom pop production, and bilingual verses is the way of the future and a ride you can’t miss
  • RTJ4 by Run the Jewels
    • I wrote a longer review back in June when the protests against police brutality first sparked over the murder of George Floyd. This album is a bridge record for old hip hop heads to newer albums who harken back to the old styles of rap music and people who don’t normally listen to the genre at all.  Its timely message with thought-provoking bars and is a must-listen for a year marked with civil unrest
  • Starting Over by Chris Stapleton
    • Country music has long been overrun with bro-country artists like Florida Georgia Line so it’s important to recognize when the genre goes back to its roots. Country music was founded (by black people) on the principles of class solidarity and emotionally charged lyrics and Chris Stapleton is one of the last people standing for what his genre used to be all about.

Best Debut Album:

Sometimes the Grammys have a good category, but “best new artist” doesn’t make any sense if you listen to more than the charts.

  • Winner: Ungodly Hour by Chloe x Halle
    • Ungodly Hour is not only the best debut album of 2020, it’s one of the top 5 albums of the entire year (but that isn’t how I set up the list). The Grammy’s doomed it to the purgatory of the no-man land they leave every Black pop musician because they don’t know how to include artists of color in pop without taking awards away from White people
  • Ho, why is u here? By Flo Milli
    • Flo Milli’s music sounds like how being a bad-bitch feels. Stop reading this article and listen to her songs In the PartyWeak, or Beef FloMix and come back as a more confident version of yourself
  • Modus Vivendi by 070 Shake
    • The lead single of this album Guilty Conscious is one of the best songs of 2020 and the rest of the record matches the synth-soaked wailing previously only heard from the Weeknd

Albums that resurrected disco:

The resurgence of disco was not something we expected from 2020, but these albums revamped one of the most unfairly degraded genre’s music has ever seen.

  • Winner: Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa
    • Future Nostalgia is right up there with Ungodly Hour for album of the year, but it did something that was bubbling below the surface of the industry for a while now: it brought disco back. Disco elements were cropping back up in recent years, but with songs like Physical and Levitating, Dua let disco wrap its legs around pop music’s neck
  • What’s Your Pleasure by Jessie Ware
    • Where Future Nostalgia revamped disco music, Jessie Ware went back to the 70’s herself. This album is so indistinguishable from a 70’s record that you expect P-Funk to make an appearance
  • DISCO by Kylie Minogue,

The Ernest Hemingway Award for Sad Writing

It’s nice to see that the storied writing tradition of pairing utter sadness with intricate metaphors for a beautiful cocktail of tears and acoustic guitar is still appreciated in the music business:

  • Winner: Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
    • Pitchfork’s album of the year didn’t come to play and ripped the heart out of a generation previously unfamiliar with Fiona Apple. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a brutal takedown of the mediocre men to have the privilege of being dumped by Ms. Apple and the industry she left because it treated her the same way.  The character of this album is hard to pin down, like the artist herself, in that it takes time away from the heart-wrenching material at times just to make a flippant joke or go on a musical aside.  This record is a puzzle that listeners need a dozen or more listens to start to unravel and that’s what will probably earn it the Grammy for Album of the Year
  • Folklore by Taylor Swift
  • Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
    • I once described Phoebe Bridgers’ music as if a sad ghost found an acoustic guitar and I stand by that description. Although nowadays I add the caveat that the sad ghost is also one of the greatest songwriters working in music right now.  Phoebe Bridgers is much more than an excellent Twitter personality and uses some of the best wordplay in music such as the entirety of Moon Song

Bar for Bar Essentials:

Albums that value their artists’ prose:

  • Winner: Spilligion by Spillage Village
    • Spillage Village is Dreamville’s response to the Chicago-based group Pivot Gang and is comprised of all the good members of Dreamville without Cole. The most prominent artists on the record are EARTHGANG and JID, but a cattle train of talent is featured on this impressive collaboration album.  Collab albums like the aforementioned Pivot Gang’s 2019 release You Can’t Sit With Us sometimes fall prey to a meandering focus.  It’s hard to keep a consistent narrative when you have so many cooks in the kitchen, but Spilligion manages to avoid that pitfall and produce a very solid concept album about the group’s take on holy lessons
  • Good News by Megan Thee Stallion
    • As I wrote earlier in December, Good News is Megan Thee Stallion enjoying her time at the top of the game. Loaded with features from big names like Beyonce and DaBaby, this project was built for success as well as longevity and we look forward to Hot Girl Megan’s long time in the sun
  • Pray for Paris by Westside Gunn

The Unfortunately Named Kanye West Award for Rap and Production Excellence

There are plenty of other artists who exemplify both rap and production value on their records, but Kanye was emblematic of it when the award received its name

  • Winner: Alfredo by Freddie Gibbs

Freddie Gibbs lunged at my heart earlier this year with Alfredo because it is right up this critic’s alley.  Not only does each song beautifully blend together with well-placed string instruments and horns, the rhymes are also immaculate, and he takes the time to make me laugh.  Alfredo is about Gibbs’ transition from illicit entrepreneur to musician and will probably snag him a Grammy or two in the coming months

  • It is what it is by Thundercat
    • If you don’t know who Thundercat is, go get yourself acquainted, because not only is he one of my favorite emerging artists, he’s also incredibly funny. It is what it is, is teeming with skits, interludes, and offhanded rhymes designed to make the listener laugh and that humor perfectly complement the sultry messages of his songs.  To push the point home, go watch the music video for his best song Dragonball Durag
  • Circles by Mac Miller
    • Mac’s first posthumous album is everything we missed about him two years after his passing. Longer review here

Pop music to shake your butt to:

We’d like to pretend this is all pop music, but these albums resist the urge of the newer artists to pull the whole genre towards indie

  • Winner: Chromatica by Lady Gaga
    • Little Monsters were feasting this year when Lady Gaga dropped her club-dance album and marked her return to insane outfits and weird dances. Rain on Me with Ariana Grande is one of the top 10 singles of the year and the rest of the record kept the fast-paced, sugary pop we haven’t seen from Lady G since her Born this Way days.
  • SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
    • Rina Sawayama made one of the most introspective pop albums of 2020 and discussed complex themes like the value of found family, climate change, and battling with self-worth, but we won’t remember it for any of that because of what a bop it was. Songs like XS expertly critique consumerism and capitalist culture, but it once again goes too hard that you can’t help but dance
  • Positions by Ariana Grande
    • Ariana Grande wants us to know one thing about her on this album and it’s that she has had a lot of sex before. I fully support women’s sexuality and they are much better at singing about it than their male counterparts, which is most on display in her song 34 + 35.

Honorable Mentions:

There were far more albums deserving to be on this list than the 35 listed here, so I’ll leave you a list of additional albums that deserve your time. I hope we have such musically gifted year in 2021 to make up for all the trouble we went through in 2020.

  • I’m Allergic to Dogs! By Remi Wolf
  • I can’t go outside by Channel Tres
  • 1988 by Knxledge
  • SuperGood by Duckwrth
  • How I’m feeling now by Charli XCX
  • THE ALBUM by BLACKPINK
  • Nectar by Joji
  • Plastic Hearts by Miley Cyrus

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Rest in Peace to a legend in his own time MF DOOM

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