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Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums Of 2020

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Before I post my 20 favorite albums of 2020, I need to share my standard three truisms about year-end lists. Even though I know 95 percent of the people who clicked on this won’t bother reading this pre-amble part — they are instead Ctrl-Fing their favorite albums so they can send me “No love for ____?” tweets — let’s make these things clear for the rest of you kind and patient readers.

1) Ranking albums is dumb …
We all know this. Art isn’t a competition. I can’t really distinguish between my 13th favorite album and my 19th favorite. This is all talk. None of it really matters.

2) … but it’s kind of fun …
Of course it is! Because it’s about sharing music recommendations. And I do mean share — make your own lists and show them to me, especially if you’re the sort inclined to complain about lists. Put yourself out there and let me complain about you, too!

3) … because it’s really about discovering an album or two (or possibly more!) that you might not have known about otherwise.
Exactly!

I should also mention that I didn’t include any reissues or live albums. This is straight 2020-exclusive studiocraft.

Now, let’s start ranking!

20. Hum – Inlet

If you were a beloved indie band that hadn’t put out an album — or simply a good album — in a long while, 2020 likely was a good year for you. Fiona Apple, The Strokes, The Killers, and Bright Eyes all had worthy comebacks. But nobody revived themselves quite like the ’90s era Midwestern sludge-pop institution Hum, who roared back with surprising, startling vitality on Inlet, their first album since 1998’s landmark Downward Is Heavenward. While Inlet sounds like it could have come out during the Clinton administration, Hum made it clear that they are no nostalgia act.

19. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers

On the Indiecast podcast, referring to buzzy singer-songwriters who draw upon the less fashionable sounds of ’90s alt-rock for inspiration, I called Beabadoobee’s Fake It Flowers the Stone Temple Pilots to Soccer Mommy’s Nirvana and Clairo’s Pearl Jam. To be clear, as an undying supporter of Purple and Tiny Music … Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, I meant that as a compliment. While Beabadoobee’s full-length debut Fake It Flowers didn’t receive the kind of acclaim lavished on Soccer Mommy’s very good Color Theory, I found myself ultimately reaching for the punchier and hookier Fake It Flowers more. It’s 2020’s best album of 1998.

18. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

Kevin Parker spent a long time laboring over the fourth Tame Impala LP, elongating the promotional cycle to an almost full year. It was bad luck that The Slow Rush dropped right before the world stopped; few albums in 2020 were as well poised to dominate the festival season than this luxurious, bottom-heavy, and frequently ecstatic record. But even in quarantine, the pensive introspection of Parker’s lyrics hit home; the “let’s put off worrying about the future” anthem “One More Year” is about as close as 2020 ever got to hopeful.

17. Ezra Feinberg – Recumbent Speech

Let’s face it: This year, “headphone music to which you can get absolutely blazed” was a very attractive genre. One of the go-to albums for me in that regard was this mesmerizing collection of soundscapes by Brooklyn composer and musician Ezra Feinberg. The six numbers on Recumbent Speech evoke Meddle-era Pink Floyd, if the British classic-rockers had somehow hooked up with Brian Eno and invented ambient music a few years earlier. When Earth is no longer tenable, a quick 40 minute trip through outer space is always welcome.

16. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

One of the many disproven theories cooked up by music critics in recent years is that it’s impossible for contemporary musicians to have mystique in the social media era. Fiona Apple kicked that one to the curb all by herself. Who else other than Fiona can separate herself entirely from the world for the better part of a decade, and then return with a furious and frequently hilarious album that sounds utterly unlike anything in the pop or rock landscape? So many of her obsessions — the awfulness of dinner parties, the encouraging words of Shameika — could have easily comes across as insular. Instead, this record’s singular wavelength felt universal. After all, aren’t we all insular these days?

15. Ganser – Just Look At That Sky

Most post-punk bands don’t have even one passable singer. Chicago’s Ganser, however, has two very good ones — Nadia Garofalo and Alicia Gaines. On Ganser’s intense second album Just Look At That Sky, Garofalo and Gaines spit out threats, hector unseen enemies, and express weary dismay at a decaying, disappointing world with equal parts deftness and verve. They can rant and croon, elevating this thorny, driving music out of the muck and toward something resembling transcendence.

14. The Strokes – The New Abnormal

When they first came on the scene, The Strokes were celebrated for their youthful beauty and effortless cool. But they might be more endearing in their bruised and battered middle age. The power of The New Abnormal is how it leans away from nostalgia, implicitly acknowledging that leather jackets and proudly insouciant rock anthems might not be enough once life has kicked you around. “Gone now are the old times,” Julian Casablancas wails on “Ode To The Mets,” but he doesn’t come off as defeated. He sounds like a survivor.

13. Gunn-Truscinski Duo – Soundkeeper

Of all the artists that have worked the indie-jam lane in recent years, no group has quite captured the middle ground between the Grateful Dead and Sonic Youth as well as Gunn-Truscinski Duo does on Soundkeeper. The long-running duo of guitarist Steve Gunn and drummer John Truscinski are more locked in than ever, unfurling slow-building jams of drone and distortion that grow to incredible highs over the course of as many as 16 minutes. Truly some of 2020’s most mind-blowing head music.

12. Young Jesus – Welcome To Conceptual Beach

This Los Angeles band also works the no man’s land between the indie and jam scenes, though Welcome To Conceptual Beach ultimately lands more on the side of epic old-school guitar acts like Modest Mouse and Built To Spill. Drawing inspiration from both free jazz and the Dave Matthews Band, Young Jesus craft anthems that go for the emotional jugular and then wander off into the sonic wilderness before roaring back for thrilling climaxes. The result is an album that feels like a multi-course meal offering a satisfying range of flavors and experiences.

11. Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1

What a strange year country music’s most interesting man had in 2020. He started by savagely knocking his record label and openly wondering whether he could pull of a headlining arena tour. And then … well, you know what happened. While most artists bristled at being put on ice by Covid, Simpson — who actually caught the virus early on — seemed liberated by it. Inspired by his fanbase stepping up to donate to some of his favorite charities, Simpson agreed to re-record his songs in a bluegrass style, and the result proved to be greater than a mere stunt. In fact, Cuttin’ Grass is the freest and most relaxed he’s ever sounded on record. Listening to it is like hearing a man rediscover his love of music.

10. Kahil El’Zabar – Kahil El’Zabar’s Spirit Groove

This Chicago percussionist and composer has been a prolific musician and recording artist since the early 1970s, working with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Pharaoh Sanders along the way. But in 2020, the 67-year-old El’Zabar made in-roads with listeners outside the jazz scene thanks to two stellar releases, America The Beautiful and this meditative collaboration with celebrated saxophonist David Murray. As a bandleader, El’Zabar is demonstrative and excitable, audibly exhorting Murray to play harder and deeper on this album’s set of long and exploratory jams. In a year of so much tumult, this record felt like an oasis of soul.

9. Dehd – Flower Of Devotion

It never occurred to me that the doomy romanticism of Roy Orbison could be linked with the goth-y introspection of The Cure until I heard the Chicago band Dehd. For this dreamy trio, there is no emotional heartache that can’t be cured with soaring vocals, jangly guitars, and extremely generous amounts of reverb. On their third album Flower Of Devotion, their songwriting catches up with their arresting sound, with one gorgeous melody after another complementing their gloriously depressive splendor.

8. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Even during a year in which the music industry was mostly grounded, Phoebe Bridgers still managed to feel like a breakout star. That’s partly due to her deftness at generating social-media excitement out of pretty much anything — even a Goo Goo Dolls cover — but her second album Punisher also delivers where it counts, particularly when it comes to lyrics. Few albums this year were more quotable, whether Bridgers is taking the piss out of Eric Clapton and griping about how noisy it can be living next to a hospital. In the context of the pandemic, Punisher‘s mix of sorrow and gallows humor felt especially necessary.

7. Jeff Parker – Suite For Max Brown

For most of his career, this multi-instrumentalist has been best known as a long-time member of Tortoise, the pioneering Chicago ensemble that has bridged the gap between the indie, jazz, and experimental scenes since the mid-’90s. But on his own, Parker put out his highest-profile and best-received album yet with Suite For Max Brown, a song cycle that touches on many of the same sonic regions as Tortoise but in a gentler, more soulful kind of way, with Parker’s silky guitar amiably drifting through jazzy soundscapes that resolve at unexpected destinations.

6. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind

The year’s most hedonistic and thrillingly seedy rock album comes from an unlikely source. On their previous records, Yves Tumor made post-modern noise and experimental music that commented on the conventions of pop at an arms-length distance. Heaven To A Tortured Mind also has a deconstructionist spirit, only this time the inspiration derives from sex and drug-infested early ’70s sleaze classics like Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and The Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, along with heaping doses of prime-era Prince. But Yves Tumor isn’t as concerned with esoteric sounds this time around — on this album, the vibes are pleasingly blurry and the guitar solos are fantastically skanky.

5. David Nance – Staunch Honey

This Nebraska singer-songwriter has been making noisy and ear-splitting rock music away from the glare of major media attention for the better part of a decade. But with Staunch Honey, he’s finally made an album just polished enough that it ought to garner some mainstream attention. Like so many true blue-collar middle American rockers, Nance worships at the altar of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, though on Staunch Honey he turns down the guitar fuzz a bit so that the rough-hewn melodies and relentless choogle rhythms can come through with greater clarity. (While he claims to be a Springsteen agnostic, his unpretentious yet powerful rasp is positively Boss-like.) If there’s still room in your heart for a young rock ‘n’ roll hero, make it this one.

4. Bartees Strange – Live Forever

2020’s indie-rock rookie of the year. The Washington D.C.-based Bartees Strange struck out with two fascinating albums — the inventive National covers album Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy and his proper debut, the wonderfully eclectic Live Forever. On tracks like “Mustang” and “Boomer,” Strange demonstrates that he can write relatively straightforward emo-punk jams as well as anybody. But Live Forever truly shines when Strange colors far outside the lines, whether he’s delving into vibe-y electro-pop on “Flagey God,” getting seriously crunked on “Mossblerd,” or pouring his heart out on folk dirges like “Fallen For You.” I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

3. Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit – Reunions

One of America’s best active songwriters has written with common insight about the struggle to overcome addiction and self-destructive behavior. But on his stunning seventh album, Jason Isbell addresses the equally difficult prospect of maintaining a good life you’ve fought for and fear might once again lose. The characters in songs like “Only Children,” “Dreamsicle,” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” take their hits from life’s nonstop barrage of setbacks and disappointments, and resolve to keep pushing forward. Isbell as always is the sensitive narrator, setting his stories to some of his finest melodies. (Fully embracing 1980s-style heartland rock, he’s never been this musically robust.) A true master of craft who somehow managed to get even better.

2. Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

The best active American songwriter turned 79 this year, which means he’s part of the population most at risk during a pandemic. And yet on his 39th studio album, Bob Dylan sounded more fearless and stubbornly alive than artists half or even one-third of his age. For all of the many tangents of Dylan’s long and illustrious career, the highest compliment that can be paid Rough And Rowdy Ways is that’s he never made an album quite like it. Freely commingling bracing insights with unmitigated silliness, Dylan plays both the dour oracle and hilarious prankster on Rough And Rowdy Ways, performing an excruciating autopsy for the American dream in one breath and shouting out Don Henley and Glenn Frey on the next. On “I Contain Multitudes,” he drifts for several minutes without any apparent melody; on “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” he floats like Fred Astaire amid one of his loveliest musical confections. Throughout the album, he seems in total command of his craft, and also completely off of his rocker. What more could you possibly hope for from Bob Dylan?

1. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

This one was pretty much locked into my top spot from the moment I heard it. Some albums just announce themselves as instant classics, and Saint Cloud was that LP for me 2020. From the jump, it seemed like the kind of record you would want to bring on road trips and play at barbecues and wallow in when you needed something to make you feel better during some terrible moment in your life. For Katie Crutchfield, Saint Cloud came out of her own cataclysmic moment, when she felt compelled to take a break from touring in order to get sober. The songs she wrote once she was ready to return to Waxahatchee benefit from that meditation period. There’s a clarity and patience to Saint Cloud that’s missing even from her laudatory back catalogue, expressed against open and unfussy country-rock arrangements guided by producer Brad Cook. In a year of so much chaos and tragedy and idiocy and fear, listening to Saint Cloud felt like hanging out with that friend who always manages to put things in perspective. No matter what happens today, the lilacs keep drinking the water, marking in the slow, slow, slow passing of time.

What do you think?

Written by Steven Hyden

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