Why does every intro to these end-of-year lists start with a hand-wringing apology about how these lists just aren’t important in these times? Didn’t they listen to the artist who has topped many of these lists?
“And I know none of this’ll matter in the long run / But I know a sound is still a sound around no one.”
List-making isn’t a frivolous affair; it’s the life-blood of music criticism — the moment where you put your chips on the table and say, ‘THIS is what music should sound like and accomplish in about a 25-90 minute space.’ It’s the part of the year where you force yourself to define what aesthetics you are drawn to and compare it to your peers to either nod your heads in agreement or start choking them out. If it’s just clickbait, then why is the art of list-making so widespread, far beyond the boundaries of art canonization? There are whole sports shows dedicated to revealing the rankings of football teams. Some music critics talk about lists — or even rating systems on reviews — as if it’s the result of anti-art capitalist machismo culture where everything’s a competition that has to be quantified. Personally, I’d rather not have to decipher every word of a review to figure out whether you like an album or simply, moderately like it. In that way, numbers are pretty helpful and can clarify what a writer is trying to say.
Now I will say that I detest purely relying on numbers to determine the quality of an album. This obviously refers to aggregate websites like Metacritic which assign a number to each album based on the weighted average of reviews. It assumes that an album that receives the same score from two different outlets has some form of consensus forming, when in reality, the writers could enjoy or hate it for opposite reasons. There is always conflict in how an album should be regarded even when people reach the same conclusion on its quality.
Purely relying on numbers also refers to how some EOY lists are constructed; contributors are asked to rank their favorites and through the scoring method involved, a list is formed. This is reckless as well because what is exactly being accomplished? It’s ultimately an aggregate of people who probably don’t see eye-to-eye on anything in regards to what makes an album great. In this process, differing aesthetic approaches are haphazardly spliced together and presented as if anything is coherent about it. What if one writer who meant to vote got left out the email chain? Now their favorite album that nobody else had gets left off entirely. It’s all just too random to be taken seriously.
Making a list has to be a roundtable discussion (or for this list, one person meticulously listening and ranking hundreds of albums for months). You cannot expect complete agreement on every album, but you should go into a list with an agreed-upon aesthetic approach. In other words, you’re not necessarily arguing about particular albums, but rather the idea of what an album should be and then using that as a template or criteria to discuss each album. How many lackluster tracks is an album allowed to have if the singles are just that good? What kind of separation of art/artist should be allowed and to what level is it a disqualifier? Do we factor in that an artist has made better work before? What balance has to be struck with thematic weight/timeliness vs. the timelessness of simply well-made music? If a list is done right, the reader should get a good gauge on how the people involved would answer these questions. It makes the process not just a subjective listing of what people listened to the most, but instead, a clear statement on what an album can and should be and how those picks best reflect that.
Here are the 40 releases in 2020 that best convey that idea of a great album with some writing help from outside contributors.
Contributors: Happy Haugen, Mia Hughes, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay, Drew Pearce
Graphic design from Amanda Nicklaus!
40. BbyMutha – Muthaland
A long track list can’t stop Bbymutha from snagging the attention of the rap world. It actually makes us listen harder. It demands us to address the glaring inconsistencies within the gender gap, the misogynoir within the industry, the slut-shaming and the name-calling. Muthaland, in her own world with her own rules, sets the stage for an equally playful, equally personal manifesto on Black womanhood in life and rap. From sex to violence in a heartbeat, from no fucks given to trauma, from betrayal to resurrection—Bbymutha swears off her enemies but teaches them a lesson first. It is one of reclamation, disguised behind heavy-hitters and trap-beats. It is one last hallelujah and a final revenge to the Bbymutha this, Bbymutha that. To the all talk and no follow-through, to the ones who doubted and cast aside, to the patriarchy and the double standards: Bbymutha got a message for you: “I’m protected, they can’t manifest.” — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay
39. Tony Allen & Hugh Masekala – Rejoice
Rejoice – the meeting of the legendary Tony Allen and Hugh Masekala, two recently departed giants of jazz and Afrobeat – came out this year, ten long years after the two met and recorded this masterpiece while both of their tours found themselves in London. It’s a hearty and spirited album, led by these two masters of their respective instruments. Rejoice feels like the ultimate crossover episodes that would blow your mind as a kid – like when Jimmy Neutron met Timmy Turner, it’s the ultimate pairing of genius that’s almost indescribable. On songs like “Coconut Jam,” you can almost envision the joy on Allen’s and Masekala’s faces witnessing each other finally create this incredible music together. “Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)” is another track with an exceptional dynamic, backed by London’s finest session players: Joe Armon-Jones on keys, Steve Williamson on sax, and either Tom Herbert or Mutale Chashi on bass. Rejoice is a production masterpiece as well – to be able to capture this level of greatness onto a recording requires a certain level of greatness from behind the board, and producer Nick Gold possesses that level of greatness. It’s a beautiful testament to the lives of two unmatched musicians, and a record that helped it’s listeners through the early stages of the pandemic. Rejoice is the one. — Happy Haugen
38. Moodymann – Taken Away
Over 25 years into his career, Kenny Dixon Jr. (AKA Moodymann) doesn’t rewrite the wheel here; he doesn’t need to. He samples from classic soul staples, provides 4/4 percussion, and then just lets the beat ride. We immediately hear a “yeah” from Al Green to open the album as he reconstructs “Love and Happiness” through Green’s ad-libs and vocal runs. This album of straight-up House music was a complete breath of fresh air. Amidst the extended anxiety and uncertainty of 2020, we often looked for what was stable and reliable, and Moodymann’s long history of great unfussy electronic music was able to provide that. Forever repping Detroit’s musical strengths, Moodymann recuits Andrés, Amp Fiddler, Sky Covington, and Chico DeBarge to all assist in either vocals or production. In its short runtime, Taken Away never strays from the pure revelry of the classic Detroit House scene — may it find more public settings to be played at in 2021. — Andrew Cox
37. Pink Siifu – NEGRO
Pink Siifu’s best album yet is so wide-ranging in sound and style that nobody really knows how to categorize it: Pitchfork listed NEGRO simply as rap; RateYourMusic has sound collage, industrial, power electronics, and hardcore punk all listed, among other genres. The answer is that NEGRO is all of those simultaneously, resulting in the most vital and exciting experimental release of 2020. At 20 tracks in 37 minutes, it flies through a litany of ideas with no speedbumps or awkward transitions. There is an extensive use of distorted news clips of police brutality on a track like “ameriKKKa, try no pork.” with glimpses of potential R&B star power like on the album’s finale. There’s dead-eyed verses à la Earl Sweatshirt and amp-busting shouting à la JPEGMAFIA. “DEADMEAT” and “Chris Dorner.” sound like early Black Flag but wedged between is “myheartHURT,” which sounds like J Dilla run through a Vaporwave filter. Sometimes, like on “ON FIRE, PRAY!,” echoes of the ambient pop bliss of Frank Ocean’s Blonde take hold. This is the type of classic album where the influences quickly pile up and no amount of short track lengths or forceful editing could tamp it down. Relatively long stretches start to form without a “song” happening, but then lo and behold, here’s an aggressive acid guitar riff to steal the show. The album is both a blur and packed to the gills, but every utterance of “fuck,” “dick,” and “pig” resonates, reflecting the manic energy that’s necessary for times like these. — Andrew Cox
36. Kate NV – Room for the Moon
Kate NV’s previous album (для FOR) flew under the radar as another great progressive electronic album for the RVNG Intl. label, but Room for the Moon is justifiably receiving more praise. Room for the Moon is a full expansion of Kate NV’s taut minimalist sound into outright synthpop territory. “Sayonara” is the meeting place of Siouxsie & the Banshees and Tangerine Dream. The main components of “Ça Commence Par” are a groovy samba bassline, some fluttery woodwinds, and a yé-yé vocal style from Kate herself (when she sang on для FOR, it was not this much in the forefront). To understand Kate NV is to also learn more about Japanese City Pop, a loose genre name for the growing influence of Western-influenced music upon Japan in the ’70s and ’80s. The Moscow-based Kate NV idolized that sound on her first album Binasu, and the array of influences and sounds from around the world still defines her sound. A song like “Lu Na” could soundtrack an alternate reality that often exists online nowadays — no borders, one language. — Andrew Cox
35. Special Interest – The Passion Of
It’s still baffling how IDLES can accrue such critical acclaim as a forceful punk band for our times when bands like Special Interest sound so much more vital. Bands like Algiers, Shame, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and the aforementioned IDLES can certainly hit their marks and make decent songs, but that isn’t truly the end goal for post-punk. We need some destabilization along with the melodies. Immediately on The Passion Of, you’re drawn to the hard-edged drum machines and Alli Logout’s cut-throat vocals. Special Interest speaks out for urban housing problems on “All Tomorrow’s Carry” and “Homogenized Milk,” but can still just rave out on a song like “A Depravity Such as This…” It’s that necessary balance of empowerment and personal revelry that this New Orleans band excels at. Their punk also often just dives headfirst into harsh electronica like with the instrumental “Passion.” The only drawback to their breakthrough is that ends too quickly — otherwise, everything’s damn near perfect. — Andrew Cox
34. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
The first singles in 2019 were foreboding — the sound of a titan in music potentially falling from grace. “Patience” just never lifted off the ground; “Borderline” was, well, borderline great but maybe a little off. Only the latter stayed on the final cut, thankfully. What we didn’t hear were songs like “One More Year” and “Breathe Deeper,” which are some of the most ambitious and electrifying pop songs of the year. “Lost in Yesterday,” “It Might Be Time” and “Is It True” are worthy of their massive alt-radio airplay. Now, do I have any use for songs like “Posthumous Forgiveness” or “On Track” in the future? No, but the talent’s still apparent, shining through in every bass riff and cymbal crash. As an avid defender of everything Kevin Parker has done (Currents and Lonerism both made it in the top 20 of Bitter Melodies’ best albums of the 2010s), The Slow Rush is altogether a step in the wrong direction. The thing is, he had a long way to fall in the first place. We’ll be waiting in anticipation for the next record while still playing this one from time to time. — Andrew Cox
33. Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again
To think that the famous Drake sample of Jamie xx’s version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’ll Take Care of You” is so far removed from its original is both shameful and redeemed by Makaya McCraven’s 2020 remake of Scott-Heron’s last record I’m Still Here. To think Scott-Heron has always had to proclaim that he was still there is absolved by McCraven’s We’re New Again, a rebirth and a remaking that represents the response to the plight of black people in America since…well…the start of America. This is a record of endurance, of lineage, of a history rife with adversity and its joy. This is a document of Black music—jazz, soul, blues, hip-hop—placed onto a historical pedestal of revolution, both grand and personal. Scott-Heron’s bluesology—profound ramblings of forgiveness, family, and the mechanics of home and its pieces—gently yet forcefully lay upon McCraven’s rich tracks of self-discovery and recovery, a proclamation of strength and resilience and a reverence for black culture in all its forms. The poetry is not disguised or renovated, but painstakingly placed to echo Scott-Heron’s sad realization of his own ultimate work: “All the dreams you show up in are not your own.” Yet the record is both a tribute and a salvation: “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / You can always turn around.” Scott-Heron, through the adept hands of Makaya McCraven, will take care of you even if he cannot take care of himself. — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay
32. Bill Callahan – Gold Record
The road as some overdone yet alluring metaphor for the dailyness of existence and the greed of loneliness—that is the essence of Bill Callahan’s Gold Record. Sometimes you need some down-home melancholy for a life not your own, that empty wistful road that is only ever longing in theory, rivers you cannot remember the names of. Crossing those rivers is repeating another day in the epic. Crossing that same river in different places, a room kept alive despite some death of things. There is this indulgence in the Gold Rush, coupled with having nothing at all. Nothing but the horns in “Pigeons,” the lengthy silence in between the tracks, the exhale of pause in between each line—all sparse, desert-like, some deep Cash or Cohen-esque ramblings—all the beginnings and ends of the same run-on sentence or something you understand only years later. Over breakfast, over the cracks in the road, over the dry heat. When the working is repeat, and it is “lonesome in a pleasant way,” these are the great bygone eras of Americana Capitalism Cowboy Entrepreneur Protest Poets. These are the books that are written about you, now very far away. This is the road “pulling out so soft, fast and black / You know it takes what it gives back.” This is exactly the kind of record you would expect from a 54-year-old white man. It feels drawn out, in a good way, like a road, like a river, like horns. It feels like taking a long sip of water on a sunny day. It feels alive, possible, given the easy way out this time, and every time. — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay
31. Bartees Strange – Live Forever
Bartees Strange is the breakout star of 2020 in indie rock. You’ll understand that characterization by the rollicking second track off his debut album “Mustang.” What’s fascinating is also the amalgamation of influences found in this brief album. “Kelly Rowland” features a subtle sample of “Dilemma” with Strange singing in a modern hip-hop flow all over hazy guitar playing. “Flagey God” sounds inspired by the UK future garge scenes forwarded by Burial and others. A common criticism of indie rock today is that most of it plays it safe and sounds very much like it was recorded by one person in tight quarters. Live Forever does not fall into that category. The drums pop on anthemic jams like “Stone Meadows” and “Boomer,” and Strange’s vocals refuse to be subsumed by the instrumentation. The greatness of this debut is a continuation of the oft-overlooked collective significance of African-American voices in the indie rock/DIY scenes including Bloc Party, TV on the Radio, Moses Sumney, Bad Brains, Vagabon, and many others. It’s a fantastic start to hopefully the beginning of a long and fruitful career. — Andrew Cox